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Monday, January 30, 2006


A very long time ago I used to work for ARTA, a non-profit corporation dedicated to preserving wild rivers, a goal they work towards by bringing people on whitewater rafting trips. I used to love it and I had wild, raucous trips on the Rogue River in Oregon, the Salmon in Idaho, and the Tuolumne and American Rivers in California. Oh, but that was a long, long time ago. I wasn't looking for wild, raucous times when I decided to go to peaceful, groovey Bali. And my companions, Rebecca and Brad, were even more determinably dedicated to peace and harmony and then I was. Brad's so full of peace and harmony that he'll pretty much agree to anything good. And Rebecca... well, she was less sure about whitewater but liked the idea of the pretty, peaceful jungle the river went through. And, besides, she was looking forward to a quid pro quo elephant safari later in the week.

Our trusty driver, the aforementioned Anwar, made all the arrangements with a rafting company called Sobek. (That's not a detail I'd usually remember but a few years earlier Roland and I had spent a month on a Nile cruise and we kept going to temples dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god and I'm afraid of crocodiles so I remembered.) Anyway, Anwar had drove us way up the Ayung for a couple hours to where the rafting company had their headquarters in Begawan. We got all geared up and then climbed down and down and down through the incredibly beautiful rain forest to the rver bank. I kept thinking about what a drag it was gonna be walking back up from the river bank when we got to Kedewatan, about 7-8 miles down the river.

Once we got to the boats, the guides divided us into crews of about 8 people. Of course, at first everyone was all stiff and kind of hoping to not get too wet. That lasted about 5 minutes. They give you some quick dos and don'ts and safety tips and pretty soon we're floating through some gentle, easy water looking at the exquisite scenery. When the rapids come-- there were about 2 dozen in all-- they never get beyond Class III but most people manage to fall overboard at least once or twice; well maybe not most, just the ones who like wild, raucous fun. Eventually everyone is loose as a goose and huge naval battles ensue. So much for peace and harmony. I was all for ramming and drowning. (I think that side of me scared Rebecca a little.)

There were some nice waterfalls and the environment never went below "incredible." The Ayung is the longest river in Bali and the part we were on-- remember a couple hours away our house was also on the Ayung-- runs through an otherwise inaccessible tropical rain forest, which is basically untouched by modern civilization. The guides were great, very professional and fun. It's the kind of thing that can work for anyone too-- I mean small kids or old people do fine (and no one goes overboard who doesn't kind of want to). They serve a lunch afterwards but we knew we had a feast made by the best chef in Bali waiting for us back at our villa so we climbed back up to the road and someone was waiting to take us back home. It's a great way to spend half a day; I think it cost us around $50 each.

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Because I've traveled so much and to so many places people are always asking me which was my favorite. For many years I would always say that it was a three-way tie between Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. These were all places I went between 1969 and 1971, places that blew my young mind. I went back to Sri Lanka in 1996-97 and I've been back to Nepal twice as well. Nepal holds up pretty well-- and I'll be writing about my trips there-- but Sri Lanka... well, long civil wars usually screw places up pretty badly. Afghanistan is still exquisite and pristine in my mind. But since those days I've been to many places and eventually Thailand supplanted my Big 3.

Last year, however, I discovered a place I had never been to but instantly fell in love with: Bali. I'm not a beach kind of guy; I always prefer a shark-free/non-sewage dumping swimming pool to the ocean-- and Bali is a small island famous for beach life. And drunken Australians, another thing of no interest to me. I'm more interested in native culture than sunburn and tourists; always have been. In researching Bali, I soon figured out that as long as you stay away from one little tiny area on the Southeast coast, specifically developed as a tourist ghetto so as not to pollute the island's incredible indigenous culture, you can still be in paradise. (Al Qaeda apparently figured this out too and the bombs you've heard about were all in the tourist ghetto area.)

So I decided to rent a villa in the interior, away from the crowded beach area-- but where? And how? Short answer: a Google search of "Bali + villa" soon brought me to Bali Villas, a great local company that rents out villas to visitors, most of which are owned by wealthy foreigners who only use them a month or two per year. (About 20% of tourists who came to Bali in the last couple of years rented a villa!) The one I rented has 4 bedrooms, lots of common space, a really beautiful swimming pool, 4 incredible people who live in an attached house and do all the work around the place-- including a mind-blowing chef. (She was able to adapt all the traditional Balinese and Indonesian recipes to my dietary restrictions of no sugar and no flour-- and, aside from fish, I'm a vegan; every single meal was MAGNIFICENT.) Also included was a van with a driver, Anwar, who was always there for whatever crazy requests the 4 of us made. I mean, some people love the beach and some love Hindu temples in remote mountains (me) and Anwar worked it all out, always.

Most of the great villas are on or near the beach. Most tourists go to Bali for the beaches. But there are places in the mountains and up near Ubud, the kind of cultural center of the island. Ours overlooked the mighty Ayung River (the photo above was taken from my bedroom terrace) and we never saw another foreigner anywhere nearby for the 3 weeks we were there. We never did find the "village" on a map and it had an impossible, unpronounceable name. It's between Denpasar and Ubud. That link gives all the details, amenities, prices, etc. I'll get into the reasons why I think Bali is the best overall place I ever visited in the next couple of blogs.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


After my previous post about what an airborne cesspool Delta has become, Ken wrote a comment that I've heard voiced by many. It's about the whole frequent flyer conundrum, particularly the hope to be able to cash in with a big trip someday. Because I worked as president of a large company and traveled all over for years (in frequent flyer miles-producing first class), both domestically and internationally, I've acquired over a million miles-- and with all the carriers. And the bad news: Delta miles are the closest to worthless of any.

The Independent Traveler has done 2 interesting articles on how useless frequent flyer miles can be. "'I've had a Delta credit card for 10 years, and have never once been able to use the miles to travel,' says Misa Greenwood, who flies approximately once a month. 'They tell me I need to book six months in advance, or that a Saturday night stay is required, or that there are no seats left.' Even for upgrades, Greenwood has been stymied. 'I bought a ticket online, then called Delta to inquire about an upgrade,' she recalls. 'They told me the ticket was not eligible for an upgrade. No free flights, no upgrades; what's the point?'"

I've spent hours and hours and hours on the phone trying to book off-the-beaten path vacations with my Delta Miles. (Damn you, American Express!). I mean look at this blog; I'll go anywhere. And, more often than not-- like by a margin of 10 to 1 or 20 to 1 or more, there is nothing available. And I always plan months and months in advance; and, being retired and without a care in the world, I'm flexible as can be. Once I was on with a Delta agent for at least 2 hours trying to book a vacation-- total flexibility for leaving and returning and a wide number of places I'd be willing to go: Europe (anywhere), India, Thailand, Senegal. Frustrated and exasperated I finally just said to Ms. Robot on the other end of the line, "OK, I'll go anywhere, any class, any time in January or February for approximately one month. Any city. What's available?" Nothing was available.

So, Ken, Helen, everyone else... don't count on a big Delta SkyMiles score. One radio talk show host who does travel talk once said that over 85% of Delta requests are turned down and that although Delta was the worst, the other big U.S. airlines were nearly as bad. Take a look at Consumer Affairs if you're brave enough to hear the bad news about Delta's SkyMiles program. The stories are pretty miserable and when you experience them in real time, they're worse than miserable. And they are standard Delta fare. Flyer Talk ran an interesting piece on the 2005 "evolution" of Delta's SkyMiles program entitled "Are Delta's Frequent Flyer Changes Their Death Knell?"

The most recent Zagat's Guide airline surveyjust came out and it does not paint a pretty picture. The bullet points: "Ratings and Reviews Worst Since Survey Began in 1990; Mid-size and International Carriers Fare Best With Traveling Public; Continental Best Among Disappointing Major U.S. Carriers, JetBlue Up and Coming." They call it "an industry in steep decline" and point out that the U.S. airlines' "relations with customers are so poor, they're fortunate that passengers have few other places to turn."

Perhaps you'd like to see the Full Text of Class-Action Complaint Filed Against Delta class action suit passengers took out against Delta? Even if all the legalese makes your eyes glaze over, the constant stream of Delta flyers' complaints that you can find online always gives the best taste of what you can expect from these not very friendly skies.

Monday, January 23, 2006


Today started well enough. Instead of having to wait for a Delta service rep to get on the line in the normal 30-40 minutes, a friendly human was on within 5 minutes. I was so happy. Well, that was 90 minutes ago. I'm on hold now, still waiting for my problem to be addressed. I won't bore you with the details because the problem really is Delta, not the details of this particular glitch. Delta-- not unlike most of the big U.S. airlines, and not unlike most of corporate America-- is populated by people who are driven by the corporate imperative: profit-über-alles. The corollary, alas, is screw customer service and even safety. Like I said, this seems to fit all the big U.S. airlines. Delta just seems a little worse than the rest.

Sometimes I wonder why Delta is worse than the already excruciatingly bad United or the egregiously horrid American or the woefully foul... etc. Maybe it's because their employees are under so much stress because they are being screwed so miserably by the corporate executives who have wrecked a once perfectly fine airline that I used to actually look forward to flying on-- instead of dreading.

So why bother flying on Delta if I dread it so much? Excellent question-- and of course, there really is no good answer. I have managed to collect many thousands or their nearly worthless and unusable Sky Miles over the years (thanks, American Express; can't you find a reputable airline partner to work with?) And on this particular flight to Spain I decided to try to use some mileage up before the whole company gets flushed down the toilet (as they should). Of course they wouldn't consider ever letting me use the miles for an actual ticket but they did offer to let me use miles for a "first class" upgrade if I bought (a very expensive) ticket. So I did and they did.

First class, LAX to Atlanta. I remember what first class used to be-- even on Delta! This "first class" doesn't even have a foot rest! I mean forget about normal first class amenities that real airlines have or things like seats that go all the way back or actual trained personnel. But even before I got to my crappy and uncomfortable seat, I had to vainly try to use the closet. When the first class passengers board a Delta flight, the crew finds the most forbidding and vicious-looking employee they can to stand in front of the closet and dare you to just try to hang something in it. In the past 3-4 years I've noticed that Delta-- and only Delta-- uses all the hanging space for crew members' bags. This is a major inconvenience if you're traveling with a suit that you would prefer to not have to press when you land. I've written at least half a dozen complaint letters to Delta about this and I've never had any kind of an answer. Once I was on some no-name local airline in India, possibly called Sahara or something unlikely like that, and not only did the crew use up all the closet space, but also all the restroom space. I kid you not-- the front-of-the-plane restroom was unusable because it was filled with big boxes of electronics the crew members were... transporting. Delta hasn't fallen that low... yet.

The second half of my trip-- Atlanta to Madrid-- was slightly better but, please take my word on this: if you woud rate British Air's front of the plane service an "A," as I certainly do, it would be impossible to rate Delta any more than a "D" in comparison-- and I'm being very generous there. Delta's transatlantic front of the plane (I shudder to remember, but I think they called it "Business Elite") service has more-- far more-- in common with a Greyhound trip than it does with the service one can safely expect from almost any European carrier-- and they even make American and United look good! If the flight attendants went to school at all, it was to learn how to piss off the customers. The closets, of course, were verboten for passengers. The food was... excruciatingly bad-- as were the seats. It did, however, almost land on time.

Do you know anyone who likes flying on Delta? I don't. Everyone I know hates it. And there was a time when Delta was the airline of choice inside the U.S. Perhaps if they just thought a little about treating their stressed out employees right and then got a grasp on what actual customer service means, they wouldn't be in bankruptcy today.

Sunday, January 22, 2006


To be honest, I not a big beach person. I'm afraid of sharks, not a huge sunburn fan and I've read so much about sewage being dumped into the oceans, that I tend to prefer a nice saltwater (non-chlorine) swimming pool. HOWEVER, I do make some exceptions-- and the beaches of Sri Lanka (and Phuket) are way high up on that list of exceptions. But after a week or so of relaxing on the south coast beaches of Sri Lanka, we were ready for the cultural heartland. Sri Lanka is a tropical country; it's always hot. We were there in December/January and that's probably slightly cooler-- though not noticeably so-- but it is in the midst of the West and East coasts' dry season. The hill country is always a bit cooler, very pleasantly so and a bit wetter.

I was eager to get to Kandy because I had such fond memories of the place from 1970. But our first stop was Nuwara Eliya in the beautiful, hilly tea-growing area. Basically it is green, green, green-- lush and gorgeous-- kind of manicured jungle-- and you're up in the clouds. We stayed at a grand old colonial hotel, St. Andrew's, which had the ambiance of a lodge or a gentleman's club. The service was impeccable-- and never uptight; just right. And whoever was preparing the food, obviously cared about pleasing, even titillating, the people being fed. And the place was embarrassingly inexpensive, probably because it is so off the beaten path. A little further off the path I saw an ayurvedic "day spa" and decided to avail myself of its services. What a treat; again, the prices were astoundingly low and the service... well, it couldn't possibly be any better. If I was as much of a naturalist health freak then as I am now, I probably would have stayed for a few days. But we pushed on to Kandy.

Kandy is in the center of the island and about 1600 feet above sea level. The setting is beautiful and the vibe is pretty laid back. It was the capital of the country before the Brits took over early in the 19th century and was and is the cultural capital of the Sri Lankans, or at least of the Sinhalese. We stayed at an old (and perhaps once grand) hotel called The Suisse Hotel across the lake, more of less, from the Temple of the Tooth. The hotel was delightful in a charmingly run-down sort of way. I remember big, stately public rooms and wide, shady, comfortable verandahs. The individual accommodations were nothing to write home about except to say that it was so inexpensive that it was mind-boggling. And the food was excellent; they were serious about the service. If you're fussy and anal this might not be the hotel for you-- but in 1997 there probably wasn't a hotel in Kandy for you. I don't know if they've put up a Best Western or Hilton in now, although I would doubt it. With virtually no business and no beach, wealthy Westerners probably aren't as drawn to Kandy as they should be. We didn't do much of anything except live the Kandy life as much as we could, meeting people, hanging around the Temple of the Tooth, that kind of thing. (Steve is on his way to start his new job at Shambhala in Colorado today-- driving across the U.S.-- and I just called him on his cell and asked him what he remembers of our trip, 10 years ago, to Kandy and the Lankan cultural triangle. He didn't remember a lot more than I did but he says we were the only tourists in town. He had a great run-in with an elephant near the Temple of the Tooth and Roland claims to have a copy and I'll try to post it if I can.)

After a 3 relaxing, blissful days in mellow, languid, very friendly, very Buddhist Kandy, we headed north to where all the ancient sites are. Somehow we wound up driving down a windy, bumpy dirt road in the middle of nowhere that brought us to our hotel in Dambulla, the Kandalama. This is the kind of place people must helicopter in to and just have their whole holiday in the hotel. It's a "green hotel," meaning at one with the natural environment. And it was sort of carved into the cliffs of a mountain, overlooking a spectacular lake/wildlife preserve. All three of us remember having showers and looking out a floor to ceiling window that overlooked the lake and watching the elephants shower themselves while the monkeys watching us showering ourselves. There is nothing like the Kandalama in Sri Lanka. We kept asking ourselves how it had gotten there. It was incredibly modern and beautiful and pretty much the opposite of funky. The memory of the infinity pool that looked down on the lake was something that I have never gotten out of my mind.

Dambulla and nearby Sigirya were the places we visited from the Kandalama; I remember a lot of climbing around in the hot sun. Dambulla have this huge incredible ancient cave with so many Buddha images it made my head spin. It was really beautiful and well worth the strenuous schlepp up the mountain. Nearby Sigirya is this big flat-topped rock that was transformed into an impregnable fortress over a thousand years ago. What you see now is the ruins of a gigantic citadel. One day isn't enough time, nor is only one day in slightly more further afield Polannaruwa, another place with really impressive ruins. Our last day in the cultural triangle, and the furthest north we ventured in Sri Lanka was Anuradhapura, the largest and the oldest of the ancient towns. And, at least when we were there, the most dangerous. It wasn't crocs or sharks or snakes this time, but Tamil rebels we had to fear. In fact I don't remember much about Anuradhapura because of how uptight all the security was. It was really the only time we were in Sri Lanka-- other than when we passed the wreck of a recently blown-up building in Colombo-- that we could feel we were in the midst of a civil war. I remember visiting the scared bodhi tree and some monk telling us that in the very spot where we were doing some prayers some Tamil rebels has shot and killed a bunch of pilgrims a few days before. I think we saw some remnants of blood. And then we decided to go to Thailand.

We stopped at Negombo first. After the glorious wonders of the southern beaches, this village north of Colombo was a big turn off. It was filled with package tour holidayers from Europe and there wasn't really much charming about it. The hotel sucked. When we went back to Colombo to catch the plane to Thailand we stayed at the big modern hotel, the Hilton. It was pretty luxurious compared to what we had gotten used to-- and still just around $100 for a double. The airport security was a nightmare, but not all that different from what security has turned into in the U.S. lately-- but, of course, they were in a real war, not a war on terror invented by Karl Rove to prop up George Bush's calamitous presidency and to excuse his illegal excesses.

Friday, January 20, 2006


I know for sure that in my mind and in my tales, I had painted a picture of Ceylon as an earthly paradise. I certainly remembered it that way from the month I spent there in 1970. So for some of my friends, it also became a place of their dreams, especially for my adventurous friends, in this case, good old Roland and a new character (new to this blog, anyway), Steve, both of whom decided to join me for a trip there in 1997.

Actually, Roland and I flew there and Steve met up with us-- almost randomly, in Kandy, after a couple weeks. First off, Sri Lanka is about as far away as you can go and still be on earth. I remember the plane trip there in terms of days instead of hours. We flew on Cathay Pacific, one of my over-all favorite airlines-- like just below B.A.-- but no matter how good the airline, even in first class, a plane trip this long is a nightmare.

When we got to Colombo I was a physical mess from the flight. Scorning the corporate modernity of the Intercontinental, I opted for the (faded) grandeur and glory of the dowager of Colombo hotels, the Galle Face, which was built during the Civil War-- the American Civil War! I remembered back to 1970 when I used to park my van nearby and sneak in to use its luxurious facilities, and dream that someday I might be able to stay in such an august and venerable establishment. I usually tend to opt for that kind of hotel over a newer flashier one. (Like everyone I know who goes to Milan prefers the incredible dynamite newish Four Seasons Milan Hotel to the traditionally best hotel in town, the Principe di Savoia-- except me; I almost always like the traditions and Old World charms of this kind of establishment.) Unfortunately, Colombo didn't quite fit into that box.

Now, I notice on their website that the Galle Face underwent a much-needed facelift in 2005. When we arrived late one night in 1999, bedraggled and exhausted from the planes, we dragged ourselves up to the room and barely noticed the antiquity (not antiques, oldness). It wasn't just a little (understandable) mustiness either. Everything was too small, like built for little people in the 1800s. There was a sink in the room and when I woke up the next morning I had to bend down so low to brush my teeth that I totally pulled my back out! Since basically no improvements have been made to the country's infrastructure (read: roads) since (their) civil war started, I knew bumping along pot-holed roads with a screwed up back would be no fun.

Fortunately, the hotel directed me to "the blind masseur," who was reputed to have magical abilities. I figured he must be good because he was the masseur who was used by the mother/daughter team who were the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka at the time: Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. I also figured he must go to them once I was in his establishment which had the distinct vibe of a house of ill-repute. He gave me a great massage and I later found out-- from Roland, of course, who was "waiting"-- that it was indeed a house of ill repute!

To be honest, Sri Lanka's many much-ballyhooed charms aren't in Colombo and we were soon bouncing along the roads, which were noticeably worse than they were in 1970; wars'll do that to a country. We headed south in a rental car. And south from Colombo means one thing: beautiful tropical beaches without compare. I think the first one we came to that I recalled from my 1970 trip was Hikkaduwa. It was nicer in my youthful memories but it was still ok-- just a gorgeous beach, maybe a little too touristy for my tastes. We stayed in a charmless motel-type hotel right on the beach so that was cool. All the charm was the proximity to the ocean, the palm trees, the blue, blue skies... We met a monk who was very friendly and showed us his hut.

The only really unpleasant thing about Hikkaduwa that I recall was when we hired a boat to show us the coral reefs. The guy was a real doofus who seemed to actually take delight in smashing off pieces of coral. Roland and I both freaked out and told him to take us back to the beach. But the freak beached the boat on a huge coral reef. I mean it had taken thousands of years for this to grow and he was smashing it to bits in minutes. He told me to get out of the boat and give it a push. The coral is razor sharp and my feet immediately started bleeding. Right then the coral reef protection police saw him and started screaming into a megaphone. He actually took off and left me bleeding on the coral reef. Roland was still in the boat. I had my snorkel mask on. I painfully made it to the edge of the coral and jumped in the water and decided to swim back to shore through the labyrinth of the most gorgeous living coral environment I had ever experienced. It blew my mind. Unfortunately, as I navigated through the schools of incredibly beautiful fish and the colorful coral corridors, every now and then I'd see a real big fish, big enough to be a shark. And then I would remember about my bleeding tootsies and how bleeding tootsies attract sharks. I'm more afraid of sharks and crocodiles than anything else in the world. I managed to hold down the panic and eventually get back to the beach. I filed a formal police complaint against the boat operator.

After a couple of very relaxed days we headed further down the coast. We stopped for an hour in the historic old colonial town of Galle; nice. Then we went to a relatively secluded beach town, more up my alley: Tangalla. I think we were pretty much the only tourists in town. It's a real paradise, very tropical and peaceful with an undisturbed beach. We stayed in some weird bizarro hotel shaped like a boat. We went swimming in a secluded bay-- just us and some Lankan kids in a big truck tire-- and found a big cow bone. I seem to recall that we didn't eat in restaurants per se but in people's homes who prepare fresh food for passersby. The food was the best. I would have been happy staying there for the whole time but after a few days we headed further down the coast to Hambantota.

It's not as lush and green as you head east along to coast, although I remember passing a swamp filled with the biggest array of birds I'd ever seen just before we got to Hambantota. Hambantota is a little misty in the ole mind except for a few very vivid memories. I think the hotel we stayed in-- a dump-- was called the Suisse Hotel. An entire wing of it seemed to have been abandoned to a huge colony of bats which would come flying through the hallways-- much to the delight of everyone (all locals)-- around dusk everyday. There were a couple of Germans, a couple of Frenchmen and me and Roland staying there. They didn't need the other wing. The hotel was right near the huge expansive beach which was so pure and beautiful and-- as we soon found out-- thoroughly treacherous. We had heard the best diving in Sri Lanka was just east of Hambantota. The "just" was something we should have paid more attention to. You're going to think I'm exaggerating when I tell you that the undertow was so powerful that before I was in the ocean barely above my ankles I was being swept out to sea. I never experienced such an awesome force of nature before (other than once when I was in an empty field in Afghanistan and there was an earthquake).

Anyway, that pretty much put an end to our swimming adventures on the south coast of Sri Lanka. We decided to spend the day at the Bundala National Park instead. We hired two guys and a jeep for our own little safari and we were really happy with how pristine the scrubby jungle was-- tons of birds and monkeys and little deer. We were lovin' it. Then one guide told us to come with him down a path on foot while the driver waited in the jeep. He brought us to what looked like the original Garden of Eden, a lake that appeared to have never been in contact with humanity. The birds were singin', the monkeys were chattering; there were elephants on the other end of the lake spraying water on eachother. Can you imagine how beautiful it looked and sounded? And then a tiny spotted deer approached the lake. He was as big as a large dog and maybe 5 or 6 feet from me, a little tentative at first, watching us but when he saw we made no aggressive moves towards him he stuck his face in the lake for a drink. What happened next took one second-- considerably quicker than my description. The whole forest exploded in sound like a nuclear bomb blast. The monkeys went ape-shit; the birds were yellin' their heads off and flying around like madmen and the imperturbably happy-go-lucky elephants started trumpeting excitedly. Roland and I lost our breath. A gigantic crocodile came flying out of the lake and in one movement grabbed the deer, sank back into the lake, rolled over once and disappeared.

The guide noticed our discomfiture and started kicking the water to attract more crocodiles. We scurried up the bank and blindly started running out of the jungle, forgetting that Sri Lanka is the snake bite capital of the world. When we were al back safely in the (open) jeep the guide told the driver to drive along the non-jungle side of the lake and scare the sunning crocs by getting real close to their tails. I wasn't happy about the jaunty angle the jeep was at and was completely terrified. I was delighted to get back to our own car and head up into the highlands. As we headed away from Hambantota we passed a snake bigger than me slithering down the road. Half a kilometer on we saw two little barefoot girls in school uniforms walking down the road in his direction. I'll get into part 2 of my Sri Lanka adventure in a day or two.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Seville has been one of my favorite places in Spain since I started visiting that country in the late 60s. Except for the times that I was strictly on business in Madrid or on a short vacation in Barcelona or Ibiza (while I was living in Holland), I always went out of my way to include Sevilla in my itinerary. The capital of Andalusia has a unique and beautiful ambiance that very clearly marks it as special and alluring. In December we took a train to warm and sunny Sevilla (and Cordoba) on the way from chilly Madrid to Morocco. The express from Cordoba takes 45 minutes.

I had decided to make the big hotel splurge for this trip Sevilla's Alfonso XIII, a hotel that was built specifically (in 1928) to be the grandest and most luxurious hotel in Europe. Nearly 80 years later and it still is truly awesome.
Sometimes it seems as though all the grandest sights of Sevilla were placed around the hotel-- from the beautiful Guadalquivir River to the Cathedral (the world's biggest gothic structure and the 3rd largest church in Europe) to the breathtaking 14th century Alcazar, Europe's oldest royal residence still in use. The rack rates are prohibitive (starting at around $500 for a double) but the Alfonso is a Westin Hotel and my old corporate travel agent was able to work wonders with a great discount and a spectacular upgrade. Everything about the hotel bespeaks value for your money, something I like. I mean it went beyond the most beautifully and luxuriously appointed rooms of the whole trip; the Alfonso even has the best, most professional, knowledgeable and empathetic concierge we ran into on the trip.

Everywhere you look within walking distance from the Alfonso is just spectacular. We ate up the tourist sites like the Cathedral and especially the Alcazar and loved walking around the Barrio de Santa Cruz (the old Jewish ghetto that is now a charming, vibrant functioning medieval town within the city). If you want the best in Seville, there is no other choice besides the Alfonso. Restaurant-wise, on the other hand, you have a lot of great choices-- chefs that are serious about catering to regular clients, not thinking about how to feed transients. On a couple of past trips I had tried the Egana Oriza, probably Sevilla's best eatery, and loved it but this time we decided to decided to give a less well-known place a shot. The Poncio (Calle Victoria 8 in the Triana District) is on the other side of the river and a bit of a trek by foot-- but that's partly why we chose it. Both of us love walking around cities and feeling the pulse of daily life.

The chef, Willy Moya, came to our table and we talked for a while about what we wanted in a general sense and he was able to recommend an incredible dinner for each of us. He's an inventive and brilliant chef and this was one of our best meals in Spain. Roland is still raving about some wild baked ice cream and olive oil concoction he scarfed down and was swearing he had just had the best wine in his life (although he tended to say that about every meal). I was pretty surprised that the cost was about half of what a meal like that is in a comparable Madrid restaurant.

The main bus stop is walking distance from the Alfonso and we took the bus to Algeciras to catch the ferry to Tangier. It was all easy to arrange and completely hassle-free.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006


The first time I went to Sri Lanka it was 1970. It was about the most faraway, exotic place I had planned to go to on my drive across Asia, a place I had always fantasized about. After months in India, anything would be a breeze so I had no trepidation whatsoever when I set out for Rameswaram from Cochin in Kerala. The road wasn't great and I can remember that I never saw a plate or eating utensils on the whole drive south; all food was served on banana leaves. I guess its kind of a truism to say that the food got spicier and spicier the further south you ventured, but even a truism is based on something. I love spicy food and it didn't bother me at all. South Indian cooking is very different from North Indian cooking and I dove in wholeheartedly. The roads were definitely not as good as the food. I remember once there was a big boulder in the middle of the narrow road but I realized immediately it was a trap set by decoits (bandits). Fortunately they were lethargic and lame and we somehow managed to avoid being killed or even interacting with them.

I can't remember who I was with at this point. I used to meet people who liked the convenience of a nice new VW van. They got transportation and paid the gas and other car-related costs. I was thoroughly broke at this point, having run out of whatever money I had in Goa. All I remember about the Cochin to Sri Lanka crew is that everyone got tattoos when we got to Jaffna except me (who thought a- it was probably unsanitary, and b- it would nix any chance I had of being buried in a Jewish cemetery if I ever changed my mind about the religion thing). But I'm jumping ahead of the story.

After outsmarting the decoits and arriving in Rameswaram, I don't recall much about the town. Supposedly it's a big pilgrimage scene but I don't recall anything but it being a small, grimy port town with a ferry that crossed the Palk Strait to Talaimannar at the tip of a small peninsula that jutted out of northwestern Ceylon (which is what Sri Lanka was called then). The problem was that the ferry was too big for the port at Rameswaram and one had to be rowed out to the ship on a small boat. My recollection-- colored by unabated terror even after 3 dozen years-- can't possibly be precise. They put a wooden plank between two small boats and had me drive my van (which was my entire universe at the time-- and not insured) onto it, so they could row it out to the ship which had a crane to lift it aboard. It sounds beyond belief-- even to me! But what I do remember in vivid detail is being on the ferry with my van hanging in mid-air, courtesy of the crane, and a representative of the Indian (or Ceylonese) maritime workers union approaching me for some baksheesh. It was a smart time to ask because I was thoroughly terrified and in no position to dicker, something I had become quite adept at in the preceding year. I think he wanted $6 or 7 and, although that put a serious dent in my budget, I was happy to give it to him and get my van back safely. The Ceylonese side had a pier where the ferry actually docked.

I forgot to mention that I was smuggling. I had found that the Ceylonese wanted cheap saris from India and the Indians wanted large tins of coconut oil from Ceylon. No one ever checked the van for anything ever. I made a lot more money later in the year smuggling alcohol from Pondicherry, the old French (Christian) colony just south of what was then called Madras (now Chennai), to Madras' YMCA where Muslim gentlemen put out by Madras' dry laws were eagerly waiting. Like I said, no one ever checked the van and I scraped up enough to live for a month or two at a time.

There were literally no tourists traveling this way; I mean I never met one driving around southern India the whole time. So we had no real advise about what to do or where to go. I suppose the normal thing would have been to drive south to Colombo. So, of course, I drove north to Jaffna, the Tamil city. I remember it being a big, busy exotic city without a lot of charm, but with delicious food. I remember eating omelets cooked in coconut oil; HEAVEN! The taste stayed with me for decades and eventually brought me back to Ceylon (by then Sri Lanka) for another visit. Everything was cooked in coconut oil. I bet you didn't know that coconut oil is very healthy, did you? We were all brainwashed into thinking it was horribly fattening and disease-causing. But that's completely false.

My more recent memories of Sri Lanka are going to be a lot more vivid and useful and I'll try to get them down this week. I don't remember much about the first trip beyond the tastes and smells... and the beautiful tropical beaches. It was a real chill-out time for me after the hustle and bustle of all-consuming India-- kind of like a vacation. I made a point of circumnavigating the island-- something that is impossible now because of the guerilla war and I can remember a few towns that I really liked standing out, Walauttu, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee on the east coast, Hikkaduwa, Hambantota and Galle on the glorious south coast, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy (home of the sacred Temple of the Tooth; see photo above), and Anuradhapura in the middle. I never stayed at one hotel, just slept in the van or on the beach every single night. I have a recollection of swimming and lounging around the beach during the hot days and then driving into the cooler highlands to sleep at night.

Monday, January 16, 2006


Not all of my friends are big travel freaks like me and Roland. I remember when my sister came to visit me in Amsterdam when I was living there in the mid-70s. She was like 20-something and I think it was her first trip outside of the U.S. I can't swear to this but I think she stayed one night and hightailed it back to Brooklyn. Years later I can remember telling two old friends, Ken and Tony, the former now NYC's most celebrated restauranteur and the latter the son of a wildly successful author of paperback romance novels, how Thailand was the most incredible place I had ever been and regaling them with stories of all that incredible place has to offer. They seemed particularly interested in the charms of Patpong, Bangkok's once notorious red light district (which now has more in common with Disneyland than Hell), and soon were winging their way over the big, blue Pacific. Ken called me from The Oriental Hotel, traditionally considered the best hotel in Thailand and a perennial contender for Best Hotel in the World (a presumption that will be duly examined once I start writing about Thailand). "What kind of a joke is this?" he demanded. Was he pissed! They must have seen some doody in the street or something else that infuriated them, made them feel insecure and angry and caused them to return to the safety of lovely clean California the next day. The horrible fiasco strained our relationship.

Some people love foreign travel for the foreignness and exoticness and they actually love trying foreign foods. (Rumor is true that one will find McDonald's in places like Paris, Tokyo, Casablanca, Moscow and even in Tuscany, not to mention Oulu, Finland and at the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo in Cuba.) One of the joys of travel, for me at least-- maybe second only to meeting people and exchanging ideas, etc-- is eating food from other countries. Here in the U.S. we all certainly love the U.S. versions of Italian food, Chinese food, Mexican food and French cooking. Yummy, right? Believe me (please, please, please), it's even better when you eat it the way it was meant to be eaten. And that doesn't even begin to talk about the joys of Thailand's royal court cuisine or of the unique cuisine of southern India (with their iddlis, thorans, avials, poottu, olens... things you won't find in the typical American curry house), nor of the delicious cuisine of Morocco which is as sophisticated and unique as the ancient cooking styles of China.

I never get enough Moroccan food and our favorite Moroccan bloggers, Samir, El Glaoui and Zany cover the bases authoritatively and with panache at The View From Fez, an absolute must read for anyone who is planning a non-fasting trip to Morocco. But the very foreignness of strange cuisines, as appealing as they are for me, repel some people and keep them from travel. It astounds me.

A few weeks ago Roland and I were stumbling around the Tangier medina around 8 PM. We were taking a 6 hour train ride to Fes the next day and I wanted to get some bananas and pecans to take along as a snack. We found a likely little grocery with a great display of all kinds of nuts. No pecans though; the proprietor had never heard of them and I figured they just didn't have 'em in Morocco (until I later found loads of them in Marrakech). Anyway, one thing lead to another-- as it so often and so fortuitously does when you're open to it-- and pretty soon the proprietor was having us try and compare this kind of date and that kind of dates and these nuts and those nuts. It was a joy and eventually he pulls out a plain unmarked bottle and beckons us to smell and then taste the murky-looking oil within. The smell was phenomenal and the taste... almost life-changing. It was argan oil.

One of the undying memories everyone who drives north from Essaouira will always cherish will be his first glimpse of an argan tree. That's because every branch, heading up to the sky, will be loaded with... goats. I'm not kidding and I swear I didn't use photoshop on the picture above! To me the argan tree was always primarily about the incredible climbing tree goats first and the amazing wooden things made in Essaouira.

Last night Roland came over and he was watching some ballgame in the living room while I was writing about the deprecations of George Bush, Tom DeLay and other Republican crooked politicians on Down With Tyranny. As I finished I suddenly remembered I had something really wonderful in the kitchen that Roland didn't know about. "Close your eyes. I want you to smell something." He resisted for a minute and then, assured I didn't have a prank in mind, he inhaled, first tentatively and then greedily. He sprang out of his chair yelling "argan oil" and demanded a teaspoon of it.

It tastes scrumptiously nutty, especially the roasted stuff and it is really healthy, reducing LDLs (bad cholesterol) in the blood, and providing essential fatty acids and lots of omega-6 and vitamin E. Today I had a long talk with the manager of Erehwon who had never heard of it but promised to see if he could order some. The bottle I smuggled into the states won't last forever!

Sunday, January 15, 2006


Yesterday I let some of my old friends know about this blog. The first person to get back to me was Gary from up in Vermont. "Maybe you should get a job," he thoughtfully opined. "Writing dense panegyrics about hotels and travel companions puts you squarely in the crosshairs of those struggling to eek out an existence on dogfood and the dried spittle of Republicans." Oh dear! I can't say I hadn't thought the very same thing... and often (though not from the point of view of "crosshairs"). When I thought about starting this travel blog, I realized it wasn't especially for backpackers-- nor even for someone like who I was when I started my travels in the 60s. Nor, for that matter, is it written for people who don't even like travel. Of course anyone is welcome to read it and get whatever they can out of it-- be my guest. But when I started traveling I was hitchhiking, panhandling and sleeping on floors. Now I'm a retired businessman with the resources to travel more comfortably. I plan to write about my experiences in Afghanistan and Nepal when I was penniless but if hearing about good restaurants while eeking out an existence on Republican spittle and wrestling bowzer for the marrow bones, upsets you, stick to the guidebooks from the Lonely Planet.

The first time I saw-- fell in love with-- Madrid, I couldn't afford to even think about a fancy hotel. My girlfriend and I slept in my van, parked on a quiet residential street. The funky accommodations didn't hamper our love affair with the Prado or our admiration for the sophisticated joie de vivre of Madrilènes-- and Madrid has culinary treasures at all price points. Later, the fate or luck Woody Allen examines so insightfully in his great new film,MATCH POINT, found me as president of a large company with regional offices in places like Bombay, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Paris, Milan, Hamburg and... Madrid. If you've been following this blog at all, I'm sure you can guess my reaction when I figured out how these offices and my self-directed expense account could interact.

So, for the last couple decades, visits to Madrid have been headquartered at hotels like the Ritz, the Villa Magna and The Palace, lovely and over the top luxury spots that start at around $600/night. (The Palace, a Westin property, is more flexible than the other two.) These days I don't have an expense account and if I decide to spend that kind of money on a place to rest my weary head, you can be sure that it will be for value that is indisputable (like for Sevilla's Hotel Alfonso XIII, where we did stay on this trip). For Madrid, I found I could be perfectly comfortable now a notch (or two) down the foodchain at the well-situated, slightly over-rated, but reasonably-priced Villa Real on the Plaza de Las Cortes.

Actually I made some internet reservations way in advance and got a great deal, $140 for a double. The service was great and the free computer in the lobby was fast so I asked if I could stay 3 weeks later on my way back from Morocco. Sure-- and for 140, but for 140 Euros, about 20% more. Grrrr... Still, I was thoroughly familiar with the neighborhood and it's very close to La Boitika (Calle Amor de Dios 3), the vegetarian restaurant I was looking forward to eating at again, and about 3 minutes walk from the Prado. La Boitika is cheaper than Republican spittle and a lot more delicious-- and healthy. I had learned my lesson that the immensely expensive and immensely rich haute cuisine joints Madrid so revels in need to be taken in extreme moderation-- like once a trip... and that once had already passed. Probably the best restaurant we had eaten in was El Amparo, a very creative Basque restaurant that made us realize that people in Spain eat dinners too late for us-- and that the food tends to be way too heavy and that henceforth we would have our main meal at lunch and go for the tapas at night.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Samir from The View From Fez blog has a great list of places to eat and sleep in Marrakech (as well as just about everything else anyone would ever want to know about Morocco). And the best Marrakesh restaurant guide I've ever run across is Footprint Guide's. But I want to stick my two cents in too. Everyone has a favorite spot for eating in Marrakesh. My friend Alisse, who had just gotten back before I left insisted that Yacout was THE place and Alisse is a great cook and knows food. Everyone says it's the most beautiful restaurant in town but the rap is that the food is... uneven, and even unpredictable. The idea of another huge overdone Moroccan feast was too much for me to handle and I never did experience it for myself.

Like I explained a few days ago when I wrote about eating in Fes, when I can I do my best to generally avoid the restaurants specifically catering to tourists. Occasionally one of these palace dining extravaganzas is done right-- and in Marrakesh, they have it down pretty well-- but most of the time these places are grotesquely over-priced and the food extremely bland and uninteresting to appeal to a lowest common denominator, taking elderly tourist bowel quirks more into consideration than authentic culinary excellence. The extreme, of course, is to pick one of the food stalls that cover an acre of in the Jemaa el Fna at night.

In the 35 or so years I've been visiting Marrakesh I think this was probably the first time I actually ate at a Jemaa el Fna food stall. I'm always so overly cautious about what I eat. I mean I don't even drink tap water in L.A. and I try as best I can to only eat organic food and never anything fried, and so on (nor do I eat anything made with sugar or flour or cooked in cheap oils). When I made my 2 year trip across Asia I noticed that my less picky friends, who ate as though they were born in places like Herat and Erzurum and Benares, were always coming down with seriously debilitating and revolting travelers' diseases like the infamous Kabul Runs (think Montezuma's Revenge on steroids). But the steaming bowl of harira Roland was slopping down greedily looked so good that I decided to go for it. There were no ill-effects and the harira was completely delicious (and only cost like 2.5 dirhams, as opposed to between 60 and 80 in the tourist restaurants, thirty times more!).

Anyway, let me share a couple of Marrakesh restaurant experiences with you. The only restaurant in Guéliz (the new city) we went to is the justifiably famous Al Fassia. The 2 unique things about it is that it is entirely run by women and that they revel in the concept of a la carte, never an easy thing for foreigners to find. The food was superb and expensive but not over the moon. And, like many Moroccan eateries, if you give them enough notice, they'll prepare things for you to order. The menu has all the best Moroccan standards and you can pick the ones you want and not have to bother with the ones you don't. It was sold out when we went and they said we'd have to come another time but begging and pleading helped and we were seated in an hour. I don't know if the dining room at the Riyad El Cadi takes non-residents (I don't see why they wouldn't if you asked politely) but the cooking is superb and, basically you tell them what you want in the morning and they serve it for dinner. You won't find better homemade type cooking anywhere. For our big night out the El Cadi's manager suggested we go to the Dar Zellij deep in the heart of the medina. I was intrigued because it isn't in any of the tourist guide books, although it is very much for tourists. We got there considerably before they were ready to serve so we spent some time talking with the very friendly and accommodating owner. The restaurant is simply one of the most beautiful I have ever seen. The food, although the typical tourist menu (unless you call in advance and order what you want, which we did), is PERFECTION. Everything was beyond delicious. And the servings were not gargantuan (as is typical in Morocco), although if you're a glutton, have no fear: they're happy to serve seconds on any dish you want more of.

Just a note about all the famous dives made famous by the hippies starting in the 60s that flank the Jemaa El Fna: the food won't kill you but if eating is a joy-- and in Morocco it should be-- these are not worthwhile places to waste a meal time. They basically all serve so-so completely unmemorable basics, neither good nor particularly bad.

Friday, January 13, 2006


A riad is an urban house situated in the medina or kasbah. It isn't a random loosely defined lodging but one whose plans and arrangements are rigorously codified. Since Moroccan architecture is more inward looking and given to isolation and intimacy rather than showing off, a riad is a private, cloistered place of escape from the busy swirl outside its thick walls. A riad is organized around a central square courtyard, often decorated with zelige (traditional mosaic patterns) centering on a fountain and orange or lemon trees. 4 paths intersect in the middle. The central courtyard is usually surrounded by an arched colonnade giving access to the living rooms and kitchen. More sleeping areas are constructed on the upper floors, creating a covered arcade around the patio with balustrades running around each story. Traditionally roof top terraces use awnings to protect against the sun; great place for a meal.

Marrakesh is the riad capital of Morocco-- and they are more than giving the hotels a run for their money. A concierge in Tangier told me he was trying to book a room for a client who was going to Marrakesh the following week and there was not one room available anywhere in town! Europeans and forward-looking Moroccans have been buying up stately old homes, restoring them to their original splendor and turning them into riads. Their thick walls protect the inhabitants from the heat or the cold and most of the outside noise and hustle and bustle. More often than not, you find them along a derb (narrow alleyway) with no access by car.

This was my 10th visit to Marrakesh but the first in a riad. It so beats hotels I don't know where to begin. I guess the 2 things that impressed me most of all were how personal the service was and how integrated you feel in the rhythm of the media which you feel like a resident of. In the past I've stayed at the the Mamounia Hotel, easily the best hotel in the country, and always a contender for best hotel in the world. It was famous for being a home-away-from-home for European aristocrats and for Winston Churchill. The chilly, aloof, snooty service still seems to be expecting Churchill-- and we did see Mick Jagger's ex, Jerry Hall there on New Years Eve when we went over to see if the gardens were still as gorgeous and lush as we remembered them (they were)-- but... well, you're more likely to be hanging around a busload of Belgian housewives on holiday than anyone with a von or van in front on their name. The last time we stayed there Roland left some considerable amount of cash in the inside pocket of a suit jacket inside the wardrobe (never a good idea but I guess he felt safe in "the best hotel in the world"). We were at dinner for 90 minutes and when we got back, the cash was gone. It isn't like he left it on a bench at the bus station. I mean how many people had access? But the hotel management was aggressively unhelpful and when we called the police, the hotel became downright nasty. Beautiful rooms, beautiful gardens, rapidly accelerating rates and not a place I'd ever stay again. So... weren't we happy to find that riads had sprung up all over the medina and were reputed to be offering as wonderful an experience as the Mamounia!

There seem to be riads at many price ranges. I read about them online and found one that looked like it would be good for me, the Riyad el Cadi-- and did I ever come up with a TOTAL WINNER! Maybe there are better riads in Marrakech but I will probably never find out because I loved the el Cadi so much I'll always go back. Their website and this general riad site have good descriptions and details. But after the utterly impersonal service at the gorgeous (and formerly very personal) Palais Jamai in Fes, the wonderful total service/family atmosphere of the el Cadi was perfect. Anyone looking to get away from impersonal hotel service and arm's length relation to the life of the country should try a riad. In a way it's total immersion as well as a somewhat authentic Moroccan style of accommodation, offering a haven of tranquillity in the midst of the medina. They are pretty much all architectural treasures, that will give you an insight into tradition, culture and craftsmanship. The el Cadi's art collection is really beautiful and displayed everywhere.

The riad concept is taking off in Tangier and starting in Fes. Essaouira has 'em-- although I didn't pick as well there. If you're planning a trip to Morocco, I urge you to do a little research and think about riads instead of hotels.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


When I announced to my friends that I was going to Morocco for a few weeks in December and January, almost all of them were wary. Everyone knows I have a penchant for the kind of exotic travel that leaves most Americanos flat, but to march voluntarily into the maw of the beast??? Well, first off Morocco's pro-Western monarchy is much-loathed by primitivist and fundamentalist backers of groups like Al Qaeda and, indeed, Casablanca suffered a suicide bomb attack in May, 2003. It wasn't as damaging as the ones in New York, Bali, Madrid or London but something like 40 people died and 100 were injured. Over 2,000 people have been arrested. Velvet gloves and smiley faces or not, Morocco is a police state and a dictatorship; you don't want to run afoul of the Man in that country. Is it safe? Is New York? Is London? Is anywhere?

As for the Moroccans, they seem extremely pro-American, at least as far as I could tell. Virtually everyone I met had nothing but disdain for the Bush Regime, of course (I mean name a place that doesn't other than, perhaps, Israel, Utah and the Old Confederacy) but in terms of American culture, American ideals, and, more to the point, American people, the Moroccans are all thumbs up.

Unlike the French, British, Spanish, Portuguese and (almost) the Germans, Morocco never had a colonial problem with the Americans. Morocco was actually the first country in the world to officially recognize U.S. independence and official relations have always been good. There's a natural affinity between Moroccans and Americans. And, a little bonus, of all the Arabs anywhere, the Moroccans seem by far the least hostile towards Jews. (One Moroccan I met on this trip told me, with more pride than accuracy I think, that the first government of independent Israel was comprised mostly of Moroccan Jews.) When we first got there and people would ask where we are from I would always say "California in America." At first Roland would grimace and ask me if I was trying to get us killed-- since there are relatively few Americans traveling in Morocco and people assume when they hear English that you're a Brit-- but after a couple of days worth of huge, sincere smiles at my answer, even Roland admitted that, despite what they feel about Bush, Moroccans like Americans.

A friend of mine in the Bali tourist industry told me last year that an average American on vacation in Bali will spend five times what an average European, Japanese or Australian will spend there! I have no reason to believe the figure is substantially different for Morocco. And that kind of spending makes a lot of friends. The owner of a fancy restaurant in Marrakech told me that Americans were the only consistently good tippers, and this in one of the most esteemed restaurants in the city. (When we ate there it was full of French tourists. When the owner asked me how I liked the salads, I was extremely enthusiastic and before I could readjust myself in my seat, a complete encore of the dozen little plates of salad arrived at the table. I didn't notice that on any of the French-occupied tables around us.)

I'll tell you why I rate Morocco as a relatively safe place for tourists. It's the exponential growth of the middle class there. Morocco is a pretty rich country. Unfortunately all the wealth has been concentrated in a very few hands. Under Hassan II things started loosening up and now under his son Mohammed VI, things have really taken off. A Moroccan friend of mine told me it's because of the relaxation in once prohibitive rules about mortgages and borrowing. But whatever the reason, there appears to be a Moroccan middle class that is a lot bigger and a lot more influential than there was on any of my previous 9 trips to the country.

Marrakech might have once been scary for a typical tourist. Today Marrakech is a pretty cosmopolitan city that is very much part of the "international scene." I heard a report on the BBC about the fastest growing real estate markets in the world. I don't recall them mentioning London or Paris or Los Angeles. It was all about Shanghai and Singapore and... Marrakech! Fes still has a way to go, but even Fes, once the scariest and most forbidding city in the country, is pretty tame. Tangier has been tame far longer, but it seems very much a user-friendly blend of East-Meets-West these days.

I've been to every remote region in the country, from the kif "badlands" up in the Rif Mountains to Sidi Ifni, Ouarzazate, M'hamid and all through the High Atlas. I've always felt pretty secure and an easy-going. Exotic, yes; dangerous, nah.


I'll stand by what I've said about the natural affinity between Moroccans and Americans and what a safe environment I've found on my trips to Morocco. However, I found some cause for alarm in today's SUNDAY TIMES (London). "The United States is helping Morocco to build a new interrogation and detention facility for Al-Qaeda suspects near its capital, Rabat, according to western intelligence sources. The sources confirmed last week that building was under way at Ain Aouda, above a wooded gorge south of Rabat’s diplomatic district. The construction of the new compound, run by the Direction de la Securité du Territoire (DST), the Moroccan secret police, adds to a substantial body of evidence that Morocco is one of America’s principal partners in the secret 'rendition' programme in which the CIA flies prisoners to third countries for interrogation."

This isn't good news for Americans thinking about visiting Morocco because it could make tourists into targets in the minds of extremists and radicals. Non-official media in Morocco have accused the government of turning Morocco into "the CIA's dustbin."


Morocco is not immune from a general terrorist threat in the Islamic world. And some say intricate political considerations have kept Morocco from effectively protecting itself from the scourge. Sadly, it might be something for you to take into consideration when making travel plans. Today a couple of suicide bombers blew themselves up in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Casablanca. This was hot on the heels of lethal bombings in neighbouring Algeria in which 33 people were killed by a group claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda.

One day after the latest attacks the U.S. government warned of a high risk of violence against U.S. citizens in Casablanca and advised Americans to stay at home. "The potential for violence against American interests and citizens and other Western targets remains high in Morocco," is how the State Department put it. The Khaleej Times warns that "Establishments which are readily identifiable with the United States are potential targets for attacks." Today's L.A. Times seems most concerned about the coordination of attacks in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco with al-Qaeda. On the other hand, my friend Alisse just got back from a week in Fes-- which she loved-- and she didn't pick up on anything that seemed remotely threatening.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


I'm finally finished unpacking and guess what I found! 3 pages of notes that I took when I decided to start this blog while I was in Tangier. Well, it's not the first post like I planned on it being, but, hopefully you'll get an idea where I'm coming from and an idea about Tangier too. The day before I started thinking about a blog, Roland and I were wandering around the Tangier medina and kasbah. It was my 10th trip to Morocco, probably my 6th or 7th to Tangier and I didn't recognize much-- a flicker or a glimmer here, a flicker there. And not because it's all changed or something; the memory ain't what it used to be (even though I take this great holistic memory stuff my friend Lou recommended, Juvenon.) Anyway, Roland has a great memory and he navigated us up hills and through passageways. "Don't you remember this (mega hill)"? he demanded.

"Uh... no. Are you sure we went this way last time?" He was-- and we had. (Eventually I recalled; it just takes longer these days.) The hill leads right up into the Place du Kasbah, the place where the kasbah begins with the police station and my friend Absalaam's  little cafe (which I've only seen open exactly one time. It was closed.) Now how the hell are we gonna find Absalaam's house? Roland was undaunted. He even remembered the awesome ancient door. We both had a memory of a small, pastel mosque Matisse had painted a block from Absalaam's. (That's it with me in the photo.)

The first time I came to Tangier it was 1969. I had heard lurid things about the city-- it had a bad reputation back then, a holdover from the International City days-- and I avoided it on the way in by entering via an Algeciras ferry to Ceuta, the bit of Spain that is still left in Morocco. Dull, sleepy place, but we headed south from there and by-passed Tangier. A month later, we did enter the city of sin on the way back to Spain. It didn't impress me but I didn't give it a chance. It wasn't for years that I grew to really like Tangier. But not remembering much is what gave me the idea for starting the blog. I told Roland and he loved the idea-- and he never thinks anything is a good idea.

Allow me a quick detour from Tangier-- as though this really were the first piece in a brand new blog (instead of the seventh in a 5 day old blog)-- and I'll give you a few details about my traveler background. I hit the road for the first time in the mid-60s when I was just a kid. I think I had just turned 15 when I hitchhiked from Brooklyn to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents for Easter-- or tried to hitchhike. I got picked up by the New Jersey Highway Patrol and they made my pissed off father come and pick me up at the police station. In Bumfuck, NJ (which was like Georgia or Virginia as far as I was concerned). I figured I was gonna get a beating but instead he or my mom gave me the busfare to go down to Miami in style the next day; maybe even the same day. I lost my virginity behind the Jacksonville Greyhound terminal. I don't remember much-- a lot of black: big black tires, big black face... and I kind of blacked out when I um... you know (this isn't a porn site, so we'll leave it at that). She was so sweet and cool and friendly and I was such a nerd. I don't know if she told me her name. If I had this blog then, I'd know now.

I only spent 2 nights in Tangier this time. The ferry was like 6 hours late but we were lucky because it hadn't crossed in 3 days because of stormy weather. It only took 90 minutes once we left Algeciras. I always used to love the gradual approach from Europe to Africa, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feeling of excitement. I didn't really feel it this time. It was drizzly and overcast. We stayed at the place I always stay there, the only decent place, the El Minzah Hotel. Some Scottish aristocrat got it going in 1930, Lord Bute. It's actually gotten quite a bit better since the last time I was there. There's even a business center on the second floor with 2 super-fast Dells ($5/hour, which is really expensive for Morocco but I didn't know that yet). It's a 5-star hotel in a country where stars are very relative; the hotel owner is probably married to a relative of the Minister of Stars. But it is the best hotel in Tangier, which is, after all, a slowly improving but still shabby port at the Northwest tip of Africa, a place of intrigue and desperation where people from Africa (all over the world, actually) come to try to smuggle themselves into Spain and the EU, where the streets are paved in gold (relatively). Some people say it reminds them of Tijuana. I'm sure it seems to some like the whole continent of Africa would like to come in order to cross over to the good life in Europe. And it's a place where the livers of that good life can cross over and have a quick look-see how the other 90% of the world lives. Someone once told me most visitors to Morocco just come for a day and never get beyond Tangier. That's a shame.

The concierge at the El Minzah told me that almost all their guests stay for one night. There hadn't been any for 3 days because of the ferry. Tangier's not really a destination any more-- at least not for more than a night-- which must be frustrating for the people running the hotel, although they seem to be trying to make the best of it. There's still an underlying seediness about it that you won't find in a real 5-star hotel but at least I don't think they'd steal a $100 travellers check left in the safe behind the reception (the way they did about 20 years ago when I stayed there once). Now they don't even have a safe behind the reception-- and I don't bother with travelers checks anymore anyway. I feel confident enough now, after almost 4 decades of travel, to keep my cash in the pockets of my relatively tight jeans.

A couple months ago when I tried booking our room on the net, the hotel was anything but receptive. Not only did my correspondent have no interest in agreeing on a decent discount, he also said we would have to participate in an extravagant Christmas Eve dinner if we booked a room. I pointed out that was offering much cheaper rates and he claimed they don't honor Expedia's bookings. The El Minzah, 5 stars and all, ain't much, but the drop down to the next level hotel is a far drop indeed. I booked through Expedia-- 1,125 dirhams (like $120) for a double room, breakfast included. They honored the booking and the price.

The pleasant surprise in Tangier was the restaurant scene. It's one of the few cities where there is a Moroccan middle class accustomed to going out to eat enough to support real restaurants that don't just cater to tourists. Tourist restaurants are always horrible-- bland, over-priced, pathetic... all decor and show and never anyone striving for excellence in the kitchen. The guide books all claim that the El Korsan in the El Minzah is the best restaurant in town. It's exactly the kind of place I do my best to avoid. We managed to find two really excellent restaurants we ate in. One was somewhat touristy, but reasonable and definitely oriented towards ala carte ordering, rather than forcing you into a gigantic feast, Raihani's. A little further from the tourist area we found a fish restaurant which catered 100% to Moroccans, the Andalus. It was so delicious-- real salt of the earth kind of place, very friendly and unpretentious and ridiculously cheap. Harira for 5 dirhams, not 60 or 80, for example. Hmmm... I'm drooling just thinking about the fish tagine I had!


All that inordinate and undeserved praise Frommer lavished on Toledo actually aptly describes Córdoba! Once the capital of Muslim Spain-- and the biggest city in Europe-- it still preserves it's Moorish legacy and was one of the best places we visited on our whole trip. I can't believe I had always missed it in the past, always opting for Granada and Sevilla (two other awesome cities in Andalusia). I think the express train ride from Madrid was 90 minutes. We stayed at the NH Amistad Córdoba, two minutes walk from the heart of the action. Real nice hotel, with very sweet, helpful people working there, kind of personal... nothing fancy but VERY pleasant. (They're amenable to discounts too.) Córdoba is a real walking town so it's great to be in the middle of it where you can easily walk everywhere.

Aside from the truly wonderful vibe and living museum quality of the city itself, the main thing to see in Córdoba is the Mezquita, the absolutely most astonishing and grandest architectural achievement of the Muslims in Spain. It's gorgeous and immense and breathtaking and worth as many hours as you can spare. The mosque dates from the 8th Century, although when the Catholics took back the town from the Muslims they built some kind of weird-- but beautiful-- 16th-century cathedral right in the middle of it. The 14th century Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos is the secondary place to see and that's pretty incredible too.

After the heavy and gigantic meals in Madrid we decided that lunches would be the main dining experience for the rest of the trip and that we'd eat tapas or light suppers in the evenings-- much healthier. The 2 best restaurants in town, La Almudaina and El Caballo Rojo are just ok, and, I'm sorry to say, very much over-rated tourist traps. I mean there was nothing wrong with the food in either (and both actually did serve delicious gazpacho) but they weren't all that special in the culinary department. They're supposedly the 2 most popular restaurants in all of Andalusia but that claim is patently absurd. Our luck totally changed when it came to dinner. Tapas was the name of the game and we found a place we went crazy for. You won't find it in a guide book but the concierge at the Amistad told us it was her favorite tasca in Córdoba; mine too! The name is Taberna Salinas (calle Tunididores #3, right off the Plaza Corredera, away from the whole tourist hubbub). It doesn't look like much but this tavern was founded in 1879 and the food they serve is spectacular, way better than anything at the fancy restaurants. They serve the gazpacho in a glass as a drink and I couldn't get enough! The bartender, Antonio, treated us like we were daily customers and the second night treated us like we were family.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006


I've lost count of the number of times I've been to Spain since the 60's. I love Spain-- the people, the culture, the language, the food, the history... Reading FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS in high school, right after seeing Picasso's "Guernica" at the Museum of Modern Art for the first time, helped me understand that the political right has always been and will always be the mortal enemy of humanity. Even when the fascist monster, propped up by American post-War hegemonists, was still in control, I used to love visiting Spain. (I even had my first UFO experience there some time in the '70s.) So in planning out my vacation in Morocco I was eager as can be to include a week in Spain.
I figured we'd fly into Madrid, kick some jet-lag, eat some great food, walk around El Prado, and then make our way down to the Algeciras-Tangier ferry via Cordoba and Sevilla.

Roland got all gung-ho on Toledo, so I squeezed that into the schedule too. I mean, how could I resist this rationale: Frommer-- "If you visit only a few Spanish cities in your lifetime, make beautiful, romantic Toledo one of them." Now that sounds like a pretty strong endorsement and it's so close to Madrid, a really easy day trip.

It's a nice city, probably worthwhile, nothing really wrong with it. But the Toledo Chamber of Commerce must have hired Jack Abramoff to get to Frommer for that quote! Toledo is worth a couple of hours, if you've spent enough time at El Prado, the Museo Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, and if you've wandered over all the neighborhoods of central Madrid and if you've already spent lots of time in the real treasure cities of Spain, like Cordoba, Sevilla, Barcelona and Granada. I enjoyed the Pamplona running of the bulls more and Ibiza was a way better experience too. But, hey, Toledo is ok-- kind of cold in December and desolate/lonely and... well, everything was closed and all you see is gaggles of camera-toting tourists...

We took the train; it's about an hour or so and the station was an easy walk from out hotel in Madrid. We had lunch in a beautiful setting, the highly-rated Hostal del Cardenal, "Toledo's best-known restaurant," according to Frommer, who even refers to a "chef." Although the restaurant is in the lovely hotel, that location is the best thing that can be said about it, and the idea of calling whoever is preparing the food a "chef" is patently absurd. This restaurant is a tourist feeding facility with nothing whatsoever to offer in terms of culinary sophistication (especially in light of Madrid's restaurant scene, one of the absolute most magnificent in the world). Del Cardenal reminded me of what I don't like about Venice: the food is for tourists who come and go and who don't really have to be catered to because the next day they'll be somewhere else. So you get a somewhat gentrified version of slop.

The Alcazar and the Cathedral were better but they don't hold a candle to what you see and feel in Cordoba or Granada or Sevilla. Toledo is better than mediocre but Frommer must have had a hot date there or something to rave about it the way he does. I'll write up some stuff about the places we loved-- Madrid, Cordoba and Sevilla-- in the next few days.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I've probably thought about this more than most. Starting back when I was 13-- and attempting to hitchhike down to Miami Beach to visit my grandparents for Easter (they called it Pessach)-- I've been taking to the road alone. A few years after that, I hitched from New York to California to stow away on a boat so I could go live on Tonga. (I never made it past L.A.'s San Pedro harbor.) And then a few years later I drove to India by myself, spending around 2 years traveling through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

First off, you're never really alone that much. I mean when you're hitching, there's a driver and he's picking you up because he wants to talk to someone. And when I was driving through Europe and Asia I always had a crew of people to help me pay for gas and all. And, best of all, traveling alone more or less forces you to meet people, one of the greatest joys of travel.

More recently I've done a lot of more conventional traveling with friends like Roland or Craig. In 2005 I rented a villa on Bali and invited 3 of my friends, Rebecca, Brad and Craig to join me. And last month Roland and I went to Spain and Morocco. Roland is a great travel buddy and travel is probably the bondingest thing between us. We've been all over the world together: London, Paris, Rome, of course, as well as more off the beaten tracks kind of destinations like Calcutta, Kandy, Chiang Mai, Abu Simbel, Cappadocia, Corleone (on Sicily), the Mekong Delta... and, all over Morocco, not just Tangier and Marrakech, but to places like Sidi Ifni, Tiznit, Taroudant, Zagora and on into the Sahara (by camel). The traveling alone thing came up when I saw him off after almost 3 weeks at the Essaouira bus station. He was headed for Casablanca, London and his job back in L.A. and I had a few days on my own.

The first time I was in Morocco was 1969 and I went with my girlfriend Martha. We had been in college together and each of us was very much a full-fledged individual. Each could say or do whatever we wanted without the other feeling that he or she was being defined. Suddenly when we were on the road I was not an individual but one half of an entity called "Howie + Martha." Oh, did I not like that! I had graduated and she had another year left. I drove her up to England; we went to the Isle of Wight Festival, heard Dylan sing "I Threw It All Away" (which I was very conscious-- in a fatalistic and melancholy way-- I was doing) and then she flew home and I drove to India, no longer a fraction of anything.

Back to Roland. I'm sure I'll never find a better travel companion. He loves adventure, is practically fearless, likes poking around off any beaten path, eats foods not many red-blooded Americans would ever consider (sober)... all that kind of stuff. After his bus took off in Essaouira-- a city I've loved since I was there at the same time as Jimi Hendrix in '69-- I started walking back to my hotel and thought, "well, now I'm alone. Is that good?" It sure was!

Even when you travel with the greatest traveling companion (like Roland), you always have to make all these little compromises. He hates the sun, for example. I love the sun. But if a mediocre restaurant is closer (less sun) and an awesome restaurant is further, meaning walking in the sun, he always wants to eat in the mediocre one. Laugh... but that happened in Essaouira. We both love Chez Sam's, certainly long the best restaurant in town, way at the end of the docks, as picturesque as you'll get and delicious food. But just a little bit closer is a restaurant that is not mediocre in fact but excruciating-- Le Coquillage. It exists only to service the one-day bus trippers who come to poke around Essaouira from Marrakech or, worse, Agadir. The service is abysmal and the food is... well, like food anywhere if no one is worried about repeat customers. But it meant less walking in the sun. (The third seafood restaurant on the beach, the Chalet de la Plage, also a fave of both of us, was already closed but that one is almost as good as Chez Sam-- and highly recommended, although not for lunch when the bus tours are around.) Anyway, pardon the tangent. The point was that sometimes you just don't feel like compromising all the time, or even taking someone else into consideration. And since Roland dislikes people almost as much as he dislikes the sun... and yours truly LOVES meeting people on the road...

So, anyway, he's gone and the first thing I do is go right to the hotel I always used to stay at, Hotel des Iles. (We had decided to stay someplace else this time and I found what looked like a charming place on the internet, a "riad" called Lalla Mira, which claims to be a kind of health-food hotel. It tuned out to be a pretty gross tenement kind of joint and I moved out the next morning, to the sterile luxurious Sofitel Thalassa Mogador, the kind of character-deficient place I usually avoid. But, after a night at the Lalla Mira I wanted something clean and comfy and a little upscale and Mohammed behind the desk made me a GREAT deal-- really great-- whereas the even fancier hotel in town, the Heure Bleue Palais, was inordinately expensive and unwilling to offer a discount.) The reason I walked over to the Hotel des Iles was because Roland and I hadn't been able to find an old friend of mine who had a shop. The problem was that there had been only one street with shops in that part of town 10 years ago and now there were a dozen. Street after street had been turned into pretty identical shopping streets. Roland usually remembers how to find things but he had noreal interest in helping me find my friend anyway. But once he was gone, I just decided to retrace my steps-- from 10 years previous-- starting at the door of the Hotel des Iles. I turned off my brain and let my feet take me there. It worked. He has two kids now and lots of ideas as usual-- from an olive and argun oil museum to a line of handmade Berber handbags for women. Fun to see him again and catch up a little. And once I found his shop I was able to orient myself and find all the places I always liked most in Essaouira. More about that anon.

Sunday, January 08, 2006


Traditionally the main entrance to Fes-el-Bali (Fes' old walled medina) is through the beautiful Bab Bou Jeloud. Two things were "missing" when I strolled over to take a look a couple weeks ago. One was the large... birdcage in a corner of the square where the captured crown prince of Portugal was once displayed as he slowly died of starvation; and the other was the truly intolerable myriad of uber-aggressive "guides" (angry, unemployed young men with major chips on their shoulders). The scourge of tourist tranquility, the hordes of these pests are pretty much... gone (as they were even earlier from Tangier and Marrakech). I think Fes was the last hold out.

An aside here. Roland and I were once walking around in the late afternoon, wandering aimlessly in the vicinity of the Bab Bou Jeloud when a particularly obnoxious, snarling guy insisted that we couldn't walk around without him. The discussion quickly degenerated into him cursing and screaming at us and calling us Jews and Americans and whatnot; very threatening. When a cop appeared out of nowhere and grabbed him we were very relieved; our relief turned to mortification when the copy commenced beating him savagely. But I guess why we didn't see him or any of his colleagues on this trip.

There are now signs posted throughout the labyrinth that makes up the old city, marking sites and routes. I mean, it could be Rome or Dublin almost. It is no longer the forbidding, scary place it has always been reputed to be. We never even felt intimidated to not walk around late at night. We wandered around anywhere we wanted for 3 days essentially unmolested. Maybe the Fassi saw the benefits tourism have brought to Marrakech, but something-- maybe aggressive police action-- has made Fes' medina a lot more comfortable for tourists-- and a lot more profitable for bazaris. It isn't Disneyland yet and you won't see Ma and Pa Kettle ambling around alone yet, but that's probably coming soon. I definitely saw a lot more European families walking around freely.

Saturday, January 07, 2006


Once I get settled into this blog I'm sure it'll set its own rhythm. It won't be all chronological or anything like that. But yesterday I got home from 3 weeks in Morocco and for now that's what I want to write about. I took some notes while I was there and after a while maybe some reflections'll come to me too. But today I want to write about Fes, long one of my favorite Moroccan cities (although the first time I visited, July, 1969, I was too intestinally-afflicted to pay it much attention; and food was the last thing I was thinking about at the time). But I've been back many times and I was looking forward to it when I arrived from Tangier in late December (2005).

You can ask anyone in Morocco. Either they'll admit right off the bat that Fes has the best eats in the country or they'll make a tepid claim for their own city, asserting it and Fes are the title holders. But-- despite the fact that Hassan II hired a Meknesi chef for his kids' weddings-- everyone knows the best food in Morocco, a country with a highly sophisticated and unique cuisine, is made in Fes. Problem is, it's not easily available to visitors.

First a disclaimer: individual Fassi can be as nice and as helpful and as generous and as kind as people anywhere-- or as selfish, predatory and rotten. But it seems that Fes as a corporate body, particularly as a part of the Moroccan tourist industry, views (Western) visitors as fat pigeons brought to them for plucking. In the capital of Moroccan cuisine there is virtually no place to get a decent meal! The hotels and virtually all the restaurants serve blanded out versions of Moroccan classics for astronomical prices in absurd, gawdy atmospheres that even include the distinctly non-Moroccan (let alone Fassi) tradition of belly dancers. It's all about huge portions and they don't know from ala carte-- only ridiculously immense feasts (which are also ridiculously overpriced).

Like in any country, the best cooking is always in homes and because I've eaten in Moroccan homes for years, I know the difference between what is quality and what is swill. Heaping mounds of robotically-prepared mediocre food don't impress me even if it's served in a stunning atmosphere.

I stayed at the best address in Fes, the Palais Jamai, a place I've stayed for decades, although this was the first visit since it was acquired by multinational Sofitel in 1999. A glorious era that began in 1930 has definitely come to an end. The hotel was never really inexpensive but Sofitel has not only made it blander and more acceptable to a lower common denominator (i.e.- people who like Disneyworld), they have also made it outrageously more expensive. I mean, although it is quite lovely, built into the walls of Fes-el-Bali (the old city medina), when you get right down to it, it is, afterall, just a nice old hotel afloat in a sea of donkey shit. Literally. (One of the principal charms of Fes-- less charitable people might say the only charm-- is that it is a mysterious warren on dark, narrow cobblestone alleyways, with steps everywhere. It is the world's most complete functioning medieval city. No motor vehicles in medieval cities; only donkeys. And mules. And they don't wear diapers. After a while it only bothers you when it's raining.) Anyway, the hotel is charging London and Paris prices-- in a sea of donkey shit.

For those prices you should at least expect top notch eats, right? Breakfast's included and the key word is bland. If a Moroccan wife served her husband's guests harira like they had at breakfast at the Palais Jamai, she would be beaten before she was divorced.

A good price for GREAT harira (the national soup, the pride of every kitchen in the country) in a middle class Moroccan restaurant in Tangier is 5 dirhams. At the Jema el Fna in Marrakech, at one of the stalls, a heaping bowl of A-1 harira costs 2.5 dirham (like 30 U.S. cents). In tourist land-- not just in Fes, but in any Moroccan city catering to tourists-- the harira is of distinctly inferior quality and costs as much as 12 times that! A friend of mine from Meknes warned me-- as have other Moroccans outside of the tourist trade-- that if they think you're not Moroccan, the only limit to what they'll charge is what they think they can get away with. (Sounds something like Bush-Enron economics!)

According to the guide books, the "best" restaurant in Fes is the Al Fassia in our hotel. It is a very flashy atmosphere and the food is good. But there is no ala carte menu, just the absurd dinner made for a glutton (for around $50/person, an immense sum in this country). When I explained to Jamal, the concierge, that we wanted real Fassi food, not a touristic feeding station farce, he recommended L'Arabesque, a few steps away from the hotel. (Good concierges try to listen to what their client is saying and come up with a solution. In Morocco, concierges are not working for you; they're working for whomever is paying them to send rich foreigners their way.) L'Arabesque is the same kind of overdone nonsense as the Al Fassia-- and even more expensive! I'd wager no Moroccan has ever eaten there. And down the street-- and owned by the same outfit-- is the less grandiose joint along similar lines charging around $15/person, the Dar Jamaii. Dinner was somewhat better than canned dog food.

None of the tour books' highly recommended grand restaurants are open for dinner-- only lunch. We tried the Palais M'Nebhi, just me and Roland and a large troupe of picture-snapping Japanese. It is a beautiful setting-- all Moorish tiles and superbly carved ceilings and all-- but the food was remarkably mediocre-- and predictably overpriced. We were ready to give up on finding a good meal in the city with the best food in the country!

And along came Baba. Baba is a bizarre name for an Arab but this guy was born in Fes-- a former businessman whose stress-related heart problems led him away from business and towards calligraphy. Roland hired him to write the names of each of his 20 third graders in classic Arabic on exotic-looking cardstock. He recommended a restaurant called Riad Dar Tafilalet. We walked over around 6, told them exactly what we wanted and they told us to come back at 9. I asked them to make me a tagine of the tiny black artichokes that were in season (Tagine B'Lquoq beldi) that my friend from Meknes had told me about. Roland asked for a lamb and prunes tagine. I got an exceptionally good vegetarian tagine-- no artichokes-- and Roland got some first rate lamb with artichokes; no prunes. There were no other clients but the staff was friendly and the atmosphere was fine and we ate the rest of our dinners at this place.

We also had a lunch with Baba and his family (in the house he was born in). Predictably it was better than anything we could get in a restaurant. Tons of food, though, and his sister-in-law and another guest kept urging me to eat more and more. No belching though.

I'll talk more about Fes and also more about Moroccan food-- in Tangier, Casablanca, Essaouira and Marrakech-- in a day or two. Meanwhile, here's a great link for all the facts about Morocco.