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Michael’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 28 Dec 2008

Location: Chefchaouen & Fes, Morocco

MapBoxing Day -
Woke up early to try and get into the medina of Chefchaouen before the hordes of other tourists and even before the locals got up s that I could hopefully get some pictures before they took to the street. The main worry being that the brilliant blue buildings wouldn't show up well in my pics. Taking pictures along the way, the made my way to the north-east corner of the medina, through the maze of streets not much more than a couple meters wide. Getting lost along the way meant that I was by no means the only person awake by the time I made it to the NE gate at the medina, and I came across a river - the one that must be the reason Chefchaouen is known for water.

So the river Omed ras el Mar runs through the outskirts of town, and at this point is diverted through a series of aqueducts, which deposit the water into some man made concrete basins, complete with ridged sides, and the local ladies can be seen here every day doing their washing. In fact, someone had already washed a few massive carpets and had them hanging off the bridge to dry. A couple photos here and I moved on.

Across the bridge and up into the hills of Chaouen. A 20 minute walk from the river is a ruined mosque, perched high on a hill, overlooking the town, with the mountain peaks in the background. I climbed up to the mosque and took in the breathtaking scenery... once again I was rueing that fact that I didn't have a better camera. The tower of the mosque was still in tact, and I started to consider climbing up there. However it was pitch black, and smelt of urine, so I figured that there was every chance that there may be some homeless bum sleeping on the steps and waiting for me... so I decided to use my phone as a torch and wandered up. Unfortunately the views from the top weren't any better and not worth the stench of urine. I later found out the hill is used by locals youngsters for smoking the kif and they obviously use the tower as a toilet.

Wandering back towards town I spotted what looked to be an easy pass between two of the mountain peaks. There appeared to have been some sort of a small rock slide as there were plenty of loose rocks, and I figured that with a bit of scrambling I could make it through and see what was on the other side of the peaks. Alas, it was an optical illusion! I climbed to where I presumed it would flatten out, and it did, but not too much further back the rock slide climbed up again. So I followed suit and scrambled up the next phase, only to find that again after a small plateau it would climb again. All this time I was scrambling up loose rock, knowing that it would be even more difficult to get down. Finally, I decided that going forward did not present a reasonable option, especially as I had to get to the bus station, and looking back I could no longer see the town, so I wasn't even afforded a great view. Slowly, and clumsily, I made my way back to the path and headed into town.

On the way back into town, I passed quite a few people 'redecorating', as long as it was still in blue! One guy was repainting the some of the steps in town a dark blue that contrasted with the top of the steps. Another was chipping away the plaster from his door surround and you could see at least an inch of plaster coming off, with at least 6 different shades of blue paint on there.

As I wandered around the medina, I made the most important purchase of my trip so far - a 4 pack of toilet paper. The common trend being that even if you find a European toilet in a hotel or restaurant, more often than not it doesn't have any toilet paper.

The bus to Fes proved to be another eye opener, with this driver also thinking that he would make a great F1 driver. The bus was over taking cars, vans, trucks, and anything and everything that was on the road... all this on the way down from the Rif Mountains! Very hairy indeed. At one point I did drift off and was abruptly woken by the driver dropping the anchor as a car in front of the bus slowed and pulled off to the side of the road. Sitting in the very back row (you have designated seats on Morrocan busses, and it seems to be only the tourists that are fussy about where they sit...) I was flung forward, against the seat in front of me which stopped me dozing off again any time soon.

We stopped for what seemed liked forever at one point. A lot of the passengers wandered over to a make shift BBQ that had been set up at the service station. People were buying mince by weight and then handing it to the BBQ man who would make mince sausages on a skewer and then cook them over the flame. I wasn't sure how long we were sticking around, and by the time I had realised what was happening I was worried I may have been too late to get mine cooked before the bus took off again. As it was we were there for the best part of an hour :-(

That meant we got into Fes about 45 minutes late on the Friday night, and it was well and truly dark by the time I'd arrived. I met a couple other back packers who'd been in Fes earlier and knew where the youth hostel was, so I followed them there. I was lucky and there was room left so I checked in and headed off for a roast chicken dinner with fries, bread with a paprika dipping sauce and rice at a street side cafe for dinner. It was pretty quiet at the hostel, but I met a couple Canadians that spoke fluent French which would prove useful in the coming days in Fes. The hostel was pretty good, but the 10pm lock down was a bit of an inconvenience. Was the coldest night I've had so far, even in the sleeping bag.

Saturday 27th -
Shower (with hot water only between 8 and 9 am) and then breakfast (between 830 and 930) before heading to the Medina with a tour guide that was booked through the hostel. Jeff, one of the Canadians had booked it and I was jumping on to split the costs. We wandered to the Mc Donalds, which I later found out had the green roof that is synnonimous with place of Islamic worship to convince people that the meat was halal! From the Maccas we cabbed it to the far end of the medina to begin our tour.

The medina contains anywhere between a reported 8000 streets to 16000 streets. They have had various independent surveyors in to map the medina, and everyone comes up with something very different. There are over 350 mosques, and something 83000 shops, all in an area that takes no longer than half an hour to walk from one end to the other, be it from north to south or east to west. And about 2 minutes to get lost! The medina population is well into the hundreds of thousands.

The first order of business for the tour guide is to get his money by taking us to shops. We headed through the medina until we arrived in the leather districts, and before long we were being welcomed up the stairs with open arms onto, and given a piece of mint leaf to neutralise the smell, before arriving on the balcony of the leather shop to look down on the tannery. The colors in the dye pots were amazing, and the workers were wading waist high through the chemicals dying the leather. Each piece of leather takes 25 days from being removed from the anima before it is ready to be made into an article for sale. After the photos we were frog marched back down the stairs where the sales pitch took over and the gentle pressure to buy something kicked in. We both escaped there with no new purchases, despite being shown everything from belts, to jackets, cushions to shoes, wallets and everything in between.

Next stop was the medicine man, or woman, who explained the incredible properties of the shop full of spices. It seems the most common word used was aphrodisiac, and I couldn't help but wonder if there was a large need for such drugs in Morocco? The lady, who couldn't speak very good English, after trying her best to explain everything, picked up a small basket and started walking around the shop. She would reach onto a shelf, turn to us and say what it was, nod to us, and then place it in the basket, before moving along to the next item. Clearly this was a shopping basket, and despite our, "we don't really need/want that" type protests, the items continued to be placed in the basket. The only thing for it was to pick each item up out of the basket as she turned to the next item, and place it back on the shelf. By the time she made it to the register, she was shocked to see only two items in the basket, and us saying we didn't really want them.

Form there we did more wandering through the medina, seeing some of the mosques (from the outside - Morocco is no very open to non-Muslims in their mosques unlike other tourist destinations), public water fountains (where the locals often still get their source of water), hammams (public showers/baths) and other shops in the market.

Eventually we ended up in a carpet store, and the aphrodisiac push continued. Apparently a camel hair carpet acts as an aphrodisiac, which when I heard I asked if one had to ingest the carpet for the effects to take place... the salesman looked at me as if he suddenly didn't speak English and had no idea what I said. Anyway, phrases like "good for jiggy jiggy" were bandied about a lot, much to my humor... but it couldn't convince me to buy a rug though. After the guy had pulled out half of the carpets in the place and had them shrewn across the floor, we both said no thanks and left the shop, much to their disappointment.

From there we left our guide, or shopping co-ordinator and headed back into the medina for a look on our own. It was surprising just how quickly we got hassled once away from an official guide. Walking back through I stopped to look at a chicken stall. Battery chicken doesn't even describe how they are kept, but the worst part is the killing. The chicken man was pointing at me with his massive knife, still blood stained and then making a hacking gesture as if cutting a chicken head off. Then he made a gesture as if breaking the chickens neck. I shook my head, like, no way man, thats your job not mine. But he kept repeating it, and I almost was convinced to do it. It was then I noticed a chicken foot twitching from one of three pipes that was placed into the work bench. I pointed and he pulled out the chicken which had had its throat slit.

The man was trying to indicate that we (westeners/non-muslim) break the necks of chickens or cut their heads off, but for halal reasons, they slit the necks, and let the blood by holding the chickens upside down in the tubes. From there he dunked it in very warm water a few times before pulling it on the bench, at which time it was dead, and seemingly free of blood. He then proceeded to pluck the chicken, cut the feet off (and keep for later), gut the chicken and stretch out the neck before putting it in the bag for the woman that was buying the chicken. That whole process took less than a minute after pulling it out of the water... soooo quick.

This made us hungry and we headed to a small cafe, among many small cafes, at the main tourist entrance to the medina. A nice chicken and beef couscous filled the spot very well. While there we saw Matt the other Canadian from the hostel, that had to change accommodation in the morning and a couple of girls, Georgia and Emma, from the new place he was staying. Turned out that they were not only Aussie, but from Torquay.

We spent the rest of the day with them, wandering all over the place before going through the mellah (the old Jewish quarter, now the Arabic word for ghetto as used in Europe) and past the Royal Palace, with its 7 beautifully brass gilded doors. We waited 20 minutes for three people to get out of the way so that we could get a photo in front of the doors with no-one blocking the way. The three people (muslim tourists presumably by their dress) seemed to take every possible combination of photos of the three of them, in front of EVERY door despite them being almost identical! Grrrr. Finally we got our pics and headed into the new town looking for a bar.

We found the bar, which all have reflective glass windows out the front so that what is happening inside can't be seen. Along the way we picked up another Canadian girl from the hostel that we'd seen. The bar was... interesting. Actually, it was so lively, and we were the only tourists, and 100 Moroccan men for company... none of which seemed to speak English. We had a few drinks, and the Canadians, all of whom spoke French conversed a bit with the locals, before the real fun began - tapas. At first the olives were brought out, as seems to happen everywhere, but then things got strange.

The next dish was some sort of shell fish, looking a bit like a yabbie, maybe a langastine, but not the same as either. Whilst the inside was warm, it was very gooey, and not what I assumed was cooked. I took a chance and gave it a shot, eating one, and then a second as no-one else at the table seemed convinced to give it a go. Eventually everyone has at least a half go at it.

The next dish was some sort of meat, with bread and dipping sauce. The food was getting larger and we were worried we'd have to pay, but were repeatedly assured that it was free with the beers we were drinking. The Moroccan guys on the table next to me were egging me on, making gestures indicating that eating it would make me a man, and would attract the ladies - who am I to knock back anything that would help... So after a bit of charades, I deciphered that it was cow foot that was on the plate in front of me (mooing with a pointing gesture to his feet). A couple mouthfuls and it wasn't too bad at all. It only got back when I saw them suck the meat out of the bone. I refused to do likewise, but scraped the 'meat' off from around the bone. Much to my disappointment, yet not really a surprise, it was pure fat, and tasted awful. The next meal was cow tongue, which was actually quite tasty, and finally some fried fish, which was delicious, was placed before us. The highlight had to be Georgia trying the sniffing tobacco, and snorting it rather than sniffing it. Next thing, with eyes watering and hands waving, she is snorting some of her beer to get the burning sensation out of her nostrils! Only a Torquay chick!!! With that we had to push off, with lock down looming over us at the youth hostel. A rather uneventful night once back at the hostel, with a better sleep on a warmer night.

Next up, more Fes and on to Marrakech!