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 fun....love,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!