06 July 2005

Snake Charmers, oranges, political fantasies, unpasteurized milk, and more monkeys.

Another crazy week in Morocco- it's just hitting us that we have less than two weeks before this is all over! I finally found people willing to come to Spain with me, so I'll be traveling with two other people in the group before I fly to Berlin. Classes are still moving along- I've done well on the last two exams, so that's refreshing. We're learning one of the more complicated (and utterly useless) aspects of Arabic grammar now, so that's been frustrating. It's a system of case endings to indicate how a word is used in a sentence, but the entire lesson is prefaced with a note about how they aren't used in spoken Arabic and only occur in the Koran, where it's more important to be able to read them than to understand why they're there. To add to the frustration, we have a teacher who likes to drop complicated grammatical concepts instead of answering our simple questions, and since we're all products of the fabulous Florida public school system, it just serves to confuse us more. Thus, we're all feeling unnecessary frustration at a system with more exceptions than rules, but I think we're beginning to see the light. On a brighter note, we had a break through last week involving the verb system in Arabic, which, although complicated, enables you to create new verbs. Very exciting.

Other random tidbits from the week-

Hanging in the Center is a rather prominent portrait of Bill Clinton next to one of the King, and we never really knew why until recently. In every home, restaurant, and store in Morocco is a picture of the King, in some pose or another- the sunglass shops often have him wearing glasses, a few restaurants have him drinking a Coke, etc. The King is hugely popular in Morocco- he's made a lot of democratic reforms and he's a outgoing sort of man, so the people are crazy about him. This is normal, but no one understood why Clinton, instead of Bush, hung in the American Center. We finally asked Mustafa, our fun (not confusing) professor, why the Center didn't hang a picture of the current US President, and he (jokingly) explained that they just like to pretend that Clinton was still President and that last five years were just a dream. An amusing reason, but really the administration was just too lazy to get a new portrait. Crazy Moroccans...

I think I've already mentioned how the produce here puts everything I've eaten in America to shame, but I've made another discovery that makes the fruit even better. A few blocks from the villa is a cafe called Fez Fruits, specializing solely in fresh juices- mango, avocado, strawberry, banana- you name it, they have it, and for 10-12 dirham, depending on your fruit (<$1.50). It's like smoothies, but better and healthier! They also make a amazing fruit salads with ice cream- it's become our new favorite place to eat lunch (and breakfast...and evening snacks...). Between that and the gelato shop in the Ville Nouvelle, we're not going hungry. We probably won't be missing much of the food from Morocco when we come home, but we'll definitely miss the fruit!

Last week, after a dinner at a rooftop restaurant in the medina, a group of us went to visit our friend Fleming's homestay family, who lives in a palatial house in the heart of the medina. It was the first time we'd really ventured off the main shop-lined streets of the medina, and into the twisting, narrow alleys. Knowing my sense of direction, it's a wonder we made it out alive! The house was absolutely stunning- the entire first floor ceiling and walls were covered in intricate tiling, and of course, wall to wall couches overflowing with cushions. The house centered on the ground floor living room, so all of the upstairs bedrooms had windows opening into the center of the house, as well as the outdoors. Three stories up, a rooftop terrace circles the skylight from the center living room, and there was an incredible view of the medina (not to mention a cool breeze!). After we finished touring the house, we came downstairs to find that Fleming's mom (in traditional Moroccan fashion) had brought out homemade biscotti-esque cookies and milk. No matter how full you are in Morocco, you're expected to eat and drink when offered food, so we all skillfully juggled our milk glasses and cookies around, and a few of us "took one for the team," so to speak, and drink some probably not pasteurized milk. Chalk it up to another cultural experience, but let's just say, if you ever have the chance to try it, I'd recommend avoiding it at all costs.

For the weekend we went down to Marrakesh (via an 8 hour train ride!). The cabin fever started to get to us, and we were chastised by the conductor on both trips for singing too loud and spiking our Gatorade, but fortunately the train ride ended before anyone went over the edge. It was quite an ordeal to arrange taxis to get 16 people to the Djemma al-Fna to find our riad, but we made it. The concept of the riad is uniquely Moroccan, and definitely worth a stay if you're ever in the area. Riads are old mansions converted into small hotels. The traditional Moroccan house, like Fleming's homestay, centers on a courtyard with an open roof. The rooftop patio is a staple, providing both an escape from the heat and a stunning view.

We were planning to sleep on the roof of our riad, since it was full when we tried to book it during the week, and general practice in such situations is to let travelers sleep on the roof for a few dirham, but when we arrived, there were three open rooms, so we were able to sleep in beds. Since I had found the place, I handled the checking in, organizing our rooms, and the registration of all the people (like Europe, Morocco requires a passport and entry stamp to stay in a hotel)- all entirely in Arabic. Not going to lie, I was feeling pretty proud of myself. Our riad was a block from the Djemma al-Fna, which is the chaotic, enormous main square of the Marrakesh medina, so we couldn't have found a better location. We ate dinner on yet another rooftop restaurant overlooking the square (if you haven't caught on by now, the terrace is very big in Morocco!), and wandered around the souks and the square, just taking in the chaos. Between the street performers, food vendors, tourists, and hordes of native men trying to cop a feel, Marrakesh defies description until you've stood there and taken it all in.

The Djemma is famous for its fresh squeezed orange juice, and speaking as a Florida girl who doesn't even really like orange juice, it's amazing. The center of the square is lined with 50 some odd orange juice carts, all numbered, and all selling fresh orange juice for 3 dirham a glass (about 30 cents!). If you're within shouting distance of a row of carts, all of the vendors start waving your over, since their business depends solely on how many customers they can lure in. After you finish, they usually pour you an extra half glass or so to entice you to come back to their numbered stall. The free market system at its best!

Saturday morning, Matt and I got booted from our hotel room, since one of our rooms in the riad was only available Friday night, and moved up the street to another hotel owned by the same people. It's an interesting Moroccan phenomenon. On any given block, most stores or hotels will be owned by a few people- if you're shopping in one store, you will almost always be invited to one across the street or next door, with the same owner and proprietor. Once everything had been settled (again in Arabic!), we all ventured out to explore the souks and shop in the daylight. Since Marrakesh is a much more "touristy" city (especially for Europeans), we saw many more white faces, and most shop keepers assumed we were French or British, instead of American. A popular greeting for white faces was "Fish and Chips!" We were also promised "democratic prices," which seemed a bit ironic, since the vendors in Marrakesh tended to start with obscenely high prices (probably due to the tourists), but would haggle down to prices similar to Fez. Again, going on the British assumption, one vendor proudly told us he had sold leather bags to Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher for many dirham, but would give us "student price." If only such barganing were possible in American malls! Marrakesh is usually 10 degrees hotter than Fez and the entire city pretty much shuts down in the afternoon, so we went back to the hotel for siesta and some massages.

We came back into the medina for dinner, and then dove into the chaos of the Djemma, which doesn't really wake up until the sun goes down. Like the orange juice carts, there are also rows of street food restaurants, all grilling any number of unrecognizable foods. All of the grills create a giant smoky cloud above the square, which, combined with the lights, just adds to the mysteriousness of the entire area. The square is full of snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, and all sorts of other acts. They make their living collecting money from tourists taking pictures, so if you try to snap a free one, they tend to chase you down until you cough up a few dirham. The square is also fully of women selling henna tattoos to unsuspecting tourists. A popular trick is to grab a woman's hand, and start painting henna, calling it a "gift," then demanding absurd amounts of money for the "gift." It happened to Andrea in our group, but fortunately there were enough of us to convince the woman to back off with a few dirham.

Similarly, there are also men with tame monkeys, who dance and pose for pictures with tourists (see pictures). They like to essentially throw the monkeys on you, especially when they work in pairs and get you from both sides, then while you're laughing and taking pictures, they'll demand absurd amounts of money. Speaking a little Arabic and reminding them that you never asked for the monkeys worked wonders to get them to leave with a reasonable amount of money. The monkeys are much heavier than they look, just for the record. Later at night, the square fills with groups of people watching story tellers and dancers, and the packed crowds scattered with foreign women are paradise for the young men of a nation full of covered women. After the first few pinches, catcalls, and grabs, we developed a "circle the wagons" technique, with the men circled around the women, which worked like a charm.

Sunday, we did more shopping and medina exploring (and orange juice drinking!) before embarking on the train ride home. Unlike Fez, Marrakesh is almost all medina- nothing higher than two or three stories, except the Koutb mosque in the distance. Interestingly enough, atop ramshackle houses as far as the eye can see are countless satellite dishes. Families of 8 or more people, crammed into two room houses, many without indoor plumbing, but everyone has satellite television. Definitely some misguided priorities in the eyes of the American girl who's never owned a television in her life. All in all- Marrakesh is definitely the most interesting city we've seen in Morocco thus far!

Happy belated Fourth of July- this update is a bit late since we spent Monday prepping for the hafla (party) and Tuesday recovering from it. Since we couldn't get our hands on a grill, we ended up negotiating a deal with the McDonald's up the street for discounted cheeseburgers, french fries, and apple pie- in a foreign country, nothing's more American than the Great Satan. The gas oven proved a bit tricky, so no baked goods, but we did manage some nachos. Some of the other villa residents (and probably the neighbors!) didn't seem to appreciate our loud, off-key renditions of classic rock and country songs, but our nation's birthday only comes once a year! Leila, the villa live in maid, joined us for the party, and although she loved her "American yohib Leila (America loves Leila)" shirt we made for her, she didn't seem to appreciate our music as much. Some things just don't translate well...

until next time,


1 comment:

Yasmeen said...

I agree with you, you should definitely visit Marrakech if you are in Morocco. Marrakech has an exotic traditional atmosphere and is home to the largest square in Africa, namely the “Djemaa al Fna” which comes alive during the day with acrobats, water sellers, dancers and musicians and by night becomes a huge outdoor restaurant, with numerous food stalls selling traditional Moroccan cuisine. Most Marrakech property inside, are decked out in traditional fittings, with arches and fountains prominent; although several foreign owners of Morocco property are now taking a more modern approach. Indeed, of the 400 riad-hotels that the Moroccan tourist board says exist in the medina, around 30% are foreign owners of the Marrakech properties.