Entry #007: Thursday, April 18, 2013 (Meknes, Morocco)

I think at this point, I officially don't know what day it is at any point. I have to keep checking my phone to make sure I haven't stayed where I am a day longer than I was supposed to, or if I should have started taking my anti-malaria medication yet (that's not until Saturday). It's weird, because in some ways, I'm more beholden to the calendar than I was when I was working a 9-5 (well, 9-8) job, but it's hard to know when anything is.

Anyhoo, I m going to start with a bit of a minor rant section. Don't worry, this isn't the kind of bad attitude I was talking about in my first entry when I was visiting Mozambique as a spoiled teen, but there are a couple of things...I think I'll just say, "I'm over it" for the moment.

  1. Bread. I never thought I would be over bread, but that's before I learned it was consumed with literally everything here. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, apples, milk, whatever. Always more bread. And I'm eating less than everyone else. I have maybe half of any particular type of loaf. Others have a full one, maybe two. But it could be I'm also just missing my normal side veggies, my broccoli and spinach and tomatoes. Just having bread in their stead seems...wrong. We had a bean soup dish last night, and I eventually switched to a spoon. Everyone thought it was because I was embarrassed of my poor management of picking up the food, but I tried to convince them I just didn't want more bread.
  2. The lack of napkins and paper towels. At one of the dinners, Jamal said, "You probably think it's barbaric that we eat with our hands." "No," I replied, "But it would be nice having something to wipe them with." I have to wipe my hands on bread just to pick up a tea glass, and go to the bathroom after dinner just to make sure they're clean. That is one thing I don't get - it doesn't seem to me like napkins would destroy centuries of culture, but maybe that's just the hegemony talking.
  3. The language barriers. Yes, yes, I know I mention this every post, but I think I genuinely underestimated how few people speak English here, especially if you're not on some manicured tour. And as I mentioned before, it really is a barrier for me. See my story below. I think, 20 or 30 years in the future, it will be a whole new story, but in the meantime, make sure you know some conversational Arabic or French, or are traveling with someone who does. It makes a world of difference.
  4. People telling me I need to stay here for months to see everything. I appreciate the sentiment, but it's the same for every country. You could stay for years in places and not see everything. Until I can transfer my consciousness into an immortal robot body, I'm going to be limited in this regard.
  5. My left middle fingernail. Seriously, that sucker is growing twice as fast as all of my other nails; I have no idea why.
Okay, enough of that negativity. Let's talk about some fun stuff! Like ROMAN RUINS OH MY GOD!!!

So, I woke up yesterday, maybe 10am. Decided to use that time to just kind of putz around on my computer, doing a little bit of planning for some of my future legs. For example, did you know that I neglected to get some sort of housing between my Kilimanjaro climb's completion and my flight to South Africa? I sure didn't! I considered doing Couchsurfing for that, but then thought, I'll have just climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. So I booked a hotel for a couple days. I think I will probably have the odd hotel between each of my Couchsurfing and "roughing it" sections. Having new friends to live with is great, but as my time in Tetouan showed, having a day or so to yourself is great to get your bearings and reorient yourself. So I'll keep that in mind.

Then, at 12:30pm, a meal is brought out. It's the same eggs/cheese/meat/tea/coffee/bread combination I've seen a lot already, but I chuckled when they all called it breakfast ("It doesn't matter when it's served, just if it's the first meal"). As we ate, I spoke about how I wanted to visit Volubilis, the two-millenia-old Roman Ruins about 30km north of Meknes. I had read about it when looking up about the town, and being the Antiquity fan that I am, knew that I had to make it. Jamal said he would see if one of his friends would be able to drive me.

After, maybe, an hour or two of conversation, it turned out the friend couldn't take me. So it was up to public transportation. Jamal said that Hamid's 16-year-old brother, Edir (I have no idea how it's spelled, but it's pronounced "Wuhdeer") wanted to visit, as he'd never been either. "Anyone else?" Nope. And unfortunately, Edir was a high school student who was just starting in Jamal's class. In short, he could not understand me, and I could not understand him. This was going to be fun.

Jamal gave us some instructions about taking a taxi to this one city, and then hitchhiking the rest of the way. So, we got in a "petite" (local) taxi to take us to the "grande" (long-distance) taxi park. Then, they start talking to me. That's when it hits the fan. The driver says something to me. Edir says something to me. My eyes widen with each word to the size of a doe's, and I finally say "I don't understand." Then some taxi driver outside says "300 dirham. Volubilis, back to Meknes." Even though that's more than we're supposed to spend, I understand what he's saying. I see Edir not moving, but seemingly motioning me to, so I ask him if he's leaving me (in English) he says "...Yes." Oh, crap, I think. So, I get out of the petite taxi and am about to go with the 300Dh guy. Edir puts up an index finger. That I understand, so I wait. He calls Jamal, who then acts as a by-phone translator for us. He tells me not to take the expensive taxi, and to follow his plan, to which I respond that I can't do if I don't know what anybody is saying. He says Edir will take care of everything. I ask to confirm that he's going along and not ditching me, which he confirms.

Okay, crisis averted. I guess he didn't understand my question (and it was foolish of me to think he would have), but we knew what we were to do. I would follow Edir, quiet as a dormouse  letting him do the talking, and handing him some cash when the need arose. Not the most social of relationships, but it gets us where we need to go, and more cheaply.

We find a different cab, that drives us up to the Gondor-like city of Moulay Idriss before dropping us off. Again, the countryside is magnificent along the way. Also, we came very close to smashing head-on with a chemical truck, but that's neither here nor there. So, when we're dropped off, we find the sign pointing towards Volubilis and start walking.

A number of cars drive by us. I genuinely don't understand Edir's hitchhiking strategy. He only thumbs every fourth car or so, and it seems like all the ones he does motion to are always full. I, on the other hand, put my hand up for everyone, because, hey, why not? This turned out to be just as successful as Edir's strategy, which is to say, not successful at all. So we end up walking the three or four kilometers to the site.

I have to admit, I strangely enjoyed this walk. Partially because I enjoy walking. But the language barrier between Edir and I negated any sort of pretense of having a continuous conversation. So, aside from the occasional car driving past, there was silence on that road. Silence which allowed you to hear the wind blowing through the olive trees. To hear the beetles flying in the bushes alongside you. To hear a distant rooster crow or dog bark. To really take in your surroundings. Sure, it would have been cool to have someone I could say "Listen to that" to, but in that moment, I really didn't mind the complete isolation that both Edir and myself had. We were almost united, with nature and each other, by it.

We eventually got to the ruins, and I legitimately let out a squeal when I saw the pillars on the horizon. I've studied this stuff for such a long time, and here, I could see it in person! Not only that, it's considered the best-preserved ruins in Africa! Not only that, but they really don't seem to care all that much about it, so aside from a few mosaics, nothing was roped off. You could touch, walk on, jump on, and really be in that ancient town.

I hopped from place to place (sometimes quite literally) with excitement, digging up my college class on Greco-Roman architecture. I wanted to share my knowledge with Edir, oh how I wanted to! I tried every so often, pointing to columns, saying "Doric" or "Corinthian". When we saw a mosaic depicting the twelve feats of Hercules, I pointed and said "Hercules". I have no idea if he had any clue what I meant. After all, this wasn't his culture, his history. But still, I wanted to show off what I could while taking pictures. And take pictures I did. Almost 250 just here; this one place almost doubled my overall picture count so far. Not that they're all great; some are just of some random rock with nothing solid to identify with. Still, others are amazing, and once again, the countryside was beautiful, especially from this spot. Those Romans knew what they were doing.

I have to imagine we stayed there for two hours, all the while communicating with grunts, "Uh huh", "Uh uh", "Ahh", and pointing. Even more Neanderthal then my time at the bus station, but you work with what you got. It got us around competently enough, but once we were finished, and concepts more complex than "Should we go in that direction?" became necessary, it all fell apart.

We went to the entrance of the area (also, I forgot to mention that visiting this place cost just a hair over a dollar), a taxi driver said "Meknes?" and he and Edir begin talking. Arguing, really. After a while, he walks away. And then he just sits. And waits. And waits. After maybe 20 minutes, I try to ask what the problem was. Obviously, this doesn't work. So I try typing into Google Translate, just as yes or no questions. He seems to have difficulty with this even. This presents one of two possibilities: Google Translates' offline packs aren't great (possible and sad), or he was at least somewhat illiterate (and, given what I've seen, equally possible and sad). But still, I try to see if we were waiting for someone to pick us up, or what the deal was.

Eventually, I found out that the taxi driver wanted 100Dh to take us to Meknes. And so we were waiting for the odd car to come by to hitchhike with. The problem was, it was almost sunset, and there were very few cars coming regardless. I was getting a bit frustrated. I completely understand frugality, especially when there's not much money to begin with, but we were literally sitting there for an hour with no luck. I wanted to deal with my problem the way any American does: by throwing money at it. Alternatively, had we walked, we could have been in Moulay Idriss by now, getting the cheap taxi. But I had no way of communicating this with Edir.

At one point, a van with Australian stickers parked, and two very Australian folks stepped out. I was 100% willing to talk to these folks to see if we could hitchhike with them, but knew that it would be another hour or two before they'd leave. So I just motion to Edir to get up, we're walking. He does. Along the way, another taxi comes by and offers to drive us to Moulay Idriss. We get in, and are driven there, for more than what I think Edir wanted to pay (even though I paid most of it). We then wandered about this new city, trying to find a taxi, which took us another hour. Finally, we paid 20Dh more, and we were driven down to Meknes. They dropped us off at the far side of the city, so we ended up walking another half-hour, and then when we got to Jamal's house, nobody was home.

Language didn't matter at that point. We just looked at each other and laughed.

We went to the nearby park and waited. I amused myself by taking my phone and reading some offline travel guides to places I already knew (Long Beach, Berkeley, Torrance), and maybe a half-hour later, Jamal and co. showed up, with another of his students (a 40-year-old, this time). We go back, have some tea, I talk with the man, who tells me I should have stayed longer (ugh) and went to parts of the country where they used argan oil, and visit this city, and that city. I was impressed with his English, as he was only a student for seven months. Jamal must be a good teacher.

At about 10pm, dinner is served (it's the bean soup I was mentioning earlier). Jamal, despite saying he was going to give up bread, was on his fourth loaf of the day. He said I needed to stop him. "You can't have others be your willpower," I said, letting him eat it. (Hey, I mean it, the power needs to be within, or you will fail.) Afterward, people start making ready for bed. I try calling my family via Skype, but the WiFi seems to choose that moment to start acting wacky, so it's not as much as I'd like. A couple more pieces of travel prep, and I'm heading to bed. Jamal asks if I want to go running with Hamid tomorrow morning. "What time?" "Five." "Hell no," I say without delay.

Today, I got up at 10am or so. Jamal was leaving for work, and Hamid was cooking breakfast (I'd say Hamid is what keeps the place together). We ate around 11:30 (so I'd say, more of a lunch), and I continued doing stuff on my computer, including typing the first half or so of this. I also spoke some more with Lana, and asked about what she did normally. "Nothing, just wait around here or visit Jamal at his school." I asked where else she had gone in Morocco. "Just Fes." (Jamal's other base of operation.) I was actually amazed: I'd seen more of this country in my short time here than she did in almost three weeks. I said that I hoped she had a chance to see more before her two months here came to an end.

At maybe 1pm, Lana says she and Edir were going to the local medina, and ask if I want to join. Considering I had said during breakfast that I was interested in seeing the medina today, of course I accept. We walk down to the new learning center, where Hamid is buy sprucing up the place (see what I mean about him). We ask if he wants to join, but he declines, wood chips at his feet. So, two people who can't speak communicate with anyone outside of each other go out with a guy who's never been in this city before.  When we get lost, I am hardly surprised. I have my map, so I ask what street we're on. That's all I need - my map, a street name, and my compass. Lana is convinced that's not going to help, and Edir doesn't know what I'm saying, so I become useless.

We're forced to ask directions - multiple times - and find our way to a McDonald's near the medina. Lana and I had said we wanted to go to this McDonald's, her because she likes it and I because I had a morbid curiosity about the specific items I find in each country. We get in, and I eagerly search the menu for something. The most exotic thing I could find on there was the McFondue, which just looked like some sort of normal, if oversized, burger with white cheese. I was going to order it, thrilled that I could use my credit card here. But then I realized that it was pretty hot; even indoors, it couldn't have been under 85 degrees. The last thing I wanted was a hot burger and hot fries. Instead, I got a vaguely strawberry-flavored milkshake (maybe that's also different? I'm not enough of a patron to know) and a Coca-Cola light.

Chilled out and sugar'd up, we walked to the medina. Walking through the main plaza, a clown with some sort of squeaky voice started acting up. As a big piece of dirt had gotten in my eye, I was temporarily blinded to his shenanaigans, but once that cleared up, I saw that he had just finished doing a wild west shootout with me (because of my outback cap). Had I seen him earlier, I probably would have put on a show for the crowd. The moment having passed, I just tipped my hat, which would have to do.

We spent at least an hour getting lost in the medina. And I started realizing that these things are just like shopping malls. In basically every sense. No matter what kind of thing you want, you'll find it there. You can just find yourself walking around. And aside from some main plaza, they're basically all the same. At least, it's like that to me. I have a hard time telling malls apart, and now I have a hard time telling medinas apart. And if you're not buying anything, it can be a bit dry. On the unique side, medinas have 700-year-old architecture, which you will be hard-pressed to find in a mall. And I took a couple pictures, which I really hated doing in this environment, because a) it seemed wrong taking pictures in what is a normal, day-to-day place for these people, and b) it turned me from some huge cowboy who was maybe a bodyguard to this girl and her Moroccan guide to yet another goofy white person with a camera and probably a lot of disposable income. So when I did bring out the camera, I did so quickly and covertly.

After making our way out of the medina, we continued walking, trying just to find our way back to the main street (again, I had my map and compass at the ready, but had no starting point). Once we did, Lana then took us to the local royal palace, and the nearby abandoned stables and lake. Here, we could tell Edir was tired, so we sat down. Despite the heat, I was doing okay, in part because of my hat (which I adjusted literally every time I turned) and in part because of the water I insisted we bought. Seriously, water is key, and everyone seems so resistant to buying it. But they've never had heat stroke. I did (in Mozambique). I remember it; it's no fun. I'm willing to shell out six dirhams to prevent that.

We sit by the lake for a while, watching the ducks float by. When we get up to leave, both Edir and Lana seem unwilling to walk. After offering to carry them, we decide to take a taxi back to the apartment.

During whatever meal we were eating (it apparently wasn't dinner yet, despite being 8:30), Jamal said that we weren't going to Fes tonight after all. So that's a shame. I basically would have spent tomorrow exploring Fes, and then moved on to Zagora. Now Fes, the second biggest city and prior capital of Morocco is out of the picture. Oh, well. I take solace in the fact that their medina is probably just like all the rest, just bigger and with more hucksters. And that's the main attraction. So maybe it's all okay.

And maybe I can come back to visit Fes some other time. Ideally when they invent universal translators. Or I learn French...no, definitely when they invent universal translators. 

1 comment:

  1. The McFondue sounds purely unholy. But then again, perhaps you'll be less likely to get sick eating that than some of the more local cuisine.

    As for the Roman ruins - sounds incredible. It would certainly be something to see old mosaics and architecture from the Roman period. Certainly don't find a lot like that.

    Too bad about Fes - I guess that's what Google Street View is for though.


    P.S. With all that bread, sounds like you are in an Atkins dieter's nightmare!