Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Moroccan Intrigue

Today is our last day in Morocco. We are setting out for Madeira. It should be a four to five-day sail to get there. What a time in Morocco we've had!

We met another cruiser who was willing to look after Märzen, and that enabled us to make an overnight trip to Fez. The medina in Fez is a World Heritage site. They still make leather by hand using pigeon poo for the tanning process. It's an amazing labyrinth of old world skills
and traditions with a satellite dish on every roof.

It was a long day with a four and a half hour train ride followed by a cab ride to our lodgings then a four-hour walking tour of the medina. Afterward we made our way to a large fountain outside the walled medina to get a cab. The plan was to have the cab take us to a store that sold wine (none to be found in the old city) then take a cab back to the room. There are two types of people waiting for cabs at the fountain. Those that are smiling as they are being driven away and those who left standing on the curb thinking, "It's elbow time for the old lady behind the veil."

Another empty cab approaches and we lunge for it. A man to our right arrives at the cab at the same time and begins speaking Arabic. We do our best with French and English. The stranger to our right then starts speaking English. Oh yeah!

We tell him the name of the super market (got the name from the guide) we want and that our goal is wine. He tells the driver and the driver agrees. It is common to share a petit taxi in Morocco, so the English-speaking native takes shotgun and Shirlee and I slide into the back seat. As we start circling the fountain the English-speaking native suggests a closer store for buying wine and asks if we'd like to join him at a bar for a drink so that we could have a conversation about culture, life, and everything. We agree.

First stop was a Moroccan version of a liquor store. You point at what you want and it is wrapped and bagged then handed to you after you pay. BTW, Morocco makes outstanding Cab Sav. We get two bottles of wine then it's back to the waiting cab. Then a short trip to a hotel with a bar. Inside the hotel is a very smokey, dimly lit room with mostly men filling the tables. The tables are covered with 25 cl empty green beer bottles. Up to a case of bottles on some tables. There is also live music provided by a keyboard playing singer doing the latest in pop Moroccan tunes.

We get a table and a round of beers. The automatic round is two beers per person for a grand total price of eight euros. We continue our conversation from the cab about sailing, his business, food, etc. All the while I'm looking around the room and noticing the few women who
are there. Not only are their heads not covered, but they're drinking, smoking, and displaying a whole lot of cleavage. I figure out that there is a symbiotic relationship between the hotel and the women. Shirlee does not notice.

We finish our beers and Abdelmalek (yes, we have his name by now - Abdel for short - and have learned that he's a Berber) invites us to his shop for tea the following morning. We get the approximate location of his shop in the medina and accept his invitation for 10 a.m. tea. His shop is near the Blue Gate and next to the Banc Populaire. I buy the round, and we pile into a cab and he takes us to our hotel. What a day!

Next day after breakfast we head out to the medina in search of Abdel's shop. We find the bank and Abdel's assistant finds us and invites us into the shop to wait. Abdel then arrives and sends out for tea. We sit and visit and sip our sweet mint tea. I mention that I need to get some Moroccan olive oil before we leave, and Abdel offers to act as our buyer to get us the best price for the "best olive oil in the world." After some time we decide that we should have lunch
together before our 4:50 train. It is also decided that we should meet at 2:00 and go for chicken tangine. Shirlee and I wander off into the medina and the souk with visions of the fine Moroccan lunch to come.

Promptly at 2:00 we arrive at Abdel's shop and Abdel leaves to get the oil. He returns with a 1.5 liter bottle of olive oil and two 0.5 liter bottles of argan oil. Abdel explains that one of the argan oils is for external use only and the other is to be used sparingly on food like sesame oil. He asks me for 250 dirhams to replenish the stores working capital and we'll settle the entire transaction over lunch. I don't have the exact change and give him 300 dirhams. Then we go off to lunch.

Together we starting walking in a direction that leads out of the medina. As we pass a street food vendor in an alcove in a building Abdel stops and begins a conversation with the owner and employees. He is smiling and chatting away when suddenly a man lunges at him and hits the right side of Abdel's head with an open hand. Then an other man joins in the attack. Both are hitting him about the head and shoulders and pushing him into the food vendor's alcove.

There is much yelling and flailing, and a crowd quickly grows. People are trying to intervene and separate the attackers from Abdel. Ultimately the initial attacker is pushed out by a woman who is yelling at him and the other attacker is pushed out by two men. The two attackers head off in a direction that leads to the heart of the medina. Then Abdel emerges from the alcove, shaken, but under his own power and not bleeding. He tells Shirlee that he is OK and says that
he'll meet us at the station. Then he quickly starts walking out of the medina.

At this point we are standing there in slack-jaw shock trying to assess what just happened. Abdel disappears into the crowds, and I'm wondering what station: the police station or the train station. It also occurs to me that my oil purchase is with Abdel. We decide to head for the train station. We walk out of the medina and get a cab. The cab driver is an interesting fellow who wants to speak Russian with us.

We get to the train station and get our tickets and settle into a café that has view of the entrance to the station. We get some train station food (not chicken tangine) and wait. There is 10 minutes left before our train leaves, and Abdel rushes into the station carrying the oil. I wave him down and he joins us. There a couple of bumps on his head and his lower lip is bruised. He says he is more emotionally upset than physically hurt. He explains that he has been at the police station filing a report. He also said the the initial attacker was from a large Berber family in Fez and that he wanted Abdel to provide him an alibi for a theft. Abdel refused to lie to the police.

At this point we are out of time. We say our goodbyes and wish each other the best. What a day!

Fez: the big adventure

Trains to Fez run about every two hours, so we picked the one that put us at our destination around noon for check-in at our guesthouse at 1300. It’s an approximately two-and-a-half hour trip, but it took us more like four hours. We never did find out what the problem was, but the locals in our second-class car were also getting impatient with all the delays. Second class, we decided, is OK for short trips, but here wasn’t any air conditioning, and the seats were pretty hard. We booked first class for the return.

We were very pleased with our guesthouse (or riad), Riad Damia Fez. Riads are the traditional Moroccan house built around a courtyard. The floors, walls and ceilings of ours were covered with ornate woodwork, plaster and mosaics, truly a showcase of Moroccan artistry. Our room, a suite actually, also had beautiful handmade rugs, blankets, pillow and bedspreads. It was quite spectacular.

Courtyard—covered in our riad—as seen from our balcony

Our suite

Once we’d dropped off our backpacks, we used the map and directions the innkeeper had provided to head for the heart of the medina and the blue gate, Bab Boujloud. If we’d had a magnifying glass, maybe we could have read the map. We made several wrong turns, and even had lunch, before we asked directions close enough to the gate to be able to find it. None of the streets are straight, and many don’t look like streets at all since building go right over the top of them. It was kind of fun looking for the gate, though, and I bargained for a beautiful caftan and we had that wonderful tangine lunch on the way.

Our tangines: one meat and vegetables and the other chicken with almonds and lemon

The blue gate

Still, once we found the gate and confirmed that we had been in the medina the whole time, we were ready for a guided tour. Fortunately for us, a young Canadian couple (Mike and Jennifer from Ottawa) we spoke to had a guide for the afternoon (four hours) and invited us to tag along and share the cost. It was great! We got to see everything and learned our way around a little in the process.

One of the must-see sights in Fez is the tannery quarter. I’d been planning to miss it because of the smell (they use pigeon poo to bleach and soften the hides), but our tour took us there, and the next day we could tell the hustlers that we had already seen it. The smell wasn’t too overwhelming because they thoughtfully provide fresh mint to crush and hold under your nose to block the other odor. I used it a lot. The guide also took us into a medersa (alternate spelling of madrasa) and an herbal pharmacy and showed us the mosque and mausoleum of Moulay Idriss and the Al Qaraouiyin University, among many other sights. It was definitely worth the 100 dirhams, equivalent to about $12.50 USD, that was our share.

One of many mosques. The balls on the top, we learned, stand for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

Tannery work area. Open air is important.

Tannery co-op store with Mike bargaining for a pouf

A view of the interior of the university

John’ has written a post to tell the rest of the story of our Fez adventure, so stay tuned. It will be posted in short order.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Adventures in Morocco: Rabat and Salé

While I’m doing laundry before our day-trip into Casablanca, I’d better start to catch up with what we’ve been doing since we arrived, especially since we’re probably leaving tomorrow.

The marina (Marina Bouregreg) is on the Salé side of the river that divides Rabat, which is the capital of Morocco and relatively westernized, from the older, more traditional Salé. When we arrived, our pontoon was filled with boats with English-speaking people. Not just Juno, who we met in Gibraltar, but also Squander (British flagged with an Australian owner/skipper, another Australian crew member, and a woman crew member from Portland, Oregon), and Sunflower, another Australian boat that is spending the winter here with the crew on board. A day or so later a big U.S. boat, Moonshadow, and another Australian boat, Gone with the Wind, came in. On the dock we can chatter away at will. Ashore is a different story.

Looking back at the harbor entrance with Rabat on the left

Our first full day here we got approximate directions to the ATM machine from Sunflower. (The marina is lined with guards, many of them armed, but they speak Arabic and French, not English.) So we headed off to get some local currency, the Moroccan dirham (MAD), and take a look around. We found the entrance to the medina (the walled old city) and had paused to look around when I heard someone ask what we were looking for (in French). Delighted to understand the question, I told the young man we were looking for the bank (also in French), and he asked in English if we spoke English. (Yes, my French is that bad.) I was very happy that he spoke English until he led us through a maze of little streets to the ATM and then kept hanging out around us wanting to show us the mosque. John thought I shouldn’t have talked with the guy as it was becoming obvious that he was looking for a paying gig as a guide. That would have been OK, but his English was only marginally better than my French. We finally bid him a farewell that stuck at the covered market. “Not today” did the trick. We got what we needed, wandered around the medina some more and found our way back to the boat, but I was a bit daunted by the experience. Salé is definitely a Muslim town in Africa, and we’re not in Europe anymore.

A fish vendor in Salé medina. No, we won't be buying anything there.

The next day we walked into Rabat with the crew of Juno to visit the National Archeological Museum, have lunch and take a look around. This excursion restored my confidence a bit. I’d taken some notes about street names from Google Maps, and we found a hotel where we asked for directions and scored a map of sorts. When we were near where we thought the museum should be, we saw some sort of building with armed guards, and I went up to one of them to ask directions. From there it was easy, and the museum, although small, was interesting. Lunch was also good at a restaurant that I’d found in Lonely Planet online, and we walked back to the boat through Rabat’s medina with Edee while the rest of Juno’s crew took the train from Rabat to Salé.

Really? You can almost see it from here? Where?

Just one of the outstanding Moroccan dishes we tried at lunch. Rigel didn't seem that impressed.

Closer look at the cannons guarding the harbor from Rabat

We had talked about going to Casablanca with Juno’s crew on Saturday, but overnight rain created mud, and both crews stayed home. I spent much of the time trying to find a room for us in Fez for Sunday night. While I’d been awaiting a response from one website, rooms within our budget had filled up on another, so I was a bit worried. Edee had volunteered to stay with Märzen so that we could make the trip, but Juno’s sailing plans meant that we had to go Sunday or not at all. I could finally relax when I scored us a room in a guesthouse (riad) in Fez’s medina.

Our trip to Fez gets its own post later.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Gibraltar to Rabat, Morocco

We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Gibraltar! After two nights in the anchorage, we went into town and stopped by Ocean Village Marina Bay to find out about their marina rates. They were reasonable enough, and they have free wireless Internet, so we decided to go in. Of course, with free Internet you usually get what you pay for, and that was the case there too, but it gave us an excuse to visit a pub in the evenings that had good free Internet.

We met some nice people at the marina: Chris and Roy on Avocette of Portsmouth were especially friendly. They were just a couple of boats away, so we saw them a lot, and we might see them again in Madeira or somewhere else along the way. They’re headed in the same basic direction. We also talked briefly with Shirish, Edie, Orion, and Rigel on Juno, an American boat. We’re likely to get to know them better in the next week because they’re here in the marina with us. We could see Juno most of the way from Gibraltar because they left about when we did and go approximately the same speed. That was nice to sail in company for a change.

We also bought some stuff in Gib: new dock lines, a new main halyard, some single malt, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first Stieg Larsson book. Linda on Islay Mist gave me the second book, but everyone said not to read it until I’d read the first one. I hadn’t had any luck finding it used, so broke down and bought it new. Now I’m saving them for the big passage.

To me the best thing about Gib was being able to understand what was going on around me. I hadn’t realized that I’d felt isolated by not speaking the ambient language, but I guess now that I had. At the grocery store, for example, it was nice to be able to tell the one with only two items that she should go ahead of us. I’d been miming it for over a year.

We left Gibraltar the same way we entered it a year ago: in the dark. The timing of the tide meant that we needed to leave at 3 a.m. on Monday to minimize the adverse current. Fortunately, there was a moon, and we have lots of instruments to help us in the dark. It worked out beautifully. We crossed the shipping lanes just west of Tarifa, and once we got past Cabo Espartel we were able to sail for the next 18 hours. Most of the time the wind was aft of the beam and about 10-15 knots. Just right! John also caught three mahi-mahi and kept two.

To put a perfect end to the passage, we arrived at the mouth of the river at Rabat on a rising tide and were met by the marina’s dinghy to guide us in. (Juno got there ahead of us and told them we were coming.) The authorities weren’t bothered about the dog, and our slip in the marina is a side-tie with water, electricity and wireless Internet all included in the rate of less than 10€ a day. Woohoo! Solstice is truly out of the Mediterranean now.

(Sorry, no pictures. We took some video, but John will want to edit it. It’s a gray day here now, or we’d pop out and take some snaps for you.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Cartagena to Gibraltar

Our almost two weeks in Cartagena were productive and relaxing. We got some boat things taken care of: John polished the fuel in the starboard tank, I washed the boat, and we hired a mechanic to replace two pumps that had been leaking (we had the spares). We also had Toldos Segado ( do some repairs to our various canvas accessories and make us a sunscreen for over the salon or doghouse or whatever you call the main living area of a boat. Finally, the pup needed a good health certificate for Morocco, so we also had her teeth cleaned since we knew an English-speaking vet in Cartagena.

As we were finishing up these projects, we were looking at the weather and watching our window of favorable winds shrink. West winds were forecast for Saturday evening, and we're very tired of sailing into the wind. We decided to leave on Thursday, as soon as I got back from the vet's with the dog. There were a couple of little delays, but we did set out for Almerimar marina early Thursday afternoon. We almost went right back to Yacht Port Cartagena because we hadn't even left the harbor when our engine alarm went off. John tracked it down to a loose connection left by the mechanic.

After that we had a very nice afternoon. The mountains along the coast are beautiful, and we had good wind at first and could even sail for a few hours. When we reached our waypoint to turn off for Almerimar the next morning, we were several hours ahead of schedule, so we decided to push on for Gibraltar. The westerlies were still forecast for Saturday evening, but John had spotted an anchorage on the chart where we could duck in if need be. So we plotted a decision waypoint and kept going.

When we reached the decision point, we were still hours to the good, but we were going pretty slowly with current against us and no wind to help. The grib files now showed the westerly wind arriving mid-afternoon rather than evening. We decided to chance it. The anchorage didn't sound very attractive, and the forecasts said we might be there for days.

And we almost made it. After an excruciatingly slow night (2-3 knots, sometimes almost 4), we finally got some wind and picked up the pace. We were just over six miles from Point Europa just after noon when the wind, which had been easing and changing from east to southeast to south, suddenly moved to exactly against us and kicked up to 25 knots, gusting to 30. Cursing ensued. We brought in the jib and started zigzagging to get enough off the wind to maintain a little forward momentum. When the wind switched, it also started raining, so the Rock of Gibraltar, when it cleared enough to see it, looked very British in rain and clouds. Fortunately, the wind soon eased back down to 10-15 knots, and we were safely anchored at La Linea, Spain, just on the other side of the airport runway from Gib, shortly after 4 p.m. Saturday.

Our first night in the anchorage got exciting when a squall blew through in the pre-dawn hours. Our anchor alarm went off. We weren't dragging, but John was up to see another boat dragging down on us. The alarm went off a second time, but both alarms were due only to major shifts in the wind direction, not any problem with the holding.

We don't know how long we'll be here. It depends on the wind. Several boats left this morning, but, of course, we don't know which way they're headed. I'm guessing into the Med. We're thinking we'll spend a few days, so we'll at least get a little rest and check the forecasts before we go. We want to stop in Rota, Spain, before we go to Morocco to say good-bye to our friend Richard, who lives there now. We met him when we first reached Europe (Flores, Azores, July 2008), and it seems symmetrical to see him as we leave.

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