Archive for May, 2009

Barefoot in the Djemaa el Fna

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One of the many performers in the Djemaa el Fna (market square in Marrakesh)  it was hard to photograph them without being hasseled for money but I was pretty happy with this hip shot.

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When I was a little girl my father had a friend that came to visit us at our cabin in the woods.  I remember she was very beautiful in a way that was completely new to me; she wasn’t pretty like my class mates who had the coolest clothes or glamorous like the movie stars who effortlessly moved about the screen.  It was more like the beauty of my Mother, more truthful but hers was new and unfamiliar.

I don’t remember what she looked like but I remember she could walk barefoot across glass.  In my mind that became the answer to her beauty and mystery, it also became a vivid image that I can always look back on.  The following fall I vaguely remember telling a teacher that when I grew up I wanted to be a woman that could walk on anything.

While we were in Morocco I had some strange dreams, most of which left me with more ideas than exact images, but one of the dreams included walking on glass and this woman who amazed me so much as a little girl.  After the Hammam we went to the Djemaa el Fna where we rather spontaneously decided to get some henna.  We did not however think about how long the henna would need to sit and/or how cold the air would become in the next half hour.  So as they finished the Berber deigns and the sun went down we realized we’d have to find a place to sit for a while and we’d need to find it without putting our shoes on.

Now, as a kid I was barefoot everywhere and as an adult I take pleasure in grass between my toes in the right places.  As a girl who went to school in the city and has seen a few too many people use the subway as a toilet wearing flip flops in a city makes me a tad uncomfortable (too thin soled and open).  However, traveling changes the rules even if you didn’t think you had many.  Before I knew it I was walking across glass, laughing with my Sister, and appreciating the Moroccan street cleaners.

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Back at the Riad, playing with my flash and the bright orange of my freshly washed feet.

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Our Riad, gorgeous.

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Hammam

It makes sense that the word Hammam is from the Arabic root, hmm, meaning heat.  I really love that, such a universal reaction to warmth, saying it kind of warms your lips.

I didn’t really know what to expect from the Hammam.  I’d heard of Turkish baths before and I was looking forward to the experience but while listening to Sister read out the descriptions from Lonley Planet there seemed to be such a wide range of differences.  In the west a steam room or spa is usually a luxury but here it sounded like it was more of a necessity, not only warmth that soothes your pores but also the shower to keep you clean.  DSC_0804

We decided to go for the cheapest place, they were all really cheap but this one was said to be used by mostly only locals and not to expect any frills.  As we followed some back streets and walked through the trash filled parking lot to the spa we stayed silent, I don’t think either of us wanted to turn back so we quieted our uneasiness.

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back of the Hammam

There wasn’t a door just one of those openings that has another opening behind it so you can’t see anything from outside, kind of like mall and airport bathrooms so no one has to touch a door handle.  We walked in and immediately I take a photo of the ‘do not’ symbols, always interesting.

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Do not sit on your bucket!

The woman behind the counter starts yelling then I realize why, there’s about 5 women perched behind her naked.  I apologize, she shrugs.  Sister asks about the prices, the woman walks to a back room with her hand up in the air in a sort of  ‘you don’t know what you want, I do, so just listen’ sort of way.  Sister and I look at each other with question mark faces, but we listen.  She returns with slightly worn plastic buckets each containing a plastic mat, plastic sandals, a scrubbing brush, and a few small containers of what I guess to be shampoo.  She mimes undressing and plucks at my shirt. Here? Oh, um, ok.

Luckily another woman comes in at this point, a regular by the looks of it, with her bucket and sandals in hand she waves then strips.  Sister and I check in to make sure we’re both fine with this, we both say why not? So all of a sudden we’re standing in our underwear in what seems to be an old garage (with no lighting by the way), wearing sandals that seem to be owned by the general public, and following an old woman who obviously doesn’t speak English.

We shuffle through the dark hallway with the older woman and another woman, naked and very thin who seems to have been assigned to us.  Slowly we feel the steam, it’s getting warmer and as my eyes adjust I see women perched around the room scrubbing and sitting.  I feel relieved, every age of woman around me and no one seems uneasy in their nakedness.  We must be the whitest and most confused people in here but we don’t get many stares at least not the rude type, more just curious, like the little girl in the corner who seems entranced by Sister’s blond hair.

The old woman finds us a spot, tells the thin woman something then hobbles off. The buckets are filled while we sit and try not to stare too much.  Then, without hesitation the woman pours water over our heads and legs pulling us around like children.  She tilts our heads and guides our backs then hands us each a handful of thick brown stuff and shows us that we’re to rub this all over. After she scrubs us down with the brush, a bit rough but she obviously knows what she’s doing. Then she gave us each an amazing massage and rinse, not shy about anywhere.

I could feel myself relax with everyone in the room, women wondered in and out filling buckets, lending each other soap, and chatting in Arabic about what I imagined to be the usual.  It was nice after all the glares I’d recieved for my ‘inappropriate’ clothing and ordering wine at the bar.  Finally it felt like we had all found a common ground, in body parts and sisters, aching muscles and collective hmmms.

My oh My Marrakesh

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It was strange to be back in a city all of a sudden and that first day was a bit overwhelming.  After dropping off our bags we walked into the center, elated because there was so much to do (unlike the last two places) but a bit confused by seeing all the things we’d appreciated not having, i.e. McDonalds and the like.

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Really?!

We took a cheap cab back to the hotel and rested up for what would be a completely packed visit in Marrakesh.

Along the Way

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On the way from Erfoud to Marrakesh our bus broke down, ironic since it was the first nice and new bus of our trip.  It wasn’t all bad though, as is usually the case with travel even the bad moments teach you something.  We stopped in this little town in the mountains where I took some of my favorite photos of the trip.

No this is not for you, from me, not yet

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We woke up for our first day in Ouarzazate to beautiful weather, we had opted for the room ‘on the roof’ which was right near the washing station and a bit cheaper than those below.  Our hotel was a little quirky but we were excited that it had a pool and the owner was especially nice.

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Ouarzazate comes from the Berber phrase “without noise,” and carries the nickname “door to the desert” because for most people it’s where to stay before heading out to the Draa Valley.  Maybe it’s better to go there before the desert because coming from the desert Sister and I were not very impressed.  We walked around town and found mostly touristy shops with a sort of sad repetition of all things typically considered Berber and Moroccan.

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Construction site that seemed to be using the same ‘hold it up’ techniques as our desert tents.

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I still have no idea why the majority of trees in Morocco were painted white at the base.  If anyone knows please, tell me! It seemed to be only in towns and cities, ending on the outskirts and not happening at all in the countryside.

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Man loading bread into his car.

We headed to the Kasbah, a site which is highly recomended in Ouarzazate but were a bit unimpressed there as well.  Maybe it was our lack of research about Kasbah culture but other than being an interesting looking building with some beautiful ceilings it seemed to be more of the same- shops with traditional garb and shop owners constantly telling you, “Welcome, come inside take look.  Only a look, please.  You are welcome.”

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Kasbah

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Nearby there was a little market, most of the same desert clothing and painted pottery but one man had a sea of things that piqued my interest.  I wish I had taken his picture, he was just what you’d imagine, a bit hunched with leathery skin and eyes that looked just past you.  He didn’t say a word when I walked in, which was refreshing.  After sifting through some of the slightly sandy treasures he had out I was feeling good about my finds, I went to pay and something rather odd happened.  He laid out the odds and ends and quoted each with a price then took one of them away.  I haggled for a lower price on all the items together then asked how much for the little tree he’d taken back.  “No.”

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Me Optimistic: “Con bien?”

Him: “No.”

Me Confused: “Por qua?”

Him: “No, not you, no this.”

Me A little offended and confused: “Why not for me?”

Him: A lot of fast French.

Me feeling/looking like I’m 5

Him: More French, laughter, a sigh “Not now, this, not for you now.  Later.” then a lot more French that I didn’t understand.

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I was still confused, but after a lot of gesturing and trying to purchase four different types of objects that all had trees on them I realized that this man just knew he would not sell me specifically anything having to do with the tree of knowledge.  He couldn’t seem to tell me why.  It just was that way.  We both ended up shrugging our shoulders, I paid for my things and wondered what any of that meant.

Later we went back to the center of town and met another shop keeper, this one much less pushy (even the old man got pushy with other products in the midst of our ‘why you can’t have a tree’ conversation).  My Sister and I wanted to try on some pants and we asked for a place to try them on, he said of certainly, we could change there while he went across the street to grab a pot of tea.  And so he left us with his shop, closed the door, and after about ten minutes came back to share a pot of green tea with us.

First he poured the tea into the cups, then poured the cups back into the pot.  He did this three times.  I asked him why, expecting some romantic answer then feeling silly when he told me it was simply to mix the sugar into the tea.  Later while looking at a plate I almost knocked over the entire stack, I looked at him nervously and apologized.  He told me it’s good baraka when someone breaks something in your shop.  I asked why.  Just because it is. I wondered again about the old man, why I needed to know why something was.

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Later, the shop keeper walked us to the best tagine in town (leaving his shop unattended).

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The morning we left it was pouring and unfortunately during one of the many taxi strikes, but we made it just fine and boarded a nice CTM bus (like greyhound) bound for Marrakesh with plenty to think about and even more to just let be.

He ran to catch the bus at every stop

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After hugs and best wishes from the staff at Auberge de Sud we were driven to the nearby town of Erfoud to catch our bus to Ouarzazate.  On the way there, we stopped by and said hello to a family of Berber travelers and this grave site below.  Then we grabbed some fresh dates at the market, anxiously handed our bags up to the man on the roof of the bus (no, no room below but don’t worry he says), and grabbed two seats across from the door at the back.

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fresh squeezed orange juice, everywhere.

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We seemed to make all the local stops and we started to notice that one of the guys got off every time but never took a seat; he would just rest by the back door until the bus slowed.  Then he would hop off and disappear, we would start to leave then, just as we hit the edge of the town the boy would come running along side the bus and hop in the open side door with ease.  At first I was nervous for him, after witnessing my obvious amazement he seemed to cut it closer and closer to further impress.  I stopped being nervous for him and more curious about where he was running off to.  As far as I could tell he was running into all the local cafes and telling everyone the bus had arrived, which is pretty amazing service.

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An example of a typical Moroccan toilet, could be better could be worse.

The Desert

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After our sleepless night on the bus the surreal quality of the desert was only intensified.  We freshened up and sat drinking tea, playing more Rummy, and taking it all in.

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Then it was time to ride our camels into the desert.  I had a lot of trouble getting my turban on but, my Sister it turns out was quite the pro.

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That night we ate tagine and listened to the guides play drums and sing.  After the other guests went to bed we wondered out into the dunes to lay on the sand, watch the occasional night traveler (when the moon is full or close to full they go in the night to avoid the wind and heat of the day), and tell/translate jokes using our common knowledge of a little French, Spanish, and Italian mixed with English.

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Our tent complete with candle surrounded by rugs and sticks.

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Our guide Ibrahim posing proudly with one of the camels, he was explaining to us how important it is to respect and be kind to them which was nice to hear.

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In every photo I have of this camel he looks like he’s flashing his best smile, really he’s chewing his cud but we’ll pretend.

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The photo just doesn’t do it justice.  I’m not a big fan of super hot climates and sandy beaches (more of a mountains and lakes kind of girl) but I was blown away by how wonderful I felt there.  It was disorienting in a really calming way.

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The next day we didn’t really have anything planned, and since we didn’t have a car (like most of the Spaniards there) we just tried to be comfortable with just relaxing.  We played a lot of cards, read, drank a lot of mint tea, and while my Sister napped I had a little conversation with my camera.

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Scarab and camomile from a walk in the dunes.

As it turns out most of the action happens in the evening, after enjoying another wonderful dinner these men of the Nowa tribe of Sudan came to play.  After a while the staff joined in and then everyone was on their feet.  After dancing and jumping for hours Sister and I cartwheeled out to our tent, grabbed a blanket and enjoyed a gorgeous view of the stars. We might have slept out there if our star gazing hadn’t been interupted by some of the staff guys who kept asking if they could visit us in America.  When I look back on it I’m sure I’ll omit the cheesey lines and just remember the view but, if you’re going to visit don’t expect all peace and quiet- even in the desert.

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Fire pit outside our tents.

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Sand in my bed.

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Hooray desert! Thanks for the wonderful visit!


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