Salaam alaykum, my bruthas and sistas. After my four days in Sevilla, I headed south to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, from Spain to Morocco, from Europe to Africa, from the very privileged first world to the not so privileged developing world where I’d be spending the rest of this trip. I spent just over three weeks in Morocco and am now at a loss for what to actually say about it. After that much time, it’s like somebody asking me to describe a color. Had I been updating all along, it’d be easier. But…
I intended to update the blog regularly on the int’l leg of this trip, as I did while I was in the US. That’s proved to be a bit more difficult than I thought. There’s a lot to do and see.. so I haven’t found myself in front of a computer very often. More importantly, the connections are often painfully slow and often, as in Morocco, the arrangement of letters and symbols on the keyboard often left me scratching my head or swearing. Not until I encountered a true Arabic keyboard did I realize how fast a typist (typer??) I am and how easy it seems to be to transcribe thought into words at home. On a western keyboard that is. In front of the new fangled ones, I freeze. Feels like I’m back in 8th grade typing class, staring at the keyboard instead of the computer, poking with forefingers or struggling through the non-qwerty arrangment, forcing me to stop every few letters, go back, delete and retype. Long story short: its tough getting it all out so I’ve just avoided it instead. For those of you that I have emailed with, sorry for the short and not so sweet notes. Now you know why.
But things are a bit better now. After 3 days in transit that took me through three different continents (Morocco to London to Delhi, India and then Nepal) I’m in Kathmandu and now praising Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi and all sorts of other gods ’cause I’m back in front of one of the good guy keyboards.
Anyhoo, grab some Raisinets, take a seat and prepare yourself for a mega hyper update on Morocco. Pardon me as I struggle to give you a glimpse.
As I jumped on a bus to Algeciras, the Spanish town from which I’d jump on a ferry to Morocco, I started getting nervous. Stories from other travelers about the horrors of Tangier, the port city through which I’d enter Africa, rattled through my head. All sorts of tales about hassles from scam artists and thieves to taxi drivers gouging you for exorbitant sums to people giving incorrect directions on purpose, possible bodily harm and all that. I wasn’t psyched. Most Euro travelers come through Tangier and Euro=$$ to scammers so it’s easy pickins for them. They just wait for the boats to arrive and pounce on the clueless. Or so I’d heard.
On the ferry, I met two Aussie girls who were even more freaked than I was. The stories about treatment of female travelers is apparently worse. Started feeling like we were about to storm the beaches at Normandy, or that, as we pulled into the dock, we were the Christians about to be released into the Colosseum..
It wasn’t as bad as I thought but wasn’t exactly hassle free. Figuring you have no idea what you’re doing (and correctly so), you get ‘help’ from all sorts of people, all looking to make some $. Taxi drivers tell you buses aren’t running to your destination, hoping you’ll pay the $100 fare they propose to get you where you’re going safely. Others say you can’t get where you’re going today and that you’ll have to stay the night. Just so happens they know a hotel.. Etc etc. Others just stare at you, trying to figure out why you’ve come. So, I pulled out my American flag and started waving it. Psyche. This was a taste of what I’d find throughout the country in varying intensities so I just had to get used to it.
Anyway, after a dramatic bit of back and forth jawing with a cabbie, I got to the bus station, determined to get to my final destination like everyone else. For those of you that thing a Greyhound bus station is seedy, come to Morocco. You’ll then kiss the ground at Greyhound. This place was mad. After realizing I was the only Westerner at this bus station and that I couldn’t actually read Arabic.. I just made myself look helpless ’til I heard a bus driver shouting Chaouen! Chaouen! That’s where I was going. So I bought a ticket and got on.
Before I continue, a little bit about the scene in Morocco. People called Berbers were the original inhabitants of this land but were driven into the mountains by invading Arab groups years ago. Today, almost the entire country is Muslim. Like most of the rest of North Africa, most of the people here look Arab, with lighter skin and different facial features than W, E and S Africa – the look most people (or maybe just me?) think of when they hear ‘Africa’. The Spanish and Moors (Arab groups) took turns invading each other and have left influences on either side of the Strait. The French established a Protectorate here 50-60 years ago and they’ve left a big mark as well – including the language which is spoken by many Moroccans as a second language behind Moroccan Arabic.
I just happened to enter Morocco near the beginning of Ramadan, the holy month of the Islamic calendar (my dumb luck). For nearly one full month, Muslims practice fasting during the day. At about 4:00 AM, they wake to eat a small traditional meal (the same meal the founding prophet Mohammed ate during his fast). For the next 14 or so hours, they abstain from eating, drinking (practicing Muslims don’t drink alcohol. The fast includes everything else – water etc), smoking or ‘fornicating’ (includes looking at females lustfully – which, by the accounts of a few Western women I met, does not seem to be off limits during other parts of the year). The water part is especially brutal as it’s often hot and sunny hear. You can see people starting to drag toward the end of the day. But you’ll never hear a complaint. In addition to cleansing the mind and body, they practice the fast to eliminate the difference between the privileged and the poor and to remind themselves of what the poor endure on a daily basis. During the fast, all are the same – suffering. An amazing unifying act for all Muslims. Most people avoid visiting this time of year because many businesses are closed down and things are a bit slower. But I eventually felt lucky to be there and to observe what is a very special and most significant time of year for them.(After having mint tea, the traditional drink consumed everywhere here, with a local, I learned that they also appreciate it when tourists respect what the ‘fasters’ are going through and avoid eating and drinking in front of them. Something I tried to observe while I was there.)
They break the fast just after 6PM (depending on the location of the sun, I think), a time announced by calls of prayer from the minarets across the country. At that time, they can resume all those things they gave up for the day. ‘Breakfast’ or ‘iftar’ as it’s actually called usually consists of harira (soup that comes in many forms), orange juice, milk, hardboiled egg, sometimes fried fish and the seemingly omni-present dates, olives and bread. After the ‘breakfast’ (which is usually eaten with family inside), towns come back to life and people come back out en masse to stroll through the streets, and sit at cafes, drinking coffee, smoking and laughing. Another meal, usually consisting of some sort of meat tagine (like an old school crockpot – a conical ceramic contraption that slow cooks veggies, chicken, goat, meatballs or whatever ya like), couscous or any of the other tasty traditional Moroccan dishes usually comes later in the evening. Fasting continues for 28 days and ends with a feast enjoyed amond family and friends. And everyone lets out a big sigh of relief..
Another important thing.. Morocco is a male dominated society. Men run the shops, drive the buses and taxis, do the haggling, dominate the cafes at night and are, in general, much more visible than women who are usually much more quiet, often out of sight (at home or taking care of family affairs?). It’s a bit odd to see coming from the US but I’ve come to learn that it’s the norm in those places I’ve visited so far in developing countries. The more progressive cities didn’t have such a pronounced division, but there’s plenty of traditional dress (including full burka covering) on women throughout the country.
The first town I visited, Chefchaoen, is in the north, in the Rif Mountains. The Spanish influence is huge here and most of the medina, or old city, is covered in white and various shades of cobalt blue giving it a beautiful glow (water is mixed with a brilliant blue powder from sea shells and diluted to various concentrations depending on the desired color). The colors are said to keep homes and alleys cooler in the intense sun. The town is relatively small and stuck into the side of the mountains, where hashish seems to be the major export. I was offered more weed here than in my 6 years living near Haight St. in SF. Sort of odd coming from Muslims but I’d learn that Berbers (many of whom inhabit Chefchaouen) have their own way of doing things. I learned they call it ‘Berber Aspirin’ – good for what ails the head..
In Chaouen, I was introduced to the market culture of Morocco. Produce, meat, handmade carpet, ceramic, woodwork, packaged food, leather and all sorts of other shops line the alleys and streets. Everyone is selling something. As in all tourist towns, locals cater to what they think tourists want and you end up with hundreds of the same kinds of stalls all offering the same thing. The tourist industry has also contributed to creating an aggressive pitch from locals who would make fantastic used car salespeople in the US. They’re the best you’ve ever seen. They’ve learned how to prey on kindness and are damn good at getting you into a position where you actually feel obligated to buy something. I’ve realized that it’s in most people’s nature to be nice to one another and those selling things here are expert at exploiting that idea. That unfortunately forces many tourists to develop a wall between themselves and the locals, where you often try to avoid conversation or sometimes even eye contact, let alone actually walking into a shop, thinking you’ll get roped into an uncomfortable situation you don’t know how to get out of. You end up thinking it’s best to just avoid the situation and end up dishing out a lot of ‘no thank-yous’ when you’d rather be talking to people in genuine conversation. There are plenty of nice people there that truly are just interested in getting to know you, but sadly, it seems to be the exception in the cities. Everyone’s gotta make a buck and the white people gots the bucks so I can’t blame ’em I guess.
I spent 4 days getting my bearings on all of this stuff in Chaouen. I met a ton of interesting people – Germans, locals and a few Aussie girls that give their home country a good name. Wandering aimlessly and confused through the medina on my first night in Morocco, these four girls were like a vision as they walked up the street toward me – Jess, Celeste, Alice and Lauren. They pointed me in the direction of the hostel they were staying in and we became pals over the next few days, giving me the lay of the land and some pointers on how shit works in Morocco. Unfortunately, after accepting an invitation for iftar from a local family in the hills outside of town, all four of them came down with somethin’ nasty that lasted for about a week. I sadly left them all fever’d and sickly looking on couches at the hostel when I left town. But our paths would cross again..
Shite. Internet cafe is closing. More in the next few days. Off to Pokhara, Nepal tomorrow and the beginning of a fat trek around Annapurna starting in a few days. No internet for the duration of that so will try to get caught up before then!