Marrakech beyond the Medina

One of the questions were asked a lot before the trip, is “what is your cousin doing there?”. So…here is the brief scoop we picked up from interrogating Erin. She majored in anthropology and was interested in studying “festivals and celebrations” in some way for her grad program. She was looking for a place outside the US that would allow her to build on some basic French language skills she had, but did not want to study specifically in France. She got connected with a person at UC Riverside who was doing a lot of work in Morocco. So, she knew if she came to Riverside for her PhD, that is what she would want to do. Her original plan was to study a celebration that had occurred in Marrakech about every 2 years since they gained independence from the French. That festival focused on music and art meant to show the diversity and promote the unity of Morocco (so it included both northern and southern cultures, as well as that of the Arabic, Berber, and Jewish people that have historically lived in Morocco). HOWEVER, after getting approval to go to Morocco she learned this festival has been put on hiatus for about 5 years. So…..after some quick thinking and proposal adjustments….she is now focusing on Story Telling and Oral Traditions….specifically how modernization and the introduction of English into Morocco is affecting traditional storytelling and performance. So, she spends a lot of time in coffee shops, bookstores, and plazas watching Moroccan performers–sweet gig! This year, Erin is supported by the Fulbright Scholarship so she’s pretty amazing.

Ok…now back to our adventures….

Scooters are a thing in Marrakech and they’re allowed in the Medina (though cars are not). As soon as MDT heard this, he was set on renting a moped. It was chaotic driving in the Medina and around town. But if MDT can handle driving around the streets of Vietnam, he can manage Marrakech! He even took Marlene out for a ride one evening.

While MDT is out renting the scooter, Marlene and DQT get henna tattoos. Erin warns us against the ladies in the square – the ink some use have been known to cause negative reactions. Instead, we visit Erin’s friend’s henna cafe. We can’t wait for Marlene to show this off in Ossian, IN!

We visit the spice market (which is outside the Medina), where most vendors in the Medina get their spices. We settle on a very friendly shop guy and get the whole works from him – drink tea, smell and try all his spices/oils, and get heaped with compliments. It was great fun. It wasn’t until later that MDT told us we spent an hour with him that we even knew it was that long! We got face masks, herbal tea, cinnamon, toothpicks, rose oil, and scented wax. We got a good deal and I’m sure he still made out like a bandit.

MDT didn’t stay for the full spice experience. He opted to head outside to wait for us. In the courtyard, he found an empty chair. When he went to move the chair away from the tree so he could sit in it, two guys sitting nearby jumped up and started waving and gesturing at him. MDT stopped, thinking he wasn’t allowed to sit, but it turns out that the chair only had 3 legs. It needed to remain propped against the tree or it would topple. So, after spice shopping, this is where we found MDT, in a 3-legged chair.

Next to him is, near as we can tell, the courtyard boss. He just sat there surveying the court. He would periodically chase away a vendor, or would talk to another vendor and, for whatever reason, allow him to stay and sell. He seemed friendly enough and saved MDT from injuring himself on the chair!

The spice market is near two sights we visited outside of the Medina: the Saadian Tombs and the Bahia Palace.

The tombs had some pretty structures, architecture and tiling. But it was a bit sparse. We saw a long line and figured it led to, you know, THE TOMBS. So, we stood in the line for 30 minutes…only to find out that the line was to get to this little alcove to take a picture of a pretty room. THAT WAS IT. There was nothing else to go in to see. There were all these people waiting in this long line just to go up and take a picture or two of A ROOM. It was hilarious and a total rookie mistake. Marlene was beside herself!

The Bahia Palace was gorgeous and a much more satisfying visit! It was built in the 19th century by a Grand Vizier of the Sultan (whatever that means, it must mean he had lots of resources). The place is huge and includes numerous rooms, gardens, and courtyards – not all of which are open to the public.

Erin’s parents, Janet (also Marlene’s sister) & Kevin, have arrived so Erin and Nabil have planned a special dinner for the family. We’re having tangia (the special Marrakech beef dish) and a whole roasted sheep’s head! Everyone does a great job of eating everything before them. We all agree that the cheek meat from the head is the most tender.

Above, our waiter serves up the tangia out of the cooking vessels. And below, the sheep’s head is cut in half for ease of plating and eating.

Look at their faces. They’re being such good sports!

And a family photo with the famous square below.

After dinner, because the guy is a friend of Nabil’s, we get a tour of the roasting oven used to cook the lamb and tangia. It’s an underground wood burning oven that usually holds about 80 tangia pots, but if they stack them on top of each other they can squeeze 300 in! (That was for a large wedding they were catering)

The last thing we do in Marrakech is visit Erin’s favorite wine bar, 68. Drinking alcohol is not very prevalent in Marrakech (or Morocco in general, as it’s a predominantly Islamic country) but there are some bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Right away, we notice that Bar 68 looks different than the other venues on the street. It’s covered in black and you can’t see in or out. And there’s a doorman. We find out later that he lets foreigners in (we were not stopped or asked for ID) but stops Moroccans. And the black coverings are partly for warmth, and partly so passerbys don’t see people drinking.

Inside, the place feels like you’re in France. Everything is in French and the menu is mostly French dishes. The wine list is predominately European but we select two Moroccan wines to try – a Gris (for “grey” its basically a Moroccan version of a light rosé- its a wine that spends even less time in the tank with the skins than a typical rose-so it has just a hint of color) and a red blend. We are told a couple times that Morocco is the only place in the world that makes grey wine! We have some on the trip and it’s pretty good.

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Marrakech Medina

We return from the Agafay Desert and dive right in to exploring the Marrakech Medina. Erin is busy so we wander the Medina on our own. It’s exhilarating and terrifying to walk through the narrow streets crowded with vendors, hawkers, and tourists. There are so many sounds and smells. Everyone wants to sell us something – food, souvenirs, spices, pottery, juices, etc. And they’re aggressive. Some folks will follow you around!

Google Maps helps keep us from getting too lost. I don’t know how visitors did this before GPS!

Our next accomplishment was getting lunch. Using DQ’s limited French, hand gestures, and lots of good humor and patience, we managed to buy a lamb sandwich and not get swindled in the process. It’s almost silly how proud we are of ourselves in this moment. It made the sandwich taste even better!

Just as we were feeling pretty good about our traveling savvy, we got caught up in a tannery tour swindle. It was so classic. We were just standing to the side of the street when some guy spoke to us in English. He said hi and started making conversation. He told us it was a good time to be in Marrakech because the Berbers were in town to work on the tanneries and that we should head there to see it. As he was giving us directions, a guy he knew waked by and said he was waking in that direction and would escort us. After we walk through emptier and emptier streets, DQ starts getting suspicious but warily goes along. We arrive at the tanneries and are introduced to someone who gives us a tour. It’s all pretty interesting…and really, uh, pungent. They give us sprigs of mint to sniff as we walk around. We see the vats of pigeon droppings used to soften the hides, the dye vats, etc. And, finally, we are let to a big shop where we have tea with a salesman and a series of rugs are paraded in front of us. Then we see all the leather goods. We decide not to buy anything and as we walking away, we are stopped in the street by the tannery tour guide asking for a “donation” to the association – suggested 400 dirham per person ($80 total). DQT refuses and starts to walk away but MDT relents and gives them 50 dirham. He figures we did get a cool tannery tour out of it!

DQT navigates us back to the Medina because now no one is around to help us get back. In fact, we think a couple of guys tried to misdirect us or serve as guides for a fee. But, thank goodness for Google Maps! We meet up with Erin at a rooftop cafe for a late lunch – more tagine! a kefta (meatball) tagine this time – and are introduced to a pastille. It’s a phyllo crust with spiced chicken and almonds, sprinkled with powdered sugar and cinnamon on top. Sounds weird but was tasty!

Below, view of Marrakech from the rooftop cafe. We love looking out over the city and seeing minarets dotting the city skyline. Minarets are the towers at the mosques where the call to prayers emanate.

Bellies full, DQT and MDT head to a public hammam. These are heated bath houses, with separate entrances and areas for men and women. The hammam we visited has been in operation since 1562. The entrance fee is 10 dirham, but for 150 dirham you will get supplies and someone to give you a full body scrub/exfoliation/wash. It’s pretty basic but the scrub down is serious. The dead skin comes off of you in rolls. Ewwww….You feel pretty raw and crazy clean afterwards!

Marlene arrives tonight and we head to the airport to pick her up, guessing that border and customs will take a while. So we arrive 30 minutes after her flight lands only to see that Marlene is looking for us and talking to a guard. Oh no! We had promised to be there and waiting when she arrived! Somehow, she got her baggage and passed through customs in less than 20 minutes.

We head back to our gorgeous riad. Our housekeeper Fouzia, who has been patiently enduring DQT’s broken French, is overjoyed to meet Erin who can easily converse with her in both French and Arabic. Fouzia throws her arms up in joy!

The riad even came with a housecat, who always seemed to be napping in this chair no matter what time of day (except when she was eating).

Every morning, Fouzia made us breakfast served in the riad courtyard. Now, this is a vacation!

Marlene’s first meal in Marrakech was dinner after her long flight – tagine with chicken, lemon, and olives. With a side of fries and a various salad. The various salad is a particular Moroccan thing – lettuce, cucumbers, egg, onions, rice, zucchini, corn, beets, potatoes, olives, drizzled with white creamy dressing. The specific ingredients can vary depending on season or what is around but it usually includes lettuce, egg, rice, olives, potatoes, and the dressing. It was good – refreshing and cool compliment to the other dishes. Marlene really liked the chicken tagine and she LOVED the fries. It actually became a thing. We always ordered fries if it was on the menu (and it usually was). Marlene loved the fries in Marrakech – they were better than home!

After dinner, we walked around the Jemaa el-Fnaa square. It’s a big, busy square and one of the things Marrakech is known for. During the day there are snake charmers and monkeys and henna artists and juice carts. At night, the square is taken over by the meat grillers, storytellers, musicians, acrobats, though the juice guys and henna artists remain.

Of course we have dinner at the meat grillers one night. We just hopped from grill to grill, sampling what each place had – we even tried sheep brain! Unfortunately, it was a more interesting idea than a tasty dish.

Above, various animal heads on display. Below, brains!

We get juice from these guys Erin’s frequented in the past. We like them so much that we return every night and they start to greet us like old friends. Nightly juices becomes an addiction for MDT.

The square at sunset.

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Agafay Desert Glamping

When we get dropped off in Marrakech by our Royal Air Maroc driver, we have to be let off just outside the Medina (old town) because no cars are allowed inside. The Medina is confusing network of alleyways crammed with vendors and few helpful signage. So, the housekeeper of our riad has sent an older guy with a green metal cart to guide us to our lodging. The guy tells us to throw all our luggage into his cart and he’s off. We have to almost jog to keep up with him as he twists and turns through the Medina towards our riad. DQT tries to note the landmarks so she can remember how to get back here but she’s lost after the 4th turn.

We arrive at a tiny little door with little to announce it as our riad.

We knock nervously and our housekeeper answers and greets us in French. She’s been expecting us! Inside, the riad is peaceful and gorgeous. Nothing like the commotion of the Medina. It’s perfect after the travel day we’ve had!

We meet up with MDT’s cousin Erin for a traditional Moroccan dinner of tagine, assorted salads, and bread. And a very brisk walk through the Medina.

The next morning, we meet up for breakfast with Erin and her friend Nabil. The excitement of this morning was our first attempt at getting a taxi to another part of town. We flag a taxi in the Medina square (tourist central) and give him the address of where we want to go. He tells us 20 dirham, which seemed fair to us. When we arrive, he turns to us and says, “20 euros” (ten times what he quoted us). MDT literally laughed out loud. We shoved a 20 dirham note in his hand and got out of the taxi while he acted surprised. We had a good laugh about this over breakfast!

Breakfast was delicious. Erin and Nabil ordered omelettes with onions and aged beef in fat. And we also had bread with various condiments – butter, peanut butter, olive oil, argan oil, honey, jam, and local herbed cheese. On the way out, we walked by tubs of the beef aged in fat:

After breakfast, Nabil connects with us a taxi driver that some friends have used before and we head out to the Agafay Desert for a night. It’s a bit of an adventure as these desert camps are off the map and GPS can’t find them, so it’s a series of twists and turns and with the driver asking for directions from locals on motorbikes who happen to drive by. We are told to turn left at the “2 red rocks”, but since every rock we see is red this is not helpful and we end up being guided to our campsite by a nice man and his son who scooter by us while we are stopped and trying to get cell service!

The Agafay desert is amazing, more rocks than sand as we are not in the Sahara Desert – that’s the really big sandy one. This year, Agafay is also far more green than you would normally see. It was a rainy winter and things are more lush than they have been in years. Snow tops on the mountains can still be seen as things haven’t fully thawed and the sunset was beautiful (and cold – it’s no joke that after the sun goes down deserts are some of the coldest climates around. We waited for the sun to dip then rushed to get layered up for dinner!).

We spent our afternoon hiking and taking a camel ride, which was an adventure. MDT was hoping that growing up riding horses would make this a pretty smooth transition. He was VERY WRONG. Its not really anything like a horse. The camel lays down so you can climb aboard, then lifts on it’s back legs to start, so you are thrown forward like a roller coaster that drops suddenly, then it lifts it’s front legs which tosses you violently backwards and you wind up looking up at the sky before you can rebalance yourself. MDT was not able to do this without a lot of loud exclamations and grunting as the camel tossed him around. There are also no stirrups, so your feet just hang and bounce around with every step the camel takes. MDT will take a horse any day over the camel. A great once in a lifetime experience, but the hour trip was all MDT could take.

Our camel guide was a very nice man who was very patient with us as we learned the camel protocol. He spoke very little English, and DQT speaks very little French, but they doggedly attempted to carry on a conversation. We learned he is a nomad who was staying with his family a few kilometers away from the camp. He was weaving this fantastic story that built upon the camels and desert scenery. Then, cutting through the hilly landscape came this sound – “RAH-RAH-AH-AH-AH. RO-MA-RO-MA-MA.” The nomad pulls his Samsung Galaxy phone from his robes to answer it. Our nomad is a Little Monster!

While on our after camel hike, we encounter a herd of sheep crossing our path. DQT loves herself a herd of almost anything (trying driving across Indiana with this woman, every few minutes it’s “look…sheep”, “look…cows!”, etc.). About 10 minutes after the sheep crossed our path we hear a voice yelling, and when we look around we see the sheep herder waving at us. He and DQT trade “bonjours.” He waves us over to reveal that he has a teapot in his pack (mint tea is a HUGE part of Moroccan cuisine). He wants to share his tea with us so DQT joins him for a cup and a very short conversation in broken French – he speaks only Arabic and she speaks only English. It was difficult for us to actually communicate much with them, but there were lots of smiles and nodding!

After our evening walk and sunset view, it’s time to shower off the camel scent and get ready for dinner. When we arrive at the dinner tent we attempt to ask for a drinks menu (as we were told when we booked that wine was available). Our gestures confuse the staff member Said, who gets that we want wine, but thinks we are gesture for “menu” means “big or little”. So he is trying to figure out how much wine we want. After some more charades he gets that we want a list and he is very excited and dashes off, only to return with another staff member as both of them are carrying about 5 bottles of wine each! There is no wine list, so he just brought one of each bottle they had. He sets them down and then asks if he should go get all the white wines too (they only brought red). We totally stop him, as we really didn’t expect to order wine and were mostly just curious, and now feel bad that it was so much work just cause we asked a question!

Our desert dinner is classic Moroccan. Tangia (a Marrakech specialty – slow-cooked spiced beef), vegetable tagine, bread with mixed salad, and dessert. Thank goodness Erin took us out to a Moroccan dinner our first night so we knew how to eat the salads and tagine with bread! The meal is far better than expected; this camp has legit food and really did a great job. It’s among the best meals we have had on our trip and we will actually have this dish again in a few days (more on this later) but this was the best.

After dinner we spend a little time by the fire (remember, very cold) and then off to our tent.

For those who have been camping with us, or seen pics, you will be happy to know that we FINALLY stayed in a tent big enough for MDT. (Our camping tent has often been referred to as the “Tent Majal”) but this one in the desert is almost the size of some apartments we have lived in.

It was so cold at night, the staff gave us hot water bottles for the bed. They worked really well!

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Another exciting travel day

First off, no one faints or gets hurt in this story. There, you can relax. But, you know something happened if we’re writing about a travel day….

We had a 5:50am flight from Cairo to Casablanca, then a connection onto Marrakech. This meant that we had to depart from our Airbnb at 2:50am. UGH.

After all of that, our flight departs from Cairo about an hour late. Our layover in Casablanca is only 50 minutes. We are nervous.

We arrive in Casablanca at 10:05am and our flight departs at 10:20am. We take a bus from the plane to the terminal, run through the terminal, and get to the gate at 10:15am and are told that the plan has already departed. There are about a dozen of us who were on the Cairo flight and have missed our connection. It’s mind-boggling the plane did not wait or us! Same airline for both flights – so they should have known we were on the ground and at the airport!!!

The Royal Air Maroc rep at the gate tells us we must go back to the ticket counter to exchange our tickets for the next flight. She tells us, “Go up the stairs, to the left.” The directions are useless. They lead us back where we came from down a hallway that says no passage/do not enter. Along the way, we collect more Marrakech flight passengers and redirect them with us. We find a guard who does not seem at all disturbed that a group of people are coming down the “no passage” hallway. We explain that we need new tickets and he says, “Down there to the left.” We go the wrong way through the metal detector, turn left, and encounter another guard who again tells us, “Go left.” It’s beginning to feel like we would have gotten here a lot faster if we had just gone right at the start. Any fans of the movie “Spinal Tap” may recognize this as the “Hello Cleveland” scene from the movie where they get lost trying to find the stage!

The group of us descend upon the ticket counter and they are surprise/overwhelmed that we have missed our flight. It’s the first they’ve heard of it. It’s chaotic as we’re all trying to simultaneously rebook flights. In the end, we decide to take the bus the airline offers “that will leave very soon. As soon as you go through passport and collect your checked baggage.” The next flight they tell us is at 8pm. (We find out later from talking to the other passengers that different groups were told that the next flight was at 3pm or 6pm or 8pm. We all end up taking the bus.) They give us directions on where to go to for border security, baggage, customs, and to get the bus. But the directions are not clear so the group (MDT, DQT and 4 kick-ass older ladies from CA and LV) insists that they send a staff escort with us. They say sure, sure. The escorts walks us literally down the hallway then points the rest of the way. That’s as far as she will go. But she assures us that once we get through passport/border security and collect our baggage, we only need to go to travel accommodations and they will take care of us. They will know we need a bus. She assures us. We are not assured. The kick-ass ladies are PISSED.

We stand in line and get through border security. DQ has a moment of panic because she cannot find our baggage claim tickets. It’s times like this when we will need those damn tickets. MDT panics, too, and starts to leave the line to retrace our steps, but, thankfully, something goes our way and the claim tickets are found in a zipper pocket!

We go to baggage claim and they don’t now where our baggage is. We get referred to a couple of different people. The last woman we are referred to tells us to watch Carousel 1. Our bags will be out in 10 minutes. 20 minutes later we are now looking for this woman because nothing has happened with the bags. Though in this time, we have met more of the stranded Marrakech group – a French Canadian guy and 4 African American women. So now we are 11 who have committed to this bus thing.

The baggage woman emerges and collects our baggage tickets (it is important to keep those damn things, people). She disappears through the back of the baggage carousel. We wait.

She finally re-emerges and 45 minutes after we arrived at baggage claim, our bags are rolling in…and they’re all totally drenched. It’s raining in Casablanca and it’s clear the bags have just been sitting outside on the tarmac after our plane arrived 2 hours ago.

We re-confirm where we are supposed to go next: “Travel Accommodations – upstairs second floor.” Thankfully there is no line at Customs and we breeze right through. We’re the first to get our baggage so we tell the others we’ll meet them at Travel Accommodations.

We go up to the second floor and there’s nothing called “Travel Accommodations”. There is, however, an office called Travel and Lodging. DQ gets in line while MDT and the French-Canadian keep searching. DQ’s line is not long, but it is clear that this is where people go when Royal Air Meroc needs to fix or make something up to someone. So the wait is long. One guy walks the line to check in with each person on their issue. For everyone else he listens and takes their ticket. When he gets to DQ he says, “Yes, Marrakech, okay.” And just walks by without explanation. DQ stops him and he confirms this is the right office and they will get us a bus.

When it is our turn in line, DQ is told that the bus has been called and is coming in 30 minutes, please wait downstairs and you will be called when it arrives. This, of course, sounded ridiculous. How would they know who to call for the bus? Who was gathering us? Where is the bus dropping us off? The answer: They will know it is you. It is that man down there *points to guy in puffy jacket*. He has seen you. Please wait in the chairs downstairs.

After 30 minutes, DQ checks in upstairs and she is told, the bus is here. We are waiting for the other passengers. 15 more minutes. We wait and DQ checks in again to let them know all the passengers are here. They say 10 of you? We say there are 11 of us. “Oh, okay. 10 minutes more. We leave in 10 minutes.” In frustration, DQ exclaims, “You told us 30 minutes, then 15 minutes, now 10 minutes?!!” A few others customers in the office snicker. Puffy jacket guy just smiles, holds out his hands, and shrugs. UGH.

Finally, puffy jacket guy comes downstairs and yells out, “Marrakech!” Four other people besides the 11 of us gather. It turns out – we didn’t learn this until we were in the van and about to depart – that the 4 new people were getting dropped off at a hotel in Casablanca…totally the opposite direction to Marrakech from the airport, adding an extra hour to our bus ride. BUT WHAT THE HELL WHY NOT.

Anyways…we are safely in Marrakech after what was supposed to be a 30min flight from Casablanca turned into a 7 hour luggage, immigration, and bus ride. We have met up with MDT’s cousin Erin (our motivation for this whole trip). She gave us a brisk walk through through the Medina on our way to a delicious Moroccan dinner. We recount this story to Erin who tells us several stories from other friends, all as bad or worse than ours…all on Royal Air Meroc. She says people were texting her all day as we gave her updates on our arrival time to ask if her stranded family had flown Royal Air Meroc. In short….please come to Morocco, but try to avoid using Royal Air Meroc to get here!

But that is all behind us…Now we are tucked away in a lovely riad for the evening. And tomorrow we head out to an overnight stay in the Agafay Desert.

Addendum: On our last night in Marrakech, we stop by a wine bar (these are rare in the city; more on that in a later post). We’re chilling and who walks in but the French Canadian from our horrible travel ordeal?!? Seemed like closure.

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Egypt: now this is eating!

The forecast for today is 102 degrees and dust. Not cloudy or hazy, just dust. I don’t even know what that means.

Good thing we have a day of mostly indoor activities planned.

Sam and Mohamed the guide first take us to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It’s a Friday, the Muslim holy day. Lots of people have the day off so traffic is not bad. We get to Cairo in 20 minutes (it can take upwards of 40+). Mohamed the guide takes us through the museum, highlighting various pieces. The 2nd floor holds an impressive Tutankhamun exhibit.

Above, King Tutankhamun’s funeral mask

Above, one of his chairs, depicting Tutankhamun and his wife.

And, as avid campers, we were thrilled to see the first ever camping bed among Tutankhamun’s tomb items! Notice the hinges where it folds up for easy transport.

It was everything DQT could do to keep it under 2 hours at the museum. There are just so many sarcophagi.

We wrapped up a little after noon and since we were downtown, we got to observe a bit of the Friday prayers. The streets around one of the mosques were closed off and men on rugs were praying in the mosque, outside the mosque, even on the street. Then it was over with no fanfare, shoes were being put on and people were bustling about again.

Lunch was at an outdoor cafe next to the mosque. It was strangely pleasant to be sitting at an outdoor cafe on such a hot day. We had roast pigeon stuffed with spiced rice! Not much meat (it is a pigeon, after all) but it was tasty. In what will become a theme for the day we are told that stuffed pigeon is a form of “Egyptian Viagra” and it is suggested MDT wait till dinner for this dish instead of lunch. But we decide to risk it anyway! While at the restaurant the street cats were on us like lasers, loitering under our table. DQT and Mohamed the guide were total suckers and fed them scraps (including pigeon bones) which only brought more cats to our table. This, of course, further encouraged DQT. It was a vicious cycle.

We took a stroll through the nearby market after lunch. It was lovely. Some of those stalls are just gorgeous, particularly the brass lanterns. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t a peaceful walk. Everyone was very polite as they called out “Hello”, “I have special price for you”, “Nice to meet you”, “Where are you from”, “Very special deal”, “What do you like”. We just smiled, waved, and kept walking. If this wasn’t the beginning of our trip, we may have stopped to shop! After we leave the market MDT tells Mohammad the guide that he is very sad, because everyone in the market wanted to shake MDT’s hand, and everyone offered MDT “special price” but nobody offered Mohammad the guide “special price” or wanted to shake his hand. Mohammad the guide gets a huge laugh out of this, and says “it’s true everyday” and then recounts the story to Sam once we get back into the car. Sam finds it funny too!

We waited by the market for Sam to pick us up and it was mass chaos as others were also getting picked up after the mosque and lunch. Taxis and cars and masses of people all converged on one intersection vying for space and attention. After 15 minutes, Sam finally fought his way through the traffic jam and we were whisked away to St. George’s Church.

This church is built on the site where Mary fled with Jesus to escape the Romans. She hid in the cellar for a week without food or water. Things looked dire until water was discovered and the well still has water today. The church is still used daily by the local Christian community.

Next to the church is a synagogue built by a Jewish businessman who helped restore/save the St. George’s Church. The synagogue is no longer in use.

Across the street from the church and synagogue is the oldest mosque in Egypt and Africa – Masjid Amr Ibn El Aas. Sam literally picked us up and drove us across the street. DQT made a joke, “Were you guys not sure we could cross the street on our own?” Sam and Mohamed the guide didn’t seem to get it. MDT laughed though.

Mohamed seemed much more animated and comfortable telling us about the mosque – less recitation of facts and more like things he really knew. So that alone made visiting the mosque more interesting. It was the first time we’d ever been to a mosque, as most (at least in this part of the world) do not allow Non-Muslims to enter.

After a shower and nap at the Airbnb (102 degrees in the desert and we now know what “dust” means in a forecast; should have been called “Lots of Dust”), we check in with Mohamed the host about dinner. He suggests that camel liver is unique but he warns us that, “It’s like Egyptian viagra.” He had also given us a similar caution about pigeon, “People eat pigeon before their honeymoon. Don’t eat pigeon at night. It’s no good for sleeping. *wink wink* We’re not so worried about this as we are about…is it okay to eat camel? We are assured it’s not a taboo.

So, we run recklessly into the unknown and opt to eat both pigeon and camel liver IN THE SAME DAY. MDT thinks either Egyptian men need a lot of extra “assistance” from their food, or maybe they don’t actually know what Viagra is?

Mohamed the host introduces us to his friend Mohamed the bazaar owner, who offers to walk us to the restaurant and order for us. We protest but the Mohameds say that the restaurant is not used to tourists. We invite Mohamed the bazaar owner to dine with us. Mohamed the host is busy at the Airbnb and cannot join us.

Aside from the sign, everything at The King of the Liver is entirely in Arabic so Mohamed the bazaar owner facilitates the ordering. We get 1 kilo of liver – half cooked spicy and half not spicy. It was delicious, particularly the spicy which was not spicy at all.

After dinner, the staff let MDT come into the kitchen!

As a VW owner, MDT loves the local “Uber” system in Cairo. Basically just VW buses that will drive around with the side door open and people jump in an out when the VW stops ( and sometime when it just sorta slows down!).

Another form of transport that Mohammad the guide tells us they have adopted from Thailand, are tuk tuks. Originally powered by pedals, the Egyptians have mechanized them into little SMART Car sized vehicles. We notice that this seems to the primary transport for women in the city. We don’t see many of them driving themselves and we don’t see any using the horses or donkey carts. But most tuk tuks that drive by have a woman as a passenger.

We have a good discussion with both the Mohammads about the political system and tensions that have been in Egypt the past few years. In fact, part of our tour included the plaza that was a main gathering point for the “Arab Spring” protests a few years ago. They feel that for the most part things are much more calm than the media portrays. As folks who spend most of their time with travelers and hearing their stories and experiences, and who also works with government workers (museum staff, security guards, police, etc.) they seem pretty in tune with what is going on. They very much believe things are better and really want to encourage folks to see Egypt differently and for the tourists to return and feel free to explore (of course they have a certain bias since their business is tourism).

However, it was also pointed out to us that there were a lot of rumors that the political unrest was being orchestrated by the USA, and the American Embassy has been under heavy security and the public is not allowed in or near the building (for safety reasons). After the Arab Spring large concrete blocks were installed to barricade the streets and bottom floors of the embassy and they are still in place today.

After our short trip, it’s time to depart Cairo. We have to get up at 2am for an early morning flight. Surprisingly to us, Cairo and Giza are both active an alive on the 3am drive to the airport. Perhaps it was an assumption on our part, but we associate the “night life” with alcohol. However, although there is little to no drinking done by non-tourists there are many restaurants and cafes (and even stores) that are still open at 3am. The Eye Glasses store was open, so go ahead and get that vision prescription updated. And just to close out the theme for the day…….the “Liver King” restaurant is also open (and busy) in the middle of the night…..so…..maybe…..just maybe…..there is something to “Egyptian Viagra” after all!

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Egypt: The Cradle of Civilization

We only have 2 full days in Egypt so we’re just in the Giza/Cairo area. The plan is to get in, see some big pyramids, and get out. To be honest, we were a little worried about how safe it would be, given some of what has been in the news and the political situation over the past few years. And this trip is really about visiting Morocco.

We booked an Airbnb with this great guy named Mohamed. It’s in Giza right by the pyramids. In fact, in an instance of truth in advertising, Mohamed’s place is called 3 Pyramids Inn, and you can, in fact, see 3 freaking pyramids from his rooftop deck. And not just any pyramids. The Great Pyramid (on the right).

From the moment we arrived, Egypt reminded DQ of Vietnam in so many ways. Mohamed arranged for a driver to pick us up from the Cairo airport. We cannot recommend this enough. Like the airport at Ho Chi Minh City, there are numerous drivers and hawkers that swarm you offering you rides and tours and rooms. Unless you’ve done your research, you won’t know what’s a fair price and who’s legit. Unlike in HCMC/Saigon, these guys would leave us alone when we told them we had a driver!

As our driver took us from the airport to our Airbnb, we noticed that no one paid attention to the lane markers…or what side of the road to drive on. There were pedestrians walking, crossing, and selling goods on the freeway. I think it was a freeway. It was an elevated road and cars would have been moving fast if the traffic had not been so congested. Every so often, we’d see cars pulled over to the side of the road. At first, I thought there were lots of broken down cars, but realized after a bit that they were just stopping to let passengers off….on the side of the freeway. The roads are also shared with mopeds (though not as many as you see in Vietnam), animal carts (I think these are farmers transporting their goods to town?), and sometimes donkeys or camels (though just in tourist areas). Commuting in and around Cairo/Giza is wild.

Similar to Vietnam, but more prominent in Cairo/Giza, is the presence of the military. There were regular checkpoints along roadways (we were always waived through) where drivers were asked for documents and car trunks checked. Men armed with assault rifles at the checkpoints and in armored vehicles by buildings. Many of the tourist sites we visited were all guarded by men in bullet-proof vests and guns. Sometimes just military. Sometimes military and police. No one bothered or even glanced at us. It was obvious tourists were not the target of military attention.

Day 1

It was 97 degrees today. Perfect day to head out into the desert and check out large stone monuments from an ancient civilization. Because we’re only in Egypt for 2 days and don’t speak any Arabic, we hired a private tour guide from our host Mohamed. Our tour guide was a fun-loving guy named Mohamed. We also had a driver (thankfully not named Mohamed) named Sam, who drove a Toyota and kept the AC on. So we liked Sam immensely.

Our first stop was Saqqara. It’s about 25 miles south of Cairo but great to visit first because it’s the site of the first pyramid. The Step Pyramid was built around 2600 BC by the architect Imhotep for King Djoser.

There’s also the ruins of a court, tombs, and other pyramids.

We got to go inside the Pyramid of Teti and see inscriptions on the wall. It was unbelievable that we were inside a pyramid and up close to the real stuff. I mean…the dude let us touch everything. The dude was not exactly a guard. He seemed more like an old guy that, for a tip, would lead people down a steep tunnel. “Watch your head, watch your head.”

Then through an ante-chamber and duck again through a doorway and, bam, hieroglyphs on the walls. “Look, look.”

“And up, up. See stars?”

“And, here.” He seemed so proud to show us around.

Next we visit Memphis to learn about the original capital of the kingdom and see a massive statue of Ramses II. DQ was ready to cut this out of our itinerary, but MDT was eager to visit any place called Memphis. Kings of ancient Egypt and the king of Rock n Roll have that in common. *eye roll*

We head back to Giza to see the Pyramids of Giza up close. Before we get out of the car, Mohamed the guide tells us (as he does at the earlier sites) to not accept anything from anyone, even if offered as a gift. Good reminder here since the vendors are more numerous and assertive than in Saqqara. But, they’re still just as polite and friendly, stopping after we say no just once.

In fact, one seller, with a smile, responded to DoQuyen, “No, thank you. Everyone says, ‘No, thank you.’ I teach you ‘Laa, shoukrah’.” And he spent the next few minutes working with DQ so she could say no thank you in Arabic.

Above, MDT and Mohamed the guide discussing whether it’s worth it for MDT to go into the Great Pyramid. Ultimate decision was no – it cost 300 EL ($18 US) and there was nothing in the chamber when you got there. We’d already gone in a pyramid at Saqqara.

So we just explore the outside of the Great Pyramid.

And the other pyramids at the site.

And the Sphinx!!

After a shower and nap and fresh clothes that don’t look like we just climbed out of a swimming pool back at our Airbnb (reminder: wretchedly hot), we have a dinner cruise on the Nile recommended by Mohamed the host and accompanied by Mohamed the guide. The dinner was great fun with fantastic entertainment. We had a belly dancer and a guy who did this whirling dervish dance. It was incredible. He spun around for over 10 minutes straight. Mohamed the guide was pretty fun, too, he was practically jumping out of his chair dancing to the music and cheer/whooping on the dancers. You wouldn’t have known that he goes on this cruise 2-3 times a week with tourists!

We had a great day in Saqqara and Giza! The only thing we had not yet checked off our list was having some great Egyptian food. Both Mohameds had difficulty understanding (believing?) us when we told them we wanted real Egyptian food, good food. We asked about street food and they were worried we would get sick. For lunch we got a touristy restaurant with a view of the Pyramids of Giza. Which is fine except…we were staying at an inn with a rooftop view of the pyramids and were about to go visit the pyramids. So the view wasn’t as important to us. And the food was okay. For dinner, the cruise entertainment was awesome. The menu however was just basic pasta and chicken.

We had another conversation with the Mohameds about food after the cruise. We described our culinary adventures in other countries and how important it was to us to eat things we can’t get in the US. We think they finally understood – exciting plans are in the works for lunch and dinner tomorrow!

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Falling for Paris

*tap*

*tap*

Does this thing still work?

It’s been a while since we opened this blog.

But we’re giving it a go for this trip because….Egypt and Morocco!! This is an experience we want well-documented for us, if no one else.

A travel day doesn’t usually warrant a blog post but…

Somewhere around hour 4.5 of our 11-hour flight to Paris, DQ fainted on her way to the restroom. Luckily, she did this in the back galley of the plane in front of 4 flight attendants. This is the equivalent to getting into a fender bender in front of a police station.

DQ is fine! I mean, other than sore knees (it’s better she fell hard on her knees than her head) and a bad case of embarrassment. The crew were so kind and great – made her lay down on the floor right in front of the restroom with her legs propped up, checked her for injury, got her a damp towel, etc. It’s not their fault every person that visited the restroom saw her and gawked.

Meanwhile, MDT is blissfully snoozing away in seat 35K. A flight attendant who doesn’t speak much English wakes him up to say, “Your wife fell hard. Follow me.” Poor Michael. He jumps out of his seat without shoes or his glasses…and has the blurriest, longest, SCARIEST walk to the back of the plane. But relief! DQ seems okay. After assuring himself of this (repeatedly), he’s disappointed he doesn’t have his phone with him to capture the moment cuz she looks ridiculous lying on the floor in front of the galley restroom. It really would have illustrated this post nicely!

We make it back to our seats and the rest of the flight is uneventful. The very thoughtful flight attendants periodically stopped by to check in on DQ. This was both heart-warming and mortifying for her.

Totally Unrelated Travel Tip: if you are flying Air France and feel like treating yourself…pre-order dinner. In typical French fashion, they have amazing choices for airline food (duck and foi gras Shepard’s pie anyone?). We didn’t do this, but may strongly consider it in the future. If only we could drive to France from Oakland. *sigh*

Okay. More Egypt and less falling in the next post!

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