After a 3-hr ferry ride across the Strait of Gibraltar and a 6-hr drive through Moroccan countryside, we’ve arrived in the city of Fez, Morocco’s oldest Imperial city. The ferry ride was an experience in itself, not least because of a 2-hr delay for goodness-knows-what-reason. Most of us simply lounged on the deck and listened to our iPods, napped, and enjoyed the breeze and the fresh air. Of course, those of us who chose to do so paid dearly for it. It doesn’t seem to matter how religious one is about the application of sunscreen here, the sun just sort of tosses its head and laughs at our feeble attempts to block its rays. You can have the most expensive bottle of SPF 55 sweatproof, waterproof, full-spectrum, yadda-yadda-yadda, and it seems to make only the smallest difference.
We were provided with plenty of forewarnings prior to arriving in Morocco: 1) do not drink the water 2) do not brush your teeth with the water 3) basically, don’t even LOOK at the water (okay, I added this one…but you get the point) 5) do NOT take pictures of officials (it is strictly forbidden in Morocco) 6) if you’re female, cover up—that is, wear conservative clothing—or be prepared to attract stares from the men 7) if you take pictures of the locals, be prepared to offer them a few small coins in return, and 8) always be prepared with toilet paper (Moroccans use a ‘Turkish-style’ toilet…which is little more than a hole in the ground and a faucet). Speaking of which, I experienced my first Turkish toilet not long after disembarking from the ferry. Let me just say that if one can find a Western-style toilet, one should do so. But I digress…
Morocco is easily the most exotic place I’ve ever been. It isn’t just that it’s in Africa, which is a new continent for me, it’s that it is a panoply of unusual sights, smells, tastes, and customs. The Moroccan countryside was an interesting surprise for me. I expected a Saharan-style desert landscape, but discovered that much of Morocco’s landscape in this part of the country is not so different from what I might see on a drive home in Eastern Washington—in other words, dry grasses, green trees, and rolling hills. Still, this is definitely a desert climate (desert steppe, to be precise), complete with cacti and other flora that one might see in such climates. This time of year must be harvesting time for the grasses, because throughout much of the countryside you can see farmers (and their entire families) gathering up hay by hand and loading their heavy bundles upon head and donkey-back.
Although it’s incredibly hot here, many Moroccans (and particularly Moroccan women) wear a long garment called a ‘jalaba’ over their clothing. Despite the fact that Morocco is approximately 90+ percent Muslim, our Moroccan guide tells us that the garment is worn more for practical reasons than a religious one because it protects its wearers from the harsh desert sun. Our guide, who happens to be female, seems particularly intent on making us understand that the form of dress is a choice for women in Morocco, ostensibly to distinguish Morocco’s customs from those in other Muslim countries. Many Moroccan women also cover their heads with scarves; though this is also partly to protect themselves from sun, our guide also explains that Muslim women believe that 50 percent of a woman’s beauty comes from her hair, so covering it up also protects her from unwanted advances from men. Again, whether the woman wears the scarf is a choice that is made between a husband and his wife. It is not a requirement.
This morning we went to the Medina, which means ‘old city.’ Fez’s Medina is the oldest in the country and is comprised of 9000 streets (all of which look almost exactly the same). Half a million Moroccans live in the Medina and many of them have never left it; it is a city-within-a-city and contains everything the inhabitants could possibly need in a labyrinth of souks, mosques, and private dwellings. The roads inside the Medina (if you can call them roads) are extremely narrow and only donkeys can be used as transportation within its walls; as a result, those half-million Moroccans share their space with 7000 donkeys who toil with their heavy loads up and down the precarious streets. Interestingly, the Coca-Cola company owns some of these donkeys, which are used to deliver Coca-Cola products to the souks. No sight of Pepsi anywhere. ; )
To say that the Medina is a sight of incredible poverty wouldn’t explain it properly. Certainly, to a Westerner like myself, the conditions that I see in the Medina appear deplorable, unsafe, and unhygienic in the extreme. The streets are filled with beggars and people with terrible disfigurements. Obvious travelers like ourselves are bombarded with requests for money or by panhandlers selling cheap trinkets. The Medina’s inhabitants appear beyond what I understand poverty to be in my own country; but to these Moroccans, this is their way of life. It makes me wonder how some of these people—the ones who are clearly at the bottom-end of a socio-economic scale that is already at the low end of the global economy—perceive their own world and how they would perceive mine if they had the opportunity to experience it.