Saturday, 24 November 2007

From Granada to Madrid, from Madrid to Casablanca, we got to Morocco with another day of school under our belts. We have a driver for the duration of our stay in this country. Mustafa (moo-STAH-fuh) met us at the airport where we all loaded into a van with a little room to spare. I have to remember not to call him Mufasa, the dad on the Lion King. When we asked Mustafa how long he had been driving for his company, he said ten years. In that time, he has only driven two clients who had children with them, we are the third. From what we’ve seen so far, our kids are going to love it.

As we left the airport we noticed some cars decorated with ribbons and asked Mustafa why. They were decorated for the pilgrimage to Mecca, pilgrims were arriving at the airport for their journey, reminding us that we were now in Muslim country. Over 99% of the population in Morocco is Muslim. The journey to Mecca is only made once a year at a special time, once pilgrims arrive they celebrate in Mecca for a week, taking part in many ceremonies and celebrations. Our guide is a devout Muslim who has made the journey twice. I wondered if he would pull over when we heard the muezzin give the prayer call (these happen around 5am, 12, 3:30, sunset (around 6:30), and an hour after sunset. He doesn’t, I kind of hoped he would. So far the only person I’ve seen practicing prayers during this call to prayer was a man who had pulled his car off the road and laid his prayer mat out, his forehead touching the pavement at the side of the road. I think we will learn a lot about Islam during this part of our trip.

We like Mustafa, he has a gentle voice and a quiet spirit that is appealing. He has two children, a three year old and a three month old, and lives in Marrakesh with his extended family, many in the same house.  He’s a great guide, driving us through cities and pointing out the important sites. Our first stop was the enormous Hassan II Mosque. We missed the tour time when non-believers are allowed to enter the mosque, it’s the third largest in the world and the only one non-believers are allowed to go inside, but Mustafa parked nearby and we were able to walk around it. It really is huge, it’s hard to see the scope of it from the pictures. The doors were left open since we arrived around 3, a prayer time, so we were able to peek inside and see ornate walls, soaring ceilings, and huge chandeliers. When we were leaving Benji told us about a man he saw in a jellaba, the traditional robes often with pointed hoods that many Muslims still wear. He said he thought he was Obi Wan Kenobi for a minute.

After taking a quick drive around Casablanca, seeing the ocean and the mosque, we headed to Rabat, where we spent the night. Casablanca is considered the financial capital of Morocco, Rabat is the official and political capital. Neither are what you would consider the traditional Morocco, but they’re a good way to ease into this new culture, and a convenient route to get to the interior.

We were driving on a four lane highway (two lanes each way), which looked like any other modern highway. Except for the occasional donkey pulling a cart loaded with vegetables or blankets or unidentified bundles. Or the ever-present traffic darters. These are people, from teenage boys to old women, who line these busy roads, just waiting for their opportunity to dart across. They scared me to death, but nothing seems to phase even-keel Mustafa. Sheep graze right beside the road, and there are no fences to keep them from coming right across, but I never saw a sheep foot touch the blacktop. They must have learned somehow.

Cars often drift from lane to lane, sometimes just driving down the middle of two lanes. Mustafa often passes a slow truck on a two lane road, somehow finding space to eek right by. He puts his nose out and just turns when he’s ready into oncoming traffic, and rides right up on the bumper of motor scooters with tires no bigger than a bicycle and young children riding on back. No helmets. All of this traffic ruckus makes me nervous. In Great Britain when Clay was driving, I chomped on carrots to calm my nerves, then graduated to the quick sniff/gasp when worried about running off the road or into oncoming traffic. I have no carrots, and worry that the quick sniff /gasp might startle Mustafa and cause an accident, so I’ve modified my quick sniff to include multiple sniffs, so it sounds like I have the sniffles.

When we arrived in Rabat the excitement started mounting in the backseat. Word was out that we were staying in some nice hotels in Morocco. We worked with a travel agent to plan this part of our trip, and his tastes tend towards the fancy. While we didn’t always go with his first recommendation, we kept a few of these high star hotels on the itinerary, figuring we’d welcome the splurge. Especially in countries we are so unfamiliar with. Splurge we did.

The kids were giddy as they explored this beautiful hotel, its pool and lavish gardens and fountains. There were couches and cushions everywhere, plush surroundings from the lobby to the rooms. We were hungry for dinner but had to wait an hour for the restaurant to open. We wandered a bit outside the hotel, but nothing was open there either, except a few greasy places full of men staring at televisions where a soccer game raged. We decided to wait, broke out our deck of cards and stationed ourselves on some of those cushy couches to wait until the dinner bell.

When it did, we were the first to head towards the restaurant. The doors to the restaurant were unusual, actually two doors, with the big outer door closed, and the inner doors inside each of the bigger doors open, so you had to step over the frame of the big one to enter. Clay did not realize this, he thought there was glass in the openings, and as Benji approached at full tilt, he called out, “Stop, stoooop, stooooooooop!” the panic mounting in his voice as he envisioned Benji slamming into the glass. He just about fell over when Benji hopped right through, and we all broke into hysterics just as the very mannerly waitress came to seat us. It took us a moment to compose ourselves and remember our room number so we could be seated.

We feasted on a buffet that included light and fluffy couscous like I’ve never seen from an Uncle Ben’s box. There were all sorts of vegetable salads, some lamb and chicken and other goodies, including a delicious dessert table. Benji said, over dessert, “I don’t think this is really a five star hotel. It doesn’t have a fish pond. Five star hotels should have a fish pond.”

As we headed back to our rooms we noticed a band assembling at the entry of the hotel, dressed in traditional clothes and carrying unusual instruments including some very long trumpets. They all began to play, welcoming some special guests, banging on drums and tooting away. Clay said he didn’t think they were really playing a song. He said it reminded him of the football games when the band would all be playing just for the fun of it, not together. I think we’ll hear some more of this interesting music over the next few days, and discover it is, indeed, a song.

The kids nestled into their luxurious beds, after finding their travel pillows. The pillows provided were one long roll that reached across the span of the entire double bed, and tilted your head at a 90 degree angle. We never heard the muezzin call to prayer that night, and slept like royalty all night long.


Sunday, 25 November 2007

There are some days when so many things happen, so many little things that I want to record, I hope I don’t forget any of them. This was one of those days. As I got up and showered this morning, I noticed a sticker in the shower. In many of the hotels we’ve stayed in, there are stickers talking about how much water is wasted by washing towels, and asking guests to please use them more than once. I expected to see this same message on the sticker, but instead it just said, “Water is source of life, please don’t waste it”. Water is fundamental in the Muslim faith, they believe it is the source of life and it is a part of architecture in all palaces and in many cities. In paradise they believe there will be much water. I thought this was telling, how pervasive the Muslim faith is, that it would even manifest itself in the sticker in the shower at a hotel.

As we talked to Mustafa, we asked him about some of the common phrases among Moroccans. He said they often say, “If God is willing”. “If God is willing I will go to work this morning”, or “If God is willing I will make fish for dinner”, and then they say “Thanks be to God” when things happen. Many parts of life focus on God, from praying five times a day to the architecture that surrounds them.

Mustafa picked us up and we took a quick tour of Rabat before hitting the road. We visited the Mausoleum for Mohammad V, a popular leader who was king when the Moroccans won their independence from France. Mustafa dropped us off so we could explore a bit, and as he drove off we were greeted by a friendly man with a guide badge hanging around his neck. We politely listened as he told us that he loves heavy metal from America, and movies with lots of guns. Was this supposed to endear us to him? More endearing were his huge eyes, magnified through round glasses, and his seeming excitement to tell us all sorts of stories. Eventually we peeled ourselves from him to visit the site on our own, we didn’t really want a guide or a long stay.

We admired the fancy mausoleum with all its gold and bright, colorful tiles, then wandered across the ruins of a mosque that was destroyed in an earthquake to admire the view of the ocean and the city of Sale across the water. While there, a friendly-looking girl caught my eye and smiled. As soon as I smiled back, we were sunk. “You want henna?” she asked quickly, brandishing something that looked like a syringe with no needle, filled with a brown liquid. “What?” I asked, not sure what she was talking about. “Henna,” she repeated, quickly drawing a pattern on her own hand. “That’s pretty,” I complimented. She grabbed Alayna’s hand. “You want?” she asked as she began drawing. Well I guess we did want, since she was already tracing intricate patterns all over her hand. “How much?” I asked, in a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation (Clay and the boys were spectators for the most part, though I could see in Clay’s eyes that he was a little peeved, not at me but the pushy henna girl). “No problem, as you wish,” was her reply. Hmmmm.

I had to admit it was pretty impressive to see how quickly she drew flowers and curly-q’s all over the back of Alayna’s hand and up her wrist. “What’s your name?” she asked, and then wrote “Alayna” in Arabic on the side of Alayna’s hand. At least she said it was Alayna, I wouldn’t know and kind of doubted it. When she was done, she offered to draw scorpions on Benji and Nate, but I said “no” when I found out it took twenty minutes to dry before you could scrape off the brown. No way would they sit still for twenty minutes. She then said, “10 euros, or as you wish”. Ten euros! We didn’t have any euros, and all we had that was small change in Moroccan were two twenties. This was not good enough. “Sixty,” she pushed. “I have change.” So we handed her a 100 dirham note, got 40 back in change, and left figuring out exactly how much we had paid for Alayna’s henna hand. About 5 euros, not too bad.

On the other side of the courtyard was another girl holding her syringe full of brown dye, and while we insisted that we were done she beckoned and called us, insisting she only wanted to see Alayna’s design. True to her word, she studied the design (maybe getting ideas of critiquing her colleague’s work?), then asked how much we had paid. When we said “Sixty” she was incredulous. “Euros?” she gasped. When we told her “No, dirhams” she nodded and said “good price”, and as we walked off she yelled down the line something in Arabic. So, they keep tabs on each other and the going price, capitalism in Rabat.

Our next stop was a fortified part of the city, a kasbah. Inside we were stopped by two different henna girls, one of them actually read Alayna’s name in Arabic. They offered to do scorpions on the boys’ hands. They also asked how much we had paid for Alayna’s design, and shook their heads, “I do better,” they stated. We said “no” to their scorpion offers, but one girl was particularly persistent. She tried to grab Benji’s hand “free, gratis” she insisted, but we weren’t biting. Even Benji, who stuck his hands in his jacket sleeves and held on tight, he wanted no part of this henna battle. The girls finally relented and we moved out of the garden and into the residential part of the kasbah.

This was a pretty place. The walls off all the homes were painted white on top, and blue on the bottom. Many of the doors and grates over the windows were painted blue as well, it looked clean and fresh even though it’s very old and parts of it were crumbling. Cats lounged, popping out from under doors and stalking the tops of walls. Kids played soccer, an old man called from his doorway where he was sculpting something from clay, and some boys rolled rubber car tires down the steep little lanes.

We admired a view of the ocean, where brave souls in wet suits were boogey boarding and even surfing. The boys desperately wanted to get down there in the water, and we had a hard time convincing them it was too cold. Boys were playing soccer on the beach, others were dancing (from a distance this was quite amusing), and one guy was practicing his kickboxing moves. We were high above, watching all the action. We finally decided it was time to get on the road. Mustafa had met us as we wandered around the kasbah, and he led us back out through one of the city gates and to his van. It is really nice to have someone else worrying about details like where to park and how to get there. A nice respite.

As we drove out of town Mustafa pointed out the stork nests perched on the tops of light poles in a parking lot. He told us how the storks migrate from Europe each winter and stay through the spring, having their babies. Their nests are huge, I don’t know how they stayed balanced on top of those skinny light poles. Mustafa also pointed out some strange looking trees that had all been stripped of their bark from the bottom to where the limbs started branching. These were cork trees, the cork is harvested every seven to nine years.

We passed sheep and shepherds along the highway, donkeys and carts and trucks piled way high with goods. Boys riding donkeys rode sideways, their legs both sticking out on one side, thumping as the donkey trotted along. We arrived in the town of Meknes where we took a quick drive through the town and then stopped for lunch. We walked into a large restaurant that was maybe a quarter full with customers that were all from one tour group. We were a little disgusted, this is not how we pictures our first real meal in Morocco (breakfast and dinner at the hotel didn’t count, we were in the real Morocco now). Mustafa left us at our table and joined the tour guides. We asked him to join us, but he replied he would sit with “colleagues.”

We soon got over our disappointment when they began to bring out the food. First they brought out about seven plates, each full of something different we could pick and try. My favorites were some lentils, but they had beets, carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, all sorts of things. Then the meal, couscous for Clay and me and some tagine chicken for the kids. Tagine is the way the chicken is cooked, in a terra-cotta pot that has a cone-shaped lid, and it is so moist the meat just falls off the bone. This was followed by a big plate full of oranges and apples (we opted for oranges, we’re trying to remember to eat only fruits you can peel and drink only bottled water). Next was Moroccan mint tea, poured by a man in a special costume who poured the tea with his arm fully extended above his head. I read the best tea pourers pour the tea from great distances. Benji pronounced that the tea tasted a little like warm toothpaste. The hot mint toothpaste tea was served with a plate of cookies that weren’t very sweet on their own, but were just right with the super-sweet tea and sweet oranges.

After getting filled up, we got back on the road. We made one more stop before reaching Fes, this time at Moulay Idriss, a special holy city that is also a pilgrimage site like Mecca. It is where Moulay Idriss, the man who brought Islam to Morocco, is buried. We only got out of the car to take some pictures of the city, its white houses climb the hilltop like all traditional Berber towns do.  The sunset as we approached Fes was just beautiful, we were driving amongst the Rif mountain range and the clouds were piled up in interesting shapes all around us. We asked Mustafa to pull over so we could take some pictures but I don’t think they’ll capture just how pretty it all was.

I bet you’re wondering what the kids are doing in the backseat during all this driving. They spent a lot of time just playing with some of Benji’s little toys, making up elaborate stories with Alayna as story crafter, and the boys as willing participants, throwing in their two cents now and then. Alayna and Nate did a little reading as well, while Benji stared out the window, in his own little world. We had to make them put their books down now and then to look out the window and just take it all in. The donkeys and sheep and tiny little houses and vegetable stands by the road and the gorgeous skyline.

We were once again wowed by our hotel in Fes, which is right on the edge of the medina, in the middle of the town. We opted for a grocery store meal since we had stuffed at lunch so late, so we arrived at the hotel with several plastic bags full of the kid’s dream dinner: soda, Pringles, bread, and cheese. Not exactly the classiest of entries. We were told that someone would get our bags, and when we entered the hotel we were directed not to the check-in desk, but to some couches. A man brought us refreshing wet towels on a big silver tray. Clay wiped his face with his (he always does that!) and Benji wasn’t sure what to do with his. Another man appeared with a silver bucket to take our used wet towels, but Benji was just getting the hang of this pampering stuff, and he thoroughly rubbed his hands and arms with his towel before surrendering it. He made a friend, the man holding the bucket thought this was awfully cute.

We were then brought some paperwork to fill out, still on the couches, and then a woman came with cookies and hot mint tea. We taught the kids how to slurp their tea if it was too hot, Mustafa assured us this was common. We munched our cookies and Clay and I were wondering if we were ever going to get our room key, when a man offered to take us to our rooms. He held the keys, so what could we do but say yes? This five story beauty is full of tipping opportunities, from the two men who brought our luggage (which we could easily have brought ourselves) to the two people who showed up at our door around 9 with little boxes of chocolates. The kids were already in bed and I closed the bathroom door, trying to hide the dirty socks I was washing in the sink. The gig was up anyway, they came all the way into the room to deliver our nighttime chocolate, and saw our laundry lines hanging on the balcony. Shoot.

The kids are loving this fancy hotel stuff. They begged to go find the clay tennis court, and “please can we go swimming, it isn’t that cold”. We may find ourselves poolside tomorrow night, we have two nights at this hotel, which was once a real palace. As we walked around the gardens that surround the pool, the moon shining above, the call to prayer began. It is a loud, long, amplified wail, given from every minaret in the city. It sounds almost like a round, every man’s voice coming in at different times, and finishing after a long while with one lone singer, finished his chorus. It is kind of an eerie sound, unfamiliar and foreign. I wonder if we will get used to it, as I’m sure the inhabitants of Fes are.

We moved on to “patience” for our Sunday “service”, the fruits of the spirit can be hard. We thought of lots of times when we needed patience. I’m sure we’ll encounter many more as move around the world, the first being at 5am tomorrow morning, when we’ll hear that loud, long, amplified wail again.