Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A sweet invitation

After everything I had read about Fez, I wasn't expecting much. I most definitely wasn't expecting to have my preconceived notions changed in an instant. Unlike the abrasiveness of Marrakech, Fez has a warm and homey feel. It is a town for locals, not tourists... but its charm is ever apparent.

The city is built inside castle walls. Large cathedral doors and archways lead you into the the roof covered souks. Lights cast a golden glow on the streets and surrounding buildings. The atmosphere is one the Dutch would call gezellig. Cozy.

We arrived at our family-owned riad in the evening and chatted with the son, due to his fluent English. Aside from asking him where the nearest internet cafe was, for Natalie and Travis to print out airline tickets, we asked him if there was a patisserie nearby that was still open. Natalie and I hadn't stopped thinking about eating more desserts since the pastries we had eaten the previous day. He turned to his mother, who was standing nearby, and asked her in French. She said it wasn't likely, so we gave up on the idea. Instead we got settled into our room and practiced our French with her young granddaughter who was also in the riad lobby.

An hour after our arrival, we left with the son who offered to take us to an internet cafe. His mom and little cousin also left the same time we did. They were going home, he mentioned. A beautiful home that we were invited into once lead to the doorstep. A large courtyard with an orange tree filled the center of the house. Other rooms branched off it.

"There used to be three old fountains here," the son explained. "But my mom didn't like them so she had them ripped out and planted a tree instead." His mom turned to us and explained the same thing over again in French.

The 8 year old girl showed us the house, leading us from room to room until we reached a sofa where she asked if we'd like to sit down and have some treats, in hopes to satisfy our earlier request. None of us knew how to say 'oh, no, we don't want to impose' in French, but our looks of surprise was probably enough. She reassured us that it was their pleasure, and said her grandma was already in the kitchen assorting things on a plate.

So there we sat, with a tray full of homemade (and absolutely delicious) cookies placed in front of us while grandmother and granddaughter showed us photos of the family. We felt like honored guests, and were welcomed just as warmly when the husband and another son arrived.

Just before leaving for the internet cafe, we were told next time we return to Fez (since we were only there for the night) to not even think about paying for a room at the riad.

"From now on," the son translated to us, "our doors are open for you to stay in our home... as friends."

Friday, March 22, 2013

a driver's lessons

Traveling from Marrakech to Fez in three days by car requires extremely long stretches of driving. Thankfully our guide and driver, Said, let us take the reigns of the radio and entertained our questions about his life.

Said is Berber, having grown up in the hills of the Atlas Mountains and has both Berber and Arab names. (A statement which resulted in a request to provide us with our own Arab names; Ali Baba for Travis, Na'ima for Natalie and 'Aisha for me). But when we asked him his age, he said he wasn't quite sure.

Berber culture doesn't require immediate berth certificates, and when his dad finally registered him with the government, they made his date of birth the date of registration. His mom said he was a few years old by that point, and reasons he could be between 22 and 26 years old. He sticks with the median of the two for good measure.

His mother is one of many Berber women with a black mark tattooed on her face. In the 13th century, the king wanted to sleep with a different Berber woman each night. To ensure this, after a woman had spent the night with him, he would tattoo her lower forehead with a long black mark. But to protect their virtue, Berber parents tattooed their own daughters once she came of age, thus sparing her from the king. The tradition became so ingrained into the culture that it continues to this day, with the woman being marked on her wedding day. Although, the newest generation, like Said's sisters, have opted for henna instead of permanent tattoos. Not that I can blame them.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Camping out, Berber style

The evening before my departure to Morocco, a friend told me about one of the best days of his life - which involved a motorcycle rides, children, and a game of Cricket in India. Coincidentally, one of the best nights in my life happened three days later. Only mine involved long camel rides, unimpeded views of the Milky Way, berber campfires and sand boarding down the dunes of the Sahara.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

comfort in your own skin

After a long day's drive through the Atlas Mountains, our guide led us into a 4 star hotel for the night. The sky was dark, so venturing out into the wilds on our own wasn't an option. Yet, it was too early to sit down to dinner for the evening. So we decided to get a massage to relax from our travels.

There were exactly three massage therapists and three rooms available, allowing us the opportunity to enjoy our massages at the same time. Our individual therapists led us to our perspective rooms and then left as we undressed. On the massage table were two towels. One draped over the top and one down the length of the table. I crawled under the second towel and waited. Once the therapist re-entered the room she began laughing.

"No, no," she giggled. "Towel under. Under."

My modest American self still hasn't acclimated to the 'embrace your body, be comfortable in showing it off' mentality a large portion of the world has. And although my masseuse has the same anatomy as I have, I was a bit reluctant to have mine on display. Thankfully she recognized my hesitation and handed me a small package containing barely-there disposable underwear. But it was better than nothing.

I got up to cover myself a tiny bit as she laid the towel down for me to lie on. And when the time came for me to lie face up, I grabbed the towel under my head and draped it over my chest.

Story swapping time came as soon as we stepped out of the spa. After hearing Travis and Natalie's stories, I was extra appreciative my masseuse was accommodating to my discomfort with nudity. As Americans, they too crawled under the towel. But unlike my therapist, theirs whipped the towels off of each of them. And both of them, in their own separate rooms, stood exposed as their towels were placed back on the tables.

When it was Natalie's turn to lie face up, her masseuse gave her an extra chest massage. Travis' was ready to take it a step further though.

As she was standing near the lower region of his body she asked "all done?" "ALL DONE!" he exclaimed with wide eyes. Yet, she asked one more time for clarification. And then stayed in the room to wipe oil off his back with the towel and watch him get dressed. When he reached the door to leave, the door was stuck. She laughed out an "oops" and unlocked the door.

Needless to say, my massage was the most relaxing of the three.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

road of 1000 kasbahs

Any guess as to where The Gladiator was filmed?  Morocco.  How about The Jewel of the Nile?  Morocco. Or Lawrence of Arabia? That's right. Morocco.

To be more specific, though, each of those movies (and more) were filmed in the small town of Ouarzazate, high in the Atlas Mountains. Narrowing it down even further, at one of the innumerable kasbahs dotting the road that runs right through the town.

So like Russell Crowe and Peter O'Toole, we rocked it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

the streets of Marrakech

"Be careful in the big medina. Vendors are known to throw snakes on the shoulders of tourists and then demand money for 'borrowing' them. Oh... same goes for women giving henna tattoos. Don't let any of them grab your arm and start drawing. They'll ask for $100 when they're done," a colleague informed me days before I left. Thankfully I was spared the experience.

For years I had dreamt about walking around Marrakech. Watching the snake charmers, smelling the spices, losing my way in the souks, and eating at the famous night market. But I had also dreamt of a city that was a bit more quaint and much less abrasive. The charm I thought I'd feel wasn't there. At least not on the streets I walked down.

Most people were as kind as could be. But the city appeared to be built for tourism. I yearned for a local atmosphere. Alas, as we learned, one day's visit didn't allow time for such exploration. I'm sure it's there somewhere, just not anywhere near the big medina.