Friday, March 31, 2006

I have arms!

oh it ever good to be back in the west again! After a month of traveling in Morocco, and doing most of my exploring solo, I was incredibly relieved to land in Spain and realize that I could in fact, walk outdoors with my hair still damp after a shower, eat anything I wanted with my left hand, and wear a t-shirt! I stared at my arms for a while and thought, 'gee I haven't seen you two for a while!'. Someone at the centre commented on my lack of tan and I told her my tan was Muslim-style...head & hands. Anyway, the gorgeous temperature in Spain has been helping me to remedy that business and I've been quite content to shed my long sleeves and hiking boots in exchange for tank tops and flip-flops. Western food has been a source of comfort to my fairly diversified palette, and I've been indulging in tapas and pork products, which makes me very, very happy!

Anyway, I guess I should backtrack a bit and recount some of what's taken place over the last 2 weeks. I did try and post something one day from an internet cafe in Marrakech, but was in such poor spirits that words weren't flowing at all and everything I wrote sounded incredibly negative no matter how much I tried to see the brighter side of things! I figured I'd wait to write until I came through the lows which would hopefully result in a much more balanced account of what I'd experienced!

I really hit a low point one day while shooting despite some great experiences...probably the absolute bottom hit me when my contacts picked me up one evening after a heavy day of shooting in the main square (Djemaa El Fna). They'd arrived with some other guests who they wanted to show around the city. Five of us squeezed tightly into a little hatchback and I stared pitifully out the window as the two guests were toured around the city. When I saw a McDonalds and a Pizza Hut whiz by I literally almost broke into tears. I LOVE Moroccan food, but the people I'd been staying with included this one ingredient called smen in EVERYTHING, and it's one of the very few things that have ever called my gag reflex into action. Smen is this preserved butter that has a wild, pungent taste that vaguely reminds me of the smell of sagebrush. There are varying degrees of strength: younger more modern cooks prefer the more mild versions, but the older cooks traditionally prize the most acrid of all. I don’t mind the mild version in things like hrira (one of the most flavorful and comforting soups I’ve ever tried) but this stuff permeated every dish. After 3 weeks without western food I’d come to crave various Moroccan specialties, but after only 3 days of smen, I was on the brink of absolute despair. But back to the fast food sightings…at the beginning of my time in Morocco I’d been utterly disappointed by the presence of McD’s in the country…by this time the Golden Arches looked oh so heavenly. As I sunk lower in my seat I really tried hard to suck it up and prep myself for the massive meal I knew would be waiting for me at home. Suddenly, the two visitors asked if we could all go out to a nice restaurant for dinner. I straightened up. Then the one mentioned something about wanting a steak! Now I leaned forward. (I had to or else the saliva practically drooling down my chin would soak my jeans). A few turns later and the car parked abruptly beside a swanky Moroccan-meets-West Coast-meets-The Bombay Company style restaurant. As we approached I pretty much fainted. Jazz was oozing through the open-air patio and the familiar sound of a favorite song played over the candlelit scene. Walking inside the music filled up my ears and I had to refrain from jumping up and down…DIANA KRALL’s ‘Live in Paris’ cd was the familiar music I’d heard. Never mind that, she was a west coast Canadian and I was desperately in need of being around someone who related to life back home…even if she was stuck in the stereo. That night I died and went to heaven. Jazz, a great restaurant…and one of the finest STEAKS I’ve ever had (doesn’t beat home…but it was fantastic!). A rare, juicy, tender steak…slightly blue at the centre…that plus jazz…seriously, what more could a girl want!!!! Okay, okay…what more could a girl like ME want! Truly, truly satisfied…that’s all I can say about that! And how amazing is it that God really looks after all those little details! That steak brought me through the last leg of the trip!

Leaving Morocco and making it ‘home’ to Malaga is always a full two-day affair, full of interesting people and weird experiences. The milk run is basically this: train from Marrakech to Rabat, train from Rabat/Sale to Sidi Kacem, train from Sidi Kacem to Tangier, ferry from Tangier to Tarifa, Spain, bus from Tarifia to Algeciras, bus from Algeciras to Malaga, taxi from Malaga bus station to my apartment. This with a fully loaded 70 liter pack, computer case with laptop, two external hard drives, and external DVD burner, camera bag, and ginormous shopping bag with, among other things, a tajine dish! It’s been four days since I got home and my body is still aching! Anyhow, funny things seem to happen to me in the port at Tangier, and this time I wound up taking in a couple of stranded girls from the Czech Republic. Rosie, the girls and I went for tapas that night and then they left the next morning. It was really awesome for me to be able to bless them with a place to stay after those British women took me in. I love the fact that traveling brings me into contact with so many unique and amazing people. And I’m so amazed by the way that God has paved the path ahead of me.

It was 7 years ago in Volgograd, Russia that He called me to a life of photography and travel. I can recall a specific moment, standing next to a tributary of the Volga River, when I thought, “I have to be able to do this [travel and meet people] for the rest of my life”, and immediately after God laid photography on my heart. “Of course!” I thought. I couldn’t have known then how perfectly it would suit my character and preferences, or how ideally it would shape my lifestyle. Only now am I beginning to glimpse some of the results of faithfully following through with His plans, and of His faithful leading when I have been frustrated or unmotivated. I have no idea where He’ll lead me next, but honestly, I told Him I’d go anywhere. My passion for visiting other Arab countries has increased a lot since I’ve come here, a passion I’ve had since I was young, but there are so many other places I can’t wait to visit! Cuba before Castro dies, the village where my cousins live in the Philippines, Tuscany, Rome & Naples, a road trip through the United States, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Kenya, (the first country that got me hooked on the idea of travel) a full circuit around the entire Mediterranean, and at least one war zone. Who knows where God will send me next!

But as for right now, I’m off to the Pueblo Blanca (white village) of Ronda up in the mountains tomorrow with Beth, a friend of mine and a staff member here at the centre. We’ve got plans to explore the town and possibly do some horseback riding, and see some Flamenco. We’ll stay there in a hostel, and then the next afternoon when she goes back to Malaga, I’m heading to Marbella to take in a bullfight!!!! I am SO SO SO excited…I’ve wanted to see one of these since I was a kid!!!

Next week will be my last week here at the centre…hard to believe time’s flown by so fast! I’ve still got a lot of work to do before finishing up, so hopefully it’s all done by Friday cuz on Saturday mom (!) and I are going to Morocco again! Mom is flying in on Tuesday night and spending a few days here in Malaga before we head off to Morocco for a trip through some of the places I’ve been, as well as a trek out into the Sahara! A camel trek in the Sahara (cheesy as it may sound) has been a lifelong dream of mine and I can’t believe it’s actually going to happen! We’ve also been invited to a Moroccan wedding on the way down which should be amazing! After 10 days down there we’ll head back to Spain for a trip up the Mediterranean coast including 3 days on Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands that I’ve also been wanting to visit for years. We’ll finish up in Barcelona, fly to London and then mom will leave for home and I’ll go visit Mandee for a few days!!! Then it’s back to Vancouver on May 1 and home a few days later! This month is going to be amazing!!!

Anyway, I gotta run. Love you all lots and have enjoyed chatting with some of you online and on the phone since I’ve been back in Spain! I feel much closer to home when I’m in the west!

Take care and have a fantastic weekend!


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

And the results are in!

Okay, so I've finally got some photos online!!! The pace of shooting has slowed down some due to the current living situation I’m in as my schedule has to revolve around the family’s…which is well, very sporadic and unpredictable…for me at least…I’m sure they all know what’s going on! Anyway, I’ve chosen a bunch of favourites as well as a few that just might help give you a glimpse of where I’ve been, but keep in mind that this collection represents only a few types of images I’ve taken, and by no means sums up the thousands of photos I’ve accumulated! Please, please, please note that the colour, contrast, and quality of these images are really quite bland compared to the originals! Sorry, that’s just the perfectionist in me needing to explain the flaws!

Anyway, hopefully these photos will compliment the running commentary I've been posting over the last couple months. So head on over to and enjoy! Feel free to use the comments section and view regularly for more updates.


Monday, March 20, 2006

Receiving my portion....and then some!!!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but no, I still manage to be completely caught off guard when God pulls through with some amazing answer to prayer! And no, I’m not talking about, “God I need (fill in the blank) NOW!” kind of prayer. I’m talking about the “I wish I’d started praying about this earlier ‘cause then maybe other arrangements could have been made, but now I’m stuck and have to make do, but I really don’t want to God,” kind of desperate plea that would make a whining two-year old sound nonchalant. Sigh, I’m being needlessly wordy…let me explain.

After my last night’s stay in a beautiful riad stocked with all the comforts I’d been craving, I awoke truly reluctant to leave. Not only would I be giving up the creature comforts I’d gotten used to, but I’d be relinquishing my independence as well. I was to be staying with a local Moroccan family who didn’t speak English, and I knew that this meant I’d be pouring a lot of emotional energy into socializing in a language I continued to stumble through (French, obviously…the small amount of Moroccan Arabic I do know is only enough to get me through introductions and cab rides). Anyway, normally I love jumping right into awkward/difficult cultural experiences, but when I was already wrinkling my nose at having to give up a warm bed and hot water, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of wading through another week of challenges. “Suck it up my friend,” I thought, “if this is your calling in life, there’ll be harder sacrifices to make.”

Things got worse as I found out that my contact, after picking me up, was guiding a group of French tourists around the souqs for a few hours. Thrilled beyond my wildest dreams I shook hands and smiled demurely at the gaggle of eager Francophones (can I call people from France ‘Francophones’ or does that just apply to the Quebecois???) pretending to be shy, and hoping they wouldn’t think I was a snob. I was just not in the mood for talking and they weren’t exactly trying to bridge the language gap much either as they seemed to be mostly intent on shopping for souvenirs (i.e. being ripped off by tactless vendors claiming ‘liquidation prices’). Wow…I think my sour attitude that morning left a bad taste in my mouth!!!

I followed the tour group in and out of shops and stalls, hoping desperately that the people around me wouldn’t think I was one of them, but having a big camera strung around my neck didn’t exactly help. So I used the situation to my advantage and pretended to just be a flaky tourist taking cheesy, artless photos….okay, I’m sorry, I’ve really gotta get to the positive side of this story! I DID get some great shots that day though, and I’m wondering if it’s because as I plummeted further and further into the depths of sheer boredom, I came to this place of focus where I was examining every possible angle, lighting situation, colour combination, and subject juxtaposition. Maybe that sounds too artsy fartsy, but something clicked and I fell into a groove that I’m hoping to find again! I’d been somewhat frustrated with my images and had actually been praying for more focus: both a higher percentage of sharp images as well as personal focus in my shooting…I’ve found it difficult to balance both when I’m moving so fast a lot of the time…especially when I was alone in Fes it was hard to concentrate on technicalities, ethics, personal security, and communication with the locals all at once!!! Great challenges to be sure, but really one of the first times I was swamped with them simultaneously! Anyway, that’s a bit of a tangent, but actually one I wanted to touch on!

I realized that I was on the upswing, mood wise, however I was seriously perturbed when we all went to lunch and the commotion caused resulted in the entire cafĂ© staring at us like we were a bunch of obnoxious tourists… The only place for me to hide was behind my sunglasses and so I did for as long as was polite and then the next thing I hoped to do was concern myself solely with my meal….wasn’t I being the little antisocial one that day hey!? I ordered a chicken tajine (have I explained tajines? If not, I won’t now but Google it or something…and it’s not the ceramic dish that it’s served in which is also sometimes called a tajine) just to be different from most of the group who’d ordered brochettes and salads (the most western things on the menu) and when the man across from me ordered a beef tajine I knew there was no way he’d be eating it Moroccan-style. I was right, he didn’t. In fact he stared at me incredulously as I dug into the steaming dish with my right hand and began to ply the chicken off the bone with some bread squished between my two fingertips and thumb. He asked if I wanted a fork and knife and I forced myself to smile and decline nicely. What I really wanted to do was give him a lecture about how much the Moroccans appreciate it when you try to eat the way they do. But really, I had no right and I knew they probably hadn’t had the privilege of living with Moroccans so there was no way I could truly blame them. Those thoughts, however, came later. But it was at that moment when I truly felt for the first time in over two months like I’d hit rock bottom. For the first time I actually wanted to go home. I just wanted to be normal again and to not be stuck somewhere between being a westerner but having to adapt to Moroccan culture.

I was in shock in Marrakech where tourists wore as little clothing as they wanted without any regards to how Moroccans view such exposure. I was embarrassed by the girls and women who walked around with everything hanging out, flaunting their freedom to do so in the faces of so many who are veiled and covered, or at least dressed very, very modestly, because their culture and religion require it. And while the locals in Marrakech are very used to seeing western skin, I know how much attention I received while walking down the streets of Fes, fully-clothed with only head and hands showing, which is why I won’t even allow my arms to show in this city. And I wanted to…I wanted to be able to wear a tank top so bad and not worry about leaving the house with damp hair after a shower and wear cute skirts…all of which I realistically COULD DO in Marrakech, but I couldn’t because of what I knew. So I was stuck. Very stuck and very upset about it. At that point I was like, “God, why am I with this tour group? Why have you put me with a Moroccan family after staying with westerners? Why couldn’t You have arranged something else? I could have figured something else out if I’d only KNOWN!!!” There was silence. No answer. No booming voice from the heavens. Only the swirling chaos around me, the sound of nasal French, and the wailing muezzin from the minaret’s loudspeakers blasting out my eardrums. I sighed, picked away at the last of my tajine, and wiped my hands on the paper napkin beside me (literally, the napkins are sheets of paper…for those of you who’ve done art classes it’s like the newsprint pads you use for sketching, cut up into little squares…the first time I saw one I put my glass on it ‘cause I thought it was the Moroccan version of a coaster!).

So there was no immediate answer, but I reminded myself that God always knows in advance what we need, and I just had to trust that He knew best. It took me a while to let go of my frustration, but a full stomach combined with waving a very cheerful ‘au revoir’ to the tourists helped, and by the time my contacts’ and I got into our car I’d found some measure of contentedness. Unbeknownst to me, the Lord had lined up JUST what I’d needed in order to keep my sanity while staying with this family: my OWN ROOM (a guest room is a rarity in Moroccan homes) with a BED, (the rest of the family sleeps on the floor atop carpets and blankets!) a fridge with bottled water, warm bedding, and a western style washroom just down the hall!!! Oh, and an Internet connection in my room!!! I was absolutely delighted and was reminded by this treat about how much the Lord cares about meeting our unique needs. Granted, this wasn’t life and death, but it was really what He (and I!) felt was needed in order for me to continue doing a good job of the work I’d been assigned to!!! As I crawled into bed last night I breathed a huge sigh of relief and genuine thanks.

Oh, and just to satisfy the required food anecdote that several of you have pointed out is consistently included in each and every blog update, I have been permanently STUFFED for the last 30 hours. Upon arrival at my host’s home, I was ushered into the TV room and served a lamb tajine. This was at around 4 pm. Less than an hour later I was served tea, sweets, bread, and nuts. An hour after I was finished that, we all sat down to homemade crepes of assorted colours and coffee. At 9:30 pm I was called up for dinner, which was, oh my goodness, I can’t even remember…I just keep eating. Anyway, it was probably another tajine with different vegetables…oh it was! But no, this one was lamb (the other one was beef) with prunes and another sort of local fruit. Then came dessert which was a heaping pile of sweet, thin noodles flavoured with raisins, crushed peanuts, (which I was allowed to skin by the way…in Moroccan kitchens the only tasks I’ve been permitted to do have been simple things like skinning peanuts and shelling chickpeas) cinnamon, and icing sugar. THEN came the fruit bowl, which is the last thing always served at Moroccan meals, so I was given both a banana and a massive orange. I just about exploded. When I woke up I was barely hungry but then came these flat crunchy pancakes with jam, a savoury kind of porridge, and fruit. And so it continues. I think yesterday was the worst as far as them urging me to eat and I think they are beginning to realize that I actually don’t have the capacity to fill my stomach up past its natural limits! I know, I know, some of you are thinking, “What? Jaime, full? She’s finally met her match!!!”

Anyway, I’m extremely tired, and need to gear up for the extremely (ahem) relaxing time I’m going to have at the hammam with the women of the house tomorrow morning. At least no one will be offering me food there!!! Seriously though, this family has been so hospitable and so kind and I can’t wait to get to know them over the next week, which will hopefully take place as my French improves!!!

Thanks for all your encouraging emails and prayers! They’ve meant the world to me!!!

Jaime...Fully Loaded

Friday, March 17, 2006

Riding the Marrakech Express

There are two places that I absolutely adore not because I’d love to live in either location (at least for a long time) or because either is anything close to what I’m used to, but because both places have the ability to plunge my senses into a tailspin and at the same time captivate me enough to level out, catch my breath, and begin absorbing the surroundings which initially sent me reeling. One place is Starkville, Mississippi, and the other is Fes, Morocco. Don’t even begin to try and link the two, it won’t work. You may find both places put on amazing bbqs, but pork will not be the common denominator. I’m sure those of you from western Canada who’ve visited the deep south can understand the strange blend of shock and sentiment that linger long after returning home…but anyway, back to Fes.

I know that I went into great detail regarding some of my first experiences in Fes, but since I left yesterday morning, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about some of the highlights that left me completely breathless and at the same time, feeling nominally settled.

The first time I walked with my hostess to her workplace I wondered how one could ever retrace their steps. The same bewildered feeling accompanied me as I took my first timid steps down the Talaa Saghira, and the next day, the Talaa Kebira (two long, crooked streets that wind their way down into a vast maze of alleys, dead ends, souqs, and shops). All I could remember about finding my way out was that to go down meant I’d stumble deeper into the heart of Fes’ medieval labyrinth, whereas to head upwards (a 400 meter ascent from the bottom) would eventually thrust me out into the open square near Bab Bou Jeloud, the main gate. Each day that I walked I grew more and more confident, forging ahead and backtracking with a more finely tuned sense of direction than the day before. However, as alleys became so narrow that I could feel both of my shoulders brush against the stucco walls I wondered if some folks had to turn sideways just to navigate their way in and out! At one point during week two, I found myself needing to go back home on my own, and realized that I was totally able to find my way without a problem. What at first had freaked me out eventually had become a daily habit! What made the entire experience even more enjoyable was the fact that I was going back with food I’d picked up from a stall my hostess and I regularly frequented. We were such regulars that the guy serving up the food practically started making what we wanted before we could even ask! For 5 Dirhams (about 50 cents) I could get a fresh baguette filled with various Moroccan salads (yes, they were—GASP—vegetarian…but don’t get too excited, I’m not about to give up my carnivorous ways!) filled with a variety of textures, flavours, and temperatures. Honestly, these things blew Subway out of the water (which I’ve heard Quizno’s fans say isn’t hard to do!). We often ate them for lunch either on the roof of the riad or in a nearby square where we sometimes took our dinners (ground beef brochettes and mashed potatoes flavoured with spices and deep-fried…SOOO good!) Anyway, while I’m on the topic of food, let me digress for a second…

I’ve come to discover that stall food is my favourite and that I prefer it to the beautiful tajines, couscous, pastilla and other exotic dishes (with the exception of hrira, a soup that has become one of my favourite comfort foods over here!) served in restaurants. Honestly, brochettes, fried potatoes, sandwiches, dates, yogurt, salads to go, various pops, (Fanta Orange, Pommes, and Schwepps Citron are new favourites…and I’m not even really a pop person…but water gets pretty boring after a while) fresh produce, and fresh (not to mention CHEAP) baked goods have all become the foods I crave. I don’t crave North American food anymore the way I did in Spain or in Rabat. I wish I could bring it all home with me!!! And eating with my hands…I must say that I detest using cutlery now (although steak back home with my hands isn’t something I’d like to try)…it just doesn’t suit the food in this culture nor the communal style of eating. I’ve always loved finger food, appetizers, and eating things like ribs and chicken with my hands, so maybe that’s why I’ve taken such a liking to it. There’s something strangely satisfying about using just your hands (or I should say right HAND) to bring food to your mouth…maybe it’s something primal in us that enjoys this ritual…or maybe I’m just off the deep end now! Anyway, mint tea is something that I still can’t seem to get sick of (though it does seem to run through me like nothing else) and coffee has been newly introduced to my gastronomic world…I’ve never liked just plain coffee, but in Fes I seemed to be given a lot of it…to say ‘no’ isn’t really an option, so basically drink up and stay up was my m.o. While I’m slowly acquiring a taste for it, I’m definitely not hooked and don’t want to be…headaches and withdrawal are not my (ahem) cup of tea…lol. Just a side note…I just came back from dinner on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Djemma el-Fna (more on that later) where I thoroughly enjoyed the best tajine I’ve had yet…chicken with almonds, raisins, and sweetened onions….for 50 dirhams (5 Euros) and I’m STUFFED!

But back to the ‘shock and awe’ of adapting to Fes…rooftop culture is an entirely new concept for me as a westerner. In the medina, the flat, walled roofs serve both practical and social purposes. The roof of the riad where I stayed was shared with the family who lived upstairs, and was used not only for its communal laundry lines, but also as housing for the other family’s pet dog and turtle. Just across the way I could hear a lamb enclosed up on another family’s roof…somehow I doubted the bleating would continue much longer however, as I was told it was most likely being kept as a sacrifice (possibly for a newborn’s name-giving ceremony). I’m sure the sound of hundreds of bleating sheep during the Aid el Kebir (the feast of sacrifice commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram) must mix eerily with the daily calls to prayer from the medina’s 350 mosques that also travel long and loud over the rooftops of Fes. This place is not exactly a vegetarian’s paradise! The tiered rooftops of the medina easily allow for social interaction amongst neighboring families…we often watched and participated in the waving that took place from afar and the chit-chat that kept the daily news flowing in true Moroccan fashion—very rapidly! One late afternoon as we sat out on the top tier of the roof, the mother and daughter who lived on the 3rd floor came out with a tray of coffee and cookies to share. We sat overlooking the entire medina, the lush green hillsides dotted with villages in the distance and sprawling cemeteries nearby. The view to the east was most spectacular, however, in the morning as it was possible to see the sun rising over the entire medina. I loved the rooftop…especially for the chance to get a little sun and wear a t-shirt, (not acceptable in public at least in Fes, but on the roof we could get away with it) plus it was truly a wonderful escape from the melee below. And with a stunning view of the city and countryside to boot! Just what I needed to keep me sane!!!

The countryside is always a perfect antidote to frayed nerves, so when I was given the opportunity to head up into the Middle Atlas mountains and visit the village of Ain Leuh, I was elated! I went up with a tour group, but a few of us broke off to visit the weekly souq in which a number of Berber traders from a nearby tribe come hawking their wares. The colours of the market along with the stunning backdrop of high desert and mountainous terrain caused my jaw to drop, and yet I felt very at home in that place. The villagers were exceedingly friendly and the several kilometer walk to and from our point of origin (where we’d left the rest of the group) was incredibly tranquil, the highlight being hitching a ride on a donkey into town! As I lumbered into the souq I suddenly imagined that this was probably what Mary felt like…only nine months pregnant….pretty scary indeed!!! On the way back we stopped and watched two newborn lambs steady themselves on wobbly legs and try to suckle for the first time. It was so cool to see, up in the middle-of-nowhere Morocco, new life taking shape…oh man, that sounds so cheesy….oh well, what can I say, I’m a country girl and anything peaceful and fresh is really appealing to me these days! One thing I am looking forward to once I get home is having nature so close at hand and so safe for me to spend time in.

The terrain has definitely changed a lot between Fes and Marrakech where I am now. As the train rumbled deeper inland the greenery gave way to dry, rocky hillsides and mud brick Kasbahs (somewhat similar looking to that of the Adobe architecture of the American Southwest). I even saw my first camel lingering near the roadside! So far I’d only seen their heads hanging from hooks in the meat stalls of Fes, smiling grimly with a bunch of cilantro or mint stuffed between their swollen lips! The temperature had increased as well, and even though I arrived at 7pm, the air was still mild (the temperature’s been between 24-27 degrees celcius here in Marrakech). As I caught a taxi to the medina centre I stared wide-eyed at the full, champagne-coloured moon hanging mystically over the city. I’ve only been here for a day now, and have been spending most of that time catching up on sleep and editing photos, but from what I’ve seen, mystical is THE word to describe this place! At night the vast square Djemma el Fna awakens with hundreds of food stalls, swirling smoke, thousands of people, (including SO many tourists!) snake charmers, Berber music, vendors, story-tellers, acrobats…it’s a little bit like an exotic Disneyland…except it’s not a theme park and this is all very real…a show, no doubt, but no sets, strings, or special effects…just pure spectacle. As I made my way through the gauntlet of flirty Moroccan men (I’ve been warned that this place is like, butt-grabbing central of Morocco and I’m hoping to high heaven that I can avoid groping hands) and tourists of every variety, I couldn’t believe how overwhelmingly large this place was! After the steep, snug alleys of Fes, this flat and open square seemed to have no official end! Definitely a lot to explore here over the next week and a half! But first a few more days in this gorgeous riad turned hotel where I’m bound and determined to relax until the weekend! Showers, hot water, a big bed, western toilet and CLIMATE CONTROL!!!!!! As soon as I realized that I could control the temperature in my room I cranked that thing to the max! It’s glorious! The first time I haven’t been cold indoors for over two months!!! Sure makes me grateful for the simple pleasures I miss back home: carpet, central heat, clothes dryer, as much hot water as I want….sigh, better not think about it too much! Still got another two months to go, but at least it’s the warmer half and I keep going further south!

Anyway, I think that’s all….pretty long-winded I know, but I just couldn’t keep it short. Besides, I know that there are a few faithful blog readers who don’t mind and I genuinely appreciate the fact that you check up on me! Thanks too for those of you who have emailed me personally…I’m trying my hardest to respond to everyone as promptly as possible…sorry if I don’t get to you as fast as I’d like!!!

Riding the Marrakech Express…


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Plunging the Pit Toilet & Michelin Mules...Life in Fes' Medina

Well, I've just come back to the computer from plunging the pit toilet here where I'm staying in Fes, which is an activity that I can't say I'll miss once I leave, but it's a part of daily life in the medina that could probably be categorised as one of the more modern conveniences this city's seen over the last 1200 years! Squatty Pottys aside, this city's history, culture, and people have definitely got a hold on me! So, where do I start...

City Structure:

Fes is one of the world's largest living medival cities, and has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. The city consists of 3 sections: the French-built Nouvelle Ville, Fes el-Jdid (New Fes...est. 13th century) containing the old Jewish Quarter, and the Medina of Old Fes...Fes el-Bali. I've spent most of my time so far in the world famous medina, a modest 350 acres of land packed tight with 450,000 people!!! Talk about population density!!! This place is truly a labyrinth of thousands of streets, alleys, souks (markets), mosques, medersas (Islamic theological schools) shops, hammams (public baths) palaces, and homes. Residential life is a complete mystery if you can't manage to find your way behind the impressive doors that cut off all public from the peaceful courtyards and interiors of luxurious riads and modest apartments. I've had the opportunity to stay with a girl here who is renting a riad (house with courtyard) just inside the city walls. The blue and white tiled walls, impressive arches, and stunning rooftop view definitely outweigh the downfalls such as pit toilets, lack of heating, and everything else that comes along with simple living in these parts!

Exploring the Medina:

The girl I stay with is mostly busy during the day, which leaves me free to do a lot of wandering by myself--definitely an option that I was a bit wary of at first, but since this IS such a tourist destination, it is okay for me to be out and about during the day on my own. But being a girl and making my way through the pulsing streets alone has not been without its moments of, well, interest!

While I'm often followed and hassled by guys in the streets, I'm never grabbed or truly offended. A lot of women and more mature shopkeepers really look out for people like me, and some of my host's Moroccan friends have let me know that while i'm in the medina or on the streets, I can always come to them if I have any problems. I have, however, started collecting a list of the funniest cat calls I've recieved while strolling through the streets. I've been called Sophia Loren, asked if I've wanted to change my name to Fatima (Mohammed's daughter), offered Berber massages, proposed to in English, French, and probably Arabic, snorted at like a pig, told I've been paranoid, stuck up, and deaf (when i walk without giving eye contact and ignore greeting and the like...which is almost always) and, oh yes, called a gazelle (a very Arabic compliment, but thanks, I'd rather not be likened to an antelope) many times over. Honestly, there are times when I really just want to burst out laughing, but that will just encourage them so I pretty much have had to hold a poker face until I make it around the corner. Each time I go out though, I get less and less hassle I think because I'm learning how to prevent some of it in the first place. Shooting photos hasn't really been a problem at all, as this city is so used to tourists, but keeping alert at the same time has been challenging. When I shoot though, I never take extra stuff with me and try to look as little like a naive tourist as possible...pretty sure I stick out like a sore thumb, but whatever, I do my best and keep myself covered (no jilabah or head covering necessary...but definitely no short sleeves or v-necks, and if you have a long shirt to cover your butt, all the better to avoid 'behind-the-scenes' commentary) and don't make small talk with anyone in the street. One of the other challenges of traversing through the medina is making sure not to get run over. Fes is situated in hill country which means that the city streets are steep, making the trek through arduous for the numerous mule trains which contribute to a lot of the medina's traffic. Some of the streets are so narrow that when you hear someone shouting "Balek!!!" you know that if you don't become one with the wall right away, you're going to be crushed under the weight of some pretty smelly asses. You can tell the difference between 'foreign' (ie not from Fes) mules and the local ones by the way they are shod: foreign mules wear typical metal shoes, whereas medina mules are shod with tire treads, to help provide grip as they hurtle down the steep slopes of the medina.

Social Graces:

A medina neighbourhood typically consists of 5 main elements: mosque, bakery (every day around noon you can see locals bringing their bread dough to the local ovens where it is stamped with the family seal and baked in the huge wood ovens), school, fountain, and hammam...the infamous public baths. Social life revolves around the hammam. For one thing, it's typically the only place to get clean, so everyone heads to the hammam at some point during the week for their weekly bath. Bathing rituals can go on for up to 5 hours, a length that would leave any westerner shriveled like an olive in the desert sun, but a timespan that provides the Moroccan woman with the perfect amount of time to bathe and chat with other female friends and family. And of course, I couldn't come to Morocco without experiencing this social/cleansing regime! So I've braved it twice now, and I have to say that it hasn't turned me off from going again. The first time I went and didn't get a massage done, but yesterday I went, and the English girl who went with me decided that while we were there we should pay for a massage. So let me back up a bit and go a bit more in depth as to how the whole ritual takes place. Basically, you enter into one big room where you pay an entry fee. There you strip down to your underwear or bathing suit bottoms and pick up 3 buckets along with some plastic tupperware and your soap etc. You make your way through a series of three rooms, each one hotter than the next, that pretty much consist of floor to ceiling tile, dozens of half-naked women of all shapes and sizes, and so much steam you can barely see the walls around you. Your feet are burning on the wickedly hot tile floors and you completely forget about being almost naked because you're trying to concentrate on breathing. I seriously thought I was going to faint and pass out on the burning tile. Once you pick your spot you fill up three buckets of cold, medium, and hot water. the hot is actually more like scalding, so you pour quite a bit of cold in just to make it bareable. then you wash up as you like using and refilling the buckets as needed, scooping out water with your plastic dishes and trying desperately not to think about the fact that everyone is laughing at and talking about you! Yesterday's experience definitely warranted the laughter and peering eyes of all the ladies in the hammam, as my friend and I experienced the mortification or our first hammam massages. Two very large dark women stood looming over us in a corner and I burst out laughing as my friend stared at me with desperation in her eyes. The one woman forced her to lie down on the floor on her back and both women began vigourously soaping her down and massaging her with practiced hands. My friend was dying of embarrasment and I was trying hard not to laugh. It wasn't hard as soon as I felt hands pressing me down into the hot tile. Oh. My. Goodness. Talk about awkward!!! After they'd washed the front side they flipped us over like meat on the grill, only to repeat the process on the backside. I was kneaded like bread until everything in me felt like mush. Then I was sat up (by this time you really have no control as to how you're moved about as water is streaming down your face, you feel like snot is pouring out from your nose, every muscle and joint has been tenderised...really, i mean, i paid $4 for this!?) and exfoliated with a scrubby mitt that is about the same texture of sandpaper. The exfoliation was great...until she got to some rather tender areas....try taking an electric sander to your inner thigh, and THEN tell me that beauty is pain!!! The final hurrah was when the masseuse snapped open my bathing suit bottoms and poured a bucket of hot water down. Ta-dah!!! I'd just survived my first massage at the Hammam. Only if I'm a sucker for punishment will I do that again! I have to admit though, I've never been that clean in my life!!!

Anyway, there's so much more that I could go on about, but there's tajine to cook and the roof to climb up to! Tomorrow I'm heading out into the countryside with a group and then on Thursday I've hired a guide to take me to the famous tanneries of Fes, as well as the Jewish quarter. Shopping's been,love, LOVE the jewelery and I've loved getting to know some of the locals...went to a Moroccan teenager's birthday party the other day...dancing is definitely a favourite pasttime, and just another chance for me to prove how rythmically challenged I am! Restaurants here are fantastic and everything is dirt cheap!!! I LOVE this city!!!

With love from Pit Toilets-R-Us!