Posts tagged ‘travel’
First, I noticed the doors.
I took a bus from Menara airport to Djemaa El-Fna, a large square in the heart of Marrakech’s old city. The bus swerved through a sea of motorized bikes, past flat stretches of fanned palms and arches marking unlit alleys. On the sidewalk I counted more feral cats than I’ve ever seen, and on the rooftops I caught glimpses of oversized nests and tall, toothpick-legged cranes.
We zigzagged between buildings the colors of rust, orange-pink and off white, with unpainted brick exposed on the sides. Elaborate grates decorated the arched windows. The Arabic tile was all geometric shapes and primary colors: chaos and balance. But the doors.
The doors were painted turquoise, seafoam green, red. Some were patterned with raised studs, others with thin scrolls or contrasting diamonds. As the bus sped towards the center square, the doors become vivid blurs against the burnt orange skyline.
(Click thumbnails for full-sized photos!)
Night fell by the time my friends and I arrived at our riad, which was tucked in the maze of side streets of a residential neighborhood. We turned a few corners, walked through a children’s game of football, and found the right alleyway. I saw a door marked 18, just like our directions said, so I pushed it open and the six of us walked inside, backpacks and all.
Inside I saw richly threaded pillows, candles flickering through the cut-outs of metal tins, and… a family of four eating dinner? The woman herded us out of her living room, back into the alley, and pointed further down. Wrong door marked 18. I’d been in Morocco for an hour, and I’d managed to walk into a stranger’s home.
We found the right door, knocked first, and settled into our riad.
We sat in the lounge and planned out our trip over a pot of mint tea – a super sweet drink consumed in tiny, steaming cups. The riad offered a two day excursion into the Sahara desert. We argued amongst ourselves before realizing we couldn’t travel this close to the Sahara without going in. As we came to the decision, I felt a raindrop, and looked up through the open roof as the sky began pouring.
I woke up early for the excursion. I showered on the rooftop terrace, under the starlit sky, and listened to the roosters crow just as my hot water ran out.
We loaded into a van – our home for the next two days. We drove out of the city, around crumbling red mountains and over rocky cliffs, past cacti dripping with ruby fruit. We stopped at villages along the way, where I haggled for silver bracelets and drank an Arabic coke.
By sundown we’d reached the edge of the desert, where we mounted our camels and rode into the Sahara. Here’s what I’ve learned about camels: I don’t like them. Mine was too tall, too fat, a little bow-legged, and very fond of spitting. I also managed to get the camel with the sassiest hips, and when I dismounted two hours later, I felt every ounce of that sass in my aching legs. Can a camel look smug? I think so.
But we set up our tents and ate vegetable tagines for dinner. We danced around the campfire and sang to each other. The sand, cool as the night air and finer than sugar, slipped through my fingers like silk. I stayed outside as long as I could, listening to the camels gossip, looking up at the clearest stars I’ve ever seen, until I woke up to a glorious sunrise edging over the dunes.
(For the record, the camel ride back in the morning is worse.)
We drove back through the snow capped Atlas Mountains, and seven hours later, returned to Marrakech. That night I explored Djemaa El-Fna, a square full of snake charmers, henna artists, and monkeys with chains around their necks. The night market offers heaped spices, fresh orange juice, and bin after bin of roasted nuts. I devoured dried apricots, figs, and dates by the handful.
In the morning, Marrakech experienced a torrential downpour. My friends and I picked that morning to visit the Majorelle Gardens, and by the time we walked there, my socks squelched. But thanks to the rain, we were the only visitors to the garden, and the sight of thick palms, lilies in still ponds, and a forest of bamboo moved the rain to the back of my mind.
With two hours left in the country, I fell in love with the Souks, Marrakech’s mazelike market. The stalls sell everything from slippers and earrings to glazed pottery and gunpowder tea. The market only has a few entrances, and the knot of alleys and streets of stalls were impossible to navigate. For about twenty minutes, thoroughly lost in the heart of the Souks, I thought, “There’s no way I’m making my flight back.”
Now I’m back in Seattle, my semester abroad finished. I’ve seen my old friends and had family dinner, and I’m happy to be home. But a little part of me misses standing ankle deep in sand, scowling at my camel. The weight of lifting the lid of a tagine pot. I probably won’t stop missing the crumbling archways, the brilliant fabrics, the thrill of feeling completely foreign – until my next trip to Marrakech.
Standing before the counter, I meant to order a double scoop of stracciatella for one simple reason – after a week in Italy, the chocolate-flecked gelato remained the only flavor I could pronounce correctly.
The first time I bought gelato, I waited in line behind a panther of a woman, distinctly Italian among the throng of tourists. She radiated confidence in a black leather jacket and sky-high stilettos, balancing effortlessly atop the uneven Roman cobblestone. “Una paletta di stracciatella, per favore,” she trilled, the double C crackling like almond brittle between her teeth, the final syllable sung out rather than spoken, a ringing “LA.”
When the line shuffled forward, my plan to smile and point suddenly lost all appeal, and I blurted out, “Stracciatella!” As parrot-like as the word sounded in my American accent, it seemed less embarassing than blindly butchering anything else.
The gelato culture here isn’t anything like eating ice cream in the states. No matter where you are in Rome, you can probably spot a couple gelaterias from where you’re standing – across the street, inside the bakeries, even next door to one another. Gelato is denser and creamier than ice cream, with fresh flavors and prices cheaper than water.
I ate gelato twice a day while I was in Italy, for dessert and sometimes for dinner. Some shops packed scoops into chocolate-dipped cones, other topped the cup with a thin waffle cookie called a pizelle, and one store smothered the gelato with unsweetened whipped cream. Pretty soon, before lunch and after dinner, my order became a habit, the only flavor I could say with confidence: “Stracciatella.”
I stumbled upon a little gelateria one afternoon in Venice. More of a street-side counter than a shop, tucked in the south end of Campo Santa Margherita, the place didn’t advertise its fame as Venice’s best gelato with banners or framed awards. But the long line of people, all craning over each other’s shoulders to peek at the display case, wordlessly gave me the message.
Unlike some of the shops I’d visited, with counters that wrapped around the room, this place offered fewer than a dozen bins of gelato. But I was struck by the simplicity and intensity of the flavors offered, the effortless swirl of the gelato. Even though I couldn’t understand most of the Italian labels, garnishes translated for me – halved figs sparkling atop the fico, tan-edged wisps of coconut dotting the coco, a scattering of skinned hazelnuts over the nocciola.
I was tempted by the amarena, a cream based gelato swirled with sour cherry sauce, the fruit mixed in whole. In the next bin I discovered pistacchio, a flavor I’d seen almost everywhere. But the natural color, paler than the artificial neon green I sometimes saw, made this one stand out. And of course, there was my go-to stracciatella: white and perfectly smooth, aside from the streaks of rippled chocolate marbling throughout.
Before I could order the stracciatella, I discovered a wholly new flavor. Nearly black, this concoction churned dark chocolate into the creamiest-looking gelato I’d ever seen. In the afternoon sun, bits of candied orange peel studding the chocolate caught the light like jewels.
I found the label and immediately got lost in a string of C’s and vowels, still too proud to silently point. In the past few weeks I’d visited Scotland and England in the UK, English-speaking cities in the Netherlands, and Paris, which revived my high school French. But here in Italy, with no understanding of the language, I felt so invasive, so touristy, unable to blend in.
When I looked up, the man at the counter was smiling.
“Cioccolato all-arancia,” he said, the consonants soft in his deep voice.
“Cho-koh-LAH-toh ahl-ah-RAHN-cha,” I repeated.
He worked a bit of gelato back and forth a few times with a flat paddle until it was soft and creamy, and topped a waffle cone with a generous smear. This gelato had the texture of silk, an elusive airiness. The chocolate melted into a bittersweet custard on my tongue, the candied orange like tiny sunbursts. It was simply the best gelato I’d ever tasted.
When I found myself in line for a scoop the next morning in Florence, I scanned the bins, anticipating the flavor I’d choose next. Gianduja? Castagna? Something mysterious called zabaione, with no garnish whatsoever?
Maybe I couldn’t speak Italian, but by the time I returned to the Netherlands, I planned to be fluent in gelato.
Click for more photos from my travels in Italy…