Monday, March 30, 2015

the worse the smell, the closer you are

The Rcif square and gate to the medina

I'm still not overly sure on the dining options in Fez. At night, the medina is quite intimidating - the narrow walls of the streets magnify the mystery and horror - and the shrill screaming of random crazy people certainly add some kind of element that can't necessarily be described as comforting. This, of course, makes the offers of the various restaurants and hotels for a night custodian quite comforting, since if you're out too late, you can always just have the cafe or restaurant you're in give a call to your hotel. Though our Riad had this service, and we used him New Years night, he didn't really seem eager for tips, so one didn't have to worry about that - he just dropped us off and quickly disappeared. We did make sure to tip him at the end of our trip, as the same guy was all sorts of helpful in arranging things during our stay. 

The Ruined Garden
We did find one cafe that had great food and an excellent outdoor garden for eating, kind of an oasis in the alleys. It was called the Ruined Garden. The service was exceptionally slow, but then we were there on New Years Day, so that could have had an effect, as the staff must have been up all night cleaning up. The food and juices were excellent though - and by the way, drink juice in Morocco. Always fresh and always cheap. The atmosphere in the Ruined Garden can't be beat, with greenery sprouting out of every crook and cranny in what appears to be ancient ruins behind high stone walls.

I mentioned before that recently in Morocco, there had been a movement to discourage young women from the lascivious activity of shisha smoking, so shisha bars had become absurdly and un-stereotypically harder to find, even in such a large city as Fez. Queries to the hotel staff were left in ignorance and simply an offer to use the house water pipe. The waitress at the Ruined Garden had tipped us off to one place, the Fez Lounge, which was "Right down the Talaa Kebira." Well, despite going right down the Talaa Kebira, or possibly it was the Talaa Segira or the Zkak Roua - really, they all look like the same windy narrow alleys with occasional hints of sacred glamor from tiled towers and minarets - we couldn't find the Fez Lounge. My next object was to find a hookah water pipe souvenir, but besides some crappy ones clearly imported from Egypt, there didn't seem to be much of those on sale.

A main street in Fez
If you're going to Fez though for bars, indeed, if you're going to Morocco for bars, you'll be sadly disappointed - and you'll have had quite eccentric expectations for a Muslim country. Indeed, the real activities you'd go for in Fez have more to do with wandering around the medieval medina, making your way through the bustling crowds of students and merchants, tanners and lamp makers. The medina seems impossibly busy - mainly because the amazingly narrow streets are the only thoroughfares - but eventually one can cope with it, understanding that there are basically two main avenues, and everything else sprouts out from those two main avenues. Once people start becoming sparse, it probably means you're heading into somewhere you probably shouldn't, and the feeling that the sudden stark emptiness brings to you is of a dark foreboding that possibly you should follow, especially as some hijabbed lady comes out at you and tells you to go back now and that the main street is that way, not this way, especially not this way, don't ever go this way.

Those two main avenues are filled with trinket and souvenir sellers, who aren't overly pushy. Occasionally children tried to lead our way, and we let one guide us back to Rcif, mainly because he was a cute little guy and made fun of my beard. They're not being cute or helpful for free, but for small tips, so understand that. There is little kindness for outsiders there that doesn't involve tips.

Drying and dying some leather
The main touristic draw - also being, strangely, the main thing that the local goverment isn't aware of being a touristic draw - are the tanneries. That's why people go to Fez. The government keeps talking about moving the tanneries outside of the medina, somewhere far from town, since the smell is a bit overwhelming - to cure leather, one needs to dip the skin in piss and poop, both things not of what most would describe as having pleasant smells. Despite this though, it would be an absurd mistake to move the ancient tanneries, since that's the main thing to see. Tourists certainly aren't coming to see the oldest Islamic university in the world, indeed, possibly the oldest university period in the world - because non-Muslims aren't let in there, and even when you're just on the outside of it, you'd never know you were since the walls and avenues, to the untrained eye of the visitor, all look the same. Or at least they vary enough to make everything seem an undefined blur.

A cat helping dry some leather
The tanneries though are well marked on Google maps, and if you don't have a smart phone, you can just let your nose be the guide. The worse the smell, the closer you are. As you start wandering down random side alleys, trying to find the famous view, guys will jump out and "sell" you a tour. I'm not sure if you really need to pay them, but since it's a fairly no hassle five euros, and the guy will take you to the best views of the stink pits quite quickly and will throw in a mint sprig or a cubed thing of smell good, it might be worth it. The trip though is characteristically topped off with a visit to a rug shop, where they try to sell you high quality rugs for fairly low prices. Not low enough for us, but if we were in the market for rugs, perhaps we would have bought some there.

A loom in a rug shop
The rug vendors were characters though. "We have these massed produced boring ones, they are cheaper and quickly made. Made by men, traditionally. And the much nicer, more beautiful, and more expensive ones are made by women. The women have more time to make the rugs, and are working all day long on them, and one rug will generally take a woman two or three weeks to make." We looked at some, and asked the price for a couple, but at 300 euro, they were still over our heads.

"Name your price then," the vendor said.

"We've got a hundred to spare, and I like that one."

"No, you must be reasonable. Name a reasonable price. That one is 300."

"But that's the price I'll pay, because that's what I have. 100 euro."

"That's not a reasonable price, name a reasonable one." He apparently had never seen the walk away tactic actually being used, since that was what we did. It worked for me lots in buying weird textiles I didn't really need in Turkey, but here I was saved my 100 euro by his steadfastness.

"Really man, that's all I can do, have a nice day!" And we walked away.

Monday, March 23, 2015

an authentic tourist experience

Fez from our Riad rooftop
We spent our New Year's in Fez. For the backpack traveler in me, I would have preferred to have found a place on couchsurfing and celebrated it with a local or an expat local, someone who at least would have had more knowledge of where to go than we did. But the newly wed in me wanted the privacy that a hotel could afford, and wanted to spend more time with my new wife rather than getting to know other strangers on some superficial level. This is primarily why we opted for staying at hotels on this trip, over couchsurfing or Airbnb - getting both privacy and convenience - and why we chose to go ahead and do the Riad's plans for New Year's.

While we were on the bus, more specifically, while we were stopped and I was using the restroom, I got a call from the hotel manager. As usual, as I jostled my phone out of my pocket, I kept imagining it falling down into the hole and having to swim after the thing. But thankfully, years of practice balancing possessions in farmyard lavatories kept the phone dry. The hotel was organizing an event for the night and wanted to know if we wanted to attend and that if we needed any help getting to the Riad. Having read extensively about the Riad la Maison Verte online, I knew they could be a bit overprotective of their guests - smart business, because you can corner them with your services and make more money with the less travel savvy guests - so I told them I'd get back to them about the dinner but wouldn't need help getting there. She was, after all, calling me while I was standing around a fly infested hole in the ground on break from a moving mass ambulance of sick and dying people. Luckily, I had left the wife back on the bus to guard our seat so we could ensure the one window of the bus would stay open and not suffocate us. There were dark forces on that bus and it took all our effort to keep that window well ajar, to be rid of those fecund spells. 

The Mrs. and half of the starter salads
We opted for the dinner. It was held in the sister Riad, the Palais de Fes dar Tazi, a massive palace overlooking the Amal Cinema square. The palace is stunning, the architecture inside is grand by no overstatement. It's worth just a walk through the Riad to imagine what a real Moroccan palace looked like - possibly better than any museum could show. A walk through can be done by visiting the restaurant up on the rooftop. The menu is a fixed price deal and it seems expensive at first, but understand that the small dinner is enough for two or three people and every dish is melting in your mouth good. Also, there's live Moroccan musicians and an amazing nighttime view of Fez. 

The said restaurant catered the event, and the food - including carrot salad with vanilla, eggplants and caviar, and the most exquisite pigeon pot pie - giving me a new respect for pigeons - was so phenomenal that we decided to go to dinner at the restaurant again the next night, passing on finding something new and different simply to relive the succulent bacchanal of awesome tastes that was happening in our mouths. 

The main feast hall cieling
Hotel events can range on the cheezy side to the ostentatious side, with every side in-between, and always a bit overpriced. Being at the Palais de Fes, it did stray on the ostentatious side. We had the option of a "private" or "public" table, and since knowing that meeting some randoms might be a bit more entertaining, we went for the public table, where we were seated with 8 other people, mostly from various parts of Spain. This meant, outside of a few courtesies, we were left mostly to ourselves, since most of the table chatter was in Spanish and the Spaniards' command of English wasn't much better than my command of Spanish.

Guys banging on drums
At the center of the hall's attention was a band playing some traditional Moroccan music, with an occasional variance in entertainment - at one point some yelling guys in white outfits banging on drums came in, waving their drums about in manners that were either traditional dances or making fun of the guests - "I get 20 dollars for waving around drums and shouting at silly white Europeans? Okay." But, you know, what might seem sometimes absurd to the local seems like an authentic cultural experience to the tourist, so fair game. There was also a belly dancer there to perform - another thing that's not overly common in the Middle East these days. I remember reading about an English woman moving to Beirut, she was looking for a job and found one teaching the lost Middle Eastern art form to the locals!

Authentic belly dancing!
The night went on mostly like that, though at one point, the girls running the hotel kept trying to pull up everyone to dance and have fun. Moroccan dancing seemed something like Turkish dancing, where they just wave their hands in the air and step back and forth, occasionally linking for a circle where you just kick in random directions like your tossing out some evil spirit at a Quaker fest. But it was fun, and the effort itself was dear, since it was clear that the girls themselves just wanted to enjoy their night while having to work. And that said, it was somewhat surprising to see in a Muslim country, girls without hijab happily leading dances with strangers. And it was somewhat a bit backwards than what I was used to, since in Georgia it's nearly always the men leading the entertainment.

The night ended with the dancing and the music, and in all, both of us were glad for the experience. It was fun, weird, and gave us a sense of "traditional Moroccan culture" enjoyed by rich Moroccans of the past. It was worth the 50 euros each, even though it didn't include wine. Scratch that, it would have been worth it if it had included wine! Sober on New Years, unheard of!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

the riads of Fez

View of Fez from our riad
Fez was a bit more intimidating a city than Chefchouen or Tangier, and after the little bus ride of horrors, it was much more tiresome to confront. We wanted to just get to the hotel as fast as we could, preferably without the penguin-waddling, angry British girl that ruined our vomatarium bus-ride of fun. The bus seemed to circle around the white-walled medina of Fez an innumerable amount of times - or at least that's what it seemed like with the walls making endless eddies inwards and outwards, unidentifiable for lack of features and gates. This was something new and incredible. On the medinas we had visited previously, the city was on both sides of the wall, having long since out-grown their artificial barriers. But with Fez, the city was well contained, partly  because of the creeks and cliffs that surrounded the old town and partly because the “new town” was quite in a separate geographical place.
That said, when we stepped out of the bus, we opted to head straight for the first taxi that wasn't chasing us with shouts of "Hey tourist!" Dodging that immediate squadron, I was able to hail a taxi in the parking lot. As I stumbled around with my very limited French the guy stared at me and then drove off. No luck there. The second guy I was able to talk to agreed to take us close enough to our hotel - being in the medina, taxis can only really take you to two main squares and you're on your own with GPS and Google maps from there. He agreed to take us for 20 dirham, which is about 2 euro. Even less than I had been willing to offer, and was less than what would have been my offer - it’s my rule to let the taxi drivers set the anchor price. I decided it best not to argue with already favorable terms. I gave him the difference as a tip, since it's always a refreshingly rare thing to deal with a nice guy in a cab.
Cinema Amal gardens and the Palais de Fes riad and restaurant (great restaurant!)
He took us all the way to the plaza with the Cinema Amal. I'm not actually sure what the place is called, since Google maps isn't overly clear on the issue. It seems as though, when labeling the medina, they trusted in tossing darts blindfolded at a map on the wall. Unfortunately, Google maps is not so open source, or I'd just go in and fix the more glaring mistakes there are, but as Obama once put it, "That's above my pay grade." As it is, the taxi driver took me to a place where we agreed could have been either Rcif plaza or where the Cinema Amal is "just over there". My GPS though was right on with La Riad Maison Verte, which was our destination. We grabbed our bags and dove straight into the alleys and tunnels that so define the Moroccan medinas, using the cell phone GPS as a kind of ball of string in case we disturbed a minotaur. Finally, we were able to get the Riad in the general area of the blue circle on my Google maps, then relied on some signs that were occasionally stapled to this corner or that, and then we successfully passed the unmarked wooden door twice, until I realized, "Ah, that's a really nice door and it's close enough to the signage, yeah?" When you're walking down the alley though, it does not look like an entrance to the nice hotel that it is, it just looks like a door to possibly someone's house, or possibly a camel market, or factory, or who knows what the hell is behind any of those doors in those bare walls of the dirt encrusted Fez medina. And therein lies what is awesome about Fez. (note: the plaza with the gardens is what's referred to as the "Cinema Amal", and if you tell a taxi driver that, that's where he'll take you.)
The courtyard of the Riad de Maison Verte
The entrance of the Riad takes you into the courtyard, a beautifully tiled shaft to the sky above, around which the rooms look down into the courtyard. There are various doors and passageways that lead up to the rooms - there are two rooms on the groundfloor that don't provide much privacy, as the windows open up to the courtyard seating area. The rooms are all fairly small - we thought ours was a hallway, until the placement of the bed made us fully understand that that, actually, was the whole room. But it was also immaculately decorated, with intricate tilework and wood carving throughout. One can easily imagine being from earlier times and seeing this as a place where minor nobility and upper class merchants might have stayed during their presence in Fez.
The rooftop of the Riad
A "riad" though, wasn't traditionally an inn - though it could have been. It was traditionally a house or a palace, with the courtyard serving as a focal point - hence the term "riad", which is Arabic for garden. The Moroccans started this style of house as an inheritance from the Roman days, with the ruins at Volubilis showing some fine examples of the ancient system. Many cultures today preserve the style too, from Romania, to Georgia, and - though I haven't been - probably in Italy, often bearing the term "Italian garden" or "Italian yard." The style leads to the surreal street design, where the windows are lacking on the lower outer walls, which allows for tighter streets without a loss of privacy. And privacy, is probably the number one factor in sustaining the style, in that Islamic culture holds it at a huge value. With a truly private place, and with a nice interior garden, the women can disrobe and relax without having to worry about the conventions of modesty and manner that she must worry about outside. Many of the riads of old have since been restored and made into hotels, so keep in mind that it's something akin to having a room in a house. Whereas the family's privacy is certainly kept, the individual's privacy might not be so much. That in mind, I would still suggest choosing a riad to stay in while traveling in Morocco, to truly get a sense of how the ancient Moroccans fared and lived, and to get a taste of authentic Moroccan architecture and style.   

Monday, March 9, 2015

the blue pearl

The bus took a windy road through the Riff Mountains to Chefchouen. The mountains there weren't huge, but there was a beauty hanging from their sheer brown cliffs. We entered the suburbs of town, looking out the windows in some dismay. There is no majestic entry to the city, as the road first hits several outlying villages. The houses are nice - they weren't slums that we passed through - but neither were they the idea of the beautiful, isolated touristic setting that we had originally imagined. At first, we thought the small towns near Chefchouen were supposed to be the place itself; let down, thinking, "I thought it was supposed to be all blue." But then, around one bend, we finally saw the city. The blue part, the part of town that gave it the name "The Blue Pearl", is bedded between two mountains, making it seem as though it's isolated from civilization, though in actuality it's surrounded by small, growing and modern towns. The modern town of Chefchouen - where the bus dropped us - seemed to be a construction project, and a new tourism booth was set up right on the main road. We had asked the guy there about the bus on the following day and he let us know that that was the first day the tourism booth had been opened, so he was quite excited to give us advice. The advice is that the CMT bus tickets are sold right up the street towards the medina, and to buy them in advance, because they sell out quickly, as per my last post. 

Place Outa El Hamam at night
From where the bus let us out, we found a taxi and took it to the main square in the medina, Place Outa El Hamam, a fairly romantic square with one side taken by a steep walled fortress and the other sides by outdoor cafes, chairs and umbrellas spilling over the cobbled plaza. From there we had to make our way through the initial blue bends and turns - everything blue, as though there were an effects switch to tint everything blue in your eyes - and finally up to the Casa Elias. With even that just short walk, we were already excited to see the city

Our window at Casa Elias
The Casa Elias was a nice place, run by quite an active young Moroccan man who speaks excellent English and has quite the entrepreneurial spirit. The housekeeper, who greeted us, didn't speak a lick of English but could speak French and Spanish and was more than happy to try to communicate with us, especially with the phrase, "Chambre o suite?" repeated over and over. Not really knowing the difference, I just kept saying, "Oui, en le internet, je suis Saint Facetious," until she at least just showed us what was either a chambre or a suite and then we agreed on it. The place, though on the fourth floor, looked and felt like a beautifully decorated cave, with even the bed carved of stone or hardened clay or mud that blended into the floor and ceiling. The single window was in the rooftop, shaped like a star, and there was stained glass above that, filtering in colored light to the room below. The bathroom was a bit dank and smelling like a cave, but what could you expect from such a construction? Something told me that everywhere throughout all the hotels was the same. The rooftop, where they serve breakfast, has a really immense view, looking down across the medina. For that rooftop alone - and really, the room was really neat - I would stay there again.

A view from the Casa Elias patio
Chefchouen itself, as I mentioned before, is a blue city. This is by no means an exaggeration. All the tourist manuals are true. The entire medina is painted in various shades of blue - a few buildings got lazy and are stucco white, and there is an occasional red bricked building - usually a landmark, like a castle or a mosque, but one can't be too critical. Most of the streets are wide enough only for one or two people, and one gets the feeling you're in a real fortified city from the medieval days. Apparently, one hundred years ago, it was a green city, and Christians weren't allowed to enter on pain of death. But then the Spanish took the town, forced them to allow Christian tourists, and then the Moroccans - the quick learners that they were - realized that they would be better off taking filthy European and American money from tourists than beheading them. After the Spanish freed up the town, the residents decided green wasn't such a nice color and unanimously decided on blue. I’m not sure what sort of bureaucratic HOA had to head itself over that change of decor, but however  the process went, it was quite successful.    

A street in the medina
We spent the rest of the day exploring the azure labyrinth, going from cafe to cafe, drinking up the hot sweet mint tea and tasteless coffee that are both ubiquitous in Morocco - my advice, stick with the tea. At one place, I enquired about smoking some nargile - a tobacco water pipe.

"No, no, you can't do that hear," he said in a loud whisper. "The police are on about that."

"No, I don't mean hashish, I mean shisha. You know, tobacco."

"Yeah, they've really been on about it. You want to buy some hashish though? I can do that. Maybe come back later tonight and I'll have some for you."

Another street view
Strangely, marijuana seemed to be ludicrously easy to get in Chefchouen, with every waiter and guy walking down the street offering to sell some, though just a common water pipe was impossible to find. I understood that my quest to find a relaxing cafe to chill at and smoke water pipe was over. Later, in Fez, I read an article about how the police had been cracking down on cafes and bars that served shisha, as shisha smoking apparently caused women to become loose and to lose their morals. I facepalmed myself on that one, not realizing why that logic hadn't been so clear before.

In all, we only spent that one night in Chefchouen, though I do wish we could have spent maybe one night more there - though the lack of shisha would have made it daunting to find things to do. Good hiking can be found, and rumor had it there was a big waterfall to see, though hikers are also warned about the large plantations of marijuana out in the hills and along trails. Picking the stuff off farms is frowned upon, and you should probably talk to the guy carrying the machine gun about buying some, rather than risking his wrath.

View from a restaurant

Thursday, March 5, 2015

On the ride, the vomit, and the entitled English girl

At least not during tourist season, it's possible to travel through Morocco without thinking much about the transit options. Trains traverse the countryside, connecting the coastal cities and Fes and Marrakech, while buses are the main mode of transit through the middle country. The buses are either remaining from the heydays of the 1970s extravagance that Morocco probably didn't have, or - and this is more likely - they're hand-me-downs from what was being used in Germany and France in the 1970s. Either way, they're old and they smell old, something like your grandpa's car if he were an aging Mexican migrant worker in California, constantly in-and-out of mythical free-for-illegals healthcare facilities. That is to say, they smell something between moldy bathrooms and a Roman vomitarium. There is one glaring exception and that's the CTM bus line, which sports brand new buses that have restrooms and possibly even wifi. The CTM buses look so nice that when they enter, you can see them shining and glowing, and your heart lifts up thinking that yes! my bus has arrived and it's not one of these dilapidated messes! but no, actually it's a CTM and you didn't book your ticket in time to ride that glossy, shining mother of buses. This is to say that you must absolutely book a CTM bus at least one day in advance - and this is not during tourist season, so maybe even a week in advance during the summer. You can book them online or you can ask your hotel about the most convenient place in town to book them - they often have offices near medinas.

A medina street in Tangier. Not so good for cars.
CTM buses are absolutely the most comfortable, though they might not be on the most convenient of times. The one from Tangier to Chefchouan doesn't leave until 1:00, so we decided to tempt the fates and just show up at the bus station. Getting to the bus station went without much of a problem. We left the hotel and the medina - cars can't fit in any medina really, as some are even difficult for average sized humans to fit shoulder-to-shoulder, imagine that with a brass or lamp vendor crammed in there somehow. From there, we went looking for a taxi and was immediately met by a tout who started pestering us, "The medina is this way, I'll show you. Or maybe you want a restaurant? Or taxi?" This behavior can be cute on an 8 year old, but when the guy is in his twenties, it resembles something more like harassment, but he probably grew up doing this, and took that age barrier for granted.

"No thanks, we'll get our own."

"I'll get you taxi."

And we kept walking away.

"Fuck you!" he shouted after us. Oh hospitality, how I love thee.

In the cities, taxis really are the best form of transit. They cost a bit over double a local bus - which is to say, cheap - and they're not at all confusing. You have the ideal chance for getting lost in the tight concrete and brick canyons of the medina, so don't worry about forfeiting your exploration time either. The bus station is called the "Gare Routiere" in every city, so this also makes things easy.

The bus station in Tangier seemed like it should be a stall out in a small desert village - everything's dry, dusty and worn looking, though still fairly clean - and it's filled with old Moroccan people shuffling around in a design between lost and waiting. The men tend to wear either jeans and jean jacket or a more traditional djellaba, which is a long wool coat with a pointy hood that they usually wear covering their head, so that the waiting areas tend to look like a Jedi Knight convention. The women often wear something similar to the djellaba, though slightly more elaborate and fanciful, and seem to only wear hijab to keep from getting cold - as both groups are keeping their heads covered in winter, it hardly seems something oppressive in Morocco, especially when plenty of women can be seen at cafes and street-sides not covering their head.

We found a bus leaving in thirty minutes, at 10:30, so we opted for that one instead of the CTM - which was probably sold out anyway. The bus wasn't so bad, except for the olfactory festival aforementioned. It took about 3 hours without incident, and dropped us off on a random street in Chefchouan, where we took a taxi to the medina and walked the rest of the way to our guesthouse.

The wife not enjoying waiting at the bus station
When we were leaving Chefchouan, we stopped by the CTM office which was right near one of the lower exits of the medina. Here we discovered that it would have been better to book the day before, so again we had to chance our luck at the bus station. The Chefchouan bus station was quite recently built and had a never-been-used-before fresh-out-of-the-package look and feel. Actually, much of Chefchouan outside of the medina had the same feel, with a surge of construction going on, hotels and apartment blocks alike being built full speed ahead, and everywhere resembling a prosperous vacation town, with even the poor districts looking nice and comfortable, though everything looking slightly empty. Ghost towns freshly built from the dust of nevermore.

We had to wait at the bus station for about one and a half hour and our bus came a half hour after that. Here our luck had run thin. The scheduled three hour ride would turn into six, and all the seats were broken in one manner or the other - recliners permanently reclining, arms swiveling and not locking, holes, mold, broken windows, rude, entitled English ladies, etc. The boy running the bus held his nose in the air, as though he knew the people riding the bus were low class and he was above them - nonethematter he was at their service - but he was friendly enough and loaded on the luggage. When he set a British girl's luggage on the side, she immediately scolded him, "Not that way, turn it over now! Ungggh! No, the other way. No, God, the other way! Unggh! Er!" and then she got on board with all the waddling and flopping of arms of a penguin.

We got on after her and found our seats. The only pair of chairs available were a couple behind hers, so we took them. After about thirty minutes in was when the real fun started to happen. The small child riding with his parents behind us started throwing up, emptying his last three days of food (hopefully) into a bag, though it was possible right onto the floor. I kept imagining vomit flooding across the floor as the bus braked, as though it were the ocean tide rising up, coming in rolls, washing away sandcastles, luggage and boots. And then, an old grandma just ahead of us, started her own gastric warfare. The smell of the autobahn vomitarium nearly became enough to force everyone to join in the action, but at least there was the ceiling window open. Thank God, at least there was that. But the English girl wouldn't have that, and she asked for the nose-lifted attendant to close it.

"You do realize people are vomiting here, yeah?" I asked her, trying to hint to her that maybe closing the only form of ventilation might not be the best idea.

"You do realize my head is about to blow off from the wind. If there are people vomiting here, it's not my problem."

I grunted.

At some city, the bus stopped and she got off. I thanked God and so that we might have control of the window, we switched to her seats - her companion seat was taken by an old lady who had left for good. When the bus was about to roll off, she came back on. Well, there were plenty of other free seats she could take, yeah?

"You are in our seat," she told me. "We only got off for a moment and you took our seat."

"We?" I asked her, looking for the other person. I didn't expect a conversation with a schizoid. But try to keep it civil. "Yeah, well, I didn't know you were coming back and maybe we could switch seats and I could get blown around by the window and you wouldn't have to worry about it."

"I'm not asking for you to switch back," she said, her voice dripping with disdain like a vindaloo drips with sauce. "I'm telling you. It's our seat."

Again with the "our"! And now she's just not being civil, so all thought of mercy dropped off of my radar like a hot air balloon unloading it's weights. "Seriously, it smells terrible here and I need the window open, just please -"

"You are an asshole, you took our seats!"

"Look, when I asked you earlier to open the window because of the vomit, what did you say?" I paused, trying to remember myself. "Ah, you said it wasn't your problem right?"

"I didn't say that to you, I said it to the guy next to me."

"Right, that was me," I said.

"No, it wasn't. I said it to the guy next to me. Get out of our seats! Those are our seats!"

"That was, nevermind. It's not my problem. There are other seats."

"But those are ours!"

"Not my problem," I said. Those words did kind of feel nice. They were a kind of release from the world of sweat and vomit and whatever else was going on in that carnival of vile smell.

"You are a real ass hole, you know that?"

"Not my problem." Yes, this was getting fun. One more time, please!

She huffed and puffed and luckily I was not sitting in a straw house for her to blow in, since the fuss she was making clearly was so that I would give some damn that I didn't. Then she gave up and sat in the empty seats directly behind us, so that she could glare at me for the rest of the entire trip. Whatever, three hours of glaring, I could deal with that, as long as I had that cool, brisk wind stroking my face, keeping out all those nasty little smell molecules from my nose.

Monday, February 23, 2015

things to do in Tangier

We needed some more cash. The place at the airport was a complete rip off - one stand that is a chain at most airports. You typically lose about 40 percent of the value of the money using their rates, and only after arguing will they knock it down a bit. Best to always carry a converter with you and know how much your converting and how much it should be. The exchange will naturally be a bit off the published rate - that's how exchanges make money - but they should be reasonably close to that rate. We found a place near La Petit Socco, or "the small bazaar" in French, that offered an almost exact exchange rate, something that for me is a rare occurrence, but seems more common in Arabic countries - beware Spain and the Czech Republic, countries that can be overly sneaky on their exchange rates.

Going from euro to dirham, you end up with a gigantic wad of cash, feeling like a rich man ready to throw money into the wind. It's a great feeling, but soon it becomes annoying when you realize it means all your pockets, secret pouches, and wallet will be left bulging for the rest of the trip. A small price to pay for wealth.

Les Files du Detroit
We then found the Kasbah, through the diligent use of my smartphone. Only for one hour was my Google maps application a bit confused, but finally it was able to guide us correctly to our destination. The entrance to the museum was three dirham, or thirty cents, and the smallest we had was twenty. The attendant refused to allow us entry, claiming that he didn't have change. So we looked around for a tea shop to sit and have some tea and thus get some change. There we found the pinnacle place of Tangier, Les Files du Detroit, or "the Sons of the Straight." It's quite a small place, one long room, that's quite ethnically decked out with pillows and beautifully carved woodwork. Instruments hang everywhere from the walls, and a small man was sitting on a pillowed bench, wearing a Fez and playing a Moroccan lyre, singing some song that sort of resembled Arabic music and sort of resembled jazz. When he finished, he stood and offered us some tea and showed us his record, which we bought (and is great). After serving us tea, he had us do some silly touristic posing underneath his instruments wearing some more red felt Fez hats, but then relaxed again into his singing meditation. After we were done, I told him about our problem with the museum, and he took us over and got us in without a problem.

I later found out that musicians often gather at Les Files du Detroit at night. As we were only there for one more night, and were still a bit weary of the medina - it truly feels like an altogether alien culture - we didn't manage to make it out to see any jam sessions. So, to any traveler there, find it at night and be sure to toke on some local herb while listening to some live jams - or join in, there's plenty of instruments lying about.

Some guys playing a tune at Le Files du Detroit:

Inside the Kasbah
The Kasbah is a bit of a ruin and not much of a museum, but you can at least see the main courtyards and hallways, and imagine how beautiful it once was during the days of the sultans. The woodwork and the tile work - more of which seemed to be the standard throughout Morocco - were stellar in their complexity and skill. The palace was a good introduction to this, seeing everything in place and style as it was meant to be. From the Kasbah, there's also a nice view of the bay, where one can imagine the sultan and family drinking tea and looking out across the sea, preparing to purvey the rest of his empire in Spain, or perhaps dream about that lost empire, depending on the century.

Some of the ceiling woodwork 

One of the inner courtyard gardens.

Ceiling tile work and a typical lamp

The palace minaret

From there, we went on to the American Legation. As I mentioned before, it was an early gift of the Moroccan kingdom to the United States of America, and is today the only American government owned historical landmark outside of the U.S. Morocco was one of the first countries to recognize the Declaration of Independence and give good favor to the newborn republic. At this period, Morocco had just finished a long civil war, with the new sultan eager to gain economic wealth through trade, and sought out a positive relationship with the United States even before the War of Independence was won. In 1821, the Sultan Moulay Suliman gave a two story building, decorated in traditional Moorish style, to the American government, where it was used as an embassy, consulate, and finally, Peace Corps office, for 140 years. Now it's a museum, showing this long history, including a wing dedicated to Paul Bowles, the beat writer who lived in Tangier, and all the other beats who had visited.

The building itself is snuggled in a very residential corner of the medina and it's easy to think you're going the wrong way while you're en route there, which is precisely what happened to us. I was quite convinced we had taken a wrong turn, or the guy at the cafe over on La Petit Socco had misguided us - remember, it's always best to ask someone busy doing something else for directions, otherwise they'll tag along and expect a tip - but finally, we saw the small sign hanging off a wall in the street. The streets in this part are narrow, so it's perhaps better to call all of them alleys, but around any bend can be something unseen and beautiful, palatial courtyards hidden away like the hair and body of a devout Muslim woman - pleasures for only the few.

The museum is definitely worth the find. Whereas the Kasbah is a great example of a dust covered, ruined architectural wonder, the Legation is kept up so that it looks exactly the way it would have looked a hundred years ago. The very same tables that those from Thomas Jefferson to Paul Bowles would have sat at in a meeting or an exhibition, all there, polished and shining, the same as they ever were, the woodwork and tile work all exhibited in a remarkable level of historic preservation. If only there were a cafe out on the patio, it would be the perfect place to spend a whole day writing and watching the people pass along the alleys below. But lacking such a cafe, touring about the place takes up all but 20 minutes.

The courtyard of the Legation

Looking down at an alley from a bridge

Inside the Paul Bowles Wing

Some more tile and wood work

With so much time left over, we decided to leave the medina and see what Tangier was really about. Which wasn't much. Along the waterfront were weirdly glitzy hotels, the kind I've seen all over seaside towns in developing countries, where they were superficially fancy, as though they were fancy only to those who didn't really know what a fancy hotel was. Up the hill, there's a run down terrace, called the "Tanger Boulevard", filled with cafes that are also a bit run down, but have a beautiful view of the Straight and of the medina. Near there is the Tangerine, where the beatniks once hung out. Since then, it's been a gay club and now a somewhat seedy place that seems surrounded by a trash dump and dark eyed men staring at anyone who would pass the place. There is a nice boulevard above that, Avenue Pasteur, with several modern cafes that are good places to drink coffee and watch people, but are lacking any real character. The first we sat at was called "La Espanola", and was complete with a large mirror and the cafe's name spelled out in rhinestones. Rhinestones always spell class. 

Touring these coffee shops was pleasant, but satisfied enough of my curiosity about what Tangerines did in the evening. In all, it was neither a horror story or a fantasy, just a fairly normal Arabic town with some beautiful views. And at any rate, Tangiers from a view is an extraordinarily beautiful town. It's only when you're actually in the White City that it doesn't quite live up to the senses. It's probably best then to stay in the medina and sit at Le Petit Socco, drinking the sweet mint tea and letting the day pass away to the hum and bustle of tourists fresh off the boat and hustlers looking for an easy pay day. Or with a few extra days, to make some trips out of town to the villages that dot the coast.

Sour Meegazine Square

View from Sour Meegazine

View from Tanger Boulevard

Down Rue de Murillo

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

touts, thy days are numbered

View of the medina from our the Hotel Continental
I had mixed impressions of Tangier before we arrived, not really knowing what to expect. On the one hand, it was the Interzone, the safe haven for past beatniks to hide and get high, full of drugs and gambling and prostitution, but on the other hand, it had had stable rule for years now, and the King had recently infused large amounts of cash into the economy to help fix things. I had an image of the former burned in my mind, of a crumbling medina full of dirty street beggars, snake charmers in small squares distracting people while they were as charmed as the snakes while boys in rags pilfered the contents of tourists' pockets. Travel sites with reviews by travelers from the States and Europe are overwhelmingly negative on the city, saying that it was the worst in Morocco and that touts - guys who make it their business to lead you places and then charge you money - abound and everyone is trying to scam you. So it's with this mentality we entered, and one might ask, why on Earth would I go to a place if that was my preconception of it? But then I would answer back, why wouldn't I, sounds amazing!

Interior of the Hotel Continental
We were staying at the Hotel Continental, which itself is like a museum of architecture. It sits on an overlook of the bay, where you can sip your morning coffee on the balcony, looking across the Tangerine resorts and apartments stacked along the shore and watch the huge cruise ships sitting at wait, unloading or loading passengers into rows of buses and taxis. The breakfast was more than expected - a continental breakfast, but also with fresh pancakes, jam and lots of tangerines - hence the name of the fruit.

After breakfast, we went out to explore the medina. I had three goals in mind - to relax at some coffee shops and soak it all in, to see the Kasbah and the American Legation museums, and maybe perhaps to see a place where the American beatniks had hung out, like the Tangerine Bar, the walls of which are now adorned with the pictures of the famous writers who had once imbibed and found their pleasures there. It would have been nice to see some of the nearby villages and the Hercules Caves - said to be the place where Hercules rested from his travels upon reaching the pillars - but one can't see too much. If you see it all then you have nothing left for mystery and all is left for disappointment.

City street in the medina
The medina itself was beyond my expectation. It was the medieval center of town, buildings crammed together and surrounded by a wall, exactly how European towns had been before the days of the more established empires of Napoleon and the Hapsburgs, when they started clearing out ghettos and creating wide boulevards. Though it was much cleaner than I thought it would be. All the walks were paved and there were few pieces of trash in sight. In fact, the lack of trash throughout the Moroccan cities were a constant thing of wonder to me, given how crowded the living conditions in the medinas were and hence the impossibility of a decent sanitation system. But the locals were constantly cleaning - sweeping, gathering trash, etc. so that things wouldn't pile up - habits that themselves piled up over thousands of years. I can't imagine how things could be carried out, sense the medina tends only to be accessible by car through one road, and that one tightly so - vendors, shoppers, tourists, residents, holy men, and merchants all scrabbling out of the way when an automotive passes.

For the most part, we were left at ease while browsing through goods in various shops. Mostly, you can buy lamps, light covers, stained glass goods, tea and coffee pots, traditional clothes, and traditional shoes. And for the most part, outside of the younger generation who tend to wear blue jeans and white shirts, most Moroccans are still wearing their traditional garbs, which look something like what Jedis from Star Wars would wear, long robes with pointy hoods. The shopkeeper would come to us and stay a respectable distance, which was normal. None of the hassle that I had read about. We were only approached once by a tout, who kept insisting that he could take us to a square - which we had already visited and knew the way to. As we walked past him, he followed us and kept acting as though he were giving us a service.

Le Petit Socco, the main square of the medina
"La shukron," I kept repeating. "No thanks," in Arabic, in response to his constant offers of assistance to show us the way. Part of the magic of the medina is to get lost, and really, the Tangier medina isn't so huge to get terribly lost in. It's a perfect introduction to medina life if one is headed to Fez or Marrakech, both much more maddening and hectic. But with the modern smartphone and GPS, the tout's days are numbered even with the most ignorant of tourists.

With enough persistence, however, the tout caught my eyes. "Why are you so paranoid, man?" he said. 

"With reason, now excuse us."