Saturday, April 2, 2016

MOROCCO


I was going to title this post, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore!" because Morocco was like another dimension. Indeed, if I hadn't traveled there with a companion, I'm not sure I would have lasted past the first day! Traveling with Elin was a huge asset, yet it also threw me off balance a bit. By the time we reached Morocco, I'd been traveling alone almost two months and then, all of a sudden, I had a companion 24/7. Yes, VaughanTown had been a social week, but I'd had my own room and alone time. I'd become so comfortable with the silence of solo travel that it was jarring to carry on constant conversation and share my time with someone else. But what a partner Elin was - up for any adventure and laughing through our screw ups!
When we landed in Ceuta on the African continent we were lost. Ceuta is actually a tiny Spanish autonomous city on the northern coast of Africa and at its western border lies Morocco. As we stood at the port looking confused I'm sure, a Moroccan man approached us and asked where we were going. When we told him Tetouan, he said that was his hometown and he would help us get there. He was pleasant enough but quite insistant as he maneuvered us through the crowds to a small office where he asked the man seated behind the desk for a sheet of paper. He drew a crude map of Morocco and in the corner wrote "€40". He would get us to Tetouan for €40. I had heard about these guys. David Anderson, a brilliant man from England I'd met at VaughanTown, had told me he'd experienced the very same thing at the port in Morocco - they'd approach you at the port, help you with your paperwork and get you where you were going...for a fee. I asked him, " How much do we pay for your help?" He paused for a smile before answering, "Ten euros only for both. Just ten euros." Elin and I looked at each other - do we trust him? We decided yes. The negotiated price (we actually didn't negotiate at all, just agreed) was fair, comparable to what any taxi would be. We filled out our paperwork and followed him outside. He first walked us to a hidden area around the side of the building where a man stood beside a car that was backed into the corner so tightly he could hardly get back there to open the trunk. I got nervous and started taking pictures of the car, the license plate, the men. Another man walked over and a small discussion took place, almost an argument. Elin and I stood far back from the car and the men, ready to run if they tried to stuff us in the trunk. We were then walked to a different car, this one in plain sight of the port where we loaded our backpacks into the trunk. Elin kept up a constant conversation while I took more pictures of the new car and license plate. We were in this together. We got in the car and headed toward the border. I know the men were laughing at our anxiety as the man who aporoached us at the port, Said, handed us his passport to prove he was from Tetouan. I took pictures of his passport and then texted my sister Doreen, "Keep this info for a bit. Tell you why later. License plate of vehicle -######. Passport of man in my pictures. Said B from the province of Tetouan. All is okay, just being cautious. Love U!" Soon the driver also gave us his passport and I took more pictures. I think of this now and it makes me laugh as Said was so kind and helpful. He got us through border control and all the way to Tetouan, called our hotel and sat with us in a cafe drinking mint tea until someone from our hotel/riad retrieved us.
Me, Elin and Said
The hotel I had booked, Hotel Riad Dalia Tetouan, was magnificent and I don't think we were fully prepared for our room. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house (or palace) built around an interior garden or courtyard. The roof above the courtyard, sometimes three or four stories above, is usually glass and some of them open partially. It provides lots of light to the courtyard and to the rooms which line the exterior on each floor. After the customary mint tea, we followed Meriem to our room. When she opened the door, I'm pretty sure Elin and I gasped. 
Beautiful tile work, thick rugs and elegant textiles greeted us.
Meriem then escorted us to the roof where we had a view of Tetouan and the surrounding mountains. 
Meriem and Elin on the roof terrace
From that point on, Tetouan was a blur of sights, sounds and smells under the expert guidance of our almost constant companion, Nasser. He collected us from Said at the tea house and put us in a cab the next day to catch a bus out of town and in between he gave us a grand tour of Tetouan. He maneuvered us through the narrow streets of the Medina. 
Nasser the Magnificent!
A Medina is a section of a city in Morocco (and other North African cities) that is usually contained within walls and is often the historical, ancient part of the city. Usually they are free of car traffic (I'm talking REALLY narrow streets), but sometimes wide enough to accommodate motorbikes and bicycles. A lot of commerce takes place here - kind of a cross between a massive farmers market and a flea market. There were sections for foodstuffs (including live chickens in pens behind booths selling butchered chickens hanging by their feet), craftsmen (incredible woodworkers as well as textile artists and so much more), household goods (plumbing supplies, pots and pans), sweets and breads (a small bakery where locals brought their pans of breads or trays of cookies to be baked), jewelry (lots of fine gold and silver work), rugs...I could go on and on. It was overwhelming and we kept close by Nasser so as not to get lost. Nasser kept up a constant dialogue about the historic aspects of the Medina. I cannot imagine what visiting Tetouan would have been without his expertise and knowledge. He took us through the tannery (thank goodness it was March and still cool as I'm told the smell in the summer is unbelievable. Pigeon poop is used as a tanning agent in the beginning of the process), and explained the process start to finish. Some pics from the Medina in Tetouan:
Chickens awaiting their fate as dinner
Me with the man who kept the wood fired oven going at the bakery
Part of the tannery. These cement holding tanks are big enough for men to stand in while working. Each set of tanks is a different part of the process.
After hours in the Medina, we came back to Riad Dalia to enjoy a delicious traditional dinner of tagine and fall asleep under piles of blankets in our sumptuous room. The next morning after a big breakfast, our dear Nasser loaded us into a taxi headed to the bus station and our next stop, Chefchouen - the blue city.
At the bus station we bought our tickets - 20 dirham each, about $2 - for the 2 1/2 hour ride. A handsome young man asked if we were heading to Chefchouen and when we answered yes, he took us to the correct bus and found us seats. The bus was pretty full by the time we got on, so we sat in the next to the last row. Our friend sat across the aisle. He and Elin talked almost the entire way while I worked to keep breakfast in my stomach where it belonged. The ride was mountainous and curvy and the bus was humid. Our friend kept sucking on a lemon to keep from getting sick. Elin gave a boy sitting behind us on the last row a large ziplock when he began to look green. Our friend (I think his name was Hussein) told us he lived in Chefchouen but went to school in Tetouan and endured this ride three days a week. I was glad to climb off the bus on wobbly legs and hike through the town square to get a taxi to the Medina where we were staying. Our Riad, Dar Gabriel, was close to the gate (or Bab) where the taxi dropped us. Within minutes we were inside the cool, blue (in Chefchouen, always blue) courtyard and shown our room. I had booked a room for 2 with twin beds. We were shown a room with one double bed. Sorry, we told them, we are not such good friends as to sleep in one bed. Next came a room on the top floor with the roof top terrace steps away. Twin beds, but the shower was a sprayer attached to the wall of the bathroom. We stayed in that room one night but moved down a floor to a twin bed room with a real shower the next night. The terrace was lovely and I watched the full moon rise over the mountains that night. 
Chefchouen at dusk
Part of the terrace
Elin washing our clothes in the bathroom
Our first full day in Chefchouen we asked Rida, the manager, if he could arrange a visit to a hammam - a Moroccan bath house. He gave the job to Ahmed, his co-manager, to arrange. Ahmed is a soccer star on the Chefchouen team. He's been featured in ads for soccer clothes and is as motivated as Rida is laid back (At this point I THOUGHT Rida was laid back). Those two made quite a team. Ahmed made a few calls as he walked us through the Medina and after buying a scrubbing mitt and some traditional soap (it's sold out of big washtubs, is the consistency of greasy pudding and is scooped out and put in plastic bags), we were handed over to the care of a woman at the hammam. Little did we know we would be the entertainment for the group of women taking baths that day. We were led to a wooden bench in a tiled room and after watching a few other women undressing, did the same. Soon we were sitting on the bench naked except for a pair of underwear and our belongings were tucked in a cubby in an adjoining room. We were given plastic shoes and led by a woman dressed like us (or UNdressed like us) through a door into one room, then another. The second room was quite warm - not like a sauna, but close. She placed two plastic mats on the cement floor and instructed us through pantomime to take off our shoes and sit on the mats. The room had maybe 6 other women in it and a few very young children, all stripped down to their underwear. They all bathed using the super hot water in buckets around the room. They watched as the attendant soaped us up, rinsed us off and scrubbed us with the mitt Ahmed had purchased which Elin likened to a brillo pad. Then we both received a rather cursory massage and had our hair washed and rinsed. Everyone else in the room took care of themselves. It was a bit embarrassing. We were given towels and led back to the changing room where we proceeded to get dressed and leave as quickly as possible. Elin, who has traveled extensively in Turkey and has been to many hammams there, assured me it was not the usual experience. We would discover later what a Moroccan hammam is REALLY like.
That afternoon Rida walked us through the Medina and up to the Spanish Mosque. No longer used for prayer, it is a spot high on a hill overlooking all of Chefchouen and a popular place to watch the sun set and see the changing light make the blue city glow. Did I mention that Chefchouen is the hashish capital of Morocco? Maybe that accounts for its laid back atmosphere and its popularity with young tourists. It was pretty evident everywhere we went. The next day Rida said we should visit Akchour in the Talassemtane National Park. There, he said, were beautiful waterfalls, good hiking trails and monkeys in the trees. We left after breakfast and with Rida as our guide took the 40 minute taxi ride through the mountains to the park. It was Saturday, the day before Easter, so there were quite a few people out to enjoy the clear, sunny day at the park. We started the walk on an unimproved path that was not very easy going. At one point we had to hop across pillars that once held up a bridge over the small river. Elin uses walking sticks when on uneven ground and she lagged behind us as Rida hurried me on. Every now and then he would slow down enough to help Elin over a particularly rough area. But he was on a mission. I still don't know what that mission was, but I experienced it full throttle. When we got to the small waterfalls (Petit Cascade), about 40 minutes in, Rida suggested Elin stay there. He said the path got considerably rougher, so he ordered Elin some mint tea (Moroccan's cure for everything) and we took off leaving her at a table in the shade. After 45 minutes of following Rida up steep, gravelled hills and hopping rock to rock over the river, he proudly showed me a sign written on a tree stump - 55 min to big waterfall. At this point I thought I might die out there in that park. The sun was beating down, I had already consumed about three quarters of my water and Rida was raring to go. I followed the best I could, but mostly lagged way behind. Every time we crossed the river, he'd wait for me and was thrilled every time we passed other hikers. A few times, as he stood at the top of a hill urging me up, I'd tell him he was killing me. He'd just smile and watch me pull myself up by grasping the tree limbs. Honestly, there was no other way to get up there. There were small places along the way to get lukewarm drinks or candy bars. How they got stuff up there, I can't imagine, although I saw a few huts off in the woods where the vendors lived part time. Some even had small gardens. At one point, Rida turned to me and said, "Five minutes more, I swear!" And then as we turned a corner there, in all its glory, was the BIG WATERFALL!
Yes. I walked 10 miles for this.
Rida insisted we walk over the wet, mossy rocks to get behind the waterfall and I was glad he did because a fine mist filled the air back there and the shade was moist and cool. We hadn't been sitting there five minutes when he took out his phone and exclaimed it was already four o'clock and we'd have to hurry back to avoid walking out in the dark. I finished the last of my water, ate a handful of peanuts and followed him from behind the waterfall. As he hurried back the way we came I decided I'd had enough of this marathon. When we came to the first river crossing I started in on him. "It's not the destination, it's the journey, Rida!" He just looked at me and smiled. "You are 23 years old and impatient. Someday you'll realize how to go more slowly and ENJOY life instead of hurrying through it!" He smiled some more. At one of the small drink stands (not much more than a handmade wooden table with plastic bottles on it) I bought an orange juice only to discover it was orange flavored sugar water. I sucked it down in seconds. When we came upon a group of eight or ten hikers, he got even more impatient. The path was narrow with few spots that allowed passing. When we reached another river crossing, he and I stood on the bank watching them s-l-o-w-l-y make their way across the pillars, even stopping mid stream to take selfies. The water was ankle deep, so I just started wading across and he followed. The hikers stopped to watch us and when we got to the other side one of the girls gave me a high five. Rida slowed down a bit after this and, although he complained that his feet were freezing (the water wasn't that cold), he commended me on how well I'd done. We reached Elin soon after and found she had done art, waded in the river and made lots of friends (she is incredibly good at making friends). We headed back to the park entrance, with Rida staying behind with Elin helping her over the more treacherous parts. I took every opportunity to sit and wait for them to catch up. At the edge of the first bridge where you enter the park, we sat and had tall, cold glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice. 
As it turned out, Rida had read his phone wrong at the Big Waterfall. It was not four, but two thirty. I thought he did it on purpose so we wouldn't linger. Laughing, he denied it.
That night Elin did some Healing Touch massage on me and we both dosed up on Arnica. We didn't even go down to dinner, but ate Elin's amazing homemade Hommous in a Bag and bread. We were sharing a taxi with an English couple to Meknes the next morning and had to be up early. 
Elin, Rida, Ahmed and me
The taxi ride was uneventful. The English couple, Neal and MariaElena gave us some good tips on visiting Meknes such as "Don't stand too close to watch the snake charmers or they'll expect you to pay." Good to know! They also gave us a few restaurant recommendations. By this time we knew the drill. Have the taxi take you to the Bab (gate) closest to your hotel (the Medina has many Babs) and have the driver call the hotel. Someone comes to the taxi to walk you into the Medina to your hotel. The walk through the square was enlightening. Besides the snake charmers there were tiny costumed monkeys on leashes and all manner of salespeople hawking their goods. Ryad Bahia (Riad/Ryad, no difference) was wonderful. It had been our hosts family home for four generations. Each floor had sitting areas and the top floor, in addition to having four or five rooms, had some terrific spots for lounging in the sun or having lunch outside which we did both days of our stay. One reason I'd booked this hotel was that it had a hammam on site. Yes, we were going to try again. We were nothing if not intrepid! However, after booking the hammam for the day after our arrival at 10 in the morning, we were told the hammam at Ryad Bahia was not working! No problem! They made arrangements with another hammam outside the Medina. We would be picked up at 10 and have the full treatment and be returned to Bahia afterwards. After a wonderful dinner at the Ryad that evening (the best meal I'd had in Morocco up to that point!), we went to bed anticipating the next days adventure.
My bed at Ryad Bahia
Breakfast was a feast! And at 10 sharp, an older woman in a headscarf and a jilbab (a robe of sorts) was waiting for us downstairs to take us to the hammam. She was very kind and had a sweet smile. We liked her immediately. She first took us to the open air market to buy two scrubbies (the aforementioned "brillo pads") and then we caught a taxi into the big city of Meknes. When we pulled up in front of a fancy salon, Elin and I knew our experience was going to be vastly different from the one in Chefchouen. We were the only people in the salon except two employees. Our friend took us upstairs and began the preparation of the " sauna" room. It had a tile floor and wide tiled benches and two brass faucets on one wall with big brass cauldrons underneath them. As before, we stripped to our undies and our friend stripped to a tee shirt and underwear. It was then we realized she was not an old woman, but younger than either of us! She poured very hot water on us first as we sat on low stools by the cauldrons. Then she had us lie down on mats set on the heated tiled benches. We were covered in mint scented mud, scrubbed, then covered in argan oil, scrubbed, then covered in a powdered red root and scrubbed again. She had Elin look at all the skin sloughing off me. I wondered if any bones were showing through. The benches were so hot I thought I could hear my fat sizzle and pop like a steak on a grill! She flipped us from top to bottom with each new treatment. The last treatment was plain soap, although I'm not sure what was left to clean. We then moved from the benches back to the low stools and she washed our hair, scrubbing our scalps thoroughly. I don't think I've ever been that clean in my life. She handed us heated towels and we sat in the outer room while she cleaned up the treatment room. 
Scrubbed to within an inch of our lives!
But wait! There's more! We were taken downstairs for the employees to do blow outs on our hair! Elin came in with naturally curly hair and I came in with straight. We left with the exact opposites. I am almost embarrassed to post this pic, but what the hell...you only live once.
Three hours after we entered the salon, we left looking like this. 
There is a bit more to our Morocco trip, like a fabulous meal made by this woman (that's her son with her):
And a chance meeting in a Syrian restaurant in Rabat of a young woman named Mackenzie Ritter doing a semester abroad from St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio! What are the odds of that??? And the fact that, even though we took the early train, we missed the ferry in Tangier and stood on the dock screaming and pleading with the crew to let us on the ship as it headed out to sea. And the series of buses we took to get across Spain. I said good bye to dear Elin in Seville as I took the midnight bus to Lisbon. I miss her every day! Morocco was the most intriguing travelling I've ever done and I hope to go back sometime. 
But now I am heading out with only my two feet and a much smaller backpack. Yes, The Beast has been cleaved. My stuffed to the gills day pack will stay here in Lisbon and my relatively light big pack will travel with me the length of Portugal to northwestern Spain. My Camino starts tomorrow morning. I'm giving myself 43 days to walk about 390 miles. I have no idea what I'm doing. Every day I'll just walk and hope in the evening I get where I had planned to be. It is a giant leap of faith. It is a Holy Year of Mercy. Right now it is the only path I know.

6 comments:

Peggyk said...

What a wonderful story!!! If you want to go back to Morocco, take me with you! Glad you got to enjoy a great hammam. Looking forward to stories from your camino.

Doreen said...

Thank you....

Jodie said...

Diane- I LOVE reading your blog and seeing everything your doing. Wish we could be there with you. Wanted to wish you a happy birthday!!

Marta said...

"Right now it is the only path I know" ❤️ ❤️
You are loved dearly! SAFE travels Ma, you are an amazing inspiration. Courageous.Fearless.Ambitious.... And I get to call you MY mother!!

Doreen said...

Marta - you said perfectly how I feel.. I get to call her sister!!!

Diana Balsells said...

Amazing trip Diane! Thanks for sharing, I feel like I'm travelling too! Take care!