Saturday, January 30, 2010

American Community School – Abu Dhabi

bighead Speaking no evil is a pretty easy thing to do when you’re talking about the students and the staff at the American Community School in Abu Dhabi. I’ve just finished a week working with the middle school kids and I cannot remember a residency that went smoother. Dianne and Steve, the two librarians responsible for the visit, had a schedule set for me that clicked on every cylinder like the high tech sports cars that prowl the streets of this busy bustling and growing city.

ACS01 We talked metaphor, we talked memoir, we talked vocabulary and editing and in one class we even talked about zombies! In the meantime Sara and I were well fed and  watered enjoying a traditional Arab dinner sans table or chairs, marched up and down the Corniche, visited “The Club” and became intimate friends with a rather kooky cat named Slushie.

ACS02Everywhere you look in this town there are buildings going up, cranes erecting another and another across the skyline. The place wafts the aroma of investment and dividends. My first day in the school (Sunday – the school week runs Sunday through Thursday here) I should have had a premonition that this was going to be a fruitful visit. I put a Dirham coin into a vending machine to buy a bottle of water and not only received my selection, but FIVE more Dirhams. That’s how the whole week went – no matter how much I gave to the kids and their teachers I always ended up ahead of the game.


Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rabat American School - Morocco

ras01 Sara and I have just finished a wonderful week of classroom visits at the Rabat American School. When we got there the whole campus was covered with these wickedly weird placards full of mind scratching slogans created by our new friend Richard’s middle school English classes. It’s an activity he dubbed beautiful words.

Beautiful indeed – our whole visit to Morocco was absolutely one of the best trips we have taken and the school was full of engaged students and staff. We have far too many folks to thank and trying to name them all would surely leave some out so I am going to limit my public accolades to our two librarian friends Laura and Cynthia (plus a special shout out to Woody who along with Cynthia fed, watered and sheltered these two road poets.)

I also want to call out Dimitri – Said and Roman – you know why gentlemen.

Here are a few pics from our visit.

ras02 ras03

ras04 ras06





Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rabat is not the sound a frog makes

It is the capital of Morocco and Sara I am in the middle of a week's worth of classroom visits at the Rabat American School. Of course we are being treated way better than we deserve and thus have had no time for blogging during the week. Here are a few pics and I'll update later when we are at the airport to catch our plane to our next destination Abu Dhabi in a couple days.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

and a good time was had by all – except for the chicken.

cooking01 The Cafe Clock sucks up English speaking visitors to Fez the way the local crusty bread sops up the last bits of savory red Moroccan soup. The proprietor, a Brit named Mike Richardson strikes me as a cross between Eddie Izzard (sans drag version) and that animated chap they go to on CNN whenever they need an energetic English stereotype. Mike is far from stereotypical - though he does seem to only have two modes – enthusiastic and really enthusiastic. He has created a bohemian bastion for artists, musicians, literati and folks just looking for a good meal in his impeccably restored building down a narrow alleyway just off of one of the main drags in Fez’s medina.  Mind of course, that a main drag in Fez is a pathway barely ten feet wide shared by pedestrians and donkey carts traveling in both directions. This former maître de of some of the swankier spots in London was on his way to Turkey when he somehow ended up staying in Fez. Lucky for us. Free WiFi, almond milkshakes, clean and well appointed bathrooms, jazz concerts, jam sessions, great coffee, a friendly staff that speaks English and French and a dinner menu that provided some of the best food we have had in our travels anywhere.

cooking02 If the Café Clock has one detracting feature it would be that it may be too comfortable for a culture shocked traveler looking for a bit of the familiar and could cause one to miss the richness outside of the haven created by this wonderful café. I would suggest one limit oneself to one maybe two visits to the establishment per day of a stay and get out there and explore the medina – Sorry Mike.


Sara and I stumbled across the joint our first night in Fez. I ordered the camel burger and Sara the chicken couscous. The burger came piled high with everything from pineapple to beets stacked along with the hefty camel patty inside a fresh baked bun. The last time I had camel was in Kazakhstan, and even though the folks of the steppes have a couple thousand years experience cooking up the beast they could learn a trick or two from Café Clocks’s kitchen. Sara took a bite from her dish, then another, and another and whispered to me conspiratorially, “This may be the best thing I have eaten in my life.” We flip over the handbill that originally lured us in and see that cooking classes are offered. We ask our waiter about the classes and boom shock a la ka – Mike appears like a genie from a lamp. He explains that the class starts with a visit to the market in the morning with Souad the chef, a bubbly Moroccan woman who is quick to laugh and looks like a little bit of trouble, followed by an all day kitchen spectacle with said chef ending with us eating the meals we had cooked. At whole day’s entertainment, cultural lesson and a meal to boot for only 1200 Dirham. We book our class for two days later and head off into the January night.

cooking04 On the day of our class we arrive at the café at 9:15 am. We again meet Souad and we pick our menu for the day. Of course we are going to make the chicken couscous that Sara raved about. Mike is having poached eggs in a corner of the room and interjects “We’re never going to take that off the menu it is brilliant!” We also pick a red and savory Moroccan soup and honey macaroons (later after we’re friends, Souad convinces us to ditch the honey macaroons for her own special recipe these made of chocolate, crushed and roasted peanuts and coconut.) Souad convinces Mike to leave his breakfast to fix us all cups of cappuccino before we set off into the marketplace. We sip our coffee and watch as the other employees file in laughing and greeting us. Others appear with big bags of fresh produce for the day. Sara and I are the only two in the class for the day – so already we are feeling special.


Sufficiently caffeinated we dive into the market. It is a Friday - the Sabbath day for Muslims so the streets are less busy than they usually are and this makes it a bit more pleasant and easier to hear the information Souad is giving us as we shop. She shows us a couple butcher shops and lets us know that there is no fish today because of the holy day and to fish would mean to work and only truly essential jobs are carried out. One such occupations it seems is seller of poultry. We stop and our teacher picks out the bird for our couscous. Of course, the bird is alive, after being weighed on a balance beam scale the butcher quickly slices its throat and tosses the thing into a boiling pot of water to prepare it for plucking. We will return later and it is now cleaned and cut into pieces and in a clear plastic bag. Souad then shows us an olive shop and tells us about the many varieties available in Fez and how no respectable family would ever invite in a guest without offering them a snack from a bowl of olives.

cooking06 This town is full of cats scurrying all about and we learn that each cat stakes out its territory near one of the food vendor’s stalls and that vendor then feeds it. Occasionally there are some feline fights over territory but all in all, the vast majority of cats we see seem pretty well fed. We’ve been in the streets for about fifteen minutes and I have been asking a load of questions until finally Souad puts her finger to her lips and shushes me. We  visit a camel butcher and are enlightened to the many medicinal qualities of the camel’s hump – it seems to be good for just about everything including withdrawal symptoms when one quits smoking.

cooking07 We stop in at a succession of stalls, herbs, bread, couscous, vegetables, and Souad’s woven market basket is slowly filling up with the ingredients for our meal. Everywhere we go Souad laughs and jokes with the men selling and is stopped in the street by people she knows, we feel like we are being led around by a local celebrity.

We get back to the café and have another cup of coffee and then descend into the cooking school’s well equipped kitchen in the basement. We start in to cooking and the rest of the day is a blur of laughing and cooking. We are let in on real secrets to delicious Moroccan cuisine – that if I told you here – well they wouldn’t be a secret would they? Suffice it to say – our meals ended up more than scrumptious – Bnin Bezeft (my own phonetically challenged approximation) I am told means wonderfully tasty in Arabic – well, that’s what we produced Bnin Bzeft! In fact once we finished our soup one of the restaurant’s employees came down and swiped half of it to serve to customers! As my old friend from Lebanon, Dr. Seif said years back as we chased a camel caravan across the deserts of Bahrain in a hotel shuttle van, “It was a magical day!”

So, my parting advice – if you visit Fez, make time for the Café Clock.


Friday, January 15, 2010

He Fez – She Fez

fez01 “I am going to take you back into time.” So says Abdullah our guide who shows up five minutes early to lead us through the knotted pathways of Fez. Abdullah is a short cropped gray haired retired teacher a little taller than my shoulder height; he seems to have a glass eye and dressed in a wool hooded jalabia which is worn universally here. He speaks accented but very understandable English. Negotiating one’s way about the city for the first time without a guide would be very difficult if not impossible plus the history provided and the questions answered by Abdullah are worth five times his fee, no wonder he came so highly recommended by the school in Rabat. His shortcuts through the Medina, down passageways almost narrow enough that my shoulders brush both sides of the walls at the same time, are as fascinating as they are time saving.

fez02 We hop a taxi to drive up to a hill allowing us a panoramic view of the medina; Fez has the largest and most populated medina in the Arab world. Again, a medina is the oldest part of a city, the city within a city, the walled medieval portion. Outside of the walls Fez is a typical modern Arab metropolis of a million residents, inside of the walls 350,000 folks live and work in buildings dating back to the ninth century. The world’s oldest university also resides behind these walls. We climb back into our cab and take a short ride to the king’s palace also overlooking the medina. Morocco is a monarchy and the king has palaces in all the major cities. Abdulla explains the colors of the tiles that mosaic the walls, green standing for the Muslim faith, red standing for sacrifice and blue for the city of Fez.

fez03 We then enter the new portion of the medina only dating back to the 14th century. This is also the Jewish quarter we are informed. Here balconies look out onto the streets in sharp contrast to most Arab architecture which looks inward. There is, as well, more than a hint of Spanish influence in the structural design of these building. Later when Abdullah informs us we are walking through a very wealth part of the medina we are struck by how plain the outside of the residences look. Just doorways stuck in stone walls, which we are assured open onto beautiful gardens, fountained courtyards and well appointed households.

fez04 We are staying in a room one of one of these fine houses that has been converted into a riad, a Moroccan version of a bed and breakfast. “Riad means part of paradise. In order to be a true riad it must contain both a garden and a fountain,” Abdullah tells us. He then leads us down a skinny pathway “where no fat person could go.” And we enter the part of the medina constructed in the ninth century – Abdullah is taking us back in time. We pass a mosque – one of 325 situated within the 1.5 square miles encompassed by the walls that form the boundary of the city.

While visiting an ancient medrassa, which is the name for Arabic school, Abdullah informs us that he too is a poet. ‘Listen, I will send you my poem by the e-mail tonight before 7:30 – you must translate it, it is in French. By 7:30, I will send it if you do not get it call me tomorrow, if you get it – no call. In fact Abdullah has been speaking poetry too us all morning. His very understandable but broken English comes in well thought out surges after he has picked the very best words he knows to convey the information that we need to know in order to appreciate his city. After all isn’t that what poetry is concise language? His poem arrived as promised.

fez05 We leave the medrassa, passing a man in a cubbyhole of a shop operating a sewing machine, six or seven other men crowded around no doubt offering him excellent advice, and we make the required visit to a carpet shop. The shop is housed in an enormous house. One can know that the family that once resided here was very important because of the built in seating near the door installed so that the doorkeeper could identify all who knocked and report their arrival to the owner of the house to decide whether these visitors were welcome to enter.

fez06 A carpet shop visit is very similar to a trip to a high end auto dealership and follows a grand ritual. First one is offered a tour of the shop, in this case more like a warehouse several stories high. We go out onto the roof of the building and get a good view of the rooftops of the medina and the hills on the horizon. We are then invited into a showroom where we are offered and accept a cup of mint tea and then the show really begins! Wonderful, beautiful, intricate, handmade, Arab and Berber rugs rolled out before our feet. A flurry of assistants shuffle the carpets like cards, the wind produced by the rugs being unfurled blowing our hair back. It becomes overwhelming and we come so close to buying – but somehow in the end we escape with our budget still intact.

fez08 We are then dropped off at a restaurant for lunch and Abdullah disappears into the medina. The restaurant is empty when we first arrive but slowly and surely other guides drop off their clients and the place begins bustling. I have the chicken couscous and Sara a vegetable tagine. The food is served in an elegant fashion but is a little bland compared to the fare that we have been sampling on the streets – no doubt muted for the tourist’s palette.

Our tour ends with a trip to a leather tannery where we see the amazing process that turns animal hides into leather. We look down from the roof of the tannery shop onto the massive courtyard where he work is performed. Goat, cow, camel and sheepskin are piled all around dozens of different colored earthen pools – a wooden barrel fifteen feet in diameter slowly turns like a water wheel in a mill – the freshly tanned skins inside for washing. Our guide explains the process, the dying, and curing of the hides. All dyes being natural, saffron for yellow, indigo for blues a certain flower for orange etc etc. We do not escape this shop without making a couple buys, a new briefcase for me and a snazzy morocco red jacket for Sara.

All in all this day can only be described as magical. Now, the day ends with another surprise and this story is still developing – but it involves a pair of Papillion dogs, a documentary film maker from New York City, and lost luggage – I’ll let you know how it turns out.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Lost my shirt…

train01 Again, I am up with the muezzins. Yesterday on the train from Marrakech to Fez I am struck again by how similar the terrain is to that I bike all around in Oaxaca Mexico, mountains in the distance, agaves which look like four foot tall aloe plants the burnt orange and reds of the soil. It turns out this is not just my imagination.

We are joined in our cabin by Prof. Dr. Abdel jabber Arrach, a law professor at a university in a city along our route. He proves to be a wealth of information. One tidbit he shares with us is that many millenniums ago, before the “big splash” Morocco and Mexico were indeed connected before that bit of water the Atlantic wedged its way in between the two and to this day there are plant species that exist only in these two countries. We sporadically chat with the professor and look out the window and read our books. The first class compartment is very comfortable and I wish we had more trains in the states.

train02 A donkey seems to be the farm equipment of choice and we speed past a great number of these sleepy looking equines harnessed to carts or their backs piled with some burden or other. They look like they are ready to begin snoring as soon as they stop moving. Standing still their heads bob slowly up and down and their eyelids droop a bit. In Marrakech I remember one man driving his donkey cart through the narrow cobble ways of the souks chatting with the animal as if he were trying to convince it of something. The donkey didn’t look impressed.

Dr. Arrach takes leave of us about a quarter of the way in our seven and a half hour journey leaving Sara and me alone in the cabin where we are able to flip the armrests up on the seats and stretch out and catch a couple Zs.

train03Later in the trip we are joined by a clean cut young man who informs us he is a teacher in Fez. He shows us pictures of his family and begins telling us his city. I am a little wary, wondering if he may be one of the unofficial guides, more interested in separating tourists from their cash than being a good city booster. We chat a bit about the countries we have been to and what it was like to be in Cairo when the presidential election was decided. He tells us how his 9 year old son is a huge Obama fan. I decide to be a good American ambassador and I dig into my backpack and give our new friend and Obama t-shirt that my son had given me for my birthday to give to his son.

train05 As the ride continues our guy becomes more and more interested in our trip to Fez – do we have a place to stay already, do we have a guide, etc. etc. We inform him that yeas we have a place to stay, yes we have a guide and at the next stop he says he is going to meet a friend and he will see us later. I return to reading my guidebook on Fez and the very next section warns of con men posing as “teachers” on the train in order to fleece tourists. Live and learn. Perhaps our conversations with the real teacher Dr. Arrach had caused us to let our guard down a bit and perhaps our young flimflam artists had a pang of guilt after I gave him the gift – who knows? But the next three such characters that came into our cabin became a source of amusement for us as.

train06 We arrive in Fez and after a wee bit of language problems arrange for a ride to our riad. Fez seems to be very different from Marrakech – first off, no motorbikes! Secondly the walled medina is hugging the hills and the pathways and streets are even narrower than we have become accustomed to. The city has a European medieval feeling in an Arab kind of way. I am reminded of Sara and my first trip abroad together almost a dozen years ago when we visited Rottenburg, Germany.

We settle into our riad then head out looking for a place to grab a bite to eat. We end up in a joint called Café Clock. Fez is known as the arts capital of Morocco and Café Clock is a hipster type place that one might find in the village in NYC or university town. We enjoy our meals so well that we decide to take an all day cooking class with the restaurant’s chef this Friday so I’ll tell you more about this place later. This morning we are meeting our guide Abdulla – he is affiliated with the school in Rabat we will be teaching at next week. We know he is reputable and is not going to cost us the shirts off our backs.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

dying to fit in…

mar015 My laptop clock says 2:12am as we ease out of the train station in Marrakech. That’s what time it is back home. Here is it almost a quarter after seven in the morning and the sun is rising to our right giving the mountains out the left of our window an orange glow similar in color to the dried apricots we bought in the square last night to snack on during our seven hour trip to Fez. Occasionally I catch a glimpse of the front of our train as the track bows to the left.

mar15 Three nights was barely enough time to scratch the surface of what Marrakech had to offer. Each day we ventured a bit further into the medina’s cobblestoned alleyways where we discovered clusters of artisans practicing their trades. Wool dyers with elbow length rubber gloves dipping scarves into steaming vats of colored liquids, metal workers tap pounding, tailors in animated conversation as they push their material through sewing machines, leatherworkers lying their cut and freshly dyed hides in an open area of the street to dry and jewelers promising that this necklace is truly antique Berber.

mar16 Yesterday we had the advantage of being out in the souks early making us the initial customer for the first couple shops we stopped in. The first sale of the day is an important one since it sets the tone for the rest of the day’s commerce and the shopkeepers are especially eager to close that opening deal. Of course we have no idea what is or is not a good outlay for the items we are looking at so we settle on a simple formula. What do we think would be a fair price that would make us feel like we garnered a fair price? I decide a brass door knocker depicting a hennaed hand holding an apple would be a steal at ten dollars so I do the conversion and offer the shopkeeper seven. We haggle back and forth for a little bit but he quickly agrees to my ten buck target. The short bargaining time lets me know that I obviously could have got the item cheaper – but I am happy with the price and he is happy with the price – “Good for you, good for me!” Several hours later as we pass his place on the way back he smiles and greets us like old friends, “You need one more thing?” “Just lunch,” we answer.

mar17 I haven’t really mentioned the motorbikes yet. There are no cars within the walls of the medina so all the goods being sold at the, what I have to assume is, tens of thousands of shops are brought in by donkey or hand cart. Even the scores of outdoor restaurants – tables – massive grills – fresh food - are conveyed in each evening to the main square delivered by either man or beast. One might think that this tradition is quite quaint, almost bucolic perhaps – one would be failing to acknowledge the motorbikes. Marrakech has motorbikes, scooters, mopeds and bicycles the way those of us who live near Lake Erie have midges.

mar18 The beeping of horns and belching of two cycle exhaust is incessant. The pilots of these things slice their ways through the streets already jam packed with pedestrians like confused salmon swimming both up and downstream. Thus, it behooves of one to try and walk in as straight a line as possible allowing the riders to avoid you, or when coming face to face with an oncoming motor biker with an eight foot ladder strapped to his back just stand still and let him decide which direction to barely miss you in. I have to admit, I did not witness any accidents involving these motorized pests while we wandered the city but I’d bet two hand dyed scarves they do occur.

mar19 We find our way back to our riad to freshen up before we head out for a late lunch. I am struck with how quickly we are adapting to the pace and seeming lack of order to the convoluted streets, how easily we have adopted our little room as home. We decide to re-visit the little outdoor café near the metal worker’s souk where we had lunch the day before. A fresh sheet of newsprint is laid down in front of us at the table as a placemat and we order. The now familiar clay pot of vegetables and lamb’s meat is placed before me – this time we add a side order of spiced olives and a salad of tomatoes and purple onions, sharp and spicy. 

mar20A day earlier when we were here an old woman, her wrinkled skin framing her eyes visible through a slit between her veil and headscarf had politely approached our table after we finished eating. I gave her a small loaf of bread that we had not eaten and she thanked me, “Merci” French being the second language of choice here. Today I notice she is giving bread to the young man who seated us and he takes it to the kitchen area. I then see her take a position a little ways away where she opens a cloth sack and begins producing loaf after loaf of bread, stacking it up in a neat pile on a small table she is seated at. I don’t know now if she is a baker’s assistant, a beggar, a person who busses tables all I can really be sure of right now is that I cannot be sure of anything in Morocco. When we leave I smile at her and her eyes crinkle and I know she is smiling back behind that veil.

We decide to splurge on a fancy candlelight dinner that evening in a nice sit down restaurant that promises authentic Berber food and a spectacle. The spectacle is a couple musicians, one playing a mandolin type instrument and the other a knee high hand drum. The waiter catches me taking notes; perhaps he thinks I am some sort of travel reviewer. We end our meal with little honey infused pastries and glasses of mint tea. We then make one last circle of the main square buying almonds and dried apricots, thick and sweet before we head back to our room to stuff our backpacks getting ready for our next adventure.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bee careful out there!

mar07 Every now and then it is good to do something that scares you a little bit. This is advice I have given friends in the past and like most advice it is easier to give than follow. Our second day in Marrakech begins in our riad with tasty crepes, fresh squeezed orange juice, a selection of jams along with some very robust coffee served on the ubiquitous blue and white Moroccan china. Enjoying the second mug of the high octane brew no doubt contributed to my later anxiety.

mar08 Throughout our travels around the globe we have found ourselves under the tutelage of self appointed (and technically illegal) guides, especially in northern Africa. In the little town of Esna in Egypt we met Hanna who led us around her city and helped Sara haggle over the price of a skirt. Here in Marrakech we were landed by a smiling man who was trolling for potential customers outside of the main square. The general m.o. of these characters is to strike up a friendly conversation as they guess your destination and they then begin dispensing local information as they promise whatever you may be looking for is just a little bit further along. It’s a very subtle game, the local engaging in non-stop conversation turning back to be sure we are still following as he leads us in a more and more convoluted path through the maze narrow roadways either to confuse us to the point of relying on him to get us back or to avoid the tourist police who frown on these excursions led by the unlicensed.

Of course this friendly local is in the employ of the several shops he shuttles his marks into as part of his “tour”. Our first stop is to a tile factory housed in a building about the size of a two car garage. We are shown the process for making the tiles that cover all the floors and half the walls of Moroccan architecture. There is no firing, only a process of air drying then dipping into a pool of water followed by a baking in the sun. I am intrigued by the hydraulic press which compresses the colored sand into molds creating the different designs. Over 400 kilograms of pressure per inch I am assured. For this lesson we are awarded the privilege of underwriting the four employees of the shop’s breakfast to the tune of a couple bucks.

Our next stop is to a small spice shop where the show really begins. Reminiscent of the perfumery our legally licensed guide in Cairo took us to, the proprietor here had a whole performance he was going to treat us to. Think old time door to door vacuum salesman and you’ll get the picture. Now I had wanted to pick up some spices, especially some saffron which can be had for a slice of the price in the States so we enjoyed the show. Our guy showed us concoctions and herbs that could cure any malady one could think of and we escaped spending less than fifteen dollars for condiments that would have cost at least five times the price back home.

mar10 It was around then though that my concern over not knowing where we were overcame my curiosity. I asked our guy to take us back to the main square. Just one more, one more he pleaded and tried to distract my apprehension by pointing out what a beautiful day it was and sights that he felt I had to have a photograph of. I was not enjoying my lack of control of the situation. This combined with my self administered over caffeination was making my heart race as my fight or flight instinct began swirling in my stomach.

The one more place was a carpet shop. This is the granddaddy of all retail rituals to be had in the Arab world requiring tea drinking, the ceremonial unrolling of the goods with wrist snapping flair and hours of haggling. Our guide took leave of us there and I gave him around ten dollars for his services. The shop was beautiful and the keeper seemed genuinely sincere. “It is free to look!” but I had had enough. We made one polite circle of his massive store and I asked to be pointed back to the main square which the shopkeeper obliged – the fact that we were able to convince him that there was no way we could afford a carpet no doubt prodding his helpfulness. It turned out we were not all that far from where we had begun and my anxiety may have been a bit extreme but one always hears the stories of “that one tourist” who arrives at an unpleasant outcome.

The rest of our day included lunch in an outdoor café surrounded by the pounding hammers of metalworking artisans as cats scooted all about sprinting from table to table looking for scraps. I had a lamb stew called a tagine, served in the conical clay pot that we see everywhere for sale in the souks. Sara had some chicken couscous. The savory food and carbonated cola settled my stomach and my earlier concerns eased away until all that was bothering me were the bees buzzing around my lunch as the sun warmed the day.