I hear a lot more than drums echoing in the night in Africa. Well, to be specific, MOROCCO. It’s a lively, buzzing country full of people, traffic, and sites to see! I have officially hit another continent! Whoop, only have Antarctica to hit to get the full set. But. Morocco is another world. We drove for a few hours to the port in Spain, only to wait, a long time at the terminal, and I was to learn that the day would involve a lot of waiting. With the Spanish who don’t really ever have a rush on things, attempting to communicate with Morocco, who simply don’t believe that time exists, there was no point in trying to stick to expected times today. We were warned about the cultural difference and the difficulties suffered by refugees in Morocco, attempting to get their way into Europe. We were to experience our first encounter on the drive from Asilah to Fes. But more about that later. We waited again upon disembarkment in Morocco for the bus to pass all of the security checks but were soon reunited with the driver!
At the ferry terminal, we had people, well they were really kids no older than 15, attempting to climb the fence and stash away under the coach. The police and security had clearly experienced this before and were confident that they were unable to get under the bus in the time available to them.
We drove from Tangier to Asilah, a small beach-side town, with a Portuguese influence (with the city walls from the time the Portuguese occupied the city in the 15th Century). The town had a Greek island feel to it, with lots of white-washed walls and blue/turquoise doors and wall trimmings. We were treated to a hotel in Asilah, that’s right- no “S” in that word there, there were no bunks to be seen, no shared bathrooms. With only two to a room, a private ensuite with hot running water, AND a pool, I was living the dream. Quick pitstop by the pool before meeting the group again, we were off for camel rides along the beach.
Typical tourist activity, I am well aware. We were discussing if it were possible to see how the camels were treated before paying, but it appeared that they were doing ok. The difficulty was definitely in the rise and fall of the camels. Our particular camels had only one hump, and a handle sewn into the saddle to hold on for dear life as the camel gets up in a tick-tock motion and again in getting down. The camel ride itself was fun, and picturesque, but didn’t last too long. Unfortunately, a companion fell as she was getting down off the camel, and being one of the only musc. trained people around, I was on duty for first aid and injury management. While I missed the walking tour of the town while assisting, I was treated to a private tour of the doors of Morocco in the morning. All was well.
After the walk in the morning, and having paid someone to get rid of any stowaways under the bus (an older guy standing with a hockey stick- who we were pretty sure would convince young kids to climb under the bus to convince us he was actually doing something), we were on our way to Fes. Having stopped at a few rest stops along the way, we were treated to a confronting scene upon return to the coach at the last pitstop. Two young gentlemen, no older than seventeen, had stowed themselves up in the engine compartment between the back wheels of the bus. Our driver had seen them and attempted to get them out, insisting we weren’t going back to Europe, but to Fes instead. That seemed to be their chosen direction. They were successfully coerced out with a broom handle, but as we were all climbing onto the coach, they stowed away again. We had to stop at the next toll point and ask for the assistance of the Police. One young girl on the coach made the mistake of attempting to film the whole fiasco, which encouraged the Policeman onto the bus and ordering her to delete the footage. No one will make the mistake of filming or photographing any Police or military man again in Africa (despite how impressive the guns look…).
Upon arrival in Fes, we signed ourselves up for a different kind of cultural experience. A Hammam. A Hammam is a traditional steam bath house and involves sitting in the steam room, getting a few layers of skin scrubbed off with loofahs, having buckets upon buckets of water thrown on you, having a strange date (I think it was date) paste rubbed on you, followed by mud clay. Oh, and did I mention that you weren’t wearing clothes or bathers of any sort? The whole event was something out of this world. Again, there was a lot of frivolities and theatrics, predictably played up for the sake of us tourists, but it was actually a lot of fun. From conga lines to piggybacks, from hair braiding to water fights, a lot happened in that room, but it was nice to feel clean. A quick massage afterwards, and I was refreshed and ready to wander back through the streets again. While I am aware that the Hammam was super touristy, and we were most likely having the piss taken out of us, the thing I enjoyed the most was the ability to see the Moroccan women having fun and having a laugh. They instigated the water fights, the dancing, the general frivolities, and it was so nice to see the softer and fun side that they have behind closed doors. Somehow we didn’t feel quite so culturally different at this point.
The Medina. Established in 808, it is the oldest medina in Morocco makes up the old city in Fes. Covering 400 hectares, almost 1000 acres, it’s easy to see why the locals encourage you to have coins to tip children to show you the way out. The medina is essentially a labyrinth of walls and narrow streets including markets, living quarters, shops and restaurants. The typical Islamic architecture is to put everything of interest behind the walls. They don’t like to show off. You walk down these streets, with everything looking the same, unaware of the beauties that lie behind these walls. The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, should really be “don’t judge a building by its door” in this city. It’s incredible to walk into some of these unassuming buildings, to find palaces, gardens and mini oases behind these closed doors. The Medina is now heritage listed by UNESCO, but with the stagnant population within the walls due to the finite space, they are having difficulty in trying to convince people to leave the Medina. It is still believed to be the cheapest place to live in Fes. UNESCO is working its way through restoring different parts of the Medina.
Firstly outside the Medina, we were shown a local pottery shop, where local craftsmen were making pots, bowls, tables, wall art amongst many more trinkets! The Moroccan style of tile-work is called Zellige, which involves each individual tile piece being hand chiselled to a particular shape and placed upside down with others to create a pattern. Plaster is then poured over the top to set the pattern. The pottery is hand-sculpted and hand-painted with brushes made of bamboo and horsehair, dyed with natural dyes and cooked in kilns fuelled by olive pits. I was taken by the plates and patterns in cobalt blue (I am my mother’s daughter) and considered buying something to send home, but sorry Ma, I don’t have a lazy $900 in my budget for a plate plus shipping home to Australia. A photo will have to do, and I’m sure you can get something similar from Bed Bath and Table nowadays, these patterns are all the rage!
In the Medina, we explored the local tanneries (leather production and shops), where the leather is soaked in limestone vats for 14 days to separate the wool from the skin, then dyed with natural dyes for another seven days in different vats. These tanneries are the oldest in Morocco, dating back to the 14th century. We explored the local textile shops where again, natural dyes were used to weave beautiful cloths with cotton, lambswool and agave silk. We were taken to a local alchemist, where we were shown local remedies and uses of plants, spices and oils for particular ailments, as well as cooking and beauty supplies. We were taken down a dark alleyway to the local jeweller (where I found another hand of Fatimah to ward off the evil eye). Our guide was proud to inform us that he toured with Catriona Rowntree from Postcards, who made a promise to him to bring more Australians to Morocco.
Lunch stashed away at a restaurant aka Palace inside the Medina was spectacular. The local cuisine tends to comprise of couscous, tagines, small tapas style sharing plates of stewed or pickled vegetables and rice. It is simply delicious with all the spices. And remember, if they don’t offer cutlery, your right hand is your eating hand, as you are supposed to do something far different with your left…