Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Morocco Trip Recap

It's time to wrap up my coverage of Michael's and my amazing honeymoon to Morocco last November. I hope you've enjoyed our photos and tales.

For those of you considering a trip to Morocco, I would highly recommend it. I think you'll find enough reason why in my blog posts these past two months.

Here's a recap:
Most things you can do in Marrakesh and the environs without prior reservations. In fact, not having a set itinerary can allow you to experience some of the details of life there, without the stress of being a tourist on a schedule.

One thing, however, I would recommend planning ahead: booking some time at Les Bains de Marrakech. This is a spa in the Medina where Michael and I were able to live like royalty. The highlight was the hammam (Moroccan bath) we experienced together. Normally, baths are segregated by the sexes. However, here we were able to have a private hammam. This consisted of sweating in a very hot room, being slathered down with herbal soap, scraped off with exfoliating mitts, doused with water, and then given a four-handed back massage.

The heat and sweating was quite intense, but it was all worth it. Afterwards, I felt more relaxed than I can ever remember being. We got to shower off the remains of the sweat and soap, and then wrapped ourselves in bathrobes, and retired to the soaring chill-out courtyard filled with comfortable low beds and decorated with candles, fountains, and rose petals. To top it off, we were served the most refreshing mint tea. It was heaven!

Check out the website (above) for a photo tour of the place. It's all the more amazing that this spa is tucked away in an alley so close to the dust and chaos of the crowded city.

And that's it for now. I hope you'll get to experience it one day! Feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email at if you have any questions or would like some advice on planning a trip to Morocco!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Marrakesh Odds and Ends

As I wind down with my coverage of our trip to Morocco last November, here are some things I haven't yet shown you.

Marrakesh's famous landmark is the Koutoubia Mosque and its minaret, which, interestingly, has served as inspiration for church towers and buildings the world over. The minaret helps you find your direction in Marrakesh, as you can see it from many places in the city. It's a particularly impressive sight at nighttime.

Just imagine coming back from a night out at the Euro-style clubs in the new part of town, leaving the high-rises and gardens and wide avenues for the increasingly narrower streets and alleys lined by ancient buildings and filled with people and streets stands, your compass being this minaret. That was our journey home one night.

Michael and I took a cooking class one morning. La Maison Arabe is a famous Marrakesh hotel and restaurant that has a satellite location 15 minutes outside of the center of town where they have their swimming pool, special event facility, and cooking school. Behind very non-descript doors, you find an unbelievable oasis.

We're talking gardens, an 18 meter long swimming pool, and unbelievably gorgeous buildings. If money were no object, I would throw a soiree here in an instant! Want to daydream? Then you must check out their website here to see their kasbah salon.

Michael and I, after we suited up in our aprons, got a chance to wander around the grounds. We saw rosemary hedges, as pictured above with Michael. Moroccans do not use rosemary in their cooking, so instead, it functions as shrubbery. Michael was aghast (it's his favorite herb). Various other herbs, though, were cultivated for culinary use in the garden. There were also bushes of tiny red, yellow, and purple peppers -- pictured with me, above -- as well as olive trees.

Mohammed, a professor at the University, was our translator, and our instructor was a dada, or traditional Moroccan cook. The dada showed us what to do, and Mohammed translated and helped us. We learned how to make a roasted pepper appetizer and the classic chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives. (Once we got home, we purchased a tagine of our own and now enjoy making Moroccan tagine dishes when we have the opportunity.)

Michael and I each prepared our own individual tagine. It was fun and interesting, and the best part was the beautiful surroundings. When our food was finished cooking, a waiter served it to us outside.

We wished we had brought our bathing suits, so we could have taken a dip in the beautiful pool. But it was November, and the pool was not heated, anyway. I put my hand in and found the water bone numbingly cold. So, nothing really lost there.

After a walk back through the garden, we were at the gate and piling into the shuttle van. Time to go back into the fray of Marrakesh.

Back in the new (French) part of Marrakesh, there was a very popular McDonald's. I had to take a picture of their local special: the McArabia. Note: we did not actually eat at McDonald's on the trip.

Here was the doorway to a mosque in the Medina. You almost wouldn't even notice it unless someone pointed it out, which someone did. The narrow streets of the Medina are packed with so many details, I could've taken a million photos.

I found the artwork on the back of this truck interesting. Also, that there are words in English and bald eagle heads. Hmmm.

This was the door to the house across from our hotel. Earlier in the week, we had seen cuts of meat being wheel-barrowed into the house. We had wondered what was up. As it turns out, the Saturday night we were at the hotel, there was a wedding here. From our roof, we saw across to their roof, where servant girls were looking down at the party in the courtyard. We also heard the noise till the early hours of the morning. But it was all good (we had just gotten married the week before, after all).

If only we could have gone across and taken a peek at the actual celebration. Unfortunately, it would have been a little obvious that we were crashing the wedding. So we just heard their music and imagined what must have been going on.

The Djemma el Fna by day is filled with various tourist traps, including the ubiquitous snake charmers.

Yes, we paid money to have snakes draped on us and have our picture taken.

Michael even kissed the snake, as part of some good luck ritual.

So there you have it. These are some of the highlights I hadn't yet featured here. We saw and did so much in seven short days in Morocco. Unfortunately, we weren't able to capture everything on film. But at least we got a lot of it. The rest is for our memories!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Jardin Majorelle

One day in Marrakesh, we left the walls of the Medina behind us to find the famous gardens called Jardin Majorelle. It took us a while to find the place, despite our map. With all the dusty tan buildings in the newer part of the city it was hard to imagine that somewhere inside there was an oasis.

But find it we did. The gardens, previously owned by Yves Saint-Laurent, feature countless plant varieties, water features, and assorted fauna.

You could completely forget what is outside the walls!

The colors are absolutely brilliant. The blues and greens soothe, while the reds and yellows excite.

What a relaxing place to be!

What is this?

We took a closer look at the fountain.

I even made an unexpected new friend.

This is actually one of the few portraits of both of us on the honeymoon.

Can you believe the color saturation?

More color.

Turtles enjoy a pond.

I really don't have too much else to say about this site. It was beautiful and relaxing and the pictures tell the whole story!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Road trip to Essaouira...and my big life decision along the way

The second day trip we took on our honeymoon last November was to the coastal town of Essaouira, about three hours away from Marrakesh.

We decided to economize by taking a comfortable bus, rather than a private car, to the town. That saved us at least a hundred dollars, and we probably didn't get any less of an experience. In fact, we got some experiences we probably wouldn't have had otherwise. But more on that later.

We departed the city of Marrakesh for a journey into the desert. For much of the drive, what we saw out the windows looked more like a moonscape than anything I had previously experienced on earth.

Occasionally, you would see some trees and buildings that indicated a farm of some sort. There were a few signs for argan oil producers -- in English for tourists.

We made one pit stop at a place that was all ready for us, with a cafe, restrooms, and shoe shine boys and a sort of Moroccan version of a mariachi band that descended upon us. Unfortunately, we didn't take any photos of the Moroccan tourist trap.

Our bus zipped down the two-lane road, overtaking smaller vehicles on its race to the coast. After the landscape had become more tree-lined, we had our first sight of Essaouira.

We were dropped off outside the castle-like walls of the old medina.

White-washed buildings alluded to Greece.

However, this was no Greek town -- check out the minaret.

Various cats and dogs walked through and slept on the street -- something we hadn't really seen as much in Marrakesh. Essaouira seemd to be a place where they could chill out in peace.

As we walked through the market, we saw many stores selling things similar to what we had seen in Marrakesh. We stopped at one shop that had decorative knives on display. The shopkeeper urged us to come in, and we decided to acquiesce.

When we didn't see anything that particularly interested us, he invited us to come to his back room. There he had us sit down on rugs, while he pulled out his treasure chest. Every Berber family has a chest in which they keep their most valuable things, he told us.

We were fascinated by this storyteller who showed us necklaces, one of which had seven charms to represent something having to do with marriage, so he told us. We had also previously told him that we were on our honeymoon. Hmmm.

Well, it was an experience, and we didn't feel bad paying for a memento of an experience, especially when it was a nice necklace. Unfortunately, I lost it the first time I wore it in the US, but such is the transient nature of life.

Anyway, when we did the usual bargaining for the price, he switched the game up. When we proposed a lower price, he asked, "What can you trade?" He wanted some artifact from the United States, which at this moment seemed very, very far away. We didn't have much with us. So he suggested Michael's jacket. Michael was willing to part with it, but I, being ever practical, didn't think it would be a good trade and wondered what he would do if he needed it before the end of the trip.

So I dug around in my bag and found a pen from a company meeting at the Princeton Club in New York City. Before I just valued it because it wrote pretty well for a cheap pen. But here in Morocco, it took on new meaning. With the Princeton seal and a New York address printed on it, it was a tangible piece of life in the U.S., here in the desert. The seller looked the pen over carefully, tried it to make sure it worked, and then declared it would be an acceptable trade. We agreed on a price, bought the necklace, and bid him farewell.

After we left, Michael remarked that we had probably gotten somewhat scammed and paid a far higher price than the necklace was worth. However, we did get a story...and a light went off in my head about what we should bring on future trips to the bargaining world: U.S. swag! Not only that, we got an exotic, romantic moment: sitting there in that back room with the rugs, watching intently as the seller took piece after piece out of his treasure chest. This was the Morocco we had hoped for!

After our shopping excursion, we walked along the austere waterfront.

We saw hundreds of small wooden fishing boats and a fish market right by the dock.

We finished our time at a cafe on the beach. There wasn't much sunbathing or swimming going on, this being Morocco and also in the fall. But it was still a nice place to relax.

Then we went to the bus station, where we wound up waiting an hour or so for a working bus to show up. While the bus in the morning had been quite new and clean, the one we got for the return trip was old and quite unappealing, with trash and chewed gum stuck to the back of the seats.

As it turns out, we spent a good deal of time in that bus, as our driver got caught speeding about two-thirds of the way into our journey. Speeding had not seemed a problem for tourist buses on the way out there. It seemed the biggest vehicle ruled the road, and that was us on the way out to Essaouira. We bypassed police checkpoints, where they had pulled over small cars.

However, no one was immune on the way home. When our bus got pulled over, the driver tried to negotiate with the police. He spent about an hour walking off with the police, coming back, talking to the Moroccan passengers, then going back to the cops. All the while, we waited in the bus or went outside for a little while. Michael and I talked to a European guy who spoke Arabic and told us what was going on. Apparently, the cops were demanding something like 400 dirhams (about US$50 -- a lot for a bus driver) to be paid on the spot for the speeding ticket.

It was getting dark, and I really did not want to be stuck on this desolate part of Morocco, just past the desert. I figured if every passenger chipped in, we could pay the ticket (or bribe, whatever it actually was). The driver continued to talk and smoke with the cops. Finally, he got back into the bus, and we were allowed to go. I don't know what transpired. But at that point, I didn't really care. We were moving. Finally!

It was on that long return trip, as the complete darkness of the desert transformed into a few lights here and there to groups of buildings by the road to small towns to the outskirts of Marrakesh to finally the heart of the bustling city itself, that I started to contemplate the world trip we wanted to undertake in 2008.

There were a few things that were gnawing at me. First of all, we had become acutely aware of how weak the U.S. dollar was. Even in Morocco, things were expensive for us! That did not bode well for a many month trip around the world. Second of all, I had this gut feeling that we needed to be making this trip for the right reasons. I had originally had the idea to go back when I was single. All doors were open then, and I was looking to see the world and let it help me decide my future. Then Michael and I got together, and it became our trip. But why? What did we want to accomplish on the trip? While we both wanted to see the world, the point was not going to be to decide our future. Our future was with each other.

I realized I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted out of the trip. The way I figured it, unlike some of our European friends, we really only had one shot in life to do a trip of this magnitude. I wanted to make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to get out of it. And something was telling me I wasn't quite certain at that point.

As it turns out, the economy in 2008 got even worse than we had imagined. Although the dollar has come back recently, it's not the economic climate in which I would want to just leave my job and hope for the best upon my return.

And it took the change in plans for me to realize in 2008 what I really want to do when we eventually take a world trip: find grassroots non-profit groups along the way, see how people are living, and how people like us can help make a difference.

It was the right decision to cancel the trip for 2008. I can't imagine coming back right about now to this economy. But it certainly was a difficult thing to discuss with Michael that evening, once we got back into Marrakesh. I'm glad, though, that that trip back from Essaouira gave me the clarity to think and listen to my gut.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Time is flying!

Photo by Jason Specland

It's just two weeks till Michael's and my FIRST WEDDING ANNIVERSARY!

How much has happened in the past year?

  • Lex and Erik's first
  • Tanja and Joerg's second
  • Jon and Joanne's second
  • Randi and Dave's first
  • Brian and Heather's second
  • Rachel and Seth's first is on the way
  • Barb and Kozak's first is on the way


  • Tanja and Joerg
  • Jess and Chris
  • Greg and Maggie's engagement
  • Lisa and David's engagement

New Homeowners:

  • Us
  • Don and Alex
  • Grace and Steve
  • Rachel and Seth became homeowners twice over!
And there are probably a ton more things that I am forgetting! What an exciting time in our lives.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Guatemala Preparation

Michael and I are heading back to Guatemala in December to help with some great projects and do a little traveling.

There are about 30 people going down, and one of the groups has created a fantastic website, Check it out to find out more about the different service projects: Medical Clinic, Veterinary Clinic, Tamale Baskets, and Office Support, as well as brief synopses of who will be taking part.

I can't wait! It'll be great to get back to Guatemala, and in addition, we'll get to meet all sorts of wonderful people and also see some places we missed last time.

Michael and I, thanks to the miracle of frequent flyer miles, will be flying down business class, so we will be able to bring down several suitcases each.

If you would like to help us fill our suitcases, please let me know! We could use any of the items listed here or toys, children's clothes, hotel toiletries, sheets for full-sized beds, kitchen supplies, and many other things. Just ask! Please email me at

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Long time no see!

Hi all! What a week this has been with the financial meltdown and its impact all over the world.

I want to apologize for the lack of entries lately. My job has been keeping me busier than any other time in the past three years, and unfortunately, there hasn't been much left at the end of the day for blogging.

However, I haven't forgotten about you. I have been thinking about issues of poverty and hunger. My friend, Nikki, wrote a great post about the levels of poverty on her blog. And I just received a letter from one of the local charities I support, Community Foodbank of New Jersey, asking money for their Thanksgiving Appeal.

The President and CEO, Kathleen DiChiara, writes, "Many people in New Jersey don't realize the number of their neighbors who are struggling to feed themselves and their families. Community FoodBank of New Jersey provides food to more than 1,600 hunger-relief programs throughout 18 counties and distributes over 23 million pounds of food annually."

It's true -- I had no idea of the numbers. You assume everyone has food to eat. At least there are various programs that offer help here in the US, Canada, and other first world countries. In many poor parts of the world, there just isn't the same kind of help.

That is one thing that puts the whole financial crisis in perspective. No matter how bad we have it because of the markets, it still is nothing like the situations people face in places like Haiti or Guatemala.

Another thing that put the gloom and doom on Wall Street into perspective was watching a film this week called Rescue Dawn. This is based on a true story about a US Navy pilot who becomes a POW in the Vietnam War. If you want a reality check about how much you take for granted, including food, health, and just freedom of movement, it's a good movie to see.

On a happier note, the next installment of my Morocco coverage will be our road trip through the desert to a seaside town called Essaouira. Stay tuned!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Journey to the Atlas Mountains

When in Marrakesh, Morocco, on our honeymoon last November, Michael and I took a day trip to the Atlas Mountains. It was only a few hours outside of the city, but what a difference!

While the city of Marrakesh was packed, noisy, and bustling, the road to the mountains was quiet and austere. We saw Berber villages that blended in with the earth around them and a smattering of scrubby green trees.

A Berber village on the drive from Marrakesh to the Atlas Mountains

On the way, our driver took us to Sir Richard Branson's Moroccan retreat, Kasbah Tamadot. While the surrounding area was unassuming, the hotel was truly an oasis.

The road by Sir Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot

The outer walls of Kasbah Tamadot

Check this out! It was a world of utter luxury, with beautiful carvings, magnificent fabrics, a glittering pool, all sunshine and greenery and tilework.

Inside Kasbah Tamadot

We got to look around and use their bathroom and imagine what it would be like to spend hundreds of Euros a night to stay here.

I looked out from the patio to observe who their neighbors were, and across an expanse of land was a small, simple Berber village -- you could barely make it out.

View of Berber villages from Kasbah Tamadot

The contrast between the Kasbah and the village was tremendous.

An outer building at Kasbah Tamadot

Another view of the surrounding area by Kasbah Tamadot

After our tour of the grounds and a nice tip for the hotel staff member who showed us around, we set out for the town of Imlil.

Road to the Atlas Mountains and the town of Imlil

It was autumn, after all, but I was almost surprised to see the colors of the foliage as we got closer to Imlil. Given the look of the trees we had seen up to that point, I had not thought there would be deciduous plant life.

On the way to Imlil

But there were. In fact, the foliage was more magnificent than what we had seen in Upstate New York on the day of our wedding. As it turned out, last year the leaves turned later in the season than they normally do. So we did not have as gloriously colorful a wedding as we had hoped. No matter!

Imlil, Morocco

We got to Imlil, a town that is used as a base for tourists to come in from Marrakesh and hike around. It had several restaurants and a number of people ready to give tours or offer donkey rides. But there was nothing really upscale there.

We were dropped off at a restaurant where we were to pre-order our lunch before setting out on a walking tour with a guide. It was all designed to separate us from our money, but it wasn't terribly expensive, and no one in the town seemed to be living in wealth.

View from the roof patio of the restaurant where we stopped

Our guide walked us up tiny pathways that were busy with locals, livestock, and tourists on donkeys all doing their best not to fall into the adjacent stream.

Michael and our guide on the path

Here we are at a small waterfall along the way

Path in Imlil

One thing I immediately noticed was how fresh and clean the air was. Marrakesh had been incredibly polluted, and at times I found it hard to breathe. Here I wanted to drink the air in.

More fall foliage

After we finished our tour, we went back to the restaurant for our lunch. I had the best vegetable tagine of our trip there. My theory is that meat is generally a luxury for the people who live in this area, so they are particularly good at making vegetarian food. In Marrakesh, most of the vegetable tagines I had seemed rather uninspired.

View from our lunch table

There was something about this town, the mountains, the low stone buildings, the clarity of the air, and just the sense of austerity that reminded me of China, particularly of my time in Longsheng in 2001.

There was some terraced agriculture in Imlil, but nothing like the Dragon's Backbone rice fields. It was more than that. It was that sense of being far away from home and high in altitude, knowing that this was a place that did not have the creature comforts or materialism I was used to. I admired the beauty but felt slightly uncomfortable, stripped of most of what I know.

It was the edges of culture shock. I was an observer, as I knew we would be driven back to the relative familiarity of urban life in Marrakesh. Had I stayed longer, I would have had to start opening myself up to the slow pace of life, the difference in plumbing and accommodations, the donkeys, the villagers, for whom the rest of the world seems but a fairy tale, and nature's harshness in the mountains.

I know that feeling of being far away from home and realizing you cannot get away easily. I know it from my times in Germany and from my longer travels, particularly in Vietnam and India. The deeper you feel it, the greater risk you are taking: the further away you are, the longer you will be there, the more foreign the locale. But of course, as with everything, the greater the risk, the greater the reward. While the initial sensation can be frightening, for a traveler it usually means you are on the right track.

Michael in Imlil

Waiting for lunch