Saturday, July 10, 2010

Guided Tour - Fez

Our train ride from Marrakesh to Fez was HOT! We were supposedly in an air conditioned car but you would have never known. There was a tiny bit of cold air coming from the vent so we took turns fanning each other the whole way. Oh, did we mention the train ride was seven hours long!!!

We beelined it for the taxi stand as soon as we arrived (12:30am). As we were loading our luggage into the first two cars a fight was breaking out between two drivers. Apparently the driver of the first car had butted in line. Why they chose to fight about it when we arrived was a mystery to us. The car had been parked there well before we arrived. The fight became so heated that one man had his hands around the other man's throat. We quickly unloaded our stuff and put it in the next car in line. What a lovely welcome to Fez!

The taxi dropped us off in the middle of one of the main squares. We had written directions on how to walk to the hotel from the square. A teenage boy came up to us and asked us if we needed a guide to our hotel (of course for a fee). We took him up on his offer since there are over 9,000 unmarked dead end streets in the Fez Medina. By the time the boy walked us to our hotel, about eight other teenagers were following us around trying to offer their assistance. Our patience was wearing thin so we were happy once we made it to our hotel!

We decided Fez would be best explored by a tour guide. This turned out to be the best decision we could have ever made. Our tour guide, Isham, was not only a friendly and intelligent tour guide but also a local football celebrity too. He took us to the following places: Royal Palace, Jewish Quarters, Jewish Synagogue, Medersa, tannery, spice shop, and a ceramic studio. We ended the day watching Spain beat Germany at a local hotel. John was devastated but was quickly consoled when he realized we would be watching the world cup final in Spain!

Ladies in the house - Fez

Hammams are all the rage in Morocco. Everyone was talking about them so Melanie, Sara, and Lizzy had to get out there and try it. Below is a brief description of a hammam from the Fodor's guidebook:

"A hammam is a wonderful place to retreat from the hubbub of the souk and the ardors of shopping or to refresh yourself after hours of walking or trekking. If you go to the public variety, you'll have the rare opportunity to meet locals and participate in an important ritual. All public hammams are very clean, as they are checked constantly."

We had a much different experience than the one mentioned above. From the moment we walked through the door we were in an utter state of confusion. First, we were told that women wore their underwear while there..... well this is semi-true. Many were just letting it all hang out there. It was quite a sight to behold. We, the conservative Americans, wore swimming suits. I'm sure the locals thought we were crazy.

We paid for a tayeba to scrub us down. She took our money, started walking away, and motioned for us to follow her. We followed her through three different rooms. Each room was a different temperature but all were extremely hot. Everywhere we looked there were women sitting on the marble floors throwing water on themselves and scrubbing their skin. She left us standing in the hottest room and didn't return for a long time. We just stood there with "deer in the headlights" expressions on our faces while sweat dripped down us. Everyone was staring at us and a few people even tried to explain to us through charades what we were supposed to do. Finally the lady came back and took us to a room and had us sit on the dirty floor (think hostel bathrooms). Once we sat down she disappeared again. We were almost ready to walk out when she came back and started scrubbing us down. Once she was finished scrubbing (which was painful) she dumped a few buckets of water on us and walked away. We assumed she was finished and walked out as fast as possible.

In summary, it was a traumatic, hilarious, eye-opening experience. Who would have thought that in a Muslim country we would be feeling uncomfortable by the local women's modesty. This was truly an experience we will never forget. Below is a picture taken after we returned from the Hamman. We tried to recreate the expressions on our face when we first entered in bathing area.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Bargaining it up in the Medina - Marrakesh

Happy birthday America! We celebrated the Fourth of July as we traveled through the desert. We sang patriotic songs in the car (don't worry, the two Saras provided firework sound effects) and ate some watermelon for dinner. We had a great Fourth!

We arrived in Marrakesh around 8pm and the streets were filled with cars, motorcycles, people, animals, garbage, etc. Sara thought she was back in India for a moment. We spent a half hour driving around the outskirts of town trying to find a working ATM. We tried three different ones and they were either broken or out of money. Incredible.

Once we had paid our driver we ventured into the Old Medina. Momo, the manager of the riad we were staying at, met us at the car and helped us navigate the crazy streets. Riads are restored houses in the medina that are turned into guest houses. We were blown away by our riad. It was gorgeous and felt like a spa. There was soothing music playing, a water fountain, and candles everywhere. The center of the riad was outside so you have a courtyard in the middle of your house. Our riad had three floors. First floor had a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. Second floor was just bedrooms and the third was a beautiful terrace. We loved Momo and the riad so much that we decided we are going to buy a riad in Marrakesh and hire Momo to take care of it. Don't worry, we even started looking for potential properties.

We had a hard time wanting to venture out from our peaceful riad into the crazy medina but we finally mustered enough strength to face the chaos. Our first day was spent wandering through the Djemaa el Fna (main square filled the famous snake charmers) and Souks (labyrinth of narrow streets filled with small shops). We had a great time bargaining with the shop owners. We came away with amazing bowls, plates, rings, games, shoes, etc. It was a shoppers paradise!

The next day we got up early to see the sights before it got too hot. Our first stop was El Badi Palace. As our guide book would say, "it's a romantic set of sandstone ruins, policed by nesting storks". The mosaic walls and ceilings were amazing. Then we ventured over to the Saadian Tombs. Here we saw the burial ground for several prominent Saadians.

Our next stop was supposed to be the Ali ben Youssef Medersa (16th century Koranic school) but a few people on the street told us that it was closed for cleaning and that we should go to the Festival of Colors instead. A man took it upon himself to lead us there ensuring that "no guide, no money". Later we found out they were feeding us a bunch of lies. The Festival of Colors turned out to be the disgusting tanneries. The tanneries smelled so bad that they handed us a handful of mint leaves to smell as we walked around. Trust us, the mint didn't even come close to helping with the smell. They wanted us to enter via a doorway that had a bunch of animal hides semi-blocking the entry (yes, long hairy fur still attached). We refused and they took us to another entrance. Still disgusting but a little more bearable. They gave us a quick explanation on the tanneries and then we were free to leave. As we were leaving the man leading us to the festival asked us for money. Hmm, remember when he said "no guide, no money". We just walked away without saying a word.

As we were walking back to the main square we stumbled upon the Medersa and guess what, it was open! Imagine that! We took a quick tour and then headed out to find lunch. As we were walking back people kept coming up to us and telling us to go to the tanneries. Lizzy, after being sick of being fed lies and tired of being hot and sweaty said, "if you talk to me about tanneries one more time I'm going to punch you in the face". Amen sister! Overall we loved Marrakesh. We would just suggest you hire a guide in order to avoid being fed lies!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Amazing Race - Sahara Desert

We left the campsite around 8am for about a 12 hour day of driving to Marrakesh. We loved chatting with our driver, Abdul. We took a different route this time and drove across a dried up lake. We stopped in the middle of the lake to take pictures of the mirages surrounding us.

We stopped at Ait Benhaddou, the famous red mud brick kasbah featured in films such as Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. We didn't
have time to tour it but we still enjoyed gazing at the outside. Finally, we drove through the Atlas Mountains. Our favorite part was driving through Tizi N'Tichka, a stunningly beautiful mountain pass.

Sweating in the Sahara - Erg Chigaga, Morocco

Traveling to Morocco was a nightmare for everyone but we all survived. Melanie and Ashwin Shashindranath's flight was canceled so they had to drive all night to Chicago in order to make their 9am flight. Sara Collins' (aka Lizzy) had to run through several airports to make her connections. And Sara and John's flight was filled with out of control children. There was screaming, running up and down the aisles, and a child even hit Sara in the face. We all met up in Casablanca and took a 1am flight to Ouarzazate. We arrived at 3am and headed straight to our hotel for a couple hours of sleep.

We were up and at it around 7:30am. Our driver, Mohammed, arrived at 8am with another girl, Carla, from Costa Rica, to take us to the desert in a 4x4. We had a long five hour drive to the edge of the Sahara desert. Even with AC we were sweating like crazy. We stopped at a small hotel in M'Hamid and had lunch, took naps, and watched Germany kill Argentina. We had to chill there for a few hours because we needed to wait until the desert cooled down before heading out to our campsite.

Around 5pm we headed out for two and a half hours of off-roading though rocky desert floors and small sand dunes until we reached our next destination. Once there, our guides tied our special desert head scarves around our heads and we hopped on our camels. We then took an hour long sunset camel ride through the dunes to our campsite. We spent the evening climbing the sand dunes, listening to live Berber music (yes, they brought several musicians out with us), and eating traditional Moroccan food. We had tajine, stew cooked in clay pots. Lucky for us, they were out of camel meat and had to serve us beef.

The campsite was extremely nice. Each group had their own Berber tent with real beds and a bathroom (a small western style portable toilet). We opted to sleep out under the stars instead of inside the tent because it was much cooler outside. The stars were incredible! We saw so many shooting stars that we lost count. The moon didn't grace us with it's presence until about midnight but once it arrived it lit up the whole desert.

As we were falling asleep Lizzy started screaming and jumped out of her bed so fast that we thought there was a snake in her bed. No, it was just a giant beetle. In a matter of seconds, John and Lizzy were standing on the elevated beds in hysterics. It was hilarious. It took the rest of us a few minutes to calm them down and convince them that sleeping in the car wasn't a good idea. We shook out all of the sheets and then settled down for the night - although a few people continued to have a few mild freak outs until the sun came up.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Surfs Up - Munich

You wouldn't think that surfing would be popular in a land locked country but the Germans love to surf. At the tip of the English Garden, there is a giant man-made wave in the river that runs through the park. We could have spent hours watching these guys surf. The park was full of people at 5pm on a Thursday. Talk about work-life balance!