Jephir Treks America: Bumbling Through Central America

A 6 week adventure in gastronomica, sights, and observation.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Oh Coca cola, how popular you are (in west africa),
you can drink all that you want,
and still get the travel experience,
because that's what the locals drink.

Drinking one now.

Picked up our Malian visas today, leaving Dakar tomorrow for Touba, the Marabout holy city. We happened upon a couple of friendly Senegalese yesterday who are willing to be our guides for a few days (at a price, of course) - the next week happens to coincide with the Touba pilgrimage, where all transport in Senegal is directed towards getting people to Touba. Also, we got to see some really amazing African dance yesterday (and more tonight). We took some pictures, but can't get them on the web yet, although Sam may be posting some of our earlier pics on our other weblog, jephirpics.

Today we figured out a tentative path for the rest of our trip:
Touba, Senegal for 4 days
The Gambia for 4 days
Parc National de Niokolo-koba for 2 days
Basse Casamance for 5 days
Guinea-bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone for 2 weeks
Mali for 2 weeks (Timboctou and Dogon Country)
Burkina Faso and Ghana for 2 weeks
Fly back to Morocco, back to JFK, bus to Boston and start work and school!

you can find out info about any and all of these spots at

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

And then there were two...

Holed up in Dakar, Senegal. Crazy town, both the most western point in Africa and the most Westernized city in West Africa.

Sammo jumped ship yesterday, riding out into the sunset on a South African Airways flight destined for New York. Reasons cited involved a monetary crunch, a far-flung lover and a dislike of warmer climes. That leaves our dynamic duo of Jeff and Zephir to continue this exploratory goodwill tour on their own.

After our trip through Mauritania, I can't say that I entirely blame Sammo for jumping ship - it was physically and mentally draining, if rewarding in that adventurous spirit kind of way... Our trip from Dakhla to Nouadihbou took about 8.5 hours (mostly paved roads), our trip from Nouadihbou to Nouakchott took 10 hours (60 percent tarmac, 40 percent dirt, sand and rocks), and our trip from Nouakchott to St. Louis took another 8 hours. The second two legs of the trip were done in temperatures that left the Jephir more than a bit parched and drained. Here are two handy maps, one of Western Sahara:

one of West Africa:

otherwise, there are some pictures from Marrakech on the Jephirpics weblog (check the sidebar) and we'll post more once we find a computer without this café software.
More to write, so much more, but never enough time...

Friday, March 18, 2005

Jephir (a.k.a. Sahara's bitch)

Round 2 goes to the Sahara desert, leaving Jephir tired, worn and sore-assed. Guess we'll have to wait until Round 3 in Mali for the tie-breaker.

In other news, we met some Liberian refugees in Nouadhibou who fled during the war in 2002 but were dropped off in Mauritania. Seeing as how they speak English and are Christian and 99.5% of Mauritanians are Muslim and speak French or Arabic, the three brothers we met are pretty hard up. To that end, if anybody out in TV Land (or America) knows anything about getting refugees into America then they should email us at so we can help these guys. Their names are Bobby, Victor and Victor and we unfortunately didn't get a picture, but might be able to if we head back to Morocco overland.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Sahara, a.k.a. Jephir's Bitch

Trans-sahara trek, no problemo. In Nouhidibou, feelin' funny after California style steak wrap (french fries, super sweet ketchup and a couple nicely seasoned strips of beef). This posting is thanks to our soon departing companion Sam, who has eyes like a hawk for any and every internet café.

Anybody remember this photo?

P.S. Surreal is Mauritanian border guards masquerading as Will Smith, wearing plastic blue flip-flops and Liberian refugees named Victor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Dakhla and loving it

24 hours on a CTM bus not so bad.

Entering a no communication zone.

Mauritania is known for its iron ore train and ruins. Hopefully we'll skip both and be in Senegal by Friday.


Sunday, March 13, 2005

Fes-ian recollections...

Fes is a grimy, twisting city smeared between two hillsides. More visceral than Marrakech, more Berber than Casablanca, Fes is often called the brain of Morocco due to the Madrusas full of Koran wielding students, arabic language schools and a Fes-centric view of the world. We arrived in Fes to sheets of rain near 5 pm on Friday. A curious example of East meets West, Moroccan banks are only open 4.5 days a week due to Friday being the Muslim holy day. As such, Sam failed to change any travellers checks, leaving him without funds for the weekend.

Whilst Sam searched for funding, Z and I were looking for fuel. We were nearly delirious by the time we found a vendor serving street food out of a (literal) hole in the wall. Concrete and tile, the only gas lines streaming from propane tanks to burnerds lit with flaming napkins, our chef cooked with pride and intensity. While his color scheme was drab, the harira (soup) was steaming and the fried potato and egg sandwiches tasty.

Stomachs filled for $1.25 each, we hopped in a cab for Hotel Dalila, a pension recommended to us by a local during our trainride to Fes. Located on the edge of the medina, Hotel Dalila is a clean place with friendly, English speaking staff. After checkin we ran to the closest internet cafe where Sam read lengthy emalis from his latest romance and I received notice from Peter and Mary that we were to meet them at a tea shop in the new city at 8:00pm. We checked the time and the map and realized we were to meet them in 10 minutes 2 blocks from where we had eaten dinner! The meetup went off without a hitch and we shared a few cups of tea before setting up a meeting time and returned to our respective hotels. Once at the hotel, Sammo shot off another email to Idi and Jephir went to bed.

Morning brought more mint tea and conversations ranging from donkeys to the socioeconomic impact of football on Moroccan society. Our hotel manager offered us his son Nisha to be our guide around the medina. Without a guide one cannot avoid becoming hopelessly lost and constantly attacked by would-be guides, so we agreed without reservation. Nisha, a slender boy of 13, speaks Arabic, French, English, Italian and a bit of Spanish. We filled in some of the gaps in his English vocabulary with words such as: Lord of the Rings, Reaganomics, Ragin' Cajun and "It puts the lotion in the basket." Grateful for his lesson, Nisha showed us the tanneries and requisite leather shop (1 pair shoes, 2 pairs sandals, 1 money belt). The tanneries in Fes use camel, goat, sheep and cow hides to make leathers for all sorts of items ranging from hassocks to jackets. The tanning process uses pigeon excrement in a fairly ingenious manner and all sorts of natural dyes to give the leather wild colors - saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, etc. Supposedly the pepole working in the tanneries have had the process handed down one generation to the next - although once you smell the tanneries you have to wonder why anyone would want them in the first place.

Speaking of smells, due to the rains, the streets of Fes released all the pentup odors from months of dry weather - goat, donkey, sheep, chicken and cat dung (Mohammed liked cats), all kinds of rotten and otherwise spoiled food as well as any random smells you might expect in a medieval city. Because that really is Fes at its heart - a city from the past where modernity with its gadgets, bells and whistles can't fit through the 3-foot wide streets, trips on the cobblestones and irregular steps, and is too impatient to wait behind a throng of women in gelabis (jellybeans). Even when the UN allocates $75 million to restore and preserve the medina, most of that money is spent on 12' long 2x4s that are used to keep the buildings from falling in on one another.

These boards are surprisingly common about the city, often crossing streets at a lower altitude than one might imagin possible. Such boards were only one of the many obstacles one encounters when trying to keep pace with a 13 year old boy who seems to be nonchalantly strolling along without a care in the world. Meanwhile, you find yourself running at full speed to keep up, assailed by vendors, blocked by old women and toddlers just learning walk, nearly run over by overloaded donkeys and groped by old men.

Travelling through the medina at such a breakneck speed is like driving your Formula 1 racecar while bikini clad supermodels try jaywalking on your racetrack. Because while you want to follow Nisha to the madrusa where students sit alone in 5 ft square cells and study the Koran for 10 hours a day, you also want to look at the 50 heaping piles of olives or the crazy pastries in this stand or the many colored textiles pouring out of souk after souk... And it just keeps going, with tiny 3 ft doors and passageways that never see the light of day, beggars lying on the ground and women bargaining ferociously. All this forms a kind of sensory overload which is both intoxicating and tiring at the same time.

After the madrusa, Nisha led us to a carpet factory where we could learn about how carpets are made (mostly by men, by hand, and with high quality 6'x9' carpet having almost 13,000 stitches) and then took us to an impressive shop full of beautifully colored carpets. Carpets... hmmmm... someone once said something about Moroccan carpet sellers....

(now I'm off to drink more tea and find the bus station in order to figure out what time we can leave for tan tan tomorrow... more fes adventures soon)

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Holed up in Marrakech... (or down two)

Currently staying at Hotel Ali in the medina of Marrakesh, a backpacker's haven full of world travellers, laundry facilities, internet access and the occasional hammam. All in all it acts as a useful haven from the spectacle of the main square - imagine over 100 stalls selling everything from fried calamari to salted almonds to orange juice (only 3 dirhum, or 38 cents for a glass of fresh squeezed O.J.!). The catch is that due to the huge numbers of tourists travelling through this city everyone who lives here sees travelers as wallets on legs - one can't really blame them, but it doesn't add to the experience, to put it mildly. Flattering at first, amusing for awhile, it eventually becomes exhausting as you just wish to walk around and take in the sights without constantly fending off beggers, merchants and would be henna tattoos (Mary had one girl walk up, grab her hand and start tattooing her without any hesitation).

Right now Zephir and I are awaiting Sam's return to Marrakesh from Essouiara, a coastal town with mixed reviews - it's a party town without culture if you ask some, a sleepy port if you ask others. Once Sam returns and Idi leaves for Middletown, CT we're on the next bus out of Marrakesh in hopes of getting to Mauritanian. Peter and Mary flew out a couple days ago (hence the down two) and so Zephir and I are doing our best to kill time with our mental slingshots.

But what have we been doing? Roughly, we landed in Casablanca after our flight was delayed and barely met up with Peter and Mary, spent about 36 hours in the city in order to get our Mauritanian visas, then hopped on a train for Fez. Casablanca is not the greatest city on earth. In fact, it isn't even the greatest city in Morocco. However, it does bring to the fore the culture clash that Morocco on the whole is feeling - most people on the street speak French, drive cars, and work western style jobs while traditional Moroccan dress can be seen, people speak arabic at home, and there are plenty of donkeys pulling carts outside the center of town. The saddest part of this is the shanty towns that seem to accompany every modernizing city in the world - slums that swell the population of this rather depressing town to the largest in Morocco. Collectively, our most visceral memory is the terrible quality of the air that results from the temperature inversion (similar to that experienced in L.A.). Next up, a fes-ian account...

Now I'm off to wander the city for a bit, drink my 143rd cup of mint tea and perhaps post more later today, although we can't seem to get any more pictures up on the computer, so don't hold your breath for more images...

Sunday, March 06, 2005


Fez, the brain of Morocco

Stinky, stinky tannery - pigeon poop and dyes

REI, fez-style

All dressed up and ready for our caravan.

Caraway(sp?) Mosque, home of many spices (and Allah)

Qu'ran school

Sam's ready to dive in

Jaunt in the countryside

Local flora (watch your toes)

Hanging out with the locals (part I)

Hanging out with the locals (part II)

Hey Idi, can we try this when I get back?

So there's this guy walking down the street with really bad hand-eye coordination, and someone comes up to him and says "I'll give you this ice cream cone if you can clap your hands in three tries...

Very tempting... would you like a carpet with that chair?

Assablanca, Armpit of Morocco

Whiling away the hours in London's most expensive airport...

Zephir, transit hour 23.

Camping in the smog

The best way to begin your morning

Shall we compare?

Belated NYC Pictures

Scariest Building Ever!

The (Bill) Gates.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Still alive, part I

Casablanca, March 3rd, 2005.

Jephir lives!

Observations from Casablanca:

The air is thick brown.
The hookers are plentiful. (this statement has not yet been evaluated by the FDA)
Zephir's throat is sore.

Meats available at your local butcher:

beef (probably)
goat (possibly)

Casablanca is the Tijuana of Morocco.

The tea is very sweet.
And minty!

No traveller's diarrhea (yet).

French words learned so far:

houire: hour
ferme: closed
merci: thank you
bounjour: goodday and hello

and that's it.

Awaiting our Mauritanian visas, then off to Fez.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Heathrow's better than JFK

So for those of you following along at home, here's the deal: Iberia airlines has planes that occasionally develop holes within the fuselage. Luckily for those of us flying with this Spanish airline that means they spend some time fixing it. Unfortunately, this means flights are cancelled and people are redirected through London. Good spirits abound, if concerns exist about the likelihood of a meetup with the Peter/Mary group (who wisely flew Royal Air Maroc - always fly with royalty, that's what I say).

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

And we're off!

Nothing like a snowy departure from the Northeast... Assuming our flight wasn't cancelled. Excitement reigns over anxiety in the collective Jephir stomach, along with another dose of mefloquine and some tasty sushi (thanks mom!).

And just when Connecticut was becoming a better place to be.

Oh, and screw you Texas!

Gotta love scalia:

In a dissent, Scalia decried the decision, arguing that there has been no clear trend of declining juvenile executions to justify a growing consensus against the practice.

"The court says in so many words that what our people's laws say about the issue does not, in the last analysis, matter: 'In the end our own judgment will be brought to bear on the question of the acceptability of the death penalty,' he wrote in a 24-page dissent.

"The court thus proclaims itself sole arbiter of our nation's moral standards," Scalia wrote.

See ya!