Monday, June 29, 2009

Chefchaouen

"Ou est la... um..."

I wasn't sure what to ask for. I needed to find the part of town with the cheap hotels. Two taxi drivers, seated on a wall outside their cabs, waited for me to finish.

"...Hotel Madrid? Ou est Hotel Madrid?" I made a snap decision. I'd stay at a place I'd seen in my guidebook.

"Directo." They both motioned straight ahead.

Oh.

I walked straight on, the heavy bag slowing my normal clip. A block later, I came to medina walls. I hesitated.

"Can I help you?" A young man walking by, who for whatever reason I trusted instantly and knew was not a tout, slowed down just enough to get me walking along next to him.

"Is this the way to Hotel Madrid?"

"Yes, come on. I will show you. I work at Hotel Marrakesh, right up the hill."

He walked me to the hotel, not even the one he worked at, and along the way managed to invite me to a concert.

"We have a big concert at three in the morning. We are like Spain in this way."

"I'm sorry. It's been a long day. I won't be awake at three."

He smiled and shrugged. My loss.

Hotel Madrid put me on a 4th floor walk-up. Just like home. I showered quickly in the pink bedroom, tried to figure out what the time difference was with Spain, and then headed out for food. The hotel clerk directed me up a hill, also marking up an internet cafe on the map he gave me.

Up the hill was not THE entrance to the medina, but it was one entrance to the medina. The right one for a tourist new in town. This entrance to the medina opened onto a cobblestone open space, lined with shops and restaurants. Chefchaouen (just called SHA-wen, really) is a gorgeous, atmospheric, whitewashed little town with pale blue accents. In the center was a kasbah-turned-museum, and the main square was fed by dozens of small pale blue alleys.

Beautiful.

I collapsed into a chair at the first outdoor restaurant I saw, ordered a tagine, and watched tourists and locals wander the main square of the Chaouen medina.

More photos of Chefchaouen here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Camel, It's What's for Dinner



A butcher in the Fez medina is selling camel meat today.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Fun with Overland

I'm a tremendous advocate of local transport. It's how you meet normal people, non-tourist local citizenry in foreign countries. I've been singing this song for years. "Get on the bus. Get in the share taxi."

But you know, I sometimes forget how utterly inconvenient local transport can be.

Yesterday, I was reminded.

I got up at five, packed up, showered, and got out of the apartment by 7 a.m. Left the keys on the kitchen table, put on the big old backpack (lighter than usual), grabbed my garbage (part of the deal with the apartment is that you have to take out the trash when you leave), pulled the door shut behind me after mentally going over each one of my possessions (phone? Laptop? Extra shoes?) and headed to the metro.

I dropped the trash off in one of Barcelona's Dalek-looking trash cans en route.

Down the stairs into the metro. Old knees aren't what they used to be once I throw on that pack.

I took the train one stop then walked a block to the airport bus. Up the stairs to the bus, pack off and onto the luggage rack, wait 35 minutes or so while the bus goes to the airport, back on goes the pack, down the stairs, into the airport, off goes the pack onto a wheeled cart.

I got to the Clickair line. Ugh, what a mess. Clickair is the budget brand of Spain's Iberia airline and they were a check-in nightmare. Worthless signage. Masses of clueless customers milling about. Took me ages to get through the "Web Check-in, Baggage Drop-off Only" line.

I'd been aiming to fly on jet4you.com when I decided to fly out of Barcelona. It was only 20 euros from Barcelona to Tangier, Morocco, when I started trying to buy a ticket. It had gone up to 60 euros a few days later, after I'd been repeatedly shut out at the credit card stage. I'd both called the airline on Skype (and butchered both French AND Spanish in a single call), and e-mailed (receiving a BS response that my card(s) must be over limit—certainly not, and I'd tried several). I finally gave up on the old Mac and went to an internet cafe. I made more progress with a PC but still my card couldn't get through.

I've had this problem before. I called my card company and they weren't even getting the ping to accept or reject the card. It's to do with how the address is laid out on the web form, and how a USA address is structured.

Anyway, I gave up once I realized the only way to get on that plane was to give my credit card number to my Moroccan subordinate and have him call, or to ask a European friend to use the site. Enough already. Getting through to jet4you.com proved harder than dealing with multiple inconveniences for a whole day.

Or so I thought at the time.

Back in Barcelona, Clickair finally got me processed and onto the plane to Malaga. That's a city on Spain's southern coast. I disembarked there and had to choose: commuter rail to bus (39 minutes), then 2-hour bus ride to Algeciras with just a 4-minute change window? Or city bus to bus station and take the 1 hour, 45 minutes direct bus?

I caught the city bus. And when I got downtown, it turned out the bus was running at 12:30, not noon as it said on the website.

Okay, noon it is. Should be there by 1:45, plenty of time to catch the 3 p.m. ferry to Ceuta. That's a Spanish enclave on the Moroccan coast. I'd catch a taxi to the border, walk across, and take share taxis to Chefchaouen. I'd be there in just a few hours.

Or not.

The bus was delayed by traffic. I got off the bus at 2:40. Yikes.

I could see the port from the bus station. I hustled down there and passed by an agent's office on the way.

"Will I make the three o'clock?"

"No way. But there is another ferry at 4:30 to Ceuta. And a 5 p.m. one from Tarifa, but it goes to Tangier."

"Are you sure?"

"Absolutely. It's not possible. It's more than ten minutes walk from here, still."

Okay. He was right.

"There's nothing sooner."

"Yes, but it is the slow ferry. It arrives after the fast ferry."

"Are you sure I won't make the 3 p.m.?"

"Sure. Take the one to Tangier. There are more transportation options from there."

I did as he suggested. A bus took me to Tarifa, where I boarded a ferry with what seemed like hundreds of Moroccan women, all making an awful lot of noise. I retreated to an upper deck full of tourists.

I was running really late now.

Through the magic of time zones, I arrived shortly after 5. I steeled myself for an onslaught of touts and taxi drivers.

It wasn't so bad. I was fleeced by a taxi driver who suggested 5 euros was the going rate for going anywhere in Tangier. I knew it wasn't but didn't have the energy to haggle. We stopped at an ATM and then he dropped me at the gare routiere—bus station.

"Sorry, the 6 p.m. bus to Chaouen is sold out."

Crap.

I went to all the bus companies. The next bus was at 8.

So I caught a bus to Tetuoan, which is an hour in the right direction.

The bus crawled over the steep, windy mountains. NOT an hour.

I stepped off the bus about five minutes after the last bus to Chaouen had left for the night.

I caught a taxi to the "grand taxi" station. That just means shared taxi.

For 30 dirhams, I was crammed into the back of a Mercedes sedan with three others. That's normal. Four in the back seat, two and a driver in the front. You can buy two seats for yourself, but I hadn't worked out yet that this was normal and desirable.

Two healthy-sized women and one skinny buy were in the back seat with me. It was cramped and awful. I thought my foot was going to fall off from being asleep for so long.

Finally, the taxi pulled up to a public square in Chaouen.

Now what?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Doesn't Look So Tasty Though

What is interesting here--besides my problems trying to type on a Moroccan keyboard--is that the sculptures in these photos are made out of chocolate.

They are all at the Museum of Chocolate that I went to in Barcelona yesterday.

Today was a long day of metro, airport bus, plane, city bus, intercity bus, walking, another bus, ferry, taxi, bus, share taxi, and finally walking again. Time for some sleep. A nice young man invited me to a 3 a.m. concert. Afraid he's on his own.




Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shopping at BCN

In the weird-but-true department...

I was just in a Barcelona boutique and I stumbled over a Daniel Johnston "Hi, How Are You" frog T-shirt.

People who have known me a long time will remember I wore one of these frequently some 15 years or so ago. I still have it, but I'm not so into boxy T-shirts, so it sits in a bag along with my Tattoo You concert shirt, my Slacker T-shirt, and my Otis Ball T-shirt from the early 90s. Or whenever it was.

Daniel is way more popular now than he was in the early 90s, but here's the weird part.

The shirt is branded as a Kurt Cobain shirt. Cuz he was seen wearing one on a number of occasions.

That seems a little odd to me.

(I'm just trying to distract everyone from my shopping expedition here. I bought 9 shirts today. None of them "Hi, How Are You.")

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Back in BCN

I'm in the same group of flats as I was in when I was here in March.

But I have the apartment next door.





Being Uncool in a Cool World

I love those little inflatable neck pillows for plane rides. They're awesome.

You know the ones I mean. They look awful. Nothing stupider-looking than a grown man, just interrupted from sleep, standing up to let someone out of his aisle, and he's wearing an inflatable pillow around his neck.

Okay, there is one thing stupider-looking. That would be me, on the way home from Kuwait, with a blue inflatable pillow that kept deflating. Once an hour, it would squish down to the point where I'd wake up, and I'd blow it up again and go back to sleep.

I threw that one away and used a different one last night on the flight to Barcelona.

So WHY am I so fond of these pillows?

Your mouth stays shut and your neck doesn't flop over.

But I am careful to take mine off when I stand up.

Monday, June 22, 2009

It Never Fails, or Rather, It's Failing

The *&^&%$% refrigerator has a clogged drain.

What am I talking about?

Symptoms: Internal condensation. Freezing food in the 'fridge part, though I haven't touched the controls.

This happened to me at my old place, where I paid a guy to come over and fix it. In that case, the drain line had frozen water in it somehow. I boiled water and the guy poured it in and unclogged the drain.

Simple. But I cannot remember what he took apart to get to the drain line or how much water came out. And this might not be frozen water blocking the drain--it might be dust, dirt, my hair, cat hair from the previous tenants, or a combination of the above.

The question then is this.

I'm flying out tomorrow night. Do I just leave it and hope nothing leaks so bad that the tenants downstairs get a soggy roof or do I stay home from work and call the appliance guy though I'm about to be out of work for more than a week?

I guess there's not really any question. I'll be working from home in the morning.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Moving Right Along

If you've been reading the comments, you already know I was planning to take the room at the Dar El Hana. I sent in my Paypal deposit today! I'm psyched.

The trip is going to go something like this:

-Barcelona for a few days, stay in same flat as in March.
-Fly to Malaga, Spain. Train-bus combo to Algeciras port.
-Ferry to either Tangier or Ceuta.
-Bus or share taxi to Chefchaouen.
-Cheap hotel overnight in Chefchaouen.
-Bus or share taxi to Fez.
-Later in the week, either an overnight train to Marrakesh or day trains broken up in Rabat.
-Couple of days in Marrakesh.

This place in Marrakesh has sale rooms for 30 euros a night right now, but I haven't looked around enough yet to know if I want to stay there or if I want to get somewhere closer to the center, or maybe even a newish hotel with a pool.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Room in Fez?

Should I take it? Should I blow the budget?

I've been clicking around for days, making a list of hotels and small restored homes (riads) in Fez. I want something cheap. I don't want anything skanky. I want wi-fi. Hot water. And I don't want anyone in my face. Anonymity is essential for a solo traveler like me. I value the ability to disappear.

The best combinations of cheap and decent are so far the places I found on this site. Some of them look just fine.

And then I stumbled over the reviews for Dar Al Hana on TripAdvisor. 60 Excellent. Hmmmm. And the owner offered me a discount. And heck, she's Australian. I was almost Australian once.

But I hate to spent an addition $150 over three nights if I'd get something similar half the price.

Tempted. I think I'll do it. What would you do?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Maniac Laugh

"WAAAHHHHHHH!"

"What'd I do?"

The 11-month-old infant that comes along with my friend Rai was crying loudly at me. They're both here visiting this week. I'm not much good with kids, but I didn't think I'd done anything.

"Nothing. He just gets upset when people laugh."

Really?

I am trying hard to look stern and cool now.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

I'd Better Stop Sleeping, Then

Once again, I've backed myself into a corner. I'm making graduation gifts, burning DVDs of a group trip from '96, trying to plan a trip to Morocco that starts—er—next week, about to host a friend and her baby for a week (and trying to get the laundry done and house clean for this), and trying to write an overview of travel graphic novels for PerceptiveTravel.com (there are a lot more of these than I realized).

All this is to be done in my "spare" time when I'm not frantically trying to edit comics. Which would go easier on me if I had a large staff of people who did licensing, color setups, and file processing. Old Marvel is looking real good to me now, with its organized infrastructure and large number of specialists.

The key, I think, is to cut back on time sleeping.

I'm going to need a louder alarm clock.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

We (Heart) JC—and the Heights Too



Kraiger spotted this sign in a store window up in JC Heights. I have enough evil eye products already, but let me know if you need the address of this shop and I'll check with Kraiger.

And last night, Denise and I stumbled onto an excellent Tunisian restaurant near the Journal Square Ramada Inn. I don't even know the name of it, but it's near the V.I.P. Diner, on the corner of Sip and... hell, I don't know. Romaine? Van Wagenen? It used to be a fried chicken place. The owner made us try all kinds of foods, and when he served us mint tea, I asked if he would then try to sell us a carpet. To his credit, he laughed instead of throwing us out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

An Overnight in Paris


I've been to Paris three times before. Once two decades ago, the Other Marie had a job where she got free standby tickets to Paris. We went for the weekend on now-defunct Tower Air, in the top bubble of a 747. We stayed in a cheap place in the Latin Quarter where showers down the hall were extra. We both went without. I wasn't so brave back then.

Years later, I straggled into the Republique neighborhood at the end of MariesWorldTour.com, by overnight train from Milan. I'd booked Hotel de l'Exposition on a discount website. The Internet was still used by a minority of people and discount sites still offered genuine discounts, instead of the same product all the other sites offered. I paid $60 a night for a decent room, but same as most small hotels in Paris, it was tiny and nothing special.

The last time I went—in 2004—I avoided staying overnight. I was living in Barcelona and had a round-trip ticket on Ryanair. For $40, I went to and from Paris for the day. I started at 5, walking to the now-defunct Ryanair bus, and got home at two in the morning.

Long day.

This time, I'm stopping overnight on the way home from Morocco. I tried to get a flight connection on the same day but it would have been cutting the times too close.

I checked the Hotel de l'Exposition site. 75 euros. That's US$ 105.

Hmmm. Surely I can get a nicer place for that amount of money. But there are a lot of wretched, crappy hotels in Paris. How to avoid bedbug-central and get something decent, clean, and cheap?

Many major Western cities have this crappy hotel room problem. New York. London. I get around it both of those places by using Priceline after checking rates on biddingfortravel.com. Those in the know who need real bargains can get luxury hotels by Heathrow for about $60, or in downtown JC for $80. One byproduct of these economic times is that you can get a nice hotel room in Manhattan right now for $100 on Priceline. My last trip to London, I netted a centrally located Holiday Inn for $63.

What's the secret location in Paris?

I posed the question to my Facebook pals.

No one knew the answer to that, but people gave me many ideas for nice hotels. Unfortunately, most of them were still over 100 euros each ($140). Yow. That's too much for a place to sleep en route to somewhere else.

I had tried different Priceline combinations for two days when finally I hit it: $90 for a nice-looking Novotel.

It's still over a hundred bucks once I include the fees but alas, Paris ain't cheap.

Here are the places that were recommended to me:

Hotel Bonaparte. Steve says: "Nice place, great location, around the corner from St. Sulpice, and directly across from Pierre Herme and his INCROYABLE pastries!"

Hôtel du Lys. Martha says: "Fantastic old building near Place St. Michel Metro. Convenient and had nice breakfast. Walking distance to Notre Dame."

Hotel Royal Phare. Mom says: "We stayed here in 2000... it was quaint, close to the Eiffel Tower and cheap ... looks like it is more now but check your bargain sources."

Hotel Louvre Richelieu. Steve says: "Near the Louvre and Palais Royale on the Right Bank. Lots on new sushi and noodle places have opened up in this neighborhood in recent years..."

Denise likes Hotel Grande Ecoles, but has also heard good things about "the weird hospital place."

I saw some promising options on TripAdvisor.com:
Hotel Valadon
Acacias Etoile Hotel
Hotel Tourisme
Hotel Louvre Forum

Last, I stumbled over these informative sites, but did not have to use them.
Paris on a Budget
Cheap Paris hotel booking engine. Really cheap, not like laterooms.com or lastminute.com.

If you have a recommendation to add, please click on "Comments." I hope Steve will share his apartment booking source here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Quote of the Day

Paul—the trip leader that led my Bolivia group (he let me step on his head for the salt flat photos, if you recall that)—posted these words to live by on his Facebook page. It's a quote from a random guy he met in a bar in Ecuador.

"Asi es la vida y yo vendo perros."

Such is life and I sell dogs.

Indeed.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The PC - Not So PC

I was just digging around for photos of the hotel that was just bombed in Peshawar, Pakistan. I was there in 1998 and it turns out I didn't take any photos of the hotel.

Which isn't surprising, I guess. Who takes photos of hotels?

So you'll have to take my word for it that this was a fine place. I did not stay in the Pearl Continental. I couldn't afford it. The PC sits above one of those have/have not divides, the grand mansion on the hill that one must dress well and carry funds to be admitted to. My friend Nikki and I went to lunch there. The PC was a welcome, air-conditioned vacation from the hubbub of the marketplaces of Peshawar.

There weren't many Internet cafes in 1998 when I was in Pakistan. But the PC had a computer or two. I don't remember the details now but I remember using their e-mail service and sending a note out to my e-mail list. There was no blogger then, of course. I can't even remember if there was a Yahoo mail yet. Hotmail was all the rage. I was still on AOL.

I remember the speed of the dial-up being excruciatingly slow, and I am pretty sure I had a sandwich on toasted sliced bread in the PC cafe. The hotel was an oasis of calm in the middle of a particularly chaotic trip through Nepal, India, and Pakistan.

I've stopped in for coffee, bathrooms, services, and Internet at luxury hotels around the world. They always seem so safe with their fences, security guards, and metal detectors...

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Passive Travel

I would like to say I've been thinking about where to go for several days. Morocco? Tunisia? Transylvania?

But I've barely given it a thought. It was reunion weekend for a group of people who worked together 20-ish years ago at a certain major comic book publishing company, which means not just a party, but also that I had to re-edit a 21-year-old video for the occasion. Then had a houseguest, which equals whirlwind of social activity and the eradication of that routine I was just complaining about. I'm tired and ready for a long nap. But instead it's time for work. Which I'm also behind on.

Last night, I bought a one-way ticket from Marrakesh to Paris on easyJet. It was cheap and that seemed as good a reason as any to make a decision. So it seems I'm off to Morocco in a few weeks. I let the option on the GAP trip expire, so it seems I'm on my own.

Of course, I don't have a a ticket TO Morocco yet...

Friday, June 05, 2009

Driven to Extremes

I've been bored for a few months. There's nothing like really hunkering down and working, living in repetition, wake, work, eat, sleep, wake, work, eat, sleep.

It's enough to drive a girl to drinking. If I were a drinker. It's a good thing I'm not or I'd be drunk non-stop.

I do keep myself busy. Too busy. I pack a lot into every single day, but I need more of kayaking Bannerman Castle style activities, more of the handbag-creating, and less of the tail-chasing variety.

I saw some junk mail yesterday from Flying Blue. I got some points with Air France some years back when I took Air India, and then got more points when I went on a press trip on Kenya Airways. I accumulated 15,000 and then promptly forgot the frequent flyer program existed.

After taking another look yesterday, I noticed a 50% off mileage sale. Huh. 25,000 miles to get me to and from Europe. Howaboutthat. I'd like to go to Europe. That's not true. I'd like to go anywhere. It livens up my brain to see new things. Europe would be a decent diversion.

So I transferred over some miles from my Amex and spent hours clicking and clicking until I finally scored. I head out the night of June 23rd.

But I can't really afford to stay in Europe for 11 days. So I think I'm going to Morocco. There's a $599 GAP trip for 8 days, but maybe I'll just go alone. On the fence. Going with GAP means packing a whole lot into a short time and being forced to learn a thing or two from local guides. It would offer me protection from the onslaught of aspiring "guides" in Morocco. But then... I could just wander around a bit on my own, buy some tagines, and head back to Europe.

Whaddaya think? Group or solo?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

1986 Photo Class







I was scanning in some black-and-white negatives from 1986 or 1987, from a roll I must have been finishing off during photography class.

Found these. I never even printed them. I don't know what I was trying to do or why I thought this might be interesting, but here's a quick look at Marie at age 20 in her apartment on Glen Street in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Lowering the Bar







I put this up about a year ago, but since then I've learned more about embedding things in the page. So this time, my little skeleton "beer and a mop" animation won't crash your computer.