Monday, July 27, Fez, Morocco

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My second lifetime attempt at a selfie. Why I’m sitting in the Fez train station taking a picture of myself will be explained below. The yellow tape is binding an expensive painting I bought in Essaouira by a well known Moroccan artist, Mohammed Tabal. You can look at his images on Google. 

This will seem like a depressing entry but I assure you I’m in good spirits despite a series of discouraging events.

It started when I put my trousers on this morning in my room in the Rabat medina. The realization came to me that I’d gained weight on this trip so far. That has never happened to me on a summer trip. This means my blood pressure will be elevated throughout the school year with all sorts of health implications. Not good news.

Last night I went on Airbnb and requested a room in Fez. The place had only two reviews, one positive, the other ambivalent. The latter party said there had some confusion about the fee for the room either because of a miscommunication (the landlady didn’t speak English but her daughter did) or because the lady was trying to hint for some added money beyond what she advertised on the site. The location was ideal and the price acceptable so I ignored any doubts and asked for a booking. I got back an odd message. Was I alone; and what did I expect to pay? The second question made no sense since the price was clearly printed on the Airbnb site. I replied, noting the posted cost. There was no reply by the time I went to bed, nor was there anything when I woke in the morning.

At the Rabat train station I located some untrustworthy wifi, good enough for me to determine that I’d gotten no confirmation of my reservation. I emailed the lady before my train left. When we got to Fez I got a confusing message that I ultimately determined to say, “Please find somewhere else to rent”. I can only surmise that the lady had been hinting for some additional cash, which I, of course, declined to proffer.

That left me with no place to stay in Fez. But there were dozens of other Airbnb listings (and I could have easily found a cheap hotel in the medina). I requested a place, and waited for a reply. It took two and a half hours before I got a confirmation. But my troubles weren’t over. The medina in Fez is renowned as the most difficult to navigate in the Arabic world. Without specific directions to my place I had to sit tight. Send me directions, I emailed my putative host. There was no reply for nearly an hour. Adding to my woes was the fact that I was dependent on the wifi of a little restaurant in the station, a signal that seemed to weaken as the day lengthened. I wasn’t certain that the directions–if they ever came–would show up on my phone. And there is always the worry that my battery will die before I get the email.

At 5:30 the directions came; but that wasn’t the end of the story. For some reason the text message was truncated.

“Take a taxi to the medina and get off at the square near the post office. From there take…….”.

That was all that showed. I nervously answered with another request. Could you email me the directions? I was sure this would take another hour, but, thankfully, two minutes later I had all I needed. But that was merely the good news of a very bad situation because, you see, I noticed a text message from TMobile right after the message from my host.

You’ve been paying exorbitant (my word) roaming fees, it said, don’t you want to stop them? Apparently somewhere on my trip I’d hit some button that opened me to a stunning bill. I can’t bring myself to tell anyone how much it was. Suffice to say that it depressed the hell out of me.

After absorbing that shock I went out front and negotiated a reasonable fare for a trip to the medina. Within a half hour I was safely ensconced in my dorm room.

But more misery awaited.

In the cool of the evening I sallied out for an exploratory walk through a portion of the medina. After about twenty minutes of wandering I found myself negotiating a jam-packed trip through endless shops selling oils, dates, clothing, ceramics, rugs, fresh orange juice, jewelry, restaurant meals, plants, vegetables, fruits, meat, and just about anything you can think of.

In other words a typical moroccan medina.

And as many times as I’ve made similar journeys there is always the unsettling realization that most of these people are eking out a living that barely sustains them. IOW they are poor; and I am relatively wealthy. Any sensible merchant in this compressed universe would feel some anger at the many tourists who look, but don’t buy. Which is most of us. One or two sales in a ten hour day would be, from my observation, typical. It’s a lot of rejection to handle. And too little income to live on.

So when I saw four young tourists fleeing one importuning guy–and doing it with archetypical contempt–I wasn’t surprised when I heard the guy cursing the departing visitors.

But then he turned to me and began importuning me. I was tired. I was depressed about the lost phone money. I was conscious that I’d already spent a great deal of money on this trip. I wanted nothing of whatever he was offering. But he refused to take no for answer. He was in my face trying to dislodge some of my hard earned dinars. I tried my best to walk past him without saying anything but he was ultra-persistent, more so than anyone I’d heretofore met in Morocco. His only rival in my experience were some guys in the Dakar airport trying to carry my bag.

Then he began cursing me. And following me.

I tried dashing into one of the stalls to buy some sun screen.

He was waiting for me when I completed my purchase. The guys in the stall tried to help me; they sat the guy down and tried to convince him to leave me alone. They told me that this guy was a regular and that he often harassed tourists, trying to get fees as a medina guide.

I tried ignoring him, but just then I realized he was right behind me kicking me in the back of my feet. I darted into another stall. This place was similarly sympathetic to my problem. The guy tried to reassure me:  “Don’t worry. This place has good security, nobody can hurt you.” But I wasn’t mollified. I consented to check out the guys store, which was well stocked with the usual things, clothes, jewelry, ceramics. Guiltily I examined what they had knowing I had no intention of buying anything. I’m certain the proprietor thought I’d purchase something out of gratitude for his harboring me. I swear he looked chagrined when I fled, finally–hoping my pursuer was gone.

But he wasn’t. Within a minute or two he reappeared. He insisted I shake his hand, which I did. Then he asked for ‘a tip’. Now I was more frightened than ever. I refused the bribe and ducked into still another stall. This time I was able to leave the store and get close to my dormitory before he found me again. I bought some fresh orange juice from a vendor and asked for refuge in his little restaurant. The restaurant owner shielded me, saying he knew the guy to be, essentially, bad news.

Finishing my oj I sped toward my dorm. Safety. And the end of a long day.

Tomorrow I hope to go on a one day tour of local ruins.

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Sunday, July 26, Rabat, Morocco

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The narrow alleyway’s of the Kasbah in Rabat.

I played the tourist in Rabat today visiting the beach, the kasbah, the medina, and the Roman ruins.

There are several nice beaches here but the best places to swim are in the river that divides Rabat from it's sister city, Sales.
There are several nice beaches here but the best places to swim are in the river that divides Rabat from it’s sister city, Sales.
In the second century BC this place was the capital of a Roman province.
In the second century BC this place was the capital of a Roman province.

The most common form of dress hereabouts (excepting the traditional islamic furnishings) are baseball caps with the logo of the New York Yankees. I must have seen 50 guys sporting this headgear; and I saw many such in Marrakech, too. Oddly the most common printed tee shirt is from Franklin and Marshall College. Since F&M is Gettysburg’s number one rival I find this particularly strange.

Tomorrow i head for Fez.

Saturday, July 25, Rabat, Morocco

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A cliffside prehistory drawing that we saw during our trip.

My terrific seven-day tour is over, I’m on my own again. We finished up back in Marrakech this morning. I did a terrible job of saying goodbye to my new friends at breakfast but that is the way things are with these experiences. We got quite close over a week of shared meals and joint suffering at the hands of Morocco’s heat, but our friendship is ephemeral. I doubt I’ll ever see any of them again.

I took a morning train to Rabat, the Moroccan capital and now occupy an Airbnb home in the medina. I can’t exactly express my wonderment at where I find myself. I lounged on the terrace of my host’s home, overlooking the narrow boulevards of this ancient place. Since we are less than a mile from the Atlantic it’s cool here. Like just about every other Moroccan city this one is dominated by the walled medina with it’s pulsing masses of folks trying to make their way through endless little shops. Just being here is exciting. I’m scheduled to spend two days here so I should be able to get a feel for the place. Lonely Planet doesn’t particularly like Rabat because so much of the city is beholden to politics. But the little bit I saw this evening seems enticing.

Rabat (like Marrakech) is growing outward. New apartment buildings spring up almost daily. The new neighborhoods look very middle class with supermarkets and shiny automobiles and clean shops that contrast sharply with the chaos of the medina. Our guide explained it concisely. Young moroccans don’t stay in the villages and small cities of the interior. There are no jobs there. Instead they migrate to a handful of conurbations like Casablanca (over 5 million), Marrakech (one million), and Rabat. You could say it’s Apple’s fault. The lure of cellphones and refrigerators and indoor plumbing demands hard cash. You can’t find that kind of moolah in the hinterland, so country kids become big city shopkeepers and bureaucrats.

One question I meant to ask but forgot:  the tallest building in all these cities is a mosque. I assume this is tradition or fiat, but the result is the same. Moroccan cities can’t expand upward so they spread laterally gobbling up farmland and the habitat of plants and animals. The skyscraper doesn’t seem to exist in Morocco (though I may have seen some in Casablanca a couple years ago, I’m not sure). Our guide said Morocco has a population of 30 million. By contrast Australia has 21 million. From what I can see on the streets the birthrate is robust. I wonder if there is an environmental price to pay in a country where you can’t build tall buildings.

Friday, July 24, Essaouira, Morocco

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Our group on the penultimate evening of our tour. Tomorrow we sleep in Marrakech.

If you ever get a chance to visit Morocco this is the city to see, cosmopolitan, cool (in both senses of the word), with wonderful shops. Every moroccan artist seems to have some work displayed here. Our guide says we are here in the slow season, that spring and fall are when this place is packed.

To get here we drove through Agadir, a frenetic, off-putting metropolis that I could have easily skipped. Next stop, Wednesday night, was a small seaside village. I was really looking forward to that since our guide told us we’d be bedding down in a tent near the ocean. What happened there was my most dramatic moment of this summer. The details are quite indelicate. You might want to skip this part:

To get to our tent we had to first endure a three hour walk in the blazing afternoon sun. Just to make things more interesting the guide hired a camel driver to accompany us. Originally the camel was supposed to take our bags but we couldn’t find him so the bags went with our van driver while we walked. The camel showed up 15 minutes into our trip, just early enough to strew our route with excrement that had to be dodged.

By the time we reached our destination we were all haggard. I chugged down some sort of soda that we bought at a roadside shop–something I would live to regret. At the tent we sat and had tea–another mistake for me. But then we finally got a chance to walk over to the beach for a half hour of body surfing. Wonderful. Last order of the day was dinner; moroccan soup and tajina. It was only at this point that I began to sense something was very wrong.

I was lying sprawled on a rectangular cushion, finishing my soup, when I realized that my insides were in turmoil. My thoughts immediately turned to that green bottle of soda, which I’d selected as the nearest thing to caffeine-free Sprite. No doubt, I realized, this was anything but sans caffeine. And the tea, I’d learned, had some caffeine, too. I needed a bathroom…..fast. The only one was up the hill in a little shack, a squat toilet with a small sink. I smiled to my fellow travelers and tried to quietly remove myself as quickly as possible. But when I got to the WC it was occupied. And outside the door were about eight jovial Moroccan guys who were apparently reprising the day’s events. I couldn’t really explain to them my problem so I just grinned and tried to grip my loins together to prevent disaster.

It didn’t work. As I stood there I realized I’d already lost the game. I could feel the trickle of excrement trailing down the inside leg of my swim trunks. I grinned some more. Finally the door opened. How could I step into this place without depositing my waste at the feet of these guys?

Somehow I managed that. But that was just the beginning of my woes. I had to get my trunks off without losing anything, then position myself over the small opening in the floor. My aim was not terrific (I haven’t used such a toilet in 8 years). I managed to get about 70% on target. The rest I pushed into the requisite entrance with the aid of a bucket of water in the corner.

But my bum was clotted with shit and there was no toilet paper. (I didn’t know you were supposed to bring your own). How could I get myself cleaned up? And what was I to do with my stained swim trunks? And how get by those guys outside without humiliating myself?

I used the water bucket and my left hand to clean my rear end, not perfect but reasonably clean. But then I faced the trial of putting my trunks back on.

The only saving grace I could think of was that I’d seen some guys washing the sand off their feet behind the WC at a hose bib. If I could get there the darkness (it was now past 10pm) and the water might provide a way out of this mess. I gingerly put back on my trunks and walked (grinning again) out past the eight moroccan guys. They looked at my quizzically. No doubt they’d heard my filling and refilling the water bucket and wondered what the devil I was doing in there. But no one said anything as I furtively headed for the back of the WC building.

Off came my trunks. On came the hose bib as I desperately tried to re-clean myself and at least dilute the excremental chunks on my clothing. It took a while but, by repeated dunking the trunks in a water bucket and by redoing my anal passage I got myself back to presentable shape. Just before I got my trunks back on one of the moroccan guys came around the corner with a flashlight. What he thought I was doing I can’t attest. He said something to me like: “You can come around and use it now, it’s OK.” I didn’t dare ask him what he meant. Instead of donned my trunks and set off down the hill.

I slunk past my fellow travelers to the van and grabbed alternate clothing to wear to bed, then I washed my hands again in the warm soapy water we had outside the tent. My tourmates suspected nothing as far as I could tell. I sprawled out on my cushion and tried to sleep.

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A corner of the medina in Essaouira.
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You’d think it would be cool walking here, overlooking the Atlantic, but it was fiercely hot, at least 39C until we reached the tents right by the water.

Monday, July 20, Tafrout, Morocco

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The inside of a 12th century mosque that we visited today.

We did little but travel today, descending from the Atlas Mountains down to the vast coastal plain that abuts the Atlantic Ocean. I set a personal record today, however. The 45 degrees Celsius temperature in Tourndant is the hottest place I’ve ever been. That’s 113 F.

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The view looking down into the river valley that we followed as we descended out of the mountains.

Sunday, July 19, Ouirkane Valley, Morocco

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Yesterday we drove out to this valley where we packed up our things on mules and headed up this road to our lodgings.
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Some of our group going down the mountain, Courtney on the far right, our guide front left.

We are about 90 minutes southwest of Marrakech now, in the Atlas Mountains. I can’t say we’re exactly roughing it. The food is great, the rooms are comfortable, the companionship is pleasant.

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The common room of our lodgings.

This morning we set out on a hike down that same road to a fairly remote village. What fascinated me was the salt manufacturing. It was as if we’d transported ourselves back 1,000 years. A well is dug near the river. At about 40 feet down there is a layer of soil that is highly sodic apparently. Since it’s near the river that is salty water down there. The villagers dip their leather buckets in the well and extract this water, which they fling into holding pens

Here's a man drawing water from his well.
Here’s a man drawing water from his well.
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Here are the holding pens. It takes about five days for the sun to evaporate the water leaving the salt residue.

They bag the salt and transport it to Marrakech for sale.

I noticed while we were there that there was an electrical transmission line directly above our heads. I wondered why they’d never used electricity to cut down on the manual labor and perhaps increase production; or perhaps get a small generator to help lift the water out of the well.

The economics of salt don’t allow for such, I was told. As a basic commodity it yields a very low price, hence it makes no sense to spend money on gasoline or generators or electricity. There’s no way to recoup the cost.

Thus these folks are doing things exactly as their grandparents and great grandparents did them.

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The finished product.

Saturday, July 18, Marrakech

We haven’t left yet but I must relate the story of my Australian roommate.

He wasn’t at our introductory dinner last night due to a flight delay. What I didn’t know at the time–well, there was much I didn’t know–was that he was to be my roommate. There were two beds in my room but it never occurred to me that Lonely Planet had doubled us up. I had all my things sprawled across the extra bed as I sat on my side surfing the net and listening to Dave Brubeck on my headphones. I was enjoying my first taste of air conditioning on this trip, clad only in my swim trunks.

At about eleven o’clock I heard a loud pounding at my door, loud enough to override the music. I thought for a moment to cover myself up before opening the door but decided instead to present myself to whoever it was quasi- au naturel. 

I was nonplussed when I found a tall, blonde woman bearing a backpack smiling in my doorway.

“I guess I’m your new roommate,” she said buoyantly.

The first thing I thought about was my bare chest, and general lack of covering. But I managed to stammer out a friendly greeting and welcome her into my/our inner sanctum. I hastily moved all my things off the second bed.

“My name is Courtney,” she told me. It took a couple minutes for me to process the situation.

“Courtney,” I thought to myself. Of course, a suitably unisex name to confuse the Lonely Planet computer. They think she’s a he!

“I don’t have any problem with this,” she informed me straight away.

I was delighted. I couldn’t think of a better gift than to have a roommate for this trip instead of my usual isolation. I went on a multi-day tour in Albania a few years ago with some young folks and I was never able to make friends because of the natural tendency of the younger people to bond. This roommate thing would be my ticket to incorporation.

But I underestimated the organizational oversight of LP. Within ten minutes of Courtney’s arrival there was another knock on the door. She answered. I heard some muffled conversation, then she returned to her bed. Moments later, another knock. This time I can see Omar in the doorway. He’s apologizing, I can’t tell what Courtney is saying. Will she persuade them to give her her own room…and leave me bereft? I’m betting that three rooms (the Danish couple, Courtney, me) will wreck the group’s budget. LP’s desire to make a profit on this gig is my one hope.

“What’s the situation,” I ask her as she returns from her Omar talk.

“I guess you and I will have separate rooms on this trip,” she tells me. But I also gather that we’ll be a pair for one night. Courtney is, understandably, non-voluble after her long flight from Sydney. I don’t know if her terseness is from being tired or from being put off by this odd arrangement. I turn the light out and we retire.