Sunday, July 17, 2011

Morocco - a country of extremes

I suppose that many countries could claim this title:  "un pays d'extremes" or "a country of extremes."  Our guide made that statement about Morocco, and I also saw this description on a website about Morocco.  You can find many extremes in Morocco as I will attempt to describe below:

1.  Weather:  You can have extremely cold temperatures, especially in the Atlas mountains in the winter; however, the Sahara Desert also covers a large portion of the country.

2.  Morocco is also very much a mix of old and new.  If you have read other posts, you have a read quite a bit about the old part of Morocco.  Morocco also has all modern conveniences, and people are just as attached to their cell phones in Morocco as we are in the United States.

3.  Small villages and large cities.  The small villages, such as the Berber village we visited, were very quaint and the people were very friendly.   In the large cities, the people are also very nice, but they do not necessarily go out of their way to ask you if you are doing ok.  When I seemed lost in Fes, people would come up to me and ask me if they could help me.  In Marrakech, nobody did that.

Sometimes you see a mix of extremes at the same time.  For example, in the small Berber village we stayed at, there are only 70 families, and about 300 people total.  Many people had cell phones, even though they use their donkeys to fetch most of their cooking and drinking water from the local well.

This picture that stands out and provides a visual for the extreme contrasts that can be found in Morocco.  Right next to a crop of corn, which needs quite a bit of water to grow well, you have a wall of cactus, which the Berbers use to divide properties and crops.

Extreme Morocco

In this entry, I am going to describe some of my more "extreme" experiences.  Unlike the ABC reality t.v. show Expedition Impossible, where I imagine some events are orchestrated, all of the following experiences were authentic.  Because of their authentic nature, most of them do not include pictures.  Sorry!

1.  Exteme bathing:  While in my homestay, the sister of the family took the three of us Americans to a Hamman.  What they described to me was more or less a bath/massage combination.  What I experienced was group bathing.  Before you get too disgusted, let me describe...The three of us (all American women) went with our host mother to a bath house.  There, we entered a very warm dressing room, where we undressed down to our swimsuits and left all our clothes on a bench.  We were told that theft isn't a problem, and I believed them because I saw that they locked the door.  Besides, what reason would someone have to steal my very dirty, smelly clothes? 

We were then led from the dressing room, through another room, and into the bath room, which was about as hot as a sauna.  Then the Moroccan "bath lady" came and motioned that we should each sit on a plastic mat, which were all placed about 10 inches apart.  She then decided to begin with me.  She poured warm water all over me, and then she worked from one body part to the next.  For example she would cover one arm with a sort of gel/cream called "black soap," and then she would scrub that arm with a rag that I bought and gave her.  When I say scrub, I mean scrub.  That women is much stronger than most I know, and I literally saw layers of skin floating away when she rinsed me.  She moved from one body part to the next, scrubbing as hard as she could.  She washed and scrubbed everywhere. After rinsing my body, she moved on to my hair and washed my hair and massaged my head completely.  After rinsing my head, she moved onto Diane, who was only 10 inches away from me.  I was instructed to stay where I was because being in the warm air is good for the skin.  So, I sat through the next four baths, and then we all left together.  I guess, we are also supposed to be massaged, but the masseuse had already left for the night.  (I forgot to mention that we arrived to get the baths at 9:00 pm--before dinner.  We ended up eating dinner at 11:30 that night.  (NO pictures of this "extreme activity are available.)

2.  Extreme jay-walking:  On the way to the hamman, we had to cross through an intersection of five different avenues.  We had to cross right through the center, without any crosswalks or lights to let us have the right of way.  My host mother grabbed my arm to indicate that it was time to cross and despite her small stature (she can't be more than 4'10'' tall, she forged the way for us all.

3.  Extreme transportation:  Actually, this experience was the least authentic of them all because what we did was designed for tourists.  However, it was meant to replicate what Moroccans actually do in the desert.  We took a camel ride!  Instead of riding in the middle of the desert, however, we rode on the beach (Atlantic Ocean) at the vacation town Essaouira.  Based on my recent experiences in Wyoming where the trail horses followed one another without a problem, I wasn't worried.  However, once I saw 4-wheelers and thought about how the horses in Wyoming could be spooked by seeing a brightly colored kayak, I was instantly concerned.  Much to my suprise, the camels didn't flinch even though the 4-wheelers came within 10 feet of us.  The only precarious part of this experience was when the camel lowered itself to the ground in order for us to get off.  At that point, you thought you would fall, but no one did.  It was a lot of fun and something that I don't think I would do anywhere else.

4.  Extreme bathroom:  So, we have all heard of luxerious bathrooms, right?  Well, we saw an extremely practical bathroom.  Imagine a hole in the floor, where you are supposed to go to the bathroom (no toilet seat, of course).  You could find that type of bathroom everywhere in public areas, like roadside stores and gas stations.  Now, imagine a bathroom in a house where you have a hole in the floor to be your toilet, and above the hole you have a spout for your shower.  The water from your shower drains directly into the toilet!  I personally never saw or experienced this, but some of my colleagues did.

I hope that the experiences described above did not in any way turn you off from travelling to a foreign place like Morocco.  Usually, with experiences like these, you have the choice of participating or not participating.  If we weren't curious to see something Moroccans do on a weekly basis, we never would have gone to the Hamman.  If we wanted to only stay in hotels, we never would have participated in a homestay and seen the unusual bathroom.  And certainly, we could have found a longer (and probably safer) way to get across the intersection.  So, don't let the stories above turn you off from travelling.  For me, experiencing things like this make a culture come alive because I was able to see how Moroccans live and do what they do, but these experiences aren't a requirement for visiting another country.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Random observation on humans

People are the same everywhere.  They like watching strangers.  They love taking pictures of their children. They like helping others.  Some like taking advantage of others and begging to make a living.  Some are in extreme poverty and need to beg.  You will find all of these things in Morocco, just like you find them in the United States.

Random observations about Morocco

Random observations about Morocco.  I wish the internet connection were stronger because I would love to attach photos!

1.       Cats are everywhere!  They are usually very, very, very skinny, and it makes me so sad to see. 

2.       The flowers are beautiful.

3.       I love the colors you see everywhere…flowers, fabrics, tapestries, ceramics, shoes, mosaics…

4.       The king’s presence is everywhere and you can see his image on stamps, on posters, on billboards, in homes.  Our guide told us that people used to fear the former king, Hassen II, but that people fear for this king, Mohammed VI.

5.       Moroccans are so welcoming.  They put our sense of hospitality to shame.

The host family with whom I stayed for two nights in Fes:
6.       The Medinas (walled-in old city) and souks (markets) are the places that strike me as being the most different in Morocco.  It feels like they were designed for people to get lost.  Although I know that isn’t the purpose, it happens regularly (happened to four of us today)!

7.  While it isn't necessarily written, hot mint tea is the national drink.  Look how it was served in one restaurant. 

8.  The second national drink is orange juice.  You can find freshly squeezed orange juice everywhere.  As foreigners, we have to be careful about which orange juice we drink.  In hotels it is usually safe; in the street, we don't dare drink it because we want to keep our stomaches and intestinal tracks happy.   

Ruins of Volubilis

On our second major day of tourism we saw sites located between Rabat and Fès.  First, we took a guided tour of Volubilis, and then our own guide showed us sites of the nearby city of Meknès.  Once again, we were reminded that this region was the home to multiple cultures who built substantial cities here.  Volubilis is the largest Roman archaeological site in Morocco, and at the time that it flourished it was the home to 20,000 Romans.  In 1977, Volubilis was selected by UNESCO to be a world cultural heritage site, “une site de la patrimoine mondiale.”   At Volubilis today, one can sees remains of several homes with detailed mosaics still clearly visible, roman baths, the town square, the temple, shops, grand “avenues”, doors, an “arch de triomphe,” columns, etc. 

After we experienced a thorough tour of the Roman ruins of Volubilis, we continued to Meknès, the nearby city, to take a tour of several Islamic sites of historical importance.  This city was the capital of Morocco at the end of the 17th century, into the 18th century.  The sultan Moulay Ismaïl turned Meknès into the most important city of the time.  He was a rather “paranoid” ruler and took many precautions against aggressors.  Thus, he built 3 walls around the city center, where he resided and kept an enormous stock of provisions just in case he was invaded and needed to restrict himself to the inner walls.  Another interested tidbit about this ruler is that he had many wives (a harem) and approximately 500 children.  He also wanted to marry the daughter of Louis XIV, but she (or her family) declined the offer because of his numerous wives.  At the main doors of the city, the marble columns that remain were originally intended to impress the princess of France, but unfortunately for the sultan, she never came.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A mix of cultures - Chellah, moseleum, Rabat Casbah

My new hotel has internet, but it is much less reliable.  So, I will do what I can....I am back up with a good internet connection, so check out the pictures!

Morocco has such a rich history, which is reflected in its current culture, language use, and important tourist sites.  Today we visited three such locations:  the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, the Mosoleum of Mohammed V, and the Casbah of Rabat.  All three of these locations show the intersection of at least two different cultures.

Everywhere you turn, you see evidence of multiple cultures, all who inhabited the same land at different points in time.  On our tour of Rabat and the surrounding area, this observation came alive immediately.  The first major site that we visited near Rabat was the archaeological site in Chellah.  The archaeological site at Chellah has remains from the Phoenicians, who were the first inhabitants of the region, the Almohades (12th century), the Romans, and the Myrinites.  The original site was settled by the Phoenicians, and when the Romans conquered northern Morocco they further developed the Chellah site.  Later in the 12th century an Almohed ruler built the fortress.  Between 1300 and 1600 AD, Rabat and Chellah were resettled by the Merinid Dynasty, and around 1350 the Merinids founded a mosque at Chellah.  Today, the site hosts remains from the Roman, medieval, and Merinid styles. 

So, at this archaeological site, you can see plenty of arches and columns reminiscent of the Roman era, and you can also find constructions typical of the Islamic period.  The Myrinite ruins clearly show an Andalousian influence because the Andalousians left Spain and settled on the other side of the Strait of Gibralter.

From the Roman era

From the Merinid Dynasty (Islamic):  Notice that the arches are more than a semi-circle and have a point on top.  This is definitely different from the typical Roman Arch that you can see in the first photo.

The next site we visited is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which was built on a site that dates back to the twelfth century.  The original site was under construction to be a mosque during the Almohade dynasty in 1196, but it was never finished.  No one knows why it was never finished, but it is suspected that it was because of an earthquake.  Then, under the current dynasty, the Alaouite Dynasty, a Mausoleum was built to house the tombs of Mohammed V (1961), Hassen II (1999) who was the last king and father to the current king, and the brother of Hassen II (1983). 

Inside the Moseleum:

The third location that we visited in Rabat also shows how multiple cultures collide or superimpose themselves on each other.  We visited the casbah in Rabat.  A casbah is a neighborhood or an area of the city that is surrounded by walls.  The Rabat Casbah was beautiful, painted with many hues of blue, also reminiscent of Spain.  However, everywhere you go, you encounter signs of the Arab-Islamic culture in Morocco—mint tea served on terraces, women desiring to paint henna on your hand, mosaics, etc.  We also were fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of one of the country’s Berber cultures since we stumbled upon a Berber man singing in the streets for money. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

A walk around the souk in Rabat

Even though Casablanca is the largest port in Africa and the economic, financial, and industriel capital of Morocco, we were told that the main/only attraction for tourists in Casablanca is the mosque.  (Apparently, the movie Casablanca was actually filmed in the United States).   So,after lunch, we took a bus ride to Rabat, which is the political capital of Morocco.  I slept most the way...

As soon as we arrived, we settled in our rooms in the hotel.  Then, while some people took naps, others of us took a quick tour of our first souk (outdoor market in tiny pedestrian walkways/streets).  What an experience!  You can buy anything at the souk from homemade nuggat (made right in front of you) to heads of animals (still bleeding) to mattresses for beds to beads to leather goods to knock-off popular French brands (like Longchamp purses) to pottery.  You name it, you can find it.  And, if you ever go, don't forget to haggle with the vendors.

The souk:

A stand of tagine dishes/pottery. Tagine is a Moroccan recipe that can be made with sheep, chicken or vegetarian.  It somewhat resembles a stew, but not really.  This one had a piece of chicken sourounded by vegetables.  You both bake it and serve it in the tagine dish.  I ate my first tagine today for lunch (Friday).  You will see a picture of that below as well.

While this is sold at the "souk", it is NOT something I would eat for lunch.  What would you do with it?

The first day...a whirlwhind in Casablanca

Wow...what a whirlwhind of a day.  We arrived in Casablanca at approximately 8 am on Thursday morning.  This was definitely not a day of rest for us, and I didn't even have the energy to write down my thoughts until Friday.

After retrieving our bags, we met our guide for the trip, Omar.  He has already proven to be a wealth of knowledge.  Everywhere we go, he can give us historical background, political background, explanations of Islam and specific terms of flowers, tress, etc.   I am so glad he is with us.  Omar led us to the mini-bus we have (15 seats for us + 2 seats for Omar and the chauffeur.)  We immediately went to take a tour of the Mosque in Casablanca.

The Mosquee (Hassan II Mosque) was built between 1987 and 1993. The Moroccan people all contributed to the building of this mosque.  In fact, they were charged a tax each year to contribute to its construction as long as they were employed.  Over 2,500 construction workers and 10,000 artisans worked on the mosque.  It is incredibly beautiful.  One interesting tidbit is that some ares were created simply to show tourists and are not actually functionally in use.  The area of the mosque where people pray can hold at least 25,000 people.  The women kneel upstairs in the balconies, and the men kneel on the ground floor of the prayer room.  The mosque is the tallest religious building in the world, the largest mosque in Morocco and the third largest mosque in the world after Mecca and Medina.  It has a lot of modern touches such as a heated floor and a retractable roof, but the artisinal work reminds one of traditional Moroccan art.  I cannot describe how beautiful this building is...So I will try to add just a couple of pictures to give you an idea.  Oh, I also forgot to mention that 2/3 of the mosque faces the ocean!

The top of the mosque:
Inside the Hassen II Mosque: