Friday, February 05, 2010

Expect the Unexpected

Assilah was recommended by Lee, our niece, from her trip there last year and also the accom she stayed in. We knew it would be sleepy in winter but did not realise it would actually be almost closed down. The little hotel we stayed in was only $10 a night and so cosy which was great as it was freezing at night. We could see why she loved it but it was not enough reason to stay more than one night so we hitched a ride in a sardine taxi to the next town where we had to wait at the taxi stand for an hour for our next ride. That was fun just watching Moroccan life around the taxi stand that fluctuated in numbers around thirty or so as they ferried people from town to town so as a passenger you had to leap frog to the next destination. They would not leave until the taxi was full .. 6 or 7 passengers in a 5 passenger car. All the big taxis or Grand taxis as they are known are Mercedes. One of the drivers said that the motor is strong. It would be interesting to see just how many kms that some of these vehicles had travelled. Less fuel, less buses, happier people and it was very cheap. We were offered fresh fish along with everything else to take with us on our journey …so we popped it in our back pack hoping we could find somewhere to cook it. Joking. Watching the men wash the cars with frugal buckets of water hard at work doing their best to keep the aging Mercedes fleet clean and on the road. Never mind that you could see through the bottom of the floor or you could not open the doors because the handles had come off. Mohommad picked us up to take us to our next destination down the coast. Moulay Bousellham was again a sleepy village but was perched up high over the Atlantic Ocean and also along the tidal lagoon that fed into the sea. When we arrived at our accom we were gob smacked because what we had booked was a retreat away from Moroccan life…it took us by surprise. It is owned by an English woman who visits in summer for 6 months. Meanwhile she has the staff to look after it and in between it is rented out as they treat it as a B&B. It has 5 bedrooms and we had the place to ourselves. Downstairs the staff had their area and we had all of the upstairs which consisted of a huge sitting room. Both that room and our bedroom face the pounding sea. It was a divine way to end our time in Morocco. We were fed breakfasts and dinners in their dining room/sitting room by a huge roaring fire. Of course we were by the sea so we had fresh mussels and fresh fish. I still can’t believe we are here. The cost for these two days of luxury including breakfast and dinner was $100 a night and they did our laundry. A B&B like this in Adelaide would be $250 a night easily except you would not see the Atlantic Ocean. Walks on the beach are beautiful….only our footprints in the sand. It was a wild and woolly night. I would not like to go through a hurricane it is scary hearing the wind, rain and the pounding sea. Next morning calm seas and the rain had stopped so we decided to venture out onto the lagoon with the local bird expert in his small boat. We were told we might see flamingoes but as most had gone away not to have great expectations. It was fantastic on the water. It was very shallow in parts as the tide was turning but we managed to see about 20 different species of bird life, some tiny, some large. Hassan was excited that we could see an albino bird as they are rare. We did see a flamingo up very close as it was feeding and 5 others in the distance. Hassan is a self taught expert on the bird life in the lagoon and he does the bird count every time he takes someone out. He lamented the extinction of some birds since he has been there but the saving of others. The fact that the farmers are taking over more of the birds habitat is a world wide problem as well. He really loves what he does. I don’t think I have ever written the blog in a more serene place than this. I just wish the kids and grandkids are here to share it. They would love wandering on the reef at low tide as we did. Watching the local kids harvesting the mussels off the rocks. The things kids do here in Morocco would make the young ones eyes pop out. We will have fun telling them when we return next week. I was just thinking about the fact in some places where there is nothing to do it is boring in others it is restful. Why is it so? The sun sets on a fantastic 4 weeks in one of the most amazing countries that we have visited. We managed to do it all on our was easy. Never did we feel out of our depth. It exceeded our expectations as well. We certainly emersed ourselves in everyday life thanks to our new couchsurfer friends. A huge thank you to all of you for answering all of our questions it helped us understand Islam and the Koran a little. We ate the Moroccan way. We hope we respected the people and their customs. We will certainly miss the laid back way of life and the tagines and the couscous, the beaches and the Medinas... lost count of those we visited but most of all we will miss that early morning call to prayer from high up in the Minarets of all the villages, towns and cities we visited. m'assalama (goodbye with peace)

Tanger ( as the French call it)

Well what a surprise Tangier is. Very cosmopolitan in the weird Moroccan way. Very open boulevards, beautiful beach and views and 2 Maccas. Not that is a good thing. On our usual after dinner walk to see the city in a different light we discovered the whole ¾ million people out walking as well. We thought it was because it was a Sunday but no it was the same the next night. The other ¼ million were out driving all night outside our hotel window. It is a chaotic but non threatening place. There are so many police walking around just keeping an eye out and blowing their whistle at the drivers and the people illegally standing or dropping off their passengers. Such a noisy place this is from our hotel window at 9:30 pm.Pedestrians don’t stand a chance in most of Morocco but in Tangier the drivers a more courteous. We actually saw an ad on TV here promoting that pedestrians have right of way on the crossings a lot of people obey. Not taxis though. Lunch was interesting. In the medina we went into a small family run food place.The kind where grandma is out the back cooking and husband is serving and the kids helping out. I ordered Harira, my favourite soup to discover pieces of meat skulking in my bowl. I am not vegetarian totally but prefer not to eat LIVER. It reminded me of Japan when we ordered teriyaki and it was skewers of liver, brains etc. I thought this Harira soup was vegetarian. Any way later as I did not eat lunch we went into a Patisserie /pizza place and was going to order these delicious looking pastries like the greek filo fetta and spinach triangles and things that looked a little like calzone. To be on the safe side I asked what was in them…guess what liver again. Very funny you might think but we had earlier walked through the Grand Socco (Market) and saw the stands of meat and the specialty ones of all the offal so was feeling a little queasy. Seriously the food has been fantastic and we love the Tagines. Tomorrow we are off to Assilah, a beachside village, for the last three days before we fly out from Tangier to Madrid. Maybe we will see the King on his tour.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Some random Morocco memories

An old olive oil press

Todra gorge. What a steep climb.

Ah A Kasbah!!

The salesman said I really needed one of these, but I felt its use was fairly limited

A Kasbah

local markets are in every town

Who knows what is in these bottles?

Still at the markets. Genuine Moroccan carpet

The snow in the High Atlas mountains

Storks nest in all high places

An orange grove in the ruins of a temple
The big square in marrakech, snake charmers, musicians, monkeys and everything else

Some Moroccan sweets
Cannot escape this anywhere

An impressive gate
Then we moved over the Atlas mountains to the desert

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Morocco and its Mountains

As we crossed through the last of the Mountain ranges in Morocco for us, we contemplated how great it would be to visit this country as a geologist or a trekker. This range is named the Rif Mountains and the same as the three Atlas mountain ranges. They are spectacular and change constantly. The photos we will put up are from the three hour drive to Chefchaouen. The light was just right and they are taken from the other side of the bus while sitting and zooming past the other passenger’s heads. This camera we have is the new Panasonic Lumix. On the sports setting it negates the movement. It takes extremely good night shots and does not need a tripod. The village has only 45,000 inhabitants, so back to the country again. As we rounded the last bend we saw the houses clinging to the side of the mountain. The houses particularly in the old town are painted a pale blue to mauve colour. The colour is like it has had the blue watercolour of a painter’s palette washed over it. We will let the photos do the talking. All I can say is that we had to self talk. “NO MORE PHOTOS OF BLUE HOMES”. The tops of the walls were still white, so it was dazzling. Everything looked like it had a new coat of paint and it had. The King is touring Morocco in a few days, so there was a big clean up going on. New roads, paving being repaired, new flag poles going in everywhere. It was frenetic…besides all the building going on with a supermarket and new hotels springing up. Big changes to this sleepy village I think. As we climbed up the seriously steep roads and up the untold number of stairs we came across their waterfall which was gushing down in cascades through the village. There were a series of gutters and little inlets to let water into people’s homes…very ingenious. I can only imagine how much water was flowing last week. They had several days of torrential rain before we arrived as evident from our bus ride. There were bridges and roads washed out and many crops destroyed. It must have been heartbreaking as the small farmer hand ploughs his lot with the donkey and hand seeds the plants. The amount of mudslides were incredible as well. We found a beautifully restored kasbah in the medina which wasn't blue, so we just had to take another building picture.
It was breathtaking to look everywhere, the waterfall, the huge mountains and the steep green valley with the mountains on the other side. It was cold as was evident from the snow at the top of the mountain but the air was so fresh and it was very clear while we were there. There was something in the air it was so relaxing. Must have been the Rif (hashish) that is grown and used around these parts. Nick was offered some several times but declined. Nobody asked me. Apparently over 40% of the world’s hashish is grown in Morocco. We looked and looked but could not find a hint of it growing anywhere, only olive trees by the thousands and thousands. We walked the 2km up to the disused mosque and minaret that we saw from the village up the donkey and goat tracks to find they are being restored. What a view from there of the village. The sun was just in the right place and was beaming off the blue and white homes below and across the valley. We were chatting to a couple of Canadians guys from Sydney, Nova Scotia when one of them asked us if we wanted to share his joint. We politely declined. We would have our kicks the natural way…wowsers that we are. Then to top this day off the call to prayer came from the literally tens of mosques (they all have loud speakers) from around the valley and from the village. It echoed around and around each with their own words from the Koran. This happened to us on top of the highest point in Cairo and had the same effect on us. If you are ever lucky enough to travel to Morocco don’t miss this place. Off to Tangier tomorrow, the gateway to Morocco from Europe particularly Spain by ferry. I am a bit apprehensive about this city as the stories and imagination run riot about the port and the surrounding areas. We will see.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Pigeon poo and Cow urine

That is the prevalent smell of the Medina in Fes. I will explain later in this blog. Guess what? We awoke to another sunny day in downtown Fes. We organised our guide Mustava to pick us up at the hotel and we set off in a small taxi. We decided to have him guide us for 4 hours and for what we thought was 150 Dirhams each ….just over $20 each, but later we were pleasantly surprised that that was for the 2 of us. We are so glad we had a guide for this particular medina. It covers 350 HA and has 250,000 living within the walls and something like 4,900 roads or lanes. We have to believe Mustava on these facts as we weren’t going to count. Though I think we walked up and down a lot of them. Particularly once he left us and we were lost for an hour or so…but I digress. This city is renowned particularly for its artisans. Actually a lot were employed for 5 years on the huge Mosque in Casablanca. It was fantastic wandering around but this time we were able to concentrate on what we were seeing instead of wondering what street we were on. The silver smiths , shoe makers, stonemasons, woodworkers all in front of us just getting on with it. We entered many little dingy passages to find some great treasures and sights. The Merdesas we visited were the best example of the crafts that are still prevalent today. A Merdesa is a college for theological teaching and they are centuries old. Actually one of them was 870 AD. The stonework is still in good condition in places but in others have been restored. The stonework was a mixture of marble, clay and egg whites which made it easier to work the incredible carvings we see now. ...wonder what they did with all the yolks. Wood supports made from cedar were also intricately carved. The ceramics and mosiacs were also something to see. We saw many things that day up and down stairs. Actually very narrow winding steep staircases which opened up onto rooftops with some incredible views. We have never seen so many sky dishes. A river runs through the medina but is now contained in a cement drain. The further in we walked the stronger the smell until we came across men and donkeys carrying huge amounts of animal skins going to the Tannery. We were excited to be here finally as it is something we had seen on TV and in photos. Up another staircase and into the leather shop this time. This is the only way we are able to look down on what they were doing to dye the skins. The skins were from camel, goat and sheep.The smell was not very nice and can only imagine on a hot humid day what it would be like. The tanning pits are like huge vats not sure what they were made from. We had the process explained to us. The first pits has Pigeon poo and cow urine mixed in with the water to clean and disinfect the hides …that was the atrocious smell. He said it was the ammonia in those ingredients. The incredible thing is that the young men were knee deep in these vats. The water was also very cold. They suffer from various health problems as you can imagine. Not great working conditions but they are born into that job. The next vats were varying shades of colour. All the dyes were from plants, vegetables and totally organic. The hides are then dried and brushed depending on the requirements for the shoemakers and other tradesmen. The yellow dye is from saffron which is a lot cheaper here as it is grown down south . The red from poppies, the green from thyme and the blue from indigo. It was a great thing to see. We also saw the biggest Mosque as far as numbers inside the prayer hall, it held 20,00 and we also visited the oldest university. Children start school from the age of 3 where they learn to recite the Koran totally by heart and they learn the Arabic letters also. Then they start primary school from the age of 6. We had a traditional Moroccan Tagine and Harira for lunch where Mustava left us. We thought we could find our way back but got hopelessly lost and what did not help was the kids having fun with us and sending us down dead end streets. It is funny when you look back on it but the gang of kids increased all wanting their share of the dirhams to guide us out We eventually, after 1 and half hours of getting back to the same spot and much to the amusement of the shop keepers, found our way out to the main entrance. I wanted to hug it. Fes definitely had the most interesting old town of all we had seen. It was a good move having a guide or we would have not seen deep into the Moroccan way of life in Fes.