A Welcome Note: On Filling the Gaps

Dear Friends and Family:

Although I haven't added any posts since the summer of 2007, this blog continues to be a warehouse of my thoughts and experiences from my time abroad.


Sunday, March 4, 2007

Morocco: Day One

2.23.07 - After shopping on Via del Corso for a new pair of Pumas to replace my old battered and punctured sneakers that had clearly suffered a beating on the streets of Rome, I met up with Brent, Hannah, Mimi, Dianna and Holiday at the Borghese Gardens for a pre-departure picnic. The six of us would be traveling to Morocco together that night. We planned to meet up with Jenny and Rachel, two more members of the Morocco crew who had left Thursday night by the next evening. To protect ourselves against the damp ground, Hannah rolled out the blanket she had bought in Venice the week before that had served us all so well and become the mysterious subject of so many photos. We munched on Italian cookies, gobbled up fresh strawberries and tomatoes and couldn’t get enough of the thinly sliced meats and cheese.
Around 3:00 I left for home to finish packing my bags and book a hostel for three of us via email for that night in Madrid. I managed to stuff everything I had put in my large frame backpack into my regular school bag (so I wouldn’t have to check anything) before hopping into Marina’s compressed car and getting a ride to the Tuscolana train station (only a few minutes away). There I met up with the picnic crew to take the local train to Fiumicinio, Rome’s international airport. We bought and validated our tickets and made it aboard just in time. Thirty six minutes later, in pulled the train and we had concluded the first of many trips together. We proceeded to the Iberia airlines terminal where we checked in and with passports and boarding passes in hand, made our way to the departure gate. At around 7:30PM, we boarded the plane and within a half hour or so had taxied to the runway and taken off for Madrid, the location of our overnight layover.
On the plane, I found myself reading the airline’s magazine in Spanish and was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand most of the text without even having to peek at the English translation. I tried to refresh myself as much as possible for our sojourn in the Spanish capital but despite my ability to comprehend the text, I was practically hopeless when it came to speaking (in the language I had studied for six years) or deciphering the mess of vowels and consonants spewed from the lungs of the Spaniards we encountered.

Upon arrival in the Madrid airport I was immediately taken aback at the spectacular undulating lines of Terminal four, where Iberia Airlines, Spain’s national carrier, was based. Although the signage was confusing at times, the arabesques of the ceiling and brightly colored Y-shaped beams supporting the structure were enough for me to whip out my camera. A short airport bus ride later, we arrived at Terminal 2, from where were could take the metro to the city center and our hostel. Because I had left Rome prior to receiving a confirmation email, my un-superstitious fingers were crossed as I hoped we did in fact have a place to stay that night. The metro system in Madrid turned out to be fantastic. Although we had to make two interchanges 6-10-5 before arriving at the stop nearest our hostel, the signage was impeccable and certainly made up for this in my mind! On each train there must have been maps every two feet of the whole system and above the seats, one could see detailed routes of every train that connected with the one you were riding at the time. What a difference from Rome! Not only did all the metros come within minutes of each other, but one couldn’t see graffiti anywhere and the cars were extremely clean. Around 11:30, 12:00 we found our hostel and with my very broken Español, checked in with the hostel proprietress who had received my email and set everything up for us. At first, the hostel looked pretty seedy (We shared the elevator up with a prostitute and her client) it turned out to be clean, comfortable, and equipped with incredible views of the city. The other three people were able to get a room at a hostel right across the hall which made coordination very easy.

By the time we finally were ready to eat dinner, everything that resembled Spanish food was closed and we were forced to settle for Döner kebabs and McDonald's (not too much of a concern since I’ll be back of course). Shortly thereafter we set our alarms for the next morning and crashed.

Morocco: Day Two, Part I

2.24.07 - Only a few hours after finally getting to sleep on Friday night, we were up again and ready to go. We began the day at Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, and although I was content to once again have a coffee that was larger than a single gulp, I was disappointed. I had expected this of course, but not only was I unsatisfied with the watered down taste of American coffee, the gross Americanization of Madrid really made me happy to be living in Rome, where there are only a handful of McDonalds and Starbucks and most other non-Italian chain restaurants are non-existent. Of course I am most definitely biased as I was hardly able to spend any time in the large city which during my short stay felt more like Chicago than any European city to which I had traveled). In minutes we were back on the metro and made our way back to the airport. It was good we arrived with ample time, since we ended up first at the wrong terminal and were forced to backtrack to Terminal Four once again where we had arrived the day before to finally depart for Morocco. Before we knew it (55mins later to be exact), we were in Tangier, Morocco. We set our watches back an hour and stepped out onto the tarmac.

The airport consisted of not much more than a few concrete boxes, which paled in comparison to Spain’s architectural masterpieces, but we were in Tangier which was all that mattered at that point, and duty free shops were the last thing on anyone’s mind. We passed through customs, withdrew our first batch of Dirham from the airport ATM and stepped out into the fresh Moroccan air by the taxi stand. Our first destination was Café Hafa, a seaside local hangout that was once frequented by celebrities like the Rolling Stones according to Holiday. We hired Mohammed, the first of many we came across in our travels, to drive us . On the way there in his beige Mercedes taxi, replete with ochre shag interior, we drove along the outskirts of the town and noticed the incredible amount of development occurring surrounded by at the city edges. High rises shot up from the ground and cranes swung in the dust, schoolchildren walking home and donkeys ambling about. We passed a large circular structure which we had noticed from the air. What we had believed to be an ancient ruin of some sort, an old Roman amphitheater perhaps, turned out to be a modern football stadium under construction with only the concrete foundation and vertical supports already standing. Apparently, the current stadium, closer to the center of town, was no longer adequate to accommodate the increasing number of fans. After flying by a few important palaces (which Mohammed cleverl including a palace once owned by Forbes, and the local university, we woundy pointed out), our way away from the city center and came to an abrupt stop in front of a metal barricade at the edge of what seemed to be a building project. One sun burnished construction worker peered out at us from under a straw hat and behind a wall he was building. Another balanced on a plank spanned across the dirt road on which we stood, painting the second floor of a stucco structure. After paying our drivers 150 dirham each (equal to a little less than 15 Euro—the ratio is about 11 to 1), we asked once again where this café was since there was clearly no indication anywhere around the semi-deserted block. Mohammed confidently pointed down the road and we, despite our skepticism, followed his directions. Sure enough we found it.

Morocco: Day Two, Part II

2.24.07 - When we first stepped though the whitewashed opening of Café Havana we were slightly confused, because the open air space seemed more like a private home than a restaurant. There was no one to greet us and a simple room that served as a kitchen was the extent of this establishment. Inside, a shadowed cook was brewing some sort of soup and in the terraced open space, Moroccans were scattered around blue plastic tables playing cards, smoking, drinking mint tea (the Moroccan staple). They practically ignored the spectacular turquoise sea crashing against the rocks far below and the unparalleled views of the straight of Gibraltar. After managing to grab someone’s attention, we sat down with our bags and ordered the only thing on the menu, lentil soup (what was to become known as “Moroccan soup”). When we attempted to order drinks from the same waiter (if you could even call him that) we soon discovered one of the first novelties of this incredible country: especially in the restaurant business there are often enterprises within other enterprises and here was a perfect example. In order to get a drink, you had to order from the drink man, not the restaurant, who usually has a table somewhere in the greater establishment. So, we hired the Fanta man to secure us some beverages and sooner or later we had our lunch.

When we finished eating, checking our email at a nearby internet café (finding it was an adventure in and of itself) and satisfying our bladders (now full of soup and fizzy orange sweetness), we returned to the café where around 5pm we were supposed to met up with Muhammad once again. Sure enough, he returned and all six of us piled into the car bound for Asilah, a small coast town south of Tangier where we were supposed to meet Jenny and Rachel that day. The drive to Asilah was beautiful with clear blue skies above and gnarled trees along the road side. To our right was the Atlantic Ocean and at one point along the way we saw where the Mediterranean and Atlantic meet. Scattered along the shore were pottery and artisan shops and the occasional group of boys playing soccer in their bare feet as the sea crashed against the fine sand. Along the way, Muhammad proudly displayed his driving license, which hadn't been updated since he was about 20 years old. When we arrived in Asilah and exited taxi, there were a host of eager “guides” to show us around the town and secure us with everything from food to eat to a place to stay. Smart enough to avoid those who simply wanted to take advantage for an extra Dirham or ten, we asked shop owners (with less incentive to ask for money) how to find the Bazaar in front of which we were to meet Jenny and Rachel. It was quickly apparent just how small the old part of Asilah was. Before we even introduced ourselves, we were greeted by a host of proprietors, all of whom knew that we were the six Americans who were supposed to meet up with the two girls who had already come in contact with almost everyone in the city. Although there was somewhat of a misunderstanding about when and where we were supposed to have met Rachel and Jenny we asked one of the shop owners across from the designated Bazaar and within a few minutes the girls came running over to great us with hugs. That afternoon, once we had exchanged travel stories, we dropped our bags at the bed and breakfast where they were staying and walked around the town for a while. We bumped into Abdul, the owner of the B&B who was, as usual, ambling about the winding streets rather than tending to his shop. Our timing was brilliant because the night of our arrival, one of Abdul’s relatives was getting married at his farmhouse out in the countryside and we were all invited to spend the night sleeping at the farm and attending the wedding. In order to be respectful and remain in the traditions of the locals, I purchased a djellaba from Abdul for 90 Dirham and once I put it on, was told that I could pass for Moroccan. We then went to Abdul’s house to discuss a price for the night and have his homemade couscous. This is very customary for Moroccan business, for it is proper to discuss things like lodging and payments only after having been fed. The food was plentiful and delicious and in the local tradition we ate without any utensils other than the flavorful soft pita-like bread one uses to pick up the couscous. After dinner, Abdul began setting up a room where the eight of us could sleep. We were somewhat confused because we thought we would be sleeping on the farm and didn’t understand why he would bother setting up a room in the house. When we asked him about it he didn’t really understand us and was almost insulted. He seemed to think that we didn’t want to sleep at the farm when we really were just wondering why he was setting up the beds in two places. Finally, everything was settled and we were to talk money. Abdul threw out the very cheap figure of 175 Dirham which included the dinner, the farmhouse, a second dinner at the farm, the wedding, and transportation. By that point, we had already experienced a bit of the bargaining culture during the day and Brent became a little aggressive with Abdul, asking for a cheaper price. Much to our amusement, Abdul responded “these things are not important, this is not a problem” which quickly became the catch phrase of our entire trip. Whenever we were discussing something that was serious or important, someone would simply toss in “this is not important, no problem, no problem.”

Morocco: Day Two, Part III

2.24.07 - That night, we met up with Abdul’s taxi-driving friend Muhammad (#2) right outside the Medina, (Arabic for wall but referring to old city in modern times). He spent a solid five minutes arranging us all eight of us in the car (plus he), then drove to the edge of the town where we met up with Abdul (out of sight of the police, who tend to enforce the six person limit). There, Abdul made a few futile attempts to ride to the left of Muhammad(!) before resigning and climbing head first into the trunk of the taxi (propped open of course). We couldn’t contain ourselves at this point and laughed our heads off as Muhammad (#2) made his way out of the city and along the dirt roads leading towards the country house. As we hurried along in the dark, Muhammad (#2) called out to Abdul from time to time to make sure he was all right in the back. At one point we went over a good size bump and all communication stopped . . . for the next ten minutes! Finally, we arrived and sure enough, the trunk had slammed closed along the way, but Abdul was safe, only a bit ruffled. At this point, it had become completely pitch black as there were no electric lights around. Knowing it would be muddy, I wore my sandals rather than sneakers. Good move: I stepped out of the cab and into a giant puddle. We walked in complete darkness for 20-30 minutes, doing are best to avoid the massive wet ditches along the ground and cacti on either side of us. When we walked up to the farm house, Abdul’s wife was ready with hot water with which we could wash off our feet and shoes. Out of the darkness we could hear high pitched shrills and loud music. After cleaning up a bit, we all rested up for a while in the farm house, a white and bright blue painted concrete structure. When we were ready to join the festivities, the eight of us adventured out of the small walled courtyard and through the, constructed of various tarps, blankets, and sheets to witness the traditional Moroccan Muslim wedding that was to take place. As we approached, the screams intensified and the music grew louder. Women and young boys only were welcome inside the tent and all men were relegated to the exterior or a small room off to the right. Brent and I shirked off to the mostly empty small room for men only and sat down on a long bench on which a handful of other guests were seated. On the table was a tray of mint tea and a few cookies. We saw that our Italian was more useful than we had thought when we struck up a conversation with yet another Muhammad (#3) and found out that he had worked in southern Italy for a few years and picked up his share of the language. At first we thought he was a guest, but after a deeper questioning learned that he had been hired to drive guests out to the wedding and was simply waiting for the wedding to end so he could bring them back to the city. His life was extremely interesting, for the man had spent his youth trafficking drugs in Germany, been jailed for a few years there, then worked a bit in Italy, before returning to Morocco to resume his drug trading, this time hiring out a number of boats to ship drugs to Spain. According to him he was simply a businessman and never saw the drugs. He was certainly interesting to talk to and more than met the eye. After a while, the conversation died down and Brent and I decided to step outside into the cool, crisp air. As we exited the small “men only” room, Brent stumbled a bit and backed up into an adjacent door, knocking it open and landing us eye to eye with a horrified looking woman, her face covered in white powder. We knew immediately that we had opened the door on the bride-to-be, who for all we knew wasn’t supposed to be seen by a man for a week before her wedding. We quickly apologized and joked around a bit about the incident as we tried, with the other desperate Moroccan boys, to peak through the holes in the tent at the ongoing festivities. I was lucky enough to befriend one of the DJs who let me sit within the tent and help with the music. Hidden behind the CD players and amps, I was able to really get a feel for the celebration and even, two or three hours later, see the bride, weighed down with pounds and pounds of jewelry and makeup, make her official entrance. At one point in the night, I noticed one of the Moroccan girls holding her cell phone up, pointed at me. First, it was strange to see such a modern device in such an environment that lacked running water, internet, landlines, gas stoves, everything. I could tell she was taking pictures of me, but I figured it was harmless and that it made sense she was curious. I was doing the same thing too, snapping photos with my own digital camera. Abdul’s son, a really cute kid wearing a bright orange Italy sweat suit, ironically enough, was obsessed with my own camera and kept wanting to take pictures. I hadn’t really experienced that before however, being the subject, the tourist attraction. After a while, I realized that she was not only taking pictures, but videotaping me, and for a while she stuck her phone right in front of my face! After her film shoot, she stepped behind the DJ booth, really just a low table with a couple of stools, and thanked me, “it’s for my sister” she said in perfect English. I wasn’t really expecting her to be able to speak English, but it really hit me that someone living in such a provincial farm house would not only be totally equipped with the most modern technology, but be able to speak my language as though it were her own, even though it’s not one of the most spoken languages in her country. Finally, around 1AM after the bride and groom made their much awaited and somewhat anti-climactic procession, we returned to Abdul’s farmhouse. After waiting for another hour or so for the promised dinner that never came, we all curled up in Berber blankets (which were more like rugs) and fell asleep. Finally around 3AM, we were woken up by Abdul and his wife with a steaming plate of olives, lamb, beef and chicken with bread, leftovers from the wedding reception. Some of us with room in our stomachs, got up and ate, all crouched around the plate, before crawling back to sleep.

Morocco: Day Three

2.25.07 - The next morning, we woke up late. Within a few minutes, Abdul’s wife, who didn’t speak any English, was in with a hot plate of fluffy scrambled eggs, fresh from the farm, and typical Moroccan bread to scoop it up. When we were ready to leave and had re-donned our muddy footwear, Abdul was nowhere to be found, so one of the younger English-speaking women found a boy in the family who was willing to show us to the main road, a solid 30 minute walk. Finally we ended up at the main strip and despite the difficulty of the task, were able to catch a cab to the local market, or souk. When we pulled up to the souk, it was clear that we were the only tourists within miles, as locals crowded the stalls and ally ways. The first part of the souk was littered with vegetable vendors, usually selling one or two vegetables a piece, spread out right on the ground on canvas or leaves. The flies were everywhere but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. By the vegetable sellers, I browsed tables lined with typical Moroccan products including buckets and sandals made from old tires, and bought a box of henna for one of Marina’s friends.

Moving further into the market, we found mounds of milk sweets, sesame seed candies and a whole host of baked goods. In the center of the mess were two tents, supported by the same wooden poles from which hung the bloody carcases of the cows the resident butchers were using to make the grilled beef lunches they were serving to everyone. After passing the rows of butcher shops out of which hung real camel heads and racks of meat, I remember seeing one stall by which a gallon water jug had been sliced horizontally at the bottom and was fastened to a short wooden pole sticking out of the ground. The mouth of the jug was open and facing the parched earth below, quickly absorbing the blood, pouring out of the bucket as the headless chickens, kicking upside-down inside. Across the way, carpet and fabric vendors were stationed in front of huge mounds of trash rotting next to the meat vendors. We walked back to the vendors cooking the fresh meat and had a quick snack before meeting up with Muhammad #2 and driving back to Asilah proper to spend the afternoon. We haggled a bit more and I purchased some gifts for family at home and around 10PM, the eight of us boarded a night train to Marrakesh. We quickly fell asleep to the sound and rhythm of the train.

Morocco: Day Four

2.26.07 - At around 5AM I woke up and noticed we were stopped at a station along our route. We had been stopped for almost an hour there and I struck up a conversation with Ted, a guy traveling with his friend through Spain and Morocco. Out the window was a landscape completely different from the lush, beachy feel of Tangier and northern Morocco. Rocky hills and sparse terrain made for a complete change in atmosphere and signaled a quickly changing climate as we moved south. After a short exchange I returned to the cabin to catch another few hours of sleep before we arrived in Marrakesh. A few hours later our night train pulled into Marrakesh and the conductor unlocked our cabin. We disembarked and made use of the station restroom to wash our faces and try and wake up a bit. We hadn’t made any reservations at hotels, but one of the girls had bought a guidebook before we left that gave a number of suggestions for places to say. From the station, we grabbed two petite taxis and made our way to the Medina. Apart from the sheltered Club Med at the Medina entrance, the main square was open to all sorts. One could see old men carrying stacks of chairs on their backs, cart after cart of oranges and grapefruits, nuts and dried fruits, snake charmers set up on the ground, sellers of all kinds of wares, filled the square, not to mention the people ambling about, lying at the base of buildings in misery, begging for a Durham, and the comically large bubbles of British and American tourists, herded along by their slick tan guides. We found the hotel without much trouble and checked in. The rooms were beautiful and on the roof was a spectacular terrace. The hotel set us up with Sahara Expeditions, a company that leads tours of the Sahara desert and after a quick lunch including tagine (actually the name of the plate in which the meal is cooked) and of course, mint tea made our way to the tourism office. 7 of us (Rachel not included) booked a two day excursion through the Moroccan landscape and desert stopping in Zagora where we would ride camels into the desert and sleep in tents among the dunes, before waking up the next morning and returning to Marrakech. Ironically, Andy and Ted, the two guys from the train, also reserved spots on the same excursion. After booking our trip, we naturally split off into groups to explore the city based on what we wanted to see most (it’s a tough city to get around in large groups so it worked out better this way anyway). Jenny, Rachel and I stuck together and spent the majority of our day losing ourselves in the incredibly expansive and maze-like souk. At one point, Rachel wanted to buy a pair of sunglasses and when she was hesitant over the price, the shop keeper said “These glasses good quality, see not Chinese imitation, Moroccan imitation, so cost more.” Well, for that fantastic explanation she had to go for them. I acquired a whole bagful of gifts including the bag with which I carried them, and a hat to go along with it which all in all contributed to my increasingly unshowered and generally leathery, scruffy appearance. That afternoon, Jenny, Rachel and I enjoyed tea overlooking the main square, Djemaa el Fna, and for dinner we all decided to experiment with the many outdoor restaurant vendors in the main square. Given that we had had pretty decent experiences with the food courts up to this point and the open kitchens looked both legitimate and very clean, we decided to give it a go without thinking much about it. However, by the time I bit into my last slice of grilled eggplant, I did feel a bit queasy. That night was fine, and I thought it had passed. That night before I went to bed, Jenny and I decided to hang out on the roof (where some guests were sleeping in warm wool blankets) under the stars. At one point this crazy man who was woken by some loud noise on the street began grabbing mulch from one of the planters and chucking it down at the voices below. I thought this a most comical way to deal with such a simple ordeal. We were there so long talking, gazing up at the sky and down at the streets below that by the time we realized the time, it was already 4 in the morning.

Morocco: Day Five

2.27.07 - This morning I woke up with the worst diarrhea ever. I mean total blowout. From the moment I got out of bed I had to run for the toilet and went two times before we even left the hotel. I felt O.K. but had very little control over my bowels and knew immediately that my dinner last night was at fault. Even worse, I wasn’t about to shower in the ice cold shower and we had to go immediately to the Sahara Expedition office to leave on our journey. So squeezing my buttocks and hoping for the best, we trotted off to catch our bus. One more pit stop on the way and I felt better already. By the time we were underway I was much better. The trip was long, six hours about, but we did occasionally stop along the way at various cafes and sights along the way. We checked out some Kasbahs and gaped at the incredibly varied landscape in between naps. That evening, around 5pm we arrived in Zagora, a town at the edge of the desert and took only our bare necessities before getting outfitted in Berber gear and getting suited up for the much anticipated camel ride. It was truly incredible to see these powerful animals stand up and crouch as their legs had two joints each. Finally we were linked up and ready to move out. As we began our journey through the Sahara with the sun setting to our backs, the local young boys ran along side us throwing woven grass camels at us, desperate for a Durham or two. Finally we made our way out of the village and came upon the dunes. They just came out of nowhere and it was incredible to see the sun setting over the mountains on all sides. When the sun set completely, we arrived at our campsite and took our shoes off to enter the tent. After taking a breather, the Berber guides brought out dinner, the amazing couscous that we had come to love. We all ate with our hands out of one big dish and when the food was gone, the Berbers brought out the drums and tambourines. We were serenaded for about half an hour and then invited to join them outside to dance among the dunes. Foolishly, I took my camera with me outside (forgetting to replace it in its case and that it was even in my pocket) and with the other “Saharans” danced around in the sand for hours. That night, when I returned to the tent, I realized I had severely damaged my camera with the flour like sand and frustrated with myself, went off to sleep, rolled up in a Berber blanket.

Morocco: Day Six

2.28.07 - This morning, I woke up freezing in a traditional Berber tent in a valley of sand dunes in the Sahara Desert. What a contrast to my typical Roman existence. It was cold but beautiful, and with no clouds and a horizon stretching as far as one could possibly imagine, a truly incredible event to see the sun peak out over the distant mountains and dance over the dunes. Before eating, I wandered around the wind-blown hills of sand and marveled at the delicate footprints of birds which skipped over the dunes. After a quick breakfast of bread and honey, we packed up and mounted the caravan of camels. A bit more sore than the day before, we rode back to Zagora proper where we climbed back into our expedition bus and began the six hour drive back to Marrakesh, stopping along the way for sites and bathroom breaks (of course). The trip here fit in nicely with everything else in Morocco. Everyone here is in cahoots with everyone else, the bus driver included. He would only stop at certain places (probably because he got kickbacks from the restaurant owners) to let us use that bathroom, no matter how badly people in the bus had to go! Most of us slept much of the way back, peaking out of the windows from time to time at the spectacular views, always changing with the sun. Finally, around 7PM we arrived in Marrakesh proper and continued on to the train station where some of us were going to buy our tickets for the next morning and others were planning on leaving that night for Tangier. Just as we were passing through the main wall separating the Medina from the Ville Nouvelle, we noticed white smoke billowing from the front of the car. The van driver, swerved to the side of the road and jumped out. He ran over to the other side, slid open the back door and as we hurried out of the smoking vehicle, popped open the hood. Clearly the engine had overheated after a long day of driving in the heat. At this point, we were close enough to the station to walk the rest of the way, so after removing the remainder of our bags and tipping the driver, we headed for the station and left him to deal with the vehicle. How lucky we were! Had we overheated and broken down at any other point in the journey, we would have been really up the creek! It would have taken at least another three to six hours for another bus to come and pick us up if the one we were in was unable to be restarted safely! Unable to fully comprehend how close we were to being stranded in the desert, we made our way down Muhammad I, then Muhammad IV, the V, the VI and finally to the station where we purchased tickets and saw off Jenny, Mimi and Dianna. The rest of us, four now, booked rooms at a nice hotel for 30 euro and took the best showers of our lives. By this point my beard had really grown in and I felt pretty grubby, so when I finally had soap in my hands I was quite content. After cleaning up we grabbed a quick dinner and got to sleep early to make our 5:00 AM train to Fez that left the next day.

Morocco: Day Seven, Part I

3.1.07 - At 4:30 we walked over to the Marrakesh train station and climbed aboard the train for Fez. Still exhausted from our adventure, we slept for part of the ride, although a Moroccan man with repulsively putrid feet in the same compartment kept us from relaxing entirely. At one of the stops along the way, he left the train and for a bit we had the cabin to ourselves. Olfactory functions back to normal, we met a boy named (wait can you guess?) Muhammad along the way. He told us that his father owned a hotel in Zagora (from where we had just come) and that he was visiting his uncle for a few days in Fez. He seemed pretty legitimate, especially since he was wearing a t-shirt with the said name of his father’s hotel embroidered on it and was about our age, so it seemed he had less of a motivation. He offered to help show us around a bit but wasn’t the pushy type like many other Moroccans we had met on our journey so we were inclined to trust him, at least for the time being. Moreover, he made a big deal about how you shouldn’t trust the old fat men who offer to help you since according to him, they enrich and engorge themselves at the expense of naïve westerners. Much to our surprise, though little surprised us anymore in Morocco, a few minutes later, a massive man in a suit walked by in the aisle of the train and right in front of Muhammad warned us not to trust him, that he had seen him on the train before and that he was up to no good. Regardless, the married couple in the train across from us seemed at ease with the boy and since he hadn’t asked for any money, we figured we had little to lose by following him at least to check out the hotel he recommended that was cheaper than anything we read about in the guidebook. Hotel Royal it was called, and it was supposedly 60 Durham a night for each of us, the equivalent of about 7 US dollars. The train pulled into Fez around 2pm and we left our seats to disembark. As we descended onto the platform, once again we ran into the corpulent suited man who yelled at us “don’t trust the little boys!” quite an ironic antithesis to the earlier advisory of Muhammad. Thrown for a loop by the conflicting messages circling around us, when we made it out of the station and two more young guys on a motorbike offered us help and repeated Muhammad's line about the fat men, we were really confused. At the time being, we figured we’d at least check out the Hotel before passing off what could have been an amazing price. As Muhammad said, it wasn’t too far, though when we arrived it was clear that access to the rest of the city from the hotel was limited. The price was as quoted and the owner was ready to collect our money when we insisted that we’d like to see the room before staying there. The four of us trekked up the stairs to find a sparse sweltering room which would have been o.k., save the cloud of fleas hovering over the bed. We declined the room and were very ready to give up Muhammad's “help” and resort to finding a room on our own (Rachel had taken the guidebook with her once again so we had nothing). However, Muhammad, clearly making some commission by the hotel owners said to our amazement “oh, so you want a clean hotel? I know just the place. Follow me.”

Morocco: Day Seven, Part II

3.1.07 - Of course we declined, and after spending 10 minutes trying to shake him and the other scammers off, we found cabs for the Medina. When we arrived at the edge of the Medina, we came upon an incredibly intricate blue gate. The exterior was all done in blue and white and the inside was blue and green. We later learned that green was the color of Fez and was reserved for inside-the-wall colors. When we had to pay the cab driver, Holiday and I realized we only had a large bill, so the cab driver, to who we had just passed off a 200 Durham bill, ran off down the street supposedly the change the bill. For all we knew he had simply escaped with our money, but sure enough, a few minutes later, he returned with our change. Once our business with Mohammed number who-knows-what had been concluded, Holiday and I met up with Brent and Hannahl, who had shared the other three person “petite” cab and walked under the blue portal, entering what quickly blew our minds. Completely diverse from the other cities we had seen in Europe and Morocco, Fez was like a jungle. Buildings were crammed so close together that the sun didn’t reach the ground, wooden support beams spanned the distance between apartments keeping the walls from caving in; restaurants and shops lined the dirty streets with framed pictures of the king everywhere. Clearly in-tune with royal politics, I was amazed to notice that all the standard pictures of the king we had seen had been replaced in the past 24 hours by glossy new prints with the King and the newly born prince, only news as of the day before. Our first order of business was to find a room for the night and we started by checking out the hotel that Rachel, who had gone on to Fez a day or two earlier had supposedly been staying at and waiting for us. When we arrived however, the men lingering outside the hotel indicated that she had left that morning. Unfortunately, she had taken the book with her once again so we were at a loss for hotels. One of the hotel operators seemed slightly more slick than the others and spoke excellent English. He first offered for us to stay the night there. At that point we were pretty skeptical, but trusted Holiday to check it out for us. She came down minutes later shaking her head no. Flies, bugs, no shower, no western style toilet. So we were about to move on, when our new guide, Abdul (#2) recited the famous line “Oh, I see, so you want a clean hotel?” “Well yes,” we replied, “of course.”

Morocco: Day Seven, Part III

3.1.07 - So we followed him as he began leading us down the winding crowded streets towards hotel Kawtar. We passed a slew of sneaker stores hawking pumas and brand names for 300 Durham before ducking through a leather store and completely losing our orientation. Soon enough however, we landed ourselves in front of Hotel Kawtar and despite the “druggie” green lantern illuminating the room in which we were supposed to stay and the stained sheets, we figured that we had better not waste any more time and dropped our stuff. The only window in the room was about six inches across and eight inches high and the lock on the door was a simple luggage lock that could probably be snapped in two with one hand if one really wanted to get in. I put the sliver of a key into my money-belt so as not to lose it, and went downstairs with the rest of the homestay crew to pay. Our slick guide began offering us a tour around the city. We had read before that it is necessary to hire a licensed tour guide to see Fez, but this guy seemed pretty knowledgeable and had grown up in Fez his whole life so he certainly could give us a good tour. Although we were skeptical, Abdul’s offer was to tour us without accepting any money until the tour was over and in the case that we were not satisfied, we simply did not have to pay him. It all seemed pretty risk-free, so despite the guidebook warnings, we let him take us around. We began on the street by the hotel and he really seemed to know everyone. We learned that every main street in Fez has five things: A hammam, a place where young children can learn to recite the Koran, a bakery where women can bring pre-made dough to be baked, a mosque, and a fountain. Sure enough, each street had one of these and as we meandered along the dusty alleyways, our guide stopped in a number of shops and allowed us to take pictures, something we were unable to do on our own. He also brought us to an amazing white palace with intricate woodcarving and tile-work where they teach traditional Islamic music. From there our guide began directing us towards the infamous tanneries of Fez via the maze of the souk. Confident and debonair, Abdul walked a few steps in front of us with his head up and shoulders back. We were somewhat at a loss when by the souk entrance, another guy in a black jacket came out of a mosque and confronted our guide. The two men had a strange encounter and a hushed dialogue, resembling that of friends or family. Before we knew it, our guide began walking away with the man into the mosque and told us he would only be a minute. Confused, the four of us stood there hypothesizing about possible mob dealings or scams this guide was involved in, but soon enough one of the men in black coats came out of the mosque, radio in hand, and explained to us in French “faux guide.” Holiday, our unofficial French translator, spoke to the undercover policeman who had apparently just arrested Abdul and learned that we weren’t allowed to continue with him and were required to move on alone. We explained that were without a map and totally lost, so the officer allowed Abdul to come out for one last time to point us in the right direction. Completely hunched inward and seeming on the verge of tears, Abdul walked over to us and pointed in the direction of the souk. Without a guide or map (Which wouldn’t have done us much good since there were no marked street names anyway) we decided to give it a go and get lost, the only way to really get to know Fez. That we did, and ended up on the outskirts of town in an Internet café looking for some sort of direction. There, a boy who looked younger than us, offered to take us back to our hotel. He and his friend walked us back without asking for any money at all, and promised to take us to the tannery the next day if we were interested. And so, we made “reservations” with our second faux guide and stayed within the confines of the few blocks (if you could even call them that) we knew within the area around our hotel. Dinner was more Moroccan soup from Chez Rashid (House of Rashid) and more infamous mint tea (made buy another guy across the street) and procured by Rashid himself who spent more time running around the small network of shops and gathering ingredients than cooking in his own kitchen.

Morocco: Day Eight

3/2/07 - This morning, we woke up and grabbed breakfast before meeting up with our new young guide who was faithfully waiting outside our hotel to take us to the tannery. Much more cautious than his older, now imprisoned counterpart, our young guide named Mohammed of course walked much farther in front of us and despite his explanations which were more less the same as Abdul’s (perhaps there’s a sixth place on each street we didn’t learn about where young kids learn to be tour guides) took us a very back way where the teeming secret police were unlikely to catch him. At the end of our walk, we had to move off the street and trample over excess fur and skins strewn alongside a narrow canal that passed the tanneries. Unlike the large clusters of British tourists led around by smooth-talking official guides, Mohammed led us through the tanneries themselves; we had to step on bags of animal fluids and jump over vats of urine, feces and dye; we held our breath and couldn’t believe our eyes as we saw the extensive system of pits and waterwheels, littered with skins and color; workers were standing right in the pits and working the leather. We learned that most of these jobs were family jobs and passed on from generation to generation. Finally we arrived at the top of the tanneries, where yellow dyed skins were being dried on the hot flat roofs. As expected, Mohammed had led us to his friend at the cooperative who sold leather goods produced at the tanneries. Holiday and Hannah made a few purchases and when we were done, despite expressing our desire to return via a less putrid route, our guide insisted we take the same trek back to the hotel (to avoid the secret police I suppose). Finally we returned to the hotel and I gave him some of our extra Durham (although he didn’t seem to want it). There we picked up our bags and caught a cab to the Gare (train station) where we caught a train to Tangier. That night we arrived in the city where we started and found a simple hotel by the port where we would be taking the ferry to Spain the next morning. We grabbed a quick dinner by the water and hit the hay.

Morocco: Day Nine

3.3.07 - This morning, we woke up in Tangier and quickly packed our bags and walked to the dock. There, a number of passport officials (often contradicting each other with their directions) eventually directed us to customs, but by the time we made it all the way to the gate, we had missed our boat, so we had to wait another hour for the next ferry. An hour later we boarded a boat to Tarrifa and already running late, when we arrived found out that we missed the free bus to Algezires (which only comes every 2 hours). Furious, Brent and I conversed with a Ferry Operator, explaining that there were a good fifteen other ferry passengers who had also missed the bus. Eventually the arranged for another bus to take us to Algezires. When we arrived there, we were supposed to take another bus to Malaga. At the station, we purchased tickets for a 5pm bus to Malaga (from where our flight to Madrid left) and since we had a good hour to spare, decided to grab a nice paella lunch at the adjoining café. About 15 minutes before our bus was scheduled to leave, we made our way to the bus only to realize that we were still on Morocco time, an hour behind, and that the bus we paid for had left an hour earlier. We ran back to the woman who first sold us our tickets and when we explained our situation, she replied “this is not my problem.” “Yes it is your problem” we retorted and argued with her until she issued us new tickets without making us pay extra. When the next bus pulled up, the driver got out and opened up the doors. We boarded and Brent and I dropped our bags on the bus. Clearly upset about something, the driver began hauling off 800 km a minute in the most violent Spanish I’d ever heard. After a tense exchange, we finally understood that he wanted us off the bus and we had to disembark for him to check our tickets. A few minutes later we were on our way once again and drove alone the Spanish coast toward Malaga. The trip was beautiful and the landscape incredibly rich, spotted here and there with wind power plants. Finally we arrived in the Malaga bus station and bumped into none other than two hippies we had met on our Sahara Expedition trip. From there we took a city bus to the airport and checked in. We met up with Mimi and Dianna who had spent the past few days with Tall Ted and Awkward Andy in Seville and readied ourselves for the flight to Rome via Madrid. That night we boarded Iberia Air to Madrid and within an hour, landed in the beautiful terminal 4 of the capital city. Much to my delight, every time the plane landed the signature Iberia lute song and the Spaniards burst into applause. In most countries it’s expected that the pilots land the planes successfully (I mean that’s their job), but in Spain the people always get so excited when the wheels touch the tarmac. Maybe they just have less faith in their pilots. Anyway, since we had to take a flight from Madrid to Rome the following morning at 7AM and we landed already really late, we figured it didn’t make any sense to go all the way though security, get a hotel, and wake up really early to get back to the airport. Also our bags were all carryon so we didn’t even need to collect them and re-check them. We simply did dinner in the airport and after a few card games, passed out on the random couches in the terminal. Despite the incredibly annoying announcements in Spanish that literally said “We will not be making any announcements until the morning” that kept waking us up, we did get a few hours sleep.

Morocco: Day Ten

3.4.07 - At 6AM, I rolled over and shook myself awake. I was miraculously still on the bench upon which I had fallen asleep only a few hours before. Before long, the six of us reconvened and located our departure gate, only a few people movers away. We ate an overpriced breakfast at the only thing open and boarded without much talking. Soon we were in the air and on our way back to Rome. When we arrived at Fiumicino, we grabbed the regional rail line to Tuscolana and parted ways at the station. Loaded with gifts and my bag of very dirty clothes, it took me a bit longer than usual to reach Marina’s apartment. When I made it to 56 Via Lidia, as always, I awkwardly positioned myself inside the elevator and pressed S for Superfloor. When I entered the apartment, Elena was there to greet me, and after I had dropped my bags and hosed myself down, the two of us (I hadn’t seen her for over a month since she had been traveling Europe performing) caught up on life. After a while, one of her enthusiastic, chain smoking friends came over and the three of us began clamoring away at all aspects of life, from my trip (I made sure to share the photos) to spirituality and extra-physical forces. I had a fantastic time explaining my morocco pictures in Italian, and to my great satisfaction, I was immediately comfortable with the language. It was as though I had been practicing the whole time I was in North Africa. Pretty soon thereafter, Marina walked in the door and we were a family once again. Food was put up for dinner and all of us (with the exception of Elena’s friend who had left by this point) sat around the table and just enjoyed each other’s company.
Thanks for visitng!