A Tale of Tea…

So in my lockdown state, I have been going through pots and pots of tea, reminiscing on each packet or loose leaves or spices that came from a faraway place. It is something of a tale of tea

Yesterday morning I opened a packet of Royal Myanmar tea, one of only a few I’ve got left from my trip to Burma in December, and a flood of tea-related memories wafted up with the hints of spice in my cup.


It was in a tea shop in Split (Croatia), my head stuffed with a cold I’d acquired in Montenegro, that I found another link to my curiosity (read: obsession) with tea. I was looking for an herbal tea to remedy my congestion, and I noticed that the tea the lady gave me was called Bronhovit Čaj. (lit, Bronchial Tea). But my brain got caught on the čaj part… I started to formulate the Balkan phonemes so strange to my North American tongue, ch…a…y. Chai.

Croatian tea is chai, my brain excitedly chirped as it connected the dots. (Okay, not so much chirped in its present state, but rather snuffled excitedly in any case…)

Cha if by land; tea if by sea… I had read that adage some time ago. As it turns out, and not really so surprising, what a country calls this multi-cultural beverage steeps from how it got to them from China; arrival via land or sea was in different dialects as well as trade routes.

So tea landed in central to Northern Europe, the Americas, and West Africa as thé and Tee and tea and té and tii; and in Southern European countries, North and East Africa, and South Asia as chá and τσάι and çay and شاي and chai and chaī and chā. And, of course, čaj.

The reason? To some extent, chameaux. Camels. (chaimeaux?!)

Having drunk litres and litres of chai and its offspring all along the silk road, this linguistical brew makes sense to me. Perhaps the Silk Road should have been called Spice Strada, Tea Trail or the even the Chemin Chai… Each cup tells a story, and each memory is like its own ceremony, conjuring up markets and spices and street sounds and temple bells in each telling.

Morocco: I sat in a quiet early morning Jemaa el Fna, sipping delightful Moroccan Mint شاي, as I watched the vendors set up the day’s market. The tea would have perhaps made its way across the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain and renamed té when it landed, only to be re-renamed by the French in the souks of Marrakech as thé, and re-re-renamed thé/tea/شاي as Morocco reclaimed its independence and opened up its doors to tourisme chameau from all corners of the globe.

Istanbul: Here, chā seems to be a verb as well as a noun. The warm welcomes in this electric city, where East really does meet West, are extended as more a demand (Tea? Çay? Please, come sit…), and the brewed black tea is served steaming, alongside lumps and lumps of sugar, in glass cups. It is sort of a boring tea if I’m honest; stark in comparison to the energy one feels in the streets and markets here. A crucial stop along the Silk Road, Constantinople was what they meant in those days: “all roads lead to (Eastern) Rome.” Come sit, have some tea, do some trade in carpets or spices or these luscious fabrics…it’s a city that gets into your blood, its warm, colourful tea running through your veins.

In Burma, I had just gotten off a dive boat, and made my first entry by sea into a foreign land. They dropped me on the Burmese side of the Thailand/Myanmar border, in this peculiar little town called Kawthaung, at the southernmost tip of the country. As I wandered around the town on a blazingly hot afternoon, I ran into one of the guys who worked on the dive boat; apparently it was his 2nd job as he had a day job in an office here somewhere. He was taking tea with some friends at a corner tea shop and they invited me in to share tea and stories. Through broken English, emphasized and punctuated with many hand gestures, and not withstanding a peck on the finger by a sassy minah bird, I came to know the warmth of Burmese culture in the span of an hour over tea.

India: In a market in a little town called Jojawar, tucked neatly between Jodhpur and the Aravalli hills, I met a chaiwallah who brewed possibly the best chai I’ve ever had. His secret? Hand-smashed fresh ginger in each pot. To this day, I smash ginger in a garlic press and crush spices with a mortar and pestle before adding them to my tea mélanges.

Thailand: ชา or chā is taken hot, and equally often iced, in something that pop culture has turned into an addictive artform: Thai tea; their version of the chai latte. It is essentially brewed tea with condensed milk; not only is it completely satisfying in the Thai heat, but also completely addictive! The beauty of Thai street food is that it is everywhere and also usually ridiculously good. So on a hot afternoon what’s better than street snacks and Thai tea while you wander around a market? My first time in Thailand, I can still remember with all my senses the scene as I sat in a little café in Ayutthaya, across from the ruins of the old capital of Siam, eating the best Tom yum goong soup I’ve ever tasted, drinking their “house special” Thai tea.

Home: if home is where the heart is, for me, what feels like home is where the tea is brewed. By hand. There is ritual and history and healing power and sensory explosion in a cup of tea, whether it is a few simple leaves of pu’erh, barely tinting the water a golden brown, or the medicinal notes of an herbal blend, its peppermints and earthy roots commingling into a liquid salve. It’s the process of selecting one’s ingredients and concocting a nourishing or soothing or energizing blend. It’s potion-making. It’s the moving meditation in watching tea leaves boil with cardamom pods and ginger in a pot of chai, the cinnamony notes wafting me back to noisy Udaipur streets. It’s a simple gunpowder green tea mixed with fresh mint and honey that echoes the call to prayer across a buzzing medina. It’s the steadiness and balance that comes with pouring from an iron teapot and holding a warm cup to your lips for the first sip that brings visions of piles of tea leaves and spices in one of the oodles of foreign markets I’ve had the privilege of wandering.

a snapshot of my tea shelf

Final Notes: As I type this, I’m drinking a pu’erh concoction with some botanicals added (dandelion root, licorice root, tulsi, ginger, turmeric, elderberries, burdock root, to name a few). But I am merely a student of the tea, and I learn little bits and pieces every time I travel or turn new pages (leaves, as it were). I like this word-nerd blog post on the history of the word Tea.

When the world opens up again, I hope to share the new blends I’m concocting, and I long to drink cups of tea from chaiwallahs in far-flung places. In the meantime, I wonder if it’s too late to be an Anthropologist when I grow up. ॐ 

Southeast Asia, Part IV: Entering Myanmar Proper

I’ve connected with a friend-of-a-friend who is a certified tour guide in Myanmar. She’s going to show me as much of the city as we (read: I) can absorb in 24 hours, before I continue on to Inle Lake and Bagan. There are 3 imperatives on the list: 19th Street (Chinatown), Shwedagon Pagoda for sunrise, and the Rangoon Tea House.

The taxi drops a nitrogen-weary mermaid at her hotel in Yangon, and it’s like night-and-day to the Bates-esque experience of the previous night. I check into the Yuzana Garden Hotel (which I’ve booked online for maybe $5 more than what I’ve just paid in Kawthaung) and feel like I’m walking into a renovated palace with its 15-foot ceilings and wood and marble finishes.

N.B. For this trip, my hotels average ~$25USD per night, and this one (very much in the price range, thanks to Agoda) is by far the snazziest!

After getting settled, we head out on foot to wander the streets of Yangon, not aimlessly, but since it’s later than anticipated, the anticipated market is closing for the evening so we walk past one of the city’s “Christmas in Yangon” stages that have been set up for tonight’s celebrations.

I say a private Happy Birthday Dad and we walk on, then jump in a cab and arrive in Chinatown for a beer and Yangonese BBQ on 19th Street, which, I’m told, has become one of the only decent places for young people to hang out together in this city. And so it seems: the street is bustling, as millennials (plus only a v small smattering of tourists) line the restaurants, drinking beer served up by the beer girls from Myanmar and Chang, and chatting up a storm over BBQ. You fill a basket with skewers of every imaginable thing, from chicken feet to quail eggs, squid to sausages, and hand the basket to the BBQ guy who sends it to the kitchen to cook, and the meal is delivered to your table with rice and a fantastic dipping sauce.

We don’t have much of an agenda tonight so we wander the streets of Chinatown and beyond, eventually making it back to the area where Christmas is in full swing, and we arrive at the same stage we were at earlier to catch local renditions of Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Is he? I wonder… We’ve been talking tonight of the monumental changes taking place in this country since the Regime was ousted only 3 years ago. It’s like a new lease on life for many of these young people here, and the significance that we’re on the street after 9pm watching a modern-clad local songstress belting out Western Christmas music is not lost on anyone in the massive crowd, myself included.

Next morning, we head out before dawn to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the most sacred Buddhist site in all of Myanmar, and as such attracts devotees and tourists from across the globe. We arrive well before 6am, and while there are no tourists here at this dark hour, there are streams of worshippers at every possible corner of the place.

There are no words that can describe it here: the air smells of jasmine and incense and wood smoke. My ears are buzzing with the sounds of chanting and individual mantras, all in languages I cannot decipher, but that join together in a soundscape that melds with the nag champa. The rising sun turns the mesmerising 100 metre-tall gold leafed stupa first pink, then a vibrant, lustrous gold that seems to drink in the morning’s rays.

It’s said that 8 hairs of Gautama Buddha are encased in this stupa, archaeologists estimating that it was erected c. the 7th century, though legend says it was built 2000 years before that. And while I’m not a practising Buddhist, one cannot help but be drawn into the story and embraced by the surroundings here.

As we exit the temple, a market of sorts is set up, selling materials for prayer offerings and myriad other goods from refrigerator magnets to local handicrafts to idols. What gives me pause is the wicker cage full of songbirds that are on offer: you purchase one in order to set it free, symbolic of releasing one’s attachments and so forth. It hurts my head and heart to think about the contradictions. And my guide agrees with my disdain: they’ve found a way to usurp the teachings for their own profit. Prophets, they are not…and my skepticism of organised religion continues.

We continue on to brekkie, more wandering, a ride on the railway, the bus, and a local ferry across the Yangon River to Dalah, just to make sure we’ve hit all modes of transport here. We visit another pagoda and admire their reclining Buddha, its soles telling Gautama’s horoscope. And of course, lunch at the Rangoon Tea Shop, rounding out the musts for the visit here.

My impression? There’s not a lot to do in Yangon, but Shwedagon is literally awe-some. The food is excellent, and I note the Indian, Chinese and Western influences in nearly everything we’ve managed to inhale these past 24 hours. I find it amusing that at every meal so far I’ve been asked, you can eat spicy food? or told, very concerned, that’s spicy. Yes, I reply, donning my chopsticks and smiling.

Bonus: I’ve also managed to find custard apples, an Asian fruit I’ve only ever seen before in India. Now, onwards to the next (next) part of the journey that begins with an unexpected jolt.


Inle: They say what doesn’t kill you makes for a good story after-the-fact, right? Just so, because as I was worried about flying Myanmar National Airlines, I was not worried at all about the taxi I’d take from little Heho airport to Inle.

The air here is fresher than Yangon, and a smoky evening mist is settling. I get in the mini-van and we start driving down the steep 2-lane road that winds up and over the small mountains that surround Inle Lake. The views are stunning in the waning light. About 15 minutes in, my driver starts slowing down and veering towards the edge of the road. There’s a nice scenic overlook where others are stopped, so I think he’s slowing to give me a photo opp.

Problem is, he doesn’t stop.

Before I can figure out what just happened, we’ve crashed into the white and red safety pylon thing that separates us from the 100+ metre drop-off, which at this point is directly in front of the vehicle. The driver has either passed out or fallen asleep at the wheel, and the jolt wakes him enough to look back at me with these hauntingly glassy eyes (and for me to ask are you okay?). I think I’m in a bit of shock, because it takes a moment before I realise I must get out and get help. Immediately.

My mind is racing but I am not moving. I can’t even imagine what would have happened if we were going any faster. It’s almost sunset. I’m in Burma. The absolute only place I know I DO NOT WANT TO GO on this trip is a Burmese hospital. Will the post hold? I just read a book about the opium trade. I wonder if he’s on opium. Get. Out. Of. The. Van.

I drag myself out of my own head and get out of the vehicle.

The post is holding back the van; it’s bent over, and the vehicle does not look good: there is a massive dent in the front bumper in which the post is now embedded. Time feels somehow warped, slow but too fast, and as I put my hand out to flag down a passing taxi, he is already pulled over. He gets out, checks the car, checks the guy, points to his cab and says, Get in. Get in now.

It takes me a moment to remember to grab my bag from the back, but we get it loaded and there is a very nice and very concerned older Swiss couple in the back seat. Glad to be safe, we continue onward and the taxi driver calls the authorities.

Shaken, but not deterred, I profusely thank the driver and the lovely Swiss duo for rescuing me and getting me to my hotel in one piece. Still, part of my brain is also wondering what to do about the glassy-eyed driver.

The rest of the evening goes better: this hotel is lovely, and a hanging garden full of orchids and greenery lines the pathway to my room.

Armed only with a guidebook and a hotel reservation (and Burmese fisherman’s pants), I know how to say hello and thank you, and I’ve got no idea what to do first here, but this is my launch pad for the next few days as I explore the famed Inle Lake.

I silently wish my co-adventuring Calvin were here to continue the journey with me. I make a cup of tea and try to shake off the recent events and doubts.


Demain est un autre jour…the lake awaits.


Read more: [Part I] [Part II] [Part III] [Part V]

Rome, Part IV: Holy extortion, Batman…Is it time for lunch?

Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Day 5: So we set out early today, and walk the familiar streets across the Forum, over the river and through the…Not Throngs! We arrive at the Vatican before 9am and are greeted by an early morning glow in St. Peter’s Square. It’s so much more peaceful here without the hordes, where you can actually see the square. But it’s a strategic decision, because one cannot get to the Vatican Museum (and Sistine Chapel) directly from the Basilica, so it was a choice to either start here or there and then stand in line for the other.

The cathedral is spectacular: it’s an opulent display of the Church’s wealth and stature, and the artwork is stunning even to this heathen’s eyes (involuntarily hoping I won’t burst into flames in the center of the room; that would be both messy and embarrassing, and my companion would not be amused. Or maybe he would 😉).

There’s an admission fee to get in to see the Basilica’s Duomo, which feels inherently wrong to me. A devotee to what is essentially the best-funded religious organisation on the planet makes a pilgrimage to the Holy See and still has to pay to see all of it. Fact: you can pay 2€ less if you “walk” (it’s 500 steep, narrow, windy marble steps; you save 100 steps per € or so if you ride the elevator part-way up). Another fact: it was designed by Michelangelo, who had a hand in a lot of the artwork here, the Pietà and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for starters.

I’m a visitor, and not remotely Catholic, so I don’t exactly mind the fee, but there are a thousand other churches in Rome, some equally beautiful, that one can just wander into without a queue or the purchase of an E ticket. That said, the view from the top is stunning: you can see the entire city on this crisp, clear morning.

Next stop: the Vatican Museum. It’s barely 10:30 when we arrive, and the line is already around the corner. So the choice becomes whether to wait the 2+ hours in the queue or pay one of the hustlers on the street for a “skip the line” pass and walk in. We cave to temptation and are shuffled, first to the ticket office, then to the front of the line (to get to the other line to enter the museum). It all seems like a grand scheme to extort € from tourists, but this being our last full day, we don’t want to spend it waiting. Until we get inside and realise we’re packed into the halls, surrounded by tour groups from a multitude of lands, each guide sporting a pom-pom on a stick and shepherding their lot through the galleries. Oh, the imagery.

It is, as they say, what it is: we flow with the crowd through the different halls (Raphael’s Philosophy mural, School of Athens, blows my mind: Aristotle and Plato and a cameo by Raphael himself in vibrant hues – incredibly preserved since the 14th Century!), from here through the tapestry-lined hallways and to the Sistine Chapel. As we wander, it strikes me as ironic that the Church has plastered and painted fig leaves on many of the works.

I had expected a chapel, not a grand ballroom filled wall-to-wall with bodies, necks craned to take in the masterpieces that surround. It’s here I learn that Michelangelo poked a little fun at the Church in painting The Creation of Adam. It turns out that he hid a perfect anatomical model of the human brain in plain sight in this painting.

After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds seem to thin. The map room is amazing, as are the little sculptures and artifacts that dot the halls. The stairway itself is a work of art. We exit into the blue-skied Roman day, satisfied that our ransom was (mostly) worth the price.

All that art-gazing makes a tourist hungry. So it’s to another landmark of sorts: the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo. On an unobtrusive side street sits Alfredo alla Scrofa who claim to have invented the iconic dish. We sit, order, then heed the waiter’s instructions to eat it hot! This is some of the best pasta I’ve ever had…it does not disappoint!

We wend our way back towards the Forum, passing by the Pantheon again (and into, this time). It is only after-the-fact that I learn that one of the statues inside is an early Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer), sans foule, sans admission fee, at eye-level! This city is incredible.

We’d planned to take in the late afternoon atop Palatine Hill. But it can’t be accessed without a ticket, which for some reason entails waiting in the obscene line for the Colosseum (or paying another ransom); so instead, we take a suggestion from a friend and walk up to the Piazza Caffarelli, and admire the views over the Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia, and towards the 12 other palaces that dot the skyline in that direction…their domes magical in the golden light.

Quick trips have a way of leaving you wanting more. And this Eternal City escape is no different. We walked more than two marathons this week and saw dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of centuries-old wonders, ate fantastic food and drank local wine. My head hits the pillow this last night, prosecco-filled dreams of Roman gods and cobbled ways.


Epilogue: Homeward, revelations, intentions, Rome-ance…

The tip of Corsica as we leave…

I sit, stuffed into a window seat, on a chatty day flight home through Philadelphia. I’m already cringing at the loud, sharp, nasal ‘Merkin accents that abound, and think about the New Year’s Eve conversation about goals and intentions.

There’s the writing: publish the damn thing already. And the travelling: whale sharks and mantas and lemurs (and of course the elephants), far-flung forests and daunting peaks are all calling. And the living: it’s time to figure out where I fit, and on what continent. Big shifts happen about every 7 years, so it’s time…and so we’ll see.

A friend asked me if Rome was Rome-antic. I ponder this, having spent the week here with a human who sits firmly in my heart. Sure, there are long-stemmed roses on offer and cobbled-street strolls and prosecco toasts and the effect of the city’s magical light. The word romance comes from (the Old French romanz which comes from) the Latin romanicus, which, of course, means Roman. But Rome is a city built of passion and hubris. The heart leading the head (and body) into battle for Empirical supremacy, its buildings erected in fervent tribute to the Pagan gods and Roman leaders who were exulted as gods, said edifices desecrated and re-dedicated to those that served the hearts (and bellies) of the people over the millennia. Art is love, and this city is swathed in it. We see tributes to Jupiter and Juno, Minerva, Neptune and Venus, dotting the Piazzi and adorning the bridges over the Tiber. The river itself is named for the god Tibernius, credited with finding Romulus and Remus, whose story is where myth borrows magic and becomes history. We see temples to Roman gods turned into Christian places of worship, layering historical fact and folklore upon architectural wonders. Myths and legends, these stories weave their way from the heart to the head and to the hands and bodies of Romans who carved chronicles of their gods and Emperors and war heroes in marble throughout the city, preserving them eternally in the fountains and structures across Rome.

So, yes.

The Eternal City only stays as such if it is held in the heart. The heart only stays true if you choose it over the head and the body.


Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Sverige, del tre: A birthday and urban adventuring in Stockholm

 

The scene: Vete-Katten, est. 1928, Kungsgatan, Stockholm. 09:30. En kanelbulle, and a final (early) fika before I depart this fantastic city for a colder, wetter locale.


Swedes are known to drink a lot of coffee (according to this report, 8.2kg per person per year – nearly double what we drink in the US). I’ve read that most Swedes drink up to 5 cups a day! It only makes sense that they invented the fika: it’s afternoon coffee and cake, and almost a mandate here. I’d had my first proper fika the day after we exited the forest, replete with home-made apple cake from fruit picked in the family’s small orchard…we weren’t even allowed to leave for Stockholm without sitting for fika. An outsider’s perspective: I think it borders on religion. A sacrifice to the cinnamon gods? I’m in!

So, we’ve returned from the forest and spent the last couple of days doing some urban adventuring. Stockholm is a great city in which to do it. As I’ve already noted, Stockholm is bounded by 14 main islands and an archipelago with thousands more, each with its own personality. I stayed on a boat moored on Riddarholmen, a short hop over a bridge to Gamla stan (the old city), and a walk across the island (by the Palace) and over a bridge (by the opera house) gets you to what qualifies as the mainland. From there you can get to Djurgården (we’ll get there).

The flat is in a neighbourhood of glorious 18th and 19th century buildings (barring some 20th century insults to architecture), and I’m instantly enamored with the windows and the rooflines and the animal statues heralding the old apothecaries throughout the city. I’ve seen a stork and an owl and bear and a moose (apoteket storken, ugglan, björn och älg, respectively!). It’s almost worth going back for a scavenger hunt just to find them all.

My birthday morning, I’m treated to a makeshift Swedish brekkie (that my Swedish companion created sweetly – Swedishly – with what was in the fridge), and then we’re off to find a sunken ship.

But first, the birthday indulgences begin: we find the perfect kanelbulle. The shop smells of fresh bread and cinnamon. The piles of buns (as they are called here) are simply gorgeous. There’s a reason the sense of smell is so evocative. This is what I will picture whenever I smell cinnamon again.

Buns are walked off as we crisscross Stockholm towards Djurgården and the Vasa museet.

As the story goes, there was a king (Gustav II Adolf) who fancied himself the equivalent of a Swedish Hercules and commissioned a ship to be the grandest warship in the fleet, adorned with lions and Greek gods to illustrate the king’s power and instill fear in the enemy. I reflect that though we’ve advanced nearly 400 years, male hubris still has a long way to go.

In 1628, the Vasa sailed from Stockholm harbour and promptly sank before the eyes of the thousands there to view its maiden voyage. Apparently, the King’s visions of grandeur exceeded his knowledge of shipbuilding and its relationship to seaworthiness. The ship’s architects hadn’t the guts to go against his wishes. These were the days of “off with thy head” after all, so the directive to “make it TALLER” was heeded (collective eyes roll, heads remain intact). And so, the top-heavy flagship set sail, hit a spot of wind, listed, then expeditiously sank in 30 metres of water just outside Stockholm harbour. It lay in the mud for 333 years until it was exhumed in the early 1960’s.

The ship is remarkably well-preserved, having been ensconced in mud in the (low-salinity) Baltic, and meticulously restored – the museum houses the massive ship (over 50 metres high and nearly 70 metres long), puzzled back together in its entirety, and showcases its ornate carvings. We watched the film, took the tour, gaped at the intricacies and the craftsmanship. On the water (for those precious minutes anyway), she must have been a sight to behold.

All this touristing makes a birthday girl hungry. C takes me to a fantastic (and classic) lunch at the Operakallaren café by the Royal Swedish Opera House. It’s great people-watching and lovely local food. Me: fisk; C: kött. It reminds me, in some strange way, of Sardi’s in NYC, with the old opera posters on the wall and harried waitstaff.

By now, we’ve mastered the art of urban hiking, having clocked something on the order of 15km today, all around Stockholm’s waterfront and surrounding neighbourhoods. C has promised me princess cake (prinsesstårta) for my birthday, so we’re off to fika at the classic coffee house: Vete-Katten. Coffee is free-flowing, and the place is abuzz with chatter in a mingle of languages, tho svenska predominates. From the black-and-white tiled floors of the main bakery to the intimate coffee rooms out back, the antique furniture, mismatched chairs, and simple tablecloths, this place has a character all its own. Truth be told, I’m not really a chocolate cake fan. But the princess cake: layers of perfect whipped cream, raspberries, and light sponge cake…all topped with a thin sheet of marzipan (points awarded for the special birthday marzipan rose ❤); this is the perfection to which all birthday cakes should aspire!

There’s more walking, and birthday dinner at a nice place close to the flat, where my Swedish guise fails and I quickly use up the 16 words I’ve managed to mangle. The chatty waiter is still at it, greatly amusing the interpreter; he then resorts to handing me a new menu (this one in engelska). Jag talar inte svenska, I think, issuing a slightly defeated sigh. But I fall asleep sated and maybe still thinking about the princess cake a bit. There are not enough thank yous I can find (in any language) to adequately appreciate this day.

And so we wake, on a brighter (yet blustery-er) autumn morn. Determined to deliver on his promise to introduce me to all things Swedish, C makes traditional pancakes (pannkakor) for brekkie. I learn that they are not necessarily eaten as breakfast (rather, for lunch on Thursdays; who knew?!), and more often than not, eaten with just some butter, sugar and cinnamon OR strawberry jam (no butter, that’s a sin!). It’s nothing like our bready, sweet flapjacks here in the US. These delights are like a crêpe, but eggier somehow. With proper instruction on how to serve, fill, and fold (Swedes are nothing if not precise), we polish off the stack of pancakes before heading out for the day’s adventures: kayaking Djurgården!

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The winds have apparently scared all kayakers away from the task, so it seems we have the waterways virtually to ourselves. It is a fantastic way to see this city, and with Njord’s winds at our backs, he carries us swiftly down the Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, the canal that separates Djurgården from Stockholm’s mainland. Djurgården is the old royal hunting grounds, and has been turned into something of an island-park, housing a multitude of museums and things to do (Gröna Lund amusement park, an interactive Viking museum, and the Abba Museum, among others).

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It’s a brilliant day out, and we are literally the only kayakers on the canal, passed by just a handful of boats over the 2 hours we’re out. It’s such a spectacle that tourists are actually taking pictures of us. The city is sparkling, and the homes that line the canal are a sight to behold. C points out the home he will acquire when he wins the lottery, and I concur: this wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live.

We’ve been warned not to attempt a circumnavigation of Djurgården, as the winds (and boat traffic) will be even stronger out there, so we’re content to do an out-and-back on the canal. It’s the back part that’s the challenge: against the wind is an understatement, and it takes quite the effort to return to the kayak place. We’re greeted by a surprised kayak guy…I dare say he was impressed that we lasted that long, given the circumstances. But the views along the way were most definitely worth the effort. A pile of adventure points awarded for the 6 or 7kms paddled while braving the headwinds.

Urban hiking, it’s called, when you log at least 15kms traipsing across a city to take it all in. We spend the rest of the day exploring Djurgården, then wending our way, feet sore and with bright smiles on our windblown faces, back to the flat. I could not have asked for a better tour guide.


And so I find myself back at Vete-Katten, too early in the day for another slice of prinsesstårta and just too late to refuse to go West. I’m writing and reflecting on another week spent living in the NOW with my magical co-conspirator. And I’m soaking in these last moments of Stockholm before I board the Arlanda Express to take me towards the next leg of the journey: a 3-day stopover in the Nordic land of ice.

Hejdå för nu.

Read the earlier posts in this series: [Del ett: Sweden, Day 1]  [Del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden]

Morocco, Part IV: an ancient curse, the dark side of Marrakech and the magic of street food

[Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III]

When we last left our intrepid traveller, she had been deposited at the busy end of the Fna, desperately in need of the loo (and a shower), an hour late and quite eager to meet her co-adventurer back at the riad…

Jemaa el Fna at night

Truth be told, I navigate better by gut than by map, so after a quick pit stop at the nearest café (NB: it is a fact that in any ladies’ room on the planet, it will always be occupied by someone having a vivid argument on her mobile, and the intensity of the conversation will be in direct proportion to how badly you need to pee), I trust my instincts (and cheat with Google Maps only once) to guide me back to the riad. Briefly revelling in my triumph, I arrive with barely half an hour to spare before C appears. Our reunions are always nice, as was the tagine dinner and Fna-gazing from the rooftop. It’s a different world up there; the din of the music and the drums and the crowds are near-silent within the walls of the riad.


Explorers-ho!

The mission for the weekend is to explore the souks and The Medina. I hadn’t ventured too far my first afternoon, and by the next morning I was excited to see the sights. With company, I figured, it wouldn’t be as daunting. I must report that the bazaars I’ve been to in India and in Istanbul pale in comparison to the ferocity with which the souks here in Marrakech do their souking. Hundreds, non, milliers, of stalls fan out from the Jemaa el Fna square in semi-organised lanes, lined floor to ceiling with wares, some sections carry general themes: cuir, olives, cuivre, vêtements, textiles, lampes, épices… The rest of the stalls, piled high with pottery and scarves and shoes and crafts and rugs and…I’m confident that one could find literally anything here.

By this point we’ve spent some time haggling for trinkets, and I’m beginning to get my sea legs back – in French! We’ve spent an hour or more in a gorgeous lamp shop, genially negotiating, finding C the one thing (actually, three) he’s wanted to get here: some filigreed copper lamps, and I’ve even chosen one for myself as well. We’re feeling accomplished but hungry, maybe a little haggle-weary, and on our way back through the chaos we run into the super-nice Puerto Rican couple from my jaunt in the desert. We’ve decided to have lunch together in a café overlooking the square, so we’re en route when we’re accosted by a very insistent woman, babbling in nursery rhymes, keen on hennaing me. She’s not as keen on C’s brush off and looks him squarely in the eye as she invokes the ancient and potent Berber curse. Every hair in C’s scrappy beard stands on end as she says, finger pointed in warning: Fuzzy wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy wuzzy wasn’t very fuzzy, was he? It’s clearly lunchtime.

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Jemaa el Fna at lunchtime on a Friday, just before the afternoon Adhan

The Adhan, or call to prayer, sounds haunting from above – 3 minarets broadcast the muzzeins’ calls in unison, lunchtime din mixes with the prayers.

Running amok…

After depositing our souk winnings and a siesta, we embark on the next check-box for the day: completion of C’s RunStreak. You see, he’s an ultramarathoner in recovery from a frustrating injury so he’s challenged himself to a 20 minute (and >1.6 km) run each day for the month. I’m an incidental beneficiary (??) of the challenge. And so we set out this afternoon, not entirely sure how it will play out – even with all the European influnce here it is still a very conservative Muslim country. I’ve covered myself head to toe; but still, in running tights and a long-sleeved/hooded sweatshirt, I feel a bit exposed in this place where the sight of a woman’s legs sans frock is near blasphemy. We run through the Fna square and across to Koutubia mosque, with its orange trees ripe for picking. It goes okay, I haven’t gotten berated or stoned, so I’m feeling a little better about the next day’s plan for an even longer run in these streets.

Street food for dinner in the largest open-air cafeteria on the planet

If rigid ideology is what divides us, food is what unites. Jemaa el Fna is a mélange of sound, smoke and smell; an open-air cafeteria for all the senses. There are the food hawkers of course, but also the drumming and other instruments (the gimbri or the oud, Moroccan versions of the lute), the insistent clapping of the two-sided Moroccan maracas; there’s a resonance of flutes in the air…not to mention the snake charmers and storytellers and singers, all swirling their words, in Arabic and Tamazight and French, with the smoke from the cooking fires. The smell is something I’ll always remember as warm and spicy and rustic and elemental.

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In the evening, the stalls go up: dozens of pop up restaurants selling variations on a theme, organised into rows of similar foodstuffs. One row is snails, one row soups, one row meats, one row kebabs, one row desserts. We choose a stall on faith – they’re numbered, and representatives from each stall go out into the crowd to entice hungry-looking wide-eyed lingerers to their tables. It’s an amazing visual, a well-choreographed nightly ritual.

Our first experiment is snails. We’re served a small bowl of the critters from a giant steaming pot, and use toothpicks to pluck them out. They’re a thinner, more peppery version of escargot, sans the butter and garlic. So they’re nothing like escargot at all really, but I’m glad to have tried them.

Bread is a staple at every meal. And mint tea. I order olives and Moroccan salad (something like ceviche without the fish); C orders an entire lamb’s head (because, of course you do) and has way more food than he can possibly eat, so we share an entire plate of meat, plus some of the bread, with the sweet, chatty family sitting next to us; they’re clearly grateful that we’ve shared our dinner.

Dessert is a thick tea; a ginger, anise and cinnamony mix of spices (there does not seem to be any actual tea in the tea), served from massive copper urns, accompanied by dense, crumbly cake that is something of a cross between halvah and gingerbread. I think I could stand here at this stall for an hour, sipping this luxurious tea and watching the Fna go by. Grand total for dinner: 150 dirhams; approx. 15€.


We’re quite good at getting lost together, C and I, but usually it’s in a forest or on a mountain, not on the narrow alleyways of an ancient city. We’d stumbled around The Medina that morning, deeper into the souk streets, finding the old slave market that now houses olives and textiles; exploring old caravanserais (fondouqs), old lodging houses for traders on the caravan routes – the bottom floors wide open to accommodate camels, the rooms on the upper floors for travellers. Only 140 of these fondouqs remain in The Medina; they’re gorgeous old buildings now home to artisan workshops.

We wandered until we found ourselves near the tannery, where, before we knew it, we were being handed Berber gas masks (sprigs of mint) against the smell, and guided into the lieu. There are two tanneries, we’re told: the Arabic one, where they use machines and chemicals to cure the hides (typically cow), and the Berber one, where they use natural ingredients (including “pigeon poo”) to prepare the leather (the more durable camel, and also goat). It’s more fascinating than stinky, and for that fact alone I’m grateful it’s not 10° warmer. And I’m not surprised as we’re then guided into a shop to haggle for more goods (I score a pair of handmade leather shoes) before meandering back out into the maze.

It’s here that we become frustratingly lost and ask directions – we’re aware of the scams so we ask to be pointed the way back. This was the diciest moment of the trip: the guy who initially pointed out the directions began to lead; the streets grew quieter and we were lead into an empty courtyard where he pointed to a minaret (not the one we were looking for, I realised) and demanded money to lead us to it. We said no (again) and began to walk back the way we came. Just then, 3 or 4 of his friends appear from out of nowhere. There are no other people around and we are surrounded by these guys in a really narrow alley, demanding to be paid for their, erm, services. I don’t think I had time to be afraid because when I saw how angry C was, the don’t fuck with me look in his eyes said all the guys needed to know. They backed off just moments before it could have come to ugly blows.

Crisis averted, Google maps gets us to more familiar territory, and we let the adrenaline die down over a fantastic rooftop lunch. It’s times like this I think of that Charles Schulz quote, “In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with.” We toast, with mint tea, to this very moment in time.

Rooftop lunch at Bazaar Cafe

The afternoon is more wandering, more haggling (argan oil and scarves), more running – this time through the magnificent Cyberparc Arsat Moulay Abdessalam, its manicured gardens and meandering paths a striking contrast to the din of the souks. And finally, after the long day, dinner redux at Jemaa el Fna.

Because food is half the adventure of travel, we first try soup from one place (the ubiquitous harira, which I’ll try to replicate when I get home), then seek out some other vittles for the main course. “Number 55 is stinky food,” we’re told by a guy representing a virtually empty stall. We choose number 55, of course, as it is packed with many more locals than tourists – always a good sign.

The lamb tangia is cooked in earthen pots over an open fire. We’re seated at a long table with sheets of paper for mats, Berber bread plunked down in the middle, Berber whiskey (mint tea) served alongside the meal. Next to us sits a family of 3, excitedly awaiting their dinner. It is served with fanfare, and we watch in equal anticipation as the waiter unfurls the dish. The meal, barely enough for two, is placed in front of the family. But before they begin, we are offered the first taste with a warm gesture.

We’re enjoying the food (C’s got the tangia; mine is a really good roast veggie plate), revelling in the gregariousness and absurd hospitality of the cooks/waiters, welcoming the kindness of strangers. We share bread, we share our meals, we eat in the din of the night amongst thousands of strangers. This is nice, I think…What is it that we’re doing wrong in the West, when welcoming foreigners is discouraged, as if we’d lose something of ourselves if we were to gain new perspective or new friends. It pains me that if the tables were on this soil, this scene wouldn’t likely have played out.

 


We wake the next morning and it’s already time to go. A quick riad brekkie and C is off to the races, almost literally, as the Marrakech Marathon has snarled traffic and, ironically, he has to walk part-way to the airport. I get a few hours more, the first part of which I spend drinking mint tea in a sunny café in the quiet of the morning Fna, watching the day (and the vendors) unpack. I had wanted to see the photography museum, but after our ordeal in that general vicinity yesterday I decide I’d better not get lost with just hours before my flight. Instead, I set a goal of getting the most for the last dirhams in my pocket and venture back into the souks. And I feel pretty good, parting with my last 100 dirham bill and some coins in exchange for some hand-painted bowls. I feel an even more an accomplished haggler when the shopkeeper, laughing, calls me a Berber. For that I take back a one-dirham coin (roughly 10 cents) from the pile I’d placed in his hand and say, jokingly, pour un souvenir, and leave the shop with both of us still laughing.

The ride to the airport was uneventful, and it was on the walk to the car that I realised we were lost the day before mere blocks from the riad. Oh, the labyrinthine rues of Marrakech…The sounds and the smells and the sights of a whirlwind week in Morocco fill my head as I check in and board my flight.

One last stop: Germany. A quick stopover in Munich on a lovely day gives me just enough time to see the Marienplatz glockenspiel do its thing from the 91-metre high Alter Peter. Then it’s Westward-ho into Boston’s late-January chill, where the fernweh takes hold and gets the wheels spinning for the next adventure.

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In case you missed these: [Morocco, Part I] [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part III] and read C’s account here. Cheers!