April 06, 2007

Casablanca, Morocco
Burying Corpses in the Desert

Woke up in a tent in the Sahara desert. Feet cold. Wind howling. Camels barking. Wasn't it David Byrne who once said, “Well...how did I get here?”

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Threw on some clothes and raced into the dunes to catch the sun peeking out over the horizon. Caught it. Shot a dancing clip beneath it. The moment only lasts a few seconds, which is amazing cause, ya know, it’s the sun. It’s not supposed to move that fast.

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The clip wasn’t great. In fact, nothing really leaped out as the perfect shot. Kind of a surprise and disappointment considering the majesty and uniqueness of the surroundings.

Part of the problem is that it actually wasn’t unique. The last video featured Sossusvlei in Namibia, which is also massive sand dunes and very similar – it being sand and all.

It was hard to find a shot that wasn’t just a rehash. I became taken with the idea of dancing with my shadow, since the morning sun casts such a sharp outline against the pristine sand.

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My pursuit of that shot wasted a lot of time that probably could’ve been better spent. And we didn’t really get it anyway. Then our guide started whistling and hollering for us to get going. With the language barrier, I assumed there was some pressing weather concern that meant we had to get out of the dunes quickly – like the desert heat rising or maybe a sandstorm.

Turned out he was just sick of waiting around for us. That pissed me off. I would’ve liked to get a good Sahara clip. Wasn’t meant to be.

But I should really shut the hell up. I got to watch the sun rise over the Sahara with my girlfriend.

The long camel ride back was a picture-taking orgy.

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This is how they keep the camels from running away.

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Sucks to be a camel, I suppose.

Partway through the journey, our camels’ legs became incredibly long and spindly...probably from being tied up all night.

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I considered sliding down to safety, but instead gripped tightly with my thighs and hoped for the best.

They soon returned to normal.

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Like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, it’s hard to take a bad picture in the Sahara.

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Except when it’s of my butt.

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As we neared the hotel, Melissa crashed her camel.

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Here’s how the sand dunes look from the hotel; like a static, beige ocean at the end of a long beach.

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The drive back. Lots of nothing. Bad trivia filled the hours.

Name eight Bruce Willis films with numbers in the titles.

We stopped at a random old Kasbah ruin by the side of the road.

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I got the idea that it might be the place to get the dancing clip.

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It wasn’t.

Next we went to Ait Ben Haddou. It’s another old Kasbah ruin, but much bigger, fancier, and totally restored.

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It was used in Larry of Arabia, then again in Jesus of Nazareth, and later Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. If you want an old city in the desert in your movie, it’s where you go.

Tried again to get the shot. Again, no.

Kept driving. Stopped in Ouzazat. Our bags were there waiting for us. My PSP had been stolen as well as the charger for my videocamera, but I was glad just to put on some clean clothes. There were worse things that could’ve been stolen – like our secret cash stash an inch away. Anyway, nothing irreplaceable, and that’s what travel insurance is for, right?

Nearing the start of the High Atlas mountains, James made a wrong turn that led us to who-knows-where. We entered a town with another set of fantastic ruins; broken remnants of high walls reaching up like spires over a low cliff side. Again I thought there might be a clip in it. We parked and got out.

As we approached the ruins, a band of children descended upon us like ambushing guerilla fighters. They wanted money. They followed us to the ruins, at which point I started dancing badly.

The kids found this puzzling. I invited them to join me. A few of them did. And once they got their heads around it, they became very enthusiastic. It was fun. It was the clip I’m going to use.

Afterwards, I faced a moral dilemma that is very common in Africa. The kids wanted money. I agree with the notion that handing money out to kids is a bad idea, as it creates beggars. If I’d simply ignored them, there would be no issue. But I’d invited them to join me. To boot, they were great dancers. They still wanted money, and I had a little bit of change handy, so I obliged.

To keep them from pouncing once they saw what I was holding, and also to prevent the biggest and strongest kids from grabbing everything, I threw the change up in the air. It seemed smart at the time, and it sort of worked, but there was also an air of degradation. It felt icky. Melissa, standing nearby through it all, got a sudden and overwhelming dose of what Africa is like. Even the best intentions turn out icky.

She was troubled. For a moment, while it was processing, she was a little upset at me. But what, exactly, was the right thing to do?

It would be unwise of me to dwell on this subject, but yes, what I'm doing has a large commercial aspect to it. The word 'exploitation' hovers over everything. Whatever is going through your head right now, please understand that I have considered it. The dancing video is something very simple, but it’s also complex. It’s sort of a moral prism; you can look through any facet and see it a different way. Suffice it to say, while I’m not a religious person, I am freakishly moral. I believe this video is, ultimately, a good. And it’s only a good if that's how I make it.

What I mean is, by way of example…let’s say that acquiring each clip required me to strangle somebody and bury the corpse. Okay. Bit of a stretch. Nevermind how that would come into play. Let’s just suppose it was a necessary step. Even if the resulting clip turned out perfect, I don’t believe the final video would work. It would be tainted. It would ring false. People would say, “I don’t know where I get this feeling, but there’s something wrong here.” And they’d be right, because there would be mounds of dirt scattered throughout the desert marking the remains of all the people I had to strangle.

I just think that stuff shines through.

And I think I have, perhaps, made other more apt analogies in my day.

Where was I?

Ah, yes. Not dwelling.

We kept on driving and picked up a hitchhiker who appeared to be in dire straits. She turned out to be a Peace Corps volunteer from Ohio on her way to visit a friend. You don’t run into a lot of Ohioans in Morocco. You run into a lot of French. Some English. Also, of course, Moroccans. Not a lot of folks from Ohio.

Our hitchhiker, by the way, was a lesbian. Which I totally called.

Once we got her story, she asked what we all did. I explained that Melissa hires people for Google, James is Brad Pitt’s bodyguard, I get paid to travel around the world dancing badly, and we were desperately looking for a Peace Corps volunteer to round out the group.

A merry band were we.

We deposited our new friend and reached Marrakech after nightfall. The restaurants were all closed and we were peckish, so James took us to McDonald’s drive-through. And so it was that I discovered the McArabia.

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Actually, I discovered it a year ago in Dubai. That’s when I took the above picture. But this was the first time I’d actually eaten one.

Herb-rubbed lamb cutlets, lettuce, tomato, garlic sauce, wrapped in a pita. It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten at McDonald’s. If it were offered in my homeland, I might actually eat at McDonald’s. It’s that good.

Back to James’ house for the night. Melissa took a mantle-worthy photo of James and his wife, Katie.

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On our last day in Morocco, we took it easy. Settled up with James, then went out to the market. He took us to the same shop he took Cate Blanchett to when she was in town shooting Babel.

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Moroccans make great stuff. Melissa bought a bunch of things. I agonized and then relented, for fear of the added luggage weight. Also, there’s a curio shop in Zanzibar I’m anxious to go back to and I know I’ll be stocking up once I’m there.

The highlight of the visit for me was when I picked up a particular scimitar and examined it. The shop owner, anxiously watching our every move for a milkable sale, strolled over, unsheathed the scimitar with care and whispered, “this blade…eet has keeelled.”

Melissa had trouble understanding why that detail was a bonus.

Onward to our flight out from Casablanca. Three more hours in the car, then three more for James once we left. His driving endurance is monumental and he never complained once.

We talked war movies. We talked westerns. Then we talked British TV shows. James was flabbergasted by our knowledge of Red Dwarf, Spaced, Black Adder, even going back to Doctor Who and The Tomorrow People – which once lurked in the higher digits of the US cable television spectrum. It made me feel smart and cultured, even though it really just means I’m a huge nerd.

There is a commonality, by the way, between all nerds. It crosses borders with ease. I have more to say to a nerd from Brussels than I do to most Americans. James is a nerd. We got along well.

And here we are, up to date. Flight to Mali leaving soon.

I’m a shameless liar, of course. Our flight to Mali left weeks ago. I started the post on April 6th and I’m only finishing it now.

Actually, I’m lying about that too. I didn’t even start writing the post at the Casablanca airport. I started thinking about it.

I’ve just shattered a carefully orchestrated illusion that I’ve been maintaining for years.

Devastating, isn’t it?

April 04, 2007

Marrakech, Morocco
Dancing with the Dutch and a Moonlit Camel Ride

First things first: if you’re coming to Morocco and you’re looking for a guide, contact madaboutmorocco and ask for James Cutting. James is also a location manager/scout and close protection specialist (that's fancy for bodyguard) serving the surprisingly large amount of film production that goes on here. We’re using him to see as much of Morocco as we can in three days and we’re having a great time.

Yes, that was a plug. But a sincere one.

We landed in Amsterdam first thing in the morning on a direct flight from Seattle with little sleep. Stumbled to my friend Sophie’s place around breakfast-time.

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We dropped off our stuff, showered, and headed back down the staircase to her apartment – which I’m pretty sure was built by the Mayans.

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A train and a bus ride to the Keukenhof Gardens, which are in full bloom now at the height of tulip season.

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We wandered past the flower displays at a hurried pace, cranky from the flight and impatient toward the generally geriatric garden-goers who blocked the walkway. It eventually dawned on us that we were not in a subway station, but rather: a garden.

IKEA has donated some furniture to the gardens – much of it hanging inaccessibly from trees.

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…okay, then.

We left the gardens and honed in on our real target; the massive, adjacent tulip fields divided into strips of red and purple and yellow and pink.

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We struggled for a while to find the right dancing spot, at first reluctant to tread too far into the flowers to get a shot standing amongst them. After some gumption-building, I finally ran in there. It felt taboo, and the tsk-tsk eyes of the other visitors made us hurry in and out, but it was ultimately a pretty harmless transgression.

Sorry tulips.

We slogged back to Amsterdam in the afternoon, by that point barely able to keep our eyes open. I was called a bleepity-bleep while boarding the light rail and almost refused service at a kebab place for speaking English. I may be rushing to conclusion, but I don’t think they’re so fond of Americans in Amsterdam anymore.

Not that I blame them. On the plane over, the guy in front of me was gripping a rolled-up copy of High Times and looked annoyed that he had to put pants on for the flight. I don’t know that Amsterdam ever actively positioned itself as the Las Vegas of Western Europe, but we seem to have inferred as much. The relaxed social policies, as they are, challenge us to behave as if we deserve them. Pardon me for saying so, but it seems like in America, we view freedoms as invitations rather than challenges.

Napped for an hour on Sophie’s futon, then barely got it together in time to reach the canal bridge in the center of town where we’d invited a bunch of strangers to show up and dance. People have been signing up on my site for a few weeks now. We pulled together about 75 names from The Netherlands and sent out invites, having no idea what to expect.

With Melissa’s deft navigation, we avoided a wrong turn that would’ve rendered the whole event a failure. We reached the statue we’d designated as a meeting place only a few minutes late. At first it seemed that no one had shown up. But as soon as the first brave soul approached me, the park benches emptied out and we had ourselves a small crowd.

I lifted the following images off the new videocamera we’re using to shoot the video.

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Processing everyone took about 10 minutes. It being The Netherlands, pretty much everyone had already printed out and signed the release form we sent them. That made our job a lot easier. Melissa photographed each participant and wrote the corresponding image file number on each form.

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Once that was done, I corralled everyone to a good spot, ran them through what we were going to do, entreated them to do their own dance rather than imitating mine, and off we went.

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The Europe trip is still two months off. That’s when we’ll be doing a lot of the group dances. This Netherlands clip was sort of a test run to hopefully learn some lessons that would help us plan out June better. Turns out we had a pretty good system. No big screw-ups.

After the shoot, we chatted with people a bit and I stood around for photos. No one asked me to dance in their pictures, which was surprising and kinda nice – not that I mind terribly either way.

Melissa and I left and met up with Sophie and her friend, Gloria, at a pub along the canal.

We had a couple drinks as the wee bit of adrenaline wore off, then exhaustion hit like an anvil and neither of us could keep our eyes open any longer.

We said goodbye to Sophie the next morning and wandered off to the airport for our flight to Morocco.

We landed in Casablanca the next day. Our bags did not.

We'd arranged to meet our guide, James, at the airport. James is a Brit who has lived all over Africa. After a stint in the UK, he moved here five years ago with his now-wife, partly for the weather, partly for the excitement, and partly, I gather, for Morocco's general not-England-ness.

Melissa waited with him while I sorted out our luggage situation. I got them to send it along, once they found it, on another flight in the direction James was taking us: a town called Ouazazat (pronounced like Whass-is-at?). It was a risky plan, but our time in Morocco is short and we can’t afford to wait around for luggage.

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We hopped in the 4x4 and drove from Casablanca to Marrakech on what James says is the “most dangerous road in the world.” Sucker that I am for world’s most anythings, I was intrigued. I’ve heard the same claim made of a road in Bolivia, and I’ve certainly encountered other roads in Africa and SE Asia that should be in the running.

James says 6000 people die every year on the road between Morocco’s two main cities – not from poor road quality, it’s actually quite good. The problem is no one in Morocco has to actually learn how to drive in order to get a license. They drive on the principle of Inshallah, or “Will of Allah,” meaning if Allah wants them to survive driving into oncoming traffic to pass other vehicles, he’ll make sure they survive.

Conversely, if Allah doesn’t want them to survive, they’re certainly making it a lot easier for him. But I’m not sure that figures into the philosophy.

There are a lot of countries that operate similarly, both muslim and otherwise, but most of them don’t have highways as straight, roads as flat, enforcement as weak, or cars as fast as Morocco’s. Hence the statistic.

Over the course of the ride, James gave us a thorough and engaging introductory course in Moroccan culture, history, and politics. I was relieved that he’s a good talker, since we had about 30 hours to go in the car with him.

James also talked about working close protection for Brad Pitt and Jake Gylenhall on the films they’ve shot here, which was a lot of fun to listen to. He doesn’t dish (Brad, Jake, your secrets are safe), but he has some great stories.

James explained that all the hotels in Marrakech were full because of Europeans coming down for Easter holidays, so he offered to put us up at his house for the night.

James had some other friends form the UK staying with him and they knew all about “Where the Hell is Matt,” so he’d already gotten an earful. When we got into Marrakech, we met up with his wife and friends for a fancy meal at a nice, French expat restaurant.

I’m not a very social guy. Parties and bars don’t work well for me. But I really enjoy a good dinner with just the right mix and quantity of people. At dinner, you can talk, you can eat, you can hear everybody. It’s intimate, but not overly so. It’s just a really nice thing that I don’t do often enough. And dinners in new and exotic places with interesting folks: even better.

We went to bed, again, completely exhausted.

We woke the next morning, ready to venture out, luggage-less, into the wilds of Morocco. But first we spent some time playing with James’ dogs.

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The first few hours of the drive took us up, up, and up into the High Atlas mountains. We peaked at an altitude of around 2600 meters – nowhere near the oxygen-depriving Andean ordeal of last year, but enough that I could feel it.

The High Atlas roadsides are lined with men selling geodes stuffed with crystals. For a span of dozens of kilometers, each man is roughly shouting distance from the next, and they’re all selling the same thing. I guess the theory is if you don’t want what they’re selling the first 500 times they wave it in your face, you’re bound to pull over for the 501st guy.

The rocks they’re selling generally aren’t even worth the pennies they’re selling them for. The men cover the crystals inside the geodes with paint and nail polish to make them appear shinier. It’s hardly convincing, even at a drive-by glance at highway speeds.

The other things they sell are fossils, which are more up my alley. The High Atlas mountains were once deep under the ocean. These days, a little digging can produce complete fossil remains of trilobites and ammonites; weird little creatures that were around over 300 million years ago – long before anything had bothered trying to crawl onto land. The best of the fossils are amazingly vivid. You get a real sense of how the creatures moved and what they looked like. And they’re plentiful enough that you can get a good one for $30 or so. But alas, most of the fossils sold on the roadsides are fake as well. So you just keep driving.

Coming down from the mountains, we passed through Ouazazat; where our bags were supposed to be. I called the airport, but they hadn’t found them, so we kept going and are now hoping to catch them on the way back.

Inshallah!

Ouazazat is the center of the sizable film business in Morocco. The first film shot there was Lawrence of Arabia. There’ve been dozens more since, like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Alexander, Sahara, Syriana, Blackhawk Down, and, very recently, Babel. Morocco routinely doubles for the Middle East, the Himalayas, and pretty much everywhere in Africa – they even used it as a stand-in for Nevada last year in The Hills Have Eyes 2.

It pretty much works like this:

If you need a modern city, you go to Vancouver.
If you need an old city, you go to Prague.
If you need trees, you go to New Zealand.
If you need sand, you go to Morocco.

Ouazazat is a convenient access point for several of Morocco’s commonly-used desert locations, so it has soundstages, sets, and tolerable accommodation for the trickle of celebrities on extended visits. Aside from this notable distinction, the town is nothing much to speak of.

James pointed out the Jerusalem set for Kingdom of Heaven. It’s still standing there, out in the desert; a replica of the militarized fort the contentious city had become during the height of the crusades. It sort of looks like JERUSALEM: Hotel and Casino, which I think we can all agree is a terrible, terrible idea.

Five more hours through the desert. Sunset pee break!

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We reached Merzuga well after sundown. The tourist hotel cluster of Merzuga marks the western edge of the Sahara desert proper. With only a few hundred meters’ walk, you’re in some of the tallest sand dunes in the world. It’s the location for the famous sunrise shot from Larry of Arabia, and it’s one of two spots we’d targeted for the Morocco clip.

James strongly advised that we see it either at sunrise or sunset. Since we missed sunset and couldn’t afford to wait out another day, it had to be sunrise. You can’t build a road through sand dunes, and with neither a tank or helicopter handy, the only way to get out there is two hours on camelback. That meant we could either wake up at 4am and race out into the dunes before the sun came up, or we could wolf down a quick dinner and sleep amongst the dunes in one of the bivouac tents they keep out there.

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Well, what would you do?

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The tent is pretty cozy. It’s bitter cold out and we still don’t have our luggage, so we’re wearing the same stuff we put on back in Amsterdam. Fortunately, there was a stack of thick blankets in the corner and that’s keeping us warm.

The ideal circumstances for my virgin camel ride would not have been in pitch blackness. But then, once you’ve got your butt in the right place and there's a guy towing you where you need to go, there’s not much to do aside from hold on.

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I took that with the videocamera’s night vision mode. You can’t see much. Neither could I. The guide is walking barefoot and holding the reigns of my camel. Melissa’s camel is tethered like a caboose to my camel’s back side.

Melissa was loving the whole thing, by the way. My appreciation was narrower; it started when I got used to the idea that my camel wasn’t going to fall on its face and go sliding down a mountain of sand; it ended when my legs lost the ability to close.

I would put camel riding in that bin of experiences that I’ve done, I’m glad I’ve done, and I don’t need to ever do again. Skydiving is in there. So is dancing on that rock in Norway. Climbing Kilimanjaro. Diving Blue Hole. Reading Moby Dick. Meeting Kevin Federline.

Anyway, tomorrow is going to be a long day. Goodnight.