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Friday, December 31, 2010

SAF-- London's Raw Food Culture Comes Alive... In A Big Way

About a year and a half ago Sarah Bentley did a hopeful feature for TimeOut London about the British capital's nascent raw food scene. I just heard from one of L.A.'s most accomplished raw chefs via e-mail that everyone he knows who's gone to London complains that it's difficult to get good raw food. Well, I have good news: SAF in Shoreditch is really pretty excellent. And they opened a branch in Kensington (at the Whole Food Market; more about that below). Bentley:
London’s raw food scene is exploding. After decades of raw food diets provoking gasps of disbelief, it has eked into the city’s mainstream health food movement with a burgeoning network of restaurants, market stalls, delivery services, workshops and lifestyle events.

...Raw food or ‘live food’ dishes are made from produce – usually but not always unprocessed, organic and vegan – cooked at a temperature below 48C (warmer than body temperature, but still not even half way between frozen and boiling water). On raw food websites it is often referred to as ‘high vibrational food’, some theories suggesting that, being uncooked, ‘live’ foods have more enzymes and a higher nutrient content than cooked ‘dead’ foods. 

Chad Sarno, culinary mastermind behind Saf, London’s most high-end raw food restaurant that opened in April 2008, says. ‘I find terms like “high vibrational” alienate people. Basically it’s food in its purest, freshest form, so of course it’s healthier and in my opinion tastier than cooked food.’ Though it should be noted that trained nutritionists are far more sceptical of the benefits of raw food diets – which studies show are associated with increased risk of osteoporosis. 

The Saf menu includes dishes that sound impossible to create from raw ingredients: beetroot ravioli and Chinese pancakes share the line up with pad Thai and autumn risotto. At Dragonfly Wholefoods in Highgate the menu offers sumptuous falafel, pizza, sunflower burgers and onion bread available in all their uncooked glory.

...Many raw food enthusiasts make claims of improved health on switching to a raw food diet, but one benefit which is more palpable is weight loss – a strictly followed raw food diet is an almost guaranteed route to shedding pounds. Some feel it also has a massive impact on your general wellbeing. ‘When I went raw the change in me was hugely noticeable,’ says fan Liz Bugrave. ‘My energy levels increased, my skin was glowing, I was more flexible and I felt more at one with everything around me.’

Though it’s difficult to argue against the benefits, the practicalities of maintaining a raw diet are challenging, especially if you go 100 per cent raw. Converts are in a constant cycle of preparation, planning and, if travelling or visiting friends and family, packing ingredients to take with them. Then there are the cravings. It seems even the most dedicated raw fooders fall off the wagon and binge on cooked food en route to finding a take on raw that works for them.

Tonight we had our New Years Eve dinner at SAF at 152-154 Curtain Rd. What a treat! It's certainly on a par with Pure Food and Wine in NYC or Roxanne's old restaurant in Marin County. The food prep staff holds itself to a very high standard and every dish they turn out is breathtakingly scrumptious. Tonight they offered a mind-blowing 7 course meal for £70, just over $100. At first glance at the menu I was a little put off because I wanted to order a la cart and because champagne was included. But once the food started arriving, I never looked back. Actually, even before the food started arriving, I was happy since they offered to substitute any of their drinks for the alcohol. I had a cucumber, ginger, lemon juice drink-- there were other ingredients I can't remember-- called a Zinger that totally hit the spot.

Keep in mind that this restaurant has a 28 rating in the London Zagat Guide, that publication's #1 vegetarian restaurant. This year the Evening Standard also dubbed it the best vegetarian restaurant in London. So here's what we ate tonight-- after nearly a month of, basically, couscous in Morocco.

-Consomé, which was cucumber juice with a delectable chipotle sorbet, wilted cucumber and sea lettuce caviar. Roland and I both rated it an A-- and we rated everything that came after an A as well, so I won't repeat the ratings.

-Terin, which was layers of spectacularly prepared beets with horse radish, the most delicious walnuts I ever tasted (pickled!) and a porto wine reduction.

-P Salad, something my entire body thanked me for feeding it-- pomelo, pomegranate, pumpkin seed oil, pistachio and lightly pickled peppers.

-Coquette, which featured chestnut tartare, truffel alfredo and other components that escape me but that helped make this completely memorable as a dish.

-A Nut Roast, that was a kind of main course, I guess. It was a kind of a vegan meatloaf with a demi glace accompanied by broccoli, leek pure and a tomato confit.

-A Cheese course with macademia cheese that was infused with a red pepper cors with a slice of barley bread and some kind of strawberry jam.

-And the dessert: a Moonie Pie, which starred a smoked banana ice cream encased in a chocolate shell with a cacao nibs crust on a jasmin pear compote.

And the best news of all: they're talking with Whole Foods about opening TWENTY branches in the U.S., starting on the East Coast. That'll be a very healthy step forward for the raw food movement in the U.S. because most everyone will have to step up their game to compete.

London Can Be A Great Place To Wash The Third World Out Of Your Hair

A few years ago I rented a spectacular villa in Bali and one of my friends came over for a few days and stayed-- and then checked into the luxurious Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay. "I like it but I'm finished camping out," she told me. We had four full time servants, a private pool and... well, I think she saw a bug one night.

Last night I got to London after three weeks in a riad in Sidi Mimoun, Marrakech. It's not as overtly luxurious-- even sybaritic-- as Bali, but it was no backpacker hotel. Like I said, our next door neighbor was the king of Morocco and the neighborhood is filled with the riads of the big name Europeans, like Yves St Laurent, IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy. But it's still Morocco.

I used to have an office in London and I was here often. Warner Bros would pick up the charges for a suite at the Berkeley in Knightsbridge and it was something like $600 a night, a great deal based on the amount of business the company gave them. A single room tonight would cost £389 ($601.68). To walk anywhere from there I would usually head towards Mayfair and the first place I would come to was a beautiful little jewel of a hotel called the Athenaeum. It always intrigued me when I passed by and I made a mental note that when I left Warner Bros.-- and my open-ended expense account-- this would be a great place to stay. And here I am-- fresh out of Marrakech!

The Athenaeum is every bit as luxurious as the Berkeley, just more relaxed and friendly-- and a bit easier on the wallet. The room I have overlooking Green Park goes for £ 300 ($463.81); same room without the view is £ 250 ($386.48). It's Roland's dream room because the mini-bar is well stocked... and free. He's in heaven. When we first started traveling together Roland would never have even thought about the sheets, let along mentioned things like thread count. Last night he was raving about how luxurious the sheets-- Frette-- are. Ever since getting on the plane yesterday morning-- a short ride that took a whole day-- I had an urge to wash Morocco away. As soon as I got to the room I saw all the bathroom accessories were by REN and the towel warmer groaned with fluffy Floringo towels.

It was so wonderful to take a shower where they've mastered the idea of bright lights and warmth in the bathroom. And the quilted, padded toilet paper-- especially after that rough stuff in Morocco-- beyond imaginging! I understand why my friend called out Bali villa "camping" and why she wanted to be pampered at the Four Seasons. It's not a bad way to travel. And it's a London home for one of Patrick Blanc's vertical gardens. Never heard of them?
Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Gardens are an artistic expression of his scientific practise. He spent decades examining the way that numerous wild plants naturally grow on vertical rock faces and trees. Consequently, he perfected a technique that enables urban plants to grow vertically without the need for soil. A system of slats is used to secure artificial felt and myriads of strategically placed plant roots, with automated watering and fertilisation. It’s nothing short of botanical architecture.
Outside, conditions can't be controlled, but Blanc has found at least 300 different plants that he uses to create the futuristic swirls and arcs of his extraordinary tapestries. His current top star is Iris japonica, which he would never have thought of including had he not seen it hanging off a rock in Japan, looking far happier than it usually does in a garden. It contrasts well with the softer foliage of other favourites such as Fuchsia hatschbachii and F. regia. They are all on the Athenaeum wall. So is the maidenhair fern (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and more surprisingly, the Chilean bromeliad, Fascicularia bicolor. Look up next time you are passing. By Blanc's count, there are more than 250 different plants growing here. That's quite a garden.

For each location, he carefully selects plants according to local climatic conditions and the visual effect he wants to create. Patrick has won many awards for his work and also gives lectures around the world.

To date, he has created over 140 public Vertical Gardens since 1994, as well as many private installations. Those of particular note include:

• The Quai Branly Museum in Paris

• The Marithé & François Girbaud boutique in Manhattan

• Herzog & De Meuron’s Caixa Forum in Madrid

• The Aquarium in Genoa

• The Siam Paragon Mall in Bangkok

• The 21st Century of Art in Kanazawa, Japan

And as the hotel puts it, "So why have we installed a colossal Vertical Garden up the side of The Athenaeum? Yes, aesthetically it echoes Green Park, over the road. Yes, it provides an important haven of biodiversity for the capital. But primarily, it’s just fun. We love it."

They also have two huge cedar wood tubs as jacuzzis in the luxuriant spa, next to a fabulous techno gym. I'll be soaking and steaming while Roland works out later. IF... I can get off the free WiFi. WiFi isn't always free in London so it's a good deal-- though not as much as the savings you get by their policy of all kids 12 and under eating all meals for free. I wonder if I can pass Roland off as 12.

Our last night in Marrakech, we broke one of my cardinal rules: always eat the native cuisine. But after 3 weeks of Moroccan food-- and more couscous than anyone was meant to eat, I allowed my friends to talk me into "Indian" food. Mumbai and Delhi and London have great Indian food. Marrakech... not so much. The Sunday Times did a story on the 8 best restaurants in Marrakech and #2 was Les Jardins de Bala just off the Jemaa el Fna at the Les Jardins de la Koutoubia Hotel. They said the views (of the Koutoubia) were stunning, but that would be for the outdoor dining and they claimed that the restaurant served "indulgent Indian: food from bhajis and banana lassis to saags and samosas is available in truly stylish surroundings." The food was actually bland and boring and Roland, Melody and I-- longtime Indian food fans-- were aghast. As soon as we got to London, almost as important as a shower was a real Indian meal. Tamerind was booked up already and we didn't want to go far and the hotel suggested a restaurant I had never tried just down the road at #1 Kensington High Street, Zaika. They got us a reservation and off we went. A curry house it's not. Innovative, sophisticated, absolutely delicious and creative... that's what it is. They put it like this: "[T]he menu incorporates both traditional classic favorites and original new dishes that apply eastern flavors with a western twist. Both of us stared with Nariyal Shorba-- "coconut and wild mushroom soup, tempered with curry leaves and ginger, truffle shavings, mushroom samosa, wild mushroom and truffle oil naan"-- and Les Jardins de Bala was banished from our consciousnesses forever. I had a vegetarian thali-- a selection of garlic and cumin tempered spinach and paneer, stir-fry ‘parval’, black lentils, roasted baby aubergines , saffron rice, baby naan & ‘raita’-- and Roland had a Nuriyal Murg-- "morsels of chicken legs cooked gently with coastal spices, finished with coconut milk flavoured with shallots, green chillies, steamed rice." We were stuffed and happy and ready for a great sleep that wouldn't involve the charming call to prayer from a loudspeaker-enhanced muezzin at 5AM.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Morocco's King Mohammed VI, Our Next Door Neighbor

Last week our next door neighbor in Marrakech moved back into his place. He has homes all over Morocco and goes from one set of digs to another. There seem to be two or three just in Marrakech. He was here a couple weeks ago for the Marrakech Film Festival and I'm not sure why he's back so soon. I don't expect to see him-- other than on TV-- and I only knew he was back because of the huge number of heavily armed troops on every street and alleyway in Sidi Mimoun, our quiet little neighborhood. I had just been reading about him, thanks to Wikileaks.

You probably know me as a critic of conservatives but if you want to see me really get going, just start talking about monarchy. One of the highlights of the month was the video I saw of British students attacking the limousine of Queen Elizabeth's reactionary son-- purportedly the next so-called "king" of England-- and the ho he's shacking up with. The students were chanting "off with their heads," music to my ears.

But these immensely wealthy and powerful royal families are extremely committed to holding onto their positions at the tip-top of society-- and extremely dangerous. My friend Toon arrived in Marrakech a few days ago and he happened to tell me about how the journalists involved in the exposure of Prince Bernhard of Lippe-Biesterfeld as a Nazi were ruined and professionally destroyed. Bernhard, like England's weak-minded King Edward VIII, was a Nazi who conspired, in Edward's case, at the urging of his American Nazi wife, Wallace Simpson, with Hitler to bring fascism to his country.
[W]ith a belligerent new leader in Berlin threatening to rip up the Treaty of Versailles, those [Nazi] sympathies posed a serious problem-- particularly when King George V died in January 1936. Edward inherited the throne as a hugely popular new king-- and set about meddling in government policy. This was in defiance of all convention but that didn’t stop Edward. He took to calling the ­German ambassador directly-- a clear breach of constitutional protocol and one with serious practical consequences.

When Hitler made it clear he meant to send his forces back into the demilitarised Rhineland the government expressed its opposition. Edward should have stepped back. Instead he threatened to abdicate if Hitler’s advance was stopped, compounding the harm by phoning the German ambassador to tell him he had done so.

“The reassurances from Edward that Britain wasn’t going to fight were crucial,” says Professor Jonathan Petropoulos, author of Royals And The Reich. “Hitler had an ace in the hole, as we would say in American poker, knowing what he did from Edward at the time.”

In that context the abdication at the end of 1936 came as a godsend to the government. But even off the throne the Duke of Windsor posed an ongoing problem.

The FBI files show that at a party in Vienna in June 1937-- the month he married Mrs Simpson-- the loose-tongued Duke told an Italian ­diplomat that the Americans had cracked Italy’s intelligence codes.Four months later the Duke and Duchess paid a high-profile visit to Germany where the Nazi regime fawned on him. They met Hitler, who saw the value of ­cultivating an ally once so intimately involved with British affairs. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels wrote of the Duke: “It’s a shame he is no longer king. With him we would have entered into an alliance.”

Even the declaration of war was not enough to make the Duke sever his Nazi connections. He was made a major-general and stationed in France but he continued to ­communicate with the enemy. In January 1940 the German minister in The Hague wrote that he had established a direct line of contact to the Duke.

This line of contact proved crucial to the tragic fate of France. From the Duke the Germans learned that their plans for the invasion of France had fallen into Allied hands. This intelligence allowed Hitler to change his plans and catch the Allies by surprise. France fell.

The FBI papers also reveal that the Duchess of Windsor was in ­regular contact with the Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, whom the Americans suspected of being her former lover. After the fall of Paris she and the Duke hopped from Biarritz to Madrid to Lisbon, shamelessly consorting with wealthy fascist sympathisers.

In Portugal Edward committed what may have been the worst act of his shabby career. In July 1940 the German ambassador in Lisbon passed a message to Berlin saying: “The Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing would make England ready for peace.”

The former king was urging the bombardment of his own people.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the danger he posed and was desperate to get him back to Britain, at one stage threatening him with court martial if he refused. In the end sending him to govern the Bahamas-- a humiliating posting which both the Duke and Duchess detested-- proved the most viable option.

But as Fulton Oursler was to discover the former king continued to plot from the governor’s mansion in Nassau, driven by a combination of his own Nazi sympathies and his belief that a strong Hitler could help him back to the British throne.

Shortly after he took up the post the Duke told one confidant: “After the war is over and Hitler has crushed the Americans we’ll take over. The British don’t want me as king but I’ll be back as their leader.”

Bernhard's p.r. machine always went to great lengths to portray him as a war hero and anti-Nazi fighter. But it was long whispered in Holland that the husband of one queen and the father of another, was a filthy Nazi traitor, member of the SS, and a member of the Nazi Party just before he married Crown Princess Juliana.

Back to my neighbor, Mohammed VI. He wasn't even born until 1963, long after Hitler killed himself. He became king in 1999 when his father Hassan II died and everyone says he's far more popular than his father. He inherited at least $2 billion but is said to have a piece on almost everything in the country. I have no way of knowing if that's true or not but I did notice another Wikileaks document that tarnishes Mohammed's patina pretty disastrously. Seems one of the things he has "a piece" of is his country's narcotics trafficking.
For the first time a U.S. official document speaks of the involvement of Morocco in matters of drug trafficking, citing officials of the Moroccan police working at Casablanca airport, who have been sanctioned in mid-August 2009 after they had arrested the son of the Senegalese president and the son of a Minister of the same country for drug possession.

• According to the report, King Mohammed VI had not appreciated the arrest of president's son and a Senegalese minister’s son without his knowledge and without prior consultation. The two Senegalese were released later and the police officers punished.

• The report also quotes an official of the Moroccan police in Casablanca, who was mutilated in the occupied city of Laayoune after he had implicitly accused the regime of being behind the drug mafia.

• Another report published by Wikileaks dated 2008 talks about the corruption that plagues the Moroccan army, especially among senior officials of the military institution. It says "the Moroccan army suffers from corruption, bureaucracy, lower educational level of officers and the continued threat of extremism of some elements." It added that "the head of the gendarmerie, General Hasni Ben Slimane "allegedly involved in corruption cases."

• Corruption, the report said, plagues the top military hierarchy in Morocco and General Benani turned into "a Baron of milk." the latter, taking advantage of his position as army chief in the occupied Western Sahara, manipulated markets to supply the army in milk, thereby making a fortune in billions of dollars, in addition to his involvement with other generals in doubtful markets of fishing permits on the coast of Western Sahara. He managed well, the report said, to build a palace for his family with money of corruption.

• Corruption also affects the officers who, to qualify for promotions, pay bribes to their leaders.

The Guardian reported earlier this month that the king's holding company, Omnium Nord Africain (ONA), "extracts bribes and concessions from real estate developers," something that no one familiar with Morocco would be surprised to hear.
Morocco's royal family is using the institutions of the state to "coerce and solicit bribes" in the country's lucrative real estate sector, according to a leaked report from American diplomats.

Information about high-level corruption involving the rulers of Washington's closest ally in north Africa was brought to the attention of the US consulate in Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital, by a businessman in 2009, leading diplomats to describe "the appalling greed" of those close to King Mohammed VI.

According to the US report, decisions involving Omnium Nord Africain (ONA), a holding company owned by the king, are made only by the king and two of his powerful associates. "To have discussions with anyone else would be a waste of time," the head of the company is quoted as saying.

Royal involvement in business is a hot topic in Morocco but public discussion of it is sensitive. The US embassy in Rabat reported to Washington in a separate cable that "corruption is prevalent at all levels of Moroccan society."

Mohammed, who succeeded his father, Hassan, in 1999, is said to have cleaned up the royal family's act, but it appears he has not done enough.

"While corrupt practices existed during the reign of King Hassan II … they have become much more institutionalised with King Mohammed VI," one cable quotes a businessman as saying. Institutions such as ONA-- Morocco's largest conglomerate, which clears most large development projects – regularly coerced developers into granting beneficial rights to ONA, the businessman was quoted as saying.

I should add that almost every Moroccan I've spoken to says Mohammed VI is way better than his father, Hassan II, and that he's doing a lot for Morocco, even if he's also doing a lot for the family business. One guy I met even told me he can't blame the king for undermining Morocco's educational system-- illiteracy is still gigantic-- because how would anyone expect a monarchy to hand on to power if the populace was well educated.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What The Hell Did They Do To Essaouira?

Roland and I were in shock yesterday when we walked into Essaouira. It has turned into a badly developed tourist hellhole almost on a level with Antalya in southern Turkey. Both of us tend to not buy into the constant carping by westerners that everything was better before and that all the favored places around the word have been changed for the worse. We've been scoffing at that widely held notion about Marrakech, which is still wonderful-- even if more overrun with tourists than ever before. But Marrakech is a big city with the capacity to gracefully absorb the kind of change massive tourism brings. Essaouira is a small town with less than 100,000 people. We looked around and said goodbye-- a once favorite place we won't be visiting again.

I was there for the first time late in the summer of 1969-- at the same time as Jimi Hendrix's short but legendary visit. It was sleepy and charming and I fell in love with the town. Since then no trip to Morocco was ever complete without a stop in Essaouira and I've recommended it to everyone going to Marrakech. It's a 3 hour drive and now they even have an airport.

Our last visit was in 2005 and we noticed that the tourist sector had expanded uncomfortably. More and more streets were dedicated to selling cheap tourist souvenirs and more and more of the city's energy was directed towards tourism. But it didn't really seem like much of a problem and Essaouira was as charming as ever. The ensuing 5 years, however, have taken a toll... a really big one.

It seems like once the only place to stay was the legendary Hôtel des Iles just outside the city walls. Now there's a hotel or riad in every vista and restaurants everywhere. Day trippers are omnipresent and Essaouira, at least on first glance, seems lost in the mess.

We stayed all day and into the evening. Our driver was shocked we stayed so long. He said no one does-- not ever. But by the end of the day our harsh judgments had softened. Lunch at Chez Sam's was as spectacular as ever, regardless of what the clueless travelers say about it deteriorating. We've been eating there for decades. NOTHING has changed. The unbeatable fish soup is exactly as delicious as it ever was. And so is the view over the harbor.

Our friends had never been there before and had no expectations and nothing to compare it to from its glorious heyday. They LOVED it-- as much as I had in 1969, and through the '70s, '80s and '90s. Walking along with walls in the back of the town were the same little shops and studios built into those walls we always loved-- and off the horrible main streets ceded to tourism. We came across a music store fronting on a little courtyard and the young proprietor, Hamid, gave us an astounding gambri recital in the shop and then invited us back for a great drum circle in the courtyard later in the day.

Even the argan oil business and the goats in the trees phenomena have become incredibly commercialized... but to a first-timer, as wonderful as ever. And, sure, I bought some delicious argan oil to bring home for some friends, even if it's three times as expensive as it used to be.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Live Blogging Marrakesh, Morocco-- Riads... And Miswak Toothpaste

Several people have e-mailed asking me what a riad is. It actually describes the type of building. A riad to my understanding is a building featuring a central open courtyard that includes a garden, usually a water feature, like a fountain or pool, with rooms surrounding it. In Marrakesh the last decade or so has seen a rush to buy up dilapidated old riads, fix them up and use them as either homes or as a kind of bed-and-breakfast. In either case, they're an alternative to hotel living.

We rented a whole home (described here), while our friends, Toon and Mieke from Amsterdam, first rented a room in a large riad (for 22 guests) and have now moved into a smaller, more homey riad in our neighborhood that takes 5 guests.

Another Restaurant We Tried

Terrasse des épices is a chic restaurant in the souk Cherifia (#15), with a cool vibe and decent food, mixed European and Moroccan but without the overdone Moroccan feast aspect. The prices are moderate and the setting-- on the roof-- is very pleasant and relaxed.

To be honest, I'm always drawn back to Al Fassia, clearly the best food and most convivial vibe in the city. We ate there again tonight and it was as delicious as ever. And since they all know us there now, they send over extra goodies. We made another reservation for next week to when our last two friends to arrive, Helen and Michael, will be here.

Tip For The Day

Down the street (Avenue el-Fetouaki) from Toon and Mieke's first riad, Bahia Salam, there's a kind of health food store at #91-- Marrakesh Bio Diététique-- selling a variety on decent products. Now that governments and airlines have decided the key to our safety is to make sure we don't carry enough toothpaste for more than a week, it's important to know where to get the Moroccan equivalent of Tom's of Maine type products. This is the place. I found some great herbal toothpaste, about as good as anything Whole Foods carries and very inexpensive. Actually the toothpaste, Miswak, is made in the United Arab Emirates. I've been liking it so much that I looked it up on wikipedia. It's made from the teeth cleaning twig (miswak) of the Salvadora persica tree, also known as the arak tree or the peelu tree and features in Islamic hygienical jurisprudence.
A 2003 scientific study comparing the use of miswak with ordinary toothbrushes concluded that the results clearly were in favor of the users who had been using the miswaak... Studies indicate that Salvadora persica extract is somewhat comparable to other oral disinfectants and anti-plaque agents like Triclosan and Chlorhexidine Gluconate if used at a very high concentration... In addition to strengthening the gums, preventing tooth decay and eliminating toothaches, the miswak is also said to halt further increase in decay that has already set in. Furthermore, it is said to create a fragrance in the mouth, eliminate bad breath, improve the sense of taste and cause the teeth to glow and shine.

In addition, benefits not related to the teeth and gums include sharpening memory, curing headaches, creating a glow on the face of the one who continually uses it, strengthening the eyesight, assisting in digestion and clearing the voice.

Sybaritic Night Life? Here?

The other day Roland was trolling around his Lonely Planet and mentioned there's a disco in Guerliz (the new town) that's supposed to be the biggest disco in North Africa. And I'm sure that's an attraction for someone... somewhere. I think today's NY Times must have thought so too. They did one of their 36 Hours In Marrakesh features. It barely sounds like the city I've been to a dozen or so times since 1969 or the one I've been living in for the past couple weeks.
In 1939, George Orwell wrote of Westerners flocking to Marrakesh in search of “camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits.” Ever since, the city has been ravishing visitors with its teeming souks, ornate palaces and sybaritic night life. In recent years, a succession of high-end openings and restorations-- most notably, the lavish reopening of the hotel La Mamounia-- has transformed the city into an obligatory stop for jet-setters. Yet despite Marrakesh’s new cachet, the true treasures of the enigmatic city still hide down dusty side streets and behind sagging storefronts.

The Jemaa scene usually starts packing up by 10 or 11pm and, unless I'm blogging, I'm in bed by midnight. So maybe I'm just sleeping through the sybaritic nightlife and really missing out on what draws at certain set of people to Marrakesh.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Great Storm Of 2010 Wipes Out European Air Travel- 3 Whole Inches Of Snow

Roland just arrived at the riad, 3 days late. He's got some great stories about what he went through once the flight landed. But what struck me as most horrifying is how our British cousins decided that all the travelers' misfortune was a chance for them to make a fortune. Heathrow and Gatwick haven't been flying for two days and every possible way of separating stranded tourists from their money turned the Brits into sharks in a feeding frenzy. All the public transportation at the airport was down so to get from one terminal to the next, taxi drivers were charging $62 flat. He wound up sleeping on the airport floor one night and then Terminal 4 shut down and they threw everyone out. So he was forced to seek shelter in a cruddy 2-star hotel in Howley-- for $329. Everyone he met was out to rip him off.

Fortunately, now he's in a country where hospitality is part of the national consciousness.

When I woke up this morning their were soldiers everywhere with heavy duty weapons. And then squads of them in dressy, colorful uniforms with fancy hats. The king is back in town.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Another Side Of Riad Livin' In Marrakesh

Adrienne's riad

I'm a big proponent of breaking free from hotel travel and, where possible, renting a villa or an apartment when visiting foreign destinations. It worked out mostly well in Buenos Aires, fabulously well in Phuket, Bali, Rome, San Miguel de Allende...

There are several reasons I prefer to rent my own place rather than stay in a hotel. Three years ago I wrote about it (in the first link on this post).
Aside from getting a sense of belonging to a culture that most hotel guests can never experience, there are some tangible reasons I like to get my own place. I don't eat junk food and I take breakfast seriously. Even in NYC, where I do stay in a hotel, I always get one with a kitchenette. That way I can stock up on healthy goodies (fruits, nuts, etc) and on breakfast goods (blueberries, melons, papayas, lemons...) and have a place to store them and prepare them conveniently. It is virtually always much less expensive to rent your own place than to stay in a hotel. And it's far more personal.

Marrakesh is a perfect place for renting a house-- a riad-- and they have a whole tourism sector around the idea. Scores of beautiful old town houses have been renovated and updated either as beds-and-breakfasts or as houses rentable by a single party. I'm writing today, in fact, from the sitting room of the 4 bedroom riad I rented for most of December here in Marrakesh. I wrote a bit about the specific details of this place last week when I first got here.

But there's another side of the coin as well, which makes this style of travel not appropriate for everyone. I certainly love the feeling on being integrated, even if just a little, into the rhythm of life in a small neighborhood. After a week, everyone I pass in the alleyways says hello to me and I'm already friends with all the small children. That's the good part. But my Arabic is not great and my French isn't that much better so it isn't easy to communicate beyond the basics. And in an old place like this... well, things can go wrong.

Las night the electricity went down. It was an all night drama and it didn't get fixed 'til late this morning. If something like that happened in a hotel, the hotel management would take care of it. The housekeeper and her son were very helpful in this case, but I had to oversee the whole thing myself.

As I mentioned when I was in a villa on Bali, a friend felt our luxurious place was like "camping out" and she checked into a 5-star hotel after a few days. She almost came along on this trip. I think she'd be around the corner at the Mamounia by now-- even if it does cost around $700/day for the most modest accommodation they have. There's nothing of the real world they have to worry about in a place like that; everything gets taken care of and you're just there to have a vacation. I like to travel to live my life in different environments. It's somewhat different from a vacation. But not for everybody.

Today's Tip:

The best place I've found to change cash is the money-changer booth at the front of the Hotel Ali. It's right off the Jemaa el Fna. He consistently has a slightly better rate than anyone else in town and charges no commission. It's a much better deal than you'll get at any banks, although perhaps an ATM is better yet. (I don't know.) My friend Melody arrived with travelers checks and the rate for them isn't great and most places don't want them. Hotel Ali will take 'em but only if you have a receipt. The bank next door wouldn't take them at all but they recommended another hotel money changer- Taza-- and they gave her a so-so rate and charged a 15 dirham commission per check. Better to bring cash.It wasn't a great difference. $500 in cash dollars at the Hotel Ali brought just over 4,150 dirhams. The same amount in 5 travelers checks at Taza brought 4,025 dirhams-- a difference of 125 dirhams ($15.60).

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What To Wear When Traveling

For me it's always about comfort and function. I prepared for my trip to Morocco this month but going to a K Mart and buying two new pairs of jeans, one blue and one black. I also went to a Nordstrom's outlet and bought some new underwear. But the most valuable article of clothing I have with me are some no-itch merino wool SmartWool hiking socks from REI. I originally bought them for hiking in Mali but they're doing me a ton of good here in Marrakesh since I walk for 5-6 hours a day and I'm the only one not getting blisters. Why? "Merino wool's natural moisture-wicking ability keeps feet dry and comfortable on the trail no matter what the temperature." They cost me just under $20 a pair, less than the jeans. But worth it. Meanwhile, though Condé Nast Traveller has a different approach for packing for a trip abroad. Last year they published Etiquette 101: Dress Codes. (They also published an around the world tipping guide. Here in Morocco they suggest 10% but suggest that "tipping is best done quietly, perhaps off to the side"... the furtive handshake-with-cash-in-palm move, accompanied by a smile and a thank-you.")

Back to dressing. Yesterday we visited the Mamounia, Africa's grandest hotel. I used to stay there when I came to Morocco but that was before the riad craze kicked in... and the last time we stayed, someone on the staff had stolen all Roland's cash out of a sports jacket hanging in the wardrobe the first night we arrived. And they force you to wear a coat and tie to dinner. There are other uptight, pretentious places like that around the world, though not many. The kind of people who like them deserve each other.

Etiquette 101 is very worried about how Americans represent. They are so anti-fanny pack!
What makes an Ugly American ugly? Is it the timbre of our voices? Or the way we travel in herds? Or is it (as we suspect) our love of sweatpants, baseball caps, and yes, fanny packs, no matter the occasion or place? While it can sometimes seem that the world has fallen victim to a sort of sartorial globalization, where jeans are welcome anytime, anywhere, the truth is-of course-more nuanced. What works in surprisingly laid-back Singapore will be greeted with looks of horror on the streets (or in the boardrooms) of Paris. And ladies, while you can (and should) pile on the gold and jewels in Greece, quirky and stripped-down is the way to go in Germany.

They then proceed to offer "the rules on looking not just appropriate but actually stylish around the globe, whether you're in a meeting, at a party, or just walking outdoors." Business meeting in Dubai? "Women's pantsuits should be sheeny and glam; men's duds are buffed, black, and paired with slim ties." But in the malls-- women should carry the latest Louis Vuittons and, the ward off the icy A/C a pashmina shawl, while de rigeur for men are reflective aviators and Gucci sandals. Going to a party? They suggest "glam to the gills. No Swarovski is too shiny and no Giuseppe Zanotti is too high. Men wear Y3 trainers and tailored blazers over graphic tees" And clean socks (since you leave your shoes at the door.

So much for Dubai, which I've made a point of avoiding and to which there's no reason to go unless you plan to prostitute yourself to oil-rich Arabs. Here in Morocco, visitors dress like they're in Europe but Condé Nast Traveller has other suggestions. Business meeting are formal-- suit and tie. But on the streets "you see styles of the twelfth century and modern urban wear... Moroccans are particularly averse to shorts and everything Lycra (which, in our opinion, should be universally shunned)."

They suggest that in the Far East you "need a myriad of outfit options for a transcontinental Asian trek. Miniskirts and monochrome black are safe bets from Jakarta to Japan, but women in India and Pakistan cover their legs and sport vibrant, rich hues. In fact, very few styles would work in every country: Flip-flops, for instance, are trendy in Singapore, verboten in China, and, in Indonesia, acceptable only for shower wear."

And in Europe? There's one hard and fast sartorial rule: "Shabby is never chic. And no one, whether in London or Leipzig, likes the American travel-comfort gear of clunky sneakers and shapeless skirts. That having been said, style varies wildly from country to country. The mullets that will make you a star in Moscow won't fly in peg-leg-trousers-crazed London or sleek Paris. So how should you dress? Just stay simple, look to the locals, and follow a few basic rules." Meeting in Paris? "Dark, tailored, unflashy suits by Dior Homme or Jil Sander for both women and men (who need not wear ties)." But avoid bright colors in the street and "shun the plethora of other offenses: pleated chinos, walking shorts, sport sandals, baseball caps, golf attire, loud logos, sneakers, T-shirts, and sexy clothes." And my favorite hotel in Paris, the Plaza Athenée offers this: one's shoes and belt should always match but "a man's tie should never mirror his silk pocket square." In Germany "anything shabby will be noticed; people will cluck at a scuffed shoe and gape unrestrainedly at a hanging hem or soiled shirt."

Ready for your trip? Still not! They offer a tale of two cities-- Paris and Milan, the two fashion capitals of the world, respectively the homes of Chanel and Dior on the one hand and Prada and Armani on the other.

Hair should be up.

"The Milanese girl wears whatever's on trend in a sexy, overt way. She doesn't do anything vintage or sporty."

Must be a colorful print.

"The overall effect is resilient and formal. She's not one to mess around."

"Milanese girls' style is set: all Italian, all big brands, all off the runway. She loves D&G. Prada's too intellectual, Marni's too quirky."

Skin should be tanned.

"Shoes must be high to show off her legs."


Hair must be mussed.

"Unlike the Milanese girl, she's not brand obsessed: The Parisian will mix vintage with French brands like Isabel Marant and Vanessa Bruno, and throw in some cheap stuff from A.P.C."

Oversized white tee falling off her shoulder.

"There's a come-hither kind of sexiness to a Parisian girl: She's covered up but seems somehow barer, more fragile. She's more precious than your Milanese young thing: The Parisian girl is like a gift, with a sultry quality that's underlying but never plain."

These are her boyfriend's.

Her shoes are Balmain.

Of course, if you're self-confident and sensible, you know exactly what to wear that will make you look the way you want to look and, more important, be nice and comfortable without offending anyone around you.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Marrakesh, Day 7 or 8... Losing Track Of Time

The other day I mentioned how new travel vistas had been opening for me because of Lisa's feminine influence. This trip hasn't had much in common with the sojourn Roland and I took last year into the back country of Mali. On the other hand, Lisa's interest in some of Marrakesh's great sites aren't related to her gender. Roland just hates going into any museums, monuments or "sites." He just likes to live the life. I only insist when it's essential-- like the Prado in Madrid or the underground cities in Cappadocia. But this week I'm seeing everything-- all the monuments I've been passing by for decades without ever bothering to go in to see. And am I glad I'm getting a chance to. Like I mentioned last time, the Ben Youssuf Madrassa is something I passed by dozens of times and never went into. And it's spectacular and SO worth a stop. Yesterday there was another one like that we just stumbled on, El Bahia Palace, near the Mella, the old Jewish quarter:

The palace is gargantuan and kind of gaudy, built by a rich asshole to impress his buddies in the 1800s. It's like a Moroccan version of Versailles. According to wikipedia, "The structures tell a lot about the taste of the nouveau-riche of its time, and can appear vulgar to modern tastes. It was intended to become the greatest palace of its time, but it is really dominated by hasty planning as well as uninspired detail work. This doesn't make the palace less worth visiting, it is a monument of its time, and served even as the residence of the French resident general, [Resident-General Louis Hubert Gonzalve] Lyautey."

And then we headed into the Mella... well almost. Just before the gate to the Mella we found a gorgeous shop, Atelier El Bahia, again, something I would never have walked into. But Lisa saw the pillows, bedspreads, scarves, shawls, the huge looms... and in we went. Even I bought something! After wandering around in the souks all week we were happy to see displays of all top quality stuff. The prices were fixed-- strange for Morocco-- but not nearly as high as what they ask for for far shoddier goods in the souks. Address is 24 Rue des Dommaine, Bahia. And then into the Mella where we actually found the still functioning synogogue! The caretaker showed us around and it was far more alive than the synagogue I visited in Yangon, which never had as thriving a Jewish community as Marrakesh once did. Now, I hear there are about 250 Jews left in the Mella.

Afterwards it was back to Atelier El Bahia because Lisa remembered all those colorful pillow cases would be perfect for the ultimate Marrakesh red and black bedspread she had bought-- and then on to the Place des Ferblantlers, where craftsmen are making metal goods. Lisa immediately sensed out the best shop in the area, El Abdi Abdeljabbar's L'Art Marocain. He's got everything in there but the main thing are high end light fixtures, including some he bought at the auction when the Mamounia closed down for a couple years to renovate and sold everything. Lisa now has a piece of Mamounia history for her patio.

We ended the day by going for dinner at Dar Zellij, one of my favorite old Marrakesh dining palaces. One of the things I like best about Zellij is that they don't try to force you to order a huge feast like most of the Moroccan palace restaurants do. We satisfied ourselves with an 8-plate salad and fish tagines. No couscous course, no harira course, no pastilla course, no dessert. And this isn't a belly dancer kind of place. The food was great and the service impeccable. The place, a restored 17th century riad, is breathtaking. And the price was high but not outrageous, especially if you skip the fixed price dinners. And it's always great wandering around the Medina looking for places. God knows how many times we got lost. All part of the fun.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Marrakesh, Day 6

Where does the time go? Sorry about the inattentiveness. Let me see if I can catchup a little. First off, for everyone who has been e-mailing about how to rent the riad we're staying in, I met an Englishwoman online, Adrienne, who lives here in Marrakesh and rents out riads, her own (one of which is pictured above) and riads owned by other Europeans who just use them from time to time for vacations. Adrienne's website is and you can contact her through that. I started talking about this place with her last May and she was very attentive all the way through. In fact, she was just up here-- she lives up the road across from the riad owned by Bernard-Henri Lévy and just beyond that of IMF head (and perhaps the next President of France), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, another Obama-like Conservative Consensus candidate posing as a champion of ordinary families. She gave us some great tips on some specialized souks outside of the grand souk area where we might be able to get better buys on some stuff. Anyway... she'll take good care of you.

It's funny being here in Marrakesh with a woman, Lisa, instead of just me and Roland (who arrives next week). The first time I came to Morocco was with my girlfriend and it was a very different Morocco in terms of women-- very backward in attitude and not really a pleasant or even safe place for women. Forty years ago Moroccan men were still not entirely used to seeing uncovered women wandering around and awkward situations were very common. That's pretty much over, especially in cosmopolitan Marrakesh, where government policies to drag the traditional culture into the modern worked-- on top of the overflow of tourism and globalization-- and have helped cause a noticeable change in attitude among Moroccans towards women-- their own and those from overseas. It's way more comfortable being a woman in Morocco that it used to be-- and more comfortable and relaxed traveling with a woman.

But what I was getting at was something else entirely. I find myself doing different things with Lisa than I would be normally doing, especially with Roland, Example: two days ago we spent the afternoon at the beautiful urban park Yves Saint Laurent found and revamped, Jardin Majorelle. It was very peaceful, very tranquil... but not something guys usually do unless a woman drags them in that direction. Eveyone there was a woman or men with women. I didn't go quite as far as accompanying her inside the museum dedicated to Yves Saint Laurent's designs, but just sat outside and enjoyed the fresh air and the beautiful juxtaposition of bamboo and cactus gardens.

And yesterday we did something even more markedly "feminine," a morning at the baths. Actually, Roland and I once went to the hammam at the then fabulous, now... well, now it's a dreadful, pretentious and impersonal Sofitel... Palais Jamaï. We went for the hammam experience of being rubbed all over with a brillo-like glove, a very manly thing.
A person taking a Turkish bath first relaxes in a room (known as the warm room) that is heated by a continuous flow of hot, dry air allowing the bather to perspire freely. Bathers may then move to an even hotter room (known as the hot room) before splashing themselves with cold water. After performing a full body wash and receiving a massage, bathers finally retire to the cooling-room for a period of relaxation.

I just found an English website that proposes readers create the Moroccan hamman experience in their homes:
• Moroccan black soap-- this soap is made from the kernel of the olive nut and has wonderful exfoliating properties.

• A Moroccan scrubbing mitt called a gome-- this course mitt will effectively remove all your dead skin cells, and increase the circulation in your arms and legs, helping to reduce cellulite.  A very handy glove!

• A Moroccan foot scrub (optional)-- this little terracotta foot scrub will remove hard skin from your heels faster than anything I know.

• Rhassoul-- this wonder clay, mined from deep within the Atlas Mountains, has a list of benefits as long as your arm.  See our article on rhassoul.

• Rose water (optional)-- will make you feel like a Moroccan princess.

• Mint tea

I skipped the princess part but we did while away the hours yesterday at what is reputed to be the most luxurious and pamper-oriented hammam in town, the one at La Sultana, a small gem-like hotel right near the Saadien tombs, which we were planning on visiting anyway. The hamman/spa at La Sultana was really amazing, not inexpensive, but amazing. The bath itself is just shockingly beautiful: a large jacuzzi under 3 vaulted ceilings supported by 8 marble columns with 13 traditional chandeliers. Off that main room are the actual hamman, massage rooms, a sauna, showers, and relaxing rooms. And I was surprised that the masseuse was very competent, well-trained and effective.

No really amazing restaurants to report on other than the wonderful one we had at Al Fassia in Gueliz (the new town), which is as good, if not better, than it was in 2006. Again, let me remind you that if you plan to go, it's essential to make reservations in advance. It's got the best food in town and it's always booked up. We're going back in a few days.

Other than that we ate at some mundane Moroccan restaurants, Le Tanjia for lunch yesterday and Le Marrakchi for dinner. These photos of Le Tanjia say a lot more about the skill of the p.r. firm than about the reality of the restaurant. Le Marrakchi has a great view of the Jemaa el Fna but that's the highlight. Again, nothing wrong with the place but... nothing really to recommend it either-- unless you crave lots of noisy, smoking European tourists squished up against you.

A couple days ago we visited a place I've passed by a dozen times but never went into (I'll blame Roland), the Ben Youssuf Merdera (Madrassa), a 14th century college that really is quite spectacular, one of the best sites in town. It's clustered with the Museum of Marrakech (very nice architecture housed in Dar Menebhi Palace, and less interesting displays, with the exception of two small paintings by Hassan Alaoui; another painting of his, similar in feel, is above, left) and the Almoravid Koubba (some not terribly impressive ruins, although they probably are to archeologists). Ben Youssuf's the play. "It is the largest Medrasa in all of Morocco... Its 130 student dormitory cells cluster around a courtyard richly carved in cedar, marble and stucco. The carvings contain no representation of humans or animals as required by Islam, and consist entirely of inscriptions and geometric patterns. This madrasa was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa and may have housed as many as 900 students... Closed down in 1960, the building was refurbished and reopened to the public as an historical site in 1982."

A couple blocks away is a highly touted restaurant, Le Foundouk which was better than either Le Tanjia or Le Marrakechi-- and more expensive-- but far from the level of Al Fassia.

UPDATE: Are You Coming To Marrakesh?

Adrienne just told me to offer all AroundTheWorldBlog readers a 10% discount off her regular riad prices for 2011. The website is above and her phone number is 00 212 (0) 71 23 46 28. Just mention you heard about her riad from "Howie's blog."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Marrakesh, Day 2

It's nearly 11 AM now, the middle of our second day in Marrakech. Fatima came at 9 and made breakfast and we're just relaxing before going out for another arduous day of exploring the souks and hidden gardens of Marrakesh.

The riad is superb. Officially there are 4 bedrooms but actually there are 4 bedrooms plus 2 childrens' bedrooms. When you enter, you come to a central courtyard, which is covered by a retractable roof three stories up. The kitchen is there and it's kind of a sitting room/dinner room. Off that is Lisa's suite, the only bedroom on the first floor. The riad has been lovingly restored to a really incredible degree combining modern expectations with traditional North African fantasies. Beautiful tile work, beautiful iron work, incredible fixtures, doorways to die for... Every detail is just wonderful. The neighborhood, Sidi Mimoun, is pretty cool too. Our next door neighbor is Mohammed VI (the king). We were warned by the property manager to refrain from pointing cameras at the palace from our rooftop terrace. On the other side of our riad is Yves St Laurent's riad. To get to our riad off the main street of the neighborhood, you have to go down a couple of alleys where there are no cars. So it's pretty quiet here, other than when the neighborhood children get going with a drum circle.

Anyway, upstairs are the rest of the bedrooms plus a large living room, which I'm using as an office as well. It has a beautiful Moroccan style tiled and brick fireplace-- as well as a more traditional-- actual modern-- heater. It gets up into the 80s in the daytime but down to around 5o at night. The third flight up is the rooftop terrace, although halfway to the top is one of the childrens' bedrooms, the same as any of the other bedrooms except without an en suite bathroom.

Yesterday I took Lisa around to get a feel for the Medina. She loved it and basked in the foreignness and exotic feel. I told her Fes is 10 times more foreign and exotic but she probably thinks I'm exaggerating. I'm not. Marrakech may seem otherworldly but it's very cosmopolitan, with thousands of Europeans living here... and tourists everywhere, and very much being catered to in terms of restaurants and shops. There's even a vegetarian restaurant, Earth Cafe just off the Jemaa el Fna on Riad Zitoun el Kedim. We had a yummy-- albeit salty-- lunch there.

One thing we saw last night that really knocked me for a loop was a first. Morocco was formerly overrun with aggressive touts-- not just persistent pests insisting on being your guide; they still have some of that-- but threatening unemployed young men who made it more than unpleasant for tourists. Eventually-- by the 80s-- the bazaaris, who really run this country "got rid" of them. The very aggressive ones ceased to exist in city after city. It's even safe to walk around Fes now. Roland says it reminds him of Disneyland. Now that's an exaggeration. But last night in the Jemaa el Fna, the main square, we weren't just accosted by the regular assortment of young male touts but, for the first time (for me), two separate female touts! They weren't shy and it just isn't something you would ever expect to see in a Muslim country. You've come a long way, baby! A shopkeeper we met told us the government is even discouraging polygamy, probably more than the Morman cults do.

UPDATE: And Speaking Of The Changing Role Of Women In Moroccan Society

Al Fassia is one of Marrakesh's best restaurants and it's run as a woman's cooperative. We're going to have dinner there tonight. Last time I was in Marrakesh, almost 5 years ago this is what I had to say about it:
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 by 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.

Tonight we have a reservation.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Live Blogging Marrakesh, Morocco-- Preparations

December 8, 2010

My old rule of thumb was that the trip starts once the airplane doors shut. But this one started back in May when we booked our tickets (L.A. to London on B.A., London to Marrakesh on Atlas Blue, which has since been fully absorbed by Royal Air Maroc, probably the worst airline servicewise on earth; try calling their 1-800 number a hundred times and see if you ever get through.) In May we also booked a 4 bedroom riad in the old city. I can't wait to see it. And I won't have to much longer. I'm leaving for the airport in about an hour.

I didn't do much to prepare for the trip beyond that stuff-- changed some dollars to Euros so I can pay the balance of the riad, since they prefer that currency rather than dollars or dirham. You don't need shots or visas for Morocco and I've been there over a dozen times so I didn't even get a guide book. And I went to K Mart and bought two pairs of new jeans for $9.97 each. They look awesome and the ones I had are fine for the U.S. but jeans with holes are looked at askance in Morocco. And I went to Nordstrom's outlet store and bought a bunch of really nice boxer-briefs and t-shirts. Last night I spent 2 whole hours sorting my vitamins and supplements into daily dose bags. But this morning I went for my last swim of 2010, my last jacuzzi of 2010 and my last hike in the Los Feliz hills of 2010. I also made sure that the socks I'm wearing for the flight don't have any holes in them. A friend told me that the TSA guys have stopped the junk groping for the holidays. I was kind of looking forward to it in a weird way... you know, to be at one with the zeitgeist or something.

Oh, and I checked the weather. It was in the low 80s every day last week. Here's today's:

UPDATE: All checked in

There were no porno scanner machines anywhere to be seen and no junk gropers. That was much ado about nothing, Some jerk made me take off my belt and hoodie though. Turns out, though, that the B.A. flights to London no longer land at Terminal 4. There's now a Terminal 5, although I'll have to get over to T-4 for the trip to Morocco... after a 7 hour layover. At check-in just now they gave me a brochure for the new T-5. Aside from all kinds of high end shops, like Paul Smith, Harrods, and Prada and a Gordon Ramsey restaurant, they have an amazing arrivals lounge, Galleries, that includes a movie theater, a spa, dining facilities where food is prepared by order and excellent business facilities. I can hardly wait. I just ate a Brazil nut that tasted like rotten fish.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

What Are The Hip And Happening Countries To Visit In 2011?

Damascus-- the place to be in 2011

"The jig is almost up-- Albania won’t be off the beaten track for much longer." That's the last line of a description of #1 on the Lonely Planet's Top 10 Countries For 2011. The list was compiled by Lonely Planet's" in-house travel experts" and the choices were made "based on scores topicality, excitement, value for money and…that special X-factor." And they published a full scale guide book for this as well, Best In Travel 2011.

So far my own 2011 travel plans include ringing in the New Year in Marrakesh, followed by London, then a few weeks in Russia during the summer, followed by a whirlwind tour of the 3 Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, then Poland and a bit of a rest in Berlin-- where I once lived when it was still a divided city-- before coming home. And next Christmas, we're thinking about Istanbul, an old fave, and Damascus, someplace we've always wanted to go and the only destination on the Lonely Planet 2011 list we'll be seeing in 2011.

So, they think Albania is the coolest destination for the coming year. I don't know... I sure liked it a lot-- first impression here and second impression here-- but I wouldn't say it was something anyone in their right mind would pick in place of Rome or Nepal or Bali or... well, I could probably name 100 better destinations. And I liked Albania. Roland hated it. Lonely Planet:
Since backpackers started coming to elusive Albania in the 1990s, tales have been told in ‘keep it to yourself’ whispers of azure beaches, confrontingly good cuisine, heritage sites, nightlife, affordable adventures and the possibility of old-style unplanned journeys complete with open-armed locals for whom travelers are still a novelty. Sick to death of being dismissed with blinged-up crime-boss clichés, Albania has announced ‘A New Mediterranean Love’ via its tourist board.

We were there in December so we passed the beaches by, which are packed with European tourists looking for someplace cheap. I liked the food and the sites but not everyone would. The locals were fine and the nightlife was nothing to write home about. That this was numero uno, throws the whole enterprise into doubt for me.

Their second choice is Brazil. I never made it to any of the great Brazilian cities so I'm not one to judge. And Brazil is definitely on my list. My only trip into the country was a side trip from Argentina when I went to the stunning Iguazu Falls National Park. It sounds from the Lonely Planet description that the reason to go in 2011 is because it'll be so wonderful in 2014 (World Cup) and 2016 (Summer Olympics).

I have to admit that I never considered #3 or #4, Cape Verde and Panama. I spent a couple of memorable weeks in Bulgaria (#5) in 1969 but I just don't see it as a tourist destination. I was on my way to India from London in a VW van and I decided to stop and see Bulgaria because all the travelers said it was worthless and hurried on to Istanbul. The rebel in me was right, but mostly because I met some really nice people who took me all around the country.

#9, Syria, is, like I said, the other place we're planning on visiting in 2011. The NY Times made it sound really unattractive to me-- after an alluring intro-- this weekend in their 36 Hours in Damascus write up.
Damascus loves to flaunt its age. It claims to be the world’s oldest inhabited city-- replete with biblical and Koranic lore, Roman ruins, ancient Islamic edifices and Ottoman-era palaces. But that’s not to say the Syrian capital is stuck in time. Dozens of centuries-old mansions have been reborn as Mideast-chic hotels, and fashionable shops and restaurants have arisen in the ancient lanes of the Old City. Throw in a fledgling generation of bars and clubs, and the age-old metropolis has never looked so fresh.

My idea of a good trip is to find a comfortable place to stay in an exciting environment and live life there. And Damascus fits that bill, even if I don't quite follow the Times itinerary. Lonely Planet's description was more to my liking:
Savvy tourists can lord it up like a pasha, staying in lovingly restored Ottoman palaces and sipping cappuccino after shopping it up in the souq. But with all this modernisation it’s good to see some things are still the same. Out east the Bedouin still herd their scraggly sheep and welcome strangers into goat-hair tents for tea. Aleppo and Damascus’ Old Cities remain mazes where the best maps won’t work, and the countryside is still a vast open-air museum, strewn with the abandoned playgrounds of fallen empires. With hospitality still a national obsession, the attitude to visitors hasn’t changed either.

The other countries on the list are Vanuatu, Italy, Tanzania and Japan. They say Japan isn't really expensive. I've been there several times. It was really expensive, super-expensive. But they say there are English street signs now. OK.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Where's The Action? Not In Europe-- The 30 Most Dynamic Cities in the World

Today the Atlantic had a fascinating feature on the 30 Most Dynamic Cities in the World. And they mean the post-recession world. And awful lot of the cities I love traveling to, cities in the Developing World, are the ones leading the world out of the Great Recession. I mean don't look for Athens or Dublin or Lisbon on the list. They're going in the other direction. In fact, numero uno is Istanbul, since 1969 one of my favorite cities to visit. There's only one U.S. city on the list-- that beautiful blueberry in the middle of the red Texan hell, Austin. Montreal and Melbourne are the only other First World cities. The study found that "the world's fastest recovering cities are overwhelmingly in three key areas: China and India, Southeast Asian islands, and Latin America... Lima, Peru [number five]... has a big commodities sector that not only sustained it through the recession but also propelled its growth thanks to huge demand out of China and India. Like a lot of other Latin American capital cities, it was also a safe haven for capital during the global economic crisis. That fueled investment and income during the crisis and continues to do so now."
When you look closer at the report, more trends emerge. Port cities with large trade sectors dominate, due to their ability to put products in the hands of the world's healthier economies. China, India and Brazil-- three members of the so-called BRIC group (R is for Russia, which had no cities in the top 30)-- account for 13 out of the 30 cities, and fully half of the list if you count Taipei and Hong Kong.

"What the Chinese cities have in common is substantial direct support from central government, which made Shenzhen [number 2] and Guangzhou [number 7] global manufacturing centers," Berube said. "That propelled massive growth in the 15 years predating the recession."

As for the surprising winner of the Brookings' rankings, Berube was brave enough to admit he didn't have a clear answer for Istanbul's meteoric rise. "Istanbul was affected really badly by the recession, but it had incredibly strong growth in the past year, especially in employment, where the city outstripped everybody else," he said. "After the huge fall-off last year, I'm not sure how stable its number one status is."

As Istanbul's roller coaster proves, dynamism is a sword that cuts both ways. Cities that open themselves to the global marketplace can experience both the highs and lows of an uncertain world economy. Indeed, two of the top ten city performers in the pre-recession era, Dubai and Dublin, are now ranked 149th and 150th out of 150 in the latest survey after suffering twin real estate bubbles half a world apart.

30- Hong Kong

29- Cairo, which has a bullet proof-- literally-- tourist industry, accounting for a seventh of the city's total employment! "Like other cities on this list, Cairo's low cost of living and proximity to key trade routes in the developing world have helped it stay afloat."

28- Alexandria

27- Montreal- "strong trade sector, anchored in aerospace and electronics, and propelled by the largest inland port in the world."

26- Austin- state government spending + a robust high-tech sector

25- Sao Paulo- the most populous city in the Americas is the largest city economy in Brazil

24- Riyadh- petrodollars plowed back into the public sector, infrastructure, and commercial development

23- Kuala Lumpur- 5th most visited city in the world and with a strong financial center

22- Belo Horizonte- It's for Brazil what Pittsburgh used to be for the U.S. (steel)

21- Taipei- a rich city getting richer... the second best GDP per capita of any Asian city besides Tokyo, with a strong industrial base augmented by a world-class electronics sector

20- Jakarta- an investment magnet

19- Buenos Aires- benefiting a recovery and proximity to fast-growing Brazil

18- Tianjin- manufacturing and mining center

17- Chennai (formerly Madras)- home to a third of India's automobile industry & to a sizable electronic manufacturing sector

16- Kolkata (formerly Calcutta)- benefits from a strong outsourcing sector

15- Guadalajara

14- Melbourne- Australia's busiest seaport

13- Bangalore- Silicon Valley of India, another Indian city benefiting from U.S. outsourcing

12- Mumbai (formerly Bombay)- cosmopolitan mixing pot of finance, commerce, retail, and entertainment

11- Hyderabad- IT and outsourcing

10- Rio de Janeiro

9- Manila- remittances from far-flung Filipino workers plus tourism and IT

8- Beijing- world's best employment picture

7- Guangzhou (formerly Canton)- successful product of patient government investment, which has turned it into one of the country's most important hubs for manufacturing and shipping goods overseas

6- Shanghai- world's largest city has the fastest growing stock exchange on earth and the world's second busiest port and the fastest growing income of any major world city by a considerable margin

5- Santiago (Chile)- copper

4- Singapore- marries a conservative government with liberal and innovative economic policies to both encourage international business and vigorously reinvest it in infrastructure and education

3- Lima

2- Shenzhen- a telecommunications giant and a major port for Chinese goods


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Is It Dangerous To Use Drugs In Morocco?

The first time I visited Morocco, in 1969, it was my first trip to the Third World... or anyplace really exotic. It made me realize that Europe was not all that different from America, at least by comparison. I fell in love with the country, the food, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the way of life. And I stopped counting the number of times I've been back once I hit the dozen mark.

That first time I went, I had a bit on an ulterior motive: drugs. I wanted to buy a kilo of cheap kif (their version of hash) in the Rif Mountains around Ketama, smuggle the stuff back to London where I could pack it up well and send it to America, where an accomplice could sell it and help me finance a trip I was about to take to India. That worked out fine-- not just because the deal was smooth all around but also because Ketama and the Rif were pretty different from the rest of Morocco and really interesting. But I've never been back in the 40 years since. I'm more attracted to the urban experiences in Fez, Marrakech, Tangier, even Taroundant and Essaouira. And I don't use drugs any longer; my drug karma is all over now. Inshallah!

Kif is widely available in Morocco-- and one of the country's biggest sources of income-- and sometimes it seems that everyone is smoking it. But it's illegal, if, more or less, tolerated. Although less so than even a decade ago, it's hard to take a walk around without someone offering you some kif. And there are cafes in most places I've been where Moroccans are sitting around smoking kif in hookahs while sipping sugar with some mint tea in it. But if a tourist flaunts it-- like by smoking a joint while walking around a city-- it could be real trouble. The police don't come looking for tourists to bust but they do react when you wave it in their faces. (It's like homosexuality. It's illegal but no one is trying to bust any tourists for it.) However, if you do wind up being arrested, the best thing is to pay a bribe (baksheesh) fine on the spot. Otherwise, you could wind up in jail for ten years.

People ask me all the time if Morocco is a safe place to visit. I certainly think it is-- and I've written about the subject-- but when it comes to drugs, is any place "safe?" Today an American icon, 77 year old country singer Willie Nelson, was arrested in his home state, Texas, because officers at a police check point smelled pot, searched his tour bus and found 6 ounces.
"It's kind of surprising, but I mean we treat him like anybody else," [Sheriff Arvin] West said.

"He could get 180 days in county jail, which if he does, I'm going to make him cook and clean," West said.

"He can wear the stripy uniforms just like the other ones do."

Probably less likely to happen in Morocco-- a far more interesting place to visit in any case. And is this stoner music, or what?