Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tales of Morocco 666: "Traveling As A Woman in Morocco...The Good, The Bad, and the Rude"

January 29th, 2008
The craziness of Marrakesh, Djemaa El Fna

So it's about time I say a few words about women in Moroccan society. The short and the skinny of it is this: I have read that the past forty years have brought about incredible changes and opportunities for Moroccan women: voting rights, custody rights, inheritance, educational opportunities and so on. Many women now enjoy the opportunity to go to college and study abroad and don Western apparel.

That said, Morocco is still a man's world. Everywhere we've traveled, the male species dominates the landscape. It is men who are the taxi drivers, the business owners, men who pray in the mosques, men who are the cooks in the food stalls, the merchants in the carpet stores, the emloyees at hotels and internet cafes. It is men who are smoking cigarettes and drinking "Berber Whiskey" (otherwise known as some seriously caffeinated mint tea) in the streetside cafes. It is men hanging out in the restaurants and boys who play soccer in the alleyways.We have had very little opportunity to meet women here. I can count on my hands the few women we have seen who were involved in the economic sectors of working class society: a women making bread for us this morning on our street, a women at our hotel in Marrakesh, two women working at two internet places I've seen now, one female waitress. All of the cleaning staff at our hotels have been composed of women and we were told on no uncertain terms by one manager when we requested that our shower drain be fixed, that it was for the maid to solve, as it was "woman's work."

We did meet two young, Westernized Moroccan women on our train to Marrakesh who wore quite stylish clothes and were savvy travelers. They'd both spent many years living in Europe and had returned for work in Morocco. I asked them if they noticed any differences between being women here and in Europe. They said, they didn't notice any differences at all.

If you ask me, I think that's a load of s**t.
While upperclass Moroccan women may be enjoying the new opportunities that the 21st century are bringing them, I think that the newest liberties women have won in this country affect the working class last. Most women in the countryside and much of the cities, are limited to a narrow range of jobs and roles. I believe that, with time, all of these conditions for women will improve.

What It's Like To Be A Foreign Woman Here (under 50)

The last 24 hours have been challenging for both Mom and I. We had heard such a wide range of experiences among people who have traveled to Morocco about how women travellers are treated, everything from "Moroccan men are the most aggressive in the world" to "You won't have any problems at all; Moroccan men have changed in the past twenty years and they won't bother you at all."

As always, the truth lies a bit in between. We've met many incredibly helpful and respectful men over the past two weeks since we arrived...from random acts of kindness on the train to men at our hotels who have given us advice about where to find the best beans and chicken brochettes in all of Oarzazate.

That said, unfortunately, there are still several assholes around. It seems like last night we must have been wearing "asshole perfume" because we seem to have attracted every one of them in this square kilometer.

Granted, we're in the heart of the crazy swirl of the city: the medina where thousands of Moroccans and That said, Mom and I are dressed respectfully, head to toe, in long skirts, long-sleeved shirts and jackets, scarves, minimal make-up and jewelry. I could easily pass for a Berber if it weren't for my Western dress and water bottle. (Most women here wear headscarves, some have Western dress with jeans and stylish leather boots, and a rare few are completely covered in Burkas).

*(On an hourly basis, occasional remarks are made towards me of "you're so beautiful" or "where you from," are made to me which I've become quite good at ignoring. But every now and then, the attention becomes harassment and Mama Chihuahua and Hija de la Chihuahua are born!)

One completely tweaked guy came up to us and tried to push hash on us in a smarmy kind of way, another guy shortly thereafter started following me and saying lascivious things in Spanish (they think that they're awfully clever guessing that I must be Spanish) until I turned and told him off in Arabic. Mom backed me up when she caught up with me and still he mocked both of us. Screwing his face up and imitating us, but at least he left us alone.

A bit later in the night as we headed into a small local shopping mall, a Moroccan man got much too close to me and start whispering things in my ear. I completely snapped.

"Sir Fhalek!" I shouted angrily.

It was such an instinctual reaction to having my personal space invaded more and anger at being treated like I'm a prostitute. Mom caught up with me and stepped towards him saying tersely, "What do you think you are doing?! What do you think you are doing?!"

What was amazing (and continues to be so) is that, although it's apparent she is my mother, he didn't show her or me any respect by backing down or apologizing.

It only made him angrier and more aggressive. The three of us were standing toe to toe with each other in the middle of this mall. I was seething that he could be so thoughtless and rude and aggressive and clueless. I could also sense that one of us was about to step up the confrontation another notch and it was on the edge of becoming an actual physical brawl.

Mom took a step towards him to let him know that Mama Chihuahua isn't about to take any s**t from some asshole Moroccan dude, but instead, she misjudged the distance and stepped on his feet, inflaming him more. His energy became more hostile and he started towards her.

Mama still didn't back down and I remained there as well. I so wanted to just punch him in the guts. I was so pissed off and high with adrenaline and the empowerment of anger.

By some miracle, he backed off and slunk away into the bowls of the mall. We watched for him the rest of the night. My heart rate was racing and I was still upset when we got home, my mind racing with so many questions.

"How can a man treat a women like that?" Do they think that women like to be talked to like we're prostitutes? Would he ever treat a Moroccan women like that?

I woke up completely inflamed with the empowered adrenaline that only intolerant an extreme case of PMS can bring on. I sat in bed imagining the ways I could crack his face over my knee, jam my foot into his groin, or just humiliate him in front of a large crowd of his peers.

Mom later said that she could tell people were watching and that she noticed an older Moroccan man who looked as if he was preparing to intervene and possibly help us.

The thing is, I know that there are jerks everywhere. I know women get harrassed all around the world. We just happen to have stumbled on to a denser concentration of assholes last night on our walk through the medina.

Being here with Mom has made me reflect a lot on what it is to be a woman. The harassment I would get here would be a lot worse if I were alone. It's a little less when I am with her. When Steve arrives (which we look forward to on all levels, aside from his wonderful companionship!) we know that a lot of this harassment will lessen.

Still it makes me think of women around the world and how, if I have a son one day, I'm going to god***m teach him to respect his mother, sisters, and the women of the world.

So wherever you are, feel fortunate that you know good men who treat women well!
I know that we will continue to meet wonderful people here, both men and women. Morocco, like the world, I believe, is full of them.

I'm just grateful to be a woman who knows my own worth and I hope to, in whatever way I can, help other woman realize and fight for their own worth, too!

And for those of you who have read this far, yes, we are safe and yes, we will be fine! Please don't worry about us- Plus my knight in shining armor (or at least lots of fleece and a big backpack) will be arriving to relieve us soon.... :-)

Rachel and Karen


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Tales of Morocco 5: "Riding Camels in the Sahara"

January 27th!
Ourzazate, Morocco

Trip Into the Desert and Gorges of Southeastern Morocco

After many days touring the imperial cities of Morocco, Mom and I agreed that it was time to finally see more of the Moroccan countryside and the Sahara...a long cherished dream of mine! We booked a three-day excursion (the cheapest three days of our trip so far...only $125/person including everything but lunch) with a backpacker organization to travel through the desert, gorges, and see Erg Chebbi, the only true moving sand dunes of the Sahara in Morocco.

We were fortunate to be with an incredibly jolly group of young Kiwi girls (chronically giggly, under-dressed for the weather but ever jolly), Argentians, two young Italians who were constantly either drinking coffee, chain-smoking, or drinking beer and snapping photos and making jokes, two Americans (only the second Americans we've met here in over two weeks), an Englishman, and a Japanese girl. Mom was the oldest in the group and much respected by the end of our time together. Traveling through remote areas, sharing food together, and camping are a bonding experience for sure and after several days with them, our respect and admiration for them all was only heightened! Traveling seems to create accelerated bonds in ways much more different and intimate than meeting people in our 'normal' lives.

It is true that to know a country, you must really see the landscapes which shape its people. (The landscape is so stunning and magnificent here that several films have all been shot here....Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, Kundun, Mummy 1 and 2, Jewel of the Nile, The Ten Commandments, and so on. One movie studio near here has tours of the movie sets and just recently wrapped up a new BBC series based on "The Passion.")

Although we've seen the medinas, mosques, and souks of some of Morocco's famed cities, we have been even more moved by it's incredibly changing landscapes....we journeyed over a high mountain pass onto a high desert plateau framed by several different mountain chains, driving up into gorges and valleys where magic-castle looking villages sprung up from the landscape matching the rocks in gritty sandstone textures and hues. At times, the rocks were a shocking Sedona red and would shift into more subtle shades of cinnamon and toast, more reminiscent of the Big Bend landscape on the Texan/Mexican border. In some places, the sandstone had worn down into giant phallic shapes like the whimsical hoodoos in the Moab, Utah area.

Within these valleys and gorges rose small Berber villages (although Morocco is considered an Arab country, it is largely Berber influenced, over 50 percent of Moroccans proudly claim Berber heritage and many speak one of the several Berber dialects as their first language...some of the most handsome men and women we've ever seen...a mixture of Arab, Berber, and African colors and features). Between small river-irrigated fields of wheat, alfalfa, brussel sprouts, and occasional mint and garlic patches, were orchards of trees and palms. I can only imagine how the valleys burst with color in the spring when the trees are in full bloom!

During the days here, the sun can be mercilessly intense but as soon as the sun descends beyond the canyon walls, we have to wrap ourselves up in layers of long underwear, fleece, and warm hats. The nights are brutally cold. The desert is a land of such contrasts, but especially in its temperature ranges.

On the first night in Dades Gorge, along a small mountain-fed river...which is the lifeblood of these agricultural communities...we feasted on moist and fluffy couscous, bowls of hot soup, and fresh orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon. We discussed the merits of Fanta and how much the Kiwi girls preferred it to any other soft drinks when they travel. They told us stories of riding with goats on a local bus in Mozambique, of getting in mud fights in the rainforests of Kenya, and getting chased by a drugged-out guy who kept squeezing his fingers together saying, "Come here my babies!"

Mom and I were much inspired by the Kiwi clan and how cheerful they always were, they never complained of the cold, being sleepless, hungry, or irritated by harassment. Ellie--who was hospitalized for something like Malaria when she first got to Kenya--has a dream of going to medical school and returning to Africa to work in under-privileged areas (pick about any place in Africa and that'll do it). Mom couldn't imagine the fortitude that their parents must have when they hear their stories from abroad. We're always inspired to see other women taking risks and seeing the world with such idealism and positivity.

Sands of the Sahara

After Dades Gorge, we made our way towards the Algerian Border near the frontier town of Merzouga. Located just outside of Merzouga are the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, which to me, represented to the beginning of the Sahara which I've imagined for years (although not all of the Sahara is composed of sand and dunes it's what I've most associated with this vast desert).

As we made our way across the desert plateau through these small towns, we began to see small groups of camels foraging for vegetation and beyond them, the sands of the Sahara rising up out of the earth like undulating masses inflamed in the setting sun. I was so excited to finally see them that I was beside myself.

We drove off-road for quite a while to a camp where our camels awaited us to take us deeper into the desert. I absolutely loathe horse-back riding but there's something so magical about being on a camel, they're such other-worldly creatures, the way their knees bend backwards, the way they can crane their necks backwards to watch you like menacing dragons, and the way their feet settle into the sand with each step like bags of pudding spilling outward....I just love them! Many of us had been on camels before except one of the Kiwi girls who yelped as she was pitched forward and back quite severely when they camel 'uncouched' or stood up (it's quite a strange way of standing up much unlike anything you can be prepared for and requires good balance to stay on).

We sang and bantered with one another as we made our way across the sands of the Sahara. The sun was setting and the sands and sky became a brilliant deep rust and turquoise, the shadows deepening with each minute. The sands are so incredibly gorgeous, undulating like the soft curves of a woman's body, always changing in light but never in texture.

That night we arrived in a small Berber camp circled by camel-hair tents. When darkness set in, the sky was brilliant with stars and a few satellites. We all hiked up one of the dunes and several of us witnessed a huge shooting star, sparkling and dissipating like a breathtaking firework. Mom and I sat there blissfully in the dark on the warm sand which now covered our hands and settled into our clothes, below us were the content sounds of camp, a few young children playing and laughing with their parents from a nearby Berber family, birds singing after dusk, and the clanking of pots from our 'kitchen' where they were preparing dinner for us. I could have stayed there for days just watching the sands, walking with the camels, and studying the sounds and smells of the desert, its ever-changing moods.

Our Berber guide, Ali, (a remarkable and rather entertaining polyglot who kept us entertained for hours that night) called us all down onto the communal carpet in between our tents. We wrapped ourselves up in thick blankets to ward off the cold. He and another Berber, Salim, brought out trays of the most perfect mint tea I've yet had, and Ali fashioned wonderful candle lanterns out of cut-up plastic water bottles filled with sand.

As we waited for dinner, we told each other riddles (Ali had about fifteen camel jokes that he consistently cracked himself up telling) and I inevitably fell into 'guide' mode and recruited them all to play one of my favorite SBACO (Santa Barbara Adventure Company...how's that for a good plug, Mike?!) group-building initiatives, "This is a Stick, This is a Stone." Trust me, it's hilarious and great fun and very challenging with adults who all speak the same language, somehow, by some great miracle of patience and laughter, we managed to play it successfully and bust out in stitches in a group that included a Berbers, Italians (whose vocabulary was limited to Bob Marley and drug-related paraphenalia), Argentians, Japanese, and several ADD Kiwis. Great fun!

After an hour or more, Salim brought out baskets of Moroccan bread three huge 'tagines' (ceramic pyramid-shaped pots they cook meat and vegetables in) and directed us to eat in groups of five. I ate with the Italians and one of the Kiwis and without silverware, we dug our grubby hands into the steaming tagine dipping our bits of bread into a mound of saucy potatoes, carrots, and sinfully moist baked chicken with morsels that fell nearly fell off the bone. It was the most delicious tagine I've had in all of Morocco, the potatoes and carrots subtly infused with various spices which seemed to mingle together in a way you couldn't seperate them out ('Was that cumin or cinnamon?' 'Was that pepper or curry?). Whatever it was, we all agreed that it was one of the best meals any of us had enjoyed in Morocco. The three tables competed to see who could finish their tagine first but the Englishman and Kiwi girls won as they practically licked their tagine clean, vying for the last pieces of bread.

After dinner, Salim and Ali made a fire for us from firewood they'd brought on one of the camels earlier that day. Ali played Berber drums (ceramic with a sheep skin and intestines used as the sinew to tie the head to the base) and sang songs to us all as we curled up in blankets by the fire. One by one, we trailed off to bed until only Claire and Damien were left...they never slept that night, they played drums, sang with Ali, and climbed the dunes to watch the full moon passing over our camp.

We slept on the sand that night beneath heavy blankets under camel hair tents. We rose early in the morning when it was still dark and frigidly cold and rode our camels out onto the dunes to watch the sun rise. Above us, the full moon was dimming in the sky but still a presence.

A little after our time on the dunes, we learned that our entire Berber meal had been cooked over a fire fueled by camel dung collected from around our camp. So thanks to some Berber ingenuity and good, dry camel dung, we had one of the best tagines in Morocco and I will continue to dream of that night and of that meal.

When we left the dunes, we were both fatigued and overjoyed from the experience. My hair still smells, several days later, like sand and woodsmoke. I pleaded with Mom to stay a few more days out in the desert before returning to Marrakesh again. We had the group drop us off in the desert town of Oarzazate so we could enjoy the desert and tranquilness that only wide open spaces can bring (mostly enjoying hot showers, the sun, and new pastry shops).

Everyday, Morocco seems to unfold and we discover another one of its infinite layers. In a week, Steve will be joining us for time in Marrakesh and then journeying to the Coast, which has been influenced by the Portuguese.

My love to all of you and hoping that some peace finds you in whatever wonderful form it may come!

much love,
Rachel and Karen


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Tales From Morocco 4: "'Slow Travel' in Marrakesh"

January 22nd
Marrakesh, Central Morocco

We've taken an eight hour train to the center of Morocco, the famed city of Marrakesh where Morrocans, Africans, and European foreigner mingle at dusk throughout the Djemaa El Fna, or central plaza in the Old Medina....it's a whirlwind for the senses, a mixture of Africa, Arabia, and a little bit of Las Vegas.....a central plaza filled with thousands of people wandering among stalls offering lamb, beef, and chicken kebabs hot off the grill, bowls of tomato-based 'harira' soup (a specialty soup traditionally drunk to break Ramadaan), loaves of fresh bread, cured and spiced olives, dried apricots, raisins, dates, and nuts, and fresh-squeezed glasses of orange juice and grapefruit (for fifty cents).

Throughout the plaza are crowds (almost all men) gathered around acrobats, musicians playing drums and flutes, monkey trainers, storytellers (where even the men dress up in the female roles) and snake charmers. Meanwhile, young boys walk donkeys by loaded up with goods and both locals 'and visitors alike pay to be taken throughout the plaza by horse-drawn carriage.

Taking On 'Slow Travel'

We've found an incredibly reasonable restaurant that looks out over the Djemaa El Fna and you can sit for hours just watching the theatre unfold. Between Mom and I both getting each other sick on and off with a flu/cold and all the incredible action unfolding around us, we've found little need to hurry ourselves to see a bunch of tourist sights. We've been quite content going to bed around 1 or 2 am (the medina really seems to come alive late at night...probably because most of the year it's so dang hot here...January is the perfect month to come!) and getting out and about by noon or after just to wander through the streets and enjoy all the moments which magically seem to present themselves to us at any moment (sharing soup with a cool Belgian couple, drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice from a vendor), warding off beggars, watching the variety of jellabas and Western dress worn by Moroccan woman as the sun descend over the Djemaa).

We've met some great travelers (only one American so far in over ten days!) and met an especially charming young Dutch couple from Den Hague. The past two nights we've been having great fun eating dinners of baked chicken, soup, and couscous, the strolling through the medina to our favorite gelato shop and feasting on small bowls of the most divine pistachio and chocolate flavored ice cream you could imagine....in addition to visiting the french pastry shops where we order all sorts of strange little cookies covered in sesame seeds and confectioners sugar. Travel can be rough sometimes. Then we end the night with pots of mint tea (that only seems to be caffeinated when you order it late at night!) and have great in-depth talks about Islam and the changing role of women, all the places we want to travel to, our favorite ice cream flavors, gun control in the US, and so on....

Most of the foreigners we've seen are couples and it is rare that we see two women traveling together. I was harassed twice as much in the plaza when I walked with Sophie (who is in her twenties and closer to my age) than when I walk with my mother. We've run into one sweet English girl who came here by herself for a week and has found it to be a quite draining experience. You get constant attention as a woman but if you're with someone, you seem to find a way to deal with it and ignore people at the right times. I can't imagine being here by myself, not fun at all.

We've been researching trips out into the desert on camel back and to a couple of world heritage sites but transport in those rural areas is either really tough and slow or incredibly expensive by private guide. We've found a local agency that takes small groups of backpackers to some of the places we'd like to see (riding on camels and visiting Berber villages) and will be heading out for a three-day trip tomorrow that doesn't break the pocketbook. Morocco can be incredibly expensive but we've managed to keep our costs down by haggling and taking our time to decide on transport and ward off faux guides.

And so, we head to the Sahara tomorrow! A long-awaited dream for me! I have a feeling, like Morocco, it will be very different from what I've imagined-

Thank you to all of you for your emails, I'm slowly reading them and it may take a while to respond but I am elated to know so many people are following our travels from home- Thankyou so much for your messages!

much love and Hamdolillah!,
Rachel and Karen


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Tales From Morocco 3: "Wandering the Souks of Fez"

Fez, Morocco
January 19th...I think
*didn't get a chance to send this one out several days ago

Listening to Mariah Carey and intermittent Arabic pop in the background as two young lovebirds giggle and banter back and forth by the door.

Some Thoughts on 'Hustlers' Around the World:

I received such an outpouring of responses (it's such fun hearing from you all!) from the last email (it's so nice hearing from you all!) that I thought I'd send out an email with a slightly more upbeat tone....

After shaking off "the evil one" (as Mom likes to refer to him....though I see the world in slightly more grey terms) we've had an incredible time exploring the labyrinthine souks of this giant medina...

The bottom line is that people are trying to make a living and that guides and touts are going to be wherever tourists are (unless it's a military state) in developing world countries. I believe reading somewhere that the average annual salary of a Moroccan is around $3.25 a day (don't quote me on that until I check it back at home) and tourism provides a great source of income for people here. Wherever we have traveled--through Latin America, Asia, and Africa--we are constantly reminded of how dang lucky we are to have the standard of living that we do, the access to health care (problematic though it is in the U.S.), birth control, and to be women in our culture (even though we are able to travel to these places...most of the world belongs to men it seems).

That said, traveling through developing countries always forces us to re-examine our values and confront the guilt we have around money and the responsibility we have in our actions. Most everyone is trying to make a living here but it's the way that the living is made that counts. We don't mind paying guides at times and we're very good at tipping the appropriate amount, however, it never feels good to be lied to. It's possible to work with tourists, I believe, and not misrepresent oneself.

Our experience yesterday was also a reminder to continue to be aware of people's intentions...but I don't see any of this as black and white...it's more complicated than that. Morocco is like an onion...it has layers! :-) We're constantly towing the line between trusting people and keeping our wits about us....there'd be no adventure without opening ourselves up to trusting people now and then, and to me, it's all worth the occasional 'burn' sometimes.

Wandering throught the Souks In Fez:

Overall, the Moroccans we've encountered have been exceptionally kind and helpful. Mom and I wandered blissfully through the tight passages of the medina (it's absolutely huge and is inhabited by one million people....no cars, only mules and foot traffic) past vendors selling brightly colored silks in fuschia, emerald, and saffron (the silk here is made from part of a cactus), past shelves of pottery, hammered silver teapots and serving dishes, candles and nougat candies, dried spices (mint, cumin, cinnamon, cardamon, and so on) and essential oils smelling of orange blossoms, roses, amber, and sandalwood,

We overlooked an ancient tannery (the largest in Morocco) where men toiled with sheep and goat hides soaking in vats of pigeon guano and cow urine. The skins are then washed in a water wheel and put into separate vats for the dying process: poppies for bright red, henna for orange, saffron (the most expensive natural dye) for yellow, sandalwood for brown, and the ubiquitous mint for green. All throughout the souks are stores selling various leather goods from puffy seat cushions made of camel, goat, and sheep hide, to purses, wallets, belts, and coutoure jackets. Bartering here can be a draining process and there are many strategies involved if you really have your eye on something....for all the international market bartering we've done, bartering in the medina here can be challenging and has put many of our hard-earned haggling skills to the ultimate test.

What is most surprising is the gorgeous countryside surrounding Fez (central Morocco). For a day trip, we hired a taxi to take us out to Volubilis, a World Heritage Site encompassing the best preserved Roman Ruins in all of the country. Incredible two-thousand year-old Roman columns, archways, and mosaics framed a lush fertile valley....the journey there took us across rolling hills planted with wheat and olive trees....farmers and donkeys tilled the fields and soil thick with rocks the size of oranges....fences were lined with prickly pear cactus (an introduced species here) and giant agave (which the Moroccans use to make into a silk thread sewn into higher dollar clothing). The crops and rolling hills look much like I think the countrysides of Greece and Turkey might be.
Through the archway of the Roman columns we could see the holy city of Moulay Idriss--the site for the spread of Islam throughout Morocco--with its white-washed buildings nestled among the foothills.

In the late afternoon, we made our way to a central plaza in Meknes...the sandstone colored fortress walls turned a deep apricot with the late day sun and thousands of Moroccans dressed in Jellabas and Western dress walked past vendors selling kibabs hot off the grill, fruit juices, and stood in crowds listening to street musicians and a "marabout" (a holy man thought to have special magic or 'baraka' in a Moroccan version of Islam). Groups of hooded and unhooded women in colorful jellabas sat beneath a giant wooden door studded with enormous brass pieces and the center gate was ornately decorated in thousands of miniature tiles.

We ordered a creamy banana and avocado shake from a vendor and listened to a flute player and frame drummers for a while, the high pitch reminding me of snake charmers....the plaza was an unexpected and surreal scene of excitement for us both.

I've been the most surprised by how clean the streets and cities are, occasionally run down in poorer but swept on a daily basis. The traffic is positively mellow compared to India and most of Asia and taking taxis here and buying produce in the markets is a cinch, people have been relatively honest and easy to deal with....with occasional times when you have to re-check bills (I did at lunch today and the waiter seemed to have gotten a kick out of the fact that I fought with him a bit and called him out on a needless surcharge....he almost seemed to have respected me before because I stood up for myself like a fierce, Berber woman).

On our way back to the old city last night, Mom and I strolled through the Ville Nouveau (the new city originally created by the French) and bought pastries from a pastisserie and dried apricots, golden raisins, almonds, and apple juice from street vendors. We've been eating practically everything that looks good to us and have been eating a ton of fresh salads with lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, European cheeses, and corn.

Next, we head by train to Marrakesh, the crossroads of Africa and the Arab world....

Ma Salaama

Rachel and Karen


Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Tales of Morocco II: Beware the Moroccan Mafia

Fez, Moroc
In a very cold cybercafe late at night
January something....15th?

And now for the past 24 hours....I'll try not to sugarcoat. Last night, after receiving some disturbing news, Mama Chihuahua and I comforted ourselves by stuffing ourselves with handfuls of dried cranberries, turkey jerky, chocolate, and boiled potatos before crawling under the covers of our beds beside a cheap space heater. Most buildings here don't have central heat unless you're at a fancy hotel so we raided the reception area at around 2 in the morning and MoM wrapped herself up in a sofa tapestry. As we shivered away in our twin beds I had a gruesome vision that we'd wake up in a ball of polyester flames beside the little space heater.

I'm not sure why we travel like this. Is it worth saving money to freeze our a***s off like this? Or is there just an undaunting stubborness that we cling to in proving to ourselves that we can tough it out? Not sure.

Lesson #1:
All is not as it appears when traveling. Especially in Morocco.

We often befriend people on our travels and have long considered ourselves good judges of character both at home and on the road.

In Morocco we have encountered wonderfully helpful people who have given us directions, sold us oranges and nougats, and give us advice. On the train from Casablanca to Fez, we enountered a nice, mellow young guy from Fez who was in our same compartment. Serendipitously, Karem was on holiday from his work with the office of tourism in the city and invited us to stay near him in the medina (the old part of the city that dates back to the 14th century). After he took us to a beautiful little hotel away from the craziness of the tourist area, he invited us back to his home for tea.

Moroccans are known world-wide for their gracious hosting and Karem's family lived up to their national reputation. We sat on blue and silver embroidered pillows, sipping on hot mint tea, and munching on homemade fry bread seasoned with onions and spices while Karem's brother watched "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" with Arabic subtitles. Another surreal experience in the world of globalism. The light rain tapped away on the glass roof overhead and all felt good in the world. We were exactly where we needed to be in the world and grateful again for the serendipity that travel affords.

That evening he took us to an opulent restaurant and arranged for us to have dinner there at one fifth the price of the menu. Mom and I dined on dishes of spicy eggplant, carrots with mint, cubed potatoes, "pastilla"--deep fried pastries filled with rice and covered in confectioners sugar and cinnamon, moist coucous simmered with vegetables and beef, and a chicken tagine in a sauce of lemons, olives, and prunes. For dessert we drank more mint tea and ate slices of oranges and apples dusted in cinnamon.

Before going to bed, Karem also helped us buy a phone card to call a potential guide in the South and he helped me find an internet cafe to try calling my baby love on.
Around ten o'clock we parted ways with him. He was reluctant to leave us and warned that the medina could be dangerous to be lost in at night. We promised him we just wanted some fresh air
and would return to our hotel after a short walk.

We bid him goodbye and made agreed to meet him in the morning for a walk around town to see the tanneries, mosque, and to do some shopping for handicrafts.

On our way back to the hotel, we came upon a little cybercafe and decided to check our email.
Thirty minutes later an old man in an over-sized jellaba showed up in a chain-smoking whirlwind and offered us fresh fish...plopping it down by our keyboards and chatting along in rather good English. He is a Moroccan with dual American citizenship. He has been living in Chicago for many years selling handicrafts and trying to combat the American stereotype that all Arabs and Moroccans must be terrorists. He seemed a bit eccentric and quite friendly and I took most of what he said with a grain of salt. Whatever the case, this guy had seen some hard times and was happy to meet some friendly Americans and he wanted us to have a good impression of his country.

At some point, he asked us how we were enjoying Fez and we cheerfully explained that we had met a wonderful man from Fez on our train and that he had introduced us to his family, shown us around town, and was taking us around the medina the next day.

Mohammed shook his head cynically, took another puff of his cigarette, and said, "Look, you don't make friends at the train station. Not in Morocco."

Oh, but our friend was different. He was on the first class train, worked at the bureau of tourism,
had introduced us to his family, was on holiday for a few days, was mellow, gotten us several good deals for dinner, and hadn't tried to sell us anything.

Mohammed hooted at this. "Look, this guy's a hustler. This is what they do. They all say that they work at the Board of Tourism and they'll take you home to his family to encourage to trust. He got you all these deals today because he's just getting you ready to be fleeced tomorrow. The hotel he took you to, he got a commission. Tomorrow he'll show you some cultural sights and then start taking you into stores...he'll get you to buy rugs and textiles and he'll have an agreement with all of the shopkeepers-"

But what about the train? How was it that we met him on first class in our compartment?

"The hustlers ride back and forth on the train....he probably didn't have a ticket...they slip away and pay off the train attendants."

Mom and I didn't want to believe it. Not "our Karem" whose mother had the sweet face of an angel and who baked for us and served us pots of mint tea. But a few things began clicking for us....how he had mentioned carpets after dinner...how funny it was that we were in the same train compartment, and how he had slipped away a couple of times.....did he really ever have a ticket or was he paying off the train attendants who came around every few hours?

I began to feel nauseous and a bit flushed...a mixture of disenchantment, shock, and embarrassment that we were being duped. We're both savvy travelers and have come across dishonest people and had also managed to avoid aggressive touts, guides, and rude hotel owners (more an exception than a normalcy) but this guy was different. He was nice, not smarmy, trustworthy, helpful without seeming desperate, and overrall easy and comfortable to be around. If he was indeed a hustler, this guy was good. He had gotten us veritable deals all day and was truly taking his time to garner our trust. Mom had said to his mother several times what a good boy he is and she had beamed with the universal look of genuine maternal pride.

And then Mohammed said one thing that shifted our thinking for good.

"This 'friend' of yours....is he about your height with curly hair, a kind face, and good English?"

Yeah, but so are about a million other young guys around here."

Mohammed persisted....on a personal mission to prove to us that he wasn't just full of hashish and Moroccan lies. "His family lives around the corner near your hotel? He has two brothers and his family just recently bought their house?"


"Ahh!" he said excitedly, as if winning a furious game of bingo, "It is Karem! His name is Karem. I know this boy!"

Shit. Shit. Shit.
Mom and I sunk back against the wall inside the internet cafe. Both of us shocked and embarrassed.

"Look," said Mohammed. "At least you know now."

He asked us not to tell Karem we had met him or else there would be bad blood for him and his family in the neighborhood. We went back to our room feeling disenchanted and a bit thrown...someone we had come to trust was using us. But most of all it shook the faith that I have in the people we meet and made me feel as if we're walking dollar signs at all times. And who can we trust?

We went to bed beneath our mountain of tapestries and blankets beside the cheap space heater hoping we wouldn't catch on fire in the middle of the night.

We slept until the early afternoon the next day. Mom left a note for Karem the next day letting him know that we wanted to sleep longer and that we would contact him if we needed anything.

When we appeared out on the street around 3 pm, Karem was waiting for us with a big warm smile. I was proud of Mama Chihuahua. She was restrained and gracious with Karem, thanking him for his help the previous day and letting him know that we would prefer to be alone today. He looked bummed but let us go asking where we were headed.

In the internet cafe, our friend Mohammed warned us that Karem had spoken with a few more guys and that they would be following us through the medina. He described exactly what one of them would look like.

Sure enough, a guy that met Mohammed's exact description began following us a bit further along one of the medina pathways. It seemed we would never be quite free of "the Moroccan Mafia" and Karem's little neighborhood...a neighborhood with eyes.

We made our way through the little streets with our new shadow detail....at first politely asking him to leave us alone.

Finally, as we sat eating a late lunch of aubergine and potato pancakes and he appeared again in front of us, Mama Chihuahua had had quite enough and gave him a few sharp words. Restrained but sharp.

We haven't seen him since.

After Mom had her sharp words with him and had returned to her soup, the souk stall owner grinned broadly and gave her a thumbs up. "Very good" he told us in Arabic. "Say 'no' to hustlers!"

And so we head back to our room tonight after a hustler-free day on our own and without getting lost.
In shallah!

Rachel and MC

*Just spoke to my baby (who's at an ecolodge in Costa Rica) and am elated! I think that, next to my water bottle, canon 20d, and bank card, that Skype is one of the best inventions of the 20th century!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Tales From Morocco I: "Post Traumatic Jetlag"

January 14th
A rainy night in Fez
North Central Morocco

After thirty hours of riding on airbuses, two international flights, a nine hour layover in Germany (without any euros), and a long interlude of being locked in the toilet by the flight attendant during bad turbulence.....Mom and I landed in Casablanca at 1 in the morning. For the first 48 hours of our trip (while Mama was delightfully, if not gratingly, cheery), I really couldn't bring myself to remember what it is about travel that I like so much.

First Day In Casablanca (after nearly two days of travel):

-Sleep until 11:30 am
-Decide to go back to sleep
-Wake up at 2 pm and decide to go back to sleep
-Wake up, rise, and shower at 4:30 pm
-Scrutinize mother's makeup until 5:30 so she doesn't look like a baby sharpei
-Approve of each other's outfits as appropriately befitting of a Muslim country
-Head down the street in the dark as the city lights are coming on
-Stroll the streets and check out young men and women wearing camo, hot pink, and leopard printed jellabas
-Find restaurant as close as possible to hotel
-Order tagine, salad (yes, with fresh vegetables.....life is short), and drink four pots of Moroccan mint tea without receiving the wise travel wisdom that Moroccan tea is notoriously caffeinated
-Soon, a little bird has let it slip that Mama Chihuahua is a middle eastern dance teacher and drummer
The oud player is singing, I am dancing, and MC is resourcefully using the serving tray as a makeshift drum and the hotel staff has gathered round us
-Go to bed at 1 am
-Take two doses of Benadryl
-Lie in bed twiddling our thumbs and cursing Moroccan tea for the next three hours with absolutely no help whatsoever from the Benadryl

Day Two:

-Breakfast of bread, yogurt, and more tea
-Much to mother's objections, take nap around noon
-Wander the streets in a fog of low blood sugar, jet lag, and surreptitious Lonely Planet map reading while no one is looking (as if our tennis shoes, sunglasses, and bags don't completely give us away)
-Try as hard as we can to stay awake until 9 pm
-Wake up at 4 am and take a couple of tabs of Benadryl

Day Three:

-Ready to see Morocco!

Will write more after I recover from post traumatic typing in Morocco stress.....

*This country hands down wins for the most frustrating keyboard of all the computers we have used around the world.....the following email has taken me 40 minutes to write...mother has been cursing away on a neighboring computer. We shouted for glee when we found the apostrophe button!