Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Morocco, fin

It's true every time I go somewhere.
At first, I have plenty of blogging time and you get every little detail.
Then I get more involved in the reason I went wherever, and posting falls off.
For the last days, you're lucky if the end of the adventure is posted at all. What with being submerged by the pile of mail waiting on my desk, you understand.

I did spend a day and a half more in Rabat & Salé. Did I tell you about the gala dinner for the conference Friday evening? Ah, yeah, typical conference gala, plus 80 % of the conversation in Arabic. 20 % in French is not enough to get by, so I spent most of the evening just watching people and fiddling with my water glass and wondering when I'd be allowed to go home. Last tram to Salé at 11:30: do I make a solo break for it, or wait for an occasion to take my leave more politely?

Strange that in Morocco the munchies to keep you alive until real food is served are mostly sweets. Even the beverages were fruit juice. I like honey-soaked pastries, but enough is enough. They finally served the meal at 10:45, and then with such haste! The servers were whisking our plates for one course away before half the diners had finished them. I tasted just enough to be polite. All the rich food was getting to me, plus the LOUD music and the incomprehensible conversation.
My host Abdé and I were not the first to leave once it was polite to do so, but almost. Thanks, Abdé!
The night was not a comfortable one, and by the time the 5:30 call to prayer sounded, I had definitely decided to flake on my 7:45 train to Marrakech.
4h15 to get there, a big lunch put on by my friend Badia, then 4h15 to get back? Even travelling 1st class, you can't count on the toilet being anything near clean. My guts were Not Happy at the prospect. They were not happy at all. My stomach was on strike, my intestines catching up, and eventually I spent the entire morning in bed, and the whole afternoon lounging on the roof terrace.

No photos, no adventure. A bit of reading. Lots of napping. Thank goodness it was just an overload of rich food and fatigue, and not a real tourista bug.

Sunday morning I was better. A day of fasting and paracetamol did me good. I didn't get out all that early for a stroll around the kasbah in Rabat, but I spent an hour and a half on my feet before catching my plane back to Paris, and then a quiet evening catching up on the books I'd hauled around for so long.

There might be some last photos of Rabat soon, but maybe not.
After two more days in Paris, going to a meeting and catching up with my friend Letitia, it was blissful to get back home to my sweetheart and the cats and my own bed. Next trip I will definitely take Jean-Philippe with me!

In fact, the next trip starts Sunday...

Monday, December 9, 2013

Friday morning at Chellah

The grand entrance
The ancient Roman residential district

The storks find the neighborhood quite nice

No ruins are complete without cats...

... or groups of schoolchildren

Some patience required

In the morning I don't let myself sleep too heavily after the call to prayer at 5:30. This morning is the start of the conference, and it's a bit away from the tramway so I need to plan enough time to find it. I'm scheduled as the second speaker, so I can't be very late. Good thing, too, because the tram is much slower than I thought it would be. They don't run very often, and when they do they are packed. It takes several tries to get the doors closed, and some people are left on the quay (or are they waiting for the other line?). We are squeezed in too tight to fall over with lurching to a stop. 
It's a good half mile to the conference site from the tram stop, but it's straight up the road, and passers-by assure me it's just a bit farther. I get there on time, which is really plenty plenty of time because this is Northern Africa and nothing, but nothing starts on time. Well, the train to Casa was on time. But nothing else is.
My host Abdel is very happy to see me. I forgot to send him a message before leaving Clermont telling him that I don't want to stay in the "5-star" hotel that's reserved for me, but in a small & intimate riad across the river.

Vignettes from the conference that show just how much they really need people to come and teach.
- A venerable professor stood up and went over some of the basics, such as the structure of nucleotides and an approximation of the genetic code. In explaining mutations, he was careful to specify that mutations on the X or Y chromosome would be passed on to any children (misunderstanding that is doesn't matter which chromosome is mutated, but that only mutations in germ cells can be passed on to progeny).
- A man sitting in the row behind me congratulated me on my talk, then wanted to know about the use of ethidium bromide. That molecule has been banned from the lab for many years now, and soon even its safer derivatives will be obsolete.
- A junior collaborator from Marrakech brought dozens of frozen tubes of blood with him for me to take home & analyse. Ehhh, even if I get through customs uncaught (and woe to me if I am caught - the likelihood of being caught is small, but the consequence large), I'm not going straight home and there's no way to keep them frozen in my Paris hotel. Not to mention the next three days I'm in Rabat - out of the question to ask my riad hostess to store them in her kitchen freezer!
- The meeting venue has big, comfortable armchairs, good light and sound, perfectly modern computer connections for the presentations. And yet, in the women's room, 2 stalls of 5 are working, all pit toilets, the one I tried has no paper, the floor a lake of water, and not even a hook for your purse or coat. Good luck staying clean there.
- Hey-O! Are any of the speakers actually here at the conference? The parallel sessions were supposed to be 4 in each room, but have been collapsed to a single session, and finally only 2 speakers can be found. At the plenary session following, the first speaker is absent. Well, it is one way to make up time for being over-long at the pauses.
- The auditorium is mostly empty for the science talks, but oh, the crowd of suits & ties waiting in the hall for the Grand Welcome Ceremony, complete with Ministers and
Various Dignitaries.
- Schedule? We don't need no stinking Schedule!  Stuff happens when it happens.
- Friday after lunch the hour of parallel sessions is again collapsed into one session. The announcement is for 10 minutes each, which is interesting given there are 11 talks on the list plus one that was skipped yesterday. 12 10-minute talks in an hour must be counting on a lot of attrition!
- When presenting a graph: PLEASE tell us which curve is which. And labelling the axes would be a definite plus.
- "BRCA genes: several mutations have been reported." Um, like tens of thousands.

So alright, it's not what you'd expect from an international conference in the US or Europe. It's important to keep coming to these things, and presenting things professionally and taking time to discuss with people at the breaks, because eventually the level will rise. Eventually, there will be a good give & take. Patience...!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

If it's Wednesday, this must be Casablanca

Wednesday I'm visiting friends of friends in Casablanca, an hour and 15 by train down the coast. T & V had wonderful things to say about their train from Marrakech, and I enjoy train travel in general. I like seeing everything in between. Mostly on this trip I keep my nose in my book, though. The windows are filthy, and the flat, dry countryside is dull and tired. Toward Casa the blue sky turns brown as we pass the industrial area. And then I'm there, and Bouchra greets me and introduces her friend and fellow A-T mom Latifa, and I'm treated to the contrasts of Moroccan life yet again.
Just beyond abandoned factories are acres of new construction. Across the boulevard from crumbling residential and small shop buildings is one of the largests mosques in the world. What a structure - rising white and green-roofed from the shore both imposing and delicate by turns, set out on a peninsula so you can get far enough away to take it in all at once. We don't find an easy place to park without going down into the underground garage, and we have lunch reservations in just a few minutes, so we decide to come back later. So I don't take any photos.
I should know better be now!
Lunch is at a fabulous restaurant hidden in a complex of shady courtyards behind a façade undergoing heavy renovations. Behind the dust and disorder, paradise.

Bouchra and Latifa ply me with questions while we wait for the other guests to arrive - Professor Bousfiha and his assistant, and another friend Wafa. Then we start all over once they arrive. These two women both have children with ataxia-telangiectasia, the disease I worked on for my dissertation, and a community I've kept in touch with over the years. My job has taken me in other directions now, but even my limited expertise is like pennies from heaven for these two. Latifa spent 3 hours on the train from Meknes just to see me here. What should the physical therapist pay particular attention to? What can we expect in the future? What cures are being worked on? Where can I take my child to get some real help? They have no support here in Morocco, aside from the good will and accumulating expertise of Pr B. He's a pediatric immunologist, which is very important to A-T patients, but there's no expert neurologist in the country, no oncologist with experience with these radio- and chemo-sensitive patients; and the physical therapists are just winging it.
We talk a lot, and also have lunch. Bouchra wants me to eat everything on the menu. I have to taste this, and have some of that. She orders me food enough for two or three people. It's all delicious, but please, leave me something to discover tomorrow! Then we have the servers take pictures of us, and she presents me with a gift - a traditional necklace displayed in a big frame. Thank you, thank you! I'm quite embarrassed to have forgotten the box of chocolates I brought for her from France. It's sitting in my luggage at the riad.

Once lunch is finally over, we have to take Latifa to the station for her train home, and then we have time to do one thing. The traffic is horrendous and there's no way to move around town quickly. One thing. Tour the gorgeous mosque? Or take a stroll around an area of traditional shops? I would like to pick up some Christmas gifts, and it is useful to have a pair of natives around for the bargaining... Naturally, I pick shopping.
Oh, and I do get some cultural tourism in there. We end up right next to King Mohammed VI's palace, and admire it from afar. It's a real pain when he's in residence, because they block off a lot of streets and make life difficult for the whole part of town. He's not In today, thank goodness.

The three of us window shop, and I end up with a nice shade for the ceiling light in my bedroom. Bouchra holds up a mirror in an intricate silvery frame, and I remark politely that it's well-made. Before I know it she's wrapping up two of them, one for me and one for our friend in Clermont, Mireille. How very kind! I'll be careful in the future not to admire anything heavy or large or delicate - I must get it all home somehow, and my last leg of travel is by train. Lots of hauling. We wander among the rug merchants and happen on one with a nice stock of persian silk carpets. I can't figure if it's Wafa or Bouchra who's looking to redecorate her living room, but we have them display carpet after carpet. We leave with none. I would have really loved to buy the spectacular 4x6 foot one with flowers and curlicues, but even in Morocco real silk carpets cost a fortune.
It's about time to elbow our way through the traffic to the station. You never know just how long it's going to take. Faster to walk, I'm sure! We get there with plenty of time to buy my ticket and read a few pages of my book. I would like to finish the book before leaving it at the riad in exchange for a non-fiction volume about a journalist travelling through the middle east. In fact, even if I don't finish my book, I'll leave it. It's a memoire of a year some English author spent in the south of France. I should really give up on reading those.
In my train car are a pair of Americans, students at the end of a semester in Morocco. 
Once in Salé, I hurry home to the riad. Double-time because it's quite cold out. I'm still stuffed from lunch, so just retire to my room with my computer to review my slides for tomorrow; and send a message home to JP.

Tuesday afternoon in Rabat

T & V are happy to sit around under the sunshade for the rest of the afternoon, but I'd rather get up and take a look around Rabat. If possible, I'll find the place in the medina that will sell me an adapter to charge my camera battery. Otherwise I'm sure to be out of power long before the end of the trip. So I take the tram across to the bigger city, and get off at the station named Tour Hassan.

This most impressive feature of the Rabat skyline used to be even taller, before an earthquake knocked off the top floors. Between the tower and the blinding white mausoleum of King Mohammed the V the open square contains a pillar for every day of the year. That's kind of fun. People get up on top of them, play hide & seek. 
The mausoleum is guarded at each door by armed soldiers in ceremonial dress. Quite impressive. At a side entrance where there's little traffic, I take a picture of the guard in his archway. I take it, and he beckons me over to show him, and we spend a minute looking at the last dozen of so I've taken. He seems so happy to have this little break in what must be an awfully dull day. Mohammed isn't going anywhere, and nobody is coming to defile the pristine marble tomb below. 

This guard is better off, however, than the horse guards at the entrance to the whole square. He at least may pace back and forth in front of his doorway. The mounted horses just stand there. And stand there, and stand there, accumulating an impressive pile of output behind them. How their feet must ache by the end of the day! I wonder how long a shift they work.

From there I stroll down to the medina. I have in mind that the camera shop was just outside the medina, right across the street at the western end. I'm at the southeast corner, so I can go fast by walking outside the wall, or slowly by walking inside. Half and half. The outside is just dull. The inside is a crush of people streaming between the shops whose wares spill out into the path. I'm walking directly into the lowering sun, but the other thing I remember from Jan's map (alas, I don't have it with me!) is that this is roughly the part of the souk I can find cheap sunglasses. No luck with that.
No luck with the camera shop, either. I'll just chose my shots and avoid using the flash.
With the sun goes the warmth of the day, and when I left the riad I was dressed for the weather as it was then - my lightest shirt, and my wrap left behind. So instead of shopping the souk for unexpected treasure, I hop on a tram back to Salé. Nice tramway, guys. I get off at the train station, which isn't the stop closest to the riad, but it's useful to know where it is for my morning train to Casablanca. But even on the far side of the Salé medina it's just 20 minutes to get back.

Dinner is another delicious home-cooked meal, though tonight the other women have decided to eat out, so it's just me. The bread is different again. The spicy green olives are perfect, and the moussaka with lentils may convince me that eggplant is a good vegetable. Best is the dessert. Not a moroccan dessert - Jan is English, and she makes desserts accordingly. Tonight it's a light lemon cheesecake, and it's glorious. Not the promised chocolate crust, but that's just fine.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Tuesday morning in Salé

The breakfast nook
 This is breakfast. Oh, I wish I could eat it all! The jam is so delicious I say I must take some home, thinking it's bought in the souk somewhere. In fact, Jan makes it herself, and she sets aside a jar for me. She's so kind! Everything is home made and organic - the breads, the yogurt, everything. The terrace is a bit cool when I first come up, but it warms quickly when the sun makes it over the rampart. You can't quite see the view of the city for the high walls.

At dinner last night I met two new friends, Trish and Veronica. Trish works at a university in Redondo Beach, California, so we have lots of commonalities there. Veronica is from South Africa and has lived all over the world. Interesting people. In the book about the riad, among the many things that can be arranged is a guided tour of Salé, and we decide to take one later in the morning. We also decide on massages and going to the hammam, at some point, perhaps more than once. But today a tour.
Being pretty much finished with breakfast when T & V start in, I go for a stroll down to the marina before the tour. It's a wonderful morning, with not many people out. I should get out even earlier tomorrow, for the beautiful light.

View downriver from the end of the marina

The working boats apparently don't get a manina
 The marina is not as I thought it might be, a place for the local fishing boats, but a place for pleasure boats. There aren't many in town today. Along the western edge of the marina, between the old town and the river they're building a totally new idea of Moroccan living; luxury apartment blocks with tree-lined spaces, and shopping on the ground floor. A row of cafés and restaurants worthy of any California seafront is being put in at the quayside. This could be anywhere in the world. There's not even the wonderfully intricate carved stucco or colorful tile work so typical of the country - just a very small touch here and there.
On the river, however, there are the local boats. Dozens of them seem to be fishing the river mouth. Or are they moored? No, it looks like some of them at least are really at work. There's a guy rowing, too, seeming to pull on some rope that must be attached to traps. A curious activity. I don't see the rowboat that takes people across for 2 dirhams a head. I'm not sure where to find it, but I'd like to.

The Kasbah area of Rabat
Our tour guide is our host, Rachid.
We don't go in the mosque, but rather explore the neighboring madrassa. The entry hall and adjacent prayer room are incredible. Floor to ceiling, every surface is either patterned tilework, gorgeously carved stucco, or beautiful woodwork. The building is 17th century, but it has been recently refinished.

I can appreciate how people are inspired to praise god in places like these.
Upstairs we see the miniscule rooms where students from families too far away to commute would stay. The cubicles are about 10 feet square, no window, common toilet down the hall, no closets or anything. The phone & electrical sockets are incongruous in this spartan setting.

Up more stairs and you can go out on the roof. The roof is just another room of a building in this part of the world. The top of the madrassa has the best view in town, and we can see the life of the medina in another sense, not from inside the warren of twisting lanes and covered souks and blind alleys, where you can only see a short way in any direction. From on high the medina is a harmonious patchwork of colors, mostly the rectangles of walls and terraces, sprinkled with round white satellite dishes and the green of treetops.
We visit some of the other buildings of the madrassa complex. The library has four rooms, one for books in French, one for books in Arabic, a reading room between them, and a more formal reading room where exams are taken. There's a custodian of the books, which are not numerous and which all seem to be at least two decades old and some a lot more. The students are not here. They have the world in their i-phones; what do they need with a library?

We go down to the ramparts keeping the sea at bay. Salé was founded by pirates, governed officially by pirates, and they built extensive battlements along the shore to spot, subdue, and capture any boat that came along. Rachid shows us the entrances to the prison where slaves from the european coast as far north as Ireland were kept. Some idle boys we see at the first entrance emerge from the second just as we get there. I imagine the dark hall underground must be nearly as disgusting today as it was then.

I was hoping for a place to walk along the shore, but looking north all I see is a wasteland of bare rocky coast covered with trash and spotted with men fishing or doing nothing in particular. Even if I wanted to pick my way through the debris, I'd be harassed by the men. Though the men here are largely well behaved, several times now when walking alone I've been approached by a man who insisted I was pretty or who wanted to show me something. They seem to think that women exist to be wives, so if you're single you must be looking. Or it's those loose Europeans - they'll do anything. I don't seriously fear being dragged off to an alleyway, but it's annoying the men just won't leave you to your business.

The Salé medina looks inward on itself, and although the houses along the western edge do have windows facing the sea, no building is oriented in that direction. There are no doors this way. All the streets end at the medina wall. As late as twenty years ago, Rachid says, they would close the gates at night, and if you were caught outside, you just stayed out. Now that the wall's defensive function is a thing of the long past, but things change slowly, and nobody in there considers the sea as an attraction to be embraced with a huge westward terrace.

Rachid shows us things we'd never have guessed, like the alley parallel to our street, which leads to structure covering a large pit, where a man shovels sawdust into the huge furnace that keeps the hammam hot. And the communal bakeries, one-room shops where there's a fire and an oven and two guys to tend it, and people bring their bread to be cooked. They bring it on a plank, covered with a distinctive cloth, then pick it up later. Many people don't have either hot water, so they bathe at the hammam, or an oven, so they have their bread and cakes baked down the street. 
We wind through the souks, with their endless shoe merchants and sellers of clothing. The gold sellers alley is said to be better than anywhere else, and they must be referring to the flash and bling of the workmanship. I like gold, but I'd like something more subtle. Jan says gold is 400 dirhams a gram, and silver 20. Buy by the gram, not the peice, and always negotiate in dirhams. 
There used to be a significant small textile industry here, but now the few carpet dealer we pass have mostly polyester goods made in China. A few local sources do remain, and we go into one shop where Rachid is friends with the owners (actually, since he's friends with everybody, that hardly specifies the shop!), and I see a deep blue bedspread that would be just the thing at home. It's too narrow for a double bed, so I'll use it to change the color of my couch. Rachid takes us upstairs to the workshop, where in one cramped room a man using a large loom to weave a beige and white cloth. Bags of wool for spinning are stacked behind him, so he must spin as well, before he can weave. It's neat to have a picture of the man who made my bedspread from scratch.

It's getting on to 2 now, and we did make a pitstop at the riad and at one point I had us duck into a bakery for tiny portions of olive & dried tomato pizza. When Rachid says it's this way back to the riad, we ask him where we might get a vegetarian lunch, and he directs us to a european-style restaurant at the marina.Certainly, he says, they will have paninis. 
There's only one restaurant open down there. The fancy ones at the end of the quay are just for dinner. And they do have paninis, just no vegetarian ones. What else they have is a lot of seafood, as one might expect from a restaurant at a marina. We have been strongly warned against having seafood at the marina by our hostess, Jan. We don't know why we should avoid it, only that we should.
I have the fried calamari anyway. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Quick look about Salé

I've been to Morocco twice already, both times to Marrakech. I thoroughly enjoyed my stays in the city, with the souk and the grand sites to see. My favorite part was the afternoon on the second visit when I piped up and said no to another historical tour of the city, in favor of a trip a little out of town. So we got to see some of the countryside, and a crocus farm and a canyon with a river where all Marrakech came to picnic in the mountain cool during the heat of the summer.
This time I'm in Rabat, and being much smaller and less touristy than Marrakech, I hope to appreciate the local life more.
I'm staying in a riad, one of the traditional North African houses with two stories built around a courtyard or simple light-well, topped with a terrace. In fact, I'm staying in the best riad in Salé, the town across the river from Rabat. 
Everything you want arranged, Jan and Rachid will arrange. They had their taxi pick me up at airport, which I guess is ordinary but usually I muddle through on my own. But then they'll arrange guides to show you around, transport everywhere, towels and suchlike for visits to the hammam next door, massages, they'll tell you just where to go for pottery or for sunglasses or for a replacement camera battery. With just four rooms to let, they have time to make just what you like for breakfast, and to pamper you in every way.

I have the African room, which gives directly on to the ground-floor courtyard and consists of a bedroom with a window on the courtyard, then three steps up to a bathroom which is blocked off from the sleeping area by a closet and a half-wall. It's decorated in rich browns and reds, with zebra stripes and elephants. The shower is simply a shower head in a corner of the room, and the floor sloping slightly down to the drain. Happily, there's plenty of place for your towel and things where they won't get wet.
Much as the riad is tempting to linger in - the terrace covers the whole footprint of the house, with pots of flowers everywhere separating lounge chairs here and breakfast tables there - the coast is more tempting still, so I go out for the afternoon.

 The ocean is so blue.
There are beaches in two cul de sacs where the river arrives at the sea, one on the Rabat side, and one on the Salé side. The sand goes inland for a few hundred feet, in relatively clean drifts and some buldozered piles, and the sand currently washed by the tide is clean, but the high tide line is a colorful zone of plastic bits and pieces of clothing and vegetable detritus. Soccer players are having a coaching session on the sand, being driven by their cheif to jog a little faster. People are scattered about, mostly couples having private conversations, and lone men with nothing to do. Along the stone jettys dozens of fishermen are trying their luck, and a yellow dog is sleeping contentedly on a dune.
 Between Salé and its beach is the cemetery, curled all around the south and west side of the hill. In Marrakech I was chased away from the cemetery gates be more than one vigilant Marrakechi. I was just curious to see, but that's apparently the problem. A cemetery is not a place for tourists. They're not my relatives, why should I gawk at them? Well, I can see that. I'll respect that. Walking around the curve toward the ocean front, the cemetery walls get shorter and shorter, and here's another opening. It's not like this cemetery is particularly private, so I pop in just to see. Ah, it's beautiful. The headstones are all ornately carved, and a lot of the elevated graves are finished in color tile.It's very peaceful, looking out to sea, with the noise of the road cut by the wall. Just as I feel a twinge of defiling the dead with my infidel presence, I turn and notice a pile of human feces just next to a white tile tomb.
Don't think I'll feel so bad about taking a few snaps after all.

Wandering around the medina and the souks is kind of strange. On one hand, I wanted something less touristy than Marrakech, where you feel like a mark all the time, people always selling, selling, calling out to you, trying to 'guide' you, offering you tea in their shop. Here there are no tourists at all. And yet, I feel even more out of place. Others of my kind might annoy me, but at least to the local people I'm just one more. Here, I'm not meerly an alien, but an unauthorized one. Who gave me permission to peer down that alley, or into that doorway, the people seem to say. I feel so nosy. 
Back at the Riad around sundown, the temperature plummets with the light, but I discover an electric heater in my room, and turn it on. Then there's to noise from the street which comes in the bathroom window and echos around the room. Closing the window does some good, but I do hope Salé is quiet at night. Though there will be the muzzein, of course.

All things come to an end

So here I am travelling again, and for the second time straight I arrived and started to unpack, and whaddya know, but I forgot to bring Maurice. In all my packing and planning, it never even occurred to me to stick the rabbit in the bag. And he was right there next to the tv. In plain sight. Watching socks and sweaters and books and adapters and etc and etc go into the bag. Maurice has been forgotten before, but always as a mistake. He made it onto the mental list of inclusions, and then got left on the table. If twice straight he didn't make the list, perhaps it's a sign that the time of rabbit-accompanyment is done. And that's fine. Next time I go anywhere, I'll have a real live companion along. I'm sure he'll wear rabbit ears if I ask him nicely.

Monday, December 2, 2013


 Alright, so you want to see the finished bathroom. We installed a long mirror with a shelf for stuff. It's a bit high, but aiming lower we kept hitting metal beams or something & that didn't work out. You have to be able to get towels onto the towel heater anyway, so it couldn't be much lower. There might be more substantial shelving waiting for me when I get home, depending on Jean-Philippe's ambitions while I'm away.
This is after most of the painting is done. I put some clouds in the corner, but am not really satisfied with how they turned out, so I'm letting that stew for a while. And that's it for the bathroom saga. I'm off to Rabat now, so there will be a new adventure soon.