Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

Dawn - Sometimes An Ultrarunner

November 13, 2007

Morocco: Only a Continent Away

Hidden behind the ancient walled cities of Fes and Marrakesh are people and events so strange that you almost have to see them to believe they still exist. It is a world where donkey carts still collect trash, women cover everything but their eyes in public, and cameras are an unwelcome intrusion of the western world. But it is also a place where friendly people are willing to help you at every turn (sometimes in hopes of a tip), and life goes on much the same as it has for thousands of years. And with RyanAir beginning flights to both cities starting later this fall, a 4-day weekend spent in either plaxc would make a lifetime of stories. Here are a few of ours.

As guidebook author Rick Steves says, “Being a tourist in Morocco is like being a clown at a funereal.” Since we didn’t have any proper Arabic clothing, we dressed instead in baggy shirts and long loose pants. And we didn’t carry around daypacks or camera bags, wear sunglasses or baseball caps, nor point at things and take too much obvious notice in anything. It was in the textile/dyeing souq (market) where we were pulled aside by a friendly vendor, who showed us the properties of the raw rock material used for dyeing. He amazed us by turning a piece of paper pink, after wetting and wiping it across a rock that looked green. Then as part of his selling strategy, he pulled a dyed scarf off the wall and started wrapping it around my head to make me a turban. Rob had wandered off for a moment to study drying silks when this happened, and when he returned, he didn’t even recognize me! My head and face were completely covered, leaving only my eyes exposed, and its tail draped elegantly around my neck. I looked at myself in a mirror, and instantly fell in love with the idea of having a veil of my own. So I walked around the rest of the day dressed like an Arab, at least from the neck up. Many women wore scarves over their heads, so I sorta fit in better amidst our environment, even though I did get a few strange looks from peering eyes behind veiled faces passing by.

Our original hotel was full, but we were offered a spot on the roof to sleep if we wanted.
We declined without knowing exactly what it would be like. But later, we ventured up on to the roof and found interesting views, and four metal cages. Inside each, were mats on the floor for sleeping, and even the belongings of other travelers inside, including two touring bicycles. The doors of the cages could be locked, and I guess would have made a unique place to spend the night for 20 dirhams ($2). We then knew what it meant, to sleep on the roof.

The huge main square inside the walled city of Marrakesh is completely barren in the morning, and then gets filled with a small city of food vendors by late afternoon. We walked onto the square and were struck by many rows of lights atop open-air food stalls that were heavily smoking the falling dusk sky with mouth-watering barbeque aromas. Stand after stand of fresh squeezed orange juice vendors also all vied for our attention as we approached, and we gladly quenched our thirst with a tall glass of sweet nectar for 3 dirhams (30 cents), before following our noses to the food. After much sniffing and inspection of what was for dinner, we concluded that there were two main types of food stands; kebabs and exotic foods. The exotic food stands seemed to offer platters of either cow tongue or steaming goat brain. And the kebab stands a grand selection of meats, fish, vegetables, and fruits. Activity all amidst all the savory smells was beehive like, with plenty of people sitting jammed side by side at counters, or on either side of long narrow tables. The food and servers were almost in flight trying to keep up with all the action, and the entire atmosphere was not only delicious, but buzzing with liveliness. A few very personable waiters at a kebab stand invited us to enjoy some of their selection of dishes, and suddenly we were laughing with a couple from Spain next to us, and eating and dipping loaves of Moroccan round bread in spicy sauces, an exotic variety of marinated olives, a cold vegetable salad, and plenty of piping hot skewed lamb and vegetable shish kebabs.

In the large unlit area of the square away from the food stalls, a sea of people wandered in the relative darkness like walking shadows to find whatever they may. Crowds would gather around burning kerosene lanterns to watch and listen to street musicians, animated storytellers, jugglers, chanters, and benign lunatics doing strange things we didn’t understand. It all seemed like amateur night at a talent show, with some acts quite impressive and entertaining, and others pretty darn bad. But the next day on the square, the scene had totally changed. This time, crowds were forming around groups of dancers, snake charmers, herbalists, palm readers, and monkeys on leashes. Rob was approached by a very wild looking guy in a long red robe, who wrapped a snake around his neck and demanded a tip. Rob tipped him for the experience, as I tried to overcome my fear to get close enough to snap a picture. I don’t like snakes, even charmed ones.

Fes is the oldest of the Moroccan imperial cities, and its wall-enclosed medina (old city), the Fes el-Bali, is one of the largest living medieval centers in the world – with the exception of those in Marrakech, Cairo, and Damascus. Its 9,400 narrow twisting alleys, blind turns, dead ends, covered bazaars, and numerous souqs are crammed with every conceivable sort of workshop, restaurant, market, and mosque, plus extensive dye pits and tanneries. We entered into the depths of the medina (old city), where we hoped we were ready to withstand gigantic senses overloading, and exhilarating cultural shock. Our handwritten map, so as to leave the guidebook at home, got us lost instantly (its part of the fun), and we just followed the current of people like fish in a stream. Who knew where we were going, but we’d again ended up where we saw no other tourists, and were completely engulfed in the intense local madness of the medina that surrounded us tightly on all sides. It was thrilling and nerve racking and beautiful and daunting all at the same time, and gave us the rare opportunity to gain a perspective of life far from western Christian ways. We rubbed shoulders with different mindsets, different customs, and different values, and constantly had to dodge garbage trucks (ok, donkeys with small wagons being filled with trash by robed men with pointy hoods).
Leather produced in Fes has for centuries been highly prized as among the finest in the world. At the tanneries in Fes, little has changed in centuries. Skins are still carried by donkey to the tanner’s souq, and tanning and dyeing vats are still constructed from mud brick and tile. Along with being one of Morocco’s (and the world’s) oldest arts, leather making is also one of the smelliest. Rank odors abound at the tanneries due to the exotic ingredients used in the vats for dyeing that include pigeon poo, cow urine, fish oils, animal fats and brains, chromium salts, and sulfuric acids. At a rooftop that overlooked the tanning and dyeing vats, we saw workers laboring below us with animal hides, in an eye-catching configuration of vats filled with different colors of dye. And yellow and brown hides were drying on a layer of straw on every rooftop that we could see, in air that indeed stank of unsavory aromas, but really wasn’t that bad at all. We later saw an entire tour bus of people show up holding sprigs of mint to their nose to ward off the smell…wimpy tourists.
After successfully bargaining for a lamp, the satisfied salesman invited us upstairs to drink tea and look at his carpets. Well, we graciously declined, and that was perfectly all right with him, and then he wished off with a handshake and much fun during the rest of our vacation. It was just chance that we happened to run into the same guy later that day, but he took it as a sign, and whisked us away with the words, “Let’s drink some tea.”
And without any hesitation, sensing the destined chance of that meeting, we followed him through a door into a small and cluttered warehouse looking place, that was quite a distance from where we’d run into him before back at the lamp shop.

We were seated upstairs in a room with carpets decorating the floors and walls, with more stacked in piles in the corners. Our host, Ahmed, emerged with a dented silver teapot full of hot mint tea (YUMMY!) and candied dates to eat, and then introduced us to his uncle. He explained that the house we were in belonged to his “tio”, who was kind enough to let him stay there and help out with the business of selling lamps, carpets, and anything else.

Next, Ahmed and his uncle began unfurling carpet after carpet, and stacked them on the floor until the pile grew to over a foot high. It was explained, that the carpets were made from wool, silk, or a combination of the two, and that the patterns were always simply the result of the makers own creative whims. Ahmed kept referring to all as “magic carpets”, on which you could serenely seat yourself while sipping mint tea, and contemplate all the wonderful things you could imagine. He was a great philosopher, and would periodically just forget all about showing his carpets, and instead share his views and insights on topics that came to mind and that he found interesting, and then eagerly wanted to know our opinions as well.

Finally, there were no more carpets to display, and we were asked if any might be of some interest to us. To make the process of deciding that easier, Ahmed and his uncle said they’d show us each carpet again from the mountain of them on the floor, and then we would decide which of them all we liked, and which we didn’t. We were taught the Arabic words for “I like it”, which was pronounced hahlee, and “No, I don’t like it, take it away” pronounced eejmaah. So, we slowly eejmaah’d our way through the pile of carpets, until we were left with a small selection that we actually did like, and thought would fit in our kitchen. Then, it was time to get up and stretch, and make a new pot of tea.

Then the game began all over again. And as Ahmed held up the remaining carpets, we eejmaah’d a few more, and finally we were left with a wild bluish multicolored wool rug. “So, how much do you want for this one?” Rob asked. Ahmed told us that he had really enjoyed our afternoon together, and that he thought we were great folks, and said he’d give us a special price, … 1500 dirhams ($150).

Rob became a bit fidgety with that, and asked me how much the wool carpet we’d decided on was worth to me. He thought the amazing two-hour experience we’d had that day was priceless, but that the carpet to him, even as beautiful as it was, wasn’t worth much more than $100 to him. Ahmed suddenly produced a notepad and a new bargaining technique and said, “How ‘bout if I lower the price to this,” and wrote something down on paper. He then handed the notepad to us, and we saw the number 1300 written on it. We conferred for a second, and then Rob reached for his pencil and wrote down 860 and handed the notepad back to Ahmed. Well, when Ahmed saw that, expressions of sheer disbelief filled his face, and he exclaimed to me, “Ohhhhh no!, … this guy’s really tough, … please help me out. This carpet took months to make, … it was handmade every step of the way.”

So then Ahmed grabbed for the notepad, and after taking a moment to think and sip off his tea, wrote down another number and handed it to us. This time we saw 1200 on the paper, and Rob immediately wrote down 950. Ahmed also wasted little time and countered with a scribbled 1150. Rob then wrote down 1000, and robustly motioned with his hands that that was it. Ahmed contemplated his offer for only a few seconds, and then looked up and simply softly just said, “OK.” The carpet was then rolled up tight and wrapped for transport, we drank the last of the tea, exchanged email addresses, and parted the best of friends.