How Many Camels?

Morocco Part 1

My trip to Morocco started and ended terribly. My actual time spent trekking through Fez, camping in Saharan sand dunes outside of Erfoud, and staying in Meknes were more than magical, but the journey was book-ended by heinous sickness–not the best way to spend over 24 hours of travel each way. A perfect trip in a shitty sandwich. We can’t have our cake and eat it too, though–especially if it’s a Moroccon cake. Bleh.

Day 1: Travel

Bus from Sevilla: 3 hours.

Ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar: 2 hours.

Bus from Ceuta to Fez: 8 hours.

Finally collapsing in a horizontal bed: priceless.

Day 2: The Medina

We started the day early, back in our trusty bus, but this time joined by our tour guide, Mohib, who essentially took our lives into his (over-enthusiastically-gesturing) hands as we later ventured in the Medina of Fez, or the “Old City.”

UCLA does Morocco!

We drove from our hotel in the relatively new area of the city that had been designed by the French during their rule, so that part of Fez seemed unique but still maintained a Western city layout. We drove up a hill to visit a castle and lookout over the city (New Quarter, Jewish Quarter [he told us “there are 54 Jewish families in Fez”], and the Medina), and that was when it became visually apparent we had stayed in the “European-ized” area of the city, laid out in nice spacious city blocks. Looking down at the Medina, we couldn’t make out any space between buildings, much less where one started and the other began. It just looked like a giant clumping of little building blocks. Not so much intimidating, more like, how the heck do we get in there?

“Ok, so now we go into the Medina. If someone says ‘Balack,’ move, or else a Medina taxi will ‘Balack Obama’ you! Ok now we go.” A ‘Medina taxi’ is a donkey, a ‘Balack Obama’ is a nice little euphemism for “move, dummy” that tour guides like to use for stupid Americans. Because of course we won’t forget the name of our own president. Hopefully.

Ok, so, now we go into the Medina. Mind you, I was still getting over a a debilitating sickness so I just happened to be a little woozy with meds. So this whole day was a quite dreamlike, quite magical, in the literal sense. We basically created a human chain and wove through hundreds of the thousands (1600!) of alley ways that comprise the “streets” of the Medina, the largest car-free zone in the world. The alleys are rarely more than a few feet wide, never less than three stories high, and usually filled with rotting animal parts of some sort. At first, the hustle, bustle, and chunks of raw meat reminded me of many of the fresh markets I would frequent in Thailand, but that nostalgia was quickly vanquished by hoards of flies, piles of rotting fish, and mounds of unidentifiable meat-like-things. So, I held my breath, tried not to get ‘Balacked,’ and scurried along until our first stop in a traditional apothecary.

Camel head roast with a side of sauteed snails, anyone?

Lovely apothecary decor. Don’t worry, Mom, I got one for the living room! Kisses!!!

The “medicine man” in the traditional apothecary turned out to be quite the showman and salesman, too. After flowery demonstrations and descriptions of all his “magical” herbs and spices, he enticed us to buy them all. Which I did, if just a few, for cooking. I bypassed the Moroccan oil “Chanel No. 4” and the mystical mushrooms that are supposed to be the Viagra of developing countries, for the “jiggy jiggy” as he so eloquently put it. But honestly, it was amazing to be invited into this puny shop and be shown all the traditional Moroccan medicines as a huge group of American tourists– I can’t imagine being able to do it without our guide, much less find anything inside the Medina without getting lost for the rest of my life. Like my friend said, you might as well forget trying to find directions out of here, just buck up and create a life for yourself. Probably the most viable option.

After the apothecary, we headed to a government funded Fez rug factory where widowed women are able to make and sell their goods. At first, I was impressed my the rugs but not planning on buying one. Fifteen minutes later, a worker was packaging up my new rug for me. Pricey, but it is beautiful and is currently my carpet/bed/desk/sofa for when I return to LA and an empty apartment. And then, the day goes on, and on…We had an amazing lunch in an ornate restaurant off some obscure little alley in the medina, through some obscure little door that gave way to an amazing, palatial interior where, perched upon pillows, we feasted on khobz (traditional flatbread), tons of veggies, and cous cous. I loved the food there, but apparently it didn’t love me back. Anyway, after over-stuffing ourselves as usual, we wound through countless more alley ways and visited a tannery.

All those tubs are massive natural-dye vats for the leather. Didn’t smell so fruity, though, so we were given bunches of mint to sniff on.

So, after marching (ok, more like desperately following Mohib) through the Medina, we emerged through another random alleyway to sunlight, fresh air, and children playing soccer. How joyful! Back on the bus. Curses.

We didn’t drive long, though, before stopping at a ceramic/mosaic (a pottery? a mosaic-ery?) factory, where we watched how pots were gracefully spun, mosaics were smashed and then placed into beautiful patterns, and of course visited the gift shop.

So, here we go, out of the Medina. It was an exhausting, but eye-opening (literally and figuratively) first day in Africa. While we didn’t come across any other tourists all day, I could tell that the thousands of people that live in the Medina were no strangers to gringo tourists. We were mostly ignored, often haggled, and sometimes asked for in exchange for “many camels,” but in a joking manner like this is what the Moroccans expected us to want to hear. Definitely a cultural whirlwind, but not even close to as amazing as our next few days camping in the Sahara desert…

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One response to “How Many Camels?

  1. you would make your morocco one 3 parts. i may just be too lazy to read it. maybe….

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