Snapshots from the Sahara

Sahara Desert, Morocco

One of the most popular things for tourists to do in Morocco is to see the desert. If you search online, there are dozens of identical-sounding tour companies that more or less follow the same formula of driving you from Marrekesh or Fes out to the desert, putting you on a camel to trek to a Berber camp where you’ll sleep overnight, then waking at dawn to catch the sunrise and do the reverse trek back to town before it gets too hot. (In November, heat was not actually a problem and I actually found the desert to be uncomfortably cold and damp because it had just rained a few hours before.) I emailed a few tour companies and got quotes of 270-300 euros per person, which seemed outlandishly expensive, even by NYC standards. They also required a deposit, which I was a bit wary of.

After doing some more digging and asking around, it seemed like our best bet was to set up something when we were on the ground in Morocco. Annoying, and it goes against my type-A love for planning, but if we didn’t go with a tour company with a spiffy internet presence, it would likely cost a third to half as much. So I closed my eyes and simply left a few days of the itinerary completely unplanned.

After landing in Casablanca, we immediately hopped on a train to Fes, where we met Ali on the train, who specializes in ceramics designs. Ali was also on the way to Fes, and when we mentioned needing a desert tour guide, his eyes lit up and he immediately called a friend who arranges desert tours. What luck, only a few hours into the trip and we’d already solved our biggest logistical conundrum! The tour guide, Amin, said he could add us to an existing group tour for 1,100 dirhams, and asked to meet us at a cafe the next morning, so that he could explain the tour details. I wasn’t totally sure why this couldn’t be done over the phone, but figured it’d be an opportunity for us to suss him out. After buying us coffee, he promised to text me later with more details about a tour start time and pick up location for the next morning. We walked out after fairly confident that things were going as planned, until the hours went by and I still hadn’t gotten any messages from Amin. In late afternoon, he messaged that he still wasn’t sure about the tour time, and that there was a lot of snow in the mountains. Huh. Evening came and still no answers, and by the next morning, I was in a full panic. I called Ali and explained that his friend had gone AWOL, and he said he’d reach out for me. When he called back, he said that there had been an accident, that the tour was off, but we could take the Supratours bus to Merzouga and it would be fine. I’d researched the bus earlier, and while it was an option, from Fes it would entail back-to-back 11 hour overnight bus rides, which would make us sleep-deprived zombies. No thanks, it was time for plan B.

We started canvassing the Fes medina for a new driver. One guy asked for 7,000 dirhams (~$700), which was obviously a rip-off. The Sahara Desert tour company wanted 390 euros per person. Eventually, I talked to the hotel clerk at Hotel Batha, who made some calls and arranged for someone to take us for 3,500 dirhams, camels and overnight camping included. I handed the hotel clerk 500 dirhams (his commission), crossed my fingers and hoped the driver we’d just met wouldn’t screw us over.

Luckily, our driver turned out to be an affable guy, whose English wasn’t great but was serviceable enough for basic communications. He pulled over to point out scenic spots (monkeys along the road, the king’s palace in Ifrane, or Morocco’s “Little Switzerland”), and acted as our translator when needed. Gradually, the landscape changed from conifer forests to rocky steppes to full desert.

As you approach Merzouga, you’ll see lots of roadside fossil shops, selling fossilized nautilus dishes, trilobite boxes and amethyst gems in rocks. During the Devonian era, the desert was covered with ocean, and it’s relatively common to find fossils today. Everything is very pretty, and expensive (200 Dh as the starting price), but you can knock off 40% or so with persistent bargaining. One vendor pulled out a box of “dinosaur teeth” to show us. When I laughed incredulously, he said, “No, really!” There was another shop that had a t-rex skeleton replica outside of it.

We made it to Merzouga after dark (driving at night is definitely not recommended, as with any developing country), ate a hasty meal of tagine and pomegranates, and hopped on our camels for a moonlit trek through the desert with stars blazing above us. I’d never seen the Big Dipper so clearly.

The rest of the desert was a sensory blur, though not in a bad way. We hung out with the other two guests at the camp for a while, playing drums and dancing as our young Berber guides sang, smoked and poured mint tea. The camp is definitely geared for tourists (I was sort of hoping it’d be an actual Berber camp), but given our limited time, I still appreciated the chance to talk to some locals. One of our guides mentioned that his family is camped further into the desert, near the Algerian border. To get there, he makes the 50 km trek on foot over the course of two days, guided by GPS. I’ll never complain again that it’s a pain to go visit my parents.

People on Sahara dunes

Sunrise in the Sahara

Sahara sand dunes

Sandboarding on a Sahara dune

Berber tending to camel

Our camels were named Jimi (Hendrix) and Bob (Marley). They made funny snorts and enjoyed being petted on the nose. Me: Is that camel poop on the ground? Berber guide: Camel chocolat! If you smoke it, you will go flying for 3 days!
Our camels were named Jimi (Hendrix) and Bob (Marley). They made funny snorts and enjoyed being petted on the nose. Me: Is that camel poop on the ground? Berber guide: Camel chocolat! If you smoke it, you will go flying for 3 days!

Camel caravan shadows in the desert

For obvious reasons, I can’t recommend the first tour guide we had, but I can wholeheartedly recommend our new driver, who seemed pretty experienced (he said he does the Fes – Merzouga drive 2-3 times per month) and had our interests at heart (there was no pressure to buy anything, and we didn’t pay until the end of the trip). Unfortunately I don’t have his direct number, but he seemed to be working for Mustang Travel. Or you could talk to the staff at Hotel Batha for other tour questions; just be aware that you’ll be paying a bit more to cover their commission.

All in all, it was all totally worth it.

How to Buy Real Saffron in Morocco

Moroccan Saffron

Morocco is known for their abundance of spices, particularly saffron. Unfortunately, saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world because of the enormous amounts of labor involved. (The purple saffron crocus harvest lasts only 1-2 weeks in the fall, and it requires 150 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron threads.) I wanted to see if I could score a deal on saffron (compared to prices in the US), but of course, saffron is also one of the most widely faked spices on the market, so the challenge was on.

There’s lots of information online about how to distinguish real from fake saffron, but having worked with the real thing (and bought the fake version in a sealed container in Turkey), I was confident that my nose would not lead me astray. Real saffron has an intense and distinctive odor; if you can smell the product, it should be pretty easy to tell what you’re buying. If you stick your nose in the jar and don’t smell much of anything, you’re likely being sold safflower, which looks similar but has none of the flavor of saffron. Of course, this does not help first-time saffron buyers or anyone who doesn’t remember what it should smell like. If that’s the case, look for red threads with small bits of yellow on one end and a trumpet-like flare on the other end.

Spices in Tangiers

In Morocco, most spices are displayed open-air in perfectly shaped chiseled cones, but not the saffron, it’s much too valuable. To find that, you have to go inside and look for a glass jar hidden towards the back. I inquired at a few places, who quoted me prices of 40-50 dirhams per gram. In the end, I settled on a vendor in the Tangiers medina for my saffron purchase. This shop sold spices exclusively (no nuts or dried fruits or henna dyes), he had a steady stream of local customers, and when I tried to negotiate on his price (40 dirhams per gram), he proclaimed, “No, that is the price, no zig-zag.” Ok, I can respect that. He did offer me a cheaper “saffron” for 20 dirhams/gram, which turned out to be safflower, but was upfront about saying that it wasn’t the same thing. After agreeing on a quantity, saffron was gently weighed out on a scale (he showed me the reading) and scooped into a plastic envelope.

Stay tuned for paella and risotto and biryani and plov!

Bags of spices in Morocco

Morocco, a Land to Dye For

Paint dyes in Chefchaouen

Let me admit, I had a pretty tenuous conception of what Morocco would be like before traveling there. And I don’t think I was alone in my ignorance.

Me: I’m going to Morocco next week, it’s going to be awesome!
Friend: Cool! Is it going to look like Agrabah? (the fictional setting of Disney’s Aladdin)
Me: No, you idiot, that doesn’t even exist!
Friend (invoking another Disney movie): Well then, is it jungles and lions or what?
Me: Um…let me get back to you. (rewatches Aladdin in the meantime)

Turns out Morocco has parts that DO look like Agrabah, and rocky plains, and lush sweeping sand dunes, and even a town that looks like an orderly Swiss ski resort. (No tropical jungles though.) After spending nine days there, traversing from big cities to remote desert, I can say that Morocco is one of the most geographically diverse countries I’ve ever visited. It’s trite to say, but it really does have something for everyone.

Oh, and the colors! I say this as someone who was obsessed with collecting and analyzing Crayola crayons as a kid, but I don’t think anyone can leave Morocco without being impressed by the natural array of colors on display. From their spices to their architecture, everywhere you turn is an explosion of rainbows. Take a look:

Blue alley in the medina of Chefchaouen
Blue alley in the medina of Chefchaouen
Just another door in Chefchaouen
Just another door in Chefchaouen
Blue alley cat in Chefchaouen
Blue alley cat in Chefchaouen
Dyes in Chefchaouen
Dyes in Chefchaouen
A tiny fabric shop in the Chefchaouen medina
A tiny fabric shop in the Chefchaouen medina
Woman herding sheep on the slopes above Chefchaouen
Woman herding sheep on the slopes above Chefchaouen
Not candy, but soaps, scented with tea, mint, argan, almond, millefleur, milk and honey, and the ever so exotic "spices of the Orient."
Not candy, but soaps, scented with tea, mint, argan, almond, millefleur, milk and honey, and the ever so exotic “spices of the Orient.”
Tea and cookies in Morocco
Mint tea (“Moroccan whiskey”) and cookies
Traditional tiled courtyard in a Moroccan riad
Traditional tiled courtyard in a Moroccan riad
Bird ashtray and coffee table at Riad Al Bartal, Fes
Bird ashtray and coffee table at Riad Al Bartal, Fes
Above the tanneries of Fes
Above the tanneries of Fes
Queen of Purrsia, Fes
Queen of Purrsia, Fes
Produce market, Tangiers
Produce market, Tangiers

See what I mean? And we haven’t even gotten to the desert yet, which has a stunning beauty completely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in my life.

Go. Go now.

Practical Travel Tips:

If you do go, be aware that you will likely stand out as a tourist and be targeted frequently by touts (as is the case with any developing country). Simply be polite but firm, and keep conversation to a minimum in order to get rid of anyone trying to bring you to their cousin’s shop/restaurant/hostel, or offering to act as your tour guide/driver.

Petit taxis are cheap and the meters are fair. (There are also grande taxis which I believe are more expensive, but I never had the occasion to take one.) When you exit a train station, push past all of the touts and gypsy taxi drivers who will be vying for your attention, and hail a regular metered taxi instead. The difference in cost can be 5-fold. Sometimes taxis will also pick up multiple passengers, so feel free to flag down taxis with someone already inside. If they pull over, tell the driver your destination and he’ll decide if it’s on the way and he wants to take you. Be sure to negotiate a flat fare before getting in.

Though French is an official language (a holdover from Morocco’s colonial days)and used in lots of signage, Arabic really is the common language here. French is taught in schools and speaking proper French is considered a marker of good education and high society (unless you are from another former French colony in Africa, like Senegal, at which point you’re subject to more discrimination, not less). For the most part, I found that taxi drivers and street vendors spoke limited French (but enough to get through basic transactions), but at higher end restaurants and hotels, people spoke great French AND English. In the northern part of the country (Tangiers), Spanish is much more prevalent, and if you are somewhere between the north and the middle of the country (Chefchaouen), people speak bits of all three languages.

Royal Air Maroc offers direct flights from JFK to Casablanca, and the flight time is only 6.5 hours or so. Their 787 Dreamliner jets weren’t fancy (in-flight movies were on the older side), but everything was clean and functional, and the crew got the job done. No complaints there.

Sample 9-Day Itinerary:

We really wanted to see Chefchaouen, a small town in the Rif Mountains known for its blue-walled medina. So in order to do that, this is an itinerary that sticks mostly to the northern half of the country, bypassing Marrakesh. However, I was quite happy with my experience in Fes, and I don’t think going to another big city would have added much to the trip. You’ll also notice that there are only two days in which there is no intercity travel. That is because I am a shark—I mean—I never stop moving, but you can certainly build in longer stops if you prefer. One of the great things about Morocco is that you can make many of your travel decisions on the fly after you arrive, since it’s easy to get same-day train/bus tickets, and prices and availability are still very good.

Day 1: Arrive in Casablanca at 7 am after a red-eye flight, immediately take the train for Fes (5 hours)
Day 2: Fes medina, ville nouvelle
Day 3: Private driver to Merzouga and the Erg Chebbi dunes (8.5 hours), camel trek to desert camp for overnight
Day 4: Sunrise camel trek, drive to Fes, returning by dinner time
Day 5: Train to Tangiers (5 hours)
Day 6: See the Tangiers Kasbah museum, depart for Chefchaouen on the Nejme Chamal bus (3 hours)
Day 7: Chefchaouen medina, hike to the Spanish mosque
Day 8: Depart for Casablanca on the CTM bus (6 hours), see the Hassan II mosque
Day 9: Depart for NYC at 3 pm

Happy travels!

Rainbow over the Moroccan desertRainbow over the Moroccan desert

All Look Same

Japanese school kids

I have a small confession to make: I’m face-blind.

It’s basically what it sounds like: I have a lot of difficulty remembering and differentiating people’s faces. I’m sorry I don’t recognize you, but it’s nothing personal, I swear.

I’ve mentioned it to some of my close friends, but only if it comes up in context (usually out of concern that I’ve offended someone by not recognizing them).

Sure, you’re thinking, I’m bad at remembering faces too, lots of people are, no big deal! That’s reassuring, and for a long time I thought I was just “bad at faces” like everyone else, but after analyzing it over the years, I’ve concluded that I’m significantly worse than average at facial recognition.

My mom tells me that when I was a young child, I would reach for any Asian man with glasses and call him Dad.

Things are usually fine if the other person has unique physical characteristics, like their hair or body type, unusual scars, a particular tenor to their voice. It’s also easier for me to recognize people that I see frequently in person. Otherwise though, I have to make a concerted effort if I want to remember what a new acquaintance looks like, by studying their face, or more frequently, by memorizing their clothing or glasses so I can get through the evening.

A room full of beautiful people induces mild panic in me because everyone looks so generically similar to each other. It’s a sea of symmetric faces, with no distinguishing features that I can latch onto. Events like a dinner hosted by the Korean Tourism Board or someone else’s family reunion also make me nervous. How am I supposed to figure out who’s who when everyone looks the same?

Here’s some of the ways it affects me:

  • Movies: I struggle with movies and TV shows with lots of characters because I can’t tell the actors apart. If the plot involves characters in disguise, spies, clothing changes, etc. I am particularly at a loss. This rules out the Ocean’s Eleven movies for me, and I had to watch Love Actually two or three times before I felt like I really understood what was happening.
  • Meeting Acquaintances: If it’s been a long time since I last saw you and we’re not that close, I will probably struggle to recognize you, especially if we’re meeting in a busy place like a street corner or a train station. Rather than flag someone down by mistake, I sometimes just look away or study my phone, waiting for the other person to approach me first.
  • Meeting New People: I might wait for you to introduce yourself first because I can’t remember if we’ve met before, and I’d rather not introduce myself and have you tell me that we’ve already met. Earlier that same night, in fact. This is most awkward in professional settings, like a job fair. Luckily, I’ve never had a job that required me to meet and remember lots of people at once, like teaching or public relations.
  • Running into people randomly: You know how sometimes you’ll run into friends you haven’t seen in years at a cafe or in the park or back in your hometown? I don’t. Unless you proactively approach me, I will never realize we passed each other. On the plus side, it means I’m never awkwardly running into people I’d rather avoid.
  • Running into people out of context: Placing people when I see them out of their normal setting is hard. I run into my landlord periodically around the neighborhood, and it’s always a surprise to see him waving me down on the street, in the park, at the Food Coop. This was a particularly prevalent problem for me in college, where I was constantly meeting new people and I couldn’t remember how I knew them. Once, I was sitting in a play, and an older man tapped me on the shoulder and began talking to me as if he knew me. I carried on the conversation as if I recognized him, but couldn’t determine where we had met. Days later, I realized it was someone who had been attending my chimes concerts.

Once, I met a friend of a friend who casually mentioned being face-blind. My eyes lit up; it was the first time I’d heard anyone talk about face blindness outside of the Internet. We swapped stories for a bit, joking that we were going to have a recurring meeting for face-blind people, where you’d have to reintroduce yourself every time.

For the most part, my face-blindness is just a minor inconvenience. I simply don’t watch Game of Thrones and I will never spot a celebrity in public.

On the flip side, I think I’m less judgmental about physical appearances, both for other people and myself. I probably won’t notice if you’ve gained (or lost) weight, I won’t make hiring decisions based on implicit beauty biases, and the idea of being instantly attracted to someone based on their looks is rather foreign to me.

Maybe we’d all be a bit less shallow and a bit more kind if we couldn’t see people on the outside.

On Running, or How To Do Anything in Life

Running NYC

“When you’re running… there’s a little person that talks to you and that little person says, ‘Oh, I’m tired. My lung’s about to pop. Oh, I’m so hurt; I’m so tired. There’s no way I can possibly continue.’ And you want to quit, right? That person… If you learn how to defeat that person when you’re running, you will learn how to not quit when things get hard in your life.”

– Will Smith

My general philosophy in life is to try to say yes, as much as possible (so long as it’s not something patently illegal or something I’ll obviously regret). Sometimes this leads me to faraway safaris in Sri Lanka. Sometimes this leads me to running in circles.

Back in late April, a friend said that he was going to sign up for a marathon, and asked if I wanted to do it too. Without thinking too much about it, I said yes. After all, I bike regularly, and go for a short run every week…er, month or so, how hard can running a marathon be? Step 1, you start running. Step 2…there is no step 2. Am I right??

So I logged into the Runkeeper account that I’d set up years ago and used once, and signed up for their beginner marathon training program. Four runs each week, with the first week starting with manageable 4 mile runs and a long run of 8 miles on Saturday. I added the next month’s running schedule to my Google calendar, highlighted in red, and tried really hard to either schedule activities on nights when I wasn’t running or shift runs to alternate days if I knew I’d be busy. Each week, I checked the weather and if conditions were challenging for running (thunderstorms), I would slot time in other parts of the day, like early mornings or late evenings. Sometimes I would end up skipping runs, but it would be anticipated and unavoidable, not due to poor planning.

In July, the furnaces hit New York, and running became a sluggish, molasses-paced crawl to the finish. I realized that switching my runs from late afternoons to early mornings would mean more tolerable running temperatures. The only problem was getting out of bed. I’d tried setting alarms in the past to get up early for a run, and had failed every time. This time though, I forced myself to go to bed earlier (10:30 pm at the latest) and when the alarm went off, I reminded myself that while getting up now was painful, running in the brutal summer heat would be even worse. So I’d best stop dawdling and get going.

By November, I had the opposite problem. Temperatures were dropping precipitously, and an ever-lengthening night meant that it was doubly difficult to pull myself out of bed when it was cold AND dark. I’d hit the snooze button once, sigh, then force myself into the chilly air, where no amount of layering could prevent my fingers from being numb after 120 minutes outside.

But I kept doing it. And every time, it got a little easier. Running a marathon, as it turns out, is less an accomplishment of physical training and more a feat of psychological endurance. While you can certainly push yourself to run until winded, for the most part, running a marathon requires a lot of long but slow runs, done at a comfortable pace where you can easily hold a conversation with someone. In other words, running is not the difficult part. The real challenge is the discipline to manage your schedule and get out of bed.
Continue reading On Running, or How To Do Anything in Life

Tales from a Mexican Line Cook

Puebla parade

Like many restaurants, my kitchen was staffed largely by cooks/runners/dishwashers of Latin American origin, particularly Mexicans from the state of Puebla. This made sense, given that we were cooking Latin-influenced food, but you’ll find Mexican cooks everywhere in New York, from diners to Chinese restaurants to fine dining.

There are many great cultural exchanges to be had from hanging out with Latino cooks, from hearing the latest reggaeton to learning the true meaning of Cinco de Mayo. (Turns out it’s not just about cheap margaritas.) But as you while away hours peeling yucca in the slow afternoon, sometimes the conversation takes a turn for the serious. You ponder aloud: what you’re doing with your life, what your dreams are, who you love, where it all went wrong. You share your hopes for your family, your fears that you’re not good enough, your ambitions to go to college. You tell your life story, how you came to the US and found your footing here. You do all this while crammed into a closet-sized space, with tweezers in one hand and a fish fillet in the other. This is the trench.

For those of us who aren’t first generation immigrants, it’s easy to forget that this country is built on immigrants and a dream for a better life. For those of us who can afford to go to culinary school, who have a college degree, have no family members in the military, live near a Whole Foods and have never been arrested, it’s a cold bucket of water to remember that we are part of the privileged class, even if we think we’re not.

Here’s a couple of the stories I heard:

S: I came with my dad when I was 13. Why? I don’t know, it just seemed like the thing to do, I wasn’t doing much else at home. I’ve been living and working in NYC for 9 years now. I’ve been a busboy, runner, dishwasher, oyster shucker, and now I’ve been working here for one year. Started off doing dishes here, then moved to the cold station, and now I’m on flat top and grill.

My dad died 3 years ago, and I spent $12k on his funeral. It wiped out all of my savings. I want to go to school, get a college degree, but I don’t know how or where to get the money.

What do you want to accomplish before you die?

Well, I would really like to take care of my mother, make sure she is comfortable. That’s the first thing I want to do. Secondly, I want to take care of my girlfriend, because I know she loves me a lot. Then maybe after that, my sister. But she has her own family, and she’s ok I think, she doesn’t need me. So really, I want to take care of my mother, that’s my #1 goal.
Continue reading Tales from a Mexican Line Cook