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Saturday, August 23, 2003

Imperial Cities
Fez, Morocco

Fez has been our home for the past 4 nights and we are leaving soon to head south towards the desert. We have been told that we're crazy to venture down there in the summer heat, but oh well, we've gotten this far, so of course we have to go down and see the dunes.

There are three main areas in Fes, not including the suburbs which are mainly residential. There is the modern Ville Nouvelle (our hotel, the Hotel de la Paix is located here), the Fes El Jedid (the new Fez), and Fes El Bali (the old Fez). Each very different, yet interesting.

After resting and recovering from our long bus ride, we met up with Harriet, Diana and Nancy at a wonderful gelato cafe near the hotel (by the way, an "American Saveu" size serving here is 5 scoops!). The background with these three is that we had seen each other in Chefchaouen earlier (NOTE: we were the only asians in Chefchaouen) and then to run into each other again in the lobby of our hotel as we checked in was a funny coincidence. We exchanged travel stories and made plans to meet up for sunset shots and drive around the city the next evening.

We began our tour with an official guide, Hassan, by walking from our hotel to the Fes El Jedid, where we got to view the Royal Palace. The palace is not open to the public (not even the locals, except for one special occasion several years ago) so we were only able to admire the fountains and the beautiful gates. The Fassians (Fez people) are very skilled at several crafts, and one of them is the making of ceramics and mosaics. On the gates and walls of the royal palace, as well as all the mosques around this country, are beautiful coloured ceramic mosaic tiles. The colours used come from natural products, so do not fade with time. They use such items as indigo, poppy flower, saffron, and mint leaves, among others. We learned that in Islam, no animals or people can be represented, hence we always see patterns of flowers or geometrical shapes.

We walked through the Jewish quarters or mellah, where several shops were open. Particularly interesting, was an area where different grades and coloured wools were sold. They were also in large burlack sacks lined up agains the side of a building. We caugh a petit taxi (there are also grand taxis but those only depart with 5 or 6 people in them; these act like private miny buses in other countries, able to go long distance too) and went to visit a co-operative ceramic and tile factory where we saw how the mosaics and ceramics were made. It was very neat to see how everything is hand-made, from the grey clay (natural clay in Fez is grey, while it is red further south in the country) to the laying of the mosaic pieces. Each mosaic piece is hand cut out of an axe. They have no machines for any of the work. Cobalt is the main colour used in Fez - normally refered to as 'Fes Blue'.

Our next stop is Fes El Bali, a medina. The Oeud Fes (Fes River) separates the city into two sides, the Andalucian quarter on the east bank, and Qaraouiyine quarter on the west bank. The latter was developed first. It was very interesting walking through the narrow lanes of the medina. You have to pay attention to the shouts of the words "balak, balak". That means that a mule carrying a load or a person is just around the corner from you. The proper action is to step aside and let the animal pass. We definitely heard lots of those on our walk. The medina is full of souqs. Each is special for its own products: leather slippers, nougats, brass work, jewellery (gold for Arabic; silver for Berber), fabric and tailoring, ceramics, goat skin lamps, preserved fruits and vegetables (mostly olives), teapots and trays, etc. It was definitely difficult to resist the temptation to stop at each and buy something.

Unique to this medina are the tanneries, where leather goods are made. There are terraces where one can view a tannery and of course, get tempted to buy finished products. Many bins made of tiles or clay or plaster can be viewed, divided into sections for the different phases of leather preparation. The only part that contains chemicals is for the first phase where the wool has to be separated from the skin. Next the skins gets washed in a huge washing machine (large wooden bin that spins around with water inside it for 3 hours). Apparently it used to take them 3 days to wash one load when they had to use animals to spin the washing machine. Next the skins gets inserted into one of the many bins filled with the natural colours (same products used for the tiles) and men work out there stepping on the leather for the colour to soak in.

We visited medersas, which is muslim colleges, consisting of a mosque, prayer hall, dormitary for the students, and a pool for cleansing. Many mosques in Morocco are out of bounds for non-muslims, so we could only glance in from the bar. Oh yes, there are several bars in place which indicates where only a muslim can cross. Quite an obvious sign, I would say. Needless to say, we were respectful of this and did not attempt any crossings.

We met up with the girls and headed out to the look out points, high above the city. It was very nice and windy and there were tons of locals out enjoying the cool air. We also drove to Borj (old fortress) and took more pictures. Here I was engaged in a conversation with a friendly Maroc student who is majoring in English and German. He is particularly interested in chinese women, and was disappointed to hear that I was married. Quite funny, actually. He was very nice, and we all enjoyed conversing with him. I asked to take his picture, but he wanted me to be in it too, so maybe Winston will post that when we're ready to upload our Moroccan page. We'll see.

The girls already had reservations for dinner at the Maison Bleue, a very fancy Riad (old villas that people pay lots of money to stay at) and highly recommended and invited us to join them. It took some adventuring getting there (it was in the medina) and cars can't get through there so we had to find the right gate. In one case, we had drive on a one way street and didn't notice it till quite a bit later. Luckily we had a very helpful policeman (with not very good French, and not very good directions). To our rescue, was the fellow from the hotel who had taken the reservation. We were blindly driving throug a bab (gate) when someone shouted "Diana". It turns out that there were two locations for the Maison Bleue - the hotel (which also has a restaurant), and a restaurant itself. The restaurant was closed for renovations, so he was there to tell us to go to the hotel. Hooray. We were saved!

Well, the Riad Maison Bleue. What a place. When we first walked in (you have to ring the doorbell), all our jaws dropped. Immediately in front of us was a glistening blue pool. By now it was about 8:15pm, so the entire pool was lit up. The courtyard was surrounded by plants, a huge orange tree, and lovely benches. We asked to wash our hands before dinner, and was shown into one of the suites. Definitely nothing like any place we have ever stayed before - king size poster bed, fancy old dresser, huge bathroom with double sink and bathrobes. Now we see why they charge $275 a night for this.

So with clean hands and a beautiful empty pool beckoning us, Diana got permision for us to 'dip our feet' into the water. Ah, it was so cool and refreshing. We were giddy as kids, and certainly felt we could enjoy staying in a place like this if we could afford it. We cooled down with citron and water and then headed upstairs, to the terrace for dinner. It was also very beautiful up there, with a fountain, and candlelight at our dinner table. There were two other tables besides ours for dinner. We were entertained with African Blues music all throughout dinner. The musicians were all great.

Our meal was fantastic. Everyone was superstuffed afterwards (ok, we were already stuffed during, but had to eat it all anyway). We began with 8 dishes of salads and bread, then we were served white and red wines (drinks were included), followed by meat tajine first (very tender and delicious), then chicken tajine (even more fruity and yummy), then finally finishing with Moroccan oranges and Pastila (with lots of milk and cream and almonds) as the desserts. We were so stuffed, but absolutely enjoyed it.

On Thursday August 21st (I have to add dates once in a while or timeframe will be lost), we drove to Meknes (60km) in their rental car, a Fiat Polio. It is a tiny 5 seater, but fits us just fine. Our first stop was the Volubilis Hotel. Diana had come here several years ago with her family and really enjoyed the meal and the view. Sadly the staff has been on strike for a year now, and the place is going down the drains. It really looked sad with the plants dying, no water in the pool, etc.

We have to go now so I will continue our story about Volubilis next time. Wish us luck as we drive towards the desert. Not sure if there is Internet connection down there, but we'll be in touch again soon.

Friday, August 22, 2003

A Health Update
Fes, Morocco

Well, so far on this trip, we've been able to stay pretty healthy. We've eaten a LOT of food, got a fair bit of exercise with all the walking we've done, and have been drinking water like horses. That is, all until now. Both Jen and I have been hit by a mediocre case of diarrhea, and today we cancelled our plans to visit Meknes with Diana, Harriet, and Nancy. Instead, we mostly hung out in our hotel rooms and well... you can extrapolate from there. Jen got hit yesterday and had the shivers last night; it hit me this morning... I spent most of the day between sleeping and sitting on the throne.

We figured we'd get traveller's diarrhea a few times on this trip, so this isn't a great surprise. We've been drinking bottled water almost exclusively, and been reasonably careful with what we've eaten, perhaps with the possible exception of the cooked snails that we tried in Chefchauoen, but that was several days ago. Hopefully we'll be able to recover sufficiently in the next few hours that we'll be fit for travel, since we're supposedly driving to the Atlas mountains tomorrow.

Incidentally, the last three days have been quite magnificent in terms of everything else. I've gone through one and a half 256MB compact flash cards in the last three days alone; that's a lot of pictures! Editing them down has been somewhat of a chore. Fes is quite an incredible city, we'll have to blog separately to talk about that. Visiting Volubulis and Moulay Idriss near Meknes were also pretty incredible. I hope the pictures turn out!

We might not be able to blog for a few days; not really sure how likely there is to be Internet access where we're going. Nevertheless, we'll have a full description when we get back online!

Ok, we're going to post this and uh... head back to the hotel. Au revoir!

Meeting and Making Friends
Fes, Morocco

Since Jon left us a few weeks ago in Spain, we thought that we'd be on our own travelling for a while, at least until we meet Scott and Rochelle in Malta. However, this was not to be the case; once again the phenomena of meeting strangers in a strange land has resulted in us acquiring new travel partners.

In Tanger, I met a guy named Ken who is an American who splits his time between Tanger and New York. He was a friend of the late Paul Bowles, the author who lived in and wrote much about Morocco. Being a semi-local, Ken had some helpful recommendations for things to do and see while here.

At the youth hostel in Tanger, we met and travelled to Chefchaouen with a Moroccan fellow by the name of Rachid, who was from Casablanca. He was a chemistry student, and was taking some time off during his summer vacations to visit the rest of the country. He and his travel partners were very interesting to talk to.

We also travelled to Chefchaouen and Fes (on that 7 hour bus ride) with a Japanese girl named Harue Yokota, who was from Osaka. Travelling alone as a woman with marginal English skills in a Muslim country took some courage, and we were duly impressed with her intrepid attitude! In Chefchaouen, we actually shared a triple room with her for three nights, as the place we were staying at didn't have a single room available. Good luck to you Harue, wherever you are now!

And would you believe it, here in Fes on our first day, we met three American girls, Diana, Harriet, and Nancy, who hark from the Bay Area. After sharing some gelato with them, we welcomed their invitation to join them to visit the ancient Roman town of Volubulis and the little mountain town of Moulay Idriss. In fact, after today, we are going to be joining them on a 5-7 day journey down through the High Atlas mountains to Merzouga, where we hope to spend a night out in the desert. We're planning to make our way back to Marrakech eventually. Yes, it might be hot down there, but we're currently looking to see if we can get an air conditioned car. If that's not possible, we'll find some way to manage, hopefully!

Interestingly, Harriet and Nancy are also Chinese, which makes the four of us walking down the streets of Fes together look like some kind of Asian Invasion. Obviously our little entourage garners many looks and stares, but I think we've all aclimatated to that and don't really think of it much. Unfortunately, Diana, who is an incredibly well-travelled individual, will be leaving us tomorrow and will not be able to join us on our journey south.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Bussing With Locals
Fes, Morocco

Everyone has a crazy bus or taxi story, so here's ours. We were hoping to take the 1st class bus (CTM) from Chefchaouen to Fes, but as Jen mentioned earlier, it was full, so we booked tickets on the 7:00am local bus instead.

Little did we know that this would take SEVEN hours instead of FOUR, we'd start off the trip with a fistfight at the bus 'station', and we'd be paying the police a few times at the various checkpoints along the way, for what, we had no idea.

We had to throw our bags on top; not sure what was occupying the cargo holds underneath, but that was no big deal. The bus itself was decent, if you didn't look at the duct tape and plastic wrap that was used to hold most of the insides together.

Fortunately we boarded the bus early on the route so we got seats;at about hour two when it looked like the bus was full, plastic stools appeared out of nowhere and people filled up the whole aisle. Then they sat on the engine cowling and each other's laps, with the last few people finally choosing to stand among the stools in the middle.

The driver was actually pretty good, and only passed people on blind corners three or four times. He did however, have an odd habit of drawing the curtain on his right side completely shut whenever the sun was on that side; I guess he could sense vehicles through the curtain instead of seeing them!

The ticket collectors were very colourful characters with booming voices and many unique hand gestures; they definitely were the ones in control on this bus. While standing at the front, they did not seem to mind that the bus door would swing widely open whenever we turned left. It was open for as much time that it was closed. Like I said, I'm glad we had seats!

Nevertheless, we did make it to Fes seven sweaty hours later. And there were some neat things we observed as well: twice, men stood to offer women their seats; we saw a mother lay her head down on her young daughter's lap to sleep and several times the daughter asked her neighbours to keep their voices down; we even saw an old man offer half his sandwich to his seat mate, a complete stranger, without saying a single word. I don't think we'd see that happen at home much.

Fes is a fascinating city; we've still got lots to explore and will hopefully be able to blog about this soon!

Monday, August 18, 2003

Relaxing in the Rif Mountains
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Well, we're here for another day. Turns out that all the first class seats to Fes are already sold out for the rest of the week, so we're going to catch a 7am (too early!) second class bus tomorrow. It's supposedly 6 hours long, so hopefully it's early enough that it won't be too hot.

We don't mind at all being here for another night. Chaouen, also spelt Xaouen, is a wonderful town. Nestled up in the slopes of the Rif Mountains, the buildings are mostly blue and white washed. It is very beautiful here, with bright blue skies and very friendly people. We have seen many women walk by in the traditional costumes of this region: a dress underneath a skirt of red and white strips, a veil and sometimes hat over the head, and a towel over the shoulders. I feel hot just watching them, but I guess they are used to it. The men wear wollen caps, and a full length wool coat with hood.

We had a nice supper out at the plaza. There are many cafes there, with very competitive prices. We have really gotten to like the Moroccan daily soup; locals have it nightly and we have begun to do the same. It's a very hearty vegetable soup with pasta and chick peas and vegetables in it. It reminds us of the alphabet soup, but it's much tastier. Of course, I can't say enough about the sweet freshly squeezed orange juices here. Winston and I had 2 glasses each at both meals yesterday. Hm, we don't have to worry about vitamin C overdose, I hope. It was very cool out last night, and there were tons of people milling around on every street both in and out of the medina. It was very interesting to walk past a local park and to see only women and children there. The men, we guessed, were all the the cafes. Before retiring to our room, we enjoyed the millions of stars visible above our wonderful terrace. It was quite neat seeing all the buildings up the hill from us with their dim lights. Very beautiful indeed.

After breakfast this morning, we walked around the souk (held on Mondays and Thursdays here). There were many people, both selling and buying. There were all sorts of food (fruits, vegetables, olives, fish, live animals), household goods, tools, clothing, rugs, used items, etc. for sale. It was neat. An old woman beckoned for me to buy her fruits - I still have to find out what it is called, but I saw many locals eat them. It's an oval shaped fruit about the size of small pear; green with a few pricky things sticking out. Once you peel off the outer layer, the flesh inside is orange/yellow with soft seeds that can be swallowed. It was quite good - I ate the whole thing though it made a sticky mess in my hands. I had no idea how much it cost - I have the old lady 1dh, which is about 10cents.

We're looking forward to exploring more of this nice town and its narrow roads. Since it is on a hill side, you can only go up or down. We're sure doing a lot of walking, but I think we both feel that we should still figure out some cardio exercises to go because we're eating too much! It is very hard to resist the good food, though we think that the food here is actually quite non-fatty. I forgot to say that we sampled tagine last night. It's the national food here, and is a stew cooked with fruits. Last night it was lamb with mixed vegetables. They also serve it with chicken, shrimp or just veggies. It is going to be fun eating here for the next few weeks! We are probably going to be sticker shocked when we head back to Europe next month. Oh well, that is later in the meantime, we will keep enjoying eating lots here.

Sunday, August 17, 2003

Tangerine Thoughts
Chefchaouen, Morocco

Yes, for those who have been following things closely, we're not in Rabat after all, but a very last-minute change of plans has brought us here to Chefchaouen. More on this later. This is gonna be a long blog.

We're definitely not in Kansas anymore! If it weren't for our previous visit to Cairo, I think we'd be hit reasonably hard by culture shock. As it is, our impressions of Tanger (spelt this way locally, as opposed to 'Tangier'), was that it was noisy, smelly, and grungy... and we really enjoyed it!

It's certainly easy to see how people could be negatively affected by the city. It's reasonably crowded, walking through the medina can be intimidating, and garbage is strewn pretty much anywhere you walk. However, Tanger was full of surprises for us, and we were only there for two days!

The beach was a total surprise; we looked ridiculously out of place with Jen wearing pants and me carrying my pack and wearing shoes. Everyone else was in shorts and swimming trunks; there were a few ladies covered up, but there were certainly more people undressed than dressed! I guess we are visiting the western-most edge of the Islamic world, in a way.

The mint tea that we heard all about is incredibly sweet, and I'm finding incredibly addictive. I'm not much of a sweet-tooth, but I love this tea; had three glasses of it at three different sittings the other day. It's also another excuse to just sit down and people-watch for a while, which we love doing.

The meals have been much more healthy so far; lots of vegetables, and great thick soups. And the cost... boy, travelling here is inexpensive compared to Europe, which we knew, but $4 per person per night for our hotel here in Chefchaouen? Completely unreal.

The medina in Tanger is a must-see for people who do choose to come here. It was bustling every time we went there, in the morning and the evening. Locals, tourists alike seem to be drawn to the markets and the narrow alleyways to shop for produce, meats, clothing, cooking utensils, you name it. I wish I felt a little more secure about taking my camera out in the medina to take more pictures, but a couple of sharp words from some people made me a bit trigger-shy. But boy, there were some great photo ops in there. The kasbah (fortress) at the top is so-so; we had a few young boys lead us around for a few cents.

By the way, I think we've come to a decision re: hostelling. We asked ourselves a few weeks back if we were likely to continue staying in youth hostels. Well, our experience last night at the hostel in Tanger convinced us that unless there is a double room available, we're not doing the hostel thing any more. I had four guys in my 16-man room (yes, that's right, 16) decide that they would go onto the balcony beside my bed at midnight to chat and smoke some kif (aka pot, hashish, ganga...). Needless to say, it wasn't a great experience. Jen also got very little sleep. Like I mentioned before, the hotel we've secured here in Chefchaouen is costing us 40 Dirham each, about $4 US, so it's not like we're saving much by staying in youth hostels!

Ok, so after two days in Tanger, we were talking about going to Rabat, but we found out that obtaining our Indian visas wouldn't necessarily take as long as we originally thought. So, we decided to take the more geographically sensible route and bus here to Chefchaouen instead, then to Fes tomorrow. From Fes we might stop by Meknes on the way to Rabat, after which we'll head down to Marrakech to look into some trekking options.

All these exotic sounding names: here's the nutshell breakdown. Tanger: coastal city, primary entrypoint into Morocco from Spain. Chefchaouen: small, quiet town, not very busy at all, very relaxed atmosphere. Fes: one of the Imperial Cities, thought to be the spiritual center of Morocco, supposedly one of the best cities to visit (we'll find out soon). Meknes and Marrakech: also Imperial Cities, haven't done much reading on them yet; Marrakech is the portal to most of the trekking in the High Atlas mountains.

We decided to take a 2nd class bus from Tanger to Chefchaouen. Let's just say I'm thankful it was only a two hour bus ride. I'd do 2nd class again, but only for short trips like that. The 5 hour trip to Fes? We're going on the first class coach, which is about $3 more. It was ridiculously crowded at the bus terminal, and just as crowded on the bus. Jen's very thankful she brought her fan from Spain, 'cause she was fanning herself almost the whole way along. Did you know that once the bus gets going, some passengers turn into vendors and start selling their wares to you as you travel? One guy talked for almost half an hour, it was pretty impressive. I was also impressed to see that the bus operator actually passed out water for people to drink. The whole bus shared the one cup, which was interesting. We stuck to our bottled water.

Chefchaouen is a must see, there's no doubt about that. We can see how it could become very touristy in a few more years, but right now, it still has that old village look and feel. Not nearly as many people hassling you on the street, and lots of colour in the clothing and decorations around the buildings. We're staying right in the medina, at a place called Pension Castilliana, which has this amazing terrace on the roof from which you can seen the entire town and the mountains beyond. Very highly recommended.

Incidentally, the French that I learned in high school? It's finally being used... somewhat. My accent is terrible, and I can't believe how much vocaulary I've forgotten, but I'm getting better results with French than I am with English, which is pretty amazing.

Oops, there goes the call to prayer again. I think it's five times a day... loudspeakers from all the minarets and mosques around the city issue the traditional Arabic call. I think it's pretty neat, as long as you don't have a loudspeaker pointed at your hotel room. Ok, time to find some food. I guess the next time we write it will be from Fes!


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