Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Chefchaouen, Morocco: I flunked bribery AND negotiation

When you are in a taxi hurtling around mountainous curves at 60+ k/h with a driver listening to the Koran on a cassette player, you have two choices:
1. Hold on to the "Jesus" handle and pray that you don't die,
2. Go with the flow - you're only in Morocco once.

I am sad to say Sara and I were in the latter category as we literally sped away from the border with a man who spoke no English and barely any French.

Our inauspicious start to our time in Morocco began when we read in the guidebook on the (gorgeous, air-conditioned) ferry that if you leave some money in your passport, you will go through more quickly at the border. So we each put 2 USD in our passports, but when we got to the border, we were first shepherded into a health department line, to check if we had swine flu.

As I am sure you have guessed by now, we inadvertently bribed the guys who took our temperatures. But we didn't have the flu, and we got into Morocco. And perhaps because we said the Wayfarer's Prayer, we made it to Chefchaouen in one piece.

We were told it was quiet and picturesque. Everything in Morocco is harsh and sketchy at first: The hot summer's day, the streets without street signs, the dirty flies buzzing on the fruit in the shops, and the men who leer. But eventually, we got accustomed to Chefchaouen. It has beautiful construction, including blue-washed walls. The shopkeepers are pushy but friendly, and on day two I made a purchase of two pairs of earrings. The guy started at 350 dh ($44), so I countered with 250dh ($31). He made a half-offer of 300, which I rejected, and then he caved. The rule in Morocco is that if the negotiating is done in about 3 minutes, it is because you got a bad deal and offered to pay too much. Another hint: He threw in a "free" hamsa. Sara determined that we had grossly overpaid, and has banned me from haggling.

Chefchaouen, especially the pretty lake where the women do their washing and the lovely casbah and the awesome coffee, grew on me a lot. I thought it was such a sleepy town at first, but it turns out everyone in town is out and about in the Casbah square from 9pm - 11pm. Even the three year olds. Thank you to Sara's random friends who insisted we go there.

We arrived in Fez today, and following Thumper's mother's principle: If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything. I will ask the Facebook universe only one question, courtesy of Sara: How do you say in Arabic "You kiss your mother with that mouth?"


Monday, June 29, 2009

The Jews of Gibraltar

Sara and I were walking up the street in Gibraltar, minding our own business and thinking we already had Shabbat plans pre-arranged weeks earlier when we spotted obviously frum women in obvious sheitels, so we popped into their jewelery store with an incredibly Jewish name to ask them if the island had an eruv (complicated Jewish ritual construction that allows us to carry things outside the home on the Sabbath.)

They said yes, and we went along in search of kosher meat. But the restaurant whose address we had was defunct, so we went back to their store to ask them where there was a kosher restaurant. Mrs. B (as I will call her) immediately asked us about our Shabbat plans, and we told her that we were eating with Mr. L. She looked concerned and said he had been recently ill, and we should check to see if our Shabbat plans were still on. Then she gave us her phone and told us to call him (we left a message) and told us that if it fell through, we should go to her for the meal. She sent us up to Mr. L.'s son-in-law's restaurant, where we got yummy pasta, and rearranged our Shabbat plans. Mr. L.'s son-in-law confirmed that he was in the hospital, then called Mrs. B and her husband's stores alternetely until he got in touch with one of them. Then this woman, her sister and her baby walked into the store to eat and jumped into the swing of things. Their mom, Mrs. H, had been in touch with Mr. L's wife and was prepared to have us for lunch. Fortunately, even in a religious Jewish community, we look foreign enough for people to take pity on us.

We observed that the Jewish community is both very English and very Sfardi. They read Hamodia and send their children to Yeshiva in Gateshead (note: the rest of this paragraph will contain many cultural references. I won't explain them all while pounding away on a Moroccan computer. I'll leave it to commenters to explain the significance of various things.) The women wear sheitels and the men black hats (v. Ashkenaz) but they speak Spanish and have this really awesome custom to eat food after Kiddush and before Motzi in order to say more brachot.

Sociologically, they are a really interesting bunch. Lots of kids in small but well-organized apartments; they seem to marry young, be fruitful and multiply. They have WAY more than their fair share of seriously beautiful women and in true Moroccan style, they are all very well-put together.

Both couples served kind of different meals than we were used to - first course always contained a protein and many different small salads. The main course was probably less substantial and less carby than what might be served at a North American Shabbat table. We were well-fed in Gibraltar.

I have more to say, perhaps later...


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Final day in Portugal: Caiscais

Our trip to Caiscais on Thursday reaffirmed what I loved about Portugal, like the prompt and efficient bus and train service and the occasional availability of Ben and Jerry's.

It's a resort town, so we saw touristy shops, sandy beaches and the nicest McDonalds one would ever expect to see. Outside of town were glorious five-star resorts that we walked by on our way to Boca Del Inferno, some particularly impressive cliffs.

I also discovered that my application of sunscreen was not exactly uniform, given that I got a Rudolphesque sunburn on my nose, but the rest of my face was fine.

That night we learned all about sitting in bus stations in random locations in Portugal and Spain in the middle of the night. We started in Lisbon, then switched in Seville and Algeciras, finally disembarking in La Linea on Friday morning. Oddly, I have now passed through Spain twice, but they have yet to stamp my passport.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Today I walked past a Starbucks without going in and other small Portuguese miracles

Today we headed down to Belem, a seaside area of the city with gardens, museums and monuments. We saw the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a monument to Portugal's many discoveries, at which my hat kept blowing off because the wind was so strong. We found Ben and Jerry's (which is Kosher even here) and sat outside the Tower of Belem, which is a famous and historic tower, but it cost 3 euro to go in, so we just sat outside. I'm more of a "spend money on coffee" kind of girl.

Which is why we next walked past Starbucks and into some cute Portuguese cafe for a cappucino. Over a year ago, Sara made me promise that I'd actually experience Portugal, and not just spend my time and money in an American coffeehouse. It is quite the experience to stand and sip a cappucino at the bar. And since I'm blogging about things one never sees in America, the cafe had a cigarette vending machine.

Sara and I hit our biggest score at the Museu Nacional dos Coches, which was free because we're students. The museum is full of coaches, Berlins, carriages, and other modes of transport used in the last six or so centuries. Immediately before we walked in, a busload of middle-aged American tourists had entered along with their tour guide. Consequently, we got a free guided tour of the museum simply by surreptitiously following them. The coolest part was seeing the stagecoach in which King Carlos I was riding in 1908 when he and his eldest son were assassinated. You can see bullet holes on the coach from where stray bullets missed.

Lisbon is not the place for the shopper in me, in terms of its signature souvenirs. It's famous for its cork products, but excuse me for not wanting a cork purse. Ditto on embroidery. I am sorry to say that the only real shopping I've done has been at El Cortes Ingles, which was a very Western and Macy's like department store, if Macy's had a full food court and supermarket in the basement. I bought a cute blue glasses case.


Portugal, day 1

Lisbon deeply wants to be liked. It's infinitely walkable, as long as you like winding cobblestone paths and steep stairways that get slick when wet. It's got charming architecture, which is all about Roman arches and columns, bright colors and textured tiles. And every few blocks is some kind square, some small and some vast with statues and fountains.

Day #1 was the walking day. Sara and I are staying right downtown in the city centre, so we could easily walk to Praca do Comercio, Praca do Munipio and all along the river Tajus. You can tell it's a seaside kind of town because every shop along the waterfront sells dried fish and every restaurant advertises a grilled sardine special.

The touring day concluded with a trek up and around a medieval castle called Castelo do Sao Jorge. It's mostly historic and original, which in modern American parlance means "lawsuit waiting to happen". I noted to Sara that in America its edges, walls and walkways would have been enhanced to keep morons from falling off. Sara wisely advised me to avoid being a moron.


Monday, June 01, 2009

European preview: Adventures in not speaking Portuguese

Countdown to Portugal: 21 days.

In the pursuit of an organic, kosher bakery, I found myself in need of figuring out what
Segunda a Sexta: 08:00h às 14:30h e 16:30h às 19:00h
meant. I was certain it was a set of dates, but which?

This was a case for a battle of the titans. I entered the phrase "Segunda a Sexta" into Yahoo's Babelfish. The official translation: "Second a Sixth".

Up second was Google Translate, which offered the translation "Monday to Friday".

Google 1, Yahoo 0.