Wednesday, March 12, 2014

camel friends and exfoliation - morocco, part two

oookay, let’s get this second installment going!

as a precursor to this next bit, let me just say that, generally, i stay as far away from guided tours as i possibly can. in nearly every circumstance, i prefer to do the planning myself and enjoy every moment of the exploration once i get to a new place… but i had one item on my moroccan must-do list that was basically impossible for me to accomplish without paying some kind of professional, and that was to ride a camel. preferably in the saharan desert. so, early in the morning on our third day in marrakech, lauren and i crept down the dark stairs of our hotel and waited for the quiet knock of our tour company’s representative, who was sent to retrieve us. we followed him down the street to the plaza where all the tour vans were parked, waiting for the droves of tourists who were leaving that day on various excursions. after a slight hiccup with the number of passengers in our first van (no, 16 people is not the same as 15, and no, you cannot just “squeeze” in the back), we joined a different group and started to get acquainted with our new friends. there were three germen men, two chinese guys, an italian couple (shout out to fred and maria vittoria!), an indian girl, a girl from vancouver, and us. we’d chosen the two day / one night excursion, which ended up meaning a whole lot of van time and not much outside time… you live and you learn, i guess. but when you’re driving through the high atlas mountains, a view from the window is still pretty awe-inspiring! 

we stopped a few times on the way out to the desert, most notably at the fortified city of ait ben haddou – famous for being the city to film any movie with a middle eastern / african / sometimes ancient roman vibe. we’re talking lawrence of arabia, prince of persia, gladiator, even game of thrones… and despite all that, the handful of families that still live in this ancient kasbah do so without running water or electricity. after that afternoon spot, we high-tailed it out to the city of zagora, which was our last stop in “civilization” before the camel portion of our trek. when we pulled up to the dirt lot where our camels were waiting, about five miles outside of zagora, i felt this little twinge of excitement – one of those “i am about to do this, and it is something awesome” feelings. we loaded up the “saddle” bags (woven bags draped on either side of a few camels) and hopped up. and i say “hopped” because i literally had to jump a little bit, even with the camel kneeling down… those things are enormous! when mine finally stood up, my head was about 15 feet off the ground. which was slightly disconcerting at first, but the awesome vantage point it gave me to look out over the expansive landscape quickly outweighed any uneasiness i felt. and to top it off, we set out to our camp just as the sun was setting, which was a miraculously beautiful sight. the camel trek lasted about an hour and a half, which meant that by the end of it, the sky was pitch black in all directions, and filled with more stars that i have ever seen. we saw a few lights off in the distance, but eventually, we were walking towards one tiny glow on the horizon, and i felt like i was almost riding through the sky. the fact that our guide knew exactly where to walk in the dark like that was incredible. 

when we arrived at the camp, we put our bags in the tents and sat for a bit of mint tea. then, the other guides had dinner waiting (harira soup and tajines, what else) so we spent the evening socializing around the tables, first with food and then with hookahs, before eventually moving outside to listen to some berber music around the campfire. in the morning, i woke up eaaaarly to watch the sun rise over the dunes by myself… and it was arguably even more breathtaking than the sunset. the light was so soft and everything had a sort of magical glow about it; the pictures did not do it justice. once everyone else in the camp had woken up, we had a quick breakfast of leftover bread and jam, with the ever-present mint tea, and then loaded up the camels for the return journey. i enjoyed soaking up the sounds and sights of the waking desert as we made our way to the rendez-vous point. from there, it was van time basically all the way back to marrakech! after a little refresh in the hostel room, lauren and i went and got dinner and tea with the italian couple, which was so fun! they are wonderful, and we had a great time talking for several hours – a fabulous way to end our time in marrakech!

after a comical, three-stooges-esque train ride (let’s just say the concept of a train “selling out” doesn’t exist, and neither does personal space, or personal hygiene), the next stop was fez, the cultural and spiritual capital of morocco; it also has one of the oldest and largest medinas in africa, and boasts several universities, one of which is certified by UNESCO as the oldest in the world! we stayed with a friend of connor’s, in a super cool riad tucked into the medina. ethan and his housemates were, like everyone else we encountered in morocco, exceedingly hospitable and generous. we had a blast getting to know them during our short stay – cooking dinner together, trying new restaurants (i highly recommend café clock if you’re ever in fez), and exploring the medina… which is absolutely enormous, and rather confusing until you get the hang of it. while we were only there for two full days, i really got the feeling that fez was the most “authentic” place we went. of course, there are plenty of tourists, but as you walk around the souk in the evening, you can see everyone going about their daily lives – buying food for dinner, greeting their neighbors, coming in and out of the mosques. it seemed less like a tourist trap (like marrakech) and more just like a glimpse into the inner workings of a city that has stood the tests of time. 

i also had the distinct realization in fez that moroccan culture, like so many other cultures in the world, is decidedly not one of waste. especially in the food/animal department… when a sheep is slaughtered, for example, the wool is used to make fabric, the skin is used for the leather goods you see for sale in the medina, the meat is sent a few streets over to the butcher stalls, and even the innards are given to the cats that roam the streets. it seems gruesome at first, when you spot a pile of skins, or a row of whatever body part (heads were particularly disconcerting), or a cat nibbling on some intestines… but then, it becomes almost comforting. i found myself enjoying the peace of mind that comes from watching the butcher grind your meat in front of you – there can be no questions as to what went into that kilo of kefta. and the leather flats that you buy haven’t moved more than 50 meters in their little, inanimate lives, because the tannery is just around the corner and the man you just paid is the man who made those shoes, probably a just few days before. it’s a far cry from the distanced, thoughtless consumerism we have in america, in all the best ways.

the coolest thing we did in fez, though, was going to the hammam. a hammam is a traditional public bathhouse… and talk about a real, moroccan experience. we got up close and personal with a steaming room full of mostly (if not completely) naked women, and had the top layer of skin basically stripped from our bodies in the process. the hammam is an interesting way to see the other side of the relatively conservative culture of the outside world. inside the safety of the hammam doors (there are no men inside during female hours, and vice versa), the women are free to show parts of themselves that never see the light of day. and i noticed that there was basically no evidence of any kind of self-conscious body language; the overall attitude was just, “yep, we’re all ladies here, we have the same parts, it doesn’t matter how they’re shaped.” if only just for that reason, it was something you’d never see in the states, and it was a really nice feeling. the other important service the hammam provides is purely social – for some of the women, it’s their only outing for the week, and they take advantage of the total freedom of expression that the privacy offers to chat freely with their friends and neighbors. plus, on top of all that, you get SO clean. despite the kind of grimy atmosphere (a very, very hot tile room constantly sloshed with water that you draw in buckets from a tub, the soap/skin/whatever else running off bodies onto the floor where you’re sitting), i have never felt so exfoliated and clean. we paid the extra few dirhams to have the resident hammam lady scrub us with the little black mitts we’d bought earlier… and she did not mess around. i was glowing like a lobster by the end of it, but it felt great! she also washed and brushed my hair for me, which is my #1 favourite thing. so, all in all, a fantastically entertaining and eye-opening experience.

i keep writing too much!! this will have to do for now – the final part will follow! pictures from this installment are here, beginning with number 67!

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