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's more complicated than that. Morocco is like an 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 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 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