Friday, May 9, 2008

Through the desert

Ah, Morocco. What an experience. A supremely religious, nearly militant people mixed with enough poverty across the land to erase all sentiment and feeling for travelers. Many times I felt as if I were a target for silver tongued, sometimes flat-out liars (ah sir, the Medina is closed, I will show you a nearby hotel!), only after my precious gold dubloons moolah. Spend enough time walking through the city and your level of trust for the people walkig about the city slowly evaporates. Walking throughout the Medina also brought out unending calls of "Jackie Chan," the occasional "Japonese!" or a mock imitation of Bruce Lee kung fu moves and/or a bow as I passed by. What turned out to be initially amusing became annoying, eventually evolving into aggravating. Now I understand how Darren felt while walking throughout China.

Prayer is held frequently throughout the day, and even at night. Every time prayer is being held, the nearby mosque blasts out religious calls and singing through their massive speaker system to be heard by everyone in the nearby area. Even at 3:30-4 am in the morning. It feels vaguely authoritarian, as if I woke up in the world of V for Vendetta or 1984.

The impressions I got from the people and the culture are not to be taken as having a bad experience. These are just some thoughts that bubbled from my head as I was writing this, things that I didn't make notes about originally. Now let's move on to those other things I had planned to write about.

We arrived in Marrakech, spent a few days at a beautiful Riad (their version of a hostel/hotel) and then moved on to Fes to stay at an amazing traditional Moroccan house. Cianar, Ryan, Diana and Jeremy got to start their CouchSurfing experience at this beautiful place.

Marrakech and Fes are similar in some ways, yet have their own personality. There is an old city surrounded by ancient walls and gates---the Medina---which is usually surrounded by the newer city, of which a part is called the Ville Nouveille (the new city). The Ville Nouveille is, as you'd expect, more modernly designed with wide paved roads, big buildings of random apartment and condos, and lots of regular shops and stores lining the street. The Medina is something else altogether. It seems as if all the space was reserved for the buildings, built so large and close to one another that all life is relegated to the tiny alleyways, blood flowing through capillaries. Barely enough space for a car, yet men with mule drawn carts and others on scooters and bikes brave it anyway, often all at the same time where pedestrians abound. City markets, both held in the larger streets and even trickling down into the alleyways, are filled with a myriad of items for sale from the typical meticulously designed rugs and carpets that might come to mind, the shiny metalworks---teapots and other elaborate stands consisting of bronze, silver and copper---to the seemingly random---used appliances like beat up washers and dryers, old office phones, and even gears and sprokets pulled out of God (Allah?) knows what. Calls constantly made to the passers by, shopkeepers gabbing with their shopkeeping neighbors, the local mosques blasting out the afternoon prayer---everyone does their part to add to the noise and the chaos that makes the old city.

As with any different culture, you get to one of my favorite parts... the food. Food here is absolutely sublime. Start with the traditional Moroccan soup known as harira, a mixture of deliciously tangy tomato base with olive oil, chickpeas, lentils and enough spices to kickstart anyone's morning, it is thick, hearty and perfect for dipping the local bread. Couscous is another favorite, tiny grains best when cooked with the broth that comes oozing out of the lamb, chicken, or what have you as it is steamed to its fluffy goodness. And then, we arrive at the tajine. Tajine is the dish of the area, a local stew made with lamb, beef or chicken. Generously garnished with carrots, string beans, cilantro, potatoes, olives and sometimes with large beans and squash, then covered in a special clay pot and thrown into the heat, tajine is a mix of intense flavors, blended textures, and the tenderest juiciest meat soaked in spices and infused with the delicious flavors and aromas of the vegetables. Slow cooked to absolute perfection, chicken breast tastes as tender and juicy as the dark meat, making one wish that the dish just never ended. Top the meal off with the ubiquitous, deliciously refreshing mint tea, and you have the makings of culinary bliss.

See, it's not all bad.

Much of the trip has been spent visiting the Medina, and walking about to find the various cultural spots like the mosques and certain museums. Much of the trip also has been spent getting horribly lost for hours as the streets seem to lack proper signage and being pretty much covered by all the tall buildings makes it difficult to keep one's bearings. Eventually, after walking in seemingly random directions, we end up at the Medina wall or are able to see the tower of the mosque nearby where we're staying at, allowing us to find our way back, arriving at a restaurant which makes the food seem just that much better to us weary, starving (thankful) travelers.

Now that I'm traveling with friends, it makes things much more interesting. Logistics increase of course, as we have to ensure that we find places and CouchSurfing hosts that can accommodate all of us. I no longer only worry about myself, I have to keep up with the rest of them and catch up (say, when I stop a moment to take a shot) or turn around every so often to make sure we're still all together if I'm (infrequently) in the front of the line. That's just the boring stuff though, it's great to see old friends again and travel with them. Cianar is the same as always, throwing off witty banter and inappropriate (but missed) comments left and right, sometimes drawing awkward looks or laughs. Jeremy, I actually didn't know too well before, but he's an expert at deftly springing his wit on the situation at hand and a master of improvisation. Diana's blunt, blunt honesty may seem harsh or tactless until you hear the disarmingly cute voice that comes with it. And Ryan's endless razor sharp wit, who can't miss that?

Here's an example: Sitting at a café after being lost for a while, we stop to take a break, get some café au lait (coffee with milk) and some ice cream. Invariably, someone breaks out the cards and we launch into games of pusoy dos, taking a relaxing afternoon break in the cool shade and welcoming breeze of the café. Pusoy dos is a game where one's goal is to get rid of cards by putting down increasingly high hands, starting with singles, and then dropping up to 5-card poker hands. After an intense round of playing, a few straights and even a full house, Diana goes after the straight flush with her own 5-card hand: Q, K, A, 2 and a 3, dropping it with gusto onto the pile, big grin on her face. Ryan calmly turns to her, picks up the cards, and explains that the 3 can't wrap around in that straight, saying that "it's just like having four cool guys, and one very uncool girl." HAHAHAHA!

And then there's the Hammam experience. That one you get if you buy me a pint.

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