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 SalĂ© 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.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Our first impression of Morocco.

Let me give you a little more detailed description of our arrival in Morocco than I did in my brief previous post. We left Gibraltar with in mind to go to Tangier on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco. Following the Spanish coast to avoid cargo ships in the Strait of Gibraltar and the counter current, we changed our mind and stopped in Tarifa, Spain. Nothing special so far except that it made us change our first destination in Morocco. What you should know is that we chose our destinations based on the information we have and that in this case our main source comes from a cruising guide published by Imray in 2006. Six years is usually not much but for Morocco it is the day and night since, as we would soon see, the country has undergone major transformations in recent years. Because of this, the descriptions we had of the various ports of Morocco were completely wrong. But at that time we did not know yet and decided to head for Port Larache where we would supposedly be able to anchor and spend a few peaceful days. So we left the beautiful beach of Tarifa and headed south. Our crossing of the strait was, as you know, enhanced by the meeting of whales and dolphins but they were not going to be the only mammals we would meet. Indeed, homo-sapiens inhabiting every inch of the planet was not far away and after only a few dozen miles in Moroccan waters we were boarded by the Marine Royale of Morocco which is roughly the Coast Guard of the country. A small routine check is nothing very troubling when the boat is at the dock but at sea things are a little different. There we had to haul down the sails and prepare for the docking of their zodiac. Strangely, we had completely finished our operation while they were still working to put their zodiac in the water and we had to wait for them! Finally, two men came on board, asked for the usual information they wrote on a piece of crumpled paper, briefly inspected the inside of the boat and then left. This was done in a polite and friendly manner and of course the fact that we spoke French facilitated the entire process. But the routine checks are fine for the authorities of the country but are completely useless to us, and above all it made us lose almost an hour in our very tight schedule that day so after our characters in uniform have left Chocobo we were not sure we could make it to Port Larache before nightfall.

It was then with all sails open and the port engine fully engaged that we just barely reached the mouth of the river to Port Larache while the sun was putting his pajamas to go to bed on the horizon. At very low speed with eyes riveted on the two depth gauges we traveled up river to a place that seemed correct to anchor for several days. But these few days have quickly turned into a few minutes when the visit arrived. This time it was the port police who kindly told us we could not stay in this peaceful and secluded (and free) spot and we had to moor in the noisy, dirty and obviously paying port of Port Larache. So with the sun already below the horizon, and under the close supervision of the police, we raised the anchor and went to attach Chocobo to a rusty metal dock on which our shoes became stained with red paint and rust hence redecorating the top of our white deck into an abstract cave painting expressing in a way the sense of appreciation we had at the time of the welcome we’d received by Moroccans so far! In no time, the arrival of a “luxurious” catamaran in the port was quick to attract attention and the dock was filled with onlookers coming out of nowhere but also officials of each department the government found useful to invent to govern a port, all armed with paperwork to make me self-digesting my stomach. For you see, papers take a long time to complete when typing at the computer with two fingers or when one does not really speak anything but Arabic, and with all this Danielle and I didn’t have the time to eat anything and our last meal dated back to that morning! However, notice that all this time everyone was very courteous and even if they were a bit lost about what to do with us people were still trying their best to make things easy.

It is then in this picturesque setting and permanent odor of fish that we spent two nights in Port Larache until the wind turned north to continue on our way to Rabat, the capital, which according to our wonderful cruising guide has no facilities for yachts and is not a port of entry and therefore no official is present. However, by talking to people here we quickly learned that Rabat is now one of the main ports for yachts with a large modern marina and the main port of entry for yachts! It's worth paying $ 80.00 for a book that useful! But during our stay in Larache we wanted to visit some places and just to make things more pleasant than they already were a cold front passed over the region bringing with it the first rain for over four months, a temperature of 20 ° C (68 ° F) and humidity near 100%! You can only find conditions more miserable than that in Montreal during fall! Finally, we only went to the ATM to get some Dirhams then returned to the warmth of the boat to watch movies the rest of the day. The next day it was two happy sailors who left Port Larache in fourth gear. At this point, our only idea was to navigate directly to the Canary Islands and to forget about Morocco altogether but as we headed for the Canary Islands a small fishing boat approached us. One of the men on board was making the sign of a cigarette and I signed them to approach. In Gibraltar cigarettes and alcohol was cheap and we had a good supply of brandy and Marlboro to give as gifts to Moroccan officials but as it turned out this practice must be obsolete because no one ever asked me anything close to a bribe and they never made me feel that I needed to give them any kind of baksheesh. Danielle ran inside and came out with a half liter of brandy and a pack of cigarettes which immediately raises cheers of joy from our seafarer colleagues. Sometimes in Muslim countries brandy is worth its weight of gold, but here we got a bag full of small soles that will give us three meals of fried fish with the first one that evening. This little happy interlude with these fishermen has boosted our morale relative to Morocco and we finally decided to head for Rabat and give a chance to this country of sand and ancient culture.