Every year people ask me how I am going to spend New Year's Eve. My reply is always "with my family". This usually surprises people. Why with my family? I am not going out to a bar? No huge party? No craziness? What people do not understand is that when I say "with my family", it involves at least 20 fun-loving Mexicans who eat really well and love me a lot. Why would I stray from that good time? I have spent maybe a total of 3 New Year's Eves away from my family in my lifetime, and they have never been half as fun as my most boring New Years at home.
Last night was one of the most spectacular nights of the year, and I felt so blessed to say good bye to 2009 in the way I did. We started the celebrations off by going on a boat ride off the tip of Cabo San Lucas, Baja California (also known just as "Cabo"). We set out at around 4 pm and headed past the Playa del Amor and the famous Arco that the town is so famous for, champagne and white wine in hand. As we headed into the Pacific Sea, we saw two groups of whales off the port side of the boat coming up for air, blowing water out of their spouts. I am not quite sure about the symbolism of seeing a whale, but we all decided that it meant good luck for us. I always say that you are guaranteed a gorgeous sunset every night in Baja, and last night was no different. The sun set in the most beautiful array of oranges and yellows, which slowly turned into pinks and purples before it was completely gone. When we turned the boat around to return to the marina, the blue moon was rising over the Sea of Cortez, and it looked like a huge orb, triple its normal size. There were three colors at that point: the navy blue of the sea, the gray-blue of the sky, and the yellow of the moon. At that point, which was only 7 pm, my New Year's Eve was complete. We returned home to a barbecue style dinner with some Argentine influences and a bonfire on the beach. We didn't play as many games as we normally do, but sitting on the beach in a circle around a fire under the full moon doesn't really call for additional entertainment.
Blue moons only happen every 18 years, and I hope to be in the same place at the same time the next time it comes around.
When I use the word “sailed” in describing our voyage, I really mean “cruised”, and in a 300 foot ship! And happy we were to be aboard a vessel of this size, because the late fall winds in the Mediterranean can be extremely strong, creating some very rough seas. Since our direction was predominantly from East to West, a strong north wind blowing down from the Adriatic can toss even a big ship around and a passenger across a stateroom or into the bar. Looking out from a porthole at a five meter sea makes one not only admire the skill of ancient mariners in much smaller sail boats, but also see at first hand that understanding the numerous Mediterranean winds, currents, tides, rocks, havens, etc. has determined trade routes, fishing patterns, the outcome of many a naval battle and, therefore, the fate of nations. It must have been Top Secret information for certain eyes only. Knowledge was one necessity, and courage was another. Over the centuries the October winds, such as those we encountered must have wreaked havoc on ships, causing a tremendous loss of life and limb. Being a seaman was a profession for the brave. It is small wonder that until fairly recently maritime activity dramatically slowed in the winter months. Any romantic notion one has of the Mediterranean as a placid, docile inland sea is soon dashed when trying to eat dinner with a 40 knot wind blowing across the beam. It is best to take more than one set of clothes on these trips.
For diplomatic reasons we were unable to land in Libya, so we had to leave the great Roman towns of Leptis Magna (birthplace of Emperor Septimus Severus) for another day and sailed to the land of Carthage. Tunisia, its modern name, like Morocco, is a place where today co-exists well with yesterday, the European with the Berber/Arab, and where an active cosmopolitan population is moving forward within the world economy. In my opinion, there are three “must see” sights in Tunisia: al-Djem, Kairouan, and Carthage. Al-Djem is a total surprise; we could call it a little “gem” except that Djem is a huge coliseum rivaling Rome’s in size. For some reason the city fathers in a small Roman town in what was (and remains) a highly agricultural area (millions of olive trees) south of Carthage decided to build a stadium that can still be seen from miles around. This is the ancestor of Lambeau Field in Green Bay! The Romans liked to make architectural statements of power and might to conquered peoples, showing off their engineering prowess as a metaphor for their legions. So perhaps this was one of those statements dictated by the higher-ups for the local masses.
The Coliseum at Djem
The contrast of purpose between this gladiatorial forum and the great mosque at Kairouan could not be more striking. On the other hand, virtually all of the 414 columns in the Great Mosque and its enormous courtyard come from Roman and Carthaginian buildings providing a long cultural continuity to this building, begun in the 7th century, with its forbearers. The first four centuries from its founding were the heyday of Kairouan, especially under the Aglabid and Fatimid dynasties. Like Paris and its cathedral of Notre Dame a couple of centuries later,
Kairouan and its Great Mosque were a major center of learning in the Islamic world. Unlike Paris, in winter Kairouan enjoys a wonderfully warm winter climate for study. I know this now from first hand experience. Nowadays Parisians flock to Tunisian beaches to enjoy this same sunshine. O tempora, o mores! We ended our stay in Kairouan with a marvelous couscous and local wine in the medina.
Bay of Tunis: Bay of Tunis
For me the main goal of the North African voyage was to see Carthage, the Phoenician colony which became one of the great cities of the world and the arch-enemy of Rome for control of the Mediterranean. I knew from my Latin class in high school that Carthage had been destroyed by the Romans after the third Punic War (I remember my Latin teacher citing Cato’s “Cartago delenda est” using the gerundive as the best example of the passive periphrastic!); but, I nevertheless wanted to stand on the steps of what was left of the city. This was where Dido had said good-bye to Aeneas as he left behind his love affair with her to found Rome. From here Hannibal had departed for Carthaginian Spain and his invasion of Italy, much of which he held for about fifteen years. The town of Barcelona in Spain (and their football team) preserves Hannibal’s family name, Barca. And this was where the Roman general, Scipio Africanus, stood after defeating Carthage at the battle of Zema. Looking out over the Bay of Tunis I realized not only what a strategic location Carthage had but how very beautiful was its setting. A comparison with Bay of Naples, due north of Carthage and not all that far away, is unavoidable. I reflected upon how such magnificent geography could have been the scene of pitched battles. We were surprised to find that the ancient ruins of the city are now within a very upscale suburb of Tunis, sort of like a Beverly Hills with ruins. While strange, this integration of older and newer seems in this case to have preserved rather than disturbed the ruins, although sometimes you have to look in somebody’s back yard. The highly protected military and mercantile harbors of ancient Carthage are still visible as well as many ruins of the later city that Rome rebuilt, including the impressive water reservoirs. And, of course, the name and memory of Carthage lives on in the many towns with this name across America and the world. The day and our visit ended as we watched the sunset on the Bay from the esplanade of the church of St. Louis, another giant, who died in Tunis on a Crusade in the 13th century. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Every year I come with my family to Cabo. My uncle and aunt moved to San Jose del Cabo when they were newly wed, and starting about 11 years or so, we have come out here almost every Christmas. Now it feels like a home away from home. We keep a simple rhythm while we are here. We take long walks to the Estero (the estuary at the end of the beach in San Jose) and watch the fishermen with their nets along the shore. We go for surfing and swimming at Los Cerritos beach, on the road to Todos Santos. We visit the Hotel California. Sometimes the women will go to the Melia ME for margaritas and people watching. At sunset we take walks on the beach, and if we are lucky, we take a boat ride around the bay in San Lucas. In Cabo, you are guaranteed a majestic sunset every single day. And with that, you do not really need anything else.
The cuisine here is centered on seafood, and it is all very simple. The fish tacos at Rossy are our favorite thing, and you can basically find us there almost every other day. Sometimes it is the tostada de pescado, but most often I get shrimp tacos in corn tortillas with receta. At night we discovered the tamal stands outside of the church in San Jose. I have eaten a lot of tamales this year, and they are by far the best I have had between here and New York. I love their corn tamal, with fresh corn grated into the masa for an amazing sweet treat. Of course, I have to add spicy sauce on top for contrast- I can't let that chilito get away! The sushi here is incredible- I venture to say it is one of the best places to have sushi, because the Mexican ingredients like avocado, mango, cilantro, and chile have obviously already made their way into Japanese menus around the world. Here, where the freshness of the fish is unparallel, sushi reaches its zenith. And last but not least, my favorite thing in the world (I would say tied with Lebanese man'ouche bi za'atar) is the clams in mustard sauce from Loreto, a town 6 hours north of San Jose. They are razor clams that are cooked and served in a mustard sauce with pickled carrots, onion, and jalapeno. More on this later. . .
We eat out when we have antojos for these particular things, but most of the time we eat at home (my favorite restaurant). For some of our meals we plan out what we will cook, but usually we end up with a whole tuna or marlin, or sea bass, and that is what dictates to us what will happen. Whatever occurs to us to do with it is what we do, and usually it is unbelievably good. Last fall, my uncle went fishing with a friend and they caught a ton of tuna. My aunt ate as much as she could, but then froze the rest for the Winter. The other day she took out some fillets and boiled them to make a tuna salad. I have always loved tuna salad, and so we managed to have her leave the leftovers at our house. The next day I was putting together my lunch, while my parents picked my sister up at the airport, and it occured to me to make Mexican tuna melts. It seemed only natural that a quesadilla could have fresh tuna salad in it. There were fresh flour tortillas in the fridge from town (amazing), and we also had some mild manchego cheese. I put it together and garnished it with tomato and avocado, and some salsa Valentina. When my family got home I offered some up, since they had not gone to Rossy like planned. I ended up spending the next hour serving up tuna melts to everyone. They were truly good and very much going to stay in my repertoire.
I can't take all of the credit, because we work like a true team here: my uncle caught the fish, my aunt made the salad, and I just worked the leftovers. When someone is stumped for an ingredient or detail, someone else always has a good idea or tip that would make it better. I can't wait for the rest of our leftovers.
Very few cruise ships call at Marsa Matruh. Most people outside of Egypt, including me, have never even heard of Marsa Matruh. But if you are traveling by ship to the Oasis of Siwa, this is the closest place to disembark. The outer harbor is studded by some rather mean-looking rocks, and the small port area is protected by a very narrow entrance such that all medium to large ships are obliged to cast anchor and moor well off shore. To shuttle us to land the tender (launch) of the mother-ship was lowered into the choppy seas. I was in the first of three trips the tender was obliged to make through the turquoise waters into the port. We were quite surprised to be greeted by half a dozen medics in white coats with serious-looking instruments in hand to make sure that we were not bringing in swine flu. After lengthy discussions and no injections, we passed the health test and boarded the buses. Our freedom to proceed was quickly arrested by another long conversation over the protocol of our military/ police escort across the desert. At length this also was resolved and we started our journey across the sandy wastes.
As we sped along in an air-conditioned bus, my thoughts wandered to Alexander the Great and his trek from the new city he had founded, Alexandria, to Siwa in 331 B.C. His goal was to consult the famous oracle at the temple of Amun (or Ammon). One of our guides said that the young conqueror was accompanied by ten thousand men. They must have been loyal men of mettle to follow their leader over almost four hundred miles of sun-baked barren desert with the ever-present risk of sandstorms which could bury the whole army alive. Most of the soldiers must have come on foot. Plutarch says that Alexander’s habitual luck was with him. Rain dampened the sand and ravens guided their path. As evening fell we suddenly saw traces of green, given life by the miracle of water. We had arrived at the oasis.
One can think of Siwa as a large tropical island in the Egyptian Sand Sea. The isolation of this large oasis far from the Nile and near the Libyan border has protected its language and way of life through the centuries from outside influences. Until recently braying donkeys were the principal form of locomotion through the unpaved streets. Now donkey supremacy is being challenged by the motor car, and modern communications pose a threat to the local Berber dialect and customs. Nevertheless, Siwa today is still a beautiful and exotic place and its people warm and ingenuous. The thick vegetation born of many springs consists largely of date palms and olive trees. Some of the ancient monuments rise up above the trees permitting magnificent views of the oasis and the surrounding desert. A tourist has the same sensation of discovery as that of climbing to the top of a Mayan temple which has penetrated the canopy of the Yucatan forest.
Curiously, for a place so far from the maddening crowd, many of Siwa’s ancient monuments are illuminated after dark. When this lighting is accompanied by the comments of the knowledgeable local guides visitors are treated to a small scale son et lumiere spectacle. The old center of Siwa is called “Shali” and is built of out of a strange, white, local stone with a heavy salt content. When seen illuminated in the evening it is Gaudi-esque even though of ancient origin. The most spooky (and thrilling) moment, however, was going into the shadowy inner sanctum of the Temple of Amun. We were tracing the steps of Alexander who alone was allowed to penetrate into the sanctuary to consult the oracle. What the oracle said can only be known by those two alone. Many say that the oracle told him he was a god. Plutarch says that he asked whether he would be allowed to conquer the world; and, the oracle said yes.
At the end of this visit to the timeless we all piled into a dozen Land Rovers and headed for the desert under a brilliantly starlit sky and soon arrived at a Bedouin camp, where much music was being played. There we were treated to a mechoui of whole lambs cooked under a layer of sand. I have always been a lamb enthusiast, and this way of preparing it was particularly delicious. We ate with our hands, which is something one must get used to in the desert.
The next morning the caravan of Land Rovers picked us up, and we headed out for an unknown destination, this time for fun and adventure. Just as we could see the desert in front of us the car ahead of us suddenly stopped and the driver got down to check the tires. Then another driver did the same, and then another. Certainly all the tires going have gone flat at once! It was soon clear that they were letting a little air out of the tires in preparation for what was to ensue.
The huge white sand dunes outside Siwa are especially beautiful and seem inaccessible. That inaccessibility was soon to change. We hadn’t counted on our Land Rovers’ capacity to race through them at breakneck speed like the camel corps of Lawrence of Arabia. It is not often that one sees a group of university alums (and even a professor or two) madly careening at excessive speeds up and down sand dunes, lurching to and fro like a bunch of drunken sailors on a spree. But, we were outside the bounds of civilization and free to do as we liked. Our Siwan drivers, while pushing pedal to the metal most of the time, did proceed with moderated caution when going down steep the drop-offs. I learned that Land Rovers can actually slalom down a cliff of sand! It is very difficult to appreciate the beauty of pristine dunes when your heart is in your throat and the words “going off a cliff” are not a metaphor. Nevertheless, the lasting memory of our desert adventure will be of the vast spaces and formations of the eternal sands of Siwa.