Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Hill of Beans in this Crazy World

Who would have thought that the most relaxing moment in the entire voyage would happen in Morocco, nine weeks after we left Ft. Lauderdale, after visiting havens of relaxation like Croatia and Santorini? We realized as Monika and I put Elise to bed and sat in the courtyard of our ryad in Marrakesh, enjoying couscous served from tajines with fresh orange juice in one of the most pleasant evenings of my life. Morocco proved to be the hidden gem of the voyage, and as Ishai put it, we were expecting Alexandria and found ourselves another Istanbul. It is the place where we knew the least about, but know enough look forward to coming back here again.

In retrospect, I really didn’t know much about Morocco at all, save some images of deserts, and the ubiquitous CSN&Y song about the Marrakesh Express. But unlike all of the other ports except for Spain, we had plenty of time to prepare for this trip, because we had six days at sea between Alexandria and Casablanca.

And what a six days it was. In that time, we watched Casablanca in the Union, and we had the Sea Olympics, which anyone who has sailed on Semester at Sea knows how seriously everyone on the ship takes the competition. The staff and faculty were part of the Diploma Sea (we were the Vitamin Sea on Fall 05), which made for some pretty great costumes and mascots. Not sure how this happened, but I was signed up for the pull-up, synchronized swimming, and lip-synching competition. Monika had been signed up for a bunch as well (like the dodge-ball tournament), but Elise’s sleep schedule didn’t seem to care too much for they Olympic spirit. Surprisingly, we didn’t finish last, and just like Fall 05, the winning sea celebrated as if it they had just won the World Cup. Which was pretty awesome.

Most importantly, we also had plenty of time to learn about Morocco in class (verdict: quickly modernizing nation with lots to work on, with the Western Sahara issue as the camel in the room). In that time, we decided to get out of Casablanca, as we were told the modern city wasn’t particularly pretty or interesting for a short visit. So we picked to take a train to Marrakesh over Fez (because of the distance), a beautiful (and extremely hot) city about a three-and-a-half hour train ride from Casa. We would go with the McAdams/Hagens, the Patersons, and the Kongs with all the kids and try mostly to stay in the same ryad.

We arrived in the most commercial port of the voyage, amongst pellets getting loaded directly aboard cargo ships. As soon as stepped off the ship, the shuttle drivers out of the port were “out to lunch”, so we found ourselves taking a 20-minute walk in the hot sun with the kids just to get to the taxis. After much negotiation, we split up the group, with us and the Kongs taking the train, while the rest took a van to Marrakesh. We preferred the train over a vehicle… Elise tends to do much better when she can walk around on the long trips.

What a train ride it was. We made it too late to get assigned first-class tickets, but bought one of the unlimited number of second-class tickets, packed in with the 400 or so students who had the same idea as us. It was a pretty packed train, with benches inside cabins full of strangers and little or no air-conditioning. Monika and I split up further, but luckily Elise fell asleep through the first portion of the trip, enough for us to reshuffle and find a more comfortable cabin by the time she woke up.

It was immediately apparent that Morocco was no Egypt (not that Egypt was bad… but just really hard with a 2-year-old tagging along). There wasn’t the chaos in the traffic, there were much fewer people out and about, and surprisingly easier to get around because everyone spoke French (so Monika was right at home).

Once we got in Marrakesh, we hired a taxi to take us to the ryad, who dropped us off at the main square and told us we’d have to take a foot taxi to carry our luggage at that point. Not knowing anything about Marrakesh, this seemed highly suspicious, as the man was taking us through little dark alleyways and tunnels of the medina, not really knowing where HE was going, until he knocked an unmarked wooden door that turned out to be where we would stay.

Ryad Cadi – what a lovely place it was. It was built by combining three medieval houses into one, and the tiny hallways twist, turn, go up and down through courtyards before you get anywhere, with a small plunge pool of uniform depth that was just big enough for me touch the bottom while safely holding Elise out of the water.

It made the entire trip worth it. I went back out to grab delicious Moroccan food, we put Elise to bed, and just sat there in the warm evening enjoying that true moment of calm that is so fleeting on a moving ship with hundreds of people.

We took it as easy as possible in Marrakesh. Most of our walks were near the ryad, and we where very close to the amazing Souks, where all the shopping action happens in Marrakesh. Note that Monika and I are not shoppers by any means, in fact, I would say that my least favorite activity in the world is shopping, but we wanted to get gifts for as many people back home as we could afford or carry back with us. The souks happened to be a great place for this – the experience was infinitely better than any shop in the voyage, such as the craziness of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, because there was almost no pushy store owners as there were everywhere else. It was pretty surprising. As a result, we found ourselves doing something we didn’t expect to do at all, especially after we were cornered on our honeymoon in Turkey - we went rug shopping, and actually enjoyed the experience quite a bit.

We were actually looking for artisan tiles to give as gifts, and the store owner sold carpets as well, and gave us a card if we were interested. We then wanted to see a few, and the first carpet he lays out was a slam dunk – exactly what I would call “Monika-ish”, and the first price he put out was already a fifth to a tenth of what they were asking for in Istanbul… so we bought four small ones. And Valerie and Jer bought two big ones. And Elise had a blast, because she would do forward rolls every time our friend Hassan would put down a new carpet. It’s quite interesting, actually, with him specifying the details of the mostly Berber artwork. One of the most interesting one was this Jewish-Berber pattern from the time not too long ago when there were a lot of Jews in Marrakesh (we visited the Jewish quarters there… Ruth Setton, the creative writing professor who is also a Moroccan-born Jew, said that there once was a very large and vibrant Jewish community, there are probably less than 5000 Jews left in the country today).

One note about shopping… by this point, we’re all sick and tired of negotiating. We know we can get everything down to a third or half of what is originally offered, but honestly, none of us have the patience for it anymore. We’re at the point we prefer buying a lot less for a premium, because the process, as enjoyable and part of the culture as it can be, can get a little exhausting when you are in the sun with a tired two-year-old. So we often pay whatever the price, or maybe just counter with 20% off, and leave walk away happy. I mean, sometimes it feels silly to spend so much time and effort to negotiate from $3 to $1.50. We’d do that with taxis all of the time, only to have such a good experience with our drivers that we would tip them quite a bit more anyway…

That sums up our days in Marrakesh – a lot of walking around the old medina, a lot of hanging around the ryad, and a lot of eating delicious food. We did, however, experience the scariest moment of the entire voyage just blocks away from where we were staying.

On the second night in the city, Elise was getting tired but hadn’t eaten yet. We unwisely decided to take her to get some food at the closest restaurant to our ryad, as nighttime was falling. We run out pretty quickly, and by the time the food arrives, Elise is done, do we decide to take the food back with us.

By this time, however, the locals had all come out, because much like Egypt, it is much cooler to live your day-by-day at night. There was about, say, ten times more people on the streets than there were only an hour before.

Monika is carrying Elise, and I have the food, with two large clay tajines in in my arms. As we’re headed back to our place, we notice that there is a major, major human bottleneck ahead of us, just a crowd of hundreds of people trying to get through this narrow spot where the alley converges. And amongst the sea of people moving in both directions, there are motorcycles, wheelchairs, and strollers in the crazyness, all trying get through the narrowest 30-foot stretch of the street.

As we are getting closer, and old man approaches me, taps his finger near his eye, and point to a few people behind me. He really saved the day – he was warning me that there were people looking at me, so keep an eye on my belongings. I was in the most vulnerable position possible, and I knew it – I was wearing cargo shorts, with my wallet, camera, and Monika’s wallet in my pockets, with my hands tied up by trying to hold up the food. It was just enough time for me to rearrange and grab the camera and Monika’s wallet in hand, but couldn’t reach for the wallet in my back pocket. By this point, we were swept by the crowd into the point of no return.
It was five minutes of pretty grueling pushing, with people coming in all directions. We were mostly ok, but Elise started getting a bit nervous after a while, and I kept touching my pockets as much as I could with the food because I was pretty certain someone was going to try to get the wallet behind me.

Sure enough, I felt the hand in my pocket. At first I thought it was a child tugging from in front of me, but I couldn’t see anyone in the melee, until I realized it was a man’s hand that was coming from behind me. There was a skinny man in his early twenties pushing his whole body against Monika and my own, forcibly reaching into my pockets as I tried to pull him away, and I told Monika that he was trying to pickpocket me, so help keep with the back pocket. So she grabbed my remaining wallet through my pants and just held on to hit, while trying to elbow the guy out of the way, and I kept wrestling to keep his hands away from the remaining two minutes or so we wee in the crowd.

A lot of pulling and shoving later, we were free of the bottleneck, just in time to duck away into our alley and into the safety of the ryad. We were pretty shaken up about it – I think if I had been single, I definitely would have expected this more and would have been more prepared with my wallet in safer place. Besides, it’s not the first time I’ve wrestled hands away from my pockets. But the fact that I had Elise with us, and that we placed her in an uncomfortable position like that bugged me a bit, and as we talked about it, we realized Elise was picking up on everything we were saying. She started repeating, very excitedly, with her hands out to the side, “THAT WAS CRAZY!”, and “DID YOU SEE THAT GUY?!” Finally, after she kept asking us, “What happened to that guy?!!!”, we started telling her that nothing happened, that we were just hugging and that he was a friend who we told goodbye before he went away. We think it worked, because she hasn’t asked about him in a several days.

That was the only potential incident of the whole voyage, and the rest of the time in Morocco was wonderful. We left Marrakesh the next day, and though we had first-class tickets this time around, there was no air-conditioning for 3.5 hours, which was quite brutal as it was over 110 degrees in Marrakesh the day we left. Check out the pictures… we’re burning up in there. Good times all-around.

When we got back to Casablanca, we found the ship caked in phosphate dust. Phosphate mining is one of the biggest industries in Morocco, and there was this loading center right next to our ship that spewed phosphate all over the place. It affected everything, even the cooking water on the ship, and it made it very hard for the crew members who had to work the gangway all day, so they were all wearing masks.

We took it relatively easy the last day in port, going out with Tom, Rebecca, and little Parker over to the Hassan II Mosque. I heard that it was a must-see in Casa, but I had no idea how big and spectacular it would be. The mosque, built in 1991, is enormous – you could fit a couple football fields inside. If it hadn’t been built in 1991, it would give the Taj Mahal a run for its money in terms of sheer awe. In a trip where we visited buildings like the Familia Sagrada, the Colisseum, the Acropolis, the Aya Sophia, and the Pyramids, I was surprised that the building that awed me the most was on I had never heard of before, on the last day of the trip. Elise had the time of her life running up and down the steps, and jumping on the carpets they were rolling out in preparation for Ramadan, which started the Thursday after we left. We spent the morning at the Mosque, drove by Rick’s CafĂ© (when in Casablanca…), bought a few last souvenirs and an extra suitcase to fit them all in before heading back to the ship to cool off in the pool.

And with that, our ports were over. We quietly sailed away from Casablanca, leaving our last foreign port on a really good note, and wondering when we’d come back. We’re done with the ports, but it’s far from over… we’re a couple days into our 10-day trek across the Atlantic Ocean on our way back home.

The pictures are up on Picasa again.

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