Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Exploring Antigua.

After two weeks at sea we could finally relax and recover our sleep and start to use our muscles again under the bright sun of the Caribbean. Somehow I caught a bug or something while in Cape Verde and about mid way across the Atlantic I developed a sort of lung infection and it took me almost a full week after our arrival here to recover from it. But talking about my being sick would start to be repetitive as it seems I get sick in every country we go lately. However, on a more exciting tone I went on a very interesting tour they have here in Antigua. It was called the Antigua Rainforest Canopy Tour and we would basically wear a harness and slide on zip lines spread between hug trees. This was really fun but unfortunately I had to do this only by myself since it was totally out of question for Danielle to do that activity. Danielle wouldn’t mind to go at the bow of the boat to fix a broken line while sailing through a storm, and she actually did that once, but her chronic vertigo prevents her for climbing a 3 feet (1m) ladder! It is then not hard to imagine that she would bail out of sliding on a cable at 100 ft (30m) over the forest! But the miss was all hers because the 12 zip lines and 9 suspended obstacle bridges were exceptionally fun.

We are definitively back to the Caribbean; the only place in the world where you can find a gas station that actually has no gas! I mean, seriously if they don’t have gas to sell what exactly do they do? Selling chocolate bars? They are obviously at the mercy of the delivery boat but this is exactly why the mercantile society invented a very interesting concept called: inventory. But apparently this obscure concept didn’t reach the southern islands. But part of our recovery time included some alcohol consumption and one night Danielle decided to look up on internet for the recipe of B52 shooters and found out it was made of Tia-Maria, Irish cream and Grand Marinier poured skillfully in distinct layers. It happened that we actually had these ingredient on board and after using the back of a tea spoon to pour the liquids; voila! I don’t know exactly how many we drank because after 12 I stopped counting but I do know that when we ran out of Grand Marinier we used the Brandy we bought in Gibraltar and although the layers were not as clearly defined, by lack of discrepancy in the specific gravity of each liquid or by lack of motor faculties, the taste was good anyway. And as Danielle put it so brilliantly “Bahhhh when it’s in our stomach it ain’t going to make a difference … hic!”

On December 23rd it was my birthday and we had a nice dinner in a fancy restaurant with the crews of “Karacool” in the back and “Adagio III” on the right. Not much to say other than I got a few more grey hairs but still have a very young heart and a beautiful wife.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all and we wish you all the best for the coming year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We crossed the Atlantic!

We finally made it; we crossed the big ‘O following the wake of Christopher Columbus on that crossing of 2111M (3926 km). Two weeks at sea were necessary for that achievement and it was with relief that we shouted “Land ‘O!” when Antigua showed up on the horizon. Two weeks at sea and being tossed in every direction by the waves takes a drain on two unfit sailors like us. We should really stop drinking and start exercising instead! In the mind of most people, crossing the Atlantic is a huge life milestone and it showed up by the sheer number of boats we saw jumping in that adventure while we were in the Canaries where they were preparing for the crossing. We estimated that about 300 other boats crossed the Atlantic at the same time than we did, at one point we were wondering whether we needed to take a number to get in line or what. With the advent of the GPS (Global Positioning System) and autopilots such a journey is now made affordable to a larger portion of the population but still remains a serious undertaking. Therefore, soon after dropping the hook, the cork of the bottle of wine popped and it was time for us to celebrate. An important point to notice is that even though we are now back to the Caribbean we haven’t completed the circumnavigation part of our trip. To complete a circumnavigation of the earth it is necessary to cross all the meridians and to sail over our own wake. We did cross all the meridians of the earth but we are still 35M (65 km) from the closest point of our wake when we sailed in Montserrat in 2009. Therefore, we are not yet to the point of celebrating THAT achievement, which will makes the Atlantic crossing look like a weekend trip, and since we want to stay in Antigua and Barbuda for at least until after Christmas the celebration for the big loop will have to wait a bit more.

The crossing itself went relatively eventless. On two occasions dolphins came to play at the bow of Chocobo and on a sunny day of the first week we had the rare privilege of the company of an 18ft (6m) whale who travelled with us for over an hour and half. This was more than what we asked for since sighting a whale is quite a rare event but having her to swim with us for 90 minutes is the treat of a lifetime! On the fourth day we had the surprise of passing another sailboat. Note that even if 300 other sailboats are crossing doesn’t mean we would see them. We can barely see more than 5 miles around us and the ocean is immense. I called them and they appear to be “Moin”, a German boat, who left Mindelo, the same port we left from, but the day before us. In four days we had caught up with them as we were flying with the strong steady wind prevailing in the eastern part of the Atlantic. That was probably only the second time in our trip that we found a boat slower than us and with our boosted ego we wish them good luck and fair wind as they disappeared behind us. We saw another sailboat on the horizon about a week later but we didn’t bother calling them. They didn’t call us either so they were probably not inclined to chat although usually when one spends two weeks at sea without seeing another boat it is usually tempting to talk to another human being other than his or her own spouse!

But beside these few “events” an ocean crossing is quite a boring adventure in itself. We stay on watch 24/7 alternating on 4 hour shifts during the night and a less rigid schedule during the day. In the morning when the night has been wavy I had to go and throw overboard the flying fishes that jumped on the boat in a suicidal leap for survival but end up flapping on the front trampolines. This time we caught a weird fish that I’m holding here on the picture. Danielle cooks pretty much all the meals since I am usually quite incapacitated by the continuous movement of the waves. I appear not to be much of a sailor on long passages although I jump right up when something breaks to fix it in a timely fashion. However, to our great surprise and satisfaction, we didn’t encounter any breakups worth mentioning during that very long passage. Normally, we would have expected to have a long list of repairs along the way or to be done as soon as we touch land but it seems that all the precautionary work we did and the fact that we now know Chocobo like the back of our hand really paid off. Exchanging emails with two of our boat friends, who are also crossing, we learned that one had a flaky autopilot looking for a reason to die and the other had his main sail ripped apart. On Chocobo we had only the spring of a deck block that snapped under fatigue with basically no consequences other than the fact that this block, which is under constant pressure of over many hundreds of pounds anyway would not stand straight up by itself! Chocobo might be a high maintenance chick but she’s a good boat.

Arrived in Antigua.

We arrived at English Harbor on the island of Antigua in the Caribbean from Mindelo in the Republic of Cape Verde in on December 12th, 2011 after a passage of 2111 nautical miles (3926 km) that took us 14 days, 6 hours and 30 minutes for an average speed of 6.2 knots, which is relatively fast for such a long crossing. This was our second longest crossing after the Pacific and accounted for a huge milestone in our journey.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Not much to say about Cape Verde.

We don’t have much to say about Cape Verde because we stayed only 4 short days just to sleep a bit after our crossing from the Canaries and to complete the last repairs and maintenance on the boat before the Atlantic crossing. Danielle and I went ashore only once for leisure and that very day a huge cruise ship docked in the harbor for the day and consequently the only people in the streets were tourists while the only locals we encountered were young men trying to get money from us by either simply asking for it or using more or less elaborated schemes to attain the same result. I went a couple of other times but it was for clearance and groceries. With the other thousands of tourists in town we went to a restaurant and to the farmer’s market to fill up with fresh fruits and veggies and in both places we got totally tourist priced by paying, in a poor African country, more than what we would pay back home! Since it didn’t amount to much money we didn’t argue the prices and simply contributed to the local economy. It may sound that we didn’t have a good time in Cape Verde but it was not the case. The small town of Mindelo and peoples were very nice and we had indeed a good time and rested plenty and finally got ready for the two week crossing to come.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Presently crossing the Atlantic.

We are now crossing the big ‘O as in the Atlantic; a 2000M passage and two weeks at sea. You can always follow our progress by clicking on the “Where we are” button at the top of the page so see our daily position. See you on the other side!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Sailing home.

Go see the new video we put together to highlight the fact that we are starting our last major crossing before coming back to the Americas. Click on the “Video” button at the top of the page and select the video called “Chocobo Sailing Home”. It is a recollection of 40 something video clips we shot during our trip so far with the music of circumstance of “Sailing Home”. We are now in Cape Verde where we plan to stay a few days then we’ll jump across the Atlantic. If the plans don’t change until then we should land in Antigua and Barbuda, two islands we missed on our way down at the beginning of our trip. Note that this will not complete our circumnavigation yet since we need to sail across a path we already sailed which will happen soon after we leave Antigua and Barbuda. The bottle of Champagne is already put aside for the event.

Arrived in Cape Verde.

We arrived at Mindelo on the island of Sao Vincente in the Republic of Cape Verde in Africa from Las Palmas, Canaries on November 24th, 2011 after a passage of 866 nautical miles (1611 km) that took us 6 days and 23 hours for an average speed of 5.2 knots, which is relatively slow but we had to stall the boat for many hours the last day to arrive after sunrise.

A sailor’s soap opera.

Our main goal in the Canaries was to take a break from travelling and to relax a bit before venturing into our transatlantic crossing. And that’s what we did for at least a good two weeks. After visiting Lanzarote and Fuerteventura, two of the main islands of the archipelago, we stopped in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria the largest city of the islands. This picture is a vibrant sunrise taken over the harbor of Las Palmas. Sunsets and sunrises are like dolphins, we see them all the time but we are always in admiration when we see them.

The other day Joy, the second person from the right on the first picture, told me “Don’t ever show your friends a picture of sailors you’ve met in your travels. They simply have no interests whatsoever in people they don’t know.” And she’s absolutely right. Nobody but ourselves really cares about these people we’ve met here and there but the fact is that they are intrinsically part of our trip. You read this blog to know what we see and what we do in this trip then here they are all these other sailors we meet in every port and every anchorage and whom for the large majority we will never see again. Now you might think that this story is going to be awfully boring but there is much more to these bearded drinking sailors than what meets the eyes. First, you need to stick with me and follow the characters in the pictures as I go through some presentation. On the first picture we were visiting Gran Canaria and you can see from left to right myself, Danielle, Janie, Joy and Phil. Janie and Phil were married before Eve gave the apple to Adam and were anchored just beside us in Las Palmas and as for Joy I’ll come back to her in a minute. The second picture was taken in a get together on La Graciosa and I am talking to Marc and his wife Amanda while the Asian person on the very right of the picture is Mai, who is actually not from Asia but from Canada, Toronto to be more precise. Now behind Marc is a guy with a grey hat, a white beard and a white T-Shirt, this is Richard sailing on “Moonshadow”. On the third picture, which was taken on “La Palapa” just before the ARC party in Las Palmas, we can see from left to right; Roger (not me, the other Roger), Carl and Birgit from Germany, Seet, Danielle and me. The person taking the picture is Aimée. Now here’s the story and it all started in Gibraltar. While at the Marina in Gibraltar we met for the second time Tony and Joy on board “Tactical Direction”. Tony is the captain and Joy, the one on the first picture remember, joined as a crew from Australia. Everything was going well with the two of them sailing together and one night Tony asked us to join them for dinner at a Brazilian restaurant by the marina with another German couple they had recently met. The couple in question was Carl and Birgit who sailed on “African Affair” and with whom we had a good evening together. In Gibraltar we also went out a couple of times with Karli and Roger on “La Palapa” who we know since Egypt. Karli and Roger were then together for over a year and sailed from Australia where they’ve met. Karli was born in Australia while Roger was a newly divorced American from his wife after she decided to abandon the trip but Roger didn’t want to abandon his dream of sailing round the world and decided to continue on his own. Roger and Karli’s trip went well for a while but already we could feel that things were not to last too long between them. We left Gibraltar and then sailed to Rabat in Morocco and “Tactical Direction” arrived just a few days later at the only marina in town. As we were going to Marrakesh they went with other people on other boats on a tour to visit the Sahara and Morocco. Once back as we were recovering from our cold we saw Joy coming back alone from the tour. We asked where the others were and apparently something happened and she decided to come back to the boat while the others kept visiting for another day or two. We didn’t ask any more questions as it was simply none of our business and it stayed like that. Another boat was in Rabat called “Moonshadow” with Richard as the captain, the guy with the white beard on the second picture, and Mai the Asian from Toronto who had just joined as a crew.

Meanwhile we learned that Karli and Roger on “La Palapa” decided to take a break of each other and that Karli took her stuff and flew to Bali to spend a month learning to become a Yoga instructor. The word was that she was gone for good. But even before we were through with our cold and Morocco Roger had sailed to the Canaries and rejoined with “Vagabon” a boat he knew way back from Pirate Alley. I don’t remember the names of the guy on that boat but I know he took a crew at one point, a girl backpacking from Russia, and now the two of them seemed to have a pretty good close relationship. Recently another girl joined the boat; it’s Aimée that you can see kissing Roger on that picture. Now you can see the topo here. Roger needs a crew to cross the Atlantic, Aimée is young and pretty and the Russian first lady on Vagabon is not very warm at the idea of having “another hot chick” on board “Vagabon”. It didn’t take more than two or three days and Aimée had jumped ship and was now sailing on “La Palapa”. We and a bunch of other boats all sailed from Rabat to La Graciosa in the Canaries where we would have a beer altogether on the beach at sunset. Then we learned that something wasn’t working well between Mai and Richard and that she decided to jump ship and joined Tony and Joy on “Tactical Direction” who now had two crews but Richard ended being alone to cross the Atlantic. Again we didn’t ask too many question because it wasn’t our damn business. Meanwhile we learn that Roger and Aimée after two weeks of partying are getting along so well that they decided to get married! At first we thought that this was a fun wedding just between the two of them but no, Roger confirmed later that they actually got married with papers and all! We are still debating of the legal meaning of a marriage between an American and a Canadian who got married in Spain! When we were done with La Graciosa we sailed south to Lanzarote while most of the other boats stayed in la Graciosa. At Playa Blanca we decided to take a tour to visit the island and the bus was to pick us up in front of a local hotel. As we stepped on the bus we ended up face to face with Joy who also took the same tour. But to our knowledge she was still supposed to be on “Tactical Direction” at La Graciosa. Then we learned that at one point, for no obvious reasons, Tony told Joy that it would better if she could leave now rather than later and he would continue with Mai. So Joy was now renting a room in Playa Blanca until she could take the ferry to Las Palmas from where she would take a plane to Rome about ten days later. We had a great visit of Lanzarote in company of Joy and then left a couple of days later because the weather made it untenable at that anchorage. We sailed down the island of Fuerteventura and the second day we stopped in a little town and a boat arrives the next day. It is “Adagio II” who we never met before but then I hear “Hey Roger!” I looked but with the sun behind them I couldn’t see who that could be. “It’s Joy!, came the voice from the boat. She had joined her friend Dusty on “Adagio II” and got a ride to Las Palmas with them. A couple days later we were in Las Palmas where the ARC was gathering. The ARC is the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers and is a huge fun race to cross the Atlantic. This year they should be about 230 or something boats crossing all officially leaving the same day. We are not really into that sort of rally with fix departure date and more of an independent mood and leaving when the weather tells us to do so. Nevertheless, Roger on “La Palapa” and his young new wife joined the ARC and consequently all the parties that come with it, which is about one party every day. They asked us to join them on “La Palapa” for a Mojito pre-party drink and we gladly accepted the offer. A Mojito is a rum based drink with soda and mint. Very good especially when it is Aimée who makes them with 50% rum! As we got on the boat Roger told us they were expecting a friend couple they just met. They arrived a few minutes later and sure enough it was Carl and Birgit on “African Affair” that we met in Gibraltar. They also had joined the ARC and all the six of us as well as Jen and Seet went to the party after two or three Mojitos of Aimée’s concoction. The party was sponsored by the largest chandler in town called “Rolnautic” and food and alcohol were served on an all you can drink basis. Well, let me tell you that a bunch of sailors can drink a lot and we sure did. A few hours later we were so drunk we could barely walk. Somehow I ended with Aimée in my arms and Danielle telling me to take her back to the boat safely. She on her side was carrying Roger who was barely able to walk. Note that Danielle and I were not in better shape but following our German friends I made it back with Aimée to “La Palapa” while Danielle and Roger went missing for a while until they arrived about an hour later. By then, Aimée was in bed; Carl and Birgit were snoring in their boat and Roger collapse in the cockpit. Danielle and I took our dinghy and I managed to find back Chocobo. The next morning somehow I was the only one who had any recollection of what had happened the night before and I had to tell everyone the whole story and reassure them that nobody had misbehaved and should not be worried of having said or done something embarrassing other than being completely toasted. But that morning as we were tending to our hangovers Danielle and I were very hungry and wanted to eat a BLT sandwich but didn’t have any tomatoes left. I dinghied to “Adagio II” to ask Joy if they didn’t have a tomato to spare. I got my tomato but Joy also told me that “Adagio II” was leaving the next day and that she had to stay another four day in Las Palmas until her flight on the 13th. Unfortunately, because of the ARC in town there was not a single room available for her to stay and was wondering if she could stay on Chocobo. Of course, there was no problem and Joy came on board and stayed four nights with us until she flew to Rome. We had a visit of Gran Canaria with Phil and Janie as well as Joy. One night we cooked a pizza on Chocobo with Joy, who is as I mentioned lives in Tasmania but was born in Germany so she was going along pretty well with Carl and Birgit who both were drinking water the day after the party but were again on the party two days later. The interesting thing about the pizza was that we made it with flour we bought in Turkey, the oil came from Australia, the salami and pizza sauce were from Morocco, the sugar from somewhere in South Pacific and the mushrooms, green peppers and cheese were from the Canary Islands. We cooked it in an American stove using butane gas bought in Spain and put in a bottle from Australia. It was what I call an international pizza! As we speak, Roger who is American and his new wife Aimée from Canada are getting prepared to cross the Atlantic and to find a deserted island to party while Carl and Birgit from Germany are also preparing their African made boat to do the crossing with the circumnavigation of the world in mind. Mai, the Chinese women who immigrated in Toronto is still on board “Tactical Direction” with Tony from Australia, while Richard from Oregon is still looking for a crew to cross the ocean with a stop in Senegal. Joy flew to Rome where she will spend some time with her sister before flying to Munich to see other relatives and then get back home to Tasmania in the south of Australia. As for Danielle and I we are still together and still deeply love each other even after three and half years living 24/7 side by side.
As you can see pictures of the other travelers we met are maybe boring but the stories behind them is not always and this is a huge part of our trip. In the last three and half years we met hundreds of boats of all nationalities who live their dreams and like us wander the oceans in search of an escape to our otherwise meaningless lives. They are great people and we have a lot of fun with them but every time we raise the anchor and wave them goodbye we never know if we will see them ever again.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Dry Canaries

The Canary Islands were for us a stop to wait for our transatlantic crossing which will be our second longest passage at sea after the Pacific. Obviously, we have to wait because of the hurricane season in the Caribbean and the huge storms in northern Atlantic but while we are here better take the time to enjoy the place. Did you know that the name Canary from which the archipelago takes its name is not about the little bird of the same name but really about the huge dogs that used to roam the islands? They were called Canaria, which has its root in canis, the Latin for dog. Who would have thought? I was sure to see tons of Canaries, the birds, here but nope if there were any in the past they probably all died from the major volcanic eruptions that happened a couple of centuries ago although there’s been regularly eruptions in the archipelago at an average period of 40 years. In fact, at the very moment there are many underwater eruptions happening around El Hierro the westernmost island of the group.

Among the pleasure of the Canaries we couldn’t miss trying a paella for the last time which is probably the national dish of Spain and for our geography lesson of the day let’s mention that the Canary Islands are part of Spain. Paella is a rice dish cooked in the oven with sea food or a choice of meat. October 31st is still Halloween although not very popular around here. As you can see my imagination is boundless when it comes to choose what costume I should wear. Note that if I really wanted to be accurate in my disguise I would have need to paint my skin black like Somalis, wear dirty worn out pants and t-shirt and carry an AK-47 as well as a rocket launcher. But unfortunately most of those items were missing on board Chocobo! Finally, there’s no need to be fancy to have fun. A simple walk can rapidly turn into a photo shooting frenzy.

If you’re like us you thought camels were only in Africa or Middle East. Well, geographically the Canaries are really in Africa but still somehow we didn’t expect to see “camelus dromedaries” in a Spanish territory. For 6 Euros ($8.70) per person our humpy friend took us for a 20 minutes ride in the black desert of Lanzarote Island.

The dromedary ride was part of a visit tour we took on Lanzarote, one of the seven major islands forming the archipelago. During that visit we saw many things out of the ordinary. The first picture shows a vineyard where the vines are planted in the middle of a little stone wall to protect against the elements. The island is very dry and growing anything is a definitive challenge. But what really impressed me was the number of these little walls and last time I checked there was no machine to build that kind of wall! Click on the picture to enlarge it and you’ll see that the circles expand as far as the surrounding hills. On the second picture if it wasn’t of the blue sky and the sea in the background we could easily believe we just landed on the moon. A large portion of the island is actually less than 200 years old from massive eruptions that changed the nature of the landscape. Finally on the third picture, besides Danielle unforgettable smile, we can see in the background a small green lake in the bottom of a volcano. The green color comes from an algae living in that pond.

We couldn’t pass on that one. We always say that sailors are always challenged when it comes to clothing wearing wrinkled faded t-shirts and over reused shorts. Well here we have the proof that tourists on cruise ships are fair contenders to the fashionably challenged specie in the world. I mean yellow socks in sandals with blue shorts and a beige shirt it’s hard to beat!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Arrived in Canary Islands.

We arrived at Playa Francesa on the island of La Graciosa in the Canary Archipelago from Rabat, Morocco on October 18th, 2011 after a passage of 459 nautical miles (854 km) that took us 3 days and 18 hours, but included 4 overnights, for an average speed of 5.1 knots. Note that Canary Islands are part of Spain although they sit in the Atlantic Ocean off the Moroccan coast in Africa.

Friday, October 14, 2011

To visit or not to visit?

While waiting for our immune systems to do their job against the epidemic of cold raging on Chocobo we tried to decide about our next destination. If you think that we have a detailed plan in mind about the path we will follow and everything we will visit in the next six months then maybe you’re not reading this blog for long enough. In fact, as a general rule we have a good idea of the general direction we will head to and the seasons we have to respect but for the details we don’t plan more than a week in advance. The reason is that we change our minds every five minutes according to our impulses of the moment. Danielle in particular is notorious to act with spontaneity . For example the other day we were at the post office sticking Moroccan stamps on an envelope and we wondered who could well be the man on each of the stamps. A young Moroccan happened to pass by and with no more formalities Danielle turned toward him and asked ''Who's that guy?'' while pointing on the stamp. The guy looked at us as with a super smile, hesitated a moment and then replied ''But this is the king!'', holding his big amused smile. In a sense, he probably was not completely wrong and realized it then started to laugh to tell us that this was the current King Mohammed VI of Morocco and immediately we saw the incongruity of the situation and started laughing. Continually changing our mind and responding too quickly creates sometimes comical situations but it is greatly useful when we need to respond quickly.

So the dilemma we have is that we have two months to spend in the area before we can cross the Atlantic sometime in December. Presently we can chose between leaving Morocco and head directly for the Canary Islands, where we will have to spend almost two months doing almost nothing, or sail south to the city of Agadir and take a tour to go camelback riding in the Sahara. For the most adventurous the Agadir scenario is self obvious but we have to remember that we are travelling for over three years and after 45 visited countries we are not as trilled as we were at the beginning to see new things. It is certain that this is probably our last chance to take a hike in the Sahara because for our future travels we will have to choose between hundreds of extraordinary places to visit in the world that we wouldn’t have seen yet. Moreover, these things are not cheap and if you look carefully at our cost page you will realize that the bill of this trip begins to be as steep as the Grand Canyon so it is very tempting to go basking freely on the Canary’s beaches and to wait quietly for the hurricanes to calm down in the Atlantic.

So while one day we are settled to put on our backpacks and to climb our dromedary and the next day we are as determined to head directly to the Canaries we spend our days relaxing, doing some chores on the boat, shopping a bit at the medina of Salé and at night watching movies about three movies every day! The boat overflows with supplies in prevision of the time we will spend in the Atlantic so all we need are fresh fruits and veggies we can find at ridiculous prices on the stalls of the medina. We don’t have to deal prices in Morocco and this makes our life much easier and simpler. Prices are not always marked but after over three weeks we realized that merchants all asked pretty much the same thing for the different products. Restaurants also are quite cheap. It is maybe not Thailand but we can still eat a good meal for about $12 per person or less. So if you ask us what our life looks like these days then let’s say that we relax, we enjoy the good food, we warm up under the African sun (while nights are relatively cool) and as soon as the wind picks up again in a few day we sail away at sea but we don’t know for what destination!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Recovering in Rabat.

After our visit of Marrakesh we came back to capital city of Rabat where we left Chocobo and on our return we brought back more than beautiful images of the magnificent city we also brought back a flu virus. Yes you read right; the FLU! I mean how in the world can one get the flu when the average temperature during the day is 36°C (97°F)??? Well we sure managed that, no challenge is too hard for us. And with this we had to basically spend the week at the nice marina in Rabat with a box of tissues, lots of rest and watching an industrial quantity of movies. Of course, the fact that you can get some pretty good movies for 10 Dirham ($1.25) in Marrakesh and 5 Dirham ($0.63) in Rabat sure helped with that. In the other hand having some time to rest and do nothing is not a bad thing altogether but we are looking forward to move somewhere else.

One cannot spend time in Morocco and not hear about Mohammed V the king who was primarily responsible for the independence of the kingdom. Every city has a major boulevard named after him and in Rabat they erected a mausoleum for him. Now, this rather small building wouldn’t be a big deal if it wasn’t one of the most beautiful manmade structure in the world. Everything is made of carved marble or other noble stones and as soon as we got closer we quickly realized that this building that looks a bit ordinary from afar was in fact a stunning piece of workmanship that made us stop on the doorstep all mouth open.

Right in front of the mausoleum of Mohammed V stands for a few centuries already La Tour Hassan. This structure was intended to be a minaret and the 200 columns you see behind me where supposed to sustain the planned mosque but the poor fellow who dreamt of what was supposed to become the largest mosque in the world passed away before work completion and his dream died with him. We left the site and then walked a few kilometers north to the medina where we could admire some architecture unique to Morocco. The medinas or old cities are actually a dangerous place to wander. Not that anyone would attack us for Moroccans are very nice people but because we might get lost. These old quarters were planned either by a guy doing way too much drugs or by a fine strategist who wanted to ensure no invaders would be able to find his way through this maze of streets and souks.

As it is always the case Rabat is not only an old city but also an enjoyable modern city with, among other things, its brand new tramway system allowing people to travel all across the city for only 6 Dirham ($0.75). During the past few days since we arrived in the country it became obvious to us that Morocco is ongoing some major breakthroughs in its development and the situation is moving in the right direction for what seems to be the only stable country in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Among friends in Marrakesh.

The best way to visit a region is to know someone who lives there and visit him during the trip and it is this unique opportunity we had for our visit to Morocco. I worked for several years in Ottawa with Said, a born Moroccan, who returned with his family to live in Marrakesh. So we left our boat in the national capital of Rabat and put on our backpacks to visit them and to visit at the same time this tan city with its souks and of course the Moroccan food. On the picture you can see from left to right Leila, who at fourteen is already at her fifth comic book drawn on paper, Danielle with her legendary smile, Hakim who like all teenagers doesn’t talk much, but becomes quite feverish when the subject becomes the latest video games, then at the other table we see Sylvie the active career woman who is a director in a clothing company and finally Said physicist by training, engineer by passion and university professor by profession. It’s with all these nice peoples that we spent three days in Marrakesh. The picture was taken in one of the many restaurants that open every day in the public square of Jemaa El Fna, Marrakesh’s most famous area.

The Moroccan architecture is the first thing that strikes in Marrakesh. The city has a regulation stating that all houses must be of color tan which is the color that was obtained with earthy materials used in the early days for building construction. But it's not just the old walls of the medina that captures the eye but also more modern constructions such as the main train station in Marrakesh that you can see here and that is perhaps not a monumental building in size but is of impressive beauty when you stand in front of it.

Just behind Jemaa El Fna Square we find the famous Moroccan souks. But unlike Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, which is full of shops selling only bits and pieces for tourists, here souks form a real shopping center for people of Marrakesh and one finds everything in this maze of incredible streets and squares. As a matter of fact it was a good thing Said was with us because we would have gotten lost for sure. Once out of the souks we were back to the central square where we find traditional water carriers such as this one. Now I'm not sure that anyone still buys water they carry in their water pouch made, I think, in goat skins, but they are constantly asked by visitors to be photographed, for few dinars of course.

Bulk produce is one of the many interesting things to see in the souks. Spices, nuts, dried fruits, supposedly medicinal products or simple natural soaps can be found in industrial quantities around the maze of boutiques. And prices are frankly very reasonable. Then, in the periphery sections of the souks we find factories where craftsmen manufactures things sold in the sections closer to the central square. A small note by the way about the vendors in the shops. As you can imagine one doesn’t walk in front of a store without being approached by the vendors, which is perfectly normal as they are not there to put color into the background but to sell their products. But unlike similar places in most other countries, Moroccan merchants know the meaning of the word ''no'' and it was possible to walk without too much hassle in this commercial maze especially when we stood not too far behind Said that everyone took for an informal guide who had caught two tourist losers and who would be asking them a sizable commission for bringing customers.

Finally, our visit of the souks ended in front of a bowl of snails served in a pepper sauce and sold in one of the few designated kiosks on Jemaa El Fna square next to the snake or monkey handlers. Snails were pretty good by the way, but Danielle, who is usually very fond of snails that you buy in tins and are served with garlic butter au gratin, just passed on them this time! I wonder why?

I could not finish my article on Marrakesh without at least showing you a picture of Said and his family’s beautiful house where we spent the three nights of our stay. Unfortunately we did not bring our swimsuits, which was a shame since it was around 36 ° C (97 ° F) during the whole time we were there. It is also in this house, I called the Belkouch Manor, that we ate most of our traditional Moroccan meals generously provided by our hosts. In the end, visiting the attractions of Marrakesh was of course interesting, but after three years of traveling and over 45 countries visited, it’s really the time spent with our four friends that was the most interesting. It was good to see Said and Sylvie after so many years and finally get to know their two children, Hakim and Leila, who were about seven and five last time we saw them. Our stay was a bit short but we hope to see them again next time they come to visit relatives in Canada.