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 Comically outdated and delightfully kitschy, with careful, old-fashioned service.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in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, we mean "old fashioned" literally, as in "the service model follows adorably outdated standards" like your grandmother's insistence on proper letter-writing ettiquette.)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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

surfers, hash, and wandering street chickens: Morocco!

Jerry: Morocco is amazing. This leg of the journey we’ve been compromising between my style of intensive research and Laura’s style of completely winging it. We flew into Marrakech with the first three nights of hotel reserved, intending to figure out the rest from there. Marrakech, for the record, is intensely touristy. People are all but assaulting you to buy things from the moment you step outside. I’d like to say something positive about it, so I’ll say: we left on the third day for Rabat.

Buy stuff! Buy stuff now! You lost? Need a guide?
Want to buy? Buy now?!

I’m an ignorant American, and frankly, I hadn’t known Rabat existed. Between Laura and I, the only cities we could have named offhand are Marrakech, Casablanca, and Fez. We were actually looking for rooms to rent in Casablanca, which we were told was much less touristic than the other two, and when we zoomed out on the interactive map, a room popped up with a rasta surfer looking dude smiling over some couscous. Based on that photo, we added Mohktar on facebook and hopped a train to Rabat.

We were convinced by this picture.

Laura: Rabat is definitely a large city, but it's much less stressful than Marrakech. I think this is for three reasons:

  1. Rabat has plenty of tourists, but Marrakech gets the certain type of tourists that have enough expendable income to randomly fly off to a city like Marrakech cause they heard it mentioned in an Indiana Jones movie, and so the salesmen there can make good money if they're aggressive. The tourists in Rabat tend to have actually given some thought to coming to Morocco, and many have already been in the country a while, so most of the salesmen know being too aggressive will just annoy them. 
  2. The city is on the beach and full of surfers.
  3. They smoke a lot of hash. It's difficult for a city of stoned surfers to not be chill. 

View of the beach from the kasbah walls.
You are now totally not surprised that our rasta surfer roommate lives here.

Jerry: It’s also the capitol, so there are a lot of embassies, and therefore a fair amount of diplomats, students, and expats just living and working here. You can walk down the street and be treated like a normal person no matter your colour or native language. We’ve learned more French here than we did in France – and everything else. The Lingua Franca – or I guess, Lingua Maroc – is a pan-European pidgin with charades. The other day we were in a cab with two Germans and two Frenchmen, and an Arab cab driver, and our only common language was Spanish.

Laura: Mohktar's brother tried to drunkenly teach me how to count in Arabic. He taught me up to 50, but I can only remember up to 5. Wahed. Jouj. Taletila. Arriba. Khemsah. That’s not the proper spelling, that’s just more-or-less how they sound in my head.

Jerry: We live in the medina. You know how pretty much every city in Europe has its old medieval quarter, usually in the centre of town around the cathedral, often still fortified? In North Africa, the medieval quarter has two distinct parts – the medina, which is the town or market, and the casbah, which is the citadel.

Opposite view: the kasbah as seen from the beach.

Unlike European cities, where the medieval buildings have usually been gutted and replaced with luxury storefronts, the medina in Rabat still functions exactly like a medieval market. We live, for example, off Rue Boukran, which is where all the vegetable sellers set up.

At least it's not a long walk for groceries.

Laura: There's also a lot of poultry. And by that I mean there's large chickens just sort of wandering around our front door in the morning.

You would think they were tied, until one of them gets up and starts pecking your feet.

Jerry: Google maps does not work here. For one thing, all the streets were renamed after the revolution. Two, they’re named in Arabic, so phonetic spellings in the roman alphabet vary widely. By that logic, Laura's numbers are as accurate as anyone's. I’ve seen Boukran, Bukkran, and Bokrane, on our own street, all on small, hand-painted signs. I’m honestly not sure how the post arrives.

Laura: So if any of you would like to send me a letter, just address it to the red door behind all the chickens. That should do it.

No box or slot to speak of, but Mohktar insists post does come to the house.
We haven't figured out where they put it, though.

Jerry: It’s hard to find pretty much anything here. You just have to know where you’re going and do a lot of exploring. We went on a quest for the liquor store the other day. Alcohol is permitted in Morocco – they even produce their own wine and beer – although licencing is obviously very strict. Generally, only higher-end restaurants and bars that cater to tourists and expats serve alcohol, and their storefronts always have to be extremely discreet. “Liquor store” is a misnomer, really. One, no one’s ever heard the word liquor (“boutique d’alcohol” worked, though I doubt it’s correct) and two, it looks more like a storage unit, complete with unmarked, roll-down metal door.

Laura: Very shady drug-deal-on-the-loading-docks-you-have-to-just-know-where-it-is-first-rule-of-fight-club type thing. I dig it.

That door just screams "obviously a liquor store," doesn't it?

Jerry: They roll the door up just high enough for you to duck under. Inside, there’s bottles of cheap-but-it-works plonk stacked to the ceiling, and about a two foot space packed with twenty or so customers, all waving cash at a guy sitting at a high counter. He shouts what you want to another guy, scaling the walls like a goddamn monkey, who scrambles to fetch it and wrap it discreetly in newspaper before handing it over the counter.

Laura: Oh, and a fifth of scotch? 80 dihrams, or about 9 USD. So yeah, I’m enjoying Morocco.

Jerry: I think that’s enough for one post. Next time we’ll tell you about the beach, the graveyard (it’s epic. And creepy. We got lost in it.) other cities we’ve visited, and everything we’ve learned to cook. Cheers!