Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Sanna saida! Bonne année! Happy New Year!

Janeila arrived on Friday in the late afternoon and we had a little walk around Azrou, including a visit to the carpet shop. We would have seen my host family – she came to stay for a weekend last year when she was in home stay and desperately needed a shower, and my host family still talks about her – but they were away. We had some soup and played rummy; the quiet, relaxing evening was the start to a quiet, relaxing weekend.

We all agreed that an early start wasn’t necessary; Janeila and I had tea and pastry in the morning and sauntered down to the grand taxi stand and got to Meknes without rushing for the 11:29 train: Rose had boarded in Fes and met us in the compartment we found. The train we transferred to met us on time but then it made longer-than-scheduled stops (or perhaps some unscheduled stops) so we got to Asilah closer to 4:00 than to 2:30, but that’s okay. The land in this part of Morocco is hilly and very green – might Ireland be like this? I couldn’t come up with a comparison in the states. It’s not too rocky and appears to be all cultivated. There were fields with horse- or cow-drawn plows, and lots of sheep grazing, including little lambs (so l-Eid wasn’t the end of the flocks). The train station is by the beach, and we walked along it into town, stopping at a café for a snack and coffee/tea. When I had my visitors from the states, sitting in a café was on the list of things to do, because people do a lot of it in Morocco. We did manage to get to my local café for breakfast, but there was never time in the late afternoon for a café – always on the go! But now with fellow PCVs, it was back to the café as an activity. And we did need a snack! I had baked a chocolate cake and Rose had brought frosting; we shared American culture by giving some to the waiter. We then found a nice hotel (so much easier in the off-season than it was over the summer!) and then went to eat at a Spanish-owned restaurant, Casa Garcia. I had delicious sole and we shared natillas, Spanish custard (one of the first things I did when I got home was look up a recipe – for a while I was really into crème brulee, and this might be better!).

The next morning, we bought out a taxi to take us to the Neolithic stone circle in M’Soura. The same PCV who introduced Piffle to Morocco had told me about the stone circle, and Martha, Susan, Youssef and I were looking for it but ran out of day and turned around so that we could see some of Asilah before sunset. Rose had almost gone with friends from the states when they were in the area, but neither of those were meant to be – somehow it was meant that Rose, Janeila and I be there at the end of the year.

Last week I had written a letter and burned it and sent it to the universe so that I could end the year getting rid of some negativity and uncertainty and open myself up for positive and inspirational things to come to me in 2008, and the visit to the stone circle was another part of that process. It was a chance to feel the vibration, meditate, send thoughts to the universe. I sat in the middle of the circle, I walked around it several times, I contemplated the reasons why it was put there in the first place, I took a lot of pictures. I am glad I went! It is the only one of its kind Morocco – 167 stones, 54 meters by 58 meters; a farmhouse and fields are just on the other side. When we got back, we had a little more cake and went to look for a restaurant for lunch. We found two restaurants across from one another, each with big signs, painted fronts, colorful tables, plants, and multiple birdcages. It was hard to choose – both were so over-the-top!

When I was in Asilah this summer, the minute we got out of the taxi we felt it was a special place. And when we got out of the train this time, I felt instantly that I didn’t want this to be my last time in Asilah. I just felt relaxed and energized at the same time – it’s next to the ocean, intimate, clean, colorful, art-filled. We talked about having a reunion there in five years or so – you never know. We spent the afternoon in the medina, photographing doors and murals and looking in some of the shops, ending up on the Portuguese rampart for a rest – it was close enough to sunset that we got its tranquil effect, but we didn’t stay for the whole thing. Ate at Casa Garcia again – this time croquettes and more sole. They were out of natillas! But as I was having the croquettes I said these were as good as dessert…and we were full, so it was just as well. Still, maybe natillas in itself is reason enough to go back!

Monday morning we had breakfast at yet another café and then walked around a bit more, outside the medina walls and then back through the medina, conscious of the time but not concerned with whether or not we would miss the train. Which we did – but we knew we could taxi-hop. First to Larache, passing the Roman ruins at Lixus. If we had been ambitious we could have seen them too, but we were relaxed, and I didn’t push – I had already decided I’d see them another time. Or not…. Another two taxis got us to Moulay Bousselham, where I had reserved rooms in a B&B – an upgrade from the usual PCV hotel and price, but it seemed worth it for New Year’s Eve. The B&B was one of many villas on a palisade above the ocean – we had a snack and walked down to the beach – probably the best beach I have been to in Morocco. Walking along a beach always makes me happy, and this one was great – a long stretch, with nice waves, shells and rocks, uncrowded. The water was warm, too! I know because as I was cleaning off a seashell, I was hit by a rogue wave. The water between Rabat and Larache is warm (due to the Gulf Stream, said our host, though I may investigate further) – south of there and north of there it is cold. Had I known I might have brought my bathing suit for a New Year’s Day dip! It would have been a quick one, though – I was able to go coatless in midday but it was nippy. Good thing I had another pair of pants with me. Also a good thing that the pajamas I was wearing were in actuality decent-looking fleece pants, because I got hit by a rogue wave again the next morning in my spare pair of pants and ended up wearing the fleece pants for the rest of the trip. And good thing I had shower flip-flops with me, because I ruined my shoes in the salt water; they shrunk as they dried!

In the taxi enroute, I said that I was envisioning a fireplace at the B&B – one of the riads in Marrakesh had had one – and there was one! We sat by the fire and opened a bottle of champagne that I had saved for the occasion and had some chocolate that I had bought after the cake ran out. The B&B prepared a special dinner for us – fish barbecued in the fireplace and paella (which had not been available at Casa Garcia), with dessert of fruit salad that included my first strawberries since last year – yum! We had talked about doing tarot cards but Janeila wasn’t feeling well and both Rose and I thought we could be coming down with something too, so we all went to bed before midnight – which was fine! Janeila went home with Rose and may do her tarot cards there and then may come back on Friday to do mine.

Moulay Bousselham’s claim to fame is the Merga Zerga (Blue Lagoon), which hosts hundreds of thousands of migrating birds as well as some year-round flamingoes. The bird migration is at peak this time of year, and the next morning we hired a guide and went out on a little wooden boat. I had expected to leave at dawn, traditionally a good time for wildlife viewing, but we went with the tide and were picked up at the very reasonable hour of 9:30 am. Hassan, our guide, was great – his enthusiasm for the birds was infectious; so much so that I started to write down the names of all the species we saw so that I could look them up later. They included black and white cormorants, Andouin’s gull (rare), Caspian tern, sandwich tern, slender-billed gull, oystercatcher, gray heron, little egrets, slender-billed and other curlews, osprey, red, gray and golden plover, mallard, marbled, pintail and other ducks, coots, spoonbills, avocets, and some other birds that I didn’t quite catch the name of (or can’t find on wikipedia). We stopped on a shell-filled island in the middle of the lagoon and got out of the boat for while, watching and listening. I had mentally prepared myself not to see flamingoes (even though that was what I was most hoping to see) and Hassan said we would go a little farther. The lagoon got too shallow to use the outboard motor, and he started to row. And then we saw some! They were near the avocets and the spoonbills – read birders come to see those and a few other rare species; regular people come to see the flamingoes. We could see them best only through binoculars, and they were great. The flamingoes are there all year round, not migrating, and that March or even summer is a better time to see them, so is another trip in order? I am glad we saw the migrating birds at peak – it was a great experience. Hassan said rain was on the way - I was wondering if he could tell from looking at the sky, but he said he saw it on TV. We were lucky to have a nice sunny day, not too cool and not too warm!

While on the boat, softly singing or referring to every song I could think of with birds in the lyrics, I reminded myself that not everyone would do this. Not everyone would go to a stone circle or spend New Year’s morning in a small boat looking at birds. I feel so lucky that I have friends who would do this with me, both here and at home. This was one of my best weekends of 2007 and a wonderful way to end the year and start the new one. Hassan was an inspiration too – I asked him how he got started and he said he used to take tourists out in the summer while he was going to school for chemistry. As he kept going he realized that he could make a living doing this, and he outfitted his boat especially for birding. His passion was an inspiration on New Year’s Day – may we all find our passion and follow it.

We taxi-hopped to the train – with three of us, all of our taxis this weekend filled quickly or we just paid for an extra place and spread out in the back seat - and it didn’t take long to get home. I went to bed early though – even relatively easy travel still can be tiring, and I was still trying not to come down with a cold. More cold symptoms appeared today – too hard to breathe to go for a run, but I hope to tomorrow; the ns-marathon is not far away! Did laundry and polished and sent off my quarterly report and hosted two volunteers who were on the way back to their sites for lunch and coffee/tea. So I didn’t make any rounds today, but I was still quite busy! I found out that a friend in my stage is being med-evac’ed – tests were inconclusive so she is being sent to Washington for more tests. If she can’t make it back in 45 days, she’ll be medically separated. If it’s what they think it is, it’s nothing serious and she’ll make it back; I hope that’s the case! Oh – and the construction crew across the street is back at it. Last week a friend and I made stew with the sheep that my landlady brought upstairs after l-Eid. She also invited me for sheep couscous that Sunday (it may or may not be a tradition to have couscous on the third day – depends on who you ask) and towards the end of the week she brought a skewer of sheep upstairs (the skewers were the only way I liked it last year in home stay – well, I didn’t mind the sheep tagines either, but I avoided the meat when eating the tagines) – and now I think that is it for the l-Eid sheep (though not it for a closer relationship with the landlord’s family – they want me to come visit more often). This is shaping up to be a busy week (haven’t gotten to email yet, as an illustration) but my hope/plan is to keep the weekend relaxation/positive feeling for a while, even if it means some things don’t get done!

Sounds like you may make a good birder yet! Much of my travel revolves around bird watching, as you know. I saw a lot of wild flamingos in The Galapagos. Very neat birds!
I do know! I don't feel my eyesight is sharp enough but every time I have gone to see birds (or watched them, bird book in hand) I do feel elated!
What bird book do you use? Is there one for North Africa?

Sounds like you need binoculars!
I've used books in the states - there is one for North Africa and i just requested it from the Peace Corps library (I don't know if there are copies available but I thought I would start there). The guide in Moulay Bousselham had binoculars, and some of the Environment volunteers nearby do as well, but I am sometimes binocular-challenged. That's why I wrote down the names of the birds I saw and looked them up on the internet when I got back!
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