Unabridged Me

JUST ANOTHER WRITER

Marrakech Opens It’s Doors

April 24, 2019

“Is this our home for a few days?” she asks while looking at me with exhausted eyes.

“Yes, sweetheart,” I reply as I dump clothes full of desert sand in a large copper bathtub, readying for my back for the strain of doing laundry over a rim set three feet high.

“Do they have a playground?”

“No,” I stop what I am doing and look at my daughter. Her eyes are tired and lost, eyes that have stared at knees while overwhelmed by sights, sounds, and cultural differences.

I pick her up, holding her tight against me. “You know what comes next?” I whisper into her ear.

She shakes her head.

“We stay here for three nights, then we go back to the room that had the really big bathtub that you played in, and then we take a plane,” I pull my head back to look into her eyes.

“You mean we are going home?” a small smile pulls at the corners of her mouth.

“Yes, after this city. Now, do you want to help me do laundry?” I ask her.

“Yes!” she squeals, kicking to be released from my arms.

I am not ready to leave this country or end the experience, but my daughter has said goodbye to two things in two days that she has enjoyed. She is ready for her routine. Playing washer woman with mom is a good second place situation now that she knows what to expect.

*

Today was the assigned day with our guide in Marrakech. We started with what has become a typical breakfast spread, complete with coffee, bread and pastries, and an egg if we want one.

For the first time the entire trip, my mom ate a full meal. She seemed ready to take on the heat of the day, though neither of us were really prepared for standing in queue after queue in the desert sun. Our travel companion chose to stay behind at the riad, as long as I could guarantee we would get into the markets.

I am ready to take on the souks and wander freely, so that guarantee was easily given.

Marrakech has similarities to Los Angeles, in that the city itself was chosen for location but had a complete lack of water. The solution for Marrakech is underground aqueducts running water from the High Atlas Mountains.

Named the Pearl of Morocco, Marrakech has code regulations regarding appearance and height of buildings. All buildings must be painted pink, and there cannot be a building taller than the spire of the Koutaubia Mosque. So unlike Casablanca, there are no high rise apartments.

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Original foundation of the mosque next to the current building

Our first stop was the Koutaubia Mosque, where we stood with reams of people pouring from tour buses to sit in the baking sun. We walked around to the front of the mosque, looking at the vendor art before deciding to move onward.

There was one vendor that caught my attention, which then brought about my mom’s attention. The man had painted on a small animal hide, then stretched the hide in a frame, creating an open frame concept around amazing artistry. I chose to move on, though my mom contemplated a purchase.

She passed it up, though I have a feeling we will be back.

The next stop was the Saadian Tombs. Another example of beautiful handcrafted Moroccan artisan work with plaster and wood, the tombs were buried for 400 years in the middle of Marrakech. It wasn’t until the early 20th Century when a pilot saw the tombs from the air that the city realized an amazing historical artifact was sitting right in front of them under a pile of sand.

Apparently, a king didn’t like his people traveling to Marrakech to pay homage. It wasn’t about who was in the tombs; it was about his people should stay home and pay homage to him only. So the tombs were buried, and now people stand for hours in queue to lean in at the edge and see the beautiful interior.

Of course, Vivian was more interested in the turtle who was minding its own business, trying to avoid the sun.

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Main chamber of the Saadian Tombs

After the tombs, we walked through the souks (markets) on our way back to our riad. Unlike the medina in Fez, Marrakech’s medina and souks have slightly wider avenues, providing better landmarks for us to find our way. As we walked back to our riad, my mom and I were taking note of the landmarks that will help us navigate the next two days.

The largest difference in Marrakech compared to where we’ve been so far is the number of tourists. Chefchaouen was crowded with tourists, but tour buses couldn’t reach the small medina and the riads were incapable of handling the traffic. So tourism was limited to smaller parties.

While we stayed in a hotel with larger tour groups in Fez, we were not as exposed to the huge tour groups as we moved around the medina, due to size and access. In fact, Arfoud was the first time I really felt completely surrounded by tourists, but it was only one resort and we stayed very little time.

As we made our way over the mountains, the number of tour buses on the road increased exponentially. All to arrive in Marrakech, apparently.

The souks were filled with tourists, donned in their summer attire of shorts and tank tops and naked midriffs, exposing their fleshy white skin. At one point, I randomly stated “I would not be comfortable,” to which our travel companion just stared at my burst of words.

I shook off her curiosity, explaining I have a tendency to blurt words mid-thought without any connection. Which is true, I admit.

The reality is I dress modestly in my every day life because genetics have gifted me with pale ginger tendencies that do not respond to sun other than to burn, and I don’t feel that anyone should be subjected to the blindness inducing organ that is my skin. However, before coming to Morocco I researched the country’s standards of dress so I wouldn’t be too offensive, despite my lack of head covering, shorter sleeves, and American accent.

After nearly two full weeks in more conservative areas, I was overwhelmed by how the tourists were dressed.

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Vivian’s friend

Dinner involved a restaurant across from the Koutaubia Mosque, where I was assigned responsibility for handling the language barrier between our server and the rest of our travel party. The server had a horrible evening as I watched all his tables fill in the space of five minutes, after which he was subjected to an American and Australian yelling for not understanding their drink order. A drink that was not on the menu, no less.

I am a firm believer that a smile and a thank you goes a long way in this life in helping overcome barriers. This vacation has affirmed that belief.

Despite the confusion and chaos, I felt comfortable and in my element. So much so we negotiated getting back to the riad through the night performers in the square and into the medina despite most of our landmarks disappearing with the setting sun.

Tomorrow we will visit the Majorelle Gardens where there is a berber and Yves St. Laurent museum (odd combination, if you ask me) and will spend our afternoon on our own in the market. I’m finally wandering and absorbing, though I feel Vivian might be holding on by a thread.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Navigation Gets Solid Footing

April 17, 2019

I turn the collection of memories in my mind, a large tile with color and nuance, texture and depth. My brain decides it’s too large to fit the mosaic that has tiles added every day.

So it starts chipping away, like the workers in Fez, shaping the tile into a smaller piece that will have it’s place in the overall experience. Wait, no! I want that memory!

My brain doesn’t listen, chipping and shaping in a predesignated pattern only it understands as I struggle to hold onto pieces turning to dust.

No, please don’t take that part, I loved that part.

I’m on my knees, tile shards slipping through my fingers as I try holding onto the full picture of smiles and laughs, comments and impressions. With tears in my eyes, I look up at the mosaic in front of me and see only bits and pieces left.

A quirk of a smile and lift of an eyebrow. A giggle of enjoyment at a loose tooth. A patient wrist stirring chocolate into milk. Sunlight warming my face. The burn of tears as I face my mom’s health. Deep eyes sad with goodbye. Regret and loss.

Fez has a small place in the overall mosaic in my mind, pushed aside by the overwhelming amount of information that has been added since then.

My heart hurts. This is not fair.

I mourn the tiny pieces I am allowed, especially since my heart has left a large chunk of it in the old city filled with tradition and history.

*

Today we left the oasis in the middle of Skoura, heading towards Marrakech. The last few days have been the hardest on all of us, as we have moved every night, journeyed through the desert – on a camel with no nameand found a small respite within an oasis of familiarity and comfort.

The changes every night have been particularly trying for Vivian, and this morning she had a hard time leaving the one place she felt was designed for her. Bad enough I made her leave the desert yesterday, but today she had to leave a playhouse and playground as well.

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Lost tooth

Even the excitement of a loose tooth is gone, as the tooth came out with an apple bite yesterday as we journeyed from Todgha Gorges to Skoura.

Today we started our tour in Ouarzazate, the cinema capital of Morocco. Movies such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Gladiator were filmed there, and we spent a few minutes walking through the movie sets.

Though movie sets in general don’t interest me, since they are fake, Vivian had a breakdown and needed some focused time. So she and I played hide and seek, tag, and a few other games that wouldn’t interfere with the environment.

Mom and our travel companion cared very little for spending much time at the movie sets, so we were leaving about the time the larger tour buses full of people started showing up.

Then we began our ascent up into the High Atlas Mountains. The road was narrow with switch backs and questionable drivers. Our driver navigated the stress of a lot of drivers with very little road as we moved towards the tallest point in Morocco.

We stopped for lunch at the summit, where Vivian had cheese pizza once again. Our driver communicated my mom’s eating situation, so we were able to get a smaller tailored lunch for her, as well. Unlike my travel companions, I have developed a particular taste for some traditional Moroccan cuisine, such as Couscous aux legumes (vegetable couscous) and the variety of ways they cook eggplant.

Unfortunately, the tangine cooked meal was only available if you called ahead, so I ate cheese pizza with Vivian.

Then we began our descent towards Marrakech with road construction added to the mass amounts of traffic and a tiny road. In an attempt to straighten and widen the road, they are digging out parts of the mountains. Unlike the States where mountain roadwork tends to occur in five mile increments, Morocco is working on the entire northern side of the mountains at one time.

According to our driver, they’ve been working on it for 6 years and there is only one stretch of about half a mile that is finished.

Once we reached the foothills, it was an uninteresting and flat drive into the Marrakech. We knew we had reached the city when we started seeing golf courses and pink hotels. Our driver informed us that the city itself has over 50 golf courses with each resort having their own, plus the royal golf course that is a public course.

The reason it is named the Royal Golf Course is because the previous king was an adamant golfer, not as I assumed that it was reserved for those who are of the royal entourage.

Since I’m more comfortable with our driver by this point, I started asking more questions about the monarchy. Finally, he said “Michelle, I cannot answer these questions.” This is not the first time he’s ignored or sidestepped a question I’ve asked, which doesn’t offend me.

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Laundry time

After all, I’m pretty sure I’m still violating norms and certain ways things are handled here without realizing it. However, I have gained more grasp of saying hello and thank you in Arabic, as well as how to navigate without too many overt issues.

As we moved further into the city, I could sense how Marrakech is unlike anywhere else we’ve been so far. First, there are far more tourists and tour buses here, and the tourists do very little to adapt how they dress or act. Second, the entire vibe is an urban, bustling modern city vibe.

While my sentimentality seems to be solidly in Fez, I can see Marrakech will be where I can come into my own as far as comfort and self direction.

In fact, other than our guided tour tomorrow, our plan is to forgo the additional six hours of driving to the seaport of Essaouira and focus on meandering the souks (markets). Our travel companion has wanted to wander and shop for almost the entire trip, and it appears in Marrakech we will be allowed the freedom to move at will.

And if we aren’t allowed, I will take it. Tonight I googled a map of the old city and where we are located, and I’ve been marking landmarks since our walk into the medina. At this point, I will pop any bubble so I can get some wandering in.

Washing Off Peace in an Oasis

April 12, 2019

“I want to quit my job,” he says through the crackling of shaky wifi.

I pause for a beat, then ask, “and do what?”

“I don’t know. Not work. Not have stress,” he replies.

The bottom of my heart has been sliced open, and blood is draining into my stomach. “Do you want me to find a full-time job and you can quit?” I ask around the olive pit that just formed in my throat.

“I don’t know,” he replies.

“We’ll talk when I get home,” I say before saying goodbye as Vivian pulls on my arm.

Later at night my thoughts begin to circle in my head, and anxiety builds on itself. I think of the time spent earning the equivalent of minimum wage ghost writing for the few hours Vivian is in school or late at night. The time spent struggling to get her moved from school to dance while cleaning and shopping and cooking. The stress about paying bills and being pulled apart from every direction on few hours of sleep.

From the noise in my head, my commitment to my mom about going to every doctor’s appointment emerges.

I shut my eyes against hot tears of frustration and hopelessness.

*

Today started with me walking through the stillness, my feet moving as much backwards as forward in the deep sand. In silence, Vivian and I sat on a chair facing the East. The wind wound her hair in ribbons past my face as my scarf billowed towards the North. Mists of sand crested the dune next to us, settling in rivulets as it fell on the leeward side.

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Vivian tries to leave her mark, but it disappears quickly

At first I tried to keep the chair from sinking into the sand dune, but with both me and Vivian sitting on a small metal chair, the effort is wasted.

In silence we watched the sky turn pale blue in preparation, mixing small amounts of white until an orange line broke across the sky.

The sun cleared the horizon, bathing the sand for another day. For one moment I am breathless, and Vivian is still. The world stopped moving, and nothing and everything existed in one moment of time.

Unfortunately, the night was long and filled with the wind howling against the side of our tent. Vivian woke talking about dreams of monsters shaking the tent, and I explained about the wind. After watching the sunrise, we moved towards the dining tent for our breakfast.

Breakfast for me consisted mostly of coffee. My eyes felt as if the entire Sahara’s worth of sand was behind my eyelids. And it looked as if my mom and our travel companion weren’t moving any time soon.

Which proved to be accurate. Our 4×4 driver came to pick us up around breakfast time, and the three of us waited for over an hour as the other two gathered themselves together. Apparently the 4×4 plus camel ride caused our travel companion to have an injury to her leg. My mom is not sleeping, nor is she eating, so she is not doing well in the mornings in general.

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My little camel

While I walked around the camp, trying to absorb the last amounts of peace I could before we faced another long drive, Vivian pretended to be a camel on top of a sand dune. Our driver occupied himself by filling a water bottle full of desert sand for Vivian.

One by one, the other parties of the camp climbed into their Land Rovers, heading onward in their vacations. Finally, the two emerged from their tent ready to face another day.

Vivian didn’t want to leave the desert. In fact, she would have been content playing on the sand dune for another few days. Several times she was asked if she wanted to stay by the various people around us, and her reply was she didn’t have the right clothes. She said she would need their robe and turbans in order to live in the desert with them.

Though she told that to only me after they smiled and turned away. Vivian still barely responds to the people who engage with her.

Since we were last to leave, our driver was given a pair of glasses forgotten by another party within the camp. We took off across the dunes, following no set road other than our driver’s sense of where he was. We crossed another camp where initially we were to drop off the glasses. Instead, we picked up a pair of earrings as our vehicle slowly drove a circle around a man who was standing and talking to him.

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Since we were the last group from the furthest camp, we had the honor of sweeping up. I watched in fascination at the efficiency in which we relayed the two items to another truck in the middle of the desert, neither vehicle stopping to prevent sinking in the sand. Each vehicle slowed to a crawl as items were handed across open windows. The other truck turned, heading off in another direction as our driver turned us towards our rendezvous point with our regular driver at his hotel.

Once settled in our regular van, we turned toward Skoura in a long drive that would take us past ksars and a gorge where we could see their irrigation in play. Also, we stopped by a site to see the old irrigation system of Morocco.

Since above ground aqueducts would cause too much water loss from evaporation, they dug channels under ground from the mountains into the desert. In order to create a natural pump, they dug holes 30 feet deep in the ground which would create air pressure to move the water.

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A very deep and old hole

Morocco has long since used generators and modern technology, but it was fascinating to see the miles of holes in a straight line from the mountains. So many man hours and innovation to irrigate agriculture in areas without water.

After a few stops at the Togha Gorges and for lunch, we reached our destination in Skoura. Our travel companion thought we were heading directly to Marrakech, which was too far from our desert stay for a one day drive. She kept asking our driver where he was taking us, to which he responded “an oasis.”

Driving down tight roads with corners our van could barely navigate, we reached our riad for the night. The land was purchased by a Dutch tour guide and her French husband 20 years ago and originally contained a grove of 6 date trees.

Since then they have literally created an oasis. Once we walked through the gates, we were welcomed by lush turf grass, tall trees, and pathways that meandered through various sitting areas. Our hostess gave us a tour, asked if we had any interest in swimming in the pool, and then showed me and Vivian where they had a play area with a slide and trampoline.

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Perfect place for Vivian

As excited as Vivian was about the slide, she was more interested in the free standing tree house that was near the horse pen. She played in the tree house until dinner. allowing me and my mom to take turns with a very hot shower to wash away the desert dust that had settled into every crevice.

The meal was well done with a crackling fire next to us and french music mixed with Frank Sinatra overhead. I felt very far from the desert, even as I walked along the lantern lit pathways to our room.

I am struggling with the paradox my mind has seen over the last few nights. Having gone from a family resort to the desert to this enclave oasis in the middle of nowhere, I am moving on autopilot and Vivian is struggling to maintain stability. We are on the downhill side of our trip, and I sense reality will be rushing towards us faster than I want.

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Atomic Level Stillness

April 11, 2019

“You don’t want to go to one of those places without a guide,” our driver says when I ask why we need a guide for the market.

“Why not?” I challenge, not impertinent but impatient to immerse a little more than we have.

“For one, don’t you want to know the history of the kasbah that is there, and maybe about what you see?” he asks as he looks at each one of us while we thoughtfully chew our lunch.

We each nod.

“Plus, you will be hassled,” he adds, taking a bite.

“Hassling does not bother me,” I say like a child pushing curfew.

“You will not like this hassling, Michelle,” he looks at me with the smile of a tolerant parent.

I give in for now. But I will have my time of wandering outside the bubble.

*

Today we left our resort of one night in Arfoud to journey to the Ksar Rissani to see an old trader’s kasbah, a shrine to the first king of the current dynasty, and stop at a small market that is held on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

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Ksar that is still residence for spice traders from the desert

I have learned the use of kasbah is often incorrect, as a kasbah refers to a single dwelling within a medina or city. What most people refer to as kasbahs are called ksars, or a village fortress. I can barely remember how to pronounce thank you in Arabic, so I am sure I will forget this, also.

While the facts and dates from our guide swirled around my head, I focused on the difference in dress and people here compared to Fez and Chefchaouen. While most people in the village are Berber, there are a scattering of Arabic as well as a few from deeper within the desert and Africa. The clothing was more representative of the desert, though the traditional djellaba is found everywhere.

The market consisted of the same items we found in Fez, though of different quantities. According to our guide, the fresh fruit is brought from other regions as this region only grows root vegetables and dates. At the butcher we saw camel legs for sale, along with fish. The guide reminded us how far away we are from the ocean, so the fish is not the freshest compared to Chefchaouen or Casablanca.

Today I learned how to tie a turban, and I almost walked out with a purchase. Vivian had a head scarf tied, though when she saw herself in the mirror and couldn’t see her face, she cried. Our travel companion thinks Vivian scared herself when she looked in the mirror.

I think Vivian is still struggling with culture shock. The constant touching and attention is wearing on her, especially considering she likes to observe before choosing how she engages.

Our travel companion came alive in the market, while my mom seemed to wilt and lack her normal attention and interest. Although all three of us paid attention when the guide talked about the healing properties of camel’s milk.

Apparently camel’s milk is good for cancers of the digestive system.

After the market, Vivian had her first pizza in Morocco, which was also one of the first full meals she’s eaten here. While not a picky eater, Vivian is becoming resistant to eating when we sit down for food. Today she ate everything. Including some candied pastry our travel companion picked up in the market.

I had a moment of concern regarding her getting sick, but I will deal with that if it comes. After all, I let her take a piece of candy from a vendor in the Fez medina, and her system handled it. Apparently, it’s the three adults who are falling apart.

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A rocky non-road to the sand dunes of Merzouga

We returned to Arfoud to wait for our 4×4 driver who would take us to our camel transports and Merzouga. Expecting only a 30 minute ride, we were informed the camel ride would take about 90 – 120 minutes. No going back; we all agreed.

The camel ride was a unique experience, especially since I’m used to having stirrups when riding an animal. I’ve decided they are much better left in romantic imagination, as our backsides began to feel every hard bump in our grass saddles. As our travel companion blithely stated, “someone put a pea in my saddle.”

I did not think of fairy tales, but I did have a familiar song running through my head non-stop after about 45 minutes of seeing sand blow towards me. … been through the desert on a horse, wait no, camel with no name… I almost regretted not buying cloth for a turban.

Our camel did have a name, and it was clear the affection the animals had for our handler.

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Been through the desert – with a 4 year-old

While our travel companion moaned and started asking about our ETA, I absorbed the absolute soul deep peacefulness of the desert. There is no other way for me to describe it. Silence away from electronics is nothing new, and I have experienced silence on different levels in various places. But what I felt in the desert was a stillness that I haven’t felt elsewhere. Stillness at the atomic level.

So still I didn’t even mind the grumbling as our journey neared it’s end. Once we reached the camp, our companion was hobbling toward the host and her tent as fast as her legs could carry her.

While my travel sickness resolved itself in Fez, it appears her constant companion this trip is digestive issues.

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Hot chocolate in a Berber camp

What I did find interesting is our camel wrangler had a cell phone, even out towards our Berber replica campsite. Apparently, cell phones have really connected the entire world. There wasn’t any wifi, though that didn’t stop me from initially sitting down to write. Until I thought, wait I’m in the Sahara desert, why am I on my computer?

However, the campsite was hardly the camping in the wilderness I experienced as a child. We had electricity, showers, and flushing toilets.

Part one of two things Vivian was excited for is finished, and more than half our trip is complete. Despite not leaving supper until 10 p.m. and being exhausted this entire trip, I will set the alarm to watch the sunrise. I just hope the Berber camp has strong coffee.

The First Pangs of Goodbye

April 10, 2019

“Are the chefs coming with us?” Vivian asks while I pack up the remaining items in our hotel room.

“You mean like Mohamed? No, sweetie, they work here and will stay here in Fez,” I answer abstractly, knowing she’s referring to the staff who are here day and night regardless the time. I don’t want to forget anything.

“Oh. I don’t want to leave,” Vivian looks at the floor, struggling to process leaving the faces she’s grown familiar with and has started to trust.

I look at my daughter for a minute before sitting on the bed and pulling her on my lap. I talk about traveling and taking trips and how even though we enjoy a certain area and how we are sad when we leave, we keep moving forward to see and learn more. Talking too much, she’s not hearing you.

“Do you know why we are leaving?” I ask her.

She shakes her head, still struggling with her sadness.

“We are going to ride a camel in a day. Tonight, we stay in a new place, then the next day is the desert and camel,” I lay out our timeline, highlighting the part she’s been looking forward to.

Her eyes light up and she starts helping me pack up the room. I take a breath, trying to prepare myself for our goodbyes.

*

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A rooftop goodbye to Fez

We begin our long drive from Fez to Arfoud, a town bordering on the Saraha desert. I don’t feel I have seen the full amount of Fez that I could or should have seen, but it’s time to move onward as we try to see the full variety of the country before heading back to the States.

At breakfast we learned why we saw the same staff regardless of the time of day: They work 15 – 16 hours days. Though I have no confirmation we were assigned a staff member, we saw and managed to talk a little with the same person for every breakfast.

Also, this means they start work at 7 a.m. when breakfast service begins and do not end their day until 10 p.m. or later, after the last dinner is served and cleaned up.

From the standpoint of a tourist, or Vivian, this creates a sense of comfort and familiarity as we see the same face day in and day out. By day 3 in Fez, Vivian trusted who she saw and that they would make sure she was taken care of. For the staff, this makes for a very long day.

New boundaries have been drawn, as our travel companion asserted her displeasure with our driver before getting into the van. At the same time, I was running around with the staff member who seemed always there for us, making sure to get the items both my mom and our travel companion forgot in their room.

Once all items were in the van and we said our goodbyes, I did as I was asked the previous evening and informed our driver we needed to make two stops on our way out of Fez. After this, I am extricating myself as point person in this trip.

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Vivian’s mall treat

The first stop was the bank, as intended the day before. The second was the mall so our travel companion could pick up some wine. Wine has not been easily found in Morocco to date, and she decided it was time for her to take things into her own hands. While the morning did not start as early as our driver intended, for the first time we enjoyed walking around modern Morocco as we wandered the mall.

Finally, with wine in hand, we started a very long drive to the southeast. Conversation waxed and waned in comfortable tides of getting to know each other as we settled into a more comfortable rhythm of talk. My mom and her travel companion have been on several trips together, so this was more a chance for her and me to get to know one another.

Apparently, our travel companion is feeling better. I can say my travel sickness resolved itself in Fez, so I will not have that burden while meandering through the desert on a camel.

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Race to the top

We stopped for a quick coffee in Ifrane, the Switzerland of Morocco. The stop gave us a better sense of what we wanted from the trip, and things mellowed into a rhythm of enjoyment.

As we wandered back to the van, I saw old steps set into a hill. The steps lead up but it appeared there were a set of steps that came down near the van. On impulse, I told my mom we would meet her at the van then said to Vivian, “Race you to the top.”

She and I played a quiet game of walking tag at the top, staying away from families taking pictures, and then ran back down to the van to continue on our way.

As we moved southward, the cultural demographic changed. We saw less European and Arabic influence and more Berber culture.

A quick stop for lunch in Midelt found us in a small, out of the way restaurant ran by a widow. Once again too much food was presented, even though the driver had told me it was not normal for them to eat like this every meal. I felt so wasteful, seeing all the food we didn’t eat. The driver said to not worry, her children would eat the leftovers.

After a small conversation with our driver this morning regarding the amount of food my mom is capable of eating, I don’t feel that we are offending the widow as we would have with previous hosts. We are relying more on our driver to communicate for us, and so far it’s helping. At least, for this one day.

Finally, we reached our destination in Arfoud, where our hotel appeared to be a sprawling resort of Sahara fun. The supper was buffet style, mostly designed around European and American food sensibilities, with ornate Berber decorations and uniformed staff. The sprawling resort had rental dune buggies and motorcycles, as well as a pool with swim up snack and alcohol bar.

While comfortable, I was glad we were staying only one night and set to leave the next day for a camp in the desert. Although I have very few expectations for this trip, there was something very Disney or Las Vegas to the hotel that I struggled to reconcile in my mind.

While the riad in Fez hosted larger tour groups, we were immersed in Fez and only saw the groups in passing in the lobby. Here we were immersed in home, though I hear a lot more French and Spanish than English. The staff are speaking Spanish to Vivian, which she understands and responds to more than French or Arabic, but it is making her withdrawal a little since she has not heard Spanish here except when we practice her vocabulary.

Tomorrow we will take a tour of a small village market before returning to the hotel to head out to the desert. We have finally reached Vivian’s focal point. I hope she is not disappointed. Also, I am starting to wonder how the rest of the trip will go once her focus has passed.

And I realized I left my washcloth in Fez. Like the clothes hangers, my washcloth is not a necessity but a convenience I will definitely miss. I have not bought a single souvenir, but I have left them everywhere I’ve been.

Lady Bugs and Attempts at Breaking Free

April 9, 2019

“Let’s follow the clues, ok?” Vivian is looking at a cement bench that was covered in graffiti. While I recognized the English curse words, she cannot read and does not.

“Okay,” I agree. The park our driver brought us to is not exactly a let a kid run out and play park. Instead, we are in the royal gardens across from the palace.

However, I love the smell of the air and being around lush vegetation, and if I play Vivian’s game, she won’t know the difference.

“What’s it tell us to do?” I ask her.

“We go this way to find lady bugs,” she states, walking to her right.

I straighten my head scarf and hat, and respond, “ok, let’s go.”

No matter where we look or follow the clues, we cannot find any lady bugs. We did find a nice Australian couple. Thy recognize us as American and start a conversation. They are here with a group of eight friends. He shows Vivian a picture of a lady bug, the only lady bug we will see today.

We go our separate ways, and finally I convince Vivian we should sit down for a moment to enjoy the trees.

“But Mom, you are sitting on the clues!” she exclaims, expressing her frustration at not having the free time she was expecting.

I grab her onto my lap and begin tickling her. “Tickle monsters don’t care about clues,” I say over her shrieks.

For once I’m not worried about the looks, my daughter deserves a moment for herself.

*

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Looking for lady bugs

Although the four of us intended to meet for breakfast before Vivian and I went to the park, my mom and our travel companion chose to take a long morning. Vivian and I found ourselves sitting at breakfast alone before meeting our driver, giving me plenty of time to just look around at our surroundings.

A large riad, our hotel has 40 rooms total, set around 4 plazas. The main tile motif is blue and white that I later learn are Fez colors, with various water features in each plaza. Only one plaza remains open to the roof, while the other three have been covered.

Until the day we left, I struggled with orientation in the hotel, which was a weird sense for me. Usually my sense of direction is amazing, but the historical building confused my internal compass.

It was easy to go unnoticed in the riad. Due to the large size and location within the outer walls of the medina, the location appeared ideal for larger touring groups. This means there were often groups of 16 people being shuffled in through breakfast and dinner or tunneled through the lobby to their various rooms.

I didn’t mind being a small group, and I could see our assigned staff member was overworked since most of the larger groups were English speaking. I didn’t confirm, but it appeared staff was assigned based on strength in a certain language. Despite requiring less attention, and thus receiving less attention, Vivian was often noticed and fawned over. After all, the average age of the groups is 60 years old, so seeing someone of Vivian’s age was a novelty.

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After our breakfast, Vivian and I walked up the short alleyway to meet our driver, and we were on our way. The royal gardens had a variety of different areas, all designed to provide a varied aesthetic. What I found more interesting was the edge of Fez against the garden furthest from the palace. The difference between the buildings and the lushness of the garden was striking, especially since most of the buildings needed repair compared to the gardens or the palace on the opposite side.

I carried an uncomfortable message from our driver to my mom and travel companion, informing them he would not be back though they planned on going to the bank. They had not informed me of their other plans, such as driving around Fez for shopping, and he took the opportunity to spend some time at home.

I inquired about local lunch places, which reception said they felt uncomfortable referring us to anything to prevent sickness. Irritation ensued while we stayed in the hotel to eat lunch. The general feeling from the other two was they were being held hostage in the riad. After all, we were told the medina is too confusing to walk but they have no driver.

After I put in some effort at small talk, which is not my forte, moods lightened, and a plan was agreed upon.

After making sure Vivian took a nap, we would walk on our own. I figured a bank had to be near, and why not try to recover the day. Vivian woke from a very long nap, but our travel companion was sleeping again so my mom, Vivian, and I ventured out on our own. I felt a slight difference between having a guide and when we were on our own.

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It was the first time we had gone outside without some form of guide or our driver. While Vivian and I had walked on our own in Chefchaouen, the environment was much more contained. Plus, I had a clear sense people were making sure we got where we were expected. Finally, we wandered beyond the protective bubble.

We received more attention, especially since we were walking beyond where most tourists move, and we were such a small group. But I noticed very little difference other than once or twice when my attention was sought aggressively.

I was more focused on making sure Vivian did not get hit by a car and that my mom had enough energy to make it back to the hotel to meet the individual who was to walk us to our dinner that evening.

While we could have found the restaurant on our own, as Mom and I walked past it twice while wandering, our watchful friends are careful to not require that we find our own way for meals or sightseeing. Unlike individual travel, this is what comes from having a tour company responsible for our safety.

The restaurant was a small riad, run by a man who used to be a tour driver. Once his daughters reached a certain age, he knew he wanted to be home for them. He spent some time talking about how he designed his house, more specifically his specific design of blue and white tile in respect of the Jewish community.

Our host came from a Berber tribe. His father, struggling to find work, came to Fez and started working for an Army captain. After a while, he sent for his family. Our host was given the opportunity to receive education in Fez, unlike all his cousins who remained with the tribe, and one of the distinctive aspects of his education was his exposure to all the cultures.

While his father was a hard worker and did as well as he could, our host felt he owed his education at the hands of all Moroccan culture for giving him a path unlike his cousins. For that reason, he made sure all Morocco was represented.

The food was delicious, though too much for any of us to eat, and the dessert was beyond anything to date. Most of our desserts have been fresh fruit that is delicious and perfect for me after a large meal. However, the riad served a formed chocolate pudding covered in chocolate gonache and topped with an almond praline.

The dessert was a sweet reminding of a bitter ending, as we are set to leave Fez in the morning for a long drive southward towards the desert. We have come to know the people who are around us daily in the riad, and the next stretch will be a different room every night as we venture into the sand dunes of the Sahara.

I know I am just a tourist, being shuffled through a business where people meet new tourists daily, but some of the connections we are making are real regardless. Also, Vivian takes time to warm up to people. We will see how she handles moving every night.

Rooftop view from the riad

Possible Potion for Failure

April 7, 2019

Most of us are not aware of our cultural indoctrination until we force ourselves into isolation away from our comfort zone. This also applies to our patterns of living and existing.

As far as travel companions go, my mom is probably the least inclined to create conflict since she has traveled on her own in  large groups, often making long term friendships with people she chats up along the way.

Unfortunately, she has not been super chatty this trip due to not feeling 100 percent.

Since I have Vivian and am the person who found the tour company and took initiative on this trip, I am the one who carries the most guilt. Entirely on my own shoulders, created by my own nature.

The other two travel companions are both the youngest and oldest, with 70 years separating their life experiences. Today our long drive from Chefchaouen through Volubilis to Fez exhibited some of our inherent personality traits as well as our awareness to our environment.

Although each of us was emailed the itinerary in both detailed and broad strokes, not all of us read it in the same detail. I did not memorize our path, but I’m carrying it in my laptop bag for reference just in case. Also, I have a general sense that most of our road travels are not direct routes but have stops along the way.

So, did I know we planned on stopping at Volubilis to tour the Roman ruins? No, but I enjoyed and went along with it.

Our travel companion did read the itinerary in great detail, but she seemed to forget we were touring the ruins. Unfortunately, she grumbled a lot during the tour, often asking the tour guide if he intended to walk the whole way around. As she said, she’s seen a lot of Roman ruins in her lifetime. Plus,  tours are difficult for her as she struggles with the accents of our native guides.

At one point she sat down on a wall and we continued walking, picking her up about ten minutes later as we walked by again.

My mom was not feeling well due to driving out of the mountains, so she was struggling to be engaged in her usual manner, which involves notebooks and notes writing down main key points from the tour.

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Vivian’s crown in front of mosaic tile

Which left me and Vivian. The guide made Vivian a crown of flowers, which she took off immediately after he put it on her head. Of course, as soon as she became used to the idea and comfortable with him, she started pointing out every blooming weed as a hint for inclusion in her princess crown.

The Romans knew how to pick a site, as Volubilis is situated at the top of a hill overlooking a fertile valley where they could plant and harvest olives for Rome. After all, Rome was interested in harvesting the resources from Northern Morocco and cared very little for anything else about the countryside.

LRM_EXPORT_79954583244393_20190409_153705638-1.jpegAs we walked, we looked at the various mosaic tiles and what they tell archaeologists about the house’s owner and the society in Volubilis. Currently, 58 percent of the ruins are unexcavated. Also, there was a large earthquake that disturbed the ruins, offsetting Caligula’s gate.

The tour guide had some interesting words to share with our driver when we returned to the van. Of course, I caught the exchange out of the corner of my eye. Just as I am catching many things out of the corner of my eyes and ears.

One thing I have become sensitive to is the word American. In our traveling to date, we have met and had casual conversations with a lot of different tourists. However, almost all are either European or Australian. We have not met another group of Americans.

So my awareness to the word is heightened, knowing the conversation refers to us.

I’m not so unrealistic to assume I can travel the world and immerse myself, blending seamlessly into whatever culture I’m in. The reasons I was so interested in coming to Morocco is because I would be exposed to so many different environments that are unlike anything I’ve experienced or would have opportunity to experience again.

Yet intellectual intents rarely align with initial reality. Part of the pressure on my psyche is I see and am aware of multiple layers of things occurring around us. Our travel companion does not care how other cultures perceive her, partly due to generation and partly due to her age.

Also, she has done a far amount of traveling, setting up dental clinics in Africa and South America with her husband.

My mother has always traveled in large groups, and I doubt her health allows her much awareness right now. Plus, my mother has always been more extroverted and engages with her environment on her terms in her perception, which is strongly rooted in conservative America.

While I do not understand the words between our driver and the guide, I understand the comments he made that I was not supposed to see. Just as I know our driver receives kick backs as he moves us through the country, calling his friends and maneuvering us for his benefit. This doesn’t bother me, as it is no different than any other culture in the world, including America.

I won’t even say I have much culture shock at this point, though I feel like I am violating norms without realizing it.

The part I struggle with the most is having a spotlight on me. I live my life in the background, watching and observing others while going unnoticed myself. I interact on a one on one basis with few individuals at a time, and for the most part am content to observe humanity from the audience. Easily done when I blend into the surrounding culture.

Now I am “American,” traveling with a 4 year-old and two elderly women. Unwanted attention was inevitable.

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Additions to Vivian’s crown.

After our short and what felt like failed “touring” of the ruins, we were on the road to Fez where we will be for three nights. I was sad to leave Chefchaouen, and I’m a bit doubtful this journey will be as seamless and effortless as I once thought, but I’m hopeful about what the rest of the trip will present.

With time and exposure, I will find my own comfort zone within this country and within this travel group of four very different people and a driver, who adds his own complexities to the potion.

For now, I will allow myself to absorb what I see and hear, playing audience despite being on display.

 

Updated: 04.13.2019 to correct the name of the Roman ruin.

Culture Shock and Watching Friends

April 6, 2019

“Mom, I’m hungry.”

“Have a banana and go back to sleep.” I look at the clock. 2:00 a.m. Two nights in a row.

“Okay. Here, I left you a little bit.”

“Thank you, now go to sleep.” I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable despite my aching left arm. No, don’t Google it.

I do, anyway. Of course, first result is a heart attack. Waves of thoughts drown my brain like what if I die in my sleep and Vivian is left alone in the room, by herself, in a country half way around the world from what she knows. Stop, you are not having a heart attack.

My chest tightens and my jaw aches as my brain struggles to get a gasp of rational air. I think about my mom, the issues she’s having and trying to hide, the vivacious and unstoppable person I once knew slowly disappearing under the strain of trying to keep herself the same.

Stop. You are having an anxiety attack, calm down. Deep breaths.

For an hour in a minute, I take deep breaths against a wet pillow. I’m not ready for any of this.

*

We woke to the sound of rain against the window pane. Looking at the clock, I realized I slept past my intended time due to two nights of interrupted sleep. Vivian was still sleeping soundly, so I started getting myself ready before waking her.

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Vivian’s favorite view from our room

Running about five minutes late, we met up with our traveling companion for breakfast before getting ready to meet our guide for the day.

So far, I have been unable to eat everything put in front of me. Not from a lack of trying, the food is delicious. I can see the various influences of cultures from the Roman olives to the foods brought back along the spice routes from India. It’s like I’ve died and gone to foodie heaven.

Unfortunately, the serving sizes are massive. At the risk of appearing rude for not eating all the food, I eat what I can before pushing myself to sickness.

Unlike some of the other tourists staying in the riad, we bravely face the mist and rain in order to experience ChefChaouen. We meet with our guide for the day in the downstairs lobby of the riad. While previous travel has involved wandering around finding nooks and crannies, the compromise involves 4 guided tours.

I’m beginning to understand the benefit of guided tours.

The first thing we learned is why Chefchaouen is blue. There are many reasons, but the primary had to do with diseases and mosquitoes. Children were at particular risk, so in order to protect the children the whole city was painted blue. When asked why blue, the guide’s best guess was something in how they make the blue dye puts off a scent that is a repellent.

It’s true, there was not a single fly or bug to be found in the old medina.

Also, the color blue was specific to the Jewish refugees who were part of the original formation of the medina and is of significance to Islam as well. And the blue repels the sun, creating a naturally cool environment inside the houses in the hot summers.

So really, all the reasons people have heard are true, according to our guide. All except the Jewish refugees coming only during WWII. The Jewish community was second in the country after the Berbers, long before the Moors and before Morocco’s conversion to Islam.

As we wandered up and down the small corridors and steep stairs, our guide educated us on the strong original culture that resides within the walls of the old medina. Despite addition of electricity in 1948, most houses still use candles for lighting, the old Arabic dialect is still used, and protection of the children is still the number one priority of all residents.

Revised rule #1 still stands for this trip, but my first discomfort from cultural shock is slightly relieved while in this small town. As my cultural shock subsides, Vivian’s will increase, though.

In the upper part of the town near the newer sections outside the medina walls, there were tourists in every pathway and alley. The further we meandered and talked, the fewer tourists we saw. Instead, we found people going about their daily lives. Children ran bread from their homes to the local bakers as we were told about the local infrastructure supporting the elderly with no family and the destitute with no money.

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The medina wall against nature

While my mom and her cousin were awed by how many families live together in a single house, anywhere from two to six families of five or more people, I was struck by the vibrant green of the mountains against the blue city.

After the French defeated the Spanish, the medina was no longer allowed it’s own king and government, and the city grew outside the walls though hampered by the terrain. Also, as the city grew in size the threat from monkeys, wolves, and other wildlife including invaders grew less. However, the old city within the walls remains a cultural entity of purity while an international tourist magnet.

After walking for about two hours, our travel companion was ready to head back to the riad for a rest and I was tired of carrying Vivian on my back while trying to balance an umbrella. Our guide walked us through the maze of streets to the riad, and Vivian and I went in search for lunch on our own.

So far, walking the streets alone with my daughter, finding the restaurant suggested by the riad, and spending an hour just me and her has been a highlight of this trip. For just a moment, we were flexible and immersed in exploring and experiencing.

I am starting to get a sense of watching friends, though. When Vivian and I walked to the restaurant, we were greeted at the door by someone who was expecting us. Yet at no time during lunch did they greet anyone else in that manner.

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The skylight over the riad plaza

We returned to the riad to relax in the room before joining my mom and her cousin for supper. I feel confident of the small portion of the medina we’ve learned so far, walking from restaurants and the riad in increasingly larger circles. Another day or two, and I could easily navigate the tiny town on my own.

However, we do not have a couple more days as we are scheduled to leave for Fes.

The awkward dance of not stepping on each other’s toes will become more awkward the next day after leaving the protection of the tiny blue city in the mountains, as we come face to face with the reality of traveling together, traveling as Americans in Islamic North Africa, and traveling as each struggles with their own bit of travel sickness.

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Wet and Winding Roads

April 5, 2019

Path of Morocco

Day 4: Casablanca – Rabat – Chefchouen

First, I would like to state I am not a professional travel writer. Nor am I professional blogger. In fact, I never considered myself a professional anything, even when I had a professional sounding title many lifetimes ago.

That being said, this journey through Morocco will not follow any specific format. Why? Because this blog is as random as I am.

This morning we left Casablanca to begin the road portion of our trip. In order to see as much of Morocco as we can, we have a few days when we are in the car for large stretches of time. The black Mercedes van is nice, and half the seats face backward.

By default of age, Vivian and I are facing backwards.

My mother gets motion sickness, and I deferred to our other travel companion. Vivian is young, and in general I don’t suffer from motion sickness. Though the mountain road we were on later was going to challenge my tolerance.

After driving the toll road for close to 45 minutes, we detoured to take the coast road to Rabat. A backward perspective gave me a different view of the crashing waves bombarding the sea wall after we passed.

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Kasbah entrance: Rabat

In Rabat, our driver apologized saying we have a scheduled stop to see the kasbah but it is raining. Three of four said meh, who cares about a little water let’s stop. While my mom’s cousin stayed in the van, Vivian, my mom, and I walked the gardens and ventured into the medina a bit beyond the kasbah walls.

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Vivian escorts us around the gardens

A quick side note: my mom and I have different traveling styles. She prefers organized tours where she can feel safe and watched after while exploring all the various countries of the world. And she’s been to most at this point. My travel style is to land in the airport, have reservations for the places we intend to sleep, and figure it out from there.

This Morocco trip is a bit of compromise for both of us. I researched and found an organized private tour company who handled mapping out an itinerary complete with a driver, half board of food, and organized tours in each destination city, and my mom agreed to a small group. Her point regarding Vivian’s age and my mom’s age was valid, and my point about organized tours not liking young children is a fact. This is what we came up with.

After returning to the van just as the rain began to fall in larger drops, we continued on the road. Once again, we began our route on the toll roads, lulling our group into sleepy stupor that ended as we began our ascent into the mountains.

Winding roads, though beautiful and fun to drive, are a challenge to the hardiest of stomachs. Especially when facing backwards.

After several hours, and without any major stomach issues, we arrived in Chefchaouen,

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Vivian gets courageous beyond the kasbah walls

the blue city. Our driver dropped us and our bags, introducing us to the man from Riad Cherifa who would escort us to our beds for the next two nights.

The original part of the city where we are staying is inaccessible by car. Tuktuks bring supplies like propane in and out of the city, while the majority of the residents walk. Built into the mountainside, the blue city took our breath away as we walked for the first time in several hours.

Greeted by aromatic mint tea and biscuits, we made it to our rooms to turn around and eat our first Moroccan meal.

The blue city is comfortable and has an ease about it, though the streets are often crowded with tourists depending on time of day.

The scheduled guided tour tomorrow will be our chance to fully explore the city, learn why the city is blue, and test our endurance for walking.

I’m not worried about myself. My other three travel companions might have a difficult time. Vivian because she is so young, and my mom because she is not at full capacity. Only time will see how we hold up.

Walking back from the restaurant, I experienced my first culture shock. While I will learn I have nothing to worry about within this tiny mountain town, I had my first moments of concern.

Normally Rule #1 between me and Vivian in public is she has to stay within my eyesight. If she can’t see me, I can’t see her and that means she will lose privileges. Other than that, I’m relatively lax about her proximity to me.

Up until this point I’ve seen distinct interest in Vivian from a few women, interest that Vivian shies away from but I can understand the women’s response. In our return to the riad Vivian was leading the party, walking a few feet ahead of us playing tour guide. Along the way there was distinct interest in her from two of the male vendors. I did not respond to the first as a threat because he was introducing her to two children.

The other wanted to show her turtles and pets he has in his shop. I watched with discomfort, stepping in when I felt it was time for us to continue walking.

For the time being Vivian’s new Rule #1 is she is to hold my or her grandmother’s hand when we are walking in public.

Cultural differences are starting to present themselves to my consciousness.

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Vivian and Sparkles admires the sheep with Chefchaouen in the distance