7 Offbeat Adventures in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Old China Cafe KLWhile in Kuala Lumpur back in 2011, I did more than just drink beer and watch street walkers, I also saw some very cool places and attractions you might not have come across.

 

The Old China Cafe

Old China Cafe was a great lunch of Malay-Chinese cuisine and had an interesting feel. Finding it was the hardest part but a friendly guy sniffing glue on the corner pointed me in the right direction. I’m lucky to have been in China before it’s modern transformation…this reminded me of that.

From their site:

This building was the guild hall of the Selangor & Federal Territory Laundry Association. The guild was set up at the turn of the century and moved to this part of Chinatown in the 1920s.
As the guild members prospered, the founding members moved to this building in 1930. The two large mirrors that face each other are traditional feng shui mirrors that Chinese believe would perpetually reflect the good luck when the first rays of the morning sun light up the interior.

Even the interior doors still have wooden latches. This type of pre-war (World War One/1914-1918) shophouses may not last forever. Already several in the neighbourhood (Jalan Panggong, Jalan Petaling and Jalan Balai Polis) have either been demolished or renovated beyond recognition.

Old China Café tries to maintain a semblance of the Chinese community’s old social life which will soon fade into history.

Bukit Nanas ParkBukit Nanas Forest Reserve. Sitting in the center of ultra-modern, ultra-urban Kuala Lumpur is a rainforest preserve where you can hike across wooden bridges, see monkeys, and get your feet muddy on tropical trails. Since 1906 the 11 hectares of the preserve have been a beloved spot for locals and visitors to get away from it all by heading to the city center. Great trails and for tree lovers you can check the signage to discover Kapur (Dryobalanops aromatica), Keruing bulu (Dipterocarpus baudii), Jelutong (Dyera costulata), Meranti pa’ang (Shorea bracteolata) and Rattan (Calamus manan) and many other trees. A botanical herb garden, orchid area, nature center, and jogging trails all make this a more than worthwhile nature stop in the center of the city.

Ain Arabia is a completely neat idea to me. Sure, Malaysia is a Muslim country, but it’s not an Arab country. If, however, you want to experience the Arab world of the Middle East while visiting Southeast Asia, the place to head is Ain Arabia. The street is located at Jalan Berangan in Bukit Bintang. Oddly, the area seemed to be filled with mostly Arab tourists and I’m told that during the month of Ramadan, many Arabs come from stricter countries to avoid the enforced fast. Since I lived in Morocco, I found the Sahara Tent Restaurant and the Berber laundry service to be more than a little bit odd.

Cosmo's World KLCosmo’s World Theme Park gives you a chance to experience a theme park but without having to go outside so you can enjoy the air conditioning. The park is located at Level 5, Berjaya Times Square. It fills 380,000 square feet and has separate theme parks for adults and children called Galaxy Station and Fantasy Garden. Sorry, the Fantasy Garden is the part for kids…Still, you have to love indoor roller coasters and a ride called the DNA mixer sounds like it is much more adult than it really is.

Little India. Indians are one of the three main ethnic groups in Malaysia so Little India makes sense. For those looking for an Indian experience without going to India. This works. Jalan Masjid India is one of the oldest parts of the city and dates back to 1870 when the Indian mosque was built.
Little India is the heart of a thriving neighborhood built up around the mosque. It is filled with colorful flowers and garments and is easy to reach. Just get off the tram at Masjid Jamek Station or walk from China town.Bales of saris, shops heaped with gold, traditional pharmacies and gorgeous glass bangles fill the shops and delicious aromas come from the many restaurants which offer tasty Indian snacks like samosa, ghulab jamun and vadai.

KL Bird and Butterfly ParksThe Bird and Butterfly Parks. The Bird Park and Butterfly house are located in the Lake Gardens, a 60-hectare reserve since 1888. It is the world’s largest free flight, walk in Aviary. The butterfly park has over 6000 butterflys and more than 120 species…and they are alive not stuck to pin-boards.

National Planetarium. I’m a sucker for planetariums. I just love them. It’s the blue domed building above the Lake Gardens and has a space museum that includes replicas of ancient observatories. The planetarium shows were in English and not only interesting, but fun. Of particular note was the very nice juxtaposition of traditional Islamic architecture with the space age. Very nice.

New York Foodie – The Best Places for Food Shopping in New York City

by Sarah Spigelman exclusive for Vagobond

Murray's Chees Shop

New York isn’t just the best place to eat; it’s one of the best places to shop for food. No need to subscribe to pricey specialty food email lists to obtain the latest in hard-to–source foods.

Stop stockpiling foreign candy that gets you in trouble with customs every time you try to come back from London. And please…let’s say goodbye to big box supermarkets that sell tomatoes that look gorgeous and taste like candle wax.

Here are just a few of Manhattan’s very best food stores, sure to give you everything you need to feast at home.

KalustyanKalustyan’s – this Indian food emporium offers literally anything you will need to make a meal from the subcontinent. There is a wall full of spices so potent that your eyes may tear – but at the same time, your mouth will water. Need paneer, chickpea flour, or kaffir lime? They have it. Or maybe you want a huge bag of Brazil nuts, strained yogurt from Greece, or foreign candy bars. Don’t sweat; they have that here, too. If all else fails, you at least owe it you yourself to try some food at the tiny upstairs café. It might not be fancy, but it is the best Indian food that you can get outside of your Bengali mom’s house.

Eataly—Mario Batali strikes gold again with this humongous Italian emporium. This place isn’t just a supermarket; it is a full-on destination. Along with the piles of exotic mushrooms, Italian dried pastas, and imported fruit like Sicilian blood oranges, you can have cooking lessons or wine classes. There is a European style food hall, with many small restaurants focusing on just one thing – fish, vegetables, pizza, or pasta. Also, stand at counters and try meats, cheese, or wines. Finally, for the ultimate experience, head to Manzo, an acclaimed beef focused restaurant right in the heart of the bustling store.

Zabar’s-come on to the UWS for a little nosh. This is the place where you come for Sunday brunch – for soft, chewy bagels, whipped cream cheese,Zabar's and the gest assortment of smoked fish in the city. Smoked salmon, kippered salmon, smoked trout, whitefish salad, and everything else you can imagine to make a fantastic spread. Also load up on gourmet olives, luscious cheeses, homemade hummus, and artisanal crackers and breads. Don’t underestimate the stuff you can get at Zabar’s –they roast their own chickens; have an extensive prepared food section, and a coffee section that carries the aroma of the best Starbucks in the world.

Esposito's Meats by afagenEsposito’s – this old school butcher shop is what NYC used to be like, before the infusion of big chain grocery stores. Esposito’s is a tiny store in Hell’s Kitchen where anything and everything meat can be yours. Shins, marrow bones, veal breast, and whole baby goat – literally, anything that you want is either in stock or will be ordered for you. The fellas behind the counter couldn’t be more accommodating or helpful –they will tell you how to cook that chicken breast so it is tender and flavorful. Pick up some homemade mozzarella and local Italian bread while you are there and make sandwich fit for a king.

Hmart 1 by @JyonnnnHMart—goodbye, USA, hello Korea. This store, where the windows are papered and the location is in the middle of a harried street, houses an entirely different world. A world of 50 lb. bags of rice and dried squid sold like potato chips. A world of thinly sliced sashimi and an entire freezer case filled with dumplings and potstickers. A world of peach flavored gummies, coffee flavored milk, and instant noodles that are way beyond the stuff you had in college. It’s also a world of prepared bibimbap, kimpab, and anything that you might need to take a gustatory trip to Korea.

Big Food Challenges in Florida

Florida is known as a place where everything is bigger and better – the theme park rides, the sports and certainly the food. If you’re the competitive type, why not check out some of the restaurants below, all of which offer unique challenges for the truly hungry.

Whether you’re on holiday with your kids or enjoying an intimate break, sweltering over the Inferno Soup at Nitally’s, chowing down a 48oz steak or eating ice cream from a kitchen sink, you’re sure to have a great story to take home with you whether you pass the test or not.

48oz Steak Challenge at Don Shula’s Steak House

48 oz steakLaunched by former NFL coach Don Shula in 1989, this restaurant chain quickly gained a reputation as one of the best places in Florida to sink your teeth into some prime Angus beef. Each restaurant is themed after the Miami Dolphins’ “Perfect Season” that Shula presided over in 1972, when the Dolphins became the only team in NFL history to finish the entire season undefeated.

Orlando holidays in Florida wouldn’t be complete without sampling their famous 48oz Porterhouse steak, dubbed “The Shula Cut”. Holidaymakers who manage to finish all of this titanic T-bone in one sitting are rewarded with induction into the restaurant’s 48oz Club, which would certainly provide a few bragging rights back home.

However, guests have their work cut out for them if they’re planning to beat the record of superfan Taft Parker, who to date has eaten over 175 of the giant steaks – earning a commemorative football from Don Shula himself for his achievement.

Shula’s Steak House Orlando, Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel, 1500 Epcot Resorts Blvd, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830

Inferno Soup Challenge at Nitally’s

If you’ve got a taste for the spicy stuff, you may have finally met your match at Nitally’s Thai-Mexican restaurant in St Petersburg, Florida.

This challenge isn’t for the faint of heart: the Inferno Soup contains fresh ghost pepper. At over 400 times stronger than Tabasco sauce, it’s the hottest chili known to mankind – in fact, it’s so hot the Indian government has reportedly considered using it in non-lethal hand grenades.

For good measure, the restaurant throws about a dozen other varieties of pepper, including three kinds of jabanero, into the dish.

The owners of Nitally’s initially offered a $150 (£96) reward to any steel-tongued guest who can finish the soup in less than 30 minutes, but as of July 2011 not a single customer has managed it – prompting them to raise the jackpot to $800 (£512).

Challengers must be over 18, stone-cold sober and “of sound mind and health” before they can tackle the Inferno Soup Challenge, as well as remaining seated throughout. Any takers?

Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine, 2462 Central Ave, St Petersburg, Florida 33712

20 Tacos in 40 Minutes at Poblano’s

Poblano’s Restaurant in Clearwater, Florida is a local favourite among lovers of burritos, enchiladas and tequila. The truly adventurous, however, can put their guts to the test with the 20 Tacos in 40 Minutes challenge. The crispy fried tortillas filled with shredded beef, cheese and lettuce are a staple of Mexican cuisine, but it takes true grit to step up to the bar at Poblano’s and earn a place in the restaurant’s hall of fame.

The tacos are served ten at a time and diners are expected to clear their plates completely to succeed. If they do manage to chow down the full 20, the house pays for the meal and the challenger receives a T-shirt and has their photo mounted on the wall of the restaurant.

A word of warning, though – only 13 people have completed the challenge since it was launched a couple of years ago. Reigning champion Adam went above and beyond to finish an incredible 30 of the spicy snacks in the allotted time.

Poblano’s Mexican Grill & Bar, 2451 North McMullen Booth Road, Clearwater, Florida 33759

The Kitchen Sink at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour

Americans love to round off a meal with a good ice cream sundae, and entering this classically-styled parlour in Dania Beach, Florida is like stepping back in time to the age of soda jerks, Cadillacs and rock ‘n’ roll. There’s also a dessert on the menu that’s a meal in itself and then some.

The Kitchen Sink isn’t just a clever name – it really is served in a full-size kitchen sink, plumbing and all. The servers behind the counter are invited to let their imaginations run wild putting everything they can think of into the colossal sundae, with toppings including marshmallow, chocolate, strawberries, cherries, fudge and sprinkles.

In this case there’s no reward for finishing the food besides the satisfaction of a job well done, but at $12.95 (£8) per person – for a minimum of four diners – it’s a whole lot of ice-cream for your cash.

Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlour, 128 South Federal Highway, Dania Beach, Florida 33004

Eddie’s Monsta Burger at Eddie’s Bar & Grill

Eddy's bar and grillIf you’re a burger lover and you think you’ve seen it all, Eddie would have you believe otherwise. From the outside it may seem like just another waterfront burger joint in Dunedin, Florida, but it has achieved local fame thanks to one truly daunting menu item: the Monsta Burger.

Featuring 3lbs of beef created from six of the restaurant’s normal half-pounders and “all the fixin’s”, this colossal burger is even served with a pound of French fries on the side! Finish it all within 30 minutes and you’ll get a T-shirt and your picture on the Wall of Fame, as well as a free meal.

Fail, and it’ll set you back $24.99 (£16), but why not have a go at one of Eddie’s other challenges? The super-spicy Fire-in-the-Hole Chicken Wings will net you $100 (£64) in gift vouchers if you can chomp down 13 in 15 minutes, or alternatively there’s an enormous tray of nachos offering the same prize if you can finish it in half an hour.

Eddie’s Bar and Grill, 1283 Bayshore Boulevard Dunedin, Florida 34698

Mummified Love in Andong, South Korea

To celebrate Halloween, here is another monster story, but this one with a twist – it’s a mummy love story. I first shared this back in 2011. Enjoy!

Andong MummyWhen you travel the world you come across wonderful things, but some of them touch you more than others. The story of an ancient Korean mummy and his heartbroken wife hit me hard as I traveled and thought of my wife at home, pregnant with our first child. My own journey here was very random as I had come to Andong with no idea of what to do or see and when the bus passed by Andong National University, I figured it was a good place to wander around since Universities tend to have free libraries, galleries, cheap food, and interesting people who speak English.

It was my good luck to find the free archeology museum where the Andong mummy lives so that I could discover this story. It’s a famous story by now, but maybe you haven’t heard of it yet. Everyone in Korea knows it though and when the mummy was found and the letter with it was read, it touched hearts around the world. On this day, it touched my own.

Andong Mummy Love LetterThe 16th century mummy was found by archeologists in Andong City and identified by researchers at the Andong National University as Eung-tae, a member of the very ancient Goseong Yi Clan. Eung-tae was in a wooden coffin in a earth hardened tomb. The archeologists were very excited to have found a male mummy, not a common thing in South Korea. His beard and clothing were still preserved and they found that he was fairly tall at five feet nine inches, which even today in Korea would put him above the average. On his chest, much to their surprise, they found a letter from his wife, which is actually how his identity was revealed.

The letter was heart-breaking and over the next few years led to novels, films, and even an opera. Here is the text of the letter translated to English:

To Won’s Father
June 1, 1586
You always said, “Darling, let’s live together until our hair turns gray and die on the same day. How could you pass away without me? Who should I and our little boy listen to and how should we live without you? How could you die before of me?
How did you bring your heart to me and how did I bring my heart to you? Whenever we lay down together you always told me, “Dear, do other people cherish and love each other like we do? Are they really like us?” How could you leave all that behind and die ahead of me?
I cannot live without you. I want to go to you. Please take me to where you are. My feelings toward you I cannot forget in this world and my sorrow knows no limit. Where can I put my heart now and how can I live with your child missing you?
Please look at this letter and tell me in detail in my dreams. I want to listen to your words in detail in my dreams and so I write this letter and put it in with you. Look closely and talk to me.
When I give birth to the child in me, who should it call father? Can anyone fathom how I feel? There is no tragedy like this under the sky.
You are in another place, and not in such deep grief as I. There is no limit and end to my sorrows and so I write roughly. Please look closely at this letter and come to me in my dreams and show yourself in detail and tell me. I believe I can see you in my dreams. Come to me secretly and show yourself. There is no limit to what I want to say but I stop here.

Andong MummyThe letter and the mummy made me suddenly aware of the risks I was taking by traveling and being away from my wife and the child she carries. It was at that moment, that I just wanted to go home, to be with her. From there forward, my journey held no joy for me. Certainly I met wonderful people, saw interesting things, and yes, I enjoyed myself, but my heart was no longer in it. I just kept thinking of this woman, weeping upon learning the death of her husband, weeping as her child was born, and struggling through life as a single mom and without the man she had come to depend on.

Perhaps it was for this reason that I didn’t have a desire to take any great risks, to test the limits of my endurance, or to push the limits of my already very limited budget. It would be several months before I would be able to permanently be at home with my wife and our unborn child, but upon meeting the mummy, I made a promise that I would make certain to be there for them. And so, from Andong to Busan, back to Seoul, back to Kuala Lumpur, to Singapore, Jakarta, and back to Turkey I walked carefully and kept in mind that there were two people waiting for me and relying on me. And now, I am home- back in Morocco with my wife and our child will be coming in a month or so. Suddenly, I can relax and much of the tension I felt while away has melted since I know that my wife and child have me with them at this very important time.

Cela Kula – Nis, Serbia’s Skull Tower

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe story of the Skull Tower in Nis, Serbia is a cautionary tale about power and rebellion. It is called Cela Kula in Serbian which means…”Skull Tower”.

The Serbs were far from happy being in the Ottoman Empire and they had began a rebellion in Nis which sits on the Constantinople Road running through Sofia, Bulgaria to modern day Istanbul. The 1809 rebellion was put down and the skulls of the rebels were used to build a tower as a reminder to anyone else who wanted to rise up against the Ottomans and Sultan Mahmud II.

Here is some of the history from Wikipidia:

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsOn May 31, 1809 on Cegar Hill a few kilometers northeast of Niš, Serbian insurrectionists suffered their greatest defeat in the First Serbian Uprising against the Ottoman Empire (1804-1813). The insurrectionists’ advance towards Niš was stopped here and, when the far stronger Turkish forces attacked, the battle was ended by the Serbian commander Stevan Sineli, who sacrificially fired at his gunpowder depot in order to avoid surrendering to the Turks, killing himself, the rest of his men, and the advancing Turks.

After the retreat of the Serbian rebel army, the Turkish commander of Niš, Hursid Pasha, ordered that the heads of the killed Serbs were to be mounted on a tower to serve as a warning to whoever opposed the Ottoman Empire. In all, 952 skulls were included, with the skull of Sin?eli? placed at the top. The scalps from the skulls were stuffed with cotton and sent to Constantinople (modern Istanbul) as proof for Sultan Mahmud II.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsThe tower stood in the open air until the liberation of Niš in 1878. By that time, much of the tower had deteriorated from weather conditions or from the removal of skulls for burial by relatives of killed rebels. In 1892, with donations gathered from all over Serbia, a chapel designed by the Belgrade architect Dimitrije T. Leko was built to enclose what was left of the tower. Today, only 58 skulls remain, including that of Sineli.

In front of the chapel stands the monument to Sineli, and a small relief depicting the battle, both from 1937. The monument commemorating the battle in the form of a guard tower was built in 1927 on Cegar Hill by Julian Djupon. The lower part is made out of stone from the Niš fortress.

Skull Tower was declared Monument of Culture of Exceptional Importance in 1979, and it is protected by Republic of Serbia.

Like much of Serbia, I found the Skull Tower to be creepy and lacking any sort of contextual explanation – I had to search for that later. To get there I had to walk about two kilometers from the center of Nis. The ever present dog turds and tagging were constant while the sidewalks were not.

Along the way, I stopped to eat the Serbian delicacy Borek, basically a filo dough pastry stuffed with cheese or meat. It was a bit greasy, but overall pretty delicious. I bought a yogurt to wash it down while sitting in a grungy little park with some senior citizens who had no idea what to think of me joining them as they ate their boxed lunches.

Nis Serbia Tower of SkullsAt the tower, there was no signage. I walked around it, took some pictures of the external chapel, but the doors were all locked so I couldn’t get inside. By this time, the borek and yogurt had caused my bowels to become a bit upset and I needed to find a toilet so despite my desire to see the tower of skulls, I went towards a dirty little bus station nearby to see if I could find a toilet. At the bus station, the lady asked me if I wanted to see the tower. I explained that I needed a toilet first, but yes, I wanted to see it.

A tiny little dwarf of a woman came out and led me to the very dirty bathroom (which I was very happy to have access to) and after I paid her the very reasonable entrance fee of 100 Serbian Dinar, she led me to the chapel where she pulled out her huge ring of keys and unlocked three locks to let me in. She watched curiously as I snapped some photos and tried to ‘feel’ the place. It felt like I expected, creepy.

When 19th century traveler Alphonse de Lemartine visited Nis in 1833, this was his experience.

“ My eyes and my heart greeted the remains of those brave men whose cut-off heads made the cornerstone of the independence of their homeland. May the Serbs keep this monument! It will always teach their children the value of the independence of a people, showing them the real price their fathers had to pay for it. ”

It made me think of something – which has caused more than a few people to claim I was being disrespectful, but which was, after all, what it made me think of. The Tower of Skulls is a powerful symbol of Serbian Independence – but since I’m a child of 1970s America – the entire time I was there, I was thinking of this….

Turkey’s Seamonster of Lake Van

In honor of Halloween, I present to you the only legendary monster story I was able to unearth in Turkey – the monster of Lake Van

Lake Van Eastern TurkeyYou would think a country with as much history as Turkey would be chock (cok) full of legendary beasts and monsters. After all the Greeks and Romans were here and they had tons of monsters, the country is filled with tombs and ruins, so you would expect some ghosts, and the landscape is eerie in places like Kula or Cappadoccia. However, in asking my students about monsters, ghosts, and ghouls – I usually get the answer “We don’t have them in Turkey.” Which just strikes me as pretty weird.

One of my advanced students told me that people don’t like to talk about the supernatural and that may be the cause. This is quite different from Morocco where stories such as Aisha Kondeisha, a ghost Djinn that kills soldiers and lures men from their families are used to scare children.

The only story, thus far that I’ve been able to pry out of my close-mouthed students is that there is apparently some sort of sea monster that lives in Lake Van, a mineral water lake in the far East of Turkey.

Situated at 1719 meters above sea level it receives a few short streams but has no outlet. That is why its waters are unusually rich in sodium carbonate and other salts extracted by evaporation and used as detergents. Swimming in these brackish, “soda” waters, where the only surviving fish is the herring, may result as an original experience, indeed.
Due to the annual inflow, higher than evaporation, the lake level continues to rise: several peninsulas have become islands during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1986-1995 time period a dramatic 2.16 m rise in water level occurred.
There is little left from the original dense wood along its shores. The only remains of ancient woods are in a very small region on the southwestern shore. The intensive pasture of huge Kurdish herds and deforestation for firewood erased even the memory.

So, that is Lake Van, but what about the monster?

I found this story on CNN about the creature.

Sightings of the Lake Van monster were first reported about two years ago, but further evidence was offered on Tuesday: bad quality amateur pictures of something long and dark moving in the middle of the lake.

After each sighting, professional camera crews have rented boats to try to capture the alleged beast clearly on film, but were unsuccessful each time.

The subject became an obsession for 26-year-old Unal Kozak, a Van University teaching assistant who has been talking to eyewitnesses since the first sightings.

Stationing himself at spots where most of the sightings were reported, Kozak says he saw and filmed the so-called monster on three occasions. Kozak also wrote a book on the creature, including drawings of the monster based on the descriptions of some 1,000 witnesses.

He says the creature is about 15 meters (49.5 feet) long. Public opinion is divided over whether the Lake Van monster is a clever hoax to attract visitors to a region that could use some tourist revenue.

The city of Van is in an underdeveloped area of eastern Turkey that for years has lost out to holiday resorts in the west of the country.

The pictures have been sent to Cambridge University for examination, and Jacques Cousteau, the world-famous marine biologist, is expected to visit and examine the lake.

Finally, here is the video footage of the monster.

I have to say, I’m fairly disappointed not to find any kind of legends of tiny people like the Menehune of Hawaii, of creatures like Bigfoot in the Pacific Northwest, like the Pine Tar Creature of New Jersey, or the many ghosts and demons that haunt the UK or surround Lake Toba in Indonesia. I’ll keep searching, but it seems that either Turks won’t talk about their monsters or they are just too practical a people to have such stories.

In any event, I can see why Halloween has a 0% zero impact on Turkey. Most of my students have never even heard of it. However, if you are looking for monsters on your holiday to Turkey, head to Lake Van.

Kukuri, Torbalan, Baba Marta and The Water Bull of Rabisha

This was originally posted in August of 2011 – as Halloween approaches, it seems appropriate to repost.

Bulgarian MONSTERSI’m not sure why, but I’m fascinated by ethnographic monsters. I visit a country and I ask “What kind of monsters do they have?” I’m a big fan of legendary monster stories. In Turkey, I heard about the story of the Lake Van monster and in Morocco, I revel in the stories of jin and Aisha Kandisha. In Bulgaria, I heard about a few new ones. One old guy I asked simply replied “The only monsters we have here are the criminals” – fair enough, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. Another old man on the bus told me about the Loch Ness Monster of Bulgaria which is known as the ‘Water Bull’.

The water bull lives in a Lake Rabisha near Belogradchik, a small picturesque town in the Bulgarian Northwest. You might have actually heard of the town since the now famous Belogradchik Rocks did pretty well in the competition for the New Seven Wonders of the World or because of the Magurata Cave with its prehistoric paintings.

The legend says that a bull-man lives in the lake which was once thought to be bottomless but now is known to be about 40 meters deep. The head of a bull, the body of a man – yes D &D friends – it’s a Minotaur. The story goes that they used to kill off the most beautiful girl to keep the monster at bay. They would row her out in a boat and throw her off of it. Eventually, the most beautiful girl in the world was born there and taken out in the lake where the water bull fell in love with her and they lived happily ever after. It’s a crap ending to a story that includes Bull and a word that sounds a lot like Rubbish, but at least it’s a monster story.

BABA MARTA RIBBONSMy friends Tim and Peppy in Sofia,  told me about Baba Marta. Baba Marta, an old lady with the touch of death. She is like Jack Frost but an angry old woman and if she doesn’t get treated right, the cold Bulgarian winter just keeps on. The sun only comes out when she is happy. Snow is sometimes referred to as the feathers from her mattress.

Each spring Bulgarian girls make ribbons and when they see the first signs of spring they put them on trees or under rocks. This is all to make Baba Marta happy and bring a nice year.
karankolos Bulgarian monster
The monster which sounded the most interesting to me was a tribe of ghouls called Karakoncolos or Kurkeri who stalk people in the dark and then they jump on the victim’s back, causing them to lose their way home. There are annual festivals where people dress up as these monsters and dance.

Bulgarian boogeymanAnd finally there was Torbalan who carries kids away in his pack if they don’t do what their parents tell them to.

 

Do you know of any Bulgarian monsters?

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.

 

 

 

25 Reasons to Avoid Hostels

Polynesian Hostel Beach ClubI wrote this nearly a decade ago – it was one of the most popular posts on the old Vagobond.com – feel free to disagree. I don’t even agree with me at this point. I have not stayed in a hostel since I wrote this, so I hope that things have changed for the better.

I know this might go against the grain with a lot of you, but as someone who has stayed in a lot of hostels, ran hostels, and written about hostels – this is what I have to say.

First of all, here are the main reasons you might choose to stay in a hostel:
1) Cheaper than a hotel – good for budget
2) You want to hook up (or hang around) with foreign women/foreign men
3) Budget group activities/free breakfast

That’s it for the positive as far as I can tell. In my opinion, these are all bullshit. Here are the 25 reasons not to stay in hostels while you travel.

1) They aren’t really that cheap. Generally, you can find a 1 or 2 star hotel for the same price as a bed in a hostel dorm room. In the past few years, hostels have gone way up in price so in many cases if you take the time to look, you can find a private hotel room for less than the cost of a hostel or something even better on AirBnB.

2) If you want to make friends with foreign people you should go with Couschsurfing or AirBnb instead. If you want to have sex with foreigners, there are probably better places to meet them than at hostels.

3) The truly interesting, intrepid, and attractive travelers usually aren’t at hostels. Instead you find boring, cheap, and unattractive in just about any way you can think of people – often not travelers at all, just down and out.

4) Hostels are filled with thieves and creeps. I know, not everyone is a thief or a creep, but as a former hostel manager, I can tell you that there are a lot of both in hostels. If it can be stolen, someone in a hostel has stolen it whether it is food you put in the refrigerator, your laptop, money from a ‘security box’, or your girlfriend. Date rape, by the way is very common in hostels.

Polynesian Hostel Beach Club
5) Rubber sheets. If you like sleeping on rubber sheets – just stay at a hostel. If there aren’t rubber sheets you may want to consider how many drunk pukers, bed wetters, or droolers there have been before you.

6) Bed bugs and other pests. More likely to happen in a hostel than in a well run hotel.

7) Squeaky top or bottom bunks. There’s nothing like sleeping in a bunk bed as an adult and having to wake up every time the person above or below you moves or needs to take a piss.

8) People who snore, fart, or breathe loudly. In hostels you are sharing a room with strangers and you get to know all their bodily sounds and smells intimately.

9) People who turn on the lights while you are sleeping. – My drill instructor used to do that but I don’t want some 20 year old English kid to wake me up that way either.

10) Crappy breakfasts. The breakfast in the Shelby County Jail of Memphis Tennessee consists of white bread, jelly, and tang. That’s pretty much what most hostels offer guests. How much would you pay for that? How much does it cost? $1 or less – is that really worth it?

11) Shitty locations. Out of the way, in bad neighborhoods, or in disgusting buildings. It’s probably worth it to pay a few bucks to avoid these – there are exceptions, but not many.

12) A total lack of privacy.

13) The sound of people’s bags when I am trying to sleep another hour.

14) One television set to a program I don’t want to watch or hear.

15) Drunk teens or 20-somethings – there are websites you can watch drunk teens if that is your thing, me, I’m not amused by them.

16) Rude staff. I don’t know if they get this way because they are used to dealing with people who don’t speak their language or if they become condescending to people with no money, but far too often, hostel staff are rude as hell. It could also be that they are working for no money and so don’t feel they have to be nice.

Polynesian Hostel Beach Club17) Hostel rooms are generally about as cheery as a jail cell and just like a jail cell you don’t get to choose your cell-mates.

18) You won’t meet the locals staying in a hostel. If you do, they are the down and out locals.

19) Filthy bathrooms. Even good hostels have filthy bathrooms after the 4-8 people you share the dorm room with use it. Or, maybe it’s shared with everyone in the hostel…no thank you to gas station toilets.

20) Uncomfortable mattresses. Hostels make a lot of money and they squeeze every penny they can by keeping old uncomfortable (usually cheap to begin with) mattresses.

21) Cigarette and change bummers. I watched a guy bum a cigarette from four different people this morning in 30 minutes.

22) Wankers. Seriously. In hostel dorms…give me a fucking break.

23) Couples sharing a single bunk. Seriously. In a hostel dorm. Give me a fucking break.

24) Pukers. Just tonight (the last time I will stay in a hostel) some kid in the bunk next to mine puked all over himself and made the whole room smell like red wine vomit.

25) Having to navigate around other people’s messes. There are usually lockers so why is there always a huge pile right next to or hanging on the ladder to the top bunk?

Yeah- I’m not 25 anymore. I’m married and not looking to screw some drunk Danish girl or British girl away from home for the first time. I’ve done my share of ‘partying’ and I don’t have much tolerance for it any longer.

The fact of the matter is that a hotel can be cheaper, get you a better night’s sleep, and provide more of everything else too. If each of the above is worth $1 to avoid, then you can add $25 to the $20 you pay for a hostel bed and get a decent 2 or 3 star hotel and buy your own breakfast. Or, if you are really broke, you can just go to jail and get the same experience as being in a hostel cell.

Love Motels in Korea

I haven’t been to Korea since 2012, so things may have changed, but during my first trip there – this was my experience with love motels.

If you’ve been to Korea, you know exactly what I’m talking about. In South Korea there are hotels which are generally pretty expensive, then there are hostels (in bigger cities) which are essentially dormitories and there are motels, also known as ‘Love Motels’ since these are where couples go for romantic weekends, where johns bring hookers, and where budget minded travelers can stay cheaper than the hotels when the hostels aren’t available or you don’t want to stay in a hostel. Another option which is worth exploring is staying at a Korean bath house –  seriously.

 

Korea Love MotelMy first love motel came after the Penis Park and crossing the DMZ in Sokcho to be honest, at this point, I had no idea that Motel in South Korea really means love motel where you can take your woman, park your car, and enjoy sweet love. Or you can arrange to have some love brought to you with the hotel.

All I knew was that for 40,000 Won, I was staying in a big fancy room that not only provided soap, but cologne, toothpaste, a toothbrush, a razor, a big plasma televison, a king size bed, a computer, and a big fancy bathroom. After the rigours of the Penis Park it was good to have a deluxe place to relax.

 

It was only later when I went to Andong and met a teacher there, that I learned about the distinctions in lodging. He explained to me that in Busan, where I was heading next, it was cheapest to stay in the love motels. When I asked what they were, he gave me the details above.

Whereas in Samcheok, it wasn’t obvious to an innocent like me that I was staying in a den of sin, in Busan, it was far too obvious and I walked away from more than one place that had sheets that held pubic hair, the smell of semen heavy in the room, or in a few cases rooms that I thought were cheap only to learn that the price was per six hour period. Even I was able to figure that one out.

Korea Love MotelI stayed in a total of three love motels in Busan which were cheaper than the hostels but loud with the fucking of guests on all sides. In each one, I was given a pouch with a toothbrush, razor, and of course the rooms had cologne and mouthwash. None of them lived up to my first love motel though. That one was special.

 

I like the love motels actually, they are over the top and bizarre. Some of them have amazing themed designs, they have semi dirty films in the rooms, in a couple of them the ladies of the house offered to fetch me some ‘boom boom’ and one I stayed at the lady who managed it was particularly insistant. “I get you Russian girl, okay?” “You want boom boom with Korean?” “You like I get you Swedish?” “Maybe you like boom boom with Filipina?”

 

Korea Love MotelDespite the attractive sounding menu (60,000 Won for the night or 30,000 Won for an hour), I wasn’t feeling like ‘boom boom’ was a particularly good idea and so I said no. The room, however was just 35,000 won which was a great value in Busan where a hostel dorm bed was 40-50,000.

 

The next day, I left the boom boom hotel to look for someplace a little quieter and met an Indian girl named Birgida who was also looking for a cheap love motel, we searched long and hard in the Hondae Beach area but the best price there was 40,000 unless you wanted to smell the sperm of the last resident. The extra money in this case was well spent.

 

My last love motel was the worst one. It was 45,000 and the door didn’t actually lock! While the room was nice and the sheets were clean, the amount of boom boom going on was utterly mind blowing. Korean people don’t show affection on the streets but when they get in the love motels…wow.

Korea Love Motel

Sleeping with Ghosts – London’s Georgian House Hotel

Back in 2012, I was in London, England for the World Travel Market. At the time I was fortunate to be doing a lot of international travel to places like Egypt, Spain, and the Balkans. I determined that I wasn’t going to stay anywhere that wasn’t extraordinary in some way. I found some incredible places – a houseboat on the Thames, an incredibly luxurious hotel with a 007 theme, and a Victorian era house converted into a hotel that is reliably reported as being haunted. For that one, I have to give credit to my friend Matthew, who made the recommendation for me. I’ve heard that since that time, Georgian House has turned into a Harry Potter themed hotel! I may have to go back.

I’m very happy to re-share the story of the Georgian House Hotel.

Haunted Hospitality at an incredibly good price!

Georgian HouseThe building that houses the Georgian House Hotel dates back to the mid 19th century and has a certain elegant and timeless feel to it. I would imagine it was haunted even if I didn’t know it only because all of old London feels like a scary old horror film to me. Don’t misunderstand me though – it’s lovely and well maintained.

Since I was there at one of the busier times of the year, most hotels were charging a minimum of a few hundred GBP per night for a room, but I was extremely surprised to find that I could stay at Georgian House for just 69 GBP per night for a room that didn’t have a toilet ensuite. It had a sink, coffee service, TV, internet, and a very comfy bed, but the toilet and shower were two steps out the door across the hallway.  Incredibly convenient even if I had to open my door and the price – magnificent.

My favorite part of the Georgian House Hotel? The breakfast. While there is a buffet, the breakfast menu is cooked to order. Eggs Benedict, salmon and cream cheese bagel – yeah – that’s my kind of place.

Georgian HouseI was lucky to come back after an open house and got to drink champagne with the staff and owner, Serena one night. They told stories about the ghosts and I got to learn that the building had been in Serena’s family for a long time.

As for the ghosts…the house  is haunted by several ghosts, including that of an unknown man who has been seen in one the basement staff rooms.  Serena said that the staffer woke with the man sitting on the end of her bed but then he got up and walked out. The staffer came down asking who had come in her room the night before but found out that she had the only key and the door was locked.

Whether or not this is the same ghostly figure that has been seen in the kitchen and one of the top floor bedrooms (#11 if you dare) is unknown.

Georgian HouseSuffice it to say he, or they, are harmless spirits who are more than content to appear for a few fleeting moments and then be gone as they go about  their business. Serena has no idea who they might be since the houses were formerly apartments and they no longer have the records for who lived there.

The ghosts of two children have also been seen flitting about the upper floors. They first appeared when a guest on the next floor down came to reception to complain about the noisy children playing above him. On that night, there were no guests on the top floor!  On another occasion Serena says that she spoke to them when they appeared and assured them that they were welcome to visit on the upper floors only. Sadly, they didn’t show while I was there.  I would have liked to have seen them.

This is a lovely old hotel in central London, not too far from Queen Charlotte Station and a nice walk away from many of the major sites. In addition to the basic rooms on the top floor, there doubles with ensuite, and apartments for families. I highly recommend this lovely old hotel – ghosts and all.

To book a room, you can visit http://www.georgianhousehotel.co.uk/. Tell them Vago sent you to see the ghosts.

Shrooming with The Naked Gourmet at Scenic Hot Springs near Seattle

This happened ages ago back in the late 1990s, but it’s still one of the most enjoyable naked drug experiences I’ve  had – I know, I don’t get out as much as I should. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed living it. 

Shroomin at the Hotsprings with the Naked Gourmet

Scenic Hot Springs is off of  Highway 2 near Snoqualmie between Seattle and Everett.  We hiked two miles vertically and finally reached the hot springs where about a dozen people were nudely soaking and reveling despite the snow, the icy slick trail, and the difficult hike. By the time we got there, it was dark.

Scenic hot springsSomeone there offered us some psychedelic mushrooms  almost as soon as we arrived and so we settled into the natural hot spring tubs with an expectation of the unexpected. Just as the shrooms began to kick, which I think was faster than normal because we were soaking in the hot pools, Robert, the naked gourmet arrived.

A Puerto Rican man in his 40’s who reached fame through traveling to different hot springs and cooking incredible gourmet treats for those lucky enough to be there. He was, of course, naked, as were we. Everybody was – this, after all was a wilderness hotspring in the Pacific Northwest.

Before he cooked, Robert explained the hierarchy of the hot springs to everyone there.

“There is a class system here” he said, “It goes like this. This place and this energy is a result of Goddess. So first in the hierarchy are the goddesses who come here. Whatever they want, they get. Here they are not girls or women, they are Goddesses and I exist to serve. ” The beautiful girls in the tub with us murmured in delight.

“Next come those who serve Goddess and the Goddesses who visit. So this young man,” he indicated a dark youth with a secure energy about him who was happily massaging a Goddess’s shoulders. “He is next because he helped me carry my gear up the mountain and he is really pleasing this Goddess. After that come the rest of the guys.”

The shrooms started reshaping my reality and the snow-capped peak directly across from us began sort of bow and kow-tow to me while the trees began to giggle. Faces and words began to blend into each other and I thought of how the whirling dervish spins so reality blurs together and God can be seen in totality. My reality was blurring into the steam rising into the clouds and the stars that were not there dancing among those that were.

Scenic hot springs

One of the boys brought out a pipe and propane lighter. We shared his weed. I was intensely reflecting inward while I sat in the corner. Sitting in a bucket looking at my bucket. The Goddesses were lovely and the water was divine at just the right heat. A light snow began to fall.

Robert pontificated pleasantly from the pool called The Lobster Pot and I settled into a comfortable corner of another calledThe Bear’s Den. The dark boy and his Goddess were next to me; they were very comforting and real. The Naked Gourmet served up a delicious treat with orange slices that I tasted with my ears and felt with my nose.

Goddesses first, then helpers, and then the guys. Strange things still blurred the corners of my vision.

Two very drunk teenage Goddesses came and got in the Bear’s Den with me. They both had huge bottles of beer. I struggled to hold on to the center as their much older boyfriends came and got in with them. Let the molesting begin…

I felt an urge to speak but each time I tried, I realized, I fit in better being quiet. The Goddess and her dark servant moved to the Lobster Pot and the drunk young Goddesses squealed in delight at the extra room. I felt like I was going to be soaking in their boyfriend’s sperm soon so I moved to the Lobster Pot.

Roberts’s constant patter about the adventures of the Naked Gourmet  allowed me to simply listen and exist in my own world. Each time someone got out of the pool, we all shifted to a more comfortable spot. Slowly faces became distinguishable and words took on meaning. The visual died away and I returned to the somewhat Valhallalike world of Scenic Hot Springs.

The Naked Gourmet cooked in the snow and then turned from his makeshift kitchen with quesadillas and more orange slices.

Scenic hot springsShortly afterward he began packing his enormous load of gear into a sled and set off yelling “For those of you here tomorrow, I’ll be back for brunch!”

I stayed in the Lobster Pot for the next 6 hours or so, only getting out once to take an enormous pee in a downhill snowdrift.

About 3:00 AM, my friends and I dressed as needle like snowflakes flogged our mineral bathed skins. The hike down the mountain was a slick ride on one foot while crouched in the easy parts and treacherous ice in the flatter areas.

I thought my trip was still going on as a loud buzzing got near deafening and I looked up to see the purplish blue wires coursing up and down the mountain with an eerie ionic glow.

My friend saw me looking and said “Isn’t that a trip?”

“You mean it’s real?” I asked.

“Yeah, freaky huh?”

I thought about the strange effects all of that electromagnetic energy must be having on my brain, nervous system, and body as I lived among it every day…the same as standing under the same power lines in a city…the thought made me shudder.

 

Advice from a Vagabond – The Best Advice I’ve Ever Given

I had an email from a 16-year old vagabond back in 2010 asking me for advice about how to live his life and ‘escape from the cave’. This is what I told him. I stand by this advice today. I wonder what happened to him?

Bierre Damitio
This is my advice. It’s hard to say for sure, because I don’t know you, but this is the advice I wish someone had given me.

1) Understand that it’s all a rip off. It’s all a rip off that is trying to take your time. You and everyone else has a limited amount of time. We will die, for sure. The biggest traps for me were booze and drugs. Fun, but oh, I wish I had that time back. I could have been camping, hitching, or writing! I could have been fucking! Instead I was wasting my time and my money.

2) College is great. I waited until I was in my 30s, but it would have been cool to do it before. Just get someone else to pay for it. The ideas, the experiences…and the girls. Go to college but do yourself a favor and get scholarships, it’s worth it to put some extra hours in studying to get the grades in high school, since they allow you to get a free ride. If not, focus on any scholarship you can.

3) Take short trips whenever you can. Weekend trips fill the gap between summer months on the road. Go everywhere even if it is only ten miles away.Don’t miss the Grand Canyon because you live in Arizona, know what I mean? The close things are often as cool or cooler than the far ones.

4) Take time to write. Start a blog. Learn to do basic coding.

5) Don’t undervalue your time. Ask for more money and then work harder. Make it clear to employers that you are not ordinary. Do a kick ass job every time.

6) Don’t waste your money. Booze and drugs are expensive. Cars are expensive. Fancy clothes are expensive. Worthless women are expensive. Spend your money on the things that matter and save the rest for your adventures.

7) Women. Write down exactly what you want. It’s only then you will find her. I mean exactly. Height, hair, hobbies, qualities. She is there. Don’t settle.

8) Know when someone will refuse to lose an argument and don’t waste your time. Just say, I see what you are saying and move on.

9) A good friend has these five qualities. 1) You can trust them with money 2) They won’t judge you 3) You can trust them with your woman 4) You can trust them with a secret 5) They are there when you need them. Don’t waste your time on anyone who doesn’t have these qualities. When you find a good friend, be all of the above.

10) Write your own ten commandments. Know your morals and refuse to budge.

I hope this helps. Being in the cave sucks, but it’s got no door on it. Just walk out.

All the best,
~Vago

The Glaoui (Glaoua) Palace in Fes, Morocco

Slightly outside of the UNESCO classified Fes Medina, you will probably miss something extraordinary, unless you take the time to go and look for it. The Dar al Glaoui, the Glaoui Palace, a crumbling reminder that power is fleeting.

While a lot of people mention Paul Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky as the ultimate in capturing the essence of Morocco, for me, it was a different book that succeeded in capturing not only the Moroccan mentality, but also the soul of the country itself. Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas: The Rise and Fall of the House of Glaoua 1893-1956 is perhaps the ultimate in coming to understand Morocco.

Consider this review from The Library Journal

British author Maxwell accomplishes the twofold task of detailing the daily life, customs, and rituals in pre-independence Morocco and of recounting the rise and fall of El Hadj T’hani El Glaoui, the legendary tribal warlord through whom the French ruled one of their prize colonies in North Africa. Maxwell, who died in 1969, considered himself an explorer and wrote of faraway places; here he introduces readers to the harshness and beauty of Morocco. He shows how the blend of Berber, Arab, and black African races created an extraordinary cultural mosaic and explains how the French colonialists recruited the Atlas Mountain tribal warlords to subdue the other tribes.

As the chief beneficiary of this policy, El Glaoui was able to rule most of southern Morocco in an absolute fashion, until Morocco’s independence from France in 1956 brought an end to the rule of a very colorful warlord.

At times it is necessary to remind yourself that not only is this a true story, but that most of the events portrayed took place in the 1900’s! It is a fantastic account of the power behind the French Protectorate, and a reminder that politics has always been a filthy business. Anyone planning a visit, or who has been to Morocco, especially the Glaoui kasbahs of the High Atlas, should read this book, as should fans of bloody, political intrigue.

I should point out though that the book has more than a few critics who generally say something like this: “If you want a book singing the praises of a few thugs who made good during the French mandate (Primarily on prostitution) A book filled with unsupported (And frankly slanderous) comments, a book written by a man who clearly doesn’t know the first thing about Morocco, Islam or Arab culture and a book that’s basically a rip off from someone else’s then this really is the book for you. ”

After all that, hands down, this is my favorite touristic destination in Fes. It’s not as well kept as the Batha Museum, not as grand and glorious as the Karaouyine Mosque, not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries, but there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.

The palace is owned by 14 families who have fallen on hard times in Marrakech and France but is lived in and taken care of by Abdou, an artist. He was born there and lives there with his sister. He is the third generation born there and while not a Glaoui, he is happy to be there and try to keep it from falling in on itself.

The palace is generally closed to the public but usually open to the public via Abdou and his sister who are happy to show you around the 150-year-old palace comprised of 17 houses, stables, a mausoleum and cemetery, Quranic school, hammam, garages and two large gardens. While generally the tour is composed of seeing a few salons, the haram, the massive kitchen and a few of the courtyards, it is possible to see a bit more if you are careful and polite and the weather lines up for you.

Apparently, the palace complex is for sale for several million dollars. A steal for anyone who gets it since it would be like owning your own miniature al-Hambra (which it was actually designed after). The entire house is a masterpiece of painted wood, zellij (mosaic tile), carved wood, fountains, and also the first modern bathroom to ever be built in North Africa complete with original plumbing.

If you do buy it – try to get a few of Abdou’s paintings thrown in. Total hidden treasure. I would tell you how to get there, but it would be a waste of time, because you would get lost and have to ask someone anyway – so, just go to Batha and start asking people how to find Abdou and the Glaoui Palace – they’ll know exactly where you mean.

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….

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