Friday, February 20, 2009

morocco by k

i’m sitting here in our very tall bed looking out at the atlantic ocean. it is quite a view. over the ramparts of the old medina in essaouira, onto an outcropping of rocks with tide pools. we hear the sound of the sea all day and’s nice. the sound reminds me of staying in the first apartment my dad rented after my parents was right by the beach in la jolla and i could hear the waves there always too.

we’re staying in an apartment in the medina (old walled city) here...down a narrow street with all kinds of goodies on the ground, from fish guts, to cut up snake (according to barak) and other pungent items. we also have a resident crazy guy who hangs at the end of the passageway, talking to himself all day, wearing pink converse sneakers.

it’s a very nicely redone place...three stories of house with a terrace on the roof. it’s all very simple and well-cared for by the woman who comes daily, rashida. there is a long, deep bathtub which takes at least a half hour to fill because water pressure is very low, but it’s worth it. i can lie down completely flat head to feet in the bottom, so we’ve had several multi-person baths over the days. especially nice after a windy day at the beach!

we were supposed to spend the week with our friends, kim and jim, and their kids emma and myles. unfortunately, emma and then myles got the flu days before they were scheduled to leave, so they had to cancel. very disappointing...we were all really looking forward to hanging out with some friends from home and sharing this experience. alas, it was not meant to be.

one of the owner’s of the apartment, a british guy, gave us a tour of the medina on our first day here. he told us where all the good places to eat lunch are, but added each time (at least 10, no kidding) that he “doesn’t take lunch.” needless to say, this became a standing joke that has lasted the whole trip, even more so after he dropped by the next day after having “taken lunch with friends.” i bit my tongue and didn’t say, but i thought you don’t take lunch! he and his wife were here to try to make the internet work, to no avail. that’s the only annoying thing about this place...we specifically chose it because it has internet. instead of getting really worked up, i ended up canceling all my appointments for the week and moving on, moroccan-style. in some ways, it has been nice to be unplugged, but it has also been frustrating. we went once to an internet cafe, but the keyboards were so different from what we’re used to that i kept my messages very short!

as sven told us, essaouira is a mellow place. there are lots of places to buy things, but you are not constantly harangued. a few “i’m still waiting for you to come in” or “you’re coming back tomorrow...promise” but it’s not oppressive at all. that is a relief. of course, if you show any interest, they are there ready to serve, so we have mostly skipped shopping of any kind.

i did get a bit swindled today...i guess it had to happen at some point! we were on the beach and i was playing hopscotch with arel and dorian. a woman came up to us offering to henna. i said no, merci. she said tomorrow? i said, sure, maybe tomorrow. should have walked away at that point. then she grabs my hand and says, a flower for good luck. now, i thought, okay, she’s just trying to hook me. a little flower is okay. well, that turned into a big flower and then a scorpion for arel and dorian. barak was to the side working on a sand castle...fortunately he escaped. i said how much, thinking it would be a few dollars, but she wanted 40 euros! considering that the average moroccan earns (according to lonely planet) only about 4 euros a day, i knew this was outrageous, but what is a girl to do when the goods are already transferred?! well, i got it down to about 30 euros, but i’m still mad at myself for not stopping and setting a price first. i’m trying to look at it as my essaouira community donation, so i don’t feel like an idiot. it’s not so much the money as the way it happened. i guess, one swindle for the trip is not too bad.

arel, dorian and barak went camel riding on the beach one day. it was too cold and windy for me. both kids said it was “awesome!” barak and arel went horseback riding today...dorian and i decided to pass on that adventure. they had a great time, riding with the berber horsemen. hopefully one of them will write about it.

our favorite place to hangout is called the ocean’s at the end of the long beach that begins next to town. there is a big outdoor patio, near the area where one can rent camels and horses, and close to some dunes. comfy chairs and mattresses invited us to stay for hours. us, and the very french population of visitors. arel and dorian had fun rolling on the sand dunes, and even found a few desert tortoises...funny to see them slowly make there way across the sand. little footprints that slowly disappear in the wind. i did not want sand in every orifice of my body, so i waited for them at the bottom of the dunes. i positioned myself to keep sand exposure to a minimum, but then had the wonderful idea of putting lip ointment on. within one millisecond, my lips were coated in fine sand...yuck! i got up and crossed to the beach where i waited for them to finish their dunes exploration. yesterday we hung out at a hotel closer to town owned by the same people. kids played in the pool and we had lunch there.

we went to a traditional moroccan dinner one night. it took so long for the food to come that dorian fell asleep with his head on my lap after the first course. i had couscous, which was really yummy...better than couscous at home. barak had a tagine and arel had some fish. fortunately, dorian was just going to sample from our second courses, so he didn’t have more food coming. he swears he didn’t fall asleep in the restaurant, but we know the truth!

one night we had a picnic in the “winter room” at home. no windows and heated. we ate roast chicken, some couscous leftovers, bread and mint tea. breakfast has mostly been a round bread that is traditional here, with butter and jam, and tea and coffee. i also invented moroccan pockets...round bread stuffed with scrambled eggs. arel and dorian really like those.

today we decided to have fresh fish by the port. there is a series of shacks that bbq whatever fish or seafood you choose. sven had told me about it and i thought we should try it before leaving. dorian did not want to go...the floors are wet, the fish looks gross, it stinks! the boy has a point, but we went anyway. dorian ate a tiny bit, but found his peace by feeding a kitten under the table. at one point, dorian asked barak to give him some crab, which barak dutifully pulled apart for his precious son, only to learn that it was really for the kitten.

overall, i feel very comfortable and safe here. i did notice a big difference in the way i’m looked at when i’m walking with kids or alone. i much prefer the shelter that being with kids gives. as a mother, it seems i am due some respect.

both barak and i have had sort of surprising (to us) experiences in cafes or bakeries when we didn’t have the right change...instead of making a big deal, waiters simply said, you bring money next time. only 25 or 30 cents, but that is not insignificant here. they didn’t seem to have any doubt that we would return...which of course we did!

there seems to have been a big influx of tourists in the past few days. the first days, it really felt like we were some of the few tourists around. most tourists here are french, after that i’d say british and then a smattering from other places. i imagine it is overrun by tourists in the summer...i don’t think i’d like it then.

i have realized that i still have some knowledge of french, but that it sucks! it’s very frustrating because there are some things i can say, but many many holes. at this point, those holes are often filled by catalan, which doesn’t get me anywhere here. i really wish i could speak at least french, but preferably arabic...i feel that i get a lot more out of a place if i can communicate with locals in their own language. my other problem is that the little i can say in french i can do with a passable french accent, so people think i really speak. but then they answer and i have no idea what they’re saying, or hear wrong. just an exercise in frustration!

tomorrow we leave for one afternoon/evening in marrakech before heading back to barcelona. dorian is sick of old, stinky, dirty places, so i’m pretty sure he’s going to dislike it there too. arel is mostly okay with it all.

what have i noticed about myself? i am fundamentally uncomfortable on a certain level in poor countries. i don’t like the constant selling, the constant need, or any of the bargaining. when i can speak the language, i feel somewhat better because it is easier to show respect for others. but it reminds me how unfair the world is. i know the money we spend there helps the locals, but still, it just feels weird to me. in some ways, i’m jealous of people who are happy being served and catered to. for me, it makes me so uneasy that i can’t enjoy things in the same way. i felt guilty whenever rashida, our housekeeper, was there, and we told her to only stay for a couple hours each day, which she was more than happy to oblige.

traveling with kids. i’m always reminded how different it is than traveling as an adult. things need to go right. of course, we want them to go right as adults too, but we can handle glitches better. kids like predictability (at least mine), and i am finally willing to spend more money now to have it. we took a taxi from the airport in marrakech to essaouira (2 ½ hours) because i didn’t want to risk the bus being full. you can’t buy or reserve bus tickets outside of morocco, and i could literally see and feel us arriving at the bus station after the aiport and having there be no room. arel would sigh loudly, dorian would start crying, and barak would be annoyed that we were taking the bus to save a little money. not worth it anymore! we did get to take the bus back to marrakech, saving nearly 50 euros, which in my twisted logic paid for the henna debacle on the beach! dorian actually wanted to take the bus, and since we could reserve tickets ahead of time, it was a perfect solution.

i’m now on another bed...this time looking out over barcelona from our bedroom as it gets dark. we got home a few hours ago and are all happy to be home.

our trip ended in marrakech, which is a really wild place. i was kind of entranced by it in a way, but also repelled. dorian was plain old repelled. arel was kind of into, but was not happy after he and barak went out this morning and saw two men having a fight...apparently a knife was involved. scary. i also noticed a few fights between boys in essaouira that’s hard to describe exactly, but they were hard and violent. when i looked in their eyes, there was very real anger in the aggressor and very real fear in the victim. reminded me that they probably have very difficult lives.

merchants are definitely more intense in marrakech than in essaouira. they grab your arm, put the hat on your head that they want you to buy, put the monkey on your shoulder. you literally have to push them away. if you keep your eyes dead ahead and don’t slow at all, you’re okay, but it’s hard to relax that way. and i couldn’t really get close to the snake charmers after i read that they sew the snakes mouths shut, leaving just enough room for the tongue to flick through. apparently, many snakes die of mouth infections...just kind of depressing.

at one point, barak and i left the kids in the riad where we were staying and he and i wandered into the souks (markets). it is crazy how much stuff there is. some of it very beautiful, some it of total crap. i was too overwhelmed to want to engage with anyone and i didn’t really want anything. i’m still in my anti-acquiring mode. i imagine there are some real treasures to have there, if you have the patience, but on this trip, i didn’t. as we came out of the souk, the day was winding down and the main “place” in town was gearing up for the evening. very charming metal stands were being set up all over the place with makeshift stalls selling grilled food, soups, snails and sheep heads. apparently this ritual happens every night. (barak saw the sheep heads...i didn’t.) that i really liked. very festive, smoke rising into the dusk, lots of energy. we were pretty sure we wouldn’t be able to convince dorian to eat out there, but when it started to pour, our fate was sealed. if i ever go back to marrakech, i want to eat at one of those stands!

oh yeah, the other thing i loved was the atlas mountains covered in snow as the backdrop to marrakech. it was crystal clear the day we arrived from barcelona and really quite spectacular. i was looking forward to seeing it again, but yesterday it was all hazy and if you didn’t know there were mountains, you would have had no idea. today, after the rain, they were visible, but didn’t leave the impression of the first day.

one more random thing i was struck by. that was the call to prayer every day. or rather, my reaction to it. the first time i heard the muslim call to prayer was in jakarta with my dad many years ago. i remember at that point that it was just interesting...a different culture. again, i felt no weirdness about it, which surprises me a bit because of my negative reaction to most things religious. especially when they announce themselves...although, come to think of it, church bells don’t annoy me either. anyway, i remarked this to barak and he said maybe it didn’t bug me because we didn’t see anyone actually praying. or maybe because i couldn’t understand what is being said. anyway, i have to admit that i like hearing it.

okay, that’s it for now. i imagine soon barak will start putting up some of the great pictures he took, and some of his thoughts about morocco.