From Morocco

Morocco, Come Back!

I never properly blogged about my Morocco trip. That’s because I came back and plunged right into writing about it for my book.

Actually, I spent a lot of timing tuning up my chapters on Egypt, and Lebanon, and the Emirates. By the time I really focused on Morocco again, I was in less of a Morocco frame of mind.

Of course, I had my notes and photos and everything, and I remembered what happened. I just had lost a little of what it felt like to be there. I didn’t realize I was forgetting until I was in a movie theater, watching Lincoln, and in one scene, someone’s wearing some elaborate silk dressing gown, and in a close-up, you can see the little silk-thread buttons on it.

And I felt this sudden pang. Morocco, it’s slipping away!

Why did the buttons spark this sensation? Djellabas and caftans, the standard Moroccan clothing, are often done up in heavy brocade, and these very lovely buttons. They’re emblematic of a certain level of luxury and comfort and care that’s everywhere, every day, even in rough settings. Flashes of beauty, rich colors, ornate detail–and not covered in grime or left to ruin, but well kept, and in many cases, freshly built or even being made before my eyes.

I walk around New York and look at old buildings and sigh: “Why can’t people build things like that anymore?” I harrumph. Rockefeller Center. The General Electric building–that kind of thing.

In Morocco, it’s still happening! I’m not saying every new construction is lovely, and the country is aesthetically seamless. Not at all. But a certain, very specific style is completely intact and vibrant.

So here are some photos, to try to recapture a little of that feeling, the silk-button feeling. I recommend looking at these while wearing comfy slippers and drinking mint tea… (I also recommend opening each one in a new tab–the details are key!)

2012: The Year in “Wow, that happened?”

Ah, the year-end recap. Some silly things, some momentous things–and not just a rehash of old blog posts. Genuine new material here.

1. We got a pet.
Well, not really. But we did get Sugar Duck, a very easily anthropomorphized sugar canister from Turkey. He speaks with a lisp, and sounds sweet, but sometimes he can be a bit snippy. Peter and I are rapidly progressing toward being one of those awful couples who only talk to each other via hand puppets.

After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!
After a couple of months, Sugar Duck also got a friend from the homeland, Mr. Turkish Teapots!

2. I made Saveur!
Well, really, the excellent restaurant The Curious Kumquat made Saveur, as #39 in the Saveur 100. It just happened to be my name at the end.

3. I got a cover story in a magazine, and I won an award.
Please indulge my career brags briefly. I was moving too fast this year to fully appreciate these things at the time. Typing it now, I feel kinda bad-ass.

Both were via New Mexico magazine, where I’m always honored to be published. The cover story was this roundup of cool hotels in my home state, in the October ’12 issue.

And the award was from the International Regional Magazine Association, for the feature I wrote in 2011 about taking the train to Las Vegas, NM [PDF].

The best awards are the ones you didn’t even know you were up for. A Macarthur is next, right?

4. I traveled alone throughout the Middle East, and I did not die.
Back in February, I was quoted in a story about how Americans were still traveling to the Middle East.

A reader felt compelled to warn me of my foolhardiness:

Hi,
I know you feel travel to the Arab nations is safe, but you need to appreciate is how fast the situation over there can change and as an American you are a symbol of hate at the moment.

We had the student hiker’s capture, when the USA has plenty of Mountains to climb.

We have the Aid workers freed by the Navy Seals in Somalia; BTW I think 10 Somalia’s were killed. So sad considering the Aid workers could be doing aid work in plenty of places right here in the USA.

Please don’t promote the middle east until women in Saudi Arabia can drive and vote. Or until women can choose their own husband.

[redacted]

Er.

Anyway, “the Arab nations” (I can’t vouch for Iran or Somalia) I visited this year are safe. I even picked up hitchhikers in Abu Dhabi.

The UAE is unintentionally hilarious; Doha is delicious; Lebanon has great hiking; Morocco is full of sweet people.

Actually, everywhere is. I don’t think [redacted] appreciates this, and I feel sad for him.

5. I took up a sport.
If you consider hula hooping a sport. It’s certainly more of a workout than I usually get, a bit of a break from my couch-and-bonbons schedule. And, remarkably, it is the only physical activity I have ever been reasonably good at on first attempt.

6. I made friends in Arabic.
For all my years studying Arabic, I have never actually gotten to know someone in the Mid East purely by speaking in that language. That has a lot to do with studying at fancier schools in Egypt, where most people speak English as a second language.

This year, I went to more French-as-backup countries, and my French sucks. And those countries also happen to have some charming and outgoing–and patient–women I’m honored to have met.

7. I went back to Morocco with my parents.
They spent a lot of time there in the late ’60s, which is why I have the name I have. I also finally figured out what my name is really supposed to be in Arabic.

My dad sat down here and said sardonically, "Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man." Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.
My dad sat down here and said sardonically, “Ah, mint tea again at Cafe Central in Tangier. I can die a happy man.” Then the waiter told me he loved the delicious ladies. Just another typical travel day.

All the details will be in the book.

(Oh, sh*t! The book! Why am I writing this blog post when I should be writing the book?!)

8. I turned 40.
And I feel pretty good about it. Even though I almost immediately had to have my wisdom teeth pulled. Life is so much easier at 40 than at 20. And so is traveling.

9. I might have just hit my limit with traveling.
I hope this isn’t related to the previous point. But it was a long year. As I’m writing this, I should have been on a plane to Kuala Lumpur. But general tiredness and a creeping sense of responsibility made me stay home. What’s happening?!

I do have a book to write (ack, sh*t!), and that requires sitting still. I’m a little behind schedule. After this post, you might not hear from me for another month or so.

(The book, in case you’re new here, has a lot to do with “the Arab nations”–and how they’re a great place to travel.)

******

I dedicate 2012 to all the wonderful people I met on my adventures: Maala, Btissam, Said, Alaa, Mido and family (oh, that was late 2011–but still!), Agnes, Holly, Arva, the women behind Qatar Swalif, Habooba, the Asrani family, and many, many more.

May your 2013 be filled with nourishing food and kind strangers.

Also, many ice cream sundaes!
Also, many ice cream sundaes!

Review: Polaroid Z2300, hands-on in Morocco

I don’t think I’ve ever owned a first-generation anything. But even though it was new and had no reviews, I jumped at the new Polaroid Z2300 digital camera because I was headed for Morocco just two weeks after its release in late August.

It promised to solve a particular travel dilemma.

The Polaroid Z2300: the answer to all of life's problems?

You know how you take a photo of some nice kids, or a particularly sweet family, and say, “I’ll send you photos!”? You totally mean it at the time, and dutifully copy down their address. And yet, when you get home, somehow the motivation leaves you, and then five years after the fact, you’re still feeling periodic guilt about those nice people in the beehive village in Syria? I mean, for example.

So. I’d considered buying a Polaroid, the old clunky kind—but then you give away your only copy. Really, I wanted a camera where I could give the pic to the person, and keep a copy for myself.

Which is what the Zink Z2300 does! Miraculous! You take a digital photo, then, if you like the pic, you press a couple of buttons, and presto, the camera spits out a teeny-weeny print from a slot in its side.

...and you can hand that print over and say, Thank you, sir, for the best fried-fish sandwich in Rabat!

Well, not spits. More like sloooowly extends its tongue.

Anyway, I’ve road-tested the Z2300 (terrible name, by the way—why the numbers? It’s the very first one!) in Morocco, and I can tell what’s good and bad about it.

The good: it works. People are pretty impressed by it. And something I thought was a drawback—the small size of the photos—was a plus for one photo recipient. “If it were a normal size, I’d be like, enh. But it’s so cute and small!” said my friend Btissam. (Translating freely from Arabic.)

The bad: the quality of the camera is relatively basic. It boasts of 10 megapixels, but the sensor is probably only as big as a bedbug. My digital photos from it aren’t anything I want to print or use for anything substantial.

The display screen is so lo-res that it makes every photo look crappier than it is (though not as bad as I first thought–when I realized it had a protective film on it that could be peeled off).

It’s also pretty boxy, to hold the printing apparatus–though when you consider what it does, it’s impressive it’s as small as it is.

In practice, this meant I was carrying around the chunky Polaroid along with my regular, fancier camera (a Canon G12, also new on this trip). And my iPhone.

On the other (good) hand, the simplicity means it’s easy to hand to someone else and say, “Just press the big red button.” To judge from the packaging, covered in snaps of people doing zany things, it was designed for drunks in mind. This means children can also use it.

But I need to get better at taking photos myself... And that's Btissam, who loved the small format prints. Cute, like her!

In fact, it looks so simplistic that it’s misleading. This is another bad thing. I’m normally an avid manual-reader, but I was lulled into thinking this camera didn’t even call for it. For about two weeks, I thought the only thing I could adjust was flash on or off. Then one day I accidentally pressed a button, and a whole menu of shooting modes (portrait, night shot, etc) came up. Der.

The other not-immediately-logical thing is the macro-lens option: it’s a little slider on the side of the camera. I jostled it once without realizing, and then for two days couldn’t figure out why all my photos were coming out blurry.

But another good: It wasn’t too expensive. If it had cost any more, I’d have serious buyer’s remorse.

But like printers and razors, the pricey part comes from the supplies. I wasn’t using the camera left and right because I didn’t want to run through the paper—I lived in fear of being discovered by a mob of kids, all demanding their own print.

First he said I couldn't take his picture, but then he struck a pose...

Am I totally sold? Did it revolutionize my travel experience? I was going to say, Not really. But looking over just the handful of photos I took, it was well worth it–normally I don’t have any pictures of people.

I’m not a natural, outgoing, interact-with-people-to-get-the-best-shot photographer. But the Z2300 gave me a little bit of an excuse–even if there was an awkward calculus of when to use the camera, and how clumsy it would be to get it out, explain what was going on, waiting around for the photo to spit out, etc.

Near the end of my trip, I just took a random photo with it, though, rather than a portrait–and I realized I should’ve been doing more of this. It looked nice enough onscreen that I went up to the shop-owner and gave him a photo. He grinned and gave me a huge bag of olives. Aw.

Olive shop in the main market of the Tangier medina

Would I recommend it? Yes. It’s just plain fun, and I like the idea that I’ve left souvenir photos with a whole range of people.

But you shouldn’t buy the white version. Mine is already covered with schmutz. Black is much better for travel.

And, if you don’t have a trip or a wild-n-crazy party coming up, you might want to wait. The next iteration of the Zink Z2300 (will they call it the 2301? Or the 2400? The 4600? Seriously, what? It sounds like a 70s sports car) will almost certainly be smaller and lighter, and have a better screen.

And it will even cost less. Then I’ll have buyer’s remorse.

At least the photo paper will cost the same.