Month: June 2016

Morocco – Eight Days was Enough

sunshineFrom the beginning of my travel planning for Spain, some wise part of me decided to do just a quick reconnaissance of Morocco. I knew that I’d regret not taking the ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar and at least checking Morocco out. So I booked small hotels (renovated old houses in medinas) in Tangier and Fes, with a round-trip by train between Tangier and Fes, and a day trip by bus to the “Blue Village” Chefchaoen. I stayed in renovated large houses in the medinas of both Tangier and Fes.
2016-06-01 03.26.33Travel can be still be rewarding even when it’s not being enjoyable. I can’t say that I enjoyed Morocco: I found it very stressful; in fact I just realized that my lack of appetite while I was there was probably due to being stressed out by the whole place. One problem was that while the medinas are what I came to see, they are very difficult for visitors to navigate. Tourists constantly get lost. Boys and men constantly and aggressively interrogate any tourist that pauses and looks around for a moment, or wanders into a square where there’s nothing for tourists: “What do you want?” “Where do you want to go?” “Do you need something?” These guys are hoping you will give them a tip for guiding you someplace, but they often come across as aggressive and rude, or even hostile. I often couldn’t stop myself from answering a bit rudely or telling them they needed to work on their English. And then those interactions would fester in me for a couple of hours. Another annoyance was that (male) waiters and guides tended to touch me too much, as if they had retained the colonial “courtesies” of “guiding” Western women by the arm or shoulder. I’m pretty sure they don’t try to physically steer non-related Moroccan women around the same way.

Lamp Store
Lamp Store

The notorious touts I found to be less obnoxious; in fact I had a long conversation with one of the shopkeepers after he had walked me through his store and I didn’t buy anything. The mobile trinket sellers seem to target groups and didn’t bother me. (One afternoon I came back to the front door of my hotel in Tangier and found a cluster of seven or eight of them waiting outside the shop across the path, while a huge group of day trippers off the ferry was being shown the wares inside. But these guys just ignored me.)

looking-out-from-museum
Looking out the door from a museum set in a renovated foundouk

As for the women, most of the women in the medina wear hijabs (shoulder-length covering for the hair and ears) and loose clothing. In my mind, I came to associate this head covering as projecting humility and subservience, perhaps because in the West hairstyles and headgear for either sex often signal various types of confidence, pride, arrogance or even affluence by making the head appear larger. At any rate, Morocco reinforced for me Western cliches about Muslim culture. In the traditional medina, Homes are focused towards the interior and have few external windows. Women stay at home except when they’re shopping or taking the kids on a family outing to the beach (or the mall, if they’re rich.) Men are the ones you see on the streets except when the women are shopping for food. The only people hanging out in cafes drinking tea and coffee are men. I did see two hijab-clad women enjoying some coffee at an outdoor cafe, but all the other times it was tourists and Moroccan men. (This is all based on my observations of street life in the medina: I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of Moroccan women who go to jobs in offices, schools, hospitals, factories etc.) At a riad I stayed at, the women seemed to be expected to work ceaselessly all day while an additional staff person could have made their jobs a little less hectic. The owner’s mother has put the riad on the worldwide tourist map with her cooking, but I wonder if she ever gets a day off.

Plumber Advertisement
Plumber Advertisement

At any rate, in Morocco I ended up feeling kind of like Paul Theroux, who’s noted for his curmudgeonly travel writing.  I’m left exploring the question of how travel is still valuable when it is uncomfortable. To what extent might I, personally, pursue more challenging travel? Right now in my burnt-out state, my plans for India or other poor countries (Cuba?) are trending in the direction of expensive guided tours.

Bookstore in a non-renovated foundouk (caravansery)
Bookstore in a non-renovated foundouk (caravansery)
Old window over a medina street
Old window over a medina street

After a comfortable night at the Tangier Hilton, which was so American it even had washcloths, getting off the ferry at the Spanish beach town of Tarifa was like opening the windows on a bright morning after a long night! The first thing I did was find my way to Cafe Azul for a brunch of an omelet, toast and smoothie served by a friendly female waiter, then headed to the bus station for the short trip to Cadiz.

Friendly Spanish Restaurant (Actually, I did find an equally cool cafe in Fes called the Clock Cafe.)
Friendly Spanish Restaurant (Actually, I did find an equally cool cafe in Fes called the Clock Cafe.)
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Morocco has Pungas Too

Fes-date-stall-with-punga
Nuts and Pungas

Morocco is another Peace Corps country – it qualifies as possessing crucial needs that American volunteers might address.

(Goal #1: “To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.” As a sidelight, I see that the wording has changed. It used to say “in meeting their need for trained men and women” which I interpreted as deliberately ambiguous in order to mean both the volunteers and the host country citizens who also receive training from and with volunteers.)

The Tangier Medina from the roof of my lodging Dar Souran
The Tangier Medina from the roof of my lodging Dar Souran

To get back to the topic, I find that average per capita income in Morocco is 40% of the world’s average (~$5,000), while Moldova manages only 27% (~$3500). Although in Morocco I’m encountering a very different and sometimes bewildering culture, there are many things that remind me of my life in Moldova. I think this is because there are certain patterns that humans adopt for living in villages and towns. I’m spending most of my time in the medinas of Tangier and Fes. A “medina” could be perhaps be defined as a dense, ancient, urban village. These are the “old towns” of Morocco, which are connected to more modern, sometimes equally poor areas. (These newer areas and the countryside remind me of Chisinau:  in that context I can’t resist noting that Morocco knows how to maintain its walking pavements for secure footing, and manages to build stairs, ancient and new, with consistent riser heights. Maybe that’s the 40% vs. the 27% but probably due to thousands of years’ more experience with urban pavements and multi-story buildings.)

Fruit Seller
Fruit Seller (Fes)
Sunday-market
The Berber Sunday Market in Tangier outside of the Catholic Church

My amateur anthropological observation is that there are universal market patterns. People bring fruits and vegetables into the city markets every day: in Moldova by car or bus; in Morocco sometimes by donkey or mule. The markets are made up of hundreds of tiny stalls, as well as people sitting on the ground among their fresh fruit, vegetables, cheeses and milk. Markets in remoter areas are held on certain days of the week, just as the market in my village in Moldova occurred on Thursdays and Sundays.

The Fes medina market streets are extensive and well-developed - both the renovated and the older parts.
The Fes medina market streets are extensive and well-developed – both the renovated and the older parts.

In Morocco, there are towns whose names are a day of the week, after the day of their traditional market, even if it’s no longer held. In Viet Nam, we visited a Sunday market attended by people from rural tribes; in Tangier, many Berber women come in on Sunday to sell vegetables and cheese. As I travel by bus or train through Morocco, I see people on the road. Often they are on foot, in horse-drawn carts, and little three-stroke vehicles. The standard American Bible illustration of Mary and Joseph traveling by donkey is the sort of thing you can still see in Morocco – and it looks hot, slow and uncomfortable.

Local Freight
Local Freight
mule
Hard work’s over for the day …

Thankful for my high station in life, I am always impressed by the human spirit – working hard in hot fields and then taking a day off to make a long trip to the market. There is the perennial hope that the year will be a good one, that there will be enough rain and that the summer won’t be too hot, but if things don’t work out for the best humans just keep doing their best to survive.

Roadside "stand" of Moroccan herbs
Roadside “stand” of Moroccan herbs
Medina Fruit Seller - has a large room, sells to hotels
Medina Fruit Seller in Fes – he sells to hotels & restaurants so he has lots of room.
Tangier street outside of the medina
Tangier street outside of the medina

And so there are pungas here. Punga is a Romanian word for a bag or pouch (see πουγκί – “punki” – translates as pouch) so this is the word that Moldovans use for the cheap, strong woven-plastic bags of all sizes that the third world uses for carrying practically everyhing. Ever since I saw them in Romania and China I’ve looked for them in the U.S.A. to use for emergency luggage. (And indeed, I’m using one of my Moldovan pungas now for the overflow luggage on this trip – hopefully I can check it through on my flight home.)

Bought a cushion cover in Fes so got the punga out. Here, it's also loaded with leftover groceries as I head to my next tourist apartment in Seville.
Bought a cushion cover in Fes so had to get the punga out. Here, it’s also loaded with leftover groceries as I head from Cadiz to my next tourist apartment in Seville.