Dizzle Blog Entry
I've spent most of the last month - my Winter Break, in exploration of the diverse landscapes of Morocco. Flying into Fez, I reunited with my roommate from Swarthmore and creator of this blog to form one of the tallest, whitest, and most boring travel groups ever to grace this California-sized Kingdom in the Northwest of Africa. (You may recall our last journey in a California-sized area of land: http://coltdizz.blogspot.com) Were it not for Duncan setting up camp there, I don't think Morocco would have been on my radar, so I am grateful for the mind-opening experience this trip had to offer. As an avid reader of the blog, I wanted to see some of the rawness up close with the guy who so vividly wrote about it and could guide me seamlessly through it with an exceptional knowledge of a language that is expected to largely die out this century. Such a guide could cost thousands, so I was fortunate to get a friend deal for which this lousy blog entry hopefully serves as sufficient compensation.
Outside the Fez airport, I was immediately struck by the litter, dirt, and general haphazard of life outside the "new villes" of the large cities of Morocco (which were more in line with Southern Europe). This is the least developed country I have spent much time in, yet we were still able to drink the tap water everywhere. It would take some time to get used to the Moroccan hygiene, especially the norms associated with eating and expelling. Our first meal was in the medina (old city) in a small "hole in the wall" that looked like it had been converted from a bathroom into a restaurant. We ate some delicious fried fish and bean soup and as always, lots of bread. Bread in Morocco is like rice in Korea, where people believe you haven't really eaten a meal unless you've eaten it. There is only one glass for water on each table and it was on the table when you arrived, so you can be sure it is dirty. Also, people wash their hands after they eat, not before, almost everything is eaten without utensils and soap is rarely used. This place should be a swine flu catastrophe according to the information from the mainstream media. There is also an abundance of wild cats roaming streets, bus stations and other facilities. There are beggars, but not an overwhelming amount, and we have rocks thrown at us by a group of boys after we try to play soccer with them but do not give them any of our chicken pitas. We visited the leather tanning factory in Fez which has been in operation for hundreds of years and still uses the same process of tanning with a pidgeon-shit mixture. Needless to say, it stinks and the whole open air factory is a huge, muddy mess. It is amazing that they are able to turn such a mess into the beautiful bags and purses found hanging in all the shops. Is this really the same leather?
Morocco was also my first immersion into a Muslim culture. This hit me hard at about 5:30 am the first morning with the "call to prayer" from the minaret which was literally next door to our hotel. I am told that this is one of the more elaborate calls to prayer and it goes on for an eternity, maybe twenty minutes. Initially, it was a startling and creepy way to wake up, but I got more used to it. The day's first call to prayer is supposed to occur at the first light (not sunrise), which is stated as the moment at which one can discern a black string from a white one. We joke about the poor guy who drew the short straw and got stuck with that job. The pun is intended. Our other major sight to visit in Fez is the Islamic school which possess some of the greatest Islamic calligraphy found anywhere. This was actually supposed to be for our art historian Michelle, who couldn't make it on the trip, so I tried my hardest to stay interested at this point. It was nice to be able to go into the school though, as non-believers are not able to go into the mosques. We met a crazy guy in there who claimed to know Duncan and said I looked like his son with my brown fleece coat on. I learned the hand signal for crazy - slightly different than the American one. We would have plenty of opportunities to use this signal.
The next day we headed out on the expensive bus up North to Chefchaouen, one of the two major hippie hangouts in Morocco. Its location in the hash-field-covered Rif Mountains does a lot to explain its hippie culture. Chefchaouen literally means "look at the peaks", and where we could, they were amazing. Unfortunately, in the winter it is cloudy and rainy here a lot of the time. We did manage one decent day which allowed us to hike up into the Rif a little and get up on top of a rock. Duncan informs me that the Rif have the highest rate of erosion in the world and it is easy to see that the existence of hash-farming (supplying over 40% of the global market) is a major driver of this. There are no peace corps volunteers placed in this region, also as a result of the hash controversy. The scenery is spectacular with steep, green mountains and giant, crooked rocks. We pass a shantytown on the way down that appears to be built into the side of a cliff on the river gorge. The water here is fresh and delicious, and bottle and shipped all over the country. Where the river enters the top of the town there is a nice communal area with a small dam, bathing area, water diversions to drinking water treatment, sinks for doing laundry and waterfalls. We bought some bread, olives, and a huge chunk of the locally-famous goat cheese and came down to the river for a great lunch break. We got to speak a lot of Spanish in "Chaouen" due to the Spanish influence here and some Spanish girls we met in the hostel. The city is also known for its blue and white painted buildings which felt a bit like walking through a Dr. Seuss book at times. Our hotel was pretty cool as well with decorated tile everywhere, a large central atrium and a roof terrace overlooking the lower areas of the city. Due to the rain, we spent a lot of time inside it with our favorite past time, the Chinese game Go.
The next journey was a long slog to Duncan's village in the High Atlas - Agoudim. Getting there was an introduction to the common folk's transport system of dirty buses and cramped grand taxis. We transferred through about six different towns, met a few peace corps volunteers along the way and stayed at one's house. We got into the village about 30 hours after we left Chefchaouen. One leg of the journey stands out in my mind as particularly memorable and hazardous. We were stuffed into a grand taxi (an old Mercedes sedan) with 5 others on a 90 minute trip through a huge rain storm with the sun going down and lots of cars to pass and tailgate and rivers across the road to hydroplane on and the traditional Berber music blaring through the tape deck - composed of traditional strings and drum beats and electronicized voices creating a trance state. Other factors working against our survival were a lack of a window-defrosting method other than the driver's hand, the driver's changing of cassette tapes at impossible times and he even pulled out the cellphone and made a call in the middle of a particularly dangerous stretch. The whole trip was a back seat driver's nightmare and all we could do was close our eyes or look out the side windows. After this particular leg I had enormous confidence in the Moroccan cabbies. In general, I found the transport system to be cheap, efficient, dirty and uncomfortable. The buses are slow (too many stops) and the taxis are FAST (depending on the driver). We stayed in Midelt that evening before reaching the village and headed to the only nightlife available in most towns - the cafe - to sip some sugary tea and watch Spanish league futbol on TV. That night Duncan warned me that we were entering conservative Morocco and would have to be more conscious of our actions. This worried me a little having thought that we had been pretty conservative in our actions thus far.
We awoke the next morning and traveled to Tounfite, the nearest legitimate settlement to the village. We began with the insanity and pure formality of Berber greetings which consist of about ten exchanges of phrases like "how are you?" "are you well?" "are you at peace?" "how's your family?", etc. and each have a standard reply. They are also very keen on the handshake though it is a flimsy one and you have to kiss your finger or hit your chest after giving it. I believe there is a great earlier post about how most of the conversations Duncan has are pretty much the same. He was told in his village that he is a great politician because he knows exactly what to say in every situation. He certainly struck me as a politician as we walked down the main street of Tounfite and he shook hands with men, women, sons and daughters, introducing me, and always having the cookie-cutter response for everything thrown at him. It often felt as though Moroccans were testing him by firing greetings at him rapidly and he was always quick with the response, sometimes getting it in before they were done speaking. Everywhere we went the people loved Duncan for speaking Tamazight and they often claimed to be giving us "good deals" because of it. It was at the souk (farmer's market) here that I received my Arabic name - Atman, from a clever vegetable peddler. The souk was a huge mudpit with mostly fruits, vegetables and shoes for sale. There was not too much variety for foods, perhaps because of the season, and they did not seem to be particularly Moroccan. For vegetables there were huge potatoes, onions, carrots, turnips, peppers, huge squash. For fruits there were mandarins, bananas, tomatoes, sickly apples. Upon fulfilling Duncan's host-parents shopping list, we jumped on the packed van heading out to the village. On board we were greeted and barraged with questions: "Do you have marriage certificates in the US?", "Can I see an American Dollar?", and "Do you drink alcohol?" The last one they were particularly interested in as it is illegal for Moroccans to consume alcohol and there is widespread belief that it makes you fat.
In Agoudim, the politician made his rounds and we dined with the host parents several times and once with another family. We made a nice hike in the afternoon along a ridge of one the lower hills and pondered the conditions on top of the large peaks where, I was surprised to learn, some herders climb to graze their goats. Despite being up in the high mountains and about an hour's drive from the nearest sizable town, we were in no way out of civilization. Two cell phone towers could be seen from up on our ridge, as well as power lines and satellite dishes on many of the homes. Only the connection to the world wide web was missing here and this actually made its first appearance in the post office on the day we left! The satellite dishes indicate a phenomenon I certainly didn't expect. I was shocked to learn that these rural, poor, isolated Berbers shared the same favorite pastime as most Americans - staring at the TV. We watched a few soccer games on Duncan's TV, and struggled through Arabic and French news and soap operas as guests in other's homes. Furthermore, Duncan informed me, most of these people don't understand Arabic or French, only Berber (for which there is only one or two part-time stations), so they didn't even understand what was going on! Never underestimate the power of TV. Along with the cold and relative isolation, another factor makes this a very difficult place to live: the food. There is an enormous lack of variety in the food these people are eating here. Their ingredients seem tasty enough: wheat, chicken, goat, potatoes, carrots, turnips, fruits, olive oil, jam. But, these are pretty much all the ingredients they make into every dish every day. Bread is the big deal, and is eaten with every meal and eaten alone for breakfast. Lunch is the big meal and it's typically Duez which is a meat and vegetable stew cooked in the famous Tajine ceramic dish. It is pretty good if it is cooked well, but not good enough to eat every day (like In N Out Burger), also the method for eating it is quite dirty as there is a communal pot and you only have bread and your fingers to eat with. You are supposed to use the bread to scoop up vegetables and sauce which works kind of well but invariably fingers and bread flakes are contaminating the whole thing. The worst part comes after the vegetables are finished because it is time for the meat. Someone takes the entire hunk of meat out of the bowl, sets it on the dirty table, and starts dividing it into piles by tearing it off the bones and separating it into piles for everyone. These piles also include mystery parts and organs of the animal and your portion arrives in a greasy, dirty hand set on the dirty table in front of you. While the meat looked good in the dish, now it is easily the worst part of the meal. It's also critical that you finish your meat as it is the "luxury" of the dish. Once when I just couldn't stomach finishing the meat they made Duncan finish it for me. Much gratitude. It's not that I am against communal eating, let's just keep our hands out of it and use utensils like the Koreans or Chinese. It's not that I am against eating with hands, just let me touch my own food and you touch your own food. It's not that the Berbers are bad people, they were extremely welcoming and friendly, they are just doing things the way they were taught and have done for a long time. The Peace Corps encourages new volunteers to cook a meal or two for their host families so I asked several volunteers about their experiences. Host families didn't have a taste for pizza, used their hands to eat spaghetti and hated it, and even Duncan's simple vegetable soup was scoffed at by a friend. I kept thinking that these people would love nachos (they could eat communally and with their hands), but the ingredients might be hard to attain. I feel it is also pertinent to point out the status and location of Duncan's humble abode. Placed directly in the center of town, next to the road and "bus stop", it is also right next to the mosque where the minaret makes the call to prayer five times daily. This location is perfect for the politician but terrible for privacy. It is extremely convenient to visit him (and people do), it is loud from the minaret and anyone can see him come and go, hang out his laundry, etc. The home is a simple two room mud home with an uninspiring kitchen and drafty sleeping room. It is cold in there! Thank Allah for the stove. After leaving Duncan's village everything else seemed pretty luxurious and I was no longer thrown by the primitive things.
The next stopping point was the Sahara where we landed in the town of Merzouga and sought a camel trek to take us out into the desert for the night of Christmas Eve. It was a painful 1-2 hour camel ride out, but beautiful and surreal. I recall thinking the entire time "I can't believe I am in the desert." Following the previous trips' camel droppings and our guide, we made our way out to the camp in the middle of three giant sand dunes. We climbed to the top of one, which was much harder than it looked. We were joined later by a Chinese-Australian couple from Hong Kong on their honeymoon. We had a nice chat and they played the new Britney Spears hit on their new iPhone while we lounged in the tent reminiscent of baby jesus's manger. That night it rained a little (in the desert!) and we walked in the pitch black to find out where the music we heard was coming from. We found the other camp and were greeted to come in and eat chocolate and jam in the drum circle. Unfortunately, the visuals were lacking for our trip as there wasn't much of a sunset or sunrise when we were in the desert, nor were there any stars to see. Awaking early, we reluctantly saddled up again and slogged back to civilization for a shower to get the sand out.
We bussed on to get to the city of Tinghir where we stayed with Duncan's host-mom's family, who are relatively rich for that part of the country. They had a nice three-story house built by her brother with gorgeous Casablancan tile, a three-story atrium/breezeway for summer cooling, and a spectacular roof terrace. We stayed three nights here and were put up in the lavishly decorated entertaining room for the men with mats and eight warm wool blankets each. Her sisters cooked great food (though I was still quite sick of the traditional 2 dishes), and they even made a salad plate for me after I started feeling ill from some food poisoning from the previous city. We had actually planned to only stay for two nights but when we told them this they dead-seriously refused and said that when guests come they have to stay for a MINIMUM of 3 nights. That was alright with us, though, as the digs were comfortable, we saved money, and we had more time to focus on the main attraction of that area - the amazing river gorges from Indiana Jones. The first day we taxied to the Todgha Gorge where we ran into another volunteer with his parents, and we took Duncan's host-cousin hiking. The little guy turned out to be more of a fisherman than a hiker and we didn't make it to the top of the gorge. He also wanted to give our food away to a poor family in the hills whose home we passed on the way. That day happened to be the tenth day of the Muslim year, on which we learned that the Koran says you must give 2.5% of your total assets to the poor. We're not sure if this is the reason for his generosity, though after collecting all our trash into the bag he took it and threw it up towards their home in their extended "yard". The environment was the trash can for most places we went in Morocco due to both attitude and a lack of collection systems. The only garbage truck I can recall seeing was a mule in the Fez medina on the last day. The next day we traveled a little further to see the other gorge. It was just the two of us, so we hiked to the top and hung our feet over the edge at lunchtime. The drive out to this gorge was spectacular and we saw several other places, including the "finger rocks", where we would have liked to spend a lot more time exploring. Unfortunately, we had to start heading towards the coast so we could get there in time for the new year.
On the way to the Atlantic we took two long bus rides stopping in between for a night in Ouarzazate where we accidentally stayed in a hotel/brothel and drank the most glorious fresh juice smoothies ever mixed. We loved them so much we visited the shop three times in under 24 hours. The bus ride from there to the beach city of Agadir was the worst of the trip. The seats were so close that I could not physically sit down and put my legs in front of me. This bus was, of course, the longest trip as well, rounding out about 8 hours and totally packed for the majority of the time and winding through mountain passes at the beginning while stopping frequently for the last two hours. Needless to say, we were relieved like a balking starting pitcher to make it to Agadir for a mildly warm evening with the ten other peace corps volunteers. We met up at our rental house and went down for falafel and humus (which is apparently considered Lebanese food) on the boardwalk. The next few days, the rest of the volunteers seemed to spend a lot of time in the rental house while we got out on the town and walked and walked and walked. We spent some quality time at the dirty beach where I jumped in a short 7 v 7 soccer game. We didn't swim in the water because of its filth and the undercurrent warnings. Upon Duncan entering the water a Moroccan came racing towards me yelling "no, no, don't go in the water!" I told him it's okay, "not swimming, only toilet." He said, "oh, that's fine then," and then proceeded to tell me about how three drunk tourists were swept away by the undertow yesterday. I said "really, just yesterday?" To which he replied "well, some time ago." We walked down to the fish stalls, where we ate some delicious fried calamari, and then climbed the hill where the old city used to stand. It was destroyed in an earthquake sometime last century and instead of rebuilding they covered it with all the bodies inside and rebuilt down the hill! We stopped off for a happy hour beer at the Korean restaurant where business was slow, likely because it's only sign was in Korean. On New Year's Eve we were out with several volunteers, including a girl from Duncan's hometown (there was also one that had worked at the same golf course as I in Port Ludlow, WA), and went down to the boardwalk for the fireworks. I got wet in the ocean soon thereafter so we had to return home early where a dance party had broken out in the living room. It was composed of a bunch of people sitting around on the couch and one girl yelling at people to get them to come dance. Duncan showed a few of his moves and the housekeeper came and knocked on the door to quiet us down every couple minutes. That's a lot of detail.
When we got sick of paying too much for sleeping on a couch with no blankets, we headed north to the other hippie joint Essaouira, where Jimi Hendrix posted up for a brief period of time. This town was such a relief from the sprawling, touristy Agadir. Essouira has a nice compact medina out on a peninsula overlooking a beautiful beach and nice fishing boat harbor. In the morning we watched the fishing boats come into port and unload the catch. At lunch we returned to get mildly ripped off and eat some of it. We stayed in a disgustingly damp, moldy-smelling room in an out of order riad that seemed to be operating illegally. It was the only place that we had to pay up front, but we named our price. Following the guidebook's directions, we rambled through the streets of Essaouira and we rambled hard for two whole days. We had little aim, if some food looked good we bought it cheap, we tried to play videogames with some little kids, we played beach soccer and watched the kiteboarders, we watched futbol in the cafe and sunsets from the ramparts. It would have been nice to stay longer if we had more time, a better room, and something to do other than rambling. Call me a dirty hippie, but the town had a cool vibe like Chefchaouen, except trading the mountains for the beach.
As all tourists do, we had to go to Marrakesh. Here, the enormous town square is a UNESCO site due to the market, people and culture. Mi amigo scoffed at the idea of a UNESCO site without historical or architectural significance, as did I initially. Of course we were impressed by the 15 Euro / kg dates and had to savor a quarter kilo. As the sun went down, however, the square began changing from chaotic masses to an organized market of food and culture. The food stands were built up into groups that focused on a particular dish or two. On the outskirts were the tasty fifty cent orange juice stands. Moving inward we encountered the escargot stands, tajine and couscous restaurants, soups and even the sheep brains. The other half of the square was filled with Berber musicians, storytellers and other strange types of entertainers that braved the cold to share culture and make a buck in donation. I imagine this scene would have been much larger were it not for the bitter wind that forced us in after a short visit. We went, instead, for a Hindi film at the only movie theater I saw during the whole trip. It was a horror/suspense movie with all the choreographed song and dance of Bollywood that neither of us could finish, though we left separately.
After only one night in Marrakesh we packed out of our sardine tin of a hotel room and caught the spacious train back to Fez passing through Casablanca, Rabat and Meknes for an eight hour journey in total. In Fez we came full circle by returning to our first hotel and the converted-bathroom restaurant and by getting owned by the early morning call to prayer. We finally got our gaming in a Playstation 2 parlor where we played Pro Evo Soccer for 1 Euro / hr while some 16 year old kids tried incessantly to sell us hash and the middle-aged owner took off his jacket to pile drive one of his mischievous young customers. The next morning we said our farewells and, after a two-day layover in freezing Madrid, I returned back to the dead of Norwegian winter to start classes and reflect on the warm Moroccan sun and the trip of a lifetime.