Sunday, April 26, 2015

Real Moroccan Culture Part 2

This is part of a series. For the first two things we learned, check out Real Moroccan culture part 1.

3. Americans are rich

Our next stop, Zagora, is the last oasis on the edge of the Sahara desert. In our quest for real Moroccan culture, this outpost is for being the jump-off point for the 52 day trek to Timbuktu. Economics, politics, deforestation, and climate change have been slowly driving the traditionally nomadic families to permanent lives in towns, increasingly dependent on tourism. We don’t even pretence to know the half of it, but our host Mustapha, an Amazight (Berber) man our own age, had a simple and revealing statement:

“My grandfather live always the desert. My father live six months in the desert, six months in the oasis. Now, my family live always in the oasis. Three years ago, we sell our camels.”

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 1
real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 2
Tombouctou, 52 jours

The economic depression is only surpassed by the generosity and resilience of the Moroccan spirit. We suspect generosity is the most resilient staple of real moroccan culture, as it is the way a people have to be to survive the desert for so many eons. There's a Moroccan saying, "The Swiss have clocks; we have time." Infrastructure is terrible in the south--the nearest hospital is in Ourzazete, hours away. Moroccan women die of the slightest childbirth complication if the clinic is closed and no one is available to take her north, if her husband was in the desert with on a camel excursion, the most popular means of Morocco tourism in the south, and their best resource for making ends meet. Very little government funding trickles down from Rabat, the roads and buildings are all made of mud, the police and judicial system are corrupt. And yet the Amazight endure, nobly preserving their place in real moroccan culture, and giving a new meaning to the common Muslim phrase: "Inchallah."

"Inchallah" literally means "if God wills it." It's hard for Americans with our go-get-em attitude to deeply understand this concept. But it is a bedrock of real moroccan culture that allows them to get through each day with their spirits in-tact. We were made humiliatingly aware of the difference when working for Mustapha.

When we arrived in Zagora, they were experiencing floods from the first rain in four years--roads washed out, people, cars, whole houses swept away. We were on a bus on the road south, on a narrow road clinging to the side of the mountain, when the road simply crumbled out in front of and behind us. The Moroccan passengers on the bus were amazingly calm about it... because honestly, what could one do? Raging, as a bus full of Americans would have done, wouldn't make the rain stop. The road was simply gone, and road crews were trying to build it back. We would get out eventually, inchallah.

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 3
The roads are built on muddy terraces on the side of mountains.

We arrived on one of the only buses to get through in a three week-stretch and got to work for Mustapha rebuilding his guesthouse, Riad Dar Zaouia. A riad is a traditional inward-facing Moroccan home focused around a courtyard. Many Moroccan buildings are often made of mud mixed with straw, and many had been damaged--in Mustapha's, a staircase had collapsed. The repairs went well, but absolutely no tourists had made it through for weeks, and he was beginning to worry about how he was going to feed all his workers, so we starting chipping in and making family meals (you could buy enough food to feed twelve people for about $3).

We cannot over-emphasize how generous they all were with what they have. That’s real Moroccan culture in a sentence: they take care of you as family. Some British tourists en route to stay at the riad were stranded in the desert by the floods, and Mustapha immediately rushed with a 4x4 to rescue them. The 4x4 had to be pushed and dragged through mud at many points, but he got them out. He refused to accept money for it when he got them back--it was just what one does when friends are stranded in the desert. Another example of real Moroccan culture: They were returning customers, but Mustapha saw them as friends.

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 4
Mustapha taking tourists on excursion during non-flood times.

After a month with nearly no business (other than the Brits, who only stayed one night) the family was in a panic. The landlord was threatening eviction if rent wasn't paid soon. Mustapha's extended family got together, but given how large and expensive the property was (8 en-suite guest bedrooms, kitchen, living room, office, atelier, grand courtyard and garden) they were unable to raise enough funds to cover it. Mustapha was facing going out of business, and no one in Zagora would rent to him in the future once he was known as unreliable. He was just going to have to find some other way to survive, inchallah.

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 5
real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 6
real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 7
real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 8
real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 9
Guess what the rent is on this place.

His rent? 3,000 dihrams. That's 277 Euros, 201 British Pounds, and 311 US dollars. He was standing to lose his business (including all the improvements he'd done to the building and investments in furniture and bedding) and have his local rental credit ruined over 300 bucks.

So we paid it. It’s not that $300 is by any means small change for us. We’re pretty broke by American standards, our telecommute jobs don’t pay much. But we have the luxury that when we return to the states, we can easily get some bar jobs to pay off our debt. However grueling, tedious, or degrading some of our stateside jobs can be, they pay us over a weekend the amount of money this man’s entire family couldn’t raise to save the business. Mustapha and his family don’t have our options. With borders closed and trans-Saharan trade stopped, there is no economy but tourism for Berber peoples. So when the rain washes out the roads and no tourists can get in, we discovered that real Morccoan culture is a graceful resignation to what may come: ‘inchallah.’

Mustapha all but cried when we gave him the money. He kept trying to refuse it, but we insisted that he had treated us like family, and so we were doing the same. He told us we were family, and we would always have a home in Zagora.

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 10
Mustapha and the riad.

America’s economy has been really hard on all of us these last few years, but it’s important to maintain a sense of perspective. To not let your own desperate circumstances blind you to the desperate circumstances of others. America’s health care is notoriously bad, but (thanks to Obamacare) we both have insurance and access to hospitals, unlike the women here who bleed to death in the street because all the hospitals are too far away.

A lot of people have helped us along the way. It’s important to do the same for anyone you can that is gracious enough to treat you like family. If there's one thing we learned is the meaning of real Moroccan culture, it is generosity and paying it forward. It doesn't matter how broke we are. If we have three dollars to eat today, we are rich. The rest we'll figure out somehow. Inchallah.

real Moroccan culture pt 2 img 11

We'll continue with other things we learned in our next post. If you want to read more about real Moroccan cutlure and Amazight life, we recommend this article on walking with a nomadic family, and this one on why the nomadic lifestyle is vanishing.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Real Moroccan culture, part one

Real Moroccan culture, part one.

People tend to imagine traveling is a means of gaining knowledge, which is backwards. If traveling has shown us anything, it is how little we know.  Generalizations like “Mexico is Catholic,” “Morocco is Muslim,” “San Francisco is filled with hippies,” aren’t necessarily untrue, but they are myopic simplifications that lose their meaning as soon as you visit these places. Any country is filled with individuals, with unique attitudes about themselves and where they live and how they do or don’t fit into those boxes.

In some ways we feel less entitled to give advice about Morocco tourism than someone who has only ever read about the country. We have been humbled by how Morocco culture is so unbelievably distinct in each city, how singular every neighbourhood of those cities are, and the diversity and uniqueness of every street, cafe, and storefront.

So if there’s one thing we hope to impart on people about Morocco tourism, it is not our expertise, but rather our ignorance and humility. We tried to enter Morocco with an open mind and experience as many different texture of Morocco culture as we could. Here are some things we learned from what we tried and observed, and we encourage you to observe your own.

real Moroccan culture pt 1 img 1
We said we'd try things. We didn't say we'd look elegant doing it.

1.) The Marrakech medina is a special level of hell.

 The hub of Morocco tourism--what most people think of when they think of Morrocco culture--is the Marrakech medina. We spent the first four days in the Marrakech medina, which is an aggressive tourist trap. You are accosted nonstop by people trying to swindle you. We’re grateful we moved on to spend a month each in Rabat, Zagora, and Asilah before we made a judgement, but many people don’t have this opportunity. The medina, or central market, is a fundamental element of Morocco culture and daily living. Most major cities have a medina, and the salesmanship in all of them can be a bit obnoxious, but the Marrakech medina is a whole other level.

You will be followed aggressively by people trying to “give you directions,” then lead you to their cousin’s carpet store. They’ll serve you tea and be so congenial that it will be really uncomfortable trying to get away. The other version is when they follow you around no matter how many times you tell them no, and then demand a tip. If you give them 10 dirhams just to leave you alone, they will get indignant and claim they deserve more. (10 is enough to buy a cup of coffee, 20 is enough for a pack of cigarettes, to give you some scale).

If you  really want to see the Marrakech medina, by all means go for it. Just keep in mind that that is NOT what the entire country is like.

Also, to be fair, there are individuals who are nothing like that in the Marrakech medina as well. One time, we did actually get lost (we're pretty good at directions, but it's a particularly labyrinthine medina,) and we asked a young kid working in a restaurant. He asked another waiter to watch his section, led us where we wanted to go, and took off before we could even offer him a tip.

For every street hustler, there’s a Moroccan that’s really embarrassed by that representation of Morrocco culture who will try to make up for it. The government has been running Morrocco tourism campaigns that compel their citizens to treat tourists respectfully, their argument being that Morrocco tourism benefits the citizens financially.

real Moroccan culture pt 1 img 2
What you can't hear in this picture is all the shouting of "You want to buy?"

2.) Living somewhere is nothing like visiting there.

Our month in Rabat couldn’t have been more to the opposite of our short stint in the Marrakech medina. We weren't there just as a cog in the wheels of Morrocco tourism, we were actually living there. We sublet a room from a Moroccan guy our age, worked daily, cooked at home, and made local friends.

The medina there is simply an outdoor mall where Moroccans sell ordinary life commodities like food, housewares, shoes, and cell phones to each other. It helps that Rabat is the capital. Many expats, students and people who work at embassies simply live there. It’s nice. It doesn’t matter what colour you are. You can just live.

A few people have asked us “Eh, what is there to do in Rabat? How much of Morocco tourism is really focused there? There’s like, half a day worth of monuments.”  Well… everything else? Go out for happy hour with a crazy international blend of Moroccans and expats? Go to the indie film festival? Get a coffee and watch the futbol game? Go jogging on the beach? Learn to surf? Hang out at  the hamam? Check out the mind-bending contemporary art museum? Poke around the Roman ruins? Read a book and get Turkish coffee in the Kasbah? Cross over to see the beautifully preserved medieval architecture in the pirate city of Sale?

Don't get us wrong, we enjoy eating out and visiting monuments of Morocco culture as much as the next fellow. People are right to be proud of their own history, and we're not suggesting anyone be a travel hipster who ignores landmarks of Morocco culture simply because they're famous. What saddens us is to hear people assume photo ops are "all there is" to a given city.
At the same time, we need to emphasise that we're not promoting the exploitation of niches that are not prepared for Morocco tourism. You'll see scathing tripadvisor reviews, for example, of favourite local restaurants by tourists who went out trying to "discover" something new. First of all, that's a bit like white men "discovering" America, as if it previously didn't exist for all the people who were already there. Secondly, these entitled tourists lambast the locals for recommending something not adequately westernised. How dare a place exist on it's own terms, not as a disposable service to be chosen or rejected by you, the almighty tourist!

real Moroccan culture pt 1 img 3
Blvd Mohammed V, right up the centre of town.

This article has been getting extremely long, so we've decided to break it up. More things we learned in our next instalment: things we learned from Morocco culture, part two.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A quick Christmas update

Three of our writer friends sent us long-distance Christmas gifts this year. With no good shipping address for us, they all paypal’d us a little numeric present, instructing us to use it on something fun.

The three fun things we used them on were all very Moroccan, so we are sharing them here.

In Zagora, there’s an awesome shop owned by a friend of Riad Dar Zaouia, where we were working, full of handcrafted local items. This style of shop is all over Morocco, but the price you get depends on whether or not you are perceived as a tourist, and the quality depends on the shop’s sources. A Moroccan fellow staying at the riad, commented that he was often treated as a tourist himself just for being northern, unless he went with one of the guys from the riad.

He had wanted a silver ring in the Amazigh (Berber) style, which are produced down here and much more expensive where he lives, but it took a personal introduction from the guys who owned the riad to get the fair “local” price. We got the same personal introduction (because we were working long term) when we were buying this shush:

Shush being the turban, not the little clay camel.

There were absolutely gorgeous carpets and huge veils, handmade by the shop owner’s mother. When we said we couldn’t carry such things, he offered to ship them, and when we explained that we are full-time travellers, he laughed and said “Ah, you are nomad too. No wonder you need shush!”

So the final result of our gift from Erin Merill was these earrings:

Thanks Erin!

On the way back up north, we had stopovers in Marrakech and Rabat. (It’s 8 hours from Zagora to Marrakech by bus, 5 hours by train to Rabat, and then another 3.5 hours by train to Asilah, just outside Tangier, where we are now.)

In Marrakech, our beloved Hotel Tachfine was full, so we stayed at their sister hotel, Amalay. It, too, has a comically faded, kitschy charm, but clean where it counts, with the sweetest staff.

There was a rotary phone over the bed.

It’s just around the corner from Tachfine, in a very pleasant part of the new city, close to the train station and airport. In between the two, right on the corner, is the VERY posh Hotel La Renaissance. With our present from Catherine De Mornay, we treated ourselves to a proper night out, starting with dinner at their Brasserie.

"Look at how French we are," says the decor.

By Moroccan laws, they cannot sell wine in the restaurant. Our server was impeccably trained in Western standards, however, handling our bottle of sparkling water as formally as if he had been doing wine service, crumbing and marking silver afresh between courses, appearing out of nowhere if we had so much as a thought cross our faces. NO ONE does that anywhere we’ve eaten in Morocco. I think the last time I saw service that correct was… the last time I worked at L20.  

The real kicker? Deciding to be very French and have a cigarette at the table over our espressos and crème brulee… the waiter MATERILIZED OUT OF NOWHERE AND LIT THE CIGARETTE.


Eat there. For realz. The food is decent, not amazing, but HOLY SHIT THE SERVICE. If you work in fine dining and appreciate the whole rigamarole, and especially if you smoke… eat there at the Brasserie La Renaissance. Even if you don’t smoke, you  might need to have a one-off cigarette over the espresso.

We then went upstairs to their Skybar. It’s just like an urban rooftop bar anywhere in the States. The Wit or the Dana in Chicago are two I can think of offhand. Super-luxury in an almost tacky way. Lots of white leather and metal and dark wood and glass. Very trendy, chunky glassware and contemporary brushed silver. Gigantic fireplaces, taut white triangular canopies, coloured lights and cheesy club music playing at an inoffensively low level. But it’s all slightly behind the vouge and so generic it's almost a mockery, like a movie set that's supposed to be "that ubiquitous flashy-trashy overpriced rooftop bar."

What makes this all so Moroccan is that we've noticed this entire country has a passion for imitating foriegn luxury... inaccurately. People love sparkling white trainers and over-sized faux leather handbags plastered with knockoff Coach and Gucci and D&G logos. Men DRENCH themselves in cheap cologne, and 1 in 5 hijabs are imitation Burberry. We spent all of dinner feeling like we were in a theatrical recreation of a Parisian brasserie in the 1940s and all of our evening after in a theatrical recration of the hottest rooftop in NYC in the late 2000s.

But anyway, we had scotch in very awesome glassware with giant proper cubes on a rooftop with a great view of Marrakech. (We only got individuals, but had we been with a party of four... bottle service with single malt scotch is like ninety bucks US, guys.  Ell. Oh. Ell. If we ever want to be the fakest VIPs ever, let’s do it in Marrakech.)

Thank you, Catherine!!

Our final gift was from Rebecca Carter, which we used on a hamam trip. In Rabat, our friend Houda suggested we try “the best hamam in the city.” If you are not familiar, a hamam is a public bath/sauna. In a basic one, which is about 10dh ($1 US) for entry, it is simply a wet sauna with a fountain in the centre. You scrub yourself and your friends with a mitt and traditional soap, and alternate between the hot and cool rooms at will. You can pay about 20 dh to have someone scrub you.

The basic ones are all over. Usually they are open to women until 6pm and men after.

At Hamam Moving, which is 220dh (about $22 US) all inclusive, it is an utterly different experience. You are slathered in henna (which is apparently a sort of self-tanner) and hang out in the steam sauna awhile, then you are called to a massage-height table where you are VERY thoroughly scrubbed and massaged with about five different products (I’m pretty sure one was a shower gel, one was an oil, and one was a clay mask) and given a facial. They wash your hair as well. The whole thing takes about two hours, after which you are wrapped in a plushy robe and taken to a lounge to relax and sip orange juice as you dry. I don’t think I’ve ever been so clean. The scrubby mitt things are our new favourite possessions as well.

This is more like the one we went to. Thanks Rebecca!

Thanks to all of our Ubergroup friends for the amazing Christmas gifts!

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

19 Brilliant Gifts for the World Traveller in Your Life

"But where would I PUT it?" This phrase has frustrated the family and friends of many a lifestyle traveller. We love the thought, but non-portable objects will end up untouched in storage lockers and parent's attics. We DO like getting presents, so here is a list of 21 absolutely brilliant gift ideas that the world traveller in your life will love, use, and carry everywhere.

1.) The Anti-Kidnapping Band

For all you parents out there that are terrified of your travelling kid being kidnapped, this is the most practical thing we’ve ever seen. Even if the chances of getting kidnapped are pretty low in reality, this anti-kidnapping band gives a +10 stealth bonus to all rogues and makes anyone feel like James Bond. It has the non-metal, non-detectable means to escape from duct tape, zip ties, and handcuffs and fits unobtrusively on any watch band. Extensive instructions on the website. It’s bloody genius. We both want them.

$25 for the band only on Watch not included.

2.) A Tiny Convertible Laptop

We are writing this post from our Asus Transformer T100s. A super lightweight, detatchable, tablet-laptop hybrid is far and away the most useful upgrade to our wandering lifestyles we have ever made. For comparison, that’s Jerry’s old Dell Latitude to the left. There are many higher end ones on the market, so go as big your own budget and desires, but what makes this one awesome: 1. It’s a real laptop: full windows 8.1 and can run photoshop. 2. It has all the travel perks of a tablet: 10 hour battery life and weighs 1.2 pounds. 3. It’s $265. Guys. That’s CHEAPER THAN A PHONE.

$265 for the Asus Transformer T100 on

3.) A Kindle Fire and Amazon Unlimited

Laura is a big fan of real paper books, and there is definitely a hardcover of Borges’ complete essays bundling around the world with us… but even she has to admit, the kindle is a hell of a lot lighter. Our kindle fire was a present from Jerry’s brother two years ago, and it’s one of the most used items of our trip. It has a battery life of multiple days, a less eye-straining screen, and a book-like size that’s easy to hold. The $10 all-you-can-read deal is of Kindle Unlimited is pretty awesome for people spending a lot of time on trains and buses, and can be gifted long-distance, for the traveller already on the road.

$59-219 for the kindle, depending on the model, on
$10/month for kinde unlimited

4.) Bluetooth Speakers

This isn’t strictly necessary, but it really improves quality of life. Every hotel room becomes your own private party and every tub your own spa. For budget travellers using wwoof or workaway, it’s really motivating to have music while you scrub kitchens and rehab buildings. Jerry’s brother knocked it out of the park again last Christmas with a Big Jambox by jawbone, which is powerful enough to be heard across a field with a mechanical harvester going at the same time. It's 2.5lbs and 10 inches long, works wirelessly with any smartphone and also has a battery life measured in days. The Mini Jambox comes in candy colors and is good for smaller backpacks at 9 oz and 6 inches long, and for super tight budgets there's the Bright Ideas Now version is 2oz and only 60mm across. There are many on the market, but be aware that many cheap versions are of questionable quality. The Jambox series is fantastic, for all others read reviews first.

$11 for the Bright Ideas Now on
$99 for the Mini Jambox on
$299 for the Big Jambox on

5.) Camping Towels

It’s in the hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy: don’t forget your towel. Many budget hotels and some workaways don’t provide them, even though we consistently book private double rooms, not dorms, campgrounds, or “you can crash on the floor with a sleeping bag” type scenarios. There’s also inevitably going to be some spill-on-your-lap-when-trying-to-drink-coffee-on-a-bus situation. Even if the wanderer in your life isn’t a true backpacker or camper, a towel is useful, and a camping towel is made of microfiber, which is smaller, lighter, and dries quickly, thus avoiding mold when shoved back into the luggage. It feels more like a shamwow than a towel, but it gets to job done. We have conventional towels this trip, and definitely plan to upgrade before the next one.

$8-20, many sizes and colours available on

6.) Therapik Mosquito Bite Reliever

Venom is heat sensitive, and this brilliant little gadget destroys it, getting rid of the sting from most forms of bug bite. We haven’t been anywhere that is particularly mosquito prone this year, but this is a godsend for campers… and pretty much anyone who lives anywhere with mosquitos in the summer. Another brilliant thing we just heard of, and need to pick up when we return to the states. We need one for performing at Renn Faires.

Available at CVS, Walmart and similar.
$12 on

7.) Fog-Free Travel Mirror

Feather light and nigh-unbreakable, this is a brilliant idea, even if someone isn’t a camper. We’ve stayed a surprising amount of places that don’t have bathroom mirrors this year. We’ve made do with what regular cheap hand mirrors we could find, but the suction cup on the ShaveWell version would have been awful handy for things like shaving or plucking eyebrows. This also strikes us as something that would be exceedingly useful for all the bellydancers we know, who get ready in varying dressing rooms and backstage areas that are often crowded and have inadequate mirrors.

Available at Target, Walmart, and similar.
$10 on

8.) A wifi extender

Everyone’s stayed in that one hotel with the wifi that just doesn’t reach the room, or fades in an out. When you telecommute for a living while travelling the world, this actually can be a serious problem. We’ve taken to camping out wherever the router is, but for thirty bucks, next time we’ll spare our hunched backs and freezing fingers and just get the signal in the room. These are basically secondary routers—for the non tech savvy, that means they work with any computer/tablet/phone OS. There are many models to shops from, but if you get a headache looking at specs on electronics, this TP-Link version has great reviews, is affordable, and many people state they now get four bars instead of one.

$20 for the suggested TP-Link version on

9.) Resqme Car Escape Tool

Along the same lines as the anti-kidnapping band, this is another way to provide peace of mind while simultaneously feeling like an action hero. It cuts seatbelts and shatters windshields in a single punch, comes in rainbow colours, and is all of $10. Whether you've been watching too many episodes of “locked up abroad,” or just plan on visiting Milwaukee, WI (which is the human trafficking capitol of the US, to go with the beer and cheese curds) this is the perfect gift.

$10 for the Resqme Keychain Car Escape Tool on

10.) Grenade Survival Kit

We prefer cities and don’t personally expect to have to imitate Bear Grylls anytime soon, but if someone you know is the stealth camping type, this is just about the most efficient package on the market. It’s got all the hardest tools to improvise in the wild: needle, wire, firestarter, knife, tinfoil, tinder, fishing lines, fishing hooks, weights, swivels, carabiner, and 9 ft of paracord rated for 500 lbs. Some reviewers keep it in their glove compartments in case of an inopportune breakdown.  For a few bucks and all of two ounces, why not be prepared? There are multiple versions, but the Friendly Swede's is by far the highest quality.

$15 for the Friendly Swede Grenade Survival Kit on

11.) 11-in-1 Survival Tool

“Survival” is a generous term in this instance… we see this as more as “really, really convenient.” It’s basically a leatherman, but the size and shape of a credit card.  It has a razor, saw blade, multiple wrenches, can and bottle openers, screwdrivers, and ruler. It won't replace an actual multi-tool for the hardcore survival enthusiast, but it's great for the less-enthusiastic girlfriend who was driving him crazy by refusing to wear utility pouches on her belt. Unlike a leatherman, it’s also $1.50. Wanting to open a beer in your hotel room is not exactly a survival emergency, but at this price and size, there is no reason everyone you know shouldn’t be getting one in their stocking.

$1.50 on

12.) Surgu self-setting rubber

Continuing with the really darn convenient theme, this stuff has “about 17 million uses” (according to a user review, not the producer.) It can repair broken luggage, reinforce charger cables, make holders to sort headphones and wires, create grips for tools, and pretty much anything else you can think of. It’s like three-dimensional duct tape. This is the same category as carrying our own needle and thread. It promises to be the stocking stuffer everyone gets the most use out of, travelling or otherwise.

$12 for a basic three-pack on
$10-20 for every colour, quantity and variety on

12.) Pocket sized sanitizing UV wand.

Anyone who knows Jerry knows what a ridiculous fan he is of sanitizing UV wands. A waste treatment plant outside Chicago started using UV sanitation instead of chlorine, and the resulting water pumped out of the plant was so clean, salmon began swimming upstream to spawn inside the plant. The area outside has become a haven for endangered wildlife that require extremely pure water to survive. In our bnb in Chicago, a full-size Zadro UV wand is how we can be sure there will never be bedbugs, lice, or other questionable things when we have so many strangers sleeping on the same beds. It also destroys pathogens, mold, mites, etc on things like secondhand couches, well-worn sneakers, and counters and cutting boards that have touched raw poultry. Travel-sized ones used to be obnoxiously expensive… until we heard just this year that CVS has them for $8. Um. Yes. First stop when we get back.

$9 on, or now available at CVS. (!!!)

13. ) A clothesline and tiny British sock rack

We're not sure if that advice sounds out-doorsey or serial killer-esque, but you'd be surprised how a short bit of compact rope can come in handy. Not least of those reasons is that it can be used as a clothesline, the main means of drying in pretty much every country but the States. Another amazing discovery we've made are these little plastic racks with clothespins attached, used as a compact method for hanging small things like underwear and socks. They're near-impossible to find in the US, but abound at every 99p store in the UK. They're brilliant and we're totally coming back with some.

$16 in America on (wtf America?)
99p in the UK on, or at any 99p store.

14.) Flat water bottles

This has been a total God-send to have with us no matter where we go. Even if, like us, you do most of your hiking up subway stairs, there is no kind of traveller that wouldn't benefit from a water bottle that flattens to the size and weight of a piece of paper when it's empty. There's a lot of fancy expensive ones that look like they were designed by NASA, but Jerry found ours at Dollar Tree and it hasn't started leaking from 6 months of daily use, so if you pay too much more than a buck, you might be chump. You can sanitize it by filling it with boiling water.

$4 for a BPA-free and dishwasher safe version on, or try your neighborhood dollar store.

15.) Compact bags for groceries, laundry

You should all have a bunch of these anyway, because Bill Nye The Science Guy, Al Gore, and Roland Emmerich all tell us that the Earth is sick, and re-using your own bags for groceries makes it feel better. One travel-specific trick we’ve discovered to cut down on checked bags fees: cram our carry-ons as tight as humanly possible and wear all our coats at once, but once we get off the plane, disperse things into our extra bags to displace the weight. They also make great portable hampers to keep your smelly stuff separated from your slightly less smelly stuff.

The bigger version (pictured) comes with a tiny pocket on the corner so you wad them up and flip them inside out to make a little pod. Open, they easily fit two heavy wool winter coats, two sweaters, and our big jambox. The smaller option is the generic flat drawstring backpack that are often given away promotionally, screenprinted with sports logos.

$6 for the original workhorse bag at
$7 for a flat drawstring bag at, or widely available at dollar stores.

16.) LifeStraw Personal Water Filter

This is just the sort of thing everyone should have in case of zombie apocalypse, natural disaster, world-wide calamity, or when you're going on vacation in Mexico. The LifeStraw removes 99.99% of waterborn bacteria and protozoa parasites from 1000 litres of water without chemicals, filter changes, batteries, or moving parts. It’s the Time Magazine Invention of the Year 2005 and is used by NGOs for humanitarian relief in sub-saharan Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and South America. It only became available retail in North America after 2011, when the company was finally able to produce more than was directly needed for disaster relief. It weighs 2 oz and for everyone on you buy, one is donated to a child in a developing country. This company deserves ALL our money.

$20 for the original version at

17.) Barbasol can safe

Remember how in Jurrassic Park, Newman hides the dinosaur embryos in the bottom of a can of Barbasol, but then it slips out of his pocket when he gets venom sprayed in his eyes and it rolls to the bottom of the hill, and back at the top of the hill Newman manages to get back into his Jeep and thinks he's safe for a second but the dilophosauras is somehow already just chilling on the passenger seat and then it cuts to the car rocking and Newman screaming but in the book it was waaay more graphic and kind of gave you nightmares when you were 11?

They actually make that Barbasol can now. Only instead of dinosaur embryos, you use it to hide stuff that's considerably less awesome, but still kind of important, like your passport and credit cards. Laura wants one in case she ever decides to screw over John Hammond.

$10 on

18.) SAS survival guide

We’re city people. We would be pretty useless in the wild. Learning survival techniques takes training and hard work, and you probably have to sleep outside sometimes. Luckily, there is a book written by the Chief Survival Instructor for the British Special Air Services on how to survive in a bunch of different scenarios. Pretty handy for desert islands, zombie apocalypses, and various Mad Max-esque dystopias.

$6 on

19.) A travel-sized spice rack

We brought a bunch of our spices with us, and it's turned out to be one of our best decisions. It's great for making cheap assortments of veggies into hearty meals and really endears us to anyone who might be hosting us. If, like us, your recipient already owns a weird international mix of spices, the empty containers are available in many sizes. If your recipient isn’t well stocked, the mobile foodie survival kit (pictured) is awfully photogenic when unwrapped as a gift, USDA organic, comes themed to different world cuisines, and supports Brooklyn Community Services.

Happy Christamahaunakwanzakah, y'all!

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Morocco part two: kittens, flooding, and magical camel poo

Laura: So, during our month in Rabat, we took a couple brief trips to other cities. A notably photogenic one was Chefchaoun, in the northern mountains. The city is located in the shadow of two large mountains. "Chef," apparently means "look" and "chaoun" means "goat horns" referring to twin mountains. Most Moroccans tend to just call it Chaoun, I would assume because "Goat Horns" is an awesome name, and "Hey, look at those goat horns," sounds kind of weird.

Jerry: Chaoun is a very chill tourist town known for its blue walls. During the Spanish Reconquista, when both Muslims and Jews were driven out of Spain, a large number of Jews settled in Chefchaoun. It’s not a Jewish ghetto in the typical medieval sense of the word—Muslims in the middle ages were the notably open-minded and liberal ones—it’s the whole city. As a result, the whole city is blue:

And really photogenic.

Jerry: It’s a vertical, terraced city in the mountains with a waterfall running through it. Obviously, goats are a main agricultural thing here, and the local AOC-equivalent goat cheese is amazing. The other major thing is marijuana—the mountains around Chaoun supply most of Europe’s hashish.

Laura: There's also a ton of really cute stray cats everywhere. Though every city in Morocco is packed with stray cats, there seemed to be a disproportionate number of kittens in Chaoun.

If you google image search "Chefchaoun," "cat" is one of the auto-completes.

Jerry: I also took a day trip to Casablanca. Apparently there’s a rivalry of sorts – people from Rabat don’t care much for Casablanca, and vice versa. Notably, Casablanca is a lot more industrial and Rabat is the capitol and therefore full of embassies and diplomats. Casablanca thinks Rabat is stuck up and Rabat thinks Casablanca is dirty and less cultured. I haven’t spent enough time in Casa to have my own opinion, although I will say the air is gross.

Laura: I still haven't checked out Casa, but I'm pretty in love with Rabat, so I imagine my team is pretty much chosen in the Casa v. Rabat feud. Also, outside the medina walls in Rabat, just facing the ocean, is a gigantic cemetery. It was big enough to be its own city. We sort of got lost wandering around in there at sunset a couple days before Halloween, so that was cool.

Taken from the highway. To the left, a whole freakin' city of the dead all the way up the hill.
To the right a new gigantic city of the dead starting all the way down to the beach.

Jerry: We came to Morocco purposely for the winter as a relief from the -30 Chicago extremes, but the trade-off is winter rain. We actually both quite like rain, but like most deserts, the infrastructure is not really in place to handle flooding.

Preparedness decreases from north to south: Chaoun is the furthest north, and in the mountains they simply expect rain all winter. Rabat can handle it, although it’s mildly inconvenient, especially in traditional buildings like where we lived in the medina: riad-style houses are structured around an open courtyard, so when it rains, the house just gets wet. The floors are all tile and fitted with drains, and everyone owns a squeegee, so most mild sprinkles simply ensure the floor stays fastidiously clean. The occasional week of winter downpour, however, tends to flood the house, and laundry starts getting mouldy on the line.

Where they’re really unprepared, though, is the desert.

It doesn't help that the roads are basically made of packed earth.

Laura: Apparently no one has been able to get in or out of Zagora for two weeks, because all the country roads are totally destroyed. It was by sheer luck that we happened to be on the only bus to get through, and that was just barely. At one point on our drive from Marrakech, the road in front of us had collapsed in a mud slide and been carried away by flood. It was dark and we were on a mountain road, so backing up would've been a bad idea, but when we noticed that construction crews had moved in and started repairing collapsed road behind us as well as ahead of us, we realized that we were penned in.

The construction crews were pretty impressive, though, and managed to get the road ahead of us driveable after little more than two hours. So yeah, we somehow made it into the desert in the middle of the night, where our patient host still came out to meet us at the bus stop.

Um, we might be a bit late...

Jerry: I had this silly notion that the Sahara would probably be really beautiful after the rain, but they haven’t seen rain like this since the 1960s, so things looked a little more… post hurricane. Mud and wrecked buildings and fallen palms. The river was flooded over the bridges, to the point where one couldn’t get to the neighbouring town.

It’s drying out at last, so this week is being spent helping them put the place back together. We’ll leave you with a little anecdote from our first night at riad. After roads crumbling in the flood and other disasters, we have just arrived at like 1 am and finally gotten into our room:

Laura: *reaches for end table* *delirious* OMG

Jerry: *feels tiny cold object poking him in the side of the head* Huh?


Jerry: *rolls over, small cold object still poking him all over head and face* What on earth...?

Laura: REEEEEEEEEEEEE! *pokes Jerry with object more* REEEEEEEEEE!

Jerry: Is that a ... tiny camel?

Laura: Or horse or llama. REEEEEEEEE! *pokes camel nose in Jerry's face, makes camel "trot" all over his shoulders*

Jerry: We're in the Sahara. I somehow suspect camel is more likely than llama.

Laura: I dunno, it also kinda looks like a little lump of poo. *trots camel / poo up Jerry's arm, makes it rear and whinny* REEEEEEE!

Jerry: I don't know if I should be more alarmed if you think that is the noise a camel makes or the noise a poo makes.


This is our life.

Magical poo camel, y’all.