Pulled the trigger and decided to leave the comfort of our nest in Chefchaouen, Morocco after 10 days. It had been rainy and cold for more than half that time, and slowing way down because of the injury I’d barely seen the light of day for a week.
Our last evening and final attempt to ransack the shops we’d been scouting for must-haves, clouds parted and the sun finally peeked out. Feeling a bit better and determined to enjoy the warmth, I managed to collect a decent variety of Moroccan gear. Included and of total surprise (as a usual non-rug lover), was a fairly large 25 yr. old “Berber” rug – made by the indigenous people of Morocco who live in the Rif or Atlas Mountains and Sahara desert. All other Moroccan people are descendants of Arabs coming from Spain or Saudi Arabia. I think this is why Morocco is so unique, among the many things, is the blending of African and Middle Eastern cultures and Islam which connects them all.
Next up, the Imperial city of Fes. Nothing compares to the narrow passageways, which create the labyrinth of Fes's medina. With walls so high and thick, it almost gives the feeling that nothing exists outside its matrix and in some places the sun can barely creep through. Luckily, our Riad or home was just steps away from one of the liveliest areas of the medina, the "blue gates." Amongst the many cafés and restaurants, a food market showcasing local fare – camel thighs suspended from large hooks, live chickens and pigeons, live turtles, cubed beef chunks suspended in thick fat (a typical breakfast), goat heads, and every part of an animal neatly displayed. Not for the faint of heart, but an authentic version of local delicacies and cuisine. We haven't quite ventured into those realms, just yet.
Ready for a girls night out, Jasmine and I headed in anticipation for the hammam we'd heard so much about. After paying around $1 for entry, we curiously poked our heads through the creaky doors and were instantly hit with the heavy smell of a sauna or sweaty locker room in need of sterilization. Woman sat topless scattered about in a tiled room filled with buckets of water, scrubbing themselves and then each other. We smiled, acknowledging that we had entered into the locals’ domain where there would be no thrills or fluff involved in this experience. Dollar or two more for an olive oil paste and hand scrubber, a nod yes for a 'massage,' we were directed to the steamy room and greeted with inquiring glances. A woman grabbed me by the arm leading towards yet another room, this one thick with heat intensely radiating from the floor and walls. She motioned for us to scrub ourselves and thinking we were left to our own devices, it made sense why it was so cheap, assuming it was self-service - and what a bonding moment for sure.
Water pooled in two large basins, one practically boiling and the other ice cold. We watched as women continually came in and out grabbing buckets of either variety and we tried to follow suit. Just when we thought it time to rinse off and go on our way - maybe try out a more 'spa-esque' hammam - we were greeted again, this time for massage. Seeing your friend getting scrubbed from head to toe with such force it’s hard not to laugh or feel bad for them. Definitely a cross between painful and pleasurable, it was quite an experience and pleased to have happened on the more gritty locals’ version. Mothers delivered the harsh scrubbing while their children squirmed uncomfortably, and babies cried. Feeling for a little girl on the verge of tears, I thought one day she’d deliver the same fierce scrubs to her children.
Slightly elated and a bit refreshed, I joked about wanting a glass of wine. Something we hadn't had for weeks, and for the first time it sounded appealing. On our way home we were ambushed by a guy in bright orange with a huge turban. "Welcome, welcome, come check out our terrace," something everyone with a restaurant says, "We have wine…" And so it began, a glass of wine in a Berber tent on the terrace turned into our most eventful night in Morocco. Live music with drums and a snake charmer flute, dancing, singing, shisha, and more wine. We even got to play dress up, each given Berber outfits in neon colors (think mumu) and scarfs to match, we were quite the spectacle.
Feeling we had barely scratched the surface of Fes' labyrinth and leaving the next day, Jasmine and I set out to see some notable attractions, most importantly the largest leather tannery. Not ten minutes into our mission we walked alongside a young man whose father happened to work at the tannery, and was actually on his way there now. Perfect, because there's no way we could successfully navigate there even with the map. First, he said, we would stop quickly at a Berber house to say hello, that kind of thing. A little confused and not entirely keen on the idea, we stopped in front of what looked like a rug store. Just then a few men ran past holding huge platters of couscous, and it was Friday the day of rest, where traditionally every family eats couscous. Stomachs growling, we both agreed on finding some after our short visit.
Clearly walking into a rug store, we reluctantly entered inside to find several men hovered over a communal platter of couscous surrounded by several other little dishes. Practically forcing us to sit down and eat with them, we awkwardly accepted and picked up a spoon. It's customary in their culture to always offer something, usually it's what they call "Moroccan whiskey" or mint tea with a hefty dose of sugar (also contributing to their notoriously bad teeth). After such hospitality and really delicious food, I felt obligated to ask about one of the many rugs on display, even though I had the scoop already from my previous purchase. "We don't talk about that now, we eat, no discussing business, and we're not leaving until you both finish this entire thing." We did our best, and thinking we could graciously ease our way out of there after tea, the official 'tour' began.
Several hours and cups of tea later, after seeing every old, distressed, and faded rug they had I fell in love with a couple more pieces and my friend shook hands on some too. Even involved a friend back home in the fun, she picked up two antique stunners as well. Obviously they're professionals and this is what they do but the hard sales process - if you're open to it and like what they’re offering - can be an enjoyable experience. Bargaining is a key element of Moroccan culture, and actually an insult if you don't try. Funny because on many occasions I’ve been called “Berber,” and told I have Berber eyes. After asking around what that really meant, the response was they’re strong and hard bargainers. Well, no wonder I love this place.
Until next time, from the Sahara sand dunes…
After thought: Great and unexpected experiences usually come about by saying “yes.” I think this is the best part of traveling, so many things coming your way that you constantly get to choose yes or no. (Wish I had said ‘no’ to that omelet which I think gave me food poisoning :P)