Subject: Morocco journal (long)
hello ziners!

i just got home from a trip to morocco and found many fabulous emails about dreams and happy birthday wishes to TheTravelzine. in addition to sharing the congratulations, i wanted to write in my reflections on my recent traveling experience.

my favorite travel partner, marinn, and i had 12 days to go to the imperial cities. we went without any kind of tour or organization really, just a lonely planet and a train schedule. btw, both she and i are students and very much budget travelers, so all the accomodations are in the cheapies range. a note about getting to maroc: we flew in and out of the mohammed v airport, which is a half hour train ride to casa and an hour to rabat. the airport is small and calm, very easy to navigate and the train station is right downstairs. very convenient. however, if you can possibly arrange to have your flight out leave after 10 a.m., i would recommend it. we had a 8 a.m. flight and since we had to get there 2 hours earlier to check in, we had to book a taxi from casa. it's 30km ride from downtown casa and at that hour, the cabs charge 50% more. thus a 300dh ride (translates to 30 euro which i find normal in nyc, but given that we never paid more than 150 dh a night for a hotel, it seemed proportionally out of control).

anyway, we took the train straight to rabat and lodged at the hotel splendid right off of blvd mohammed v. for budget travelers, i recommend it. we had our own bathroom and hot shower and a nice little room with comfy beds for 120 dh. rabat was a great city to ease us into maroc. as the capital, there are lots of different kinds of middle eastern and french restaurants, the tour hassan ii is a fine monument, and the medina is quite small and very manageable--people generally left us alone and we wandered around the city observing and exploring at our leisure.

the next morning, we took the train to meknes. here again, the ville nouvelle is calm and the medina is not overwhelming. here we visited the musee dar jamai which is right on the outskirts of the medina. there is a lovely collection of berber carpets, but the structure itself is the reason to go. it was our first time in a beautifully restored palace and it is breathtaking. the architecture in maroc is truly awesome. after the constant sensorial overload on the streets, you enter this big block of a structure with a decorated door but little else of note, and into a haven: the center of the palace is a fantastic courtyard with the rest of the house organized around this inside/outside space. the floor is tiled with zellije, the walls as well, with the baseboards and the tops of the walls done over in carved and painted plaster. then the ceilings are often cedar carved and painted as well, or covered with mussharriya (dubious spelling...?) which is an intricate set of carved wooden dowels--all traditional marrocan artisinal work. although every inch of space intricately and painstakingly decorated with complex geometric patterns and strong primary colors, it exudes harmonious beauty, not tackiness. i'm still trying to figure that out. in any case, it's a gorgeous respite.

unfortunately, this museum has a few guides who will follow you around pretending to be helpful and try to lead you through whether it's a service you want. i personally was really distracted throughout by having someone hovering constantly and seriously annoyed when we were hanging out in the garden and he started jingling the change in his pocket to remind us to tip him so he could go harrass the next group of tourists on their way in. but so it goes, at least fairly often in maroc.

while wandering in the medina, we were then trailed by ahmed, who wanted to practice his english. i had read in the lonely planet that this is often the opening line of the faux guides, or the unofficial guides who will try to get you to employ them in the medina. but, he insisted that it was not for money. and although it turned out at the end that he did ask for remuneration, i'm glad we went along with him. along our path, he brought us in to see different traditional craft workers, his own shop does uniquely mussharriya, we also met artisans who carve wood, who make zellije, who do iron-lattice work, who inlay camel bone in cedar, who make bowls and other sculpture out of thuya wood. he also found a woman who was willing to take us into a hammam--as we were the only clothed people in the place, i a little uncomfortable, not to mention exceedingly steaming hot, but i'm glad we had a chance to see this utilitarian social meeting place for women. just as amazingly, we went down into this basement furnace area underneath the hammam where two men alternate all day long feeding the tremendous fire. this fire keeps the hammam waters hot the entire day as well as the ovens next door to it where people who live in that sector of the medina come to bake their breads.

btw, the medina means simply city in arabic and, at least in maroc, refers to the section of imperial cities where the medieval walled city remains. always exists in distinction to the ville nouvelle or new city which often looks like 1950s france.

so even though we hadn't wanted a guide, and i had to wonder with every one of our interactions if the people we had met were genuine in their welcome or if it was purely a tourist maneuver, we never would have had this glimpse into maroccan workers and daily life routines without ahmed, so for that i'm grateful.

the next day, we headed to fes. there, we stayed with a friend who lives in a beautiful home in the medina. the fes medina is a unesco-protected cultural monument, an interesting paradox for a city that is constant evolution and transformation to also be a cite of conservation and preservation. it is certainly odd to wander through any one of its more than 9000 unmarked, teeny, winding streets or alleys, the largest of which is only big enough for an overburdened donkey to walk through (everyone has to flatten out against the walls to let the donkey go by) then head up to the rooftop of one of the homes and see sattelite dishes (pirating service from the government illegally) as far as the eye can see. fes' medina is absolutely ancient and has been deemed in total decadence and disrepair since the beginning of the 18th century. yet, since it was too complicated to wire, fes moved straight past landlines and to cell phones and wireless. this is only one example of the contrasts of ancient and cutting edge modern that constantly collided in our experience of fes. of the museums there, i recommend the musee nejjarine des arts et metiers du bois. it's simpler than many of the others, but lovely. the batha museum had a special exhibition on wood crafts, but according to the lp, normally has a great ceramics and jewelry collection.

fes was by far my favorite city. at the main bab, you'll get totally harrassed by faux guides but if you can just refuse vociferously (it helps also to insist that you're a student at alif, the language institute in fes, and that you're not looking for the tanneries or any other monument and don't need any help) for a few minutes, you'll be able to wander left pretty much alone. there are some main tourist type shopping streets and there people try to get you to come and shop, but little of the hard sell approach. we worried a lot that we'd never find our way out of the medina, but if you just stick to the larger arteries and strip yourself of the desire to find places, we found that was our best way of getting where we wanted to go. if we were actively looking for somewhere specific: hopelessly lost.

i haven't mentioned any restaurants because here, we were mostly eating in total hole-in-the-walls that our friend living in fes took us to. the breads are fantastic variations on flatbread: harsha that is polenta-like disk, a couple of different kinds of pancake type breads--have them spread honey on it and it cannot be beat. there are some square kind of greasy flatbread as well that is excellent with ewe cheese and harissa. and olives and dates make the best snacking items, satisfying both the sweet and savory cravings. we found maroccan food, at every level of budget, from places of frightening hygiene to the fabulous palace restaurants (dar mimouna in marrakesh is lovely and reasonably priced) to be amazing. although we feared hepatitis b at some of the places we lunched at, it was really our only chance to sit down at one of the three tables in these little spots and break bread with maroccans, sharing the salt mixtures, placing fish bones in the same little place on the plastic-covered table. in general though, you really cannot go wrong with any kind of couscous, or tagines (although my very favorites are chicken with preserved lemons (citron confit) and rose olives, or kefta (ground lamb) and egg, or lamb and prunes and almonds. yum yummy!) and the pastilla (pigeon is the specialty, but ground lamb is perfectly fantastic also) is a dream when well done. and the a la menthe whenever possible--i am now addicted to it.

after 3 days in fes, we headed up to chefchouan, a touristy town up in the mountains. it's a 5-hour bus ride from fes--and you really feel every minute of the bus ride. although the trains are fabulous, the bus is not. this was the first time that marinn and i felt a little awkward as two women traveling alone. i should note that although i apparently look like a maroccan woman, marinn is a big blonde with striking hazel eyes. at least 10 men stared at her openly for every second of the 5 hours. i should note that we wore loose jeans and long-sleeve shirts the entire time we were there. i half-pleaded half-yelled at them at french to turn around and stop staring, to no avail. in maroc, with french, you can get by perfectly as long as you're talking to people who have had a certain amount of schooling. otherwise, they will only speak the maroccan dialect of arabic. so whether this group of men didn't understand me or was choosing not to, we'll never know. this was the only occasion that we wondered if we should have covered our heads or if we were being disrespectful of moroccan culture simply by being western women in their space. otherwise, i felt safe and not extraordinarily incongruous.

anyway, after that fun, we arrived in chefchouen which has a really interesting history: it was founded by the spaniards and became a center of immigration for jews expelled from spain. now, the population is primarily muslim, but traces of this history remain. it is also, in the old town organized by color in that the houses are all painted white with blue at the base. it produces a charming if somewhat disneyland-esque effect. it's a very hilly town and a great base camp for day trekking or more elaborate camping. neither of us had brough any serious gear so, we settled for a really lovely day hike and wandering around the town. there is only one museum, the casbah, which is ok, but not a must-see.

after 2 lovely days there, we headed down to marrakesh, while stopping for an afternoon in casa to race to the hassan ii mosque. this is an incredible site. don't miss the guided tour for all the facts on what it took/takes to build and maintain the third largest mosque in the world, and the only one of the three that is open to non-muslims to visit.

btw, in casa, a nice and dependable restaurant is le buffet, near the central market. we chanced upon it, admiring the retro 50s decor (which fits in perfectly with the aesthetic of casablanca) and then found later that it had been listed in the lonely planet. the harira (lentil soup traditionally for breaking the fast during ramadan but seriously yummy any time of the year) was the best we had in maroc.

after relatively laid-back times up to this point, marrakesh was seriously disorienting. granted, we had waiting to do all our souvenir shopping there, but the medina and the ville nouvelle are such tourist spots that we could not go 2 steps, no joke, without having someone ask us if we wanted henna done, if we wanted to buy a scarf, a bowl, a pair of babouches, some spices, dates, orange juice, etc. etc. etc. there is absolutely no way to escape the harrassment at least in the medina, so prepare yourself for the madness. i think of all our purchases, we probably only got the right price for one of them, that which we knew what the value was from the outset. marinn has experience bargaining in india and i'm accustomed to how it goes down in peru. in maroc, we found it was much more about storytelling and back and forth with people who wanted to play. there were many many who would quote an absurd price and let us walk away when we tried to negotiate. draining as it was, we definitely interacted more with people in marrakesh than anywhere else, but we both felt very strongly that the conversations, even outside the context of sales pitches, were a kind of combat in which any information being wheedled out of us by our interlocutors was ultimately of financial use. because i felt constantly sized up and like people were trying to advantage of us (and probably succeeding most of the time, i only bellowed my absolute refusal to get taken in a couple of instances--making a scene can sometimes be more emotionally taxing than it's worth, especially if you're talking about the difference of 10 dh, or slightly more than a u.s. dollar).

over all, i found marrakesh the most overrated of the cities we visited. from watching the countryside whiz by, when i go back, i want to spend the bulk of my time in smaller towns. but it was an amazing trip, beautiful country in so many different registers, wonderful experience.

all best, jeannine, back in paris after a few precious weeks under the north african sun.