Author Archives: mrbanhmi

Casablanca — Here’s Lookin’ at You, Craphole City I Never Want to See Again

Since we’ve been back the most common question after “So what was your favorite place?” that we get is “So what was your least favorite place?” We went to so many amazing places and saw so many amazing things that answering the first question is difficult. Answering the second question is not difficult at all. Casablanca was easily the most terrible city we encountered. Horrible people, polluted, concrete sprawl. There was literally nothing redeeming about this place. We had to come to Casablanca because our flight to Frankfurt (via Lisbon) was flying out of Casablanca. We had to get to Frankfurt so we could fly home to America. People are always SO upset when they hear how awful Casablanca is, presumably because there’s a movie! And it’s called Casablanca! It’s a great movie! Casablanca has to be great! I have to question whether these people have actually SEEN the movie because even in the film, Casablanca is a shit hole filled with corrupt officials and murderous backstabbers. Life imitates art or vice-versa?

Getting to Casablanca from Essaouira was irritating because we had only 2 awful transit options. There was ONE bus that took 7-8 hours driving up the coast. This was ruled out because it left at some obscene time and because after one coastal bus turned vomitorium we were not ready to take another ride. The other choice, equally long, was to backtrack by bus to Marrakech and then take the train to Casablanca. This had a few benefits in that, first, I love taking trains and secondly, it wasn’t even going to be that bad a transfer as the bus station and train station in Marrakech are literally in the same building. So bus to train it was. Little did we know how awful this was going to be.

The bus morning bus ride to Marrakech wasn’t actually that remarkable. There did seem to be an awful lot more white people on this bus (and irritating white people at that –ethnic pants wearing dreadlock sporting long-term travel types that are pretty ubiquitous in SE Asia) but so be it. We got to the bus station which was pretty chaotic but nothing insane. Some British gap year girls (inappropriately dressed for a muslim country) were loudly berating the train ticket counter staff because they couldn’t purchase a train ticket to Essaouira. I was able to politely (and, inside, gleefully) inform them that they can’t buy a train ticket to Essaouira because THERE IS NO TRAIN TO ESSAOUIRA. “WHAT!? NO TRAIN?! HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO GET THERE!?” Uh, take the bus dummies. I was told that they would NOT be taking a bus and they asked where they could find a private driver. I shrugged my shoulders and they huffily walked away. I hope those snotty children had a horrible day.

There was a bit of confusion about which track we were supposed to be on and we boarded a train that, for about 10 minutes, we thought might be the wrong train (in turned out to be the correct one in the end).  I don’t know what about my public transit experiences in Morocco made me think that their train system would be nice, but I just had this notion for some reason. It was difficult to find seats on the train but we eventually did. A young woman was sitting across from me spitting me DEATH STARES because I’d had the gall to ask her to move her shopping bags off the seat so I could sit in it. He rage eventually grew too hot and she actually got up and moved about 30 minutes into the trip. I want to try to accurately put into words how uncomfortable this train ride was but I won’t do it justice. We’d just gotten off a 4 hour bus ride. We were sweating. It was hot. The air conditioning on the train was broken or never worked in the first place. It must have been at least 95 degrees in that train car. The seats were very close together. Across from me were two French gap year kids one of whom was wearing very short shorts and insisted on putting his foot up the whole time. I got to know him…intimately…without ever exchanging a word.  The train interior was dusty and dirty and gross. The landscape was barren and boring. It was 4 hours of just sheer boredom, discomfort, sweat and a Frenchman’s scrotum directly in my field of view.

We finally arrived in Casablanca. I was hot, dirty, hungry and furious. And now I was going to have to haggle with a Moroccan cab driver. I was not going to take any shit because I just WAS.NOT.IN.THE.MOOD. We were accosted from the moment we left the station by cab drivers. This is fine, this is standard.  Our strategy in these situations is to bypass the most aggressive cabbies and find the one minding his own business smoking a cigarette away from the herd. We tried to do this but a few of the cabbies broke off from the herd and began following us. We got to negotiating and they quoted us some outrageous price – Like $6 to go less than a mile and a half. I was in no mood for this nonsense. We must have haggled and walked away from about 4 different cab drivers. They were getting mad at us for shopping around and they began to yell at us. We finally found a guy willing to bargain a BIT and we just gave up and got in his cab. Screaming cab drivers was our welcome to Casablanca.

We went to our hotel. We only had about 24 hours in Casablanca. I had wanted to go see the ONE tourist site worth seeing, the Hassan II Mosque which is one of the biggest in the world and it sits right on the coast line but it was too late in the day and we were exhausted.

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Beautiful. Too bad I’ll NEVER SEE IT IN PERSON.

The other thing tourists here want to do (not that there are many because Casablanca pretty well sucks) is go to “Rick’s Café” like from the movie.  I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you CAN go to Rick’s! The bad news is that it was opened in 2004, so not exactly authentic. That means that for 60 years there was not a single soul in all of Casablanca who had the bright idea to open up a crappy bar, slap a “Rick’s” sign above it and charge way too much for shitty drinks to be consumed by dumb tourists with deep pockets. That boggles my mind.

We were hungry and thirsty so we went out to go find a store to get some snacks and drinks. We walked around for about an hour and literally nothing about this city appealed to us. It’s gray, dirty and depressing in an urban sprawl kind of way. There is an immaculate new tram system (which almost ran us over) but I am not sure exactly where it goes that would be useful for us. We were accosted by an insane man with a lazy eye on a street corner. He spoke excellent English which sent alarm bells ringing in my head. Anyone that speaks fluent English that tries to strike up a convo with a tourist on a street corner is up to no good. He actually, if memory serves, tried to ask me a question about sports. He just sidled up to me and asked “Do you like football?” I said, “Yeah, it’s great” and bolted across the street. We were whistled at, touted, and generally stared at as we walked around the city. I haven’t felt that unwelcome in a place in a while. We got some biscuits and waters and went back to the hotel. We rested. Dinner time approached. Kat and I looked at each other. We’d had 8 hours on buses, trains and cabs. We were sweaty and dirty. We were just done. Done with Casablanca, Done with Morocco and, in this moment, really done with traveling in general. These are the moments, and there are many of them, that people don’t think about when they hear the words “around the world trip.” In that moment, there was only thing to do:

This is, in fact, the actual McDonald's we ate at though this is not our photo.

This is, in fact, the actual McDonald’s we ate at though this is not our photo. 20 dirhams for a filet-o-fish?! Highway robbery!

Judge us. I don’t care. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Sometimes you just need a taste of home. We didn’t want to deal with finding a restaurant, getting there, dealing with the language barrier. We just wanted something quick and easy and, most of all, familiar. We darted to a McDonald’s we’d seen earlier in the day, went inside, ordered (it was the most crowded, chaotic McDonald’s I’d ever been in. MOBS of teenagers and a very harried employee taking peoples’ orders with a wireless device) got our stuff to go and bolted back to the hotel, refusing to look at anyone or anything. We ate our burgers and fries happily in bed and I hooked our laptop up to the tv and we watched American sitcoms. Casablanca was all happening right outside our window but it might as well have been a million miles away. We had traveled tens of thousands of miles over seven months and now we were doing all we could to try to feel like we were back in America. It was time for us to come home.

NOTE – Apologies for the lack of photos. We took no actual photos of Casablanca because why on Earth would we want to remember this place?

Essaouira – Vomit Bus to Paradise

We were happy to be taking leave of the all-inclusive resort in Agadir and all the pasty British people that live there. Very happy to finally check out and remove that goddamn blue wristband that I had to wear for 5 days to mark myself as one of the white tourist cattle that was entitled to free, crappy, all-you-can-drink martinis. Blerg. We were VERY excited for our next destination – Essaouira. A laid-back, quiet beach town famous for its windsurfing. When we told Moroccans we were headed to Essaouira they ALL said the same thing: “Lucky you!”

We got out of the taxi leaving the chatty driver and the (almost definitely) prostitute (see previous post) behind. We had gone to the bus station a few days earlier to buy our bus tickets in person because, surprise, the bus company’s website was broken (from what I can gather it NEVER works as when I asked hotel staff to assist in purchasing the tickets I was met with a shoulder shrug). So we’re waiting there for the bus…and waiting….and waiting. We began to panic that we’d done something wrong or that the bus was coming to a different part of the station or a different station entirely. No one spoke any English and even if they had, the bus station workers were much too engrossed in smoking cigarettes and scowling at anyone resembling a paying customer to answer my questions. So….we just waited. The bus did eventually arrive, an hour late, but better late than never.

The bus ride was pretty short – maybe only 3-4 hours. It was one of the most beautiful bus rides I have ever experienced. It was also one of the most awful. Not quite as bad as Burma’s 12 hour JESUS-I-HAVE-TO-PEE-BUT-THERE-ARE-40-MONKS-IN-MY-WAY-AND-THE-BUS-DOESN’T-MAKE-ANY-STOPS variety, but still bad. The route took us north directly (and I mean DIRECTLY) on Morocco’s rocky picturesque coastline. It was amazing scenery to look out as our bus drove along cliffs over the Atlantic. Occasionally you’d see caves where people had made homes right into the rocks. The road was incredibly twisty-turny and, on top of that, it also would go up incredibly steep climbs and then down steep drops. This did not abate for 3 hours. I do NOT get car sick EVER but even I was feeling a bit queasy. The 80 year old woman behind us was not of as stout a constitution as us. She immediately began vomiting into a plastic bag. Violent, wretching, incredibly smelly vomiting. This also went on for 3 hours. It was a situation where it was just so awful but she looked so frail and old. As a frequent traveler, my initial reaction to anything that inconveniences me is rage but, as Kat said to me, “This is somebody’s grandmother. How would you feel if that were your grandmother?” Mrs. Banh Mi makes me a better person every day.

Of course, that’s all in retrospect. At the time, I was not a happy camper. We stopped at a rest stop – really more of a shack with toilets (holes in the ground) and a few guys running a coal barbecue with about 6 whole animal carcasses hanging next to them. Normally I live for that sort of stuff but I wasn’t in the mood for food. Kat wanted some potato chips. We asked how much and were told some exorbitant sum like 20 dirhams — about $2.50.  This was highway robbery. That bag of chips wouldn’t cost that much in AMERICA, much less in bumblefuck western Morocco. Kat didn’t care. Her stomach wasn’t feeling right and she needed some starch in there. I refused to pay (and the guy refused to bargain). So for the umpteenth time a minor domestic ensued. These always play out the same way. Kat wants something. I am too cheap to pay for it. She gets upset. I realize I’ve made a mistake and relent. But THEN she doesn’t WANT it anymore. So we both sit in silence for 10 minutes until we both just agree to get over it. Needless to say, Mrs. Banh Mi got her chips in the end – along with an apology from me.

We got back on the bus. More wretching ensued. I cranked up my ipod and tried to remember Buddha’s teaching of the impermanence of the totality of human existence.

We finally arrived at Essaouira. We were staying at a traditional Moroccan home-stay called a riad. Homestay isn’t quite right. Imagine a B&B in a traditional Moroccan home. A guy from our riad was there to meet us at the bus station. Our bus was hours late and he had waited there the whole time. He also insisted on carrying our bags. For our whole stay in Essaouira he helped us, guided us and was generally kind beyond belief. When Kat’s watch broke he INSISTED on fixing it himself. It’s small kindnesses like this that transcend cultural and language boundaries that make longterm travel a special thing.

Our riad (http://riad-essaouira-malaika.com/) Riad Malaika was so wonderful. Friendly staff, beautiful building.

The view from right outside our room looking straight down to the fountain in the central courtyard. The breeze blowing over the water helps keep the building cool.

The view from right outside our room looking straight down to the fountain in the central courtyard. The breeze blowing over the water helps keep the building cool.

Our hallway

Our hallway

Hell, even the entryway into our bathroom was amazing

Hell, even the entryway into our bathroom was amazing

We took breakfast on the roof each morning

We took breakfast on the roof each morning

Essaouira is a popular destination and has been for quite some time. Apparently folks like Jimi Hendrix spent time here and this was a popular hippie/backpacking spot back in the 60’s. It remains a beautiful town with a historic medina feel despite the influx of tourism. There were a TON of tourists there – but they were mostly Moroccan families (though there was certainly no shortage of white people). It was the only place in Morocco where I was openly offered drugs – twice. There did seem to be a few hippy-types who would come to restaurants high as all hell and sit there and smoke cigarettes and drink coca-cola. We spent our time there wandering the windy streets inside the old fortress walls, walking on the (INCREDIBLY) windy beach and generally relaxing in the riad which despite the heat outside was cool and breezy with white walls and the traditional fountain in the center of the ground floor. We both loved being there and were very sad to leave. There isn’t a TON to do but that’s not the point. You just go and let the chill vibe wash over you.

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Of course, there’s always time for goofing around:

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Whenever I think of Essaouira, I will think of this picture:

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Americans attach a lot preconceived notions to Islam and especially the Burqa and to the woman underneath it. This woman in her burqa and her sunhat says a lot to me. When a friend of mine asked if I had learned any grand truism about life from my trip I said not anything huge other than the universality that, really, we’re all just trying to live our lives and, hopefully, we’re lucky enough that once in a while we can spend a sunny day at the beach with the people that we love. I felt pretty awful about snapping this picture (we tried to do it surreptitiously) because this woman didn’t leave the house trying to be some sort of cross-cultural example to be displayed to the world — but she just spoke to me so much that I had to take it.

On our final night we elected to have dinner in the riad, prepared by the staff. We ordered the day before and we were able to watch (and smell) ALL DAY as the staff prepared our dinner. One of the cooks was preparing to leave for the day as we were eating. I saw her go into a room wearing one headscarf and come out in a different, more modern, headscarf. She shyly came over and asked how we were enjoying the food. It was, of course, amazingly delicious and we told her so. She smiled brightly and said, “Oh good! Very good!” and she hustled out the door. I loved that little interaction. She was proud of all the work she had put in all day and wanted a little bit of recognition. Chefs, no matter where they are from, are always the same.

This was a delicious lemony eggplant and ground lamb thing that was served as a starter.

This was a delicious lemony eggplant and ground lamb thing that was served as a starter.

The traditional and ubiquitous Moroccan soup, Harira. Usually made of chick peas, tomatoes and lentils.

The traditional and ubiquitous Moroccan soup, Harira. Usually made of chick peas, tomatoes and lentils.

The main course, obviously HAD to be, the classic tagine. I forget the one on the right but the one on the left was a beef and prune tagine which BLEW OUR MINDS. The best thing we ate in Morocco hands down.

The main course, obviously HAD to be, the classic tagine. I forget the one on the right but the one on the left was a beef and prune tagine which BLEW OUR MINDS. The best thing we ate in Morocco hands down.

Dessert was a series of cute handmade cookies -- including one that was shaped like the pointy cone-shaped hood that you see many older Moroccan men wearing

Dessert was a series of cute handmade cookies — including one that was shaped like the pointy cone-shaped hood that you see many older Moroccan men wearing

And, of course, no Moroccan meal is complete without mint tea. The teapot is gorgeous. Let's just agree to ignore that definitely racist handle cover.

And, of course, no Moroccan meal is complete without mint tea. The teapot is gorgeous. Let’s just agree to ignore that definitely racist handle cover.

After a few days and a wistful, windy walk on the beach it was time to leave. Our time in Morocco was coming to a close. We had a flight to catch out of Casablanca in two days. We had heard that Casablanca (correctly, as it turns out) is a miserable shithole and not worth spending any time in. So we only had one night budgeted there. We also had a hellish travel day ahead of us to get there. If you are a Banhmiandyou fan who likes to read posts where I am furious and full of rage, just you wait. This next one on our journey to, time in, and chaotic escape from Casablanca is a doozy.

All Inclusive Agadir: Morocco Makes a Crap Martini

Since Morocco was going to be our last stop on the trip, we wanted to go out with a blast. Morocco is a pretty neat country in that it’s got a lot of stuff to offer — mountains, deserts and beaches. After spending over a month in the UK, which was every bit the tropical paradise you imagine, we decided we wanted a beach vacation. So after our time in hot, dusty Marakech some time on the coast sounded grand.

We decided to try something new — 4 days at an all inclusive five star resort. We’d never done anything like this before, but it sounded pretty great. We’d stayed in nice hotels all over the world on points (thanks Starwood!) but we ALWAYS encountered the same problem at these places. They were usually a bit out of the way and the food at the hotels was always insanely expensive. So getting 3 meals a day on a budget was always a challenge. The hotel staff was never much help either because they just assumed that because we were staying at their fancy hotel that we could spend more than, oh, $4 on a meal. Loyal readers will remember the embarrassing situation we had in Turkey where the staff balked at helping us book bus tickets because we could hire a private driver for “only 400 euro.” So the idea of an all-inclusive resort where we wouldn’t have to worry EVER about where to eat, how to get there and how much it would cost sounded GREAT. At this point in the trip, we were both just FED UP with logistics planning.

We boarded a bus from Marakech to Agadir. Agadir is in Morocco, but it isn’t Morocco. It’s a lot like Nha Trang in Vietnam. It’s a beach resort town completely devoid of culture or personality. It’s got an airport and loads of British and Spaniards fly directly there, hit the beach for a week, gorge themselves at the resort buffet and then jet back home. The bus ride, from what I remember, was relatively uneventful (there would be much, much, MUCH worse Moroccan mass transit experiences to come in our future). One little quirk of bus travel in Morocco is that you have to pay a nominal extra fee for your bags – like 50 cents or so. So, take note! If you’re traveling in Morocco, this is not a scam. Just the way it is.

The bus took about 3-4 hours (with a stop at a rest stop/prayer area. The bus driver might have stopped to pray because we were stopped there for a LONG time). It was mostly highway driving with relatively boring desert scenery. Something I noted about Moroccan buses or, rather, about Moroccan bus passengers, there is gum EVERYWHERE in Moroccan buses. People chew gum and then just shove it in any ol’ nook or crevice they can find in between the seats. It’s pretty gross. Don’t worry, they also spit it onto the ground (I stepped in gum TWICE while we were in Morocco). We got out of the bus at the Agadir station, which is about a 10 minute drive from the beach. We found a cab driver to agree to our price (which I knew was too much, but cab drivers at train and bus stations the world over run a cartel and you will pretty much NEVER get a fair price there, so just deal with it). So we got in this guy’s car, he shuts the door and immediately an argument breaks out between him and some other cabbies. No idea about what. Kat and I have seen this movie before. We waited a minute to see if it would end. It didn’t. We just got out of the cab (we ALWAYS keep our bags in the backseat with us, never in the trunk) and started walking away. Another cabbie ushered us away and we got into his car and he took us to the resort.

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So, this is all very nice, right? And, sure, the grounds were nice. You can’t really tell because it was cloudy for the most of the time we were there, but just outside this resort area was the beach. Like, 15 seconds walk. So best of all worlds! Pool! Beach! Unlimited booze! Unlimited food! What’s not to like?!

I cannot accurately describe the scale of this place to you. To walk from our room to the main lobby was at least a 7-10 minute walk. There were hundreds upon hundreds of rooms. Meals were taken in two HUGE dining halls with hundreds of other people.  Check-in was delayed for some reason. While other people ranted and raved and screamed (because they came ALL THE WAY FROM ENGLAND. That’s, like, TWO HOURS AWAY!) we just politely say “Oh, ok, let us know when things are ready. These things happen.” Let it be known, that you should ALWAYS be kind to the people that control where you sleep. We eventually got our room key (we got lost going there, THAT’S how huge this place was). We walked in and…there must be some mistake. We were in a 3 room, two bath suite with a yard that went directly out to the beach. A suite that cost over $1000 per night. Slowly we pieced together that the resort must be overbooked and because we treated the woman at the front desk like a person and not an animal, she slipped us an upgrade.

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So! Free food and booze! Sweet suite upgrade! Beach access! How could we not love this?! Well…it turns out that we just don’t like the all-inclusive lifestyle. First, you’re surrounded by pasty English people who have no other interests than getting drunk, eating obscene amounts of food, and also getting drunk. There’s not much to DO other than eat and get drunk yourself. The food, I have to say, really was pretty good…given that they fed a thousand people a day. By far the best buffet food I’ve eaten. The resort also had two smaller restaurants that you could go to if you booked a day or two in advance. We did do that one night and went to the Moroccan themed restaurant and, I have to say, it really was lovely. But I can’t really say many other good things about this place. It’s just so HUGE that it’s incredibly impersonal and you feel like fat, white people cattle being herded from feeding session, to the beach, back to the next feeding session. On top of that, there just isn’t much to DO. It’s not like you can go out in Agadir, which is nothing more than resorts and concrete. They have a fake souk set up for the more adventurous English tourists who want to buy fake handicrafts to bring home to Middlesborough or Sunderland or whatever godawful middle England place they’re from.

So Kat and I basically did nothing. We ate a lot of food. Drank a lot of booze  (Free minibar even!). We slept. It was nice…but it was also sort of not enjoyable for us. There wasn’t any freedom. There wasn’t anything interesting. I found myself actually being sort of depressed there. I would think about how sad I was that most tourists at the resort would not go out and see what real Morocco had to offer. I was sad at how the local staff at the resort was treated by some of the more narrow-minded tourists. I was sort of put off by the the way I was treated by the staff — another white dumdum without a name. Just a fat, rich tourist with an all-inclusive wristband. Oh, did I mention we had to wear a blue wristband 24/7? It was easy being at the resort and after 7 months of travel, I thought I wanted easy. Turns out that long-term travel had changed me. I didn’t want easy. I wanted travel. I wanted a cultural exchange. I wanted an experience. I wanted a good story to tell. I didn’t want it to be difficult either…but, truly, I now believe that for a travel experience to change your life, you have to earn it.

But, what the hell. I’m at an all-inclusive resort, so let’s live it up. I tried and failed for 3 straight nights to order a martini at the bar. Turns out that a Muslim guy named Moustafa isn’t exactly the best fellow to be tending your bar. Who would’ve seen that coming?

I dub thee FAIL BAR

I dub thee FAIL BAR

Turns out that in France if you order a “martini” you’ll just get a cold glass of sweet vermouth. Who knew? So after that fail, I asked for a “Vodka martini.” This was met with a side-eye and before I could stop him, he just dumped sweet vermouth and vodka in a glass, dumped some ice on top and handed it to me. I figured I must be ordering the drink wrong. Maybe it’s called something else? After all, it’s a martini. It’s literally TWO INGREDIENTS and it’s a CLASSIC drink, so surely they’ve must know it. Yet, I continued to stubbornly ask for the same thing and somehow expect different results. The next time I asked for a “Vodka Martini” I pointed at the cocktail shaker and made a shaking motion. Again, side-eye. Basically, he just made the same crap drink again but this time he just made it in the shaker. I’m sure he was thinking “Why does this asshole care whether I make his weirdo drink one way or another way?”

I finally got fed up. It was our last night. We were sitting in the outdoor area while there was some horrifyingly racist black African tribal themed performance going on in the theater. I went up to the bar and ordered a “vodka martini.” Moustafa, I’m sure also fed up with me by me, warily began assembling the ingredients. I stopped him. NO. I pointed at each bottle I wanted. I point at the shaker. I pointed at the ice. I pointed at the glass I wanted. It took a few minutes but I walked Moustafa through all the steps of making the martini I wanted. I thought eventually a lightbulb would go off and he’d go “Ahhh! So you wanted a blahblah!” but no. This was clearly foreign to him and he seemed quite intrigued by how this would all turn out. Eventually, the martini was made and served. Was it a great martini? No. But it also wasn’t a cold cup of sweet vermouth, so I counted that as a victory. I gave Moustafa a big tip for his trouble, but I’m pretty sure if he could have struck me dead at that moment, he would have happily done so.

After 4 days in Agadir, it was time to go to our next destination, which we were really, really excited about: Essaouira, another beach town but one with a totally different vibe. Known as a laid back hippy town, popular with Jimi Hendrix, now well known for it’s wind-surfing and giant annual music festival. We were done with Agadir, but it wasn’t quite done with us. We got into a cab…but there was already a guy in the passenger seat. He was chatting away with the driver and we just assumed they were friends. Nope! Turns out the guy was from Kuwait and was on his way to another resort. We chatted with him for a bit, nice fellow. Our driver dropped him off at his resort. He got out and our driver turned to us and said “Very rich! Kuwait!” Uh, ok. Thanks? We can go to the bus station now? Yes yes, he insists. He drives around to the back of the resort and we see a woman walking around the parking lot. He honks at her, they exchange a few words and she gets in. Here’s where things get weird. It was about 10 am. The woman had a full face of night-time make-up and was wearing a velour tracksuit. I’d seen women in Morocco wearing this exact same uniform before in Marakech. I can’t be 100% sure, but I’m almost positive that this is the uniform of the Moroccan prostitute. It all fit. It wouldn’t surprise me if she had had a client at the resort the night before. Unclear to me whether our cabbie had arranged to pick her up or just happened on her by chance. Also unclear whether he was taking her somewhere or whether he was her next client. All I know is that she got in the cab and refused to look at us and refused to speak. Ice cold.

We desperately wanted to leave Agadir. We waited for our bus. And waited. And waited. After over an hour delay, our bus finally arrived. We boarded. And then we sat there. And sat there. The guy next to me got into a screaming match with the driver. He was eventually ordered off the bus. I have no idea why. But he had to get his luggage from the bottom. Conveniently for everyone, it was at the back. So everyone’s luggage was off-loaded and then re-loaded. FINALLY we got on our way. FINALLY, out of Agadir. Little did I know what horrors would await us on the bus ride to Essaouira. Let me tell you, if you haven’t ridden a bus with the sounds and smells of an 80 year old Moroccan woman violently vomiting right next to you, then you haven’t fully lived life. But that’s a story for our next post.

Glasgow: The Baltimore of Scotland

You might read the title of this post and think that I am using the phrase “The Baltimore of Scotland” in a pejorative way. Rest assured that I most certainly am not. I went to college in Baltimore and I love that city. That grimy, gritty, blue-collar, drug-infested, relatively dangerous city. I really do. Because with all that comes character and an indomitable spirit. A sense of pride and heart that screams out “We don’t give a fuck if you don’t like us.” And for the brave who are willing to call it home and really mean it, the city will love you back in its way. Glasgow is much the same. I quickly fell in love with this city of obesity, rotted teeth and unintelligible accents.

Guerrilla street art in one of Glasgow's dirty streets. To me, quite successful as I don't understand it at all but it still MAKES ME FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS

Guerrilla street art in one of Glasgow’s dirty streets. To me, quite successful, as I don’t understand it at all but it still MAKES ME FEEL ALL THE FEELINGS

Glasgow and Edinburgh are only about an hour apart on the relatively inexpensive train (TAKE NOTE, ENGLAND. TRAINS DON’T HAVE TO COST ELEVENTY BILLION DOLLARS) but there are worlds of difference. The Edinburgh accent is that classic delightful Scottish brogue that we’re so familiar with. The Glaswegian accent sounds like a foreign language. I’d find myself working on a tape delay in conversations with people as I’d have to replay what they said in my brain and untwist the vowels to translate it to standard English. Whereas Edinburgh is quite a touristy city filled with parks and, of course, the stunning Hogwarts-esque castle on the rock that towers over the city, Glasgow has relatively few tourists and exists for its own pleasure.

An example of typical Glaswegian character. Back in the 80's someone put a traffic cone on this statue's head as a prank. It has stayed there for THIRTY YEARS just because people thought it was funny. The statue sits outside the city's main art museum.

An example of typical Glaswegian character. Back in the 80’s someone put a traffic cone on this statue’s head as a prank. It has stayed there for THIRTY YEARS just because people thought it was funny. The statue sits outside the city’s main art museum.

Something else that I loved about Glasgow that came as a total surprise to me is that the city has a subway! Not just any subway; the third oldest subway in the world behind London and Budapest, having opened in 1896. It’s one line that goes in a circle. It’s orange, so sometimes known as the Clockwork Orange (though I think that’s stupid). It’s a right of passage for the city’s university students to complete a “Sub-Crawl,” meaning in one straight session to get out at each of the system’s 15 stations and have a pint at the nearest pub.

Art in the Glasgow subway system. I like the message.

Art in the Glasgow subway system. I like the message.

One thing about the subway being so old is that the cars are really small (you basically are bumping knees with the people across from you) and HOLY JEBUS IT IS LOUD. I couldn’t quite figure out who uses it and for what. Some times we’d be on it and it’d be totally empty, other times professional folks and other times girls going to a hen-do. Always, though, insane people looking as if they’re clutching a knife inside their coat.

Mrs. Banh Mi loved that the system mascot is a penguin.

Mrs. Banh Mi loved that the system mascot is a penguin.

 

A typical glasgow subway station. Pretty oldey-timey, right?

A typical glasgow subway station. Pretty oldey-timey, right?

Alright, I’m sure that not everyone is a transit geek like me, so enough about the subway. Glasgow is home to a large student population and has some really hip places to go and, surprisingly, has some pretty stellar food. We ate very well in all of the UK, once again proving those old American stereotypes of Europe are worn, outdated and obnoxious. (Spoiler alert: French people are actually pretty nice and they don’t smell.) Of course, some stereotypes are born of truth: English teeth are pretty abysmal. We found a well-reviewed Indian restaurant in Glasgow and decided to give it a go as we hadn’t had proper Indian since Malaysia. We’d had a “curry” in London, but that’s practically more English than it is Indian. Kat freaked out because she found Paper Masala Dosa on the menu, which we hadn’t been able to have have since we were in Kuala Lumpur.

Little known Katherine Sprissler-Klein factoid: Her favorite dinner is some form of starch with an assortment of dips. This fits the bill perfectly.

Little known Katherine Sprissler-Klein factoid: Her favorite dinner is some form of starch with an assortment of dips. This fits the bill perfectly. This is not a visual trick, btw. The dosa really is THAT big. Like three feet long. We also ordered mango lassis, which were a Bali and Malaysia staple we’d been craving.

I guess this is not a commonly ordered dish. After the meal the waiter came to our table and asked if we’d ever had paper dosa before and asked why we’d ordered it. We told him we had it many times in Malaysia and loved it. He said that he’d lived in Malaysia for many years and how he was so happy his restaurant could prepare it for us. Scots and Malays are basically the kindest people ever.

There are also some really cool pubs. We went to once place nearby the University that was in an old bank. It was really nice to be somewhere that felt out of the backpacker cheapskate scene and into a cool, underground urban vibe.

SAM_2955 SAM_2954

While in Glasgow we went to two Scotch distilleries: Auchentoshan, which you’ve already read about and the Glengoyne distillery. I won’t bother writing much about Glengoyne as I found the tour sub-par and the whisky was unimpressive. One sort of neat thing about Glengoyne though is that the road that it is one (which our bus took to get there) is the dividing line between the lowlands and the highlands. The whisky is actually distilled in the highlands but the warehouse where it ages is in the lowlands.

Here's the road. The white building on the left is the actual distillery. The building in the middle across the road is the warehouse.

Here’s the road. The white building on the left is the actual distillery. The building in the middle across the road is the warehouse.

Getting to and from the distillery was a typical example of what makes Scotland so awesome and quaint. We got on the bus, really had no idea where we were going or what we were doing. We just told the driver “Uh…we’re going to Glengoyne.” He was all chipper and happy! “Oh! Grrrrrrreat!” We paid our fare and sat on the bus as it left the city and drove into the countryside past farms and sheep (LOTS of sheep) and through small towns. I was a bit nervous about where to get off, but I needn’t have been. The driver stopped right in front of the distillery (no stop was there or anything, he just stopped) and said “Ok! Here you go!” To get home, we just waited outside the distillery and when we saw the bus, we just flagged it down.

I really, really loved Glasgow. I much preferred it to Edinburgh, which to me was beautiful but way to touristy. Edinburgh felt too cutesy for its own good and too much like it existed just for Americans and Asians to come there and go “OH MY GOD IT’S JUST LIKE HARRY POTTER!” Glasgow doesn’t care about you. Glasgow doesn’t care what you want it to be. Glasgow’s doin’ Glasgow and I LOVE that about this city.

Dram! I wish I was your lover!

When Kat and I decided we’d head up to Scotland, I knew immediately that we’d be drinking a lot of scotch whisky. I love scotch. Visiting some of my favorite distilleries  has been a dream of mine for many years.

I love scotch as much as this guy. No joke.

I love scotch as much as Ron Burgundy. 

We were researching how to spend our time in Scotland and out of the blue Kat says to me “Hey, we can go to this distillery! It’s only an hour away from Glasgow and we can get there on the train. It’s….ow..che…owken….tosh…” At this point I blurted in a girlish scream “YOU MEAN AUCHENTOSHAN?!” She looks up, startled by my reaction. “Uh yeah, I guess. Is that a good one?” Kat didn’t know it but she had just named one of my absolute favorite scotches. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it.

So, here’s the thing. Whisky distilleries require a lot of space to operate. You’ve gotta store all your grains and yeasts, you’ve gotta have space for the actual stills and the wash tubs and the mash tubs and everything. Then once the scotch is ready, you can’t just sell it. For a spirit to legally be called “Scotch whisky” (FYI — it’s just called “whisky” in scotland) it has to age at least 3 years and 1 day. Obviously, more premium scotches age for many more years. So you’ve gotta have warehouses to store all these barrels as well. The whole point of me telling you this is that there is no such thing as an urban distillery. They tend to be way out there in the middle of nowhere. You’re expected to drive to them. That we could take the train from Glasgow to get to Auchentoshan was a real boon for us.

But here’s the thing — you CAN take the train (or the bus) but they don’t make it easy. I don’t want to get into it, but getting to the distillery was a bit nerve wracking. We got off the train and kinda sorta knew which way to go….but not really.

"Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you're going?" "Uh, I think...the map says....just...hold on."

“Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you’re going?”
“Uh, I think…the map says….just…hold on.”

"DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!" "THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE'RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT."

“DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!”
“THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE’RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT.”

So WHAT if we had to walk on the side of a six-lane highway for a half mile or so. So WHAT if we had to scamper across that six-lane highway to get to the other side. We MADE it, right? Jeez, Kat. Stop being such baby.

After escaping death, we finally made it. My Shangri-la:

It's...the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

It’s…the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

Double-pointing. THAT'S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

Double-pointing. THAT’S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.

We paid our 7 quid each for the tour and so it began. Our tour was small — just us and four other Scottish people who are independent whisky bottlers who were sorta there to network. Our tour leader, Flora, was super awesome. We chatted with her for a bit — she had studied in South Korea and it BLEW HER MIND that we had been there. She was about our age and we had a great time with her — it didn’t hurt that she hooked us up with some free drams at the end.

So, I could talk about whisky distilling process for hours and, honestly, I know that would probably bore a lot of you, so I’ll try to keep this part brief.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts -- every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts — every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?

The goop from the mash tun is then put into the washbacks where yeast is added and it’s allowed to ferment. This baaaasically, more or less, turns it into a 7-8% alcohol beer. Did you know that whisky is basically just distilled beer? MIND. BLOWN. Basic how alcohol is made lesson: The yeast eats the sugars from the malted barley, the by-product of this is CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast is full, it goes to sleep and turns into nasty goop.

Washbacks. Fermentin' like a BAWS.

Washbacks. Fermentin’ like a BAWS.

The “beer” inside the washback looks pretty gnarly, nasty yeast floating on the top and burping and bubble occasionally as CO2 is explled — but it IS drinkable.

Technically potable...

Technically potable…

So, when our tour leader sarcastically asked if any of us wanted to taste it, of COURSE I said “Yeah! Really?!” She looked at me like I had 3 heads but said, “Uh, ok…” and she got a big ladle and scooped me out a bit.

It tasted like....warm gross  flat beer. Not my favorite.

It tasted like….warm gross flat beer. Not my favorite.

Alright, so now the beer is ready to be turned into whisky. And THIS is where the magic happens:

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills.

Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills. Hard to get scale here, but they’re, like, 25 feet tall.

I’m not gonna get into everything that goes on in this part of the process. If you’re interested read more here: http://www.auchentoshan.com/triple-distillation-(our-way)/triple-distillation.aspx Basically, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. The washback is heated, the alcohol vapors rise and then are condensed back into a liquid. That’s the super abbreviated version. Auchentoshan distills their whisky three times — no other distillery distills their whisky more than twice. So Auchentoshan heavily markets their “triple distilled” whisky. (Something else you learn is just how much of the scotch whisky industry is about marketing, a lot of which is sort of bullshit. Does the extra distillation make a difference? I mean, PROBABLY but does it make it better? Who can know?) What comes out of this process is, at the very beginning, some really nasty poisonous stuff (called “foreshot”) that’s siphoned off and, eventually, an 81% alcohol clear spirit. They had a bottle of this to taste as well. It tasted exactly as you’d expect — super strong, super burn going down, I did not want more after my tiny sip. It’s watered down to 63.5% abv before it’s put in the barrels for aging.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything's going just as it should.

This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything’s going just as it should.

Like I said, for whisky to be called “scotch” it legally must age for at least 3 years and 1 day. Auchentoshan uses several different types of barrels to age its whisky: used American bourbon barrels and two different types of Spanish sherry barrels. These barrels are remarkably expensive (a few hundred dollars each and they can only be used 3 times) so this is another reason for scotch’s relatively high price.

On a side note, a major trick of the whole scotch industry is the idea that older=better. But, really, are you gonna be able to taste a difference between a 10 year and a 9 year? No, it’s sort of stupid. In fact, Macallan, one of the most popular scotches in America, has transitioned from traditional age labels and into “color” based labels. Really, the reason that older whisky is more expensive, other than marketers use age to justify higher prices, is that the longer the whisky sits in the barrel, the more of it that evaporates, so there’s literally just LESS of it the older it gets.

We were allowed to walk through the warehouse where the barrels are stored but, unfortunately, no photos were permitted in there — allegedly because flashes could cause a spark and given the high amount of alcohol vapors in the air, that could lead to a huge explosion. Seemed suspect to me, but them’s the rules.

So after it ages in certain barrels for a certain amount of time, what comes out the other end is this:

Hello, lovers...

Hello, lovers…And you can sort of see tour leader Flora behind the bottles

The tour ended and we were brought to the tasting room where we were given a complimentary dram of the 12 year. I also sampled the three wood and the 18 year. Flora suggested that the 21 year wasn’t really worth it — expensive and not that good she said. Again — older doesn’t mean better. The clear winner for me and Kat was the three wood, meaning it was aged in all three types of barrels that Auchentoshan uses. One review says of the three wood: After three distillations and three barrel maturations the scotch is soft, incredibly mellow, sweet with berry and dried fruits, oozing with caramel and brown sugar and vanilla, creamy butterscotch, and a light whiff of toasted hazelnuts, finishing with distinct toffee flavors.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.

I didn’t even touch the differences between all the different regions of Scotland (Auchentoshan is a lowland scotch, one of the very few single malts of the lowlands) and the difference between single-malts and blends. Seriously people, I could talk about this ALL DAY.

After we’d finished our whisky it was time to head back to the train station. Fortunately, we asked around and found a safer way to get back (through an unmarked path that FOR REASONS UNKNOWN AUCHENTOSHAN DOES NOT ADVERTISE ON THEIR WEBSITE). As we were waiting for our train, a gentle rain began to fall, but that did not deter the old ladies next to us who were engaging in a heated lawn bowling match

SAM_2946

I love Scotland.

Apologies to Sophie B. Hawkins for the title of this post.

Antwerp – Belgian Schizophrenia, Waffles, Beer, Beer, Beer

Say what you want about the tenants of the Dutch, at least it’s an ethos. That is more than can be said for Belgium which only can be called a nation in the most technical of senses. It’s got borders and (sort of) a government, but generally, like lots of Africa, it was created by taking groups of people who don’t belong together and forcing them into a tight space. As far as I can tell, it means nothing to be Belgian. These people can’t even agree upon a language – French is spoken in the south (Wallonia) and Dutch in the north (Flanders).

So when Americans think of Belgium, what crosses our minds? Waffles, obviously. Beer, for sure. Maybe chocolate? MAYBE French fries (The Dutch and Belgians have a longstanding rivalry over who first invented the concept of dunking sliced potatoes in boiling oil. I argue that just PERHAPS it’s not so innovative a concept that possibly they both come up with the idea concurrently.)

In yet another attempt to escape the infuriating blandness of the Netherlands, Kat and I boarded several trains on our way to Antwerp, a city in the Dutch speaking part of the “country.” Antwerp is a visually interesting city. First off, the train station is unbelievably gorgeous. A modern edifice built entirely around the grand old 19th century station. Truly one of the most stunning train stations in all of Europe. The city’s architecture is also somewhat interesting – basically imagine French shopfronts shaped in the tall, narrow Amsterdam style, clearly demonstrating Belgium’s Dutch-French schizophrenia.

A stunning sight that greets you as you come up the escalators (trains leave from one of FOUR different levels!)

A stunning sight that greets you as you come up the escalators (trains leave from one of FOUR different levels!)

French meets Dutch. Frutch? Yes, Frutch. So it shall be known from this day forward.

French meets Dutch. Frutch? Yes, Frutch. So it shall be known from this day forward.

I had been to Antwerp a few years before and I remembered enjoying my time there. It’s the easiest Belgian city to get to from Nijmegen, so that is why we chose it. I’d have loved to visit Medieval Brugges, but it would have taken, like, 5 hours to get there – too far for a day trip.

So what does one DO in Antwerp? There’s some museums, I guess? We’re not huge museum fans generally, so we just walked around all day. Antwerp is a major center for Europe’s diamond trade, and where there are diamonds you’ll find Hasidic Jews. So every so often we’d see a Hasid and Kat would poke me and whisper through clenched teeth “Look! There’s one!” There’s a river in the city and you can walk in a pedestrian-only tunnel underneath it. Now, there’s nothing of note on the other side. It’s just….a thing to do. The tunnel is quite old – the escalators were made of wood! The tunnel is actually sort of neat. Imagine a hallway that is completely and totally straight that goes on for about a kilometer. Kat and I took turns closing our eyes and trying to walk in perfectly straight lines. We didn’t make it far before getting off course and slamming our faces into the walls. So we walked down this tunnel, poked our heads at the other side (there’s a tiny park and a traffic circle) and then walked back.

Of course, we did eat waffles as well. The place we went to is, allegedly, quite famous. Their gimmick is that they’ve been using the same waffle irons for, like, a century or something. The irons DID look old. The waffles were, to be fair, really tasty. Light, crunchy, fluffy. But, you know, it’s a waffle. Hard to lose your mind over.

We had lunch at a sandwich shop cafeteria sort of deal. It was cheap (relatively) and the food was decidedly mediocre. What made it noteworthy was the fact that even though we were paying customers, we STILL had to pay 50 eurocents to use the bathroom. Even the cheap, cheap Dutch aren’t THAT cheap. For this, Belgium, you can suck it.

I know I’ve been pretty harsh on Belgium so far, but it is impossible to deny that the country (specifically the Trappist Monks) make some of the best beers in the world. If you like beer, even a little bit, and you come to Antwerp, you MUST go to De Kulminator. This is, without exaggeration, one of the best beer bars in the entire world. This is not just my opinion. Go ahead and Google it and see what beer nerds the world over have to say about it. For me, De Kulminator is THE reason to visit Antwerp. The entire bar can seat maybe 15 people total. It looks like you’ve walked into your grandfather’s living room. There’s a table that takes up most of the room piled high with junk. The whole damn room is cluttered with junk, in fact. Old magazines, bills, papers, some books. The old man that owns the bar is typically there — he always wears a cardigan and has long scraggly white hair and a permanent scowl on his face. You really feel as if you HAVE stumbled accidently into his parlor and he’s tolerating your presence, but barely. Both times I have been there he’s been doing a crossword puzzle. His wife, meanwhile, scurries around taking orders and delivering drinks.

Now – why is this place so special? De Kulminator specializes in aged beers. Now, I won’t bore you with beer science stuff, but let’s just say that an aged bottle of Chimay will, like wine, take on different characteristics as it ages (whereas a can of Miller Lite will not). I ordered a Wesvleteren 12, a difficult enough beer to find as it is (they don’t distribute it – you literally have to GO to the monastery to get it) – except that this bottle was bottled in 1979. This beer was bottled when Jimmy Carter was President, Iran still had a Shah, and a full THREE YEARS before I was born. It came covered in cobwebs and dust, the bottlecap oxidized. I have no words for the velvety complexity of this beer. I dream about it to this day. Truly, without a doubt, the most amazing beer I have ever had. And, somehow, it only cost 9 euro (about $13). It would have been a bargain at twice the price and I even felt a bit guilty as if they didn’t know they should be charging much, much more.

It might not ever be this good again...

My eyes are glazed over due to existential bliss

We sat in the warm, cluttered but comfortable confines of De Kulminator, had a couple of other beers (A 15 year old Chimay Blue for Kat, a 10 year old Rochefort for me), killing time with idle chatter until it was time to catch our train back to Nijmegen. Maybe Belgium isn’t so bad after all.

The Hague: Behind the Scenes of Dutch Politics

I lived with a Dutch guy, Joost, for a few years in grad school. We parted ways about 8 years ago. I became an international unemployed vagabond and Joost became a city councilman in the Hague and the senior staff member of a mid-sized Dutch political party. I think it’s pretty clear who made the most of their Master’s degree.

I think it's clear which one of these two clowns is going places.

One of TWO Joost’s that I know. True story.

Joost was kind enough to take us on a tour of the Dutch parliament as well as give us a pretty decent walking tour of the city. Due to the variety of international institutions in the Hague (Peace Palace, International Criminal Court etc) the city, allegedly, has one of the largest international communities in all of Europe. I can’t really say that it felt all that international — this is still the Netherlands after all – but it did have a unique feel to it. More sophisticated and business-like than other Dutch cities.

Stay classy, the Hague.

Stay classy, the Hague.

The Peace Palace. One of the Hague's many international institutions that are all doing a fantastic job of ridding our planet of war, hunger, and disease.

The Peace Palace. One of the Hague’s many international institutions that are all doing a fantastic job of ridding our planet of war, hunger, and disease. Keep up the good work, guys!

SAM_2414 SAM_2405

It was great to see an old friend and the Hague was a fun place to spend a few hours. I also got to engage in one of my favorite past times – complaining to public officials! (There was a broken ATM at the train station, so I complained to city councilman Joost about it. He promised to get it sorted immediately). Plus, the sun came out for, like, 2 hours and we were able to have a nice drink outside.

On the train ride home, we stopped off for a 20 minute detour in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. That’s not a typo. This stupid town’s name actually begins with an apostrophe followed by a lowercase ‘s’ and then a hyphen.

Look Dutchies. You can't just go around giving towns names that begin with an apostrophe. This isn't Vietnam. THERE ARE RULES.

Look Dutchies. You can’t just go around giving towns names that begin with an apostrophe. This isn’t Vietnam. THERE ARE RULES.

Of course, we stopped here to do more than just mock this stupid place’s stupid name. ‘s-Hertogenbosch is home to Boschballen, a local delicacy. It’s basically just a giant profiterole. In fact, it is just a giant profiterole. Which, of course, means it’s awesome. We hopped off the train, scarfed down a couple of boschballen, and then hopped right back on the train. It was pretty great.

'it 'was 'really 'delicious. ''''''''

‘it ‘was ‘really ‘delicious. ””””