Two years ago, almost to the day, we moved from Malta and Morocco. We lived in Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. We rented a lovely riad (according to Wikipedia, “a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden”) called Dar Zahira (caution, autoplaying Berber music ahead).
The owners of Dar Zahira recently produced a great-looking four-minute video on the city. It really captures the mood of the place. Here’s the video, but it’s worth watching it in HD:
Somebody recently pointed out to me that ‘Essaouira’ has all the vowels except for sometimes-y.
Maybe it’s just been a bad week, but VOIP feels like a rare Concorde-esque backward step in technology. In the past week, I’ve had three separate conversations (all, coincidentally, with software startups) interrupted by lousy phone service. In each case, the person I was speaking to blamed their dodgy VOIP service.
We were reasonably happy with Skype (and SkypeOut) when living in Morocco and Malta (the Maltanet VOIP service was awful). Yet, counterintuitively, it’s been much more unreliable when making calls from BC. Maybe a busier network is to blame?
On the other hand, Shaw has provided the most reliable VOIP service I’ve ever used.
In short, making a phone call used to 100% reliable. Thanks to VOIP, we’re down to about 85%. What gives?
After arriving in Chicago, we spent a quiet evening in at the swish and oddly-gothic Hotel Sax (“Monsieurs Lestat and Impaler, your table is ready in the Crimson Lounge”). We watched a movie in our room (reasonably priced at $10): “Rendition”. I’m going to borrow a plot summary from Roger Ebert’s very positive (and highly politicized) review:
Director Gavin Hood’s terrifying, intelligent thriller “Rendition” puts a human face on the practice. We meet Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian-born American chemical engineer who lives in Chicago. He and his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), have a young son, and she is in advanced pregnancy with another child. After boarding a flight home from a conference in Cape Town, South Africa, Anwar disappears from the airplane, his name disappears from the passenger list and Isabella hears nothing more from him…
The movie sets into motion a chain of events caused by the illegal kidnapping. Isabella, played by Witherspoon with single-minded determination and love, contacts an old boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard) who is now an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin). Convinced the missing man is innocent, the senator intervenes with the head of U.S. intelligence (Meryl Streep). She responds in flawless neocon-speak, simultaneously using terrorism as an excuse for terrorism and threatening the senator with political suicide. Arkin backs off.
Meanwhile, in the unnamed foreign country [where El-Ibrahimi is held], we meet a CIA pencil-pusher named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has little experience in field work but has taken over the post after the assassination of his boss. His job is to work with and “supervise” the torturer Abasi.
Canadians will, of course, be reminded of the unfortunate Maher Arar. Coincidentally, I misspelled his name when I searched for him, and the first result is entitled “Extraordinary rendition”.
The film has a lot in common with Syriana–multiple plot lines featuring government cover-ups, a large and impressive cast and plenty of violence and torture. It isn’t as accomplished as Syriana, mostly because of a hokey third-act plot trick, and a far less ambiguous attitude toward its subject matter.
Still, I enjoyed it as an exotic thriller, and appreciated the very relevant theme of the fluidity of individual morality. I also liked seeing Morocco again. Much of the film was shot in Marrakech, and, remarkably, one scene was shot in Essaouira, the small town where we lived for three months.
Before Julie came home from Morocco (she stayed on a couple of weeks to host a family member), she had henna applied to her hands. You can see it here moments after she had it done:
It was applied to both the front and back of her hands. It’s lasted at least two weeks. I’ve been interested to observe, however, that the dye on the back of her hand has faded more quickly than that on her palm.
I had initially assumed that the inside of her hand would fade first. After all, that’s the part that interacts with the world. I assumed it would slough off more skin cells. Apparently I was wrong.
I have two possible explanations for the actual fading pattern:
The palm is more oily than the back of one’s hand. Maybe the oil helps to preserve and protect the design?
The back of Julie’s hand was exposed to more light, and that’s faded the design more rapidly.
I think this second thesis sounds solid, but I really have no idea. What do you think?
Just a note for potential henna recipients: henna is not black. If you’re anywhere, and somebody wants to apply black-coloured henna to your skin, run in the other direction. It may contain a hair dye that includes para-phenylendiamine, which can cause permanent scarring on the skin.
We’ve just moved into our fourth furnished apartment. The other three were in Europe and Africa (where it’s par for the course, as far as I can figure)–this is our first in Canada. I can’t sing the praises of furnished apartments enough–they make so much sense:
They reduce waste, because people (especially young people) aren’t buying crappy furniture that gets used for a few years and then replaced. It’s in the landlord’s best interests to buy furniture that lasts.
In a small way, they reduce fuel consumption. There’s much less business for moving companies and their trucks.
It’s bloody convenient.
Normally any move is fraught with painful, expensive trips to Ikea. Our place in Victoria is ‘furnished’ right down to cutlery and cleaning products. We could literally walk in with a bag of groceries and be ‘moved in’. We’re also fortunate to have a garage in which we can store our sundry boxes and the few sticks of furniture we’ve got kicking around.
When singing the praises of furnished apartments, people often become concerned about aesthetics. It’s not their stuff, so they could never get comfortable. I wondered about this, too, but it turns out that I couldn’t care less. Yes, we’ve lived in nice places in Malta, Morocco and Victoria, but our first apartment in Ireland was kind of shabby. And appeared to have been decorated by a colour-blind octogenarian with bad cataracts.
You get used to things pretty quickly. So the walls are a kind of rotten robin’s egg blue, so what? Either you learn to live with it, or get permission to change it. In either case, these aesthetic compromises seem like a small price to pay for the convenience of your place being fully furnished.
Do you prefer furnished apartments or blank slates on which to lay your lifestyle?
Living in Malta and Morocco, and seeing how the average person lives in these countries.
In rural Morocco or Malta, people don’t have much. They own their own small house. They might have some sheep or cows. In Morocco, they probably have a bike, and in Malta they have an old car. They almost definitely have a cell phone. They probably have a television, or know somebody who does. If they’re farmers, they have fields to tend. If they live in town, they might own a tiny shop.
Their basic needs are usually met, but they’re not driving a 2008 Mini Cooper and their kids aren’t playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on their Wii.
I’ve been back in Vancouver for a few days now, and had fresh eyes for Vancouver’s homeless problem. I’ve seen the occasional person sleeping rough in a doorway, and addicts, dressed in filthy old clothes, wandering around like zombies. How much do these people have? The contents of their shopping cart?
We were walking around the old, nearly abandoned kasbah in Agdz. A few people still live there in crumbling adobe buildings, and they’re seriously poor. I gave this girl two dirhams–25 Canadian cents. That would buy two loaves of bread, or about a dozen oranges.
On Gozo, there were no beggars or homeless people. In Morocco, the only beggars were the very old (here’s one) and a couple of young kids. In Vancouver, they’re young men and women.
Who’s More Impoverished?
Who’s more impoverished? Before my year away, I’d have definitely picked the rural Moroccan. Now I’m not so sure.
The Moroccan lives among his peers who, more or less with the same level of wealth. The homeless Canadian lives among veritable towers of gold and conspicuous consumption, but can’t have any of it.
Who would I rather be? Again, I’m not sure.
I think the question I’m orbiting here is: who is happier? I’ve got not grounds to speculate, but I’m guessing it’s not the homeless Vancouverite. That leads to a bigger question: is it better to live simply and be happy?
At the moment, that’s all I’ve got. I’d like this to be a cohesive little essay featuring a parable and carefully-craft conclusion, but I haven’t worked it out yet. I clearly don’t know enough, or understand enough about the hands that these Moroccans, Maltese and Vancouverites have been dealt. As such, it’s just food for thought (that anybody can afford).
I have ascetic aspirations. I certainly don’t live a monastic lifestyle, but I try to listen to the simplifying impulses in myself.
Years ago, I decided that an easy way to live more simply was by limiting my choices. These inclinations are, at least in part, why I don’t drink alcohol, coffee or tea, and why I don’t care much about food. When at a restaurant, I usually scan the menu until I spot something I want to eat, and stop there. I frequently don’t read the whole menu.
These impulses are also at least partially responsible for my ignorance of entire segments of our culture: celebrities, cars and so forth.
I suppose this approach could lead to an ‘ignorance is bliss’ argument, but that’s not what I’m getting at. Modern life in the developed world throws a lot of cruft at you–a lot of inconsequential decisions that have only a minuscule impact on your happiness. Those decisions differ from person to person, but everybody has too many of them.
In theory, the more of these decisions that I can avoid, the more time I can spend on stuff I care about. And, in theory, the happier I’ll be. So, I’m always on the lookout for ways to distill the important choices from the great froth of trivialities.
As it turns out, living in the developing world really helps my ascetic aspirations. Simply put, there are fewer trivial decisions to make:
Menus are shorter, and most restaurants have more or less the same thing.
There are more shops, but they roughly sell the same things at the same prices.
There are fewer forms of entertainment, or least the kinds I’m used to.
It’s more difficult to get from point A to point B, so you do less local travel.
I don’t know anybody, so there are few invitations or social obligations to contemplate.
These sound like complaints, but actually it’s quite liberating in the short term. I’m speaking primarily of my three months in Morocco, but these also apply (with slightly less strictness) to rural Malta.
There are frustrations, but they’re definitely exceeded by a sense of simplifying your life, and of spending your time more meaningfully. This has been an unforeseen side benefit of a year away from Vancouver.
Over the last few years, I’ve done a fair bit of international flying. For sundry reasons, I’m hoping to curtail it. Among them is the fact that flights from Europe and Africa all the way to Vancouver can be pretty heinous, and I often suffer from some serious jet lag. What are the worst bits?
Long layovers in Heathrow, a special kind of hell on Earth.
Changing terminals in Heathrow, or changing airports across London.
When they take you in a bus from the tarmac to the terminal. I’m not sure why this bugs me so much, but it does.
Absurdly long lines at passport control.
I could go on. However, I’m pretty pleased with the flights I’ve got coming back to Vancouver this time. Check it out:
On Sunday, a driver takes me to the Marrakesh airport in the afternoon, a trip of about two hours.
I fly to Heathrow. Yes, it’s Heathrow, but I immediately leave the airport to stay over night at a nearby airport hotel.
The next day, my flight leaves at the extraordinarily civil hour of 12:00pm.
The flight to Vancouver is direct. No stops! I get in at 3:00pm, drag myself around for a few hours, watch a hockey game and go to bed.
Thanks to the conference I’m speaking at, I’m staying at the Wall Centre in Vancouver for a few nights when I arrive. I find that hotels are excellent for overcoming the jet lag.
I suppose the perfect trip would avoid Heathrow and include first class, but this is as good as it gets on the cheap. No layovers, eight hours of sleep between flights and very reasonable arrival and departure times. Now, if I can secure an exit row, life will be sweet.