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…