Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Travel Logs: Morocco

or: "It's All Fun and Games Until the Monkey Gets You"

For our spring break we decided to go to Fes, Morocco, mostly because it sounded exotic and accessible. We could check the continent of Africa off our list, and Ryan Air flies there from Frankfurt-Hahn for super cheap. We went sort of "fly by the seat of our pants," if you will, with few expectations and even less information. I ordered a Lonely Planet Morocco guide from Amazon.UK, but Deutsche Post screwed it all up and didn't get it to me in time, so we left with no maps or guides to plan our time. This gave my DH anxiety, as he never does anything without extensive planning and packing for every imaginable scenario. I had booked us at a typical bed and breakfast called a "riad" in Fes Medina, and set up a loose itinerary for our 5 days with the owner, who happens to be British. So we landed at the airport in the outskirts of Fes, hoping a taxi had been sent to pick us up as planned; I was thrilled to see the taxi driver, Ali, standing there holding a sign with "Borkert" in all caps. Everything seemed so foreign from the instant we landed. We had been deposited in another universe, as far as I was concerned; as we drove to the heart of the city, we passed olive groves and more people walking on foot than I had ever seen. Clad in kaftans and head coverings, they trudged the sides of the road, the lucky ones leading a donkey laden with belongings. Poverty assaulted my eyes; I kept thinking Isn't Morocco the sophisticated tourist-friendly part of Africa? I found out quickly, it was friendly, but not refined in any sense of the Western word.

Our riad was an oasis of calm, open-roofed with an inner courtyard replete with fountain and blue and white tiling. The rooftop terrace was the perfect place to sit and listen to the sounds of boisterous medina life while drinking delicious hot mint tea. I had some lovely moments sitting up there in the sun looking out over hundreds of rooftops and listening to the muezzins droning the call to prayer from their minarets. Our first full day in Fes, we set off into the medina, which is an incredible labyrinth of pedestrian-only alleys, housing over 260,000 people in a relatively small area. A trip to Fes is not for Sanitizer Moms (you know, those women who walk into Chili's in the U.S. and proceed to wipe down the high chair with antibacterial wipes before they let precious baby sit) or anyone opposed to getting shit on their shoes. The medina is the largest carless city in the world, so beasts of burden are used to haul in merchant supplies, which means donkeys crapping all over the place. Despite the crap, litter, and random street cats everywhere, Fes holds a medieval charm so primitive one cannot help being entranced. The buildings all look the same from the outside, but step inside, and you are treated to exquisite mosaics and wood work you will never see in the western world. The gardens are like a secret you happen upon, riotous with hibiscus, bouganvillia, and antique roses, and bowered by lemon-scented orange trees. We discovered the medina with the help of a guide, who shepherded us around with a mercenary cunning. Aziz spoke excellent English and seemed to know every place and everyone, he took us to all his favorite shopping spots so he could get a cut of the profits when we bought something. This is common practice in Morocco, everyone has a hand in the pot, everyone gets a piece of the tourist's pie. I confess it felt a little odd at first, as we realized he kept excusing himself to go the the "bathroom" but we knew he was in fact going to collect his percentage from the merchant. Fes is famous for its artisans, and they are happy to show you their creative processes before they take you to their showroom. We visited potters, weavers, woodworkers, and leather-tanners, and they always showed us their workers and even encouraged us to participate. I sat at a loom with four Moroccan women as they showed me how to weave a rug, I was terrible and clumsy of course, and they were deft and furiously fast. We visited the tannery pits, a quintessential Fes experience, as the terrible smell wafts throughout the town, leaving its imprint on your mind. We watched men waist deep in the tanning and dyeing pits, which hold odd combinations like lime and pigeon shit, and my DH remarked that these people must have missed the industrial revolution and that their life expectancy couldn't extend past 40 working in those conditions (see photo of pits). At the ceramics factory, one of the men painting tiles and vases stopped to paint a fake-henna tattoo on little Helen's hand. Everywhere we went, people were so friendly, not only because we represented the American tourist dollar, but also because we had brought small children to visit. Moroccans LOVE children, especially blonde blue-eyed ones, and everywhere we went, men of all ages stopped Helen to give her a kiss. My favorite was a little barefoot boy on the street who wasn't even a head taller than Helen; he grabbed her by both shoulders and planted a big kiss on her cheek, then ran back to his older brother who scolded him for his boldness. Everywhere we went, people complimented us on having children so young, this is highly esteemed in muslim culture.

After two days of seeing the sights in Fes, we took the next two days to see nearby towns with our "tourist taxi" driver, Ali. The first day we traveled to Sefrou, Ifrane, and Azrou. Ali took us first to Sefrou, to visit a wrinkled old woman named Ayesha, who lives in a cave (see photos); after the obligatory mint tea, she showed me how to wear a head covering like a proper muslim, and tried to teach me how to balance a full bucket of water on my head as she does every day. I could barely stand the weight of the bucket, and there is no way I could carry it for any distance. She nimbly walked around her cave, demonstrating how she transports water with no hands and she showed no sign of discomfort. This woman was easily in her seventies, and could be a pro weight-lifter. Amazing. Ifrane was less remarkable to me; it is a former French resort town that has been built up to look like a Swiss village, completely out of place in Morocco. Everything was so new it was jarring after being in Sefrou, and we left as soon we'd lunched. On to Azrou, or more specifically, the cedar forests outlying the town, where Barbary apes live in the wild. These macaques (tailless primates) are the only monkeys left in northern Africa. I should explain at this point that our entire vacation in Morocco centered around seeing these monkeys; they were the only thing my kids really cared about. We even used this as our favorite form of bribery for months beforehand, threatening "Stop right now or I will leave you at home while we go see the monkeys in Morocco!!!" It worked every time. So there was a lot riding on this outing. We stopped at a cliffside overlook to view the middle Atlas mountains, and saw a pet Barbary ape tied to a trinket stand. The owner encouraged our kids to feed his monkey, hoping to sell us something in the process. The ensuing monkey attack was captured on video and I've posted it here on the blog for your viewing pleasure. After it happened, I began to wonder a bit about rabies and random monkey diseases (didn't HIV come from monkeys????), but tried to put it out of my head and hope for the best, after all, our kids were thrilled and Breck wasn't put off by having his hair pulled by a macaque. So on we went to the opening of the forest where guides with horses waited to sell us their monkey-scouting services. My DH refused this service, being the self-reliant person that he is, and we wandered the woods like idiot tourists for a little while, spotting zero monkeys. A guide slyly followed us until we gave up and mounted his horse and were led straight to a pair of macaques sitting high up in a cedar tree. A male was soon lured down by our bananas and pistachio nuts, and we had a blast feeding him, I feeling quite triumphant when he came up and took banana out of my hand.

Things look so different in hindsight. I felt rather proud of our adventurous spirit that day. I mean, how many American parents take their kids to see wild monkeys and let them get close enough to be attacked? Only very stupid ones. I would mark the monkey attack as the point where the trip took a downward turn. That night, instead of enjoying beer and apple-flavored sheeshah (hookah) with my husband on the rooftop terrace, I had to make an unexpected visit to the toilet to vomit. Whether I got food poisoning in Ifrane, or some monkey affliction in Azrou, I don't know, but I spent all night sick as a dog.
The next morning it was off to the Roman ruins at Volubilis and Moulay Idriss, in spite of me feeling like a weak and nauseated waif.

I can't say much about Volubilis; it was really lovely and picturesque, the countryside resembling mediterranean Europe, and the ruins looking like any other Roman ruins, except the Moroccans let your crawl all over them, unlike the Italians at the Forum. The ancient columns have huge nests atop them, inhabited by large storks, kind of a bizarre sight. After Volubilis, I refused to visit Moulay Idriss because I was so car sick and wanted to go back to the riad. This town is the site of the founding of Islam in Morocco, and is closed to non-muslims after dark, there are no hotels there.

The last day in Morocco (or what was supposed to be the last day) Breck started vomitting fiercely and frequently. Our hosts were kind and tried to help him recover, but there was nothing that could stop the illness. I went on one last foray into Fes medina with Aziz to find the perfect fabric for my best friend. After all manner of shady exchanges, Aziz took me to a part of town he said was "rough, you know, like Queens in New York." There were no tourists here, and I didn't have enough money for my fabric, so Aziz threw his forms of identification at the owner, grabbed the fabric and me and dragged me quickly out of the shop. He assured the owner he would come back with the money as we ran down the alley. He circumvented two women trying to enter a taxi and put me and himself in instead to go to the ATM. Apparently my tourist dollar was more valuable than their dhiram. I felt really badly about this episode, because the repression of women is such an absolute part of life there. You will only see men sitting in the outdoor cafes, sipping their tea and smoking, women are not allowed this luxury. Women are only seen going to market and then returning home, they are not meant for public life. They cook, clean, raise children, and in their spare time may weave to make some income. Divorced single women have it worst, for they must support their children, and so they work hard weaving rugs for the Fes cooperative which (hopefully) gives them a better price for their product.

That afternoon we bid our hosts goodbye and drove to the airport with Ali, who I'm sure was exhausted of our children, though he tolerated them smilingly and graciously. Breck vomitted on the floor in the customs line, and they gave us a wheelchair and put us at the front of the queue for boarding. We were waiting to board when suddenly, with no explanation, the Ryan Air employees walked away from their desk. A murmur of confusion went up in the crowd. The employees returned with photocopies of their policy regarding flights cancelled due to weather (in French). We couldn't read them, but as chaos erupted in Arabic and French and the world "Annulle" was passed down, we began to gather we weren't flying out. Thanks to a volcano in Iceland.

To Be Continued.....


  1. Very interesting account. Look forward to more. Yeah - all of us were saying "monkey get you" after we saw the video of Breck being attacked by the monkey!! Great memories!

  2. I just took a test yesterday over the airport chapter in French, and I don't think the verb "canceled" was even in there. You were so close!