Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A quick Christmas update

Three of our writer friends sent us long-distance Christmas gifts this year. With no good shipping address for us, they all paypal’d us a little numeric present, instructing us to use it on something fun.

The three fun things we used them on were all very Moroccan, so we are sharing them here.

In Zagora, there’s an awesome shop owned by a friend of Riad Dar Zaouia, where we were working, full of handcrafted local items. This style of shop is all over Morocco, but the price you get depends on whether or not you are perceived as a tourist, and the quality depends on the shop’s sources. A Moroccan fellow staying at the riad, commented that he was often treated as a tourist himself just for being northern, unless he went with one of the guys from the riad.

He had wanted a silver ring in the Amazigh (Berber) style, which are produced down here and much more expensive where he lives, but it took a personal introduction from the guys who owned the riad to get the fair “local” price. We got the same personal introduction (because we were working long term) when we were buying this shush:

Shush being the turban, not the little clay camel.

There were absolutely gorgeous carpets and huge veils, handmade by the shop owner’s mother. When we said we couldn’t carry such things, he offered to ship them, and when we explained that we are full-time travellers, he laughed and said “Ah, you are nomad too. No wonder you need shush!”

So the final result of our gift from Erin Merill was these earrings:

Thanks Erin!

On the way back up north, we had stopovers in Marrakech and Rabat. (It’s 8 hours from Zagora to Marrakech by bus, 5 hours by train to Rabat, and then another 3.5 hours by train to Asilah, just outside Tangier, where we are now.)

In Marrakech, our beloved Hotel Tachfine was full, so we stayed at their sister hotel, Amalay. It, too, has a comically faded, kitschy charm, but clean where it counts, with the sweetest staff.

There was a rotary phone over the bed.

It’s just around the corner from Tachfine, in a very pleasant part of the new city, close to the train station and airport. In between the two, right on the corner, is the VERY posh Hotel La Renaissance. With our present from Catherine De Mornay, we treated ourselves to a proper night out, starting with dinner at their Brasserie.

"Look at how French we are," says the decor.

By Moroccan laws, they cannot sell wine in the restaurant. Our server was impeccably trained in Western standards, however, handling our bottle of sparkling water as formally as if he had been doing wine service, crumbing and marking silver afresh between courses, appearing out of nowhere if we had so much as a thought cross our faces. NO ONE does that anywhere we’ve eaten in Morocco. I think the last time I saw service that correct was… the last time I worked at L20.  

The real kicker? Deciding to be very French and have a cigarette at the table over our espressos and crème brulee… the waiter MATERILIZED OUT OF NOWHERE AND LIT THE CIGARETTE.


Eat there. For realz. The food is decent, not amazing, but HOLY SHIT THE SERVICE. If you work in fine dining and appreciate the whole rigamarole, and especially if you smoke… eat there at the Brasserie La Renaissance. Even if you don’t smoke, you  might need to have a one-off cigarette over the espresso.

We then went upstairs to their Skybar. It’s just like an urban rooftop bar anywhere in the States. The Wit or the Dana in Chicago are two I can think of offhand. Super-luxury in an almost tacky way. Lots of white leather and metal and dark wood and glass. Very trendy, chunky glassware and contemporary brushed silver. Gigantic fireplaces, taut white triangular canopies, coloured lights and cheesy club music playing at an inoffensively low level. But it’s all slightly behind the vouge and so generic it's almost a mockery, like a movie set that's supposed to be "that ubiquitous flashy-trashy overpriced rooftop bar."

What makes this all so Moroccan is that we've noticed this entire country has a passion for imitating foriegn luxury... inaccurately. People love sparkling white trainers and over-sized faux leather handbags plastered with knockoff Coach and Gucci and D&G logos. Men DRENCH themselves in cheap cologne, and 1 in 5 hijabs are imitation Burberry. We spent all of dinner feeling like we were in a theatrical recreation of a Parisian brasserie in the 1940s and all of our evening after in a theatrical recration of the hottest rooftop in NYC in the late 2000s.

But anyway, we had scotch in very awesome glassware with giant proper cubes on a rooftop with a great view of Marrakech. (We only got individuals, but had we been with a party of four... bottle service with single malt scotch is like ninety bucks US, guys.  Ell. Oh. Ell. If we ever want to be the fakest VIPs ever, let’s do it in Marrakech.)

Thank you, Catherine!!

Our final gift was from Rebecca Carter, which we used on a hamam trip. In Rabat, our friend Houda suggested we try “the best hamam in the city.” If you are not familiar, a hamam is a public bath/sauna. In a basic one, which is about 10dh ($1 US) for entry, it is simply a wet sauna with a fountain in the centre. You scrub yourself and your friends with a mitt and traditional soap, and alternate between the hot and cool rooms at will. You can pay about 20 dh to have someone scrub you.

The basic ones are all over. Usually they are open to women until 6pm and men after.

At Hamam Moving, which is 220dh (about $22 US) all inclusive, it is an utterly different experience. You are slathered in henna (which is apparently a sort of self-tanner) and hang out in the steam sauna awhile, then you are called to a massage-height table where you are VERY thoroughly scrubbed and massaged with about five different products (I’m pretty sure one was a shower gel, one was an oil, and one was a clay mask) and given a facial. They wash your hair as well. The whole thing takes about two hours, after which you are wrapped in a plushy robe and taken to a lounge to relax and sip orange juice as you dry. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean. The scrubby mitt things are our new favourite possessions as well.

This is more like the one we went to. Thanks Rebecca!

Thanks to all of our Ubergroup friends for the amazing Christmas gifts!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

19 Brilliant Gifts for the World Traveller in Your Life

"But where would I PUT it?" This phrase has frustrated the family and friends of many a lifestyle traveller. We love the thought, but non-portable objects will end up untouched in storage lockers and parent's attics. We DO like getting presents, so here is a list of 21 absolutely brilliant gift ideas that the world traveller in your life will love, use, and carry everywhere.

1.) The Anti-Kidnapping Band

For all you parents out there that are terrified of your travelling kid being kidnapped, this is the most practical thing we’ve ever seen. Even if the chances of getting kidnapped are pretty low in reality, this anti-kidnapping band gives a +10 stealth bonus to all rogues and makes anyone feel like James Bond. It has the non-metal, non-detectable means to escape from duct tape, zip ties, and handcuffs and fits unobtrusively on any watch band. Extensive instructions on the website. It’s bloody genius. We both want them.

$25 for the band only on gearward.com. Watch not included.

2.) A Tiny Convertible Laptop

We are writing this post from our Asus Transformer T100s. A super lightweight, detatchable, tablet-laptop hybrid is far and away the most useful upgrade to our wandering lifestyles we have ever made. For comparison, that’s Jerry’s old Dell Latitude to the left. There are many higher end ones on the market, so go as big your own budget and desires, but what makes this one awesome: 1. It’s a real laptop: full windows 8.1 and can run photoshop. 2. It has all the travel perks of a tablet: 10 hour battery life and weighs 1.2 pounds. 3. It’s $265. Guys. That’s CHEAPER THAN A PHONE.

$265 for the Asus Transformer T100 on amazon.com.

3.) A Kindle Fire and Amazon Unlimited

Laura is a big fan of real paper books, and there is definitely a hardcover of Borges’ complete essays bundling around the world with us… but even she has to admit, the kindle is a hell of a lot lighter. Our kindle fire was a present from Jerry’s brother two years ago, and it’s one of the most used items of our trip. It has a battery life of multiple days, a less eye-straining screen, and a book-like size that’s easy to hold. The $10 all-you-can-read deal is of Kindle Unlimited is pretty awesome for people spending a lot of time on trains and buses, and can be gifted long-distance, for the traveller already on the road.

$59-219 for the kindle, depending on the model, on amazon.com.
$10/month for kinde unlimited amazon.com.

4.) Bluetooth Speakers

This isn’t strictly necessary, but it really improves quality of life. Every hotel room becomes your own private party and every tub your own spa. For budget travellers using wwoof or workaway, it’s really motivating to have music while you scrub kitchens and rehab buildings. Jerry’s brother knocked it out of the park again last Christmas with a Big Jambox by jawbone, which is powerful enough to be heard across a field with a mechanical harvester going at the same time. It's 2.5lbs and 10 inches long, works wirelessly with any smartphone and also has a battery life measured in days. The Mini Jambox comes in candy colors and is good for smaller backpacks at 9 oz and 6 inches long, and for super tight budgets there's the Bright Ideas Now version is 2oz and only 60mm across. There are many on the market, but be aware that many cheap versions are of questionable quality. The Jambox series is fantastic, for all others read reviews first.

$11 for the Bright Ideas Now on amazon.com.
$99 for the Mini Jambox on jawbone.com.
$299 for the Big Jambox on jawbone.com.

5.) Camping Towels

It’s in the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy: don’t forget your towel. Many budget hotels and some workaways don’t provide them, even though we consistently book private double rooms, not dorms, campgrounds, or “you can crash on the floor with a sleeping bag” type scenarios. There’s also inevitably going to be some spill-on-your-lap-when-trying-to-drink-coffee-on-a-bus situation. Even if the wanderer in your life isn’t a true backpacker or camper, a towel is useful, and a camping towel is made of microfiber, which is smaller, lighter, and dries quickly, thus avoiding mold when shoved back into the luggage. It feels more like a shamwow than a towel, but it gets to job done. We have conventional towels this trip, and definitely plan to upgrade before the next one.

$8-20, many sizes and colours available on amazon.com.

6.) Therapik Mosquito Bite Reliever

Venom is heat sensitive, and this brilliant little gadget destroys it, getting rid of the sting from most forms of bug bite. We haven’t been anywhere that is particularly mosquito prone this year, but this is a godsend for campers… and pretty much anyone who lives anywhere with mosquitos in the summer. Another brilliant thing we just heard of, and need to pick up when we return to the states. We need one for performing at Renn Faires.

Available at CVS, Walmart and similar.
$12 on amazon.com.

7.) Fog-Free Travel Mirror

Feather light and nigh-unbreakable, this is a brilliant idea, even if someone isn’t a camper. We’ve stayed a surprising amount of places that don’t have bathroom mirrors this year. We’ve made do with what regular cheap hand mirrors we could find, but the suction cup on the ShaveWell version would have been awful handy for things like shaving or plucking eyebrows. This also strikes us as something that would be exceedingly useful for all the bellydancers we know, who get ready in varying dressing rooms and backstage areas that are often crowded and have inadequate mirrors.

Available at Target, Walmart, and similar.
$10 on amazon.com.

8.) A wifi extender

Everyone’s stayed in that one hotel with the wifi that just doesn’t reach the room, or fades in an out. When you telecommute for a living while travelling the world, this actually can be a serious problem. We’ve taken to camping out wherever the router is, but for thirty bucks, next time we’ll spare our hunched backs and freezing fingers and just get the signal in the room. These are basically secondary routers—for the non tech savvy, that means they work with any computer/tablet/phone OS. There are many models to shops from, but if you get a headache looking at specs on electronics, this TP-Link version has great reviews, is affordable, and many people state they now get four bars instead of one.

$20 for the suggested TP-Link version on amazon.com.

9.) Resqme Car Escape Tool

Along the same lines as the anti-kidnapping band, this is another way to provide peace of mind while simultaneously feeling like an action hero. It cuts seatbelts and shatters windshields in a single punch, comes in rainbow colours, and is all of $10. Whether you've been watching too many episodes of “locked up abroad,” or just plan on visiting Milwaukee, WI (which is the human trafficking capitol of the US, to go with the beer and cheese curds) this is the perfect gift.

$10 for the Resqme Keychain Car Escape Tool on amazon.com

10.) Grenade Survival Kit

We prefer cities and don’t personally expect to have to imitate Bear Grylls anytime soon, but if someone you know is the stealth camping type, this is just about the most efficient package on the market. It’s got all the hardest tools to improvise in the wild: needle, wire, firestarter, knife, tinfoil, tinder, fishing lines, fishing hooks, weights, swivels, carabiner, and 9 ft of paracord rated for 500 lbs. Some reviewers keep it in their glove compartments in case of an inopportune breakdown.  For a few bucks and all of two ounces, why not be prepared? There are multiple versions, but the Friendly Swede's is by far the highest quality.

$15 for the Friendly Swede Grenade Survival Kit on amazon.com.

11.) 11-in-1 Survival Tool

“Survival” is a generous term in this instance… we see this as more as “really, really convenient.” It’s basically a leatherman, but the size and shape of a credit card.  It has a razor, saw blade, multiple wrenches, can and bottle openers, screwdrivers, and ruler. It won't replace an actual multi-tool for the hardcore survival enthusiast, but it's great for the less-enthusiastic girlfriend who was driving him crazy by refusing to wear utility pouches on her belt. Unlike a leatherman, it’s also $1.50. Wanting to open a beer in your hotel room is not exactly a survival emergency, but at this price and size, there is no reason everyone you know shouldn’t be getting one in their stocking.

$1.50 on amazon.com.

12.) Surgu self-setting rubber

Continuing with the really darn convenient theme, this stuff has “about 17 million uses” (according to a user review, not the producer.) It can repair broken luggage, reinforce charger cables, make holders to sort headphones and wires, create grips for tools, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s like three-dimensional duct tape. This is the same category as carrying our own needle and thread. It promises to be the stocking stuffer everyone gets the most use out of, travelling or otherwise.

$12 for a basic three-pack on amazon.com
$10-20 for every colour, quantity and variety on sugru.com

12.) Pocket sized sanitizing UV wand.

Anyone who knows Jerry knows what a ridiculous fan he is of sanitizing UV wands. A waste treatment plant outside Chicago started using UV sanitation instead of chlorine, and the resulting water pumped out of the plant was so clean, salmon began swimming upstream to spawn inside the plant. The area outside has become a haven for endangered wildlife that require extremely pure water to survive. In our bnb in Chicago, a full-size Zadro UV wand is how we can be sure there will never be bedbugs, lice, or other questionable things when we have so many strangers sleeping on the same beds. It also destroys pathogens, mold, mites, etc on things like secondhand couches, well-worn sneakers, and counters and cutting boards that have touched raw poultry. Travel-sized ones used to be obnoxiously expensive… until we heard just this year that CVS has them for $8. Um. Yes. First stop when we get back.

$9 on amazon.com, or now available at CVS. (!!!)

13. ) A clothesline and tiny British sock rack

We're not sure if that advice sounds out-doorsey or serial killer-esque, but you'd be surprised how a short bit of compact rope can come in handy. Not least of those reasons is that it can be used as a clothesline, the main means of drying in pretty much every country but the States. Another amazing discovery we've made are these little plastic racks with clothespins attached, used as a compact method for hanging small things like underwear and socks. They're near-impossible to find in the US, but abound at every 99p store in the UK. They're brilliant and we're totally coming back with some.

$16 in America on amazon.com (wtf America?)
99p in the UK on ebay.co.uk, or at any 99p store.

14.) Flat water bottles

This has been a total God-send to have with us no matter where we go. Even if, like us, you do most of your hiking up subway stairs, there is no kind of traveller that wouldn't benefit from a water bottle that flattens to the size and weight of a piece of paper when it's empty. There's a lot of fancy expensive ones that look like they were designed by NASA, but Jerry found ours at Dollar Tree and it hasn't started leaking from 6 months of daily use, so if you pay too much more than a buck, you might be chump. You can sanitize it by filling it with boiling water.

$4 for a BPA-free and dishwasher safe version on amazon.com, or try your neighborhood dollar store.

15.) Compact bags for groceries, laundry

You should all have a bunch of these anyway, because Bill Nye The Science Guy, Al Gore, and Roland Emmerich all tell us that the Earth is sick, and re-using your own bags for groceries makes it feel better. One travel-specific trick we’ve discovered to cut down on checked bags fees: cram our carry-ons as tight as humanly possible and wear all our coats at once, but once we get off the plane, disperse things into our extra bags to displace the weight. They also make great portable hampers to keep your smelly stuff separated from your slightly less smelly stuff.

The bigger version (pictured) comes with a tiny pocket on the corner so you wad them up and flip them inside out to make a little pod. Open, they easily fit two heavy wool winter coats, two sweaters, and our big jambox. The smaller option is the generic flat drawstring backpack that are often given away promotionally, screenprinted with sports logos.

$6 for the original workhorse bag at reuseit.com.
$7 for a flat drawstring bag at amazon.com, or widely available at dollar stores.

16.) LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

This is just the sort of thing everyone should have in case of zombie apocalypse, natural disaster, world-wide calamity, or when you're going on vacation in Mexico. The LifeStraw removes 99.99% of waterborn bacteria and protozoa parasites from 1000 litres of water without chemicals, filter changes, batteries, or moving parts. It’s the Time Magazine Invention of the Year 2005 and is used by NGOs for humanitarian relief in sub-saharan Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and South America. It only became available retail in North America after 2011, when the company was finally able to produce more than was directly needed for disaster relief. It weighs 2 oz and for everyone on you buy, one is donated to a child in a developing country. This company deserves ALL our money.

$20 for the original version at buylifestraw.com.

17.) Barbasol can safe

Remember how in Jurrassic Park, Newman hides the dinosaur embryos in the bottom of a can of Barbasol, but then it slips out of his pocket when he gets venom sprayed in his eyes and it rolls to the bottom of the hill, and back at the top of the hill Newman manages to get back into his Jeep and thinks he's safe for a second but the dilophosauras is somehow already just chilling on the passenger seat and then it cuts to the car rocking and Newman screaming but in the book it was waaay more graphic and kind of gave you nightmares when you were 11?

They actually make that Barbasol can now. Only instead of dinosaur embryos, you use it to hide stuff that's considerably less awesome, but still kind of important, like your passport and credit cards. Laura wants one in case she ever decides to screw over John Hammond.

$10 on amazon.com.

18.) SAS survival guide

We’re city people. We would be pretty useless in the wild. Learning survival techniques takes training and hard work, and you probably have to sleep outside sometimes. Luckily, there is a book written by the Chief Survival Instructor for the British Special Air Services on how to survive in a bunch of different scenarios. Pretty handy for desert islands, zombie apocalypses, and various Mad Max-esque dystopias.

$6 on amazon.com.

19.) A travel-sized spice rack

We brought a bunch of our spices with us, and it's turned out to be one of our best decisions. It's great for making cheap assortments of veggies into hearty meals and really endears us to anyone who might be hosting us. If, like us, your recipient already owns a weird international mix of spices, the empty containers are available in many sizes. If your recipient isn’t well stocked, the mobile foodie survival kit (pictured) is awfully photogenic when unwrapped as a gift, USDA organic, comes themed to different world cuisines, and supports Brooklyn Community Services.

Happy Christamahaunakwanzakah, y'all!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Morocco part two: kittens, flooding, and magical camel poo

Laura: So, during our month in Rabat, we took a couple brief trips to other cities. A notably photogenic one was Chefchaoun, in the northern mountains. The city is located in the shadow of two large mountains. "Chef," apparently means "look" and "chaoun" means "goat horns" referring to twin mountains. Most Moroccans tend to just call it Chaoun, I would assume because "Goat Horns" is an awesome name, and "Hey, look at those goat horns," sounds kind of weird.

Jerry: Chaoun is a very chill tourist town known for its blue walls. During the Spanish Reconquista, when both Muslims and Jews were driven out of Spain, a large number of Jews settled in Chefchaoun. It’s not a Jewish ghetto in the typical medieval sense of the word—Muslims in the middle ages were the notably open-minded and liberal ones—it’s the whole city. As a result, the whole city is blue:

And really photogenic.

Jerry: It’s a vertical, terraced city in the mountains with a waterfall running through it. Obviously, goats are a main agricultural thing here, and the local AOC-equivalent goat cheese is amazing. The other major thing is marijuana—the mountains around Chaoun supply most of Europe’s hashish.

Laura: There's also a ton of really cute stray cats everywhere. Though every city in Morocco is packed with stray cats, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of kittens in Chaoun.

If you google image search "Chefchaoun," "cat" is one of the auto-completes.

Jerry: I also took a day trip to Casablanca. Apparently there’s a rivalry of sorts – people from Rabat don’t care much for Casablanca, and vice versa. Notably, Casablanca is a lot more industrial and Rabat is the capitol and therefore full of embassies and diplomats. Casablanca thinks Rabat is stuck up and Rabat thinks Casablanca is dirty and less cultured. I haven’t spent enough time in Casa to have my own opinion, although I will say the air is gross.

Laura: I still haven't checked out Casa, but I'm pretty in love with Rabat, so I imagine my team is pretty much chosen in the Casa v. Rabat feud. Also, outside the medina walls in Rabat, just facing the ocean, is a gigantic cemetery. It was big enough to be its own city. We sort of got lost wandering around in there at sunset a couple days before Halloween, so that was cool.

Taken from the highway. To the left, a whole freakin' city of the dead all the way up the hill.
To the right a new gigantic city of the dead starting all the way down to the beach.

Jerry: We came to Morocco purposely for the winter as a relief from the -30 Chicago extremes, but the trade-off is winter rain. We actually both quite like rain, but like most deserts, the infrastructure is not really in place to handle flooding.

Preparedness decreases from north to south: Chaoun is the furthest north, and in the mountains they simply expect rain all winter. Rabat can handle it, although it’s mildly inconvenient, especially in traditional buildings like where we lived in the medina: riad-style houses are structured around an open courtyard, so when it rains, the house just gets wet. The floors are all tile and fitted with drains, and everyone owns a squeegee, so most mild sprinkles simply ensure the floor stays fastidiously clean. The occasional week of winter downpour, however, tends to flood the house, and laundry starts getting mouldy on the line.

Where they’re really unprepared, though, is the desert.

It doesn't help that the roads are basically made of packed earth.

Laura: Apparently no one has been able to get in or out of Zagora for two weeks, because all the country roads are totally destroyed. It was by sheer luck that we happened to be on the only bus to get through, and that was just barely. At one point on our drive from Marrakech, the road in front of us had collapsed in a mud slide and been carried away by flood. It was dark and we were on a mountain road, so backing up would've been a bad idea, but when we noticed that construction crews had moved in and started repairing collapsed road behind us as well as ahead of us, we realized that we were penned in.

The construction crews were pretty impressive, though, and managed to get the road ahead of us driveable after little more than two hours. So yeah, we somehow made it into the desert in the middle of the night, where our patient host still came out to meet us at the bus stop.

Um, we might be a bit late...

Jerry: I had this silly notion that the Sahara would probably be really beautiful after the rain, but they haven’t seen rain like this since the 1960s, so things looked a little more… post hurricane. Mud and wrecked buildings and fallen palms. The river was flooded over the bridges, to the point where one couldn’t get to the neighbouring town.

It’s drying out at last, so this week is being spent helping them put the place back together. We’ll leave you with a little anecdote from our first night at riad. After roads crumbling in the flood and other disasters, we have just arrived at like 1 am and finally gotten into our room:

Laura: *reaches for end table* *delirious* OMG

Jerry: *feels tiny cold object poking him in the side of the head* Huh?


Jerry: *rolls over, small cold object still poking him all over head and face* What on earth...?

Laura: REEEEEEEEEEEEE! *pokes Jerry with object more* REEEEEEEEEE!

Jerry: Is that a ... tiny camel?

Laura: Or horse or llama. REEEEEEEEE! *pokes camel nose in Jerry's face, makes camel "trot" all over his shoulders*

Jerry: We're in the Sahara. I somehow suspect camel is more likely than llama.

Laura: I dunno, it also kinda looks like a little lump of poo. *trots camel / poo up Jerry's arm, makes it rear and whinny* REEEEEEE!

Jerry: I don't know if I should be more alarmed if you think that is the noise a camel makes or the noise a poo makes.


This is our life.

Magical poo camel, y’all.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Review: Hotel Tachfine in Marrakech

Thanks to a freak circumstance, we had the pleasure of staying at the Hotel Tachfine in Marrakech a couple days ago. Now we're pretty sure we want to retire there. This is our review, originally written for TripAdvisor:

"The Chelsea meets Hotel Budapest"

Above and beyond all our expectations for thirty five USD. It's faded and looks like it was posh in the 1970s, but impeccably clean. Comically outdated and delightfully kitschy, with careful, old-fashioned service. (As high service industry professionals who have worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, we mean "old fashioned" literally, as in "the service model follows adorably outdated standards" like your grandmother's insistence on proper letter-writing ettiquette.)

I can't even.

We want to live here when we're famous old novelists hiding from the world. It's NYC's Chelsea meets Hotel Budapest. The staff is self-effacing and personable the the concierge speaks perfect English, French, and Spanish and flirts with you like it's the jazz age. The restaurant couldn't be derpier, and the hotel bar has hilarious mirrored panels and passable scotch--with the GOOD ice cubes, which the bartender fetches INDIVIDUALLY for each drink, in a tiny bucket with tongs. 80 dh (9 USD) for two generous pours of Johnny Walker black!

What, no manual typewriter?

The bed was ridiculously comfortable. Wasn't expecting such a new, firm mattress and high threadcount sheets given the age of the building. Faded, cracked tiles in the bathroom and obviously retrofitted showerhead. Like the gorgeous refinished wood moldings on the wall, it's all part of the character. And I want to emphasize: clean. It wouldn't have been as charming if it was dingy or moudly (which we half expected for the price) but it was spotless. Towels were faded, but smelled clean and lovely.

If this is inadequate, you have first-world problems.

In short, you're paying thirty-five bucks for a double, guys. All the other reviewers who expected a resort for that price need a reality check. Everything else in this area is twice as much or more. (It's in the new city, a five minute walk from the train and bus stations, easily findable even after dark. The area is--thank god--not nearly as aggressively touristy as the medina.) For its hostel-like prices, this is better than anywhere else we've stayed in Morocco. Yes, you can hear the street... barely. As much as you can in any major city. Those reviewers whose delicate beauty rest could not tolerate the fairly-low-on-the-scale-of-things background hum of Marrakech should avoid NYC and London at all costs.

Oh noes, this hotel is in a city!

In short: pay for a hostel, get adorable Wes Anderson charm that's clean where it counts. Consider retiring here with a manual typewriter and an aging prostitute with a heart of gold who wasn't going to tell you she hasn't taken another john in years, and getting a cocktail named after you when you're dead.

The Jerry and Laura will be whiskey-based.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Eight things no one tells you about Morocco

Travel Advice for Americans and Other Anglophones

1. Pack ALL the contact solution

The most foolish thing I did this trip was discard extra bottles of contact solution in the airport to make luggage weight, thinking it was easily replaceable. Contact lenses are evidently less common here. Solution is not available in supermarkets or even pharmacies… and forget the concept of the 24 hr Walgreens/CVS. Contact solution is only available from opticians during their extremely limited hours, it costs 4x what it does in the states, and it is a behind-the-counter thing you have to request verbally, in Arabic or French.  (“Contacts” in French is “lentilles,” btw.) There is only name-brand multipurpose solution for disposable soft lenses. If you have hard lenses or prefer a hydrogen peroxide solution like ClearCare... opticians have never even heard of those things. I tried painstakingly writing out what I wanted in French, and showed them the bottle and special cases. They understand what hydrogen peroxide is, but find it very alarming that I would put it on my lentilles.

I discovered while googling for options that the Peace Corps website suggests its volunteers in Morocco pack a two-year supply of contact solution. If there was only one piece of travel advice I wish someone had given me about Morocco, it would have been that contact solution is absolutely worth the price in jet fuel to pack along in checked luggage.

You put that in your EYES?!

2. Don’t drink the water – but do drink plenty of water

Tap water in Morocco is technically sanitary, but has a high mineral content which may upset stomachs. As our Moroccan roommate says, “It will make you… turista.” Most locals elect to drink bottled water themselves—which is cheap and widely available in 1.5 litre bottles—for the same reason.

That being said, tap water won’t give you dysentery, and if it’s a hot day with no better option, just drink it. People who are not from warm climates often underestimate the seriousness of dehydration and heat stroke. In such dry air, your sweat evaporates so quickly you barely notice yourself drying out until you’re flushed, dizzy, and have a pounding headache. If you never need to pee, it’s a sign what little water you drank is baking out of you before it even makes it all the way through. Drink enough water to pee at least four times a day, including tap water if you have no other choice.

It’s worth noting that no restaurant automatically offers glasses of water like they do in America. Water-on-request is common enough in Europe, but unlike Europe, it is not a faux pas at all to bring in your own bottle from the corner store. Most people carry their own bottles constantly, and cheap, casual lunch stands may not even have water to sell. (On a similar note, it’s also not a faux pas to buy pastries at a patisserie and carry them into a café, as most cafés do not sell pastries and most patisseries do not sell coffee.)

Also note: restaurants rarely sell alcahol, although high-end bars may sell food.

3. Bring all your own over-the-counter-drugs

They are also drastically expensive, and only available in 12-count blister packs. For some reason, like contact solution, no amount of googling "travel tips Morocco" tells you this ahead of time. Those giant Costco bottles of ibuprofen are apparently a hot commodity expats ask visiting friends to pack along. By happy accident, when moving out of my American apartment, I decided it would probably be sensible to bring along the assorted cold medications I’d accumulated by condensing half-empty bottles into plastic bags (of the tiny square variety, available at crafting stores for sorting beads, or on Amazon as a “frequently bought together” suggestion when you search for a digital kitchen scale.) It seemed like a minor afterthought at the time: if I happened to get a cold over the winter, why waste the odd five bucks on a new 50-pill bottle when the 35 I had left in this one could be made so compact?

This was apparently the smartest thing I did this whole trip. Not only have I saved us a lot of money when the inevitable cold hit, expat and Moroccan friends alike act like they’ve been rescued by Medicine Sans Frontiers when they have minor ailments and we hand out over-the-counter remedies that are so inexpensive in the states we nearly threw them out before leaving.

Shockingly, TSA did not consider this sketchy at all.

4. Say you’re married, even if you’re not

Remember, this is an Islamic country. Even though they’re fairly liberal and relaxed, especially in urban areas, it’s still expressly illegal for an unmarried man and woman to share a hotel room. It is classified as prostitution. Usually, this is less of a problem for tourists (two Moroccans or one Moroccan and one foreigner may get police called on them) but even if you can both furnish foreign passports, they DO have the right to refuse service to you on account of not wanting to ruin their establishment’s reputation.

This is obviously even worse for homosexuals, polyamorists, transgendered and other LGBTQ spectrum situations.

To save yourself the hassle of having your reservation abruptly cancelled, be at least as discreet about your non-Islamic sexual arrangements as you would be about buying marijuana.

But... we were just on a plane for twelve hours. We just want to sleep...

5. Carry your own toilet paper

Most public restrooms will not have it, outside of very upscale hotels and restaurants that cater to tourists. In train stations, bus depots, and hostels, never. The latter places will also almost certainly have a squat toilet (read: hole in the ground with a textured plastic voer on which to brace your feet without slipping) with a filthy, wet floor and no hooks for bags or coats.

Have a friend hold anything that might drape to the ground, and prepare whatever toilet paper/baby wipes/feminine hygiene products in such a way–like in a messenger bag hiked tightly up against your chest, the breast pocket of your shirt or down the front of your bra—that you will not have to set them down in the muck and you can access them one-handed, as the other hand will certainly be braced on the wall to prevent you from falling into the toilet.

If you came unprepared, no worries. You weren’t the first one, and street peddlers exclusively selling travel-sized packets of Kleenex are everywhere.

This is a stock photo, and far cleaner and drier than typical.
I will trust your imagination and spare you an accurate representation.

6. Use hijab as a social signal

First things first: as Islamic countries go, Morocco is fairly liberal and westernized. Women are not obliged to wear hijab (headscarf) although many do for religious reasons.  As a female tourist, you are not expected to cover your head, but it may be worthwhile to consider the merits of doing so as a social signal. Hijab is an ordinary, non-political part of daily dress here. Clothing always has a situational implication. An American would look askance at someone wearing a business suit to the beach or a bikini in the financial district, even though there are no religious or legal restrictions on when you can wear each.

A scarf on your head is a fashion accessory just as much as a scarf on your neck. Burburry, for instance, is very popular. As a clothing style, it suggests conservatism and respect, just as one might follow any other number of ettiquette conventions when dressing for a job interview or a funeral. If you are going to a bar or nightclub—which do exist, alcohol is not illegal—dress just as you would to in the states. If you are visiting a mosque, meeting a Moroccan friend’s elderly relatives, or simply don’t want to be flirted with while out and about, covering your head is simply an extension of the clothing vocabulary you would use to indicate respect at home.

Google "how to tie a hijab." There are COUNTLESS ways.

7. Locations – and hours – vary widely

Unregulated street vending is a way of life in Morocco. Every parking lot is a car boot sale, and every sidewalk is lined with fold-out picnic tables. Farmer’s wives drive donkeys in from the country with a wagon-load of produce and sell where they can park. Some people just spread out their sheets and arrange their products on any piece of trafficked ground they can claim.

Full-time merchants are the ones who own a small storage locker, and will roll up the metal door and expand for business onto the street out front. They rarely have external signs, and whole streets fall into anonymity when shops are closed. Hours are completely nonstandard, and businesses you didn’t know were there may appear suddenly if you walk down the street at a different time of day. Liquor stores are particularly discreet: the alcohol itself may not be visible from the street and they are legally required to close before 7:30pm.

In general, most shops—and certainly all grocery vendors and white-collar service providers such as pharmacies, opticians, and dentists—are open right before lunch, from about 10am to 1pm. Things shutter in the afternoon, then everything (aside from a few “office hours” locations like banks, and the farm wives, who will have gone home for the night) is open in the evening from about 5pm-9pm. Luxury and recreational shopping, such as jewellery stores and ice cream counters, only open during this window, and hot food carts and tea vendors materialise out of the rift. It is nearly impossible to pass through the streets at any speed in the evenings, when the entire population of Morocco turns out to enjoy themselves.

Corner stores—which are actually small holes in the wall every ten or so feet—vending water, junk food, cigarettes, toilet paper, and other emergency necessities (which for Moroccans includes fresh bread, baked that morning and stacked in unsliced loaves without wrapping of any kind on a bare counter, and fresh eggs, also delivered daily, sold individually and placed directly into a plastic bag without carton, complete with bits of feather and chicken poop) are open continuously from early morning until late night, and sometimes overnight.

Produce couldn't be fresher.

8. Research your prices ahead of time, carry cash, and tip

In complete contrast with finding locations on foot, it’s usually a good idea to find out the average local price for an item ahead of time. While corner stores and food sellers will charge a standard, non-inflated price, almost all other shopping—shoes, housewares, books, clothing, electronics—is open to debate. Depending on the touristy nature of the town (Marrakech and Fez are particularly bad, Casablanca and Rabat are not) you may be asked an outrageous price, or a totally fair one. It’s insulting to lowball a merchant; they will simply roll their eyes and refuse to talk to you. However, knowing the fair price of an item and asking for it is reasonable. A pair of sunglasses, for example, can be found in almost any city for 30 dihrams, which is about four USD or three EU. If a merchant insists 60 is a good price, a local would simply say “It’s 30 everywhere else,” and walk away. The merchant will either relent, knowing your statement is true, or you will find another one who is not trying to gouge you.

Petite taxis in non-touristic cities will use the meter; don’t haggle. In touristic cities, especially if you have luggage and are going to/from an airport or train station, they will offer a price verbally; do haggle. Grand taxis are six-person shuttles between cities and charge a union-standardized flat rate per person, don't haggle.

Practically no place accepts your credit card, even big chains like Carrefour (the French equivalent of Wal-mart) with visa and master card logos plastered over every register. Street vendors and local businesses certainly don’t. Withdraw cash from an ATM ahead of time.

Tipping is expected. Follow American tipping standards. Other Anglophone readers who currently do not tip, such as Brits: for God’s sake, please realise that service industry workers are not paid in Morocco OR America, for that matter. Restaurant employees receive negative paychecks estimating how much we will owe in taxes. That’s why the food is so much cheaper than in Europe: the cost of service is not amortised into the price. So guides, bellhops, taxi drivers, café waiters, hairdressers, etc, all deserve five-ten dihrams, which is equivalent to a US dollar or two, and waiters in full-service restaurants deserve 15-20% of the bill.

Banque Populaire is one of the most common. Look for orange lettering and a horse.


For the most part, Morocco is a very safe, largely modernised country. (Although the lack of recycling and seatbelt usage makes me feel a bit like we're back in the 1980s.) 

You're exactly the same amount likely to be mugged, pickpocketed, or scammed in a major city in Morocco as you are in any major city or small tourist town anywhere in the world: that is, not very likely, if you have the slightest bit of self-awareness, confident bearing, and urban sense. If anyone tries to warn you about Islamic millitants in Syria or Ebola in Liberia, give them a geography textbook for their next birthday. 

Between Moroco and Syria is all of southern Europe. You'd be closer in Italy.
Between Morocco and Ebola there is a little thing called the Sahara Desert, 
a place notably hospitable to viruses and other forms of life.

We'd go so far as to say you can expect the opposite: people will welcome you into their homes and family with open arms and never ask you to leave. That's where this blog gets its name - the universal thing we have been told by pretty much everyone in Morocco has been "Okay, welcome." 

Us to a prospective roommate: We need a room for at least a week, but possibly up to a month or even three months if it works out.
Roommate: Okay, welcome.
Us: Great, how much notice do you need?
Roommate: You say when you know. You are welcome. Have you eaten? I cook now, we eat together.

Us to a couchsurfing host: We wanted to stay a night and see if the city suits us. The exact night is flexible. 
Host: Okay, welcome. I pick you at train station. 
Us: Thank you very much. Which day do you prefer?
Host: You are welcome.

Us to a prospective employer: Here are our qualifications and availability. We'd be grateful for the opportunity to work for your bed and breakfast.
Employer: Okay, welcome. You will like town experience beauty of desert become part of family share culture exchange. You are welcome
Us: Thank you. When should we arrive?
Employer: Okay, welcome.
Us: Also, what is your address?
Employer: You are welcome.

We're starting to think it's kind of a national motto.

Okay, welcome.