Havana!

I flew into Havana via Houston. The process wasn’t difficult, and after waiting for a short period I had the necessary documents to enter Cuba: the travelers insurance and tourist card, both required by the Cuban government.

The flight down was longer than expected. From Houston we flew directly across the Gulf of Mexico, so most of the trip was over blue water. It wasn’t until we were right above the island that anything changed.

Not surprisingly, the water was very blue. The flight path didn’t take us over any special beaches, but the bottom of the ocean was easily seen, even the geomorphology of the reefs. Also, and this was surprising, it was quite easy to see entirely across the island. Cuba is a very narrow, or short island, so being able to see 100 to 200 miles was entirely sufficient to see the Atlantic and Caribbean sides at the same time.

After customs and a 1/2 hour taxi ride, I was in Havana, walking around. My first sites were nearly exactly what you’d see from photos of other people’s trips. Old buildings, people in the streets, old cars. How cool!

It’s tempting to put all of the photos here, but it’s better if you go to the photo gallery.

There were lots of cool old cars 😀

And it was really easy to find good music to dance to.

Havana is also right on the ocean, although there is no beach there, so it was easy to take photos of beautiful beach scenery and the pig roasts that take place just across from the Malecon (boardwalk).

The food in Havana was good. I ate a lot of seafood and even the bbq pork. Had to get a Cuban sandwich! One funny moment was when the bbq pork vendor was right next to the piña colada vendor. The sandwiches were on a generic bread (more on this later) with just pork and drippings poured over it. Of course it was good, but I was eyeballing the pineapple next door, so I asked if I could get a slice of pineapple for the sandwich, which seemed to confuse both vendors. They did acquiesce, and I got a pulled pork sandwich with pineapple and pork drippings, which I think made the sandwich much better. Somehow I found myself paying more than the total of a sandwich + a piña colada, so the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – DOH! Perhaps this will give the locals an idea, and next time I visit there will be new sandwich shops with more than one filler!

About the bread. I’m convinced that communism has been played to its natural conclusion there. In 11 days I ate bread every day, and every day it was the same, whether it be on the west end of the island or 700 miles away on the east coast. The only thing that changed was the shape of the bread (some rolls were rectangular, but most were square). My guess is that the government has installed bakeries (of which I saw several) and that the bread is prescribed, meaning every bakery must make the one type of bread. No independent bakeries seem to exist, so everyone eats what the government gives them. If you walk around Havana or Santa Clara or Santiago at night, you’ll see bakeries pumping out thousands of identical rolls in preparation for the next day. It’s possible to get them hot out of the oven. The rolls cost only a few cents each, but don’t look for variety. You won’t find it.

We have an image of Cuban food in the US. It involves fried plantains and sandwiches stacked with 3 or 5 types of meat. Don’t expect to find either. The sandwiches tended to be either pulled pork or ham. Once I got a sandwich with ham and a cucumber. That was a rare improvement.

To my surprise, I didn’t see a single plantain in 11 days even though every morning I was served a platter of local, delicious, ripe fruit. Occasionally I did get fried bananas for a side at dinner, and I saw banana trees everywhere, but there seem to be no plantain trees on the island. More on the delicious fruit later!

Now for some of my other favorite photos from Havana.

That last photo is an important one. Private Wifi doesn’t exist in Cuba, but every city I visited had at least one Wifi hotspot. No where else I went had it, even the wealthy B&B owners (if you can call them that). You had to find a government kiosk, usually near to the park, and buy internet cards, similar to phone cards in the US. Connecting was not always straightforward, and sometimes I had to try for 15 or so minutes just to connect. This of course had several effects. One was that the parks became a sort of zombie playground where hundreds of people (at night, or tens in the day) would hang out looking at their phones. The other effect was that I got over using the internet very quickly. Since it sometimes required a taxi ride and sitting in the rain just to check my email, I had to really want to connect to make it worth while. The same must be true for Cubans, and I didn’t see a single person texting and driving!

Cuba!

I just got back from an 11 day trip to Cuba. It was a fantastic experience, and I learned so much. I plan to go into more details, but this is an introductory post to get started.

It’s impossible to talk about Cuba without first mentioning the people. Nowhere else I’ve been have the people been so warm, friendly, and open. Everyone was great to talk to, and they welcomed me into their houses like we were old friends. I stayed at Bed and Breakfasts the whole time, so I saw a lot of homes and met a lot of families, but complete strangers invited me to have coffee with them or meet their family. It’s hard to imagine that happening in the US, Europe, or Japan.

Another thing that was striking is the total lack of violence in Cuba. Of course they have no firearms, those were basically outlawed decades ago. But I felt totally comfortable walking down poorly lit streets at night in poor neighborhoods. There are a lot of poor neighborhoods; no one in Cuba is rich, but that lack of income disparity probably has an affect on the way people behave. Even little kids or teenage girls walked around a night. American parents won’t let their kids do that in the day in the suburbs!

Cubans are poor, and they know it, but they sure are happy. Maybe it’s the weather or the delicious fruit, but the warmth and openness were sincere. They love to dance and sing. They wear bright colors and drive old cars. It’s such a romantic place and totally captivating.

I, as a visitor, represented a source of income for them. Their economy isn’t strong for many things. They do have a fantastic education system and medical system, so there is some medical tourism, but overall tourists are the livelihood for many people. Most of my encounters with locals were through the B&Bs, tours, classes, and taxis. I took a lot of taxis. They’re the most efficient and reliable way to get around – even between cities.

One type of taxi is the “taxi collectivo” in which 3-5 to 12 strangers going to the same place get into a car and ride with a driver. Usually these cars are 60 years old, and they aren’t especially comfortable, but the ride sharing aspect saves a lot of money. They cost about the same as a bus but leave at reasonable hours and take half as much time.

You can also get personal taxis within a city (cheap), between cities (expensive), or for a whole day (fixed rate depending on what you want to do). The drivers really love the last option. They get a guaranteed fare and spend a lot of time waiting. They all complained about boredom while waiting, but not driving saves them a lot of gas, and as I learned later, they have to pay for all of their own repairs. So, making money for not driving is best for them.

I plan to talk about the places I visited more in future posts, but here are some of my favorite photos from the trip.


Old taxis waiting to give a ride; Old men singing in the street, and me eating coconut ice cream from a coconut.


Photos from a horseback tour I took through tobacco and coffee plantations and the Viñales Valley National Park.


Highlights from Cuba would be incomplete without photos of dogs on roofs. Capturing them on film became a fun goal. Sadly, the majority I saw were from a car, and the photos didn’t turn out well, or I was too slow.


Some other fun shots from the national park and then Santiago de Cuba, in the southeast.

Finally, a trip to Cuba would not be complete without visiting the tomb of their country’s founder. Santiago de Cuba was the site of the beginning of their revolution, and they buried him there after a country long procession where millions came out to say goodbye.

There is so much more: cigar rolling classes, dancing classes, a SCUBA refresher course, and cooking classes, not to mention all of the Spanish I got to relearn. It’s been almost 10 years since I spoke Spanish on a regular basis. I was glad that it came back so quickly. At the end of the trip I had no trouble communicating, and my recollection of Spanish words was good enough that I gave my Spanish/English dictionary to one of my B&B hosts who was trying to learn English.

 

More soon!

Portugal, part two

After all of the adventures in Lisbon, rain, taxi drivers, getting drunk and lost – walking towards the wrong town, I needed some rest. It wasn’t meant to be. We woke up around 11 to shower and get ready for our ride. We were to have lunch out in the countryside, something that sounded extra nice, after being in Paris for two months already. The drive wasn’t a long one, and seeing new things helped me stay awake.

We arrived at something spectacular! This was an old bull ranch, one that raised and trained bulls for the famous bull fights. The ranch was quite large, even by American standards and beautiful. The big house was delightful and old. We were invited to snack beside a fireplace, and I got to know the other guests. They were all in their 30s and early 40s, young good looking people. At one point I thought to myself that this could be an episode in some extravagant soap opera – one with attractive people idly chatting in a mansion. The group had a range of backgrounds, only some of which I can remember. Our host, Maria, was the daughter and heir of the ranch owner. Besides her there was a Lithuanian singer, a Brazilian fashion model, there was a Spanish businessman , and about a dozen others from all over, including Lourenco and myself – two humble scientists.

Between chatting we dared to go outside and observe the bulls. These guys were bred to be mean, which scared us. The aggressive babies are kept and trained, while the less aggressive are sold for meat. Eventually the best bulls go to big arenas to fight, in what was described to me as a far worse fate than those from Spain. The bulls aren’t killed at the end of the fight. Instead they are left to bleed out and die several days later. No one could tell me why. I had respect for the animals and kept my distance.

Eventually it was dinner time. The original plan was to ride horses to the house on the other side of the property, but rain in the previous days made that impossible. Instead we took trucks. The drive was not a short one, and we were able to get a good look at a lot of bulls and the enormous property. Something that stuck me was the odd trees that had their bark removed. This bull ranch was also used to harvest cork from special trees. Next time you get a Portuguese bottle of wine, think about where that cork came from.

Dinner was excellent, the food and the company. I got to tell my favorite bull joke, our hostess couldn’t remember any herself, and we spent a delightful evening. Unfortunately for me (although fortunately in the end) we hadn’t planned well in our hung over states that morning, and I left my bag at Lourenco’s house. This was bad because I had to leave the dinner party for the airport in order to catch my plane. I rode with a couple that was also returning via plane. Well, I got to the airport in time, but my clothes didn’t make it. Like I said, this was probably for the best as the next day was pretty awesome. Still I had to book another flight and make preparations to miss a day at work. Juliane made us a nice dinner, and we relaxed by the fire that evening.

The next day brought much better weather. Finally I got to see how beautiful Lisbon was most of the year. I enjoyed walking through the hand paved streets, stopping for chocolate or snack. It was a relaxing and pleasant day. Juliane successfully took her motorcycle exam, and we met later for lunch. She was happy. I also got to help Lourenco and his mom do some home improvements, kind of a running theme in my travels. Earlier this year I helped Dan B cut down a dead tree and Johannes G build a counter with sink for his kitchen, among many other things. Finally the day came to an end, and I made for the airport, much happier than I would have been to leave the previous evening.

Here are some pictures from that day.

And some subway scenes for AJ

Enjoying London

I arrived in London on Friday night after a harrowing lecture from a British customs lady.  Since then I’ve been having a good time with Justin Waghray and his roommate Nizomi.  lots of cool things to do here!

Portugal, Primero Parte – Lisboa

So Lisbon was an adventure from the beginning. I was hesitant to even go, since I was getting more busy by the day, but leaving work in Friday afternoon and returning on Sunday night seemed like a good plan. The flight and everything was smooth, as was finding the metro.

Problems arose when my phone wouldn’t work. I’m still not sure why, but my French phone cannot make calls or send texts from outside the country. I can receive them fine. Well, I was going to call Lourenço when I got close, and he could meet me at the metro stop. No go. I found some pay phones. The first was broken, the second took my money but Lourenço couldn’t hear me. The last didn’t even have a receiver! I’m not in Paris anymore! There was a taxi stand, so I started asking if I could borrow, or even pay to use one of their phones. You won’t believe this, but the first 6 drivers in a row were “out of minutes.” Imagine that, a guy who lives by the phone cannot make a call. Well, you can imagine they were a little dishonest with me.

Finally I found one who was willing to let me use his phone. I gave him €2. We got directions to Lourenço’s, but he wouldn’t take me because he was not in the front of the cab line! Ok, I’ll ask him in front. This time the excuse was that the address was too close. Now I’m more than an hour late, have no idea where I’m going, and not even a cab will show me! With no sense of direction, a phone that doesn’t work, in the dark – I start walking. Thankfully an empty cab appreciated my hail, and he got me to L’s. Phew!

The reunion was a good one, and L showed me up to his house where I met his beautiful wife, Juliane. Then he showed me around this 400 year old palace that he is inheriting. He has the top floor of 4, but it’s big enough for three huge apartments. The one he chose is the size of my house in Texas. Not to mention how cool it is. I took some pictures the next day.  Notice the rain 🙁

And the view from the windows was also awesome. (first three photos from a later day)

I want to mention that I was leaving a cold and very rainy Paris. Lisbon is not known as a rainy city, in fact they only get a dozen or so days of rain per year. That was a bummer, but I was still happy to be in a warm place with friends. The last photo above gives an indication of what nice weather was for the majority of my trip.

I was happily surprised when L told me that he had guests in one of the other apartments and that I might know them. Of course I did, it was Trent and Lori Hare from USGS in Flagstaff! Trent was as surprised to see me as I was him. What a strange encounter, but in reality not so. Lourenço had invited Trent to work with him for a week in helping get their program of analyzing Mars photos running. They were productive, and since it was now weekend, we could have a good time. The first night was steak at an Argentine restaurant and some wine. Not bad 🙂 Later L took us to his favorite bar, one with a long line to get in, but we didn’t have to wait. At this point we began to realize that L should run for Mayor of Lisbon, he knows basically everyone in the town. Even with the back stage passes, so to speak, we were all tired and didn’t make a late night of it.

The next day L had to work. This was disappointing since I had come to see him, but Trent and Lori wanted to do some sight seeing, so we went out on a walking adventure. Of course it rained the entire time, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. Here they are, and a few more of our walk through Lively Lisbon.

Notice that every sidewalk is paved with small stones.  EVERY SIDEWALK!  – through the entire town.  This is impressive and really adds to the city’s beauty.

 

Our destination was an old castle, built on the foundation of Roman ruins – the one you see in the last photo. We didn’t have a map, but navigating was easy enough, just walk uphill. We found our way, passing an impressive church along the way and enjoyed the scenery.

As you can tell in the last photo, the weather was getting worse. And because we had a lunch date with Juliane, it was time to head back. There was plenty to see along the way, including nice apartment buildings and an open air market.

Lunch was at an Austrian fusion place, yep, a new one to me too. It was good though, and a nice respite from the rain. Sadly, Trent’s duct taped umbrella was lost when another damp soul grabbed the wrong one. Trent was left with a broken thing that became the the butt of jokes for the rest of the day. There is normally a beautiful walk along the river towards the coast, but with such bad weather it was decided a cab would be best. My feet already felt like they were swimming, so there were no complaints from me!

We had a nice time at the sights, making our way back.

The last was an old abbey. We got there just after closing time but got to see the church part. After a stop for pastries and wine shopping it was time to head back. Trent and Lori had to leave for a 6AM flight, and we were supposed to meet Lourenço for dinner. He had a surprise in store for us.


Walking back, eerily nice.

Dinner again was at a nice tapas restaurant. The Mayor got us seats, a group of now about 10, including the 5 of us and other friends, family, and a stranger in town – friend of a friend of L. He evens knows strangers, except that no one is a stranger to him. Dinner was really late, well after 11, and we took our time.

The surprise from L was the he wasn’t going to let anyone sleep that night. It kind of made sense for Trent and Lori, since they would only get two hours of sleep anyway, so we all agreed and we went directly to a bar. This was a gay bar, and we all had a good time. Oddly enough gay people are very nice. Something I don’t like is that drinks in Western Europe are very expensive. Jack Daniels was something like €8 per shot. I don’t know exactly how much I spent that night, but there were multiple shots and more wine and plenty of drinks. I probably bought a round or two for a girl also.

After the gay bar we took a cab to the premier dance club in town. I don’t recall the name of the bar, or very many things from this point on, but even though it was raining, and there was a long line of wet people outside, we walked right in. It’s nice knowing the Mayor. Inside was two floors of loud and crowded. The drinks were strong enough, and it was fun. L, T, and L had to leave, for the airport. Juliane had gone home after the first bar. I stayed, under the encouragement of Lourenço, and this is where things took a left turn. More drinking, flirting, and whatnot, but it was getting late, and I decided to walk back. Too bad I had no idea which way I was going. I turned right and followed the tracks. At least the tracks were headed towards downtown right? After a couple of hours of stumbling drunk on the tracks and arguing with God I found a train platform and laid down. The sun was right behind me. Eventually someone else wanted to take a train, and he was kind enough to make sure my drunk ass found my way back. I had walked well over 5 km in the wrong direction. The train I took led me the wrong way back to town, but it did end at a metro stop. Sometime in the morning I made it back to L’s and fell into bed. My slumber wasn’t to last however; the doorbell made sure of that. L had been locked out of his house all night! Juliane was sound asleep, and he had lent me his key to come back when I needed. Thankfully he could sleep for a while in the other apartment when Trent and Lori left, but the entire situation was comical. Ok, damp, drunk, and more than tired I finally got to lay down. Too bad we had a lunch appointment in a couple of hours…. next time the 700 acre bull ranch and cork trees.

More photos here.

Another Day in Morocco

Field Trip Day 2.

The second day of our field trip began very early for me. I was awake around 5 and up well before my 5:45 alarm. The plan was for Roderik and me to watch the sunrise, and then I was going to go for a run. As they say about the early bird getting the worm, I got all of my goals done before 7AM, and this wouldn’t be the last time on this trip that I did. One extra advantage of getting up early was the wonderful sky watching. The starts were brilliant, and as I was a little farther south than normal, it was easy to pick up Canopus above the horizon. The Winter Hexagon and all constituents were big and bright, so my early wakening, well before the sunrise, was worthwhile.

Roderik and I started with some palms and architecture while awaiting the sun. He still owes me a shot or two from that morning.

Eventually I got anxious and left to run even before the sun showed itself. The run was great, without pictures of course, but there was a really nice feeling of solitude. Already our hotel was far from a paved road and again far from anything resembling a city. This made for a really nice solo run through the desert. Eventually the path took me over a mesa where the view grabbed me, and I stopped to take it all in. No where in sight was there anything man made. The sun was just peeking above the horizon, and a tremendous view looked back at me. “One could get get lost out here and never be found,” I thought. There would be no reason to look. I wish there were more time to stay, but our group had another ambitious day planned, and being the one person to hold up a big group was not in the cards for me. My run back took me towards the now risen sun. The bright sun in my face made the way more difficult, even though I could see the rocky path more clearly. I had to look down more rather than enjoy the wonderful expanse in front of me.

Our hotel/castle from the outside

Breakfast was the traditional bread with butter and jam. We ate that every morning. We left the hotel on time and within a few minutes were at a French military outpost, long abandoned. I should have taken more photos. It was nice.

Now we’re on our way to some exciting things! Well, we first have to stop in town for coffee. This was when we noticed the pattern of 1 hour coffee stops immediately after breakfast. After coffee we were back on the road and this time headed to see some desert estuaries. How cool!

Of course there was time for some nice beach and dune walking. 🙂

During the day there were some interesting sights: camels in the road, crazy taxis, fields of trash, and even some good tea.

The fields of trash were pretty common downwind of every village. I don’t think the locals care though. That tea was something special. It’s a typical Moroccan mint tea. You are supposed to put the entire lumps of sugar in the tea pot, pour the tea into a glass, empty the glass back into the tea, and repeat 10 times. This is to praise and thank God 10 times. Sometimes the lumps of sugar were as big as roma tomatoes. The guy who served it to you did it with a smile, one with more than a few teeth missing. I think he drank a lot of tea.

Camels are pretty common to see in the open desert. Usually there is a sheperd. We ate camel at least twice on the trip, which was interesting, because most of us westerners had never tried it before. If the hostesses hadn’t told us, I might have thought it was stewed beef. The main difference as far as I could tell was the shape of the bone.

And the open desert, quite a sight.

After day 2 we went to Tan Tan Beach, a nice town on the coast. Several of us went swimming around sunset. It was a great pleasure after being in the cars all day. That experience was a little hazardous though. Some of us went pretty far out and were taken downbeach by the tow. We struggled at first, but it was getting dark, so Eventually we just went with the tow and beached on some rocks. Everyone was fine, but I came back with some scratches, and one guy got more than a mouthful of water.

Dinner that night was pretty good. Our hotel fried local fish for us: flounder, sardines, and two others I cannot remember. It was a great dinner, if not a little greasy. We went to sleep late promising to get up very early to watch the meteor shower. More next time!

Field Trip Day one

My departure from Casablanca started out well enough. I left for the airport very early with the intention of having time to read after checking in. Thankfully I was over 3 hours early, because the plane ended up being overbooked, and I waited in line well over an hour – even after reaching the desk – to get a boarding pass. Royal Air Morroc does not have an A game. Standing there alone would have been no fun, but this actually turned out to be a nice opportunity. Several other people were on standby, and we made the best of our time. Roderik from Holland and Mark from the US via the UK shared this experience. Due to our mutual misery we chose to ride in the same car and became fast friends. We did eventually get on the flight, and much to our surprise there were more than a dozen, probably upwards of 20, children on the plane with us. Roderik and I sat in the back with them. This does not sound fun, but it ended up to be quite entertaining. He made the best of it and had the kids teach him some basic greetings in Arabic, which helped him greatly during the trip. For me, it was an opportunity to practice French with people who didn’t mind my slow speak, and we traded chocolates and stories.

Our destination was El-Aaiún, a city in the southern half of Morocco. Actually, El-Aaiún is in Western Sahara, a kind of no-mans-land between Morocco and Algeria, but Morocco has the best claim. The airport was interesting in its own right. I think they only receive one or two flights per day, from Casablanca (via Agadir) and one from the Canary Islands, only ~50 miles away. We arrived well after dark and had to deal with customs, a slow process with absolutely no indication what was going on. Thankfully our group had a good leader that handled it for us. There were 28 of us in all, many Americans but plenty of Europeans too. Stepping out of the airport was like stepping into some far away and older time. This was not Casablanca! We were in the middle of a desert, and white people were an oddity. This is when Roderik, Mark, and I joined forces, something to be for the rest of the 5 day field trip. We met our driver, a man dressed in very typical Arabic garb, and drove into the city. It was all so overwhelming and a little bit intimidating.

In the end there was nothing to be afraid of; our driver turned out to be quite nice, and the people here were as welcoming and friendly as those in Casablanca, probably more. Regardless, it’s always an adventure when you go somewhere strange for the first time. It turned out that mine was the best French in our car, not the ideal situation, but it offered me plenty of practice. The other guys understood better than I did, but I usually asked the questions. Our first night was to be in the city at a nice hotel. Nice by Morocco standards, and still nice to look at. I find Moroccans like very firm beds and aren’t as interested in hot water as we tend to be.

Some pictures of the hotel and the town during daytime.

We didn’t stay in town for long, leaving a little after 9 in order to reach our first destination. We soon found out, though, that our guide has been highly over optimistic about how much we could do in a day. First off, the group was larger than anticipated, meaning longer stops and lots of repetition. Also, our guides were Italian, and long coffee breaks became a running theme, especially if we had just had breakfast 20 minutes before. Regardless, we all had fun.

The first thing you notice is that you’re in the desert!

Our first site was one with running water. We were supposed to look at a sabkha from above. There are a lot of photos from this site, so check them out if you like. (Link here) We moved to the other side of the sabkha to see the salt flats and salt mine. This was quite impressive. You’ve already seen one picture from here.


It was at the active part of the salt mine that some cool things happened. First I got to see a Fata Morgana. This was cool because the last time I saw this phenomena was in Antarctica. So it exists in different extreme environments. I also got to play with growing salt crystals. It’s amazing how they can grow in supersaturated environments. Nerdy huh?


No good images of the cubic crystals 🙁

After all of this we headed to the hotel, a slight disappointment since we had planned to see another sabkha. Still, it was exciting to see all of the new places. One of our later stops was at a gas station near the beach, only the beach was way below, giving us a nice rocky cliff from which to take photos.

3rd picture is of Roderik and Mark enjoying the cliff view.  In the 4th Jorge tries to capture the reflection of waves off the wall.

Finally we were near our hotel for the night. We came into the town of Tan Tan near dusk and drove well outside of the city onto dirt roads and then almost roads to find this nice hotel in the middle of no where. This was especially nice because of the clear sky. The Orionid meteor shower was approaching maximum, so we got to see some shooting stars along with familiar Jupiter and the moon. I had a blast as you can imagine. Roderik and I stayed up late to photograph the stars and what other objects were possible with our cameras.

It was a nice day overall. Even though it was a guided tour with drivers and planned stops, we got into an adventure/exploration mindset. More soon.

You can find a lot of the photos from the first day of the field trip here.

Casablanca

I was really excited that I would get a 1 day layover in Casablanca on my way to southern Morocco. It seemed like a great opportunity to visit a city I had never seen, plus it has such a famous name, after some movie my grandparents watched hundreds of years ago. Another advantage to going there was that I could practice my French. It turns out people don’t speak English much there, and those that do want to sell you something. I was in Morocco for 10 days starting in Casablanca, and my taxi ride French got pretty darn good.

I won’t beat around the bush. Casablanca is filthy. There are piles of trash in the streets, and you’re as likely to walk on a fish head or rotten vegetable as clean pavement. I can’t iterate that enough. Of course there are some clean parts of town, but they aren’t near the touristy or commercial districts. I’ll try to show the nice parts more than the not nice ones but start with one view from the main road in town – just around the corner from the Ancienne Medina – or old market.

My hotel was in the center of town, about 25 miles from the airport. It’s strange for the airport to be so far away considering the fact that there is almost nothing between the two. My first impression was that Morocco is a lot like Mexico. That impression didn’t go away at all. The people are poor but very friendly. There is a lot of desert. Roads aren’t good (better though in Mexico), and everything goes much more slowly that even a Texas boy is used to. I walked from my hotel towards the Medina, where tourists are obliged to go.

I didn’t really like where I was, and the rain was picking up – adding to the already muddy walkways of the Medina – so I got out and walked along the main road that parallels the seaport. The road was long and without cross streets (ocean on one side). Finally I arrived at the best sight in Casablanca, the world’s second largest Mosque. It is quite a beautiful building.

The weather was bad and the ocean roiling, so I didn’t stick around or go inside.

Before it got dark I walked back into the city center – going through the poor areas. This was fascinating, and I got to see how people work in Casablanca. The conditions are not good, but you can imagine the ingenuity they have to have. There were scooter repair shops the size of closets, carpentry shops that could barely hold the boards they were cutting, and a barber that had broken scissors and bad lighting. At least he gave a good haircut. That’s when I learned my first lesson about paying for things in Morocco. No price is fixed, and if they see money in your hand, they will ask for it. It’s definitely a good idea to keep your large bills in a separate pocket.

On my way back I entered the Medina in the attempt to see what was so special. I didn’t find much special except the food. Produce and spices are amazing in Morocco, and the local street venders sold excellent escargot and boiled chickpeas.

Yes, I ate street snails, and they were good but not at all like the butter drenched ones you’ll find in fancy French restaurants. These were boiled with spices and served whole in a cup with another for the broth, which tasted strikingly like gumbo.

After leaving the Medina a second time I got horribly lost. Horribly in the sense that I thought I was one place and was no where near. I should have made that left turn at Alburquerque. My French is good enough to ask for directions, but Moroccans, while super friendly, aren’t the most reliable guides. The phrase I heard most often was “go straight down this road, you can’t miss it.” Usually that would take me to some other guy who would point me in another direction and repeat what his fellow countryman said. Finally I did find my way and my hotel, where I was happy to change into dry clothes and ask for a good and close restaurant. Dinner proved to be excellent as was the breakfast the next morning. I had beef tagine with prunes for dinner, and breakfast was a mixture of French pastries and fresh fruit plus dried dates. My God those dates were good.

My morning run was really nice, and in the sun the mosque was even more stunning than the night before. No pictures though. Afterward I walked around the center of the city some more and found what most people consider the “Los Angeles” part of Casablanca. It very well could have been considering the architecture and immovable traffic. The sheep were a nice touch though and a foreboding of an upcoming festival.

There are more photos here in case you’re interested. I’ll leave with a couscous. This was meant to be my lunch before the flight to Laayoune, Western Sahara but ended up being too much for even that and dinner. It easily weighed more than a kilogram.

By the way, I have seen Casablanca – the movie. This is one of those times when the movie is better. I had a good time, but if you only have three days in Morocco, Marrakesh or Fes would be a nicer place to go.