27 June 2005

Berber Love stories, part 2.

Well, our lovestruck desert girls (and chaperones) have all returned safely from the Sahara. They went to a Berber wedding, but fortunately, none of them were in it. They actually ended up having a pretty amazing trip- they went to the houses of the men they'd met, and met their families, ate large homemade meals, and got invited to a traditional Berber wedding ceremony, which they said was beautiful. One of the guys in our group, Demetrius, who's African American, was quite the hit with the dark skinned Berbers. Apparently, they tried to find him a wife, but failed. Pity...would have made for a great story!

In other news- tonight, Leila, the fabulous maid who runs the villa, gave us cooking lessons! About six of us helped with the preparations for a chicken tajine, and another eight people helped eat it. It was a lot of peeling and chopping of potatoes, onions, garlic, parsley, carrots, tomatos, and other seasonings, then we sort of sat back and watched Leila do the cooking while she taught us dirty words in Arabic. But, we wrote down the recipe (as accurately as possible, considering our Arabic vocabulary), so perhaps I'll give it a try back home. It was definitely the best tajine we've eaten here. She's had a few lessons in the past, and we've been tortured with the amazing smells coming out of the kitchen, so it was fabulous to finally partake in the deliciousness!

And one last cultural oddity- today in class, our professor was trying to explain the word for "continent," and he said there were 5 in the world. We couldn't figure out what he was talking about, so he finally got exasperated and told us the answer. Apparently, in Morocco, North and South America are one continent, and Antartica just doesn't count. Who'da thunk? On the bright side, it makes my goal of visiting all the continents that much closer- just one left!

26 June 2005

Berber love and monkeys.

Well, I'm at the halfway point of my time in Morocco, and I'm sad to realize I have to leave in another three weeks. At least I get to spend some time in Europe to help ease the transition. It's been another eventful week here- Almost everyone is completely recovered from their digestive troubles now, I've been bathed by a stranger, Caroline moved out into her homestay and my new roommate is from England, I've touched a wild monkey, and two of the girls on the trip just might come back married. Intrigued...?

The Sahara, pt. 2- A few (7) members of the UF group went back to the desert this weekend, and nearly sparked a major crisis for Dr. Bamia, the professor running this trip. It appears that two of the girls going back fell in love with Berber camel guides, and wanted to go back to see them again, but they didn't tell Dr. Bamia about the men at first. Although a foolish trip in the first place, it would have been even sillier to go alone, so more people joined them. They all left Friday night on an overnight bus down there and should be back late tonight, and now we're all waiting to see if either of them come back married- I'll post an update online when we find out.

Thursday night we all went out to a nice dinner at a restaurant overlooking the medina, since Dr. Bamia leaves today. A bit pricier than the average cafe, but still cheap by American standards. I had an authentic pastilla, made with pigeon instead of chicken. It was much better than I expected- a bit darker than chicken, but if I hadn't known, I don't think I would have noticed a difference. It sounds strange to mix scrambled eggs, meat, and nuts in a sugary pastry, but it tastes fabulous! We watched the sunset over the hills of the medina and danced with the drummers before we came home to study for Friday's test. That "study" part of "study abroad" just seems to be getting in the way of traveling!

We originally planned to go to Rabat this weekend, but fortunately, we overslept on Saturday morning and missed the train. Instead, we spent the day relaxing by the pool at the hotel next door, where we discovered that Moroccans can't dive or swim well, and the Speedo hasn't gone out of fashion yet. Although the sight of our pale bodies was rather shocking, I think the other people at the pool were more amazing by our ability to dive without belly-flopping.

Azrou/Ifrane- Since we missed the train to Rabat, a group of us decided to take the advice of some of our classmates and take a grand taxi ride out to Ifrane. The six of us are all in the same intermediate class, but we managed to find the train station and haggle our taxi ride down to 500 Dh from 800, using our limited Arabic (and Candace's blonde hair!), and also ensure a return trip with a stop for lunch. A very proud moment! The city is a complete anomaly in Morocco- in the winter, it's a ski resort (yes, it does snow in Morocco!) for wealthy Europeans, and the city looks hauntingly like Geneva. No beggars, no random donkeys roaming the streets, and only a few stray cats. Very un-Moroccan!

Outside of Ifrane is the little village of Azrou, famous for its Barbary Apes. The apes are used to humans and practically tame, so people go out there to hand feed them. Since you all understand my love for feeding quasi wild animals (Pigeons in Venice, deer in Japan, etc), you can only imagine how exciting it was to be that close to monkeys! We brought loaves of bread, and the monkeys would come right up with no fear and take pieces from us. The spunkier ones even tried to sneak up on us to steal the whole loaf. By far one of the cutest things I've ever seen. We also gave them water, and Candace and Fleming tried to show them how to drink from water bottles (see pictures). I think they understood the concept, but our bottles were too big for them to handle. We ended up cutting off the bottoms and making little cups for them. The bigger apes tried to steal food from the babies, but we made sure to feed the runts. It was absolutely surreal to be that close to wild apes, and they were hilarious, running around and wrestling. One of them even climbed into a tree with a water bottle and threw it at the others. Definitely worth the cramped grand taxi ride to get out there! We saw Moroccan families who brought picnic lunches, but we weren't thinking that far ahead, so we went back into Ifrane for lunch.

More Cultural Oddities and strange things I've seen in the past week:

-2 Female police officers- it's an Arab/Muslim nation. Need I say more?
-A fat donkey (most of the animals in this country would never be described as "well-fed"- starving cats abound at local cafes, begging tourists for scraps)
-A Moroccan boy "using the facilities" in the middle of a central plaza. Perhaps from his perspective, he was behind the pillar, but from ours, he was most certainly in front of it!
-Medina food- I ventured into eating street food from the medina Wednesday night. We started off light, with some fresh donuts, which were excellent (not to mention cheap- about 12 cents). No one's died yet, so we'll be back for more varieties in the coming week.
-Moroccans all drive like lunatics- in an average taxi ride, 5-6 pedestrians almost killed is normal. Extra points for bikers and pregnant women. Makes crossing the street rather exciting- we've taken to shouting "in sha allah (if god wills it)" for good luck. We actually hit a man the other night. Driving into the medina, our cab stopped suddenly, which isn't rare. But Matt grabbed my arm, tossed some money at the driver, and told me we were there. I tried to tell him we weren't at Bab Bjloud yet, but he insisted. I completely missed it, but apparently we hit a man on a bike, and as we were leaving, he was picking a fight with our driver. Better to walk the last block into the medina!
-There are no trash cans on the streets in Fez, but also a disproportionately small amount of trash...it's an unsolved mystery!

All in all, another amazing week. Next weekend we're off to Marrakesh, one of the "don't miss" cities in southern Morocco. It's an 8 hour train ride, so it'll be a looong weekend! I'm also seeking advice on where to go in South/Central Spain- I've got 5 days. Any thoughts? Until then-


25 June 2005

Droopy middle aged bits.

Candace, Zuleyma, and I finally experienced the Turkish bath, or hammam. Definitely an event to write home about, although there will most certainly not be any pictures. For those unfamiliar with the concept of a Turkish bath, it almost defies description, but bears a slight resemblance to a sauna-high school gym locker room shower hybrid. Hammams are strictly unisex, with separate buildings for men and women, or separate times for each sex. You pay your 10 dirham admission, then strip down to your underwear and leave your clothes and belongings in the outer locker room while you head into the shower rooms.

Traditionally, Arab women come with a friend or two, and gossip and help scrub each other down- it's one of the few times in their everyday life they're free to say and do as they please. However, you also have the option of paying a woman at the hammam to scrub and massage you, and since the three of us didn't feel we were THAT close yet, we opted to hire a professional. Plus, they'll keep getting buckets of water for you, and save you the trip. The process is rather complicated, so if you've never done it before, you stand out like a sore thumb (as though the pasty white skin wasn't a dead giveaway).

Fortunately, Zalayma had been the week before with her homestay family, and she could fill us in on the details. First, you sit and sweat in the steamy room for a while to loosen up the dirt while the attendants fill your buckets for you. Then, you soap up and rinse once before the attendants come over and scrub you down with an exfoliating mitt- they lay you on the floor, across their bodies, roll you over, etc- they leave NO area unscrubbed. You can see the black dirt (and top layer of skin!) just peeling off. Then, they rinse you down again, throw a bucket of hot water across the floor to "clean" it, then lay you down and massage you on the floor (with soap yet again, bringing us to three soapings in one bath).

Finally, they leave you to wash your hair, shave, etc, before you finally leave. Longest bath/shower I've ever had- the entire process takes over an hour, but I've never felt so clean in my life. It's a bit awkward at first to be surrounded by so many strange naked women, but each group just stays in its own world, sharing the latest gossip. Although, we were almost certain some of that gossip concerned the confused looking white girls in the hammam. For the men, however, the experience is a bit different. Instead of the pampering massage the women receive, the men get what they've described as "beatings from old men." Some of the guys have begun to really enjoy their weekly beatings, but some of the others decided that one cultural experience was sufficient. I'm not sure if I'll be going back anytime soon, but it was definitely an experience.



22 June 2005

al-Sahara momtez.

And finally, the most exciting part of the trip- our trek through the Sahara Desert. The entire experience was fabulous (save the bus ride home!)- best $100 most of us have spent in a long time. We drove down Friday afternoon to a ridiculously nice (air conditioned) hotel near Erfoud for the night before continuing to the desert on Saturday. We ate an amazing buffet dinner- the hotel caters to tourists, so of course it would be an all you can eat buffet! Also tried some Moroccan red wine- not bad, but as Matt would say, "nothing to write home about." The hotel had a beautiful swimming pool, which was a relaxing break from the har jidan weather (very hot!). There were also some Moroccan drummers who ended up dancing with us until the wee hours of the morning, and (sort of) teaching us to drum and belly dance while we communicated in broken Arabic and English. They seemed to appreciate being treated as more than entertainment, and talking to us about our experiences in Morocco.

The next morning, after breakfast, we all purchased our turbans to keep the desert sun and sand off (see picture). The store owner tried to overcharge a few people, but once he realized we were all together, he ended up teaching everyone how to wrap their own turban. We got back on the bus and drove a few more hours south to another hotel, where we had lunch and siesta'ed until the late afternoon when it wouldn't be unbearably hot in the desert.

Then, at long last, we mounted our camels for our trek into the Sahara! The camels were big and dirty and smelly, but it all just added to the experience. They make a noise like Chewbacca when you first climb on them, or when they get upset about something or other- rather amusing. Each little group of camels was led by a Berber- ours happened to be a young boy, probably no more than 10 or 12. They all walked barefoot through the sand! Riding camels bears almost no resemblance to riding horses, however- no saddles, just piles of wool and blankets, and camels have a distinctly bumpy gait (hence, I took very few pictures from my camel!). We can't walk today, but it was definitely worth the pain! Both of my camels were good boys, they went nice and slow on the downhill bits, and sat down and stood up with as much grace as a camel can muster.

Not everyone had such luck- Juan, a guy in the caravan ahead of us, had some minor camel issues. His camel was old and tired, and he fell down at one point, but the camel ahead of him didn't stop, so when he went down, the nose ring connecting him to the others was ripped out (and Juan fell off). The camel was screaming, as only camels can, and bleeding- the Berber leading the group tried to make the camel sit down so Juan could get on again, but fortunately Juan elected to walk and give his camel a break. He said the walk was just as fun- he was free to run up (and roll down!) big sand dunes.

The Sahara is incredibly beautiful- the sand really is that reddish-orange color you see in photos. Just a vast, desolate expanse of sand. The pictures really can't do it justice, with the immense rolling dunes as far as the eye can see in any direction. No signs of life aside from our camel tracks and the occasional insect or salamander. The oasis was a bit livelier, with palm trees and other miscellaneous plants, and even scorpions (although I personally didn't see any).

After two hours of riding (which is about the limit for first timers!), we arrived at our oasis campsite. The oasis was in the shadow of a particularly large sand dune, and a few brave souls climbed to the top and skied down. The campsite was quite a contrast with Friday night's five star hotel- we slept in low Berber tents on mattresses, and there was no running water or electricity to speak of. Fortunately, the oasis provided several large, secluded plant clusters! We watched a stunning sunset over the dunes, ate dinner and enjoyed more Moroccan drumming and dancing before turning in for the night.

With no lights except a few flame torches, the desert was amazing at night- we could see thousands of stars, and an almost full moon. Since the Sahara is almost devoid of life, the night was absolutely silent- no birds, no rustling in the bushes. It was spooky at first, but it just adds to the allure of the Sahara. We all prepared for a chilly night, but apparently that legend about cold desert nights is just a myth- the temperature did drop a bit, but considering where it started, the night was actually still relatively warm. The Sahara is absolutely intoxicating- laying under the stars, with nothing around for hundreds and thousands of miles, you realize just how small you are in relation to the rest of the world. Our tracks into the desert were gone by morning, as if we'd been there our entire lives. It's hard to believe we're slowing destroying our planet in the face of such massive, beautiful desolation.

We woke up at sunrise the next morning to ride back to the hotel before the sun came out in full force, but although we left at 7am, it was still blazing hot. The pain from the camel ride the day before had started to kick in, so the ride back was less exciting than the way out, but we were still on our "riding camels in the Sahara desert" high. Plus, we were able to take showers back at the hotel, so that helped dull the pain of leaving the desert! All in all, definitely one of those "once in a lifetime" kind of experiences - I highly recommend it to anyone next time they're near the Sahara. The 9 hour bus ride home put a bit of a damper on the elation, since the two girls in front of Matt and I were unskilled in charter bus etiquette, and decided to put their seats all the way back and crush us, and our air conditioning vent was well past its prime, but we still rode camels in the Sahara, and all is well.

Although the Sahara camping will probably be a highlight of this summer, I still have four weeks left. Next weekend we're planning to go up into Tetuoan in the mountains, and then to the Mediterranean beaches. Sometime this week will be a hammam experience, and maybe even some rug shopping. I'll try to update the blog during the week with some amusing anecdotes, and send another email next weekend. Until then-



20 June 2005

Random tidbits and cultural oddities.

Marjane- the Moroccan (well, French owned) Wal-Mart. Quite an exciting adventure- Publix meets a shopping mall with just a pinch of Target, and lots of air conditioning. It's just a cheap taxi ride away, and has almost every western food product known to man (except for jello and normal marshmallows). Also a gelato (Italy's gift to the world, aside from the art and all) stand at the entrance AND within the maze of the store. Pure heaven. No less than eight varieties of orange soda- it's quite popular over here! The entire complex makes for a nice taste of America whenever homesickness sets in (or the temperature becomes unbearable!)

Stoning- I forgot to mention an amusing anecdote from last week. After emerging from the medina in the suburbs of Fez last weekend, Matt, his roommate, and I actually had rocks thrown at us! No one panic- it's not as awful as it sounds! While we walked up the road trying to find a taxi, a few little boys threw rocks at us from a hill as we passed, then continued when we walked back again. They were just amused by the idea of three lost foreigners, and they ended up leading us through the medina to the real taxi stand after we talked to them in our broken Arabic. But, we do have the distinction of being the first (and to date, only) members of the group to be literally stoned in the street. Quite the honor...

Homestays- Thursday afternoon, Candace and I had the opportunity to experience a real Moroccan family lunch! One of the girls in our group, Zalayma, is staying in homestay up the road from the villa, and Candace and I walked her home one evening, and her "mom" ended up inviting us in to see the house. Now, Moroccan tradition dictates that you offer something to your guests, so when she asked us to sit down, we figured we'd get some mint tea, talk for a little while, and head home. Au contraire! We ended up with fresh homemade peach/orange panache (i.e. smoothies), homemade bread, homemade strawberry jam, cheese, and cookies. "A little snack." Over an hour later, Candace and I finally rolled home, stuffed with one of the best meals we'd had so far. But it gets better- during our conversation with her mom (who happens to teach at the ALIF center, so she speaks fluent English), we somehow got on the topic of couscous, which she hadn't made yet, and when Candace said she hadn't eaten it yet, and I said it was my favorite Moroccan food, we got ourselves invited back for lunch on Thursday. By far the best couscous I've had in Morocco! Traditionally, everyone eats from a large community plate in the center of the table, with their hands or silverware, depending on the family or restaurant. We literally ate a plate of couscous two feet across- no exaggeration. Excellent chicken, miscellaneous vegetables, and more panache, this times orange and carrot. For dessert, she served the best honeydew melon I've ever eaten- all of the fruits here just seem to taste so much better than back home- bananas, cherries, melons, oranges, everything. She just kept urging more and more food on us- it was amazing!

Potato Sandwiches- we discovered the cheapest and most filling lunch in the world at a little sandwich stand by the central market. It serves fried potato sandwiches with egg and mystery meat sauce for 4 dirham (about 50 cents)- the sandwiches are about 18 inches long and delicious- with a soda, it comes out to about a dollar, and you'll be full for hours. There are a lot of vegetarians in the group who order the sandwiches without sauce, but since we only recently learned the word for "without," we communicate by frantically repeating "la, la, la" (no!), when the man reaches for the spoon. Now, he just laughs at us when we go there, and pretends to put sauce on the sandwiches- at least we can be amusing in our ignorance!

13 June 2005

Ahlan Wasahlan.

I arrived last Saturday in Casablanca, and took a train to Fez. En route, I discovered how ridiculously friendly the Moroccan people are. Simply by looking confused and speaking broken Arabic, I found two men who told me which station to change at, carried my luggage, waited at the station and found me a Moroccan woman who lived in Fez and spoke some english to keep me company on the train. On the train, I sat in a car with Khawla, my new Moroccan friend, two new guys we met, and an older woman and her two daughters. Between my limited Arabic and their English, we managed to keep each other amused for the five hour duration. When we finally arrived in Fez, Khawla not only hailed me a taxi, but rode with me to my villa and paid the cab fare for me. I already love Morocco and especially Moroccan people- they never fail to amaze me with their generosity. Surprisingly, the people here are much more "westernized" than I ever expected. Many of the women wear western dress, including things that would be considered risque even in the states, and I've seen only a handful of fully veiled women. The culture is much more liberal than most of us ever expected- more European than Arab in many respects. In addition, thanks to the Spanish influence in Morocco, the concept of the siesta is alive and well here. It's hard to beat taking a two hour nap in the middle of the hottest part of the day!

Fez is a fascinating city, considered the intellectual capital of Morocco. French is actually spoken more widely than Arabic, but people switch effortlessly between the two languages, which makes understanding them quite a challenge. I'm living in the heart of the Ville Nouvelle, or the new city, just a fifteen minute walk from the massive medina (more on that later). There are hundreds of tiny cafes and patisseries in the Ville Nouvelle, and the French influence comes through in delicious breads and pastries. Mainly men eat at the cafes, so when a group of American girls walk in, we're quite a sight! We've learned to ignore the cat calls and just eat our pastries, although Matt received offers of several hundred camels for some of us!

I live in a villa across the street from the school where we take classes, and share a tiny basement room with Caroline. Although the basement was disappointing at first, since the building isn't air conditioned, the basement actually ends up being the best room- it's about 10 degrees cooler down here. Considering it reached 105 last week, it's a nice bonus! Part of the group lives up the road in a beautiful, enormous apartment since there wasn't enough room in the villa. Some other people are living in homestays around the city, and although they're getting a lot of language practice, some of them are living very different lifestyles. One of the poorest families has no running water, just a squat toilet in the living room, and the shower involves a bucket on the roof. The guy staying there has to go to the hammam (public Turkish bath) to take a real shower. I'm going to a hammam next week with Candace and Caroline to get the full experience- everyone who's gone so far says they've never felt cleaner in their lives!

And of course, my favorite part of travel- the food! Moroccan food is delicious, but the selection is pretty limited. My favorite so far has been couscous dajaaj/poulet- chicken with vegetables over couscous. Tajine is a vegetable stew with some sort of meat, usually lamb or chicken, served in big cone shaped dishes. Pastillas are rather interesting- traditionally, they're made with pigeon, but you can also find them with chicken. They're pastries filled with meat, scrambled eggs, almonds and some seasonings, with powdered sugar on the top. It sounds like an awkward combination, but it's surprisingly good. Moroccan bread (khobz) comes in round flat loaves, and thanks to the French, is fabulous! There are a few cats living around the villa and the school, and we've named them Tajine, Couscous, and Khobz, much to the consternation of the staff!

We've become attached to an Italian restaurant called La Traviata around the corner, which even delivers pizza! Matt and I discovered Cafe Mauritania, and we've been back four times with different people, so now the owner recognizes us and knows about our special requests, and immediately sets up tables for us whenever we walk in. Although it's great to feel so special at the restaurant, we're hoping to branch out and try some different places next week. Today, at lunch, a man kept walking by selling random things, including a loud squeaking bird puppet that he used to scare us repeatedly. Of course, no foreign country would be complete without a McDonald's, and we just happen to live down the block from Fez's. We broke down tonight and had dinner there- nothing special or Moroccan on the menu, just the basics. Portions are significantly smaller than back home, which made for a disappointing McFlurry! The McDonalds seems to be the popular hangout for Moroccans though- the building is enormous, and tonight we even saw a Moroccan Ronald McDonald singing and dancing on a stage outside the playplace. Of all the aspects of American culture we could have exported...

One of Fez's most famous features is its medina, which the guidebooks describe as a "labyrinth." The medina is essentially an enormous market, selling everything from food to clothes to leather to electronics. It has two streets, Kabir and Saghir (big and small), and an infinite number of smaller unnamed alleys. It starts on a hill, and just continues further and further down- which makes for a painful trip back up! From the moment we walked in, we were accosted by "faux guides," who offer to lead you through the medina for a price. We've been to the medina a few times in the past week, and still find ourselves lost every times.

Today Matt, his roommate, and I went into the medina for a few hours, and managed to wander all the way to the bottom, where we found a school with a picture of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck on the wall. After trying in vain to find a taxi, we ended up walking back up to the top and out the way we came- a very long uphill hike! En route, we stumbled across the tanneries- Morocco is famous for leather, and Fez apparently makes the best of the best. In the tanneries, the hides are treated with a smelly mixture of materials and hung out to dry before being made into their final products. The process hasn't changed much in the last 700 years, and judging from the smell and appearance of the tanneries, they've been in the same location for just as long. Although the man who led us through told us the tour was free, when we tried to leave, the "gatekeeper" demanded money, so we gave him a few dirhams and left. Since we got to go up on the balconies and look at the entire process from a high vantage point, it was worth the 50 cents we ended up paying. The medina is definitely one of the most exciting places in the city- constantly full of people, donkeys and mules loaded with wares, and little children offering to show you one thing or another in exchange for a few dirham. It never gets old!

Saturday we took our first day trip out of the city- the majority of the group went to Meknes and the Roman ruins at Volubilous (Waliilii in Arabic), about an hour train ride from Fez. Our first class tickets cost just under 3 dollars- the dollar may be struggling in Europe, but it still goes quite far down here! The entire group ate at a kabob restaurant, then we split up into smaller groups to explore the city and the ruins. We decided to explore the Meknes medina first, and found a Moroccan man to lead us to the Imperial City and a mausoleum, only to find that it was closed for siesta.

We crammed all six of us into a "grand taxi" (read: old mercedes) by wedging against the door, then having the driver slam it shut to lock us in- it was cozy ride, but at least we're all that much closer now! Two of the girls in our group spoke excellent Arabic, and sat in the front with the driver and talked about how he planned to go to Europe to find a wife. They had a fabulous time, but unfortunately for the four of us crammed across the back seat, he drove at about 35 mph, and the trip took far longer than it should have. The ruins were beautiful- reminiscent of Pompeii with columns and arches and even a few mosaics still in excellent condition, considering their age. Since a rainstorm was approaching, the temperature even dropped enough to approach pleasant, and we could walk a few feet without breaking a sweat. We came back to Fez for the evening (again via our first class train) and fell asleep early since we missed siesta!

And of course, since this is a study abroad trip, I feel obliged to mention my classes. We meet four hours per day during the week, 8-10 and 2-4 (leaving us with a perfect window for a siesta!) with two different teachers, both of whom are fluent in english and very witty. Candace, Matt, and I were afraid we'd be behind in the class, since our teacher at Florida was pretty lax, but we're actually sitting quite well in the advanced section of Intermediate arabic. We already had a test on Friday- we'll see how that goes! We're practicing speaking as much as possible, but since most of the population speaks French, it's often a struggle to get a Moroccan to respond to us in Arabic. But all in all, it's a beautiful, friendly country. Next weekend we're going trekking in the Sahara, complete with camels, which should be an amazing trip.