Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Monday, January 29, 2007

"Full immersion" in Fes: a week with the Ajana Family

When Jason and I signed up for an intensive one week French course in Fes, we opted for "full immersion", by living with a Moroccan family. However, our noble language learning intentions weren't quite fulfilled since most members of the household with which we were placed didn't speak French. Communication in the home was generally in Arabic with spurts of English and a fair amount of gesticulating. Although we weren't immersed in French, we were certainly immersed in Moroccan culture in the Ajana family home, which turned out to be a profoundly educational and rewarding experience.

Our living companions for the week were Mr. Ajana - Abdelkader, or "Hadj", Mrs. Ajana - Fatima or "Hadja", their two youngest sons Brahim and Mohammed, a family friend, Kaya, from the USA with her four year old daughter Jazmyne, and two domestic employees, Hessna and Zoah, as well as a constant stream of visitors who proved impossible to keep track of.

Left to right: Hadj, Kensa (granddaughter), Hadja, Jason, Zoah, Kaya and Hessna.

We got a meaty dose of traditional Moroccan family life in this colorful, non-stop household. In fact, with hectic comings and goings, bursts of shouting and a rich cast of characters, we reckon the Ajana home would be a strong contender for the next series of "Big Brother".

The family home was buried in indistinguishable blind alleys, close to both the bustling Talaa Kebira street and a smelly tannery. The low-key doorway revealed nothing of the large, elegant home inside. Our bedroom had been converted from one of three elaborate reception rooms, so we were surrounded by mosaic tiling and stone work - quite a grand boudouir. On arrival, we were ushered upstairs to the family room and immediately encouraged to tuck into a feast of olives, home made bread, cookies and almond sweets, accompanied, of course, by sweet mint tea. We quickly found our feet within the household after discovering the golden rule: just keep eating. As in many cultures, food is the universal language of hospitality here. Often we barely had chance to digest our last meal before another spread appeared, all beautifully prepared with incredibly fresh ingredients.

Jason pours tea for Hessna the Moroccan way.

The Ajanas seemed to enjoy having us around and even gave us nicknames. Jason was Tehj (Royal Crown) and I was Behia (extraordinary). Hadj (Mr Ajana) made it his personal mission to make sure we had a great experience in his home. During our stay he had three separate meetings with the King of Morocco, which he played down tremendously. In betwen royal engagements he found time to escort us to school on the bus, dress us up in local attire and teach us how to make lamb tagine with prunes and almonds - our favorite Moroccan dish. Hadj was a wonderful host and a great ambassador for Fes.

Cooking demo: Hadj unveils the lamb tagine.

Hadja's (Mrs Ajana) approach to hospitality was just as warm, if heavily focused on getting us to "ish" (eat). When Hadja came down with a bad cold, I observed the women of the home rallying round her, bringing tea and kleenex, giving footrubs, massages and lots of TLC. Although I gave Hadja plenty of sympathy, I didn't quite manage the foot rubbing which may have been a terrible faux pas, possibly rendering me an awful house guest. Fortunately, Hadja's daughter did send her own domestic employee, Zoah (aged 13) to help out until Hadja felt better.

Kaya (house guest and honorary family massage therapist) with her daughter Jazmyne.

Hadj and Hadja's youngest sons, Brahim and Mohammed, were clearly of the future generation, with attitudes, attire, lifestyles and aspirations comparable to those of young people in Europe or the USA. Brahim is currently studying towards his second degree and will soon be faced with the difficult choice of staying close to his parents in traditional Fes or moving abroad (he has siblings in three foreign countries).

Brahim and Mohammed.

One particularly interesting member of the household was Hessna - the Ajanas' 22 year old domestic employee. I found myself fascinated by and drawn to Hessna, this great character full of contradictions. Her role was to serve in the home, yet she would express herself assertively in conversations with Hadj and Hadja, often getting the last word. Hessna is almost illiterate in Arabic, althouth she has aquired a decent vocabulary of French and English words and communicated with us extremely well. Clearly she is confident and bright, yet she spends her days baking bread, pouring tea, making tagines and chatting with family members (although shouting seems popular here, and she excels at it). I don't know how Hessna came to be involved with the Ajana family, if she sees herself as distinct from the family or whether she has any aspirations beyond working in their home. Had we stayed longer I would have asked her these and many other questions - good conversation topics for the 'hammam' (public steam baths). Hessna and I found common ground in spite of the difference between our cultures and lives. I can't help wondering what Hessna's life would be like if she had the same education & career opportunities as me.

Hessna shows me a steaming tagine.

We are extremely grateful to the Ajana family for opening their home and their hearts to us. They gave us a unique opportunity to experience Moroccan family life from within, and our time with them was truly unforgettable.


When not slurping tea, cooking tagine or watching Moroccan soap operas with the Ajana family, we happily spent our days with Hanane, our trusted French/Arabic teacher.

Friday, January 26, 2007

When we were preparing to leave Fes, we knew we had to head somewhere with a strong sense of peace and calm for a few days. After a little research the choice was easily made, a small town in the Rif Mountains called Chefchaouen.

A view of Chefchaouen from a hilltop mosque just outside of town. As I write this blog entry the sunny day has all of a sudden turned into a blizzard and the local guy at the computer next to me just mentioned how it hasn't snowed in town for over ten years.

Chefchaouen is a beautifully designed city with blue washed walls on the buildings which is a leftover design relic from the years when it was a safe haven for Jews escaping persecution in Spain. The skies and climate are constantly changing in the Rif, from sunny and blue one minute, to dark, gray and wet the next.

Yesterday's climb took us to the snowline of the Rif, a three hour hike up a rocky canyon with plenty of scrambling and beautiful views.

The most familiar view we had all week was in our suite at the riad Dar Terrae, an Italian-owned and operated guesthouse high in the Rif. Is that not the coolest fireplace you've ever seen?

The three day escape to the mountains has now turned into a solid week, and our time spent walking in the hills and sitting for hours in front of the fireplace with our books is almost up. We will head out of town in the morning to begin our southward journey toward the Sahara.

Take care donkey lovers!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Minty Moroccan Madness in the Medina, Part 2

(Scroll down for Part 1)

Behind this striking fountain is the Royal Palace, occupied by King Mohammed VI, who made a rare visit to Fes while we were in town. His visit was a high profile affair, illustrated by the abundance of Moroccan flags flying throughout the city, frequent road closures and for us, sightings of His Majesty as the royal motorcade drove past us on two separate occasions.

For a flavor of wealthy and elegant traditional Moroccan living, we spent our first few nights in a restored Riad, richly decorated with mosaic tiles and ornate stone.

This famous Fes landmark, the Bab Boujeloud, is the gateway to the old medina (walled city).

Approaching the Bab Boujeloud for the first time, we were unprepared for the sensory overload awaiting on the other side of the striking arch way. On entering Fes-El Bali we were confronted by scents of kebabs on charcoal outside cheap eateries, a choice of intriguingly colorful passageways to explore and a barrage of unofficial guides offering their services. Young boys tackled each other, dodging old men wearing hooded djellabas and babouche slippers, while women attired with varying degrees of conservatism went about their daily business. We meandered down Talaa El Kebira, an artery to the heart of the medina, marveling at the goods on offer and soaking in the eclectic scene.

There are plenty dried fruit stalls like this one embedded in the medina. We stocked up on delicious dates, figs, apricots and walnuts here. Judging by the framed photo on the left, Ronald and Nancy Reagan must have had the same idea!

We could have purchased olives, live chickens, fresh lard by the vat (a particularly unappealing local delicacy) cobalt blue & white ceramics, metal teapots, fruit and vegetables, traditional clothing, antique carpets, unfamiliar musical instruments, henna, leather goods, animal body parts that may or may not be edible, and pretty much anything that can be bought and sold. Although our only purchase was the dried fruit & nuts, our voyeuristic appetite was certainly satisfied in the medina.

"Uhh... has anyone seen my torso?"

Abdul, this friendly Moroccan carpet seller, made us very welcome. In spite of our up-front lack of interest in purchasing carpets, we were served mint tea and given a private viewing of a range of Moroccan carpets in varying degrees of age, quality and cleanliness. We have found warm welcomes like Abdul's extended to us by many kind Moroccans.

Interspersed between the souks (markets) within the medina are a plethora of treasures, including mosques, medersas (Muslim colleges), hammams (steamy public baths), tanneries and of course Fassi homes.

This doorway is in the mausoleum of the saint and founder of Fes, Moulay Idriss II. With it's fine examples of Moroccan stone and tile work, the mausoleum is considered one of the holiest buildings in the city, and is closed to non-Muslims.

Fes is an invigorating, awakening experience. This exotic, intense and foreign world will leave even the most seasoned traveler disoriented and awed. On a roof terrace, away from the street-level action, one can reflect in Fes's traffic-less calm. I found myself at one with the spirit of Fes, admiring it from above, when the peace was gently broken by the call to prayer. In each mosque a muezzin (servant of the mosque) summons the holy via loudspeakers, singing his call to prayer five times a day. As other muezzins join, the call swells into a chorus of separate, complimentary tones. The beauty of this organic sound is something of a religious experience, even for a non-Muslim. The pre-sunrise call (around 5.30am) is especially moving.

Fes from above.

The rich sights, sounds and smells of Fes are so overwhelming to the visitor that the city can feel like a fantasy land. Many pockets of the medina are indistinguishable from the way they would have been thousands of years ago. But Fes is a breathing, functioning reality - a modern day city that feels like a magical playground. What a great introduction to Morocco!

Next on donkeycrossing: read about life with a Moroccan family in the medina. Check back soon!

Sunday, January 21, 2007


(part 1)

If there was one word to sum up our first couple weeks in Morocco it would be: different. In every "sense" of the word, we have truly entered a land in which the scents, tastes, sights and sounds are an explosion of culture stronger than anywhere else we've ever been.

The tradition of mint tea is consumed at all moments of the typical Moroccan day. From haggling with a carpet dealer, to investigating accomodation for a night, one is always offered a glass (if not three) of the sweet and delicious drink.

We decided to begin our African experience in Fes, Morocco for it's inexpensive access from London and it's geographical position in the north of the African continent. The first thing one encounters in Fes is Fes-Es Bali, or the old medina: a relentless maze of over 10,000 paths and alleyways leading through miles of shops, food stalls, residential areas, mosques, medersas (holy schools), hammams (public baths) and local craft workshops. There aren't any motorized vehicles in the medina and the primary mode of moving cargo through it's alleys is, and has been for thousands of years, the donkey.

A sign of caution to the uninitiated: donkeys always have the right of way. You often hear their caretakers yelling "Balek! Balek!", translated as "Look out!" while they charge through the crowded alleys.

One of Fes' most famous exports, demonstrating the highest quality of local craftsmanship, is it's leather. There are numerous tanneries in the medina, although the Grand Tannery is the most impressive. Home to a centuries old tradition of men knee-deep (literally) in pigeon dung, cow urine, sulphuric acid, various animal parts and vegetable oils, they produce some of the softest leather imaginable. It's an amazing sight and a stomach wrenching odor.

A view overlooking the Grand Tannery. The cooperative selling the goods produced in the tannery offers views of the men in action. Some see this as "extreme" voyeuristic tourism, as the men get filthy working in sub-standard conditions and tourists observe from the gallery sniffing fresh sprigs of mint to offset the foul scent.

Shoes anyone? A shot from within one of the coop's shops. Get ready to bargain, and bargain hard, if you're interested in taking home a piece of the fun.

For us the most enjoyable aspect of the medina was simply wandering around aimlessly. Take one turn and you can peek into a mosque during prayer time with hundreds of Fassi on their prayer rugs, heads pointed East toward Mecca. You can take the next turn and find a freshly slaughtered lamb on a hook ready for grilling, baking or frying. We tried our best to get lost nearly everyday, however we always found our way back home.

On one afternoon we turned a random corner and immediately made friends with these Saharan tribesmen playing music from Guinea. Our Arabic classes began to pay off right from the start of our visit.

Apart from the amazing medina, Fes is an impressive sight from a distance. From the Merenid Tombs, a short walk up one of the hills just north of town, one can view dozens of towering minarets from the numerous mosques, the Middle Atlas mountains and the abundance of cemetaries surrounding the medina. Also in constant view are ominous plumes of thick, black smoke coming from the ceramic factories in a nearby valley. The iconic blue and white pottery produced in these factories is another fine piece of craftsmanship for which Fes is famous.

A local dude walks along a path above the medina.

Rachel and I on the terrace of our hotel in the heart of the medina. Rooftop terraces come standard with most accomodation in the medina and are a wonderful way to escape the overwhelming madness below.

Check back soon for part two of our minty madness!!!

Friday, January 19, 2007

(Welcome to Morocco)
Greetings Donkey Crossing fans! We made it to Africa and it' been nothing less than amazing. We've completed our French and Arabic classes in Fes and feel we have the linguistic knowledge to begin exploring this mysterious continent.
Here we are in traditional party gear in the formal salon of our home in Fes
We are leaving Fes in the morning to begin our three month journey through Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Senegal. Check back soon to read about our first couple weeks studying and living in Morocco. It's been a fabulous experience meeting wonderful people, consuming sensational delicacies and getting to know a city that truly defines culture.
We hope everyone is doing well!
Jason and Rachel

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Clonakilty Craic
We'd heard mixed reports about Europe's famed budget airline, so embarked upon our first Ryan Air journey with some apprehension. Sure enough, the time between arrival at Stansted airport and take off was slightly hellish. Having checked in at the 'too good to be true' speed of light, we proceeded to security where a gothic looking girl policed the gateway to our destination, Ireland. Although she looked barely old enough to buy herself a drink, goth girl had us cramming handbags into day packs, repacking wheeled carry-ons and bagging our liquids and gels with compliant obedience. In spite of our cooperation and charm, we failed to meet the goth's strict requirements and were sent away to check our luggage. Three queues, half an hour, an irritating surcharge and a couple more grey hairs later we got the coveted nod from the goth guard and proceeded through security. Thankfully, the rest of our Ryan Air flight was uneventful and we were soon breathing fresh Irish air.
Destination Clonakilty, West Cork, Ireland
We were greeted by Bill Shanley, a good friend and musical colleague of my brother who would be our host. Bill clearly knew his way along the dark winding country lanes from Cork to Clonakilty and we soon arrived at Shanley's Piano Bar, Bill's home since childhood and ours for the next few days.
There was no questioning what the beverage of choice would be at Shanley's
Entering Shanley's, we encountered a boozy throng of music lovers, invisible through the fog of my steamed up glasses. We were guided through the crowd and introduced to Mrs. Philomena Shanley (Phil to friends and family) who I could see, when my steam cleared, was an extremely classy lady. We were served a tasty Murphy's stout by Bill's sister Emer, and immediately felt at home in the pub the Shanley family have owned for 103 years. As Bill jammed with the band, we watched from an alcove where platinum discs recognizing his recordings with various Irish artists hung from the walls.
The style queens of Clon: Phil Shanley and her daughter Emer
After saying good night to the regulars, our hosts brought us through the glass door at the back of the pub into their home - an inviting refuge with soft lights, fresh lilies and orchids and a homey feel. Every room was beautifully decorated with careful attention to detail, and we were guided along twisting pine hallways up to our cosy attic bedroom.
Before retiring, Bill, Andrew, Eva, Jason and I headed down the street to the Rossa Grill, the local late-night fast food joint. We were undoubtedly the oldest and most sober clientele there. The hungry crowd shoved each other towards the counter like a mob charging the enemy. Bill bravely joined the great burger rush and came back with cheeseburgers and curry chips for all.

Rachel, Bill, Andrew & Eva, some of us rosy-cheeked after a few Murphy's

The next morning after a lie-in (there's no such thing as an early night at Shanley's), Jason and I headed out to explore Clonakilty, or 'Clon'. Clon's streets are lined with beautiful boutiques, stylish gift shops and traditional cafes. For a town of 4,000 people the abundance of pubs (30+) seemed a bit excessive. Having said that, we soon took advantage of one for a nice pint of Beamish stout in front of an open fire.

Cobbled square in the centre of Clon

Back at Shanley's we were treated to a roast beef dinner by Phil's sister Barbara. She was visiting from Liverpool with her husband Ian, and the four of us quickly became friends. After dinner, we put on our party outfits and headed down to the pub to celebrate New Years Eve the Shanley way. We got seats in the packed pub just in time for "The Bill Shanley Experience" to launch into action. The band was full of talented musicians including Bill on guitar and Andrew on bass. They rocked the house with classics by the Beatles, Jackson Five, Van Halen, Jerry Lee Lewis and others. With the Murphy's flowing, the 'craic' was exceptional. The Shanleys certainly know how to throw a party!

"The Bill Shanley Experience", featuring Bill Shanley on guitar, Andrew Holdsworth on bass and 'the two Brians' on vocals. The vocalist on the right is Brian Crowley, an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) representing Ireland. According to one knowledgeable observer, Brian will be President of Ireland one day. It is only fitting for a musical nation such as Ireland to have a President with a great singing voice!

New Year's Day was Emer's birthday, which she celebrated by cooking a fabulous curry for the whole Shanley family and various guests, including us, at her home. Unsurprisingly, we found the rest of the family to be just as warm, friendly and fun as our hosts. Emer's children, Brian and Mai, are young musicians, so after dinner we had an impromptu jam session with them. As Bill and Andrew played, I joined them on Mai's 1/4 size violin for a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely". Emer insisted I borrow the violin to play later that night in the pub. With Mai's kind permission I took the mini instrument and dutifully produced it later at the pub, joining in with the tunes I knew. The good 'craic' just refused to end! It was an honor for me to play with Bill, Andrew and the band.

Three guests jamming with Bill and the band

The following day Bill drove us around the local countryside, stopping for a delicious lunch of local seafood chowder and fishcakes. To aid our digestion, we walked on the beach, watching the waves and the hardy individuals surfing them.

Bill and Andrew demonstrate some air guitar on the dunes

Bill kept us entertained with stories of Clon's musical heritage. Apparently the town has drawn musicians to it from far and wide, including Noel Redding, bass player for The Jimi Hendrix Experience. After Hendrix's death, Redding made Clon his home and was a regular performer at Shanley's. He also took Bill on as his only student, and Bill holds Noel in the highest regard as a friend, teacher and mentor. Stopping at Noel's former home was a highlight of our tour with Bill.

A pretty Clonakilty scene

Since Clon is famous for its black pudding (blood sausages to the uninitiated), Jason and I cooked up some of this local delicacy in a full Irish breakfast on the morning of our departure. Besides being a fun culinary experience for us, this was a small gesture of thanks to Phil and Bill for their warm hospitality.

Sliced and ready to fry - Clonakilty black and white pudding. Delish!

As we said thank you and goodbye to Phil and our friends at Shanley's, we promised we'd be back...... and meant it.

Jason posed proudly with the pint of Murphy's he poured himself, supervised by Emer. Slainte!

Friends Reunited Part 2

In between savoring the delights of turkey, mince pies and the other activities of Christmas in Dewsbury, Jason and I found time to get together with some good friends.

First stop on the northern leg of the 'Friends Reunited' tour was Sheffield: home of both the world's finest steel (except for NAPCO steel) and my very first friend, Louise Shaw. We were greeted at Sheffield train station by the Shaw family welcoming committee, comprising husband Matt and young sons Barney and Eli. Before long we were playing with the boys and their trains, books and jigsaw puzzles as Jason and Matt discussed the fortunes (and misfortunes) of Huddersfield Town FC. After a wonderful dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire puddings courtesy of the Shaw chefs, Jason was nominated special guest bedtime storyteller by Barney, and the two disappeared with a small pile of books. We had a wonderful time with the Shaws when they came to visit us in Chicago earlier this year, and in Sheffield we found ourselves pleasantly immersed in Shaw family life once again.

Eli, Matt, Louise and Barney in their Sheffield home.

Our next reunion was with another pair of long time friends, Gill Leverton and Tracy Hudson. We've known each other for 20 years, and I have fond memories of Tracy and Gill from childhood. We met during Sunday School at St Johns in Dewsbury, and they were the most energetic, alternative and fun Sunday school teachers around. Hopefully they've forgiven me and my fellow Sunday school students for causing havoc and disrupting their 'day of rest' for several years. These days, we're more likely to be found gossiping over a pint than discussing bible passages over tea & biscuits.
'Too cool for Sunday School'?: Gill, Rachel & Tracy 20 years on.

We spent the next couple of days on Tracy's narrowboat exploring a particularly pretty section of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. In the pursuit of the dream of a lifetime, Tracy and her partner Glyn bought "Baby D" a year ago, and are in the process of renovating her. As we cruised along the peaceful canal, we inhaled the damp, chilly Lancashire air, hopping out to open and close the locks as we traveled uphill to our destination.

Captain Tracy at the helm of her beloved Baby D.

A typical gloomy Lancashire winter day seems idyllic on the canal.

Pretty reflections.

Although life on the canal is pretty tranquil, it can also be hard work, especially when sailing in hilly Lancashire. The water level of the canal follows the landscape, so locks are built in to enable the narrowboats to travel uphill and downhill. Tracy had told us that we'd need to go through seven locks on this particular voyage. Each lock needed to be cranked open and then closed so Baby D could pass through. Jason and I got stuck in, and after a lot of key turning, arm cranking, gate pushing and water gushing, we reached our destination and moored up to enjoy the fruits of our labor: a pint of ale in the "Top Lock" pub. We swayed in synch with the motions of the canal as we supped our beers on dry land. Typical first time boaters......
Jason opens a paddle to operate the lock.

Baby D in a lock, waiting for the water level to rise.

The cozy interior of Baby D with its coal fire and radio tuned to a mellow station is the perfect retreat from the English winter. Jason and I fell in love with the peace and pace of canal life and look forward to future outings on Baby D, having mastered the basics of working the locks, steering the boat and operating the airplane-style loo.

Time for a pint, perhaps?

Our next social engagement took us to Roundhay Park, Leeds for an afternoon with Cheryl, Ed and baby Lola. Jason and I first crossed paths with Cheryl in Ecuador while we were living in Quito in 1999, and we quickly became close friends. Cheryl has since moved back home to Leeds where she has continued her teaching career and enjoys family life with Ed and Lola. We spent a couple of fun hours together exploring the park before Jason and I headed off to meet another friend from Ecuador.

Ed, Lola and Cheryl on a pleasant wander around Tropical World at Roundhay Park.

Regular Donkey Crossing readers might recognize the fellow on the right in the next picture. We introduced Chris Briggs on our blog a couple of months ago when Jason and I met him on our recent visit to Ecuador. Coming from a town as small as Dewsbury, it was bizarre to meet a fellow home towner in Ecuador. It was great to reunite in the local West Riding pub and reminisce. We also compared notes on future adventure plans: a volunteer project in Nepal for Chris and visits to Ireland and West Africa for us.
Jason and 'Briggsy' catch up over a beer.

Thanks to all our friends and family in Yorkshire for fantastic times together. We look forward to the next time, amigos!

Friends Reunited Part 2 is brought to you by Wonkey Donkey Ale, a Goose Eye Brewery beer.

Check back soon for tales of music, stout and hospitality from our New Years experience in Ireland.