Sensory Overload in Morocco

Morocco was a smack to the senses; it was without a doubt, one of the most stimulating places I have ever been to. Bold colors, intricate crafts, incomprehensible architecture, furtive glances, and wafts of fragrance, all envelope you at the very same time in a continuous stream of stimuli. It would have been foolish to even try to resist being carried away.

Our flight from Eindhoven took us to Fez, in the north of Morocco. We were lucky to have found a Riad in the old medina (arab quarter) to spend our first few days in. Riads – multiple-storied homes with a courtyard in the center – were common and must have once housed large extended families in them. Knowing that we had to negotiate our way to our accomodation, that seemed well inside a labyrinth of old walls and narrow alley ways, had us a bit wary when arriving at the airport. Somehow, we began talking to a man – who fit the exact stereotypical bill of a jolly Moroccan businessman, cigarette, round belly, and all – who purportedly knew the owner of the property we were staying at. A bit skeptical, but having few other options, we got into an old dented Mercedes lined with soft brown upholstery that had absorbed many years of cigarette smoke and mundane conversation. The guy we met had a taxi driver friend who drove as he talked at him. We finally arrived at what looked like an entrance to the medina, and that was the cue for the car to go it’s own way. We were meant to meet this person’s uncle, who was now based in Chicago, who would then graciously lead us to the riad. His uncle was initially a man of a few words, so a few nods and finger points later, we lowered our heads through a solid, panel-beaten, door, and were welcomed by our host with a fresh cup of mint tea. The three-storied riad had five rooms in it and over the course of four days, we met many people who were on similar journeys of their own.

 


After we settled into our colorful room, with a bathroom in a wet dimly-lit basement, our first plan of action was to explore the medina. The uncle from Chicago was an entertaining and kind host. He offered to walk us over to a good restaurant, where we filled ourselves with Moroccan olives, tagine, pastilla and other local goodies; we listened to his intriguing story about how he moved to Chicago to sell Moroccan curios, met and divorced a woman, and had many intriguing encounters with many colorful personalities. He came back to Fez once a year, for several months at a time, to replenish stocks and unwind, one cup of tea at a time.

With our bellies stuffed, we decided to go buy bus tickets to our next destination, Chefchaoun, Morocco’s blue city. Instead of taking a route through the medina, assuming it would take longer, we decided to go around it, not realizing how far it actually was nor how hot it got in the afternoons. In temperature that had left 40C behind, with no water (idiocy on our part), a blazing sun above, dark radiating asphalt below, and a crushing humidity level, we had made our way halfway up a hill and all we saw was traffic rushing by, parched monotone concrete and a desert landscape with sparse shrubs in the distance. It was much cooler in the shade of the medina, and we were regretting our decision just 10 minutes in. We tried waving down a taxi or two and eventually someone signaled us that he would be back in a few minutes after he dropped his current clients. The shade of the light pole was barely enough, but we waited as sweat dripped down our faces, and the sun’s glare made itself very comfortable on our bare heads. A few minutes short of heat stroke, we were at the bus station and found a cold bottle of water. All went well after that, and we made arrangements for our next stop in Morocco a few days later.

The next few days in Fez were a big blur of medina trekking and exploration. Since we were smack in the middle of it, it took just a couple of steps to bump into eye- and camera-candy. The medina was vast and convoluted, and it took a while to figure out a system of how to get back. That said, every turn we made did not disappoint. There was constant activity from small shops that lined the cobble stoned pathways. One of the days we were there was a day everyone took a break (probably a Friday), and the difference was stark. On a regular day, there were different artists every few meters selling their wares, food stalls with a variety of olives and pickled lemons, hanging carpets and leather goods, all out on display to tempt and begin the verbal dance for a potential purchase. The shops were small cutouts from the alley ways, yet, somehow, they housed innumerable crafts and colors. Cats roamed the streets everywhere looking for a bite to eat, and many people were kind, dropping off something or the other.

 


The second day we met a fellow traveller from Germany who we befriended. Since neither of us had fully explored the medina, we decided to spend the next day exploring it together. She had come to a realization that there was, contrary to our belief, order to this madness. Not only that, but there were certain paths with markings for tourists and newcomers. There were several color coded trails running criss-crossing the medina – a blue line, a red line etc., which, if followed, guided you towards certain sights. Many a time, we bumped into the other guests staying in our riad, as they were also following the same routes. It turned out that our friend had spent a lot of time in Istanbul, and since Istanbul was one of our definite destinations, we absorbed all the advice she had over dinner, and she gave us a ton of welcome suggestions for our future travels.

 


When in Fez, we were sure to visit a tannery. It’s very challenging to explain the experience when looking down into one of these areas, especially the smells. Much of the work is done by bare hands, feet and nostrils. The copious amounts of chemicals – pigeon poop and lime – and the strong sun involved, it is hard, and extremely noxious, labour. The process involves treating the hide of sheep or cows – the hides arrive dry, looking like large sheets of stiff cardboard, they are softened and then soaked in the lime to get rid of the hair followed by a nice dip in pigeon poop, i.e ammonia, to finish up the process. After a few additional steps, the final leather is soaked in vats full of natural dyes to give them the desired color. We looked over the production facility from a terrace on the third floor, well removed from the real action, and were given “Moroccan Air Freshener”, i.e. sprigs of mint, to keep the smell of dead skin and flesh and poop at bay. Even then the smell was palpable. Every single movement felt like cutting through a fog of malodor and into a smog of other scents. One cannot mention the smell enough.

 


Fez was a really great introduction to Morocco, and we felt we could have stayed longer as we made our way to Chefchouen. The bus ride was long, through seemingly barren land, and windy, and I expected to see a small blue town from a distance.  Our first view of the city was around a bend of a windy road; the top of a hill was speckled with blue and white buildings, and was much more expansive than I had imagined. The bus stopped at the base of the hill, and after some back and forth, we decided to take a taxi to our dorm. The further in we got, the more we saw the blue paint that this town was known for. It was beautiful, looked similar in texture to a regular white-wash (but in a variety of shades), and always pleasing to the eye. For the most part, this blueness is limited to the medina, which was much smaller, and significantly easier to navigate than the one we had left behind in Fez. Later, we learnt that the buildings opened up to a square with crafts sprawled on the sidewalks and restaurants with open air seating. There was an old fortress, or Kasbah, here which was, in the past, used to defend the city from any invaders. It is now a museum. The hawkers and storekeepers would usher in many of the people walking by to have a snack, a meal or a cup of mint tea.

 


On one of the days, we took a short trip up to a mosque on the hillside opposite the city. The way up was well paved and the only real obstacle was, as it seemed to be the case most of the time, the blazing sun. We had water this time, but it was hot in no time. Once we made our way over, this proved to be a fantanstic vantage point from which to take in the panoramic views of the city and the mountainous rugged terrain around us. On our way back down, we stopped along the side of a small stream that runs down the side of the hill. A short way down the banks, we saw that some fresh orange juice vendors had set-up chairs and tables in the middle of this very shallow stream, using the natural temperature of the spring to cool down the oranges. We were not about to waste this opportunity for an actual cool-down and sat for a nice cold drink in the even nicer, cool stream.

 


Unfortunately, we didn’t stay in Chefchaouen for long, and after three days, made our way to Marrakesh, our final stop in Morocco. We talked about going to Essaouira, but weren’t able to make it there. I suppose we have to save something for the next time. Marrakesh was everything you’d imagine Morocco to be. There was always a significant hustle involved, and it was far too hectic for my liking, but I still enjoyed the bustle of the markets – it made for great people-watching.

We had gotten in a little late on our first day, and so didn’t start our explorations until the second morning. We quickly realized that this particular medina was considerably larger than either of the previous two. It was also significantly more active, more crowded, more noisy and in general, more alive. The small windy alleyways were the same, and there was a supposed system of trails for tourists and newcomers to follow, but these were much more difficult to scope out. At night, as the alleyways winded down to take a breath, the central plaza came to life. There were street performers playing music and dancing, caricaturists, henna artists, magicians making things appear and disappear, and fire performers flaming some things and tossing others. There were people with a local variety of find-the-lady, hustling their marks, and a challenging fish-the-bottle game that with all the knowledge of physics, plans and motor skills that we could concieve, we had to attempt but failed miserably at. There were expansive fruit juice stalls and dried fruit sellers with piles and strings of dried apricots, figs, raisins and much much more. The food-stalls in the center of the square were setup with as many touts as there were cooks, all claiming “same shit, just competition”, which made choosing where to eat less of a culinary decision and more of a personality test. These guys, with their levels of enthusiasm for grilled meats and stews, should be running global marketing departments. Their memories were spot on too, even in the smokey haze of all the food being freshly prepared.

 


As with all big cities, Marrakesh too has a seedy underside with several locals keen on exploiting the tourists. The schpeel began with a friendly young man asking us if we had seen one of Marrakesh’s tanneries. Since we had already been to a tannery, upon hearing our response, it instantly changed to whether we had been to a Berber market. This alleged market seemed very interesting, only happened every few weeks, and we were lucky enough that it was happening at that very time. Vivek and I were suspicious, and already told him multiple times that we weren’t interested, however the prospect of seeing this once-in-a-few-weeks market was enticing enough for us to follow along. We finally gave in and decided to follow our guide, our spidey-sense was tingling so we did keep track of our surroundings the entire way. We knew we were probably being taken for a ride, but atleast it was light out and we were together. We arrived at a tannery and politely told the owner, as he handed us a sprig of mint, that we had already seen one and were not interested. Disappointed, we were guided to the other location to see this one-time event, which in fact happened to be a retail store selling leather goods. The verbal dance began as soon as we entered, and we played along for a while, still making it known that we were not planning to buy anything. Finally, the guy caught on, and then – in an “about-turn” manner – asked us, very not-politely, to leave. This happened mid-conversation, as I was learning about how the leather cushions were made, and exasperated, he gave both Vivek and I a small, but firm, nudge, followed by a finger pointed in the direction of the wall. We got the hint; dance time was over, and we made a swift exit as we now knew we were no longer welcome. The “guide” who had led us here, demanded money as appreciation for this fantstic insider tip, but we talked our way out of the con, and made our way back as quick as possible. There were very few times along our travels I can say that I left a place with a bitter taste in my mouth, and felt a bit insecure with the whole situation. This was one of them.

 


Any description of Morocco would remain incomplete without a look at the architecture. Islamic arts have has a major impact on the design sensibilities here. The quintessential geometric patterns, zellige tilework, and calligraphy are ubiquitous and in every form and medium you can imagine. Everything from religious sites like mosques and madrasas, to everyday drab things like sidewalk and airport decor, show signs of magnificent artistry. There are geometric patterns in tile mosaics, wood carvings, concrete pillars and the floors and fabrics of entire buildings. Mosques are covered in symmetric calligraphy, carved embellishments and even ornate doorknobs. Most crafts reflect these patterns, and everything from silver earrings to earthen tagine pots, are lathered in intricate designs and bold colors. We hope to return to Morocco one day soon to experience the amazing kaleidoscope once again.

 

 

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