Sunday, May 29, 2016

Venice, Italy

To leave Marrakesh we took a taxi from our riad to the airport, then a plane to Milan (cheap flight), from the Milan-Bergamo airport we took a bus to the Milan Central station where we boarded a train which took us into the Venice Santa-Lucia train station where we got on a public water transit to a boat dock about a 10 minute walk from our apartment.  It was a long day.   I don't ever plan to taxi, fly, bus, train, boat, and walk all in one day again.

Venice is a wow sort of a place, everywhere you turn it looks like a post card and I couldn't help but be in awe at the architecture, history, and logistics of a city as unique as Venice.  I'm going to let the pictures speak for themselves for now and I'll come back later to add descriptions and kid insight.

We took sanctuary from the concrete and canals almost everyday at a park not far 
from our apartment where the kids could be kids.  A better reprieve than even a gelato.

We forgot our water bottles so Maggie used her jacket
and the public fountain to "git er done."

For Max my musician the church where Vivaldi was Christened and played much of his music.  The backside or another church where Marco Polo is buried for Maggie who did a school report on the great explorer.  

Maggie especially loved St. Marks square which is teeming with pigeons.  She developed several ways of catching them, which delighted the Asian tourists to no end.  

Even I swallowed my "birds are filthy" mentality enough to bond with my 
daughter and take a selfie with two rats of the sky, I mean pigeons, on my arm.  

Arrivederci Venice!

April  30 - May 4, 2016

Marrakesh, Morocco - Majesty and Mayhem

Let me introduce you to Morocco.  Hear the call to prayer.  Notice the traffic weaving through the streets like scurrying ants knowing where they are going and not paying attention to how they get there.  As we walked off the plane onto the pavement in Marrakesh, Eli the kindergartener looked at the Arabic letters spelling out the name of the Airport and said, "That alphabet looks pretty tricky."
We knew the alphabet was tricky, and we wondered how tricky the country would be.  Everything was so foreign from anything we had ever before experienced.  The people, the food, the Islamic customs, the Arabic language, how would we navigate ourselves and all our children through such a place?  The answer: with help.  

Meet Mustapha Abouddafre, licensed guide and most of all an extraordinary person.  Aaron had found him on the internet, but we hadn't really lined up any guide services, but he helped us over the phone to get through some trouble trying to get through the passport checkpoint at the airport, and we set up a time to meet the next morning.  Rather than just talking he took us out on a tour of the Medina, the old part of Marrakesh.  

We felt like we were walking through the streets of Agrabah.
These are gravesite inside what was once a palace.  A taller grave statue indicated a more important person, usually royalty.  The flat ones, marked only by different colored tiles were individuals of less importance such as a prominent military personnel or government authority.  
We walked through a market where the local people buy their meat.  Look closely above Tessa's head you can see pigeons and a rabbit, and to the left chickens.  Animals are bought, weighed, and slaughtered right on site.  We had to jump over chicken and fish guts getting rinsed into the walkway through the market.  What you imagine the smell to be is correct, the heat cooked all the blood and guts to a ripe rankness that hung heavy in the air.  The people are leery about being photographed so we had to be a little discreet about it and our photo quality suffered.

We learned about how they use natural dies to color fabric.  What different herbs and spices are for.  I even saw a jar of dried cuttlefish (learned how to identify that in Greece) and asked what they used that for.  They crush it and it is a natural toothpaste, of course.  We learned how the intricate designs on walls, (above) are hand carved in wet plaster.  They do not make representations of animals, or flowers, those are God's work.  Instead they beautify their Arabic lettering in creating repeated phrases and use geometry and symmetry to create astoundingly beautiful patterns.  

All the ceilings at the palace were exquisite.

Marrakesh is home to the largest outdoor market in all of Africa, the Souk.  Snake charmers, henna artists, and sellers of any good you can imagine all try to get your attention.  At night it transforms into a food market as well.  There you can sample a bowl of snails, (being sold behind Jonah and I above) sheep heads, mountains of olives, and a variety of meat skewers.  

We were excited to find ice cream to cool us off, but
we didn't realize the mint ice cream would taste like
what they call Moroccan whiskey, or mint tea.
By the end of the day, we knew that we had found a life long friend in Mustapha.  He invited us to join him and his family out at their riad in the country the next day and night and we eagerly accepted.  Before leaving in the morning we had a birthday to celebrate.  Birthdays on the road have been quite simple, some of the kids had bought Eli a gift before leaving the Netherlands, he was also grateful for a pair of nail clippers Jonah scrounged up, and a package of mentos wrapped in a sock, as well as a passionate heartfelt birthday song.  We love you Eli!

On the way out we passed through a sheep market, I felt like I was watching scenes that I would only see in National Geographic pictures.  Men haggling over scraggly sheep that were wandering around and others binding sheep feet so they could throw the animal in their bicycle basket.  Another man walked down the busy road in his robes carrying a baby goat so the mother would follow.  We passed another town where a market had been the day before, (below) the garbage and the smell were horrible.  

Mustapha took us past recently discovered remain of Turkish baths.  And then to the beautiful tranquil sanctuary of his riad.  (A riad is really just a Moroccan house.  Much of the time they have an area in the center that is open to the sky.)

Tessa, Ghita (loosely pronounced Rita), Oumaima, and Maggie

We wanted to learn how to make some Moroccan food.  Ghita, Mustapha's wife and a high school English teacher of 25 years, was happy to help us learn to make couscous and tangine beef.  It was a little tricky, but I she also cooked come chickpeas in cumin and water that my kids loved and that is going to become a staple at our house.  

Beautiful and delicious!  Served Moroccan style where
everyone eats out of the same large dish and utensils 
are optional.  

They insisted that we get a full Moroccan experience and all Moroccans drink mint tea at least four times a day and visit the Hammam, or turkish bath once a week.  While the Abouddafres are in town they go to a public hammam, but they also have a private one they built at their property.  In short, a hammam is a steam bath.  They light a fire under a water heater and under the floor to make the stone dome building steam up and get really hot.  All this steam and heat loosens the skin and then they take a scrubber to scratch off all the dead and loose skin.  That night we took our white skin and steamed.  It was a cultural experience like none other.

The next day we explored the High Atlas mountains.  We toured a local woman's home and, of course, had tea.  Moroccan mint tea differs in complexity, but in its simplest form it consists of pouring steaming water into a glass of mint leaves.  

The stable in the front of, but completely inside, the house.
The lady of the house joking about how
 much sugar to add to the tea.
As we journeyed up the canyon we found a camel keeper who took 
us up a side canyon on camels, and let us sit on his donkey.  Happy birthday Eli!

We visited a family who lived in a stone home near the river.  They used the water to power grinding stones and others in the village would do the same, giving a portion of their flour to the family as payment for the use of the grinding stones.  Above, Tessa and Max take a turn shaking the jar used to make butter.  Below you can see their outdoor kitchen.  What was amazing is that we were seeing just how these people live now.  They make a little extra money from guides bringing tourists by, but there was no sign advertising tours, this was simply a glimpse into their real life.  The woman below was stoking the fire for her hammam while we were there.

We finished off our day at the riad with a little time in the wading pool and of course getting served more mint tea.  Ghita was so fun to visit with.  When Jonah wanted to run around without his shirt on she told him that he was naked, but pronounced it like it rhymed with baked.  And that she was going to pinch his breast, rhyming it with feast.  Which makes perfect sense, and only is a testament to the awkwardness of the English language.  

The next day we visited St. Laurent's gardens and went on a tour of several artisans.  Most of them worked in a dirty little room just off of the market alley.  They would work on their craft in the back and then 


Tanned leather, out for artisan's to buy wholesale.
Men making shoes by hand, all day, everyday.

Koranic School - mostly involves kids as young as 4 and 5 memorizing the Koran.

Marrakesh proclaims to have the largest waterpark in Africa.  I don't know if that is actually true, but it was a lot of fun!  Eli got super brave at the end of the day and rode the giant half pipe down with me, we found out what a burkini is (google for a picture, the locals don't like photos), and generally had a fabulous day.  

Mustapha, Ghita, and their daughters Oumaima and Sarah invited us over to their home in Marrakesh for a final farewell dinner.  We ate incredible food, Ghita said they don't eat meat, only chicken and fish, (ha ha)  but she knew that the kids like beef so she cooked some up and they loved it.  Oumaima helped the girls dress up in their fancy gowns, we watched some video of their cousins' recent wedding.  In Morocco a wedding party starts at about 10 pm and they spend the whole night until about 6 am eating, dancing, and celebrating the bride and groom all with no alcohol.  If it is a fancy one, like this was, the bride will change her outfit four or five times throughout the night.  All her wardrobe was stunningly beautiful Arabic outfits or dresses, it made me think that she got them out of the fancy modest side of princesses Jasmine's closet.  Best of all it was so fun to spend a  night with a family we had grown to love.  They treated us like we were family and our kids like they were grandkids, nieces, and nephews.  We didn't know what to expect when we headed to Morocco and sometimes that is for the best.  That way we could be flexible enough that we could let the good come.  And as it so often does, it was others that made our experience more than we could have hoped or planned for.