Ughhhh, I’ve been drugged.

I’d say not in a bad way, but is it ever a good thing to be drugged?

Tonight Matleena and I went out for beers then Tibetan food. I had never had it before and was looking forward to the treat. The food was surprisingly good, and even though she would often say, “this is really salty,” I would answer, “yea, but I like it,” I should have seen what was coming.

If it were possible to overdose on monosodium glutamate, we did it tonight. I just woke up after some very intense dreams about watering my yard – my second sign of poisoning. The first was an inordinate like for the food. The last time I was given so much MSG was in Austin a couple of years ago, and I dreamed that a family member was hit by a bus.  It turns out violent dreams are a known side effect of MSG intolerance.

Something else odd about the restaurant, besides the extremely salty sauces, might have been the odd makeup of the diners. When we walked in I was the only man in the restaurant. Three tables had only women, and the rest of the place was empty. One other guy did come in while we were there, but I haven’t been surprised like that about a group in a long time. Matleena says that the other conversations, in French, were all about feelings and relationships. Not that ours was hugely different.

Ugh, I can’t sleep, and the taste of MSG is oozing from the insides of my mouth. I hope I can get some rest tonight. As an almost doctor of geology, I prescribe lots of water.  If you get a chance to visit Tsampa Tibetan Restaurant, please be careful!  This could happen to you.

here’s a youtube song about MSG

 

 

Interesting Conversation Today

I was talking with my office mates about differences in our cultures. Two guys are from India, one being vegetarian. Both were interested in Texas BBQ and want to try it, but of course we’d have to grill vegetables for the vegetarian. Our conversation changed to dating and marriage. The amusing question was asked “without arranged marriages how do you get married?”

My first thought was an image of rubber ducks floating in a tub. They keep bumping into each other and eventually stick to one. I didn’t say this. Instead I said we look, sometimes for quite a while, until we meet the right person. These guys didn’t really understand dating per se, and 3 months seemed like a long time to decide if a mate was right for marriage. When I said some couples date for more than five years they lost interest in the conversation.

Nostalgia?

Walking home tonight I heard some blues guitar. It was like heaven. So I wandered around until I found the band of 3 college kids in a classroom playing their hearts out. They had moved on to Johnny B. Goode when I got there, and they let me listen as they practiced, argued, and drank sangria out of a plastic bottle.

People in Austin have it great. They can hear live music any time they want. I’m living in one of the most desirable places in the world, and I’m jealous of my friends back home.

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.

Tour Guide for a Day

This weekend I had a lot of visitors. First, Emma from Boulder came to stay for the weekend. She is a friend of a friend and fellow attendee of the Mars-Earth Analog Conference in Morocco that happened last week. I haven’t played tour guide yet, so this was an interesting experiment. We got to see quite a few of the top 10 sights in Paris in the morning and early afternoon. Then, a little before sundown Kuba, Dorota, and their friends arrived, and I started playing tour guide all over again. Most of the top ten sights were visited by me twice in one day! I’ll prepare better next time by not wearing leather soled cowboy boots!

The weather was supposed to be lousy all day, but after spitting and blowing until about 11AM it turned really nice. You can see the difference from when I visited the Eiffel tower in the morning and again at sundown. What a difference the lighting makes.

                       

Emma and I started at the Arc de Triomphe and then made our way to the Eiffel Tower via metro. We had no plan and weren’t in a hurry.

In the third photo you can see the Grande Arch. Yep, it’s square.


My ugly mug enjoying the cool, wet breeze.

From the tower we walked along the Seine towards Paris’ center. We passed the Musee D’Orsay, Grand Palai, Pont Alexandre III, and a pretty walkway.


So far things are good, even though the weather has only slightly improved. At least it’s not raining.

After that we passed the Louvre on our way to lunch and then on to Notre Dame. In an hour + of walking we had already walked past most of the top 10 sights in Paris. Not bad for a morning.


I took more fun photos of Notre Dame if you’re interested. The lighting was perfect, and with my better camera the inside photos turned out nice too.

At this point we had seen a lot of sights, so it was time to shop a little. You can see the meringue and then Emma thinking hard in the best cheese shop in the world. From there I showed her my office and new neighborhood (on Monday!!!). Then we walked to the Pantheon via a very roundabout meander.

After some awesome gellato it was time to go back to the Eiffel Tower to meet with Kuba and company. They would arrive around 5PM and wanted to party in Paris. So did I. We had an awesome view of the sunset over the Seine next to the Eiffel Tower. There were a lot of better photos, so feel free to browse.

The guys were hungry, and I wanted to change my boots, so we made our way back to my neighborhood where we could walk to Sacre Coeur and the Moulin Rouge. Dinner was a lot of fun. We got to catch up. They were on the way back from a regatta on the Atlantic, and I hear Kuba may be starting a business soon. Dinner seemed to last two hours, a bottle of wine and half a liter of rum. Our first stop was of course the Moulin Rouge then an Erotique Supermarket. Those guys! After Sacre Coeur we headed to the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees.

Of course we had to visit the Eiffel Tower at least once more for the day. FYI, this was my first time to visit the tower since living in Paris. I got plenty that day! Before going to the bars we stopped once more at Notre Dame. It is a lot more eerie at night, especially with a bright moon looking over!

After all was said and done there was a lot of walking done yesterday. and a lot of drinking. We eventually finished the bottle of rum and went to beer. What a great time. Soon there will be photos from Warsaw! Lahoney!!!!!!  It was great to see Kuba again.

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.

Life is really good

I am one lucky guy, for which I am very thankful. Things aren’t always perfect, and I may complain about things, but as a whole they are quite good, so the complaints are minor and the happiness intact.

Here’s how good things are right now. Me with a tiny dancer in my hand at a sabkha in southern Morocco.