Morocco: Reaching The Coast! Essaouira: Beach, Seafood, a Shave and a Massage.

21 09 2020

This trip to Morocco was full of one completely epic highlight after another. But nothing diminished our expectations for the Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira! It was 180-degrees different after the desert. Seemingly in a flash, we switched from dry, hot, desert to a cool, breezy beach, seafood and surf rich climate infused with nothing other than Moroccan twist!

We arrived late in the day and wasted no time enjoying a sunset dinner right on the shore, above the city’s battlements. Mohammad got our group a perfect restaurant reservation, a table with an ocean view. For the entire trip, I was looking forward to lobster here, and ordered despite the $80 price. I did not care for its preparation however. It was grilled, which lent a different slightly smokey flavor, and which dried it out somewhat. I definitely prefer steamed, which is more moist, and leaves lobster’s magical, ethereal flavor to stand on its own. I was glad to try a different cooking method, either way.

Essaouira is known as a very windy city, for much of the year the wind blows so hard, strolling the beach is challenging. This characteristic leads windsurfers and kiteboarders here late spring to fall, when other beach lovers go elsewhere. We were there in early March, and it was perfect.

Leaving the hotel, it was about a 10 minute walk to reach the beach. There, one can stroll over a mile of sidewalk people watching. You can sample a citrus beverage or a popsicle offered by cart vendors. Shirtless young adults exercised at an open air gym. Women in full-length niqabs share the sidewalk with women in wetsuits and men in swim trunks. There is a surfing center with rentals and lessons. Or choose to walk the sandy beach by the waves. The surf was pretty gentle, with a dozen or so surfers enjoying the break. Kite boarders were also out. On my last afternoon, Sandy and I strolled the sidewalk. We were approached by art students from Senegal selling mini-paintings. Rather than bargain for a painting, which would have perished in my luggage, I turned the tables and inquired about his story. Unexpectedly, he unleashed a confession of escape from poverty, oppression, and a hope for a new life in Morocco. My question turned things around from defending myself from a hawker to immediate friendship. He was so open to talking about his hard, hopeless life in Senegal, his journey to Essaouria, his art education, and his hope to bring his family north. Sandy and I were so moved. I didn’t want to insult him by not buying a painting – I admired them but explained I couldn’t transport. Instead, I offered him twice the value just as a gift of support. After all, I was only to be in Morocco three more days. He was so grateful! I was sure there are many such stories so close to sub Saharan Africa.

Essaouira’s other name is Mogador, founded in 1764, and was literally erected with battlements so that the Sultan could launch corsairs against attackers. Today, these battlements are locations for movie sets, and The Citadel has been featured in Game of Thrones. When you see the video, it really is a perfect location!

Essaouira is famous for its fishermen and its seafood. Countless indigo fishing boats lie in the harbor, each morning voyaging out to catch the day’s bounty. So, for lunch, our guide Mohammed went to the wharf to purchase a variety of seafood for lunch. In this city, grilling seafood is the most popular preparation, and there are dozens of “You bring it we grill it” restaurants. We met at one of these places, sat at an extended open air table on the 2nd floor. WOW the variety of delicacies from the ocean he got for us! There were cuttlefish, squid, mackerel, sardines, bass, sole, shrimp, snapper, and more!

Later that day, I carried out a tradition for all my overseas adventures. Finish it up with a shave, and what the heck, a massage, too! Like elsewhere in Morocco, my French came in handy. I was able to ask and get directions to a laundromat, find out when it would be ready for pick up. Then, where is a barber? It was not long before I was in the seat!

I signed up for a two-hour traditional Berber Hamman massage, complete with Argon oil, at Les Massages Berbers. I had no idea what I was in for! I have had massages in various far flung places. Amsterdam, Bali, the National Thai Massage School, and Hue Vietnam. They’re all different. Some stories involved for sure. But this one, I was totally out of my element, for the first half at least!

I went with Anna, innocently enough, wending our way down the medina. Like everywhere in Morocco, a door led to a completely different world inside. After greetings, I was told to strip down to my underwear and was ushered into a piping HOT steam room. I was instantly uncomfortable, what was I to change into later? Then this woman enters and starts spooning hot water over me. Then, I’m to lay down on a flat, hot bench. She departs. I have to tell you that I don’t like humidity. I don’t like hot springs. I don’t like hot tubs. Or steam rooms. This was like all of those times 10! I sweated, I thought I might burn on the hot bench. I finally felt like my blood pressure was about to boil over, so I got up and asked to be excused. The attendant brought some normal temperature water and spooned it over me. I felt somewhat relieved. But then, she began what was to be the exfoliation process. The whole point of the steam was to prepare the skin for exfoliation! OMG. It was not a delicate process at all. More like a sandpaper with a handle scooping up dead skin. Yikes! With that indignity complete, only then was I to hobble across the hall, where I was to get a ‘normal’ massage! Now I was told to take off the underwear and wear a towel.

The massage itself was most relaxing and reinvigorating. My wet underwear was returned to me, and I went back to the hotel commando style! Not sure I’d do that again.

Camels in the Sahara

7 05 2020

We’d all been looking forward to being in the Sahara Desert – by far the biggest in the world. Riding camels, and seeing stars. We’d be spending the night at a glamping campsite on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes. It’d been a long day on the road getting out there, across the arid steppe. But in the late afternoon, the dunes rose above the village of Merzouga.

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We were to ride camels into the desert and stick around until sunset. It was a really epic experience being out there. Not long after arriving at an auberge (lodge) we began suiting up for the ride.

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Aditi and Mohamed

We brought along minimal supplies such as water, cameras, and jackets for after sunset.

While we waited, a truck drove up to me and the driver asked me in French, “Where can we get water, is there a natural water source around here?” I was like, “Dude we are in the Sahara!” Anyway, it wasn’t long before we found our camels. They all seemed to know what was coming up.


Our guides assisted us getting into the saddle and getting the camel to stand up.

David gets his camel to rise! Well done! When the camel stands up, you’d better hang on! And trust the camel knows what it’s doing.

With everybody on their camels, it was time for a group shot before we set off.

Group on Camels crop

We entered the dunes in a “camel train,” with lines connecting each beast. Since they have done this thousands of times, the camels all know what to do. The sand seems bottomless, but the camels feet are quite wide and don’t sink in very much. Still, it’s a very bouncy ride, and when climbing, descending and turning on a dune, it’s pretty unsettling for a newbie like me! Add to that trying to take a photo!

Before long, the timeless view of the rusty colored desert in the late afternoon brings up awe and emotion. I’ll never forget the endless sea of dunes.

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We reached a spot where we could explore the dunes under our own power. There was something about the setting that made me just take in the wonder. How many millions of years have these sands been here, shifting, moving, changing shape.

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Once the sun set, we rode to our glamorous camping site. I’m used to roughing it, but this was something else! It had rooms with blankets and beds. A bathroom with flush toilet. But still, it had a spot with a campfire for music and conversation. Katie and I were hoping for a sea of stars. Instead, it was a full moon, which blocked out the sky for much of the night. I was able to rise an hour before dawn, just as the moon set. But I only got 20 minutes of Milky Way Galaxy viewing.

Dinner time with a toast!

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CHEERS! No shortage of wine tonight!






Our Kasbah Hotel in Midelt, Morocco

23 04 2020


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We left Fez for a long day on the road through the Mid-Atlas Mountains and then onto the high desert plateau. Along the way we witnessed a market for sheep. And got ourselves a picnic lunch, which we ate at a riverbend site. A shepherd with her flock of sheep passed through.

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Like every day, it was sunny, dry and comfortable. The wind was light.

We descended into a high plains landscape, passed through the town center of Midelt, reaching our hotel on the outskirts of town.

Right in front of the hotel, the snowy northern High Atlas Mountains dominated the view.

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This hotel is built to resemble a kasbah. I though it was cool architecture. It had an outdoor swimming pool as well.

The style of the rooms, and some of the surrounding buildings, walls, and even geography made me think I might be on the other side of the Atlantic, in Mexico! No doubt this is because of the Spanish-Moorish interchange over the centuries, and the shared architectural styles, which the Spanish brought with them to Mexico.

The rooms were airy and generous. The terracotta colored floor and the colors of the walls and drapes made me think of Mexico, too. I’ve never been to Spain myself. Perhaps it has a flair of Granada? The rooms were very generous. Each had a “sitting room” capable of sleeping two and a main room capable of sleeping three.

There was a little hike we could do to a pond nearby, and on the way, once again, I felt like I could be in Mexico. The look of the houses, the walls, end even a nearby mesa completed the image.

The walk wasn’t without beauty, as spring cherry trees were flowering and some peacocks strutted around!

Down at the pond, an information sign got me grounded. It definitively reminded me that I was NOT in Mexico, because it was in French! Essentially, it said the surrounding area and Atlas mountains drained into this river, which the pond is part of, and that it joined other rivers heading north to the Atlantic. It is 13 meters deep. The fish that find home here are bass and trout. There are also Green North African frogs.

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That night, I ate trout, which was quite tasty, from this pond!

On the way to the hotel, we passed through central Midelt, and like many towns in rural Morocco, it was very quiet. In my pictures, there’s nobody in sight. There are many reasons. There are people, but the men are out working their fields, or women are inside cooking and cleaning. We passed through at a time later in the afternoon. We’d see lots more people when children are going to or coming from school. Or, on certain days of the week markets are open, and locals plus people from surrounding areas are all shopping. We’d see women gathering discussing women stuff, or men at the Mosques or cafes. In the most conservative rural towns, there is a culture about women and their attractiveness to men. Women stay inside and the homes are designed so that women can see out, but men cannot see them inside. That way, the men can concentrate on the tasks at hand, rather than “distractions” or “temptations.” In the cities, this was not so much the case.

On the next day, we were traveling to one of the HIGHLIGHTS of our trip! We would be riding camels on the Sahara! And spending the night in the desert.





Outpost of Empire: Volubilis, Morocco

3 04 2020

morocco, volubilis morocco

Standing in front of Corinthian columns.

After lunch, we drove out to Volubilis. This ancient Roman city is the finest archeological site in Morocco. At its peak in the 2nd Century A.D., it spread out over 100 acres and had a population estimated at 20,000. What we see today looks to be Roman, but that belies the many waves of kingdoms and cultures that made this city home. It is often referred to as a Berber city as well.

Before the Romans, it was founded in the 2nd Century B.C. as the capital of Mauritania. It became a Roman client state in the 1st Century B.C. and then was annexed by Rome in 44 A.D. And after the Romans, in 787, it became the capital of Idris I, the first king of the Idrisid dynasty. Eventually it fell back into local tribal ownership. It was continuously populated under various rulers until the 1755 Great Lisbon Earthquake leveled it, along with many cities and towns in southern Europe and North Africa.

Volubilis enjoys status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the numerous cultures that lived here. For over 1,000 years, it was inhabited by Berbers, Arabs, Romans, Mauretanians, Libyans, Jews, Moors, as well as Aftrican and Christian cultures. Archeologists have unearthed evidence of all these cultures.

When we arrived the day had turned dry, warm and bright. The city sits on a hillside and has an uninterrupted view of the surrounding area. Wending our way through the ruins, the extent of the city became apparent. There were baths, rest rooms, an industrial size olive press, elaborate halls, a sewer under the main street, and intricate tile floors depicting elements of daily life, as well as tales of the Gods and Hercules.

Another reason this city was selected as a World Heritage site is its integrity. After 1755, it was essentially abandoned and left alone. So what the architects found was as pristine as it had been for centuries.

All three types of columns were evident – Doric, Iambic and Corinthian. Corinthian are more fancy and detailed at the the top. For Iambic, the top looks like a a sheet of paper with rolls on either end. Doric are the simplest, with the top kind of looking like a chopped off inverted pyramid (I don’t have images for those).

Many of the structures contained elaborate tile floors depicting images of gods, stories of the gods, and pictures of animals.

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Not sure what’s going on, but there is a man, horse, and I think lion

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Here, a man riding a horse backwards

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Hercules wrestling snakes

The mosaics even contained evidence of just how far away influence had come. There was a swastika – a religious icon of divinity and spirituality from Hinduism.

The size, history and significance of Volubilis was a lot to comprehend. We had time in the bus to consider, as our destination for the night was Fez.




Casablanca, Morocco – “Of all the gin joints in the world, she walks into mine.”

25 03 2020

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For several years Morocco has been right at the top of my travel list! Many years ago I spent a month in Turkey. The people, food, history and varied topography impressed me so much, and I’ve been wanting to visit another Muslim Mediterranean country ever since. Morocco, with its coast, Roman ruins, labyrinthine medinas, riads, Sahara Desert, kasbahs, 13,600ft Atlas Mountains and Atlantic beaches, plus a reputation for friendly people certainly checks all those boxes. But for several years I was held back by 40-hour airline flight itineraries. In the fall of 2019, I was able to book a non-stop flight from Portland to Europe with one connection to Casablanca. With that, I was IN!

On Black Friday I signed up with Intrepid Travel for their “Best of Morocco” tour. It hit all the varied spots I was looking for. Even better, with credit card points, I paid for the flight and most of the tour. We had 13 people total.

The 1st day of the tour started with a 6 p.m. meeting. That was the only time spent in Casablanca, and I wanted a chance to see it. So, I arrived the night before and booked a day tour of the city. I arrived at the Al Walid Hotel with enough daylight to walk around the square where it’s located. Across the square is the Casablanca Voyageurs train station. It’s a modern station blended with a French colonial building. Along the square, a Light Rail system shuttled passengers. I immediately noted the relaxed nature of the people. Nobody was rushing around like in some 3rd World cities. The traffic was not dense. There was a lack of the din of horns heard in many cities.

In fact, that evening I slept with my hotel window open all night. After 11 p.m., it was very quiet inside the city! One thing was an immediate delightful surprise – I could hear and understand people speaking French! This was my first night and I ordered dinner, purchased a train ticket, and later spoke to the hotel attendant in French! WTF! I studied French for 7 years but hadn’t used it much. And all of the sudden it came out of my brain from nowhere! It was like automatic. And super fun! I had loaded a French/English language app before I left which helped fill in gaps. But not in French was the Imam prayer call at about 5:45 a.m.! Breakfasted, I snagged a “Petits Taxi” and set off to our joining place, Rick’s Cafe.

Casablanca, population 3.6 million, lies on the Atlantic coast and is the commercial capital of Morocco. Its name is synonymous with the 1942 film noir namesake film – considered by some to be the best of the 20th Century. With that, of course, the day tour met at Rick’s Cafe! The interior of the cafe is an exact replica of the movie set. The morning had typical coastal clouds but they’d burn off.


The irony is that none of the film was made in Morocco at all. The whole production was done in Hollywood. Nonetheless, it endowed the city with a romantic and mysterious reputation.

Joining me were Stephanie of Washington, D.C., Chevon of the Virgin Islands, and Oliver of Melbourne, Australia.

We introduced ourselves and then Bennie, our guide, led us on a three hour walking tour. Two highlights were the Old Medina followed by the New Medina. A medina is a distinct section of a city (or quarter) often highlighted by narrow walled lanes – lanes with doors or shops on the sides. One can find themselves fascinated and, sometimes, lost for hours in a medina. Sometimes a seemingly ordinary door, when opened, will lead to something completely unimaginable, such as garden surrounded by a multi-tiered lodge – or Riad.

On the walk to the Medinas, we passed through some examples of Spanish-inspired architecture, and the classic form of Minaret found in Morocco.

It was just barely opening time at the medinas. The shops were opening up one by one, each specializing in a type of good for sale. Products included seafood, chicken, leather, textiles, olives, nuts, grains, timepieces, produce, glassware, metals, spices, and even a pet store.

More images of things one can get at the medina!

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Trotting around medinas can be a bit exhausting for for anyone. Not the least travelers that are jet lagged, with tired legs and minds. So we saw more, stretched our legs, and then, had tea and lunch. Casablanca definitely has a laid-back cafe lifestyle. The weather was turning out superb – dry and warm. We had an outside table by a town square, perfect for people watching. And I continued using French, which was super fun.

Later, Chevon and I headed to one of Casablanca’s seaside attractions – the Hassan II Mosque. Hassan 2 resized

The seaside mosque looms over the city skyline – visible from almost everywhere. It is the largest mosque in Africa.

It was finished in 1993 at a cost of about $750 million, much of which was donated by worshipers and the King. It can hold 25,000 worshipers inside, and 80,000 outside.

It is very intricate and has a roof which can be opened to the sky. Down below is a mammoth area where worshipers can wash before the services.

From outside, near the edge of the property, the city gives way to the Atlantic.

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It was a full day sightseeing in Casablanca. A good way to begin the trip.

I’d meet our group about 6 p.m. and then we’d go out for drinks and getting to know one another.

Looked like it was going to be a good vacation!


Morocco Coronavirus: Last Seat Out to France

20 03 2020

Air France Boarding Pass

Last seat to France out of Morocco

I just returned from a wonderful trip to Morocco. I managed to land in Portland, Oregon, 15 March about 10:15 a.m. Normally, I would begin blog posts about a trip abroad starting from the beginning. But this time, due to unprecedented times, and because of the immediate international travel lock-down sweeping the globe, I am writing about my miraculous exit from Morocco just as the country shut down travel to France.

I was on an Intrepid Travel “Best of Morocco” tour, which began on 1 March 2020. I flew into Casablanca. The trip ended in Marrakesh. For economies of money and time, I decided to purchase a round trip from Portland, Oregon to Casablanca instead of two one way flights. My flight home was scheduled to depart Casablanca March 16, transit through Paris on the way back to the USA.

The Coronavirus pandemic began sweeping around the globe before I left home, but there were not many international travel restrictions at that time. I met my tour group, composed of Americans, English and Australians, and we explored Morocco’s coasts, cities, deserts, kasbahs, medinas and ruins together. As we enjoyed ourselves the virus was spreading and governments were working overtime to enact plans to contain it. These plans included restricting travel. Airlines would be affected.

We were on the coast, in Essaouira, when I first got an idea that things were doing downhill. First, my original Air France flight from Paris to Seattle was re-routed to Atlanta due to “operational constraints.” I did nothing. The USA had temporarily banned Europeans from traveling to the USA. US citizens could come home. Then, on the way to Marrakesh, on March 13, Air France sent an e-mail that my Paris-Atlanta flight was “canceled due to operational constraints.” With this, I began to worry. Still, I figured I could re-book another flight to the USA – I had time. Maybe I could book a flight around the European Union or a non stop from Morocco to the USA.

It is nothing short of a miracle that I am here right now and I will tell you why. Well, it is a combination of my own intuition, French language, travel experience, flexibility, and tenacity, with a good dose of luck that got me home.

I had a good data connection on the bus, and I tried to use the links on the e-mail to see or change my flight. None of them worked. At the hotel in Marrakesh, before the dinner, I tried the same, no luck. Some intuition told me that I must continue to try to reach Air France or Delta (Air France’s partner) to get a lock on a flight from Paris to USA – that became my #1 priority, instead of going to dinner or doing my tour of Marrakesh the following day. Something told me I needed to lock that flight down.

That evening, I tried every known method of contacting Air France or Delta Airlines. I tried both Delta and Air France Websites via my phone, and they were locked up. I tried Air France online chat, which, once I logged in, just sat there, nobody answering. I tried Delta telephone customer service which said it had a 6-hour wait. I called Air France telephone customer service and waited 90 minutes before it hung up. E-mails went without response as did texts. The Apps for these airlines did not work. It felt like I was chasing my tail.

So I resolved that I MUST speak face to face with an Air France agent, so the following morning, after breakfast, I took a taxi to the airport. I arrived about 9:30 a.m.  NOBODY knew what was about to happen in Morocco.

What occurred next was 100% unexpected and a miracle which in a way never could have happened unless I took action. I arrived at the airport, and the Air France line was long – normal because there was a flight going out. I learned Air France did not have an office in the airport nor in Marrakesh. The only way to speak face to face was to wait in the line patiently. What happened next was simply incredible.

I reached the Air France agent at about 10:40 a.m. I told him that I was trying to change flights for two days coming up due to a canceled flight. He looked at my reservation and his face became a bit panicked and contorted, not sure what to do to help me. That is when he told me that the government of Morocco had banned all flights to France as of 12:00 p.m. THAT DAY! He told me to go back to my hotel, get luggage, and return immediately, so that I could get on a waiting list on this flight.

So, with that information, I knew my “Best of Morocco” trip was over. I ran outside the airport and bargained with taxi drivers for a round trip taxi ride including waiting at the Les Trois Palmiers Hotel for me to throw my luggage together! I even got the driver to understand that this was an emergency and he kicked out existing passengers in his car so he could get my drive done quickly. Once in the car this became a scene worthy of Hollywood, with the taxi passing other cars, swerving in and out to get my round trip done. Back at the hotel I was an emotional mess, remembering how much fun the trip was and realizing I was alone and couldn’t say goodbye to people I met. I rifled through my money to get a tip to our guide Mohamed. I left a note for my roommate Michael to deliver it. With that done, I ran out to the taxi.

More miracles to come. At the airport I waved to my agent and he put me past the line to get me in standby. There were probably 20 of us on standby. The flight was due to leave about 12:30 and gates closed at 12:15 or so. Somewhere during this time I saw tour mates Penny, Craig and Michael who all had decided, like me, to drop everything and go home. Royal Air Maroc, the next counter to Air France, told them that “there was nothing it could do” to help them. After a few minutes, another agent announced (in French of course) that NO STANDBY SEATS WILL GO. He said, in French, that he didn’t know what to do and that the computer showed next flights are March 28. That resulted in 100% pandemonium amongst the French citizens trying to go home. There was crying, there was yelling, there was anger, there was disbelief.

Keep in mind that nobody in Morocco outside the airport was aware of this 12:00 p.m. shut down. I could only imagine the tourists enjoying their day unaware!

I decided to stick to my plan, and not leave that counter. I could still succeed if I could get a flight plan around the European Union back to the USA. When the crowd paused a little, I kindly spoke to the agent about my situation, and he listened. Whilst this was going on, for some completely unexplained reason, the Royal Air Maroc agent one meter away also heard my situation, and said to me, “May I please see your itinerary?” And then a MIRACLE happened. She produced a boarding pass! She quickly grabbed my luggage, tagged it and said RUN to the gate. And so I did. With very sweaty palms got through passport control in a rush.

Luck stuck with me because it was already 12:16. My flight was delayed! Once through passport control and running to the A5 gate, I saw my original Air France agent standing there, with no other passengers, looking at me like he was hallucinating, but I was there! I had a boarding pass. He cheered and ushered me onto the plane, which I thought was an Air Maroc flight. But it was that Air France flight! The passengers and crew cheered me as I got the very last flight! THE very very LAST seat!

Wheels up!

Doors closed, wheels up and I was gone. The entire plane cheered. And I was only trying to get a flight changed for March 16!

I had a one-segment boarding pass, so my luggage was checked to Charles de Gaulle Paris and no further. Once in the airport I visited the Air France customer service desk. The agent was able to get me on a flight to Los Angeles, departing within the hour. I took it. There was no time to get my bag, or go back and forth through passport control and security. So the agent put an electronic tag on it in the baggage software system. And I was off.

Well deserved!

With my connection in the USA, I was home at just after 10 a.m.

I filed a lost baggage claim with the airline, and it followed me the next day.

All my luggage arrived the next morning in perfect shape!

Here I am at home. The world going crazy. Events are happening so fast and not predictable. God Speed to travelers everywhere during this crisis!