Sunday, April 11, 2010
Charlie and I spent Easter with his family in the West Country of England. It was the height of daffodil season, which is just joyful.
Charlie's mum Sue spoiled us with delicious food, and Charlie's dad John indulged us with luscious wines, Charlie's three-year old niece Ruby and the one-year old, twin niece and nephew Amber and William delighted us with their smiles and exemplary good behavior, Charlie and his brother Pete kept each other in stitches, while his sister-in-law Sarah and I watched on, not sure whether we were laughing with them or at them. It was the perfect way to end our trip and usher in our welcome home.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Fez was our last stop on our Moroccan tour before Charlie and I had to hightail it back to Marrakesh to catch our plane. We did not have enough time to do the city justice.
We read somewhere that Fez has the largest pedestrian-only area in the world. Fez's medina certainly was more labyrinthine, with narrower and darker passageways, than any other medina we visited. And those small spaces were packed with people. I don't think that Charlie and I saw nearly half of the Fez medina, mostly because we focused on shopping for all the items we had seen and wanted along the way of our trip, but did not buy earlier because we did not want to add to the weight of our backpacks any sooner than necessary.
We did notice that Fez was more touristy than any other place we had been. Perhaps this is true because it is so far North, and Europeans can cross over from Spain in addition to flying in. Or, perhaps it was because it was the week before Easter and, for some reason that was never explained to us, Moroccan schools are on break and so Muslim families often take the week off for vacation, too.
And so Fez effectively marks the end of our Moroccan trip. We ended up visiting 7 out of the 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country. There was one more along the Northern, Mediterranean coast that will have to wait until our next trip to Morocco. By that time, I am sure UNESCO will have added new sites to the list. Morocco was so enjoyable - a perfect place for a quick weekend trip from London, or for a fuller, two-week holiday - that I have no doubt we will be back.
From Meknes, Charlie and I decided to make our way to Fez. However, we were a little medina-ed out. So, we decided to stop in the small town of Azrou in the Middle Atlas. We happened to arrive on market day, when local farmers and shoppers throughout the region descend upon ground just outside Azrou to sell their tomatoes, peppers, herbs, spices, Berber carpets, soaps, and everything else except bread. You can buy a sandwich with bread, but you can't buy bread on its own at this market.
Charlie and I had not eaten when we arrived. He decided to buy a meatball sandwich from one of the food tents. The photo above is of the food preparation area for the sandwich he ate. The meat (beef or lamb, we couldn't figure out which one) was cut from the carcass that hung all day from the tent's rafters. The meat was then fed through a meat grinder that is visible at the far right of the table. The ground meat was then mixed by hand with fresh herbs and onions to form little meatballs that were then grilled on the barbecue on the left. Once done, the meatballs were stuffed into bread that was sliced with a knife that had been used to chop up the meatball mix.
Let it be said that my husband is a brave man. The number of vectors for food-borne illness in the meatball-sandwich-making process is staggering. We estimate that at least four different hands were involved, there is no clean water or refrigeration. And, Charlie's meat balls were undercooked with a distinctly pink in the middle. But he ate it and, I must admit, I had a bite or two, too. And, not only did it not kill us, or even make us sick, it was delicious.
In the valley outside Moulay Idriss lies the ruins of the Roman town, Volubilis. The site has only been partially excavated and much of it appears beyond repair. But the location - perched on a hill overlooking the verdant valley - is ideal, the mosaics intricately beautiful. Those Romans knew how to live well taking in the beauty and joy of life.
Charlie and I went for a beautiful walk through olive groves and alongside fields of wheat. We could not ask for a more perfect day or nicer way to pass the time.
One of the things that Charlie and I were struck by most in Morocco was how green it is. Sure the country has dry desert land and scraggly, high-mountain brush, but even in these areas, people manage to eke out a limited amount of lush green through irrigation. In other areas, particularly in the valley around Meknes and outside of Moulay Idriss, if you squint your eyes, there are times the land almost could be England. (OK, maybe not so much the olive groves....) We have been told that, after enduring decades of drought, Morocco has had record rainfall in the last two years.
The area around Meknes also has vineyards, none of which we visited. We tried several brands of Moroccan wine during our trip and, let's just say we would choose Australian New Zealand, Californian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Chilean, South African, Canadian, or, for that matter, Indian, before we would choose to drink another Moroccan wine. At least for now. Maybe they will get better someday.
Moulay Idriss is a holy city that is about a half hour drive from Meknes (double that by bus). It is the site of a shrine to a saint (or "Moulay") named Idriss who was the great grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and, in 787, brought Islam to Morocco. Moulay Idriss also founded Fes, moved the Moroccan capital from Marrakesh to Meknes, and founded a dynasty that ruled Morocco for almost 200 years. He was a busy guy.
Because Moulay Idriss is considered so holy, until the mid-1990s, non-Muslims were not allowed to spend the night in the town. Moroccans say that visiting Moulay Idriss five times is the equivalent of making a pilgrimage to Mecca.
When Charlie and I visited Moulay Idriss, we futilely searched its white-washed alleys for the path up to the viewpoint over the city. We kept asking locals passing by for directions and they would gesture in a general direction that gave us no clear explanation of which way to go when the alley forked. One young man we asked said he would take us there, even though it led him in completely the opposite direction to where he was walking when we met him. He seemed to not have anything better to do. He walked us all the way across town and up a very steep stepped path up to the overlook area. In Marrakesh, we had received such help before and our guides always expected payment. But not this young man. Such is the power of Moulay Idriss that people give freely without expecting anything in return.
Meknes is, along with Fez, Casablanca and Marrakech, one of Morocco's imperial cities. This means that, at various times, Moroccan Sultans have moved the capital from one place to the other and then back again. Meknes has a very impressive and lively medina encircled in large fortifications with enormous and elaborately decorated gates.
Meknes has a vibrant market that caters to local people, rather than tourists. As we wandered through the medina's maze, Charlie and I watched men making all manner of items, including furniture, mattresses, shoes, lamps and even ribbons. Of all the big cities we visited, Meknes' medina was by far the place I felt safest wandering around at night. (I refused to even try it in Marrakech, with all the sketchy characters hanging out around every unlit alley.) Meknes' medina was full of families and, although the place was busy at all times, it really came alive at night, when the heat of the day receded.
As we walked through the central square, among the acrobats, snake charmers, boxers, water bearers and drummers, we wished we could understand Arabic to find out what words were being said by the orators keeping several large groups of only men completely enthralled.
Before I arrived in Casablanca, I had heard that it was not very nice. The city had been described to me as sprawling and industrial, and altogether not what one would expect for the mythologized city that gave us, "Play it again, Sam."
Although people have lived in Casablanca since the 11th century BC, it was never very big. At one point it was a safe haven for pirates, leading the Portuguese to destroy the city. After it was rebuilt, it again was destroyed - this time by an earthquake. As late as 1880, no more than 10,000 people lived in Casablanca. And then, in the early 20th century, the French arrived and developed it into a metropolis.
Charlie and I had decided to skip Casablanca entirely. But then, we took a bus from El Jadida to Meknes and had to spend a few hours in Casablanca while waiting to change buses. So, we had a quick look around. We followed the walking tour described in Lonely Planet, which snakes through the Nouvelle Ville past some Art Deco buildings, then some large, Arabic-styled government buildings, and to a Roman Catholic church.
When anyone asks me what I have learned from my five-month adventure, I will tell them this: I don't like Art Deco buildings. First in Napier, New Zealand, and now Casablanca, of all places, I have seen and disliked art deco buildings. I like Art Deco art, jewelry and furniture, but (other than a few impressive buildings I recall liking in New York City) Art Deco buildings - particularly, lots of art Art Deco buildings all together - leave me cold.
As Charlie and I followed the walking tour past Casablanca's art deco buildings, and as Lonely Planet enthused about them, I couldn't help but think that they were trying to look a little like buildings in Paris, but they weren't as pretty or clean. I registered my dissatisfaction with Casablanca's art deco buildings by refusing to take any pictures of them. (If you want to see pictures, you can ask to see some of Charlie's; he seemed to like them.)
The Catholic church in Casablanca, on the other hand, was beautiful. The stained glass in the rose window was absolutely stunning. My camera did not adequately capture the radiance of the colors, which shined like jewels.
Usually, the church is not open because there are not many Catholics left in this area of the world. But, we were in luck; the building is being used for an upcoming art exhibition and there were people inside setting up. We were able to climb to the very top of the bell tower, passing about 100 pounds of pigeon guano along the way, and look out over the whole city. This was an unexpected treat and the one thing I can strongly recommend doing in Casablanca.
From Essouira, Charlie and I traveled to the next UNESCO site, the medina of El Jadida. This medina is known as the Portuguese City, but I think that is taking things a bit too far; it is really a town, if not a mere village. Compared to the Marrakesh medina, El Jadida's is the size of a postage stamp. However, it is a solid Moroccan community unlike any other we saw. There were only a couple of souveneir shops, one guest house and one group of Japanese tourists in matching hats when we were there. Otherwise, it was full of young kids playing football in the street, Moroccan women screaming at each other while the neighbors watched, the wafting smells of bread baking in the communal ovens, kittens hiding under the bicycle tires.
We visited the underground cistern where the Portuguese stored water in the 16th century, walked the full perimeter of its ramparts and then its little alleyways, and poked our heads into the old Portuguese church currently being renovated (and in much need of it). It all took about 30-45 minutes. At the end, Charlie asked, "Why is this a UNESCO World Heritage site?" and then answered his own question by saying, "I guess if it weren't, and UNESCO did not invest money, everything here would fall apart."
I looked up UNESCO's official answer, which is that El Jadida is an "outstanding example of the interchange of influences between European and Moroccan cultures." By this, they mean that, in a completely Muslim community, there is an old Catholic church that no one has used since the Portuguese left in 1769. There probably aren't a lot of Moroccans lining up to preserve a crumbling Catholic church.
In the end, we are glad we visited El Jadida. But, we didn't need to spend more than an hour here before we moved on.
One of the many beautiful things in Morocco is its cats. In every medina, they are everywhere. They are sleek, elegant, and remarkably healthy. The kittens are adorable.
There must be a reason for them. There must be rats about, but we did not see any. Only absolutely gorgeous cats at every turn, peering out of doorways, feasting on discarded fish heads, lazing in the sun.
Essouira is a beautiful seaside town. It is known as the "Windy City." It still is a working fishing village full of soaring seagulls.
People have been living in Essouira for thousands of years. During the Roman Empire, Essouira thrived because it produced a highly prized purple dye made from the shells of a sea snail.
Essouira's Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is simply lovely, its walkways and alleys perfect for meandering. Its ramparts ideal for watching the sunset. It is no wonder so many artists come from or are drawn to this place.
You have seen Ait-Ben-Haddou before, but you just did not know it. It was a location in such films as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Mummy, Jewel of the Nile, Babel, Last Temptation of Christ and many others.
Ait-Ben-Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is a kasbah built along the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It is estimated that it was built in the 8th century. It currently has no running water or electricity (although UNESCO is having both installed soon). About 10 families still live there, along with their donkeys, chickens and goats, in very close quarters.
As far as I can tell, the walls are made of a mix of dirt and straw. The floors and ceilings are constructed of bunches of small trunks and branches of trees no more than 4 or 5 inches in diameter spanned across the space and coated with the same mix of dirt and straw. This means that, when you walk on the second story, the floor/ceiling seriously shakes and gives. It is a very strange feeling - a little like walking on a trampoline or a bounce house.
I don't think any of the buildings would survive a major earthquake. And, given that a little of the buildings is washed away with each rain, it is a wonder that it is still around at all.
Before Morocco, I had been to a desert, as in Las Vegas and Phoenix. But in Morocco, I was in the Sahara. And there were proper sand dunes. As far as the eye could see. So beautiful.
The only sad thing was that it was so overcast that day because of a strange marine layer that made its way over the High Atlas. When we asked our guide Abdul about it he waved his arm at the mist and said, "I have no explication for this. It is not normal."
I am looking for some clever person who can PhotoShop the sky in my photos a bright blue and then it will be our little secret that the sky was not blue that day. It was in my mind.
When we reached camp on our camels last night, it already was dark. So, the following morning I woke up before dawn, excited to explore the sand dunes in our area. Our tent is the one in the forefront of this picture. These tents are not just little things put up for the tourists. Bedoin really live in them. From where I stood while taking this picture, I could see dozens of tents in several encampments scattered up and down the desert on the edge of the dunes. Surreal.
On a sad note, the Bedoin in this area are having a very hard time. They usually are nomads and earn a living by crossing the desert and trading goods with people along the way. However a war over oil has caused the closing of the border and they no longer can move across as they used to. The Bedoin we visited are stuck on this side of the border in Morocco and can only earn a living now by giving camel rides to and hosting tourists like us.
Our guide Abdul told us that the reason he takes tourists on the tour we went on is because he wants to help the Bedoin. Abdul is from this area and grew up with them. At one point, Abdul asked me, "Do you have associations in your country?" At first I did not know what he meant, but after some probing, I think he was asking about charities. I asked him what the Bedoin need. His answer, "Food." This certainly puts things in perspective.
After our camel rides, we reached the Bedoin camp where we spent the night. Along with Charlie and me were Jee and Sacha, two lovely and engaging Oxford University students. We were treated to mint tea and tagine (my veggie version was absolutely delicious - the best meal I had in Morocco by far), and then entertained by a jam session of Bedoin music by the local men (who wore head scarves and flowing robes as their every day wear and not costumes). At one point the men asked us (Charlie, Jee, Sacha and me) to sing a song that we all knew. The only songs we could come up with were Bob Marley songs, but even for those, we shamefully did not know all the words, even though we thought we would and should. (Note to self, memorize Bob Marley songs when I get back in preparation for next Bedoin sing-along!)
Take a look at all the items on the round table in the photo above. One of the items on that table most likely is the culprit in giving Charlie horrendous and explosive Delhi belly the next day (and worse than anything either of us came down with in India or elsewhere).
Before this trip, all I knew about camels I learned from the San Diego Zoo. I think some spit at me for no apparent reason during a zoo visit when I was a kid and, from this, I deduce that camels are a nasty species. How right I was.
In addition to the wanton and malicious spitting, camels also stink and fart (and hence stink even worse), have fleas, and sometimes act like they are going to bite. Look at the camel in the bottom picture, above. Does that look like a nice camel? I think not. It really resented having a bit in its mouth and having to follow anyone anywhere. The camel acted out by trying to overtake my camel, to which it was tied behind, which meant that the nasty camel's mouth was dangerously close - biting distance, really - to my ankle almost the whole time.
My camel had mange, although this didn't stop Charlie from concluding that my camel was the best looking one of the bunch - which speaks volumes about the general unattractiveness of camels.
I am not sure how long Charlie, Jee, Sacha and I spent riding our camels through a rocky desert, but the whole time we were led by a little, white-robed Bedoin man who walked in front holding the reins of the camels. After I rode about 5 minutes on my camel - while the nasty camel behind me grunted and made spitty "Harumph!" noises and Charlie's camel in front of me emitted noxious gases from his behind - I came to the conclusion that I would really be more comfortable walking, too. But I stuck it out.
Charlie did, too, but he isn't cut out for being a full-time Bedoin traversing the Sahara either, for a different reason. He has a very sensitive behind. We last discovered this when we both rode a horse on the beach in Mexico and Charlie's dream of being a cowboy in the Australian outback was dashed. Charlie gets saddle sores from riding horses and, apparently, camels. He shall proudly wear the scars from both experiences (you think I am joking...) for a long time.
Throughout Morocco, the houses are constructed of bricks made of dirt and straw, as they have been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As we made our way into the desert, the strange beauty of these "Ksars" became more striking. People really live this way, in these homes - with and without water, electricity and satellite dishes (and there were many of the latter). A little of each building is washed away every time it rains.
This little guy is just unbelievably cute... and the lizard isn't so bad either.
This man makes his living by standing on the side of the road between the High Atlas and the middle of nowhere desert with this lizard. He accepts whatever money people who stop at this particular place in the road are willing to give him for the privilege of petting or holding the lizard and getting a photo of themselves or him holding it. If I had not seen it with my own eyes, I would not believe it.
During our travels in India and elsewhere, Charlie and I have had good experiences visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites. And so, we were pleased to see that Lonely Planet suggests an itinerary to visit each of the 8 World Heritage sites in Morocco. We decided that the next place we would go, from Marrakech, is Ait-Ben-Haddou.
We went to the bus station to ask about buses, and that is when we were approached by a tall, thin, Moroccan man in a leather jacket who told us that he would take us to Ait-Ben-Haddou and to the desert to spend one night with the Bedoin. Charlie immediately said, "We are in." I'm thinking, "Who is this guy? How can we trust him? Why does this trip cost so much? What do other official tour companies charge? This is just some strange guy!" - none of which I feel like I can say right in front of this guy, and so I just stay quiet.
The man asks, "Do I have your word that you will come with me, tomorrow morning?" Charlie gives him our word. And just like that, we are bound to go with Abdul to the desert.
The next morning, we wake up early and I have a horrible migraine. I feel nauseated and dizzy and pained by the drilling in the side of my head. Charlie and I get into Abdul's car and I slump in the back seat while waiting for my medication to kick in. As we drive out of the valley where Marrakech is, we make our way into the High Atlas mountains. They are called the High Atlas mountains for a reason. They are very high, and the roads are very steep and winding. And Abdul drives very fast around those winding roads. "STOP THE CAR!"
I have not thrown up since I was 8 years old. My stomach is made of steel. I usually enjoy winding roads (and, for that matter, air turbulance) the same extent as I would enjoy a good roller coaster. But that ride was awful. I had to demand that we stop twice to keep from spewing and I rested on the side of the road to let the crisp, cool wind on my face still me and relieve me from the horrible reeling feeling in my belly. As we left the worst of the High Atlas behind us, my medication finally kicked in and I started to feel myself again. After 4 to 5 hours, we picked up two people, Jee and Sacha, who were joining us on the trip. When Jee started to feel car sick, I offered her the front seat and I sat in the back feeling just fine. I told you, normally, have a stomach of steel. I don't know what came over me eariler that day.
Charlie's brother Pete traveled to Morocco about 10 years ago or so. Those were the days before the cheap European airlines like Ryan Air and EasyJet made it possible to fly from London to Marrakech for 20 pounds plus tax, and so it was before the hordes of European tourists had descended en masse. Pete said that, when he visited, he was extremely hassled by the Moroccans eager to fleece him, particularly when he was in Tangiers. We didn't experience such hassling.
We experienced only minor hassling. Like guys, such as the one in the picture above, who somehow sense that you are lost in the mapless maze of the Medina, and kindly offer to show you the way to where you are going because they happen to be going the same way and they just want to be nice and friendly, so they say, until they demand 1 or 2 Euros as payment for their services once they get you there. (This particular guy in the photo above was off-his-head drunk.)
Then, there was the petit taxi driver who charged us 20 dirham ($2.50 US), when the same short taxi ride on the way back cost us only 5 dirham (60 cents US). One of many cheating schemes attempted by taxi drivers, but the only one that succeeded in fooling us, and for a pretty small amount of money at that.
And then, there was the guy who enthusiastically shook Charlie's hand in a gesture of welcome, and then, when he turned to shake mine, he wiggled a finger into my palm in the international gesture of skeeziness. I don't know which is more amazing - how violated I felt by a little palm tickling, or that there are actually guys in this world that attempt such nonsense. I mean, really....
All in all, we managed to survive relatively unscathed.
When Charlie and I first arrived in Marrakech, we were so thrilled, we spent days wandering the alleys of the Medina. We were enthralled by the feeling of stepping into a different time. The men wear heavy, woolen robes with pointy hoods similar to the one worn by Obi One Kenobi in Star Wars (as scenes from Star Wars were filmed in Morocco, Charlie and I speculate that Obi One Kenobi's brown robe is based on the one Moroccan men wear), and not infrequently the men ride donkeys carrying bundles of sticks or wheat. The women cover their body and hair in black robes and scarves, and sometimes even their face in veils. It is very much like a scene out of the Old Testament.
Of the thousands of people I passed in those several days, I saw maybe one young Moroccan girl's elbows and immediately thought, "What courage to bare such skin! She is my hero!"
And then Charlie and I went to the Nouvelle Ville. And there they were... the cool kids. The Dolce-&-Gabbana-sunglasses-and-skinny-jeans wearing, Ipod-listening, cell-phone-talking, arm(-and-even-shoulder)-baring young people of the Morocco of this century. And where were they? Hanging out at McDonalds, of course. Such is the contradiction that is Morocco today.
The Medina is the old part of Marrakech and, indeed, most other Moroccan cities. It is encircled in large, fortress walls made of dirt and straw with little windows, presumably to shoot arrows through. The Medina consists of small alleys primarily for pedestrians, donkeys and, where the alleys are big enough, the odd scooter or motorcycle. In the Medina, shopkeepers hawk their wares, farmers offer their freshly-picked tomatoes, onions, peppers and herbs for your evening meal, butchers offer fresh cuts of meat, artisans practice their many crafts, women bake bread in communal ovens, children play ongoing games of football, and anyone who lacks hot water, as many do, can get it - and a scrub - at the local hammam (communal baths). The Medina is the heart of Moroccan cities, the center of its traditions and communities.
After Morocco gained independence from France, it became fashionable to move out of the Medina to the "Nouvelle Ville" - the New City - with its new roads for cars, and its modern conveniences such as electricity, running water, reliable sewage systems, and ample chain stores and fast food restaurants. Those who had money did just that.
In recent years, large houses in the Medina have been being snatched up by Europeans, mainly the French, for bargain prices and renovated into gorgeous riads (guesthouses) where more Europeans come to stay and pay relatively large sums of money for the privilege of doing so (despite the ubiquitous smell of sewage).
We have been told that the tide away from the Medina has swung back; people realize now that the Nouvelle Ville lacks the strong sense of community that exists in the Medina and they want that life back.
You have to see Djemaa el Fna square in Marrakech to believe it. In 2001, UNESCO proclamed Djemaa el Fna square a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." And what a spectacle it is. Every night in this square perform snake charmers, acrobats, story tellers, contortionists, musicians, drummers, belly dancing men dressed up as women, traditional water carriers so identified by their colorful oversized hats reminiscent of Mexican sombreros with pom poms around the rim, and many people doing things we could not identify. And then there is the food, the fresh fruit, the endless ropes of dried dates, the freshly squeezed juices, the grilled meats, the tagines, which tempted me despite my wariness of street food and the agony it can bring for unsafe water, and general lack of both hygiene and refrigeration. I gave in and have learned the valuable lesson - eat where the locals eat. That is all.
As Charlie and I wander around the medina of Marrakech, and indeed around the cities and rural towns of Morocco, we repeatedly see colorful pictures appearing in numbered squares (1 to 20)emblazoned on walls. I thought it was art. I still think it is art. But I later discovered that the pictures symbolize each of the 20 political parties in Morocco. They are represented by such commonplace and nonlinear pictures as a dove, a plane, a book, a candle, a tree, scales . . . .