Sunday, August 10, 2008

Fes (Help me...), Chefchaouen...on my way out

12 sweaty hours later, with many stops along the way, I arrived in Fes. I caught a taxi to Hotel Batha and met Paul. This Frenchman, 2 meters tall, dwarfing me, has been living in Fes for the past 6 months. Before this, Afghanistan and India. He is living in a house constructed in the 1700s with impressive tilework and woodwork, and they are renovating the house. This house, in Batha at the edge of the medina, would become my haven for the next few days.

Fes has long been known for hassle, hassle, and more hassle. It’s true. Shopkeepers and children and all different people call out to you in English and Japanese and French and whatever else their mouths can throw out, and it’s constant, unrelenting, and overwhelming. Fes has the world’s largest living medina, with donkeys transporting cargo throughout, fountains where people come to bathe and fill up bottles and buckets, shops and stalls selling everything imaginable, seemingly empty alleyways opening up onto shopping avenues…and it is a sure fact that you’ll get lost. A few hours in the hubbub of the medina was more than enough for me, the first day I went to explore alone, then met a Japanese girl who I invited to join me in the hammam.

I first experienced a hammam in Turkey with Abby in 2002 in Kusadasi, and since then have made it a point to visit a hammam in each Muslim country I go to. You strip down to your underwear and then a woman, normally an enormous one, scrubs layers of dead skin off you, revealing clumps of dead cells and your fresh skin underneath. There are normally 3 rooms, progressively growing hotter, and you go from the hottest to the coolest, being shampooed, soaped, massaged…it’s great.

The next day, Paul took me to his spots in the medina, then I explored a bit on my own, checking out the famous tanneries where leather is treated in the same way as it has been for centuries, then completely beat, I headed back home. In the afternoon I tried a bit more but was growing increasingly irritated and short-tempered with all the hassle around, so I gave up by sunset and went home. I was really ready to get out of Fes – and in fact, I felt, Morocco.

The next morning I went early for my bus to Chefchaouen, and I hadn’t been sure how long I would stay. I knew that I would like the town, and I knew it was a place where I could stay longer if I wished, but I also felt that by moving quickly through Chefchaouen I would be able to get more time in Portugal. So I left my things at the bus station and walked steeply uphill to arrive in the medina. It was every bit what I had hoped for. The streets are painted a ghostly pale blue, with turquoise, lavender, and periwinkle doorways, window trimmings, all with earthy red rooftops. It’s quiet, calm, and people are genuinely friendly.

Glad to have seen it but ready to finish my Moroccan journey, I jumped on the next bus to Tangier and arrived, met Cindo, a Portuguese man living in Morcco for the past 5 years, and after a feijoada passed out. I was at the edge of Morocco, just a short boat ride away from the European continent again.

I loved Morocco with its endless changing scenery, delicious food, and the real Muslims that are so welcoming, hospitable, generous, and want to share their beautiful country with you. At its best, it offers a supremely different, exotic place from continental Europe even though a tiny body of water separates the two continents. Architecture with exquisite craftsmanship, desert, mountains, canyons, sea, smells and tastes that burst with fullness and richness combine with people in beautiful clothes and fabrics, women covered racing down the streets with robes flowing behind them, children with bright smiles running around. But there was also the other side of Morocco, which wants to rip you off, constantly after you for something, which disrespects foreigners and especially women…it was great to go there, but I was also really happy to leave. I’m sure I’ll visit again, especially the south, but for now it was a chapter I was ready to close.

Zagora to Tinerhir, Morocco

The next morning we awoke and were lucky to reach the main road and precisely cross paths with a minibus headed north towards Zagora. In Zagora, we waited just a few minutes to get into a grands taxi to Ouarzazate. There was a man, Aissa, who approached me in Zagora. He was going to take the same taxi to Ouarzazate, and asked me where I was headed. I told him that that night I hoped to reach Tinerhir, and he told me that he also was headed there, that that was where he was from. He said if I wanted, I could stay at his home, and he could show me around the area. I took his number after he spoke to Mohamed as well. At Ouarzazate, just a few minutes to fill up the taxi to Klaa. In Klaa I split ways with Catherine and Mohamed, and off I was to Boumalne de Dades. In Boumalne, I jumped into a minibus headed up to the Dades Gorge. I was unsure of whether I cared to visit the Dades Gorge anyway, and I think I was simply too exhausted and hot to enjoy anything at that point. I can recognize why people enjoy the gorge, with Kasbahs (ancient forts) dotted along the cliffs, but I was done. I hitched a ride back to Boumalne and caught the bus to Tinerhir.

Tinerhir felt like a completely different world. As I got off the bus, locals smiled warmly and welcomed me, advising me of where the nearest Teleboutique was in case I needed to make a phone call. A few would-be guides approached but when I informed them that I already knew someone in town, they said sorry and wished me a nice stay. Wow.

Aissa came to meet me and we went to his hairdressing shop, which he closed so that we could go for a walk. Winding streets in the Ville Ancienne, the old part of town with the mud houses, women washing with buckets in the streets. We stopped for tea in the house of Aicha, his neighbor, who was thrilled with my limited Arabic and Berber vocabulary. We continued down into the roads, and we emerged on the palmeraie; dazzling green plots of land awash with everything you could dream of. We walked amongst dates, olives, figs, almonds, corn, pomegranates, apples, pears, potatoes, onions, different spices…it was gorgeous. Donkeys piled high with fresh crops being pulled along by women and children.

We finished with a panoramic view of the city, the red mud buildings contrasting with the green palmeraie spreading into the mountains. We went back to Aicha’s house where she taught me how to prepare a tajine. We played with origami and wrote names in Japanese before we retired on the rooftop.

The next morning we headed early to Todra Gorge, which was definitely more impressive than the Dades Gorge for me. I love the layers of red rock which rise up, towering over your head. A thin river runs through the gorge with crystal clear water. This water supplies the palmeraies in and around Tinerhir. I was intent on getting to Fes that day, and the only buses were at 9:30am or 5:30pm so I was rushing to get on the morning bus. We managed, and I was on my way.

Saharan Dunes: Erg Chigaga, Morocco

Arriving in Tagounnite, I met Hmad and my first reaction was that of trust and friendliness. He explained where we would go and the trip program. There was a couple nearby, a French woman and a Moroccan man, older than me, and I didn’t speak to them. It turned out they would also join to go to Erg Lehoudi, where I was headed.

At the campsite, I have to admit that my first reaction was that of disappointment. I have been lucky enough to see gorgeous sand dunes in both Death Valley, California, and Wadi Rum, Jordan. In both of these places, the sand dunes are not necessarily tall or vast, but they are extremely beautiful. Erg Lehoudi was a beautiful place, no doubt about it, but it wasn’t the stereotypical image of sand dunes in the Sahara that I had imagined. At this point I learned that the other tourist couple, Catherine and Mohamed, were planning to go to Erg Chigaga the following day. I had really wanted to head out that way, but at this time of year it’s only possible by 4WD, and there was no way that I would pay for the whole vehicle by myself, so I had decided against it. I discussed with them that I was interested in going, and then the whole drama started.

To be honest from the start, I had serious doubts about visiting Morocco from before I arrived. Egypt is without doubt the place that I liked least during all my travels, and I would say that West Africa was difficult for me in general. Of course, a lot of this was conditional with my personal situation at the time but nevertheless, it wasn’t easy going. When I left West Africa, I vowed that I would probably never return. I said the same about Egypt…well, genius Yuri, look at a map, and Morocco is kind of the in-between of these places. And, well, Southern Morocco especially. You have this mix of Saharan culture with Africa, continental Africa, so the feeling I got in Zagora and Tagounnite was a sort of Timbuktu but with more Arabs than blacks. Strange sensation. I digress.

The night deteriorated into the traditional Moroccan game of bargaining and discussing. There was a time several years ago when I literally loved bargaining and debating and the banter and the whole process of coming to agree on a price. Those days are gone though. Now, I want to be offered an honest and fair price, agree to it, and pay for what I get. Welcome to Morocco. Mohamed, who lived the grand majority of his life near Ouarzazate, and is Berber therefore speaking Berber and Arabic, did all the talking for us because in this country there is undoubtedly much more respect and importance placed on the man. I had earlier been thrown off a very grumpy dromedary, and so had some muscle cramps and was 100% not willing to get back on the same animal to take me back to the main road as we had discussed earlier. After 2 hours of discussing, if you can call it that, some intermediary tentative agreement was reached.

There were several characters involved. My guide was Hmad, who I had agreed with to pay 250 dirhams (approx. 25 euros) for the tour which comprised of transport to Erg Lehoudi, a dromedary ride, dinner, breakfast, and transport either back to Tagounnite or to the road to catch the bus which was heading north from M’Hamid. Then there was his cousin, Salah, who I have no idea what his role was. In Morocco (and many other countries I’ve been in), there is an array of cousins, brothers, friends, whoever, that is always involved, whose role you are never quite sure of, and who you just have to accept is getting a slice of your money just so that more people can have some sort of income. I believe Salah was one of these cases. Then Abderrahim, who was in charge of the domestic hospitality duties; as far as I know, he was in charge of setting up camp and presenting food, preparing tea etc. Then, M’bareq, who was the driver of the 4WD. So here we were in the desert, with 4 guys, who at the start I had tried really hard to be a good smiling kind tourist with. After I fell off the dromedary, I was of course not thrilled at the idea of going on the dromedary. My guide expressed very little concern. I found out that Catherine and Mohamed were going to pay 800 dirhams for the day trip out to Erg Chigaga. It would be optimal, of course, if we could split that in 3 by me joining, and not have the price go up at all.

This wasn’t going to be easy. I was not happy with what I received, which was a sore leg, and an unwillingness to change the program despite the fact that there was only one dromedary around, not 2, to take me back to Tagounnite, and there was a huge argument which erupted around what the price should be if I chose to go to Erg Chigaga. A totally nasty side of Hmad and Salah emerged; I pointed out that we had arrived in Erg Lehoudi too late, and only been able to visit the larger dunes of that area after the sun had already set. They responded that I had arrived too late in Tagounnite, which was completely ridiculous since I had arrived at 5pm, and we sat at Boulangerie du Sud until past 7pm because the heat of the day was too hot. I had no problem with this, I agreed, but I also was not going to be held responsible for a missed sunset. Then when the issue of the dromedary arose, and all 3 tourists said that the guide was responsible for not controlling his animal, he claimed that it was my fault that I was not positioned well. But shouldn’t the guide tell you where exactly to sit on the animal (if I was poorly positioned anyway?) Needless to say, tensions arose and Catherine and I decided that it would be better for Mohamed to proceed with all the discussions. I was ready to leave the next morning if what we were asking for wouldn’t be given, as I didn’t want a day tainted with arguing and ill feelings.

Too hot to sleep inside the tent, too windy to sleep outside, I ended up outside at 3am and passed out. We had agreed upon a 5am wakeup to head to Erg Chigaga, some 40km away from Erg Lehoudi.

I awoke to a bright sun…no way it was 5am. I fumbled for my bottle of water, squinted to find my camera, checked the time…it was 6:40am. What had happened?

I saw Mohamed and Catherine strolling on the dunes near camp and headed that way. My leg was sore. We decided to wait for M’bareq, and sure enough, as we were almost at camp, he arrived. A few minutes later, we were off.

The journey to Erg Chigaga is surreal. The desert expands in all directions, without any visible end. The rocks and cliffs and mountains are all exposed vulnerably to the brutal blue sky. Occasional trees stand out like staunch defenders of a land they have forgotten why they are protecting. There are 4WD tracks, but all headed the same way. You come here to pass through, not to stay.

The heat. My god, the heat. I have never experienced anything like this in my life. Cold water becomes hot tea temperature within minutes. Your body craves liquid so much that drinking hot water is pleasurable, necessary. We finally emerged at the foot of tall mountains, which were the sand dunes. It was about 11am. We began to climb up the dunes, which were astonishing. How does so much sand arrive here, and how does it get formed into these mountains with the twists and curves? We walked up the highest sand dune, which must have been at least 300m high, and then it was back down to the small settlement. Inside the mud house was infinitely cooler, and cool well water was brought by the bucketful. I kept wondering why I had come here at this season. But in the same way I enjoyed being in Patagonia in the middle of a blizzard, I could appreciate, I believe, even more this desert in the heat of high summer. You realize that you are nothing. Humans are nothing. We can create cities with buildings high up in the sky, we can fly airplanes, connect to the internet, use telephones, cars, whatever, but ultimately we are animals, weak and helpless, and you better not forget it. Get lost in the desert, or run out of water, and you are dead, no question about it. The desert, since the first time I went in California in 2002, has been the landscape that has most captivated me. It hasn’t changed.

After our break, we drove to another side of the dunes where there is an oasis, and we nested under a huge palm tree. We went to the well where we had our “douche” – buckets of water thrown all over the body, completely clothed, and it was utterly delicious. Soaking wet, you would feel cool for a few minutes, until the sun parched you and you were bone dry again. By 2pm, we had eaten and been told that it was time for a ‘raha’ – siesta, soneca, sieste, nap – one of my favorite words in the world. Like in Marrakesh, the sleep was more a rough collapse awakening with thirst and heat, rather than a gentle snooze.

At around 5pm we headed back towards Erg Chigaga, and by this point I was fully heat exhausted, heat poisoned, all of the above and all I remember of this ride was painful thirst and the group taking care of me, helping me with handkerchiefs soaked in water that needed to be re-wetted every 10 minutes. We arrived back in Tagounnite, and decided to stay the night as all were way too exhausted to carry on any further, and off we were to a campground, where I collapsed into a deep sleep on a mattress in the sand.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Morocco: Marrakesh to Zagora, 22-25 July, 2008 (Written 3 August 2008)

Morocco. It seemed that I was destined to go there. It started because I realized when I arrived in Paris in May that although I was thrilled to be back in Europe, it is, or so I thought at that point, quite homogenous; I wanted something within my 14 weeks that was a truly different experience, an assault on the senses.

So it was that I arrived in Marrakesh at 2am. Amine had come to meet me at the airport, and as we jumped in the taxi to his house, I was literally blown away by the hot wind, even at this hour. The wind blows against you but it heats you, rather than cools you. Little did I know…

We got up at 7am, and I was introduced for the first time to Moroccan breakfast, which can consist of fresh bread, dipped in olive oil, followed by apricot jam. I have never before seen a combination of olive oil and fruit jam, but of course I tried, and I liked it. We headed into town and walked from Ville Nouvelle into the medina.

Marrakesh was, I won’t euphemize…completely disappointing. I have no idea what all the hype is about. The souqs have got nothing on the Middle East wonderlands, there is a lack of atmosphere, and for a city of just a million people, the amount of noise and air pollution is completely unacceptable. The main square that is so often romanticized is Djemaa el-Fna. There are snake charmers playing for cobras, Gnaoua dancers spinning their heads to make the tassels rotate (watching them made me dizzy), orange juice vendors…but for me it didn’t click. However, the two main palaces that we visited DID impress me…the Moroccan tilework, the woodworking, the carvings, and the exquisite architectural design of open rooms opening up onto a central courtyard with a marble fountain…beautiful.

We met a Japanese couple and we set up an appointment to meet that evening. Amine and I went to lunch with his relatives who live in France, and it was a wonderful introduction to Moroccan cuisine. Veal brochettes, a kefta and egg tajine, wonderful tomato salad…

By mid-afternoon it was beyond scorchingly hot and I felt there was little option other than passing out. It was at least 46 degrees…and I don’t mean Fahrenheit. We returned home and I did exactly that, but the sleep I was having in Morocco wasn’t restful, and I would awake drenched in my own sweat and not feeling any less tired than before. Yes, I know, I chose to go to the country in July…

In the evening we returned to Djemaa el-Fna to meet the Japanese couple, and watched as the square transforms into a giant entertainment complex. Hundreds of street vendors come; snail soup, gingerbread, spice tea that is supposedly viagric, kebabs and brochettes and tajines and…of course, the snake charmers, dancers, storytellers, and singers are going full strength and all forcefully demand your dirhams…

Wednesday morning, there was little time to do anything more than prepare my things and head to the bus station. The ride to Zagora was about 8 hours, and the first part of the trip, climbing up through the Atlas Mountains, was breathtakingly beautiful. Green terraced fields, rocky mountains with goats scaling the sides, occasional nomad tents dotting the horizon…

As we descended into Ouarzazate, the temperature climbed again and I began to grow worried. In Marrakesh when I told people I was headed to Zagora, I received bemused looks and occasional chuckles, as they warned, Il fait chaud…for Marrakshis to say this, where it’s averaging 45 degrees now, I thought, uh oh, I really don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into.

Descending even further from Ouarzazate to Zagora, the temperature continued to rise as the landscape grew more desolate. Rocks, pebbles, trees became bushes, bushes became patches of grass, and soon there was nothing green in sight. I arrived in Zagora at 7:30pm and even at this time it was scorchingly hot. I was met and taken to Hamid’s house.

They made me fall in love with Morocco. Hamid is on CouchSurfing, and is a 24 year old Arab born and raised in Zagora. He has this childish, innocent smile that just invites trust. I was brought in and introduced to all the family…and that means a lot of people. He has 5 other siblings, and his 3 sisters have 7 children combined, and then there is his mother, Fatima. With my extremely limited Arabic vocabulary, and their limited French and English vocabularies, we managed to connect and exchange welcomes and thanks and smiles.

Hamid had told me I should try to arrive by that day because the next day there would be the engagement party of his brother. What a day. Baskets of gifts were prepared to bring to the village of the bride-to-be; dried henna, almonds, dates, candy, clothes and other gifts; after the women dressed in their finest kaftans and applied their makeup, using ground stone as eyeliner, the drums arrived. The women either drummed on the instruments or the table, and a wailing chant began, and didn’t stop. The whole way we were in the van for 30 minutes they continued to sing and drum, announcing to everyone along the way of this happy event and the beautiful bride.

We arrived in the village and the singing and dancing continued as we entered into the mud house, women and children in one section, and men in the other. I was embraced by dozens of women who kissed me numerous times, and thus began the day. From what I understood, the majority of the day was sitting in this part of the house and chatting and gossiping, playing music, dancing, and lots, I mean lots, of eating. Brochettes with fresh bread were the first savory item served, following the coconut cookies and various other sweets, of course always accompanied by delicious sweet Moroccan mint tea; and then I watched the people cooking. Lunch was a gorgeous tagine with lamb, and in the afternoon I had my siesta while the kids and women played more drums and sang.

Later on, the young men took me through the palmeraie. The palmeraie is basically a parcel of land that is cultivated near the village where each person, or family in the village, has their own plot of land to grow things on. In this particular palmeraie, the grand majority of production was dates, followed by corn and grass for livestock to eat. If you have only ever had dried dates that you buy in a supermarket, it may come as a shock that fresh dates taste completely different, and I would argue infinitely better than the dried dates. Mustapha climbed up the tree and handpicked dozens of dates of the perfect ripeness, and it was pure joy in our mouths.

The evening continued with more dancing and then I was escorted to a woman’s house, who wanted to show me her house, and we ran across the tiny village. She went to milk her cow, and for the first time in my life (after all I’m a city girl), I watched a cow being milked, and drank the fresh milk straight from the cow. I’m lactose intolerant to some degree, so I kindly declined a large quantity but for cultural sensitivity and curiosity I knew it was important to try the milk, and I was not disappointed – it tastes completely different from what you can buy in a store.

By this time, the sun was going down and I was getting exhausted, so we feasted on the hand rolled couscous and went home to Zagora. I was thrilled, having gotten the opportunity to see a real Moroccan celebration that was completely not contrived, the real thing, and I was allowed into a woman’s space that is seemingly unbreachable.

The next day was spent in Zagora until about 2.30pm when I decided I should try to start heading further south. I had debated about whether I would try to head more into the desert, because I thought maybe it was too hot for me, but I decided that since I had come all this way, I should go, even if it was just one overnight visit. Hamid’s friend Salah had a friend, Hmad, that works as a guide in Tagounnite, so he said I could go there.

Well, Friday is the day of Islam, and most Moroccans are sane and choose not to travel in the midday hours. Not the idiot Japanese girl. The bus and grands taxi station was deserted, as temperatures soared. Finally we had enough people to get into a big taxi and off we went. Desert. The desert is deserted. Definitely.

Espana, oh wait, it's Catalunya - Cadaques and Barcelona, 18-21 July 2008 (Written 3 August 2008)

An early start from Toulon, started off by the lovely Anne-Laure, and I was on my way. A smooth, although slow run down to Figueres. The majority was with one ride, an elderly trucker from Portugal, who took me from Aix-en-Provence all the way to Figueres. One of my best hitching experiences, we cooked together at a truck stop in the South of France; a true Portuguese man, meticulously dicing and chopping and preparing everything with such care. He was extremely kind, and curious, and shared everything with me…as he left me in Spain, he made me take the rest of the bread and juice with me because he claimed I would not know when I would have my next meal (let’s not forget we’re in Western Europe…no shortage of food availability by any means) I had communicated with Enio and knew that there were buses at 7 and 8pm from Figueres to Cadaques, so I decided it was better for me to take this option rather than try to hitch to Cadaques – I was unsure of how much traffic there would be headed that direction, and I’d heard nightmarish stories of hitching in Spain. As I was walking towards Figueres town, a Moroccan guy stopped and I jumped in. I just asked if he could take me to the bus station in Figueres and he asked where my final destination was; he said he didn’t know where Cadaques but he could drive me there. Hmm. Wasn’t sure what to think. So as we sped off to the bus station, time was ticking, and of course it was Friday at 6:40pm, so even in sleepy Figueres there was traffic…I missed the bus. Finally, after forcefully making sure he understood there was no payment of any sort involved, I said he could start me on the road to Cadaques. I got in touch with Enio again and it turned out that he was headed up from Barcelona to Cadaques and had just passed through Figueres. Sheer luck, and we were able to arrange a pick-up/drop-off point just north of Figueres for me. It worked out wonderfully. Minutes later, I was showered with kisses and hugs from the 3 in the car, the Catalan Enio, Argentinean Gernan, and Mexican Amilcar.

The windy road up to Cadaques is gorgeous, breathtaking, and definitely induces carsickness. Switchback roads with green rocky cliffs, tantalizing views of blue sea, and finally, the glimpses of the white town finishing at the water. A lovely stay in town, lazing at the beach and visiting Salvador Dali’s old house in Port Lligat…

We arrived back in Barcelona on Saturday night and went direct to Taina, a steakhouse where Enio used to work and I polished off my 500 gram entrecote and helped out with a few others. Yum.

Sunday was mole poblano at Amilcar’s mother’s house – definitely a treat I hadn’t been expecting – and dinner at Gernan’s restaurant, which was a mouthwatering array of tapas ranging from steak tartare to tuna tataki with guacamole, hummus, calamari, and a huge pot of arroz marinero, seafood rice that I think most people would love, but of course I could barely stomach. No worries though, because there was plenty of wine to wash it down.

Between meals, we visited much of Barcelona by foot, and the city reveals itself to those that wait. It was my third time in Barcelona, and I have to be honest and admit that if it wasn’t for Enio being there, I would probably not return to the city. Spain is one of the countries where despite my fluency in the language, and compatibility with many cultural elements, I’ve never felt drawn to it. However, I recognize the definitely unique ambiance and the sheer beauty of the place. It’s a city where all the senses come alive. Old buildings with laundry hung out the windows; the stench of gutters in the street; graffiti; winding alleyways; it’s this mysterious yet strangely familiar place.

Monday was my tourist morning. I left home at 8am and walked, walked, walked. From Enio’s house near Plaza Catalunya all the way to Parque Guell, which is Antoni Gaudi’s masterpiece in the city. I passed his other famous works, Casa Batllo and La Pedrera, on Passeig de Gracia, and I was yet again astounded by his genius. There is a reason why millions of tourists visit Barcelona each year. The fantastical mÈlange of colors and animals and shapes and nature and function and form and reality…

Passing by the Sagrada Familia, the unfinished massive cathedral that stands out against the city skyline…I was just in time for my lunch appointment with Amilcar. We went to a tiny bar, absolutely crammed with people, where bottles of cava are 2 euros and there is a dizzying array of sandwiches available; lomo con queso, and chorizo…mouthwatering.

Later in the day Enio and I went to La Boqueria, the enormous market located just steps away from his house, and I was thoroughly impressed. I would say that it’s the best food market in Europe that I’ve seen in terms of variety of produce and products from all over the world available…we meandered until I had my final Spanish dinner, and off I was to the airport.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

France (Lyon, Valence, Toulon) 15-17 July 2008 (Written 2 Aug 2008)

Wow, I am so far behind on the blog.

I arrived in France, by TGV, on 15 July. Stepping off the train in Lyon, everything just hit me, so hard. The last time I was here was in 2005, just weeks before I would arrive in Japan. Ah, Japan. Lyon has always been a place where I happen to be in the middle of something...first time in 2003 with Jenny Winston, as I was experiencing my break from university, and then with Lucile and Jean-Charles in 2005...

This time, I was headed to Valence. I arrived, exhausted, at 10.30pm, and Sylvain and Gaelle were there with open arms. Second wave of emotions. I met them in Djenne, Mali, on a dusty Tuesday morning when, yet again, a transformative circle was enveloping me. My personal struggles with my impending move to Japan, difficulties with Abby (we would part ways less than a week later, in Timbuktu), and wow the physical struggles with the heat, the food or lack thereof, the overwhelming stark cultural differences...

Their home is a haven of West Africa. They lived in Senegal for 2 years, in Ziguinchor, where I went after Mali to visit them. In Mali and Senegal I felt they took me in with extra open arms, perhaps because of their awareness of my sensitive nature at the given time...well, either I'm still coming off as a nervous wreck, or they are just simply kind, generous, loving, open, caring people. Amazing. Anyway, in their apartment are heaps of African cloth with bissap to drink and a Malian bogolan on the enormous collection of African music and photos of their comrades from their time in Africa adorn the walls...

The next day we went to Crest, on the Drome River, and spent the afternoon on this beautiful isolated bend of the river where crystal clear water flows down through cliffs with a mountain view and we picnicked. Perfect.

Sad to go but I was intent on getting to Toulon in time to see Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Pinheiro. It was a quick, easy hitch down with 3 rides, nothing strange at's a cute, small town with a French seaside feel (logical, considering its location), and I spent the afternoon wandering around. Anne-Laure, an absolutely wonderful girl from CS who has a Vietnamese grandmother, was letting me stay and her home just 10 minutes north of the city was a paradise of gardens, East Asian fabrics, fragrances, and tastes from her parents' vegetable garden.

It was time for the show...I arrived not too long before the show would start, and my biggest concern was how I would be able to speak to the group. This is the chance happening that most transformed my experience in Cuba...the day I was asking around so intently in La Habana Vieja for a supposed music practicing studio, didn't find it, gave up, headed towards the Malecon...and walked in on them. I was really lucky in that I saw the group appear and walk into their tent backstage. I quickly ran behind the tent and started waving frantically, hoping to catch the eye of one of the band members inside. And it worked. Raspa, the 61 (maybe now 62) year old lead singer made a face and called over Frank, and then it was a blurry wave of hugs and kisses and exclamations. All 7, with the addition of Frank's brother. Wow...what a reunion. I was pulled in backstage and we had a pre-show shot of Havana Club, true to tradition...exactly what I had been hoping for.

The show was great, the crowd got really into it, and afterwards we sat and chatted for was so crazy to think that here I was, in the south of France, meeting up with this band that I met in Havana, Cuba...

We parted ways promising to reunite in Cuba, Japan, or donde sea...