A New Malady, Snails, a Moroccan Bar

October 28, 2007

For the first time in my life, I have unimaginable, uncontrollable gas.

Normally, I would find such a thing funny. However, somehow, my body is taking everything I eat and turning it into 100 times as much gas. I cramp up if I walk around very long, and I’ve produced precisely one Hindenburg’s worth of methane today. How on earth does something like this happen?

On an unrelated note, a guy here at The Villa bought a quarter-kilo of snails and cooked them up. Apparently you soak them in salt water, then boil them with a special mix of herbs. I called it “snail mix” for a while, but that brought to mind a really gross image of something to snack on while hiking. Anyway, Dr. Z was right: I had two, and they were totally yummy. Not rubbery at all. They’re sort of oyster-like, but flavourful and less chewy. Ldiida bizzef, as they’d say here.

It occurs to me that I never told about my experience in a Moroccan bar. So, the day after Ramadan ended, Andrew took us out to eat. We went to a place near the big parking lot near the White Souk. Warning sign #1 should have been that the place had not just tinted, but mirrored, windows.

I had asked at the orientation if there were bars in Morocco, and I was told that there were, but only bad people go to them. “Bad people?” I asked. “The kind of people that go to bars” was the reply. That raised an interesting philosophical dilemma: were they bad because they go to bars, or were they bad first and went to bars second?

The answer’s the second one. There wasn’t a guy in the entire bar that still had all of his fingers and fewer than three deep scars on his face. Imagine a bar filled with Pagans (the motorcyclists, not the hippies) that all had a really bad day and are pissed. I’ve taken to calling that bar the Capo Cafe, but no one gets that here.

Anyway, we sit down and order some food and beers, and the bouncer goes into what I think is the bathroom (it was really the basement) and hauls a guy out kicking and stuggling. He goes down again and gets a second one. Then our waiter joins in, and they haul out a total of six guys, fighting, kicking, and struggling. I don’t know wha they did to get thrown out, but they were hammered. One guy kicks over a table and breaks some glasses on his way out. The six of them, outside, decide to fight the bouncer and waiter, and they six of them get their asses handed to them right there in the car park.

So yeah, stay out of Moroccan bars. Although, I will say: it was the second best pizza I’ve had in my entire life. Reminded me of Petie’s.


I AM AWESOME

October 27, 2007

Take one large onion. Marinate in the juice of four lemons for two hours. After the marinade, pour into non-reactive pot. Add three long hot peppers (seeded and with ribs removed), three cloves of garlic cut fine, and salt and pepper to taste. Add 1/4 cup oil and vinegar to taste (roughly 1/4-1/2 cup). Simmer 10 minutes. Cool, then dump into a blender and blend it. Makes precisely one fifth of product.

That’s right. I’m making my own hot sauce now. Because I am an awesome. Want extra style? Remove the label from am empty fifth of scotch and pour the sauce into it.

 The sauce I made today has a distinct vinegar flavour at first that is quickly superceded by the taste of hot peppers. I added too much vinegar before the simmering step, because I forgot that heat makes veggies expel water. So next time, less vinegar, more garlic, and some of those tiny insanity peppers that they sell by the kilo in the medina.

I never would have tried to make my own hot sauce in the US. I don’t think I tried it here because I’m in morocco, I think I did it because I don’t have a TV. The moral of this story is that making your own hot sauce is awesome and that Moroccan produce tastes 1000 times more flavorfull than produce in the US.


A Tale of Unbelievable Horror

October 25, 2007

So, I have 4 hours of class a day. Then I come home and do homework, and when that’s done it’s roughly time to go for my one-hour conversation practice with Lala (miss) Leila (Leila.) We hold it at the McDonalds each day. So, I come back to the Villa, not expecting to be exposed to madness from beyond the other side of sanity, and I see the sweet old man that guards the door wandering the garden with a plastic bag. So I go to chat with him. I must have shown an interest in the bag, or he must have been proud, because he offered to show me its contents. I thought, surely it’s something normal, perhaps shoes, perhaps mint for tea, perhaps a book.

THE BAG CONTAINED A HORDE OF WRITHING, SCREAMING SNAILS.

Now, I didn’t know snails can writhe. They can. I didn’t know that they can scream. They can. And the worst part is, they don’t just scream: they scream in Arabic. I will forever be haunted by the sound, thousands of struggling snails, high-pitched snail voices rising like a horrible tide: EEAWNIIIII! EEAWNIIII! EEAWNIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII! That’s help me, help me, help meeeeeeee, if you’re wondering. When it rains, as it is currently doing here, they appear by legions, and apparently, they are scooped to their doom by the man that looks like a tan, mustachioed version of my grandfather.

 When I close my eyes, I see screaming snails. I can feel their tiny non-eyes on me. I can still hear their tiny voices. BRIIGHTNA-EK TEEAWNIII! Surely this shall drive me mad. I can already see myself, curled up in a dark room with no furniture, late at night, my eyes red, gibbering the words of insanity to myself while the silhouettes of hidious shells dance on the wall. My life has been destroyed.


Djinn?

October 23, 2007

So, someone pointed out that the creepy shit that happened to me late at night in the sahara might be the work of Djinns, (one of) a kind of Islamic devils. That’s a super simplification, but anyway, take this into account:

FACT: Allah commanded the Djinn to live in places far from humans. For instance, the sahara desert.

FACT: You can only see a Djinn if it wants you to see it. I could not see the source of the voice inside the oasis, and only got a vague feeling of where it was once I went walking around.

FACT: Djinn are drawn towards people that are far from Allah. I’m no theologian, but I’d doubt I would be considered far from god. That being said, I was climbing that dune with the sole intent of shouting profanity at the stars. So is it really a shock a djinn made me barf?

Anyway, I don’t know a whole lot about djinn. But that’s what I’ve got so far. I may have run into the devil in the desert. So I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to any spirits I may have offended, and I promise that I have learnt my lesson. No more dune climbing and profanity shouting for me (in Morocco.)

Be seeing you.


Sahara Desert Trip Part III: Lost in the Bottom of the World

October 21, 2007

This is the third part of a long story. Scroll down and read parts I and II first. I’m afraid I insist. 

So, dinner was over and wee were sitting around having a few drinks and listening to music. The ladies tried to get me to dance but, for some reason, ever since 8th grade when I started going to school dances and everyone else knew how to dance but I never caught on, I refuse to do so. Not because I want to refuse (though it should me mentioned that a real man doesn’t dance, not like this anyway) but because I go into some sort of Autopilot mode when asked to dance. Ahem. Anyway.

So an hour or two goes by. Next to the Oasis is an enormous dune, the largest that I’d seen in the entire desert, and I’d made my mind up on sight to climb it. I thought others were of the same mind, but it turned out I was on my own if I wanted to climb it. I made, of course, the wrong choice and left the group, setting out upon the dune by myself.

I was soon joined by a fellow who would shortly distinguish himself by leaving my wheezing, coughing ass about a third of the way up the dune and continuing to the summit alone. Here’s the thing: climbing a dune is hard: every step up sends you sliding half a step back. After a few minutes, my heart was pounding and I was struggling to breathe. But I persevered. About half way up the mountain, something strange happened: I became suddenly and violently ill. I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but the short version is that I made a sound sort of like someone murdering an accordion and launched a gallon of half-digested food into the air downhill. It was gross.

But gross though it was, I carry the Sakulich gene that makes me stubborn in the face of all logic, reason, and entreaties. I continued to crawl to the summit. At one point, as I lay gasping in the sand, I knew that I could, if I really forced myself, climb to the top. However, for the first time in my life, I decided that carrying through on the hard thing to do propelled solely by a stubborn defiance wasn’t what I felt like doing that night. That, if anything, is a sign of personal growth. I returned to the camp, stumbled past the dinner table where most people were still sitting, and collapsed into bed. After drinking as much water as I could, I fell into an uneasy and angry sleep.

I was woken up by a fellow camper. I must have already been awake, though, because I remember seeing him sit straight up on his mattress, scream, and sprint out of the tent and into the night. That seemed odd at the time, and I remember thinking it was one of our hosts who was surprised he’d fallen asleep in a guests bed. But who knows?

What got me out of bed, though, was that I had to use the bathroom. Terribly. I bundled up, stumbled into the night, found my favorite tree, and did what people do when they need to go. As I walked back to the tent, I looked up into the sky.

The moon had set behind the dunes and every star that has ever been created was in the sky. Thousands, tens of thousands of them, crowded together like snowflakes. The pale milky way arched over the oasis, and even the faintest star was brighter than the brightest thing I’ve ever seen in the skies above the United States. They were all twinkling, and shining, and I just stood there with my head pointed to the sky. I sat down at the dinner table and just stared. Every few seconds or so a shooting star, or comet or meteor or whatever, would streak across the sky. There is no way I can ever see a night sky that will ever come close to comparing to that sky.

I don’t know how long I sat there and stared. I think it was an hour or two. I don’t know what time it was, though it had the smell of about 2 or 3 AM. I just sat there and looked at the stars. And nothing happened.

I sat there and stared up into the most perfect night sky imaginable, in the closest thing to a place of untouched natural beauty left on the face of the earth, an infinity away from everything I know, a lifetime away from everything I ever thought I would be capable of doing in my life, staring up at the complete spectrum of god’s creation, and the entire time I might as well have been cooking breakfast. I sat there and watched the sky, and I know that it was beautiful, and I know that I will never see anything like it ever again but that’s as far as I can appreciate it, and not a single deep thought or philosophical awe or personal revelation came to me.

Maybe I’ve used up my quota of deep thoughts involving the sky. Here at the villa, I like to sit on the roof and look at the stars and have a goodnight beer, and think. I’ve thought deep thoughts sitting on the villa rooftop, and here I was in an oasis under conditions a thousand times more beautiful, so surely I should have thought thoughts a thousand times deeper. And not a single damn thing happened. To be honest, as much as I was awed at the majesty of the night sky, I was confused at my incapacity to be awed by the majesty of the night sky. I kept thinking “…and?”

I sat like that, staring at the sky, for a while, and then went and got my blanket and pillow and slept on the carpet outside. It was cold, by the way: I had on a quilted shirt, long johns, hat, scarf, gloves, and blanket, and I was a little chilly. This entire time, it was totally silent, the only sounds being the wind in quietly howling through the trees and the occasional camel farting.

I don’t know what woke me up after that, but it was spooky as hell. When I looked out at the dunes, I thought I could hear talking from behind me, and when I got up to stroll around, I think someone a ways out in the dark walked around with me, and stopped moving whenever I stopped. I couldn’t figure it out, but it had me spooked. In fact, it might have been a nightmare for all I know. I said to hell with it all, returned to the tent, and slept in the corner with my knife on top of my bag.

The next morning, it was back on the schedule: up for tea, onto the camel, double time to the hotel, shit, shower, and shave as fast as possible, eat quickly, then back on the bus ASAP for the ride home at 200 kph. It was strange. This country is so laid back, but this trip was like a grade school trip where the teachers didn’t like you and just wanted to get home.

Overall I give the trip 3 out of 6 burgers. The scheduling sucked, I got explosively ill, things were just all around bad-dream-weird, and my hands stink of camels, but on the other hand, I rode a camel, got to see the endless expanse of the Sahara’s dunes spread out before me, and saw the greatest night sky any human being could ever hope to see. And I got to see a sahara sunset and sunrise. I’d do it again. But not before I can walk straight again.

Be seeing you.


Sahara Desert Trip Part II: Riding Through the Desert on a Camel with No Name (Later I Named Him Sidi Djej)

October 21, 2007

Before the Big McTasty I just ate, we had gotten to the hotel in Merzouga. After some time sitting, we got onto our camels at roughly 4 pm. Camels are weird looking, and their faces closely resemble those of Llamas, my favourite dromedary. They are, however, inordinately uncomfortable. My children are going to be born with headaches, and that’s all I am going to say about that.

So the 14 of us board our camels, which much have been the most docile, pony-like camels on the face of the earth. Imagine a 26 year old at a child’s birthday party riding a pony. That’s what I felt like, though I ignored that feeling and spent most of the ride shouting “WOOOOOO! I’M ON A CAMEL!” Also, I named the camel I was riding Sidi Djej. That’s Moroccan for “Mr. Chicken.”

So we all get on our camels, and then a guide comes around and ties each camel to the ones in front and behind of it. Sort of a camel caravan. Then, a guy in a turban and nikes took the reins of the lead camel and led us into the desert. The desert is amazingly beautiful, though, there’s not really a lot to see. After the initial wonderment at the absolute startling beauty of the desert, the dunes sort of blended together. We were told some mountains in the distance were Algeria, and the ride lasted two hours. It was really beautiful, to the extent that I can’t describe it, but the amazing beauty was interrupted every 3 seconds or so by the saddle kicking me in the crotch. So call it  a Phyrric Victory.

The weather was perfect: overcast and cool. I didn’t break a sweat the entire time, and forgive me if I say that that’s one aspect of the genuine experience I am glad to have missed.

We arrived at the Oasis at which we were to stay the night. It was as startling as it was beautiful: we just rounded an enormous dune, which will come up in conversation later, and a little hollow below us was suddenly full of trees. I think the word that best describes it is spectacular. So the camels dropped us off (by this point, I was sitting sidesaddle, which alleviated the indescribably groin torture, however, transferred that torture to my buttocks) and I hobbled into the Oasis.

 The ground was sand, but palm and olive trees, as well as a gazillion little bush like things, were sprining up all over. There were carpets laid on the ground, and some low tables with little stools for eating. The place was lit by candles in wrought-iron lanterns, which was beautiful. However, that’s something I don’t understand: between the killing time in the morning and in the afternoon, we could easily have arranged to arrive during daylight. But we got there after nightfall, and if there’s one thing I wasn’t going to do, it was explore the dunes at night. Considering that this trip was planned to the tenth of a minute and was the first time I’ve felt rushed doing anything in the Maghreb, this is mildy infuriating.

So we wait for a while, checking out the place and looking at the low berber tents (each of which contained 6 mattresses for sleeping on) and sort of milling about. At this point, a bunch of drug-dealing spaniards on dirtbikes and quads showed up. You know what? If you got to one of the most beautiful places on the earth, the last place unspoilt by the hands of man, and you hop on a motorcycle, you’re an asshole.  The end. And that’s not even counting the drug dealing, damn you.

So dinner was rice and vegetables, and then a meat tagine. At this point a few individuals distinguished themselves by hogging all of the food and generally making a nuisance of themselves, ‘borrowing’ food, drink, and so on off of others. But I didn’t care: night was here, and the sky was full of stars. I certainly wasn’t going to let a few bozos ruin it the night.

Unfortunately, the sky was also full of clouds, but those were burning off. The half-moon was high in the sky, and brighter than the sun. And yet, somehow, I could see a grand total of eight or so stars. I had no explanation for it: it looked exactly like the view from the roof of the building I am staying in. So we gathered around the table, our hosts brought out some drums, and we passed around a spot of scotch to help digest and wait for the moon to set.

I’m hungry again and this is very long. More later.


Sahara Desert Trip Part I: Hot Beer, Cold Women

October 21, 2007

I got back an hour or so ago from a trip to the far south east of Morocco: a town called Merzouga bordering the Sahara desert.

We left friday afternoon. I packed plenty of water but, foolishly, little food. A hoagie or something would have been excellent for the trip down. After about 5 hours of driving in a chartered minibus (there were 14 of us altogether) we stopped in a small town for lunch. We had a meat tajine, but unlike Fes where such things are made with ground meat, it was made with cubed meat, sort of like beef stew. It was pretty good. We went to a little shop across the street so that some folks could buy scarves, which were reasonably priced. Everything else we asked about, however, was priced out of all reason. As I’ve mentioned before, though, I don’t mind that. I understand that there’s a tax on being a foreigner here, and it’s usually a relatively minot amount. Also, for some reason, the prices were in Euros.

After driving for another hour, we stopped at our hotel. It was probably the nicest place in which I have ever stayed. It catered to European tourists and the only word I can think of to describe it is lavish. It was sort of like disneyworld with no rides, if that helps. We sat about by the pool for a while for a few pre-dinner beers. The bartender, for some reason, gave me 2 euros as change, which is more or less useless here in Fes. While we sat, some performers began playing traditional Moroccan music (or, I suspect, what they think Europeans think traditional Moroccan music is) to accompany belly dancers. I didn’t know they had that here, but apparently in border regions with some Algerian influence, it’s not uncommon.

So we’re sitting there, listening to the music and telling various bragadocios and drinking various beers, when the musicians get up and come over to our little table. Nothing wrong with that. However, the belly dancers decided, against all logic, that I was the richest, or the hunkiest, guy at the table, and proceeded to dance within two inches of me. Now, I’m not a brave person, or a smart person, or even much of a person at all, but this was the most uncomfortable I’ve been so far in Morocco. When I bought a fez from the angriest man in the Medina, it was an easy, relaxed time compared to this. One moment I’m a-having a beer, and the next, I’m being deafened by thundering drums while strange women on all sides of me have narrowly controlled seizures. If it had gone on for another minute or so, I would probably have panicked and turned over the table trying to get away.

Instead, the woman nearer to me, who had her hands pressed together as if she were praying, popped them open. Inside was a 20 Dirham bill. She said something quiet in French, and when I just stared at her with wild and confused eyes, she popped her hands shut and the bill disappeared. Asking for a tip? Selling me the drugs (or something else)? I have no idea. But my reluctance to engage her quickly shifted their attention to another table and left me alone. For the rest of the day I was jumpy, thinking that jingling hookers were going to drop out of the sky and accost me.

Dinner was fantastic, but staying at this place made me sort of uncomfortable. Me and my mates were staying in the absolute lap of luxury, and I’m sure 1000 feet outside the gate, someone was surviving on $1 a day in utter poverty.  I have trouble justifying to myself staying in luxury when the town around me is dirt poor. I guess it would be different if millionaires were waiting the tables. Then I’d enjoy myself unconditionally. And be kind of a jerk about it.

At dinner, the musicians were back, and I made accidental eye contact with a belly dancer. Thus began an intense 2-minute ballet as I used tables and people standing around as chaff to avoid them. I fled. The next day we woke up and… sat around for 5 hours. After breakfast, we just had like half a day to kill. I finished the First Part of Henry the Fourth and got a bit into the second. I should also mentioned that a waiter said hello to me in French, and I responded in Arabic and asked him how his day was, and he was so surprised that he just sputtered words for a moment.

Then, it was 2 hours to our hotel. We had lunch somewhere, I think, though I don’t really remember where, and travelled south. At first, we passed plenty of little towns that made one thing clear to me: this is the place for a cement chemist. Every single building is made entirely out of cement. We also passed the occasional shepard in a tent or home made of wood and garbage.

After getting through inhabited areas, we travelled through a landscape more reminiscent of the moon than the earth. Imagine a completely flat plain that extends to mountains at the horizon, covered in a mix of sand and football-sized jet-black rocks. It was surreal, beyond surreal.

Merzouga is a strip of a town huddling a strip of trees on one side and the Sahara on the other. It seems to be made mostly of hotels. We didn’t stay in ours: we just dropped off non-essential supplies (I removed all but my cold-weather clothes, water, and scotch) and locked the room. Then, it was out for more waiting in a tent. I’m not sure what the deal with all the time to kill was, and you’ll see why it seems strange to me in a minute.

I am tired and hungry and my ass hurts from the Camel. I’m off to eat. More later.