Chefchaouen – Laundering Carpets and Drugs Along The Ras El’Ma River

The Spanish mosque sits atop a hill, next to Ras el’Ma river which is used by the local women as a carpet laundry. It is about a 30-40 minutes trek from the medina. The mosque itself is abandoned and not used for prayers, but it serves as a very good vantage point to admire the views of the city and its surroundings.

Spanish Mosque

Spanish Mosque

Just before sun set on my way back from the Spanish masjid to the medina I stopped near an unmarked trail head, that veered off betwteen two adjacent ridges, with a steep ascent leading into Talassemtane National Park. Waiting there and thinking whether it would be a suitable hike in my joggers, I noticed a flurry of local men who would follow that trail and disappear for 10/15 minutes high up into a bushy patch only to reemerge a few mins later to head back to the city.

Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to follow the same track. Soon I heard a shout from further up ahead as a man emerged from the thicket, waved at me and screamed something in Arabic. With my exceptionally primitive vocabulary I couldn’t make out what he was saying and decided to continue. A few minutes later another guy who was making his way behind me caught up and asked where I was headed in a mix of English and Arabic.

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He wanted to know if I was interested in buying hashish, cocaine or heroine ? I told him I was only here for a hike and wasn’t interested in either. In our combined English/Arabic we exchanged a few more sentences and he asked me where I was from. I told him Pakistan, at which his grin turned into a big smile and said that the heroine the guy up top was selling was from Pakistan! Not feeling particularly proud about it, I told him it must be Afghanistan that he is confusing it with, but he sounded adamant that it came from Pakistan. Not wanting to curb his excitement any further, I let it rest with the thought that it’s probably smuggled from Afghanistan into Pakistan from where it makes its way to North Africa, and decided to steer clear of the busy patch for which one had to veer off the trail.

Local women washing the carpets

Local women washing the carpets

Continuing ahead the view got better and better as I climbed higher. Another 15 mins into the hike I ran into a group of teenagers with their tshirt tied around their heads sitting inside a mini cave heating up something. They weren’t very pleased at seeing me either and shouted something in Arabic at which I responded with a salam and continued my ascent to find a good spot to sit and admire the view.

After a while when I came down, a guy sitting close to the start of the trail who spoke perfect English, noticing that I wasn’t a local asked me what I was doing up there and that it wasn’t a good place to venture into. According to him everyone knew about the drug dealing but as long as the activity was outside the city the authorities turned a blind eye to it; And that if I had ventured further on I would have come to big hashish plantations..a part of the National Park to explore on my next trip perhaps..

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The Second Best Fruit In The World

Restaurant Populaire

Restaurant Populaire

On Moncefs recommendation we decided to try out Resturant Populaire in Tangier. Not a big fan of sea food I was a little reluctant at first.

For me the benchmark of a good resturant is that it has to be frequented by locals (and not just ‘tourons’). And this place was teeming with locals! After a 30 mins wait we finally got a seat.

They had a set menu (i.e the menu did not exist) which was great as I didn’t have the chance to annoy the waiters with my endless barrage of questions about things on the menu. The minute we got seated the chef started delivering his goodness, and I realised why it was so popular (Populaire!)

For 200 Dhs (~£14) it might have been slightly expensive by average Moroccan standards (!?) but every bit worth the delicious seven course meal! Easily one of the best sea food restaurants I have ever been to in my life. Everything was tasty from the fresh juice (I have no idea what combination of fruits they used but I must have downed 5-6 glasses of that amazingly refreshing cocktail of some magical fruits!), to the variety of different fish cooked in different styles, leading to the dessert consisting of a combo of local honey dried fruits, nuts and variety of berries to finish it all off with the second most delicious fruit known to man – Cherimoya!! (a Pakistani mango being the most delicious ofcourse!)

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Highly recommended for anyone who goes to Tangier. The pictures don’t do justice to what was served. Patience is not my virtue on a hungry stomach, so the table does look like it was hit by a tornado, even though I tried to arrange things a little before taking a few shots (including the picture of a half eaten Cherimoya)..

Tangier – The Hometown and Final Resting Place of Ibn Battutah

I landed in Tangier on the 1st of May and after dropping my backpack at the hostel, I went about to find the tomb of Ibn Battutah.

The Mazaar (Masoleum) of  Ibn Battutah

The Mazaar (Masoleum) of Ibn Battutah

Of all the travellers I met during my travels in Morocco only two had heard the name Ibn Battutah, and neither of them knew who he was! It was a sad fact especially since each traveller I met knew very well who Marco Polo was.

Even more disappointingly neither of the three guys who worked at the hostel I stayed at in Tangier (Ibn Battutah’s hometown) knew the way to Ibn Battutah’s tomb, arguably the most important site in all of Tangier, even though it was hardly a 3-5 mins walk from the hostel..

Armed with a very primtive vocabulary of Arabic I set out to locate the tomb by asking around. Barely a few steps from the hostel door I ran into a bunch of young guys trying to sell me Hashish (after a few days in Tangier, I realised selling hashish was no big deal, in fact smoking it was very common and even socially acceptable in the cafes). Hamza who was standing with the group said he knew a good local eating place as well as the location of the tomb and said he could show me both, not realizing that everything in Morocco comes at a cost especially over eager locals and touts giving you directions.

Inside the Mazaar, the tomb and final resting place of  Ibn Battutah

Inside the Mazaar, the tomb and final resting place of Ibn Battutah

Inevitably after a very long stroll circumambulating around the medina we reached the tomb. All the while I stayed inside the small approximately 8 * 12 feet mazaar (mausoleum) Hamza waited outside, even though I had thanked and bid farewell to him. Eventually he walked with me back to the hostel and I realised why we took the longest possible route to Ibn Battutahs tomb when he asked me for massive tip for showing me ‘such a difficult to find way’ and for hanging around all that time (uninvited)

After getting ripped off on the first day of my journey, I worked out a successful tout avoiding strategy for the rest of my trip – only ask the shop keepers for directions if you get lost in the winding, never ending streets of the medinas, they will guide but won’t leave their stalls to come along and show you the way .

Tangier – A Graveyard With A View

On the way to Cafe Hafa, famous for its views across the Strait of Gibraltar, Moncef and I walked past a graveyard. He remembered that his grandfather was burried there so we decided to make a quick stop to offer a prayer by his grave.

The last time Moncef had visited his grandfathers grave was as a small child. All he remembered was that he was buried somewhere in the old graveyard, obscured from view, located at the  back of the new graveyard and accessible only by a small dirt footpath that connected the two.

As we reached the tiny gate at the end of the footpath which led to the old graveyard I peered through entrance. Standing in the doorway one couldn’t help but admire the amazing view! The graveyard was located right at the edge of a precipice overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar – A sea of the dead overlooking an ocean full of life!

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Mocef told me that his father had already purchased a small tract for himself in this graveyard so he could be buried close to his father and to admire the amazing view. There was no more space to burry anyone there, barring those who already had procured land for allocation of their grave.

Moncef, didn’t quite agree with his father’s idea of buying a grave with a nice view. After all once in the soil you wouldn’t really be able to admire the beautiful  view !?

Perhaps the beautiful view serves as an added incentive for one’s near and dear to visit the graveyard more often and make a prayer for the departed..

Mount Toubkal (4167m) – The Highest Mountain in North Africa

For 550 Dhs (roughly £40) per person the 2 nights 2 day trek (including breakfast, dinner and guide fees) to summit mount Toubkal sounded too good to be true. Asking around from other agents who could organise the same trek, the lowest quote in the market I found was 800 Dhs per person for a minimum of two ppl. Nevertheless, getting multiple assurance from Ibrahim (agent 1) I felt I had struck the perfect deal. Having booked an excursion to Ozoud waterfalls with him already, on which I was to depart a day before my trek to Mount Toubkal, I felt no reason to suspect him – not realizing that he could be quoting a ridiculously low quote just so that I paid the full price for the ride to the waterfalls. Feeling content with my bargaining skills I left his office to give the good news to three others who were interested to summit the highest mountain in North Africa..

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All packed and ready for the road journey to Imlil from where we were to start our trek the next morning I decided to pay one final visit to Ibrahim (agent1) to confirm the time we should be meeting the guide who was coming over from Imlil to Marrakech to pick us up that night.

On seeing me the agent non challantly remarked that the guide was watching a football match and that we wont be departing tonight!!  For a second I thought he was joking, searching his face carefully for a subtle grin, I saw none. I was furious, two other people who were to join us had moved there bookings around completely on my suggestion so we could all go together and bring the cost of hiring the guide and the trip down. On top of that Ibrahim said we could still go tomorrow, however the price for the trip had gone up as well. Angry, frustrated and feeling swindled by this con artist of an agent I decided not to fall for his nonsense anymore and pay a visit to Abdessamad (agent 2), who had offered us 800 Dhs for the same trip two days earlier. Fortunately he still stuck to his quote and called the guide right away to confirm that we could still depart for Imlil the next morning. Having been conned once by an agent, I made sure he wrote everything down on a paper and signed his name on it and gave us a receipt.

The next morning the guide was there to pick us up; however he took us to the agent 1’s office who had swindled us the night before…

Turns out there were two Canadians who had booked the same trek with agent1 a day after we had confirmed our trip, but had settled on a higher price 1100 Dhs per person (with an additional night stay) instead of 550 Dhs p/p that we had agreed with the same agent! That explained it all. Agent1, thinking that the two Canadians would never pay the same money if they found out that four other ppl going on the same trek through the same agent had paid half the price they were paying, cancelled our trip (coming up with a cock and bull excuse that the guide was busy watching a football game!!!).

Idmansour, the guide, however was working for both agent1 and agent2 and took us to agent 1’s office to collect the two Canadians who were to join us for the trek.

A brief summary of the trek to the summit of Mount Toubkal, which thankfully was uneventful and without any hiccups.

Day 1: Drive from Marrakech to Imlil 1.5 hrs. Trek from Imlil to Toubkal Nature Refuge 5-6 hrs. Ascent 1467m.

Day 2: Early morning start at 6am to summit mount Toubkal. 3 hrs to the summit. 2 hrs to trek down from the summit back to the Toubkal nature refuge. Ascent and Descent 960m. After lunch we set out again to trek back to Imlil (3-4hrs). From Imlil we took a public bus back to Marrakech that took us 2.5 hrs.

Cost: 800 Dhs per person. One night two days trek.  Includes lunch dinner breakfast,  night stay and guide fees. Does not include drinks.

Guide: Muhammad Idmansour. Can be contacted directly to organize the trek. +212 671735905

The Similarity Between An Athlete And A Gnostic

A guy that I work with had a sky diving accident almost 3 years ago. He was hospitalized for over a month ending up with two broken vertebrae, titanium rods in both legs coupled with a few other less brutal injuries.

I met him almost 2 years ago when I started working at my current job, he had only joined a month earlier after recovering from his near fatal fall. I distinctively remember seeing streaks of blood stains occasionally on the back of his shirt, thinking he must have had a back injury..

A few months later he started training for Iron Man Triathlon and successfully completed it in the following Summers. Within a few weeks he competed in Ultra Iron Man Triathlon as if one Iron Man wasn’t enough of an accomplishment (or chastisement for the body  !?). I found it quite remarkable for somebody who had a near fatal experience, his body showing clear marks of what it had been through, to tune it to achieve this athletic fiat! Had he told me that he hoped to participate in the Iron Man at the time he shared the details of his accident with me, I would have wished him luck, empathizing with him at his almost certain failure to complete let alone complete such a physically challenging race.

It made me think that part of the reason why I understand and appreciate his accomplishment is because I have seen him achieve it, thinking it nearly impossible. If rigorous training and self discipline can help a battered body attain such a physical state; why is it so difficult for us to comprehend that people, who dedicate their lives in the attainment of one goal – knowing their Creator, and  continuously strive to cleanse themselves spiritually, can have a stronger connection with God and can achieve certain spiritual graces by conditioning their soul through devotional practices and spiritual exercises ?

Why are we so determined to see proofs of spiritual significance in the physical/material realm when the demonstration of a spiritual gift runs counter to the essence of spirituality? Why do we have to see to believe ? Is it because our scientifically conditioned mental arrogance leads us to think that that the modern man of our age has achieved the height of intelligence and nothing is beyond the grasp of our minds!? Just because something has not happened in our times or in front of our eyes does not make it an impossibility !?

Professional sports men to me are very similar to gnostics, one tries to acheive a physical state through exercises, self discipline and commitment to excel at a particular sport and the other exerts his energies at purifying and conditioning his soul to develop a stronger connection with God..

A Gentleman’s Agreement – How I got my ‘Sabbatical’

When I finally realized that I had to go travelling I started thinking about ways to make it possible. The simplest option available was to quit my job and hit the road. However I faced a conundrum – having worked for the past 8 years in a few different organizations in London, I felt that this place was one, where even though I had spent a year and a half working, I liked the people I worked with, the role and there was still a lot to learn and experience..

I didn’t want to come back from travelling to start looking for a new role with risk that it may not be as satisfying as the job I currently have. I wanted the best of both the worlds – to go travelling and to have a job, that I liked, to come back to.

So, I searched my company’s Employee Handbook to see if there was anything related to sabbaticals. Generally, big organizations have written down policies about sabbaticals which have some pros and cons. One of the cons being that, one has to have worked a set number of years to be able to apply for a sabbatical. Almost always the number of months of the sabbatical is correlated with the number of years worked. I didn’t stand a chance based on such a criteria as most places require the employees to have worked at least 2-3 years before applying for sabbaticals.

Thankfully my employer (a hedge fund) did not have a written down policy which meant that if they liked me enough things could go in my favor. I started working a little harder than usual to ensure that my employers recognized and valued my contribution and would be keen to retain me.

Fast forward six months, with the stars all perfectly aligned (read personal circumstances suddenly becoming conducive to travel) , I decided that I was ready to go even if it meant that I had to quit my job and look for a new one upon my return. Fortunately my manager was happy with my work. They offered me a 3 months sabbatical (instead of the 6 months I had asked for). A fair compromise I thought (especially since the other option was to quit my job without any guarantees), besides if I really wanted to go for longer I still had the option to quit! So I accepted the offer. A few weeks later I learnt that that a certain department was not in favor of granting sabbaticals (and there was no policy as such for a reason). Perhaps to deter any wayward souls who might have similar ideas ?!

My boss, true to his word, proposed a Gentleman’s Agreement. The gist of it was – I would have to resign, and if I were to come back within 3 months I could have my job back. After a final round of negotiations we agreed on a 4 month period of absence with me confirming to them within one month after starting my journey, if I would be coming back at all or not. I thought that worked out better for me than a plain old 3 month sabbatical! A pertinent analogy for those obsessed with Options in finance would be to look at the gentleman’s agreement as an American Call Option on an ’employment contract’ with one month expiry. From an option holders perspective, it was Deep In The Money so I took it.

For those looking for some inspiration to hit the road, here is a piece of advice from Edward Abbey:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Uzbekistan Visa And My Stock Picking Strategy

In stark contrast to the smooth and pleasant experience of applying for Tajikistan Visa, my visit to the Uzbekistan Consular office in London was extremely distasteful and unpleasant. The woman at the visa window was exceptionally rude. Having put up with her demeaning attitude for 45 mins I decided to leave without submitting my application with the intent of writing to the Uzbekistan Ambassador to UK about my ordeal in the hope that it will redress the obnoxious and disparaging attitude of the staff.

So as soon as I got back from the embassy, I Googled the name of the ambassador. And surely he came up on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. So I wrote to him on all three forums. And Yes, I activated my Twitter account for the sole purpose of getting in touch with the Uzbekistan Ambassador. Let’s see if I ever get a response back (!?) I have been thinking of “investing” (sounds grand but it really is just putting a few hard earned pound sterlings into a worth while Tech stock for rainy days) in LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter for sometime but was never really convinced they offered good long term prospects. Whichever forum if any (and ever!) I get the response to my message/email/tweet from the ambassador would be the stock i’ll go long on..savvy stock picking strategy eh !?

However I’m determined not to let this experience ruin my plan for visiting Uzbekistan. One of the places I noted down while reading The Travels of Ibn Battutah was Uzbekistan and I had put the following excerpt next to my notes entry

‘The melons of Khawarizm have no equal in any country of the world, East or West, except it may be the melons of Bukhara, and next to that the melons of Isfahan. Their rind is green, and the flesh is red, of extreme sweetness and firm texture..’

Would hate to miss out on these delicious melons, so the alternative plan is to apply for Uzbek visa at one of their consulates along the way insha’Allah..

Tajikistan Visa and GBAO Permit

If you hold a British Passport you need to apply for a visa before travelling to Tajikistan. You can check the entry requirements and any other relevant information on the FCO website. If you are planning to visit Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region you will also need to apply for the GBAO permit. This can be done by stating that you need GBAO permit on your visa application; No separate application needed for GBAO permit.

My experience of applying for the Tajikistan visa at their London consulate was a very straight forward and painless process. To download the visa application form and review the requirements for the visa application you can visit the Visa Inquiries page of the embassy website.

Tajikistan Visa cost: £20

GBAO Permit cost: £50

Processing Time: 1 week

The Map of My Proposed Journey

I plan to hit the road on 01 May 2015, starting from Tangier in the footsteps of one the greatest travelers of all time Abū ʿAbd al-Lāh Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Lāh l-Lawātī ṭ-Ṭanǧī ibn Baṭūṭah. Ibn Baṭūṭah set out from Tangier in 1325 for Makkah to perform Hajj and continued to travel for almost 30 years before returning to Morocco.

Due to time limitation, visa restrictions and countries which are inaccessible due to conflict I wont be able to travel as much as I would have desired and would only be able to visit a tiny fraction of all the amazing places Ibn Baṭūṭah saw.

I don’t have a strict itinerary either only a few hard deadlines to get to certain places by certain dates; I intend to improvise and adapt as I go along. Below is a very rough sketch of my itinerary.

First Leg (01 May to 19 June)

Tangier -> Marrakesh -> Sijilmassa -> Fes -> Tlemcen -> Algiers -> Tunis -> Alexandria -> Cairo -> Luxor -> Aydhab -> Jeddah

Second Leg (20 June to 19 July)

Jeddah -> Makkah -> Medina -> Petra -> Wadi Rum -> Amman -> Jerusalem -> via Jordan ->  Lahore

Third Leg (20 July to 05 Aug)

Lahore -> Tabriz -> Shooshtar -> Esfahan  -> Shiraz -> Bukahara -> Samarkand -> Termez -> Mazar i Sharif -> Dushanbe -> Murghab -> Khorog -> Ishkashem

Fourth Leg (06 Aug to 25 Aug)

Ibn Battutah travelled from Termez to Mazar-i-Sharif and via Kabul to Multan. For various reasons and the fact that I had wanted to see the Wakhan Corridor and the Northern parts of Pakistan I intend to take a different route into Pakistan:

Ishkashem -> Sarhad Boroghil (Wakhan) -> Wakhan Corridor -> Irshad Uween Pass (4979m)  -> Baba Ghundi -> Misgar -> Sost -> Gilgit -> Skardu

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