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    We go to the Prom

    July 18th, 2006 by steve

    London’s been fun. We spent 4 days here taking in the basic sites. London is cool and all, but the most impressive part was probably that we had 4 days of absolute sunshine. It’s been beautiful here. The local papers even talked about the heat wave that’s been disrupting everyone’s life.

    Aside from the remarkable weather and the usual stuff, we noticed a few cool things here:

    #1 The first is actually not very cool. Everything costs twice here what it does in the states. a can of coke is $2-3. We saw Pirates of the Caribbean at the (rather nice) cheapie movie theaters with a student discount for $40. that’s just the tickets. The bus is $3 and the subway is $7 a trip. Day pass on the subway for 2 people: $25. People look a bit thinner here – because they can only afford walking and a cup o’ noodles. Speaking of movies, you get assigned seats (which we moved from because we’re Americans) and there is literally 25 minutes of ads before the movie starts. Oh – remember that some of Pirates was filmed in Dominica? The bog scene with the witch is definitely the river we were on. cool.

    #2 Spending an afternoon sleeping in Hyde Park is more fun than walking around museums. Although, we saw the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. Mary thinks that’s super cool. They also have a Moai from Easter Island. It’s a little kiddy one. Kinda cute, but not so impressive as the mondo ones on the island.

    #3 We are being followed by the film industry. Minding our own business taking pictures of the London Bridge, two helicopters spun into the viewfinder. Right in front of the bridge, one came down and picked a car off a barge on the river and then swung it around in front of us for 15 minutes. The second copter was the film crew doing an ad for the new Opel Corsa. Then we’re looking to go see Pirates and there’s a huge crowd in front of the theater. It’s some kind of premier for Stormbreaker(?) and there’s paparazzi cameras everywhere. We just missed the big stars and only got to see some girls that we don’t know the names of. BUT – I saw a picture of Ewan McGregor taken not 5 minutes before we showed up on the camera of one excited girl. And another had his autograph. Sue excitin.

    #4 Italians know amore. The BBC holds a summer concert series at the Royal Albert Hall called the Promenade or commonly “Prom”. We saw Mozart’s opera “Cosi Fan Tutte”. The title translates to “All women behave like this!” I expect the literal Italian is more like “they’re all the same”, but the printed program has the first translation. Mozart was very wise and is my newest hero.
    Oh, the concert was broadcast live on BBC3 radio, so our clapping was ‘heard round the world.

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    Random observations on the Muslim world

    July 18th, 2006 by mary

    *Men and women are forbidden to hold hands in public, but men are unabashedly clingy to one another.
    *Hawkers are like vultures and everything is “best price for you” and “looking is free”.
    *They say “inshallah” to everything, this translates to “god willing”: we will come back to your carpet store, inshallah, the bus trip will be four hours, inshallah.
    *You have 1 in 4 chances of guesses a man’s name, it’s either Mohamed, Ali, Said, or Hassan.
    *Women cover themselves up so much you can barely see their pupils peeping out from their scarves, even at the beach.
    *Hair is alluring to the point of vulgarity; mine drove an old crazy lady with cataract in one eye to pull my ponytail while cursing.
    *There is a countless number of sad kitty cats here.
    *Stubborn camels are pulled by their nose rings; apparently they really don’t like that.
    *Every city picks the worst callers for the 5x daily prayer over the tinny megaphones.
    *Even in the underground slums where the descendants of the Sudanese slaves live they have satellite tv, but we can’t get it to work in our hotel.

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    Hey…they speak English!

    July 8th, 2006 by steve

    Funny thing happened on the way to the desert. We ran into a couple from Miami doing a similar trip to ours. Quit the jobs, sold the condo and ran for the hills. We were stuck in the desert and they had a car, so what the heck. We can put up with Americans for a free ride, right? First mistake: buses have A/C, cars don’t.

    We traveled together for about a week, passing through the eastern desert to Zagora, into Marrakech and hiking the Atlas. Must have been tough for Mary and Mac as boys will be boys and Scott and I did our best to act like teen-agers for a week. Nobody ended up in jail, but I got run up another palm tree.

    By the way, that tree is higher than it looks and those frawn stubs are sharp. This climb was actually less fun than scurrying up the coco palms in the Dominican Republic.

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    What if you don’t have any duct tape?

    July 8th, 2006 by steve

    After the laughter has subsided, you really have to respect the ingenuity and resourcefulness of people who don’t have the benefit of 7-11 and a throw-away economy. I’m not sure how many sacks of rice this wheelbarrow contraption will carry, but it is the best use of a bleach bottle I’ve ever seen. Well, other than holding bleach.

    We saw a few variations on the refrigerator while hiking in the Atlas mountains. It gets plenty hot and the melting snow pack provides for nice cool drinks.

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    Moroccan Bobsledding

    July 8th, 2006 by steve

    Nope. Can’t do that here. There are even signs at some intersections to remind you “No bobsledding”. Not that anyone pays attention to the street signs here…

    Speaking of winter sports, you can brush up on your mogul technique in the dunes here. We didn’t because it is really hot and there’s no chairlift to the top of the dune. But people really do.

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    Up Up and Aleve

    July 8th, 2006 by steve


    From the small mountain town of Imlil at 5,100ft it was a 2 day hike to the 14,000ft summit of the Atlas mountains and back. Toubkal mountain is the highest point in North Africa, third highest in Africa after Mt Kenya and Kilimanjaro. The hike was monotonously uphill and hot. Lunch was 2hrs later at a small shack where they used the snow chilled waters to refrigerate the sodas. Our mule handler also doubled as our cook, a precarious combo of chores. It was a farther 3hrs of up before we got to the mountain refuge. Outside were numerous tents in the gale force winds; luckily we were staying inside the stone walls. The sleeping pads were small and laid up next to each other so it looked like a wall to wall cushion and rolling over meant invading your neighbor.
    At 5am the refuge started to stir as breakfasts were started and the refugees were stumbling their way to the public facilities. The morning hike was to the summit, 3 miles to the top with an elevation gain of 960m. Every step was up and the loose pebbles under foot made each step a struggle to gain secure footing. The mountain was just a massive pile of small rocks that slid towards the earth with every step. Some areas were so steep and loose that it required crawling to gain any altitude. The day was sunny but the wind howled and tried to push us off the mountain. During the strongest gusts you could see each successive hiker stop and turn their backs to the wind and wait for the worst to pass. The temperature was a chilly 47F, not including the substantial wind chill. Not having expected the low temps (thank you, useless guide!), Steve and I were hiking in our sweatshirts, sports sandals and socks so stopping to rest also meant a drop in body heat, but it did give us a break from staring down at the path so we could take in the rugged scenery. It took us 3 hours passing one stunning panorama after another until reaching the penultimate pano at the top. As difficult as hiking up was going down was even more treacherous. With each step we brought a little of the mountain down with us. There was no sure footing as the pebbles under foot acted like ball bearings and we all slid part of the way down on our bottoms. When it came to the snow our sandals doubled as makeshift skis. It took an equal three hours and a second aleve to make it down. Lunch at the refuge was short as we had the journey back down to Imlil. At least the rest of the way down was easy because the path was well worn and stable. But 17km is still 17km, especially after the rough 9km morning hike. When we were done we were covered in dirt and completely exhausted and ready for a civilized Thai dinner back at the hotel in Marrakech.

    - Mary

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    Boxing Hellenic (yeah, wrong empire but I like the way it sounds)

    July 8th, 2006 by steve


    After Fes, Marrakech paled in comparison as too modern and touristy for us. We honestly didn’t give it a fair shake, but it just didn’t appeal to us. Here’s a great example. Marrakech is famed for the bizarre street performances that take place every night in Jameel el Fna square. This is somewhat cool in that it is really for locals more than tourists. We just go to gawk while they go to spend a quiet evening with the storytellers, food stands, fortune tellers, snake charmers, medicine men, acrobats, monkey abusers and homeless boxers. You don’t want to support some of these activities, but it’s hard to avert your gaze from two guys who don’t look strong enough to stand on their own feet chase each other around a ring. Maybe it’s sad in principle, but we never saw one land a glove on the other and I expect that’s the usual case for these amateurs.

    Just imagine Mary singing “go old man go. go old man go” as he did his warm-up laps.

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    Huff and puff and melt the house down

    July 8th, 2006 by steve


    A month before our arrival in Merzouga, there was a storm unlike anything they had seen for almost half a century. It rained and hailed for 4hrs until a levee (yes, a levee in the desert) melted and unleashed a torrent towards the village*. Houses in the flood plane melted like chocolate in the third hour. Some 30 (three-oh) buildings disappeared as well as the aqueduct which fed the oasis, killing 4 people. The survivors were huddled into tent shelters waiting to see what support the government would give them to rebuild.
    Now they, and we, were being sandblasted by the heavy winds. Our trek didn’t start until the late afternoon so we walked around the desert town. The streets were empty in the high heat and low visibility of the sandstorm. We ducked into a guesthouse, which offered a home cooked lunch by the womens while the owner Ali helped pass the time by sitting down and chatting with us over tea and peanuts.
    His family was nomadic and he was the first of 9 children to be born in a village. As with many nomads they found that the emergence of guards at the Algerian border due to heated political situations drastically limited the amount of grazing available to maintain their flocks of sheep. Over time families were forced to forego the nomadic lifestyle and started settling down fifty years ago. The families joined forced to build the aqueduct to the oasis and split time for access to the water. Each year more nomads are forced to make the same difficult transition as the grass is getting harder to find. Ali estimated that in two decades there would be no more nomads in the Moroccan Sahara. Sadly his uncle’s two sons drifted into the 20km no man’s zone between Morocco and Algieria for their sheep to graze. The Algerian troops caught them, confiscated the entire herd of 300 and imprisoned the two men for 2 yrs. Only recently released the other nomads will each give them a couple of animals from their own flocks to try to get the brothers started up again.

    -Mary

    * technical note: we weren’t actually in Merzouga, but a small village next to it. But we don’t remember the name of the village. We’re told that Merzouga was actually only a slightly larger village, anyway.

    oh, the picture has nothing to do with this town. Its actually from the Ait ben Haddou kasbah outside Ouarzazate. Just felt you deserved something for reading the story.

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    Dune

    July 8th, 2006 by steve



    From Fes, we headed straight out to the Saharan dunes of Merzouga. It was a sucky 9hr hour overnight bus ride constantly interrupted with stops so you couldn’t really get any sleep. We arrived grumpy in the village early in the morning. This is more of what I expected Morocco to be like. Little villages made of straw and mud being beaten down by the wind and sand. This town is on the map because it is a camel trek away from a 600m high dune. We found that summer isn’t the optimal time to be here. Not so much because of the surprisingly bearable 115 degree sun, but because the winds whip up somewhat unpleasant afternoon sandstorms. Riding the camels also isn’t so comfortable. A donut shaped saddle mostly covers up the hump, but when Joe Camel hits the brakes you hit the bump of a hump that remains.Our camel journey out to the dune took us through 3hrs of sandstorm and dropped us at an oasis with a small tent village of nomads parked at the base of this gigantic pile o’ sand. We spent a great night under the stars and woke up around 4:30am to hike / crawl / stumble up the 600m dune which is much tougher than it sounds. This sand is so fine that it gives way and draws your every step ankle deep if you’re not careful. Mary had a head start and did her best to run up and catch sunrise. When I finally met her up top, she mumbled something about the taste of blood. The color of the dunes in the morning sun is incredible. The sky is bright blue and the dunes take on a deep orange cast. There’s only one way down a dune this big – DOWN. You can run, fall, roll, slide or some combination thereof. Mary tried to yoga her way down. That didn’t work so well. Actually, sliding really didn’t work too well either. Running down feels like walking on the moon. The jumps are long and easy with the sand absorbing each lumbering drop of 3-5 feet. Too cool.

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    Memories of Fes

    July 8th, 2006 by steve

    Fes must be the quintessential Moroccan town. The medina is expansive and alive. But straying away from the main paths leads you down some quiet alleys frequented only by locals and their animals. Make one too many wrong turns and you end up expelled from the medina into the underbelly of local commerce. First we pass through what looks like a flea market of clothing and housewares in the middle of an intersection. We walk to the top of the hill to get a vantage point and figure out where on earth we are – only to find that we have come across the wonderful combination of a flea market and dump all in one. It’s the ultimate in recycling. Just like you see in the medina, people here have their offerings spread out on carpets or linens on the ground. But here, the ground is the edge of a dump and the items for sale are truly unreal. Just about anything that’s been thrown away is available for sale here. We even found some Atari Super Breakout! The farther you walk down the path the closer the items get to be being truly unwanted trash.

    But better than all this is the row of barbers in outdoor tents here. It just so happened that I badly needed a haircut and Mary was in the mood to risk my neck to Spanky with the rusty scissors. We picked the guy with the biggest mirror shard and the smallest jar of pulled teeth. No kidding. He didn’t understand a word of English or our hack French so he waved his straight razor around and Mary used her charade skills to guess he was asking if it was okay to cut my ear, she nodded and got the camera out.

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