Friday, April 29, 2011

Day 175: Surviving Morocco (Marrakech)

Considering last night was my first pub crawl, I'm glad that I am able to write this blog entry. I was celebrating being alive – and given the recent events in Marrakech I had good reason. For those of you that haven't heard, yesterday a suicide bomber in Marrakech ended his life and those of fourteen others in a cafĂ© in Marrakech. I cannot believe this happened one day after I left and only a few minutes walk from a hostel where I stayed. While I'm happy to be alive I grieve for the dead because I could have been one of them. I am also disgusted with this horrific act because all Moroccans will be unfairly judged. I had a number of discussions with people about how safe I felt in Morocco and the kindness of the people but after this I can't help but feeling a bit silly. Even after this I stand by my opinion that Morocco is a safe place to travel and full of wonderful people. Furthermore I encourage the rest of you to keep an open mind and realize that the idiotic acts of one individual do not reflect the values of an entire country. Regardless of this horrific event, Marrakech is a joy to visit and I am excited to tell you about my experiences there.

Marrakech's big square where the bomb went off.
Here's a map showing just how close my hostel was to the explosion.

I was lucky in Marrakech to stay in a hostel and with a local. Both environments provided a unique experience. My first night in Marrakech I stayed in a hostel called Amour d'Auberge. It was as cheap as it was excellent. The people I met there were tops and the next day we didn't waste any time before we headed out and explored Marrakech.

The hostel had an open courtyard space with a glass roof.
Spying on people from above.

Morocco is my favorite place to wander. The streets are rich like chocolate cake, and I ate too much. Walking around I found myself in a maelstrom of activity. Stray cats being grungy, vendors shouting at me, children playing and laughing, the smell of questionable street food, beautiful architecture, and ancient history. Every second I was exploring I felt like I was in a movie. Without going to see anything specific, just wandering the streets is an experience. Specifically, we saw Marrakech's two palaces, a school, and the big square Jemaa el Fna. The palaces were exceptional and had some of the most intricate artistic detail that I've seen. Definitely worth a visit, but my favorite part of Marrakech was the big square Jemaa el Fna. Imagine a mob the size of four football fields replete with snake charmers, monkey trainers, orange squeezers, and hasslers. It's incredibly alive to the point where it's a little overwhelming. Morocco is the most difficult place that I've traveled to but also the most rewarding. Experiencing the lifestyle is difficult because it's so different but that just means I was learning heaps. Staying in the hostel was a ton of fun but staying with a local was priceless.

This is one of the courtyards of the first palace we went to.
Beautiful old paintings of flowers decorated many walls.
The carvings were plentiful and exquisite.
Detail upon detail.
A corridor of the palace.
One of the large rooms inside.

I was so psyched when I found someone to CouchSurf with in Morocco. I wasn't sure how difficult it would be to find a host due to any sort of cultural differences. There were a lot of hosts on the site but lots of them had negative references from women. Apparently some Moroccan men like to oppress themselves on their surfers. I wasn't worried and thankfully I wasn't staying with some homo-creeper.

His name was Mohammed – imagine that. Throughout my stay I gave Mohammed a handful of opportunities to show his patience. Before we met I felt like a bad surfer because I was unsure of my arrival date and Mohammed waited for me for over an hour outside the post office. From Jemaa el Fna the bus ride back to his apartment took around 45 minutes. He lives in a block of apartments along with other families. When we walked in all of the kids stopped playing and stared at me. I smiled at them and some of them smiled back. Little twerps. Mohammed opened the door of his apartment and it was certainly different than accommodations I'm accustomed to. With a tile floor, his front room was empty, his kitchen was bare except for a sink and a propane canister and burner. Mohammed's room was nice with traditional carpets and desktop computer. His bathroom has a basin for showering and a squatting toilet. Toilet paper is for suckers and don't touch me with your left hand. This felt like the authentic Moroccan experience I was hoping for.

Spices are abundant throughout Morocco.
Morocco can be depressing.
A group of kids playing in the alley.
One of my favorite photos.
Rachel had a bomb camera from Lomography.
Amazing textures.
This dude's head looked like his brains were hanging out.
Who doesn't carry cow legs on their bike?
Rachel vs orange
Watch out... he's going to put his monkey on you!
Gettin' my creep on while trying sunglasses.
Probably my favorite photo of all time.

Staying with Mohammed was so cool not only for his apartment but for experiencing his neighborhood. Mohammed's apartment didn't have interwebs so I spent many of my days at a cafe nearby. I became friends with the staff and they would smile as I came around. We cooked a lot of tagine together and buying ingredients from the locals was awesome. There was a place for the vegetables and the meat shop was right next door. The meat stand had all of their meat prepared up front with live chickens in cages in back. Fresh! He made a wonderful tagine one of my first nights there and then I made two tagines after that. I can't wait to buy a tagine for myself so I can cook it all the time.

Mohammed loved my sunglasses and stole them every chance he got.
Watching a master at work.
Tagine is great, especially when you eat it for every meal.
My tagine was potato, parsnip, ground lamb, peas, with parsley and saffron.
My second, more experimental, tagine was raisin and prune with sausage.

We also went to a hammam which was one of the grossest highlights of my trip. Every neighborhood has its own hammam, a place where people go to get totally clean. The Roman bathhouses were probably modeled after hammams. Basically you go in, rub a special black soap all over yourself, sweat your brains out in a hot room for 20 minutes and scrub yourself with a sandpaper washcloth. Your dead skin is supposed to roll up like spaghetti rolls and fall off. Some of my dead skin rolls were almost the size of sausages. After all of your skin comes off you wash with soap and then rinse off using buckets full of water. It was a wonderful experience and afterwards I was definitely the cleanest I've ever been.

Going out for street sandwiches after a night of pool.
Not the hammam we went to but another local one.
We were hardcore to the core...

Experiencing Marrakech from two points of view was a treat. On one hand I did the tourist thing and enjoyed walking around the streets, seeing some sights, and the company of fellow travelers. On the other hand I lived with a local and saw first hand how he lives and enjoyed everything from buying food to seeing his apartment, from playing pool with his friends to making kids smile. During my time in Marrakech I started to feel comfortable in Morocco and I fell in love with my environment. Even though it's a difficult place to travel the experiences that I had were well worth it. Because my experiences were so positive, news of this terrorist attack was crushing. I feel connected to the Moroccan people and responsible for upholding their reputations . I encourage everyone to visit Morocco. Sakran Mohammed, and thanks, Marrakech!


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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Day 170: Surviving Morocco (Fes)

It was dark when my bus arrived in Fes. I left the bus station looking for a place to stay. After getting goaded in Tangier and Chefchaouen, I was determined to find a place without the help of a local. Unfortunately I had no clue where I was or any accommodations reserved, so I went on a wild goose chase. "Hotel 50 durham," a tall young man said to me. I had just found the hotel I was looking for and it was full, so reluctantly I accepted. As we got in the taxi headed towards the old town, "Here we go again," I thought. Another town, another guide, but for the first time we would become friends.

Chillin' in my room.

The hotel was a large building nestled in the old town with an open courtyard and homily tiled walls. My new guide Nabil showed me to my room, a habitation where it seemed a troll had been the last inhabitant. "I've slept in worse" I thought, and for €6, who could complain? The staff shared their dinner with me. They were eating a huge plate of peas with small pieces of bread. "Tagine" one of them said. Indeed, this was my first taste of the infamous Moroccan tagine – it was delicious. Nabil and I talked a little before I went to bed. He said that tomorrow he would show me the 'Berber Factory' along with the old town. I went to sleep inside my tent wondering what a 'Berber Factory' was.

The main room of the hotel.

Nabil came back to the hotel and woke me up at 12. Following a quick visit to the squatting toilet, we headed to the Berber factory. Such an epic name should require a trek but it was right around the corner. We sat down and while enjoying some tea and hookah and a guy tried to sell me a trip to the Sahara and hand made blankets.

Nabil hanging out with the hookah.
I like how a lot of the buildings have courtyards.
They had some sheep.
I asked if they ate the turtles.

Listening to him talk about the blankets was fascinating. In Morocco there are two main types of textiles, known as "women's work" and "men's work." Women's work deals with intricate weaving with embroidery. They produce thick luxurious carpets with symbolic designs. One piece can take six months to make. On the other hand, men work with the loom to make beautiful blankets from sheep wool, camel wool, or cactus silk. Cactus silk is most expensive, then camel wool because camels are only sheared once every three years, then sheep wool. The colors all come from natural dyes, yellow comes from saffron and red comes from poppy, they have every color. I felt compelled to buy something because he spent so much time showing me all of these things. Following a bout of haggling, I ended up buying a camel wool and cactus silk blanket for €30. I had fun learning about the production process and saying goodbye to a man who made the blanket I just bought was a unique experience.

The looooooooooooooom.
So many pieces to choose from.
Before writing, women weaved stories into the blankets.
Cactus silk is fireproof but my finger got totally hot.
I think he was really happy that I bought something.

After lunch Nabil showed me the Jewish quarter. I'm curious why everywhere I've gone there's been a Jewish quarter. Why no Spanish or French quarter? The Jews and Moroccans lived side by side largely without conflict. Nabil pointed out the star of David on a few of the houses along with dates from 1531. 500 years isn't so old, considering Fes was built over 1000 years ago. We didn't walk around for too long because lunch was heavy and siesta was necessary.

One of the main streets in the old town.
 Getting some tasty treats filled with almond paste.
Too much food for lunch.
Our surplus made the cat happy.
Then he fell asleep ^_^

The next day Nabil was waiting for me when I woke up. After spending all of yesterday with him I was feeling comfortable. I was warned not to get too friendly with any of the locals but I enjoyed Nabil's company. Today we were going to check out the medina. Since Fes is known for its industry, it has a huge medina. Fes has the largest medina in Morocco. It's an absurd tangle of small streets so having a guide is necessary. Unfortunately, Nabil wouldn't take me because only official guides are allowed in the medina and he didn't want to pay a fine. He took me to a restaurant with an amazing panoramic view of the medina while he brought me an official guide. I was excited to have an official guide because I thought that he would know everything about the medina and the different trades, boy was I wrong.

The brass doors of the palace.
Cemetery in the Jewish quarter.
A Jewish house with a balcony, just like in Brooklyn.
The date is at the bottom of the building, 1531.
I'm not obsessed with the stray cats.
Pika pika.
I was trying to take a photo of these doors...
...but these kids had other ideas.
That night we went to a bar. Nabil said he once drank 80 beers.

Nabil returned to the restaurant with this old guy who smelled like hash and who's teeth I could count on one hand. He took me through the medina all right but he only brought me to stores. We stopped in a leather tannery, a textile store, jewelry store, copper store, and a Berber pharmacy. While I was learning about the goods each store sold, he went and smoked with the owners. I learned a lot from the stores but I felt like a walking dollar, being lead from place to place. I also seem to have lost a great deal of my photos from the tour. When the tour was over I was so happy to be back with Nabil. Screw the official tour guide. We had more interesting things to do.

Outside of the medina.
The local metalworker living the simple life.
Get spicy.

Later that night Nabil took me to the new town to meet his family. They were having a party for one of his brothers and the house was packed. There was a band playing traditional music, people dancing, and a lot of food. I felt an odd mixture of completely out of place and right at home. Thankfully his mother's chicken and lamb tagine kept me from thinking too hard and I enjoyed myself. One of his sisters lived in England and her daughter was cute and shy like all little girls should be. She spoke English but was too nervous to have a conversation but flitted around me giggling. After soaking up the atmosphere it was time to leave. I needed to sleep because my train was at 6 AM. Nabil took me back to his apartment where more of his family was. I passed out.

The gimungus medina of Fes.
Mosques all have towers like this.
Escargot anyone?
After riding a camel this photo makes me really sad.
Beef or hand?
Asleep on the job.
Donkey with a headache.
Two for one.
So much stuff, all over.
Every district had a different specialty. This was the copper district.

Up in time for my train, for once, I woke up Nabil and we headed off to the station. We were on time, I bought a ticket, everything went smoothly. Although I came to Fes determined not to have any help from the locals, I had a great time with Nabil. When in Morocco you can resist everyone's offers and you will save a lot of money. But the locals have a lot to show you and they can make your life way easy. It's sort of like CouchSurfing with a fee. Without Nabil I wouldn't have seen as much around Fes and the opportunity to experience his family's party was priceless. For me, that was totally worth the $50 I gave to him for his three days of help. Best of all, as I said goodbye to get on the bus it felt like two friends parting instead of a local profiting from a tourist.

I had a great time in Fes and I did a lot in my two days. I saw the old town, medina, learned about textiles, medicines, foods, and culture. I got accepted into the family of a local and got a glimpse of how people here really live. I met a stranger on the street and hung out with him for three days, breaking the barrier between tourist and friend. I am excited to return to Fes when I have more money because I would like to buy more carpets, stuffs, and a teapot. Fes is an incredibly rich city, from the sights to the culture, there is a lot to absorb here. I definitely recommend a trip to Fes, and think about saying yes to someone trying to help you.

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