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.