Thursday, August 7, 2014

Our Moroccan Adventure

The view from our rooftop terrace.

The minute we accepted the Lopez's request to exchange homes in Granada, Joe wanted to add Morocco to the itinerary.

"Let's go for a few days while we're in the south of Spain!"  he said.

"It'll be fun!"  he said.

"Then we can say we've been to Africa!"  he said.

I wasn't keen to go to Morocco.  I'd read the guide books.  Expect diarrhea.  You will be hassled.  The pickpockets will rob you.  Don't go out at night.  Peel your fruits and only eat cooked vegetables.   Drink certain brands of bottled water.  Eat in trusted restaurants.

But Joe was relentless in his enthusiasm for Morocco.  Ever the team player and always up for an adventure, I finally said yes.

Joe booked us a riad in the middle of Fès' 12th century medina.

We were going to Morocco.

Getting to Fès from Granada was neither straight forward nor easy.

We relied heavily on the advice of others.  Some of it was good.  Some of it was downright horrible.

We left Granada and drove to Algeciras, Spain.  A three hour drive on a toll highway.  As we neared the port town, booths selling ferry tickets started appearing on the side of the road.  We stopped at one.  But which ferry to choose?  There were at least half a dozen ferry companies all sailing to and from Morocco.  Joe randomly chose a ferry company and bought return tickets.  So far, so good.

We'd been advised to take the ferry to Cueta, a Spanish territory in North Africa, then a bus to Fès.  Okay, we can do that.  Sounds easy enough.

On the ferry heading to Morocco.

Excuse me Mr. Freighter.  Can't you see we were sailing here first?

After a delayed start, our ferry arrived in Cueta a few hours later.  We began to look for a bus.  We asked around using Spanish, French and English to make ourselves somewhat understood.

"A bus?  You can't take a bus to Fès from here!  There is no bus station at the ferry terminal.  You must take a taxi to the border, go through customs, take another taxi to the city of Tetuan, THEN get on a bus to Fès."

I gave Joe a look.

We took a taxi to the border.  The border patrol was PACKED.  We stood in a long line of people in the blazing hot afternoon sun.  We looked around and noticed forms sticking out of people's passports.  We asked the man in front of us what they were.  Who knew we had to fill out forms before we could enter the country?  We quickly filled out the required forms with borrowed pens.

Once we were through the border we took a taxi to Tetuan, a 25 minute drive away.  We were dropped off at the bus depot and we went inside.  Never had I heard such noise!  Thank God I had forgotten my hearing aids in Granada!  Men shouting, women milling about, squealing children chasing each other.  Hundreds of people in such a small space.

Again, there were many different bus companies going to all parts of Morocco.  Which company to choose?  And which bus would get us there fastest?  Finally a man came and grabbed us, we told him what we wanted and he directed us to a ticket window.  We bought two tickets to Fès.  The downside?  The bus wasn't leaving for another three hours.

There nothing to be done but go and find a drink.  So that we did.  With help from kind strangers, Joe went and made a phone call to Hicham, our host at the riad, to tell him that our bus was leaving at 7:00pm and we were on our way.

No beer in Morocco!  Mint tea will have to do.

The bus arrived in the depot.  But there was no need to hurry.  It didn't end up leaving for Fès until 7:40pm and we had to pay extra for our one small piece of luggage.

Finally the driver started the engine and the passengers piled on.  We found our seats and settled in for the drive.  Joe had heard it was three hours to Fès.

We drove towards the Kif Mountain Range and the red hills looked beautiful in the setting sun.  This won't be so bad I said to myself.

It was bad.

There was no air-conditioning.  I swear the interior temperature of that bus had to be 45 C.  The road was a single lane winding its way through the rugged mountains.  Some parts of the road were gravel.  The driver drove so fast on some of the turns I thought we were going to make the headline news on Al Jezeera TV.  We drove on.  And on.  And on through the night.

When the three hour mark had come and gone and we were still in the middle of GOD DAMN NOWHERE, I looked over at Joe and there he was, sleeping as soundly as a baby.  Meanwhile, my ass was screaming for mercy from the rock hard bus seat, my shirt and pants were soaked through with sweat and I said to myself, "If we ever get out of here alive, I am killing that f*cker."

The bus hurtled on through the Moroccan night stopping along the way to drop off and pick up more passengers.  Joe could tell I wasn't happy because he started rubbing my back to soothe me as I was bent forward hanging on to the seat in front of me.  But I'm sure he was having an anxiety attack himself.

At 1 o'clock in the morning, the bus pulled into a city that we hoped to God was Fès.  I could barely stand up I was so stiff and sore.  

I turned to Joe and snarled, "I am already dreading the return trip to Granada.  THIS BETTER BE WORTH IT!"

And Joe replied sweetly, "Oh, Nanc, remember when we went to Naples a few years ago and you were worried about the mafia and the filth and the crime?  And our time in that city turned out to be one of our best travel experiences ever?  And you cried at the end of it?  Remember that?  That's what this will be like!"


We went into the bus depot.  I have never seen or heard anything like it.  It was filthy.  There were televisions everywhere all blaring at top volume.  It was dark.  Men were sitting in resin chairs.  Joe bought us a bottle of water to get some coins for the pay phone to call Hicham.  I'm sure Hicham was thrilled to receive that phone call at 1:30am.

Hicham told us to take a taxi to Place el Batha and he would meet us there.

The taxi dropped us off, drove off and there we stood.  In the street.  At 1:45am.  In Morocco.  Alone with our little red suitcase.  I was already trying to figure out where we would sleep if our host didn't appear. 

But just then a smiling young man came running towards us in his flip-flops calling, "Joe?"  I have never been so relieved to see anyone in my life!

We introduced ourselves and Hicham said, "I was expecting you at 7:00pm.  What happened?"

Joe replied, "I guess my French isn't as good as I think it is!  I thought I told you our bus leaves at 7:00pm.  If I had known you spoke perfect English, I would have used that language!"

Hicham led us into the medina, where we would be staying.  Piles of rotting garbage littered the alleyways.  Feral cat were everywhere; small and mangy and sick.

"This is what travel guru Rick Steves says is a 'must see'?"  I thought to myself.  "I must be missing something."

Hicham saw the look on my face, turned to me and said, "Don't worry.  All this garbage will be picked up by morning.  Will you be wanting dinner?"

"No," I said.  "I don't want to put anyone out.  We'll eat when we wake up."

"It is no bother.  It is already prepared."

After walking ten minutes through a confusing labyrinth of ancient stone alleyways, we arrived at our destination.  It was 2 o'clock in the bloody morning!  We had been travelling for 18 hours.  I could barely see straight.  And here was this lovely young man ready to bring me dinner instead of heading to his own bed.

The next thing we knew Hicham had returned with the cook.  She set the table and laid out a feast for us.  I could have cried.  I was hungry, I was tired and these two beauties were a balm for my weary soul.

Hicham and the cook.

Our first feast in Fès.

Good night!

The next morning we were up early.  We heard the key in the lock and in came another woman carrying a big woven basket.  We smiled at each other as she laid out a beautiful breakfast for us.

Pouring our tea.

A breakfast feast.

Eating breakfast in the riad.

Looking down from the bedroom.

At Joe's request, Hicham had arranged for a guide to take us around the medina for the day.  

"How long a day is it?"  I asked Hicham.  

"The guide will pick you up at 10:30am and bring you back in the early evening."

Later I said to Joe, "That is too long a time to spend with a guide.  Maybe we can cut it short at 3:00pm."

We met our guide, Iktibi Thami, whom everyone affectionately called Habibi.  I knew I liked him straight away.  He was a retired university professor and gave guided tours of the medina while his wife was at work.

He taught us about the 12th century medina, the customs of the Moroccan and Berber peoples, Islam, Muslims, the history of the medina and its current population of 500,000 inhabitants.  

 Morocco has a very young population.  There are many children in this country.

 I was so happy to see this shop-keeper feeding the feral cats.

 The medina is a maze.  The alleys are so narrow people must walk single file.

 Feral cats and kittens were everywhere.

 The tannery.

This man's job was to bring up the hides after they'd been soaking in the vats.

 We went on a leather buying frenzy.  We bought a jacket, a purse, two pairs of shoes, two belts and a pouf.

 The oldest university in the world was founded by a Moroccan woman in Fès in 859 AD.

 The medina's Coke truck.  The alleys are so narrow that only horses, donkeys and pushcarts can be used to transport goods.

 Monsieur Thami insisted on buying us a glass of freshly squeezed peach juice and lemonade to refresh us.

 Deep in the medina.  There is NO WAY we could have found our way back to the riad at this point.  Or at any point, really.  Check out the flag the merchants are using for shade.  'Fès Country Club'.

 This man's family has been in the knife-sharpening business for hundreds of years.  The medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a living museum.

 This shop has a black-smithing business in the back, a knife-sharpening business in the front and a rooster to greet the customers.

 When the merchants are called to prayer, they simply place a broom across their shop's doorway.  This lets everyone know the shop-keeper is in the mosque and will be back shortly.

 This is Aseem.  He grew up in Fès, studied at the University of Toronto, lived at Kits Beach in Vancouver for a while and is marrying a girl from the British Properties in September.  He was in Fès for the summer helping out in his father's carpet business.

 Yes, we bought a carpet.

 Florence and Lawrence of Arabia.

 This photo gives new meaning to the word 'fez'.

 Joe getting fitted for his jalaba.

 Fun with fabrics!

 People work extremely hard in this country.  Usually with their hands.  This man's job was to feed the fire all day with sawdust for the hamman baths.  

The workmanship in the mosaics is mind-boggling.  This artisan is chipping bevelled shapes out of coloured tiles to lay upside down in a pattern.

Creating a table.  All the pieces fit like a jigsaw puzzle.  But then to lay it all upside down!

One of the many entrances to the medina.

Morocco is full of contrasts.  Here is an upscale restaurant/art gallery while outside its walls is abject poverty.

Sadly our day was over all too soon!  After thinking we'd ditch Mr. Thami by mid-afternoon, I was upset we had to say good-bye at 8:00pm!  Monsieur Thami was very well-respected in his community.  We couldn't walk 4 metres in the medina without someone calling out to him or kissing the top of his bald head.  We heard "Habibi!  Habibi!" all day long.  I cried saying our farewells.

Another feast was served to us...

...which we promptly shared with the cats outside our door.

We were up early the next morning as Hicham had arranged for us to be taken to the Atlas Mountains and the surrounding areas.  Our driver for the day was Youseff.

 Our first stop was at a lake.  As soon as we opened the car doors we were surrounded by four horses and their handlers.  Seeing as Joe had never ridden a horse before Youseff and I encouraged him to do it.  Joe gamely climbed onto the horse's back and went for a five minute trot down the parking lot and back.

 As we climbed into the Atlas Mountains, Youseff stopped the car so I could get out and take a picture of the valley.

 The monkeys were very thirsty in the cedar forests of the Atlas Mountains.  Here I am sharing my water with a baby...

 ...and its mama.

 We drove to the village of Azrou.  Well, wouldn't you know it?  It was their market day!  Youseff showed us the entrance to the souk and said, "Go on!  Have fun!"

 We were the only Westerners there.

 This old truck nearly ran us and half a dozen other people over trying to exit the souk.

Youseff had told us to be careful taking photos in the souk.  So we just hung our cameras around our necks and clacked the shutter from chest height.

These guys lost half their load of melons, but quickly had them loaded back into their cart.

 Afterwards we stopped for tea in Youseff's town of Sefrou.  As always, the children were the sweetest.  "Bonjour Madam!" they called to me.

 When we left Fès, I cried saying good-bye to Hicham.  This guy works 7 days a week and is at his guests' beck and call 24 hours a day.  I was so touched by all that he had done for us.  There were hugs and kisses all around.

I told Joe there was no way in hell I was returning to Spain the same way I arrived in Morocco.  So we hired Youseff to drive us six hours north to the ferry.

Not only do people work hard in this country but so do the animals.  We saw this little guy carrying his bundle of branches on the highway on our way to the ferry.

 On our way to the ferry we stopped at a roadside stand to buy fruit.  (I just LOVE the happy face on this little pomegranate!)

We stopped at roadside ceramic stands for Joe to buy a tagine.

We stopped to look at the views.

We stopped to look at the morning sky.

We by-passed Cueta altogether and bought new ferry tickets in Tangier Med.  We said good-bye to our gentle and funny driver Youseff.  More hugs and kisses.  I cried when I said good-bye to him too.

Best driver in all of Morocco!

The 1:00pm ferry was late which allowed us to make it in time to sail to Algeciras!

It is difficult to describe why Fés and Morocco affected me so.  My words and photographs do not even come close to capturing the beauty of its people and their way of life.

Everyone we met or smiled at seemed truly joyful.  Even though we saw a lot of poverty, there was far more laughter.  The Moroccans are a friendly, welcoming people.  I learned the true meaning of "Insha'Allah".  If it is God's will.

And yes, Pollyanna, you were absolutely correct.  Our week in Fès was life-changing.  It was one of the best travel experiences of my life.  Thank you for insisting we go to Morocco and Fés in particular. 

I can hardly wait to return.


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