Europe 15.07.16

Friday the 15th

Who would have thought? I had no idea Morocco was such a colourful country! We had been warned of the potential risks associated with untreated water in developing nations as well as the dangers for women in respect to Arab culture and the necessity to clothe moderately to minimise this. With a first impression consisting of unfathomable heat and sunburnt sahara, I chose to remove all expectations from my conscience on our visit across the mediterranean to Africa and as a result, I have been blown away! My blank pages were soon filled with stories of wondrous handwoven carpets, textured leather and vivid fabric in the maze of the Medina. We also visited a bath house in the afternoon and later indulged in a traditional Moroccan feast with a show. This is my favourite experience to date.

The Kings Palace was a sight to behold. From the multicoloured mosaic of tiles to the heavy bronze doors, this castle was justifiably the most beautiful in the country! Detail had been carved with chisel and hammer, and polished with lemon juice to create a reflective shine. In the event of a royal visit, the surrounding square is bedecked with carpets and the attending population dressed in white traditional robes, the djellaba. This cloak had a pointed cap which could be used to carry groceries from the medina, which was on the itinerary for later today. The stability in Morocco is due to the monarchic system of government. The country is reigned by a modest king who chose his wife from the public and was the first ruler to show her to his people. Whilst the wife of the king is acknowledged as royalty, she may not take the title of queen because women cannot be spiritual leaders. Instead, she is addressed as princess. The city of Fez is home to a large Jewish population whose gravesite we visited on the way to our tour that morning. The headstones were like small hills protruding from the white graves made of stone and plaster with small alcoves wherein a candle could be placed as sign of respect. Some of the sand-stained tombs were engraved with scripture and others were in the process of being repainted to restore them to their original white sheen.

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The medina is the marketplace of Morocco. A cluster of houses form a claustrophobic labyrinth which shows no clear navigational structure from our elevated position on the hilltop, swerving down towards the city. In single file, we entered the maze of the medina to begin our guided exploration of the complex alleyways. The buildings that form the walls of the maze had been birthed from the weathered earth and evoked a sensuous experience. The sight, the feel, the sound, the lingering scent of dried fruit and fresh meet mixed with mule faeces littered across the street. Every so often, the echo of “YALLAH” was heard within the plaza to warn the shoppers a donkey was about to pass with a heavy load of supplies. The corners festered with cats with matted fur and scrawny limbs. They were the pests of the street, once introduced to eliminate the overpopulation of disease-carrying rodents and now the embodiment of this pollution themselves. The medina had integrated bakeries, the university, a mosque, electricity and running water into its operation. It was another of the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites on our itinerary, and the effects of this funding was evident in the bamboo market where organically died vegetable silk hung to dry in tangled clumps. Duplicated stalls selling everything imaginable could be found herein: touristic commodities, fake branded items, clothing, brass decorations, technology, dried fruit and spices, raw meat, and on the list goes… Dead ends confronted us at the end of winding narrow streets but thankfully we had a knowledgable guide to stop us from running astray. The exteriors of the buildings were not distinguishable from one another and even the doors followed the same traditional template. Each door had two openings with a corresponding knock to indicate who was approaching: the lower knocker and inside door was reserved for female company to let the woman inside know she did not have to cover herself whilst the upper knocker and larger door was used by men. Therefore, the wealth of the locals can only be realised inside their homes. Whilst some street names were indicated through signage, the majority of places were unmarked which made postal services quite a challenge. Only when foreigners move into the city do they sprawl their details near the door of the apartment as an introduction to the existing community.

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We were in store for a series of demonstrations around the medina to learn the process of production and have a try at haggling with the locals. First, we went to a carpet warehouse wherein intricate multicoloured rugs occupied the walls and floors. Each takes two months to multiple years to weave by hand depending on size and complexity, a job reserved for widows. The salesmen sprawled a variety of round and rectangular mats in a multiplicity of colours and patterns for our closer inspection and explained that each had a summer and winter side. We were provided a moroccan burger in a pita wrap and sweet mint tea. After lunch was the leather tannery. We could smell the ammonia and rotting flesh before we could even see the workshop – and it did not look like more than any other apartment in the medina. The shop was spaced across six rooms which displayed tanned leather of cow, camel, goat and sheep. At the top floor, we each received a sprig of mint to attempt to mask the smell, but this was of little help for the pungent odour wafted upwards to our viewing point. Large vats were filled to the brim with lime juice and pigeon poo, for acid and ammonia respectively, in which the animal skin was soaked to cure the flesh. Thereafter, it was placed in a second vat for months at a time to absorb the natural dyes. A few of our company showed interest in purchasing commodities and I was amazed at the ability of Lauren to barter a large camel sack down to half price! Finally, we went to a fabric cooperative wherein a company of workers contribute to the weaving of cotton, lambswool and vegetable silk from the agave plant. The weaving process had been industrialised using a wooden mechanism which shot a bullet of spool between open and closed strings. The next thing I knew, I had my head tightly compressed in a headscarf for a demonstration and thereafter the group joined me in my dress-up in anticipation of the evening to come.

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When Mikael announced that we could accompany him on a visit to the local bathhouses I even surprised myself at how quickly I jumped at the opportunity. The image of communal bathing that came to my conscious was a vivid image i prefer not to describe, therefore I had little idea of what I was getting into. Conventionally, the locals visit the hamam every Thursday – I imagine they must have incredible skin due to the combination of weekly exfoliation and dressing in garments that obscure the sun. Mikael explained the process with such excitement that I could not help share his enthusiasm and I was entirely satisfied at my decision to participate. When we exited the bus, a group of men were huddled around the male entrance, eagerly fixated on our skimpily clothed figures as we slowly made our way through the female counterpart. Each given a course scrubber and a block of soft brown soap like tree sap, we undressed and entered the sauna. We kneeled in the last of three steam chambers increasing in temperature and, one by one, were selected by the bathing mothers who scrubbed our naked bodies. The women who attended to myself and five others payed us special attention, asking us to stay seated after the exfoliation so she could give us a soap rub and stretch also. By this time, the rest of our group had returned to the bus and we were becoming tired from the humid heat. An invigorating bucket of cold water was poured over our heads so we could enjoy the steam some time longer. The special treatment of our group of six meant that, with bright red faces, we were the last to return to the bus. The restlessness that had vibrated through our crowd before the scrub was amplified once we left the hamam for everyone was impressed with their smooth skin and this sense-tickling experience.

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For dinner that evening, everyone looked fabulous. Our contiki company had made an impressive effort to embrace the traditional dress: vibrantly coloured tunics and dresses adorned in embroidered detail were complemented with silken shawls in various textures. Despite our endeavours to disguise our tourism, our large group was still a sore sight amongst the locals when we traversed through the square and between congested buildings to the restaurant. A band welcomed us into the mosaic-heavy dining hall with fabric bedecked tables on the skirting of the room which resonated the image of a castle. My roommates and two other friends we had gotten to know over the past few days strategically occupied a table near the air conditioning where we would simultaneously be protected from the eager selection of the performers in the upcoming interactive show. The first course was a vegetable soup in which we were instructed to dip dates and honey-soy pastry, accompanied with a musical act. Hereafter, we were given a sugar-topped pastry filled with a smooth beef the texture of pate that was sweetly spiced with cinnamon, and meanwhile watched a magician make a scarf transform into a white dove. The main dish was a chicken apricot tagging and dancing mistress whom I was happy to be able to be able to ignore over my dinner. The food had been overpoweringly sweet until this point with the use of spices such as cinnamon and aniseed in each dish. A momentary interval in entertainment made way for an unofficial marriage demonstration between three of the diners and then the show was concluded with a bellydancer and melon slices for dessert.

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