Tangier, Morocco: Stop And Stay A While

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

Every now and then in my travels I find a spot where I want to stop for a while. Damascus, Harar and the Orkney Islands have all captured my imagination because of their rich culture and laid back atmosphere.

Damascus is lost, sucked into the maelstrom of a country intent on destroying itself. Harar and Orkney are far away. So I’m lucky to have discovered Tangier, Morocco, less than an hour’s flight from my home base of Madrid.

Set in a broad bay next to the Strait of Gibraltar, it’s been an important spot since ancient times. On a high hill stands the Casbah, once the domain of the Sultan but now an exclusive neighborhood for rich Moroccans and an increasing number of expatriates. Below lies the medina, a jumble of houses and labyrinthine streets that are home to shopkeepers and laborers. There’s also a sprawling new city thanks to the booming port.

Tangier is a fascinating city. You can see all the tourist sights in two days and spend the rest of your life figuring the place out. Tangier has one of the most mixed populations I’ve seen. Arabs rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif, Sahrawis from Western Sahara, and an increasing number of Senegalese and other migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The men dress in everything from the traditional djellaba to T-shirt and jeans; the women in everything from the niqab to miniskirts. There’s also a long-established expat population of French, Spaniards and British.

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This ethnic alphabet soup means you hear half a dozen languages as you walk down the street. The local Arabic is called Darija and is distinct enough that my rusty Levantine Arabic is almost useless. Berber is often heard too. If you don’t speak either of these languages, chances are that any individual Moroccan will speak French, Spanish or English, or perhaps all of them. I’ve never met an African who spoke fewer than three languages.

It’s often hard to know which language to use first. I generally start conversations in Spanish because that’s more widely understood than English, although one young guy immediately switched to English and asked, “Why are you speaking Spanish if you’re from an English-speaking country?” Conversations often slide from one language to another. This is a place where you can end up using four languages just asking a waiter for a cup of tea!

Speaking of tea, sitting in a cafe with a cup of Moroccan mint tea (cloudy with sugar and with the mint leaves still floating in the water) is the best way to see Tangier. The locals love to relax with friends and watch the world go by. My favorite place to sit is the Petit Socco, a small square in the center of the medina through which everyone seems to pass. Not far off and outside the old city walls is the Grand Socco. It’s even more lively but the blaring traffic makes it less relaxing.

You won’t have to sit long before you’ll get in a conversation with someone. Moroccans are very social and you can learn a lot about life in their country by spending a couple of hours lounging in a cafe. I’ve been treated to everything from Berber tales of spirit possession to catty gossip from longtime expats.

Tangier used to have a bad reputation for hustlers and touts. They’ve been mostly cleaned out in recent years although you’ll still have young guys coming up to you asking to be your guide. A polite “no” will work if repeated two or three times. This doesn’t work in Marrakesh or Fez! Once you’ve been around a couple of days they’ll all recognize you and stop asking.

There are other advantages to staying for a while. Most visitors spend only a day or two in Tangier, or come as day trippers from Gibraltar or Tarifa and disappear after a few hours. The locals quite understandably see these people only as sources of money. Once the folks in Tangier have seen you around for a few days they start getting curious. Soon you’ll get to know the people who hang out at your regular cafes. The kids will start following you to get English lessons. You’ll start getting invitations for lunch or parties or day trips.

This, of course, works most places. What makes Tangier special is the diverse range of people to meet and the vibrant feel to the place. It’s a place of constant movement. People come here to make their fortunes or to use the city as a launchpad to get to Europe. It’s welcoming to newcomers because so many people are newcomers. You’ll meet a lot of interesting people with interesting dreams in Tangier and to become part of the scene in this endlessly interesting city requires only a bit of time and an open mind.

Tangier
Almudena Alonso-Herrero

India’s Human-Powered Ferris Wheel


In India there’s a man for everything – the wallah. The chai-wallah dispenses your tea. The auto-wallahs drive the ubiquitous auto rickshaws. The dhobi-wallah does your laundry. They are India’s indefatigable industrious core and the exact opposite of a jack-of-all-trades.

The mastery with which these wallahs perform their one task is often mesmeric to watch. A chai-wallah mixes his liquid ingredients with a balletic grace, launching a pot full of boiling spiced tea across space precisely into a waiting cup. The auto-wallahs navigate through gaps in traffic with an instinct that borders on precognition. The dhobi-wallah’s metronomic dunking and slapping of shirts and pants could stand in for any band’s rhythm section.

So in a country where electricity can be unreliable, it only makes sense that Indian fun fairs turn to the wallah to keep the good times rolling, as seen in this antique Internet video from four years ago. An Indian fair ride can be a terrifying thing (witness the rusty, squeaking supports), so the impressive acrobatic talents of the Ferris wheel-wallah are all the more admirable – maybe not join-in-the-fun admirable, but certainly regard-from-afar-with nodding-approval admirable.

They say you can reach a meditative state through repetition. Who is to say if that’s the case here, but the white-shirted gentleman certainly appears to be in the zone.

Budget Hong Kong: The Best Cheap Eats For Under US$5 A Bite

Tourists come to Hong Kong for a number of reasons: business, shopping, sightseeing.

Me? I came to eat.

I have long heard about Hong Kong’s famed cuisine, with its unique blend of Chinese, Western, Japanese, Southeast Asian and international influences. The city is home to dozens of celebrity chefs and boasts 62 Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s regularly called the culinary capital of Asia, if not the world.

I wasn’t interested in Hong Kong’s chichi gourmet restaurant scene, nor did I have the budget for it. Rather, I was intent on sampling the city’s dizzying array of cheap eats. Dim sum. Wonton. Noodles. Tea with medicinal properties. Bakery tarts that melt in your mouth. My mouth waters just thinking of it.

Here are some of the highlights of my Hong Kong eating extravaganza, each costing less than US$5 a serving.

%Gallery-173830%Pork Siu Mai with Quail Egg at DimDimSum Dim Sum Specialty Store
Four steaming pork dumplings, each topped with a small, perfectly boiled quail egg. It’s no wonder The Daily Beast named this small dim sum chain one of the 101 Best Places to Eat – in the world.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32 at US$0.13 to HK$1)
7 Tin Lok Lane, Causeway Bay

King Prawn Wonton Noodle at Tsim Chai Kee Noodle
The wontons at this Central District noodle shop contain succulent pieces of juicy king prawn. Select the yellow noodle option and spice to your heart’s content.
Cost: HK$22 (US$2.84)
98 Wellington Street, Central

Vermicelli Roll Stuffed with BBQ Pork at Tim Ho Wan
The wait at the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant is worth it: simple, home-style dim sum classics like the BBQ pork-filled vermicelli roll, prepared to perfection and drizzled in soy sauce. Though I didn’t try them, the pork buns are also said to be excellent.
Cost: HK$18 (US$2.32)
2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok

Aloo Paratha at Waka Sweets in the Chungking Mansions
Hankering for curry? Look no further than the ground floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is filled with South Asian specialties like curries and sweets. The aloo paratha at Waka Sweets is greasy, but it hit the spot.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
Ground floor, past the first staircase on the right, Chungking Mansions, 36-44 Nathan Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Coconut Sago at Ying Heong Yuen
This coconut milk drink with tiny tapioca beads is the perfect way to beat the Hong Kong heat. It’s available for a pittance at most street stalls, but the version at Ying Heong Yuen in Causeway Bay is particularly good.
Cost: HK$8 (US$1.03)
3-7 Cannon Street, Causeway Bay

Chrysanthemum Tea at Good Spring Company Limited
The herbal teas doled out at century-old Good Spring Company Limited are said to provide energy, eliminate bodily toxins and promote general health. The chrysanthemum tea is mildly sweet and refreshing.
Cost: HK$7 (US$0.90)
8 Cochrane Street, Central

Milk Tea at Tsui Wah Restaurant
A legacy of British colonialism, milk tea is a must-drink in Hong Kong. Tsui Wah’s is smoother than most versions and pairs well with the home-style diner’s sweet toasted bun.
Cost: HK$16 (US$2.06)
15-19 Wellington Street, Central

Egg Tart at Tai Cheong Bakery
Bakeries around the city vie for the title of best egg tart. By many accounts, including that of former British governor Chris Patten, Tai Cheong takes the cake. The secret is in the buttery cookie crust, honed over more than six decades of operation.
Cost: HK$6 (US$0.80)
35 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central

Steamed Milk with Ginger Juice at Yee Shun Milk Company
This dessert, ordered hot with ginger juice, has a consistency somewhere between warm milk and pudding. The ginger adds a spicy kick to the sweetness. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten, with a taste that stays with you long after you leave. Though there were tons of cheap eats to try, I ended up returning for seconds.
Cost: HK$26 (US$3.35)
506 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Budget Hong Kong” chronicles one writer’s efforts to authentically experience one of the world’s most expensive cities, while traveling on a shoestring. Read the whole series here.

Moments Of Serendipity: Daily Life In Afghanistan

Good travel pushes you to let go of control, and Afghanistan is certainly one of those places. Here, daily life is dictated by security decisions, which roads are safe to travel on and which ones are not, and if you are trying to stick to a concrete plan, something will surely get in the way. Afghanistan is the place for serendipity, a place that when you come to understand that you have absolutely no control, you can give in to be open to the many things that can happen all around you.

There is a constant balance between fear and awareness of your surroundings and being open and receptive to the unknown. In the midst of conflict there is beauty; the call to prayer in the dark of the early morning, a stranger offering you a glass of tea, a young woman smiling because you asked her how she was doing. If there were a definition of daily life in Afghanistan for a traveler, it would go something along the lines of: constant change peppered with frequent tea breaks.

Traveling as a woman, I was at all times aware of my surroundings and my own presence in relation to the people around me. My headscarf always seemed to be falling off. Warm in the midday heat I would go to push up my sleeves, and then remember that they had to stay covered. Men were everywhere. There were stares, a lot of them, but a few moments into a personal exchange and those stares often turned to smiles.On an afternoon in Babur Gardens, an historic enclosed park that is a popular place of respite from the dust, diesel and general chaos that defines everyday Kabul life, my friend Tony and I walked down a gravel, tree-lined path. It was the second day of Eid, a Muslim holiday, and families were out in abundance, picnicking and taking a moment to enjoy the trees and flowers.

As we walked, an old man stood up, a glass of tea in his hand. He motioned to us to come towards him. Traveling in a conflict zone makes you constantly alert to your surroundings, accepting that you must respect local customs at all times and that you should never become complacent. You have to trust your gut. Had a stranger motioned to me on a street corner, I may have turned in the other direction, but here in the privacy of an enclosed garden space, filled with happy families celebrating a holiday, I felt a certain level of calmness and security.

“I think we have to go over there,” I said to Tony.


We crossed the path and joined the family. The older man invited us to sit down on a blanket and he handed us both glasses of tea. We exchanged the series of salutations and “happy Eid,” an exchange that I had gotten comfortable doing in Dari. The man and his family smiled.

Then we launched into the get-know-you-without-speaking-your-language game, and entertaining combination of hand motions, my mediocre Dari vocabulary, and the family’s limited grasp of English phrases.

In Dari, the man asks if I am Tony’s wife.

“Balay” we both nod. Yes. This “wedding of convenience” as we later called it is easier than the truth.

The man motions to the smiling baby in his lap, whose eyes are outlined in kohl (a sign of prosperity I later learn) and points to me. “Shomaa?”

Do we have a child?

Tony has a son, so he nods. I realize this has now made me not only a wife of convenience but a mother of convenience as well.

“Balay.” Yes.

The man says a long sentence, of which I recognize the words for “where” and “America.” He is asking where the child is.

“In America,” says Tony.

The family smiles. I am hoping that they assume we have left the child with the grandparents and I am not being seen as an infidel mother who leaves her child behind.

To change the subject, I turn to one of the teenage daughters.

“Maqbulas,” I say to her, pointing to her headscarf, a striking purple color with beaded tassels, indicating that it’s pretty. As it’s Eid, she’s wearing her finest.

She laughs in a shy manner, and then moves from her blanket to sit next to me. She has noticed the assortment of bracelets on my wrist. She pulls a bracelet of plastic heart beads from her purse and puts it on my wrist.

“Tashakur,” I repeat several times. “Besyaar maqbul.” It’s very beautiful. She and her sisters smiled.

We learn from the younger boys in the group that can speak a bit of English that the older woman sitting behind the girls is the girls’ mother. Her face is tan and wrinkled, framed tightly by her black headscarf. “Their father and her husband died,” he says matter of factly. My Dari and his English aren’t good enough for me to figure out how the entire family fits together, but I assume that the older man is an uncle of some sort. So much pain and love in one family history.

We amuse them; this odd American couple that leaves their baby back in their home country, with a wife that knows a few Dari words. They in turn enthrall me, taking us into their family moment. Pouring tea for strangers.

Eventually we excuse ourselves, thanking them profusely for the tea. I leave feeling honored, like I was just given the kind of moment that will forever change your perspective. A moment that can’t be replicated. A moment that will later bring tears to my eyes because it’s representative of a shared humanity we so rarely see in the mass media. A moment that only happens because you let go of control.

We return to the rest of our group. It’s time for another glass of tea.

At the end of October, Anna Brones spent two weeks in Afghanistan with nonprofit Mountain2Mountain working to produce several Streets of Afghanistan public photo exhibits. This series chronicles the work on that trip and what it’s like to travel in Afghanistan. Follow along here.

[Photo Credits: Anna Brones]

Dim sum has a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone

dim sumI realize that Chinese New Year ended on February 6th, but in an effort to establish that there’s no bad time to visit Hong Kong or eat Cantonese food, I decided that now would be a good time to write about dim sum (also, I’m a terrible procrastinator. Is it really almost St. Paddy’s Day?).

Hong Kong means different things to different people. Some go for the bargains on everything from cameras to couture, others for the booming nightlife and easy access to other parts of Asia. Others just…really like Jackie Chan movies. Whatever your reason, this former British colony is faring well since it’s 1997 return to China (technically the city and environs are considered a Special Administrative Region–SAR–of the mainland). While not as cheap as other Asian cities or destinations, Hong Kong offers plenty of attractions, food and travel options to suit all budgets.

To a little piglet such as myself, Hong Kong means dim sum. In a city positively obsessed with eating, dim sum is perhaps Hong Kong’s most beloved culinary ritual. Dim sum, which is variously translated as “touching or pointing to the heart,” refers to a variety of steamed or fried dumplings, rice flour rolls, and other small savory or sweet snacks. While Westerners have openly embraced dim sum where dumplings are concerned, some traditional dishes such as braised chicken feet (foong jow) and steamed beef tripe with black bean and chili sauce (ngow pahk yeep) aren’t quite the hits they are in China.

Although dim sum is Cantonese (regionally now referred to as Gaungzhou) in origin, today it reflects the multi-regional influences of Hunan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other provinces in various ingredients and styles, such as the inclusion of Hunan ham in a pan-fried root vegetable dish such as taro cake. There are over 2,000 types of dim sum; in addition to the aforementioned dumplings and rice flour rolls, there are spring rolls, pan-fried cakes, baked or steamed buns, crepes, steamed rice dishes wrapped in lotus leaves, bite-size meat dishes such as spare ribs or duck feet, soups, or sweet puddings of tofu with sauces ranging from black sesame to mango.

[Photo credit: Flickr user LifeSupercharger]dim sumStandard dim sum ingredients include dried Chinese mushrooms; sweet lotus seed or bean paste; water chestnuts; bamboo shoots; rice or wheat flour; glutinous rice; Chinese sausage (lop cheong); preserved pork belly; dried shrimp; chives; ginger; garlic; seafood; poultry; beef, and pork, although the Cantonese are widely known for eating “everything under the sun,” so few bits and pieces are off limits.

Dim sum is thought to have originated during the Sun Dynasty of 960-1280 AD, when drinking tea at teahouses became a popular custom after a day of labor in the fields. The term yum cha, or “to drink tea,” came to be synonymous with the supplementation of small snacks, or dim sum. Today, teahouses still abound throughout China, and Hong Kong has it’s fair share. These are gathering places where locals can gossip, drink, eat, and relax, although some teahouses–often in five-star hotels– cater to a more upscale clientele, or tourists.

Dim sum is meant to be consumed communally; diners pick what interests them from passing waiters who push carts loaded with bamboo steamers or domed platters- the serving dish will then be placed upon the table, and waiters will tally up the bill according to how many you accumulate. It’s not considered bad form to pick morsels communally from the central plate, although you should place your individual choices into your own bowl or plate to catch any drips, or break apart large items using your chopsticks. Dipping bowls of sweet soy sauce, hot mustard (guy lath) and chili sauce (lath ju yow) are used communally as well, although it’s also common to spoon some condiments onto your plate for personal use.

For an authentic teahouse experience in Hong Kong, although perhaps not the best dim sum, 79-year-old Luk Yu Teahouse in the city’s Central District is a historic landmark. Fiercely crotchety, white-smocked old woman bustle about the small, marble-floored teahouse, carrying battered aluminum trays filled with assorted buns and dumplings around their necks. Over the din of dining Cantonese businessmen and families, ceiling fans lazily circulate and hazy sunlight filters through stained glass windows. Don’t expect to know what you’re eating, however. During my visit, I was the only Westerner there, and as is the way with most dim sum restaurants, selection of dishes comes down to point and choose. My winning pick was a giant, fluffy cha sui bao, or steamed bun, stuffed with sweet barbecued pork.
dim sum
The dim sum from the immensely popular Super Star Seafood Restaurant in Kowloon, known for it’s whimsical, animal-shaped dumplings is generally excellent. Super Star also offers hands-on dim sum cooking classes by arrangement, and it was there that I (in theory) learned how to pleat my har gow and sek tau yu (rockfish) dumplings. The shaping of dim sum dumplings is an art form that requires skill and dexterity, and the number and style of pleats or shape are specific to each type of dumpling; in the case of har gow, the “shark fin” pleat is said to replicate the shape of a gold ingot. Although my sek tau yu resembled malignant tumors rather than the goldfish they were meant to represent, the instructor was kind, and they tasted wonderful; the airy filling redolent of ginger and garlic, the dough tender and whisper-thin.

My favorite dim sum came from a much-loved Cantonese restaurant chain in Hong Kong called Tai Woo. At the Tsim Sha Tsui location, my meal began with several dim sum-style dishes, including a sweet, moist, steamed turnip cake (loh baak gao) studded with lop cheong and cheung fun, delicate, chewy rice noodle sheets rolled around pungent dried shrimp and chives, both accompanied by both peanut and hoisin sauces for dipping. Cheung fun can also be stuffed with whole shrimp, beef, or barbecued pork, and is often favored as a breakfast treat.

For the adventurous eater, Hong Kong has no shortage of culinary treasures to enjoy, be they in back alley eateries, near street markets, or in high-end restaurants. Explore them all, or enjoy the experience right here at home: every major North American city has its fair share of dim sum restaurants. Most notable for the quality of their dim sum are Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles. Check out this site; I can’t vouch for every restaurant on it, but I’ll stand by the Bay Area selections.

For more information on visiting Hong Kong, click here.

[Photo credits: Laurel Miller]

Chopsticks Using Tips