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5 posts from October 2010

10/20/2010

if it don't make dirhams, it don't make sense

Have you ever experienced that moment of utter excitement, and anticipation? It is usually right after making a spontaneous plan and right before everything that can go wrong, goes wrong.

My experiences this weekend don’t fall short of such sentiments. On Friday, I was waiting to go to the family’s farm for couscous, when my friend and I decided trek over to the city of Meknès instead. I had an ample two hours to catch a bus to Temara from school, gather my things, and take a bus back to the train station. There is only one antique, rackety 54B bus that takes me directly to my house from the city. I waited an hour for it to arrive.

At that point, I still had time to get back to Rabat under the two-hour mark. However, I fell asleep on the bus, and missed my stop. No worries, though. I had safely arrived in the Middle of Nowhere. A mule was leading the one vehicle that did pass by, and all seats were occupied. Eventually, I caught a petit taxi back to my house where my first order of business was to scarf down some couscous. That was not a great idea because I vomited it all out a solid ten minutes later. Lastly, the key to my room was tucked away in Sadiya’s apron back at the farm. This series of events definitely indicated that I should stay home, but obviously that was not going to stop me. Mashi mushkil.

Although the train station in Rabat is brand-spanking new, our luck provided us with a train that was probably produced when Morocco gained independence about 54 years ago. After standing in the train for a good three hours, Enchilada and I arrived in Meknès and over a span of two and a half days, we explored numerous towns near the imperial city.

Volubilis (وليلي )

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The Roman Ruins were breathtaking. There is an area called the vomitorium, which usually refers to a passage through which crowds in an auditorium can disgorge. Apparently, this vomitorium was where the ancient Romans retreated to vomit after inhaling copious amounts of food. I could have used one just a day earlier.

Fatassa

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After spending almost three hours exploring the ruins, we were walking over to the town of Moulay Idriss, when a man waved us over from his roadside fossil shop. He tried to sell us some rocks, but we were definitely not interested, so he offered us some mint tea. While we were enjoying that, he tried to sell us some of the best caramel (an even better code word) in Morocco. Again, we were not interested. Then he asked me to marry him. I almost accepted that one. The last thing he offered was a personal tour of the tiny village in which he resides. Finally, something kosher. On our journey through this village, we met Mohammad’s cousin who had just returned with a backpack packed with hashish from a treacherous journey through the Rif Mountains from Chefchaouen. The most remarkable aspect of this village was the incredibly fresh spring water that was available for wudu or to bring home with a mule’s assistance.

Moulay Idriss (مولاي إدريس)

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Afterwards, we hopped onto a hippie bus to travel a few kilometers to the next village over, Moulay Idriss, which is named after the founder of Morocco’s first real dynasty, and a great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). His tomb rests at the heart of the town, and many believe that five pilgrimages to this site is equal to one pilgrimage to Mecca. That is blasphemy in my opinion, but I took full advantage of being a full-time Muslim and was allowed to pass the barrier into the mausoleum.     

El Hajeb (لحاجب) 

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We met the family in the photograph above in a grand taxi on our way to Ifrane. I suppose they were intrigued with me because although I exude the faint scent of an American, I have an Arabic name was able to communicate with them in darija. Fatiha (in blue) insisted that we come to her home in El Hajeb for lunch, and so we made a pitstop. Fatiha, who is originally of  Tamazight Berber descent, was on her way to visit her brother’s newborn son. She first brought us to her sister’s home where banana smoothies were served to hold us over till we went to her brother’s home for the real feast. I have an incredible amount of respect for the trust and hospitality that Fatiha and her family showed us. 

Ifrane (إفران)

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Ifrane is mind-boggling. Its well-maintained cottages with steep roofs, and wide roads are akin to that of a Swiss town. It is probably the coldest place in Morocco, since it was developed as a French protectorate for families to escape to in the humid summer months. The kids in my family love Ifrane because it seasonally endows the nearby mountains with snow, a rarity in Morocco. I still think I walked through a parallel universe. (Kinza, you were right all along). 

And with that, back to the grind.

 

“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

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While enjoying a glass of mint tea in Café Bab, which overlooks Barbara Hutton’s former villa, I glanced at Paul Bowles’ quote on the wall. “Tangiers is a place where the past and the present exist simultaneously.”

With all due respect to the legendary novelist, I beg to differ.

Actually, he may be right because he was referring to 60’s version of the town, when the Beat Generation, and Jimi Hendrix sought refuge from the infernal ways of the West. However, the Tangier that I experienced this past weekend is a place where the past and rather, the future that carry more magnitude.

I say this because the town clings to its glamorous past when hippies flooded the city. Every bar, café, and hotel advertises some connection to William Burroughs, or Truman Capote, or Keith Richards. I feel like this is rooted in ignorant pride. How many of these tour guides actually know who these people are? They are clever in that they realized the impression these figures have left on the Western world, and have taken full advantage of it.

Because Spain is separated from Tangiers by only the 20 miles of the Strait of Gibraltar, it is visible to the naked eye. My friend and I were basking in the view from the roof of an old castle, when we met Yasin who lives and breathes for Spain. At first, we struggle to communicate. Every time I said anything in Arabic, or in English, he would interject. “Hablas espanol?”

Finally I gave in and we conversed in Spanish. Yasin shared with us, in his surprisingly fluent Spanish, his several failed attempts to illegally swim over to Spain. The police caught him every time, but he says that he is not worried. One day, he will definitely succeed.

I did admire his determination, but I was nonetheless saddened by his endeavors. You see, Yasin, who was rocking a David Villa jersey and a Spanish mullet, is only eight years old. I did not have the heart to say it to him, but I wish he could understand that life in Spain would not be at all what he imagines it to be. As an illegal immigrant, he would not at all have the same experience he hears about from the Spanish tourists he encounters on a daily basis.

I believe Spain’s eminent presence has become the same green light that blinded Gatsby. It would be crude of me to mention how Gatsby met his end (not that I am not above that).

On a lighter note, on the bus back, we witnessed a woman get up from her seat, scream at the top of her lungs in Arabic, thrash around like a maniac, and try to run off the bus while her husband tried to calm her down. She did this about six times through the span of a four-hour bus ride. It turns out that she just discovered that her husband has another wife and son in Tangiers. She was pregnant with his baby and was trying to get off the bus to get an abortion. I don’t know why Moroccans watch so much television; they have all this drama at their fingertips!

 

10/19/2010

Life is a highway

There are up days and down days whenever you are far from home. Today started out as a down day. I awoke up missing people from home and yearning for more control over my surroundings. I've lived on my own long enough that it's difficult to adjust to depending on other people and not having so much control over my routine.

This quickly led to me deciding on the day's itinerary. Something I should explain first, Morocco doesn't function on American time, it functions on Moroccan time. So you're not in a hurry to do ANYTHING and it's not going to bother you the shop(s) you want to go to are closed. This sense of time makes a stark contrast to American time, where you expect to complete tasks within a set amount of time and in a certain order.

So my day goes by as follows: wake up, eat breakfast, take bus to Rabat, gender class. It's now 1pm and the time has come to complete the day's To-Do list. Decide to walk to the Medina w/ a friend to buy presents to send home to my family and I needed to get things together today. So we get to the Medina and nearly all the shops are closed for lunch. Didn’t realize they all closed for lunch, grab a bite to eat and walk back to school. It is now obvious that I should have completed the ‘sign up for gym and workout’ task prior to shopping in the Medina. Oh well, just a two hour delay, I’m not happy about it but I’ll deal.

More walking. Gym signup goes pretty well aside from not really wanting to fork over so much dirham for it, but the place is cushy. Alright, staff is a little too peppy and throws me on an elliptical and for some reason it elevates it so it seems like I’m running downhill for 30 mins. Not what I was looking for, but I’ve now checked off one of my tasks.

By the time I head back to the Medina I’m just not in the mood to deal with anyone, I feel like being a snobby American and not trying to make acceptation for a culture other than my own. I don’t feel like shopping or haggling or putting up with stares and catcalls, but I want to make sure my gifts for my family get there before their birthdays. So I deal.

After finding a present that I think my mother will enjoy, a task that had left me stumped, and not bothering to haggle the price, made my first purchase (a cute little candle lantern). One down three to go. My mood started to improve ever so slightly. Searching the other stalls, I’m appalled at the price of the Aladdin pants I want to buy one of my twin sisters. I finally find an acceptable, quality pair for a decent price. I’ve reached the half way point and am stumped on what to get my father and other sister. Eventually, fully submerged in the depths of the medina, I come across a multitude of shops filled with wood work. After messing with a thousand little boxes and other random trinkets, I decide to get my father a simple wooden bowl.

I should stop and explain that a running joke my father regularly makes is that as far as material possessions are concerned, he would be happy with the bare necessities: a wooden bowl and spoon. Alas, I only find bowls too large or too small (Goldilocks situation). And the larger ones are far over priced as far as I was concerned. Frustrated and hoping to find a good deal, I enter shop after shop finally coming across a larger shop with rooms filled of different goods. One of the shop keepers convinces me to look at a variety of items, most of which I wasn’t interested in, claiming that he was giving me a good price, I would disagree. As I was trying to leave, he practically dragged me into a room filled with wooden goods. Grabbing a ‘magic box’ (a simple hinged box with parts that slide out to reveal a space to hide a key and a key hole) he tries to show off the trick of opening the box, breaking pieces in the process. I’ve had more than enough at this point and am trying to leave when another one of the shop keepers gets up and starts speaking with me in English. Discovering that I am a student in Rabat, studying Arabic, he starts working with me on the pronunciation of more difficult Arabic sounds. Before I realize it, my mood has drastically improved. I spend the next two hours learning new vocabulary, listening to my new friend read text while I attempt to correctly place vowels on the Arabic script, and writing out words as they are dictated to me. Eventually I realize how much time has passed and, after politely excusing myself and promising to stop back again soon, I run off through the medina with my purchases (I ended up buying a carved bowl and camel from my new Arabic tutor) and catch the bus just as it pulls away from the curb. After a such a long day, at last I find myself closer to home.

All in all, a successful day that ended on a high note with a new found friend, despite a low starting point.

Upon my arrival in Chefchaouen, the one and only thing on my mind was a bar of dark chocolate speckled with almonds and toffee bits. I could not focus, and it was of grave importance that  I obtained some immediately. After settling into our beautiful riad, I set out on a mission to make that happen.

In New York, when I ask for a bar of dark chocolate, the cashier gives me a dirty look, and points me towards Aisle 3. In Chefchaouen, when I ask for some chocolate, the storekeeper winks at me and tells me that he has best quality. That’s true customer service.

Of course, it takes me a while to realize that I was actually in the process of purchasing some hashish. How can that not get confusing?!

Chefchaouen lies at the foothills of the Rif Mountains, and it is well known as a hub of hashish production. We were informed that the danger lies beneath the knolls of the Rif because of this. So of course, it would be a perfect location to watch the sunrise.

You should know that I cannot bring myself to stay longer than ten minutes in a gym, so the trek up the mountain at 4 AM called for a bit of effort. It would have been much easier had I been able to see where I was going. Nonetheless, I cannot describe in words how incredible it was to hear the echoes of the adhanreverberate through the mountains. Soon after, we watched, in awe, dawn break through the night sky to let the sunlight spill over the horizon.

And I definitely did not need any Chaouen chocolate for that high. 

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10/10/2010

Rain in the Rif Mountains

This weekend our group set out for Chefchaouen, which was beyond gorgeous. The city is nestled into the Rif mountains which rise up behind it, the white and blue buildings of the old medina spilling down the mountains' slopes into the newer structures below. The city looks out over the dips and crests of the surrounding hills, speckled with dwellings.
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Upon arrival we checked into a gorgeous riad in the middle of the old medina. After clambering around, we all made it up to the terrace which provided a view of the entire city spilling out below and Rif mountains rising majestically behind the riad.

We then had some time to explore and grab lunch. The cafe's all had people hired to grab tourists looking for a place to eat and most were quite insistent. With all the pressure, a chunk of our group broke off to seek out a better idea of our prospects. During which we came across a wonderful little stall selling almonds, peanuts and chickpeas. Daunted by my choices, I went with nature's choice and went with the yellow chickpeas which were swarming with bees. Delicious.

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After our bite to eat, we went on a guided tour of the city which culminated in a short hike to a mosque on a nearby hill above the city, which once again provided an amazing view.

In the evening, I wandered about with my roommate and fellow CIEE blogger Nabila, who had run into an acquaintance from Tangiers, Vincent. Having been in Chefcaouen showed us where to grab some yummy beef kebabs and then hung out in the main square with us while we chatted with other travelers.

On our second day, we began with a Moroccan breakfast on the terrace before heading to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, for the afternoon. The boarder between Spain and Morocco was bleak, yet the transformation once reaching the other side was intense. There was a definite Moroccan presence in Ceuta, but it was also very European at the same time. Nearly everything was closed however because Ceuta was on Spain time, so even though it was 4pm in Morocco, it was 6pm in Ceuta. I suppose it only shows how arbitrary time is. So we milled around, looked at the architecture the very Spanish buildings and after a bit found a group of people playing Pétanque which was surprisingly really fun to watch. The weather started to get dreary at this point, so we retreated back to Chefchaouen.

By the time we returned it was pouring out, so we went to the Aladdin restaurant (over the top decorated in the Arabian castle theme, but very enjoyable) where we finished the night with hot bowls of vegetable soup, fresh bread and a warm fire to dry our toes.
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