Riad Jnaan Sherazad and other overpriced Casablanca Hotels

Hotel rooms in Casablanca are generally crappy and overpriced. I know this not because I’ve stayed in them all, but because when we had to go to Casablanca a few days ago, I asked all of my Moroccan and expat friends if they could recommend a good mid-range place to stay. While some of them told me where not to stay, no one actually was able to recommend a hotel. (Update: After I wrote this I was actually given a 4 star recommendation that looks quite nice – Idou Anfa Hotel Casablanca )
hotel in CasablancaSo, I turned to TripAdviser – what the reviews generally said was that no one is happy with their hotel choice in Casablanca. They are all overpriced, crappy, and generally not worth the money but since Casablanca is the business, commercial, and to some extent governmental center of Morocco (at least for – me the American Consulate is there), we are all forced to go there and pay the prices they demand.
In this case, I had a chance to do a third party review of a place that I would never have visited because just by the price, I knew it would be a bummer. However with someone else paying, I didn’t mind seeing if it might live up to the expense. We confirmed our stay for two nights at the Riad Jnane Sherazade in Casablanca and set off!
On the phone before we left, I asked the manager the best way to get there. He told me that if the taxi didn’t know the hotel, just give the street address. From that I assumed that it was a well known place. If that was the case, the taxi drivers at Casa Voyageurs were all pretending to not know. Nor did they know the street – Rue de Belgrade. We finally found a driver who knew the place who offered to take us there for 5x the price the manager had suggested (10 dirhams) and then a second driver who agreed to take us after he dropped off the lady in the front seat (who was going 10 kilometers away) and then charged us for her trip there and back so that we ended up paying 50 dirham anyway but with a longer drive. A word of warning – there is one honest taxi driver in Casablanca and he’s very old – he may not last much longer.
hotel in CasablancaAnyway, we’d looked at the hotel’s website and despite the annoying automatic pretentious music it began to play and it’s flash heavy interface – the place looked great with big rooms, a lush private garden, balconies, plus games and reading material for guests. I figured we would try their in house restaurant one night and of course enjoy breakfast in the morning. Rooms were priced at $140 to $300 per night though if you choose to stay there, the link I’ve provided above will get you cheaper rates.
Upon arrival we were met by a friendly doorman. It started to sort of fall apart from that point. The touristic tax they included on the room was double the official rate, when I inquired about dinner I was told that we could pay 300 or 400 dirham per person (an outrageous amount for what they were offering in Morocco) and that even though the rooms were in the top tier of prices for Casablanca accommodation that not only was there no complimentary breakfast, but there wasn’t even complimentary water or coffee. Breakfast (a simple one I was told) was 17 Euros per person – which is roughly triple what a great breakfast costs at the cafe down the street. Even when I told them I was doing a review for a third party, their reaction was stolid – which on one hand I admire, but on the other was just such incredibly mercenary bad business practice that I’m certain my jaw dropped. Frankly, if someone tells me they are reviewing me – I would at least offer to provide them with complimentary breakfast so they could write about it (and a complimentary dinner for that matter) but these guys – no way. Old school bleach blonde Moroccan manager sucking down cigarettes in the lobby while the portly French affected Moroccan owner told me “Children aren’t normally welcome in our hotel”. To be fair, I saw that it wasn’t listed as ‘child friendly’ but didn’t realize they meant they didn’t want kids there. In my inquiry, I had mentioned we were bringing our month old daughter but no one had said it was any sort of problem.
hotel in CasablancaWhile there was wifi in the hotel, they wouldn’t provide me with the password but did point out that I had a cable port in the room. This worked but eliminated any idea of working in the lovely garden or on the patio. The reading material in three languages consisted of old free airline magazines and French fashion magazines from the 1990’s. There were also a dusty set of French encyclopedias in the drawing room (which the owner and clerks smoked in but which, when I lit up a cigarette in, I was told to go out on the patio…).
I should really point out that despite the name – Riad Jnaan Sherazade isn’t actually a riad at all. Instead it’s a villa built in 1956 and decorated in the style of a Riad. The decoration is quite nice and so is the villa though it is in need of some thorough cleaning and a bit of renovation. While the website touted top of the line sheets and towels, I found them to actually be sort of course towels and the sheets to have a texture that I associate with a thread count of 150 or less. Most of my friends who own mid-high range guesthouses, riads, or hotels insist on a minimum of 250.
The balcony was large and looked out over a lovely garden where twenty or so businessmen were drinking and conversing in the evening. They were obviously having a private function as we seemed to be the only guests staying. While I debated whether to pay the outrageous price for dinner or breakfast, I found myself looking at TripAdviser where the majority of the reviewers mentioned the dinner as being ‘good’ but way overpriced and the breakfast as being a rip off. That was enough for me- if you are considering buying breakfast or dinner at Riad Jnaan Sherazade – I recommend you see what TripAdviser has to say first. Who knows? Maybe it will be worth it – but I wasn’t willing to chance it. We had two nights and I wanted to have enjoyable meals both times – which we did – elsewhere.
The mattress was hard. My wife and I both woke up with sore backs. The shower, tub, and dual washbasins in the bathroom were fantastic. Hot water, good pressure, and clean toilet.
The television was fairly dated and got the free local broadcast channels only – no satellite, no cable. It sat on what looked like an old wooden microwave stand. When I asked about the games they specifically mentioned on their website (Monopoly, Chess, Scrabble, and Cards) I was told that they only said they had them since most of their clientele are businessmen who don’t have time to play games. When I mentioned that they listed them on the website they told me “Yes, but we don’t have them.”
The price they list for the hammam was so beyond what the hammam next door charged that I didn’t bother to inquire why – maybe they include a happy ending for the businessmen – but I doubt it since nothing was free at this place despite the high prices. The mini bar in the room contained small bottles of water and bags of chips that sell for 5 dirhams listed at 50 dirhams (about 5 Euro or $7.50) each. A placard placed in the room said that it was against the regulations to bring in your own food or water. Since we didn’t want to drink the Casablanca tap water, we smuggled our own bottled water in like criminals. Some of the reviews on TripAdviser say that the desk actually stopped them from carrying bottled water to the room!!!
The air conditioning worked well. The plugin internet connection was fast. The room was quiet. The doorman, by the way, was great.
Overall – I would say this is a 3-star hotel (clean, quiet, no bugs, free internet) with 5 star prices (and they rate themselves as 5 star as well) and 1-star guest treatment. The main reason I say this is because of the mercenary nature of the pricing, the complete lack of value for money and the indifferent attitudes of the desk manager and owner. Even ultra budget hostels manage to provide coffee and drinking water and can tell you what is interesting in the area without having to probe like a detective.
We won’t be going back. Instead, we will be looking at the many other options among this Complete List of Casablanca Hotels

Breaking News: Large Explosion at Cafe in Fez, Morocco

Friends and local news are reporting a large explosion in the Ville Nouvelle of Fes. This from Lakome.com(in French)
Explosion in Fes, Morocco

A strong explosion rocked a cafe today in the city of Fez, injuring several people. The official agency Maghreb Arabe Press (MAP) reports that according to initial findings, this claim is due to the explosion of a gas cylinder installed in the basement of the coffee.
A source of Emergency Preparedness of the city speaks seven injured were transported to University Hospital Hassan II. “We are continuing the search for the wounded,” says the fireman.
The cafe, located in an upscale neighborhood known as “La Villa”, is mostly frequented by young people in the middle of the city of Fez.

This comes from my friend Karima who lives in Fez and shared this information in a status update/note.
“I have been to the cafe where the explosion took place … ” La villa” 5 min away from the Super Market Acima above Al willaya. Its a disaster…Burned like hell… Police everywhere and they don’t won’t us get any closer .. I saw no dead bodies leaving the place but heard that some people died.. mostly the staff who worked in underground:” the oven, pastry makers..the girls in charge of cleaning…I met a girl there who works in the bakery and she was crying I barely could understand what she was saying because she was sobbing and she told me..”.Its the gaz no bomb involved.”I said how do you know:” she looked at me and she said:” God sake i was there and i saw them changing the gaz bottles..I don’t know what happened to them but i am sure most of them are gone….” Because i used to go there most of the time with friends and the waiters were super nice to us… all i was asking about were what happened to the waiters till, that under-shock lady thought that my husband or my boy friend was one of them…..!!! I will put the video i have shot there later but let me tell you this, what i saw there was soo catastrophic to the point that i forgot to ask the girl about her name…and she forgot to ask me who i was and why i was asking…..brief Glory to Allah in his Universe and may our lord bless everyone died in this dramatic accident.”

Schweea by Schweea…Nothing Moves Quickly in Morocco

I wrote this for a travel writing contest, but never heard back…I guess I didn’t win 🙂 But, I think it’s still worth sharing…Enjoy ~Vago

small town Morocco
Stepping carefully to miss the streams of sewer water and partially holding my breath, I pulled shallow draughts of air through my mouth so as to avoid the stench. I passed by the dozen or so young guys in rip-off Dolce and Gabbana jeans and fake Armani t-shirts . They hunkered down in an unlit doorway with a deck of Moroccan barraja cards and played an excited game of what appeared to be a cross between slap-jack and Texas Hold-em. Filthy Moroccan dirham notes lay on the ground between them. One or two of them glanced at me with suspicious eyes, after all, what the hell was a gaurie-an obvious foreigner with light skin and blue eyes- doing in the heart of the casbah at 11:00 pm. Just then my neighbor Mohammad glanced up from the cards and greeted me “A salaama leycum Yassine. La bas?”
“Wa leycum a salaam Mohammad. La Bas. La bas aleek.” I answered his query about my general state of being and with the same words wished him goodness in return. Since he was in the midst of gambling and I was on the way home, we bypassed the oft required but painfully drawn out process of greeting each other with a thousand and one questions about friends and family followed by numerous wishes of blessings that would be bestowed by the creator. Sefrou Medina
Five steps more and I was at the lime green metal door which led into my thousand year old apartment. Inside I bypassed the narrow mud-brick steps leading ladder-like to my neighbor’s flat and put the key to the ancient wooden door which led to my very humble abode. The door was ‘Sefroui Blue’ but had been buried in at least twenty layers of colorful paint over it’s lifetime which made it sometimes difficult to close all the way. Scraping it open, I stepped down into what lives in my memory as one of the most fascinating places I have ever lived.
My apartment in the casbah didn’t come with a stove, light-fixtures, a flush toilet, or a shower. The one thing it did have was indoor running water, a luxury in the medina of Sefrou. Every surface inside had been painted a brilliant sky blue including the window frames, the doors, and the cabinets. Within a month of moving in, the moisture on the wall had caused the new paint to bubble and blister and had revealed the nebulous layers of ancient enamel beneath which neither time nor brush could make disappear.Oued Aggai
Opening the windows, I reveled in the sounds of the Oued Aggai as it flowed merrily past my windows in the chasm below. My apartment not only had running water indoors, but running water delightfully nearby that would lull me to sleep each evening. Looking up towards the grand mosque of Sefrou, I could see men in djellabas crossing the narrow stone bridge separating the Mellah from Beni Mdrek. In the late hours, they moved even slower than usual. That meant their movement was almost imperceptible since nothing ever moves quickly in Morocco.
Schweeya b Schweeya is what you will inevitably hear in what the Arabs referred to as al-Maghreb, the Kingdom of the West. Schweeya b schweeya translates to little by little and if there is a modus operendi that nearly every Moroccan plays the game of life by, this is certainly it. It’s a philosophy of patience but also of cunning and ultimately, it is what drives many time conscious Westerners who think of living in Morocco to change their minds and go somewhere else.Moroccan food
If you sit for an afternoon in Morocco’s ex-pat and traveler hangout, Cafe Clock, you will without a doubt hear at least one conversation which involves someone’s expectations not being met in any sort of a timely manner. It might be someone restoring a house, someone trying to get married, someone trying to start a business, or someone waiting for transport – but the certainty is you will hear it. You will also hear that reply, sweeeya b schweeya.
To understand and experience Morocco, you must internalize this philosophy. Those who rush from one tourist destination to another will find and see amazing things, but they will also miss the soul of al-Maghreb. I know this from experience, I did it. In less than a fortnight I saw the great imperial cities of Marrakesh, Fes, Meknes, and Rabat and then I visited the bustling port of Casablanca with it’s massive Hassan II mosque, which somehow feels like it’s missing something. Perhaps it is because of the speed with which it was built, no schweeya b schweeya was included. And like the mosque, my fast paced journey was beautiful and exotic, but somehow it completely missed the soul of Morocco.
2nd largest mosque in the worldIt was only later, when I decided to stay for a longer time that I started to understand just how embedded into the very fiber of this place this concept truly is. With a history that stretches back thousands of years and a culture born from the intersections of Berber, Arab, French, Portuguese, Spanish, African, Hebrew, Turkish, British and American – this civilization is a fantastically complex human construction which has been built over time idea by idea, piece by piece, and little by little. To try to see it in a day, a week, or a month is an exercise in complete futility. In fact, you will leave with more misconceptions than you arrived with since you will have essentially looked at the couscous without seeing the chicken that lies under it.
orphan boys in MoroccoEach time I came in or went out that door from my apartment I would meet my neighbors. Not just when they were playing cards in the alleyways, but also when they were getting water from the communal fountain. Mischievous kids with dirty knees and faces would always run by me and once in a great while I would surprise them with a piece of candy, but never money. If you give money once then you are marked for all your time as a charity for the needy to turn to. Scweeya b schweeya. I preferred the charity of carrying water for the old woman who was called ‘Radio’ by the young boys. The name came because her nearly bent in half spine caused her to resemble a radio antenna. Bringing the water inside, I found she and her husband living in a single room heated by a charcoal brazier which was used not only for heating the room, but also for heating food and water . It’s not fast, but then, there really wasn’t any need for it to be. Mr. and Mrs. Radio had nowhere to go and nothing to do. My running water and propane tank stove suddenly seemed outrageous luxuries.
Moroccan cobblerRadio’s invitation to tea was a process that took nearly two hours as the water was heated to a boil, the tea was added, the water was reheated, and finally the tea was poured. My extremely limited command of Moroccan Arabic meant that I could only nod in agreement without actually understanding what she was saying. In time, her son the cobbler arrived and explained that they were happy to have me visiting. I was honored and thankful that their son took the time to visit and bring them groceries.
On Fridays I watched as my neighbors brought couscous to the men working in the vegetable souks. The men motioned me to join them as they slowly gathered around the steaming plate covered with seven vegetables. Under it all, delectable pieces of chicken were hidden under the mound of couscous. I was on my way to an appointment, however, and I had an irrational fear of being late. “Shukran bzzaf. Ana mettl.“ “Lai-owwn.” Thank you much. God help you, they replied, no doubt pitying my rush.
I paused just long enough to buy a kilo of oranges. Even after a year, it felt strange to call them ‘lemons’, but like the donkeys and fire heated water, I was becoming used to it. I walked more quickly than anyone else, a vestige of my Western upbringing and uptightness. Finally, I arrived at my destination.
Morocco CouscousThey had asked me to come for lunch at 2:00 pm, but Mama Khadija hadn’t gotten started until a little bit later because she was visited by her sisters unexpectedly. After that, she had to go to the souk to find the right vegetables and since she was a little late, it was harder to find cabbage that suited her needs. Her husband and sons hadn’t arrived yet and her daughters were relaxing in the petite salon watching Turkish soap operas dubbed in Darija. The time had only been for the strange foreigner and only because I asked. I’ve heard an apt phrase about expats. “They never have the time but they always know it.”
Mama Khadija accepted my gift of oranges and offered me a cup of sweet mint tea. It would be at least an hour before the Friday couscous would be ready, but I was in no hurry. Schweeya b Schweeya. Al hamdillilah.

Time and Money in Morocco – Matters of Confusion

Much to my surprise, I find myself quite content to be living in a small town in Morocco. The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, even to myself, but the fact is that I’m quite enjoying myself here and feel like I’m home for the first time in years.
moroccan dirhamThis isn’t a post about me though, rather it’s a couple of those quirky observations of life that I know Vagobond readers love to read about. It comes from living in Morocco, but the subject matter is something that is so baffling to me, that I can’t explain it at all. As the title clearly states, I am writing about time and money.
I know, on the surface there should be no confusion. Moroccan currency is the Moroccan Dirham (MAD) and it trades for approximately 7.5 dirhams to the U.S. Dollar (USD) or 11 dirhams to the Euro (EUR). This means that it should trade for about 4.4 dirhams for the Turkish Lira (TRY). Clear enough. The dirham is broken up into 100 centimes per dirham.
Moroccan moneySo, one would expect that when you buy something the price would be given in dirhams and centimes such as a loaf of khobz (bread) costs 3 dirhams and 50 centimes or something like 3d50c or three and a half dirhams. Easy right?
Far too easy for the complex Moroccan mind. Don’t forget when you talk about Moroccans, you are talking about people who are born polyglots. Even the least educated of Moroccans speaks Darija, Arabic, and French to some degree plus in the countryside many people speak one or more varieties of Berber (tamizit or amazigh or another). Now, I don’t know if this has anything to do with the confusing state of money or not but here is how it really breaks down.
old moroccan franksEven though the currency is dirhams and centimes, prices are often talked about in terms of franks, ryals, dirhams, centimes, and millions of one or the other depending on the item being discussed. So, in fact the flus (money) of Morocco can be broken into dirhams, franks (even though there haven’t been franks for about 50 years) ryals (same as franks) and centimes.
Moroccan FranksA dirham contains 100 centimes. A dirham also contains 20 ryal. A dirham also contains 100 franks. So to convert franks or centimes to dirhams you divide by 100, to convert ryals to dirhams you divide by 5. Sounds slightly confusing but easy enough. A frank is a centime and a ryal is five centimes. 100 franks = 20 ryal = 100 centimes = 1 dirham. Great.
Then you go to the market. If you are Moroccan, you know that a certain person is Berber and will give the prices in ryal or another person is Fassi and will give the price in franks. If you aren’t Moroccan, you just get numbers thrown at you. Add to this that in general, large ticket items have their prices given in millions or hundreds of thousands of centimes or franks, but also sometimes just to make things difficult they will give the price in ryal. So, for example, let’s say you are buying a hot water heater which would cost 120 Euro if you were in Europe. This is a luxury good here so the markup is to 170 Euro which we will use the common exchange of 10 MAD per Euro and we have a price of 1700 dirhams.
Moroccan moneyWhen you go to the hardware hanoot (store) you see the item you want and you ask the price. The old man at the counter tells you that it is 200,000 franks. You struggle for a moment to remember if franks are the same as centimes or if it is 5 centimes to the franks or if you are mistaking a frank for a ryal (since you have never seen a Moroccan frank or ryal, this is an easy mistake to make). Finally, you ask him the price in ryals to get the difference (just because you are curious) and he tells you 40,000 ryals which sounds much better but is still too much, but at least now you’ve established that the ryal is bigger than the frank so the first price of 200,000 is in centimes (or franks if you prefer). So, you divide the price of 200,000 by 100 and arrive at the price of 2000 dirhams or 200 Euro. It’s too much since you know the price is only 170 Euro but you can’t just tell him the price is 170 Euro or 1700 dirhams or 170000 franks or whatever that might be in ryal. Next you have to make your offer, probably in the neighborhood of 140,000 centimes and then you negotiate and probably you arrive at the price of 170-180 Euro
This was a relatively simple purchase but when you start talking about cars or riads, you need to make sure you have your calculator. Even a trip to the market can be confusing since one vendor lists the price as 10 dirham and another is calling out 200 ryal and a third is saying myatain which is is probably the same, but frankly (hehe) I’m totally confused already.
By the way, you can’t take Moroccan dirham from the country and there are only a handful of currencies you can convert to dirhams in Morocco, one of which is NOT Turkish lira which I learned only after bringing my pay from Turkey to Morocco in Lira…oops. I thought to save from the conversion to Euros and then to dirham, but instead, I have a lot of unspendable money…thankfully, I know people who go to Turkey and come back to Morocco. Although this might be touching on the edges of the black market…
Time in MoroccoAnd then there is the matter of time. Morocco has daylight savings time but it just doesn’t work. Many people don’t know about setting their clocks forward or back and others resent the fact that the government should be involved in something so fundamental as time and so refuse to change their clocks. As a result you have people who are on new time and people who are on old time but when the time changes back again, you have people who change for the first time and people who stay on the old time so, in effect you have a new old time and an old old time and then you have the real time which is a matter of continuous debate if you choose to engage in such a thing ( which I don’t recommend since you can’t possibly win but only become muddled in the process and perhaps buy a carpet before you realize your watch is on a time you didn’t expect it to be). In theory, for half the year everyone should be on the same time but for some reason that doesn’t happen and (god forbid) if you have employees or have hired workers for some reason, don’t expect to understand the reason why they show up an hour late AND leave an hour early, perhaps they find the new time during the middle of the day and revert to the old time when they go home.
If you want to be confused, ask my wife what time she plans to leave her moms in which case she looks at the wall clock and tells me in the time there (old time) and when I ask about whether it is old time or new time, she says ‘real time’ at which point I ask if she means real time for Moroccans or the government and she says ‘the time on my mom’s clock’ by which I know she means the old time which to her is more real than the time I have on my phone which is to me, the real time.
Besides, Moroccan time is essentially the same as Hawaiian time but without the laid back attitude you find in Hawaii-ne. For those unfamiliar, 15-30 minutes late is early, 30-60 minutes late is on time, if you wait more than an hour you will probably be disappointed and today usually means tomorrow but sometimes tomorrow means next week because the built in excuse given by God makes all things acceptable and justifiable – it’s why inchallah is tacked on the end of any statement of time or obligation you may want free of – for example: “I’d love to come to your disco party – inchallah” (translation: God doesn’t really want me to come) or “I’ll have it for you tomorrow – inchallah” (translation: Unless you stand here and make me work on it, it will never be done unless I have nothing else to do) and so on. In fact, I love inchallah since it gives me an easy way to accept the many invitations I don’t want to accept and then just not show up to. I know, completely unacceptable in the Europe or the U.S., but then, this obviously isn’t either place.

Getting from Fes to Fes Sais International Airport

This may sound funny, but one of the trickeist parts of travel in Morocco, in my opinion is finding a reasonable way to get to Fes Sais International Airport from Fes.
Fes Sais Airport International
When it comes down to it, the problem is that there really isn’t any set and consistent way to get there. There is a dedicated airport bus, but it runs irregularly. The bus costs 20 dirhams or 2 Euro and runs from next to the Gare de Fes (Fes Train Station), come out of the Station, go to the right and pass the big lot filled with taxis, the bus is sitting on the far side of the next lot. And that’s the problem, it’s usually just sitting there and when you arrive, you think, ‘Oh the driver will come soon’. Sometimes that happens and sometimes you can sit there for hours.
The last time I went there, I sat for two hours on my suitcase along with a dozen other travelers, both Moroccans and foreigners. The driver just didn’t come. I held out because since you aren’t supposed to take Moroccan money outside of Morocco, I hadn’t brought much with me. Just enough for the airport bus. (Okay, and I always bring an extra 200 dirham note because it’s enough to get to Sefrou from Casa, Fes, or wherever if I should come and the ATMs aren’t working- but I don’t touch that until I return)
Other travelers slowly wandered off or banded together in groups of four or five or six and entered into negotiations with the taxi drivers who waited patiently on the other side of the lot.
Here is what annoys me about the taxis. A trip to Sefrou is roughly the same distance as a trip to the airport from Fes, about 30 km. While a trip to Sefrou costs 10 dirhams, a trip to the airport will cost you between 100 and 500 depending on where you are from, if you speak Arabic or French, and how well you can haggle. Most people end up paying about 250 for the taxi.
However, this is the reason why a trip to the Airport bus stop isn’t a wasted effort. The cost is for the entire taxi so if you can work it out the right way, you can actually pay less than the airport bus, although you will be in more crowded conditions.
As an example: this last time, I sat waiting and first watched a Moroccan man talk to the other Moroccan passengers. When he found six he walked to the taxis, negotiated, and then motioned to the others to come join him. Six down. Next, a Frenchman did the same thing with a number of foreigners, I passed since I didn’t have the 50 dirhams each he had negotiated (I’m guessing the Moroccans had paid 20 each). Five more down. Finally twenty minutes or so later, a Moroccan guy living in Spain negotiated a deal with a driver to get the cab for 100 dirhams. Four of us at 25 dirhams each piled in. A spanish backpacker, a French teacher of the mentally impaired, the Moroccan-Spaniard, and me. The French teacher made up the difference in my fare since I only had 23 1/2 dirhams.
International Airport Fes, MoroccoSo, for those who are wondering, that’s how you can get to the Fes Sais International Airport for those cheap RyanAir flights to Europe. In this case, I was heading to Rome and the Spaniard was kind enough to buy me a coffee with the last of his dirhams. He also introduced me to an Argentine backpacker named Josephina who was also going to Rome for a day. We had no language in common but a common destination.
From Fes to Roma – coming up next…

Izmir Sunday in a Friendly Turkish Home

We voyaged to Izmir this Sunday to meet up with a Moroccan friend my wife made on her flight here. Nice to have a different location for this week. Sunday in… Izmir, Turkey.

Hanane’s ability to make new friends will never cease to amaze me. In this case, her new friend is a Moroccan woman married to a Turkish man. Her husband is in Morocco and she and her sister are staying with her in-laws in Izmir. they sat next to each other on the plane and then exchanged facebook and skype info and have been chatting ever since. One evening they even had both of their families join in the conversation!
Turkey loves Moroccans!
We woke up, had a late Sunday breakfast and caught the bus to Izmir which costs just six lira each. The girl, Souad, her sister Wafa, and her father in law picked us up at the bus station and drove us around Izmir. Fishermen in Izmir, TurkeyWe had a nice walk along the water and then went to Souad’s in-laws house where we had a wonderful Turkish lunch/dinner and enjoyed the afternoon in a lovely Turkish home. Souad’s little boy is cute as a bug and her father in law showed me his garden filled with grapes, pomegranites, olives, and hot hot peppers.
I know just how hot because after eating some at dinner, I stupidly reached up and touched my eye! It hurt like hell, but for some reason, that kind of pain, like tattoos, I’ve never really minded. I don’t know quite how to explain that, so I’ll just leave it there.
Dinner was a Turkish soup, followed by beans, followed by kifta (lamb meatballs) with wild rice and yogurt/cucumber sauce. After dinner, a lovely cup of Turkish coffee, followed by nuts, followed by chocolate. Needless to say, I feel like I might explode.Our Friend's Father in Law in Turkey
They were all lovely people and we had a very nice day. It was especially nice for Hanane, I think, because I know how nice it is to connect with your expat community when you are living abroad. Since this is her first time living outside of Morocco, I’m guessing from the smile on her face that this was a very nice Sunday in Izmir. For me too it was nice, though it was somewhat confusing to have to change channels from English to Turkish and back to Moroccan again, but I wasn’t alone. At one point Souad started to explain something to her Turkish mother-in-law, but she was doing it in Darija while the woman smiled in confusion. We all laughed together about it.
Izmir statue of Attaturk
After way too much food, Turkish coffee, nuts, and chocolate they drove us back to the bus station and we headed back home.
I really love Sundays, wherever I am. That’s why I pretty much always make it a condition of any job that I never work on them.At least not for anyone but myself.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t such a good Sunday in Istanbul where two bombs by separatists killed seventeen or more people. While Turkey is generally safe and wonderful, Kurdish separatists have been growing increasingly violent over the past few years. I’m glad to be somewhere that isn’t ‘important’ enough to be a target for them.

Technomad Tools – #1 – Smart phone – Mine and yours?

Let’s talk about smartphones. I just got one and following is my review. What smartphone do you use? Is it better or worse? What features do you love? What features could you do without?
This term technomad is coming up more and more these days. To a certain extent, I fall within the category since I do a lot of my paid (and unpaid) work online and for that I don’t have a boss, an office, or a need to be in any one place.
As such, my office for the past year or so has been my netbook. An Acer Aspire One which has been by far the best $300 I’ve ever spent. I’ve used it for everything a full on laptop or desktop can be used for and it has never let me down. I recommend it 100% as the ultimate travel machine. Below is an affiliate link from Amazon for one.

Still, I’m always trying to make my possessions smaller, faster, and better and I’ve been looking at people with smartphones for a while now and wondering if I would be able to make the leap and perhaps the next time I travel I would be able to leave the netbook at home.
best phone for travel
Does your phone travel well?

I’m a cheap bastard. I don’t like to replace things while other things still work, so when my camera went kaput during our wedding in the Sahara, I thought that maybe if my phone would die too, I could replace the phone and the camera with a smart phone. So, I’ve been keeping my eyes open.
Unfortunately, in both Turkey and Morocco the cost of electronics is about 500% more than in the USA or Europe. Even in Europe the cost of an iPhone or Blackberry is at a premium. Another thing is that I don’t like contracts since I’m never 100% certain I’ll be staying in a country. And, I’m pretty poor in terms of money that I can spend.
An iPhone in Morocco runs about $1700 U.S. A Blackberry is a little less, but the truth is that I’ve used Blackberries and I don’t particularly like them. In Turkey and iPhone is about $1500. I thought about ordering one from Ebay or Amazon, but friends here confirmed that customs (as in Morocco) would rake me over the coals and I would end up paying more. I don’t want to make any bones about it, I’ve looked around and despite the problems, it looks to me like an iPhone 4 is the best thing going.
The other day when my old Motorola Razor V1 once again started dying with a full charge, I decided it was time to make the leap to something. One of my colleagues showed me his phone and told me that I could get one for right around 350 Turkish Lira which works out to about $225 US.
I did a little homework and decided that while it didn’t have all the options I wanted, it would be a pretty decent way to break into having a smart phone. Here is what I wanted:
– a decent camera
– wifi so that I could check email, use voice services on Skype, GTalk, and Yahoo messenger to make calls with no charge when wifi was available
– video capability – playing and recording
– blue tooth
– good sound quality/ call quality
– a good quality touchscreen
– fm radio
– good battery life
– and some games/ability for java apps
samsung star wifi
The reviews I read of the phone seemed to indicate that I was going to get what I was looking for with the Samsung Star Wifi which is marketed in India, Pakistan, Turkey, and other Arab countries under various names such as Samsung Avila.
The phone lives up to most of what I read about it. I’ve had no problems with the wifi though I haven’t yet figured out how to change the default for most java apps so that I don’t get charged for usage.
samsung star wifi - phone for vagabond
It’s small, light, and fits easily in my hand or my pocket.
For me, the camera takes acceptable pictures but the lack of a zoom and flash probably means I’m going to have to get a camera anyway. The video quality seems pretty decent.
Call sound is good and the music player works well but doesn’t seem to have much flexibility in the way playlists work. Definitely would prefer i-tunes.
One big issue at the beginning was that the proprietary browser kind of sucks. Only allows one window at a time. I solved this by downloading the Opera Mini 5 browser which allows for multiple windows but the cost is that with Opera when I turn my phone sideways, it doesn’t automatically change to landscape screen
Another issue is that since it is proprietary, Skype and other voice chat services (VOIP) have not bothered to (or not been able to) make software that allows free calls. So even with the wifi and a browser, I’m not able to make the free VOIP calls I wanted. I was able to download a java app called Nimbuzz, but can only access it through the browser and engage in text chat only. Big disappointment on this one.
Also, I think because of the firmware and proprietary Samsung crap, I can only run one app at a time, although there is a setting which allows music to run in the background while I do other things. So what this means is that if I am using the Opera browser and want to make a note, I have to close the browser and open up the note. Again, big disappointment and not ideal at all.
The initial data storage size is reasonable, but not huge. I’ll have to buy a data card. I want to have the space for videos and music on it, not to mention pictures, and hopefully an ebook or two.
The word processing (notepad) function is fairly primitive and when I have put pdf or .doc files on it, I have to scroll left and right in addition to down. Not really very good for reading something which I was hoping would be an option.
The battery life is good. About 10 hours with heavy usage or from what I’ve read, if it isn’t being used much, a week or more.
The touchscreen seems to work great. It’s fun and the stylus which comes inside is easy to use and stores in the corner safely.
As to videos, I’m afraid that this phone is set up to mostly play youtube videos and since I’m in Turkey, where youtube is banned, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to watch any video but the one I recorded to test out the video camera function. I’m hoping to find an alternative source so that I can watch tv shows and news.
The phone has a couple of kind of goofy features. One is that if you choose you can set up the phone to automatically email two contacts if the SIM is replaced. Ideally this will tell you the number of any thief who steals your phone.
Another one is a fake call function where you can press a button and the phone will call you and play a conversation you’ve pre-recorded so that you can get out of class, meetings, or other uncomfortable situations. It’s a phone with built in lies.
One last thing I do like about this phone is that it comes unlocked and is quad band so I can go anywhere and use it in any country on the planet.
Overall, I like the phone. It’s a definite upgrade from the razor v1, but it is definitely not a replacement for the netbook. That will have to come later. Although, I’m quite happy to lug the netbook with me since it is light and awesome.
Now, how about you- what smart phone do you use? Does it kick ass? Or does it blow?

Back to Morocco, Back to Turkey

Istanbul is incredible. After the performance of the Whirling Dervishes we wandered down to the Galata Bridge and decided to eat some fish while sitting on the water.
The touts were the most aggressive we met in Turkey though the location was romantic and beautiful. The food? Well, it was really crap and perhaps made us both sick. I recommend you go down there, have some tea or a cocktail and then go get your food somewhere else.
bad food but pretty location, Istanbul, Galata Bridge
The prices were also the highest we paid in Turkey. Again though, the ambiance and location were superb.
eating at Galata Bridge Istanbul, Istanbul restaurants
The next day we wandered around and bought souvenirs for Hanane’s family.
Istanbul Spice market, shopping in Istanbul
I don’t really do souvenirs except for the kind I find for free lying on the side of the road or those of necessity (like my souvenir shoes when my old souvenir shoes get worn out from all the walking) but for Hanane it was essential.
istanbul shopping
And then it was to the airport for our return flight to Morocco.
A funny thing happened on the return flight. I’d warned Hanane that airport security in Turkey wouldn’t be as lax as that in Morocco. She’d bought some bottles of shampoo, so I insisted that she check her bag so they wouldn’t get thrown out. High end shampoos, creams, and lotions are very high end in Morocco. So, we went through security at the gate and then the other Moroccans started to come through. There must have been $1000 worth of shampoos, lotions, and creams which were thrown in the garbage because they were in big bottles in carry on luggage. The signs were posted everywhere in Arabic as well as in English and Turkish. That’s not the funny part though, that’s slightly tragic watching as Moroccan women are forced to throw out all their beauty products and families have to throw out the yogurts, waters, and other foods they were bringing for the flight. The funny part was the reaction of the Moroccans. They were livid. The airport security had to deal with increasingly pissed off Moroccan women yelling at them, a father with a bunch of food he was being forced to throw away invited other passengers to help his family consume it, and women kept going to the garbage and making efforts to steal their products back when the security weren’t looking which forced them to move the garbage bin. It was one of the oddest real life dramas I’ve ever witnessed.
istanbul airport security
The flight was uneventful, the train back to Fes from Casa was uneventful, and the arrival back in our apartment was also uneventful.
We spent a couple of days just enjoying our space while we had it and then Hanane made a bee line for her folks place in Sefrou. Usually, when I move, I get rid of everything by selling it or putting it on the street, but this time, that wasn’t really an option. All of our stuff had to be trucked up to the in-laws place in Sefrou. I’ve furnished a good portion of their house at this point!
Ramadan began and we arranged a moving van, I packed everything up, and then we cleaned the apartment and paid our outstanding bills to the landlord.
Shepherds in Morocco
After that we spent a few days at the in-laws place where we fell into the fasting routine of wake up at 3 AM, eat, go to sleep, wake up and work, sleep, eat at 7 PM, go to sleep, wake up at 3 AM….but I’ve already written about that.
Now, it’s almost 5 AM and while this won’t be posted for more than a week, I will be leaving Sefrou, Fes, Morocco, and all I’ve found here behind in about an hour. Even my wife won’t be coming with me as I return to Turkey to start yet another new life in yet another new country.
She’ll be joining me in about a month after Ramadan is through and when I’ve made certain that things are going to work for us in Turkey. I’ve already bought her tickets, but I’m a little worried as it will be the first time she is doing any bigger travel than a train or bus trip on her own. She’ll do okay though, she’s already been through Vago 101.
I leave Morocco with the two bags I arrived with. Of course, there are a few things that we are leaving at the in-laws house that we would like to have in a home someday if we ever have one. Also I am leaving my guitar and violin #2 here for the moment. The harmonica comes with me though.
I’m filled with a mixture of excitement, elation, sadness, relief, and weariness. I’ll write more about Morocco in the near future though. For now, suffice to say Veni Vidi Vici.
eating under the bridge in Istanbul

Sabiha Gökçen International Airport in Istanbul

Our flight from Casablanca landed about 50 km from Istanbul in the Sabiha Gökçen International Airport. It’s not nearly as convenient as Ataturk Airport but it services a lot of discount airlines such as Air Arabia. While not a huge airport, it does have a lot of domestic and international flights coming in and going out.
Since we hadn’t checked any bags, I was hoping we could get through customs quickly and be among the first one’s there. Of course, it didn’t work out like that because I forgot to stop and buy the $20 tourist visa required of Americans. Hanane got through and when it was my turn the immigration agent sent me back down the hall to the visa agent. Where I got one of Turkey’s new visa stamps. It turns out they don’t like foreigners to work there for 90 days, take a ferry to Greece, and then come back so they’ve started a new policy that allows a multiple entry 90 day visa which says clearly that the visitor is not allowed to work. After it runs out you can renew for 45 days, but then you can’t renew for 180 days. It’s an attractive stamp in my passport.
vias afor Americans in Turkey, visa for Moroccans in Turkey
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, cheap airlines, Istanbul, Turkey, cheapo airlines
how to get from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet in Turkey
Shuttles at that time of the night average at 30 Euros per person. A taxi is 85 Euros. The one I’d arranged was supposed to be 10 Euros each. I hired the freelancer for 20 Euros each
transport from Sabiha Gokcen to Sultanahmet
If you arrive at Sabiha Gökçen International Airport during normal hours you can take the HAVAS airport bus for 10 lira to Taksim and then take a taxi for less than 10 lira or tyhe funicular or tram for 1.5 Turkish Lira to Sultan Ahmet.

Budget Airlines in Turkey and Morocco – Air Arabia

We are back from Turkey now and in Morocco again. It is just a few days until Ramadan begins and we are going to celebrate most of it up in Sefrou with my wife’s family. It’s a mixture of feelings to be back- part sadness and part joy, for her anyway. For me, I always suffer a bit of a hangover when I get back from travels. This time, a part of it is because I’ve realized over the time I’ve been in Morocco, that I really don’t like being here, the good news is that we won’t be here for long but I’ll talk about that more in future posts, but for now, I want to start giving you the details of our trip to Turkey.
To find great flights to Turkey look at Flights.Vagobond.com
For Hotels be sure to check Hotels.Vagobond.com
We decided to make our first foreign trip together (and Hanane’s first foreign trip of her life) to Turkey for a couple of reasons. The first was that while it is difficult and expensive to get visas to most foreign countries for Moroccans, Turkey is just the opposite. Moroccan’s don’t need a visa for Turkey. For me it was a $20 visa fee on arrival and for her it was just a walk through the immigration line. Another factor was that I didn’t want her to suffer culture shock too terribly and I thought that since Turkey is an Islamic country with a secular government, it would be familiar enough to not be overwhelming and yet different enough to be mind expanding. Of course, I’ve always wanted to go to Turkey, so that also played a part.
Finally, and perhaps most decisively was the fact that we were able to book tickets from Casablanca to Istanbul for both of us for $767 U.S. which comes out to less than $200 per person one way. We found our flights through Air Arabia, a no frills discount airline which provided us with an affordable foreign vacation from Morocco, which isn’t necessarily the case for many other destinations. Since I’m certainly not a rich man, this made it possible. During our trip we managed to do just about everything we wanted to. We spent 17 days in Turkey, traveled thousands of miles both to get there and within Turkey, ate most of our meals in restaurants, did plenty of tourist activities, and bought souvenirs for Hanane and her family. Grand total including airfare was 1866 Euro including the trains between Fes and Casablanca and everything in between. When you subtract the airfare and put things in dollars, that means we were spending about $40 each per day when we averaged it out.
cheap airlines in North Africa, cheap airlines in Turkey
We had actually arranged to couchsurf for 14 of our nights but our hosts didn’t work out on a staggering 11 nights due to family illness, pregnancy, work, or other changes that life provides. This was disappointing to us since we both take committing to hosting as a serious responsibility, but we went with it. In total since we were spending an average of $30 per night for hotels and pensions, that would have saved us an additional $330 + which would have lowered our daily average to right around $30 each per day and probably lowered our food budget since we would have been more likely to self cater from grocery stores instead of eating lunch and dinner out all the time. I think if everyone who had agreed to host us had, we would have actually spent right around $20 per person per day. The good news though, is that since I worked my ass off and insisted that we scrimp and save in the months before we went, we had enough to cover ourselves and the freedom of hotel rooms was pretty nice for us and led us to some wonderful experiences we might have otherwise missed.
cheap airline tickets to Turkey, cheap airline tickets to Morocco
During Ramadan, if you fly from Casablanca to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen Airport, you can get a fare that is even less at just $109 each way with Air Arabia. Okay, so much for the airfare, airline tickets, and travel budget numbers…tomorrow, I’ll start detailing the trip itself.

From the Gare de Fes to Mohammad V International Airport by Train

train station in Fes, Morocco
The new train station in Fes is beautiful. It’s so different from the dark and dingy little place I arrived at the first night I was in Morocco what seems like twenty years ago. Hard to believe it hasn’t even been two years yet. time goes slowly in the 12th century. Inside the station, we had some time so we went upstairs to a fancy coffee place and talked about what we hoped our trip to Turkey would be like.
House in Fez, view from Fez Apartment
Boarding the train we found ourselves in a very nice shared cabin with plush seats, cold air conditioning, and a very nice Moroccan family sharing the space with us. Since I had my internet connection with me, I wrote a couple of articles and actually managed to pay for the train trip while we were on the train. It took us just over six hours. Paying for first class in Morocco is always worth the extra money since the 2nd class cars often have AC that doesn’t work and you most often find yourself crammed into a compartment with 8-10 other people as opposed to the 1st Class which comfortably holds a maximum of six. The difference in price between first and second class for this trip was only about $15 U.S. for both of us.
train from Fes to Casablanca, train to Mohammad V International Airport
Our tickets were 165 dirhams each for first class to Casablanca Voyageurs Train Station. From there we had to book two more tickets to Mohammad V Airport for 40 dirhams each. Maybe someday they’ll sell direct trains to the airport from Fes, but the transfer is unavoidable at the present time. For the short trip to Mohammad V from Casa Voyageurs, second class is just fine.

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