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Friday, November 23, 2007

Cooped Up

We've had a few breaks in the unending cold front that seems to have parked itself over northern Morocco. The town of Chefchaoun dried out briefly, allowing us to hike up to the ruins of a mosque on the mountainside overlooking the town.

When we returned to the town, we allowed ourselves to get lost in the winding, cobblestone streets. We passed an old toothless woman, who put her hand to our hearts, mouth and forehead. She was either giving us some kind of blessing, or the evil eye. Later, a woman explained that she was saying 'God is in your heart, your prayers and your thoughts.'

With that blessing, we decided it was time to travel on to Meknes. Instead of taking a bus, we opted to try out a Grand Taxi. When we got to the grand taxi stand, there were many people gathered around a number of different Mercedes in the lot. Asking around, we found one heading to Ouzanne. Basically, you pay $3 and wait for the vehicle to fill up to capacity--meaning two passengers and the driver in the front seat, and four people in back.

Our driver, Mario Andretti, sped along the narrow highway, swerving into the opposite lane when turning corners. But, we made it safely to Ouzanne. We could either squeeze into another grand taxi to Meknes or bus it the rest of the way.

It appeared as though the bus for Meknes would be leaving shortly, so we took that option. I followed the luggage handler around to the other side of the bus to put the luggage under the bus. He opened the hatch, revealing a few chickens that he grabbed by the legs and pulled out...providing room for the bags.

When we boarded the bus, the floor was covered with sawdust. I was half expecting to see more livestock to be honest. The bus waited an excruciatingly long time before it actually pulled out. Three LONG hours and multiple stops later, we finally emerged from the bus in Meknes, the Versaille of Morocco.

More later!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Moroccan Hammam

Almost every city in the Arabic world has a hamman, or a public bathhouse, where the locals come for their scrubdown. In Chefchaoun, the men have the run of the bathhouse in the morning, and women come in the afternoon and evening.

It was around 6 p.m. when I decided to try out the hammam for myself. After paying 40dirham ($4) for the shower and massage option, I entered into a world unfamiliar to me. After all, I've never had someone wash me from head to foot before--except for when I was a baby. I was told to buy a washing mit

Most of the local women were in the dressing area, having just finished with their baths, so I had no one to observe what to do and how to do it. I hung my clothes and my modesty on the hook in the room; then I was ushered into a steamy tiled room, with hot water spilling from a spigot in the corner.

The only clothed woman in the room was sweeping up trash and hair into a pile in the corner. When she was done, she turned her attention to me. She motioned for me to lie down face up on the tiled bench. She began to massage me with the soap I bought in the lobby--a goopy honey-colored glob. She quickly turned me over to the backside and when she was finished she slapped my thigh. When I sat up, she poured a bucket of water over my head.

I had been warned about what came next. She slipped an exfoliating glove over her hand, and began sloughing off the dead skin from my back. My skin turned instantly a tomato red, as she gave it her all. She continued to my arms, stomach and legs. By the time she was done, I had completely molted.

I emerged from the hamman, fresh, clean and soft, like the butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Washing Away the Desert Sand

The bus driver awoke me to say we had arrived in Fes. He asked me if I was continuing on to Chefchaouen, but I wasn't.

Then I was.

After reading a description of the small mountain village in the Lonely Planet guide, I convinced Jennifer to skip Fes and go directly there. Afterall, it was a rainy day in Fes and it would be nice to spend sometime in "a charming town" with its signature blue-washed homes with red-tiled roofs.

I was looking forward to taking a hot shower to wash away the sand, but instead I was greeted in Chefchaouen with a torrential downpour that had started 24 hours before. We didn't have a place to stay, so we shared a taxi with a fellow traveler, Troy, to the medina and took shelter in a small restaurant to eat a hot meal and figure out our next step.

He went off seeking a budget option, and when he returned, I set out find a more comfortable accommodation. We had read about a Italian-run place that had fireplaces in each room, but when I finally found it in the wet and windy alleyways on the hillside, they only had bunk beds in very small rooms.

We settled on a family-run pension, which had rooms that surround a covered courtyard. It seems pleasant enough! Now we are waiting for the rain to stop while we check email. It doesn't want to give up. I needed a shower, but I wasn't looking for a downpour!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I've Been Through the Desert on a Camel with No Name

What do you get when you cross three Brits, four Americans, one Arab and a minibus?
A cross between an iPod commercial and the film "Little Miss Sunshine."

Our trip to the Sahara Desert got off to a good start with Rock the Kasbah blaring on the van's speakers. One of our fellow travelers had created the perfect soundtrack for our next few days from the 9000 songs he had stored on his iPod.

After being in the car for two days, we finally turned left off the highway and sped across a sandy plain that soon gave way to the dunes of the Sahara. A few moments later, we were perched atop camels, making our way to our encampment. By the time we reached our tents, darkness had fallen. While our guide, Addi, made dinner, the lot of us bolted up the nearest dune in our bare feet, with only the half moon to light the way. Midway, I collapsed, observing the stars in the night sky.

When we came back down, we spread a large Berber rug in the sand in the middle of our circle of tents and the entertainment portion of the evening began with a meal consisting of chicken and vegetables. We passed the rest of the night beating drums and singing Berber songs along with Addi and the Berber family living at the encampment.

We were worried about how cold it might be in the desert at night, but we were more than comfortable in the warm tents. One member of our group, Ava, decided to sleep under the stars, and we found her the next morning curled up in a fetal position, completely hidden under her blanket.

Around 5:30 a.m., we trekked up a nearby dune, following the fresh tracks of a desert fox. We watched the colors of the sky go from a dark blue to pink, then to yellow as the sun crested over the distant horizon casting a warm glow on the rolling dunes.

We tried to savor the moment, however brief, for soon we were back on our camels for the trek back. Instead of returning to Marrakech with the rest of the group, Jennifer and I opted to stay the day at the auberge on the edge of the Sahara, sitting on the back patio, relaxing, writing in our journals and enjoying the peace and quiet. We had the place completely to ourselves, and the hotel manager gave us a room to use for the day.

That evening we hired a delivery vehicle to take us to the closest town to take the night bus to Fes.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thank God the French Got Here First

There's no better reason to go shopping in the souks of Marrakesh than when you've lost your baggage and you are desperately seeking underwear. No, it wasn't my luggage that was misplaced, but that of my travel companion, Jennifer. So, here we were on our first few hours in Morocco, scouring the market for a fresh change of clothing.

It all started with an hour-long delay at JFK; we knew we'd missed our connecting flight in Casablanca, but with four hours to wait before the next one, we didn't think we'd have trouble with her bag.When it didn't appear on the baggage claim carousel, Jennifer lost her cool with the lack of help from the Royal Air Maroc staff who, after some prodding, told her to call the airport eight hours later.

On top of that, the driver waiting to collect us at the airport and take us to our accommodations, nearly left without us because he had another client to pick up somewhere else. He told me he'd wait one more minute, and finally Jennifer came out of the baggage claim area empty handed. The driver, who must have been 6 feet, 5 inches tall, raced to the car--leaving us huffing and puffing several paces behind him.

Without a word, he raced through the crowded streets, dodging slow cars, pedestrians, cylists and donkeys on the way. He dumped us at a carpark and we had to maneuver our way through the labyrinth of the old medina to our riad, an old home converted into a boutique hotel with a living room and a roof-top terrace.

Surprisingly chipper, Jennifer was ready to do some exploring before we'd have to make contact with the airline about her missing bag. We enjoyed our al fresco lunch, just off the main square, the Djemaa-el-Fna. Even with bellies full with chicken tajine, we contemplated a yummy chocolate desert at a nearby patiserie. I couldn't help thinking that I had the French to thank for that wonderfully delicious import.

"As opposed to if the Japanese would have gotten here first?" Jennifer said. "Otherwise you would be eating green tea mochi."

Perhaps we might have gotten her luggage, too, but we ignored that thought as we wandered the plaza full of snake charmers, tattoo artists, acrobats and touts, getting lost in the jumble as the sun set behind the mosque blaring its evening call to prayer.