I’m back. This time in Pokhara, a little town northwest of Kathmandu.
For those of you wondering what the hell the photo is of in the previous post, here ya go. They’re buckets of soap and shampoo, made the old-fashioned way from animal fat, henna and other natural dyes. In addition to containers of spices (saffron, cinnamon, curry etc), olives, dried fruits and nuts (apricots, figs, almonds etc), you occasionally see this gooey looking stuff at the stalls in the marketplaces. Robin and tried it out at a hammam (traditional bathouse) while she visited me and it works surprisingly well. No need for chemicals..
Included in this photo to the right is one of the hundreds (maybe thousands in some cities) of mosque towers you see on the horizon in each town. It’s from these towers that the call to prayer, fast, breakfast etc are made multiple times throughout the day and night. Caught this image from atop a hotel one night. A helluva sunset.
As for the title “insha’allah”, that’ll take a little ‘splainin too. It basically means ‘if God wills’ in Arabic or ‘it’s up to God’ as we’d say. And you hear it all the time in Morocco. It’s the Muslim way of admitting you have no control over some things. ‘Would you like to buy something from my shop?’, ‘maybe on the way back through town later?’, ‘okay, insha’allah, insha’allah’. ‘Maybe you’ll stay at my hotel next time too?’, ‘insha’allah’.. Kind of a nice way of leaving it to a higher power. A great notion and one I’ve adopted when things get a bit stressful.
Anyway, back to the traveling through Morocco part. A few notes on animals that I find interesting: cats are considered sacred, dogs a nuisance and donkeys the most abused animals around. Cats are treated just like sacred cows in Hindu countries. They’re allowed to roam freely everywhere but are not cared for sadly (some are incredibly mangy and I’ll bet the avg. lifespan is about 7 months). Coming from the West, the dog situation is a bit sad. But only ’cause I’m so used to them sleeping on their own couches, being paraded around in little sweaters and kissed on the mouth by freak owners. In Morocco, they just exist. They root for garbage and are routinely kicked out of the way as people walk down the street. It’s sad because even in Morocco, dogs seem to instinctively want to please people, want to be a part of the pack and they exhibit the same sort of behavior that dogs do in the US (rolling over on their backs submissively for people, making weird howling noises when they want something etc) but they don’t get any love in return. Population control of all of these animals is definitely a problem. Bob Barker’d have his hands full here. But they have it easy compared to donkeys. Donkeys are truly the beast of burden here. One Berber guy told me they call them La Machina Berber meaning “the Berber machine”. They act like pick-up trucks, carrying anything and everything from place to place – produce, plate glass, sacks of cement, old bricks, and people, usually sitting side saddle and whacking the shit out of the poor animals with sticks – usually in the ears. After a while, I just wanted to run up to some of these owners and ask them to give their donkeys a freakin’ hug. How ’bout a little loving relationship with your buddy/work partner, huh?! Not exactly like the relationship of most horses and their doting owners in the US.. Donkeys are eeeevvveeerrryywhere in Morocco and at times, you’d think you were in Mexico or Central America, as they all have the same kind of colorful blankets covering their backs that you see in those countries. No Juan Valdez in sight here, though.
Anyway, back to recounting the actual day to day. I spent 4 days in Chefchaouen and one of those climbing nearby Jebel El Ka’allah, the highest peak in that area at about 5,800 – with amazing 360 degree views at the top. On the way down, after a bit of sun stroke that had me laying in the shadows of boulders swearing I was gonna die, I did a bit of bushwacking and took a path through the shade that was clearly not traveled very often. About halfway down, I saw two Barbary apes check me out for a while and then tear ass across the trail in in front of me. They’re apparently very elusive so that was a treat. Just like big capuchin monkeys. Also saw a guy cutting down what I assume to be a few groves of hashish plants (not that I’d know what they look like..) and some local homes inhabited by women wrapped in brightly colored sarongs and hauling tremendous loads around their property. Oh, and they asked me if I wanted hash too. No English words – just “hashish?”. Everyone’s in on it here.
Reminds me of the few hundred photos I had to abstain from taking. They’re not big on photography in Muslim countries especially in the country. In trying to respect that I wasn’t able to capture most of the photos I wanted to. Everywhere you look in this country, there’s something beautiful, crazy or just plain interesting, especially the faces, but unfortunately most of those images will have to live in my mind. I’m slowly uploading the ones I have taken but it takes forever so haven’t fixed them or added captions yet. Might just give up on that idea and take care of it when I get home. They’ll be pretty’d for a massive slide at some pt. Promise.
After getting my Moroccan bearings in Chefchaouen, I said goodbye to my unfortunately very food poisoned Aussie friends and made my way down Fes, a four hour bus ride to the South. There, I met Robin, one of my pals from San Francisco who’d flown in to hang with me on the road for the next 10 days. After 2+ months on the road away from SF, it was awesome to see her. After doing a bit of exploring and fending off the advances of some of the more aggro locals that night (everybody’s selling something and most don’t take no for an answer), we decided to hire a guide for the day and spent an entire day exploring the labyrinth of Fes. Abdul was an incredibly nice guy and spent 7 hours showing us the ins and outs of the town, keeping the touts at bay and introducing us to some of the lesser seen stuff we would have otherwise missed – medersas or theological colleges (including the oldest in the world- right in the middle of the city), tanneries where cowhide becomes a handbag (a nauseating but interesting process involving pigeon and cow shit among other things), ceramics workshops where young men chisel mosaic tiles one at a time the old fashioned way (there are thousands of tiled surfaces all over Morocco), carpet factories where young women spend months tieing yarn one string at a time on huge vertical looms creating pile carpets, others where men work horizontal looms which produce woven carpets, and what seemed like miles and miles of markets.
There are thousands of alleys twisting and turning throughout the city (every city in Morocco as I would later discover) with surprises around each corner – souks (markets) of varying type (food, crafts etc) butchers with live chickens (butchered to order in front of you) goat heads and nearly entire cow bodies (with testicles intact so people can be sure they’re not buying female cow meat – a no no that would contribute to the decline of the ‘producers’) hanging from hooks over the street, old men separating cloves of garlic one by one on the ground by hand into massive piles, other men repairing shoes with bent nails and broken tools, garbage strewn everwhere – some of which is occasionally set on fire to get rid of it, carts carrying freshly baked bread (usually thick rounds about 10″ across – eaten at most meals), sweets soaked in honey, and just about anything else you could imagine when you think of ‘Arabian Nights’ (by the way, all i want to do is watch the Disney movie ‘Aladdin’ when I go home..). It’s a total feast for the senses and is incredibly invigorating. I’ve realized that this is what I truly enjoy – just walking around and observing people doing what they do on a daily basis. The markets in each town seem to be the best places to do that. They’re crammed with people and are totally crazy. Tons of fun to just watch. I love it. Maybe ’cause I love food so much..
One evening, as Robin and I were wandering around aimlessly, thumbing through the Lonely Planet (a sure fire sign of Western cluelessness – one we learned usually invites trouble) trying to figure out where we were and where the nearest restaurant was, we were approached by a security guard that was working at the nearby hospital. He invited us to a little cafe on the grounds, one we’d never have seen otherwise, and full of local men. We sat down and enjoyed iftar with them, sitting in front of a table full of food, waiting for the call to break the fast. It felt like a very special moment to share with them. I’d come to see that image a few times in my time there – men sitting at cafes (women at home..), each at his own little table full of food. All with the same set up on each table and looking intense. Waiting, waiting for the call that would allow them to break the fast, rehydrate and eat. As soon as the call came, they dig in, creating a flurry of fingers, food and happiness.
From Fes, we headed down to Marrakech, the city most Westerners associate with Morocco. From Chefchaouen to Fes to Marrakech, the situation in each city became more and more intense. Marrakech is totally nuts. Because it’s the most visited by tourists, there are more people there involved in the tourist game. We had more than one person swear at us for refusing to accept their ‘help’ in finding our hotel, the bus station or whatever it was we were looking for. If you did accept it, they’d expect a hefty amount for their services so we learned to jus try to avoid them. Didn’t always work, though. One guy picked up garbage cans and threw them across the street, swearing and cursing in some pretty solid English. Another called me a nigger and actually stalked us for a while. Sort of odd as I was about the whitest guy around. All of that made it a bit hard to let your guard down as you can imagine.
I realize it sounds like I’m complaining quite a bit about Morocco and, honestly, for the first week or two I was. I wasn’t sure I liked Morocco and was sorta bummed about it. For some reason (maybe the Imperialist reputation of my home country??), I felt a bit weird about entering a Muslim country and always felt a bit on edge at the beginning, a bit intimidated.
But then, miraculously, at about day 10, it all just clicked. I just got it. I understood Morocco. I understood why some Moroccans acted so aggressively (tourism and individual tourists with $$, like me, create some of these problems – not the other way around), wasn’t bothered by the clouds of diesel fumes or piles of the piles of garbage, the hygiene and sanitation (lets talk about squat toilets some other time..) that seems primitive by Western standards or any of it. People around the world just live differently. The way we live in the US seems bizarre to them and I can’t say they’re wrong about some things. We all just do things a bit differently and we’re all brought up thinking that the way we do things is right. So, I forgave myself for judging at first and started to embrace it all. From that point on, I actually enjoyed all of it. I enjoyed it when people approached me trying to sell me something. I enjoyed throwing the verbal shit right back at ’em and I learned that they enjoy it (some will tell you that Moroccans actually enjoy arguing), I enjoyed haggling over taxi and hotel prices (and learned how to end up at a price both can be happy with), and enjoyed the way of interacting that many of them see as playful, and many of us might see as aggressive.
The most important thing I’ve learned (or been reminded of) is how much the West ‘has’. We get very caught up in the idea of always gaining, getting more stuff – $$, house, promotion etc. And many of us think we’re behind. Hang out in any developing country for a while and you’ll learn that, as my friend Jen Snyder once said, “you have 99.9% more than the rest of the world” – whether you realize it or not. You gotta be thankful for living where you live – even if you don’t agree with all of the shit that happens in your country – or in other countries by those running yours.. Americans are incredibly lucky, but are also mostly completely ignorant of that. And just because we don’t see it all on the surface, we can be incredibly wasteful and vain. In Morocco, as in many other developing countries, what you see is what you get. It’s all right there on the surface – the dirt, the poverty etc. What you see is the real deal – raw and true. In the US and a lot of other places, our garbage (the water bottles and plastic bags that litter the streets and countryside here) is trucked miles away, dirt is scrubbed from our streets, homeless people often end up in some sort of care etc. What we see on the surface is not usually the way things ‘really’ are. In other places, survival comes first, and unfortunately sanitation and environmental concerns come second. That’s just the way it is.
Okay, rant over. That felt kinda nice. Back to traveling. From Marrakech, Robin and I rented a car and tackled the maniacal roads and drivers of Morocco. We first stopped in a little town called Imlil, where we stayed at a renovated Kasbah and laid on the roof of our room, watching the stars for hours in what was probably the most brilliant show of lights I’ve ever seen (no light pollution for miles). We headed East into the stunning Atlas mountains, through rust, red, orange, neutral and near purple looking hills dotted with green trees through towns like Ait Benhaddou, El Kala’a M’Gouna, fantastic valleys and into the Todra Gorge. There we met a Berber man named Ali and, after falling in love with this guy (in a purely heterosexual brotherly way of course..) spent the night with his family. His younger brother led us on a tour of the palm tree studded valley at the foot of their home which the entire community farms, each family with its each little plot for potatoes, alfalfa for the mules, carrots, tomatoes, dates etc. We enjoyed iftar with them in their tiny 9’x10′ room where they all seemed to sleep. Ali then broke out hand drums and we all sat around for hours following his lead through all sorts of African beats, while his friends filed in one at a time to say hello to the visitors and join in on the music. His mother didn’t speak a lick of English but was probably the sweetest person I’ve ever seen. Weather face, one visible tooth and a gigantic smile wrapped in sarong. She laughed and clapped along the entire time – looking at Robin and just laughing hysterically. I think they bonded.. They then taught Robin how to make chicken tagine and we sat out on the terrace of their little property looking out over the valley with the stars above. A very cool night and some sad goodbyes the next morning.
On our way back to Marrakech, we ran into a guy from Australia that I’d met in Fes days earlier. We gave him a lift to the next town and agreed to meet up again in a nearby town (Oarzazate) after Robin flew out the next day from Marrakech. Chris and I spent the next week eating and laughing our way (skinny bastard ate more and faster than I did – an idea I thought impossible previously) through the Atlas mountains (including climbing the highest peak in North Africa, Jebel Toubkal, at 4167 meters – ~13000′ – where we met and hung out with some great people including a Brit couple, Keith and Susan, that we bonded with after a 4 hour hike in the wrong direction through snow and all sorts of boulder-y treachery).
We rounded out my travels through Morocco in a little relaxing seaside town called Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. Spent 4 days enjoying the festivities that accompany the end of Ramadan, watching families come together for the final feast and the subsequent joy that comes with resuming life as usual. Twenty eight days of fasting during sunlight. Not sure I could do it..
From there, we headed back to Marrakech for one final night, reuniting with two of the four very sweet Aussie girls (Alice, 18, and Lauren, 26 – sisters traveling together for 6 months)I’d met in Chaouen way back when for a meal in the Djemma el Fna, the town square which is littered with snake charmers, storytellers, women hawking henna tattoos, traditional music and dancing, boiled goat heads, snail soup and a ton of other crazy delicacies.
After a bit of frustration at the beginning, I was truly sad to say goodbye to Morocco.
From Morocco, I jumped on a plane to London, where I stayed for a night with another Brit couple I’d met in Morocco, David and Helen, who treated me like family, picking me up at the subway stop, making me dinner and taking me out to a local pub for some tasty craft ale.. Good people. Thanks, guys. I’ll return the favor anytime – wherever the hell I end up.
From London, I flew to Dehi for two nights. Delhi is nutser than Morocco. Much nutser. I’ll save that one for another post. From there to Kathmandu for two days, followed by Pokhara where I am now. Tomorrow, I’m heading out for a three week trek around the Annapurna range. I’ve decided to go solo w/o a guide or porter for a bit of solo time. Supposedly an easy trail to follow and there should be tons of other trekkers out there so no worries. That and I can’t get used to the idea of paying someone to carry my shit. It’s my shit. Why shouldn’t I carry it??