Action Couscous and the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou

Monday, March 23.

I’ve left the Todra Gorge with good memories, clean laundry …

And the driest throat EVER.

For me, this usually means I’m going to get a cold. Several other tour-mates are having similar symptoms. Liz already has a cold. I’m just hoping it’s a temporary by-product of the climate we’ve been in.

The first place we hit after leaving Todra is a souk in a local town. Anything you can think of is being sold here – clothes, old electronics, spices, shoes, underwear, jewellery. I even saw an old handle being laid out for sale. What it USED to be attached to, I can only guess.

I’m not even remotely in the mood for this. I’m feeling a touch crappy. The LAST thing I want to try and do is barter with ANYONE for ANYTHING.

Sally and I pass by this one guy hawking his wares, and of course, he immediately starts chatting me up, because I’m from “the family.” This is the one thing I note about travelling through this part of the country: people who look more like me, using this fact to try and get me to buy something.

The “something” in question is a door-knocker in the shape of a hand, which apparently an antique. The “salesman” next to the guy we’re dealing with tries to get us going with the bartering process. But Sally doesn’t have enough money, and I’m turned off, so we walk away.

But it’s only a matter of circling the place before Sally decides to return so she can take a second look at that door-knocker. The salesman tries again for a sale. What he’s offering, Sally doesn’t want to pay. And what Sally has in terms of cash, the salesman doesn’t want.

Meanwhile, one of the nearby merchants latches on to me, trying to entice me. My heart’s only half in it, but I settle on this wooden bowl – again, supposedly antique – with a gold-coloured Tuareg design inlaid in its centre.

The vendor offers it to me for 750 DH (about $108 CAD); I barter him down to about 500 DH ($72 CAD), all the time wondering what on EARTH I’m doing buying a wooden bowl for that much money.

(Note: Writing this now – about four weeks after the fact – I’m looking it, STILL wondering what I was thinking. And the thing smells like either burnt wood or smoked fish … as stinky as the day it arrived home.)

Sally also successfully scores the door-knocker – for a third of the price! I’m impressed.

We make our hour-long lunch stop in the town of Ouarzazate (pronounced WAR-zah-zat). It’s generally known as a movie town, because of the movie set nearby that’s been used for big Hollywood productions.

I will remember Ouarzazate for the only pedestrian traffic signal I’ve seen on this trip so far. I’m not even kidding. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one, I almost forget how to use it.

After lunch, we re-group and head over to a non-profit organization called Project Horizon, which is sponsored by the tour company’s charitable foundation.

As we move from area to area – and with Alex’s superior French translation skills – we discover the organization does things from creating prosthetic limbs, to providing therapy for people with physical disabilities and children with developmental disabilities, to running workshops where people create various types of pottery, jewellery, carpets and other artisanal work.

By the time we reach the gift shop, I can’t NOT buy something. Even though early on in the trip, I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy a tajine bowl (because I wouldn’t be able to lug it home), I manage to find a beautiful decorative mini-tajine bowl, glazed a deep, dark blue, for 70 DH ($10 CAD). Not only it is completely reasonable, it’s totally worth it, knowing what the money is going towards.

We leave Ouarzazate, making no more major stops until we reach the town of Aït Benhaddou, where we’re staying overnight.

morocco-march-2009-454The maison d’hotes (guesthouse) we’re staying at is run by a man whose real name I don’t remember*, but everyone calls him “Action Couscous” (see picture at left).

He lives there with his other family members, including his sister, wife and four-year-old son Abdullah, who’s nicknamed – what else? – “Baby Action”.

Action’s fun moniker is the result of having been an extra in at least 10 Hollywood films. It’s his on-screen credits that he uses to promote his guesthouse …

And, as we find out, it’s also probably the reason he doesn’t appear to be camera-shy whatsoever.  In fact, he LOVES being in front of the camera and encouraging us to snap pictures whenever he can.

Action welcomes us to his huge desert abode with some tea. Alex also has her royal blue scarf tied professionally by  Action, Berber-style.

morocco-march-2009-451After getting our room assignments, most of us decide to  check out the huge kasbah on the other side of the river.

(As I’ve now learned, Aït Benhaddou is also known as a ksar – a fortified city – and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

Again, I find myself paired up with Sally, and we make our way over to the river.

The path leading to the river is lined with shops and aggressive salesmen, who  know EXACTLY where we’re staying. Before I left on my trip, I was told about how ridiculously observant Moroccans are. I didn’t believe it until this particular moment.

Sally and I are by the river’s edge within three or four minutes.

There are two ways to cross the Ouarzazate River:

(1) by donkey for a small fee; or

(2) by foot, through the river water, for free.

Guess which one Sally and I pick?

AAAAAAARRRRRGHHHHHH!

The nerves in my bare feet are cussing at the nerve endings in my brain as I unsteadily wade over bumpy rocks and pebbles, through excruciatingly cold water, trying not to drop my sandals.

I kick myself for not taking option (1) when, halfway through my painful crossing, I look up and see our driver Abdul already on the other side, dismounting from a donkey.

Dammit.

Once we cross and put our shoes back on, we begin our climb to the top. The place is absolutely HUGE. And apparently only now inhabited by about five or six families.

morocco-march-2009-464The way up is a bit treacherous in spots, because some stairways are covered by crumbling plaster and huge bits of rubble.

But the view once we reach the very top is worth every step, twist and turn we’ve had to take. It’s simply breathtaking.

On the way back to the guesthouse, I get sucked into a local shop and, once again, end up practicing my mediocre haggling skills.

This time, I purchase an alabaster ring for 125 DH ($18 CAD), and get two pictures of myself posing with the store owner, me dressed in traditional Berber garb. It’s quite funny.

At 7:30 p.m., Action Coucous and one of his sisters gives us the group a demonstration on how to cook tajine and couscous, the old-fashioned way.  Then it’s to the dining room, where we have our choice of veggie or lamb tajine. I am so unbelieveably stuffed I cannot even think of touching any of the bottles of beer I had purchased earlier.

We while away the rest of the evening playing a couple of card games. Following this, Grace decides she needs her bangs trimmed, so Will elects to play barber – with some hilarious results. He does get the bangs evened out, with Nikki’s help.

I go off to bed, hoping to fight off the scratchy throat and blocked nostril I’ve developed during the day, but knowing full well what’s going to happen.


* Editor’s note: This post was written back in 2009. But thanks to a kind reader, I know now our kind host’s name was Houcine. A two-year-old mystery, solved!

 
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A Full Day in Fez

Wednesday, March 18.

Before this trip, I was given one piece of advice, should I ever find myself in Fez, especially in the medina: Prepare to get lost.

On the morning of our only day in Fez, I come pretty close to making this a reality.

I oversleep, and end up rushing around to get ready so that I can catch the group’s laundry run and grab some breakfast before our tour starts for the day.

My stomach rumbling, I reach the front lobby, only to have the man behind the front counter say, “The group just left.”

Still a bit foggy-headed – and a bit panicked – I ask, “Which way did they go?”

The desk manager says they’ve gone out the door and turned left onto the main street.

I set out into the breezy Moroccan morning, striding – and carefully trying to cross the street – thinking I can actually can find them and catch up to them.

After about three blocks, reason finally takes over, and I stop and turn around, since I’ve absolutely NO CLUE where I’m going.

I remember my way back to the hotel, in time to see the others standing in the small front lobby.

So I miss out on both laundry and breakfast.

Soon enough, our minivan arrives – with our tour guide, a Fassi woman named Hakima. (Fassis are residents of Fez.)

morocco-march-2009-175First stop on the tour drops us in front of the Royal Palace. We’re not allowed in, so we’re just outside the front gates. That’s okay, though – surrounding us are seven of the prettiest doors – made of cedar and embossed with gold colouring – that I’ve ever seen.

There are also a couple of other tour groups milling about, so I’m fighting for clean photos of the doors, and the guards in ceremonial garb (which is all different, by the way).

From there, Hakima takes us through a souk and then into a medersa (religious school). We stand in the courtyard, looking at the beautiful tiling and woodwork. Off to the side, a couple stray cats lie down for naps in the sun.

Coming out of the medina, we pile into the minivan, which takes us up and away from the main town, to a spot with a great panoramic view of the three parts – the old, the new and the Mellah (Jewish quarter) – that comprise Fez. Will also gets a visit from a four-legged friend – a resident stray dog that he gives a little food to as a greeting.

We then head to a ceramics factory, wmorocco-march-2009-218here a man named Abbas takes us around, showing us the processes – and people – involved in making the great pottery we’ve been starting to see wherever we go.

We see a man in a pit of grey water and clay, clad in a dark cap, rolled-up pants and a shirt rolled up to his upper biceps, sorting through the soft clay, separating what’s “good” and “bad”. It’s obvious his clothes were once white; his work has dirtied and darkened them to a greyish shade.

We see men sitting on the floor, cutting and shaping. Potters spinning clay into tajine bowls and lids on their wheels. Young people  hand-painting the designs onto plates, bowls and egg cups. Men chipping and chiseling mosaic tiles … and workers putting the finishing touches onto a prettily-designed rectangular mosaic-tiled tabletop.

Following the ceramics tour, it’s back down into the medina, where Hakima takes us through the souks, showing us facts and people she meets along the way (occasionally to briefly stop and chat in Arabic).

The crowds, sounds, smells and general ambience is almost to much to take in at once. But I remind myself that sensory overload is part of the experience.

morocco-march-2009-236We eventually arrive at the tanneries – one of the many sites of interest virtually synonymous with Morocco.

The sprigs of mint we receive earlier in the tour – to hold under our noses and thus minimize the stench that normally wafts up from the dye pits – aren’t really needed. The spring breeze pretty much eliminates most of the odor.

I end up buying a cute little bag with a shoulder strap. It’s tan-coloured and presumably sheepskin leather, judging how incredibly soft it is. With Hakima’s help, I get it for a slightly reduced price.

Next stop is a carpet factory – the one place at which I’m not expecting anyone to buy anything. The building  – which is just huge – apparently used to be a riad owned by a Moroccan family. We go to see some of the weavers at work, their flying across the room, plucking the yarn like the soundless strings of an instrument.

We see an enormous blue carpet hangingmorocco-march-2009-2422 across from where we’re standing – and we’re told that it would take about 25 days for two people to make.

Following the ten-cent tour, we’re taken into a room of just carpets, sat down and given a round of mint tea. The carpet-seller who’s taken us round – with the aid of a helper – rolls out some examples of the work (probably in hopes someone will buy). Carpet after carpet is rolled out with a thump. One of my tour-mates – Grace from Australia – takes a couple pictures of her favourite carpets, and has a little fun with the carpet-seller. But no dice.

We get up and move into the main room near the entrance/exit. We’re waiting around as Sally, one of my American tour-mates, is contemplating whether to take the plunge and buy a rug. While I wait, this weird sensation comes over me. It’s my worst fear come to life. I’m not nauseous. But the last time I had this sensation, I ended up with a nasty case of giardiasis. The feeling eventually passes – if only for the moment.

Some of my tour-mates grow bored waiting for Sally to make up her mind, so we go to a nearby clothing shop to wait. They have all sorts of fancy men’s and women’s robes, djellabas, tunics, etc. Before we know it, we’re all trying on various outfits and snapping photos for posterity.

I go in thinking I’m going to land myself a djellaba to wear while in Morocco. But after trying one on, I’m not so convinced. I end up trying on this really cute cotton, short-sleeved baby-blue caftan with white embroidery.

When it comes down to haggling, my first pass isn’t that great. I manage to get the caftan for about 300 DH (or $43.51 CAD). I probably could’ve come down further, and feel a bit bad that I didn’t. But I’m still happy with the purchase.

We stop for lunch, at the restaurant of this older Moroccan gentleman who is just – what’s the word? – crazy! He’s in his early 60s, but his grizzly white beard and wizened skin make him look older. He talks in a flurry of French, Arabic and gibberish (for entertainment’s sake) – and he’s big on cozying up to people and giving them kisses on the cheek. Throughout the meal, most people within his reach aren’t safe – not even me.

I order a Berber omelette and by the time I’m finished, I’m completely full. Even when we complete the meals we’ve ordered, we STILL get more food – tea, followed by two plates of something resembling a meatball stew with an egg in the middle. Hakima explains it’s a token of his appreciation for eating at his restaurant; if we don’t eat it, we run the risk of offending him and his cooking. (Half of us manage to finish our plate of it [which happens to be really good]; the other half only picks at it.)

After lunch, it’s on to the scarf shop, where we have a chance to purchase scarves for our trip to the Sahara desert. Compared to the clothes shop, the prices here are fixed and completely reasonable. I get a brightly coloured-and-striped one for myself, and buy a plain one for my mom as a souvenir.

morocco-march-2009-249Last stop on the tour is an herbalist’s shop, where the man who runs it shows us some of the things he sells for medicinal, practical and herbal use – and tests some of it out on us.

(One herb in particular – apparently good for allergies and clearing sinuses  he wraps in a hankerchief, letting each of us sniff in through one nostril. It’s so strong, it shoots straight to the back of my head – and the sensation stays there for at least 30 minutes. I’m surprised it doesn’t burn off my brain stem.)

It’s early evening by the time we return to the hotel, and it’s dark by the time I’ve changed into warmer clothes for the evening. I step out into the night air and go down the street to the nearby internet cafe.

By the time I return, I’ve – once again – missed half the group, who are starving and have gone to dinner (and, as it turns out, a shisha cafe afterwards). So Sally, Cathy, Colin, Nonnie and I decide to head out for a late meal at a really nice restaurant about five minutes away by foot.

I order a harira to warm up. By the time my pastilla arrives, I’m already half-full and can’t finish it. But it was nice, nonetheless.

As I make my way to my room for the night, I’m a litmorocco-march-2009-171tle sad that we have to leave Fez the following morning.

I mean, we’ve only been here a day and a half and have barely scratched the surface of this intriguing city.

I count myself lucky to have had the chance visit the place at least once in my lifetime.

Perhaps if I’m fortunate enough, I’ll one day have the opportunity to return.

More Meknes, Some Ruins and Onward

Tuesday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

morocco-march-2009-066After 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 morocco-march-2009-072Ismail, 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.

morocco-march-2009-088So 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 smoothmorocco-march-2009-101ies 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).  

morocco-march-2009-1121We 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 morocco-march-2009-129say 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.

morocco-march-2009-1701From 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!