Posts Tagged With: family

Rice Paper and Russian Jeeps

Yeeee-hah! The oil pressure light is blinking angrily on the jeep dashboard and our driver swerves left to avoid running over a moped that’s just gotten knocked over by a car coming out of a side street. I’m standing up in the seat, snapping away, as whole families on motorcycles weave by us, waving and shouting Xin chào! (“Hello!”) at me. The cops are whistling like mad trying to clear the lane — the locals call them “Pikachus”, probably because of their yellow uniforms — and we cut right across a lane of traffic to barrel down an alley crammed with vendors selling bootleg auto parts, squeezing by with barely inches of clearance on either side. Then the heavens open up.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Yesterday was an interesting day.
It started with a visit to a local military cemetery, of which I infer there are many, given the number of casualties in the war. (They call it the “American War” here, by the way.) It looks pretty much like every other such cemetery that you’ve seen, dominated by an obelisk at the front with a commemorative engraving. Many of the headstones have pictures of the deceased. There is even a section for Gold Star Mothers who lost sons and husbands in the war; one, I note, lived to an astonishing 109 years old.
Hanoi IMG_6985-1
The caretaker is a small man about my age who as a teenager fought in the Viet Cong. He guides us in lighting some incense sticks at an altar in a small side building, then we all sit down to tea and he — through our guide, acting as interpreter —  relates some war stories. There are a couple of Vietnam veterans in our group, who as you imagine listen with considerable interest. And then it gets interesting: the caretaker tells how he was a scout, and that one of his big assignments was scoping out the defenses of a particular air base at Da Nang, preparatory to a huge attack. They launched rockets and brought down a bunch of incoming planes, including a C-141 cargo plane. “Wait a minute!” says Dave, one of our vets. “When was that?” The caretaker tells him the date, and Dave’s eyes grow wide. “I was there! We were in the bunker! I saw the C-141 go down!” They gape at each other. Welcome to Viet Nam tourism. I infer that this sort of thing happens a lot.
Hanoi IMG_7005-2

“Nice to meet you! Sorry that I tried to kill you!”

People are happy to talk about the war here. In fact, they’re happy to talk about just about anything, including how corrupt their government is in the traditional rapacious way, heavily influenced by China and generally illiberal despite the so-called “Red Capitalist” economy.  Because so many people speak freely, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that this society is much more open than it really is. We’re harmless tourists, though; printing the stuff they say to us on a leaftlet and handing it out on a street corner would get them a very long prison sentence. It is a less repressive government than China’s, but not by much: Vietnamese can use Google and Facebook  and even watch CNN and BBC on TV, but when there is any controversy afoot the TV broadcasts are delayed by an hour to let the censors edit them before airing.
We moved on from the cemetery to the village of Tho Ha, known for making rice paper. You get there by crossing an unattractive brown river on a flatbed metal ferry nearly as long as the river is wide; it pulls away from the dock, then does a three-point turn to basically rotate in place. Then you walk off the other side, accompanied by a dozen school kids on mopeds.
Hanoi IMG_7012 Tho Ha-3
Rice paper is pretty much all that anyone does in Tho Ha. There are 1000 households there, and 600 of them make rice paper. (Another 200 work at the nearby Samsung factory.) The narrow alleys are lined with bamboo frames of drying rice paper, each about the size of a window shutter. There are piles of them on rooftops, stacks leaning against the outside walls of peoples’ homes… they are everywhere.
Nothing goes to waste, of course: the scraps around the edges — from the rectangular sheets that get cut into circles — get mixed with chilies and garlic and sold as snacks. (Highly addictive snacks, I can report from personal experience.)
Our immersion in rice paper culture included trying our own hand at it; rather than using one of the machines that paints the liquid goop over the frame, the family we visited had us go old school, using a ladle and a hot surface, exactly like making a crepe. Here’s Alice in action.
Our hosts served us a truly glorious lunch that included about ten different dishes, all outstanding. Turns out he is a musician who gives lessons in a number of unfamiliar-looking stringed instruments, so he gave us a little impromptu concert, playing one piece on what he called a “short banjo” (shown below) and another on a violin-like thing.
Hanoi IMG_7077 Tho Ha-11
His closing number, incongruously, was “You Are My Sunshine,”, and we all sang along. Then it was back to the hotel, and a brief interlude chatting with Phil’s family, who live in Hanoi and stopped by to see Dad at work. He has two daughters, 15 and 9, and a very pretty wife, a former stockbroker. (How non-Communist can you get?) None spoke English, so Phil interpreted as his wife expressed her various welcomes and gifted us with some traditional small glutinous celebratory rice cakes. The 9 year old was a firecracker, prancing around and teasing her father, while the 15 year old managed a wan smile that clearly communicated that she would rather be somewhere else, e.g., a pool of boiling lava.
Then the jeeps showed up.
Phil has an entrepreneurial friend who set up an offbeat local tourism business two years ago and has enjoyed a lot of success by tooling small groups of tourists around in old refurbished Russian jeeps, taking to them rather non-standard locations around the city, e.g., the bootleg auto parts market I mentioned earlier. We were in three open jeeps, a copper-colored one and two gray ones, and we bullied our way through densely cacophonous Hanoi rush hour traffic to visit a tame little demimonde. It was an utter hoot, immersing you in the adrenaline of the city in a pleasantly visceral way.
Hanoi IMG_7140-4
That’s Phil in the purple teeshirt. And here we are in Hanoi traffic, which could be fairly described as “nutso”:
Hanoi IMG_7160-7
We got out in one of the alleys to visit a tiny little bakery of sorts where they were making the ceremonial cakes that Phil’s wife had handed out earlier. It was there that the monsoon finally showed up — it is that season here — but our jeep drivers handed out ponchos and we managed to avoid being utterly soaked. Still, splashing through those dark, wet, and generally filthy-seeming alleys while getting poured on was sweaty and not especially comfortable. The storm lasted less than 45 minutes.
Next jeep stop: Happy Hour at The Most Dangerous Restaurant In The World. That would be this one:
Hanoi IMG_7182-2
Yes, the table is sitting on a train track. What a cute gimmick! you are thinking. They’ve set up a restaurant on a decommissioned railroad track! And you could keep thinking that until 7:05 PM, when the staff moved the tables off the track, so that this could happen at 7:10 PM:
Hanoi IMG_7199-3
This is a significant incentive for the trains to run on time. Also not to linger over your pho.
After that thought-provoking happy hour, we were once again taken to an outstanding zillion-course meal, then brought to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum to witness the daily lowering of the flag. As you probably know, “Uncle Ho” (they actually call him that) was pretty much the father of Vietnamese independence, and is revered in much the same way that George Washington is in the US. The US never really understood that he was a Communist mostly by convenience; the Communists in the north didn’t really get nastily assertive as long as he was strong enough to hold sway, and it was largely as he sickened and died in the late sixties that things got nasty and the US went crazy. But in any case, he has quite the mausoleum, and the flag ceremony is performed every night with much goose-stepping and martial music.
Hanoi IMG_7225-24
You can actually go into the mausoleum to see his body, or you can try to: it is open for three hours in the morning, five days a week, so you can stand in line for an hour with (literally) ten thousand other people to get in.  Apparently, few of OATs past travelers felt that it was worth it, and so it was not part of our itinerary. Phil concurred that it wasn’t a good use of anyone’s time. I can’t say that we were disappointed.
And that was yesterday.
Today we visited the town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramics, and had a rather more conventional tourist experience that I may write about tomorrow. (“Here we are doing an extremely terrible job of making a clay bowl on a potter’s wheel!”) We leave Hanoi tomorrow morning, and will be spending tomorrow evening sleeping on a junk (the Asian boat, not a pile of debris in an alley) on Ha Long Bay.
I’ll close today with a photo of one of the many back-alley eateries one sees here and throughout Asia. Nothing remarkable about it — I just like the shot.
Hanoi IMG_7189-21

 

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Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fez: Painted Pots, Nonexistent Jews, and Oh My God What Is That Smell?

Long day today and an early wakeup tomorrow for the long trip across the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara, so this post is likely to be longer on pictures than the usual mordant commentary. And because it is late I am probably not going to be doing a whole lot of proofreading,  so be prepared to endure a heavier than usual dose of Autocorrrect Surrealism.

Before I begin, though, I need to correct an error in yesterday’s post that Alice discovered. It appears that I killed off Moulay Ismail’s imprisoned architect for the wrong reason. He was executed not because he claimed he could build a greater-than-12,000-horse stable, but rather because he said he could build a better city gate. So now I have set the record straight, not that this helps him.

I also want to make a retroactive addition to yesterday’s narrative, because we had a very interesting encounter in the hills that I forgot to mention. I did say that a number of farmers make a hardscrabble, living coaxing olives and hazelnuts out of the brown  hillsides, but I neglected to mention that snails were also on the menu; the Moroccans inherited that particular culinary quirk from the French, and also consider them aphrodisiac for God knows what reason. So bags of snails nagging by roadside stands is a strangely common site, like this:

I also neglected to mention that a conversation with one of the roadside farmers led to an invitation to walk down the steep dirt path to his home for a visit; he lived with his mother in a small cluster of one-room buildings, very dusky and a little primitive inside but not altogether crude: he had a two-burner propane stove, well water, and electricity. He also had a wife, who had decamped to Spain because, well, it was nicer there. He was saving up money to join her, but in the meantime his companion and farm hand was Mom, whom you see here. She had been married off at 12 years old and had three children besides our hazelnut farmer. The two of them were very gracious to us.

I mentioned that we visited Momo’s apartment and met his family, and told you that his wife Amal had prepared a sumptuous snack table for us. I wanted to include a photo of said pastry extravaganza but had trouble uploading the image, which I hereby offer for your enjoyment. The incidence of diabetes in this country is very high, which is no mystery whatever. Moroccans love their cakes and cookies and are diabetically good at producing them.

 

I also tried to convey a sense of our centuries-old riad, and described how the owner greeted us in the atrium and told us about the history of the place. Here is a photo of that scene. It in no way resembles a Holiday Inn. Our room is on the top floor, and directly above us is a terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city.

Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, and because it sits among the hills there are a few places — not just our riad rooftop, from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of it. Here is one taken from across town.

If you were able to zoom sufficiently far into this picture one of the things that would strike you is that every, and I do mean every, home has a satellite TV dish on the roof. The paraboloids are so ubiquitous that they are sardonically referred to as Moroccan Mushrooms. I found their ubiquity a little odd: with such rampant poverty, how is it that everyone can afford satellite TV? The answer, explained to me by our local guide, lay in a factoid that I offered a few days ago, namely that Morocco has no intellectual property laws. That means that any enterprising electronics technician with a grounding in cable box encryption and a touch of piratical larceny in his heart can build a bootleg cable box that can receive and decide the satellite signal, and sell said box for a couple hundred dollars. That may sound like a lot but it’s a one-shot deal: you save up your dirhams until you can buy one of those bootleg set-top boxes, and you are set forever: 1200 channels and no monthly subscription fees, forever. And that explains why those dishes are everywhere.

Armed with that particular useless bit of knowledge (useless to us, but very handy for the locals), we set out for our day tour of Fez. The city really has three parts: the medina in the old city, which dates from the 9th century (that is really old, people!); the so called New City, which is a still-wet-behind-the-ears 700 years old; and an actual modern downtown area. Our first stop was the Ibn Danan synagogue (there is one other) in the so-called mellah, or Jewish quarter, of the New City. It is small and no longer functioning as a place of worship, maintained instead for historical purposes through various grants. Here is our local guide, the very articulate Hisham, showing us the Torah scroll. (The scroll, though real, is no longer consecrated and cannot be used in an actual service.)

I assume that there is some kind of selection effect at work since we are an American tour group (despite my being the only Jew in it) but I continue to be bemused by the astronomically disproportionate frequency with which the Jews pop up in our tour guide’s expositions and in our sightseeing. It seems like we are constantly hearing about one  or another Jewish quarter, or synagogue, or historical personage, or edict, or what have you, such that an uninformed tourist might reasonably conclude that Jews make up about 10% of Morocco’s population instead of the actual 0.008%. Strange. And it is also a result of this phenomenon that every time something about Morocco’s Jews gets mentioned, everybody instinctively turns to me for more information as though I were somehow automatically imbued with this knowledge by virtue of having been Bar Mitzvahed 49 years ago. (News flash: I wasn’t.)

Anyway, having satisfied our daily Moroccan Jewish History quota, we moved on to a pottery collective. It is a collective created for the purpose of preserving the craft, which used to be handed down from father to son but is now threatened by globalization, the figurative sons now being more interested in more 21st century pursuits. Here is one of the potters at work:

There were a lot of beautiful things been made, and of course being sold: tile tables and fountains, and all manner of pottery even including — wait for it — mezuzahs. (For non-Jewish readers, that is the usually oblong religious talisman placed on the doorframe at the entrance to Jewish homes.) We were walked through the grounds watching men of various ages mix clay, fire pots, lay out tile mosaics, etc.; women were employed only in the pottery painting stage. At the end of the tour we were inevitably led to the gifts shop, which I will grudgingly respect for having high quality stuff. Our credit card balance did not escape the gift shop unscathed.

From there we moved into the Old City, dominated by the medina. Like the other medinas and souks we have visited, this one was a crush of humanity and an assault on the senses, this one even more so that the others because of its partially ceilinged and thus more claustrophobic quarters. Its size distinguishes it as well: we were told that there were 62 miles of streets (!) and that if we became separated from the group that we should not wander around to try and find our guide, but rather should stand still and wait for him to backtrack to us. Otherwise the risk was that one would end up wandering the maze forever, lost in sensory overload until eventually giving up and opening a bakery. Anyway, here are some scenes of the medina. First, the crowd itself:

And that is a wide part of the street. The danger — and I am not kidding here — is that the density of people is so high, and the streets so narrow, that there is an actual risk of being run over by a donkey carrying some merchant’s wares, like these guys carrying tanned animal hides:

And here is a fish merchant. Notice the shark’s head, standing on end at lower right.

And now a butcher. Yes, that huge grotesque thing hanging in the foreground at right is a decapitated camel’s head. Yes, they eat camels. No, we haven’t tried it. The heads make great Christmas presents, though.

As I’ve mentioned before, the medina is a 360-degree assault on all five senses, very alien but oddly exhilarating. But the hubbub is punctuated by unexpected islands of serenity, small quiet mysterious alleys that radiate off the Main Street and force you to wonder who lives their and what they do. I was photographing one of these, all in shades of white and gray, strangely bleached in comparison to the riot of color elsewhere, when a young boy jumped out of nowhere into the frame, grinned at me, and disappeared again. Here he is:

Our meandering a through the medina led us to a leather tannery (and store, of course). The store is at street level, and the owner asked us if we wanted to go upstairs to see the tannery itself, which of course we did. Before marching us up three floors, though, he handed each of us a sprig of fresh spearmint plant without explanation. Its utility became nauseatingly self-evident as we climbed the stairs, the stench of dead meat and ammonia growing unbreathably stronger with each step. Sure enough, by the time we reached the top we were holding the spearmint beneath our noses on every other breath to keep from gagging; we needed it like a scuba diver’s air hose. It was by a very wide and unpleasant margin the worst thing I have ever smelled.

And here’s the punch line: the actual tannery works are at street level behind the building. That is, we were going up to the roof to get AWAY from smell. Variously holding our breath and breathing therough the spearmint leaves, we took our photos looking down on the operation while trying not to imagine what the odor would be like at close range. So here is the view, which I assure you does not remotely convey the experience, for which you should be very, very grateful. In fact, benign words like “smell”, “odor”, and “aroma” are entirely unequal to the descriptive task. “Stench” starts to approach the concept but still falls a long way short; the English language needs some altogether new word to describe the olfactory sensation. Something like “glarrrrghblechomygodgag”, which I admit looks a little Welsh but which is definitely moving in the right direction. See what you can come up with. (I can hardly wait to read the comments section of this post.)

Photos taken, we got the sales pitch back in the store. The leather goods were indeed beautiful and the prices reasonable but by no means negligible. Alice came close to buying a jacket but eventually decided against it, apparently emotionally wounding the salesman to the point of suicidal depression as he followed us out into the street and down the block.

Our final stop before dinner was at a madrasah, which is to say, a religious school. The madrasahs serve as both schools and a sort of community center and are deeply rooted in history. The one we visited dated from the 14th century, spectacularly ornate with calligraphic carvings and geometric colored tiles tesselating every square foot. They were in remarkable condition after 700 years, especially considering that the courtyard is open to the elements at the top. Here we are in the front courtyard:

We ended the day with another home visit, this time to a delightful middle class family living in the modern downtown part of the city. Father was a waited and had to work, and so we had dinner with mother Hadija; her 23 daughter Loubnna (in her second year of medical school); her 22 year old daughter Fatima (studying economics), and her 15 year old son Otman (high school). Their English was pretty good, especially Loubnna’s, though we occasionally fell back on French. They were more than gracious, very warm and welcoming and eager to share their lives with us and ask about ours. We were there for about two hours and enjoyed every minute of it. I took some pictures of them, and they of us, which Fatima wants to share through Facebook. So I guess I am about to become Facebook friends with a 22 year old Moroccan girl. (The 23 year old, Loubnna, says that medical,school keeps her way too busy for Facebook.)

And that was our rather long day. Tomorrow may be even longer, most of it on the us as we head to the desert. I suspect that Internet connectivity may be spotty for the next four or five days, but I’ll do the best I can.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Fez Up! (or, Cranking Up the Volubilis)

We are now heading inland, and as we move further from the coast the weather gets noticeably hotter and drier over a surprisingly short distance. We are approaching the Atlas Mountains; whereas the Rif mountains delineate the wild and wooly northernmost part of the country (centered, more or less, between Tetuan, Casablanca, and Chefchaouen), the Atlas range sets off the Saharan south. So as we head east and south and approach the Atlas (which we will not cross until after we leave Fez), the countryside gets hilly as well as dry.

Before the terrain dries out completely we pass through the town of Khemisset, which appears to thrive, and is in the vicinity of lots of fruit farms. And indeed, just outside of town there is a row of curbside vendors about a quarter miles long, all selling melons and squash…definitely the largest agglomeration of melons in one place I’ve ever seen. A lot of pedestrians and passing cars stop to fill up, including one determined woman in a donkey cart who loads up on day-old melons to feed her animal, then does an intrepid U-turn across 4 lanes of traffic to head back from whence she came.

The donkey gets an impressive 34 miles per melon

It doesn’t take long after we leave Khemisset for the landscape to go more or less to hell, an endless expanse of brown hills punctuated by the occasional olive grove. It is like some kind of prelude to the Sahara, but this seems not to stop the farmers, who till what to our citified eyes looks like an endless expanse of burnt dirt. Here is the view from our bus.

Definitely not Kansas

There is no irrigation and so not much of anything will grow until the rains come in the winter. Still, there’s enough plant activity to sustain a sparse local economy and, apparently, some very determined animals: we can see the occasional small flock of sheep and random cattle standing stolidly in an endless expanse of scorched earth, grazing on the rare blades of grass that only they can see. And the olive trees tough it out: that’s the greenery in the photo.

We continue through this unpromising terrain for hours until we reach Meknes, the sixth largest city in Morocco with a population of about 750,000. Its claim to fame is having been the actual capital for a short time around 1700, under the reign of Alpha Sunuvabitch Moulay Ismail. Old Moulay’s nickname was “The Bloodthirsty”, which is probably a lousy nickname for your Match.com account, but it seemed to suit him. He was a big fan of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and so decreed that his imperial palace and the town’s architecture be modeled after Versailles. It is doubtful that the admiration was reciprocal insofar as, unlike with Moulay Ismail, there are no reports of Louis XIV festooning the walls of Versailles with the heads of 10,000 decapitated enemies.

It is certainly true that Meknes has rather French looking broad avenues, and its architecture does have a hybrid look, Islamic with some French influence but certainly a lot more of the former. (It does not have nearly the ornate columns or cornices that I would think of as French.) Our first stop was a market square across from the royal palace (this country certainly has a plethora of Royal palaces, doesn’t it?), where the area’s reputation for olive growing was quickly confirmed. The outdoor portion of the market was a successful-looking concern of pottery vendors, like this…

 …but the indoor part, in addition to the butchers, sweets, and spice vendors, was Olive Territory in a big way, with many stalls resembling this one:

My dirty little secret: I don’t actually like olives.

Meknes’ two biggest attractions are an enormous granary and a stable that could hold 12,000 horses, both from Moulay Ismail’s reign. The former is a network of high-ceilinged rooms, otherwise empty as you would expect for a storage area; the former has lost its roof and is a series of parallel rows of archways that, with some imagination, one could see as a stables. And here they are:

Granary


Stables

It is said that Moulay Ismail learned of a very talented architect who was languishing in one of his prisoners, and had the architect brought before him. He asked him whether he (the architect) was capable of designing a stable even greater than the 12,000 horse one that Ismail already had. The architect — who was indeed very skilled — said that he could. So Ismail…

POP QUIZ TIME!  WHAT DID MOULAY ISMAIL DO TO THE ARCHITECT?

(a) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and sent him back to prison.

(b) Said, “Wow, pretty impressive!” and freed him so the architect could design a new and bigger stable.

(c) Said, “And who the hell do you think is going to hire you to do that?” and had the architect executed.

The answer is of course (c). The moral of the story is that a guy who decorates his city walls with 10,000 heads is pretty tough to impress, and if he asks you something you should assume that it’s a loaded question.

You know who else was tough to impress? The Romans, that’s who. They were here, of course, and left an impressive set of ruins in the town of Volubilis, a little bit north of Meknes. They date from about the first century AD, an impressive 100-acre site that includes a triumphal arch, a large temple colonnade, and the remains of some very luxurious houses where you can even see what’s left of some swimming pools and hot tubs. There are a number of surprisingly intact floor mosaics (there good state surprising in part because they are unprotected and completely exposed to the elements); the tiles have remarkably retained much of their original color because they are natural stone, not dyed. Here’s the temple colonnade (the bricks are restorations):

This was really kind of the boondocks of the Roman Empire, the endpoint of the Appian Way. (The other end of the Appian Way is Hadrian’s Wall in England. The Roman Empire was big.) As the Roman Empire began to totter and fragment around the 4th century AD, Volubilis did not hold up; it was overrun by one or another barbarian tribe in 285 AD and the Romans never returned.

We rolled into Fez at about 5 PM or so and before heading to our riad we had a delightful little side visit to Momo’s apartment, where we met his wife, 8 year old nephew, and 6 year old niece. His wife Amal was welcoming and gracious and prepared an astounding array of sweet snacks for us, including a homemade cake. Here they are:

Mohammed, Amal, and their niece and nephew

 
The spread that Amal prepared was spectacular: a variety of pastries and a world class cake. Gotta tell ya, whatever else we take away from this trip, the Moroccans take their pastries seriously and are really good at making them. We were very impressed by the visit.

Our riad is a sight to behold, an old family dwelling dating to the 16th century that has been owned by the current family since about 1948… the handover being in that year, I suspect, because the previous owners were a Jewish family (this much we know to be true) who I am guessing hightailed it to Israel at the same time as all the other Moroccan Jews. In any case, the current family converted it to an inn several years ago, and we get to enjoy it now. 

Tomorrow: city tour of Fez, and lunch in the souk!

 

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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