CASABLANCA Morocco: At the remarkable Mosque Hassan II
complex. A little closer to the top of the minaret.
Hello from chilly Casablanca,
The Arabs call it Dar El Baida and either way it means White House. Contemporary locals affectionately refer to it as just Casa. At last I'm again in real first world civilization. Casablanca is in every way European, except for location. The many McDonald's restaurants and even a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet prove it. No one has suggested that I be careful walking the (well lighted) streets of Casablanca at night and everyone seems to be easy going, helpful and friendly. Most people wear Western clothing, though here and there old timers, many women and a few young men still prefer the djellaba robes (a kind of hooded delabeia worn in Egypt). The downtown area is the place to people watch. Every block has at least one Paris style street cafe and people nurse their tiny cups of coffee or tea for hours. Transportation is cheap; most taxi trips around the city costing around a half dollar with buses even cheaper.
A systems analyst from hell must have designed International-banking procedures. Cashing a travelers check takes a half hour minimum involving three bank employees. However, ATM's are available all over town 24 hours a day and spit out the needed cash faster than you can push the buttons.
After several days in two other hotels I finally found the wonderful Hotel Kenzi Basma. A block from the city center and the $260 a night Hyatt Regency Hotel, it could not be more conveniently located. As I wanted to stay a week or more (and because it will be the first week of Ramadan) the front office manager gave me a special $43 rate (down from the regular bargain $69 rack rate). Recently renovated, the Basma is among the best houses I've used on my entire trip at any price, a great value and only four blocks from this excellent cyber cafe with its $1.25/hr rates. From my room I look out on the Mosque Hassan II illuminated by floodlights at night. Spectacular.
For the first time in six months I feel more or less anonymous out in public. Few people take any special notice of me or my skin color as I walk the city streets. There are rare hustlers who seem to have no trouble spotting me, but by and large I blissfully blend into the rest of humanity here.
When people find out I'm an American they loose no time letting me know how much "all Moroccans love America." At first cautious in this all-Muslim country, I stopped in a small grocery store where the proprietor spoke a little English. When asked my nationality, I did my feigned caution response, looking over my shoulder as I replied "American" followed by an index finger over my lips adding "Muslim extremists..."
The storeowner laughed, "We love Americans! There are no tourists here."
"No tourists here?" I wondered what he meant. As we continued our disjointed conversation I finally realized his pronunciation of "terrorist" sounded like my "tourist." More encounters with ordinary Moroccans confirm that most do indeed "love Americans!" Later in a tiny cafe sampling the traditional early evening "fastbreak" Ftour meal, the owner who spoke perfect idiomatic American English from his prior employment with IBM, explained some of the reasons for the special relationship between our two countries. He says Morocco was first to recognize the new American independence at the birth of our nation. And, America was the first nation to open a consulate in Casablanca. The Americans liberated North Africa from the Germans during World War II starting in Morocco. "You have heard of course, that Morocco is famous for its culture of hospitality, haven't you?" I hadn't. "People in sub-Saharan Africa think Morocco is European and Morocco identifies with the American ideals and economic processes reflected in Europe."
A week ago when I arrived I noticed very few beggars. All that changed Friday on the first day of Ramadan when seasonal beggars joined the quest for handouts. I swear to Allah there is a beggar on every corner and several clustered around any place selling food or changing money. Near the mosques, people have to push their way through the hoards of people begging.
This is the time of year when the faithful are reminded to meet their charity obligations. One middle-aged lady draped in a beautiful yellow and orange garment entertained a constantly changing entourage with open hands. Into each she dropped one shiny coin from the large heavy bag she carried. As soon as she had handed out one fistful of money more people materialized to claim their share, each one inspecting their coin to learn its denomination. None of the beggars got very excited, so I assume the coins, while new and shiny, were of small denomination. I saw a few other people occasionally handing out money as well. Before the start of Ramadan beggars had to work a lot harder for their income and there were fewer of them. Among the poor I saw a disproportionately large number of old ladies; many looked like they really needed a handout.
Ramadan is not a good time to visit Muslim countries for anyone who likes to have ready access to mid-day eating-places. Police and self appointed enforcers patrol the streets looking for daytime fast violators. This knowledge made me nervous as I gnawed on my loaf of bread while walking to the cyber cafe today. Arrests of people eating in public are made occasionally! Children, (very) old people, nursing mothers are exempt from the fasting rules, as are non-Muslims. Mc Donald's is among the very few places that continue to serve food during the day and I've had ample occasion to watch the enforcers scrutinizing diners. On a couple occasions, Arabic looking patrons attracted close inspection by watchful men loitering outside the restaurant.
Most restaurants just close shop until about 16:30 when some of the fasting people will begin to start looking for a place to get a bite to eat at sundown. Toward the end of my stay I did learn that some of the cafes that looked deserted would actually feed an infidel when asked! Most people of course, dash home or to one of the ubiquitous party feasts in a friend's home. The streets are deserted between 16:30 and 19:00 when people are living it up at their parties. Every evening at sundown off go the air-raid sirens. It took me a day to figure out why anyone thought 17:30 needed a citywide alert. Finally someone pointed out I could think of them as dinner bells. No one ever told me why they play the sirens at 05:30 in the morning, though I now suspect they announce the rising of the sun and the start of the daily fast. Arabic music screams from every shop during the daytime hours and sounds somber, mournful to my ears. Islamic chants have never been high on my esthetics list. After a few minutes of it, I start looking for some peaceful silence. Around 19:30 the streets begin to fill with people taking their celebrations outside. The mood on the streets is gay in the evenings. Hotels offer special nighttime entertainment during Ramadan. Kids look forward to Ramadan because on the last day when the period of fasting ends, they can expect lots of presents: "Just like Christmas!" my IBM informant told me.
One of the most colorful sections of Casablanca is the Old Medina or market area. Today, the most accessible isles near the entrances are home to up-scale shops catering to affluent tourists. Touts latch onto every new arrival trying to nudge them toward conspiring shops. Prices for everything start high... even higher when a tout has escorted you to the shop. Bargaining is expected and given the reality of pricing, necessary. As I am heading into blizzard country in a few weeks, I bought a new leather jacket. The shopkeeper started the price haggling at 900 Dirhams; I countered with 500... my top offer. "But it costs me more than that. Let me make a little." he pleaded. I finally paid 650 (about $59) and he seemed more than satisfied, meaning I probably paid too much… or that my bargaining etiquette pleased him.
Deeper into the Medina are the real people's market areas, colorfully enchanting, crowded to immobility by both sellers and buyers... and the rare tourist like me. At one point, people had created a traffic jam next to a tomato seller's cart. "Er serius, er serius" he chanted as people pushed and shoved, packing the mass of humanity even more tightly into immobility. I stepped back out of the fray, watching and photographing the bedlam. No one paid any attention to my strange camera and me as they fought to get through the logjam.
Frequently, the appearance of my camera in its chocolate bar wrapper results in some unpleasant excitement. The other day I started to take some "typical street scene" shots that my friend Ian so loves. Two cops ran over in my direction shaking their fingers and shouting "No, no" As far as I could tell the place looked like an ordinary downtown shopping street... no tanks, no military facilities, actually not much of tourist interest either. When I'd replaced the camera in its protective sleeve, one of the cops lectured me to take pictures only in historical and tourist areas.
Everyone who visits Casablanca will spend a couple hours walking around the amazing Mosque Hassan II situated at the edge of the city on the shores of the Atlantic. The enormous plaza reminded me of Saint Peter's in Rome; it is that extensive. The sky-reaching minaret dominates the skyline looking from the city toward the ocean. I took lots of pictures as I roamed the marble corridors and archways. Entrance to the interior is permitted (for a 100 Dirham fee). This is rather unusual as most mosques are off limits to Europeans in all but the most secular Muslim countries (such as Turkey).
Desperate for something in English to read, I discovered a bookshop with a small selection of the classics in English. Joseph Conrad never made it onto my reading list, but his "The Secret Agent" is the only thing on the shelf that looked like it could plausibly hold my interest. A literary piece, it is ponderous reading... but it is written in English and interestingly, deals with terrorism around the turn of the century in London England. Conrad examines a good deal of the culture surrounding the Anarchists' of that time. The work provoked wild controversy in his day.
Marlboro cigarette cartons are used for some imaginative purposes here: to patch holes in anything, as clapper noise makers by the shoe shine boys, as wallpaper on sellers stands, and as containers. Only Marlboro will do. Must have been some creative marketing done in this part of the world at some point. The tobacco company couldn't buy such ubiquitous institutional saturation advertising at any price, but people flash around the distinctively colored cartons here for free.
In a day or two I'll be off by train for a few days in Marrakech and then on up to Fes for a few more days. Next, I'll probably head over to Tangier before a ferry to Spain. Assuming American Airlines finds a replacement for the cancelled Sabina flight from Madrid to Brussels, I should be home by mid-January.
ASABLANCA Morocco: This is the most distinctive
landmark erected in the absolute center of town; right next to the Hyatt
hotel and main entrance to the old Medina.
CASABLANCA Morocco: At the remarkable Mosque Hassan II complex. This is the extraordinary minaret. The plaza rivals the one in St. Peters Square in Rome.
Hello from Marrakech,
Here in Marrakesh someone in the government must have gotten stuck with a tanker load of pink paint. Everything is either naturally the earth brick color or deliberately painted that color. There are variations and a bit of contrasting trim here and there, but the overall effect is one of pervasive pinkness. It is not unpleasant, mind you... feels natural, organic, warm, earthy.
We are still celebrating Ramadan here in Morocco. I say we because the Muslims drag all of us hapless infidels into some of their traditions whether we want to be included or not. Foreign tourists are "entertained" day and night with not only the amplified calls of the muezzins five times a day, but sunrise/sunset sirens and the never-ending groans of the Koran being chanted in Arabic. While our Muslim brothers gain weight from nightly feasts, we are encouraged to loose weight as most of the restaurants go into a state of hibernation during the daylight hours making lunch problematic.
This is among the few places in the world I know where it is against the law to drink a cup of strong black coffee at noon, or to smoke a Camel cigarette in the shade on a hot day... or to have even consensual sex after the cockcrows! Of course, these restrictions only apply to the four weeks of Ramadan, but people actually get arrested for breaking the religious laws. I learned first hand that non-Muslims are exempted from the rules when a guy "told on me" for sipping my strong black coffee in a sidewalk cafe a full hour before sunset. Pointing at me and chattering in Moroccan to the waiter, they both grinned. The tattletale left and the waiter reassured me "no problem."
From my $24 room in the still under construction Hotel Aswak Assalam I can see the Abo el Moumen minarets, lighted spectacularly at night. The other morning I shared breakfast with Manami Higashi, a young Japanese girl on a whirlwind one-week tour of Morocco. At one point she asked me if I was a Muslim. I answered "No. I'm a Buddhist... a Buddhist monk." As she eyed me suspiciously I asked, "What's the matter?" She replied that I didn't look like a monk. Thinking she might have noticed my habit contained not a thread of yellow cloth I asked "No? What do monks look like?"
Staring right at my now bushy white mane and smiling slyly she coed "You don't shave your head..." So, the next day off I went to a barbershop for a haircut. No. I did not shave my head; "Just a light trim, please."
"Fasting," my eye. All the Muslims do is shift the timing of their meals, transforming one of them into a feast fit for our Thanksgiving every night of Ramadan. So, O.K. They don't eat or drink during the daylight hours, but they gorge themselves with an early breakfast just before sunrise, dash to where they can get a sundowner "Ftour" fast-break traditional assembly of delicious tidbits that I find more than I ever need for my entire evening meal, and then overeat at late night banquets celebrating the season. If that is fasting, I'd love to see what they consider gluttony!
Here in Morocco where the French influence is still so evident, the number of mindless smokers is comparable to what one finds in France proper. The "I have a right to smoke anywhere I please" and everyone else be damned mentality is alive and flourishing in this little corner of France. Disgusting.
In the Old Medina souks I've experienced a constantly changing banquet of odors, some pleasant, some not. As I stroll along the isles and alleyways, smells constantly change: Cardamom, donkey droppings, fresh meat, chicken manure, oranges, human urine, perfumes... Things are very quiet before about 09:00 in the Medina, a great time to walk and smell. Starting around 10:00 the place starts to liven up a bit and out come the prepared foods. Sidewalk cafes use torn sheets of butcher paper for place mats and napkins. Food handlers are hygiene conscious for the most part. I've eaten often at many sidewalk cafes without ill effect so far.
Touts use unique tactics: bright gold color coin on the sidewalk attracts the attention of a mark providing the opening gambit for the hustler... a shop keeper steps up to you as you stroll by, thrusting his arm directly in front of you pointing at his merchandise and barring your way, every imaginable form of "my friend, how are you?" "Ali Baba, excuse me. Excuse me! Excuse me!!"
My compass has proven invaluable for navigating the alleyways of the Old Medina and souks. I keep a general awareness of the direction I walk and then reverse the direction to get back out. The little floating magnet also has been helpful in the extensive underground warrens of the subway systems in Cairo, Istanbul and elsewhere.
I've spent more time here in Marrakech than planned. The cyber cafe is good and my pile of notes has gotten too fat. I'm trying to get some of them transferred to drafts of so far unpublished postcards. Even with conscientious attention to discarding all unnecessary weight, my originally 20 kgm backpack has fattened to about 25 kgm with acquired guide books, new warm clothing as the temperature cools off, credit card receipts and my journals. I'll mail some of the stuff back home as soon as I get to where the international postal service has a better reputation for reliability... Spain, I guess. Horror stories abound about lost mail from most of Africa.
Orange juice is cheap (2-5 Dirhams per glass) and plentiful. Morocco has more orange groves than Florida and California combined. Sweet, some of the most delicious juice I've enjoyed anywhere.
The bus to Fes leaves daily at 09:00 and the trip takes about ten hours, though touts advertise 6-7 hours. I've noticed bus trips always take longer than they are advertised to take everywhere in Africa. I suppose some passengers would make other plans, if they knew how long they actually would be stuck in one position on a bus... often with inadequate comfort stops for people who cannot understand the haphazard announcements of the conductors more concerned with cramming more paying passengers into the vehicles, than worrying about the needs of the foreign trouble makers on his run. Tickets cost 100 Dirhams at the bus or 120 inside the station office. I took two, as usual. The extra $9 I find a small price to pay for the added comfort and freedom. Our bus is old with broken armrests and torn seats, but otherwise quite comfortable.
I very much appreciate all the messages I've received from recipients of my postcards during these past ten months. Everyone has written at least once and few almost weekly as I've rambled along my track. The last time I looked there were over five hundred messages from you guys. Occasionally they have made a big difference in my ability to maintain a semblance of sanity when everything else in my surroundings suggested crazy would be a more appropriate response. Thanks for providing the psychic oil that has kept my engine lubricated.
An interesting site for information about Marrakech is found here.
That's it for this chapter. More later.
PS: I feel like the 500th monkey. Every-time I seem to have had an original thought; someone else publishes a book revealing my entire thesis! Other than disappointment with the lost fame and glory, I am always reminded that important new thoughts commonly are discovered by several brains simultaneously... when the time is right... when the necessary antecedents have appeared... when the rest of the world is ready to hear them.
Such is the case with the evolutionary origin and importance of blind religious faith. A friend of mine has drawn my attention to a new book, one I suspect I could have written had I been more urgently motivated and possessed a good deal more discipline than I actually do possess. The book is entitled:
THE "GOD" PART OF THE BRAIN: A SCIENTIFIC INTERPRETATION OF HUMAN SPIRITUALITY AND GOD. Written by Matthew Alper.
See an overview and reviews of the work here.
I would like to hear reactions to the work from Richard Dawkins (The Blind Watch Maker et. al.) and especially Michael Persinger (A Neuropsychological Basis for God Beliefs). I will read it as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. Amazon.com has used copies for $7.22 (Published paperback in May 2000 at $11.95). The Amazon site also discusses other closely related books on the specific subject by Newberg, Giovannoli, Ashbrook and others. FB
Hello from Fes Morocco,
The bus from Marrakech took about ten hours. Shortly after we left at one of the longer stops a guy with a radio announcer voice stood near the front of the bus and delivered a speech that clearly reported what his particular god (Allah, I assume) wants us to know. He shouted at us for ten minutes, gesticulating wildly to make some of his points. Passengers sat passively, politely receiving his message. The bus took off with him still haranguing, finally getting off the bus a few minutes later after walking the isles to accept donations from many of the passengers. As he got off another beggar got on and people again gave him money. At one stop a father and his ten-year-old acrobat son boarded and we watched as the son went through some extraordinary contortions in the narrow space between the bus seats on his father's shoulders. Again people shelled out coins to the performers. After every stop where new passengers boarded, the conductor would wander the isles singing "Dom chocolad, dom chocolad" alerting new people he expected them to pay their fares.
For some reason the ten hours quickly slipped by while my mind rattled through a long list of obscure musings. Thoughts about my first ex-wife inexplicably kept intruding on weighty philosophical convolutions. Repeatedly I'd go with the flow enjoying memories of many high points in my past where she played a staring role. When I finally got around to checking Yahoo on arrival in Fes, what do you know? The reminder system alerted me to the forgotten fact that today was her birthday! The subconscious mind is a wondrous piece of electrified meat!
No one on the bus spoke English; no surprise there. Even though I limited my fluid intake in anticipation of long stretches with no comfort stops, I had a couple hours of wishing I had learned more French in order to know how long many of our brief pauses at bus stops might last. Of course there was no lunch stop as most people celebrate Ramadan by fasting and I'd forgotten to pack more than a handful of hard candies for lunch. These I surreptitiously slipped into my mouth hoping futilely to avoid being seen by all the ravenous Muslims packed into the seats around me. I tried everything to cover the sound of the crinkling wrapper each time I nonchalantly removed one of my precious sugar shots. To no avail. Each and every time heads jerked imperceptibly, ears perked up, a few of the more devout directed subtle disapproving glances my way. On occasion I pulled out my camera in its chocolate bar wrapper and noticed the attention it attracted, nothing new. Finally it dawned on me that this time people might be confusing my photography with plans for illegal, immoral candy munching.
One old fellow dressed in the garb of a Berber tribesman seemed particularly interested in my sneaky sinning. His turban wrapped around the top of his head continued winding on down his head covering part of his face with another yard dangling like a scarf. I chuckled to myself as I realized his head looked like a mummy partly un-peeled, only shifty eyes and nose visible.
We passed village after village, most surrounded by high walls. Everything is made of mud or mud bricks. The pinkish-brown color of houses in the distance made them fade almost invisibly into the background dirt landscape. I can see why the Taliban camouflage their vehicles by coating them with mud, cheap and effective.
Along the way we witnessed a large funeral procession: perhaps a hundred people. All of the vehicles on the highway including our big bus slowed to a crawl in a sign of respect for the mourners. Pedestrians paused in silence watching the procession pass. The corpse rode on a rough wooden plank pallet carried high by four men with a boy in the lead. The body wrapped in a bright red blanket did not look heavy. We all crept slowly along the road until the procession could no longer be seen.
Numerous donkeys, donkey carts, a few camels and numerous bicycles share the well maintained two-lane highway. Guys dressed for camel riding steered their mopeds along the road. Black creatures roam the open planes following the winds: discarded black plastic shopping bags dance on the slightest breeze, sometimes mimicking the movements of some stealthy beast.
As sunset drew near the subdued demeanor of all passengers slowly transformed itself into gayety and sociability finally exploding in a murmur of excitement. People smiled at one another, began speaking and finally a couple guys hopped into the isles offering bread and dates to everyone (men only) around them. I declined a date from the unsanitary looking sticky mass one happy guy thrust into my face... later thinking it would have been more polite to have taken one and worry about getting the sticky honey off my hands later. Now darned hungry, those tidbits of food served as a signal for my empty stomach to rumble in protest.
As luck would have it, the bus almost immediately came to a sudden stop right in front of a roadside cafe where an orgy of eating urgently progressed. Everyone on the bus piled out and dashed to different parts of the establishment: I to get information on the location of a toilet first. Then, back out to the deli style counter offering an array of strange baked goods plus the familiar French Baggett, honey soaked dates and pastries, and the prescribed bowls of lamb and bean soup called Harira. I ordered another bottle of water, a hardboiled egg and an eight-inch diameter "cookie" that tasted like cornbread. All in all, a most satisfying dinner after ten hours of near starvation. As I enjoyed my crusty slab of bread I thought of the Christian Lord's Prayer segment that goes: "Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses..." which now took on new meaning for me as I contemplated my bread for dinner and the forbidden snacks earlier.
While wandering around the open air dining room one guy motioned me over and gestured for me to share his soup, something that I had experienced a couple times before. I think true believers get extra credit for this form of Zakat (increased alms giving during Ramadan) prescribed in the Koran. The first time it happened a group of maintenance workers huddled around an open fire and hunched over their bowls just inside an alleyway gaily motioned me to join them. That situation had some of the "don't get involved" warning signs and I walked on not knowing Koranic prescriptions had motivated this particular motley crew... probably missed some delicious homemade soup prepared by one of their moms.
The bus arrived after dark, but managed to drop me off a few blocks from the train station. The Ibis Hotel sits right across the street from the train station and is cheap ($31), so that's where I stayed the first night. The next morning I awaken: the cock crows, but there is no siren for the Ramadan sunrise nor do I hear the cries of the Muezzin. After coffee and bread for breakfast I found the more centrally located and much more luxurious Hotel Sofia for about $40. The first evening I enjoyed my first real meal in several days: Couscous with lamb and raisins, a large round loaf of flat bread with butter, a plate of greasy fry bread, a bowl of traditional Harira soup, and a glass of hot mint tea with milk, all for about $6.
The Medina in Fes is colorful and extensive, easy to get lost if you wander off away from the well-traveled main corridors. Within seconds of entering the arched stone gate a teenage boy speaking good English approached offering his services as a guide. When I declined, he pointed out that I might get lost and that there were some places in the old city that could be dangerous. Little did he know he had met an expert often tested by the supposed hazards of really dangerous cities and their miscreants. I told him how much I enjoy getting lost and walked away from his puzzled expression. A few doors down a wrinkled old merchant in a dark brown djellaba had been watching the exchange smiled and commented: "He's a good boy from a poor family; you don't have to worry."
Smells of fresh bunches of mint leaves and freshly baked breads mingle with those of human urine, donkey dung, chicken manure, newly cut wood chips and a host of other smells both familiar and unfamiliar. Hoof beats on the cobblestone passageways alerted me to one of the numerous donkey carts hauling produce for the day's coming market, passersby squeezing against the wall to let the cargo beasts pass. Another overloaded donkey led by a man in rags carries grubby animal hides heading for the tanneries tucked away in the bowels of the Medina. Following him a sad eyed donkey struggles with its over-load of bricks.
Old men in dark hooded djellabs sit hunched against dark walls in the shadows of the street, upturned cupped hands empty and expectant, mumbling words in Moroc or Arabic which always includes "Allah." Near the numerous obscure mosques along the way old ladies, heads covered stand chanting their pleas for charity. Store keepers preparing their stores for business, not yet ready to engage in the urgent, insistent cries to buy their wares, are friendly... are human... they smile. The whole thing reminds me of the "predator and prey" drama on the African savanna: life is calm until the hunting begins.
At last, I choose one of the small twisting side passageways between ancient three story stone buildings heading down the hill. After fifty meters the path ends and a new cross street continues at right angles, I choose the way I believe heads toward the center of the Medina. A few people hurry in the opposite direction, walking purposefully toward their day's occupations. Schoolchildren bounce along laughing, pointing to the obviously lost foreigner fumbling his way through the warrens they know so well. Deeper I go into the cool canyons created by a tangle of old buildings apparently built with the only constraint being that a person should be able to squeeze between them. Now quiet in the subdued light filtering down from the crack of sky above, my own footsteps echoing in the narrow passage, sounds of school children in the distance change from boisterous to orderly signaling the beginning of classes. Here and there trickle the muffled sounds of families starting the day.
I am lost. It doesn't matter. I know exactly where I am. I am right here. I am fully alive and completely engrossed in boundless assaults on all of my five senses... and I feel. Deep in the three dimensional labyrinth I come to a dead end: the front door of someone's home. It is a long way back and there have been a lot of twists and bifurcations, but I remember the trick of following the same wall in a maze and am confident I'll eventually find my way out. It does, however lead me the long way out.
Traffic at the crossroad ahead looks promising and I follow the crowd. At one confusing intersection a helpful old guy in tatters motions me down some stairs where there seems to be a lot of activity. I start down and he rushes ahead to guide my walk... he's a tout; now anxious to show me the tanneries into which I've stumbled. Oh, what the heck. He speaks no English, but points out the main features of the extensive operation: the donkeys being unloaded, the hide scrapers, the tanning vats, the drying surfaces and the finishing operations. He also has a leather store by the merest of coincidences. When I indicate I have no interest in buying anything he makes it clear he would appreciate some small token of my gratitude for his services as a guide. My smallest coin is much to valuable, but I give it to him anyway. His broad smile shows many missing teeth. He needs a shower and a shave.
Dust is ever present; so fine it fouls my contact lenses making them itch after a couple hours. Storekeepers in the souks sprinkle down the walkways occasionally but sweepers tease up dust clouds as soon as the walks are again dry. From morning ´til night the cycle is repeated. I sneeze, sometimes in an unstoppable frenzy of spectacular exclamatory bursts. Outside the Medina on the main roads connecting the city, passing wheels also fan up the fine dust creating a perpetual daytime haze over the city.
During one of my walks through the Medina I witnessed two violently angry guys screaming at one another, aggressively gesticulating, removing jackets, pushing one another. A sizable crowd had gathered and by- standers were vigorously attempting to keep the two would-be combatants apart. The (almost) fight ebbed and flowed as one or the other would tentatively retreat or rush back toward his antagonist. Finally, one guy disappeared into the arms grabbing out from one of the entryways and the other guy stomped off, cursing until he was out of sight.
Thirsty one night I returned to a fresh juice cafe and the proprietor insisted this time I try his "special" concoction of orange juice plus. The plus included a half avocado, a few strawberries and a couple teaspoonfuls of sugar. Well. Surprise, it tasted darned good. Juice bars are popular here in Morocco where no alcohol is sold publicly to anyone. Foreigners can get a snort in private "licensed" establishments, though. I saw no public drunkenness anytime while in Morocco. Scruffy, lackadaisical bums made their appearance occasionally, sometimes weird, but never drunk.
Everything is for sale in the souks of the Medina... even food to feed the many infidels during daylight hours. Things are different in the new part of the city, the Ville Nouvelle. Meals are available at a few secret cafes hidden on obscure alleyways, but no one goes out of their way to make it obvious where the starving should go to look. Someone will make a fortune when he realizes the benefit of creating a franchised logo for the "HUNGRY INFIDEL" to be displayed in the windows of any establishment willing to serve daylight food during Ramadan.
Brown is a popular color for the hooded djellab robes worn by a large number of Moroccan men. They look like Franciscan Monks in their outfits. The women with their scarf head coverings look a lot like Catholic nuns. Of course, few of them actually are Christians in this almost totally Muslim country.
For ten months now I have been subtlety aware that foreign conversations around me frequently include references to America or the United States. The exact pronunciation varies from one country to another, of course as the languages vary. Occasionally my always-present undercurrent of paranoia led me to believe I had been found out and the conversations were about me personally. I am sure now that rarely has been the case. America has enormous influence in Africa, commands unbelievably great respect, is the object of widespread envy, and the touchstone for complaints about every one of the world's ills.
When first I suspected this to be the case I began listening more carefully for the mention of any other country's name. Even in French West Africa it is "Amerique" which dominates conversations with international ramifications. Often officials upon learning my nationality would simply say something like "Oh! American." and pass me on without the further hassles enjoyed by other nationalities. Sometimes I feel like a fraud taking advantage of the accidental location of my birth. Sometimes I question my own contributions to America's recognized greatness and wonder if I personally deserve such preferential treatment. Naturally, I am grateful when I get it, but why me? Would it be more spiritually enlightening to assemble my belongings in a big grubby bundle and travel on a Malawi passport? ... or to strip naked and wander the world without possessions? Hey! Isn't that what Saint Francis of Assisi did? Better forget that radical idea until I'm a bit more holy...
Speaking of being more holy, I still feel it is wrong to directly give money to beggars anywhere, from affluent Santa Barbara to dirt-poor Togo. A few locals do give money, but almost always coins of very small denomination... I've been watching carefully. Giving someone the equivalent of a penny seems insulting; I often leave unwanted change of that denomination on the cashier's counter at stores in which I've shopped. Since Ghana I've been trying something new: "loosing" small coins as I walk the streets, figuring really poor people might find them and I needn't feel like I've altered the social ecology of the culture. Silly, I guess, but that's how my mind seems to be working now.
I am increasingly aware that my yearlong adventure is nearing its end... the physical part. I have lots of notes and some important new ideas that need to be polished into something coherent. The mountain hideout will be a good place to do that, but so many memories and possibilities remain in Santa Barbara I am feeling drawn back there and probably will want to spend a few months re-establishing some parts of my life by the sea. Hopping from one hotel to another for nearly a year should have prepared me for finding a place to unburden my small backpack and take a shower just about anywhere. We shall see.
PS: I recently rediscovered google.com when both of my previously favored metasearch engines crumpled up into crispy shadows of their former selves. Not only is it a blindingly fast search service, but it is also one of the most forgiving misspelled word catchers and fixers I've discovered. When yahoo or hotmail can't figure out my phonetic spelling, good ol' Google.com knows what I mean every time!
Ksar el Kebir
KSAR EL KEBIR Morocco: A view from the window of my
chilly, heatless hotel room, at sun down.
Greetings from Ksar el Kebir
The train from Fes to Tangier threatened to get me in after dark, something I always despise during the initial exploration phase of a new place. So, I jumped off at a stop about an hour outside of Tangier. That turned out to be a good choice. Ksar el Kebir is a delightful small town off the beaten path. Not many tourists bother to stop here, as there is nothing of great historical interest in these parts of Morocco.
Though colorful and cheap, few people have ever heard of it. The "best lodging in town" Hotel Alyamama is not much, adequate for an ascetic like me these days and only $16 a night. No toilet seat again, but plenty of hot water, if I didn't mind undressing in a refrigerator before dashing into the warm water and then shivering in the cold while drying off afterwards, ducking a minor swarm of blood sucking mosquitoes in the process. I skipped the shower and slept in my clothes this night after spraying for flying predators. No big problem. I had washed everything before leaving Fes and had two full changes of all the essentials.
Wandering around the town allowed me to enjoy ordinary people who this time wanted nothing from foreigners and seemed delighted to help me find things in their little town. The big entertainment here appears to be public television watching while sipping coffee in the numerous neighborhood cafes.
A trip through the crowded medina on market day is an open invitation to constant jostling... like being the little steel spheroid in a Pinball machine! Street sweepers constantly fight the ever-present dust - their efforts sending brownish pink clouds airborne to harass those of us wearing contact lenses.
Hungry after a day of no food, I had the traditional Ramadan sunset meal called Ftour at a sidewalk cafe surrounded by jovial diners amused with my partaking of their religious backwards breakfast, the fastbreak. One guy asked in crumbling English if I were Muslim. I'm sure everyone else knew I must be a hungry infidel by the way I sinfully polished off every morsel set before me... and asked for more of the sweet fresh Moroccan orange juice.
One night in the hotel refrigerator convinced me to quickly move on up to Tangier. The next morning early I hopped a luxury bus heading north. As we sat waiting for the bus to depart, a "medicine man" lectured the passengers on the virtues of several packaged remedies he had for sale... sold some, too. Along the way we passed a shallow river where guys had driven their cars into the water for a creative impromptu car wash. Haystacks are plastered over with a coating of mud, to keep them dry through the wet winter months I am told.
KSAR EL KEBIR Morocco: Look,
smell and pinch before you buy the meat displayed on the
street of this typical small town in Morocco.
Ksar el Kebir Morocco: This minaret sat next to the mosque near my hotel in this small town in the north-east of Morocco.
Hello from Tangier Morocco,
Long before arriving in the outskirts of Tangier it became evident the city I remember from 1975 had disappeared almost entirely, grown enormously. The suburbs started fifteen minutes before we landed. The bus station is about two kilometers from the city center so I had a good walk, with my now punishingly heavy pack.
One of the smoothest hustlers I've encountered on my travels overheard my conversation with a store keeper about directions to the Mac Donald's restaurant I knew would be located near the city center. As I walked on, his initial manner matched that of other truly helpful people I meet... not too anxious to get involved... reluctantly willing to point the way and then make a hasty retreat. This guy did all these things and then popped up again a couple blocks later displaying clear tell-tail signs of the predator or hustler anxious to help the confused neophyte part with money.
Persistent and touching my body to make his every anxious point, I started my well-practiced tactics of shaking him off... but to no avail. All the touching alerted me to the likely-hood that he might be a pickpocket setting me up for his eventual assault. Finally, I asked if I needed a policeman to explain the facts of life to him. Even that didn't seem to make much difference. So, I walked over to the first cop I saw and gesturing in the direction of the pest who had now dropped back a bit, I proceeded to ask all my normal direction questions using a combination of French and English, all the while glancing occasionally and nodding in an obvious manner toward the pest, but not bothering to even mention the jerk to the cop.
When I left the cop my overly friendly hopeful had disappeared to be replaced almost immediately by what must have been his partner. This new guy continued the same line as the first one, but with a more belligerent insistence and feigning anger when I loudly drew attention to his unwelcome activities. Several passers by spoke to him in Arabic and he eventually skulked off. I kept an eye out for him until I reached the well-located Mac Donald's at the highest point in the city, great view and close to many good hotels, as they always are in large foreign cities.
As I now planned to stay only a night or two and this was to be my last in Africa, I chose the famous five star El Minzah Hotel ($100). A truly luxurious house, it is located on an obscure street a block from the entrance to the Old medina and a half block down from the main shopping street in the new section of town. From the outside one must look closely to find the entrance. Of course the predators know where it is and hang around in the shadows waiting for one of the obviously well heeled guests to emerge looking bewildered. Knowing all this I stepped briskly the first evening I ventured out to explore the surroundings... to no avail.
Not more than two minutes away from the hotel a "friendly" guy came up and started the "Remember me? I work at the hotel." ploy. No longer embarrassed to admit I cannot remember such an apparently harmless and friendly face, I told him right off I did not remember him. We exchanged a few more words about the "dangers" of walking alone, but to my great relief he soon moved on to easier pickings. The first few times this happened I worried I might have hurt the feelings of someone who truly did want to be helpful. Not any more, when unsure, I ask in which department of the hotel we met. That always puts an end to the nonsense.
One of my joys is riding public buses in strange places. On this particular bus I sat directly behind a woman wearing the latest fragrance... I presume. It smelled like a mixture of mildew, over-ripe peaches, formaldehyde and exhaust fumes. So strong I felt sick, got up and moved several seats away from her allure. I'm wondering what kind of guy would be turned on by that smell! Reminds me of the recently revealed wide differences in our olfactory senses: some of us throw up on smelling the same odor others find pleasant, while others smell nothing at all! See this article. Amazing.
Twenty-five years ago during my first encounter with the old medina of Tangier, I walked bewildered into the twisting maze. This time, after so many other wild samples of truly exotic old town sections, Tangier seems tame. The narrow walkways are short and dead-end not far from a well-traveled street. There still are beggars and hustlers, but fewer than I remember before. Some of the deformed, sick or dejected still trigger my compassion. I now generally show the hand over heart empathy gesture and ponder their plight for a few minutes... my way of "praying" for their future well being... may not help them, but can't hurt and it surely helps me cope with the raw realities of resource distribution inequities in this part of the world.
One morning I headed out through the widest part of the medina and then down to the shoreline for a walk back along the sand. Twenty minutes into the beach exploration I ran into rocky cliffs, eventually impassible. Up the nearly shear wall following goat paths got me into the oldest unimproved residential section fringing the medina. Not much has changed in the twenty-five years that have elapsed since my last visit. Even some of the same ancient stone and corrugated metal buildings of my memories remained. The people, of course have replaced themselves, now mostly young families with tiny children plus the very old pensioners who must have been there on my previous visit. The houses literally hang on the cliffs interconnected by steep switchback pathways and deeply worn smooth steps carved into the rock facing.
Children eyed me suspiciously and yelled for their mothers as I passed. An old lady standing at a small neighborhood store directed me towards the only way out of the maze, watching helpfully until I turned a corner moving out of sight far up the path. On the final section leading out of the old housing area two boys of about eight approached me with water balloons. I'm unsure what their playful gestures and questions actually meant; possibly they wanted to sell me some water (?), or toss a balloon in my direction. By gestures, I suggested they throw them at each other. Then the begging began - a halfhearted amateurish attempt. An old guy following close behind heard my fractured French and joined me in delivering a lecture on the value of work and the futility of begging. The kids seemed impressed by the old guy's scolding and shuffled off looking for other water bomb targets, I presume.
A well-done amateur site with good pictures is here.
Another site with a lot of great pictures and descriptions of Tangier is here.
Reluctantly I must acknowledge the end of my expedition to the African continent. Sitting here at the edge of the Straits of Gibraltar I can feel, if not actually see Spain a mere forty miles north of my present vantage point. I'm on the patio of Mac Donald's. As I sketch out notes for this "postcard," I realize I surely will be in Spain or Portugal as the church bells celebrate the birth of Christ this year. That means my big meal on Christmas day might well be paella, Sangria, tacos, tapas, Vino de copa and who knows what other Southern European delicacies. Should be interesting. I'll try to send a postcard while in the land of Christopher Columbus on that day so special to many of my Christian friends and family members.
Based on experiences during the past four weeks of Ramadan "family hours" in Morocco when crowded streets suddenly empty to a few rare souls usually hurrying late to some gathering, Christmas day in Spain is bound to be lonely. I expect I'll wander empty streets and search in vane for an open restaurant while a majority of people are cozy with family close and fires warming.
During similar periods these past few weeks as I contemplated the celebrating Muslim families, I had time to think a good deal about the value of interactions with friends and family. Most of mine has been cyber stroking for all these past months, surprisingly satisfying in the absence of actually being there, and infinitely superior to none at all. Brief casual encounters with new people can be educational and stimulating, but is no substitute for communion with people long known, people lovingly reminding us of our humanity, of our unconditional acceptance in the human family, foibles and all. So, on Christmas day I'll be celebrating the worldwide community of Cyber Souls as I crunch my taco.
Already a few of you have begun asking me to name the most memorable experience I've had this past year. The way I experience new places means that most of my encounters are accidental: some good, some bad, most just neutrally educational. I have learned (and forgotten) so many new things, tasted - smelled - touched - seen - heard so many new things, it is hard to pick out superlatives. But, I'll try.
My choice of the best overall place visited is based on the variety of things I discovered there to tantalize my senses: animals roaming the streets or climbing the buildings, a jungle rain forest pathway to walk soaked by mist from the wind blown waterfall spray, the fog shrouded falls themselves rarely seen but always roaring their majesty, the excited young daredevils bungi-jumping into the deep gorge from the damp bridge near the falls, the massive concentration of extraordinary native crafts gathered from countless tribes far and wide, the native musicians and dancers strategically located along the ways where rich foreign tourists strolled, the creature comforts offered by lodges, the real Africa and its people unselfconsciously living with simple traditions mere kilometers from the plastic tourist enclaves, the hyper-inflation and wads of currency passing hands on the streets, and the monumental reminders that this is where western knowledge of the "dark continent" began. Like the Academy Awards, the runner-ups are numerous and wonderful, but must I pick one? If so, then it is Victoria Falls Zimbabwe. (cont.)
THE END... and
PS: Graffiti in English on a Tangier wall: "Neither leader nor follower seek to be. For leaders often wrongly go and followers miss the better way." Do I hear some truth here? I might add: "If you happen to find someone following you, ask them to help you watch for hazards you missed on the previous trip. And, if you see a crowd following someone, try to see where they are going as their goal might be better than your own." F