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Monday, May 3, 2010

Marrakesh with Amber and Sean

Chris and I caught a 9 hour overnight bus to Marrakesh where we met up with Amber and Sean, friends from ASU. They are serving as PCVs in a village outside Ouarzazat, both health volunteers. Upon learning that they were invited to Morocco I think Chris and I were a little green with envy (we lobbied hard to go there), and though in many ways I’m much more taken with Morocco’s rich and vibrant culture, this trip allowed me to be genuinely happy for our friends while accepting that things worked out wonderfully for us all.

Couscous tagines and fresh yogurt are standard Friday afternoon fare

With Amber, posing outside an ancient tomb

One of many tombs among the city

I like how Morocco is noticeably “different” from the western world, with few European imports, holidays and religious festivals I’m unaccustomed to, inverted city structures wherein long buildings encompass luscious private courtyards, and an extreme desert climate has molded the rhythms of daily life. So Peace Corps, totally unlike anything back home. However, my experience in Albania has pleased me in many unexpected ways that are still hard to articulate. I’ve learned an incredible amount about Balkan life and history, an area of the world I had never given a single thought to. And we happened to be sandwiched in between Italian cuisine and Greek islands, both of which spill over the borders. Probably best of all are the unequivably gorgeous landscapes and mountains, prime hiking turf, coupled with paradisiacal Mediterranean beaches. Work challenges and cultural adjustments aside, who could complain?

Rosewater, lotions, henna, perfumes... they have it all

Formerly the slave selling market, now clothing and dried animal parts are on offer

One of many bread bakers, producing hundreds of fresh loaves each day

So anyway, we found ourselves in Kesh, wandering the central square if Djemaa el-Fna until Amber and Sean arrived. Together we checked into a super inexpensive hotel they knew of, accordingly at the end of a long twisting lane of other hotels. Sometimes I think PC should serve as a travel agent, make some cash on the side and fill in the gaps caused by endless budget cuts… Seriously. Dey gots da hook up.

Beautiful inner courtyard of Amber and Sean's hotel

Kesh is pretty much just a big plaza, relatively empty during the day, surrounded by pricey cafes, and full of tourists. At night all hell breaks loose; out come the fortune tellers, henna artists, endless rows of food stalls, snake charmers, monkeys on leashes, potion and trinket sellers, and various entertainers (some men belly dancing in drag for example)…

Vendors getting ready for the nightly rush

Charming snakes

Water seller of the desert, now a tourist icon

Women decorate themselves with beautiful henna designs

People play funny carnival-like games in the square

Endless rows of food stalls serve dinner every night

We spent the days wandering Kesh’s various suuqs that branch out from the main square, winding down streets and through various decorative arches. I’d call it the City of Arches (and thus Fes would have been the City of Doors). Is this a sign I’ve become Albanian? After all, I come from the City of Stone (Gjiro) which is sandwiched between the City of Steps (Sarande) and the City of Windows (Berat)….

strolling through a covered souk

Streets are broken up by old arches

Olives of many varieties and colors for sale in the souk

It feels weird to step out of my Peace Corps role and become a simple tourist, snapping pictures, posing in front of foreign signs and buildings, sampling various “strange” foods (like snail soup). Luckily, Amber and Sean wowed people with their Tashlheit language skills, instantly transforming them from disinterested workers to the friendly and generous people they actually are. Most tourists are assumed to speak French so Moroccans are delighted beyond belief to meet someone speaking their own Berber dialect. That’s one of the most rewarding things about serving as a PC volunteer- crossing behind the cultural curtain and communicating with locals on an entirely different level.

Kids wait near the entrance to Ben Youssef Medrassa

Walking the narrow alleys with Amber and Sean

As expected, Moroccan food is downright delicious. In the mornings we ordered fresh squeezed orange juice (DH 3) from one of the dozens of stalls in the square, at lunch Amber and Sean haggled for our tagines of couscous and vegetables/chicken (DH 15), at night we ate bowls of harira (DH10), a tomato based garbanzo bean soup. Another delicacy A&S introduced us to is “fat bread”. Yes, that’s a flour tortilla cooked with onions, spices, and lard in the dough! Easy to spot because of the reddish color, an alternative to the normal riifa (pancake/crepe) smothered in honey. Sadly, we missed out on the pastille, a savory pie usually made of pigeon. Next time, perhaps.

Moroccan escarole soup

So gross we had to try it...!

Snail seller, cup-o-soup DH 3

Stall #49 is serves the best OJ

We learned that the best place to spend a hot afternoon is over at the nearby Cyber Park, where packs of teenagers come to hang out and take turns using the free internet kiosks set around. There are plenty of shady areas to sit for a picnic, as well as a fountain in the center, near an indoor cyber café.

Dried herbs and skins at the Animal Souk

Amber and Sean left early in the morning of our final day, so Chris and I wandered out to a few more tourist sites on our own. We hit up the Saadian Tombs and a few mosques, bought some dates and couscous to bring home and share with our Albanian friends who have never tried them, and wandered to the upper deck of a crowded cafe to take in the view, before settling in shoulder-to-shoulder with Moroccan families for a dinner at the stalls. Our stall served plates of fried fish/calamari, frites (have yet to visit a country that doesn’t serve fried potatoes…), and a smooth dip of grilled eggplant.

Bab Agnaou (Gate of the Gnaoua) is home for enormous storks!

Inside the Saadian tombs, resting place for about 60 corpses of the 15th century Saadi Dynasty

Chaos of the square, seen from Balcony Cafe (clever name huh?)

Midnight egg vendors after my own heart!

Dates and dries fruits are readily available... so tempting!

Our flight left Marrakesh mid morning, heading to Malaga, Spain. We arranged to couchsurf there with a German/Canary Islander, an art student studying in the nearby university. Our hostess, Katarina, was extremely welcoming, though we didn’t get to hang out much beyond the nighttime at her apartment since she was in school all day. She taught us a lot about life and living in the Canary Islands, and shared books of her artwork.

Malaga is a surprisingly pleasant port city, with many lush parks and palm-lined streets, lively shopping boulevards, and a beautiful castle on the hill overlooking the city. We hiked the switchbacks up to the castle and adjacent parador, pausing for a sunset view of the city’s port, bullfighting arena, parks and boulevards, before descending down the backside along with a few couples on mountain bikes.

View of Malaga city from the castle

Unfortunately, we arrived at the airport the next day to learn that our flights home had been changed to an earlier departure, and we had missed it. The counter attendants weren’t rude, but gave us the ‘that sucks’ shrug, and shooed us away.

After an hour of panicked phone calls to the United call center, who told us they couldn’t help and that we’d need to buy new tickets, mixed with several bouts of pleading at the SpanAir counter, they finally took mercy on us and rebooked our seats for the next day. Not wanting to show up again at Katarina’s door after such a nice goodbye, we decided to sleep in the airport.

Probably one of the Top 10 most uncomfortable airport sleeps I’ve ever had—no chairs or benches, so we sprawled out on the cold tile, under blaring lights and with warnings belting out every 3 minutes on the loudspeakers. Dawn finally came, so we washed up in the bathrooms, boarded our 10 am flight to Madrid, grabbed our box from the locked luggage deposit, and continued through Munich back to Tiranё. Home at last! Almost. Our plane landed at 1:30 am, so we had the pleasure of another airport sleep, though the Rinas airport has plush chairs to lie across. Take that western Europe! Another disheveled awakening, and soon enough we were on the bus back to Skanderbeg Square, followed by the 6.5 hour ride down to Gjirokastёr… I think running the Athens marathon was less exhausting.

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