12 July 2005

Polar Opposites.

Well, we're in the home stretch here in Morocco. Between recovering from the 4th of July, Marrakesh, and trying to "nanjaha (succeed)" in class, it's been a rather slow week. Our last weekend was rather...interesting, however. We took a grand taxi (5 people, rather cozy, and we made the mistake of putting the skinny guy in the front seat, leaving four of us squeezed across the back) for the 3 hour ride to Chefchaoen, a quaint little mountain town north of Fez. You can't reach the town by train, since the Moroccan rail system basically runs down the Atlantic Coast, with one track going inland to Fez. The roads are the terrifying winding mountain road sort, so sleep was out of the question. Chalk it up to cultural experiences- with the way we were wedged in there, it was safer than any seatbelt could ever hope to be.

All complaints aside, Chefchaoen was worth every minute of that cozy taxi ride! The city is small, only 50,000 people or so, and all of the medina walls are painted a vibrant blue, so the entire town just feels calmer. Terraces and balconies are popular across the country, but Chefchaoen takes them even more seriously, considering the stunning views. Chefchaoen's nestled in the Rif mountains, so the scenery is absolutely breathtaking from all angles, and a waterfall/cascade runs down the mountain to the edge of town, where women come to wash clothes and rugs, and young boys play soccer in the water (see pictures). It's touted as one of the most relaxing cities in Morocco, and with good reason. It's also the kif (a stronger form of hashish) capital of Morocco, which probably explains everyone's laid-back attitude! The natives don't hesitate to offer it to you ("I make your carpet fly!"), but are generally understanding if you decline the offer. The further north you go in Morocco, the more Spanish influence you find, so we were able to practice our Spanish skills- it proved rather confusing, and we ended up speaking a "Arabish" combination, but we got the point across- nothing like the thrill of successfully communicated in a foreign language to make you feel good about yourself. It's not as exciting as Marrakesh, but Chefchaoen is something special on its own- it's really beyond description, it's the experience that makes the town so unique.

In the spirit of Chefchaoen, we decided not to book a hotel in advance, and just wing it when we arrived in the town. We had the taxi drop us off in the middle of the medina, and followed the guidebook to Hostel Guernika, a popular student hostel in town. However, since it's in most guidebooks, and there was a music festival in Chefchaoen that weekend, the hostel was booked solid. Just as we were leaving to wander the streets in search of another hostel in the area, the owner called Matt and I back into the lobby, and told us he had a house up the street that he and a friend were converting to a hotel, and rented to travelers, and if we wanted, he'd take us to see it and we could opt to stay there. Feeling adventurous, we decided to risk it- if all else failed, we figured the five us us could take him in a fight!

The house was a beautiful four story, centered around a hole in each floor looking up to the skylight on the top ceiling, with three bedrooms (which meant beds for all us!), and three different levels of balconies and terraces overlooking the mountains and cascades. For $8 a night with breakfast, we couldn't go wrong. Jose left us his keys, and we had the place to ourselves. Since most hotels are so small in the medinas, it was great to be able to stay all together in one house on such short notice. And no neighbors to object to late night debauchery- what could be better?

After we got settled, we ventured into the medina to check out the music festival. We passed by the Ministry of Culture just as a long train of tuxedoed waiters walked by carrying trays of gorgeous appetizers, so we stopped to find out (1) what was going on, and (2) how we could be a part of it. It turned out to be a party for the Ministry, but there was no way we could get in. However, the man we asked about it was so impressed that we were learning Foosha (Formal Arabic), he invited us to a cafe for tea. Tea is an enormous part of Moroccan life- in shops, the owner will typically offer tea to his guests while he shows them his goods, and any visit to a Moroccan home will include tea. It's minty and ridiculously sugary- just the way I like it, but it makes other people's teeth hurt. We sat and talked with him for over an hour, and it was great to practice formal Arabic with someone, instead of them just responding in French. I think we offended him when we insisted on paying for our own tea, since he seemed rather perturbed and explained that if a Moroccan invites you somewhere, it's their treat. We learned our lesson, but still felt guilty making him pay. We met up with the other half of our group who came up later, and found dinner at a cheap, but "laisa jaid (not good)" restaurant. You win some, you lose some.

The next morning, we woke up to Jose, our host, slaving in the kitchen to make us breakfast. He spent more than an hour juicing oranges for several gallons of fresh juice, and frying an absurd number of eggs. Since most of us barely wake up in time for 8am class, let alone breakfast, it was a welcome change. And for those of us not in homestays, it was wonderful to experience living in a real Moroccan home. Staying at Jose's house instead of a hotel was definitely one of the best decisions we made on the trip. We spent the morning exploring the medina, and doing some major shopping. Not only did Chefchaoen have better and cheaper goods than Fez, all the kif floating around made for some pleasantly low pressure salesmen! We had originally planned to go to Tetouan and Martil, a city and neighboring beach town on the Mediterranean coast, but on a whim, we decided to see if all of the legends surrounding Tangier were true. Jose called us a couple of grand taxis, and we crammed in again for the 2 hours to Tangier (although, this time, we were smart and put the tallest in the front!).

The taxi driver dropped us at the Port of Tangier, which bore a creepy resemblance to Naples, Italy, with an even sleazier vibe. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tangier was a popular city for American and European writers, but much of the charm appears to have worn off. After being accosted by begging children, we set off to find a hostel. The port area is the cheapest section of town, but also the sketchiest, as we quickly discovered, so we wandered back along the beach to the cleaner area of town. En route, we found a pair of Welsh girls looking horribly lost and confused- they were fresh off the ferry from Spain, their hostel had lost their reservations, and they'd been wandering around for hours fending off sleazy men and trying to find a new hostel, so we took them under our wing.

While a few people went in search of a hotel, the rest of us went to...(wait for it...) PIZZA HUT for dinner. Yes, they have such paradise in Morocco! After more than a month of the same three Moroccan dishes and the horrendous food-poisoning inducing Italian restaurant down the block, it tasted like heaven. Pizza, pastas, sandwiches, desserts....pure bliss. Perhaps not very adventurous, but sometimes you just need a taste of home. We found a cheap, sparse, but relatively clean hostel a couple of blocks from the beach, and settled there before venturing into the city.

In a word, Tangier is "sleazy." The hotels, the restaurants, the men, the women- everything. We went to a few of the clubs and bars along the beach before deciding that the entourage of leering men we'd attracted was more than anyone could handle. In a more amusing incident, one of the bars we visited was also hosting a pretty girl's 20th birthday party. After a strong dose of liquid courage, Fleming bravely decided to ask her for a dance - in Arabic. Roughly tranlated, "I want the dancing with you." Needless to say, she turned him down. Fortunately for him, and unfortunately for equal rights organizations in the United States, the club employed a midget in a sailor costume on to sit in laps and pose for pictures to cheer up lonely patrons.

The next morning, we went to the beach for a little while before hopping on a train back to Fez. The beach was utter chaos- thousands of men, a handful of covered women, and many children (see pictures). We attracted a lot of attention, as usual, but most of the men were more interested in talking to Fleming than gawking at Candace and I, which was a refreshing change from the previous evening. Tangier lacks the exoticness of Marrakesh and the charm of Chefchaoen, but at least we can say we walked in the footsteps of Hemmingway and Burroughs, among others.

The London bombings- a few people have asked me about the response in Morocco to the London bombings, so I thought I'd mention it here. Morocco is technically an Arab country, but in reality, the culture feels more European, so it's rather unique in the Arab world. Also, politics just aren't discussed here, especially with strangers. The only political discussions might occur in the privacy of a home, but clearly, we're not privy to such conversations. So, the only real response we saw from a Moroccan was from Leila, the villa maid. Everyone was watching the news in English on BBC, so she found Matt and I and asked us to watch it so we could tell her what was happening. When we explained it to her, she was genuinely upset. Moroccans have been very resistant to fundamentalism in their country- the King has begun many reforms, and the population supports him completely. After the May 2003 bombings in Casablanca, demonstrations broke out in most of the major cities agains Islamic fundamentalism. I presume Leila's reaction is rather common- just as we don't want to be classified as stupid, arrogant Americans, Moroccans and other Arabs understandably appreciate not being labeled terrorists. Just some food for thought...

Nothing else too exciting out here- we're trying to cram the last two chapters of the book into this week, I got the highest grade on the last exam, we found out that the cafe on the corner serves crepes for breakfast (al hamda allah!), and we're all starting to realize that the "bubble" we've been living in for the past 5 weeks is about to pop. The people on this trip are some of the most interesting I've ever met, and we're all making plans to continue to see each other back in Gainesville (most of which involve gorging ourselves on some kind of food or another!).

For the rest of the week, we'll be finishing our last minute shopping, shipping home a small fortune in souvenirs and excess clothing, taking Leila to dinner, and having our goodbye party Friday night. Just as we're starting to settle into a routine here, and really feel like we live in Fez, it's time to leave! I'm looking forward to seeing Spain and Europe- we'll be leaving Saturday morning for a full day of trains and ferries to get to Spain, then going to Granada, Toledo, and Madrid before I fly to Germany. Some of the people here are excited to be going home, but I'm glad I get another month to ease the transition back to American culture. Pictures from last weekend are on their way up, slowly but surely, and there are a few more from Marrakesh. Hope all is well back home!



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