Sunday, April 20, 2014

Long arm of the law

Over the few weeks of our time in Morocco we've had a couple of run-ins with the local cops. So far, though, we've managed to avoid the hoosgow.

We were driving through a small town on the first day with our rental car in Morocco. I was carefully following the speed limit signs, so when the limit dropped from 60 km to 40 to 20, so did I. Then suddenly there was a stop sign, completely unexpected. And suddenly I was on the other side of it, with a police car in the rear view mirror. Oops.

Some kind of check point, I guess. So I pulled over, looked back. Not much happening there. Paula urged me to go on, so, with thoughts of a similar experience in Mexico in mind, I did.

For the next half-hour, as we wound our way through the countryside, I kept glancing back, half expecting to see red lights flashing.

A day or so later we came to another check point, with a nasty-looking radar gun mounted on a tripod. I'm thinking, here's where they check my license plate and take me in for questioning. But no.The tall, good-looking gendarme asked where we were from, and after establishing that we spoke English,  raised his voice happily and said, "Ah, English! I love English! If English were a woman, I would marry it!" (Really!) and waved us on.

Now the rental car has been returned, and is perhaps satisfying some other traveler's need for transport. We are happy to be afoot in the narrow winding pathways of the Fes Medina.  But its time to move on; we've bought out tickets to Chefchaouene and our bus leaves at 11. We said our goodbyes to Said, the owner of the riad where we stayed, and to the coffee seller on the corner. Now we need a taxi to the bus station in the New Town.

There's plenty of the little red "petit taxi" on the street, but they all have passengers. A fellow in a little white van stops, offers us a ride. How much? we ask. Fifty, he says. Nope. We know a regular taxi is less than 16 Dirhams,  or $2US. Since we see no available little red taxis, we finally agree to 20. We clamber in with our bags and go about 20 feet when  we are stopped; an arm reaches in and removes the key. It's the long arm of the law. Turns out this fellow was not authorized to take passengers in his little white van.

So we surrender our passports, explain we have a bus to catch, and stand by as phone calls are made, discussions are held, and the hapless driver explains, hey, I'm just tryin' to make a living here! I'm pretty clear that this really has nothing to do with us, we just don't know any better.  I hope the cops see it the same way....

After more discussion, more cell phone calls, the cop finishes copying down info from our passports. He comes over to me and points to the pages with our birth dates. Paula and I were both born in the same year! He laughs good-naturedly at that, returns our passports, and in a few minutes has flagged down a petit taxi for us.

 We arrive at the bus station in plenty of time, the taxi's meter showing 10.6 Dirhams (we gave the driver 12). We never found out what happened to the guy with the little white van. We get on the bus, and leave Fes behind.

The type of taxi we should have taken (shown here blocking the city bus, which is in the process of doing a three-point turn, assisted by several passersby)

All for now

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Images of Morroco

Looking out from the guest house terrace to Ait Ben Haddu kasbah - the classic site from the Gladiator movie. Russell Crowe was long gone by the time we got here...

Driving 350 miles over sometimes dusty bumpy roads to the desert. The reward: seeing the pink dunes looming up from the flat plain, with all signs of civilization lost.

Sitting inside a Berber family's house drinking mint tea and hearing about how rugs are made from camel and sheep wool and cactus fiber. They smiled even though we didn't buy one. Enshallah: it wasn't God's will for us that day.

Driving 350 miles from the desert to Fes --  the reward: seeing the cedar forests of Azrou and the barbary monkeys playing in the trees-oh and the pride and relief of driving straight through Fes to drop off the car without a scratch!

Fes - well you get the picture-it's crowded, noisy, sometimes smelly, but everywhere Moroccan people smiling and with their right hands on their hearts saying -- "Welcome to my country."

Sitting on our riad terrace with a glass of wine looking over the huge medina---ahhhhh
Eating fancy French pastries at one of many roof garden restaurants, watching the chaos in the square below.....ahhhhh!

Until next time...

Call to Prayer

Five times a day it happens, everywhere in Morocco, where the population is more than 95% Islamic. Where we stayed in Essouria the loudspeaker for the mosque was right outside our window.  The loud and distorted voice of the Imam was a bit of a disturbance at 5AM.

Now we are in Fes, with it's incredibly crowded Medina (meaning "city", and in this case the old city) and correspondingly high density of mosques, each with a square minaret sticking above the rooftops, each with its own call to prayer. From the roof top terrace of our riad we can see out over the Medina, the minarets and the (many, many) satellite dishes.

The full moon rises over the eastern hills , interrupting our conversation with Josef, from Barcelona, our new best friend. We gaze in silence as the orb slides into the sky. Our conversation resumes, but is interrupted again as the call to prayer starts suddenly, from a dozen places at once. Josef says, "This is a sacred moment!", and we listen in a whole new way as the voices echo and rebound off the hills.

One of the many minarets in the Fez Medina

View from the roof
All for now

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Ali (Alley?) Baba in Marrakech

Great Mosque near Saladeen Tombs

Marrakech is full of ancient, wonderful sites. As we traipsed around town looking for these sites we also found that Marrakech is very busy and crowded. Traffic, traffic, traffic! Cars and noisy motorbikes and big trucks and people people people moving around makes for an ever-changing obstacle course. And in the midst of this horrendous chaos are many hidden treasures,  of both the material and the not so material kind.

We were heading for one of the highly-regarded ancient sites, the Saadian Tombs (the Saadians were an ancient family, powerful and ruthless, not unlike the Medicis or Borgias around the same era). The tombs they built for themselves are regarded as one of the finest examples of classic Arabic architecture still standing.  

We walked and walked and walked, and were very close to the tombs, when we asked a policeman which way to go. Take the next left, he said.  It was a narrow alley, but we took it anyway, and found a dead end. This was unusual,  in our brief experience. Then, just as we approached the end, a door opened and a short round man said Come in!

We entered this marvelous cavern filled with works of brass and leather. The lights came on, and the ceiling was filled with the pierced brass light fixtures that are so popular here, giving the impression of stalactites in a cave. We barely had time to register all that was there when the man said jovially, "Ali Baba!" 

"Are you going to put us in a jar of oil?" asked Paula, thinking of the story. "No!" He said. "Alley Baba!" and, laughing,  showed us through a low door leading outside to the Tombs.

Another great example of the warmth, helpfulness, and good humor we have found in the Moroccan people.

Tile detail from Saadian Tombs

This stork really DID bring a baby!
Until next time,

Paul & Paula

Monday, April 7, 2014

We arrived in Marrakech early, about 8AM. It was the only flight that day, so we really had no choice. Paula had arranged for someone to meet us at the airport, a wise move because we were still a bit fuzzed out from jet lag. Plus, we had gotten up at 3:30 to get to the Milan airport, and had barely slept.

So, our driver is there with a sign for us and we are soon careening through the streets where the game, as in many developing nations, is to see how close you can come to the other traffic without actually making contact. (Needless to say, we were ever so glad we were not driving!) We enter into a tiny shopping street, the sellers' wares spilling into the narrow street as bicycles, pedestrians, the occasional car, and the ever present motorbikes weave in and out.

We stop after a block or two, the driver unloads our bags, and towing one of the wheelies himself, leads us down an even narrower alleyway. We stumble a dozen paces behind him, wondering what we've gotten into. Suddenly he makes a sharp turn and disappears. We look at each other, and hurry to avoid being left.

He is there, right around the corner, with our bag, waiting for us to catch up. But clearly, he has other things to do; he points down a long, narrow dark passageway, says "third door on the right" and is gone. We look at each other, shrug, and drag our bags down the cobblestones to a tiny hobbit door, studded with heavy nail heads. The brass plaque over the door proclaiming Dar El Youssifi tells us this must be the place. We have arrived, it seems.

    All for now,
    Paul & Paula

Friday, April 4, 2014

Arrived and off again

Yesterday we were pretty fuzzed out with jetblag. We actually had quite a good time with Giovanni  (the innkeeper) and his family. His wife is quite wonderful, always offering me coffee - tiny cups of strong espresso - which I mostly accept. When he got home from work, Giovanni had his teenage-age son, Rosario, come in to help translate. Not feeling confident of his skills in English,  Rosario invited his friend Fabio, who'd had considerable practice in English playing on-line games with a Palestinian. We laughed a lot using google translate on the iphone.

The flight had been very good, all three of them. We'd spent the extra frequent flyer miles on a First Class splurge, and were really boggled by the treatment we'd gotten. The extra seat room was special enough. But the transatlantic flight from Newark was over the top.  Each seat was a little cocoon, and when we were done with our fabulous meal, served on ceramic plates with endless glasses of wine, the seats slid forward and the backs went flat. Yup, a real bed! It was still an airplane, noisy and bouncy, but I was soooo glad not to have spent that nine hours in Economy, with my knees pressed into the reclined seat ahead of me, and my arms trailing over my neighbors seat.

We spent today - our first real day - in Milano, an hour's train ride away. We saw the important sites: the train station, the rather fabulous cathedral-duomo, and a fine galleria, a 19th century shopping center with beautiful mosaics underfoot and a steel-and-glass dome and roof six stories above us (and no cars!). We had lunch in a small restaurant off the square, where I think I shocked the waiter by having a coffee - always an espresso, here - with my meal. (At least I didn't order a cappuccino after 10 AM, apparently a hanging offense in Italy).

Then we spent some time figuring out the metro system and rode it back to the train station, where we arrived just in time to get the train home.

Now we're packing and repacking, getting ready for tomorrow. We're leaving on a jet plane, again, at 6 in the morning, again. So we need to be at the airport by 4. In the morning. And tomorrow night we'll be sleeping in Marrakech! More later...

Buoni viaggi
Paul (and Paula)