With the meeting yesterday ended early, I was looking for something to kill time. Hopefully something local, and outdoors. I asked my friends from China whether I could give them a ride back to their hotel, as they didn’t have a car. No, that was not necessary. Their landlady was on her way to the meeting place to pick them up already. Then I had the idea to ask her. She’s perfectly local, and, from the brief encounter with her the night before, when she came to the restaurant to pick my friends up, I knew that she spoke English quite well.

Birgit wasn’t really their landlady, as I later found out. The farm/hotel/restaurant, established by her great grandfather, passed on to her brother some fifteen years ago, but she did help out when she could, even though officially she’s not really associated with it. And it was she who answered the phone call from China, when my friends called to ask whether they could rent bikes to ride to meeting. The roads, she told them, were not convenient for bike riding, but she could drive them to the meeting place in the morning, and pick them up in the afternoon, for both days, for free. She could even go pick them up from the local train station. So they took her up on her offer.

A watch tower at Franken Berg, seen from the main tower.

When I finally maneuvered my car out of the patch of mud holes on the side of a small road acting as an unofficial overflow parking lot, Birgit and my friends were standing in the middle of the road waiting for me. It turned out she was thinking of showing them the Frankenstein castle, and she offered the extra seat in her car to me. I gladly accepted. Reputed as the castle that inspired the Frankenstein story, I was intrigued.

The castle, named Franken Berg, is very close to where we were. Unlike the Heidelberg castle, this one was built as a military outpost, not a noble residence, she told me. The German words for the two concepts are different, though both became “castle” when translated into English. In German, the former is a Berg, while the later a Schloss. The Franken Berg was built in 1200s or 1300s, she conjectured, and was damaged during WWII. Owned by a private party, there is no entrance fee, except during Halloween time, when they put up a good scare. Family-friendly events are held in the day, when mildly scary scenes are put up for the entertainment of the kids, but the more scary stuff are reserved for the adults, in the night. Ghosts may come out of nowhere to grab you, and once in a while a lucky guest is put in a casket, and people would cheer and celebrate when the lid is closed.


As the Berg is by definition not that extensive, we covered it rather quickly, and had time to spare. Birgit suggested that we go visit a rock formation near her place. For that I’d better drive, following her car. So that’s what I did. We drove on roads that were one lane wide, but shared with vehicles coming the other way, some of them big bad farming equipment with menacing sharp appendages hung about them. The only sensible thing to do, when one of those came our way, was to quickly spot a place where the shoulder of the road looked more friendly, get our cars over as quickly as possible, and wait patiently for it to slowly move over. In the small towns we passed by the situation was hardly any better, where the roads, often designed just barely wide enough for bi-directional traffic, were commonly sprinkled with cars parked on the sides, with one set of their wheels on the sidewalk.


Birgit’s family farm is rather expansive. Its sheep barn is large enough to contain quite comfortably the little hotel I was staying at. There were dozens of sheep and almost as many lambs, mostly a few weeks old, but with one of them with its umbilical cord still hanging under her. All of the sheep were ear-tagged, including the baby lambs, who wore baby-sized tags, red for the girls, and blue for the boys. The lambs would be raised on the farm, until they were large enough to be served as dinner, she said.


The stone formation in Felsenmeer is right behind the farm, on the other side of the hill. She used to walk up this hill nearly daily, when she was young, but this time she drove us up. Legend has it that two giants held grudges, and hurled these boulders, against each other, and one could still hear them brawl if one listened carefully. Felsenmeer stones were discovered and made use of during Roman times. On one piece of stone we could see tool marks, while another piece was an already-finished column, abandoned for some reason. The stone column was meant for Trier, only some three hour’s drive away, plus a few months in ancient times. Many years ago we visited Trier, I told Birgit, and saw quite a few Roman ruins, including the Roman Bridge, and Porta Negra.

We came down the hill on the same steep winding road that we went up, that was one lane wide but allowed two-way traffic, and that was a private road such that you drive on it at your own risk with the government having no part of it, and sat for dinner in their restaurant. At first we sat outside, in what they called the beer-garden. But the temperature was going down fast, and not far from us a big truck came by to spread manure. It dawned on us that the inside was much more attractive.

Birgit couldn’t find a menu in English, and felt obligated to translate the whole menu for us. Poor thing! This menu was ten times more extensive than the one in the hotel I stayed with. I tried to follow her translation to see if I could save a few key words in my memory bank, but came to the conclusion that the leaky nature of this particular memory bank and the low frequency of potential recall made this endeavor quite futile. She ordered the food for us, including an alcohol-free beer for me as I had to drive back to my hotel. But in spite of the insistence of my friends, she would not eat with us. She had to go home in a reasonable hour to eat with her children, before turning in early in order to get up early for her work, which would be from two in the morning to eleven thirty. She has two boys, fifteen and eight years old, and they could prepare dinner while she showered and took off her makeup. The dinner would be simple, sausages plus a green salad. She would not have my friends pay for her meal there as it’s a family business and she normally gets to eat for free. Etc.

How many hours a week does she have to work? Nine and a half, including a 45 minute break. As a single mother she’s got privileges, such as the reduced work hours, and a choice of the time slot to work. Fortunately the older boy could feed the younger one in the morning and send him off on the school bus. And after school the younger one could stay in an after-school care program for a few hours. They spoke English well, partly from her teaching, she said. They were also learning Spanish in school. As for herself, she learned English from school, the very same one that her kids went later, and used English at work. Her work was at the duty-free store in Frankfurt airport, but in Terminal 1, instead of the smaller Terminal 2 I was going to depart from.

She’d been to many international destinations, including New York. But she would really like to go to China. To see the Great Wall, among other things. How far is the Great Wall from Beijing? The great wall is very long, and only some sections are close to Beijing, I said. Yes–isn’t it like so many thousands of kilometers long? She asked. I had no idea. She said proudly that she learned about it in school. I didn’t, but I didn’t have the courage to say it.

There was one small embarrassing moment in the restaurant after we said goodbye to Birgit. I wanted to use the restroom, but that word did not elicit any response. Nor did WC, man’s room or washroom. Feeling that maybe hearing me more closely could help, the two ladies at the counter came up to me, which made me feel quite uncomfortable, due to the nature of the business at hand. After a few dreadfully long seconds that felt like an eternity, I finally came up with the word “toilet”, which I knew was the correct word the moment I thought of it. It is used this way in many languages in the old world, but is not used in the new world in that sense. The place I was looking for was right there, outside a set of double doors, and down a couple of flights of stairs. There was even an elevator, I eventually realized.

Back at my hotel, I found the lady manager cum cook in the restaurant. We smiled at each other, and she told me that she was wearing the white apron, which was good for the kitchen but not the office. This was mostly understood through gestures instead of words. I said that she must now change her hat, which she didn’t understand. After the change of attire, or the removal of the apron, we concluded our business quickly, with her happy that I paid so much, and I happy that I paid so little. She asked if I were to move to the city the next day. No, I would fly away. New York? No, Moscow and Beijing. Putin? She said. No, I knew him but he didn’t know me, I said. But that did not produce any comprehension, apparently. I gave up. Moscow and? Beijing. She was puzzled. China, I said. It still didn’t work. Chine. A young lady in the back of the office turned and said. Ah, Chine. I really should have known. Where is Beijing in China? It’s the capital. That word should be easily understood by Germans–Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, and at least in English, it’s the same word! She gave me a card and a brochure, and wishes I’d stay with them again if I came to this area again. I smiled at her, and thought of Birgit’s family’s hotel. A half hour’s drive, and a world apart. How I missed clear verbal communication! I knew the problem was completely on my side, but now I also knew there was an easy way out, and that’s not learning German.

Back when we were on the rampart of Franken Berg, Birgit pointed out the direction of Frankfurt, somewhere far away behind the trees, the city of Darmstadt, and the haze. From there, many years ago, a young lady came to Beijing to study, and became the first foreigner I got to know by myself. It’s she who taught me that the correct term is Frankfurt am Main, as there is another Frankfurt in Germany, in what was then East Germany. Despite of the two governments, there was but only one Germany. She believed, and therefore I believed, years before it came true again in form. My eyes fogged up. Wherever you are now, 贝尼尼, I hope you are well!

(Written on 3/17/2017)


It has been more than 20 years since I was last in Germany. But last time I was never in this part of Germany, and I did not drive. Besides, I have not driven a manual shift car for a couple of years.

It took the car a couple of tries to remind me how to get a manual shift car started. And when I finally did get it started, it moved the wrong way, going forward instead of backward. The car beeped at me, for getting too close to the wall. My first manual shift car, which I’m the most used to, had a “standard H” configuration, with the reverse gear in the lower right corner. This car had six forward gears, and you have to use a lever to get into reverse.

Once I got out of the airport, the fun started. Very quickly, I was on the Autobahn A5, and I got up to 160 km/h (100 mph) on some stretches of the road. I’d done 110 mph in the States, but that was in the dead of the night, in the middle of nowhere, on a stretch of road that’s completely empty, except for myself, and the policeman who caught me. But A5 on a work day is full of traffic, and that made this experience very enjoyable. Not only I passed many cars, but I was also a very polite and gentlemanly driver, moving to the right to let others pass whenever I could. The road was super smooth, especially near the Frankfurt airport. Traveling alone has its drawbacks. For this drive I really would have liked to switch to my sun glasses, which was right next to me, in my computer bag, inside its case. But with the constant traffic, I decided to go without. The GPS, while far from perfect, helped out a lot, as it spoke reasonably good English.

Heidelberg, seen from the Castle

My first day of business starts tomorrow, so today I am just here to relax and to get over the jet lag. I have a whole half day to kill, and I wasn’t going to let it go to waste. Besides, they say that the best way to fight jet lag is to stay outdoors, especially if there is sun out. So I went to Heidelberg. This is the nearest small town that was highly regarded in online reviews.

My first problem, after getting into Heidelberg, was that I did not know where to find parking. So I just stopped in front of a random building, which turned out to be a tourist information center. I went in and asked, and was directed to somewhere that I wasn’t sure how to get to. Fortunately, after a couple of the seemingly wrong turns, I got there and parked my car. And then I found out that the parking place, an underground parking garage, required payment in cash. It took me a few tries to find somebody to direct me to an ATM machine, as it seemed that ATM is not the correct term in this part of the world, and most people did not react to it. Come to think about it, it might have worked better if I pronounced the letter A as Ah, the way Germans would, but unfortunately I came to this idea one day too late.

After some wandering around town, where there is a university, and a large pedestrian district, I got myself a lunch in an Italian restaurant :P. The food was quite alright, but it was super salty. I used part of my water to wash off the creamy cheese sauce in the spaghetti.


Next stop was the famous Heidelberg Castle. I was smart enough to find a place to buy the ticket before getting to the castle, as the ticket for the castle included a ride on the funicular. Except that the funicular was closed down for annual maintenance. In its place there was a bus service, but then the bus had a minor accident, when somebody bumped its rear-right lights off, so we wasted a good twenty minutes or so, and had to walk the rest of the way.

Frederick’s building, Heidelberg Castle. This is the only building in the Castle that was restored, although some other buildings are currently in use.

I asked for the guided tour, which was highly recommended in TripAdvisor reviews, but it turned out that my timing was not quite right, and the next tour in English was to start in more than an hour. So I went in without. After quite a while, I saw some visitors with audio guides. I had to get back out, and go across the street to rent it, I was told, when I asked for that. I did that anyway and I was lightened by €5, which was quite worth it.

The Heidelberg castle was quite large, and it is in a state of deep dilapidation–on purpose in the latter years. There are stories of romance related to it. One of them involved an English princess by the name of Elizabeth. She came over as the young wife of the Elector Palatine, and was Queen of Bohemia briefly, when her husband Frederick became the “Winter King”. Another involved Goethe in his sixties and a young poet by the name of Marianne von Willemer. A very nice verse by Goethe was narrated in the audio guide, and here is a version of it that I found afterwards:

Still may the cypresses confess
To thee, the water leaping, flowing,
From Zuleika to Zuleika
Is my coming, and my going.

Elizabeth Gate, Heidelberg Castle

After the Castle trip I decided to walk down to the city and to the parking place, which probably was a mistake. I had a picture of the place on my phone, and most people could readily recognize it. But finding it was a different matter. Most people directed me to the correct direction, but one lady actually directed me 180° wrong, and a couple of other ladies just did not know the way. They were all very friendly, though.

Wine Barrel, Heidelberg Castle. Reputed to be the largest barrel in the world to have been filled with wine.

Getting to the hotel in the evening was troublesome, because I had to fight rush hour traffic–manual shift is painful to use in stop-and-go traffic. Besides, jet lag was finally catching up with me. Once there I found that the lady on duty was also part cook, and did not speak much English. Still her English was much better than my by now basically non-existent German. And when one’s language facilities are restricted, one can be quite inventive in how to use it: “This key is for door #1; this key is for door #2”, she said, effectively. There was no lion nor lady behind either one, it turned out. Door #1 was for an outer door to the rooms, which is left open during the day. Door #2 was my room’s door. She also promised me that she made a great soup, which I made sure that I ordered for dinner, in addition to something that was a specialty of another cook. The soup was OK, only slightly too sweet for my taste, but the corned-beef-with-vegetable roll turned out way too salty, and a side dish of “dumplings” was rather tasteless. I cannot give the proper names to these dishes, because the menu was completely in German. The restaurant also preferred to be paid in cash, but I have run out by this time, so they agreed to add the bill to my room bill, to be paid for with a credit card. I really did not expect that so many businesses don’t take credit cards today. I’ve been spoiled in the US, I guess.

(Written on the night of March 14. Revised on March 15 and 16.)

How to change the world in three easy steps

That was the title of my talk given to some students in Beida (Peking University), in September this year. Beida is my Alma mater, where I got my undergraduate degree in Physics. The talk was given in the College of Physics. Below is an outline of the talk.

I started with a couple of preliminaries:
1) Which language to use. Previously I talked with a Beida student in the humanities, and her opinion was that it did not matter whether I used English or Chinese, as some courses were given in English any way, and there was no problem of students understanding it. I posed the problem this way: (a) I, a student of the Phys. Dept., had certainly not forgotten my mother tongue, and could give a talk in Chinese with ease, (b) But (this part I said in English, so that they could better gauge the language production by me and language reception by themselves) since I’d been away for so long, I was not sure of the politics of the current time. If I happened to say something not exactly politically correct, I could more easily attribute it to the possible inaccuracies of translation if the talk was to be given in English. Switching back to Chinese, I asked for a show of hands. It turned out the overwhelming majority preferred me to use Chinese. Which I did. But I led a short excursion on voting schemes. While the one-person-one-vote method we had just practiced was commonly used, it is not the only one available. For example, there is the one-person-several-votes scheme, representing the strength/conviction of the vote. I gave the US presidential election as an example. While one person can vote for the president of choice with one or zero vote, s/he can contribute money up to $4500, which can in a way represent how eager one would like to have one candidate to win.

2) Why change the world? I asked to see how many of those present (about 25? see the pictures) wanted to change the world. There were preciously few. I asked them why. The answers ranged from the existence of official corruption (官倒), uneven wealth distribution, to general corruption. So I told them how I felt. When I was in school in China, I was taught (and some present indicated that they were also taught) that Karl Marx said that the main differentiation between humans and other animals is the usage of tools. With nothing against Marx, that pronouncement was made a long time ago, without the aid of modern science. As we know now, not only other primates can make and use tools, even some birds, with their size of the brain so little (I indicate with the end of my pinky), can make and use tools. So now what differentiates us from other animals? My own understanding is, humans are the only animal who intentionally want to change the world. Other animals inherent the world as it is, surviving in it if it can, and repeating the living styles of their parents; but we don’t. We see the world and want to change it, hopefully in the positive direction–we want to make the world better, for ourselves and our children.

3) How to change the world? It does not mean revolutions. Changing the world mostly means to change the way people think. If we change the leaders, the world is not really changed, because new leaders may simply repeat the ways of the old. But if people changed their mind, and acted differently, the world is changed.

Then the main story: how to change the world in 3 easy steps.
A. Understand oneself. I didn’t mean 自知之明, which is often associated with a negative connotation [as in, know your place]. I meant knowing one’s strengths as well as weaknesses. I didn’t, when I was in Beida. After some time in Beida, I realized that those in my class and from Beijing region had their student IDs assigned according to their entrance exam scores, ranging from 1 to 13. I asked the students to guess which number I had. Some guessed it correctly: 13. So I knew that I entered the Physics Dept. at the bottom of the pack. And in the four years there my standing did not noticeably improve. Yet outside of Beida, wherever I’d been, I was generally at the head of the pack. For example, presently I work with a group of smart people doing mostly automatic image processing. While most of these people had their PhD’s in CS, CE or EE, and learned image processing in school, and I didn’t, I have the role of the technical lead. The reason, I believe, is the vision. One don’t have to know all the details of how to solve each problem, although knowing some is necessary, and it helps to know more, but one definitely needs the vision to lead. And the vision, one can probably learn better in a Phys. dept. than in a CS dept. I gave some other examples from my life as well.

B. Prepare oneself. It is never sure when and from where the opportunities come, so one must prepare oneself in many ways. I knew I must be able to work with people, so I tried hard to work on my introvert personality. I knew I needed to learn English well, so I read English novels in college while many others read Chinese ones. I knew I needed to learn computers, so I sought out any opportunity there was. And by the end of four years of undergraduate studies, I believe I had had more time on computers than many people in the CS Dept had.

C. Seize opportunities. One should keep eyes open for opportunities not directly sought. I gave a few examples, several of which were from my technical areas. For example, when I got my first job, one of the tasks I was given was to design a barcode scanner’s optical package. I quickly designed one exactly to my manager’s requirements, but when a prototype was built its performance was deemed lousy. I soon realized that my manager didn’t know how to specify the requirement for a good scanner. Through observing how another manager and our test robot tested the performance of the scanner, I figured out what I needed to do. In the end, not only I got a better scanner, I got a patent describing the characteristics that made a good scanner.

I also mentioned our attempt at commemorating Sept. 18. The argument was: the Chinese did not really win the Sino-Japanese War, as Japan basically surrendered due to other factors; yet we celebrate the winning of that war while Japan commemorate Hiroshima. That was backwards. We should commemorate Sept. 18, when Japan upgraded its aggression with an aim of taking over the whole of China. Some from the government said: not so fast–we’d agreed with Japan that we would not seek retribution. Our argument against that was, the agreement was between governments; we should allow that the Chinese people might have a different mind. The official then said, wouldn’t that make our country less strong, in the sense that what our government agreed upon was not in accordance with the people? Our answer was: well, look at the US, where the people often did not agree with the government: Did we think it was weak because of that? Then our official said, what if we allowed this demonstration, and in the future there came one that had a lot of echo from the populace? Wouldn’t the country deteriorate into chaos? One of my classmates said, well, if the government ever found itself on the opposite side of the populace, it would be time to worry about something more serious. In the end, the demonstration was not allowed. But that only meant that we caught the opportunity at hand, while our government let it pass. Consider the alternative: wouldn’t our democracy have moved into a new phase if that demonstration, which was not aimed at our government, was given a green light?

I conclude by saying that when I was in Beida, I would never have dreamed to volunteer to make this speech in front of so many people. Over the years I have changed myself. But then I have also learned that one really couldn’t change oneself from an introvert into an extrovert. Yet here I was, making this speech. And this was my little attempt, at changing this world.

I hope they got the message.


That Security Appearance (TSA) is only Skin-Deep

There was a time when traveling was fun and exciting. Then the excitement gradually went out of the flying part–which unfortunately is often where the traveling starts and ends. The excitement. Ah–those were the days.

I remember once I was getting out of JFK in cold weather. The security line was not very long, fortunately. A young lady was immediately in front of me. She took off a leather jacket, revealing a garment that is in a high-quality satin-like material, and, possibly consequently, in very limited quantity. Then she took off her boots (Uggs?), showing off her bare feet, lower legs, and parts of her thigh. And then she took off her belt (a wide and fashionable piece!), without ever a prompt from airport security. In all this time, she never looked back.

That imagery helped me to brave the enhanced security pat-down this summer, tested on me through a random selection process, when a TSA agent decided that it was high time that his new trainee got a new victim subject. The intimate touches I got were uncomfortable, embarrassing, until I think of others who could feel even more so. I wish they gave me the choice of using a body-scanner.

Fortunately for the terrorists, the body-scanner is only skin-deep. And these terrorists, they are smart. They learn from drug-traffickers, who have not lost in the “War on Drugs” against the powerful US government. It is a known fact that some drug-traffickers use certain body-cavities for their illicit transport!

So TSA is molesting the American traveling public just to make them feel safer, rather than actually make their traveling safer (of course they are making some companies richer, but that is for another day’s discussion). To make the traveling safe, even only to as far as known terrorist tactics go, would require that they enhance the security procedures even more.

I wonder when that enhanced-enhanced security procedure (EES, or E2S) will arrive, and in what form. And then I think of that young lady who was once in front of me in the security line. And I cringe.

Eating in Morocco, and Ramadan

When we first arrived in Morocco, we were in Marrakesh, where the temperature was hot and depressing, but the food was very pleasing. I was happy to introduce couscous to my family—it was seemingly available everywhere. When nicely cooked, it is not unlike millet in taste, and brings us fond memories of good home food. In contrast, tagine was almost forced on us, as half of the menu entries at our hotel’s restaurant are different varieties of tagines. It came as a dish with a little pile of vegetables, with some meat (in our case chicken) hiding inside. And it was really tasty.

Tagine the dish
Couscous (left) and tagine (right)

Good food needs good ambient to enjoy, and in Marrakesh this comes in the form of air conditioning. While our hotel room didn’t come with AC, the restaurant within the hotel has it. Unfortunately, the AC was not large, and was in a room with no glass panes for the door or the window. Although the doorway was draped with a curtain, and the windows partially blocked with carved wood patterns, the room was only slightly cooler than the outside. We were the only guests there, and chose for ourselves a corner right under the AC. The restaurant owner sat in the room as well, helping us to choose food, and read a newspaper that he shared with the hotel owner.

The restaurant’s owner speaks good French, but unfortunately we don’t, so communication was somewhat hit and miss. Yet, with all that difficulty Agnes was able to ask where the name tagine came from, and understood the answer to be that the cooking vessel was its namesake. To our surprise, this turned out to be true.

Jamaa el Fna
Jamaa el Fna from Le Grand Balcon

Our hotel was very close to the main square of Marrakesh, Jamaa el Fna. On the square, all kinds of food can be had inexpensively. We tried out local fares from an orange stand, a small food store, a slightly-less-small restaurant by the square, and pizza at Le Grand Balcon Café Glacier, where the food was nothing to brag about, but the view of the square was spectacular.

It turned out couscous is a very Berber-specific food, and Berber lifestyle is only centered around Marrakech. In many places of Morocco, we were told it was not available. At one place, we were told that we must have more than four people to order couscous.

So what else did we get? In most of the non-Berber areas, you get your choice of brochette, which is shish kebab in French. And in Ifane we had the best Spaghetti au Thon, or spaghetti with tuna, in the restaurant right under our hotel, La Paix (the restaurant, not the hotel). Having some familiar food to fall back on was great, and during our three day stay in Ifane we tried spaghetti in two other restaurants, but neither of those spaghettis was as good.

The third day in Morocco was the start of Ramadan. Although we knew Ramadan was coming up, we didn’t know what to expect. We did bring some trail-mix and other snacks, but it didn’t seem that we needed them. We had a nice lunch on the High Atlas, and dinner was included in the room rate for our hotel, the Itran Kasbah. We were asked whether we were vegetarians, and were told that dinner would be brought to us, wherever we liked.

So we waited on the terrace. And we waited. The evening became cool. The stars twinkled. And when we inquired, we were told the food was coming. It eventually did, at the point that the kids were very sleepy. We got a tagine, which included some very tough meat. We couldn’t see what exactly we were eating, because the lighting on the terrace was dim, so we asked for a lamp. When the lamp came, it was still too dim to figure out what we had, but we kind of lost interest in the food. It was in Ifane, when we talked with the sisters Inman and Ramnié, that we understood that after the day’s fasting, the Moroccans would eat a little bit, (go to a mosque to) pray, and eat more. No wonder our dinner was served so late.

Once a waiter (wait-people in Morocco are generally men) told us that it was not so hard to watch us eat, while keeping a fast himself. The hardest thing to endure was refraining from smoking cigarettes during the day.

Lunch on balcony
Lunch on balcony of Hotel Marco Polo

The day before we left Morocco, we stayed in the seaside town of Tanger, across the Gibraltar Straight from Europe. There, we were told by the hotel owner that lunch starts at 4pm. But we were too hungry to wait. So he took me to his kitchen, where we agreed on the fish he’d have cooked for us, and the food was served on our balcony. This way, he didn’t have to open up the restaurant just for us, while we got to enjoy the meal with a great view of the white sand beach. Life couldn’t have been better!


Moroccans are all kinds, just like any other people. But they are all fascinating to us.

The most Moroccans we got to meet are merchants, guides, and guardians for vehicles. Merchants are like elsewhere, selling items big and small; but the difference is that their stores are packed into large bunches of thousands in a square mile that it is confusing and fascinating at the same time—confusing because once one gets into the souks it is very easy to get lost and almost impossible to accurately locate oneself; fascinating because with seemingly hundreds of shops next to each other selling basically the same ware,
it is very hard to fathom how one could decide on buying from one rather than from another. Of course most of the stuff is not marked with price, so comparison shopping cannot be done easily.

In cities or in tourist attractions, guides abound wanted show us around for a fee. According to tour books, there are two types of guides: official ones and faux guides. But we couldn’t tell whether which type each is, at least not with any confidence. The several that professed to be official guides showed us picture IDs which are of such low qualities that a laminated picture ID designed by a seven-year old could look a hundred times
more official. And when we showed a lack of interest, one guide was willing to lower the the official price of about 100 MAD (Moroccan dirham, locally shorthanded as DH) per hour. There was also a young man who showed us a tannery (dyer’s market, but I suspect it was not the real one, but a small tourist trap nearby). He spoke good English, pushed us hard to buy things, and refused to accept a small fee. On the way out, I found that he probably was paid 50 or 100 DH by an elderly person near the entrance of the tannery.

Then there are guardians, who are everywhere a car may be parked. According to our tour book, there are official ones as well. They may ask for about 10 DH for a night. But there are certainly more unofficial ones. In Ifrane we stopped our car at a place near the town square where there was a parking ticket machine AND a guardian. If we were to park there, we would end up paying 10 DH for a couple of hours, barely enough time for a lunch, verses 10 DH for the afternoon and overnight if we parked some 50 yards (meters) away on a side street. In Todra Gorge, the self-proclaimed guardian was a boy of
about 12 years old, who spoke a modicum of English (Moroccans generally speak Arabic, and French, their official languages). When we gave him 10 DH, he wasn’t satisfied; only when I pointed out that we barely stopped for 10 minutes that he backed off, saying “have a good day, my friend”.

Snake charmers on Jemaa el Fna

On Jemaa el Fna, the main square of Marrakech, there are always people selling stuff and food, as well as artisans of all sorts: there are snake charmers, musicians and dancers, people wearing fancy dresses, all waiting for someone to take pictures for 10 DH. Supposedly there is also a dentist who would pull teethes in front of spectators, but we didn’t get to see this feat. In Almoravid Koubba, the overseer told us the same five English sentences (roughly) five times, transmitting no meaning because his English was so very
bad, and would refuse to take a tip less than 10 DH.

Of all these people, most are men (or boys). Women can be seen, although in much smaller proportion to men, but they usually don’t interact with customers (especially in Marrakech). The only exception I found in Marrakech is a woman who operated a small “teleboutique” in a small alley near our hotel, Jnane Mogadore. She apparently run the store alone, speaks good French and enough English for me to buy the phone card and the put extra money into it. In Ifrane a couple of hotels had a lone woman taking charge of the reception desks for the two hotels I visited, and they spoke enough English to
conduct the business, although when I asked whether she spoke English one of them said “not really”. While people running hotel businesses generally spoke English to some degree, those in the restaurants may or may not.

Police is a different matter. Unlike in the US, Moroccan police is usually not found driving around in patrol cars, but usually congregates in small groups at fixed locations. We were flagged down getting outside a small town by a group of about six. Apparently I passed a car where I shouldn’t, right before the place where they were stationed, although I really
couldn’t understand why—I was not driving at a high speed, and the road was apparently
not marked for no passing. The officer in charge was very polite, and attempted to give me a short lecture. After seeing that our French was terribly bad and couldn’t get what he was trying to convey, he shortened his message with a single sentence, of which we caught the last word “Attention”, and waved us by. In other parts of the country we were stopped by police check points a couple of times, each of which they simply waved us by without questions or inspections. During Ramadan we saw a group of three or four police officers
(including a woman) passing the boring afternoon times in a restaurant, either chatting on and off or nodding away in sleepiness. They were not eating anything; and the restaurant was mostly empty.

During our three days’ stay in Ifrane, we met three families of regular people. Each of these had one or more who spoke English, which made communications with us easy. The first family we met were two young sisters, named Inman and Ramniè (sound). They no longer lived in Ifrane, but came back during this time to be with their family. The second family was of three generations, with the grandparents, a daughter, and a granddaughter named Maya. We were surprised to learn that the grandfather is an official working for the
Prime Minister. The third family was visiting for the day from Fes. The surprising fact of this family is that the young man spoke not only Arabic, French, and English, but also some Chinese. It turned out he is an engineer, worked in Qingdao (famous for the only type of Chinese beer seen oversees) for six months cumulatively. Beside him, the family consists of his beautiful sister, his reticent brother, both of who are high-school students, and his apparently well-educated parents. His father spoke some English as well (much
more than our French).

Out of Africa

If my ancestors came out of Africa, could they be escaping from the extreme hot temperature of summer? If they did, it would be completely understandable.

There I was, in the desert, and couldn’t force myself to eat anything. I was feeling unwell, obviously due to the excessive heat. When Agnes stopped car to inquire about the way forward, the car’s temperature display showed 45 degrees C. That was about 113 degrees F.

For dinner, we had turkey kebabs delivered to our air-conditioned room. Still, I was not able to eat anything. My head was in pain. As I lay about on the bed, I wondered why I chose to come to west Sahara in the middle of August, and with my family; and how we could most expeditiously get out of there. I didn’t know what to do. We had another 5 days time scheduled in Morocco, and the next destinations we planned to go to, Fes and Meknes, were almost as hot. Worse yet, I didn’t know what would become of me in the next few days. I had not been eating for two meals, and drinking water seemed to make my state of being worse.

I gave myself a mental diagnosis—this I had to do, as we were on the edge of Sahara Desert: not only doctors that could speak English had to be hard to find, but also I didn’t want to delay my family’s escape from the devastating heat by looking for one.

I generally did not consider myself weak. Within the family, I thought I was in the best physical shape (not that they would all agree with that). How could it be that the three of them seemed to be taking the heat on just fine, while I was stricken so severely?

While lying in bed, with the AC running non-stop, I noticed that my palms and bottoms of my feet were sweating profusely. This was strange, as I thought previously that sweating is a mechanism to lower body temperature. But at that moment, I’d had a nice swim, and I’d been in an air-conditioned car or room for more than 12 hours, and yet I was still sweating. I didn’t remember this bodily reaction to heat when I was living in Arizona, for my graduate studies.

Then it hit me. All the sweating must be taking away a lot of salt from my body, and yet Moroccan food (at least the Berber-style food we were chiefly eating for the several days previous) is notably bland. I had to be suffering from salt deficit!

Most of the dinner for the family was left untouched on a table in the hotel room (Hotel Yasmina in the desert—I’ll get back to it in another entry). I got up, and scanned over the leftover food. I picked up a couple of olives. These must do, I told myself. I never liked olives before, because they are usually pickled with a heavy dose of salt. So at this moment, I decided that they had to be part of my cure. I ate several of them, and drank some water.

At the earliest time possible, we asked the hotel proprietor whether they happen to have Gatorade. He eventually understood what we asked for, but he didn’t have it. I took some salty crackers with water for breakfast, and we decided that from this day on I’d try to put salt in my water when we eat, until I overcome the problem.

By and by I recovered. But it took a couple of days.

To avoid any possible repeat, we tried to revise our schedule such that we would only travel or tour for half a day per day, taking a siesta when the locals do, and stay in the air-conditioned car or hotel room as much as possible.

A couple of days later, we happened upon an especially photogenic roadside lake, with hundreds of large white birds hanging around. I stopped the car by the roadside so that Agnes could take better pictures; and she found the outside temperature particularly agreeable. Thus we all came out of the car, and one thing after another, this led to our three day stay in Ifrane.

Ifrane is famously know as the little Switzerland in Morocco, with beautiful environment, temperate weather, European-styled buildings, wide streets, a short driving distance from the Imperial cities of Fes and Meknes, and a selection of well-to-do Moroccans visiting either for the day or for an extended vacation. It was in Ifrane that I recovered my energy, and the family recuperated from the toils of the previous days. With Ifrane as our base, Africa did not seem so forbidding any more. With our need of getting out of Africa as soon as possible abated, we largely kept our original schedule, and are to cross the Gibraltar Strait tomorrow (August 17).

(This entry was written yesterday, but we didn’t have Internet connection then. Right now we are in La Linea de la Concepcion, within walking distance to the rocks of Gibraltar, under British rule.)

Geeky Travel

Compared to our first trip to Spain and
about 15 years ago, technology is very different now. Back then we
worry about where to find ATM and get money. Now we worry about cell phone,
Internet connection, and GPS. Of these, Internet is not required, so we’ll just
use it wherever we can find access. Cell phone and GPS, however, we would
rather not leave without.

For most of the world one type of phone is good enough—GSM.
But in the US it’s not the
only game in town, and the GSM frequencies used in Spain
and Morocco is not those
used in the US.
For this trip I bought an Iphone
on ebay, for about $60 including shipping. And a Garmin GPS.

I9+++ Phone

The new phone turned out to be a geek’s trap, in the sense
that it has a long list of hardware features, and an even longer list of
software glitches, some of them plaintively easy to fix, if only we had the
means to change the code.

Here’s some of the hardware features:

  • Dual
    SIM card, dual standby. This is meant to save people money, so one can,
    say, receive signal from an International phone call with the home phone
    number, and yet in most cases choose to use a local SIM card to make local
    calls. A friend tells me that the phone must have two radios to support
    this feature.
  • Quad band. Meaning it supports all GSM frequencies, and thus can work in the US as well as abroad.
  • Two
    cameras, one facing the front and the other facing the back. These are low
    resolution and low quality cameras, not something to replace the real
    thing with.
  • WiFi
    and Blue Tooth. The WiFi radio is only capable of extremely low data
    rates, so this is not a fatter data pipe, only a potential money saver.
    The phone’s native WAP browser is very limited, and yet no other browser
    that I’ve tried on it (so far I’ve tried three or four) can see the WiFi
  • SD
    card slot.
  • Replaceable
  • Compass.
    The software is badly documented, but I eventually figured out how to get
    it to work. Related to the compass function, there is a Mecca Finder, but
    sane-minded Muslins may want to avoid relying on it, as it seems to give
    random directions.
  • G-force
    sensor. Only in a half-working calculator can I verify that the phone can
    sense which direction is up. And only on the opening screen can I verify
    that the phone can sense shaking.
  • FM
    radio. Of very bad quality.

And here is a short list of the most egregious software

  • The
    phone numbers displayed is in green color, on a slightly different green
    background. And I haven’t found a place to change the color of either.
  • The
    internal browser cannot handle most web pages. And its home page is Google
    in Chinese, even if I set the phone’s language to English. And for some
    Google services (like simple weather inquiry), you must start in English.
  • For
    most key input, the editable field is on a different page (for example,
    it’s not on the Google page that you enter the search item). Even worse,
    to end the input, you are forced to go to another page to say “Done”!
  • Once
    you’re connected to a WiFi network, the phone doesn’t automatically
    remember it, and yet you cannot choose to tell it to remember the setting
    either. You have to program the parameters in at a different place!

In any case, it seems that nowadays phone hardware is
practically worth nothing, and all the money is made on the software. And I’m
working at a place that makes hardware. A glimpse of the brave new world ahead!

Garmin GPS

Previously we have a Magellan GPS. It works reasonably well.
But the problem is that it does not come with European maps, and it is not
extensible. So for this trip we got a Garmin, one with pre-installed maps for
both North America and Europe. But extra map
for Morocco
is another $110, or just about the price of the whole GPS.

Garmin GPS is not without disadvantages compared to
Magellan, but it is a semi-open system, which is a huge advantage. This
openness is appreciable in two ways: one can use it to grab track data, so that
it can be used to make maps in cases where the road was never mapped before;
and one can give it supplemental data, data that is not from the device
manufacturer. It’s this latter feature that gives us the alternate route to a
map of Morocco.

As it turned out, there is a wiki of maps of the world, Open Street Maps. This is where
everyone’s GPS traces can be made available to the world, and this is where you
can make a map of your own. With it, I made a map of Morocco, and loaded it to my Garmin
GPS. It’s not commercial quality by any stretch of imagination, but it does
contain most major roads.

I mentioned
that I had difficulty with Google maps in planning our travels
in Morocco.
I also tried the same plan with the Garmin GPS, equipped with the Morocco map I created
myself. So far I found a couple of issues. One is that there are no street
numbers, and very few points of interest. Another is that locations are transliterated
from Arabic, and the spellings are terribly inconsistent with anything we read
in English. Yet another is that a part of certain road which is classified as
national highway in other maps is unclassified, and consequently Garmin would
not route us through it. For this last shortcoming, I’m tempted to change the Open
Street Maps data to “upgrade” the road in question. I was stopped by my wife,
who argued that without ever travelling on it first, I’d be cheating myself and
others by doing so.

And that is hard to a geek, being forced to not do
something you think is perfectly doable. It’s right next to being forced to
watch someone folding a road map the wrong way.

Oh, talking about maps, we will get a set of paper maps. Just
in case.

Whither in Morocco

We don’t prefer the “been there, done that” type of
whirlwind travelling. To us, a trip is only worth as much as what we can learn
something from it, about the people, the culture, the history, the geology, the
technology, whatever. And for the maximum amount of learning, one needs to
prepare before the trip, and follow up afterwards. It’s a lot of work, but
makes the travel more interesting.

will be our first experience with Africa. We
chose it because of its relative safety, and because of its close vicinity to Spain. In our
previous trips to Spain, we heard of people’s fears of Moroccans—it’s very much
like Americans’ fears of Mexicans; and we’ve seen in Cordoba (southern Spain)
the Great
built by the Moorish people. Not far south from Cordoba,
one meets the Gibraltar Strait, where Morocco is visible with naked eye.

Once we mention Morocco, many people asked: “Are
you going to Casa Blanca?” This is a testament of the power and success of the
movie. But for those who’ve been to Morocco, Casa Blanca is a
“must-not-go-city”. Not that it is dangerous or bad in some other way, but it’s
modern, well-developed, and would not show off the most unique cultural
heritage of Morocco.

Instead, the tourist attractions are mostly in the Imperial Cities,
Fez (or Fès), Meknes,
Marrakesh and Rabat. Of these four, the present-day capital
and the current King’s seat is Rabat,
which makes it less attractive than the others. This is not a commentary on the
taste of the King and Queen, but the mere fact that their adapting Rabat to modern living necessarily makes Rabat less ancient than the rest. Besides,
all that extra people and traffic that commensurate with a modern capital—just imagine
Washington DC—would be a hassle for navigating the
streets. So we’ll take the other three Imperial Cities.

In addition, we’d like to visit the Sahara,
one of the biggest natural wonders in that part of the world. Well, the real Sahara is hard to get to, and for a short visit,
especially in the hot summer sun, we’d settle for a view of a corner of a dune
not far from it. Traditionally there are two places to do this, and following
the advice of many people on the web, we chose the town of Merzouga. There, we’d be able to pick a hotel
room, and see the dune from our window. Going into the desert will still be a
challenge, as in the summer heat not even camels would want to go in. That is,
during the day. There might still be a chance to go into the desert after
sundown, and get back out before daybreak. We’ll see.

By now the trip has come into shape. We’d start off in Marrakesh, go to Merzouga to see the desert, and then to Meknes/Fez
(these two cities are very close). Then we go up to Tanger (or Tangier), where
we can take a ferry to Spain.

To round off the trip, we’ll stop by Ait Ben Haddou (or Aït
Benhaddou), where supposedly the movie Lawrence of Arabia is shot.
And right next to Meknes,
we will visit Volubilis, a Roman city in ruins. Whether we can finish all of
these, or some of it, it would be a fabulous trip.

You can’t get from here to there, kiddo!

Once we were trying to arrange, while in southern Spain, train travel from Barcelona
to the French city of Avignon,
and the gentleman at the ticketing office tried very very hard to tell us that
it was impossible. It’s a hilarious scene, when we thought back, that he, the
one with the important information (for us) and the mastery of the Spanish
language, would be stuck in such an intractable position that sweat beaded down
his balding forehead, while the two of us, unable to understand the predicament
we were in, insisted on the impossible.

Fast forward a few years, and now we seem to run into a few
computers, and the mightiest of them all, hiding behind the clouds, telling us,
in cold patience, that we couldn’t get from point A to point B.

We are talking about Morocco,
a country purportedly with the best road network in Africa.
And about the giants in modern mapping, Google maps and its brethren.

You can see this from this map, the road seems to be totally
chopped up—at least according to Google. This is the map we got when we asked
for routing from Chefchaouene to Tanger. And interestingly, while we are
mapping Morocco,
there is no link or button to report a problem to Google.

Here is another interesting case, where we asked for routing from Marrakesh to Ait Ben
Haddou. According to Google, they are not that far apart, but we just can’t get
from point here to there!

Mapping software is supposed to be an improvement over paper maps. But from what we see here, more improvements are still needed. Does anyone know someone at Google?