Regina G Beach

The only constant is change.

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Alabaster

Egyptians shopkeepers are very incessant sales people. They’ll lure in tourists with outrageously low prices then jack them up when someone shows interest. They’ll deliberately leave off the currency when negotiating to deceive the shopper into thinking they’re talking Egyptian pounds when really they’re talking about dollars or Euros. Everyone’s got a “special price.” Or asks you to “just look, it’s free.” Then corner you in the shop trying to make a sale.

Since the 2011 uprising as a part of the Arab Spring, tourism is down more than 50% in Egypt. The lack of tourist plus massive inflation has put a lot of people in the tourism sector in a tough position. The irony of signs saying “hassle free shop” combined with touts outside following tourists for half a block asking them if they want to buy water, a tour, a boat ride, a taxi and souvenirs really doesn’t feel “hassle free” to me. Our guide Motaz said that he didn’t work for 5 years after the Arab spring and taught English in his down time until the tourists came back.

Upon meeting, the standard questions are “What’s your name?” and “Where’re you from?” Several people have asked us why more Americans don’t come to Egypt. We give a variation of “a lot of people are still scared it’s violent” and “for a long time our government said not to come because it’s dangerous.”

I understand the hounding when the tourists (who are seen as people with money and potential customers) are in such short supply. I’m annoyed and at the same time feel guilty that I’m annoyed with kids begging and men harassing me for my business when they clearly see me as their best option as a potential customer.

One common stop for tourists in addition to papyrus workshops and perfume workshops is the alabaster workshop. Craftsmen work to turn chunks of rock into beautiful vases and sculptures.

Alabaster is a soft mineral found used for carving decorative pieces. The calcite type was used in Ancient Egypt to make containers for oils, perfumes, canopic jars to hold the organs of the deceased and even whole sarcophagi.

Alabaster is a soft mineral found used for carving decorative pieces. The calcite type was used in Ancient Egypt to make containers for oils, perfumes, canopic jars to hold the organs of the deceased and even whole sarcophagi.

True alabaster is translucent. It comes in colors ranging from white to pink to green, but it’s always translucent.

True alabaster is translucent. It comes in colors ranging from white to pink to green, but it’s always translucent.

This is the raw form of alabaster once it’s mined but before it’s processed.

This is the raw form of alabaster once it’s mined but before it’s processed.

This stone is also alabaster but the green variety, which will show through more once it’s carved.

This stone is also alabaster but the green variety, which will show through more once it’s carved.

Machine made alabaster is shiny and polished and much lighter weight than hand-made alabaster products.

Machine made alabaster is shiny and polished and much lighter weight than hand-made alabaster products.

The small statues in the front are carved from basalt but the vases are alabaster and all but the narrow shiny one have been carved by hand. The alabaster carving business has been passed down through generations for centuries in Egypt.

The small statues in the front are carved from basalt but the vases are alabaster and all but the narrow shiny one have been carved by hand. The alabaster carving business has been passed down through generations for centuries in Egypt.

Once the alabaster has been dug from the earth and roughly cut into the size of the vase it’s wrapped in plaster to protect it while the inside is drilled out.

Once the alabaster has been dug from the earth and roughly cut into the size of the vase it’s wrapped in plaster to protect it while the inside is drilled out.

The plaster-coated alabaster is buried in sand to absorb the shock as the inside is drilled out by hand.

The plaster-coated alabaster is buried in sand to absorb the shock as the inside is drilled out by hand.

Once the inside has been drilled out, the vessel is unburied and shaped by hand with files to make it smoother.

Once the inside has been drilled out, the vessel is unburied and shaped by hand with files to make it smoother.

The final products are oiled to give them a matte luster.

The final products are oiled to give them a matte luster.

Papyrus

Papyrus scrolls have told historians much about the history of ancient Egypt. Today painting on the traditional Egyptian paper are a popular souvenir all over Egypt.

Papyrus scrolls are sold on the street and in artisan workshops all over Egypt. Egypt speaking salesmen give presentations about how the plant is processed to tourists. Our welcome drink was Hibiscus tea.

Papyrus scrolls are sold on the street and in artisan workshops all over Egypt. Egypt speaking salesmen give presentations about how the plant is processed to tourists. Our welcome drink was Hibiscus tea.

Papyrus is a triangular-shaped wetland sedge that grows in the Nile river. (Sedges have edges, thank you Tim Smith and Jack Mountain Bushcraft School for teaching me that.) Because of it’s pyramid-shaped cross section it was considered a holy plant honoring Amun-Re.

Papyrus is a triangular-shaped wetland sedge that grows in the Nile river. (Sedges have edges, thank you Tim Smith and Jack Mountain Bushcraft School for teaching me that.) Because of it’s pyramid-shaped cross section it was considered a holy plant honoring Amun-Re.

Papyrus grows 3-4 meters high and is the symbol of lower (or Northern) Egypt. The lotus (another wetland plant is the symbol of upper Egypt. The first step in making papyrus paper is removing the outer green part with a knife. This part can be used to make baskets, boats and other woven things.

Papyrus grows 3-4 meters high and is the symbol of lower (or Northern) Egypt. The lotus (another wetland plant is the symbol of upper Egypt. The first step in making papyrus paper is removing the outer green part with a knife. This part can be used to make baskets, boats and other woven things.

The inner white part is very fragile. The next step is to use a mallet and a rolling pin to remove the excess water making the papyrus stronger and more flexible.

The inner white part is very fragile. The next step is to use a mallet and a rolling pin to remove the excess water making the papyrus stronger and more flexible.

Once the water is removed, the papyrus sits in water for 6 days to remove the sugar. The water is changed every day.

Once the water is removed, the papyrus sits in water for 6 days to remove the sugar. The water is changed every day.

The salesman demonstrated using a wooden mallet to hammer out the papyrus. The Greeks introduces the paper we use today to the Egyptians.

The salesman demonstrated using a wooden mallet to hammer out the papyrus. The Greeks introduces the paper we use today to the Egyptians.

This wooden rolling pin made the papyrus strips thin and wrung out the moisture.

This wooden rolling pin made the papyrus strips thin and wrung out the moisture.

Once the strips have been soaking for 6 days (or 12 days to make brown papyrus) they are arranged vertically and horizontally to make a 2-layer sheet of interwoven strips.

Once the strips have been soaking for 6 days (or 12 days to make brown papyrus) they are arranged vertically and horizontally to make a 2-layer sheet of interwoven strips.

The papyrus mat is put between two pieces of felt for 6 days to dry. Ancient Egyptians woudl use linen and heavy stones for this portion.

The papyrus mat is put between two pieces of felt for 6 days to dry. Ancient Egyptians woudl use linen and heavy stones for this portion.

Today, a giant press is used instead of heavy stones to dry the papyrus and ensure it’s flat and smooth.

Today, a giant press is used instead of heavy stones to dry the papyrus and ensure it’s flat and smooth.

A lot of sellers will peddle weak, brittle paper made from banana leaves or sugar cane. Real papyrus is strong and flexible and can be rolled.

A lot of sellers will peddle weak, brittle paper made from banana leaves or sugar cane. Real papyrus is strong and flexible and can be rolled.

When you hold real papyrus up to the light you should be able to see the horizontal and vertical stripes.

When you hold real papyrus up to the light you should be able to see the horizontal and vertical stripes.

This famous scene, like most of the artwork in this workshop was painted by the Faculty of Fine Arts at South Valley University. It depicts the final judgement of a soul. 14 judges preside over the ruling at the top of the image. Anubis looks at the scales of judgement to weigh the heart of the deceased agains the feather of truth. . If the heart doesn’t pass the test, the crocodile headed hippo animal eats the heart and the soul doesn’t get eternal life in the afterworld.

This famous scene, like most of the artwork in this workshop was painted by the Faculty of Fine Arts at South Valley University. It depicts the final judgement of a soul. 14 judges preside over the ruling at the top of the image. Anubis looks at the scales of judgement to weigh the heart of the deceased agains the feather of truth. . If the heart doesn’t pass the test, the crocodile headed hippo animal eats the heart and the soul doesn’t get eternal life in the afterworld.

Nubian Village

The motorboats ferry people from the east bank to the west bank of the Nile River in Aswan. The boats line up two and three deep next to the cruise ships and men in long, grey on-piece galabias drive them around Elephantine Island around the first cataract and to the Garb Sheila Nubian Village. 

Camels trek along the dunes on the west bank of the Nile near Aswan.

Camels trek along the dunes on the west bank of the Nile near Aswan.

Crocodile bodies bring protection to Nubian homes.

Crocodile bodies bring protection to Nubian homes.

Camels wearing brightly colored saddles carry tourists around the dunes that rise up from the river bank unlike anywhere else on the river we’ve seen. The Sahara Desert was created by the hot breath of Sekmet, whose unrequited love for Set (he loved Nephthys,) angered the lion-headed goddess to no end. Or so one story goes. 

The dunes contain the tomes of nobles, cemeteries of modern Egyptians and the ornate mausoleum of Agha Khan, the Shi’a leader with over 4 million followers. While the majority of Egyptians are Sunni muslim, Agha Khan came for the healing properties of the Aswan sand. He suffered from a chronic illness and found so much relief in burying his legs in the dunes that he told his family to bury his body in Aswan when he died. Agha Khan had many wives including a young French woman who until her death 5 years ago came to Aswan every year to place a red rose on his grave on the West Bank of the Nile. 

Nubian houses are painted brightly with animal and domestic motifs. These murals greeted us at the ferry dock.

Nubian houses are painted brightly with animal and domestic motifs. These murals greeted us at the ferry dock.

Past the cemetery are small islands full of birds and surrounded by river grasses. Red headed ducks, Ibises and herons hunt for food as our boat narrowly misses partially submerged rocks. The water in the cataract swirls and changes directions. We are heading upstream toward the old dam, built by the English during imperial times. The Nubian houses come into view. They are distinct with their colorful domed brick roofs. 

Textiles are woven from Egyptian cotton by men on big horizontal looms.

Textiles are woven from Egyptian cotton by men on big horizontal looms.

Clay jugs keep water cool under the hot Egyptian sun.

Clay jugs keep water cool under the hot Egyptian sun.

It rarely every rains in Egypt but when it does, the Nubian villages are in trouble. Their mud brick homes can disintegrate with too much rain. Over 100,000 Nubians were relocated out of the valley that is now Lake Nassar. The reservoir for the High Aswan Dam was filled in 1970 covering thousands of acres of farmland, villages and ancient temples with Nile River water. UNESCO moved some of the most important temples to islands that wouldn’t be flooded including Philae Temple, home of the last known written hieroglyphics. 

The Nubians are the self-proclaimed first people of Africa. They are black, not Arab and when we visit, we notice the strange custom of attaching a taxidermied crocodile above the doors for protection. I’ve wanted to badly to see a Nile crocodile and was crushed when I learned that they only live south of the High Dam and we probably wouldn’t see them. However, the Nubains visit Lake Nassar, kidnap the baby crocodiles and keep them in pens until they’re grown. 

Taxidermied crocodiles were everywhere in the village.

Taxidermied crocodiles were everywhere in the village.

Two Nubain girls followed us around and took us to the school. They were selling keychains made of dowels painted like women. They were cute but relentless. One was named Mano. They waited for us to finish our school visit, where Mr. Omar (who usually teaches adult women won never went to school) taught us to count in Nubian and Arabic and helped us write our name in Arabic script. 

A brightly colored Nubian home with traditional arches.

A brightly colored Nubian home with traditional arches.

This government funded school is for young children birth to age 6 and women who did not receive an education as children.

This government funded school is for young children birth to age 6 and women who did not receive an education as children.

The Nubian language is an oral tradition although sometimes it’s written in the Latin alphabet, but it doesn’t have a written form. The girls stood up and talked to Motaz, our guide in Arabic, again making their sales pitch. They switched to Nubian to discuss the finer points of their business dealing. We ended up buying one wooden keychain woman in a yellow dress. The girls had seemed to be working together until one made the sale and the other didn’t. The other was indignant and wanted us to buy a second key chain. We had to let her down. 

I imagined what the Nubian village was like before the tourists. Before the camel rides and henna, and sand artists. Before the basket weavers and cotton weavers were trying to sell their wares to visitors. Before the zebra masks for sale were on display next to the obelisks in cafes serving sesame, molasses and cheese on crusty bread with mint tea and hibiscus juice. I imagined a quiet, sandy place with domed house and fewer murals, fewer boats with Bob Marly flags, and fewer girls selling keychains.  

Mr. Omar taught us the Arabic alphabet and how to count in Nubian and Arabic.

Mr. Omar taught us the Arabic alphabet and how to count in Nubian and Arabic.

Saqqara

We were young and stupid when we paid $45 for a driver to Memphis and Saqqara for a day. These were in the days before we knew how easy, cheap and ubiquitous Uber was in Cairo. We went with the same driver who picked us up at the Cairo airport. He spoke a few words of English but not much more.

The temples at Saqqara were incredible with hieroglyphics and relief carvings of everyday life in Ancient Egypt.

The temples at Saqqara were incredible with hieroglyphics and relief carvings of everyday life in Ancient Egypt.

We drove through the sprawling city of Cairo. It’s mostly monochromatic in a dusty drab brown. The air is heavy with smog and sand. The people live in big apartment buildings made of red brick or brown brick or covered in cement. They are 15 or 20 stories tall with satellite dishes on the balconies. The balconies are my favorite thing about Cairo. Housing is expensive and most average people don’t have a lawn to garden or a house to paint but they have a balcony and they are not shy to express their creativity.

The burial chambers were empty for several reasons: either grave robbers had looted them or the remaining artifacts had been put into museums (including the very nicely put together Museum at Saqqara.) This tomb has tons of carvings but not much else.

The burial chambers were empty for several reasons: either grave robbers had looted them or the remaining artifacts had been put into museums (including the very nicely put together Museum at Saqqara.) This tomb has tons of carvings but not much else.

In Daniel Pinkwater children’s book The Big Orange Splot, Mr. Plumbean decides to paint his drab boring house on a perfectly identical block to suit his whims. His neighbors one by one go try to talk some sense into him so they have have their perfect “neat street” back but instead they are all swayed to paint their own homes in crazy, fanciful ways. Mr. Plumbean says, “My house is me and I am it. My house is where I like to be and it looks like all my dreams.”

The Pyramid of the Djoser is the first pyramid tomb and the precursor to the Pyramids at Giza.

The Pyramid of the Djoser is the first pyramid tomb and the precursor to the Pyramids at Giza.

There are bright green balconies and orange ones. Some have red stripes or polka dots or yellow and grey chevrons. Some have murals of a forest, of a street or cartoon characters. Some are plain. Honestly, more are plain than are painted but it’s the painted ones that stick out, the bright colors against a drab city of blocky tall buildings.

Some of the tombs were closed. It’s not clear if they were being restored or simply no one came to open them up on the day we visited. It’s hard to tell who’s a park employee and who’s an unofficial guide trying to earn a tip for sharing a bit of information.

Some of the tombs were closed. It’s not clear if they were being restored or simply no one came to open them up on the day we visited. It’s hard to tell who’s a park employee and who’s an unofficial guide trying to earn a tip for sharing a bit of information.

Saqqara is south of Cairo and has the honor of containing the first pyramid. The deified architect Imhotep oversaw the step pyramid that housed Djoser’s tomb and paved the way for the construction of the pyramids at Giza.

Under this overhand is a big shaft that leads down into a tomb.

Under this overhand is a big shaft that leads down into a tomb.

The step temple at Saqqara is not well marked. There’s an entrance to be sure with huge supported columns opening up into a courtyard that’s being restored. one of the sides of the pyramid is actively under restoration and I swore I read that you could go into the temple. There were two doors at the base of opposite sides both of which looked pretty sketchy. A steep slope with worn 2”x10”s and a pit of empty water bottles and chip wrappers lead into an open door. The inside of the pyramid had intermittent illuminated light bulbs and a dead end. So we climbed out and headed back to the front which seemed like our best option.

Some of the hieroglyphics are in high relief and stick out away from the wall. These are in low relief and sink down into the wall.

Some of the hieroglyphics are in high relief and stick out away from the wall. These are in low relief and sink down into the wall.

There was no sign that explicitly said we could not enter the pyramid. There were no guards or barriers. The lights were on, the door was unlocked and we walked down a wooden walkway to the center of the temple where a giant scaffolding was erected to (we supposed) take visitors down to the tombs. We walked down at least 5 stories. Chris didn’t like the feel of the shake metal and opted to head back up but Megan and I persevered until we were faced with a dilemma. A metal ladder was tied to the scaffolding to take people the last 20 feet to the ground but there was no good way to get from where the steps ended to the ladder.

Memphis is a town 3km away from Saqqara and has an open air museum with antiquities including several giant statues of Ramses II.

Memphis is a town 3km away from Saqqara and has an open air museum with antiquities including several giant statues of Ramses II.

A very flimsy 2”x10” seemed unsafe. We ducked under the stair rail. I was wearing a long flowing skirt, it wasn’t practical for the task at hand. I tied it up and shimmied along the scaffolding to the ladder. I ducked under to get on the ladder and told Megan to wait for me while I disappeared down the illuminated hall. I didn’t find much. There was a tomb with some blue stones stuck into the wall, but the ground was dirty, there were electrical cords and tools and buckets and it certainly didn’t feel like a place for visitors.

This impressive statue of Ramses II laid in a pond for 50 years after it was discovered because no one knew how to lift it up in the early 1800s.

This impressive statue of Ramses II laid in a pond for 50 years after it was discovered because no one knew how to lift it up in the early 1800s.

I told Megan there was nothing to see and started back up the ladder. I was a sweaty mess and nervous about falling to my death as I shimmied back across the scaffolding to the steps. We climbed back up dusty and dirty from our adventure. When we got to the top Chris was standing in the entry tunnel with two rather cross tomb guards who told us we weren’t supposed to go down there and wanted us to pay them money, which we didn’t. We said we were sorry and that there was no sign or barred door to indicate that we couldn’t enter. We scurried down the entry tunnel and on to the next tomb.

People love to graffiti on anything including on ancient tombs. Here you can see graffiti in both top corners of this image.

People love to graffiti on anything including on ancient tombs. Here you can see graffiti in both top corners of this image.

Abraham and Castle Hotel Cairo

Abraham is a 48 year old, twice divorced hotelier who opened the Castle Hotel Cairo in January of this year. He’s worked in hospitality his whole life: in hotel restaurants, as a bell boy, receptionist, all the way up to reservation manager at a resort in Dubai. He wheels and deals withe the best of them. He intentionally overbooked and then rented out private villas for the overflow which made both the guests and villa owners happy while mystifying his boss.

“I see you have 302 guests booked tonight.”

“Yessir.”

“But we only have rooms for 225.”

“Yessir.”

“How are you going to deal with that?”

“I have my way. Don’t worry.”

Abraham and I at the check in desk at the Castle Hotel Cairo.

Abraham and I at the check in desk at the Castle Hotel Cairo.

Abraham’s gift of gab and way of seeing solutions to every problem eventually brought him home to Cairo after a long career abroad, a half Uzbek son, an ex-father in law who loved to get him drunk on vodka, and an ailing mother.

Abraham’s mom died a few months after he moved back to Cairo and he was shattered. He was at a crossroads and decided to stay anyway and start his own hotel. He started a venture Radwa, a 32 year old single woman who smokes cigarette and refuses to cover her hair (both rarities in Egypts ever more conservative culture.) She designed the rooms. Ours had London and Paris architecture and the British flag all over the wallpaper. And he handled the guests through HostelWorld, booking.com, Expedia and Trip Advisor.

Abraham wants to expand the hotel. It’s on the 15th floor of an office building and in the adjacent building the corresponding floor is vacant. He’s trying to buy it. He’ll knock out the walls and connect the two buildings. He wants more guest rooms, a sitting room and a rooftop terrace and restaurant. He feels the call to travel but thinks he’ll stay in Cairo for the next five years until he can realize his dream.

Abraham has an older sister and nephew in Austria. It isn’t easy for Egyptians to travel outside the county so I suspect he comes from some money. He says he studied hospitality but learned English from speaking to guests, as most service industry workers claim. He nonchalantly points out the balcony to the empty lot filled with dump trucks and pipes across the street. He tells me there used to be houses there but the people didn’t keep them up so they got bought up and new hotels will go in.

With the proximity to the Egyptian Museum and the Nile River, I’m not surprised to hear it’s prime real-estate. He seems non-plussed when I ask him where the people who lived there went. “Away,” he shrugs, holding an unlit cigarette.

Abraham is the epitome of hospitable. Sometimes he offers thick Turkish coffee, which I deny in the evenings for fear of never sleeping. He tells a story about his sister who drank his coffee then sat on the couch all night wide-eyed with caffein. Other times it’s Pepsi, or slices of cold watermelon from the fridge. Once he gave me some of his instant noodles. He seems incapable of possessing food or drink without sharing.

He complains about housing priced in Egypt and the bad economy and devalued money. He thinks someone should do something about it but he’s not sure what and he’s not sure who. He worries about getting older, about how skinny he is, about smoking too much, drinking too much coffee and eating too little. But I don’t get the sense that Abraham is the type of man who is wont to do anything about his worries.

He wears the same clothes for the first two days we stay at the Cairo Castle Hotel. He tells me he doesn't like to go the 30 minutes back to his apartment. It’s too lonely and then he doesn’t like to come back. He’d rather sleep on the couch in the reception and let the breeze come in from the balcony or sleep in an empty room if they’re not full.

Abraham says he needs a hobby and that he won’t take a third wife. He 18 year old son only speaks Russian and Abraham has given up calling him because he only knows two questions in Russian “how’s schools?” And “Have you eaten?” He seems wistful for connection but tells me, “It’s a strange and beautiful life. You can never know what will happen.”

Night Train Cairo to Luxor

Steve Goodman’s 1971 song City of New Orleans has always been one of my favorites. I’m partial to the Arlo Guthrie cover myself.

Good morning America how are you?

Don't you know me I'm your native son

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

The Cairo train station is fancy.

The Cairo train station is fancy.

Aside from municipal subways, I’ve really only ridden one train any distance in the US. The South Shore Line runs between Millennium Station in Chicago, Illinois and the South Bend Airport in Indiana. I took it once to visit my aunt and uncle who live in Elkhart. The ride was only a few hours and I stared out the window for most of the it. The rail line goes through the south side industrial lands then through neighborhoods, rural land and small town on the way out of the windy city into Indiana.

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Illinois Central Monday morning rail

Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders

Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail

I feel a strange nostalgia for rail travel in America. People still ride Amtrak cross country, but it’s often just as expensive as flying. I’m not sure when the golden age of the railroad was but I always think of the Pullman porters tending to the wealthy in the fancy cars leased to the rail companies. They were made on the far south side of Chicago in what was at the time the company town and is now the Pullman neighborhood. I adopted a kitten that was found in the neighborhood and I named her Morty for George Mortimer Pullman. I had to give her up when my traveling life meant I no longer had an apartment of my own but I thought of her fondly on my most recent rail journey.

All along the southbound odyssey

The train pulls out at Kankakee

Rolls along past houses, farms and fields

Passin' trains that have no names

Freight yards full of old black men

And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

This model of the Cairo rail station makes parking look orderly and easy to understandable. It’s not. Cairo traffic is a nightmare.

This model of the Cairo rail station makes parking look orderly and easy to understandable. It’s not. Cairo traffic is a nightmare.

There are a few ways to travel the 400 miles between Egypt’s capital city and Luxor (known to the ancient Greeks as Thebes.) We opted for the night train, first class, which was a splurgy option that included dinner, breakfast and a bunk for the night. Megan and Chris had one cabin and I had another to myself. There is an adjoining room, but it’s on the opposite side of Chris and Megan’s so I don’t open the door. It remains a mystery person’s cabin. I offer to take Megan’s bag, which lives with mine on the bottom bunk, which converts into three chairs like a row on an airplane.

Dealin' cards games with the old men in the club car

Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score

Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle

Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor

Our porter is an elderly gentleman wearing a navy porter outfit and a cap with some English skills. He comes to check my ticket and asks if I want to sleep on the bottom, I decline. I fish the heavy metal ladder out from under the lower bunk and attach it to the hook on the wall. The door to the bathroom sink fits behind it. The toilets are down the hall. The air conditioner is on full blast so I tuck myself into bed to read when I hear another persistent knock on the door. The porter knocks loudly and doesn’t stop until I climb down, fiddle with the lock and the very sticky handle that never opens the first time. This time it’s the porter with two other men who he calls ‘security check.’ I must have passed muster because as soon as they announce themselves, they move on to the next cabin.

My train cabin had a sink cupboard, window and metal ladder up to my bunk.

My train cabin had a sink cupboard, window and metal ladder up to my bunk.

And the sons of Pullman porters

And the sons of engineers

Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep

Are rockin' to the gentle beat

And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

I climb up the ladder and tuck myself in again. The bed is much wider than the sleeping train I took in Danang, Vietnam where six beds stacked three high occupied the same amount of space as my single compartment. At 8:40 there’s another knock at the door. It’s dinner time and the porter “shows” me how to attach the TV tray to the wall, a job I most certainly could have done myself. I eat in silence alone as the train continues along the Nile river. There are some hangers hidden behind a curtained “closet” next to the sink. I don’t know if people actually unpack and change their clothes or what but I slept in day-old sweaty leggings and an Ohio University tee-shirt. There was a plug for a razor, but not one for a phone showing the age of the car.

My bunk had a metal bar and (thankfully) a blanket and sheet because the train was freezing!

My bunk had a metal bar and (thankfully) a blanket and sheet because the train was freezing!

Nighttime on The City of New Orleans

Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee

Half way home, we'll be there by morning

Through the Mississippi darkness

Rolling down to the sea

There’s another knock at the door and I think I’m going to go mad with the amount of “service” I’m receiving but this time it’s Chris with a report that the “fancy” dining car isn’t worth going down to. He hands me a Fanta and tells me it’s 6 cars down, past fancier sleeper cars that say they were made in “West Germany” for context of how old ours must be. The porter comes back and takes my tray and asks many times over if I would like to purchase a juice. I decline. It’s 9:45 and I’m exhausted. It’s a 5:15 wake up call to get off the train so I need to get to bed if I’m going to have any chance of a full night’s sleep.

But all the towns and people seem

To fade into a bad dream

And the steel rails still ain't heard the news

The conductor sings his songs again

The passengers will please refrain

This train's got the disappearing railroad blues

The Egyptian country side flew by outside the train window.

The Egyptian country side flew by outside the train window.

Laos has no train and neither does Senegal. The Chinese are building a railway through Laos and while Senegal has miles of tracks and cars, it owes money to the foreign investment company that’s making the rail line a reality. It’s doubtful the line will be completed by the original 2020 completion date. The Egyptian train experience was largely a good one. The train was on time, we had reserved beds that we bought online (a rarity in Egypt.) We made it to Luxor before 6 a.m. and walked to the Sofitel for a day of luxuriating in the gardens, pool and fluffy beds.

Good night, America, how are you?

Said don't you know me I'm your native son

I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans

I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done

Traditional Egyptian Music

The Makan Egyptian Center or Culture and Arts’ mission is to preserve traditional Egyptian music and support musicians financially and with recording opportunities. Every Wednesday in the small theater space the Mazaher Ensemble plays traditional Egyptian Zar music to a full house of about 75 spectators. Traditional Egyptian music is not taught in schools and most of the shows billing themselves as traditional music skew toward folkloric spectacle to match tourists expectations of limited types of performances such as Sufi dancing or belly dancing. Makan wants to preserve traditions faithfully and inspire a new generation of Egyptians to feel proud of their cultural heritage and perhaps learn to perform themselves. 

The dancing style included pacing, swinging and rhythmic turning to the ever increasing tempo of the rhythms.

The dancing style included pacing, swinging and rhythmic turning to the ever increasing tempo of the rhythms.

The Mazahar group consists of 4 men and 4 women play mostly percussion instruments: hand drums, tambourines, finger cymbals, bongos, the d’jambe, maracas, and a belt with hundreds of seashells sewn to it. The melody comes from call and response singers, a wooden flute and a string instrument which is part harp, part African Kora. 

The music is mesmerizing. Each song starts out slowly with lots of hand drums and tambourines added in. It progressively gets louder and more intense and more cacophonous as the voices merge, the drumming hastens and the dancing brings it all to a head before abruptly ending. 

Some of the performers, Um Hassan <Nour el Sabah and Um Sameh are among the last Zar musicians in Egypt.

Some of the performers, Um Hassan <Nour el Sabah and Um Sameh are among the last Zar musicians in Egypt.

The women in the group all cover their heads but none of them cover their necks as is commonly  seen in Egypt. Two wear tight head covers then a loose, sheer veil over it and the others just cover their hair Senegalese style with a knot at the back of their heads. This is in start contrast to the audience, very few of whom cover their heads at all. 

The lead singer is a force to be reckoned with. She has red nail polish and gold rings with large jewels on nearly all her fingers. She’s wearing makeup and necklaces and silver slippers. She doesn’t use a microphone but she doesn’t have to. He gravelly voice carries throughout the theater. She sings in Arabil and speaks in Arabic to interact with the crowd, more than half of whom seem to understand. She starts the show with a blessing and lights incense which she carries around to each of the ensemble members. 

Mazar’s music is inspired by 3 different Zar styles: Upper Egyptian Zar, Abu Gheit Zar and the Sudanese or African Zar style.

Mazar’s music is inspired by 3 different Zar styles: Upper Egyptian Zar, Abu Gheit Zar and the Sudanese or African Zar style.

Black mint tea and hibiscus tea are free for the taking both before the show and during intermission, where the lead singers suggests that we might want to go out for a cigarette. Smoking is ubiquitous in Egypt: on the street, in cars, in buildings, our hotel, restaurants. Mostly it’s the men who smoke, but I’ve passed some shisha bars where women were partaking as well. 

Mazhar music features women in the lead role, which is not often the case in traditional Egyptian music. This style of poly-rhythmic music is dying out as practitioners pass on and new musicians don’t rise up to replace them. There was one younger woman in the ensemble, the other 7 appeared to be in their 60s, 70s or older. One woman who sat the entire performance didn’t walk very well. Makan found these practitioners and formed the group. They “Motivated them to go through lengthy session of rehearsing, remembering and recording.” 

The woman in red on the left is the youngest in the ensemble of aging artists sharing their music and dance with a multi-national artist every Wednesday night.

The woman in red on the left is the youngest in the ensemble of aging artists sharing their music and dance with a multi-national artist every Wednesday night.

I don’t know what the future of Mazhar music will be or if it would still exist without help from organizations like Makan, but I’m glad I paid my 80 Egyptian Pounds (around $5) to experience this music I’d never heard before in a space dedicated to promoting and preserving the arts. 

History of a Trekking Guide

Our trekking guide Ali never went to school as is the case for many Berber children. He learned to read and write Arabic by attending morning and evening classes at the Mosque. His father was a driver and his mother, like many Moroccan women, was a homemaker taking care of the 7 children. Ali is the second oldest and went to Marakesh for a trip with his father to visit his uncle when he was 13. His cousin was studying French from a primer and he immediately felt a desire to study himself. For the next few days he followed her lessons, looked at her books and asked her about school. She told him he could buy his own book in the market for 2 dihram. He asked his father for some money but didn’t tell him want it was for. He went to the market and bought a French, German and English primer and began to teach himself. 

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

Ali (center) chats with a local (left) as we hike up the mountains.

The following year Ali’s father died and he and his brother left the countryside for Marrakech to look for work. Ali started as a dishwasher but knew if he could improve his language skills, he could make more money working the front of the house as a waiter speaking to foreigners. He got another job at a shop calling out to tourists in several languages as they passed by trying to get them to look in the shop. He opened the shop in the morning, sprinkled water on the ground to keep the dusk down, dusted the merchandise and was given two hours in the hottest part of the day for lunch. 

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Ali wore a blue turban the whole time we hiked.

Instead of going home or sleeping, Ali spent his lunch hours walking to the bus station to meet the bus from Agadir that came in around noon. He would practice his new languages with the tourist and offer to show them around the old Medina for tips. He learned from them what western tourists like, how to speak to them and interact with them and he earned a bit of money. 

I like Ali. He’s a slight but strong man. I imagine he’s around 50 years old with his salt and pepper hair and bad teeth. He has two teenage boys 15 and 17 and a daughter who’s 6. He smokes but always steps away to do it. His English and guiding abilities are unparalleled. He’s the best guide we’ve had either in Morocco or Senegal. He tell us unprovoked about the people, architecture, plants and customs of the Berber. He’s warm and funny and sincere. He seems to know everyone in every village and tells me he’s been guiding longer than I’ve been alive. “The mountains are in my blood.” 

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

Ali knows every trail, peak and valley in the mountains and is happy to share his vast knowledge.

It’s hard for me to imagine Ali as a young hustler obnoxiously calling for tourists to “take a look in my shop, I make you good price.” Or hassling road weary travelers fresh off the bus, “I take you to your riad, show you the Medina, you pay what you like.” These types of suspicious young men who hound me for my business are what I like the least about Morocco. The idea that they are practicing their English and that they have aspirations for more skills and a better job hadn’t occurred to me until Ali told his story.  

Ali’s first experience leading a trekking expedition happened innocently enough when he invited two German backpackers to visit his home village for a week. They stocked up on supplies of tea and bread and sugar and flour and Ali lead them through the mountains. They slept in his family home and he introduced them to the neighbors. The Germans loved the nature, the quiet away from the cities and the free flowing kif or marijuana that was available in the mountains. They suggested Ali start a trekking business. 

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali likes the mountains as much as I do. We give the High Atlas a big thumbs up.

Ali liked to hang around in cafes that westerners frequented in Marrakech. He send and received post cards from the westerners he met and the cafes were good places to find people who would read and transcribe his post cards for him. It was at a cafe that Ali met the Scottish adventurer Hamish Brown. Ali would go on to lead Hamish through the mountains of Morocco as Hamish developed Atlas Mountains Information Services, took photos, documented the landscape and promoted tourism in Morocco. Ali helped coordinate the 90-day 1400km trek across Morocco which no one had ever attempted. Ali coordinated a visit for Mick Jagger when he wanted to learn about Berber music. He hosted mountaineering clubs and with Hamish’s help eventually received an official guide’s license even though he had never been to school.  

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali wore button up shirts and jeans every day even in the heat.

Ali’s quiet determination, tirelessness (he trekked in jeans and rarely seemed out of breath or tired) and preparedness with candied nuts, a water source, and communication with our cook and accommodations made me feel like I was in the most capable hands as I navigated goat tracks in 90+ degree heat (30º+ C) in the High Atlas Mountains. 

The High Atlas Mountains 

Abdil has a well-trained mule who wears a blue tarp outlined in yellow and orange embroidery that goes under his tail and neck. On top of the tarp Abdil puts woven panniers and in the panniers he puts a stove and tank of propane, a picnic blanket woven from sheep’s wool, plates, cutlery, two teapots, silver platters of various sizes, pots and pans, his own personal effects and any of our things we wanted to be without until the end of the day. 

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil’s mule grazes on the path while we eat lunch.

Abdil doesn’t speak English and defers to our guide, Ali, for everything more than an indication that we’re finished eating. He has holes in both sides of both of his sneakers. He wears a green baseball cap and does the dishes in the river. I’m on a three-day hiking expedition in the High Atlas Mountains and I’ve never had a cook with a mule before. He makes lentils, tajines, and beautiful salads out of seemingly nothing. 

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

Abdil packs everything he needs to cook in the green panniers that sit on the mule’s back. Sometimes he sits on the mule’s back too.

We start our expedition after lunch. Morocco is a country of late starts. As one shop keeper told us, “Europeans have watches but Africans have time.” It’s easy to forget one is in Africa while walking in Morocco. I saw dung beetles in clusters turning mule excrement into dirt this morning. I thought to myself about how I had seen the same large, shiny black insects “when I was in Africa.” I had to catch myself. Tanzania is Africa, but so is the Magreb. Morroco is every bit as African as Subsaharan Africa is African.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil washes dishes in the river in his signature green baseball cap.

Abdil finishes the dishes and we head out as he packs the mule. Even with our head start he’ll easily pass us in less than an hour. All while we were picnicking under a tree near the river women were crossing the water in groups of 3 or 5 and continuing past the mule up into the hills. Some carried babies. Most carried nothing. All were covered head to toe in the long dress with long sleeves that marks many a Muslim woman. They wear leggings under the dress and cover their hair in long scarves. Some have hoods, all look hot in the heat. They shuffle along in flip flops or loafers, in stockings or barefoot. 

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

We ate our lunches on this sheep’s wool blanket that doubled as Abdil’s prayer rug.

They are walking to a funeral. Last week a 20-year-old man was swimming in the river with his friends near the dam. He drowned and his body was taking to a hospital in Marrakech. They just gave his body back to the family and now everyone from the surrounding villages will pay their respects before burying the body. Our guide tells us the caravan of walking women is something of a party as they chat and gossip spreading the village news. Ali says they’ll put on their sad faces and start crying once they arrive. One women jokes with Ali and asks if we (the three America and two Belgian hikers) want to come to the funeral. He retorts saying we’ll go to the funeral if they’ll walk over the mountains with us. The offer is rescinded.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

Abdil lead his mule for two days across the Atlas Mountains to cook for us. He left the second night and we packed our own lunches on day 3.

We’re walking on a mostly paved road up from the valley into the hills. When we get to a turn off, a big white car is letting out some of the village men to go to the funeral. Ali knows the driver and sends his respects to the family. It seems unfair that the men get to ride while the women walk but I don’t say anything. Instead I ask about the prevalence of cars and motorbikes. Ali says a new Japanese motorbike (the preferred country of origin) will set back an owner 8000 to 13000 Moroccan Diram, roughly $800-$13,000 which isn’t a small sum in a country where the per person income averages $8,000. 

Cars are more rare than motorbikes which are more rare than mules. Most people walk. The Berber people are the hill people and they are the oldest ethnic group in the world dating back to 10,000 BC. Many Berber, or Amazighs as they often call themselves, live much the same way their ancestors did: heading sheep, growing food, and ascribing to whatever religion is popular with the ruling class of Morocco. Over the ages they’ve been animist, atheist, worshiped the gods of Egypt, Hellenistic Greece, the Jews, the Christians and now the Suni Muslims. At night on our guesthouse terrace, I see Abdil praying on the carpet we used as a picnic blanket, folded into a prayer run, facing Mecca.  

The Sahara Desert

Overland travel in Morocco is not a quick endeavor. The main roads are paved and generally in good shape, but there is no train service into the desert. There are small airports but flights are infrequent and expensive. There are buses that take 11 hours to get from Fes to Mezouga but we opted to join a 3-day van tour with a driver and a guide to see the desert, the mountains and take the very long and scenic route to Marrakech.

The Parc National D’Ifrane

A barbary macaque hangs out by a souvenir cart.

A barbary macaque hangs out by a souvenir cart.

The Parc National D’Ifrane is a national park in the mid atlas is and home to the barbary macaque an endangered monkey related to the Macaques in Asia. These guys have no tails and no fear. They take peanuts out of tourists’ hands  and scramble over the tent of trinkets for sale manned by a father and son team. The park is _______

Ziz River Valley

The Berber communities that surround the Ziz river are mostly made from sun-dried clay.

The Berber communities that surround the Ziz river are mostly made from sun-dried clay.

The oasis in the Ziz River valley is 80km long and is the longest oasis in Morocco. Date trees and animal fodder grow along the Ziz River. Once home to a flourishing community, the young people today leave the villages for the bigger cities. At one time taxes imposed on camel caravans though the oasis made the locals rich. Today a fossil and geode market alongside sheep herding and date farming are the main industries. The views are spectacular as a green valley snakes along the river as far as the eye can see while the desert encroaches dry and read from both sides. 

Mezouga

Merzouga is a XX town in the southeast of Morocco XX miles from the Algerian boarder. It’s a city that butts up against the Erg Chebbi Dunes, the largest sand dune in Morocco. From movies I thought that the Sahara desert would be all sand, dunes and dust. In reality much of the desert is red and rocky and covered in scrub brush. The dust kicked up from the wind creates a perpetual haze and occasions produces cyclones and dust storms. 

Camels

A camel shepherd leads his animals across the Erg Chebbii Dunes.

A camel shepherd leads his animals across the Erg Chebbii Dunes.

There are no stirrups on a camel. There actually aren’t any two-humped camels in Morocco. Camel riders, who any more are predominately tourists, ride the mono-humped dromedaries. The males are tied together with ropes that are lashed around their mouths, under their necks, bellies and tails and keep the donut-esqoue saddle from sliding off the hump. Camel’s rear knees bend to the back and their front knees bend to the front when they kneel to let their riders mount. Their two left feet then two right feet walk in a plodding unstable gait. It’s a bumpy, uncomfortable ride. I was happy to experience it for a few hours and can’t imagine crossing the desert for weeks on camel back. 

Sleeping in the Desert 

The desert camp in the Erg Chebbii Dunes has 10 tents and a red carpet aisle.

The desert camp in the Erg Chebbii Dunes has 10 tents and a red carpet aisle.

Morocco has welcomed western tourists for the past hundred years so the circuit is well worn and the tourism industry is a popular one as more European, North American and Asian tourists descend on Africa. All throughout the Erg Chebbii Dunes are glamping grounds set up with large vinyl tents filled with full sized beds, Moraccan rugs, running water, electricity and a full bathroom. The camp grounds have outdoor seating, a restaurant for dinner and breakfast and a fire pit for evening drum circles. A kitten named Loli entertained us by chasing the bugs in the sand and climbing up the tent walls. 

Todgha Gorges

The Monkey Fingers are an impressive rock formation in the Todgha Gorge.

The Monkey Fingers are an impressive rock formation in the Todgha Gorge.

The Todgha Gorges are some of the most beautiful scenery in Morocco. With the stratified red rock it reminds me of the American southwest. The Monkey Fingers are curvaceous rock formations through the limestone river canyon. The switchback roads are well-paved but steep and the river that cuts through the canyon is filled with plants, frogs and birds.

Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou

The Kasban de Ait Ben Haddou sits on the often dry El Maleh River.

The Kasban de Ait Ben Haddou sits on the often dry El Maleh River.

The Kasbah de Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site made in the 17th century it’s been the filming locations for scenes from Gladiator, Game of Thrones, and The Mummy among others in conjunction with Atlas Studios, the largest movie lot in the world by square miles. The Kasbah sits above the dry bed of the El Maleh River. Only 4 families still live in the Kasbah. The rest of the city is a tourist site of souvenir shops, weaving workshops and demonstrations of the amazing indigo invisible ink art that rarely turns a sale. 

Much of southern Morocco feels redundant, empty space punctuated by villages of red and gray square buildings. The landscape is scorched and sun bleached and the roads are filled with tourists, motorcycles and the occasional 18-wheeler. Camels and donkeys graze in the sun while their owners find shade under turbans and cloth canopies. It’s not beautiful on first look but once you blink the dust out of your eyes and see the mid-Atlas mountains rising on the horizon or the moon in the mercifully cooler night sky, the Sahara grows on you.

Toubab

My olive skin that marks my mixed European descent acts as a curious barrier to categorization. In Asia locals thought I was Indian or Sri Lankan. In Italy people are confused by I can’t speak Italian. My students in Chicago thought I was mixed race but the most predominant assumption people make about me is that I’m Spanish. 

Through the medina of Fes shop keepers go through the three sentences they know in myriad languages, “Madam, come look, I make you good price.” in English, French, Spanish. Often I’m shouted at, “Hola señorita.” In Senegal I was told I must be Spanish because I was there at the beginning of the rainy season and “Spaniards like rain.” The customs agent greeted me in Casablanca in Spanish and warmly welcomed me to Morocco. A Spanish woman asked for directions to the castle in Portugal in Spanish. I was able to answer her and she was surprised and impressed when I told her I was American. 

In Laos the word for white person if Falang, literally “French person.” In Senegal, another former French colony the word is Toubab. Like many Americans, I can trace my roots back generations to my European ancestors, some of whom were French and immigrated to England with William the Conquerer in 1066. That side of the family has been in America for a long time. I’m about as removed from being French as one can get and yet I still feel the shame of colonization when I’m called out for my skin color. 

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

This little girl lived in a village in Casamance, Senegal.

The Senegalese children are wont to point and shout “toubab, toubab,” when we walk by. We saw a gaggle sliding down a dirt hill on a crushed 10-liter plastic water container as if it was a sled on powdery snow. The children want their photo taken with us and to practice any English or French phrases they’ve picked up. They don’t seem to say “toubab” derogatorily or with any particular malice. We simply look so different from their own very dark skin. 

In Morocco people come in all shades. There are light haired, green-eyed Moroccans who can trace their roots back to the piracy and white slave trade of the 1700s. There are black Moroccans with roots father south in Mauritania, Algeria or Libya. There are short and tall, curly haired and strait haired Moroccans. There are Berber Moroccan women with tattooed foreheads and chins.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

The Senegalese kids loved taking selfies with my cell phone.

We stick out in other ways though. We don’t speak or read Arabic. We look like western tourists with our backpacks and our sneakers, checking our phones for directions and speaking in English. We don’t wear shorts or short skirts but we also don’t cover our heads. Not all Moroccan women do, but certainly more than half of the women we see wear a hijab. 

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

Megan and I stuck out like a sore thumb every where we went.

We haven’t spoken to many women in Morocco. Like in Senegal, the tour guide industry is male-dominated. Women are often at home raising children and taking care of the household. We see tons of men in bars drinking tea and watching sports but we never see women loitering about.   Morocco is one of the most liberal muslim countries in terms of women’s rights but like the world over, I can still see inequalities. 

I’m lucky to have been born a white woman in America. I recognize that traveling is a privileged not afforded to everyone and I’ve been reminded time and time again of just how hard it is for a Senegalese or Moroccan native to get a visa to Europe or the USA and how easy it is for me to travel wherever I like. 

Soccer is Life

With 4 billion fans, soccer is the most popular sport in the world and with two major tournaments going on during my time in Africa, it’s been incredible to see how sports fandom is expressed the world over. 

In Senegal wrestling is more popular than soccer, and more popular than rugby but they have national teams for all three. Senegal is in the Africa Cup of Nations, which is a tournament held every two years. There are 24 teams playing in Egypt for the $4.5 million in prize money. Senegal’s team is the Lions and when the national team plays, everyone watches. The hostel staff in Dakar pushed back he start of dinner to watch the Lions win against Tanzania. People on N’gor island shouted and ran around the bar when their team scored. Men in the street walk around selling green jerseys with the team’s official logo and no matter who’s playing, the Africa Cup is on the TV, talked about in person and reported on the news. While we were in Casamance, a house with a big screen TV drew seemingly the whole village. People crowded around the door and windows to watch the tournament. Senegal is doing very well having beat Kenya, Uganda, Benin and Algeria to make it to the final round of the tournament. 

Morocco and Egypt are the Cup of Nations as well and as our tour guide in Rabat told us when we asked about the sports popularity, “football is life.” It’s a big dream in Senegal as well as in Morocco to play professional soccer and especially to make it onto a European team where both the pay and the prestige is greater. 

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

Megan, Chris and the drum salesman wear Senegal caps in Dakar.

 Soccer still lags in popularity in the United States, ranking 4th behind American football, basketball and baseball. I’ll admit to not being a huge soccer fan myself even as the US Women’s team takes the World Cup by storm beating Spain, France, England and finally the Netherlands t claim their 4th world championship, the most wins by any FIFA team in the tournament’s history. 

Children everywhere play soccer in bare feet and in flip flops. They play in sand on the beach with sticks demarcating the goals. They play with deflated basketballs, with volleyballs and with tattered soccer balls that are hardly recognizable. Walking through the narrow, winding pedestrian paths of the Fez medina we saw goals spray painted on opposite walls in a square. Driving through the desserts of Morocco we saw soccer field after soccer field with metal goals sans nets and raked dirt piches.

The French woman who runs the Casamance NGO tourism company we used said all of France is now rooting for the USA even though they beat France. Megan Rapinoe has a purple pixie cut and plays forward for the US. She’s become a mouth piece for equal pay for women’s sports and a vocal proponent of equality across the board. She’s been kneeling for the national anthem during the World Cup in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She’s questioned why FIFA would allow the Africa Cup and the Women’s World Cup to be at the same time siphoning viewers away from the women. The protesting prone French, love her, which eases the sting of the loss. 

The women’s final was on our last day in Senegal. We watched the end of the game with the hostel staff where we stored our bags for the day. The game ended with 7 minutes of overtime for a penalty. All of the players looked exhausted. The staff told me I looked like forward Alex Morgan. I don’t look like her. She and I are both white women. We both have brown hair. But that’s about where the similarities end. I remember when I first started teaching on the south side of Chicago and struggled to tell my male students apart. Perhaps it’s the same in reverse with Senegalese men and American women? 

We’ll arrive in Egypt the day after the Africa Cup finals. We’re still cheering for Senegal, who have managed to come so far even though they’re not favored to win. The US women’s team will make their rounds in America. Rapinoe says she’ll refuse to visit Trump’s Whitehouse. In the meantime we’ll keep an eye on the score by popping our head into coffee shops where men (always men and only men) gather to drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and watch the game. 

The Tanneries of Fes

The Chaouwara Tanneries in Fes have been processing hides from goats, sheep, camels and cows into supple dyed leather for nearly 1000 years. Crafts mades out of the bright yellow, pink, blue and brown leather are made and sold in the souks where stalls While the reputation of the tanneries are that the shop owners are pushy to make a sale, the pits themselves stink and the viewing platforms are crowded, I experienced none of these and had an incredible time watching the workers from above.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

This is the door that magically opened when we walked up to it (I have the suspicion someone inside heard us talking in the alley.) A man opened the door and told us to wait a minute. Another man re-opened the door a few minutes later and took us up to the 4th floor rooftop to observe the tannery below.

We had read that the early morning was the best time to go to beat the crowds so we set out at 7 a.m. and arrived around a half hour later to find all the shops closed and not another soul in sight. Moroccan culture is late to bed and late to rise. You’d be hard pressed to find a cup of coffee before 9 a.m. but I was shocked that none of the doors on Rue Chouara were open, especially since the touts we talked to the night before said the workers start the day at 5:30 a.m.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

The Chaouwara tanneries are the oldest in Africa having been built in medieval times and refurbished in 2016. The process remains unchanged and many of the workers are from the same family who orally pass down the technique through the generations.

There are touts all over the Medina. These young men sit around with their friends or pace the streets looking for tourists to chat up and guide. “Hello, madam, that way is closed, turn this way, madam,” is a favorite line to draw foreigners toward their friends’ or family’s shops. They’ll try 2 or 3 different languages until they find one that sticks. I been greeted with “Bienvenidos” more than once. They will guide you to the mosque, to the tanneries or to the museum seemingly acting like a good Samaritan then expect a tip or walk away in a huff when you don’t respond or tell them you’re not interested in their services.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

Rawhide from cattle, goats, and camels are brought to the tannery via car or pack mule to begin the process of softening and dying before they’re made into leather goods.

We wandered down a few of the tight pedestrian alleys that make up the maze of the Fes medina. We passed a garbage collector who scooped up the piles people leave by the stoop and placed it into the pack on his donky’s back. We found closed door after closed door and a tout who told us to come back at 10. We eventually found ourselves at No. 70 around the back side of the tannery. Magically the door opened and we were lead up a winding staircase to the viewing platform at the top.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

Hand stitched “poofs” are leather pillow covers of dyed and embossed leather are used to sit on at low tables in many Moroccan restaurants and tea houses. Megan bought one she’ll stuff with cotton batting at home then put in her classroom’s reading nook.

I’ve never been much of a fan of leather but seeing how challenging the work is I have a new appreciation for the material. Men used huge hooks to scoop heavy soaked hides from the bath that softened the skin and loosened the hair. Other men used big brushes to clean the soaked hides and remove the fur. In the brown stone pits, cleaned white skins were thrown into colored vats of dye made with indego, henna, and poppy. They then jumped into the vat stepping on the hides and swirling the mixture with their feet.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The Chaouwara tanneries use natural dyes. Yellow color comes from Saffron, which is the most expensive and it applied to the hides by hand rather than soaking the hides in vats. Here two men dye goatskins with saffron dye.

The tanneries produce a lot of leather, a lot of pollutants and include less than desirable working conditions for the men who are exposed to ammonia and lime as well as chilly winter temperatures (5ºC/40ºF) while wearing flip flops and being half submerged in the vats. The days are long and the smell (while not as bad as I imagined and not as bad as I’m told it used to be) isn’t great.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Once the hides enter the tannery, it will be soaked for a few days in white stone baths. The liquid is a mixture of water, cow urine, salt, pigeon droppings, and quicklime used to soften the hides.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, we didn’t have to share our viewing gallery with anyone. There were three aggressive dogs on adjoining balcony next door. Our French-speaking guide asked us if we wanted to get a better view from the dog balcony (minus the dogs.) We agreed and he warned us that it wasn’t cleaned up yet. We said that didn’t matter. What we didn’t quite catch is that it was piles of dog excrement that wasn’t cleaned up as the dogs run around on the terrace at night. Fez’ homes don’t have back yards and parks inside the medina are non-existent. We watched our step and laughed that the dog poop smelled worse than the tannery pits and took our photos and watched the poor mules carrying loads of skins back and forth.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops.  Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

The Fez River, which runs along the eastern side of the tannery was for many decades polluted with chemicals from the tanneries and craft workshops. Moroccan architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni wrote her Harvard thesis on the revitalization of the river and improvements are slowly but surely taking place.

Our guide ended up just being the door guy. While he took us into the three floors of shops, he said he couldn’t actually sell us anything because he didn’t know the prices and that the shop keeper wouldn’t arrive until 10 a.m. This worked out wonderfully for us as we felt absolutely no pressure to buy anything and could look to our hearts content. We tipped him 15 dirham for unlocking the door for us and sharing his knowledge about the tanning process before heading back to our hotel for breakfast.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Dozens of shops sell handcrafted leather goods and each of the viewing balconies over the tanneries has its own boutique filled with purses, coats, shoes, wallets, and cushions.

Moroccan Cooking

I had been waiting to feast on the Moroccan delights since about a week into our time in Senegal when I got tired of the endless piles of rice and dry chicken. Tajines, the conical-shaped ceramic pots for which this famed dish is named, are on every menu. The Viande aux pruneaux (beef and prunes) is a sweet tagine served with a cinnamon and allspice sauce surrounding a tender cut of beef. A hard boiled egg and sesame seeds garnish this tajine along side prunes and sometimes apricots. I’ve had it twice and it’s been my favorite Moroccan dish so far. Couscous is the national dish of Morocco, also served in a tajine. It comes with carrots, eggplant and a choice of various meats.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Zalouk egg plant salad is served with mahrash and spicy bread and harira soup.

Snail soup is on offer as a street food and vendors with carts of piled shells set up in the souks (food markets) and on the roads. Tacos are a stable on every fast food menu but they aren’t like any taco I’ve ever eaten. Most akin to a panini or a grilled wrap, meat or falafel is wrapped up with potatoes, sauce and vegetables then grilled. 

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

The final chicken bastilla is dusted with confectioners sugar and cinnamon to balance the savory shredded chicken stuffing.

Moroccan tea is super bitter, which is cut with loads of sugar and sprigs of mint. Tea is everywhere and comes out of scalding hot ornate silver tea pots. Experts pour the tea from on high into small handle-less glass cups and back again to mix it in an elaborate display. The coffee is thick and equally sugary. It’s just as likely to be instant as not. There’s also a big fresh juice and mocktail culture here as alcohol is taboo for the muslim majority.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

Black olives are simply salted while green (and the purple olives that grow on the same tree) are soaked over and over to lessen their bitterness before flavors like garlic and chili powder is added.

We took an amazing cooking class at Cafe Clock in Fez led by the hilarious and talented Souyed who took us to the market, told us stories about Moroccan home remedies and taught us to cook a salad, soup, main and dessert.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Camel steak, burgers and kabobs aren’t uncommon. The meat is rumored to strengthen male virility.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Stretchy Moroccan filo dough is made on a hot griddle and brushed with olive oil to prevent sticking.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Moraccans love their bread it comes in tons of sizes and textures. It’s often greasy and as our cooking instructor told us, Moroccans don’t mind a big belly or behind.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

Morocco grows a ton of produce and it’s almost all organically grown and brought into the medina by push cart or donkey.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The teaching kitchen in Cafe Clock is a beautiful and cozy space filled with wood and natural light.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The chickpeas for the Harira were pealed so they cooked faster. We roasted the peppers and egg plant on the metal rack over a gas range for the zalouk salad. The eggs were used for the Fassi maccaroons and in the filling for the chicken bastilla.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

The citrus macroons used the zest and juice of two huge lemons and an orange, 4 eggs, powdered sugar, flour, coconut, oil, and orange water.

Rabat, Morocco

A large French-speaking Moroccan woman who occupied my seat in our shared car on the first class train ride from Casablanca to Rabat nearly gave us a heart attack when we asked her when the Rabat Station was coming up. She non-chalantly told us we had passed it and we frantically went into Plan B mode. The train wasn’t expected to even arrive at the station for another 6 minutes. I checked the map. We were still two stations away. Crisis adverted. The woman just shrugged. 

Morocco is not Senegal (nor did I expect it to be.) It’s a developing country and economic powerhouse as far as the African continent goes and business is booming. We walked 2km through a long market street with our packs as vendors around us hawked toys, fresh juices, pastries and bread. Rabat smells like donuts frying in oil, piles of perfumed soap for the hammam, and the sea breeze that comes off the Atlantic. 

Rabat is an unlikely Arabic capital as most muslim leaders tended to keep their capitals inland and leave the sea to the sailors. The medina was all but abandoned when an influx of Moors from Andalusia were pushed out of Spain during the 16th century and fled south to Rabat. They were skilled pirates and stole from the Catholic Spanish and kidnapped Europeans for ransom in what our tour guide called “the white slave market.” 

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

The Salé graveyard overlooks the ocean and the Oued Bou Regreg river.

Our tour guide was named Abdel and he taught at New Haven College in Connecticut on a Fulbright award. He was as laid back as his long black curls bounce around his face. He posted his services for a free walking tour on GuruWalk and met us at the largest gate that used to lead to the palace but now leads into a art gallery. 

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

The Hassan Tower is a 12th-century minaret that was never finished.

Rabat sits on Atlantic Ocean on the west bank of the Bouregreg River. Sale is on the east bank. The two cities are connected via two car bridges, two tram lines and row boat ferries. Each has a walled medina with a graveyard separating the beach from the city. Locals and tourists alike swim, relax under umbrellas or participate in water sports ranging from surfing to jet skiing to wind surfing. 

The city of Salé is less of a tourist attraction than Rabat, (which itself isn’t as visited as Fez, Marrakech or Casablanca.) Instead of stalls upon stalls of gold jewelry followed by stalls of leather goods, soccer jerseys and electronics, we see live chickens on the ground beneath their slaughter brethren in the butcher cases. We see half cows skinned and hung on giant hooks and stalls full of housewares, hardware supplies and produce. 

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

The gate and walls of the Medina in Rabat.

In the Jewish quarter in Rabat the wooden shop houses above the market have balconies. Abdul says that’s because Muslim’s keep the magic inside in the courtyards of the  traditional riads while Jews don’t mind having the world see in. There are very few Jews living in Morocco. Many have moved to Israel or other countries. There’s a beautiful white cathedral near the train station but in a country where more than 99% of the country is Islamic, I don’t imagine it’s often used. 

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

The riverfront in Rabat is a popular gathering place in the evening. Rowboat ferries bring people from Salé to join as well.

Most, but not all of the women cover their heads with a scarf. I see a few wearing a full burka, but that is the exception, not the rule. Alcohol is relatively expensive but not impossible to find and the roads are paved, there are traffic lights and the rule of law prevails. We are warmly welcomed wherever we go and offered directions, henna tattoos and travel tissues to buy on the streets. Rabat is the perfect introduction to the organized chaos of Morocco.

Senegalese Live Stock

Humans and their animals occupy the same space in Senegal. I stepped in my flip-flops though sandy beaches covered inn sheep dung, avoided horse excrement in the street and even got guano on me from the fruit bats that live in the trees above the cafe tables at the French Culture center in Ziguinchorr. 

A horse stands on the beach in Toubab Dialaw.

A horse stands on the beach in Toubab Dialaw.

A Islamic holiday, Eid al-Adha, is coming up August 11 and all the families who could afford to raise a sheep this summer will slaughter it for the festival, which commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God. In St. Louis, rams were staked by their legs to the ground and some had their horns sawed off. The ewes and lambs often lived in small pens. The goats and their kids nearly always ran free. 

Tied-up sheep graze in St. Louis.

Tied-up sheep graze in St. Louis.

At Toubab Dialaw we saw a man pulling his sheep on a leash to the surf. He scrubbed it with sand and then rinsed it in the salty water. The sheep didn’t seem too happy about his bath, but as we were told, a family’s wealth is not in the bank, it’s in their livestock, so a clean and healthy sheep is a retirement account and a rainy day fund.  

A sheep hangs out under the eaves of a house in Casamance.

A sheep hangs out under the eaves of a house in Casamance.

We never see goat on the menu. We understand that pork is uncommon in the predominately Muslim country and only eat it once, at a pizza joint run by an Italian couple in Dakar. It seemed like the entire Italian ex-pat community hung out there. They made a nice tiramisu as well. But otherwise, no pork, no problem. It’s the lack of goat meat that’s confusing. The Senegalese people we talk to confirm that people do eat goat and not infrequently but they draw a blank when we ask why it’s not listed on the menu. 

Every once in a while we see some guinea fowl hanging out with the chickens or ducks. Their distinctive black and white speckled feathers and red crests makes them stick out. We don’t eat any, nor do we see any offal or insects for sale at the markets. 

A horse and cart drive by the fish market in St. Louis.

A horse and cart drive by the fish market in St. Louis.

On the drive from Toubab Dialwa to Dakar, a dead sheep was lying on the side of the high way like road kill with it’s legs sticking strait out from it’s body. I’m surprised we haven’t seen any dead cats or dogs as packs run through the streets, fighting over scraps and eating garbage. Many of the dogs’ ears have been bitten or torn off. Some of the cats are so small and skinny it’s hard to judge if they’re still kittens or full grown. 

Cattle with long horns that are used to make lacquered handicrafts live in abandoned lots, and on the beach. I don’t know what they eat as we’ve seen an utter lack of grass in Senegal. Some are staked by their feet, others are given permission to run free. Milk and cheese aren’t on many menus so I assume these cows will be slaughtered for beef. Some have ear tags, others are painted or branded. One Senegalese man we talked to said people just look at the markings on the coat and know which animal is theirs. We are reminded again and again that people don’t steal from each other, that Senegal is an honest place. I’m invited several times to the feast in August. I won’t be around but it’s nice to think that what little people have, they’re willing to share.

Portugal Stop Over

TAP airlines is Portuguese company that offers a stop over service to Lisbon. We decided to spend 3 days in Sintra, a town 30km and two easy train lines from Lisbon. 

Castles 

Sintra has 9 palaces in various states of refurbishments, most of which are run by the Parques de Sintra and preserved as World Heritage sites.  

The Moorish Palace

The hike up to the Moorish Palace was just as beautiful as the view from the palace walls.

The hike up to the Moorish Palace was just as beautiful as the view from the palace walls.

My favorite of the palaces we visited, the Moorish Palace is perched on top of  a forested hill and while the tour bus companies issued warning that the hike was too steep and dangerous to attempt, we made it up the well-marked trail in an hour including the detour we took for trail maintenance. The Moorish Palace site had been habited since Neolithic times and was a Muslim castle when it was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. The views of Sintra to Lisbon from the castle walls are impressive and from my bedroom window at the AirBnB we stayed in near the Natural History Museum, I could see the ruins illuminated against the starry sky.  

Pena Palace

Pena is a beautiful former monestary-turned-summer palace.

Pena is a beautiful former monestary-turned-summer palace.

On a ridge opposite of the Moorish Castle, which art collector King Ferdinand II used as a contemplative garden, sits the royal summer palace called Pena, which Ferdinand rehabbed from its original use as a monetary. The bright yellow and red palace in the clouds graces the cover of many a Portugal guide books. The palace is covered in ornate tiles and fully furnished with period furniture, dishes and bedding. The walls are ceilings are ornately painted with tromp l’eoi murals, parquet floors and beautiful coffered ceilings. A fountain in the courtyard of the former cloisters is fed from the gargoyles on the roof. It’s a spectacular piece of architecture and incredible to see it full of 19th century things.    

Monserrate

Monserrate is an elegant symmetric palace with a lot of eastern influence in the design.

Monserrate is an elegant symmetric palace with a lot of eastern influence in the design.

Monserrate was a privately held mansion by Englishman Sir Francis Cool until the second World War prevented his family from ever returning. The romantic style mansion takes designs from the Alhambra and contains artifacts pilfered from Indai. It’s surrounded by impressive gardens with themes like roses, Mexico and ferns. The grounds used be open to the public and during WWII, espionage and counter espionage was common during dinner parties. The house was beautiful and used to house a huge collection of art that was sold off before the Portuguese park service obtained the land and renovated the property. 

Regaleira

The mysterious well was built into the hillside and connects a series of caves beneath the Regaleria grounds.

The mysterious well was built into the hillside and connects a series of caves beneath the Regaleria grounds.

Regaleria is the last of the four castles we visited and it was by far the strangest. The Peewee’s Playhouse of 19th century indulgence, the grounds to this castle (which was a private residence not a royal house) has a plethora of oddities. A 5 story spiral ramp with niches was made to read tarrot cards and at the bottom, a maze of grottoes take visitors to a waterfall, another circular staircase, and out into a cave. A chapel, various towers and a greenhouse are built into the steep hill that rises up behind the main house beneath both Pena and the Moorish castle.  Regaleria is the one castle in Sintra that’s not run by the Park Service and the only one we couldn’t buy tickets online for. The cost to enter is 8 Euros but I paid 5 Euros with an educator discount.

Eating and Drinking 

O Tasco do Strauss was a quirky tapas bar run by the fabulous Peter Strauss.

O Tasco do Strauss was a quirky tapas bar run by the fabulous Peter Strauss.

The coffee shop on the main square had lovely brew and pastries. The national dessert of Portugal is Pastel de Nada, an egg tart originally made by monks in Lisbon in the 13th century. They are heavenly and I highly recommend them. The Portuguese culinary experience is rife with  Tapas and hands down the best place to enjoy a board of cheese, meat, octopus salad and tuna pate is O Tasco do Strauss. The owner is personable and hilarious. He made us feel at home while introducing us to the Portugues sour cherry liquor called Ginja. The restaurant is a gem just off the beaten path from downtown Sintra. I wasn’t a huge fan of the port, thought since I was in Portugal, I did try two kinds. 

Imma Cashew

Paco takes us on a walking tour of the village adjacent to Ossouye where our hotelier Pier’s family lives. Pier is wearing pink sporty capri’s and a gold speckled tee shirt when we mean him but changed into a Barcelona jersey for the trek where we passed his aunts, great aunts and neighbors on the way to the cashew farm at the edge of town. 

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

A red cashew fruit hangs from the branch.

I’ve never given much thought to how cashews are produced but as I’m sure many nut enthusiasts have, I’ve lamented the cost of nuts. Now that I’ve witnessed first hand the amount of labor and effort that goes into their production, I actually think nuts are under valued.

Jean Sebastian (Pier’s friend’s) father created 3 factories when he retired. As we learned from the potter’s retired husband, Senegalese workers enjoy months, not years of pension support and have to take retirement jobs of be supported by their children. Jean Sebastian (who was wearing a yellow tank top and jeans) told us his father wanted to bring jobs to the villages and make something to sell. As per always he spoke in French and Megan translated for us English speakers.

Cashew trees (pronounced caj-shoo in Senegal) produce after 5-6 years of being planted. The fruit looks like a bell pepper hanging upside down with an additional green conical “stem” where an individual cashew nut resides. The fruit itself is edible raw (though a bit bitter and pithy, I didn’t like it) and the juice can be drank or turned into wine called Bon Bon. The fruit can also be processed into rum, or jam. The nuts have a more involved process to take them from the tree to edible. 

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

Jean Sebastain takes us on a tour of his family cashew farm.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

The first roasting is done over a charcoal stove on the ground.

Once the nuts are picked by hand they’re taken out of the green stem and roasted and left in the sun to dry. The outer casing is broken to free what we would recognized as a cashew nut and those are laid onto cookie sheets and baked over a wood fire. Cashew nuts have a corrosive oil surrounding them that burns the mouths if it’s not cooked and burned off. Cashews also have an inner shell like a peanut that must be pealed before packaging.
Jean Sebastian speaks slowly and deliberately. The workers are done with the day’s shift by the time we arrive at 5 p.m. but he’s clearly ready to deliver the information. He looks taken aback when Megan asks for a Facebook or website to help promote the product. No, he says, they don’t sell online, only in town and at the factory. We buy five bags at 2,000 CFA or a little less than $4 a piece. Jean Sebastian is happy with our purchase and invites us back any time. There are also star fruit and mangos on his property. He warns us to walk quickly between through the mango grove because they are ripe and could fall on us without warning. 

Jean Sebastian reminds me of a Sudanese man named Ashraf we met at our first hotel in Casamance. He studied to be an English teacher and he showed me his teaching certificate, which he keeps folded up with his passport and ID card, but he never taught. Sudan is too unstable and government paychecks aren’t consistent. He came to Senegal on an exploratory mission to see how he could buy land and make his own Cashew factory. 

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

The second roasting is done in one of two wood-fire ovens. Each tray can hold several kilos of nuts.

Senegal is a peaceful country and Ashraf wants to sell his cashews to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where they would fetch a good price, much better than a teaching salary in Sudan. 

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

The inner skin of the nut is peal after the second roasting before the nuts are packaged.

He invited us to visit (which the US government under no uncertain circumstances expressly warns against. Knowing the amount of labor and time involved in growing and processing cashews, I’m impressed that this young entrepreneur who didn’t speak French, is contemplating a cross continent move to such a seemingly poor country. Opportunity is always relative.  

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Jean Sebastian sells cashew juice and several flavors of roast nuts such as honey, pepper, lime and sugared at the stand at the factory.

Making Petite Jarres

A few days ago Paco dropped off a bag of brioche with a group of boys on the road and told them to take it to their grandmother. He told us we would come back to see her pottery studio and learn about traditional ceramics. When we come back Paco brings soccer cleats for one of the boys. When he’s not guiding Paco runs a schools and summer camp and has a big interest in seeing the kids of Casamance succeed. 

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

Démonde works on her pot as her grandson’s look on.

The potter’s husband is a retired police officer. He tells us he received a pension for the first three months of his retirement but now the government doesn’t give him anything. An adult daughter with intellectual disabilities sits in the corner and laughs. She shakes our hands but she doesn’t speak French. The three young boys huddle around us and spread out a bamboo mat for their grandmother, Megan and I to sit on. 

The grandmother explains that she digs up the earth and mixes it with pulverized sea shells to create her clay which is grey and gritty when wet and red when fired. She fires the pottery she makes in a patch of earth just outside the wall to her house. She sets the pots on the ground, builds a fire of palm branches and lets the pots cook in the fire over night. She says we can pick up our creations the following morning. 

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

The patch of earth where Démonde fires her clay pots is just outside the walls of her garden.

We break the gritty clay into tennis ball sized blobs and roll them out on 2”x6” slabs of wood the boys have laid out for us. Her name is Démonde and she speaks French to Megan who translates to English for me. She’s wearing floral print pants, an over sized tee shirt from an even in 2012 and very French-looking hat with a red stripe. She isn’t wearing shoes. 

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

Megan and I with our pots before they’re fired.

The technique she shows us is a spiraled coil pot. There is a reused plastic bucket of slip the same grey color as the clay and a few wooden dishes to be used as a sort of wheel to turn the pots as we smooth the coils inside and out. She is a strict teacher and quick to tell us, “Not like that,” then take the pot from us and fix it herself. 

We were supposed to just watch her make a pot but, as an art teacher, I asked Démonde if we could participate and she acquiesced. We rolled the clay into 1” diameter snakes, secured in on the inside of the pot and continued the coils until the earth resembled an orb. She then told us to use small, smooth pieces of wood dipped in slip to smooth the inside and out better than what we had done with our fingers. She slapped the outside of the pots with a slab of wood to perfect the shape before rolling a piece of twine over the outside to make a pattern.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Paco demonstrates a traditional drinking cup and cooling clay container for water.

Inside her workshop, which doubled as a chicken coop filled of tiny cheeping chicks and their mother, were rows of finished clay pots. Small Grecian-esque pots, large water vessels, vases and similar pots to what we made were waiting to go to market. 

Once the pots come out of the fire, they are varnished with the juices of a local plant, deep purple in color and watery in texture. It looks like the Bissau jus laucaux we’ve been drinking in the restaurants. Our pots are almost too hot to touch when we come back in the morning to retrieve them. Paco said we’re the first tourists who have participated rather than just watched the pottery demonstration. He said he was proud of us for getting our hands dirty. Americans and Europeans seem to have the reputation in Senegal of not knowing how anything works and not wanting to do any manual labor or walk anywhere. I’m sure it’s a carry-over from Senegal’s colonial past which ended not even 60 years ago. 

Village Life

Our driver is Samba, the same driver who picked us up from the ferry dock and brought us to the hotel and showed us the calabass fruit. HIs station wagon is cramped with he and Paco in the front and Chris, Megan and I in the back seat. We’re going to Samba’s village to experience every day life in Casamance. 

The drive is dusty with divets every so often in the road where the rainwater will drain when the rains finally come. There are also speed humps translated as “donkey’s back” in French. There are more Christians down here and Paco tells us there is only one god so the Christians, Muslims and Animists get along just find and respect each other’s traditions and share what little they have. 

Cesar is the pet monkey.

Cesar is the pet monkey.

The village, Agnack has 700 inhabitants, several schools with kids on summer break, several mosques and a small church that looks like it hasn’t been used in quiet a while. None of the roads are paved and families are mostly gathered outside their cinderblock houses with thatched roofs. 

We find our later that the house we are visiting is the family of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO Casamance a Provance.  Everyone is related here. The cook in the hostel in Dakar walked us to the canoes to go to Ile N’gor and had his friend pick us up to take us to his restaurant. Our driver to Lake Reba bypassed two other tour companies to hand us to his friend’s jeep and boat tour. Senegal runs on kickbacks and relationship building. Everyone has a cousin or a brother who can help us. Social currency matters more than income in a poor country with few options. 

The children run up to us and shake our hands when we approach the house. Some of the women are roasting cashew nuts over hot coals and offer us some. There are no men around. Perhaps they’re dead from the rebellion or working or simply elsewhere. The children show us their pet monkey, Cesar. He’s tied up by his waist to a tree and tolerates being man handled by the kids. One woman (who must be close to 6 feet tall) has a foot pedaled Singer sewing machine set up under a tree. She took part in a course on sewing and is practicing what she learned. We sit in green plastic chairs under a mango trees eating the yellow fruit and trying to get our bearings.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

Most of daily Senegalese life takes place outside.

I get the sense that while the family doesn’t mind our presence, they are as baffled as we are as to what we’re supposed to do or how we’re supposed to act. To them the idea that we would want to do something rather than sit around in the shade during the hottest part of the day seems foreign to them. Sitting around in chairs after sitting in the car makes us antsy. We ask for a tour of the village. You, short for Youseff, shows up on his motorcycle with a friend and joins us on the tour. He’s the younger brother of the husband of the French woman who runs the NGO and is a mechanic in Zigunchor. You wears stylishly torn jeans, a fanny pack and a tee shirt that doesn’t look dirty or torn at all. He wouldn’t look out of place walking down the street in any US city. 

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

This man is soldering a mold to make cinderblocks, the building material of choice for many Senegalese buildings.

You and Paco show us the various plants and architecture styles in the village. We see women making fishing net weights from clay and a man soldering a mold to make cinderblocks. His colleague looks on and asks me about myself in English. I am taken aback. He says he is from The Gambia as he pours himself a cup of tea from the pot heating over hot coals. 

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

The English-speaking Gambian man didn’t want his photo taken, but said I could photograph his tea.

There are half-naked and shoeless children running every where. There are goats and sheep and pigs. The chickens, we are told, are inside the houses because they get run over when trying to cross the main road that splits the village in two. 

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

Senegalese tea comes in small glass cups. It’s strong and bitter with lots of sugar added.

There are overturns and rusted mills for separating rice grains from the husks. We are told the women are back to doing it by hand. The NGO who brought the machines isn’t around any more and no one kept them up. 

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

Communal eating is the norm in Senegal.

You buys a pack of cigarettes and Paco buys a water from a shed that is as close to a store as we’ve seen. I don’t fault You and his brother for getting out and wanting something different, something better than an outdoor kitchen an a mattress on the floor in a house of 10 people. 

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

Thieboudienne is the national dish of Senegal.

We eat communally at 5 p.m. we are ravenous as we had nothing but mangoes for lunch. Paco brought the fish and the women made thieboudienne, the national dish of Senegal.  We are all given a spoon and sit around a giant platter of rice in tomato sauce served with fish, carrots, eggplant and onions. It’s delicious. I drink tea out of tiny glass cups that are refilled and passed to the next person. They may not have much but this village has warmly shown the spirit of teranga, the Wolof word for the welcoming and helpful spirit of the Senegalese people.