the Long's Strange Trip

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Questing into the unknown...
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~  I Have a Friend in America! ~
April 13 through May 8, 2000
$1 U.S. = 10 dirhams
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Chaouen, Morocco
April 13 through April 15

(ccl)  Let me start off this section by saying if you've only been to Tangiers, you haven't been to Morocco.  The rest of this country is so vastly different from the port city on the Straits of Gilbraltar, it's sometimes hard to believe Tangiers is part of it.  Certainly, part of it can be attributed to the attitude we had when we arrived in Tangiers.  We had been warned by the guidebooks to Be Alert! in Tangiers, that there were many touts and crooks (as we found out for ourselves; see Wiley's account in Touts in Tangiers), and I had even been accosted by a woman in the veterinarian's office in Atlanta who told me she had been beaten up in Tangiers for smoking a cigarette in public (I'm not sure I believe her story, she was quite hysterical, but women don't  smoke in public in Morocco).  We were very much on our guard in Tangiers, and I think it's difficult to get comfortable in a place when you're constantly worried about who's trying to rob you.  But after traveling for several weeks through many other areas of Morocco, I believe I can say with some certainty that the percentage of charlatans is high in Tangiers.  When you think about it, it's not surprising.  Lots of people come over to Tangiers on day trips from Spain, so there is a cottage industry of people there waiting to take advantage of them. 

Which leads me to an explanation of the name of this page.  Moroccans are friendly people.  The vast majority expect nothing in return for the kindnesses they offer to the many strangers that visit their homeland.  Typically, if they speak any English at all, they will ask if we're from England.  When we say, no, we're American, the average Moroccan inevitably replies, "America!!  I have a friend in America!".  Some of them will even go so far as to ask if you know the person, who invariably lives in New York or L.A.  Moroccans love Americans, and they don't see many of them, so we are a rare commodity over here.  You probably didn't know this, but when the colonies declared their independence from England in 1776, Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States of America as a sovereign nation.

So for the people who are trying to get us to buy something, or trying to take us to a shop that sells carpet or ceramics or whatever, this phrase, "I have a friend in America!"  is a great opening.  We've heard it a lot since we've been here.  

It's important when traveling anywhere to be alert and aware of your surroundings, to keep track of your belongings at all times (we're getting better at this one), and to be on the lookout for people whose main goal in life is to separate you from your money.  But when you do this, you run the risk of missing out on meeting wonderful people and having the kinds of experiences that people travel to have.  One of these experiences occurred as the result of a trip we took to the lovely little hamlet of Chaouen, which is an hour and a half and a world away from Tangiers.

Lovely blue walls of Chaouen  Chaouen is a beautiful blue- and white-washed town set in the Rif Mountains in Northern Morocco.  Populated in the 1500's by Muslims and Jews fleeing Spain and the Spanish Inquisition, most people speak Spanish there, in addition to French and Arabic.  All Moroccans speak at least three languages, and we were quickly humbled by even the most humble Moroccan's language abilities. 

Chaouen Kasbah Walls  Chaouen's kasbah dates to the 15th century.  If you, like us, have been pretending to know what a "kasbah" is since the Clash's big hit of the 80's, "Rock the Kasbah", I am now going to clue you in without your having to embarrass yourself by asking, "Exactly what is a kasbah ?".  A kasbah is simply a fortress, and pretty much every town in Morocco has one.  The one in Chaouen is especially well-preserved, and it contains a great museum with an exhibit of local costumes, weapons, and pottery.

Woman and cats  We enjoyed exploring Chaouen for a couple of days.  Like other Moroccan towns, Chaouen has an extensive medina , or medieval quarter, which dates back several hundred years, and where people still live today.  As you can see from the picture above, the medina in Chaouen is particularly attractive, as the walls are washed with blue and white paint.  The locals are really friendly, and there are an abundance of friendly cats, which we of course enjoyed.  We bought a beautiful carved wooden picture frame that we will no doubt pay twice the purchase price in shipping to get it home.

Meknes, Morocco
April 15 through April 19

(ccl)  Riding the buses in Morocco is an adventure in and of itself.  You walk into the bus station, and several men are shouting the names of different cities, advertising the buses that are leaving soon.  Many of them are shouting directly in your face, and often it sounds nothing like the name of the city you want to go to.  After the bus pulls away, the driver stops to pick up at least five more people who are running alongside, beating on the door.  Somehow in Chaouen we managed to understand that the morning bus to Meknes was full, but that we could take another bus at 2:15 that afternoon.  We bought our tickets, ate some breakfast, bought a few more souvenirs, and arrived back at the station at 1:30.  Around 2:10 we still weren't able to determine which bus was ours.  Finally a bus pulled in, and I asked two Moroccan girls who were sitting next to us, "Meknes?", and I pointed at the newly arrived bus, expecting them to just answer, "Oui,", since we had not met any women in Morocco who spoke English.  Actually, we hadn't met any women in Morocco, period.  To our surprise, one of them answered us in complete English sentences, told us that they were going to Meknes also, and even saved us a seat on the bus.  In Morocco, it's important to get a seat where you can keep an eye on the baggage compartment where your bags are, so that when the bus stops intermittently along the way, you can make sure your bags stay on.  Our new friends got us seats right over the baggage compartment.  

Along the way we were stopped several times at police checkpoints.  Typically, the police would have a conversation with the bus driver, then one of them would get on the bus and walk down the aisle, scrutinizing each passenger.  At one stop, a man on the bus began verbally berating the policeman.  One of the girls told us that the man was crazy, that he was insulting the king (Morocco is one of the few absolute monarchies left in the world.  The new king is 32 years old.  His father, the much beloved King Hassan II, whose picture hangs in every business establishment in Morocco, died in December after ruling almost 40 years.), which is something that is not done in Morocco.  Later, we found out that what's really going on is the common practice of transporting "black market" goods via bus into towns in Morocco.  These goods typically come duty-free from Spain, and the buses transport the goods.  The police make a big show of getting on the bus and looking for contraband, but they've already been "greased" outside by the bus driver.  They never "see" anything.

As we pulled into Meknes, our friends gave us advice on where to find inexpensive hotels, and pointed the way for us.  Much to our surprise, one of the girls invited us to her house to have dinner with her family.  We were delighted, and accepted the invitation for Sunday night.  Later, Wiley and I talked about what our mothers would have done to us if we had come home saying, "Hope it's OK, I've invited a new backpacking friend I met on the bus home for dinner."...

We tried to explore Meknes the next day, but it was rainy and cold, and I was fighting off a cold, so we didn't have much luck.  Tourist attractions in Morocco open at 9:00, close at 12:00 for lunch, and open back up again from 3:00 till 5:00.  We hit everything shortly after 12:30, so we saw nothing. 

As we waited at the bus station to meet our new friend, Nabila, to go to her house for dinner, we watched with interest as a woman walked up to a taxi driver with a full-grown sheep and proceeded to tie the sheep's feet together and put him in the trunk of a Mercedes taxi.  Nabila met us with her little sister, Tatiana, and we walked to her house.  There we met Nabila's mother and father, her brother, Hafid, who's a computer programmer, and her sister, Noel, who's in law school.  Nabila had just finished her degree in computer science, and Tatiana was 12. 

New friends from Meknes  It was somewhat strange coming to dinner at the house of someone you've only exchanged a few words with, but Nabila's family made us feel at home immediately.  I kept thinking about our friend Mike Dalsey in Atlanta, and how had asked us before we left to observe people we met around the world and tell him if people were basically the same everywhere.  As I watched Nabila's family joke and flip channels on the TV, I could only think, Yes!  People everywhere in the world are doing this very thing right now. 

The Moroccan style of eating is very relaxed.  Everyone is seated around the wall in low bench-style seats with thick cushions underneath and at the back.  The table is low, and everyone leans forward and eats.  It's a very communal way of eating.  Nabila's sisters brought in the dinner table, which was on wheels, and when I saw what was there, I thought we had been mistaken, and that the invitation was for dessert, not dinner.  The table was laden with several kinds of cookies, two or three cakes, fresh bread, jam, cheese, and olives.  And we were each given a glass of Moroccan mint tea.  As we ate our cakes and chatted, we found out that this  meal was tea, and that dinner would be out shortly. 

We enjoyed getting to share time with this wonderful family.  Nabila spoke the most English, so she did most of the talking.  We talked some about religion, and told Nabila that we were Christian but not Catholic.  She told us that her mother and father are good Muslims, that they pray five times per day and go to the mosque, but the children aren't as good.  She told us that she believes in God, but that it is too hard to be a devout Muslim.  She told us how difficult it is to be a woman in Morocco, how they must do all of the work around the house, and often they must work outside the house as well.  It's a cultural thing, and the men seem to spend more time with each other than with their families.  Every night the cafes are packed with men sitting together, drinking coffee or tea.  Women are hardly ever present, and when they are, they're with other women.

It was interesting to see how Nabila balanced the traditional world and the modern western world. She wears regular clothes in the New Town, or ville noveau,  but wears her kaftan in the medina. She also wore a beautiful kaftan while we were at her house, which she wears only when she’s at home.  She showed us some other kaftans that she wears on special occasions.  

We were both full by the time dinner came, but we dove in.  The main course was tajine, a Moroccan specialty cooked in a glazed clay dish with a conical top.  I guess you could call it the Moroccan equivalent of the Crock Pot.  Tajine contains meat and vegetables, and the slow cooking process makes everything very tender and juicy.  The tajine that Nabila's mother had prepared contained beef, fava beans, and artichoke bottoms.  It was delicious, and we ate in the traditional Moroccan style, using no utensils, only pieces of homemade bread to scoop up the food.  Everyone eats out of the same dish, so the meal is very lively and the atmosphere is familial.

We ended the evening by showing them pictures of our house, families, and the cats, and they shared some family pictures as well.  Nabila's dad, Mohammed, is an Arabic professor, and his hobby is raising and training canaries.  He enters them in competitions where the bird that sings the best wins.  He had lots of pictures of his birds, and was obviously extremely proud.  When we left, Nabila, Hamid, and Mohammed walked us outside and got a taxi for us.  It was such a special evening, and I couldn't help but think as we left that one of the reasons we went on this trip was to make connections with people like that.  On the way home we talked about what our mothers would have said if we had come home from a weekend trip and announced, "Oh, by the way, Mom.  I met some backpackers on the bus and invited them to dinner tomorrow night.".  We talked about how your life could change if you just opened yourself up to people like that, and gave the gift of friendship to complete strangers.  We thought of our friends, Michael and Dana Persons in Atlanta, who have a phenomenal number of friends all over the country, because they do just that.  

Inside the Basillica at Volubilis  The other highlight of our trip to Meknes was a side trip we took to the Roman ruins of Volubilis, about 30 minutes away by taxi.  In 24 A.D., Volubilis was the capital of the Roman kingdom of Mauretania, and was occupied by various peoples up until the 11th century, when it was abandoned.  During this time, Volubilis was a thriving agricultural center, and was key in the production of olive oil.  Many ancient olive presses can still be seen today around the ruins, and it's possible to get a sense of how they worked, using a stone that went around to grind the olives and press out the oil, which then ran down stone pipes to collection tanks.   Wiley on an ancient olive press

Probably the most impressive things about Volubilis are the many well-preserved decorative mosaics.   The Romans loved mosaics, which are made by setting small, colored pieces of stone, pottery, glass, tile, or shell to form a design.  The richer and more important you were, the better and more elaborate the mosiacs in your house.   There are the remnants of mosaics to be found all over the former Roman empire, but those in North Africa are much better preserved than any others, due to a combination of climate and lesser pressures from population.  Example of amazing mosaics at Volubilis 

There is an incredible feeling in the air at Volubilis, one that is ancient at the same time as it is current.  The ruins have been partially restructured, which gives you an sense of what life was like there 2000 years ago.  The surrounding countryside is heavily farmed today with Morocco's number one crop, wheat, so there is vibrancy of daily life as well.  It definitely has a magical feeling.  Greek god poses at Volubilis

Fes, Morocco
April 19 through April 22

(ccl)  In order to avoid the chaos of the bus station, we took a grand taxi to Fes.  A grand taxi is bigger than a petit taxi, and makes trips between cities.  Grand taxis are always Mercedes, and at least 20 years old, and the drivers wait at the taxi stand until they have a "full" load, five or six passengers, before they leave for their destination.  We snagged the front seat, which is usually the best, since they cram four people into the back. 

In Fes we experienced our first run-in with the European "Easter Vacation Week" phenomena.  Apparently, a lot of Europeans get the entire week after Easter off, so the hotels in Fes we almost all full of vacationing French and Spanish people when we got there.  We managed to get one of the last rooms at the Hotel Amor, a nice place for 190 dirhams a night.

Above the Fes leather tanneries  Fes is a fascinating city, and has the best-preserved medina in Morocco.  We explored it on our own the first day, and hired an official guide the second.  Hammid, our guide, took us throughout the medina and showed us both the monuments and the craftspeople.  According to one of our guide books, when the rest of the European craftsmen's guilds started breaking up in the 19th century, as mechanization became more prevalent and people stopped making things by hand, Morocco's craftsmen kept their ancient ways.  In Fes we were exposed to the entire craft "lifecycle", from the shearing ("live" wool) and skinning (naturally, "dead" wool) of sheep, to the guys who stand in the streets of the medina spinning the wool into thread using a hand mixer to twist it, to the dyers of the thread, to the people who take the thread and weave in into the beautiful cloth from which djallabahs  (traditional caftan-like garments with hoods that many Moroccans wear) are made.  We saw leather tanners tanning fresh skins and dying them yellow (from saffron), red (from poppy flowers), purple (from sea shells), blue (from indigo), and green (from mint and pidgeon droppings).  This definitely looked like the worst of the jobs, as the tanners are required to stand in the vats of dye, often mixed with cow urine, and stir the skins to get the color into them.

Ritual cleansing before prayer  When we toured the medina, it was Friday, the Muslim holy day, and we happened to be walking past the main mosque just as the midday call to prayer went out.  As non-Muslims, we aren't allowed to enter the mosques or other Muslim holy places, but we could stand outside and watch as the faithful gathered to participate in one of the five daily group prayers.  Muslims must be ritually clean to pray, and we watched as they washed themselves in the fountain in the midha, the absolutions area of the mosque.  The muezzin, or prayer leader, calls out to the Muslims in the area via a loudspeaker at the top of the minaret, which I suppose would equate to a steeple in a Christian church.

One of the goals we had for this trip was to learn more about how other people worship, so I had a lot of questions for our guide about the Muslim religion.  He told us that a devout Muslim must answer the call to prayer five times per day, and after prayer he must face Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, which is in Saudi Arabia, and prostrate himself.  It's OK to pray anywhere, but it's best if you can get to the mosque to pray with others.  There are five basic central points of the religion, called the Pillars of Islam.  They are:

  • the shahada, or profession of faith, which involves reciting, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is the Messenger of God;

  • the salat, or prayer, done five times per day;

  • the giving of zakat, or alms, to the poor (you see a lot of people begging on Friday, when everyone is trying to be a good Muslim!)

  • sawm, or fasting during the month of Ramadhan, which is the Muslim equivalent of Lent;

  • and the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca that every devout Muslim must make once during his life, if at all possible (typically something that is not financially feasible for the average Moroccan).

I was interested to know more about some of the gender issues within Islam, but it's difficult to ask such questions without offending.  It's hard to understand in a Muslim society where religion and culture begin and end, because the culture is such a product of their religious beliefs.  In Morocco, society seems, to the outsider, to be extremely polarized along gender lines.  Men sit for hours in cafes, talking and sipping coffee, while women tend to the home or spend time in groups with other women.  Rarely do you see groups of men and women together.  According to one of our guidebooks, the Koran, the Muslim equivalent of the Bible, stresses the equality of men and women, but early Muslim rulers decided that they needed another source of laws to govern the people by, so the hadith  was written.  The hadith contains short statements that recount what Mohammed was supposed  to have said, and this is where much of the current philosophy about the role of women has come from.  What's interesting to me is that, much like Christianity, the intent of the original messenger of God, in this case Mohammed, was good, but those who came after him re-interpreted the message, leading to possible distortion. 

The Sahara Desert, Morocco
April 22 through April 24

(ccl)  We have always loved the desert, Wiley since a childhood trip to Death Valley, and me since my first trip to the Anza-Borego desert in California.  So it was never a question that we were going to make the trip out to the Sahara to see the amazing sand dunes at Erg Chebbi.

We rented a car from a truly irritating woman in Fes, who tried to insist that we had to by the supplemental insurance from her, which we knew was covered if we charged the car on American Express.  Luckily, we quickly forgot about her as we got the Fiat Uno out on the open road.  There's a great feeling of freedom that comes from having your own car and being able to explore at your own pace.  Moroccan roads are typically pretty good and pretty deserted, and the speed limit is 100 KPH (60 MPH).  The Uno wouldn't do much more than that anyways, so we felt free and happy. 

We encountered a myriad of vehicles on the Moroccan highways.  Children and adults riding bicycles are everywhere, especially in the towns we passed through, and understandably, they like riding on the road better than the gravel shoulder, so it was a bit dicey getting by them at times.  In many cases, they're balancing their best friend on the bar, so that adds to their wobbleiness.  I thought about how my father  used to (and I'm sure, still does) get mad when slow-moving vehicles like tractors drove down the highway  and slowed him down.  We passed tractors, combines, donkey carts loaded with hay, camels - you name it, it's moving down a Moroccan highway, somewhere.  

On our way to the desert we passed through some beautiful cedar forests.  At one point, we saw a tour bus pulled over and many tourists out observing some kind of wildlife.  We thought they were deer, but it turned out to be a large group of some type of monkeys, who were aggressively grabbing for pieces of bread offered to them by the tourists (NO ONE should EVER give food to a wild animal.  They become accustomed to humans, and lose their fear of us, and then one day they hurt someone and somebody decides that they have to be killed, and that's not good for any of us.).  Monkeys in tree

We stopped for the night in Er Rachidia, a non-descript but pleasant town about 100 kilometers from the town of Merzouga, which was to be our base of exploration for the Sahara.  Over coffee that afternoon we met up with a couple of guys who said they were going to Merzouga on the bus the next day, would be like to go with them?  We explained that we had a car, and they proceeded to tell us how confusing the road to Merzouga is, and how sometimes tourists get their rent-a-cars stuck in the sand that blows across the road into drifts.  By the end of the evening, we had invited them to ride to Merzouga with us, believing that they were just guys who worked there who needed a ride back, and that the trip would be mutually beneficial. 

We left Er Rachidia at 9:30 the next morning after picking up Hammid and Adeal.  By this time, we had developed some skepticism about their intent, mainly just because a lot people who offer help in Morocco are going to eventually want a tip for it.  We resolved between the two of us that we would make it clear if they asked that we had no money for that. 

It turns out that once you leave Erfoud, the largest town on the western edge of the Moroccan Sahara, the road gets pretty bad.  We saw literally hundreds of 4X4 vehicles out there.  Apparently, off-roading is quite a popular sport amongst the Spanish and French.  At least some buyers of 4X4's are using the 4-wheel drive features of their vehicles, since most Americans aren't.  Anyways, the road never really disappeared, and it wouldn't have been hard for us to get there on our own.  The "road" actually became several roads, all of which led to the same place, and some of which were better than others.  The biggest danger is getting stuck in sand.  We made it to Merzouga with no problems, and it was quite hilarious at times as Hammid and Adeal tried to direct us, "More on the right", or "Left, left", when they actually meant the opposite direction, but got their English words confused.

We stopped at a little inn on the edges of Merzouga called Tombucktu, where it just so happened Adeal worked in the kitchen sometimes (nothing in Morocco happens by coincidence, I'm convinced), and made a deal with a "camel man" named Bari to take us out in the desert by camel that night, cook us dinner, and let us sleep in his tent at an oasis.  Over mint tea, the crew showed us pictures from a Moroccan magazine of Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's visit to Morocco last year, and told us that the Moroccan leading Chelsea's camel was Bari.  It could have been Omar Shariff, as his face was completely obscured by his head covering.

Nobody seems to do much of anything in the Sahara during the middle of the day.  Most people at the inn were just sitting around, chatting, playing drums, or swatting flies.  Whatever used the least amount of energy.  As we sat in the shade on the back porch, we watched at three figures approached the inn from the dunes.  As they got closer, we saw that they were men pulling little sand "sleds", using ski poles and wearing the sand equivalent of snow shoes.  They were Spanish, and told us that they had been hiking around in the desert for three days.  Wiley asked one of them how many times he had done this, and he said that this was his first and last time.  One of the guys working at the inn brought them each a cold Coke, and you could have absolutely filmed a commercial for the stuff.  Who am I to criticize what other people do for fun, being someone who once ran 26.2 miles for a t-shirt and a medal?

Wiley of Arabia  That afternoon we headed out for the dunes around 4:30, each of us on our own camel with a guy leading us.  Wiley suited up in his djellabah and turban and looked very similar to a young Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia.  He quickly named his camel "Wildfire", and after I was completely uninspired with a suitable name for mine, he also came up with "Horse With No Name".  The dunes were beautiful, and some seemed as high as mountains, and as sunset approached, they changed colors, from oranges to roses to purples.  We rode for about two hours.  Camels have a smooth gait and are pretty easy to ride, but we were both a little sore the next day.

Been through the desert on a horse with no name  The oasis we went to was used by lots of "camel men", it turned out, so there were probably 30 tourists spending the night there.  We were the only ones that had signed up with Bari, however, so they cooked a delicious beef tajine just for us, then sang songs and played drums under what seemed like millions of stars.  They made an incredible bed for us out under those stars, with beautiful white sheets and three or four heavy, warm blankets.  It was a magical place to spend the night.  The next morning we left right after sunrise to head back to Merzouga for breakfast, then drove out of the desert and on to more adventures.  a sea of sand

Click here to continue in Morocco with "Parasites, Amateur Dentists, and Snake Charmers"