Tuesday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.
After breakfast, we set out in cabs towards our first point of interest in Meknes – the royal Granaries. We arrive, only to discover they’re closed to the public – construction.
So trip leader Will shows us the location and we have to make do with walking around the perimeter.
We have better luck at the tomb of Moulay Ismail, said to be one of the greatest rulers in Moroccan history and the man who built Meknes on the backs of at least 25,000 slaves.
Just outside the entrance to the tomb is a old man dressed in the colourful garb of a traditional water-seller. Will asks on our behalf how much it will cost to take a picture. The man says five dirhams. I make a mental note of this as we enter.
We’re first met with a prettily-tiled but dark inner courtyard with a fountain. This turns out to be quite deceptive as we step through another entranceway to see an outdoor courtyard, painted a sunny yellow.
We pass under a series of arched doorways until we reach another even more beautiful indoor courtyard, with various tiles and wood-carved designs adorning the walls. The tomb itself is in another room off to the side and is gated off.
Leaving the tomb, I approach the water-seller and ask if I can take a photo. He tells me it’s 10 dirhams, not five.
Sneaky old codger.
So I take the first picture – and he’s not even looking at the camera. I get his attention to look my way and I snap a second.
Perhaps he didn’t even know I snapped the first picture. But since he increased the price, I personally resolve to keep both pictures – that way I get my money’s worth.
(Petty, I know. But still – who likes to be cheated out something that was apparently a set price?)
Personal lesson # 1: There is (for the most part) no such thing as a set price in Morocco.
Next stop: the dungeon where a number of slaves – including Christian slaves – were kept. The guide tells us Moulay Ismail made his slaves build a tunnel from the dungeon all the way to the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Volubilis.
On the way out of the dungeon, I come across a dog-eared Joker card, practically embedded in the dirt. I don’t know why, but I pick it up and slip it into my pocket. Must be some sort of symbolic significance, but I can’t figure it out yet.
Next stop for us is Meknes’ main square and the medina, with the food markets and other various souks. We pause briefly in front of this huge doorway – apparently called “the fourth most beautiful door in Africa”. It is pretty. And so enormous, it dwarfs anyone who passes it.
We stop for a drink break – juices, avocado smoothies and such – and then split up. Tour-mates Alex, Colin and I head straight for the food market. I’m just a bit bedazzled by the huge displays of sweets, olives and spices.
Then we make a few turns and before we know it, we’re in the butchers’ section of the market. I hear the incessant crowing (a cry for help?) of a rooster at one of the stands. And I’m immediately reminded of what Will told us about a day or so earlier – about a type of spinning contraption (akin to a rotating meat grinder) some butchers use, into which they fling chickens WHOLE … and likely alive. As a meat eater, I’m filled with a momentary feeling of dread.
We (luckily) don’t see any of this. But see all sorts of meats – and parts on display – goat heads, cows’ tongues and feet, and organs I can’t even identify. Alex mentions she’s ready to leave the section, and I’m more than ready to follow.
We hit the fish market, just in time to witness some men pulling a small shark in a plastic bin. We don’t stay very long, as the section isn’t terribly big and there are people trying to do their shopping.
We head outdo0rs into the nearby souks. Alex gets a brand-new pair of sequined slipper-shoes from a boy who claims he’s 16 (but looks like he’s about 13).
We continue wandering until we run into our other tour-mates Sally and Cathy (sisters-in-law from the States), who’ve been searching everywhere for the meat market (to satisfy their curiosities about the meats on display), but to no avail.
Alex and Colin double back while I offer to take them back through there, getting yet another glimpse of the meats and heads on display (and a brain or two, too).
We meet up with the group a little later, and are then taken to lunch. Our meal of the day: camel burgers.
Now, let me preface this by saying: when I first f0und out we’d be eating camel, I actually took offense to the idea of eating an animal we’d be riding in about four days. But then I had to realize that Moroccans probably see camels the way we see cows in North America – that they serve a utiliarian purpose, that they’re not endangered (quite the opposite) and, well, they get eaten.
This being said, I’m actually surprised how tasty the burgers are when we actually chow down. Vegetarian friends, I TRIED not to like it. I so DID. But I failed.
Next, Will takes the group to a shop run by a Moroccan man with an apparently funny laugh. (I hear the laugh in the shop; I’ve heard funnier laughs. But men with high-pitched laughs are pretty funny to listen to, anyway.) He tells us about Meknes’ artisinal speciality – iron plates with tiny threads of silver inlaid into them in traditional Berber and Andalucian designs.
And you can guess what happened – yep. Another one for the crazy plate collection. Will also scores a walking stick for himself. The top is inlaid with pieces of what I can only guess are bone or ivory.
We say goodbye to Meknes and visit the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, with the aid of a raspy-voiced tour guide with a sharp sense of humour.
It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But during the period of Roman conquests, it was an important administrative town in Roman Africa – and it’s evident by the sheer size of the sight. There are just ruins as far as the eye can see, and despite the damage done by time and the huge Lisbon earthquake of 1755, it’s still relatively intact.
From Volubilis, we head to Fez – the first point of interest on the trip that I’ve REALLY been waiting for. We reach there late afternoon. The place is overrun with cars (both moving and parked), scooters and dudes pretty much everywhere. (Note: I merely said “dudes”. I did not say “good-looking dudes”.)
We reach our hotels and go through the exercise of getting our room assignments and moving upstairs. Liz and I are paired up once again, after getting Alex as a roommate in Meknes. The room is what we’re coming to expect in Morocco. It’s got a neat view onto the sidestreet below and of the main street.
What I’m not prepared for is the bathroom. It’s got a sliding even tinier than the last hotel – just enough space to turn around, maybe once. The shower is a stall, which is fine. The toilet, however, is one that requires a bit of dexterity and balance. The bowl itself is pitched on a forward angle, which means the lid can never be kept open. And anyone using said toilet has to brace themselves against the sliding door to keep from falling off.
If this doesn’t help with my quad muscles and my glutes, who knows what will?
Later in the evening, Will takes us to a restaurant just down the street, run by an older gentleman he refers to as “my Moroccan father”. The man also apparently knows seven languages.
(Will told us that once he showed the man – whom I will now call Moroccan Dad – a flashlight that beamed an image of Saddam Hussein (that he got as a joke). When Will demonstrated this, Moroccan Dad was so taken aback, he spat on the floor of his own restaurant.)
Dinner goes fine; I also get my first taste of what a number of Moroccans will be saying to me for the rest of my trip, when Moroccan Dad says, “Ah! Jamaica!” and to humour him, I say, “Yeah, mon!”
(At least HE is nice about it.)
Back at the hotel, some of us stay up longer, playing a couple of card games, before turning in (not before I briefly encounter some unwanted attention from a small group of Moroccan guys staying at the hotel. It’s what I have been dreading most. But it’s brief).
Tomorrow – our first full day in Fez. I’m so excited!