Birthday Hammam experience , dinner with Mel and her folks in Marrakech, reuniting with Kate and Robbie, to adventures through the Sahara desert.
After a long yet hassle free travel day from Cairo to Fes (via 1st
class train, thank you Marie) I arrived at the Bouland Boush (Blue gate) of the Medina to be met by my Riad host Karim. Karim had previously emailed me to inform me which cab to take when I got to Fes, as there are some pretty dodgy people about. I made it to Karim safe and sound eventually, after trying out a few taxi services. Later Karim told me, that the original taxi driver I called, was going to take me to another Riad, but because he knew Karim decided ( lucky for me), not to do that. So, that was a great start to the Moroccan experience for me, as I was already a little on edge, due to a somewhat dodgy experience with a Moroccan in Italy 10 years prior. I reached the Riad after battling my way for 500m through the hectic Sunday night, school holidays, busy Medina, arriving at the lovely ornate and beautifully decorated Riad. I crashed into bed happy to have arrived safely, after learning that three people had been killed in Cairo that day.
The next day I woke up to the most extravagant birthday breakfast for one. A few viber and skype calls from home, I really enjoyed a relaxing morning chilling out, reading my book in the sunshine. Later that afternoon I had decided to go to the Hammam, to have a nice relaxing scrub and massage. However, Karim persuaded me to go to the local Hammam which his daughter goes to, as it was a lot cheaper. Wanting an authentic experience I went along. And boy did I get an authentic experience! I was greeted by three women who didn’t speak a word of English, gesturing me to strip off, which I did, down to my undies. I then entered a hot tiled room with about half a dozen girls and women, who were doing their thing, until I walked in, where they were then, began gawking at me, the only whitey in the hammam. The old lady who was attending to me, was every bit of 60 years old and like me, she was stripped down to her undies, and gravity was not really on her side. I had to hold back a laugh when I looked up to see that her undies were in fact ‘spiderman’ undies, absolutely hilarious. Seated and surrounded by eight buckets filled with water of varied temperatures, she lathered me up with an exfoliate scrub , wacked on her sand paper mitt and proceeded to exfoliate three layers of skin off my entire body, face not excluded. At one stage, my head was in her lap as she scrubbed down my arm and boob, and another time my foot was rested in her crotch, as she stood and scrubbed down my leg and into my groin. After she washed me down, she then proceeded to wash my hair which was lovely, until she tried to brush it before conditioning, therefore losing about one third of my hair as well. Finally she finished off with a short and not so sweet, bendy massage. To say the experience was tranquil, would be veering from the truth just a little, to say that I will never forget my 29th
birthday hammam experience, would be very accurate.
That night I shouted myself to a huge dinner including a massive mezze Moroccan salad, a shoulder of lamb (not as good as yours paps) and a fruit salad to finish off. Unfortunately I couldn’t even finish half of the meal, but did manage to finish my half bottle of red.
The next day saw a private walking tour of the Medina with my tour guide Rashid. Rashid figured out that I was a physio and spent the rest of the day telling me about his inner ear and vertigo problems that he had been suffering with for the past 2.5 years. If he hadn’t harped on about it so much and if I wasn’t off duty, I would have helped him out. I tried to give him a few tips, but was more keen to find out a little bit about Fes. Fes is the oldest of the imperial cities and arguably the symbolic heart of Morocco. Within the walls of the old city, is the medina (Fes el Bali) with more than 9 400 streets and dimly lit alleyways winding endlessly up and down, housing over about 200 000 residents and all the music, smells and noises that come with that. I learnt that there is a saying, that everything starts and ends in Fes, with the belief that Fes is the centre of decorative arts, world famous for its leather and metal work and the skill of its master craftsmen. The experience of meandering through the medina was fantastic, as your senses were definitely on overdrive. There was the fresh produce area, meats (camels heads hanging), seafood, fruits, vegies, sweet pastries, olives and big mountains of lard. We then we walked to the metals area, where you saw them making the silver and copper plates, teapots etc. The designs that they were chiselling were incredible, as it was all free hand and not following a pattern, very talented men. From here we wandered through to the carpet and textile sections, which were exquisitely vibrant and colourful. Finally we finished off with going to the tannery. It was quite a smelly, but interesting experience. It was interesting to learn about the process and time frames of making the leather and then the colouring of the leather. With fresh mint leaves up my nostrils, it was bearable to watch the process for a little while, but I can only imagine the stench in the middle of summer in 45 degree heat!
That afternoon, I met a lovely couple from Redcliff in their late 60’s, Graham and Susan. Susan was originally from Grafton and was a teacher. Although not knowing mum and dad specifically, she knew plenty of other people that both mum and dad know. Once again, showing how much of a small world it is. They invited me for dinner and we enjoyed one of the nicest Moroccan dishes I have had to date, for one tenth of the price of my dinner the night before.
The next day I decided to stay an extra day in Fes and do a day trip out to Meknes, Volubilis. Unfortunately I struck out and paid $80 for a driver with limited English, rather than a tour guide. Nevertheless, I scored a local guide with a very thick Arabic/French accent and with a good sense of humour who took me on a tour of the ancient city of Volubilis. I could only pick up every third or fourth word of what he was saying. In one section, after he repeated himself about 5 times, I was thinking he was saying, ‘this section coming up is a dog house, would I be ok to go in there?’ I finally realised he was trying to ask, if I was ok, as we were about to enter the old brothel. He found it quite amusing to make me mount the penis statue, (he must have known I have a habit of mounting or grabbing statues inappropriately).
Meknes was also lovely, a slightly smaller and different walled city with a medina similar to Fes. I saw a beautiful mosque….. The scenery in general was most unexpected, so lush and with huge amounts of agriculture. I really didn’t expect it to be that green in Morocco.
That night I enjoyed another dinner with Graham and Susan, whilst the local football was on. The next morning I had an early start and long day on the train, -- 8 hours to Marrakech.
After getting to my hotel, I showered and headed out to catch up with Mel and her folks, Julie and Ray for dinner. They had all, had a great whirlwind week through Morocco, covering most of the main attractions and cities, telling me about some of the things that I had to look forward to. Mel did warn me that the camel ride did get a little uncomfortable towards the end and she was also telling me about her desert run, as she needed to get another run in for the upcoming London marathon. After battling through the traffic with their driver and with their private tour guide, we arrived at a lovely restaurant. By this time we were starving and so really enjoyed a lovely meal and the first nice bottle of white wine, since leaving Cape Town three months earlier.
I spent the next two days by the pool lapping up the sunshine, attempting minimal life jobs until the arrival of Kate and Robbie.
Seeing Kate and Robbie after being away for so long was great and we had lots to catch up on. Lots of chit chat by the pool side with a G&T, was in order, before meeting up with the new tour group of 17( mostly Aussies and Kiwis, and a few English and Polish travellers). Our tour guide Abdoul looked exactly like a Moroccan version of Robert Downey Junior. He was an absolute crack up. Abduol is Berber, not Arabic and informed us that the Berbers have been around since 5000 BC and make up 70% of the population of Morocco rather than Arabs, which I found quite surprising. Under the Arab rule, the Berbers where driven out, more into the desert. They follow a matriarchal family where the mum is the boss (sounds like the McQueen household) and they are known to have big families of 12-15 kids. The Berber language is close to Latin. The Berbers in this day and age, will intermarry, but previously wouldn’t, as they saw themselves as above the Arabs and wanted to keep their blood clean/pure. Abdoul also informed us, that school and university is free in Morocco and the kids learn a minimum of 3 languages. Morocco is a lot more developed than I expected and you can really see the French influence still, with French being spoken everywhere. It is the official language in government.
That night with the new group, we battled the Marrakech traffic and went to a local Moroccan restaurant, enjoying another tagine and the local oranges (best I have ever tasted with a sprinkling of cinnamon) We left the markets for our return to Marrakech.
The next morning whenleaving Marrakech Abdoul informed us that the new fashion in Marrakech is running, all ages, shapes and sizes. And that we saw, lots of them, in either full tracksuits or full dress and burka. Crazy people he says, crazy! We set out towards the Sahara, over the High Atlas Mountains to just outside the town of Ouarzazate and to the Taourirt Kasbhah. The Atlas Mountains have the second highest mountain in Africa, standing at 4167m. The scenery over these mountains some of which were still snow-capped (not typical at this time of year), was incredibly lush and quite picturesque. We stopped at a local market, seeing all the fresh produce and meat. Robbie was first to ask if we could buy some local street meat, which he had been hanging out for. So some of the boys went and bought some very fresh lamb and took it to the local BBQ, where it was cooked up for them with great spices. With some local tea, and a bit of bread, it was devoured by everybody.
Arriving just out of Ouarzazate 200km from Marrakech and on the edge of the Sahara desert ,we found out that this is where, lots of the famous Hollywood movies are made, such as Gladiator, Babel, Prince of Persia, Game of Thrones, and The Mummy Returns. The town itself was actually booked out due to the local desert ultra-marathon being on, which we found out was won by a local Moroccan. So we stayed in the nearby Kasbah. It was crazy to see our first Oases, bright green grass, crops and trees in the middle of bright red desert, such a contrast and hard to get your head around. We arrived at our hotel and went straight up to the Kasbah. The front of it actually featured in Gladiator. We climbed up the Kasbah, with ‘Rock the Kasbah ‘ playing in my head. There were 26 houses in this Kasbah and at the top, it had the most amazing views at sunset with all the different shades of red and ochre in the mountains, landscape and town. We enjoyed a local mint tea in one of the houses in the Kasbah ,where apparently Russell Crowe came to visit for a tea!
The next day saw us driving through Zagora to Mhamid and meeting up with our jeeps to head out further into the Sahara desert. We got to race up and down the desert dunes close to sunset, which was really cool. Unfortunately I managed to get a bit of sand in my lens and have stuffed the lens, but hey, not long to go and the camera itself still works, so it could have been worse. That night we enjoyed another tagine and some of the locals playing their bongos by the camp fire. Sunrise the next morning (which was Robbie’s birthday, yep he had to wear the birthday scrunchie too) was unfortunately disappointing, as it was slightly cloudy and incredibly windy. We drove back to Zagora and to a close- by desert camp, where we were met by some locals and 18 camels. Mounting my caramel coloured camel (didn’t get around to naming him) we started our 3 hour camel ride through the Sahara. Surprisingly, although it was at least 40 degrees on the ground, with our tea towel heads on and being up on the camel, it wasn’t unbearably hot. The first 30 minutes of the camel ride was quite novel, however, the other 2.5 hrs was rather uncomfortable on the old butt and back, regardless of whether you side saddled, sat at the back of the camel, or had your legs up or down. Needless to say, the next day, everyone’s back and inner thighs were rather on the sore side as we tackled our 9 hour drive to the coast to a town called Agadir.
We arrived early evening in Agadir, Abdoul’s hometown, which had been devastated by an earthquake in 1962. As a result, the whole city practically needed to be rebuilt. We visited an Argan oil shop (only found in Morocco) and decided to have massages the next day. That night we enjoyed some local seafood along the promenade, which was quite lovely. I heard from mum, much to my relief, that my impulsive rug purchases from Fes, arrived at home, one week after being sent. I must admit I was a bit sceptical, about whether they would actually be sent safely as I had been told and thought I would be kissing my money goodbye.
Thursday morning saw us go for a short walk along the promenade. Unfortunately it was really misty and not so hot, so we went off for our 2 hour hammam and full body massage. This time round, it was a much more pleasurable experience, in which I only lost one layer of skin. The massage with the argan oil was amazing. Although that was all we got to see of Agadir, the coast drive along the Atlantic was quite beautiful, as we made our way up to Essaouira.
Just before Essaouira we were treated to the local mountain goats up trees. Quite a bizzare sight. It was so hard to contemplate how a four legged animal with no paws or hands, only hooves, could climb a flimsy tree. Very weird and they were quite uncoordinated as we saw one of them fall out. We also spent 30 minutes on the hunt for some scorpions. We found a few, but not to the size that Abdoul was happy with. Once we left the area, he told us that he has been bitten over 20 times, but that it’s ok, as it’s never enough venom to kill an adult!
A night and half day in Essaouira was lovely and we wished we had more time here. Known as the windy city, we wandered through the streets in the morning, purchasing a few souvenirs and some fresh fruit in the local souk. We enjoyed a fresh seafood lunch by the seaside, before boarding the bus one last time to return to Marrakech.
To finish off the trip we headed off into the tourist trap of the main square Jemaa l-Fina. Filled with thousands of people, story tellers, musicians, snake charmers, fresh food stalls, copious fresh orange juice stalls (heaven) and the Koutoubia mosque in the background, it was quite an overwhelming experience. We enjoyed a lovely meal of local cuisine at stall number 55 thanks to Abdoul, and then had the chance to wander the square taking it all in. Unfortunately as it was dark and heaving with people, Kate and I constantly felt very conscious of our purses and were often ‘accidently’ bumped into by local men, which wasn’t overly pleasant. We were happy to have experienced the intense market, but were pleased that we had done our shopping elsewhere.
We had a great week in Morocco with Abdoul, ( his cute little stutter, his jokes that were ‘under the belt’, him saying ‘thank you god’ constantly, and that everything was ‘Bee-u-tiful’, and a lot of the way he said things, being quite literal, ‘Is it ok to go? Yulla Yulla, or get in here please.) We had plenty of laughs.
The next day saw us having a leisurely morning by the pool, enjoying the sunshine one last time, before heading back to London. To finish off my two year London stay, I went and watched the London marathon and said farewell to all my friends.
Fourteen weeks in Africa was an absolutely amazing experience that will live with me and my travel companions forever. I feel so very lucky, not only to have experienced Africa with some of my dearest friends, but all of the travels that I have done over the past 2.5 years. I have made some amazing new friendships, rekindled some old friendships, and had some great work experiences.
So I’ll sign off after 2.5 years abroad visiting 33 amazing countries and look forward to the next chapters of my life, back on home soil.
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