The Tour Begins

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

And so the tour begins! We left Casablanca by train at noon; Shannon and Arlene were both so jet-lagged (their flight didn't arrive until 1 am) that they slept much of the way. Jon, as a surgeon, is so used to surviving on a couple of hours of sleep a night that he was wide awake and feeling quite refreshed.

Besides the five of us (Martin, Martin's brother and his wife - Jon and Shannon - and Martin and Jon's sister - Arlene - as well as myself), there are eight others on our tour: Tim (30 - the only other male) from the UK who has been working in Dubai for the past four years in the marketing field; Jane (47), a biologist who teaches at university in Auckland, NZ; Kristy (30) from Melbourne, Australia who has been working just outside of London for the past three years (also in marketing); Lindsay (25) from Oxford, England who works in publishing; Celina (27) from Adelaide, a stage manager for a theatre company; Nicole (30), a dietitian from Melbourne, Australia, currently working in the UK; Yuri (37) from near Osaka, Japan, a computer programmer; and Jody (32), a banker from Kerikeri, New Zealand now working in London.

Our tour guide is Sandra (25) from Alysmeer in the Netherlands. She has been guiding Imaginative Traveller tours since September 2004, including three tours of the Middle East and now her eighth tour in Morocco. She is looking forward to returning home at Christmastime to stay put for awhile.

Imaginative Traveller tours are tours for the "independent traveller", i.e, for those people who have travelled a fair amount and are interested in some of the more out-of-the ordinary sights/experiences. Accommodation is not fancy, but is comfortable and clean. The cost of the tour covered transport and hotels; a tip kitty and local payments fund helps cover the costs of tipping guides as well as entry fees. Meals are extra.

Fez (population 1 million) is the religious and cultural centre of Morocco. The highlight of a trip to Fez is touring the Fès el-Bali Medina or old city, the largest living medieval city in the world. A World Heritage Site, it consists of 9,400 twisting alleys lined with shops and the homes of the people who live and work there. It is extremely easy to get lost amongst the streets and a reliable guide is a must. All guides have to be licensed and "faux guides" who haven't purchase a license may be fined or even imprisoned.

No motor vehicles are allowed in the medina, save for the odd motorcycle; however, there are plenty of donkeys, mules and handcarts. We were warned that if we heard, "Balak, balak!" (meaning "attention") we should quickly paste ourselves up against a wall to avoid getting trampled by an animal/cart loaded with wares. Interestingly we also saw two funeral processions while weaving our way through the streets; both were men covered by shrouds and being carried on dais. (We were told that dead women are placed in coffins then paraded through the streets so no one can see them.)

We toured shops that sold homemade shampoo and soaps, a leather tannery/factory, a tile/pottery factory, a weaving shop, a carpet/Berber blanket shop, and a naturopathic pharmacy. From the roof of the tannery we could see the vats where the skins are softened in lime and pigeon droppings, as well as the vats of dye in such colours as brown, red, yellow and blue. All the dyes that are used are natural. In the heat, I understand that it can be a rather smelly place (since they also use such things in the dye as cow urine), but we hardly noticed since it was cool and cloudy. My nose was greatly relieved!

Handmade carpets and blankets are made by the women in Morocco, but if it involves a loom, it's men's work. The hooded garments worn by men and women are also made by men.

One of the most interesting stops in the Medina was the naturopathic pharmacy where they showed us the aphrodisiac Spanish fly (it actually is flies), Moroccan spices, essential oils such as rose and orange oils, traditional eyeliner (kohl) and lipstick and various remedies for health problems.

On our second day in Fez we travelled to Volubilis, the site of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in Morocco, dating back to the 3rd century BC and declared a World Heritage Site in 1997. Volubilis once supplied 60% of Rome's wheat and olives. Although we had seen many such ruins in the Middle East, we had not seen ones where the mosaic floors were as intact and in the original location. Also interesting were the storks that were nesting there. Unfortunately, it was raining cats and dogs at Volubilis and it was unpleasantly cold. The only ones who didn't get soaked were our guide (who was wearing a waterproof jellaba) and Jody who had rainpants on. No one stayed to explore the sight after the tour; rather, everyone ran to get hot drinks and huddled under the awning of the restaurant.

The next stop on that very rainy day was Meknes (population 680,000), the "Versailles of Morocco". There we learned about the notorious Moulay Ismail who ruled Morocco in the late 16th/early 17th centuries with an iron fist. He established the "Black Guard", his personal army consisting of 150,000 descendents of black slaves who maintained control over the unruly tribes and made Morocco virtually impenetrable. Moulay Ismail ruled with unabashed cruelty - legend has it that he killed over 30,000 people himself. He also holds the current Guiness Book of World Records for the most children sired (888).

Throughout the medina in Meknes we were followed by a member of the Tourist Police. These men wander through the markets making sure foreigners are safe and are not taken advantage of by unfair pricing, etc. Sandra told us that there has been a great deal of effort put into educating vendors and shopkeepers re: how to treat tourists with more respect. A similar campaign was attempted for littering but has thus far not taken off. Tourism is very important to the economy as Morocco attracts more than two million tourists per year. The aim is to increase that number to 10 million by the year 2010.

The area around Meknes produces a lot of agricultural produce - cereal crops, olives, wines and citrus fruits. Women work in the agricultural industry and we saw many in the fields. Some Moroccans may be poor, but because of the vast quantities of food that are harvested, it is very unlikely that anyone goes hungry.

Since it is very important for a Muslim to face east when praying, there are often indicators of the direction to Mecca. In Mosques, for example, an alcove faces that direction. Our hotel had a sticker on the table with an arrow pointing the way for hotel guests wishing to pray.
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