Friday, August 22, 2008

Back to INSEAD

Photos from my Swiss summer are now up on Picasa.

First time blogging from the road, since I'm currently at O'hare waiting for my plane to Tokyo, and then to Singapore. I left Geneva last week to come back to the US to visit friends/family, and now 1 week later, it's time to go back to Singapore. My summer has completely flown by incredibly fast. I had a great internship in Geneva, made some great friends/colleagues at the VC firm, and was so fortunate that they've involved me at very high levels, including due diligence, interviews, and providing advice about their future investments.

Like Belgium, I think I'll miss Switzerland, especially Geneva. It was so incredibly international, almost like the UK or US. And there are quirky bits, like all the Arabs who visit during the summer, with their fancy cars. You know that there's a huge Arab market when even the street musicians have signs in front in French, English and Arabic! And Geneva was very quaint, easy to get around, beautiful views and weather. But unfortunately, sometimes, VERY expensive.

For example, check out the picture above. This is for a regular piece of rump steak. The price: CHF65/kilo. With an exchange of 1 USD = 0.95 CHF, that works out to be $28.06 per pound! No wonder the Swiss are so healthy and thin, you can't afford to eat meat! It's also a bad sign when even the simple ethnic restaurants (Turkish or Asian) are charging nearly $18 for simple dishes like kebabs or fried noodles. Actually, the problem is because of Swiss protection of their farmers. It's cheaper to cross the border to France (2o mins away) to shop for food, but the border guards actually check to make sure you didn't bring more than 500g (about 1 lb) of meat back into Switzerland.

And now, time to say good bye to summer vacation.. and hello to INSEAD. Can't wait to start classes again, and meet up with all my friends there!

Marrakech Food Guide

I've finally uploaded all my Marrakech pictures on Picasa, and decided to end my Marrakech trip report with a food review.

Overall, good eating for good prices. I wish I would have had more time to try foods in the night market, but with only 2 nights, it's hard to try everything. I was surprised to see that the Moroccan dishes are pretty lightly spiced, it's even lighter than the Middle Eastern dishes, and not spicy hot at all.

My favorites: Pastilla (the flaky pastry), and orange juice!

One of the best meals in Economy - courtesy of Royal Air Maroc. Spiced beef with rice. Wonder if its also halal?

Breakfast: Freshly pressed orange juice, US$0.50. I'd order 2 glasses at a time, and visit 2-3x a day. It was that good. Great thirst quencher when its sooo hot out in the afternoon

Pastilla, flaky pastry dough, wrapped around shredded chicken and couscous. Sweet and Savory, and totally delicious

Spice Market, with heaps looking like the tips of crayons

"Luxury" lunch ($15) at a nice hotel. Grilled fish with olive oil

Moroccan Sweets

The Night Market in the Medina, grills and food everywhere! The Arabic influence is clearly seen here, reminds me of pasar malam in Malaysia, and the night markets in Taiwan

Merguez (spicy Morrocon Sausage, except for my taste, it wasn't spicy at all)

Kefta (spiced ground beef)

Some kind of soup, haira, I think it's called. It's a simple lentil soup

Simple dish of fried fish

The kebab guy, preparing his items

Coke in Arabic!

Sweet Mint Tea, sounds like it'd be good, but it's more like drinking hot toothpaste

Lamb Tagine, pieces of lamb, slowly stewed with peas and potatoes, and light spices

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

I'm not Japanese!

I started out around 10am in the morning, walking from my hotel into the Medina, the ancient of Marrakech. It was simply stunning, all the buildings painted this red/orange color, the dust of the desert in the air, and palm trees everywhere. Finally, I came upon the Mosque at the center of the town, and shortly afterwards, the Medina, a huge plaza where there were bunches of vendors selling freshly squezed orange juice, and other small stands on the side doing henna tatoos, fortune telling, shoe repair, it was like one huge open market.

As I walked through the Medina towards the general direction of where I thought my hostel should be, all of the vendors of the juice carts started yelling out to me. "Hey Japan", followed by "Hey Korea", and then "Hey China", and then, sometimes, "Hey Taiwan". Or they would try to greet me in Japanese at wierd times, saying "konichwa" (good morning), which was then followed by "konbanwa" (good evening), even if it was still morning. Or other random ones like "ohaio gozaimas", which is something like "welcome. All of this despite that I'm not Japanese.

It was definitely annoying to get called this way. I thought how they would address me as "Hey Japan", which if reversed in Europe (ie, greeting a moroccan as "hey maroc") would probably end up with a fight.

As I found the souk (covered market) where my hostel was supposed to be, I noticed a juice vendor at the corner, that seemed to have a bunch of local people around it. Always a good sign, when you see local people at the stalls. So, I started to walk towards the stall, and the vendor called out to me, and I acknowledged him. At least he didn't call me "Hey Japan". And there, I had the most delicious cup of freshly pressed orange juice I've ever had. All for 3 Dirham (about 50 cents). It was so good, I had another glass of orange juice, and another glass of freshly pressed lime juice, for a premium price of 10 dirham ($1.25). These guys were so friendly, I came back every day to the same stall for my 2-3 glasses of fresh juice.

After getting fueled up on orange juice (good thing, since I hadn't drunk or eaten anything since arriving to Marrakech), I continued to find my hostel. I went into the souks, which are essentially covered markets selling all sorts of things, from the small butcher stall, to lots of touristy kitsch, and traditional bath houses. I found the "Berber FANAQUE", apparently a knockoff of the French FNAC bookstore, and remembered that I was supposed to make a turn after the FNAC to find the hostel. Here's where it got difficult. The streets and lanes in the souks are not marked with street signs. I turned into this little covered alley, it was very narrow, and I couldn't even tell if it was the right place. But it seemed all wrong. It was literally a narrow tunnel, with high walls on each side. As I continued, the "area" seemed to get more sketchy, and didn't seem right. Nonetheless, I just continued to walk, exploring the area. I continued down an alley, and saw a woman walking with her baby, and then 3-4 kids come up to me, asking if I need help, or where i was going. I explained "Riad Amazigh", the name of the hostel. Then, they got all excited, and said "Riad Amazigh is this way, follow me". I heard that these kids often "help", but demand money in return, and I felt I was at least on track and could find the place myself, but the kids were insisent. Anyways, I just continued walking and the kids followed me.

Sure enough, about 50 feet in front of me was the door for Riad Amazigh. Here's when things got interesting. The oldest kid asked, "please give me 2 Euros for help". I said, "hey, you didn't even help me, I just walked straight, besides, I don't have euros". Then, he said OK, give me 20 Dirham (about $2.50). Still, I was insistent, "you didn't really help me, I just walked straight". Now, the price started to go down... "ok, 10 Dirham", "No, I'll just give you 5 dirham". And so, I gave him 5 dirhams, and he ran off, but then all of his friends started asking me for money! Doh! Unexpected reaction. I simply told them they didn't do anything for me, and walked into the hostel.

After walking into the hostel, I thought, "I'm in trouble.. these kids will easily recognize me when I walk out." And for a a few minutes, I thought I'm going to be stuck in this hostel, because they'll ask me for money each time. Sure enough, when I left the hostel about an hour later, the kids were outside, asking for money. I explained I already paid them, and I don't need any help. One kid even offered to lead me out back to the main street, but it wasn't that hard, since I already knew how I came into the alley. Funnily, the oldest kid later found me the next few days, and kept on asking for money, even for doing nothing, and I had to explain "No" each time, until he finally got the message.

But the thing that's the most amazing about these places, even though it looks terrible from the outside of the alleyway, the places on the inside of these walls are spectacular mansions, completely hidden away. This hotel had a huge open courtyard in the center, similar to the traditional homes in Asia, and there were these marvelous rooms. These hostels/hotels are "riads", or the traditional mansions of Morocco. It's very deceiving, but you'd never guess that inside this hidden, dirty, and not very pleasant alley, that a mansion would be behind the walls. It was a great hostel, EUR24 per night, I had a 4 bed room, but it was practically a single, since two beds were upstairs, 2 below, and only one occupant on each floor. There wasn't any AC, but it didn't matter, it was a nice break from the hot and sunny hours during the afternoon.

Next time: food review of Marrakech

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Arrival in Marrakech
So, to continue the story from last time, I was so tired and confused, I decided to find myself a hotel, at whatever the price. (well, to some extent). I was too dazed and tired to try finding my hostel in the Medina, and somehow, I didn't have the heart to sleep in the airport. (althoug it was nicely air-conditioned)

My handy guidebook (good thing I brought it onboard) said that there were some chains nearby the airport, so I asked the taxi to bring me to the Sofitel. I arrived at 3am, and surprisingly, there were still some staff there.

Me: "What's the price for the room"?
Hotel: "300 euros". (about $450)
Me: "um, do you have anything cheaper?"
Hotel: "sorry, the hotel is fully booked, we only have luxury rooms. How about 260 euros?"
Me: "um, sorry, I'm looking for something less than 100 euros, can you recommend me to another place?
Hotel: "perhaps you can try the one down the road"

So, I go down the road, into a half-decent looking hotel, doors wide open. Then I look around. The staff was sleeping on the couches in the lobby! As soon as they heard my footsteps, the guys woke up, and offered me a room for about 1000 Dirhams, so about $110. Compare this vs. the EUR24/night I was paying for my hostel! By this time, I was desparate, and would take anything half-decently cheap. That was probably the most expensive nap I've ever had.. I woke up around 10am, explored the hotel a bit, enjoyed the poolside view, because it was pretty nice and I wanted to get all $110 worth of my money. The interior reminded me of some opulent (or some might say 'over-the-top') decorations like the Drake hotel in San Francisco..

I started exploring marrakech and was determined to find my hostel... despite not having any maps or directions.

Was I able to find my hostel, without a map or directions? Or even contact information? Stay tuned...

(btw, I'm actually back in Switzerland at this point, but I'm leaving this weekend for Dusseldorf, and then immediately to Denmark for a meeting, readers may have to be patient for the next section...)

Friday, August 01, 2008

First Marrakech thoughts..

So, I had to fly to Marrakech from Munich, since I had a last-minute meeting that came up for the purposes of my internship. Maybe I should have seen the first signs of trouble when my Munich-Zurich flight arrived late. Then, once I arrived in Zurich, the Zurich-Casablanca flight was also late. When I arrived in Casablanca, I quickly ran to my gate, and saw that a fight was nearly breaking out at the gate. Not sure what the problem was, but probably something to do with the plane being late. It was wierd too - because when I arrived in Casablanca, I never had to pass through passport control, although I was boarding a "domestic" Moroccan flight.

I was supposed to arrive in Marrakech at 12:30am, and when my flight landed, it was about 1am. I got off the flight, and noticed that some passengers were staying on the flight. I thought, "maybe these guys are just waiting for everybody to get off first". As I stepped out to the tarmac and into the airport, I thought, "Wow, this is pretty primative, reminds me of landing in Jogjakarta, Indonesia". I waited in line for passport control, which was pretty simple, some guys (without uniform) stamping passports. As I'm waiting, an airline official comes through, says something in French about Marrakech. Then, he turns to me and says, "Are you going to Marrakech?", and I said yes. He said: "This is not Marrakech. Its the next stop"

I was confused.. where was I? Apparently, this flight I was on was one of these multi-stop flights, where they drop off a few people, then carry onto the next destination. Good thing he found me, otherwise, I'd find myself in the middle of nowhere in Morocco. (I think the city's name was Ouarzazate)

Finally, at around 2:30am, I arrive in Marrakech airport, which was completely renovated and looked great. I hung around to wait for my luggage (since I had to check-it, since they said they did not have enough cabin space). And guess what? No luggage!

No luggage = no maps or intstructions to my hostel, which was in a very hard to find location. I had placed all my things in my luggage, expecting to carry it on the flight. But now that it was "lost", I had nothing.

So, here I am, in Marrakech, very tired, in the middle of the night without clothes, hostel location, toiletries. I just had my camera, wallet, and passport. I debated what to do. Should I find a place to sleep inside the airport? Should I find a normal "hotel"? Should I try to "guess" at the location of the hostel, based on my memory, but without a map or any instructions or contact information?

Stay tuned for more answers and the next entry...