Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fes and the South

The past couple of weeks have been full of traveling for us. We went to Fes during one weekend, and we spent about 9 days seeing Erfoud, Merzouga, Tinjdad, Tinhrir, and back north through Rich and Azrou.

We'll start with our trip to Fes, and then talk about our trip down south.

Fes is known as the cultural capital of Morocco. It is the home of the oldest university in Northern Africa and boasts a medina (Arabic city that existed before French colonization) that is simply galactic in size. This medina is filled with narrow, twisty routes that take one from souvenir shop to restaurant to mosque to hotel to residence to butcher to marketplace, back to souvenir shop again. Literally, it is labyrinthine. It's an all-out assault on the senses: piles of fresh, dirt-cheap fruit and spices, hunks of meat hanging in open-air, piles of decaying matter here and there, garbage littering the ground, people shouting and laughing, decapitated animal heads (camels, goats, etc) waiting to be sold, people transporting goods via donkey cart (BALEK! --> "Get out of the way!"), and merchants trying to get your attention.

We saw lots of tourists there, including English speaking ones. That was wierd. Naturally, we felt superior to them, as we - living in the "front line" - have the advantage of both language and culture. As we were having breakfast in a small cafe, three Americans came in and proceeded to purchase some items. Emily greeted one of them, asking where they were from, and he replied, "Conneticut, in the United States."

Umm, yeah. You couldn't tell that we were not only speaking English, but also with American accents?

Anyways, we chatted VERY briefly, to our surprise. And it reminded me how superficial Americans are as compared to Moroccans. I think Daniel Defoe sums it up nicely in his novel, Robinson Crusoe:

"Thus we never see the true state of our condition till it is illustrated to us by its contraries..."

One of the smells that cannot be missed when traveling to the old Medina in Fes are the tanneries, a "complex" that prepares the skins of animals (camels, sheep, cow, goat, etc) to be used to make leather products. In fact, Fes is famous for its tanneries, and tourists are yanked from the crowds to go to the nearest rooftop to get a birds' eye view. I'm not going to lie, the smell of that place is comparable to rotting flesh, and I've heard that they use - among other things - urine and pigeon excrement in the leather "soaking" process. Check out some pictures. Unfortunately, we couldn't provide the smell.

Despite the fact that we are Peace Corps volunteers, operating on Peace Corps budgets, many of the shop-keepers still see us as they see all foreigners: as walking wads of cash. They hold no punches in trying to get us to buy their marked-up artisana goods. This is the part that annoyed us the most about our experience. Many people would call out to us in English, demanding that we follow them up to their carpet shop, guaranteeing that we wouldn't have to buy anything. Of course, ten minutes later, we were pressured into a sales situation. I have to say though, they're good at what they do. They are sweet talkers, complimentary, and generous with the tea and hospitality. They're looking to get your guards down...and then, WHAM, they'll empty your wallet with a 10,000 DH ($1100) carpet out of the blue. Mind you, they probably got it for 1,000 DH or less, and it's the artisans that truly suffer out of this deal, as a carpet of this price usually takes months to create.

Which brings me to the Ville Nouvelle, the portion of Fes that France built during the colonial period. We walked around a bit, and even had lunch, but we were mostly interested in finding the Ensemble Artisanal, a giant showroom of artisanal goods! Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to photograph any of the goods, but we did take a few shots of the lobby.

Of course, the showroom was absolutely outstanding, displaying works of leather, wood, porcelain, various fabrics, and metal. We highly encourage anyone traveling in Morocco to stop by one of these showrooms. They're all over Morocco, especially in the bigger, tourist-infested cities. In theory, it's a very "fair trade" way to shop, meaning the artisans that produce these goods get a good portion of the sale.

We spent my birthday in Fes, which was actually really cool. The best part of it - besides getting a hajhouj, a gnawa (a type of Moroccan music that has its origins in sub-Saharan Africa) instrument that basically sounds like an acoustic bass guitar - was just sitting in a cafe, drinking a coffee and watching all of the odd-looking mostly-French tourists walk by. This is a classic past-time of Moroccan men, and I can definitely see why.

The next weekend and following week, Emily and I travelled down south to Erfoud and beyond. We took a grand taxi with 4 other volunteers from Azrou to Errachidia, and I have to say that the scenery is absolutely amazing, especially since the latter part of the trip snakes through a pass between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas mountains. I have never seen - in person - the nature of Utah, Arizona, and Nevada, but the scenery on that road reminded me of pictures of these places. The reds, purples, oranges, and yellows of the rock complemented the bright blue sky. I didn't get any shots while we were in the taxi, but I'll leave it to your imagination to visualize this scene.

A quick taxi ride took us to Erfoud, which is known principally for two things: fossils and dates. And we partook in both! There was actually a marketplace in Erfoud that was solely devoted to the sales of dates. Of course, I bought a kilo of them (2.2 pounds for 15 Dirhams...roughly $1.88) and we munched on them as we walked from shop to shop, inspecting the goods of the shop-keepers, who were trying their best to entice us in and make us feel "welcome." Welcome is a very important word in this culture; "mi casa su casa" is the idea, and sometimes merchants use that concept as a means to reach into the wallets of tourists.

In Erfoud we also toured a complex that processed stone - embedded with fossils such as ammonites - into table tops, counters, sinks, decorative garden sculpture, and other souvenir-esque trinkets. First, we learned about the geology of the area, and the maritime nature of northern Africa some 500 million years ago. Quite interesting, actually. We got to see the machine that cuts 1.5-2" slabs of sheet-rock out of HUGE conversion-van sized blocks of fossil-rich marble. Then we went into the gift shop, and some of us bought stuff.

Later in the day, we met up with a tour guide that transported us from Erfoud to the Erg Chebbi: the Moroccan Sahara. On our way, we stopped at a fossil excavation site, and I bought a huge ammonite (the size of a softball) for about 2 bucks. It's not polished or pretty or anything like that, but I feel like the kid that sold it to me needed the money more than the guys at the fossil museum. We got a picture of some exposed fossil-rock while we were there:

Boarding our SUV, we continued onward to the dunes, when our tour guide asked us if we wanted to stop at an Amazight (the politically correct term for "Berber") dwelling to have some tea. We said yes, of course, and no sooner than we exited our vehicle than we were met by a pack of spunky baby goats. They were trying to climb into the SUV and once we got the doors shut, they went under it, exploring and generally defying the young Amazight girl who was trying to herd them into their dwelling some distance away. We had some tea, making small talk, and then said our goodbyes, heading back to our vehicle.

When we finally reached the dunes, we met a group of Moroccans who worked there at one of many "camel trekking" tourism companies. Ours was this one: http://www.letoiledesdunes.com/. We met them briefly, mounted our beasts - a scary process at first - and headed off on the 1.5 hour camel ride to our destination, a camp of several tents next to an IMMENSE mountain of sand. The camel ride was pretty cool, all in all, but after awhile, it really hurts your inner thighs! I guess that's what they call "saddle sore."

We arrived, dismounted, and after putting our gear in our tent, we promptly begun climbing the mountain of sand, which was pitched in the neighborhood of about 45 degrees! Some of our party of seven made it to the top. Not me. I stopped about halfway and waited for the others to come down. We hung out until dark and then returned to our tent, where our guide had tea and peanuts waiting for us. Shortly after munching on peanuts and chatting with our guide, we were presented with one of the most amazing tajines that we've tasted thus far in Morocco! Chicken, eggplant, tomato, potato, carrots, etc. After dinner, we headed back up the mountain, but only about 1/3 of the way this time. We just wanted to sit and enjoy the temperate weather. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we couldn't see any stars.

Before bed, we went to a nearby tent to check out some Moroccan drumming and singing. I guess a group from Tangier or somewhere in the North had come down here for a vacation, and were enjoying themselves with some song and dance. We saw some French and English people there and from what I learned later, there were Polish and Dutch people as well! Going back to our tents, we played some cards before we slept. The next morning, we were woken around 6:30am for the sunrise, which was pretty cool. Again, people were climbing the mountain. I didn't. No problem, because Emily did, and she got some pictures from the top! After our breakfast (a standard meal of bread, tea, and olive oil and jelly for dipping), we returned on camelback to our starting point. This time, I was in the front camel, as opposed to the day before, when I rode the caboose! The cost of this excursion (including transportation back to Erfoud), was 380 DH per person plus 20DH for gratuity. 400 DH is about fifty bucks; affordable, even on a Peace Corps budget!

From Erfoud, we went to Tinjdad, and then onto Tinhrir to see the Todra Gorge! Approaching the Todra Gorge is quite amazing, as the road winds through dwelling-encrusted mountains and oasis-like palmeries. As we arrived at the Gorge, our primary goal was to find lodging for the night. After a bit of deliberation, we eventually settled on an Amazight fellow who didn't really understand the concept of privacy.

Fast forward to the next day.

We had MUCH nicer weather, and so gathering our items, we headed out to hike the Gorge! I think the hike up took around 2 hours, and we were accompanied by a little Moroccan shoe-shiner named Yussef. I guess he didn't have anything better to do, so he just followed us up the gorge, wearing his oversized flip-flops and carrying his shoe-shine kit. We later learned that the little guy had never climbed the Todra Gorge and was probably as excited as we were to see the view from the top. We managed to get alot of great pictures, especially at the top. Of course, I also caved from the pressure of a few fellow PCVs and my own narcissistic vanity and indulged in a shoe-shine at the summit of the Gorge. Yussef was well compensated for this.

After descending the Gorge, and being treated to some lunch, Yussef decided to accompany us in a petit taxi back to Tinhrir, and even sat with us on the bus until it was ready to leave for Tinjdad. I could tell that we really made his day!
If I ever travel back to that area, I'm going to be on the lookout for him!

Heading back home, we stopped through the town of Rich and were welcomed by Hassan, a Moroccan friend of one of our fellow PCVs. It can't be stated enough that Moroccans will spare no expense in being EXTREMELY hospitable. Hassan had an immense home-made lunch waiting for us at his house after bringing us home from the bus station. Anything we wanted, he was pleased to bring to us or do for us. It's almost strange, as Americans, to be waited on and serviced like this for no apparent reason other than genuine hospitality. Of course, we couldn't let him get away with cleaning up by himself. And later that evening, we repaid him the favor by making delicious ranch-turkey sandwiches! Ranch, I think, is a flavor not too common to Moroccans. Like us, Hassan loved it!

Later, we walked about the town, which was quite pretty, with its salmon/deco green color scheme and backdrop of velvety mountains.

We headed back home after this, traveling through Azrou. This ending is going to seem brief, but I'm getting sick of typing and you're probably getting sick of reading!



Anonymous said...

Too cool, looks like you all had a great time,thanks for sharing. Mom

Rachel said...

Looks like you guys had a lot of fun. I talked to your Spring Camp Coordinator the other day (I'm in Rabat with her right now, as I'm coordinating the Zagora camp) and I told her she has a powerful asset in the two of you. Have fun!

N said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N said...

epic blog entry! sounds like a fantastic trip....beautiful pics, too. i think i missed you guys in the gorge by a day. a pleasure as always to read what you're up to. peace

Anonymous said...

Hi! I’m the Community Manager of Ruba.com. We’re building a website to highlight some of the most interesting places travelers around the world have discovered. We’ve read hundreds of blogs about Morocco and we think that yours is awesome! We’d love to highlight excerpts from your blog (assuming it’s OK with you of course) and to discuss other ways of tapping into your expertise if you are interested. I’m at erin[at]ruba.com.
Thanks! :)