Day 16 – Volubilis

I didn’t write last night partially because I was exhausted but partially because I knew the post would end up as an angry, frustrated rant, and I wanted some time to reflect on our time in Morocco. I’m currently sitting in our hotel room in Cadiz, where we will be spending the next day or so, though there is nothing on the agenda for this afternoon/evening.

Yesterday was, frankly, frustrating. But good things first: we went to Volubilis, which was lovely. The site is huge and almost totally deserted – there were maybe ten other visitors where and only three or four guards, so we hardly encountered anyone else as we walked through the site. It’s surrounded by mountains and farms, so the scenery is absolutely stunning. The site itself is rather overgrown, which makes it hard to get a clear idea of what the Roman city might have been like, but it does add to the desolate beauty of the place.

As I said, the day was full of frustrations. First of all, our overindulgence in the previous night’s lamb dinner caused both of us to have digestive issues – never a good way to start the day, especially one you know will mostly be spent in the car. Then, we were caught in a speed trap on the way to Volubilis – the speed slowed down to 60 km/hour without a sign (it had been 80 km/hour), and all of a sudden a policeman is waving me over to the side of the road. 300 dihrams (about 30 euros), to be paid immediately (I had been going 70 km/hour). I was so angry – angry at the lack of signage, angry at the fact that we had to pay a fine, angry at the police officer for obviously setting up a trap. It cast a pall over the rest of the day, and didn’t help the image I had already formed the previous day of Moroccans as greedy money-grabbers. This image was only strengthened once we got to Volubilis and I went to the bathroom. A man standing outside the stalls handed me some toilet paper from a roll in his hand. I took it unthinkingly, only to find his empty palm presented to me once I had finished. Are you serious?! I wanted to scream. After paying for parking AND admission to this site that no one comes to, you want me to pay to wipe my ass as well?!?!

I calmed down a bit as we wandered through the wind-swept site, and was mostly ok on the drive back to Tangier. It wasn’t until we entered the city again that my urge to start screaming hysterically returned. The driving was just a nightmare. Roads with no lane lines painted on them, two lanes suddenly becoming one (or three!), cars coming out of nowhere, jockeying for position while going around a roundabout. It was the most stressful driving I have ever done, and the fact that we made it without adding a scratch to our already dinged up car was a miracle. We ended up having to pay extra because we hadn’t had time to fill up the tank, but given the driving situation, I deemed it a worthy expense.

Once we had dropped off the car, we headed toward our hotel for the evening. It was just inside the Tangier medina and once again, as soon as we started in, people from all sides came up to us, offering help, persistently getting our faces. Finally, I snapped: “Could you PLEASE leave us alone?!” I snapped at one guy who’d been following us for a while. He looked at my like I’d insulted his mother and grandmother and entire family and had never done anything wrong in his life and THEN I’m pretty sure he told us to fuck off as he walked away.

So. We made it to the hotel, had a small dinner of couscous with vegetables (pretty good!), then collapsed into bed. This morning, we were ecstatic about returning to Europe. I feel bad, guilty almost that I didn’t enjoy myself, and certainly disappointed – I had really been looking forward to Morocco. Not to say that there weren’t some great parts – the highlights of the trip were definitely interacting with people on a more personal level: John and Sally, our fellow travelers from Australia; the staff at the hotel in Fez, the Riad Idrissy; and the guard at Lixus.

So, dear readers, have any of you been to Morocco? What were your experiences like? Negative? Positive? Different? Similar? Was it because we were there during Ramadan? Am I totally missing something here? Help me out!

As I mentioned before, we’ve arrived in Cadiz and are taking it easy this afternoon. Nothing too ambitious after such a stressful part of the trip!

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Day 15 – Fez

Today was…interesting. The morning started off well – we slept in a bit and had a wonderful breakfast in the garden of our hotel. Eggs cooked in a tomato sauce, three different kinds of bread with homemade jams, fruit salad, yogurt and muesli… it is by far the best breakfast we’ve had yet. The place as so quiet, too. Some of the other guests had already eaten, some were still sleeping, and the city around us was definitely taking the morning slowly due to Ramadan.

When we finished eating, one of the staff brought us a map of the medina and walked us through a route that would show us all the major sites. We watched her pen marked the narrow streets, nodding along and exclaiming over interesting sounding buildings. We packed up and ventured out into the street, confident with our map.

It didn’t take long for that confidence to disappear.

We were never lost, per se. But the atmosphere in the twisting alleys was oppressive. The medina must be based on Daedalus’ Labyrinth itself, each turn leading down a different alley, each alley looking similar enough to the last that you’re never quite sure if you’ve been there before, if you recognize where you are. The walls are so close that the streams of people are always brushing up against you as they hurry past, and you have to take care not to bump into any of the vendors’ stalls or knock any goods over. Often there are awnings covering the space between the buildings to block out the harsh sun, making the impression that you’re trapped even stronger.

And then there is the starting. There were not enough tourists meandering the medina to draw attention away from us, or to make us feel less out of place. Everyone stared at us as we walked around. And then, inevitably, the hassling began. Where are you going? The tanneries are this way, I’ll show you. Come into my shop, good prices on carpets. Come see this building, it’s so beautiful. Where are you going? Are you lost? I can lead you. Relentless, from all sides. It was impossible to think, it was impossible to stop and look at our map without being mobbed by men – always men – asking to help us. And how could we tell the difference between genuine offers of help and those just looking for a tip? We certainly weren’t about to pay anyone but after a while, the combination of the claustrophobic atmosphere, the harassment, and the difficulty in navigation drove us back to our hotel.

We had only been gone for an hour and hadn’t seen anything beyond the press of people and vendors’ stalls. We did realize, though, that most of the sites that had been recommended for us were closed to non-Muslims, so we wouldn’t have been able to go in anyway. So, as we calmed down (and cooled down) in our room, we came up with a new plan – go straight to the tanneries, then to a museum, then back to the hotel. I have to say that Chris was a rock star at navigating us, avoiding the men hassling us like a pro, and got us around really well. He really hates being so conspicuous, so I know he was having a hard time with all the staring and heckling. Anyway, we made it to the tanneries.

The tanneries in Fez still operate the way they have for centuries – vats full of solution for various parts of the process. In order to see the ones in Fez, you have to go through a shop (imagine that!) to a terrace that overlooks the area. We had a guide (one of those enterprising young gentlemen wanting very much to help the tourists) show us around and he was actually really knowledgeable about the whole thing. He explained the process: first the leather soaks in a limestone solution for a few days to remove the hair and fat; then it is washed in what looks like a huge rotating beer barrel; after the washing, the leather is dyed, then dried and scraped. The scraping process not only removes any leftover hair and fat, but also stretches and softens the leather. We got to see men washing, dying, scraping – the whole shebang. It smelled awful, though the guidebooks make it to be worse than it actually is. Also, we went in the afternoon; apparently the smell is worse in the morning. The whole area is a cooperative, with the families all working together. Most are born into the job, and their families have been tanners for generations. They also work closely with the artisans who fashion the handbags and slippers and book covers – all the money is shared among them.

It was pretty neat and definitely worth the unpleasantness of earlier. Our guide showed us around (what I presume was) his family’s shop, telling us about making different dyes and whatnot. I bought a little wallet and we tipped out guide well – he put up with all our questions really well.

After the tannery, we walked to the Nejjarine Museum, which is dedicated to woodworking. It was interesting, but the building itself really steals the show. It is a renovate founduk, which were buildings used by caravans to house goods, animals, and people while in town. The bottom floor was used as storage for goods and animals, while the people stayed in the rooms in the floor above. It was beautiful, decorated with carved railings, and the exhibits were interesting in their own right.

After the museum, we headed back to the hotel. We were navigating our way when who did we see but our friends John and Sally, the Australians we had met in Larache! Out of all the alleyways in all the world… It was such a funny coincidence made even crazier when we found out that they would be dining at our hotel’s restaurant that evening! We made plans to join them and continued on our way. What a small world!

Once back at the hotel, we relaxed for a bit before dinner. And this dinner – oh my goodness. Called mechoui – traditional slow cooked lamb – it might have been the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. We could smell it all afternoon; it cooks for seven hours! Parts of the lamb were crisp and juicy, while other parts were so tender they just melted in your mouth. It was incredible. And we again had a lovely time hanging out with John and Sally.

So, if you’re thinking about visiting Fez or Marrakesh or Tangier, definitely get a guide for the medina. Not only will a guide help you find your way around, but I suspect that it would help with all the hassling as well. And definitely stay at Riad Idrissy – I want to come back to Fez just so I can stay here!

Day 14 – Larache and Banasa

Today was an archaeology day. We went to the site of Lixus, since we had missed it yesterday, and then Banasa, both of which were tiny, out of the way, deserted places. We spent a fair amount of time at Lixus, and then one of the guardsmen showed us around the rest of the site, which was really nice. He was really knowledgeable about everything, and I wondered if he had had to study Roman archaeology or history or something in order to have this job. Chris said that the guard had helped with some of the excavations, which is a pretty common practice: universities or other “academic” organizations come in but also hire locals to help out. Chris said that a lot of times, those locals know just as much about the archaeology as those “scholarly” types, since they know the land and are around the site year round.

The drive to Banasa showed us a side of Morocco you probably don’t see in tourist brochures or pictures. Vast open fields full of sheep or cattle, people riding donkeys bearing all sorts of goodies, picturesque mosques with minarets standing out against the bright sun – all this a tourist can imagine. What we couldn’t believe was the amount of trash that seemed to coat every surface. Blowing in the wind, caught in the branches of trees, covering fields – it was everywhere. So. Much. Trash. It was pretty bleak, to be honest, especially coupled with what looked like totally abandoned complexes of houses. We were definitely not expecting it.

Other than the trash, other noteworthy things on that drive include a dusty red dirt road and an especially tiny one lane bridge. Banasa was really in the middle of nowhere, and the only thing I could hear on the site was the mooing of cows. Lixus at least was in sight of Larache, and right next to a major road. At Banasa, it was just fields and cows and sheep (and not so much trash, thankfully).

Being at these two totally deserted sites made me think a lot about the Romans and our relationship with them. Chris was explaining to our Australian friend Sally yesterday how most parts of a site are reburied to protect them, and it’s only the monumental stuff – temples, baths, an occasional villa – that get left exposed for tourists to see. Places like Pompeii and Herculaneum are pretty unusual, but what they do is give a much better idea of what life was actually like there, where the streets were and where the houses were, and just how the how city actually functioned geographically. Places like Lixus and Banasa don’t give you that kind of picture – at Lixus we were just scampering on a goat path (there were actual goats in the site) and Banasa had obvious path, just wide swaths of overgrown brush. And the fact that these two sites were so desolate – how could anyone imagine the bustling, industrial might of the Roman Empire at a place so lonely?

When we were in Portugal, in Evora eating lunch at that amazing tiny restaurant where we all sat at the bar, a man next to us, upon hearing that I was a Latin teacher, said, “Bah! I hate Latin.” I sat there for a moment, stunned, unsure what to say. All I could think was, “Don’t you love your own language? Don’t you love your own history and culture? Because you wouldn’t have any of that without the Romans!! You wouldn’t be here in this restaurant without the Romans!” It made me really angry – I expect that kind of attitude from Americans, but for some reason, I feel like Europeans, especially Romance language speakers, would get it, at least a little bit. It makes me feel like my job is even more futile than I’m already starting to believe it is.

Sorry, this was a bit of a rant, but these thoughts have been swirling around in my head all day. We left Banasa in the late afternoon and drove on to Fez/Fes (I’m not sure how it’s spell in English) and the drive was totally gorgeous – completely opposite from the trash laden fields we’d seen earlier. Sweeping hills and beautiful valleys, we couldn’t help but pull over for pictures as the sun set over a particularly beautiful view. The hills turned purple and rose, and the sky filled with all those amazing colors of a sunset. It made any earlier scenery seem like a distant memory.

We arrived in Fez about half an hour after the fast had been broken, and the whole place was like a ghost town – everyone was inside eating. Luckily, we had asked the hotel to send someone to meet us at the car park and lead us back to the hotel – the historic center of Moroccan towns, called medinas, are notoriously hard to navigate. Our guide led us down one winding path after another until I was completely turned around. Then we arrived.

Guys. This hotel. It is magical. The most beautiful building I have ever seen. Decorated in the Islamic style, it’s covered in tiles and painted wood, with pointed arches and wide windows. Our room is stunning. Check out the pictures on the website, cuz y’all have to see this place.

Though I would love to just spend the whole day tomorrow in our hotel, it’s our one day in Fez so we’ll be jumping in and exploring the medina. Hopefully we expand the edges of our comfort zone just a bit further.

Day 13 – Tarifa → Tangier → Larache

Morocco. Africa. Another continent. Even going to Turkey two years ago did not prepare me for this. I am definitely way out of my comfort zone now.

Driving is manic. Third lanes appear from nowhere, and pedestrians step out in front of you without even a glance your way. People riding donkeys plod along the side of the road, and stalls selling brightly colored hats and clothing distract you.

And once out of the car, it is an explosion of sensory activity. The sun is so bright, the colors so sharp, everything is loud, everyone had something to say. And for a country that is supposed to be fasting from sunup to sundown for the next month, everything smells an awful lot like food.

As we boarded the ferry, we saw a herd of women scurrying back and forth from the dock, loading up huge bundles of who knows what. Goods to sell at home? Items for their families? It had the look of very organized chaos. Once on board, we realized that a line was forming, and realized that we had to go through passport control there on the ship. Another reminder that we were leaving Europe, a place with which we are so familiar.

The ferry was uneventful. A bit choppy, but I fell asleep in order to avoid any unpleasant motion sickness. And then we were there. The port was pretty desolate, but with evidence of lots of new construction. Everywhere we looked people were building things or paving roads. Our taxi driver (definitely taking advantage of lost looking tourists) told us that some royal member of the family of Saudi Arabia is getting married in Tangier soon…? So that’s what all the new construction is for…?

It took a while to get the rental car, but then we were off (in an Alfa Romeo, no less! A bit dinged up, but still, pretty cool. MUCH nicer than our little toy car in Portugal). Swerving through roundabouts and inching through traffic. Due to various delays, we got to Lixus, the only site on our list for today, just as it was closing. Chris was frustrated, but, nothing we can do but readjust the schedule and move on. We drove to Larache, only a few kilometers away, and found our hotel.

It was here that we truly got our first taste of Morocco. We parked the car and dragged our bags through the streets towards the hotel and people just stared. I had read about how they would, especially at women, but experiencing it was something else entirely. I had put on shorts this morning in Seville without even thinking about it, but when we landed in Tangier, it was obvious how much I stood out. I was the only woman on the ferry without her head covered in some way and absolutely the only woman with bare legs. So what, I thought? I’m not Moroccan, I’m not a Muslim, I don’t have to cover my head or my legs or anything else. I can do what I want with my body. But I thought this, naively, without taking those stares into consideration, and even our taxi driver pulled Chris aside and told him that I should coverup.

Argh, it makes me so mad!! To want to visit this place so badly, to experience its culture, but have to go back in time 100 years in order to do so! I put a maxi dress on in the car, though I think people in Larache would have stared at us anyway. I mean, who wouldn’t – a white man followed by a dark woman of ambiguous ethnicity?

Anyway, gender equality aside, we found our hotel and it is simply lovely. A little oasis where we can gather our strength before plunging into these next few days. We met a lovely Australian couple, Sally and John, and spent the afternoon and early evening just chatting with them about what we were doing, where we’d traveled already, where we’d traveled years prior. It was wonderful not only to met such a nice pair of fellow travelers, but also just to speak English with other people who knew English. I didn’t realize until later on how nice it was to be able to say something and know that the other person would understand without a doubt (well, almost without a doubt. Australian English is a bit different from American English, but still. haha). And, to be perfectly honest, it was nice to interact with someone other than my husband for a change. Not that we aren’t having a perfectly lovely time (we actually are – no major quarrels yet, knock on wood!), but having other people to talk to was refreshing. ☺

Since it is Ramadan, and frankly, the idea going out after sundown and trying to find something to eat totally terrified me, we had dinner at our little guesthouse, along with John, Sally, and the owner, Hassan. His wife cooked basically meatballs in a tomato sauce with eggs cooked in as well, which was delicious. (She didn’t eat with us. hmph) We had a nice conversation – Hassan’s English is better than I expected, and Chris got to practice his French with him as well.

I am definitely out of my comfort zone here, but I am determined to get over it and jump right in.