The Celebration of Fire and Water – Ashura in Morocco

The Celebration of Fire and Water – Ashura in Morocco

If you’re in Morocco on the 10th day of the Islamic month of Muharram, you are sure to hear drums banging and see gangs of happy children rushing through the streets and alleyways with new toys generally used to make music and noise. This is just a part of the celebration of Ashura (which comes from the word ‘ten’ in Arabic since it’s the 10th day of the first month on the Muslim calendar. Some call it the Islamic New Year, but it’s more than that. It’s a celebration of light and life, death and renewal, light and dark. For the past few years, it has been celebrated in November and December but since the Islamic calendar is lunar, each year it is ten or eleven days earlier (on the Gregorian calendar) than the year before.

In most of the Arab world, Ashura is a time to remember the death of Hussein for the Shi’a and a day for celebrating the liberation of Moses from Egypt for the Sunni. For both it is a day of solemn fasting and prayers. The same is true in Morocco, but the shamanism and Judaism that Moroccan Islam was born in have reshaped the holiday into something more.

In Morocco, Ashura is a day that celebrates life. It is a day when people throw water on one another after a night of bonfires and singing. Ashura is the day when the myth of Baba Aichour is celebrated. Baba Aichour is the Moroccan Santa Claus, and so, Ashura is almost like Christmas for children in Morocco. For days before and after the holy day, kids form makeshift bands that play celebratory songs on drums made of wood, pottery, and sheepskin. They travel through the streets performing for candy and coins. The noise reaches a crescendo on the night of the ninth day of Muharram when bonfires are lit in vacant lots and neighbors gather to share food and tea.

In the poorer areas, people will light branches and wander through the streets chanting songs reserved for this holiday and at the neighborhood bonfires, you will often see people jumping over the flames in an effort to burn away evil spirits or free themselves of curses.

This is considered to be the most auspicious time of the year to say your prayers. Fortune tellers called ‘shawaafa’ do a booming business during this time as young people try to understand their destiny and capture the love of their lives. Some go further and engage the help of witch doctors ‘afikih’ that work with djinn and magic. Some seek to cast spells and others to be free of them. The ‘afikih’ can help with both.

morocco celebration The morning of Ashura is often begun with a cold bath or shower which some say is the origin of the water throwing. Other’s hold that it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea. Either way, in desert areas it is common for men and women to sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers. In some areas, Ashura is called ZamZam day. ZamZam is the name of the well in Mecca that Muslims believe God created for Hagar and Ismael, the wife and son whom Abraham abandoned in the desert.

While the adults fast, the children are given chocolates or small toys, and as the sun goes down, the entire family will gather to break the fast together. There are some traditional meals for Ashura – among them sheep’s tail, liver, dried meat, and couscous.

The holiday extends into the next day, since tradition says that any profit made during the 11th day of Muharram will not be blessed by God. The 11th day is called the day of waste and usury and with all of the businesses closed, it’s a handy way to extend the celebration for one more day..

In the Moroccan city of Goulmima there is a large street festival where  people celebrate Ashura by wearing costumes, different skins of sheep and goats, and scary looking animal masks.  In the Berber tradition, the costumed people are referred to as “Udayen n Ashur,” the Jews of Ashura.  With only tambourines and handclaps, “Udayen n Ashur” creates lively music, performances of acrobatic dancers.  Everyone sings and dances with amusing variations on the songs, until very late into the night.

The Berbers have a different name for each of the three days of Zamzam:  The first day is “Bou Isnayen” the second, “Bou Imerwasen” and the third is, “Bou Imrazen.” These are translated as “the day of throwing water,” “the day of repayment,” and finally “the day of fight.” On any one of these days, if water is thrown at a person, they have the right to throw stones back

MoroccoOne of the songs children sing as they travel through neighborhoods asking for coins tells about how Baba Aichour came outside to pray, gave the children coins and sweets, but then was swept away by the river.

Traditionally, the morning of Ashura begins with a cold bath. Some say this is the origin of the water throwing that takes place through the day, but for others it is a celebration of the parting of the Red Sea or of Baba Aichour being swept away. In the Sahara, the Tuareg sprinkle water on tents, plants, and each other whilst saying their prayers.

 

 

 

The Egyptian Hustle

I was fortunate to be able to visit Egypt just shortly after the Arab Spring. It was an unplanned trip. I hope you enjoy my narrative of it.

Cairo EgyptThe Egyptian Hustle

The hustle in Egypt is relentless and from my perspective anyway, downright shameful. Don’t get me wrong, I call both Morocco and Turkey home, so I understand the hustle from the carpet vendors in the Grand Bazaar asking three times the price they want because the guidebooks say tourists should ask for half price to the Moroccan haggler that will overcharge you by 1000% just because he can. I don’t dig that stuff, but they at least have something in common that I can respect. Once you agree on a price, that’s the price. Not so in Egypt.

Granted, my experience is limited to airport hustlers and taxi touts but within a short time, I noticed something that offended me far more deeply than being over charged. Egyptians continue to try to gouge you for higher prices even after you have agreed on a price. The price goes up when you pull out your wallet, if you pay in advance they then tack on extras like the ‘airport ticket’, and even if you shake on it – they will tell you a higher price immediately and try to wheedle it from you. That, to me is offensive. The violation of the agreement.

I can live with Egyptians (and Moroccans and Southern Italians, Greeks, and other North Africans) violating my ideas of what the que (line) should be and why it should be respected. Frankly, I think it is a reason why their societies are less successful than say those of Turks, Northern Italians, Brits, Germans, or Americans. So, I hate my idea of the line being violated, but I loathe the idea of the handshake being nulled. The most classic example of a deal done. When an American shakes my hand, looks me in the eye and tells me something – and then it changes – I honestly feel a desire to maim and hurt them. With the Egyptians, I just feel an intense sadness because the handshake isn’t even worthy of a lie. The agreement of a price, isn’t even an agreement.Certainly, a society where agreeing on a negotiated price holds no weight – isn’t a society I want to be in for even a day more – no matter how cool the Pyramids might be.

Cairo EgyptThe Oasis Hotel in Heliopolis

The name certainly sounds nice, but like the agreement on price, the name holds no meaning at this particular establishment. I’m certain that I’ve stayed in worse hotels. The hard part is remembering where and when that was. The one positive thing I can say is that I didn’t get bit by any bugs – but, I did have to sleep in a room that smelled like it had been fumigated hours before I arrived. I woke up coughing Raid fumes at 3 am. In fact, I woke up a lot. This wasn’t due to anything buy my own paranoia.

The door had been kicked in so didn’t close securely and the security bolt had been ripped off but replaced with just one undersized screw so that didn’t make me feel any better. The windows didn’t bolt or secure and the one chair in the room was too small to fit under the doorknob and the clothes bar from the closet wasn’t long enough to make the windows close.

The bathroom appeared to have not been cleaned in years – if it had been, it was only a bad cleaning. In terms of the room itself, it was a 1980’s TV and an air-conditioning unit that continually dripped water on the carpet (and had been doing so for years) while rattling and banging. The noise from the street was too much to sleep with the window open and besides, I had odd security fears since I am traveling with cash and jewelry I bought for my wife in Turkey – not something I usually do, but I expected a short layover with a controlled environment – not this madness.

Cairo EgyptThe sheets had about a hundred holes in them and the shower curtain was covered in mold. This is a 3-star, they assured me at the airport before I foolishly handed over my $50 without seeing the room. Not something I would normally do, but I needed to be back at the airport to catch a connecting flight. And there I was – sleeping on a massive mattress covered with holes and waking every thirty minutes as doors slammed and lights flashed across the windows. At 6:30 – I was fully awake feeling cleaner without a shower, besides no towels. Breakfast was unrecognizable meat cooked with onions and some sort of awful beans. I like middle eastern food. I’ve had delicious Egyptian food, I’ve had breakfast all over the world – but this, I don’t know what this was except awful.

This sucks. I never wanted to visit Egypt like this. I wanted to have wonder and excitement, not frustration, disappointment and complete and total uncertainty. This is my fault – I pressed the buy button. I took the single leg of the flight. I blew it.

Even the coffee I got in the airport was a hustle. 21 Egyptain pounds it said on the board and when I gave the barrista 21 EGP, he told me, “No” you have to pay the tax and rang it up as 26 EGP. I told him “If you have to pay a 25% tax on a cup of coffee, it’s time for another revolution” and he didn’t smile but said “This is the airport, there is a service charge.” This after making me wait ten minutes, go back to the counter and ask for my cup of brewed coffee. I’m not at all in love with this place. Huge no smoking signs and three people smoking under them. They told me to wait until 8 AM for standby but then made me wait until 8:30 AM and then said “There’s no space, this is a full flight” but they knew that at 6:30 AM when they told me to wait until 8 AM.

The driver last night was on the phone with someone and kept saying “No money” and it was quite surely in reference to me since I was paying as cheaply as possible. He asked for a $1 million dollar tip. He got nothing. Nor did the hotel. Nor did the barrista, except he took it in the service charge. It’s amazingly difficult to get out of Cairo and I just want to confirm when and if so that I can make plans – take a tour, go somewhere else, figure something else out – anything. It’s this limbo situation in a hustler touristic hell that is unbearable. Maybe all of Egypt is like this, I hope not, but so far, this is what all of Egypt is like to me…ugly.

The wifi in the airport is the sort that doesn’t work on my netbook or my phone or my kindle. It comes up as limited connection. So I can’t plan anything here either. The hijabi ladies at the reservations center told me to wait for one hour to see if I can confirm a flight for tomorrow or the next day. It’s going to cost me something like $400 but it will be first class – hahaha. Shit. I can at least afford it, but I’d rather use that for something else since I’ve already paid for one ticket.

But shit, I’m in Egypt. No matter what they tell me, I’m going to sort things out after that. I’m going to find a hotel, get a decent room, use the internet, visit the Cairo Museum, see the Pyramids, visit Luxor, buy my wife a Nefertitti necklace like Granddaddy used to get for Ganny and move onwards. Dammit, I just want to go home and see my daughter. I’m trapped in tourism hell.

My head hurts – the bad AC, the bug spray, the lousy sleep, the lumpy mattress, and constant feeling that I might be robbed or molested by bedbugs in the Roach Oasis. I found my Raybans though – that’s a good thing. Maybe these ladies will find a solution for me. Maybe this can all be turned around. I hope so.

Awful ideas come a thousand at a time to me. For $400, I can fly to Tunis and then onward to Casablanca. At least I think so. Or maybe I could figure out a way to go to Libya. Maybe I can discover a way to traverse all of North Africa in a shitty yellow cab.

Quite frankly, it is tourism that has ruined the world. Capitalism first, then tourism. People should just stay home. I should just stay home. I don’t even think that’s possible for me – especially since I don’t have a home. Where is my home?

Big Bear? Nope. Bellingham? Maybe, sort of, but not really. Myrtle Creek? Nope. Portland? Not really. Honolulu? Might be the best bet, but I’m a mainland Haole so it can never truly be mine. Seattle/Tacoma – Not at all despite being born there. Sefrou? I hope not. Istanbul? I like it, but I’m not even Turkish. Redding? Jesus – almost worse, no definitely worse than Sefrou. But at the end of the day, home is where my hat is hanging and it’s hanging in Sefrou with my wife and daughter – so for the moment. Sefrou is home. I want to go home – I don’t care about the hat, I care about my girls.

I should develop some sort of plan.

1) Talk with the reservations girls and see if they can help me

  1. Find someplace with internet or rent a nice hotel room
  2. Arrange some kind of tour, since I’m here
  3. If necessary – find an alternate flight home or just pay the necessary total
  4. Go home and never leave on a solo trip again unless my way home is already secured

And it turns out that the girls at the reservations office in Terminal 1 were able to help me. They got me a flight two days later for a $38 change fee. I used the internet and found a nice, cheap hotel near Tahirer Square – Invitation Hotel for $38 for two days including breakfast and a night cruise dinner on the Nile, an all day Pyramid Tour, and a private car back to the airport the morning I leave for about $72 more. So, $150 more and I have a very nice Egypt trip. Yes, I would have paid $200 at any time in my life to see the pyramids and the Egyptian Museum.

Cairo EgyptThe Egyptian Museum

Overwhelming is an overwhelmingly understated word when it comes to the Egyptian Museum. Over 130,000 artifacts dating from Egypt’s massive history. Yes the King Tut mask is magnificent. Yes the mummies are creepy and cool. And yes, it is an amazing journey through a history that most of us are at least passingly familiar with. I spent an afternoon just bopping and bouncing from room to room and letting whatever caught my attention catch my attention.

A statue of a pharaoh with an incubus on one side and an Anubis (I think) on the other. Perhaps it was two gods – one with jackal head and one with falcon head.

The household items and furniture. A beautiful folding chair with a leather back and a detailed design of the symbol of eternity (a man sitting cross legged with arms outstretched) embossed upon it. The still comfortable looking couches and neck rests – I want to try one.

King Tut’s knife with the golden sheath and handle.

A funerary box with a ‘family’ of tiny blue sarcophagi mummy boxes arranged peeking over like Moroccans on a rooftop.

An incredibly fine marble statue of a Roman or Greek.

The mummified animals. The massive crocodiles were wondrous but the dog and monkey arranged staring at one another really blew my mind.

The burned out shell of the former governments ‘Democratic’ headquarters next door and the completely stripped out Museum shop. The lack of uniformed guards inside but the eyes of the very watchful men in each of the rooms who are assigned security duty.

These, no doubt, are the men who, when fires were burning as the coup/revolution took place – took the truncheons and guns of the police they had been fighting and lined up around the museum – reportedly saying “This is our history and if it disappears, we will never get it back.” They were unable to stop the first looters who stole a reported (but probably more) 50-100 items but they kept the bulk of the collections (and the most important pieces) safe for 12 hours until the army sent troops to take over. All of that was part of what blew my mind. The burned out cars in the parking lot next door, the eyes and lack of uniforms of the guards, and the real story behind the history.

Also overwhelming was the massive hugeness of the collections and the arrangement though without placards, audio tours, or a guide – I found myself enjoying it and able to simply wander and let my eyes fix on a treasure and then discover it. I see wonderful things.

Cairo EgyptNile Cruise

This had the potential to become yet another layer of hell and upon setting foot on the massive boat, I almost immediately felt regret at booking this dinner cruise – especially since I was on my own and everyone else on the cruise was in large groups. One wedding group, a couple of birthday groups, some traveler groups – but no one else on their own.

The big boat and the mediocre buffet along with the tacky dining room, the unsmiling waiters, and what certainly promised to be unremarkable dance had me sitting on the edge of a table for eight with a party of four on the other end unable to look out the window and feeling slightly creepy as the karaoke began in the saloon. So, I ate my meal – the most remarkable piece of which was a pickle salad with small red peppers – and then I went up on the main open deck and decided to skip the entertainment. After all, I can see whirling dervishes, a dancing dwarf (yes they had one and I’m a bit sorry I missed that ) and belly dancers (okay, I admit it, I also regret missing them because they might have been sexy, but then they may have been old and wrinkly too with flabby elderly bellies – somehow I doubt that, but it makes me feel better) anywhere but I can only see the Nile and Cairo in Cairo on the Nile.

Cairo EgyptI don’t regret my decision to go to the upper deck because night on the Nile was both magical, real, and surreal. Small party boats with blaring speakers and a profusion of neon lights zipped by with guests sitting on them. Egyptian sail boats (I want to know how they are rigged) and windsurfers tacked by us at amazing speeds. The lights of the city, the skyscrapers, but mostly – it was my new friend Ibrahim, an Egyptian artist who sells souvenirs on the boat (though I must admit, he didn’t sell any that I saw – not even to me.) It was extremely enjoyable to feel the wind from the Nile and talk to this guy about life in Egypt, his home near Giza, the revolution, and his art. His art is pouring colored sand into bottles and then using wire to make pictures with it, building ships in bottles, and creating sand paintings of Nefertiti and other Egyptian scenes. His work was beautiful but the themes were so kitschy that I couldn’t even bring myself to ask about the prices. Maybe it was the bright colors or maybe it was something else – but I simply didn’t really want his work, even though I almost convinced myself that I did. The one thing I considered buying was a sand painting of Nefertiti – okay, I admit it, I regret not buying it.

As we left the boat, I saw the dwarf in his costume and a couple of guys showing each other pictures of the belly dancers – I have the memory of cruising on the Nile and making a new friend. No regrets.

The Pyramids

Cairo EgyptI don’t know how mind blowing the pyramids must have been before there was tourist infrastructure and aggressive touts, but judging by how astounding they still are today they must have completely blown the fucking minds of every person who came upon them. I know they blew my mind.

My driver picked me up at 8 am and we drove out towards Giza but continued on to Saqqara, home of the oldest of all the pyramids, the famous step pyramid which the Egyptian government (or someone) seems to be in the act of rebuilding. This pyramid is considered to be the one that started the whole trend. Nearly 7000 years old, it was built for King Djosar by the great Egyptian architect Imhotep. Surrounding the pyramid are many complexes of buildings which it seems no Egyptologists have firmly labeled yet. In other words, nobody knows – except for perhaps the touts who will be more than likely to tell you the definitive answer.

Despite my driver’s warnings about the aggressive touts – I found them to be much less hassle than the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul or the medinas in Fez or Marrakesh – of course, there were only about ten touts there and I was the only tourist that I saw – I was dressed in black like the foremen of the construction and I spoke enough Arabic I think they all thought I was an engineer working there. Now is the time to come to Egypt if you want to experience the Pyramids, Luxor, or other amazing ancient places without crowds. The touts though, are tricky – several asked for my ticket and then said come with me – which sounded official but was actually just a way to give me a tour and grab a tip or fee – but I already know that trick and took my ticket back and walked away ignoring them. In fact, I may have ignored some real security as I walked past the construction fence and into the areas marked closed. It was just me on the ground and all the slaves, eh, workers doing whatever they were doing to the pyramids above. Just me and a 7000 year old pyramid – leather bags full of pot shards, an open door that led down into where-ever it led – the tomb? The burial chamber? I don’t know. It was dark and I didn’t have a light. I didn’t really want to fall into a 500 foot shaft and have some future archaeologist find me and say “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?” as he picks apart my bones. But, I touched the pyramid. In fact, I pissed on it. I marked it as my territory.

Cairo EgyptThe step pyramid is only one part of a vast burial complex that served the city of Memphis (not Tennessee). There are several more pyramids in various states of disrepair in the area. Our next stop was a series of old kingdom tombs where the touts were slightly more aggressive and annoying. I attribute this to a busload of Mexican tourists who arrived at the same time as I did.The touts began directing people where to go, closing doors to parts of the complex, and enforcing the no picture and no camera rules – until they would get a tourist alone and then they would say “You want me to take your picture in here? It’s okay.” Frankly, this offended me more than the touting – the rule is there to protect these treasures and preserve the feeling of specialness inside the monuments – I therefore declined, as did most of the Mexicans. I saw one of the touts manage to get a couple of bucks from one old woman, but mostly, they were just annoying. The police ignore it and I’ve heard, they sometimes even participate.In post Arab-Spring Egypt, tourism is way down and the economy isn’t doing so hot either. People have to make a buck and support their families, that’s not always so pleasant for those of us who are fortunate enough to be visiting.

In fact, though, it’s less pleasant for the Egyptians. As we drove to Saqqara, we passed dozens of Carpet Schools. I asked my driver and he said that in this region, people are very poor and can’t afford to send their children to school. The children have to work at an early age. Families send them to ‘Carpet School’ where they work 9-12 hour days weaving rugs. As the driver explained “You and I can’t do that work for that long because it will destroy our eyesight and give us arthritis.” My heart broke as I realized what he was telling me – these ‘Carpet Schools’ are child sweat shops to make Egyptian rugs.

From Saqqara, we drove to Giza. My driver wanted to stop at a perfume factory but I told him I wasn’t interested. He wanted to go to the Papyrus Museum (another factory) but again I wasn’t interested. Suddenly, he was less interested. He told me the price to get in the pyramids, explained how big the complex was, told me about horse and camel rentals but wouldn’t tell me the total price. He was a nice guy, my driver. An old guy with a funny habit of saying “Do you understand?” where most people say “You know?” I don’t know how much he makes for the tour without the commission, but it must be disappointing when a cheapskate like me comes along.

Cairo EgyptThe horse renter gave me his spiel and offered me a special discounted price of 280 EGP for a 1-2 hour horse ride around the complex. That’s about $45 – and it was about 100 EGP more than I paid for the tour I was told was all in. I told my driver never mind. My enjoyment was gone. I didn’t care about the pyramids anymore. Take me back to the hotel. I was done. We ended up at 160 EGP which is about $25 US and include $10 for the entry ticket. I’m so glad I did that.

My Bedouin guide, Alex, kept all the touts away from us and we took the long ride around the plateau so that I was able to truly experience the majesty of the pyramids at Giza and the feeling of what it is like to be alone in the desert with the Great Pyramids – on a horse. I’ve never specifically wondered what it would be like to ride an Arabian horse across the Giza Plateau and be alone with the Pyramids – but now I know.

Cairo EgyptAs we rode up to the Sphinx, I saw the seats from the Sound and Light Show of the Pyramids – the seats don’t appear to have changed since the movie Moonraker where James Bond fights with ‘Jaws’ at the pyramids. Inside the temple of the Sphinx, there were no more than ten people. Jaws wasn’t there. The touts tried the ticket trick again, and failed again, and Alex waited outside with the horses. I asked the Sphinx a question and the answer was a riddle.

We rode back into Giza town like cowboy movie heroes on funny saddles with funny stirrups. My driver offered to take me to a few more locations to buy souvenirs, but I told him to just take me back to the hotel. We were supposed to see the famous Red Pyramid, but honestly, I’d already seen everything I needed to.

On Souvenirs

I’m not sure why, but I thought it would be very cheap to buy souvenirs and a small gold necklace for my wife in Egypt. I suppose my mistake was easy enough – with tourism down, the cost of hotels and tourist activities are lower than ever in Egypt. I made the assumption that this would also include tourist items and that the domestic economy would be such that buying some luxury items would also be cheaper. I think it was a fair assumption and it might even be true in some areas, but certainly it wasn’t true anywhere I went in Cairo.

Cairo EgyptI quickly determined that buying any sort of souvenirs near the pyramids was a huge mistake as the prices began at around $20 and I was pretty sure these were $1 items. My next stop was a small mall near Tahirir Square where I found a gold merchant who told me that gold was at a premium in Egypt because no one was certain about the currency. There went that idea, but I figured I might try at the airport and maybe I could actually find something unique in the airport shops or the duty free. Yeah, right – at the airport, a stuffed camel doll made in China was $20 with no room for negotiation. That was my other quest – something special for my daughter – a baby. I couldn’t bring myself to pay $20 for a toy that would be $3 in the USA, $5 in Turkey, $7 in Morocco, or less than $1 in China. As to the gold in the airport – a small pair of scarab earrings that must have weighed just a gram each were $276. With gold at $50 a gram or thereabouts – I couldn’t do it. Especially when he told me that they sold by the piece, offered no guarantee, and would not provide me with a weight or certification.

I’d been to a few of the souvenir shops around Tahirir Square and found that the prices were approximately 300-1000% of the price they should be. In addition, the gift shops at the Egyptian Museum, gift shops at the Pyramids, and elsewhere were poorly stocked. Cheap ‘papyrus’ scrolls and Chinese made junk souvenirs with ancient Egyptian themes seemed to be the things that were in abundance. None of which I was looking for. I visited a hijab shop, thinking that perhaps I could get my wife a fancy Egyptian hijab, but fashion, especially Islamic is so foreign to me that I couldn’t really find my way to purchase a hijab, besides which, I don’t really want to encourage her to wear a hijab anyway. Toy stores and kids stuff – I didn’t find anything. I thought about getting them fancy Egyptian djellabas but the truth is, to me, they looked just like Moroccan Djellabas. My wife doesn’t like perfumes – so that was out. Moroccans don’t really seem to appreciate souvenirs, so I skipped that. I thought I might buy a kilo of fancy Egyptian dates – but the dates were all fresh. I bought a bag and put them in my checked bag hoping customs wouldn’t take them from me. Still, I needed something. Egyptian glass seems beautiful and delicate so I bought four delicate little glass bottles for Hanane and a brass scarab for me. I actually would have loved to find a fancy reproduction of King Tut’s tomb knife for me but never saw anything like that. For my wife, I was looking for a necklace my grandmother used to wear – a gold disk with a bust of Nefertiti on it on a delicate gold chain. No luck.

Cairo EgyptFinally, I arrived at the airport with just the glass and the scarab. I still needed something so I purchased some expensive food products at duty free. $35 for some fancy dates, some sesame crackers, and some jasmine honey. More than I would pay for them in the USA, I’m fairly certain – but you can’t go home without presents and souvenirs of some kind. I’m still hopeful they might sell something decent on the plane….

The Invitation Hotel

I feel very fortunate to have found the Invitation Hotel. Wonderful location right near Tahirir Square, a great friendly staff, and best of all – a clean room, with nice sheets, satellite TV, internet, and air conditioning.

The manager when I arrived was friendly, helpful, and honest. There was no hustle with her. She smelled like my grandmother which I’ve managed to figure out is a smell of Gigi perfume and stale cigarette smoke. For me, it’s quite a nice smell when blended onto a woman with finely sculpted eyebrows and a friendly attitude. She helped me set up my tours, took payment, got me a cold drink and helped me with many things.

Overall, the hotel was a great place for the two days I was here and the price was perfect. About $25 per night. The night/morning guy was a hefty Egyptian with a pleasant demeanor but that unfathomable attitude of hating you while he smiles. He was a lazy dude. In the morning, I had confirmed that breakfast was at 8 am repeatedly, but at 8 when I woke up, he told me, “I’ll get it in 15-20 minutes.” Since I had pickup at 8:30, that wasn’t going to work. I asked him to get me some coffee right away and do his best to get breakfast – he flounced away in that huffy fat guy in his 20s kind of way. We had a bit of conversation but it was hard to take anything he said seriously, mainly because he was a spitting image of my former boss, Spencer at the ill-fated TechPlanet in dot com Seattle circa 2000. How in the world had Spencer ever been made my boss?

The hotel itself was good with some minor annoyances. The bathroom in my room was being redone and they opted to continue the work while I was out – when I returned it was still being worked on. I had to use the toilet, but had to wait twenty minutes. After the pyramid tour, I returned thirsty and asked for a bottle of water. The girl at reception told me she would bring it to my room. 30 minutes later, I was still waiting. It was only when I got in the elevator that I found the 8-year-old boy they had sent to fetch it returning with it.

To be fair, there is a mineral water shortage in Cairo. It can be hard to get and the prices have gone sky high, though the guy who charged me 20 EGP for a small bottle at the museum was a robber.

And then, the tour recommendations – I don’t recommend a dinner/dance cruise to any solo travelers – that was a mistake even if it was nice to be on the deck above looking at the Nile and Cairo. The pyramid tour didn’t include ticket prices, a guide, or water/lunch. It was budget, but I could have done better outside of the hotel.

Fly the Hajji Skies

Cairo EgyptAs usually happens when I catch any flight to Morocco, and I can only assume as happens whenever you mix Moroccans and airplanes – chaos ensued. Add to that, the fact that most of the passengers were pilgrims returning from the Hajj (the sacred trip to Mecca that all Muslims are to conduct – if possible- at least one time in their lives) and hilarity quickly becomes a part of the equation. The hilarity is a result of the fact that most of these pilgrims are old, taking the one trip of their lifetime, and all very proud and happy that they have fulfilled their life’s mission. The waiting room at the airport rang with the calls of Ya Hajj and Ya Hajja (loosely translated as “Hey honored person who has completed your sacred duty (both male and female)). Once you have completed the Hajj, you are called Hajj or Hajja. It is a great honor and you can see it as these old Moroccans call each other Hajj, yell out the name to call their friends and loved ones, and every other oldster who is now a Hajj or Hajja turns to look.

Still, these are Moroccans and so regardless of respect, Hajj or not, when it comes time to form a queue and move forward, they press into a tight wedge shape and everyone begins shoving. I stood back out of respect for their age and their new status, but the other Moroccans I saw let the dynamic of the line push them forward. The Moroccan line is a living and pulsing thing of awfulness and if I didn’t need to sometimes get somewhere, I would refuse to take part. But, I need to get in the wedges to get a taxi, to buy food, to get government work done, and more. So, I am forced to be a wedgii as well. “Ya Wedgii” I managed to hold back until the second bus and then I was among the last to get on the plane, but this was a mistake because my seat was all the way in the rear.

Most Moroccans don’t know much about assigned seatings or the protocols that go with bag stowage, first class, economy class, or anything else that is fairly standard knowledge in the orderly western travel world. So, there was complete and total chaos as all the Hajj and Hajja tried to stow their pilgrim baggage anywhere they could, got told to go to their assigned seats, and made a muck of things. The young Lebanese guy in the seat next to me laughed himself silly. So did I. The poor flight crew came out of the cockpit and tried to order things, but it was next to impossible until one guy, possibly the Captain – started yelling and screaming about things. I’m glad it’s not just me that loses his patience with this stuff.

Finally they had all been seated and stowed their bags and then the constant trips to the bathroom began. The flight was, after all, delayed and these are old people with most likely weak bladders and swollen prostates. I decided to wait until the tide ebbed – but it was a near constant stream (haha). Finally I took my turn and was very glad I didn’t have to make #2 because I forgot that Moroccans (especially the old and the untraveled, don’t do well with no bucket to wash with.) The western toilet is a strange phenomenon to these folks and they soon had the spotless EgyptAir toilet looking like a toilet on a Moroccan train. The sink was filled with water of almost certain washing the bum provenience, water was all over the floor, the seat, and everywhere. Later I began to see old folks trekking into the bathroom with empty water bottles to use to wash. This is life – and it’s actually pretty funny from a outsider perspective.

They are sweet, nice people. The girl next to me has sweet, dreamy eyes behind a flowered scarf that covers all but her eyes. She is traveling with her husband and the henna on her hands plus their youth makes me think they are perhaps on their honeymoon. I’m fairly certain her husband is not Moroccan, but she may be. In any event, I try not to look at her out of respect for her veil and her husband, but it’s a bit hard.

Elsewhere on the plane, the flight crew is struggling to deal with the demands of the Hajj and Hajja but failing pretty badly. There was one European woman who ended up carrying her and her husband’s meal trays back for them. I can imagine that for anyone unfamiliar with the chaos of Moroccan travel, it must be completely insane and probably unbearable. Many of the old people smell like slightly stale pee. I suppose that’s normal for just about any old people. Of course, there is more chaos to come when we arrive in Morocco but I think I can outpace them to the immigration, but I may be stuck behind them in customs.

Cairo Burger King Doesn’t Do It Your Way

Cairo EgyptWhile it’s normal for travel hubs to be more expensive than the surrounding areas – I truly hate this practice. Why is it that I have to pay $10 for a $5 meal just because I am trapped behind security? Ah – wait…it’s because I’m trapped. Captive.

A chubby bald Brit with fake headphones (okay they were real but he wasn’t listening to anything just wearing them to avoid having to talk to people – I bet he read that in a guidebook somewhere) was in front of me and a bunch of Moroccans and other Arabs kept crowding to the front. I was a bit stuck because I couldn’t really just shove past him but as long as I was behind him, I was never going to get anywhere. Finally, after yet another group jumped in front of him – he left in disgust cussing under his breath. With relief, I shoved my way to the front and was the next served.

I ordered a Whopper meal, regular size. The cost was 41 EGP. He added something and the price went to 46 EGP – “What’s that?” I asked. “The tax” he told me and pointed to the sign. It said 10% will be added. Apparently they round up. Next he added 8 EGP more bringing it to 54 EGP. “What’s that?” I asked, more curious than angry. “Super size” he said. “I don’t want supersize” I told him. “Now we only have supersize” he replied “Nothing else.” “Can I have Barbecue Sauce?” I asked “3 EGP” he told me. “That’s okay, I told him, I don’t want it.” By getting a 41 EGP meal I thought I was saving a bit from the 60 EGP for breakfast at the next place – but actually, I should have gotten what I wanted to begin with – though it might have cost me 75-80 EGP with the tax, service and whatever other extras they might add on.

5 Free Things to do in Hawaii that Should Cost a Fortune

5 Free Things to do in Hawaii that Should Cost a Fortune

They say that in life the best things are free, but we all know that usually is a crock of malarky. Food, housing, travel, clothing, family, medicine, eductaion – all of these things cost money. The thing is, though, sometimes you find that there is some truth to that old saying after all. Here are five things in Hawaii that are free to do but should cost a fortune.

Going to the Beach

Going to the beach in Hawaii

The beaches in Hawaii are among the best in the world. That’s the reason people are so surprised when they come to Hawaii and find that public beach access is a right that is protected by law. You don’t have to pay to go to any beach in Hawaii. They are all free and everyone is welcome.

Hiking in the Rainforest

Rainforest Hawaii

You can pay for a guide if you want to, but the truth is that you can find plenty of information online about where to hike in Hawaii and it won’t cost you a cent. You can hike all day in public rainforest with no entrance fees, no charge for the guavas, and no charge for the bird watching.

Swimming in a Tropical Waterfall

Hawaii Rainforest Hike

You need to pay atteintion to the signs and learn about Leptosporosis, but while you’re sweating on that hike in the tropical rainforests of Hawaii, don’t be surprised to come across a waterfall in the jungle. Falls like Mauawili and Manoa falls are fantastic for swimming and wading. Let the warm water wash over you and imagine yourself in a soap opera.

Seeing Giant Sea Turtles and Hawaiian Monk Seals on the Beach

Giant Sea Turtle Hawaii

Nobody will charge you to see the wild life in Hawaii, but if you harrass the animals you will get charged a hefty fine so remember not to approach too close to the sea turtles or Hawaiian Monk Seals while they are lazing on the shoreline.

Watching the Sunrise and the Sunset over the Pacific Ocean

Sunrise

Because the islands aren’t very big, you can watch the sunrise over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in Japan and then watch the sunset over the Pacific Ocean as if you are in California. My favorite spot to watch the sunrise is from the bunker in Lanikai on  Oahu’s Windward side. My favorite sunset spot is from Sunset Beach – it’s called that for a reason.

Is Budget Travel Worth It?

Today, I want to hear from you.

What do you think? Is budget travel worth it or is it better to just put your nose to the grindstone and stay home until you can afford to indulge yourself a bit more?

Is there something you get from budget travel that luxury travel can’t give you? Is there really anything beween budget and luxury travel or are those the only real options?

What do you think? I want to hear your thoughts. I’ll provide some of my thoughts in my next post.

Beijing 2001
These two Dutch girls were among the first ‘real’ backpackers I ever met.

 

10 Hilarious Reasons Not to Travel

Reasons not to travel
“You are not here!”

There are plenty of reasonable reasons not to travel, but in my years of writing about travel and working in hospitality, I’ve also come across some people who have reasons that I’ve found to be absolutely hilarious. Here are ten of them.

My Feet Hurt
While I was managing a hotel in Istanbul, it was not uncommon for people to have to cancel their reservations for one reason or another. We never asked them why, but they frequently told us. The best excuse I remember was a woman who wrote that she wouldn’t be coming to Istanbul because her feet hurt so she’d cancelled her flight.

I’m Afraid My House Will Get Stolen
While living on the island of Kauai, I met a woman who was in her 90’s that had never been more than five miles from where she was born. I asked her if she wanted to see the world and her answer was “I’d love to but I’m afraid someone would steal my house.”

Don't travel

I Don’t Like to See New Things
It might sound hilarious to us, but the truth is there are people out there who don’t want to leave their comfort zone. Travel means new things, new ways of thinking, and new experiences. I’ve met these people.

I’m Afraid My Ex Will Find Out
I was chatting with an old high school pal on social media. Life had been a little rough on him and he was paying alimony and child support. When I suggested he travel, he said he’d love to but he was afraid his ex would find out.

I Don’t Want to Waste Money
Personally I can’t think of a better way to waste money than on travel, but there are plenty of people out there who think of travel as the same thing as throwing money out the window.

I Am Scared of Foreigners
This is a bit sad, but a lot of people in our terror-conscious world are scared of foreigners. Never mind that most of our ancestors were foreigners at some point or other. When I was washing dishes in Florence, Oregon a group of French people came in the restaurant. One of the cooks asked me if he should call the police. I assured him the group of old people were probably not dangerous, although they did leave quite a mess without leaving a tip.

Crunky

I Don’t Want to Miss the Next Episode of…
There are people so addicted to television that they put their lives on hold in order to catch the next episode of American Idol, Desperate Housewives, or other shows. Imagine if they learned about Arab Idol or China’s Got Talent.

I’d Rather Work
Really? What are you working for? My suggestion is that you make your life your work.

My Town or City Has Everything
I’ve met people who love their own city/provence/country so much that they decide to not go anywhere else. How can you be so sure your place has it all if you haven’t seen anywhere else? I don’t want to spoil it for you, but so far, I haven’t found anywhere with EVERYTHING. Not even close.

I Have a Fear of Being Eaten by Sharks
This isn’t a joke. My friend’s wife is so terrified of sharks that she won’t get in a pool or board a plane that flies over water. Somehow she got it in her head that a plane could crash in the ocean and that would lead to sharks. Sharks aren’t what you need to worry about if the plane crashes.

What’s your most hilarious reason not to travel?

Iwahai: Save Memories with Voice and Place

Introducing Iwahai.  Sign up for the free email tutorial here. Iwahai lets you put voice recordings on a map. It’s easy, it’s revolutionary, and it’s free. Designed by travelers for travelers…and everyone else.

Iwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Time MachineIwahai Voice Recording on a MapIwahai Time Machine

 

 

Exploring San Francisco from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge

In 2013, I emigrated my family to the USA. We landed in San Francisco, a city I have loved since I first visited it in 1976 when I was 5 years old. We were unable to find a way to live in SF because of the insane cost of housing, but have gone back many times and will continue to do so. 

In all the cities that I’ve travelled, there are some that stand out as extraordinary more than others. A few come to mind right away Istanbul, Rome, Paris, New York City, Barcelona, Seoul, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Honolulu, Fez, and of course, San Francisco.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco has a rich and interesting history, a vibrant culture, and for a city which is so young – an amazing amount of things to do and incredible things to eat. San Francisco is a melting pot of cultures and you can find restaurants ranging from classic 1930s diners to Punjab, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Lao, Indian, Pakistani, Ethiopian, French, Italian, Bulgarian, Basque, and there’s probably even a Martian restaurant somewhere in Fremont…in short, San Francisco offers more than just something for everyone – it offers many things to everyone.

San Francisco, California

My wife is still a new immigrant to the USA and while our four years together have taught her much about my culture and people, there was still something that she seemed to not understand – the dark underbelly of America – the poverty and homelessness. When you grow up on the other side of the planet watching rich people on television and hearing everyone dream of the promised land – it’s hard to understand that America is filled with homelessness, drug problems, the mentally ill, and prostitution. Aside from places like Detroit and Philadelphia, there may be no better place to witness this than San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.

 

The Tenderloin has always been a rough place, in fact, the name comes from back in the days when police officers were given a bonus for patrolling the most dangerous part of the city – a bonus which allowed them to purchase better cuts of meat for dinner from the butcher – the tenderloin cuts. Today, the Tenderloin is still a place that it’s not advisable to wander through after dark – during the daylight hours hundreds, perhaps thousands of homeless and crazy people wander the streets, sleep on the sidewalks, and openly use drugs.

San Francisco, California

This was, of course, where I decided it would be a good idea for us to stay. Before you start cursing me under your breath, I should point out that I booked us into the COVA Hotel on Ellis Street, a four star boutique hotel that offers amazing service, comfort, and value right in the heart of the city. The hotel was superb with fantastic views of the city, a free breakfast service that included fresh fruit, waffles, and more and that the staff took great care of us while we were there. Our room was quiet, cool, comfortable, and, in fact, it was hard to recognize that twenty feet to either side of the hotel we would encounter homeless drug addicts and mentally ill street people. Most guests chose to use the hotel’s free shuttles which took them directly to Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Union Square and back. Not us though.

San Francisco, California

Our walks took us past the people of the streets – my poor wife was terrified, but I felt like it was important that she be exposed to this aspect of America. One tall black man with crazy eyes said “You look like a little nun!” – “I’m a Muslim!” she responded, clasping my arm. “Oh, well you look like a nun,” he told her. Thank you Crazy-Eyes. You can take a homeless tour of the Tenderloin on Vayable, run by a homeless man named Milton…we didn’t do that, but may in the future.

San Francisco, California

My friend Joshua points out that Palm Springs has no homeless people and offers no homeless services but San Francisco offers lots of services and so has lots of homeless. It’s a fair point. America should be ashamed of this problem. Herewith, I offer a solution.

 

The government should buy all the houses in Detroit that are selling on Ebay for $500 – maintain them, and offer them to the homeless. Offer free services, job training, food, and healthcare in Detroit and only in Detroit. Offer free transport to Detroit. Close down all the other services in all the other cities and start works programs that give people who want to stay in other cities jobs and cheap housing – no job, no housing – off to Detroit with you. We can’t make Detroit any worse and we can certainly make other cities better. My family once owned all of downtown Detroit in the 1800s. My fourth great grandfather was the Mayor of Detroit. Maybe if they move all the crazies there, I can be the Mayor of Detroit too…

But, back to San Francisco. Our walks took us out of the Tenderloin and into Little Saigon where Hanane had her first bowl of Pho. I had forgotten just how delightful Pho can be. Oh man, it is sooooo good. Little Saigon is San Francisco’s ‘newest’ neighborhood and borders the Tenderloin. From there, we walked to Union Square and marvelled at the corner where Levi Strauss, sold the first pair of Levi’s to miner forty-niners back during the Gold Rush. The first Levi’s 501 jeans were created in the 1890’s and people all over the world still wear them. That’s some classic fashion! Strauss used sailcloth from the abandoned ships in San Francisco harbor (because many ships made a one-way trip to the Gold Rush), dyed the cloth blue, and re-enforced the stress points with rivets. It was the merchants who sold to the miner’s who made the enduring fortunes.

San Francisco, California

San Francisco, California

Union Square itself got it’s name from the pro-Union rallyies that were held there during the American Civil War. The beautiful golden statue called “Victory” that commemorates President McKinley and lost sailors was modeled on a San Francisco Beauty named Alma de Bretteville. While she was wooed by many, she went where the money was piled highest and married a sugar baron named Adolph Spreckles who was 25 years her senior – the newspaper’s at the time mocked the union, calling Spreckles her ‘Sugar Daddy’ – which is where the term originates. The couple built the largest home in Pacific Heights which today is the home of author Danielle Steele. One of my personal heroes, Jack London, used to attend parties at the Spreckles mansion. She was one of the most influential art collectors in the USA and San Francisco’s Legion of Honor Fine Art’s Museum was one of her pet projects – she also brought a number of Rodin sculptures to the city which are still there. The Legion of Honor sits high on the headland’s above the Golden Gate Bridge…

And this is where I will stop for now. We’ve gone from the poorest to the richest and from the Tenderloin to the Golden Gate Bridge. More soon to come…

San Francisco, California

Ah, one last word about Alma Spreckles – she started a chain of thrift-shops to help the poor, they were eventually turned over to her favorite charitable organization – The Salvation Army – which is why the Salvation Army operates thrift stores all over the United States….including the one in the Tenderloin which also operates a shelter there…it’s astounding how everything is connected if you know where to look. Crazy-Eyes gets his meals and bed from the woman on the statue in Union Square…

Great thanks to SanFrancisco.Travel for providing so many great resources and fantastic information for our trip. More to come soon….

%d bloggers like this: