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!

Hello world!

I haven’t been blogging for a while now. In the mean time, I read somewhere that Microsoft was closing shop on their blog site, and I was quite irritated. Why would they not send a nice email to the bloggers on their site (or at least me), instead of letting them find out from a news article? What if they didn’t read the news for a day or two?

This is my first post on Funny that Microsoft kindly arranged to have my account “migrated” to a different site instead of trying to compete harder, instead of leaving me out to find a new home by myself. So far this site seems to be nicer than No wonder Microsoft can’t compete.

While I’m kind of grateful that Microsoft thought of a way for me to go on blogging, and that the new site turned out kind of OK, I’m not completely happy about it. For you see, for some reason, Microsoft’s is just about the only site that is reachable from within the Great Firewall of China. Not Google’s, nor this site. Maybe Chinese government didn’t realize that has a blog site! It was very small, after all! That must be it!

I also wonder what has done to deserve the ire of the Chinese government (I know what Google did, and I have mixed feelings about that). Maybe some careless blogger inadvertently mentioned some dissidents, like Liu Xiaobo? But wait, without Chinese government’s contribution, he would never have gotten the recognition that he did, such as winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I’m deeply puzzled.



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.)

Kids are Tough. I am Not.

The nurse got her syringe in between her fingers, and was
preparing an antiseptic wipe.

“It doesn’t hurt that much, right?” My wife wanted some
lighthearted reassurance.

“Oh, it hurts a lot.” The nurse was not cooperating.

“Well, at least my kids had it. So I should be able to take
it.” She forced a smile.

“Kids are tough, you know.” The nurse deadpanned. With that,
she pushed in the needle.


Yesterday was our piano recital. Usually it means my wife
and I get the camera and camcorder ready, and enjoy an evening of concert. The
littler kids start first, and then it’ll be the bigger kids. We encourage our
kids, congratulate other kids, and thank their teacher Rowena Arrieta. But this was not a usual piano recital.

During the intermission, a couple of parents bid me “good
luck”. I smiled, and thanked them. Yes, my name was on the program. I was to
play a four hand with my daughter. It’s a first for me, and a first for a
parent under Rowena’s tutelage.

I mentally prepared myself. It was a simple and short piece,
Barcarolle. And Rowena prepared us well enough that sometimes we even played
without any hitches.

I concentrated on the kids who were playing in front of us,
until the last minute. Then I turned on the camcorder mounted on a tripod, took
our music sheets, and followed my daughter upstage. I smiled, bowed, arranged
the piano benches for four hands, and set up our music. All was well.

We started playing on my cue. The first note I played
sounded overly harsh, partly due to my over correction for a
less-than-sensitive piano. I adjusted and we were off. Let the waves roll! I
felt in control.

Then it came all of a sudden. My right leg, the one
controlling the damper pedal, started to shake violently and uncontrollably. I
tried to calm myself. We had to play on. There was really nothing to worry
about, I told myself. Then I missed a pedal. Rowena could hear that, but most
of the people in the audience probably wouldn’t notice. We played on. Then my
right hand started to shake as well. Oh, that was bad—because now I started to
play wrong notes. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.

I had stage frights before. I was never comfortable
speaking in public, and in junior high the speeches I wrote were made by a
class leader appointed by our teacher. When I worked in Atlanta, I voluntarily participated in a Dale
Carnegie training course for speeches, and joined a Toastmaster Club. Yet even
through all these events, my heart always pounded involuntarily whenever I

But that had changed over the years. Through practice, I
could now speak in front of dozens without any mental preparation. I spoke at
conferences, and taught kids from primary school to college. So when Rowena
asked me to play at the recital, I readily agreed.

Who would know that an adrenalin rush could roll me over
like a freight train when I thought I was mentally calm? I could not understand
nor control my body! Fortunately I was hiding behind my daughter, who soldiered
bravely on. I tried to keep pace with her.

It was a short piece; this was not by chance. At the end of
the piece were a few tremolos. That’s where my shaking hand did not hinder the
performance. Yeah! We smiled to each other, and got up to bow. Standing up
definitely helped my leg to calm down. Especially with all the flaws in my
playing, the applause was so very heartening.

The rest of the afternoon and evening was all R&R. A few
people told me that I played well. I thanked them politely. To a few that I
knew well, I told them about my shaking legs. And hands.

My daughter was incredulous about the experience—she saw it
up close. “Why were you shaking so crazily?”

Well, kids are tough. I am not.

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?

Third time’s a charm–for piano lessons

Yesterday I took a lesson from Rowena Arrieta, a world-class pianist! My son was too tired from the previous day’s Science Olympiad to go for his lesson, so I used his time slot. And Rowena was so very gentle to me.


My wife has been pushing me to start taking piano lesson for a while now. But I always hesitated. I didn’t feel that I could commit to consistent practice, although I do practice quite often. But my wife insisted. And we know that Rowena has been very nurturing to our children. So I finally said: ok, I’ll give it some more serious thought. Maybe after the children had taken their guild tests, I thought. I didn’t realize, until the night before, that my first opportunity to ask was yesterday.


It was a wonderful experience. I learned quite a few things. And I was happy that they were easy to understand, although I have to practice to get them right consistently. I can hear the improvement immediately in the sound of the music that I play.


As it turned out, this is my third piano lesson! (I had no formal lesson in any other musical instrument.)


When I was growing up in China, we had preciously little in terms of possessions as well as opportunities. Luckily for me our family moved to a place close to an aunt of mine, who was a pianist. They had a piano at their home, and I started to take piano lessons with my aunt.


I still kind of remember the first and only piece of music I learned. It was on "C position", where the ten fingers are each placed on a white key, and stayed there for the whole time. I think it was titled "steps", as on the right hand it’s almost like playing the first five notes of the C-scale. There was no piano, or any other keyboard instrument, at our apartment, so of course I didn’t practice between lessons. I didn’t have the music book either–it was my aunts. But the piece of music is kind of simple, and before the second lesson I could play by imagining seeing the music, and the piano in front of me.


Somewhere during my second lesson, a neighbor came to talk to my aunt, and because I was in the middle of the piece, my aunt told me to keep playing, and stepped outside to talk. It was at that moment I made my fatal mistake–I cut corners. The piece ended with three long notes, two of them (on the right hand, possibly sharing a single note on the left hand, but I can’t be certain of it now) were supposed to be two beats, and the last one was four beats. I cut all of them short. When my aunt came back, she declared that I was not musically talented, and ended my chance of learning to play piano.


Nobody expected me to become a pianist, so nobody was upset at the determination that I wasn’t good at it. I felt a little guilty as well. I was in high school already, and I could certainly count my beats. But I didn’t hold the notes long enough, because I didn’t see the point. Ok, when things were happening, like when there were other notes to be played, I understood that cutting some notes short would make them not nicely spaced out. But this was at the end of the piece, where the notes were taking up a long time already, cutting them short didn’t feel so terribly bad. Besides, I was secretly hoping that by cutting those notes short, I’d finish up before my aunt came back, and if she wasn’t listening carefully while she talked to the neighbor, we could move on to something new–like a new piece of music!


As years went by, my feelings started to change. I started to feel less guilty of not being able to keep the note values, and more sympathetic to the childhood me. I freely admit that I was not doing what I was told, but that was not necessarily all that bad. If I knew some more about the importance of keeping the beats, about the advantages I could gain by paying attention to every detail, and the disadvantages that come with not doing so, I might have played differently. But even then, I might not have.


I’m much more tolerant to young people partly because of what I was. I was obedient, never (ok, almost never) talked back to the adults around me, and consequently never had myself understood by any one of them. I know children can have very valid thoughts and feelings, but may have very little courage, confidence, opportunity and expressive facilities to make them known. As adults, we are privileged with size, experience, confidence and control of language. We should not need to use "status" as an additional tool for our discourse. With it, we can surely win every argument with children, whether ours or other people’s. But without, we’ll be able to win over their hearts. At least more easily.


Thinking back, I don’t think I’d ever have become a musician, even if I didn’t make the mistake I did when I took my second piano lesson. But, I might have been able to enjoy music more over the years, if I understood music better.


Although, it’s never too late.


Again, thank you so very much, Rowena.


And mostly, many thanks to my loving wife, whose instigation and persistent encouragement led to this wonderful gift for my birthday.

Mexico and South America Travelogues

Just uploaded a Mexico travelogue (written by the two of us; trip was made in 2006) a few days ago. And here is the link:

We’d like to hear your comments. Please post them below.

In the mean time, my first draft of South America travelogue is being reviewed (by my wife). I’ll post it soon after, with pictures as always. For a teaser, here is the beginning part.

Don’t Cry for me, Argentina

In classical Chinese romance stories, the beautiful heroines
often die young. In the typical western classical fairy tale, not a single word
is wasted after the lucky beauty is happily married. Ah, such is the strength
of bound between youth and beauty. For thousands of years, people have
fascinated about holding on to them, more than about holding on to their lives.
Stay, the spring of life; Stay, the beauty in my eye.

Eva Paron’s is just such a terribly tragic, and consequently
the more beautiful, story. She started from the bottom of the society, became
an actress (but not a top-rated one), and then helped her husband to become
president. She connected to people, gave them production tools or start up money
(economical stimulus package?), and rejected their calls to become the first
female vice president. And then she died, in her youth, with her beauty intact.
What more can a person, whether the beauty or the admirer, ask for?

Our trip to South America, in the summer of 2008 (locally
winter), was not primarily to trace the romantic silhouettes of Evita, or Che, whose famous motorcycle
journey started from Buenos Aires.
Our main aim was something more tangible, something you can see, hear, feel,
and breathe in, at the same time.

I also would like to write a Chinese version. Here is its beginning paragraphs.