Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The final days

In a word, Morocco is paradise. I'm about five hours away from leaving the hotel in Casablanca and heading to the airport, and I'm so sad. Dinner was a bittersweet mix of everyone's funniest memories and fondest farewells. Stargazing in the Sahara, having so much fun in Marrakesh that you (Tara) lose your pants (!!), connecting with kids in tiny L'Mahamid, having no communication skills in either French, Berber or Arabic, yet still getting your point across on a human level. These are all the things I will miss. I'm grateful for my new friends, both Moroccan and American, and my new-found love of this place that is such a dynamic mixture of new and old, urban and rural, traditional and progressive. Like Kim said, it'll take a year just to synthesize and put into perspective everything we learned here, laughed about here, and are now tearing up over. I only hope we'll make that 1st anniversary reunion in Boston/Boulder actually happen. Being in the calmest, most charming, quaintest of all places in Morocco yesterday (Essouiria -- my favorite city by the sea), I dreaded coming back to Casa today, and can't believe that exactly a month ago I wished we had more time in the cities and couldn't fathom what we'd be learning while focusing on the south. How stupid I was. Sure, each place has something to teach us, but it's in the south that we saw true hospitality, warmth, and friendship. Jake, just say the word when you're ready to buy that Moroccan timeshare - we might have to fight over whether it's Ifni or Essouiria, but either way, I'm in on it, brother! And when you and Bill and I create our NGO that promotes education/sports/internationalism amongst kids -- or whatever we settle on -- we'll use that condo as homebase. Shukran Bizzef to three of the craziest Berbers we'll ever have the pleasure to befriend. And an even Grander Shukran thrown in for good measure, Abdullah. We will return to this place, -- Maghreb, Maroc, Morocco -- if not physically, at least spiritually for a long, long, time. En shallah. Layla Saida. "Pray to Allah but tie up your camels."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Days 23-26ish????

Agadir. Hmmm. Where to begin? Essentially, it felt like we left Morocco for two days and headed off to a European vacation on the beach. There are soooo many Europeans that come to Agadir for a cheap beach vacation that I was actually looking forward to leaving the beachside resort and heading BACK to Morocco. An earthquake in the 60s leveled the town and it was rebuilt in hideous 60s/70s architecture, with lots of beachside hotels, casinos, souvenier shops, etc. We were treated to a 5 star hotel, which, I admit had its perks - one of which was the hotel spa (complete with relaxing Moroccan hammam treatment - steam, traditional scrub down, etc.) and massage. And the food was actually good - so there were perks, don't get me wrong. And for those that wanted to swim, the pool was a luxury. However, I was so *^%^% happy when we hit the road and headed for the mountains on our way to Marrakesh. More later when we get to the coast tonight

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Days 17-22 . . . maybe??

As you can see, it's easy to lose track of time when you're in paradise. ;) It's been a while since free time and a decent wifi connection happened in the same place, and part of me is ok with that. My last post feels like an eternity ago, as it was our first morning in L'Mahamid, the tiny village of Aomar's family. We spent that day sweltering in 125 F heat, and although some people had to check into the hotel for health purposes, the majority of us just sweated it out and were rewarded by the evening's cool breezes and desert sunset. The next day, when we were out visiting a local women's cooperative, Aomar's brothers had the "Village Depot" guy come by and install ceiling fans in the living room. :) Can you even imagine permanently changing something in your house to accommodate guests? Yet another example of Moroccan hospitality. Despite the almost unbearable daytime heat in the village, our time was spent surrounded by laughter, special family moments, and an abundance of great food. The women taught us how to make couscous (kudos to Michelle for jumping in and burning her hands to demonstrate the process) and to Bill for daring to come into the womens' realm. I think he has a new female fan club in the village! Two more nights on the roof gave us stunning views of starry nights and amazing morning walks where we all (women) turned every head in town (the same way a bunch of Moroccans walking suddenly walking around New Meadows would!) It was truly sad to have to say goodbye to the Boum clan, and I'm only speaking for us who had cooked and cleaned and played and laughed with them for three days. I can't imagine how it felt for Tara who has become like an adopted member of the family, and certainly for Aomar himself. Leaving L'Mahamid and the Foum Zguid area was especially bitter, as we then headed to the armpit of Morocco, the place where even Aomar said was only necessary as an overnight stop before we toured the ruins of Jewish settlements in the Akka area. Tata may sound exotic and fun, but don't be fooled! It's only purpose is as a military outpost, being so close to the Algerian border, we had to check in with the authorities (three times) and stop at multiple guard checkpoints. The only hotel in town had bedbugs (or something that bit half of us into submission) and the pool was filled with murky water. Let's just say that Tata won't ever be revisited by any of us. We were so thrilled the next day to leave the armpit and experience the cool ocean breezes of Plage Blanche (the white beach that really isn't, but is at least clean) near Gulmime, and only my second ocean experience (the other was in the south China Sea when I lived in Taiwan!) My east coast travel mates laughed at that one, as they finally felt like home and the Jersey shore were within reach. :) The Gulmime camel market (I foolishly stood in the middle of a moving herd with my camera - unknowingly) provided interesting insight into such a part of Moroccan life. Only 1,000 USD for a nice camel - and I hear it's tastier than lamb and low in cholesterol! Some people got to experience the Gulmime camel fest that night, but Tara took four of us to an amazing evening of henna with her friends. The most incredibly talented artists I've ever seen took henna and decorated our hands and feet in beautiful, geometric patterns. Six hours later and with gooey toes, we wrapped up in tp for the night and have done our best to slather olive oil in order to keep the dye dark. I hope you can still see some of it when I get home. It was so refreshing to finally spend some girl time - haning out talking to women our age and status, finding them to be so similar - married, taking care of kids, contributing to their families, etc. The teenage brother came in briefly to load up on food from our feast, show us a family album slideshow and play tunes from his personal playlist - like teenage boys anywhere! Of course, the tunes were Saharawi, but no matter. Tara's Gulmime family comes from the group of souther Moroccans known for speaking Haasania Arabic, and were until the 70s a nomadic family who now enjoys wealth and status in the community, the father being called, simply, "The poet" even by his own children. Tara's research on Hassania oral poetry led her to spend weeks living with and interviewing this amazing man who uses ancient traditions to keep his culture alive. The past two nights here in the coastal town of Sidi Ifni, a Spanish colony until 1969, provided such a change from camels, villages, and heat. We all want to retire here on the coast! More tonight when we get to Touradent - the Land cruisers are loading up!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Day 15, or 16, or ??

It's been an almost surreal 12 hours, as we finally arrived in Foum-Zguid - Boumy's town - "BoomTown" far off the paved road and anything we've experienced so far. We sat on the roof - the coolest place in the house and were served first tea, coffee, cookies and pastries, then a full meal, complete with salad, chicken, goat, bread, etc., all so flavorful. Imagine the most tender, juicy meat - that was the goat. Boumy was so excited to be here amongst his family - his mom is in her 70s and dad is 93, and they both still climbed the stairs to the roof with ease. Boumy was glowing as we stepped out of the cars and he kissed his mother's head - a sign of ultimate respect given to an elder. Cousins, siblings, nieces, nephews and friends surrounded the two as we were warmly welcomed and led upstairs to our feast. It is a cement block building, with one bathroom, a kitchen, large living room, large open dirt floor room where much of the cleaning of dishes, etc., is done, along with a couple of bedrooms down below and the roof terrace. This morning a few of us women (the men had to sleep in another house on the roof) got up early to help make the bread for breakfast. Imagine me crouched on a tile floor, sweat pouring from my forehead as I burn my finger prints off and unknowingly flip hot oil on the women seated near me. The dough was made fresh this morning, kneaded over and over - great job Ellie! - then patted into squared and fried in olive oil. Let's just say I gave the women a good laugh and a bit of a sting as I tried to master the art of flipping hot dough with my hands. They finally gave me a spoon. ;) We're here for two more nights, and will soon be seeing local schools with Boumy's nephew and brother who are both educators. I only hope I get to help the women do more work today!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Jersey Bill's addendum

James and Brian!

Hi Boys I hope yo are well. I miss you like crazy, crazy, crazy. LAst
night we watched that wolrd cup final soccer game that took place in S
Africa. It was so much fun here is what is going on now...

It is onward today! Destination? Foum Zguid. This isa is small
community. A village of an economy based on medicinal cures, salves.
Witch doctor like?maybe. Many pharmaceutical companies send
representatives here to study their methods, often under disguise! And
then? they take it back to the States, Canada, replicate, package,
shelve, and sell it---- making a handsome killing. Beleive it or not,
Viagra is one such possible drug that was taken from here in the most
recent years.

I will be staying with a village family. Taking on the
responsibilities of the male village members. there are talks of
slaugtering a goat, building part of a "Loh" architectural style home.
We will see how this story of Morocco continues to evolve...

Days 12-14???

We've quickly learned that Dr. Aomar Boum's (Boomy's) description of a 3-hour car ride from one city to the next is not exactly accurate. Let's just say that we left Zagoura - the last stop for the caravans as they made their 52-day camel journey to Tombouctou - at somewhere around 9:00 a.m. and arrived about 12 hours later. What took place in between was an endless mixture of surreal moments, breathtaking landscapes and unforgettable inside jokes. Melon stop, anyone? We passed through multiple small villages, listening to everything from Moroccan rap with its mixture of English/French/Arabic to Bonnie Raitt, all while passing donkey carts and earthen houses. Crazy. After eating lunch in a kazbah (and me falling asleep afterward - was it from the 46 degree heat or too much Berber whiskey? -- another inside joke - it's just mint tea), we made our way onto a dirt road headed down into a canyon into a different kind of oasis - a desert waterfall. After taking a refreshing dip in our clothes and the boys swimming with the melon to chill it (picture three adult men playing catch with a huge watermelon), we ate MORE melon and thoroughly enjoyed this much-needed rest from the car. Not too far back on the main highway we had car problems (or maybe it was driver Miloud's excuse for another break?) and ended up stopping by the side of the hghway, overlooking a cliff and had the craziest, most spontaneous dance party on the rocks! Everyone jammed out to Michael Jackson, Mambo #5, etc., while waving to every passing car and Babel bus (we were on the highway from that scene in the movie where Cate Blanchett gets shot) that passed by. I can only imagine what the passengers were thinking! We finally made it to Ourzazette, home of our three Berber drivers, and had a fantastic meal at Abdullah's home. It was so good, in fact, that we gave up dinner at the hotel (worst pasta ever, but better than another tagine), and went back for the leftovers the next evening. Moroccan hostpitality is never-ending, as is American craziness. Thanks to Jersey Bill, we ended the night with an obnoxiously loud game of Jenga-lah (our new favorite made-up word for Jenga). We finally had shopping time yesterday and bought more Moroccan potions and creams than the guys knew ever existed and spent HOURS bargaining for Berber carpets (kudos to Jake for being our new best shopping girlfriend - you rock!) Last night's World Cup final was an unexpected cultural experience no one expected. The drivers took us to a local cafe where we were the only females, as if we didn't stand out enough as foreigners. It was great, though, and Bill and Jake and I butchered our white T-shirts (picture to follow soon) to make Netherlands jerseys (all for not) and found our new favorite Arabic word - Hollinda - for Holland. Now that's one I can remember! We're off again today for Foumzguid (Boomy's village) where we'll have a three-day home stay and total immersion into Moroccan village life. I can't wait to do laundry in the river and shower with a bucket!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 11

I'm sitting in the sub-Saharan town of Zagoura where you can float in the pool and stare up at date palms, do group yoga by the pool while listening to goats in the background, and fill up on okra tagine and mint tea until you're so stuffed that all you can do is crash on the overstuffed cushions while the warm air of the desert surounds you. Each day I find myself saying, yet again, "I can't believe this is my life!" Fortunate doesn't even begin to describe the sense at being invited to no fewer than two Berber weddings (and we're only in week 2). The first one showed a very exhausted-looking, over-celebrated young woman decorated in layers of colorful shawls over her dress, and adorned by layers of jewelry and a crown made from old coins. The fact that the crazy foreign women were given a special blanket to sit on and served the first tea illustrates how important hospitality is in Morocco. Last night's wedding (with us as the "invited" crashers) had a different feel, with 12-15 couples getting married at once. What does that look like? Close off a street and have everyone in it singing and dancing - brides opposite of their grooms - and that sums up the first day of a three-day celebration. I could barely survive one wedding day, with all the stress and planning, I can't imagine three! Our days are so packed it's hard to remember to record all that we've done, but in a nutshell, in the last few days we've gone from the "erg" sand desert, riding camels into a camp, to the "reg" rock desert, where the 46 degrees Celcius of the sub-Sahara found us eating our over-ripe melon under an acacia tree. In our driver Azaddine's village of Tinghir, his family graciously fed 15 hungry Americans a four-course meal, gave us the proper nap time afterward and even put decorative henna designs on our hands - and all this is something that Moroccan families relish. It makes me want to try to be more gracious to new people I meet near my own home. Tonight we're off to tour through the oasis and see the place where the caravans left on their way to Timbuktu. It just keeps getting better each day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Days 8, 9, 10

What a ride it's been since my last post -- literally! First we rode camels for about 6 km into the Sahara and spent the night camping out under the stars, then climbed a huge dune to watch the sunrise. I've never seen such soft sand or had such a peaceful night's sleep under the Milky Way. The ride out was a bit rough on a different camel that I swear wanted to dump me the whole way. In two days we've gone from the "desert of the sand" to the "desert of the rocks," and spent two nights in a gorge reminiscent of Zion in southern Utah - sheer red rock faces and cool mountain air. Our amazing hotel manager even took us to a Berber wedding for a while one evening. Let's just say I don't envy that bride - 3 days of celebration! After a wonderful lunch at Azadine's house, his wife put henna designs on our hands and now we all feel like the beautiful Berber women we've been so graciously surrounded by. Off to Zegoura now, where we might have wifi again. Au revoir for now.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day 7

Short post - as we're about to head into the Sahara - we're camping in a bedouin tent in the Sahara for the 4th of July! We left the mid-Atlas for the high Atlas - about 12,000 feet. Amazingly beautiful!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Days 5 & 6

Where to start? Probably with an explanation of why there was no post yesterday. We drove from Rabat to Ifrane, a resort town in the mid-Atlas mountains built by the French for their summer homes. It's surreal here - it looks like we're in Switzerland. The streets are wide, clean, and there are sidewalks everywhere. Al-Ahkwayan University, leader Aomar's alma mater, is this beautiful, spread out campus with manicured lawns, terra cotta tiles, and gorgeous Moroccan tilework everywhere. We sat in on an architectural history class given by an American professor to American college students here for a summer program, and learned so much about French architectural influence during the colonial period. Also, here's a bit of trivia - did you know that the movie Casablanca was supposed to be called Algiers? The Pentagon informed Hollywood of its plans to land in Morocco (Operation Torch), and they changed the plot and title to reflect the military plan . . . and the rest is history. Would Bogie have sounded as suave asking Ilsa why she had returned to Algiers?

It was young Omar from Michigan's 24th birthday (our leader has the same name) so after figuring out how to wish him well in Arabic -- eid milad said -- maybe?? (I find that if I don't write it down at the time or use it every day, it's quickly forgotten!) and also discovering that it was our driver Azzadine's birthday, the evening revolved around celebration. As we're in a college town, and a more liberal one at that, bars and nightclubs seem commonplace. Let's just say that our big group of Americans walking into a night club attracts attention, especially since it was an underground, hole in the wall college techno joint called - and I'm not even making this up - The Library Club!! It felt good to dance the night away, since exercise has been limited, as we seem to go from meal to lecture to driving to meal to lecture. I didn't expect to even be able to consume alcohol in this predominantly Muslim country (until I read in the guidebook about the vineyards created by the French- which we drove through yesterday - but just as in every other religion, there are conservatives and moderates, and what some "devout" people do doesn't always mean it's the way of everyone else. I bet we can all think of our local examples.

Today was packed, with two history lectures in the morning - I'm learning more about the Saharan problem than I ever knew I didn't know. Ever wondered why there's a grey (literally) area on world maps, just south of Morocco? Google "Western Sahara" or "Saharawi" to find out more - it's much too complicated for this little blog. Lunch was by far the first highlight of the day, as it was couscous Friday!!! It turns out that this elaborate dish is usually only made on Fridays, so that's now going to be our standard meal at the end of the week. We pulled into a gas station and went into a big back room with couches and cushions and low, round tables, where big platters of couscous, chicken, and lamb were placed in front of us and we learned how to eat it in traditional Moroccan style- with our hands! You scoop up some veggies, a little meat, a lot of couscous and sort of make a ball with it, then plop it in your mouth. Talk about a delicious mess! The day only got better when we then went to see monkeys in the mountains and got some great pictures of them eating from people's hands, and unfortunately, also picking through the myriad of wrappers left behind by tourists. Ever seen a monkey eat Fritos? I have. I'll try to post some monkey pics tomorrow. We then continued our drive through various mountain villages and farming areas - the kinds of places where the donkey is the beast of burden and also the prized mode of transport. I just can't wait until we're in the south where we can get out and meet villagers and have our homestay. We're off to a new city tomorrow -- Errichea (sp), then we'll spend Sunday camping in the desert, followed by a sunrise camel ride. That's right . . . I'm spending the 4th of July camping in the Sahara!

Salon Marocain

Salon Marocain
In the village of Tinghir

Jess and I on our camels

Jess and I on our camels
Giddy up, Booshtran!