Monday, February 22, 2016

Our Moroccan Odyssey, Part Three

Kevin outside the medina in Fes. There are no cars inside the medina.

Fes (or Fez) was founded in 789. Its walled city (medina) doesn't just look old, it feels old. The antiquity almost seeps into your bones.

We loved the riad, or guesthouse, we stayed in. The rooms were arranged around a corridor on the second floor, which looks down onto the interior courtyard, where we ate breakfast.

(There are dars and riads, and at one time the definition was distinct. If I understand correctly, a dar might have a simple patio, while a riad was a house with a central courtyard, which was large enough to have a garden or a few trees. Today, however, the terms are used somewhat interchangeably.)  As soon as you enter the guesthouse, a staff member offers you a place in the courtyard and serves you  mint tea and perhaps some cookies, a welcome treat.

Although I had read about the labyrinth of streets in the medinas of Morocco, I was always taken aback when entering a door from the dusty walled streets and arriving at a cool, restful place like our riad or a lush, green garden. How magical!

Our riad put us in touch with Idris (ee-driss), a guide who took us through the medina. How appropriate! The founder of the city was named Idris.  We thought we had photos of him, but we were sad to discover we did not. Dressed in a long black robe, Idris, who was probably in his 60s, introduced us to the many nooks and crannies of the old city, and its merchants and artisans.

We saw, but could not photograph, the city's iconic dye pots for its tanneries, because the medina is being refurbished, and we had to crane our heads around the corner of a building, just to get a glimpse of the colorful pots. We did smell the tanneries, though, and the odor was so strong and unpleasant that I began to breathe through my mouth.

And there were food items. Snails, anyone? These were so fresh they were wriggling.

Kevin got his Swiss army knife sharpened by a young man who ran the sharpening wheel with his foot, while he moved the edge of the knife across the surface, pouring water on it to keep it from getting too hot. Kevin paid about 40 cents, and it was sharp!

Donkeys transport goods around the town.

At one shop, where they sold camel meat, Kevin took a photo of a young boy underneath a severed camel head. While it is a striking photograph, I found it a bit disturbing, so I'm not including it here. I realize my reaction is that of someone from the highly sanitized Western world, but I can't help that! It was a fascinating contrast, however.

Now, do know what kind of shop this is? Do you see the keys?

This is what a realty "office" look likes in Fes!

The metalworkers in Fes produce some impressive pieces.

Because we were ill, we only saw about half of the places in the old city. We had to return to our riad to rest.  As we were leaving Fes the next day, we saw a man walking carrying four goat (?) legs and hooves, all tied together with a rope handle. We did a double-take. It put us in mind of all the office workers at home carrying a briefcase in much the same way as he was carrying the goat's feet. (Sorry, we only have a mental picture of that encounter.)

Soon we were on the train to Casablanca. But you will find no photos of Casablanca on this blog. When we reached that big modern city, we immediately grabbed a taxi to a Western-style hotel, where we ordered hamburgers and fries from room service! We washed them down with a bottle of red wine. Settled comfortably into our king-sized bed, we watched a silly movie in English. Yes, we may like the exotic, but when you are sick, there's nothing like the familiar!

We felt a little better the next day, so we jumped aboard the train to Marrakesh. I'm not sure if they still refer to that train as the Marrakesh Express--but we rode it with the Crosby, Stills and Nash tune playing in our heads.

We had booked a hotel in the medina of Marrakesh too, liking these ancient cities and finding each riad more luxurious than the one before.

Rose petals floated in the fountain, and the air was perfumed with their scent (aided, I think, by some potpourri).  The riad featured a roof terrace with a plunge pool, though it was too cold to use. We had a lovely room, complete with a flat-screen TV and a light breakfast included in the rate of $60/night.

All this beauty lies tucked in behind the medina walls.

The first evening in Marrakesh, we visited the famous square, Jemaa El-Fnaa, a UNESCO heritage site. Entering that vast space, I was tempted to utter, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore."

Everything was wonderously strange and edged with a little frisson of fear, because we were alone and so far out of our element. We smelled meat cooking on barbeques, and, at one point, we made our way to a circle of men who were shouting to see what they were looking at:  it was a boxing match between two young boys not more than ten years old. The men were cheering them on, and possibly betting on the outcome. Strange indeed.

We ate pizza at a restaurant overlooking the square. It was our Thanksgiving meal! (Now you know how far behind I am, but I'm determined to catch up soon.) The pizza wasn't that good, but it was familiar, and we took comfort in that, and we were thankful for our good fortune.

The next day we returned to the square. This time it was filled with hucksters, orange-juice sellers, and tourists. 

At first, I was fascinated with the snake charmers.

I expected the snake charmers to treat their snakes like the man in Singapore, who charged a fee to let you photograph his golden boa. He took good care of the snake and treated it gingerly.

But the handler in the square began to kick at the cobra to get it to spread its hood.  That upset me. No creature should be mistreated.

I got up to leave. After telling us we could pay what we wanted to photograph the snakes, the handler then insisted we pay him the equivalent of $20. Kevin gave him the equivalent of $10 instead, which was still too much, and we walked away as he harangued us. 

Sometimes in developing countries, we mind getting mildly taken advantage of, but the snake charmers left me with a bad taste in my mouth and a sense of guilt for having subsidized them.  (Some say the snakes have been de-fanged, but I  read about a Marrakesh snake charmer who died last year after having been bitten.)

I especially felt sorry for the Barbary apes, whose owners paraded them around the square, also seeking tourists to pay to have their photos taken with those animals. A sad business all around.

Marrakesh has an attractive modern downtown, too, with wide, sunny boulevards and teeming traffic. (Worse for pedestrians than Rome--and that's saying something!)  We went there for a great Italian dinner one night, and it was so good we returned for lunch the next day. A nice change from cous-cous and chicken. 

Again, because we were not well, there were sights we did not explore in Marrakesh, but we did manage a visit to the Saadian tombs, which date from the late 16th century. Buried for centuries, they were re-discovered in 1917, with their elaborate tile work and carvings.

And then it was time to bid farewell to Morocco.  After a thorough pat-down at the airport (Morocco had been threatened by ISIS because the country had helped France and Belgium identify the terrorists who had attacked Paris), we flew to London.  

There, our great friend Shirley nursed our colds and fed us, and (above and beyond) let me watch the final season of Downton Abbey, which she had recorded, from her comfy sofa in her elegant London flat. (Did I feel special, seeing it before anyone else in the U.S.? You bet I did!)

After a few days of rest, we returned home to Seattle to see our family--whom we really missed--and to heal. Unfortunately, because we were still recovering from the virus, we did not get to visit all our family and friends, but we did get to spend Christmas with Aaron, Amanda, Aidan, Avery, and Matthew. After nearly nine months of travel, spending Christmas with them was all we really wanted!

(Next up: We continue our adventure in Rarotonga.)

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