I forgot the tannery!

The ancient tanneries are a major attraction in Fez, and we visited them yesterday as part of our walking tour. They have used the same tanning methods for hundreds of years, involving the water from the river than runs through town, as well as natural pigments and lots of pigeon guano for its acidic effect. There are no chemicals used at all in the process.
When we entered the area of the tannery, a man stationed at the doorway handed each of us a sprig of mint. I looked confused, so he mimed holding it under his nose and inhaling the fresh scent. Uh oh. Reality began to dawn. As we ascended the stairs, the smell became stronger. At level three, Sadiki left us in the hands of a tannery worker, and we continued to climb. As I crushed the mint in order to mask the smell of death, I was reminded of the children’s nursery rhyme, Ring Around the Rosy. I clenched my pocket full of posy, but to no avail. The view was spectacular when we reached the terrace, but the stench was overwhelming. I snapped my photos as quickly as possible, held my breath as long as I could, and just at the point of retching, I ran for the exit. Craig, meanwhile, smelled almost nothing.
I abandoned Craig to his photos, and went in search of clean air. What I found instead was an incredible array of leather products. Unerringly, I headed straight for the most expensive product line: lamb skin jackets in all shades of butter-soft suede. By now, we have gotten quite good at bargaining, so by the time Craig remembered that I was shopping unchaperoned, I had gotten the price down about 20%. I let my son-of-a-Berber husband move in for the kill.
We left the shop and traveled down another flight of stairs, with the salesman trailing us, saying hopefully, “We take credit cards!” Just before we exited, he cracked and agreed to our lowest offer, 40% less than the original asking price. To show that he was a good sport, he threw in a little change purse for free.
I thought I was safe from the revolting smell of the tannery as we resumed our walk, but unfortunately there is another set of vats, with yet another opportunity for stunning photos. More mint leaves, more gag reflex kicking in. More therapeutic shopping, this time a beautiful hand-stitched goatskin purse. It is good that Craig realizes he must sacrifice for his art.
We also visited the shop of a family of weavers, who have four looms set up in a former merchants’ inn on the caravan road. Because the Muslim faith forbids any representation of living beings, all the patterns are stripes or geometrics. They work with cotton, wool, and vegetable silk, which is a fiber extracted from agave cactuses. Again, all the pigments are natural and made from such elements as saffron, indigo, and snails.
In talking with the weavers, we learned that an intricate pattern of various colored stripes can take the weaver two full days to create one meter of cloth. Considering how labor-intensive the work is, by American standards they were giving away their fabrics.
We were happy to help support this dying art, and purchased a stunning piece of cotton/silk fabric in blue, rust, gold, and other earth tones. We’re looking forward to putting it to use at home, to remind us of our wonderful trip to Fez.




Inside the old city of fez

We took a private car from Chefchaouen to Fez, a ride that normally takes four hours. Our driver Mohammed was the most aggressive motorist I have ever ridden with, and we completed the white knuckle ride in less than three hours. We were only too glad to climb out of that old Mercedes alive.
A young man from our hotel came out to the car park to meet us, because motor vehicles are not permitted inside the walls of the old city. He hailed another fellow with a wheelbarrow-type cart, and piled our luggage into it. Off we went, a little parade, chasing after our bags down the crooked dim alleys. At one point the passage narrowed so much that the cart would no longer fit, and the porter and Craig valiantly hauled the stuff by hand. (Remember, by this time I have been shopping for two weeks. Things were getting heavy.) Then he turned into such a dark alley that I thought, this is it. We are about to become the subject of one of those tourist horror stories. A few yards farther, the porter pulled out a set of keys, and unlocked a massive door that magically opened into a sunny courtyard with a lovely seating area lined with orange trees laden with fruit. It was a magical transformation.
Dar Saffarine is a 700 year old structure that was vacant and abandoned for twenty-five years before Alaa, the current owner, began the three year renovation that brought it to its present glory. We had reserved a room off the main courtyard, but Alaa informed us that since we were the only guests that night, he had upgraded us to the suite. “Please consider this your palace, and you are the king and queen,” our gracious host smiled.
Dar Saffarine is breathtaking. The ceilings in the bedrooms must be twenty feet high, and the center courtyard opens to the roof, at least fifty feet above. The original woodwork and mosaics have been meticulously restored to their former glory. Alaa has furnished his home with beautiful pieces of intricately carved furniture: shelves, mirrors, arm chairs, and occasional tables. Finely woven rugs help warm the chilly tile floors, and finely worked, colorful embroidery decorates the sheets, pillow covers, and drapes. The bathrooms have modern amenities, and hot water, much to our relief. (That is something not taken for granted in many of the places we have visited.)
We have spent our days in Fez wandering the medina, both with a guide and on our own. We spent day one with a wonderful guide, Sadiki, who gave us an excellent orientation to the various traditional crafts that still exist in Fez, although just barely. The streets and squares are named after the craftsmen who practice their trade. So for example, our hotel, Dar Saffarine, is just off Saffarine Square, which is the neighborhood of the metal workers. Silver, copper, and brass objects abound here, and the name Saffarine, or saffron, refers to the yellow color of the brass. There are still a good number of metal workers, because everyone must have a tea pot, or copper pots and pans. However, the comb maker is the last of his kind.
At 85 years old, he has no wish to retire, and in fact he still goes to the slaughterhouse to choose the cow horns he uses, sometimes selecting specimens still attached to their owners. He then makes little bottles out of the tips, to hold kohl eyeliner popular with the women here. The large part of the horn is cut open, heated, and flattened in a vise. The comb maker creates hair ornaments too, and his comb handles are whimsically shaped rabbits, camels, and fish. In 2013, he was interviewed for a NY Times article, which we happened to have with us. When we gave him the paper with his picture, he was delighted. When he is no longer in business, the street will be renamed to reflect the end of an era.
Our guide Sadiki showed us the inter-relatedness of the craftsmen. The sharpener keeps everyone’s tools sharp with his grinding stone. The woodworker makes handles for everyone’s tools, and stools that the workmen sit on. The metal smith makes the blades for the tools. As we visited the tiny workshops, people continuously popped in and out to purchase the service that they required. The stores were no more than small caves, or cutouts in the wall of a building. It seemed inconceivable that someone would spend the entire day in such a confined space, never mind fifty or sixty years. Sadiki joked with the shoemaker about having a room with a view – his was the only shop we saw that boasted a window. He was busily making the traditional pointed-toe slippers that most Moroccans wear, in sunshine yellow leather. He was working on a large order of this color, because all the government cabinet ministers wore yellow slippers with their formal white robes. He reached for a pair he had just finished, and told me to try them on. They fit like a glove, so for 200 dirhams I bought my first pair of handmade shoes. It probably took him the better part of the day to cut the uppers from goat skin, the soles from cow hide, and to stitch them together using two needles, and I purchased the fruit of that labor for 20 dollars.
On to Marrakech in the morning!







For Ladies Only

My sisters, I am finding that in this patriarchal, predominantly Muslim, conservative country, I am virtually invisible to the typical man on the street. If anything, I am looked at with disapproval. The only people who greet me cordially are the shopkeepers, who would like me to separate me from my money.
I have learned quickly not to make eye contact, and after a week here I now walk with my baseball cap pulled down low on my forehead to avoid people’s stares. Since at home a large part of my job is to interact with strangers, it was difficult for me to remember not to smile at people. That is, until the first few sneers and rude remarks. One man yelled “Hootchie coochie” at me – I guess that’s the love call of the Moroccan male.
Even the little kids are disrespectful. One small boy deliberately kicked his soccer ball into my leg at close range, as his three friends watched. I caught the ball and held onto it as we continued down the street, only to discover that we had reached a dead end. As we made our way back, the friends, thinking I was coming after them, quickly pointed out the culprit. I knew just enough French to tell him that was a bad thing to do, and I’m sure he could tell by my tone of voice that I was very angry. I wonder, would he have dared do that to a Moroccan woman? I doubt it very much.
On another, related topic, girlfriends, let’s talk toilets.
Veteran travelers know not to expect American style bathroom facilities wherever they go. In Morocco, you look for the door marked Toilette or WC. What lies behind that door ranges from western-style porcelain fixtures within stalls with floor-to-ceiling doors with functioning locks, or holes in the ground with a footprint on either side. But let’s face it: sometimes you can’t be too particular about the facilities when nature calls. This is not a problem if you have come prepared. There is a very convenient item sold in travel speciality stores that can revolutionize a traveling woman’s life: it’s a little paper cone called Urinelle, and it allows a lady to avoid the necessity of coming into contact with off-putting facilities and to pee standing up, just like the boys do. Of course, one must be prepared in advance. And don’t forget the tissues. Or the hand sanitizer. Or one’s sense of humor!


But why are you going to Morocco?

A lot of people have asked us that question. My initial flippant response is to say, why not? But we do have some practical reasons.
All year long, we squirrel up our frequent flier miles, earning them for shopping, dining, gasoline, etc. Then we look for a destination and partner airlines that will allow us to use them, and hopefully manage to shave a few bucks off the typically exorbitant plane fares.
Another factor to consider is the exchange rate. The Moroccan monetary unit is the dirham, and the rate fluctuates between nine and ten dirhams to the US dollar. Our money goes very far here!
Hotel rooms are one of the great bargains in Morocco. The priciest place we stayed was a very elegant restored 18th century riad in Meknes, which cost $120 for a night. It was a suite with canopied double bed, sitting area, small table, and an elegant bathroom that included both a shower and claw-foot tub.
The suite in which we are currently camping costs $85 per night, including breakfast on the terrace. It is spacious and comfortable, with wooden shutters on the three windows so that we can keep out the cold night air. There’s also a large bathroom which is up to American standards. There are two couches, a small armoire, and several end tables. The woodwork throughout is painted in the colorful Moroccan style – even the high ceiling has painted trim work.
Coffee is not very popular here; the drink of choice is mint tea. This morning, after a nice walk along the river, Craig and I stopped at a little cafe for a rest. Forty-five minutes of people watching and two glasses of very sweet mint tea cost us $1.20. Tips are not expected, either, but are appreciated.
We have established a lazy rhythm to our days. Craig gets up first and heads out for a walk around town, while I slowly drag myself to consciousness. We have a late breakfast, then wander around town until we get hungry. Then we head to our favorite restaurant, Aladdin’s, which has five different floors and excellent views from each. The weather has been cooperative enough that we eat outside every day. A full meal, including Nescafé and dessert, costs from 85 – 120 dirhams (less than $12.) The waiters never rush the patrons. In fact, I’m writing this blog after another leisurely lunch on the fourth floor open air terrace. We avoid the bright sun and the cats, who are more numerous than customers today.
After more strolling, we usually buy a few snacks before calling it a day. When we return to our hotel, Casa Perleta, our hosts always serve us mint tea as we sit by the fireplace in the lobby to take advantage of the wifi connection. Then we head back upstairs to our rooftop room for a snack and a little reading. Six lovely pastries set me back 20 dirhams each – about 20 cents. We don’t find prices like that at Cross Roads or Maryann’s! A bottle of soda was 60 cents.
As far as shopping goes, we are holding off on leather purchases until Fes. But the hand knitted hats and socks here are irresistible. And at 25 dirhams, cheap enough to purchase in quantity. Plus, the Hat Man knocks a little off the price if you buy several pieces.





Camels in the Sahara

Craig got this great idea about six months ago: we should take a little camel ride in the desert, and then spend the night in a tent amidst the sand dunes. As I always say, you can find anything on the Internet. Before I could say Insha’allah, (God willing,) we were booked. Monday afternoon found us bouncing across nine kilometers of unpaved roads, headed for the camel stable and Auberge Sud, a beautiful hotel that we were not staying in.
Just a year ago, I attempted a little horseback riding while in Nicaragua, and ended the afternoon with a concussion and the worst bruise of my life on my jaw, where the horse clobbered me with his head. Since then, I’ve had a bit of PTSD around large four-legged creatures, so I was really being a good sport about this whole camel idea. They are much bigger than horses, you know. Plus there aren’t any stirrups, or even any reins! I had a metal T-bar to hang onto, which I did, with everything I had. Oh, did I mention how hard it is to get on a camel when you have a 29 inch inseam? Go ahead – picture it.

After about 45 minutes’ bumpy ride, we caught up to another group of about 20 riders, and scampered around the sand dunes to watch the sun set. Then it was back on onto the dromedary for another hour, but this time in the dark. Finally we reached camp and dismounted for the night.
Once the sun set, the temperature plummeted to about 7 degrees C. I don’t even want to know the conversion to Fahrenheit. Our camel wrangler Hassan cheerily informed us that we would be okay, because he made our bed himself and put six blankets on it. He was right, too. We kept all our clothes on with the exception of our coats, and managed to survive the sleepless night. Sleepless because the mattress was concrete hard and the blankets were so heavy it was nearly impossible to move, and because the 20 college kids did not sleep a wink. Those youngsters stayed up all night drinking, (they had smuggled wine into this alcohol-free country,) playing drums, giggling in four different languages, and eating everything they could scrounge. The guides sounded the wake up call at 5:50, and I was only too happy to call it a night.

Watching the sun come up in the Sahara Desert is a heart-lifting experience. The sand becomes a wonderful, rich shade of rosy golden brown. Even the camels look good, bathed in that glow. After an hour or so of climbing around the dunes, Craig and I were treated to a private breakfast outside next to a fire. Well, private once we paid off the five little children with the sad puppy faces who were experts at wrenching our emotions and extorting money from us so we could eat in peace. Then back on those lovely camels for another 90 minutes or so.
I asked Hassan what their names were, and he said Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. Then he admitted that they don’t names the camels, and instead refer to them as that brown camel or this white one. Easy to remember, I suppose.
As we plodded along, Hassan pointed to the mountains in the distance and noted that we could see Algeria, about 35 km to the east. I hadn’t realized we were that close to the border, and I admit to a bit of unease. Of course there was another part of me that wanted to detour over and collect their stamp in my passport.





Nothing cuter than a baby camel

In the Sahara Desert region, camels are everywhere. It’s the funniest thing to see a dozen of them strolling around an open field munching on the greenery. I’m told that at the end of the day they all just go back home.
Camel milk is enjoyed by locals, much more so than cow’s milk. It is believed to have greater health benefits, too. Of course we tried it – it was delicious. Camel steak – eh. Tastes like beef.
The smaller of the baby camels in the photos is about 2 months old.