Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rock the Kasbah

How can I even start to write about Morocco? It is so different from any place I've ever been before...and so far, it's shaping up to be one of my favorites.

I guess I'll start with the journey over. We broached Africa by sea, on a ferry boat (much as we entered South America eight months ago, for those keeping track of strange parallels). The boat was big, but the ride was surprisingly choppy, and our fellow passengers were throwing up all around us. Also, the ride took two hours rather than the advertised one, so there was a bonus 60 minutes of barfing for a lot of people. Amazingly, I was not among the vomiters this time around!

We arrived in Tangiers, the large port city on Morocco's northern coast, and luckily were befriended by a very nice Moroccan woman who currently lives in Europe on our way off the boat. She guided us through the clutch of hustlers offering hotels, taxi rides, etc. and walked across town with us to the bus/shared taxi station. She then negotiated our fares in a shared taxi and saw us off to our first destination, Tetouan.

I'll pause here and mention that all of this negotiating was done in Arabic. I had read and heard that French and Spanish are widely spoken in Morocco, so for some reason, I guess I hadn't thought about exactly how much Arabic we would encounter there. Well, we quickly learned that while many signs are in Arabic and French, and in the north a lot of people speak some Spanish, daily life is definitely conducted in Arabic here. (Luckily we have some podcasts, and Andy has done a great job of teaching himself the Arabic alphabet, so we are slowly progressing in our ability to communicate...or at least say please and thank you in Arabic.)

So we took this "sept-place," or "seven-seater" shared taxi (three in the front, four in the back) a couple of hours to Tetouan. Turns out our guidebook has no map for Tetouan, so when the taxi dropped us off, we had no idea where we were. We wandered for a while, and I talked to some ladies in French, and finally we found the main drag.
That was Mohammad V street. Mohammad V is a former king of Morocco--Mohammad VI is the current king. Yes, Morocco is a straight-up kingdom. And just our luck, the king happened to be in residence in his vacation palace in Tetouan when we visited! This meant that the main square in front of his palace was cordoned off, and that a lot of hotels were full. We finally found a room not far from the center, but it had no sheets, no hot water, and a hole in the ground to do your business in. $12 a night for this luxury.

Still, Tetouan was a cool place to start our journey because it's not the most touristed city. It has a famous medina, or old city, which dates back to medeival times and is full of narrow alleys, tiny shops, and mosques. That night, we were able to peek into one of the big mosques for a quick picture after evening prayers.
We had our first couscous dinner that night, and it was delicious, but I'll leave those details for the food post. The next morning, I was woken up bright and early by the Muslim alarm clock--the 5:30AM call to prayer.

We explored the medina more that morning, got totally lost, then found our way again, and finally took off for our next destination, a small village in the Rif mountains called Chefchouen. We stayed there for two days that were pretty much perfect...except that just about everyone we met there offered to sell us pot. It's a huge marijuana-growing area (the word "reefer" comes from the "Rif" mountains), and I guess that a fair number of tourists partake. We did not, of course, but if that's your thing, Chefchouen may be paradise on earth for you, because we found pretty much every other aspect of it perfect.
Dominating the main square of the medina is the Kasbah, which is kind of like a castle or fort. As soon as you lay eyes on it, that 80s song "Rock the Kasbah" gets stuck in your head for days.
I should mention here that in both Tetouan and Chefchouan, Andy and I found ourselves being led around by local guys who first started by helping us find a hotel, then wanted to give us tours of the medina, which invariably ended up with us being deposited inside a "Berber artisan collective," aka a carpet showroom where persistent salesmen try to get you to buy a carpet. We thought we were savvy enough to avoid this kind of thing, but apparently not. Now that we are in Fez, we seem to have finally gotten the hang of avoiding getting sucked into "tours" by these hustlers.

Anyway, in Chefchouen, the cool thing about the carpet emporium was that they had a guy doing weaving right there, so we could kind of see how a carpet is made. Still didn't buy any, though.
Anyway, in Chefchouan we also paid $12 for a hotel room, but our bed had sheets, and right next door, real toilets with seats and a shower (well, a faucet halfway up the wall) with hot (well, warm enough) water! I tell you, it felt like absolute luxury. We stayed two nights.

On our first night, we explored the medina, tried tasty snacks, and enjoyed cheap cous cous and tagine at a cafe on the square. And on our second day, it was time for...drumroll...our first hike in Africa!

I know I don't usually get too psyched about hikes, but this one was pretty awesome. Mostly because of the amazing views of the Rif mountains, the surrounding hills that are as green as Ireland, the gorgeous blue sky, and the lovely views of Chefchouan's famous blue-painted houses.

Check out that scenery. Seriously one of the most beautiful places I've been in my life.

The hike was fun for other reasons, too. We started off on a signposted trail in a national park, but somehow lost the trail after an hour or so and ended up climbing through random fields of grass and flowers, waving hello and occasionally being directed (and, um, offered pot) by Berber shepherds.

It had rained a lot recently, so there were waterfalls flowing at full force and some rivers and streams where they usually are not. At one point,we jumped across a river on stones and saw two young women coming from the opposite direction with enormous bales of hay on their backs. One girl made it across the river but the other one didn't seem sure she could make it. Andy offered a hand, but she shook her finger at him to say no--we aren't sure if this was because Andy was a strange man, or because he offered her his left hand, which is traditionally unclean in Islam and some other cultures (it's the butt-wiping hand). But anyway, a lot of laughing ensued on all sides and she finally made it across the river, and we all waved goodbye. Not a word of a common language was exchanged, but it was a very friendly encounter, as were all of our encounters that day.

So, we eventually found the marked path again, and after hiking for about three hours we found ourselves in a village. We ate our sandwiches there, then were directed by some local teens in Spanish that we should take the main road back to Cheefchouen, because the mountain road was "bad" thanks to the recent rain. Oops, no one told us before we came that way! So we walked back on the main road, where we saw many horses and goats and sheep and even a couple of cars.

On our final morning in Chefchouen, we visited the inside of the Kasbah. It had a very nice courtyard garden filled with calla lillies and orange trees.

And the Kasbah tower had nice views of Chefchouen and the surrounding hills, too.

One last shot from Chefchouan--here is a man in traditional attire (not sure if this is a Berber thing or a Muslim thing--we've seen it in other cities, but not as often as in Chefchouan). Andy is fascinated by the unfortunate resemblence the peaked hood has to Klan fashions...
More soon from Fes and further! Must hurry back to my hotel now to eat the dates I bought in the market today.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Eating like Europeans

The foods of Europe may not be as foreign as some of the places that we go, but we think they are still worth a mention. Even if the foods themselves are known to us Americans, they are often served differently than we are used to. Here is our food week in Europe.

Our culinary adventures began on the plane to Belgium. We took Jet Airways, a rather nice Indian airline. As an added bonus of riding an Indian airline, we got Indian food. Here is dinner--some rice with dal and sag paneer (I had to pick out the cheese and give it to Tara), yogurt (also went to Tara), salad (I got Tara's), chappati bread, and very tasty rice pudding.

What trip to Belgium would be complete without Belgian fries? We had quite a few of them in our single sitting. We choose to eat them with the classic mayonaise, plus a spicy mayo that they call "samurai" sauce.
When we arrived in Madrid, our guests were kind enough to prepare dinner. Serge made this, which looks like a restaurant dish. The bottom is a blended fish and cream, with eggplant in a sauce, topped with scallops. I, unfortunately, don't eat seafood, but Tara still mentions about once a day how much she loved it.
More my style is donuts. This was a donut we found in Madrid, which was a cake donut topped with sugar, and which had some almond extract in it. I am normally not a fan of almond extract, but this one was mellow enough that it was good.
While in Belgium, we bought a couple of fun chocolate bars in the grocery store that we later ate in Madrid. This one is an Indian masala chocolate with some curry, coriander, and spice. The other was a Moroccan green tea and jasmine one. Both were really interesting and good. I love jasmine, so that one wins by a nose.
Regular readers are aware that Tara loves churros. Madrid also has churros, though they do not normally have sugar on them, and they are always served with a glass of hot chocolate. The chocolate seems to be like super thick, super strong Hershey's chocolate syrup. Way too strong for my taste, but Tara loved it.One nice discovery is that almost all drinks in Spain come with free tapas. This is the chorizo that came with Tara's wine at one tapas bar. I generally find tapas too small, but they were reasonably large in a couple of places that we went.
While walking through one of the markets, we discovered this enormous asparagus. Nothing special about asparagus, but I have never seen anything like this at my local supermarket. We barely got away before it attacked us.
While running from the asparagus, we ran straight into this guy, who came straight out of that Animal Planet fishing show where the guy tries to capture killer fish. You can see part of a fisherman still sticking out of his mouth.
At our second tapas restaurant of the evening, we ordered pork loin in a curry apple sauce. It was very good, though a bit small. It may not yet be clear, but they really like pork in Spain. In 1492, they threw out all the Jews and Muslims. Apparently, as a way to really stick it to those groups, they have only eaten pork ever since. Or so I'm guessing.
The small glass of beer is call a cana, and is very popular in Spain. It is also accompanied by a small tapas, which seems to be random. Sometimes you like the tapas, sometimes not.
When we went to Toledo, Tara was able to get marzipan. The one below is in the shape of a ham. Like I said, they really like pork. The middle is apricot jam, which does improve the taste of the less tasty marzipan. Tara ate a lot of it for breakfast.
In an effort to keep lunch cheap in touristy Toledo, we went to a little market. Tara bought some yogurt while I was happy to find peach nectar after its long absence from my life. Sadly, they prefer healthier drinks in Spain than in South America, so the peach nectar did not contain extra sugar. Therefore, it was not worth buying. I am happy that we are now in Morocco, where they seem to have a finer appreciation for sugar.
To warm up for Morocco (and just to warm up in general) our wonderful host in Granada took us to a Moroccan tea house with some friends. Here you can see the tea assortment. I got jasmine and Tara got 1001 Nights. I knew what to expect and Tara did not, but both were so strong that even Tara added copious amounts of sugar. I added whatever twice copious is.
Here we are together with our tea. I know, you aren't reading a food post to see us together, but you can see the cute glasses in which they serve tea in Morocco. This is convenient since I regularly say that I would like a glass of tea and Tara tells me that no one serves tea in glasses. As it turns out, she is wrong.
In many cities in Spain, the streets are lined with orange trees. The oranges are beautiful, but they seem to call your name to eat them. This is a cruel trick. If in Spain, resist the urge to jump up and grab one, climb a wall to reach one, or make your wife squat down so that you can stand on her to get one (no, I didn't do that, but thought about it). As it turns out, these oranges are gross. Incredibly bitter. It would take at least one pound of sugar per orange to border on edible. Afterwards, I had to eat an entire liter of ice cream to get the taste out of my mouth. Spain likes what are called bocadillos, or little sandwiches. Pictured here are a calamari one (probably the best known bocadillo) and a ham one (or course) from a famous place called Brilliante in Madrid. Tara thought the calamari was excellent. I thought the ham one tasted like ham.
Also at the Moroccan tea house, we had these nice pastries filled with hazelnut something. Now that we are in Morocco, similar pastries cost about one-sixth the price.

That's all we have for Europe. We hope to bring you more exotic foods soon. In the meantime, have some ham for Spain!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The rain in Spain stays mainly in...Gibraltar

Where were we? Ah, yes, we were speeding south on the famous European high-speed, er, bus from Madrid to Granada. It was a rather unremarkable journey--Andy and I slept most of the way--but I would like to point out that after all the supposedly "third-world" places we have been, Spain is the first country we've been to where the driver actually lit up a cigarette on the bus. It was parked at the rest stop, but still. Spain needs to catch up with the rest of Europe with the no-smoking-indoors rules...

The main attraction of Granada is the Alhambra, and what an attraction it is! It's a huge complex of old Moorish palaces, military buildings, and gardens, built in the early to mid 1000s, when Arabs controlled southern Spain. Here are some pics.

Great view of Granada and the surrounding hills from atop the Alcazar:

Best ceiling ever:
One of the many lovely courtyards in the palace complex:
Star-shaped ceiling dome with windows--note the fantastic blue color in the ceiling details:
We were lucky to have beautiful blue skies sandwiched between two days of rain in Granada!
Bottom line: If you ever go to Spain, make sure to visit the Alhambra. It was my favorite place on my first trip there in 1999, and probably my favorite again on this one. So cough up the 12 euros, and get there early in the day (tickets were sold out by 1PM the day we went, and that was in the relatively quiet winter season...).

After our visit, we made our way to our second couchsurfing host of the trip! Gabriella is an Italian astrophysicist studying in Granada, and she has a great apartment down an alley in one of the old parts of town. We couldn't have asked for a better host--right away, she proposed taking us to her favorite part of town, the old Moorish part that we would never have found on our own. Best of all, it had a great view of the Alhambra from afar. Check out the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the background.
We then met up with two of her astrophysicist friends and went for Moroccoan-style tea and sweets at one of the local teterias, or tea shops. There is a whole street of them in Granada, aptly named Calle de las Teterias. Andy will post pics from that outing in our next foods post. Everyone was so nice to us, and didn't even try to strangle Andy when he quizzed them on all the "discoveries" they are or aren't making about space.

That night, we found ourselves staying up too late yet again sharing a wonderful homecooked meal and conversation with Gabriella and another friend of hers (he gave us Morocco travel advice, and we taught him some more English swear words--good trade!). Meals are wonderfully epic and social in Spain. Then we bedded down for a few hours. One of my favorite things about beds in Spain is that they have one pillow, no matter what size the bed is--the pillows are just always made long enough to fit.

We had bought tickets for the 7:15 AM train to Algeciras, so we needed to be up and out early. When we got up, it was still dark and wet from the overnight rain. As we walked to the train station, we passed plenty of other people...still out from the night before! Most of them were hitting the all-night schwarma shops, getting their post-clubbing drunk food. Those Granadanians are party animals, I tell you.

Turns out that the 7:15 train on a Sunday is not the most popular train in Spain. We had a car all to ourselves and settled back for one of the prettiest train rides I have ever been on, four hours through the south of Spain. We passed many Irish-green fields and olive groves...
We finally arrived in Algeciras, found a hotel room, dropped off our stuff, and headed off for our final excursion in Spain...or, I should say, in the UK. We were off to Gibraltar!

In case, like me, you didn't really know much about Gibraltar, here's the short version: The rock of Gibraltar is a giant limestone rock jutting out into the Mediterranean. It was considered by the Greeks to be one of the pillars of Hercules, and has been of military importance (and therefore sacked) for centuries. The British got ahold of it in the early 1700s, and never gave it back, so, now it's basically a British military base and colony of 30,000 people sticking off the bottom of Spain.

You have to go through (a very lax) passport control to get into the town, and once inside you can get pounds sterling out of the ATMs, buy fish and chips, and pose for silly pictures with Britannica such as this phone booth:
So, here is the famed rock. Note the fog. The rain finally caught up with us in Gibraltar...but it was on and off all afternoon, and amazingly, whenever we were visiting an outdoor part of the rock, it stopped raining! We really had the best luck with weather in Spainbraltar.
The bad weather led to strange lighting that made the views from the top of the rock incredible. I think this is one of the best pictures Andy has ever taken. Way off to the left of this picture is the Mediterranean and Africa, while to the right the land you can see is Spain. It was cool to gaze out toward Africa the day before our voyage there.
The options for getting to the top of the rock are few and expensive--there is a funicular, but it costs 20 or 30 euros per person and closes in the rain. We ended up paying a little more than that for a 2-hour taxi tour, stopping at all the highlights. Pricey, but apparently it was Andy's dream since childhood to visit Gibraltar or something, so it had to be done.

In addition to the views, there were other cool bits of the tour. We visited some limestone caves that were very impressive (well, except for the endless loop of Theme from Canon in D that is piped in through a sound system in there...sigh).
And, of course, there are the apes. The British soldiers brought some apes from Africa to Gibraltar as pets back in the day, and now there are five or six families of 60 baboons each living wild up there. Well, "wild"--they hang around in certain areas waiting for tourists to come feed them.

Here you can see a shot of two apes. The dominant is sitting on top of the submissive one.
There were also military tunnels to visit, and an old Moorish castle that had been sacked a huge number of times. On the ramparts of the castle, we discovered another fascinating bit of wildlife: a slug.

We returned to Algeciras for a quiet night--it's the big port city, but there's not too much of interest for tourists to see or do there. The next morning, we slept in, then walked a few blocks to the port, and paid 20 euros each to get on the next passenger ferry to Tangier, Morocco...

...which is a whole new world (yes, the Aladdin reference is deliberate). More on that soon!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Northern Spain...with a side of Brussels

Hello there, and welcome to Andy and Tara's world tour...part deux! Our plan for this part of the trip is to spend 7 or 8 months backpacking around Africa, then on to India and Asia. But first, we managed to squeeze in a very whirlwind tour of three European countries.

We officially kicked things off almost a week ago with a flight from NYC to Brussels, Belgium, on Jet Airways. Yeah, we'd never heard of them before, either, but they had the cheapest deal to get us to Europe. Turns out that they are an India-based airline, which means we got Indian food for our dinner on the plane. That made it pretty much the best international flight I've ever taken.

Also, there were the little TVs at every seat with a decent selection of both Hollywood and Bollywood films. I chose to finally watch "Up," and therefore spent the first couple of hours of the flight almost bawling in my seat. (Oh, and marveling at how they totally ripped off Angel Falls and the Gran Sabana in Venezuela for the fictional setting of the movie!)

Anyway, on to Brussels. We spent 7 hours there, and that was quite enough time to see pretty much everything there is to see in the place. Not the most exciting city in Europe, but not a bad place to spend a long layover, either.

We found this guy outside of the comic strip museum. We assume that he is a famous Belgian cartoon character--can anyone confirm this?

The cathedral was free, and it was freezing outside, therefore we visited it. It was stately and, you know, cathedralesque.
Brussels's top tourist attraction is probably Manneken Pis, a statue of a little boy peeing. Or I should say fountain, since the water comes out of his weenie. Andy had been hearing about this statue for a long time and was seriously disappointed at how small it was. I had warned him not to get his hopes up!I had been to Brussels with my sister (hi Brooke!) in 2002, so I had seen a lot of this before, but I don't think Brooke and I ever made it to the EU Congress building. Andy and I did. You can't really tell from this picture, but it's super-modern and looks kind of like a giant space vessels plopped down in the middle of more medeival settings. Also, it has a duck pond out back, probably so that the French have a constant source of fresh foie gras.
So, add in some chocolate and Belgian fries, and that was Brussels. We jumped on our connecting flight that night and arrived in Madrid around 10PM. Then it was off to our couchsurfing hosts, Melanie and Serge, who are awesome. And not just because they had a gourmet dinner on the stove (people eat late in Madrid!) and insisted we partake. We had so much fun getting to know them, that suddenly we realized hours had gone by since we'd arrived, and it was time for bed.

It was raining in Madrid the night we arrived, but the next day was mostly clear. After stopping by the cathedral (free, so we went in) and the Royal Palace (not free, so we passed), we headed for the Retiro, Madrid's huge central park.

Some of its highlights were the Palacio de Cristal, a beautiful glass palace...and the troupe of peacocks that roams in the northern part of the park.
Madrid also has fantastic art museums. Melanie and Serge turned us on to the Caixa Foundation museum. In addition to having an amazing free exhibit of the contemporary Spanish artist Miquel Barcelo, which we loved, it has a neat vertical garden outside. It also afforded us our very first elephant siting of the trip!
Nearby is the Atocha train station, which has a mini botanical garden inside. You can check out the turtles while waiting for your train.
That night, we visited the Prado during its free hours, and went out for tapas at a few different places. More on that in the food post. The next day, we did a day trip to Toledo, a medeival city an hour away from Madrid.

The cathedral cost a whopping 7 euros each to visit, but it was pretty impressive. Note the famous stained glass window.

It also has this very cool structure in the center. We forget what it is called, but it was very fancy.
We also visited a synagogue in Toledo (they had a thriving Jewish population until Spain threw the Jews or forced them to convert out during the Inquisition), went to a couple of museums with lots of El Greco paintings, and I ate marzipan, for which the city is known. Yum.

That night, back in Madrid we hit the Reina Sofia modern art museum during its free hours (we love the free museum evening hours!) I forget the artist, but these were some fun ballet costume concepts on display, along with many Picassos, Dalis, Miros, and other works.
Here we are with our hosts, Serge and Melanie. Their apartment really felt like home for the three nights we were there. Serge is an incredible chef, hence the wooden spoon held aloft. We hope that they will come cook for us...I mean, visit us, one day in America when we have a spare room!

Then we took off for Granada, which I'll have to post about another time, because my time here is up. We are off to Morocco in the morning!