George Rede kindly interviewed me about travel-blogging for The Oregonian: http://www.oregonlive.com/news-network/index.ssf/2012/04/featured_blog_partner_qa_with_11.html
It would be easy to pass over Youssef Bouhlal’s tiny shop in the Fez Medina. Its modest offerings of dried lentils, white beans, garbanzos, oil, and milk are unremarkable among the competing sights of souk. But like the plain facades that cloak the ornate interiors of the Medina’s mosques and medrassas, the splendor of Bouhlal’s shop is hidden. I wouldn’t have known about it without my expat friend, Sandy McCutcheon, who introduced me to Bouhlal’s shop on one of our Medina strolls.
“This is the best place to buy coffee in the Medina,” he said, placing his order for a half-kilo.
Boudlal, 37, upended a bag of Arabica coffee beans into a grinder and then sprinkled on an array of simple, but unexpected, spices: a pinch of sesame seeds, a whole nutmeg, a few peppercorn…
When the grinder switched off, Bouhlal held out a scoop of the coffee for us to smell. Inhaling the rich aromatic spices invoked cozy memories winter mornings, Indian chai, and holiday treats.
Although Fez is full of sidewalk cafes serving espresso drinks, spiced coffee is rarely on the menu. Moroccans mostly prepare it in the home. You can buy bags at several places in the Medina, but Bouhlal’s blend stands out both for its well-balanced flavor and its low price: just six Euros will buy you a kilo. And while blending your order, Boudlal also can converse about English literature. He’s studied the works of James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, and Herman Melville.
His coffee is as well-traveled as his mind. Guests to Bouhlal’s shop invariably buy a stash to take home. “My coffee has traveled all over the world,” Bouhlal said, twirling a bag of sesame seeds closed.
I wondered: Perhaps there is an international market for Bouhlal’s unique blend? “This could be the headquarters,” I declared, eyeing his small stall with big visions. “But we would need a larger grinder.”
Insha’Allah,” he laughed.
Bouhlal’s small shop is located in the R’Cif souk in the Fez Medina. If you can’t make it all the way to Fez, you can experiment with your own blend at home. Bouhlal does not measure by instruments, but by intuition. Here is what I saw him add:
Combine these spices with quality coffee beans and grind. Brew in a stovetop espresso maker or percolator of your choice. Cream and sugar transform this spicy delight into a dessert. Prepare to be addicted.
Rounding the bend into Tarifa, I had to revise my expectations. I’d presumed the beach town, located at the southernmost point of Spain, was a winter-escape from northern Europe. My bikini and SPF waited at the top of my bag, and I was ready to toast the sunshine with a mojito.
But as a gale force wind tried to shove my camper off the road, it was clear: this town was no simple-minded Margaritaville …
For the rest of the story, go to: The Oregonian Travel Section
Abdul gestured to heaven.
I used to work for money. Now I work for Allah. We are sitting outside his ceramic shop in one of those rare beams of sun that filter into the Fez medina at midday. Just a moment ago, he was laying on a heavy sales pitch for a tagine; now he was praising Allah.
This was not like shopping in America. The sales clerks at Victoria’s Secret or The Gap are more interested in pushing a three-for-the-price-of-two panties, –or selling their credit line–than sitting in a ray of sun talking God.
But to be clear: Abdul did have a keen interest in selling his wares. Anyone who has spent a split second in the medina knows that the shopkeepers are relentless. They call out to you everywhere you walk, and sometimes trailing you down the street.
But what is redeeming about medina is that although overpriced gadgets may be plentiful, so are spiritual truths. The salesmen of the medina are shape-shifters. One minute Yousef-Carpet Salesman is tricking you into his shop and the next, he is waxing on like Khalil Gibran.
“One day sunny, one day raining. One day good, the next day bad.” Si Mohamud was standing amidst the antique vases of his furniture shop. “That your heart is beating, this is important.” He placed his hand on his chest. “Health. It is the only thing that matters.”
Somehow the shopkeepers of the Fez medina aren’t aware of the dirty secret of all thriving capitalist societies: that happy people don’t buy things. Dissatisfaction–not gratitude—is what fuels consumerism. Tell them they are not thin enough, blonde enough, or young enough and their wallets will turn inside out. And lose the Insha-Allah, that laissez-faire sentiment that turns our fate over to the Higher Power. Tell them that with the right pair of skinny jeans, they can be the master of the universe
“Enjoy every second. For you do not know when and where you will die,” Rashid counseled as I leaned toward the mirror to inspect a pair of silver earrings and formulated my bid. My heart leapt. He’s right! I plucked the earrings from my lobes. What am I doing spending money in this dark shop I should be out on the sunny rooftop, watching migrating storks and the springtime hills.
It’s not just wise words that you find in the medina, but also wise postures. Old men in djallaba lean all day against weather-stained walls, content as horses turned out to pasture. They occupy sidewalk tables, taking in the scene over cups of mint tea that never seem to empty. On my way home each day, I pass the same plumber taking the same seat of repose in the same chair. Such postures don’t exist in America. There, time is money, and everyone must fiddle with their cell phones, be eating, or be on their way somewhere. In the contented body-language of the Fassi lies a sort of somatic advertisement for Simply Being.
No shopping trip is perfunctory in the labyrinthine byways of the medina. The sacred and the profane mix like intimate aromas and aggressive sales pitches are in no way at odds with spiritual pursuits. False guides bamboozle you into tannery tours en-route to the mosque. Carpet sellers sing Hamdulla! and then rob you blind. The wisdom of the ages echo off walls hung with overpriced kitsch. You set off scouting for a roll of toilet paper, and suddenly find yourself standing in the center Si-Mohammed’s antique shop, spellbound by his wisdom, and giving thanks for the very beating of your heart.
For more stories from Fez, visit The View from Fez
I’d been in Fez two days when Uri, a gal from my hostel, unfolded a map on the breakfast table and invited me to join her tour group for the day. I balked.
I don’t like formal tours—the sight-seeing, tight schedules, and gift shops leave me feeling flat. Plus, I had my stereotypes: Uri was from Thailand and her friends were from Indonesia and Korea. In my experience, Asian tour groups spend a lot of time taking snaps. And they probably had jobs in tech and would want to talk computers.
But by the time we finished our eggs and coffee, I was convinced. If we pooled our money, the tour would be cheap. Plus, the last couple days in the medina left me feeling like a walking wallet. Grouping up afforded protection from the aggressive street touts in the way that schooling protects fish from sharks. It’d be easier to get around.
Our first stop was a museum. Uri and I walked down a freezing cold hallway lined with glass-encased heirlooms: an old sundial, some rusty earrings, tattered rugs. But both of us were more interested in the living than the dead inert objects of the past. We found our way outside again.
We strolled between rows of mint and orange trees, and talked about Thailand. I was there last year. My recollections were largely culinary: the crunchy streetcart Tom Sum, the ubiquitous phad Thai, the milky-sweet iced-teas that were my afternoon ritual. And, of course, it’s impossible to not remember the prostitution–the absurd upside-down universe where old-pot-bellied “Sexpats” strolled the streets with young tottering Thai women.
What’s the deal? I asked her. Is this really just “part of the culture” as I’d always heard (often from the Sex-pats themselves)
She flinched. Started to speak and stopped. A flash of adrenaline stuck her for words. The issue seemed close to the surface, and I felt bad for bringing it up.
”This is just the tiniest portion of the population,” she seethed, “but everyone thinks that all Thai women are easy sex.” Once, a guy sitting next to her at a conference turned to her and declared they would be having sex. And she is wary of English teachers in Thailand, unsure if they are viewing her in sexual terms.
There are many versions of Thailand, but in her version, prostitution is frowned upon and getting together with a foreign guy is questioned. But she added a caveat: sometimes real love blooms, and isn’t given proper credibility. A friend of hers is in a legitimate relationship with an American and struggles with the disrespectful assumptions people make about their relationship. Everyone is sure she is just after his money.
“Is this really what outsiders think of us–that we are just sex?” she asked.
I had to admit that sometimes it seemed that way. Not a week went by on Facebook without someone announcing they were going to Thailand followed by a chorus of comments: “Don’t forget the condoms!” or “Have fun. Wink-wink.” And, even my own travels there left a strong impression: I’ll never forget the Twilight Zone that was Pattaya: an entire boardwalk lined with girls and old men—some even shuffling walkers—trolling for evening company. Admittedly, this was a huge tourist area.
“But people think of a lot of other things too,” I countered. “Great beaches, kind people, gilded temples.”
After the museum, our group moved on to a café. As we sipped our mint tea, our discussion of stereotypes broadened to include the rest of our group: two were Muslims from Indonesia, and the other from South Korea. I mentioned that I’d just finished reading Ayann Hiri Ali’s book, Nomad, which although reflective of Ali’s own experience, seemed to fan many of the West’s greatest fears about Muslims: the oppression of women, forced marriages, genital mutilation, extremism.
Bowo shook is head. These stereotypes did not fit the Muslims he knew in Indonesia.
Noka was also Indonesian and had studied in The States—in a small Pennsylvania town. He said that sometimes people asked him if he had a television. Or, worse, if he lived in trees. One person asked if he drove to the U.S. from Indonesia.
“What is the stereotype of Americans?” I asked.
“Ignorant,” he said. We all laughed. Though the stories about American naiveté often seemed exaggerated, it might have been the truest stereotype at all.
Afterall, I just had to consider the stereotypes I’d started the morning with: that we would spend the dull day posing for photos and talking about computer programming. Instead, we experienced what travel does best, which is rattle the rust off our world view that accumulates when we stay in one place for too long. That morning we’d left the hotel as a Thai Prostitute, a Suicide Bomber, a Primitive, a Techie, and a Moneyed Ignoramus, and returned as real people with real names: Uri, Noka, Bowo, Hyo and Christina.
It was never my intention to get involved in Morocco’s underground drug trade. I lack a criminal disposition, and tangling with law enforcement and winding up in a foreign jail is not my idea of a thrill. It was the legal enchantments that drew me to Chen: the mountains, the rivers, the blossoming almond trees.
But intention means very little in the labyrinthine medinas of Morocco. Set your GPS how you like, but you will soon find there are no routes, just blind corners; that you don’t control your destiny so much as get dog-tired and wind up in situations: cornered by a guilt-wielding carpet seller, or trying on dozens of djellabas that you never even wanted and will for sure never wear.
My criminal career began and ended over a plate of gnoochi at the Lotus restaurant. The Lotus was one of those expat sanctuaries–there’s one in every tourist city–full of candles, bead curtains, low cushions, psychedelic art and lots of One Love. I feel a little bad about these places because they are too easy and wrongly removed from the local culture but, as I said before, the medina has a mind of its own and it delivers you where it will.
The familiarity of it was comforting. It was the off-season and a difficult time to be a solo traveler. The weather was cold and the main square was near empty. I’d spent the morning admiring traveling couples who perched together in inevitable places: on the walls around the old Mosque, over mint tea at cafe tables, near the river. They had the posture of contented people: self-contained and satiated.I hadn’t spoke to anyone in a week. Andy would catch up soon and although the alone time had been beneficial—I always become a poet in the quiet drift of solitude—the need for human contact drove me out this one day, eyes wide open, looking for an In.
The host of the Lotus restaurant directed me to the top floor, and when I crested the staircase, I was happy to see three white faces. Each sat at a separate table and all looked up to greet me—in English–before getting back to their business: one scrolled an ipod, another worked a sketch, and a third in purple pants leaned back on a low corner couch.
The room had a vague haze. Smoke. I looked for a source. Burnt chicken tagine? Incense? Did we need to call for a fire extinguisher?
“Welcome,” exhaled the man from the low corner couch. A plume of smoke swirled around his beard. “Martin. From Scotland.”
Chen is famous for the marijuana—or Kif—that thrives in surrounding mountains. Though technically illegal, it’s proffered and smoked openly and a mainstay of the rural economy. It took me a while to see it out in plain sight–partly because I wasn’t looking for it.
What I was looking for was a glass of wine—which holds the opposite status in Morocco than pot: though technically legal, Mohammed forbids drinking in the Koran, and his law–in the minds of many–is mightier than any secular law. On Internet forums travelers sought advice on where to score a bottle in Chen, but the discussion threads led nowhere. Meanwhile, there were huge rounds of fresh goat cheese for sale in the street markets just begging for a glass of vino tinto.
I sat down at a corner table. The menu was an untrustworthy tome of Italian, Chinese and Moroccan. I turned in my chair. What’s good to eat here?
“Everything” Martin said, exhaling another plume of smoke. Then he qualified: to be honest, it was hearsay. He couldn’t afford any of it. After five years living in Chen, he’d achieved a nearly cash-free existence, working in the nearby mountains on an organic farm. Alongside a local man named Rachid, Martin grew veggies for bartering. He just waited at the Lotus on market day to catch a ride back to the farm.
I put in my order—gnocchi with blue cheese—and looked around the room. We chatted. The man scrolling the iPod was a DJ from Ireland. Recently divorced, he spent the last two weeks snuggling with a water bottle, smoking kif, and snacking his way through the medina munchies. The other guy was Jonah. He was the owner. He rarely looked up from his Bic pen drawing, except to take an intermitted puff from his chillum and to show us the picture he was working on: a couple of elaborately intertwined snakes.
I’d been told that owning a restaurant was at least as stressful as being a heart surgeon, but Jonah made it look easy—doodling, smoking, and changing the stereo tracks from Ray Charles to John Lee Hooker. His Moroccan waitor, meanwhile, ran show. Martin would later tell me that Jonah was navigating a heartbreak with kif and his drawings which papered the walls, hung midair from thread mobiles, and covered the menus.
My gnocchi arrived—blue cheese and almonds in a clay tagine dish. I dug in and it was excellent, but would have been so much more so with a glass of Merlot. “You want a hit off this?” Martin extended his pipe. I held up my hand: No thanks. Breathing the smoke-choked air alone made me high.
What I really want is a glass of wine.
“Good luck. You won’t find it here. This town is bone dry.”
Martin invited me to his farm and the next day I followed him. He and Rachid prepared a fish tagine in slow epochs, the cutting and passing of each ingredient into the clay pot the passage of a geologic age. Between episodes, they smoked kif, laughed a lot, and got distracted by other chores: picking up rocks, gathering wood. I followed Rachid around and we toured the farm: the onions, the garlic, the oncoming snap peas. Eventually we ate and I was grateful. In return, I invited Martin to dinner at the Lotus the following night.
Before our dinner meet-up, I’d planned a three-hour hike with a guide named Achmed who I’d met in the square. We walked a wide road up the mountain above town, stopping at a rock outcropping for a cup of mint tea. Then, instead of going down the nice clean trail in front of us, Achmed l suggested we go over the lip of the mountain.
I balked. “What about the time?” I asked, reminding him of my 7:00 meet-up with Martin.
He promised: “No problem No problem.”
Two hours later the sun was setting as we picked our way, heads down, through the slippery scree on the other side of the mountain. I twisted my ankles every few steps, and my knee took a hammering. When we reached the road, men in djallabas passed us with donkeys on the return route to their mountain villages. The sky was this terrific shade of black-blue and Venus blinked on. The silhouette of an almond tree stood out against the orange band of fading sunset, but I was too pissed to appreciate it. The hike was supposed to be three hours. We were pushing five.
I walked with a slight limp. We rounded a bend. The lights of town seemed impossibly far.
“Another hour to town,” Achmed said. I tripped in a pothole and began to sniffle. I wanted to sit on that road and never get up.
“Ah Christina …” he consoled. “Christina I am sorry. Take my hand…”
And in what I can only explain now as some sort of Stockholm syndrome setting in, I reciprocated, grasping Achmed hand and allowing him to lead me down the mountain, strangely consoled and annoyed at the same time.
The band of light on the horizon had now darkened to the color of a deep cabarnet. I thought of my dinner and then remembered: another wine-less Italian meal. “Achmed, I wish I could find wine in this town!”
He was eager to make me feel better. “This I can find for you.” My spirits brightened and my limp went away.
When we arrived in town, we had just enough time before 7:00. We skirted the medina for what felt like another mile. At last he stopped at an unmarked door. “You go.” He stood back and motioned me forward. I pushed open the heavy wooden door.
Inside was a smokey din–all men with frothy beers lined up along the bar, music, and good cheer. A tall European stood behind the bar, a red light illuminating his baldhead.
“Una Botella,” I ventured.
“Tinto o blanco?”
He slid it into a plastic bag and we slid that bag it into my canvass bag and I paid him. It was that easy.
I would arrive at Lotus late, but Martin was already up in smoke. Jonah was sitting in the same chair transfixed by his chillum and a new bic pen masterpiece. He ok-ed the wine, so long as we drank it on the low table behind the partition and kept it discreet out of respect for his staff. He rustled me up an opener.
I lowered onto the couch, knees throbbing and face wind-chapped and sun-reddened. I held the contraband under the table and pulled the cork.
Martin was impressed. I’ve lived in Chen five years and had no idea…
I ordered the gnocchi again, we toasted under the table, and while he freely exhaled lung-fulls of kif, I nursed my wine discreet sips which forbidden tasted better.
Martin’s conversation was as meandering as the medina, drifting from subject to subject like an aimless cloud and waylaying me in an eventual white-out. I was too tired to care whether he made sense or not. Mostly I just leaned back and felt proud of myself; I’d infiltrated the underground wine trade of Chen in five days flat and rather liked the sensation of being a criminal. “If you are not a “minor” criminal of some sort in this day and age one is not truly living,” my friend Pat has said.
In the ensuing days, I would acquire this x-ray vision, an ability to see beyond the surfaces of things—to the underworld ways that animal appetites find outlet: to threadbare cats hunched over dark-street dumpsters, to young couples kissing among tombstones, wishing for time to stop; to heroine junkies slipping out from behind a boulder that sheltered them from sight; to a fist-fight breaking in the alley just as the five-o’clock prayers sounded from the mosque.
Andy would arrive soon, and I’d have my nose out of trouble. Mischief courts only the solo traveler. I’d miss my criminal days, but be happy for the sobriety and the coherent conversation and a different sort of mischief. Until then, I had a half a bottle of wine left, a round of goat cheese, and the sweet free sensation of having let my law-abiding, politically-correct self take a wrong turn in the labyrinthine medina of Chen, all for a glass of Cabernet.
My recent article about the Qaeda-linked violence in Mali and the murder in Ashland …
1. a budget traveler of the extreme variety.
2. a specialist in creative vehicle conversions, spontaneous road trips, and serendipitous meetings.
3. a wandering seeker of friendship, adventure, and art.
My partner and I were in Milan visiting his family and his sister asked if I wanted to get a haircut together. “Sure,” I said. It seemed like a great way to bond. “The salon is a little expensive,” she warned, “but they do a great job.” That’s okay I thought. After traveling and living out of a bus for eight months my hair had this hang dog look, so I didn’t mind paying a little extra for a trip to the groomers. She booked the appointment.
The next day we ascended the metro steps near the Duomo. The salon was right on the main square.
“So, how much do you think it will cost?” I ventured.
She gave me an estimate, a number that I can’t bring myself to make public. Let’s just say it was bigger than a breadbox. Waaaay bigger.
I didn’t know it at the time, but we were headed to Aldo Coppola’s salon. Cappola and his team are some of the most famous stylists in the world. That I hadn’t heard of him was no surprise. The L’Oreal models and celebrities that make up his client list don’t loiter in the grotty beach lots where my partner and I park our bus at night, or do they dine at the street stalls where we eat dinner.
I swallowed hard. For a drifters like us, money is time. Every new Balinese sundress is a step closer to the cubicle, a minty mojito on a Tarifa beach can liquidate an entire day on the road. For this reason, we eat couscous and rice, avoid toll roads, and think thrice before buying new clothes. If my calculations were correct, the price of a haircut from Aldo Coppola’s salon would shave off a week of travel.
We proceeded across the square and a flock of pigeons parted in front of us. There was still time to back out. I could tour the cathedral while she had her cut and we could bond over coffee lattes afterwards. Later, I could ferret out the Italian version of SuperCuts and get a cheap trim.
But I kept walking toward the salon. Part of me was too enthralled to turn back. I flashed on being 12 years old and living the humdrum state of Nebraska. At that age, I plastered the walls of my shag-carpet bedroom in pictures of fashion models and dreamed of things like getting a haircut in Milan. There is no doubt that training my young mind on those bone thin images was toxic to my self-image, but it wasn’t without benefit. Those exotic pages of Vogue ignited my very first dreams of travel. For the first time, I could imagine a world outside that midwestern eternity of cornfields. Of course the reality now is that I was wearing a pilled-up flannel jacket rather than Prada and suffering a decidedly different form of anorexia than those waif-y magazine models: the financial kind. Nonetheless, here I was: on the brink of getting a haircut in Milan.
We entered the large glass doors of the building and I contemplated the estimate as we rode seven sets of escalators to the top floor. As we ascended, I let the seven stages of grief fell behind me like so many split ends: denial, guilt, anger, reflection, and on the seventh floor finally, acceptance. It’s not just a haircut, I reasoned. It’s a cultural experience.
The salon was housed in a bright round sunroom. There was a small buffet bar, and in reflected in every mirror were the sharp spikes of the Duomo and the surrounding cityscape. I tied on the white cape the stylist handed me and then, like a dieter sliding at last into a cream cake, I sank into a chair and for the next hour-and-a-half, had my matted head massaged, scrubbed, conditioned, and combed. The stylist flipped my hair around like an origami master, combing it from one side to the other, sectioning it with clips, and snipping off breath-taking lengths. She sensed my anxiety. “Don’t worry,” she consoled in a thick Italian accent. “It will still be long.” When she was finished, she took the clips out and set it loose. She blew it dry. Indeed, it was the best haircuts I’d ever had.
I handed a stack of Euros over.
Afterwards, my partner walked toward me across the square, a large grin of approval across his face. For the moment I could ignore the fact that his jeans were worn thin and his shoes in a late state of decay. Here I am walking toward my lover in Milan, I mused, my Great Hair bouncing behind me. Soon enough we’d go back to our monastic routines, soaking lentils and sleeping in the bus. I would no doubt suffer a financial hangover. But the 12-year old girl didn’t care. The moment was worth every penny.