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Taroudant, Morocco

It was a long, slow bus ride to get here, almost 7 hours, stopping first in Agidir. A share taxi would have been faster. The word Taroudant means, she who lost her children by the river. Because of the river, the Sousse Valley is very fertile, with many fruit trees and vegetables, including the famous argon tree. When we arrived at Chambres Les Amis, our guest house, our host was not here as his wife is in the hospital expecting a baby very soon. We went off in search of a tajine restaurant in the main square, accompanied by Katya and Bjorn a young German couple who will trek with us for a few days. We had no idea they would be joining us, but are happy to have their company. Said, who we thought would be our guide, and whose name we got from the Lonely Planet, will not go, but instead has arranged for Abdel, to take us. This came as a surprise. Said is apparently only a middle man who runs the guest house, and managed to get his name in The Book , because of his former French wife's connections. Hmmm.

We managed to find the restaurant after a while, and Said met us there to give us a brief tour of the souk. No doubt he took us to merchants where he would receive a cut if we bought anything. Our German friends bought a small carpet from some persuasive nomad shopkeepers, a bit of an oxymoron I realize. Taroudant is somewhat like Marrakesh, surrounded by old walls and darting bikes, both non-motorized and motorized, but it is smaller and more manageable.

In the afternoon Said brought us, for 375 dh, to a nearby palmareie, a palm oasis in the desert. Springs make the desert bloom, enough to support about 300 people here. The remains of an old fort stand on a hill overlooking the village, part of which has been turned into a restaurant. There were other tourists, but it was a peaceful and blissfully cool place in the shade of the palms.

There are many donkeys amid the red abobe walls of the village.



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We returned to the guest house where we relaxed on the roof top terrace, though we were again blasted by the call to prayer of the mosque right next door, and yes it did wake us up at 4 AM.

Tomorrow we will get up early to start our trek in order to avoid walking in the mid-day sun. Some clouds have gathered each day and perhaps we shall see some rain. Always hard to tell what mountain weather will bring. We are not sure exactly where will be trekking. It seems we will find out tomorrow when we meet up with Abdel. There are no good maps, though Taroudant is centrally located in between the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:39 Archived in Morocco Tagged cities_postcards Comments (0)

Marrakesh

After a short flight from Oporto, we are now in Michael and EJ's villa outside of Marrakesh. It is a very posh and gated community about 40 minutes from town. We were met by the maid and then later the cook, speaking only French and Arabic, neither of which is our strong suit. It is quite a place, with three big bedrooms, red concrete and tile floors and walls, and even our own swimming pool and backyard. The sun is quite strong, but the water is still too cold, for us at least, to swim. This is definitely a place to relax and do nothing. Extremely private, there seems to be almost no one else around. Although there is a free shuttle service back a forth to the city a few times a day, it takes a while and is not something you want to do more than once a day.


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Out here you could be anywhere, although there are distant views to the snow capped Atlas mountains from other parts of the development.



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We spent a couple of days walking around the old walled city and its enormous medina. Full of narrow streets and alleys with bicycles, horses,motorbikes, and people, lots of people. You can get anything you want at this restaurant, and not just food. There are carpet and cosmetics shops, clothing and material shops, spices, kitchen utensils. You name it.


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The shopkeepers aggressively try and pull you in. "Good price, good price," they cry. Some seem prepared to bargain a great deal, others not at all. In a carpet place, "morning price velly good," which is exactly what they said in India. In the P.M. it would be "good afternoon price." In fact Marrakesh feels a bit like India, full of touts and locals hitting on you to buy stuff. Eventually, Nanette did buy some ground minerals to make natural colors for artwork and kohl for makeup. You take your life in your hands in this medina though. Traffic from all directions, you have to have eyes in the back of your head to avoid being mowed down by something or someone, motorized or not.

In Djamaa El Fna, the main square, there are snake charmers, story tellers, street musicians, even break dancers, as well as some good, if expensive, (relatively so) tagine restaurants.

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In the evening, we hear the place is really hopping, but we never made it much past sunset. It was plenty lively when we were there. It is an interesting scene, a more or less constant parade of tourists and locals, some dressed in head scarves, others completely covered in djellabas, often in bright colors. There are horses and buggys, and men balancing plates or other goods piled high on their heads as they zoom around on motorbikes Although some of the women are almost completely covered, many of the young seem to wear stiletto heels and a lot of makeup. Its a mix of traditional dress and high French fashion.

At one point we went to look for an old Jewish cemetery, which we managed to find after going in circles for a while.


Castle Wall Near Cemetary
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It was nothing special, but Jews have apparently lived among the Berbers here for 1700 years, though there are few of them now. We got lost on the way back to meet our ride to Villa Akbar. Luckily we managed to find an upscale hotel and someone at the desk spoke some English and was able to call our driver. Somehow my own phone, complete with a new sim card, did not work. French is the lingua franca here, along with Moroccan arabic and various Berber dialects in the mountains. English is not widely spoken and so it is a bit difficult to find our way around with our minimal French and the maze like streets in the old town.In some ways Marrakesh still seems like a French colony. There are lots of French tourists and a number of the more upscale shops and hotels seemed to be French owned and managed, especially in Gueliz, the new part of town. Gueliz is confusing enough in its own right, and it took us a while to locate a few well hidden art galleries that we had set as our destination.

I went off to inquire about renting a car to explore some of the surrounding areas, but managed to walk right into a closed glass door banging my noggin hard. Shortly afterwords I twisted my ankle on an uneven patch of sidewalk and then once again banged my head after leaving the WC. I felt like I had been in a street fight with myself. Yet another reminder that the old bod and my perceptual skills ain't what they used to be.

We made our way to the Majorelle gardens and house, former home of Yves St. Laurent who lived here for years.



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The garden was quite elaborate, but chock full of French tourists. Instead we preferred a room in the museum full of Berber artifacts, but set up with lights and mirrors to look like a clear night in the mountains. A lot like a planetarium. On this day we did manage to find our way back to the driver, but not before Nanette lost a book in an internet cafe. It is easy to lose things simply by setting them down and then moving on. Perhaps another, gasp, symptom of aging. We lose things at home of course, but usually they show up somewhere in the house. But, no worries, with the help of our driver, we were able to retrieve the book and all was well, other than the bump on my head and ankle. I think today qualifies as a "hard travel day," despite the fact that all we did was tour the city. Tomorrow we have declared a rest day, and we will simply hang out at our villa by the pool.



Koutoubia Mosque at Night
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Posted by jonshapiro 06:05 Archived in Morocco Tagged cities_postcards Comments (0)

Luang Prabang, Laos

No longer the sleepy provincial capital it was just a few years ago, this small city has come of age with expresso bars, upscale restaurants and lodging. Despite that, it retains much of its charm with quaint alleys and somewhat dilapidated old French mansions. There are many wats, and young monks, as Luang Prabang is the center of Buddhist training for all of Laos. They are often eager to engage in conversation to practice their limited English.



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Daily ritual of monks with begging bowls
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Every evening the monks chant in the wats and you can hear them all over town as you walk by. It sounds vaguely familiar to us, maybe because of the time we have spent at other Buddhist monasteries. Sometimes we would join them for 20 minutes or so.


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And then go off to a Mekong riverside cafe to enjoy a Beer Lao, while watching the sun go down.




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The food is simply incredible. For about $10 US the two of us can eat like royalty. My cooking class. which I took at our favorite restaurant, Three Elephants, was a gastronomic delight. We spent the better part of a day making several Lao curries and salads from scratch, and then we got to invite our spouses or traveling companions to join us for the feast.


Three Elephants
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While I took my class Nanette had what she called her hair adventure. . She decided it was time to get her hair colored and figured it would be easy to just repeat her natural brown color without speaking any Lao. At the hair salon she pointed to one of the hairdressers and tried to tell her that she wanted the same color. Midway through the process she realized the color was going to be a cross between red, pink and orange. She started to feel scared that she would come out looking like a clown, just in time to teach English in China in two weeks. She tried to explain that there was a serious problem. Although they didn't understand her words , they could see from her body language and the hair color that something was amiss. After washing and drying another attempt was made to change the color to a dark brown. The process took two hours. Now the roots look bright red in the sun and dark brown on the surface.

As Nanette says, " It's a little psychedelic." A few days later it didn't look too shabby, but it was whole lot straighter.



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On a rather different note, we have met a number of interesting people here, including some Americans. Yesterday, we ran into a woman who runs a hotel in Granada, Nicaragua, who invited us and about 100 other people to have Thanksgiving with her when we were there two years ago. See the entry on Granada, Nicaragua for more details. How incredible to just run into her in the street here. She has been all over the world, including Iraq and Afganistan, working on various aid missions for different NGO's. Then there's Basil, who's having a foot message next to me, a doc and a philanthropist with his brothers money, working in a hospital in Siem Reap . Ilene, an Irish woman close to 70, has worked for 20 years with US soldiers who have AIDS. She comes to Thailand and Laos every year for 3 or 4 months on her own, speaks some Thai, and has also volunteered in some of the hill tribe villages north of Chang Mei.

Not everyone is helping others. Last night we had dinner with Jim, who we also just met on the street.



Main Street
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He's about our age, and although he is relatively sedentary now, for 23 years he constantly traveled throughout the States, Mexico and Canada in his van. At some point he reconciled with his estranged, but wealthy mother, and when she died she left him some money. He bought land in Santa Fe and converted his van into a permanent home. Hardly a hippie, he is a Cornell and RISD dropout, who now gives talks on the radio about the stock market and the devaluation of the US dollar. A very bright, if eccentric misfit.





Another place to meet people is the outdoor vegetarian buffet near the nightly craft market.





Setting Up for the Market
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You load up your plate with noodles and veggies for about 75 cents and sit on benches at a long table. Next to you might be someone local, a young euro-traveler, or someone with a doctorate in anthropology or physics. It's quite a social scene.


I can't say enough about the Lao people and their extraordinary grace, joy in living and generosity. As I was typing this, one of the women who works in our guest house was sitting down to eat fish soup with her daughter. She asked me if I wanted to share her meal with her. I can't think of too many other places where this might happen. The Lao feel that to eat with others is always a happy occasion. They are very social and are often laughing, cracking jokes, and teasing each other in a good natured way. They remind me very much of the Sherpas in Nepal and the Ladakis in India. I can't help thinking that Buddhism, which is so much a part of daily life here, has infused the culture with its values of acceptance and serenity.

The contrast between the government and the people is extreme. We talked with a well known Laotian artist who divides his time between Canada, where he is now a citizen, and Luang Prabang. He told us about the massive corruption, and how, in the past, the Pathet Lao would often confiscate property, especially of Laotians who lived abroad. There have also been many disappearances of anyone who has challenged the ruling junta. Right now things are modestly better, but the government does little to help the average person, and there is still, as he puts it, a climate of fear. We knew most of this, but to hear it from someone who has lived through it is something else. The interesting thing is, you don't really get a sense of heavy police or military presence.


It's also hard to imagine that Nixon dropped more ordinance on Laos then was used in all of WW2 on a per capita basis. Most of this was not around Luang Prabang, but near the Cambodian and Thai borders.


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Posted by jonshapiro 07:28 Archived in Laos Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

Pnom Penh, Cambodia

After spending the night in Koh Kong, a rather seedy border town in Cambodia, we continued on a minibus ride with several river crossings. We either had to walk over four incomplete bridges or be ferried across on two canoes that were lashed together. We finally arrived in the Capital in late afternoon and are now ensconced at the Okay Guest House, highly touted both in the Lonely Planet, and in person by touts at the bus station, who were there to greet us in force. It would be hard to beat our 4th floor room with fan and AC for about $10 US. Okay, we had to walk up, but worth it none the less.


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We spent time walking along the Mekong riverfront. There was a promenade, always full of action with Buddhist ceremonies and live Kymer music. There was a constant parade of different kinds of people, food and flower stalls, and there were Wats (temples) on both sides of the road. It does not feel dangerous here, at least during the day.

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On another day we hired Bim, ourtuk-tuk driver to take us around town.



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We went to the genocide museum, which is located in an infamous jail where Pol Pot and his brigades tortured many people. Looking at the city now it is hard to imagine that at one point it was practically empty. Everyone was forced out to work in the countryside.

Outside of the Museum
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On a very different note, we also went to the National Museum which had ancient Kymer objects and some art work. These next shots were taken in a small pond in front of the building.


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Lunch was at an restaurant, Friends, run by an NGO to help street kids get training in cooking, waiting tables, restaurant management etc. It was excellent, and just a small example of some of the work being done here to help this devastated country get back on its feet.

In the afternoon we continued on to the the Royal Palace, which has extensive grounds and many buildings.



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We spoke with some young Americans at our guest house, which was unusual, as we have met so few of them on our travels. One of them told us that the owner of Okay was also a travel agent, so we had him purchase air tickets from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos. What we didn't know was that I would have to pick them up on the other side of town. To get there I went on a wild ride on the back of a 50cc motorbike, which is mostly what they have here. The bikes seem to come in swarms, and it feels and sounds like you have just stepped on a nest of yellow jackets lurking in the grass. The lights are often useless, and the drivers careen at you from all directions, which necessitated that we do the same. While my driver was madly changing directions, I hugged his back like a long lost lover. He didn't seem to mind, and more importantly we got there and back safely.




Praying to Buddha can only do so much under these circumstances
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After three days in this city, we have found the Cambodians to be gracious and friendly people, especially when you consider their history. A surprising number of them speak at least some English and some of them seem willing to talk about their experience with the Khmer Rouge. One local internet owner told us of his personal experiences having to work in the fields after marching for weeks to get out of the capital. He burned one arm badly, and his other arm was broken by Pol Pot and company because he wasn't working fast enough. He was 13 at the time and still has the scars to show for it.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:55 Archived in Cambodia Tagged cities_postcards Comments (3)

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