Saturday, May 28, 2011

Just one touch

After spending about 20 hours close to facilities (Gastroenteritis: 1, Erin: 0), I needed to get out for some fresh air. We were in Essaouira, a fortressed city on Morocco's Atlantic coast, complete with beach and wind (more of the second).

view from the Essaouira ramparts

We headed out along the beach, walking to where the river empties into the waves to the south. After saying no to many men selling type II spice cake, and avoiding being beheaded by beginner kite surfers coming to shore, we hit the area of the beach where Moroccans peddle camel rides.

Hello, Madame? French? English? German? You want to ride my camel?

No, thank you.

Yes, you want to ride my camel.

La, shukran.

He is a special camel, nicest to ride. I will not push....but, just touch my camel. Touch the head. Just a little touch. It is the nicest camel to touch the head of. Touching my camel will make you have a nice time, and if you touch you will want to ride.

(Now my interest, especially in the words of this conversation, are peaked.)

I promise, my camel is nice and is the best camel to touch. Just touch the head. Please. Just Touch. Touching is the most fun thing that you can do here in Morocco. Just one touch.

Shake my head and smile.

Okay. But you would like to touch. I know this without any doubts. You will enjoy it more than you know.

He said these words with the most determination in his certainty than anyone I have seen over the age of 4. And, even though I had no interest in touching camels at the time, my mind started an argument with the invisible camel man on my shoulder. Maybe I would like just one touch, who knows.

Touch my camel's head. Like this (demonstrating). Just one touch. I promise it will change your life...

I think what impressed me the most was his belief in his product. He would've won the 110% award in salesmanship school. If he didn't really believe that just a touch of his camel would want me to take a ride over the sand dunes into the sunset, then he was the best imposter I've met. I didn't touch the head of a camel (no matter how delightfully dirty that sounds), but his certainty was impressive. It has been a long time since I have been as certain as this man was about the head of his camel than I have been about...well, anything.

Friday, May 27, 2011

More Morocco

Morocco has left me introspective, frustrated, and enamored all at the same time. I will spare you my introspective musings. Now for a few of my favorite things...

Loudspeakers crackle five times a day, and the voice of the muezzin bursts forth into the sky from the minarets towering over the city. I really have come to look forward to the adhan, or call to prayer, especially in big cities where the clusters of minarets all calling at the same time lead to a beautiful disjointed few minutes. The sunset adhan is my favorite, when the calming effect on the city is most visible.

marakesh mosque

I can't stop taking pictures of the intricately carved tiles covered with Arabic prayers. Just thinking about how long and how much skill it took to make these blows my mind a bit.

courtyard view at Ben Yousef Medersa

crazy beautiful prayers sketched into the tile in Arabic

more Arabic prayers

I am also working to perfect my tea pouring skills. The sticky, sweet tea is always a welcome refreshing offering of hospitality. The host will bring in a silver tray with sugar, teapot, mint leaves, and adorned glasses. He will break up the mint leaves and stuff them in the hot water, then proceed to pour the tea in a very specific way - starting close to the glass, then moving slowly upwards until the pot is pouring at the highest point without spilling out of the glass. I don't know if status or respect is given to the highest pourer, but maybe it should be.

Andrew attempting to master the art of pouring mint tea

I have, after biking earlier this month, a new found respect for the ubiquitous desire to put the largest objects possible on the back of your chosen mode of transportation while driving. Moroccans are pretty good at this. Two cows in the back of a mini pickup truck, no problem. Four kids on your bike rack, easy. A twenty foot pole that tells traffic you are coming before you turn the corner, not even a big deal. A satellite dish while you man your scooter...oh please, come up with a better challenge.

trying to maneuver through Ave Mohammad V traffic

I am also in love with date flavored ice cream, twenty different types of olives, the smell of spice stands, the myriad of different colors and patterns of head scarves...and have I mentioned the cats and the orange juice?

Sunday, May 22, 2011


My apologies up front. This may read like a PBS special on Morocco, but so be it.

There is probably no better way to ensure culture shock (first cliché) than spending a day in the air conditioning, shopping, napping, getting hair cuts, watching Spanish television, taking multiple showers, and staying up all night, then flying at 400 AM to a bustling, crazy, hot, desert Muslim country. But, we made it through customs, sleepily payed too many Dirhams for a taxi to town, and were pawned off without realizing the consequences to a guy who took us through the winding, covered roads of souks to our hostel. We regrouped, napped, then hit the streets.

The medina, or walled old town, of Marrakesh centers around a square, the Djeema el Fna. From there, stalls of covered souks (small markets) extend in all directions. Most of our days in Marakesh were spent repeatedly getting lost in the souks. Somehow we would find ourselves back to the square, then promptly get lost again.

Medina walls

The souks are dream-worthy, constantly dancing with your senses. Usually the smells or the sounds give away what is around the next corner. There are tanneries where you can buy your leather slippers or bags. There herbal markets with piles of brightly colored spices, mystery eye drops for your eye problems, siwak sticks for cleaning your teeth, goopy, brown olive oil based soap.

There are meat markets where they will butcher the animal in front of your eyes. There are dried fruit stands where you can taste several different types of dates and figs before you decide on the right ones. There are mint carts where you buy your mint fresh daily for the ubiquitous Moroccan "whiskey" - sweetened mint tea. You can watch the tile guys carve intricate patterns, watch the woodworkers cut and fit pieces of a door, watch the dyers hang up their yarn to dry in the wind and sun. There are orange juice stands where you can enjoy fresh squeezed OJ any time of the day. There is a market for any desire. To a newbie, the crowded stalls can be a bit overwhelming, but the locals have a daily walk where they gather all of their needs.

stalls of dried fruits and nuts

Then there's the Djeema el Fna. The Djeema is always a happening place, but at night the general population of tourists and Moroccans alike descend upon the square for night time display. In late afternoon carts pulled by mules bring in men dressed in white coats who set up covered tents, makeshift displays, tables, chairs, and fire up the grill. Then begins the strange courting ritual of words, prices, foods.

"Madame, Monsieur. Scottish? English? Francais? Take a look, see if you like. Only freshest. Stall one-seven, send you to heaven."

Kebabs, snails, lamb soup, type-I spice cake (ask sometime about type-II spice cake), cous cous, spice tea can be sampled as you walk from tent to tent. At some point it becomes dark enough to need lights, and the gas lamps flicker on.

after dinner at the Djeema

delicious type-I spice cake and spice tea for dessert

Further out around the periphery people pander the crowds for donations. Cross dressing belly dancers shake their stuff with their palms out. Snake charmers spend time pissing off their cobras, then playing tunes for a few dirham per picture. Nightly concerts start up on the stage, and kids scramble to the top of trees to get the best view. Old men crowd around tents where stories are told in the Berber tongue. Women try their hardest to make sure that no tourist leaves without their hands covered with henna tattoos. Demonstrations occur, music is everywhere, and there is still orange juice.

the Djeema el Fna at night

Needless to say, most of our time was spent exploring these sights, tastes, sounds, and smells. We also spent time trying to sneakily feed the kittens that would gather around our feet. A medina kitten would definitely make a well adjusted cat...if only bringing one home wasn't so hard.

Medina cats

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Snails

A constellation of shells litter the grass. He sits, insomnia-stricken, on a rock next to the tent while his mom snores softly inside. At bedtime, Mom was still angry. He lost her car keys that afternoon. He had begged her to let him return to the car for his mp3 player while they went grocery shopping. Then he lost her keys someplace between the car and the supermarche. Worst of all, his music player was broken anyway, a victim, he is sure, of the constant traveling they had endured the past month.

The snails cover the ground in the camping, having emerged from their hiding spots in the rocks and hedges as the dew descended after sunset. They slime lazy arcs in the grass. Some of them are tentatively crossing, with antenna outstretched, the gravel driveway that leads to the sanitary station.

The light from the crescent moon suffices as he walks to the sanitary station, pees, and returns to his brood outside the tent. He stifles a yawn and decides that bed, even with a furious mother, will do. He crosses back towards the tent and nearly steps on a snail right in front of the tent door. He is about to open the tent and climb into his sleeping bag, but a strange compulsion seizes him. He turns around, stoops and unsticks the snail from the grass. It immediately retracts into its shell. He walks a few steps towards the hedge and sets it back on the ground. After a moment, its head peeks out and it returns to its nocturnal vigil. It is a traveler too, he thinks, carrying its payload on its back, rather than in a car.

He crawls into the sleeping bag, winces one final time recounting in his head the missing keys and their car still sitting 3km away in the Supermarche parking and how they would pay the bill of the locksmith tomorrow, shuts his eyes and counts sheep for a time before eventually managing to fall asleep.

The sun had not yet warmed their shady square in the camping when his eyes flutter open to see his mom standing over him, jingling a pair of car keys.

"You. found. them," he manages groggily.

"Yes, they were just sitting not even a meter from the tent door in the grass, silly boy!" she smiles. "You must have had them in your pocket all along!"

He reaches up and feels them, still wet with dew, and brings them closer. The keychain glistens iridescent with snail trail.

Selling cherries at the road junction, the day passes slowly. He is bored, missing the music that normally fills his day, in a bad mood and it seems their would-be customers can sense it. It is only 5PM, but the gorge walls have nearly swallowed the late August sun when they decide to call it quits. There would be no new mp3 player tonight.

They return to the camping, and notice a van has pulled in adjacent to their site. An older Swedish couple (judging from the license plates and hair color at least) is drinking tea. He wishes them a bon soir and returns to setting up the stove. They cook the last of their food as night falls and the Norwegians retire to the van, taking with them their chairs and tables, evidently fixing for an early start in the morning. He tries reading, but can't seem to focus without any music, so he gives up, lies down and quickly falls asleep.

Judging by glow to the east and the right-side-up big dipper, it is just a bit before dawn when he awakes to pee. There is already a light on in the Swedes' campervan as he walks slowly to the bathroom, nearly stepping on a half-dozen snails who inexplicably loiter by the wheels of the van, oblivious of their peril if the Swedes get their early start. He picks them up by their shells as he walks and then drops them in a pile outside the toilet. As he is leaning over to pick up one last straggler, his mp3 player slips out of his sweatshirt and falls into a tuft of grass.

He doesn't realize the missing piece until he's back in the tent and reflexively feels for its weight in the front pocket of his sweatshirt. Oh well, he thinks resignedly. He'll look for it in the morning. It was broken anyway.

It is a stifling warmth in the tent that wakes him at last. The sun has been up for hours, but it's Sunday, and that's the day off, even for ersatz cherry-sellers. He climbs out of the boiling tent to sit in the shade in the vacant Swedish camping site. He leans back and rests on the trunk of a tree, running his hands through the grass idly until his fingers stumble across a small, square object. His mp3 player. That was a weird place to lose it, he thinks. Maybe mom is right and he really is as absent-minded as she says. He brushes slime off the screen and gives the power button a tap out of habit and blinks in surprise when the screen flashes to life. Not only does it turn on and play music, but the crack running down the center of the screen has inexplicably healed. He puts on the headphones and closes his eyes in pleasure.

About halfway through the third song a hand on his shoulder startles him from his reverie. His mom pulls off one headphone. "Sweetie, I know it's Sunday but they called. There's work in Cavaillon this afternoon. They are promising at least 200 euros. If we leave now, we'll make it by 1."

He looks over towards the car. The tent already lies deflated like a crushed animal on the pitch, and the trunk is open with their belongings half assembled inside. Perhaps he would start this school year in Cavaillon, if the job is as good as they say. But they had been disappointed before. He gives a resigned shrug, hits pause on the song, and goes to roll up his sleeping pad.

Next to him, a snail slimes a patient, directionless arc in the shade of the hedge, secure in primordial knowledge that its path will surely provide.

Friday, May 20, 2011


Barcelona has big boulevards. And bike lanes. And lots of Gaudi.

The Sagrada Familia basilica (started 1886, with construction to finish sometime in the next 50 years) is a modern wonder. It is also a wonder that the catholic church let Gaudi build the SFB, because the whole thing seems like a drug-fueled fever dream. Faceted pillars start with 8 faces, then double to 16, 32, 64 in geometric progression as they reach nave-ward, and explode into branches of a tree. The staircases of the belfries dive to the floor of the sanctuary in tortuous, logarithmic spirals. From the outside, rows of slender towers are topped with the "fruits of the spirit." Or are they giant stalks of grass, laden with grains? Gaudi seemed to find God in nature, and used his architecture to convey this. I have rarely seen this so centrally featured in Catholic imagery, but it is a school of thought that I can relate with, and probably why I enjoyed Gaudi so much. Needless to say, admission into the cathedral and a ride up the elevators was worth the 15€ pp.

nautilus mimicking winding staircase

shadows cast on the streets below by the Sagrada Familia towers

intricate stained glass

tree sprouting branches of columns inside the Basilica

We tested the bike lanes riding across town to the bus station later that evening. Those worked pretty well: wide, off-street lanes and bike-shaped stop lights all the way to the station. We arrived with 20 minutes to spare. However, Mordor conspired against us to the very end. We nearly had to wrestled the bus conductor to let us take the bikes on board, despite our duly purchased additional fare for the beasts. We finally placated him by buying 10€ "bike bags" that did nothing but make the bus late. Oh well.

After the usual nightbus antics, we were unceremoniously dumped at dawn at the "Avenida de Americas" in Madrid, wherever that is. Ando had slightly learned his lesson from Barcelona and this time had the name and address of the hotel (correctly?) memorized. Somehow, that was enough to deduce a sensible metro stop, navigate our bikes through a couple of transfers, then find our way under/over two (count 'em) limited access freeways and bike to the hotel, feeling certain that we were the first people in the history of Madrid to have arrived on bicycle at that particular hotel. All this transpired without the benefit of Internet. Yeah, we are two badass hobbits. We gave each other a high-five once the bikes were ensconced in the luggage room of the hotel, then proceeded to shop 'til we dropped at the Plenilunia Centro Comercial, which really did have some excellent ofertas. Ando plans to fill his bags with discount euro-tailored clothing when he returns.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Although spectacular, the gorges and causses of the Cevannes had left Erwise and Andoo saddlesore, aerobically spent, and carpal-tunnel afflicted. They were then eager to stop for the night in Millau, a city of men, but on an old road leading Mordor. From there, they would cross back into the Dark Land, and cast their Great Burdens into the fires of Mount Doom (also known as the left luggage of the Madrid Aeroporter Hotel). They had been warned about spies from the Dark Land roaming about Millau, but the city seemed benign, even inviting in the afternoon sun. Ando and Erwise ate a meal fit for two hungry hobbits, retired to their biouvac next to the gurgling River Tarn, and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep.

after slaying a 16€ buffet

Some hours later, Ando awoke to a soft blue glow filling the Megamid. At first he thought it was the moon. But no, there was but a sliver of moon, and it was setting when they retired. He looked down and realized Stang, his faithful headlamp, was aglow. That meant only one thing...orcs! He snuck a peak from under Megamid and saw three dark figures stooped over their trusty steeds/great burdens. There was no time to think. He sprang from the tent and charged at the bike thieves without uttering a word. The thieves never had a chance, for a enraged shirtless hobbit is a sight to see, and nothing angers a hobbit more than orcs preying on defenseless bicycles. They gave a surprised yelp and sprinted into the Tarn, splashing into its icy clutches.

Ando and Erwise moved camp away from the river, and took turns in watch for the thieves. The dark figures did not reappear. Nevertheless, a restless few hours passed in jumpy anticipation, then light began to dawn. They mounted their steeds, and glided through the still sleepy town, and got on the 5:45 train to Mordor.

bike ride back over the France - Spain border after an early train

Monday, May 16, 2011

Parc National Cevennes

We found open road.

We stayed at a winery that overlooked a valley.

There was Titou. He finished the destruction of our pillow.

We found smooth asphalt. I saw 4 cars over the course of an hour.

There were gorges.

And villages carved into the gorges.

There were causses: utterly desolate, depopulated limestone plateaus. We might have seen an orc.

There were flowers.

And then there was Millau.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Escape from Provence

Without a plan besides seeing more Provençal cities that were supposedly neat, we headed west out of Orange. We quickly felt the pull of the Rhone as the land flattened and the traffic turned more industrial. We crossed a bridge, a long, slender island between channels, and some locks and were suddenly west of the Rhone.

Some wrong turns and some kilometers later, we arrived at the city of Uzes, an obviously European city, since the entire, plus-beaux village is one giant roundabout. We were under-inspired. However, that night an rogue wifi connection in the camping showed that we could bid adieu to Provence and keep heading west into a Parc National. On the far side of Parc National Cevennes was Millau, a town with a train station that looked a couple of days of riding away. On the map were lots of green-underlined small roads, which mean scenic and untrafficked. Which is normally a good bet.

I < 3 poppies

The next morning, despite our best efforts in Orange and Uzes, we were still out of stove fuel, and therefore, coffee. We headed back into town for caffeine so that our brains would function. We held council over a map and cafe. The synchronicity of the prior night continued. As it came to pass, beside us was a Frenchman who lived in Uzes and built bikes and when he saw that we were avec velo and pondering a map, he offered to advise us on a route. We left with several circles scribbled on our map, and feeling a little pleased, since our gibberfrench seemed more intelligible than normal.

Heading into the hills

Roadside attractions

The going was going to be good.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Polar opposites

Gravity dropped us in Malaucene mid-afternoon on a Saturday, a bizarrely disagreeable town. Its centreville featured a boulevarded parking lot, choked with traffic trying to enter. Calvacades of motorcycles, RVs and the occasional tractor (driven by, no lie, a leering frenchman wearing a beret and flying a tricolor) rumbled through the streets. We fled for the outskirts of town, and found a campground, which at first glance appeared delightful. The camping, Le Bosquette, is on an orchard perched above town. It has a swimming pool. It has spotless bathrooms. Great.

Grapes all over the place

Oh, I forgot to mention that the orchard was subsequently covered in a uniform layer of sharp gravel, with nary a patch of grass for the beleagured tent camper to patch her/his tent; tractors are roaring from dawn-dusk in the field below in some sort of exhibition; the swimming pool is just a dry pit; and the toilets, while clean enough for the Virgin Mary to eat out of, have neither seats nor TP. So yes, bizarrely disagreeable.

Highlight of Malaucene centreville

We got as quick of a start as we could manage the following morning, feeling sapped and slightly demented from the angry rays of the sun that hit our camp as soon as it had risen. The tractors, too, had already began their combative droning, while vaguely militaristic symphony music echoed up to Le Bosquette. We had hatched a plan to shorten our day to Orange by taking a little penalty climb at the start, then cutting through the Dentelles de Montmirail, a range of limestone teeth that formed in the wake of the orogeny that lifted Ventoux.

Dentelles from a Col

We crossed the ridge and our outlooked improved immediately as we caught a minor breeze and left the tractors behind. The penalty climb was quickly dispatched and we began a 10k descent on banked roads with clean, smooth asphalt and kickass views that dropped us on the edge of the Rhone's alluvial plain. Some more quiet, smooth roads led to a narrow, more trafficked road that we conquered with our new technique of the flying wedge. (In which Erin takes shotgun and rides near the fogline. Andrew rides a bikelength in front, and rides far enough into the lane to force a lane change in passing cars. Cars can tell how many bikes they are going to pass, and both Andrew and Erin can see approaching cars in their mirrors. It also works well in roundabouts, which while are great traffic engineering for cars, hover between frightening and unnavigable on bikes, depending on diameter and traffic volume.)

Looking back at Ventoux and the Dentelles

We quickly arrived in Orange, a dusty, medium-sized city with some Roman ruins 'n' stuff and a poorly signed, but very helpful tourist office. We stayed there for a bit and ate pizzas and nutella.

We carried this pizza about 50 km from Malaucene in 80 degree sun. It miraculously didn't make us poop our pants when we ate it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Le Mt Ventoux

200m: Leave from Jouncas, head up the valley towards and past Murs Coll, past the wall that gives Mur it's name. The wall extends the length of the Provencal countryside. It was erected from dry stone by citizens after a governmental decree in reaction to the bubonic plague overwhelming the streets of Marsailles. It was coined the mur de la peste and was guarded along its length 24 hours a day by sentinels. To be able to cross, one must have a clean bill of health in hand. A lasting representation of panic surrounding the outbreak.

(Picture egregiously stolen from wikipedia)

900 m: Views of Mt Ventoux begin to show in the distance as we reach the peak of our climb for the day and head down to Sault.

810 m: We stop for eau potable and watch goats cross the road at a busy rural intersection.

740 m: The road switchbacks up 100 meters and dumps us into Sault, perched airily above the valley. Feels like finishing a Tour de France stage. We enjoy beers and look out at the valley as the sun sets.

680 m: We drop to the valley floor before starting our climb to the top of Ventoux. The road is gently graded and in the trees at first. Scattered Tour graffiti spray painted on the road makes for interesting reading as we climb.

1440 m: We triumphantly emerge above tree line. After a picnic break we begin the exposed climb over white, tumbling talus, which gives the mountain its snow-covered appearance from far away. The climb steepens to over 10% grade and the temperature begins to drop slightly as the wind picks up. I am passed seven times on the way to the summit by others in race kit. He who finishes last still finishes, right?  Andrew passes one man dressed in head to toe spandex and on an ultralight bike...and then won't quit talking about how he now owns this man's soul forever.

1850 m: Only one kilometer to go, the observatory on top of the mountain gets closer in view.

1912 m: Summit time! Excited to be done with the climb, and feeling self-accomplished for completing an HC climb with full touring gear. Battered by the wind, we do not stay long to revel in our accomplishment.

1700 m: Rim-boiling steep, airy descent with amazing views to the north.

440 m: We arrive at Maulacene, among many old men playing bocce ball, a strange beauty pageant, and a noisy tractor demonstration. We work on consuming as many calories as we burnt during the day in pizza and salad.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

über lüber

Crruunnchh, smack, smack, smack. The sound of a small animal chowing down next to my left ear abruptly woke me from sleep at the municipal campground in Apt. I sat upright, shook Andrew awake. "Wake up, there's a huge rat in our tent trying to eat my ears! Where's your headlamp?"

While he searched, the animal seemed to lunge at the border of the Megamid and I tried to stop it's vicious approaches with my water bottle. But, I struck something more substantial than a soft animal, and the figure just rolled on it's side slightly.

"It's a huge porcupine!"

Actually, with a little light, it proved to be a very petite hedgehog in the middle of a midnight snack of snails. Feeling a bit foolish, but still not ready to go back to sleep with a hedgehog for a pillow (the downside of having a bottomless tent-tarp), we left the tent for a few minutes and watched the little guy scurry away. Apparently he wanted nothing to do with an over-dramatic sleep-deprived Americane.

hedgehog, frightened into a ball

The riding from Forcalquier to Apt had been uneventful, filled with fields of grapes, olives, and silage. We had followed the zig-zagging Luberon bike route against a fierce headwind the first day, and soon departed from the bike route after leaving Apt on the second day due to bumpy roads and unnecessary climbs. We opted for smoother sailing and more direct routes to the few villages in the Luberon that we had decided to visit that day.

fun descent into Reillanne

Bonnieux was our first stop, and what you would expect from a quintessential Provençal ville: beautiful, green, filled with tourists, and surrounded by ruins. We spent time wandering the ruined church lookout, taking pictures, and unintentionally feeding the ants a healthy picnic.

crazy cobblestone

stairs up

rooftops over Bonnieux

We sped down, up, down, up to the next venue of the day: Roussillon. France has a ranking system for the most beautiful villages, or "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France". To be added to the list you must pass several tests of quality, beauty and support. We had already passed through a few of these villages without knowing they had undergone this stringent selection process, but Roussillon let you know as soon as you entered. It had plaques and signs lit by Christmas lights galore touting its fame in the list. Built upon ocher cliffs and surrounded by seas of red and green, it probably deserved its self-congratulations.

exploring the ocher cliffs

the extra creepy blue-eyed keeper of o the Ocres

Roussillon in all of its splendor

red dust-covered shoes

We wandered away from Roussillon with threatening thunderclouds overhead late in the afternoon. After not much more pedaling, we decided to stay the night in Joucas to cut down on our 900 m climb the next day to Sault, the jumping off point of Mt Ventoux.