Sunday, October 28, 2012

Back to Africa: souk rage

Africa doesn't soothe you upon arrival with craft beer, artesinal cheese, cobblestone steets, cozy, candle-lit trattorias and orderly bus stations.  North Africa blasts tinny music, throws donkeys, over-stimulation, smells and motobikes in your path as you get lost down narrow streets and invite stares and endless questions from inquisitive people.  Africa is a little bit sink or swim.  If you can't just go with the flow, you sink.  I tried to get back into the rhythm of Africa as quickly as I could but I was very, very rattled by Marrakech on that first day.  Coming from a cocoon of friends in laid-back Amsterdam was quite a change.

Goodbye, Europe!

I booked a really; really nice converted riad hotel for myself.  This was only about 90 dollars.  Morocco is a bargain compaired to Europe..  Looking down from my huge, tiled room and bed with flower petals on it I could see this:

The French owners got me settled in and showed me the way to the main square and the souk, an endless narrow winding pathway of little shops.  Just like shops you would see in Mexico or Asia - crafts, food, spices, rugs, pottey, linens, shoes, art...(top photo)

They warned me about aggressive people in the souk.  I assured them that I've been there, done that.

I make sure that I'm dressed modestly here.  It's obvious that I'm a foreigner - I can't change that - but I wear long cargo pants every day and my shoulders are always covered.  Despite all of this, and an expessionless face showing no interest in anything, I recieved contant attention.

"HELLO where you from?!"
"hello this is my shop come in my shop"
"What are you looking for?! hello my friend come over here American!"
"Why you walk away?! come back here lady!"

It got worse.  There were other touists in the medina, all trying to remain un-fazed, we threw eachother looks of knowing sympathy.  I've dealt with similar situations in Egypt and other places.  I just remain expessionless, then smile politely and just say "no, shukran" or "no, Merci". This worked great in Egypt.  They would get the message and just bid me a nice day.  Not here.  My arm was grabbed.  My hand was grabbed.  This was going from annoying to infuriating.

One man who I said "no, merci" to at least 5 times decided to FOLLOW ME and yell.  YOU Americans! you are all the same.  You are so angry!  What is wrong with you Ameicans!  The French, the Swedish they no act like you!  My shop is very nice!  You just walk by when I talk to you! Come back here!

I turned around, gave him a nasty look and said "LEAVE ME ALONE!  I was polite to you. I am sure your shop is very nice but you follow me and you yell; you are insulting and I will never come into your shop, ever"

I made a point to not walk down that alley again and I started to enjoy looking at all the fun things for sale.  Not all the shop owners were pushy and aggressive.  Only about 35 percent of them are.  Those are good odds, right?

10 minutes later, my friend appeared around a corner in another part of the medina.

"fuck you, American bitch"

I had had enough.  I didn't care.  I went up to him and said "EXCUSE ME what did you just say to me asshole?!".  I knew there were plain clothes tourist police around and I was so angry, I really didn't care if I was doing the "right thing". An asshole is an asshole and needs to be called out.

He disappeared around another corner.

15 minutes later, who do I see again?!

"I am sorry, I apologize to you.  Why you no come into my shop.  Is my brother's shop, is vey nice. I apologize to you.  Why do only Americans act this way?"

I decided to give him some advice. "When you follow me, grab my arm and insult me, that does not make me want to come to your shop.  I bet you would get a lot more people in your shop if you stand back, let them look and act nice to them. The more you try to force people in your shop; the less they want to come. When you follow people, it makes them run away.  When people say no merci; you must leave them alone."

"You Americans, you all the same!"

That's right, buddy.  I never saw him again. I hope he took a little advice from me and retired the "get in my shop, bitch" sales method.  The whole American thing touched a nerve I didn't know I had.  Feel free to insult me for my bitchy personality, but why bring my nationality into it?  I've heard people say "I don't always agree with your country, but I like you and this other American I met once".. That kind of thing.  People all over the world have so far been very good about just judging me for me.  I have my good days and bad days. Bringing up my nationality just feels so ignorant, like they have nothing else to insult me about.  I've worn the same orange shirt every day, let's start there!

I found a lovely rooftop bar, cafe arabe.  I listened to the call to prayer echoing around the city with other weary tourists and Americans who needed a break:

I changed into another outfit and put my hair in a bun just in case my little fiend from the souk saw me again. I headed to the main square for dinner, the dja el fnaa.  I love it there.  Food stalls, musicians, drummers, performers.. you can buy a cheap tagine, eat at long tables with other people and be endlessly entertained.  Moroccans and tourists, young and old all eating together.

After an awesome chicken-lemon-olive tagine and some b'sara soup (which I got for the name but honestly loved), I had a nightcap at another rooftop bar near my hotel. I listened to arabic-flavored electronica, texted with friends at home and vowed to be tougher tomorrow and get used to this place.

I came back to my riad and sat in the quiet coutyard with my feet in the pool and talked to the hotel owners.

Coming up: Morocco redeems itself; and then some!

this keyboard in Merzouga is infuriating.  more to come when I get to Fez in a few days.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Amsterdam: peep shows and pancakes

It had been 10 years since I visited Amsterdam - on a combo trip to Paris with Kathy.  We both remember it as dark and a little bit sinister.  The city itself is gorgeous, but addicts lurked around every corner and sellers hissed "hash...coke..." at us as we got horribly lost every day.  I wanted to do another european marathon with my friends, and when we held a meeting last winter to decide where, I voted for Lubljana, Slovenia.  Amsterdam won out.  But I was excited to see it 10 years later with new eyes. It doesn't take much to convince me to travel anywhere. Amsterdam, you blew me away this time! 

I arrived a day early and went straight to the tiny town of Edam to recover from jet lag.  It rained all day but I was giddy to be back in Europe.  My head was foggy but the streets were simple and there was a cheese shop around every corner.  I explored, alternating cheese or apple tart in one hand, umbrella in the other. Nothing makes me happier than a free day in a new city with time to explore.

 I discovered that I couldn't take money out of the ATM so I walked 2km to Volendamm.  Every bank shut me out.  Even though I had called both my banks before the trip and told them I would be travelling, when I tied to use the local Rabobank, they sent a fraud alert to both banks.  I had to spend some time on the phone straightening it out.

 I wandered the atmospheric streets and had dinner at cozy De Beurs Eten & Drinken.  The chef's sampler platter had a cheese croquette, fish cake, beef carpacchio and a profiterole with goat cheese.  I added a glass of wine and cheese soup.

Friday I went back to Amsterdam and settled into my very spartan but perfectly fine room at Hotel Van Onna.  I decided to save in Europe and err on the side of luxury in Morocco, where I might need it more.  I stayed a few blocks from where we stayed in 2002 - in the Jordaan district.  Here is my street; Bloemgracht:


 I made plans to meet Desiree at the marathon expo and to go out for pannekoeken - the famous Dutch pancake.  Desiree is part of our extended group of Chicago runners - she lived in Chicago a few years ago and now lives in Singapore.  I had only met her for a second at Oktoberfest last year but we know eachother very well through facebook.  A fellow runner and an avid traveller - we had lots to talk about.  Desiree posts even more food photos on the internet than I do. We picked up our race numbers at the expo (Lame compared to Chicago and Berlin) and headed to Pannekoeken Upstairs.  Our pancakes were phenomenal, and I discovered the Dutch sweet-savory syrup Schenkstroop.  Similar to molasses, it goes on sweet as well as meat-cheese pancakes. The restaurant was up some traditional steep, ladder-like dutch stairs.  I had to come down backwards.

My hotel - I'm in the street-level window

I bought a few shirts in the Dutch ORANJE color!

And headed out to meet Carl, Jen, Regis (who we just call "Waffle" because he is Belgian), Desiree and her English ultra running, mountain-climbing friend for a huge Indonesian dinner.  18 dishes, arranged by spiciness. I was in heaven!

We went to Tempo Doloe because Anthony Bourdain had gone there.  It did not dissapoint.  At 50 euros, it was a splurge, a very worth-it splurge.  I joked about paying for the dinner both financially and digestively.  I paid.  Oh, I paid!

The next morning, I enjoyed some Sara time exploring the Jordaan.  I seagulled cheese samples in this market:

10 years ago I saw all the required museums here, so this time I visited Electric Ladyland, the museum of florescent art.  It was run by this hippie, a former American who had spent time at an ashram in India:

He made me take my shoes off and took me down to a basement, where he showed me every historical florescent paint, rock and picture.  He shined different lights on rocks to make different lights appear.  I was alone in a basement with this guy and several times I almost broke out giggling.  Then he left me alone down there and shut off the lights for a few minutes so that I could enjoy the color display.  Groovy! 

I got to sleep in because my half marathon did not start until 1:30.  I went to a nearby fancy boutique hotel for a big breakfast buffet, then waited in my own hotel lobby to use the wifi where I met two spanish guys also running the half marathon: 

me: what time are you going for today?
them: an hour twenty minutes, and you?
me: oh, two hours, five would be nice but i will probably be closer to two ten.
them: oh...(look of polite sympathy) do you train? how you practice run before?

hahaha!  And these guys have never run a full marathon.  They took themselves soooo seriously.  I shared a taxi with them to the start; where I met Steph, who was also running the half, and Lori who is pregnant qnd had an injury and wasnt running. Steph and I lined up while complaining about having to go to the bathroom.  On the start line, a magic bathroom appeared with no line.  As I waited for Steph, I accidentally saw an old man's penis.

We ran across the start line to the sounds of "Mr saxo beat".  The drizzle let up and the race went quickly, it was a perfect 55 degrees.  Dance music DJs played throughout the course and spirits were high.  I heard swedish house mafia and Lola's theme.  My foot and IT band protested but I thoroughly enjoyed myself and ran a 2:07:26.  7 minutes off my PR.  Not bad, not great but I loved the race and that's all I cared about this time.  I was just grateful and happy to be able to complete it, happy to run with my friends and see Amsterdam from a different perspective.

After the race I hobbled back to the hotel and had a delicious waffle:

 And this combo pizza-hot dog with a hidden surprise of saurkraut.  Unox worst?  How about Unox BEST!


 I sat on my bed and ate food from the grocery store, then met up with everyone for celebratory drinks. We hit different spots aound downtown, and the night ended with four of us jamming in a peep show booth.  I laughed all the way home.  I am still laughing.  

The next morning we gathered for a group photo (those of us who were not hurting too bad to do so) at the famous Iamsterdam sign.  It was an incredibly fun 5 days.  Amsterdam seems to have changed in 10 years.  It seems brighter, livelier, cleaner.  Or maybe it's just me that is less sinister.  It was nice to see it again. Onward to Morocco!

The internet is so bad here that I may not get another chance to write a post until Fez.  I will try, though.  I can get phone wifi but actual computers are hard to find and the keyboards are wacky.  I have lots more to report!