Thursday, July 30, 2009

Choo-Choo Photos

I'm running out early to get Henry the 1990 Ford Taurus his yearly oil change and check-up.

I am aware that an oil change a year isn't ideal.

In other transportation news, my Morocco train photos are up on the Seat61 site! That's the top resource on the web—and probably anywhere—for international train travel.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Past Lives: 1989

Stuart picked up some back issues at San Diego Con, and sent me something he found in a 1989 issue. Ha.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Shopping in Fez

Here are some things that I saw for sale in Fez.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

We're #1!

Remember a while back when JC starred as the answer to a question put to John Waters on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me?"

We were described as the most corrupt city in the US. But the examples cited were mostly historic, from the time of Mayor Hague.

We took back the title for the modern era this past week, when Hudson County and JC were all over the news. Money laundering! Bribery! Syrian Jews selling kidneys! Hoboken's newly elected 32-year-old mayor on the take from developers in the parking lot of the Malibu Diner!

Shocking. Not the charges. That the parking problem in Hoboken is so severe that people have to meet at the Malibu Diner—which has its own parking lot, convenient for exchanging money in car trunks—in order to be on the take.

To me, there are multiple issues afoot, some of them practically meaningless and many utterly disconnected from the rest. Why charge a kidney commerce guy at the same time as someone on the take from developers for purposes of financing a campaign? Looks to me like all they have in common is the same informant, and by tying all this up neatly on the same day, there ends up being an unstated illicit connection between the mayor of Hoboken and some guy buying kidneys from Israel.

Which, near as I can tell from the mess of revelations of the past week, there isn't any connection. It's two separate issues, all charged at once to create some kind of massive "SOPRANOS WAS A DOCUMENTARY" headline.

I am laughing as much as every other Hudson County resident. Us Jerseyites have a thick skin when it comes to being embarrassed about our home. We have to. Ben Franklin purportedly made the first Jersey joke and they haven't let up since.

Not only am I laughing, I am perversely proud. Though it shames me that Hoboken took the title of most ridiculous mayor, which we have held since ours 1) released a Christmas CD 2) ended up in cuffs in Bradley Beach 3) was photographed drunk and naked on his front porch. Nevertheless, we historically win that one as we had the mayor who wouldn't step down though he was in jail in '92, and we had Hague, so we cumulatively kick Hoboken's ass all the way back to Frank Sinatra Drive.

I am also like other residents of Hudson County: "Take that! You sold us out to the developers! You sacrificed the wants of your citizens for the deep pockets of developers! I've seen that video where all but two of you gutted the historic Powerhouse District with its ancient warehouses and cobblestone streets in favor of new highrises!"

And yet.


It's going to be a long time before the entire story makes sense but Syrian Jews aside, many of the charges seem to be penny-ante stuff about campaign finance. This is a complicated national issue which I can't claim to understand, but there are various shades of legality and as long as there are lobbyists and large corporations able to buy votes in our national government, I'm going to find it hard to get upset over a local politician promising favoritism to a developer in exchange for some campaign funds.

Yes, of course this is serious stuff. Yes, of course JC and Hoboken have been sold to the highest-bidders in heinous ways. (Yes, there are good developers too who consider the needs of zoning and the surrounding communities.)

But my point is this.

1) Why now? Does it have anything to do with this Bush-appointed US attorney for the fine state of NJ running against the current governor (who I am ambivalent about, though I know he does not wear his seatbelt), and in fact, hey, look, the new Obama guy comes in soon? And it's a matter of public record that Gonzales did some questionably partisan things as far as replacing United States attorneys.

2) Why is our system so ridiculous that it costs so much to run a campaign? It's not like they were taking money to buy a cool new yacht. It was about campaign finance, for f*ck's sake. I find this a gray, baffling, poisonous topic and I seriously doubt the founding fathers intended for the candidate with the most money to win.

I loved the news coverage this past week and I enjoy a good show. I want JC citizens to finally have a voice and not to feel like the developers always win. I want my local (not-on-the-take) councilman, who seems like a decent guy, to run and win for mayor and to go on to bigger-and-better things. But the idea that it is actually just partisan politics as usual, a witch-hunt dressed up to put on a phenomenal show that involves kidneys and money laundering, when in fact it doesn't, makes me a lot less thrilled with the inherent humor in events on the home front.

Not so funny after all. But the tide is sweeping in along the Hudson River...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Yummy Dinners in Morocco

Here are some of the delicious meals I had in Morocco. I am planning to learn to use the terra-cotta tagine I bought. The seller told me it was for cooking (it looks like the ones in the last two photos here), but I have no way of knowing if the glaze is going to work. I might run over to the Moroccan gift shop and buy an unglazed one.

Veggie tagine in Chefchaouen, main square.

Chicken pastilla in Marrakesh. Pastillas are traditionally made with pigeon, but chicken ones are easier to find. Which is just as well for me as I can't get past my New York notion that pigeons are not for eating.

Veggie tagine in Fez.

Veggie-and-chicken couscous in Fez.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time for an Update

I was on Avenue B last night to see singer-songwriter Amy Rigby play at a bar down the street from my old apartment.

I walked by 13th Street and checked out the buzzer on my old building. My name was put up there in 1992. I sold in January 2001.

And my name is STILL there. Which is really funny. Don't these people have labels, even if they don't have screwdrivers to open up the casing?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Morocco Booty

Here are the goods. My scores from Morocco.

The blue plate was cracked in my luggage, in spite of all the bubble wrap I was dragging around. Kraiger thinks I can fix it with Krazy Glue but I haven't tried yet.

The green painting has gone to Lisa W in Seattle. The little wooden boxes have snakes that pop out. Those went to the sons of Steve B and Denise. The beads were for Ursula. And the tagine cooker? That's mine. I haven't tried it yet. I haven't even looked up how to use it. But I did wash it, dry it, and put it in the cupboard.

Which is half the battle, right?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Special Meal in Marrakesh

This sign, just off the main square in Marrakesh, made me laugh. What exactly are they selling here? Snipes couscous?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Contemplating Mischief

What kind of fun can I have with this?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Independence Day

Hey, baby, it's the Fourth of July.

That's a song. By X. It's the only song I know that is about this particular holiday, and I was a fan of X, so it runs through my head on Independence Day.

I go to ridiculous lengths to avoid holidays, traditional family-and-friends days. My life has been amazing for many years... I've been on and off the road since 2001 and have only been seriously trying to reintegrate for a year. The downside of living that way is that you lose your community, become a self-contained independent unit, and disconnect from the reality most people know. The distressing self-worth blow of rejection mixes it up a bit too. Things would be much easier if triumphant returns didn't come with metaphorical hangovers.

Or I could just keep going indefinitely. But I've tried that. It's doesn't work either. No way out but through it.

This July 4th, I caught a bus from my Paris hotel to the Gare du Nord. I'd spotted the bus last night, right in front of my hotel, and thought "Ah, a way to avoid the long walks underground on the metro."

The bus took me right through the courtyard in front of the Louvre and up to the train station.

I was feeling pretty smug until I got to the ticket machines and discovered they were all mysteriously broken. I waited in line to learn that there was some kind of unexpected strike.

"Should have taken the airport bus," I groused.

I stood on the hot platform with hundreds of other would-be passengers. The trains were not air-conditioned and today was a scorcher. About ten percent of the crowd was en route to an anime convention, decked out in cutesy skirts and bear or bunny ears.

Eventually, I got to the airport. I'd carefully wrapped my Moroccan souvenirs in bubble wrap and watched as my bag went off on the conveyer belt.

Fingers crossed.

Later that night, I disembarked at Washington's Dulles Airport. The deal with my frequent flyer ticket had been that I had to fly back to Washington DC. I watched, wincing as the baggage transfer guy bounced my bag on the floor. Ouch, there goes a plate.

Normally, I'd have caught the $20 bus home from Washington DC. But not on July 4th. Me+luggage+Metro+cops+a hundred thousand revelers=not real comfy. I boarded an $89 shuttle plane for JFK. I'd arrive late enough to miss the fireworks, the fun, and even the crowds as they cheered and partied on the A train.

And that's all right with me.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Solo in Paris

When I unzipped my pack, a mound of dirty clothes, ornate plates, and bubble wrap erupted onto the hotel room bed. There, down at the bottom of the bag, was a black, sleeveless shirt that I'd been culturally unable to wear in Morocco. My only clean shirt. Perfect for Paris.

I showered and then scraped off deodorant onto my only clean shirt. Oops. Okay, back to second-cleanest.

I studied the map on the Chez Paul website—that's where I wanted to go for dinner as it had been recommended separately by Ed Ward and Paula Siry—and then got on the metro. Chez Paul wasn't a tourist hotspot, but it is reasonably well-known. As a single diner going early, maybe I'd get in with no problem.

I needn't have worried. I was out for dinner at 7, which is pretty early for a Friday night. There was plenty of room in the small bistro. A heavyset woman in a low-slung black tank-top, purple bra straps, and shiny red shoes motioned me to a table in the back. I seemed to be the only customer she did not personally know, but that didn't stop her from treating me with humor and charm. She greeted others with kisses on both cheeks, then would head over to saw away at the bread. Sometimes, she'd do a little jiggly dance of happiness.

A set of hybrid English-American grandparents came in with their grandson and sat next to me. The grandmother, in French, informed me that they would be speaking English and hoped not to disturb me. We all had a good laugh at my reply, not French in the least, and had a fine chat about the Chez Paul food, which was delicious bistro fare.

I headed down a pedestrian street to the metro, then over to the Eiffel Tower for a few photos. I walked off my Chez Paul steak as I clumsily navigated the traffic circles and diagonal streets of Paris on my way back to the Novotel.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Paris Overnight

I asked around. A lot. But I never did find the secret, nice, cheap place in Paris.

Every time I did the math, the room that looked so cheap in euros ended up being more than a hundred bucks in dollars.

The exchange rate is a killer.

So in the end, I'd thrown up my hands and used my tried-and-true method.No secret here... mix up Priceline with and you get something reasonable enough. There are hidden methods on BiddingforTravel when you are looking at New York (bid J.C.) or London (try Heathrow), but nothing turned up for Paris.

And sometimes, when I ask around if anyone knows any great secrets for Paris—besides Priceline—I'd get "Try Priceline!" Uh, okay. More than once, I could swear someone is parroting my own advice back to me, given years ago to a mutual friend. But these aren't state secrets. You can read about them in mainstream travel mags, the kind that crow about "bargains" that are so obscene that I laugh aloud while reading on the PATH train.

I ended up with a $90 Novotel in a non-touristy neighborhood right by a metro stop. It was fine. More than fine. I am happy to stay in a decent place for less than the price of a rundown place.

The only problem, then, was the public transportation in Paris. It's terribly similar to New York's. What that means is that what looks like a simple transfer on the map can turn out to involve long underground hikes.

No big deal, right? I assure you, less nice with a backpack and an armful of souvenirs purchased at the last minute in the airport.

By the time I had to transfer trains, I was fried and too tired to pay attention. Had I gone through turnstiles? Had I not? Where was the token booth? Did I care? (No.)

Nowhere to buy a ticket. I wanted to get off the airport train and get on the metro. I could either keep walking and find the purchase point... or I could go through that open door that the woman with a stroller was holding open.

Guess which one I picked? And then sweated nervously—worrying about ticket checks—through another transfer, all the way to my stop.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Leaving Morocco

On my last morning in Morocco, I steeled myself for the inevitable battle of taxi wills. I had to get a lift from the Medina gate to the airport.

"Ask the driver to use the meter," chirped the guidebook. Easier said than done.

I hauled my bag out of the Medina, on my back—how the hell had I gone around the world like this for a year?—and stumbled over a parked taxi just inside the gate. The driver was sipping tea and just preparing for his shift.

"Airport?" I couldn't believe my luck.

He nodded and motioned me into the taxi. He turned on the meter without my asking. He put my backpack in the trunk. He tried to communicate for a bit, and we both blabbered in our respective languages.

Upon arrival at the airport, he became excited. He motioned to an old building, then to a sparkling new building of shapely concrete and space-age windows.

"New!" The driver was visibly proud of the new terminal.

We said our good-byes as if we were old friends.

I found the Easyjet counter and dropped off my luggage, went through security, found those elusive souvenirs I'd been craving, and boarded a plane to Paris.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Winding Through the Medina

I walked up to a store where artisans carve out unique designs on tiles. One of them showed me how it's done, deftly chopping out a little heart from a tile. He presented it to me with a grin.

I'd sought this store out on purpose. I intend to renovate the bathroom in my (Yancey's) apartment sooner or later, and I thought it would be cool to have small handmade tile accents. Maybe a rhino in the corner. Yancey likes rhinos.

"How much are they?"

I don't remember the artisan's response, but the price was ridiculous. Something like $10 a tile.

"Oh, they are very beautiful, but I really do not have this kind of money. I am on dollars, you see, and the euro is very strong right now, and I really cannot pay... blah blah blah... do you have anything cheaper?"

My bargaining technique works wonderfully when someone is genuinely messing around about the price. At this point they start to negotiate.

He didn't do that. He shrugged. He showed me a few cheap tiles that were pretty basic.

"Er, maybe I'll come back."

I had similar experiences around the Medina. What the hell? Don't people want to sell?

The intervening years between the last time I was seriously on the road (2005) and now, I realized, have not been kind to the dollar. The euro is worth $1.40. That's a huge difference.

Maybe it's karmic payback for me getting annoyed when Turbo would not want to spend his Aussie dollars when we traveled together. Now I knew what it meant to spent rate-and-a-half for everything.

I asked the man by the fountain, the one I greeted when I walked to and from my guesthouse, where I could get a ceramic tagine pot. He found one and I ended up paying him about $20 for it, way more than I knew it would have cost if I'd picked one up in Fez. And only $5 cheaper than at the Moroccan store near my old apartment on Avenue B.

I traipsed up to an open-air market outside the bus station, right outside the Medina in the new(ish) city. The vendors seemed to have all gone home, so I walked through the new city to the fixed price shop. There, a carpet similar to the one I'd bought for $70 in Marrakesh in the early 90s was $150. I'd seen it in Chelsea for $950, and in the souks for hundreds of dollars. But this was its real value—$150. Fifteen years ago, I'd paid about exactly what it was worth.

I tried to walk back to the Medina, passed the Kasbah, got hopelessly lost, and finally ended up on the busy streets leading up to the main square. A restaurant tout offered me a menu, and I followed him up some stairs to a rooftop restaurant.

Exhausted, I sunk into a cushioned chair. I sipped tea and munched pastilla, mulling over my shopping failures. I'd wanted an entire set of ceramics, which would replace my 1992-era IKEA plates. I had a lot of unused bubble wrap in my bag and was heading to Paris in the morning.

Oh well, failure means less to carry home.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Djemaa el Fna

Marrakesh's main square is called Djemaa el Fna. It really hops at night.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Shopping in Marrakesh

I had a book about shopping in Marrakesh, so I followed some of the routes outlined in its chapters.

I first passed by the "library." Which is not really the library but was a tiny book stall.

And then I continued on to see shops full of trinkets and tiles and beads. Some lovely stuff but it all seemed kind of outrageously priced. Actually, not that lovely. I regretted not doing my shopping in Fez. Here's a gallery of some things you can buy in Marrakesh.

During the three days I spent in Marrakesh, I followed each route in the shopping book. And then finally, found the one place I'd been saving for last because it looked so interesting.

Down by the Kasbah, out of the tourist zone, there's a shop where a folk artists sells his traditional paintings. I purchased three. I wish I'd bought more.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Rabat to Marrakesh

I was a little worried about today's train ride. Yesterday, I'd strategically aimed for the new double-decker rapid train from Fez to Rabat, but today I was not going to have such a nice option. I've been on a lot of trains over the years so I'm not sure why I was concerned.

Maybe because I was thinking back to the second-class car I'd been on in Egypt in 2007. I didn't talk about it much on the blog post that day, but there's an element of over-enthusiasm involved in friendly interactions that can sometimes become a burden. I am an advocate of public transport abroad because I believe that taking public transport is what puts you in direct contact with normal people in the countries you're visiting. But I'm not a tireless advocate. Far from it. The first hour of having your photo taken and comparing notes about cars sold in your home country can be priceless. But several hours later, when you're still the pony in the dog-and-pony show, it can become an burden.

I needn't have worried. After I sat outside a photo shop and downloaded all my e-mail on their signal, I headed to Rabat's Ville train station and boarded a first class car. My compartment was fully of business people far more interested in their paperwork than in me. We traveled to Marrakesh in the air-conditioned car, the near-silence broken only when the coffee seller came by.

The train arrived a little late in Marrakesh, which meant that all the taxi drivers were on a shift change. It took me 20 minutes to get a taxi to Bab Laksour, and from there I shouldered my pack for the ten-minute walk into the old city.

I followed the instructions to proceed to the Mouassine Fountain, then turned down a small alley. "Easy," said the instructions.

No. Absolutely not easy. The alley snaked back into the medina, and had several branches. Right? Left?

"Excuse-moi, ou est Villa Mouassine?" I asked a guy with a Vespa in front of his door.

He had no idea. Neither did anyone else.

I found #86, which was the address. No sign. No indication of anything behind the door except a normal Moroccan home.

I backtracked and asked a ceramics seller by the fountain.

"Sometimes they don't have signs. You just have to knock."

So I walked back through the winding alley, past some really young feral kittens, and knocked on the door.

The front desk clerk answered and invited me in for a juice and some wi-fi. I went up to my room. I'd thought I'd scored a great sale price on a gorgeous riad-style home. But it was tired and uninspiring. I'd seen so many gorgeous guesthouses on websites. I'd scored wonderfully in Fez, not so wonderfully here.

But it was okay, so I unpacked and went outside to check out Marrakesh.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Doors of Rabat

Annoyed with the hotel, I went out into the sunny afternoon to take a look at Rabat's Kasbah.

The Kasbah is a walled-in area. People live in houses there. At the top of the hill is a lookout over the beach and the Atlantic down below.

I took some photos of the doors on the homes inside the walled-in area. Here are a few but I put an entire gallery up here.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Live, Learn, and Check the Wi-Fi Before Paying

Rabat isn't the hottest tourist destination in Morocco, and so the hotel selection isn't great. The closest hotel to the train station is a tired old place called Balina. The Balina is deluded... it still believes itself grand and worth $65 a night.

Which it certainly is not. Unless you have a thing for ratty and ick.

But I do have a thing for wi-fi, so when I stopped in and asked if they had wi-fi, and they said "yes in the lounge," and then were willing to put me in a room directly above the signal, I agreed to fork over $65 for their room that was probably state-of-the-art in 1958.

I could have had something similar for half the price if I'd walked a few blocks on, but I was also lazy and carrying a big-ass backpack. As usual.

And hour or so later, I was swearing and spitting when I could not get onto the wi-fi. I stomped down to the front desk, where the clerk said:

"Are you using a Macintosh? It doesn't work with Macintosh."

F*CK. (&^$$##$%%@@%^^^&#$#@$@%%J$%... and so on. NOT HAPPY. Why would I stay in this crappy hotel, paying way more than it was worth, when there is NO REASON TO? Arf.)

I tried some tricks... quotation marks around the password, the $ sign ahead of it. Nothing.

The hotel probably needs to upgrade their firmware. But they weren't likely to do that tonight, if ever.

I opened the windows to the street to try to catch a signal, and was overwhelmed by chanting.

Ah, hell. I was across the street from the main government building. The parliament, senate, or whatever it was. Right there.

And there seemed to be a protest.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Strategic Train-Riding

The new double-decker Moroccan high-speed trains were gorgeous. I'd seen one the day before when I'd gone from Fez to Meknes.

How can I get onto one of those trains?

I craved the novelty of the new. I studied the online schedules. I added up the number of hours between Fez and Rabat, the capital city on the Atlantic coast.

That one.

The 9:50 train made the run in 2 hours, 22 minutes. The others? Almost 3 hours.

I caught a taxi to the gare, bought a first class ticket, and sat in the shade of an open-air coffee shop in front of the station, enjoying a cappuccino and croissant. Imperialism is bad, I know, but I've had brilliant French bread and coffee in both Vietnam and Morocco. I won't deny that it's mighty tasty.

Time to board! A man at the entrance to the tracks checked my tickets. I could see the double-decker train waiting across the tracks.

Down the stairs... damn backpack... damn knees... under the tracks... up the stairs (that's not as bad).

Into the First Class car. Quiet. Empty. Air-conditioned. There's even a waiter who would bring me coffee if I hadn't just had some!

Man, this train is swank.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

An Interruption

The theme park piece was on BBC radio last night.

It's available to listen to here for a week.

One of these days, my straight-talk style is going to get me into trouble. Maybe today!

Last Night in Fez

I arrived back in Fez in late afternoon. I was full of pizza, and went into the little house, switched on the A/C, and fell asleep.

I tried shopping a bit in the evenings. Fez is the artisan capital of Morocco. Lovely pottery, textiles, and leather goods. But I was still traveling overland to Rabat and Marrakesh. I didn't want to weigh myself down with heavy packages.

I'll buy my souvenirs at my last stop, in Marrakesh.

I'd be moving on in the morning.

Complete Fez photo album here.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Unexpected Twist

I scampered around Volulibis with my camera, and then jumped back in the taxi. Back to Moulay Idriss. Then 20 more dirhams for a front seat again back to Meknes.

I wandered towards the train station, and stopped in an upscale pizza shop for some food and air conditioning. Though the pizza shop was expensive, it was much cheaper than the tourist restaurants I'd frequented for the last few days.

Then, as I was walking back to the train station, a woman carrying a container of hair mousse and one of hairspray appeared in my path.

She started rambling on, pleading in French, waving the hair products. I picked up "enfant" in her barrage of words, and realized I was being asked for money. She wanted me to buy her hair products so she could feed her kid. Or not. Who knows. In New York, we ride the subways every day listening to the saddest stories imaginable. We all learn immunity here quickly. If you don't toughen up, you'd crack from the endless barrage of sob stories.

But here was this woman in my face. I couldn't ignore her. I wasn't sure if I should. I am always kind of baffled in begging situations. Do I give? Not give? What do the local people do? Follow the local example. But I hadn't noticed if local people were or were not giving.

Since she was standing in front of me, I had only two options. I could ignore her and brush on by and feel like crap, or I could give her something and scuttle on down the road to the train. I handed her 16 dirham ($2).

What happened next was completely unexpected.

She grabbed my head like it was a watermelon and pulled it to her chest, in one, super-fast motion. She hugged me tight and clung as I frantically pushed her away. Yikes! I am not huggy, even with people I know. And oh did she ever stink! She stunk of beauty products and heavy perfumes. I assume this was to cover up some other smell.

I pulled away and snarled "CUT THAT OUT." I quickly scurried on to the train.

I could still smell her all the way back to Fez.

Sunday, July 05, 2009


I'd hid in the guesthouse for part of yesterday, self-imprisoned, asleep or working with the a/c on.

I'd been overwhelmed by my new "friends," the kids who wanted to sell me something. Ali had suggested that I never walk with them, because they would believe they were making progress. Instead, he thought I should stand still and firmly say "La, shukran" until they got the point. (No, thank you.)

It worked but it made going anywhere a bit difficult. I had to spend several minutes per kid, standing there convincing them that I had no intention of accompanying them to any shop.

But the next morning, I sheepishly laughed at my overreaction. I know a thing or two about handling touts. Surely a few kids trying to make a buck or two shouldn't intimidate me. Ha.

"What are you going to do today?" I was sitting with Josephine again in the morning.

"I thought I'd go to Volulibis. Just on public transport, I mean. The going rate for a private driver is 800 dirhams."

"Normally, more people are staying here and you can split the cost," she explained. But I was fine with having an entire restored Fez house to myself. Really. Not a problem.

You might remember that I'd passed Volulibis, or Walili as it's known locally, while taking shared taxis to Fez from Chefchaouen. I hadn't been able to see much of these Roman ruins from the road, so was interested in getting back and checking it out.

I walked up to the main bab (gate) and hailed a taxi. 10 dirhams from the Medina to the gare (train station). 18 more dirhams for my train ticket to Meknes.

There were loads of empty seats so I was surprised when a young man sat down directly in front of me, in the seat facing mine. I was reading but when I looked up, I noticed that he had no luggage and no reading material. He was starting right at me.

Here we go.

I ignored him until finally he said "Where are you from?"

"New York, but I live in Kuwait." I learned back in Nairobi, when I lived in Uganda, that telling touts that you live somewhere unexpected throws off their game.

"You going to Marrakesh?"

I'd heard about hotel touts boarding the trains.

"No," I allowed myself a smug smile. "Meknes." I was only going to be on the train for 40 minutes.

He got up and left. Not so much as a good-bye.

At Meknes' El-Amir station, I caught a metered taxi (another 5 dirhams) to the grand taxis bound for Moulay Idriss. It's an easy walk, and I walked the reverse later, but from the map I wasn't sure how far away the grand taxis were.

"Moulay Idriss." I arrived at the grand taxi stand and informed the attendant of my destination. "Deux places." I wanted the front seat this time. 20 dirhams.

He nodded and put me in the front seat of an old Mercedes. Four men squeezed into the back seat and we were off. We stopped along the way and let one man out but the other three went to Moulay Idriss with me.

Moulay Idriss was another whitewashed mountain town. I negotiated with three drivers once I got there, but I still ended up paying 100 dirhams, more than twice the book's listed rate for a ride and back (with an hour waiting) to Wallili.

Here are some photos of Wallili/Volulibis.

Tough Job

So maybe editing or coloring comic books ISN'T so bad after all.

A Guided Tour

"Do you want me to call a guide or do you just want to walk around alone?" I was sitting in my guesthouse on Sunday morning, sipping coffee in the central room while Josephine spoke to me from across the table.

Yesterday, I had intended to get lost alone in the souks. Today, I had changed my mind. Last night, no less than three young men had attached themselves to me when I'd walked back from therestaurant. It's only a ten-minute walk. No sooner had I shaken one would-be guide or tout, then another would materialize at my elbow. One had at least made me laugh. "I don't want to be your guide. I want to be your bodyguard from other guides."

"I think I'll need a guide. I can't stand the hassle."

She called a man named Ali, who showed up in a long Jedi cloak. There are both Jedi Knights and Jawa outfits in Morocco. I haven't been to Tunisia, where much of the original Star Wars was filmed, but I suspect the same style of clothing was popular there at the time. And while I haven't seen any motor scooters of this sort on my current trip, the last time I was in Morocco, "Jawa" brand motor scooters were everywhere.

Ali escorted me around the Medina, showing me historic schools and mosques, as well as pointing out cultural differences.

"That is where wedding chairs are rented for ceremonies. No family buys these—they always rent because styles of wedding chairs change with fashion. And these threads here—they are being prepared for sale. Those are political posters."

It was good to have a guide like Ali. He took me into a store to overlook the tanners souk, but he didn't seem to care if I bought anything. I saw a gorgeous sky-blue leather bag... but when I asked the opening price and it was 350 dirham ($46), I decided there was nothing there that I really needed. Even at half the price, I didn't want the bag.

The same thing had happened at the pottery village the night before. Prices had been even higher than the value of the item. I understand I'm supposed to bargain, but I knew there was no way I'd get the prices down to anything I considered acceptable.

Once Ali dropped me off, I walked to a place called Cafe Clock for the most expensive falafel I've had since the first time I went to Egypt and didn't know not to order food in a tourist restaurant in Khan El-Khalili. One problem, besides me frequenting tourist joints here in Morocco, is that the euro is kicking the dollar's butt. Everything in Morocco is priced in euros.

I'm financially doomed this time out.

Maybe it serves me right for all those years of traveling when the dollar was king.