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01: UK-Scandinavia
02: France
03: Spain-Portugal
04: Andalucia off-road
05: Morocco: Fes/Marrakech
06: Morocco: Atlas/Sahara Safari
07: Gibraltar, Switzerland, Italy
08: Turkey
09: Syria
10: Jordan
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13: India
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Kirsten writes about exploring the Middle East

Kirsten's dispatch about her Indian adventure

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Current Status:
Back home in Seattle as of 1 August 2001

London Bombay Cebu

Into Africa...
by Jim Laurel

Dispatch #5, Morocco: Fes/Marrakech
26 November 2000
Marrakech, Morocco
"Welcome to Fes City, my friend." The motorbike hustler had seen us coming, and wasted no time in firing off his first pitch. "Do you have a reservation?", he asked. "Yes", I replied through the one-inch gap in my window.

We had finally arrived in Fes, Morocco, after a 500km drive from the confusion of the Spain/Morocco border. Though we had read about the border procedure several times in our guide books, It still took a while to figure out what documents the various officials wanted me to hand them through their little windows. It turns out to be a simple process once you understand it, but it’s pretty confusing the first time around. Once we got all the paperwork in order, the customs official gave a cursory once-over, and we were on our way.

We drove on through the day, passing the relatively lush landscape of northern Morocco. We had lightened the Land Rover, leaving a fair amount of our gear with friends in Spain, so we drove along at a good clip, easily dodging the many overloaded trucks and vans we encountered. Karin and Kirsten had taken pains to obtain scarves in Spain, since we'd hear that it was necessary for women to cover thier heads. But this advice turned out to be just more Lonely Planet political-correctness. The Moroccans don't expect this of foriegners, and younger, modern women often don't cover thier heads at all.

We made our first wrong turn in Fes’ "Ville Nouvelle", and our new friend pulled up on his motorbike at the next traffic light. "Where are you staying, my friend? I will take you there, no problem." I jabbed at the "mark" button on the Garmin GPS, dropping a virtual buoy on that location, in case our new friend led us astray, then demanded payment to get us back to a main road. We would learn that it would be highly unlikely for something like that to happen in Morocco, which is a very hospitable place, where people go over the top to help travelers all the time. The GPS marker and our electronic breadcrumb trail would enable us to navigate back to the marked position, which gave us a feeling of security.

But my fears were unfounded. Just a few minutes later, the Sheraton Fes appeared around the corner. I stopped to give the faux guide a few Dirhams for his trouble, but he stopped me short. "Please…you don’t have to pay me anything. I work with my brother who is guide. We will be happy to offer our services in Fes." Here it comes, I thought. I’ve only been in Fes five minutes, and I’m already being hustled. We explained as best we could that we were simply tired after our long drive, and not in any mood to commit to a guide. "Perhaps tomorrow, but I won’t promise", I said. That was my first mistake. In the Moroccan mind, that means, "Yes! I want you to guide me. I’ll see you tomorrow!" I deftly dodged his insistent demands to meet at a specific time, gave him a tip for getting us to the hotel, and proceeded across the street.

The most ancient of Morocco's Imperial cities, Fes is a living example of a complete medieval Arab city. It is a haunting and beautiful place, a feast of exotic sights, sounds and smells. Fes El Bali, the ancient Medina-city, is home to 200,000 of Fes' half-million residents and first on our list of places to visit. If you can ignore the other tourists and the vendors selling cheap Chinese toys, you can almost imagine being transported back to the 13th century, when Fes became the seat of power of the Merenid dynasty.

The Moroccan Ministry of Tourism and most guidebooks advise that you secure the services of an "official" guide. If you believe the storis, all sorts of terrible things can happen when you hire an unofficial "faux" guide. In fact, the "faux guides" (unlicensed guides), can be imprisoned for 3 months or more if they are caught with a foreigner. Though this has the effect of reducing the number of guide-hustlers, it is unfortunate, because these guys are just trying to make an honest living and, as we learned, can provide a better service than the official guides do.

We hired an official guide, Mohammed, who would give us an introduction to Fes the next day. Unfortunately, Mohammed turned out to be everything we didn’t want in a guide. He took us on a dry tour of the major sites of Fes, pointing out the construction style and materials in every building we visited.

"This building is very old. See these carvings? Wood. Carved wood. See this design? Typical Islamic style - very beautiful. It is made of Plaster – very old plaster. Now we go on to the famous Bou Inania medersa and water clock." And so on.

He interspersed his tour with visits to shops, during which he would conveniently disappear, for a tea or something, while we were given over to the shop owner. He couldn’t understand that we were more interested in everyday life in the Medina rather than buying trinkets and visiting tourist sites, where he would jockey us into his notion of the best place from which to take a photograph.

The most interesting part of Mohammed’s tour was the leather tannery – a visual spectacle with workers scraping fur from various animal skins, then treating them in vats filled with pigeon dung and various dyes. Traditionally, the dyes were vegetable-based - yellow (saffron), red (poppy), blue (indigo), green (mint), and black (antimony). Unfortunately, these are now being replaced by chemical dyes, much to the detriment of the workers' health. The stench is unbelievable, but sprigs of mint are available to alleviate your nausea.

After just a few minutes in the tannery, it was clear that Mohhamed was disgusted by the whole thing and anxious to leave. He wasn’t too pleased when we all started climbing a steep set of stairs to the roof of one of the buildings for a better view. Everyone acted like we were gambling with our lives. I guess they’re used to a different kind of visitor!

The next day, we ventured into the Medina on our own, making the mistake of taking a "grand taxi" (a 4 passenger Mercedes 200-series), rather than two "petit taxis", that are only licensed for 3 passengers. The problem with the grand taxis, of course, is that when the hustlers see you arrive in one at the Medina gate, they swarm like Saharan flies on fresh camel droppings. Exiting the taxi, we swatted most of them away, but one young fellow persisted.

"My friend, my friend, I will guide you!"
"La Shukran", I replied. "I do not need a guide."
"But my friend, there are many hustlers and thieves in the Medina. They will hustle you and you will be very unhappy."
"Listen, my friend", I said, "I have been in many Medinas. Have you ever been to the Medina in Damascus?"
I continued mercilessly. "Have you ever been to the Medina in Amman?"
"Have you been to the souks of Tehran?"
"So, my friend, perhaps I should be guiding YOU in the Medina!"

I could tell that our would-be guide was scrambling for his next tack, and while he spent cycles on this problem, he repeated his warning.

"But you do not know the Fes Medina. The hustlers will bother you all day. I will keep them away from you for just a pack of cigarettes and three American Dollars."

I wheeled around, just inches from the kid’s face, and put on my best badass gaze. "You know, my friend, you are hustling me right now, and I’m very unhappy about it. If you would leave me in peace, I would be much happier in Fes today."

It was then that the kid unleashed his ultimate weapon – a response for which there was no counter.

"Yes, my friend, but I am a very gentle hustler", he said with a smile.

Now, how can you argue with a comeback like that? So, I agreed to pay him a pack of Marlboros and the 3 bucks for a few hours of guiding, which he did admirably well. And unlike our official guide from the day before, he didn’t lead us into shops to buy rugs, pottery, and leather goods. It was starting to look to us like the official guides were the real hustlers.

We walked with Aziz all day, pausing at our leisure to take photographs, and just hanging around watching all the action. Contrary to the many warnings about the how dangerous the Medina is, we found it to be a wonderful place - its close walls and narrow passages coddle you and give you a feeling of safety. The legendary hospitality of the Moroccans is evedent everywhere. Many of the offers you receive are just about relieving you of some hard cash, but many others are genuine. It's important not to fall into the seige mentality we had when we first arrived.

In the Kasbah, which is sort of the residential area of the Medina, Connor got into an impromptu soccer game and made some new friends. After a great day wandering the Medina, we stopped at what had become our favorite restaurant near the Bab Boujeloud, or "Blue Gate". A hot tajine (usually a beef, lamb or chicken stew), mint tea were a welcome treat, especially in the rich light of the North African sunset. As we left the restaurant, we recognized one of the hustlers we had shooed away earlier that day.

After a week in Fes, we pointed ourselves south toward Marrakech, taking the motorway for a good part of the trip. The fine Moroccan motorways feel a bit out of place, with late model Mercedes and BMW saloons zooming along between the Imperial cities. This is quite a contrast to the secondary roads, that are filled with all manner of conveyances, powered by smoking diesels, and moving haphazardly along the road.

Feeling confident in our hotel-finding skills, we decided to try our luck going a bit down-market in Marrakech. The Lonely Planet classifies the Grand Hotel Tazi in the "top end" hotel section, and calls it a splurge at $50 a night. I suppose that’s true if you’re a backpacker on a $10/day budget, but to us it was a total dive. We were shown to a room with 4 beds with linens that hadn’t been laundered since the last guests, centipedes in the bathroom, and several panes of glass missing from the window.

That night, I went to the hotel bar, in the hopes of finding something alcoholic to drink – no mean feat in a Muslim country during Ramadan. There, I met a young American couple, playing cards and speaking English. Now, when you’re traveling, people speaking your native language are like a magnet, and I couldn’t help but approach them. Tom and Teddy had been living in the Medina in a traditional Moroccan home, called a "Riad" for the last week, and invited us to see it the next morning. If we liked it, they said, it might be possible for us to rent one as well.

At ten the next morning, Tom and Teddy showed up as planned and led us through the Medina to their place. I lost track of the turns in the first five minutes, and by the time we arrived, we were totally disoriented. Marrakech’s ancient Medina is vast and labyrinthine, so it’s no wonder that local guides make a good business leading people around in there. We entered our new friends’ riad through a gnarly-looking door, then proceed through a dim hallway to another gnarly-looking door, and when you open this one, you enter another world. A fountain sat in the middle of an open-air courtyard of inlaid tiles forming an intricate mosaic. Palmettos grow in the corners of the courtyard, stretching up two stories. The house itself is 3 stories, with some 6 bedrooms, and this is considered a "small" one. A housekeeper and cook scurry about shortly after we enter, and soon proffer a delightful snack of coffee, orange juice, various sweets and olives. Reclining on large cushions laid out on bench seats built into three walls of the room, with a gauzy cotton curtain separating us from the courtyard, felt like being in a movie.

Suitably impressed, we headed straight for the offices of Marrakech-Medina, where were told that a riad would be available for the next day!

So the next day, we moved into our very own riad in Marrakech’s famous Medina! I parked the Land Rover just inside the walls, and left it in the care of the Gardien de Voitures, who would keep it safe and sound for just 10 Dirhams a day. That’s a little less than one Dollar! The Gardiens are often licensed by the local municipality and take thier job very seriously. The welfare of your car seems a matter of personal pride for these guys! Every morning, I would walk out at around 10am, check the car, and give our Guardien a double fee of 20 Dirhams and a pack of American smokeThe old fellow did a great job!

Our riad was just wonderful and came complete with a housekeeper/cook named "Fatiha". Fatiha’s meals were the finest we had in all of Morocco, and our stay at the riad was surely the best way to get to know the local lifestyle. After a few days, we could wander the Medina without even being hassled! The locals quickly figured out that we were now residents, so the standard hustle disappeared, replaced by cheery greetings and friendly exchanges.

When you talk about Marrakech, the subject of Djemaa El Fna is bound to come up. During the day, it is basically a marketplace, but at night it transforms into a veritable carnival of great food stalls, street entertainers, musicians, and others who will wow you with some unusual talent. While it is certainly interesting, it is full of aggressive hustlers, who don’t like taking no for an answer. One morning, Karin and the children were physically grabbed by a group of women who created elaborate designs on their hands with henna, then demanded USD $75 for their efforts! I showed up just in time, but was unable to negotiate a fair price, until I took one of them by the arm and started toward the police station, where I assured them we could get it all sorted out. Of course, the price came down double quick. We paid, and I admonished them against cheating people, telling them in Arabic that Allah is watching. Another day, the children stopped to look at a couple of monkeys, whose owner placed them on the kids’ shoulders for about 5 minutes, posed for some pictures, then demanded 200 Dirhams (around USD $20). I paid 50 Dirhams and ignored their curses as we walked away. Kirsten dubbed the place "Death Valley".

I must emphasize that these kinds of experiences are in the minority. As we wandered through the great Medinas and souks of Fes and Marrakech, complete strangers would stop to oogle over the children, often patting their heads affectionately, or scooping them up with big hugs. If you can make any generalization about the Moroccan people, it is that their reputation for hospitality and friendliness is well deserved. They are a wonderful people.

Well, Allah was certainly watching after us, because none of the bad things we were warned about by any number of people befell us. With our two weeks in the Imperial cities over, we started looking forward to the next stage of our journey – the High Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert!

On to the High Atlas and Sahara Desert Safari!

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