Monday, 26 November 2007

At 5am the eerie chorus came wailing across the medina. I didn’t realize just how long they sing their call to prayer, it’s pretty long. After it stopped I was able to fall back asleep for a while, until I heard the boys being wild next door and went to shut down the party. It was early 6-ish, but all their racket did accomplish something. I got a great new idea for a picture book and sat on the floor in the light of the bathroom to try and write it all down.

At breakfast this morning Benji got his first kiss of the trip. As we were leaving the woman holding the door for us tousled his hair, bent down and said, “Can I have a kiss?” Benji got so shy, but she just leaned over and gave him a kiss. He just about died and was giggling like crazy as we walked up the stairs. Clay asked if she kissed him on the lips, and he said “No, I made sure of that, she kissed me here,” pointing to a spot on his chin. It would not be his last of the day.

We learned a new word today, “yella”. It means “come on” in the Moroccan Arabic dialect, and we’ll be adding it to our international vocabulary of “basta” (stop!). While waiting for Mustafa and our guide for Fes, the boys and Alayna did some time trials in the courtyard of the hotel, trying to beat their time to the mailbox and back. We figured they needed to stretch their legs before we got in the car, and I think the hotel guards stationed outside were amused by their racing.

If you don’t have an official city guide in Fes, we’ve read you will be accosted again and again by “unofficial” guides, eager to show you around the medina and to their favorite shopkeepers that give the guide a percentage of all sales. One man smiled a friendly smile and told us to follow him, “it’s this way to the center”. We smiled back and told him we were waiting for a ride. Another man beckoned from a shady alley. “Hey!” he called, “This way!” I couldn’t tell if it was Mustafa or not, it seemed a strange thing for him to do. I began to walk towards him, he kept encouraging us to come closer, until finally I got close enough to see he wasn’t Mustafa. “Sorry,” I called, “We’re waiting for our guide.” He called out “I am your guide.”

Mustafa finally came, along with our guide for the day, Abdullah. Abdullah informed us he loves children and has four of his own. He held Benji’s hand most of the day, and after Benji’s initial shyness wore off he was just fine with this. The first two days of our time in Morocco, Mustafa wore a jellaba that zipped up the front with a hood that hung down his back. Today, he was in plain clothes and Abdullah had on a jellaba, this must be the official guide garb, to show everyone that we are “taken”.

Our first stop was an old castle with spectacular views of Fes. Satellite dishes spread across the roofs of the medina, their perfect white roundness seemed so out of place among the ramshackle houses and shops running higgledy-piggledy every which way. Leather hides were laid to dry on a hillside across the way, and we got a glimpse of the official palace where the king stays when in town. Abdullah made sure to point out their specially etched gold doors. “Fes is the capital of handicrafts,” he said.

After checking this off the list, we were off to our first real stop of the day. We were getting a little nervous when Abdullah kept mentioning that “Fes is the capital of handicrafts”. We had read horror stories of guides that were only intent on taking you to shops to earn a commission, and high pressure sales on everything from rugs to scarves. Ick. Hate high pressure sales. Mustafa dropped us off at a ceramics place, Abdullah handed us off to a man and told us he’d meet us later. Uh-oh.

This was an amazing place. First the man showed us the clay they had dug out of a nearby cave, lying in big gray clumps on the ground. Next to them was a small round pool, where they soaked the clay for a while to make it soft. Then men step on the clay, much like stepping on grapes, to make it softer and work out any impurities. They pull out any stones, wood, even fossils, then take the clay back out. It is shaped into lumps that can then be put on a wheel to make pottery, or cut into tiles. He showed us the huge kiln they use to fire their things in, they use olive pits mixed with wood for the fire because the oil in the pits makes the flames burn hotter.

Once the fire goes out, they seal up the entrance of the kiln with clay and wait for it to slowly cool before they remove the tiles or pottery or whatever is being fired. We actually stood in one of these kilns, still warm from a fire two days before. We watched men patiently hitting tile that had been scored into patterns with a chisel, cutting them into shapes for mosaics. These men sit with their legs folded in front of them, their backs hunched, maybe a soccer poster or a tiny piece of chipped clay in the shape of the Arabic word for “Allah” hanging on the wall. One man had a glass cup of coffee resting nearby. Their hands must be so steady, to make the precise cuts required. Another man was assembling a tile top table in a mosaic pattern, from the back. Like doing a jigsaw upside down, it required such patience and meticulous attention to detail. Each piece must be sanded on the edges to fit just right.

The whole experience was so cool, especially seeing the men who did the work. I guess so often I just assume everything these days is made by machine, to see the people behind the pieces made them so much more interesting. We ended up buying some plates and a few other things, but it was a pleasure to support these men and their endeavors to create things that were both beautiful and enduring. We felt no high pressure sales tactics, and breathed a sigh, a small sigh, of relief. The day wasn’t over yet.

Ahead of us lay the medina, something we had really been looking forward to seeing. The medina is the old part of the town, built in the ninth century, enclosed in the ancient city wall. The city wall has holes in lines all along the outside, both for ventilation and to hold the scaffolding they needed to construct the walls and do repairs to the adobe. Inside it holds 320 districts, and each district has its own mosque, bakery, school, bathhouse and fountain with fresh water from the Middle Atlas Mountains. Several times I saw children getting water from a fountain, holding some sort of container under it. The bakeries are really interesting, there isn’t any bread for sale. We saw children carrying boards with fresh dough on them, covered in towels. The houses in each district take their bread to the bakery to be baked, each home makes its own particular mark on their loaves, and then they come pick them up later that day. It smelled wonderful, and I wished we could sample some of these families’ bread.

The medina is huge, and easy to get lost in. I was glad we had a guide who could lead the way, and made a “lost child” plan just in case the worst happened. I can’t imagine how I would freak out if I lost a child in the Fes medina. We hit the medina at a great time, right when kids were getting out of school for lunch. They were swarming up and down the skinny streets, where there are no cars and only the occasional donkey or motor scooter. They trounced around in backpacks and sneakers, racing and giggling and just being kids. They were so friendly, Alayna was just beaming from ear to ear as the girls her age smiled and said “bonjour”. Benji had his hair tousled multiple times, and got two more kisses before noon that day. Even Nate had his head rubbed, by a girl that walked by about Alayna’s age. He was really embarrassed.

The medina was a dreamy place for our kids, a huge labyrinth maze just right for getting lost in. New surprises waited around every corner, and just about everything could be bought. Camel meat, gravestones, candy, shoes, cloth, music tapes and more. Anything. Someone could easily live in the medina and have all they needed. It really had a neighborhood feel, and we knew lurking behind the fairly plain exteriors were courtyards and colorful tiles. I wished we could get a glimpse beyond the doors. We followed Abdullah through the streets, and though I knew we weren’t lost, it sure felt like it.

Abdullah stopped often in the streets to greet people. No one just says “hello” and walks on by, there are always words exchanged, a kiss on both cheeks, a moment taken to talk a little. Everyone seems to watch out for each other. When Abdullah saw a young boy with a glass bottle, he had some words with some nearby boys and one of them went to take care of the boy.  We passed by some small shops (no bigger than my closet at home) where old men sat in the doorways patiently stitching clothes. A boy unwound a bobbin full of thread down a lane, hooking it on a hook at the end and running it back the other direction. If I knew how to sew, maybe I’d know what he was doing, but it was fascinating to me that on this public street where tons of people passed by, he was stretching his string across the way.

We had one ugly moment in the day, at the rug shop. This was a total set up. Abdullah told us we would hear about what it was like to live in the medina by entering a restored home that now houses the rugs made by a large co-op of women in the area. He left us in the hands of the hard-sell rug merchant, who complimented our family, gave us all drinks and made us sit down while he unrolled rug after rug. He was nice, kind of. He really wanted to sell us a rug. He actually wanted to sell us thirteen rugs, insisting that we could easily sell a few of the rugs back in the states and cover the cost of our entire trip! It took a great deal of gumption to get up, after insisting that “yes, they are very nice rugs, but we really don’t need a rug, we really don’t want a rug”, and begin looking for the absentee Abdullah.

The man seemed so very sad, so very hurt, by our refusal to buy one of his rugs. I felt pretty bad, I hate that kind of thing. So does Clay. We all cooled down over some lunch, hashing over the past hour at the rug seller with the kids and then trying to forget it. It was 3 in the afternoon, we’ve eaten huge lunches late here, and then not much dinner, which is actually kind of nice. We were the only ones in the restaurant, other than a very animated man in the back who was all wound up about something, yelling really loud in Arabic. Another time I wish I knew what they were saying. Maybe it was the rug seller.

At the end of our meal, the tea pourer came and poured some hot tea, then offered us each a little rose water, poured in our hands from a silver pot. It took Benji and Nate a minute to figure out what in the world they were supposed to do with this (rub it on your hands), and we all cracked up when the man came back to Benji, pulled back his shirt and poured a little trickle down Benji’s chest and tummy. The boys both posed with him, he put a Fes hat on each of them, and then entertained them by wiggling his ears. He was impressed when Nate demonstrated his belly wave, lifting his shirt up and working his chest and stomach muscles like a belly dancer.

That afternoon we also visited a tannery, where we overlooked huge vats of dye with men dipping skins into them. The men had their pants rolled up to their knees and were drippy wet, it looked cold down there. There were shades of red, brown and yellow, and in one section there were white vats full of lime and pigeon poop. The skins are dipped in here to get the hair off them and dye them a light color. No men were in these vats, and the ones nearby wore rubber boots and gloves. Of course there was a shop, but we got away with just a purse and a pair of shoes and avoided the expensive leather jacket. I even haggled and got the price way down, I’m getting the hang of it I think.

Our last stop was at a weaving co-op, where we met the son of a family who has been weaving for a long time, the handicraft passed down through the generations. At least that’s what he said, and I like the story. We watched a man working pedals and pulling ropes and somehow it came out as cloth. Some of it was very beautiful, Alayna haggled for a small pillow cover, I got a beautiful tablecloth to use at Christmas time, and he threw in a scarf for Nate to wear on his head in the desert and a hat for Benji for free.

As we walked into the hotel tonight, Alayna said, “If anyone asks me where my favorite place is, I’m telling them Morocco! I like the people here, they are really friendly.” We loved to hear that she had such fun, and she’s right. I never felt unsafe in the medina, strangers on the street smiled and said “bonjour” and patted Benji’s head and welcomed us into their lives for a moment.

That night Clay asked the lady at the front desk if it was all right to swim in the pool. She looked at him a little strangely and said, “It’s very cold, but yes, it’s open.” Clay told her our kids were just a little crazy and the kids quickly put on their suits and scampered down the stairs. After swimming up and down for about ten minutes, even they had to admit it was too cold and got out shivering. We snuck back upstairs as stealthily as possible, trying not to drip. The kids got showered and in their pajamas, we ordered three omelets and made a dinner out of them, and some leftover fruit and things in the room. Tired and full, of food and experiences, we all slept well.