Saturday, April 30, 2011

Crossing God's Bridge to Paradise: Salvation by Muhammad

So a lot of things have developed in the last week that need to be addressed. Namely, the bombing of a cafe' in Marrakech, Labor Day Protests, and now the death of Osama Bin Laden but I will first address my birthday weekend.

So I celebrated my 22nd Birthday with a trip to the North of Morocco to a town known as Chefchaouen. Chefchaouen is well known for a couple of things: 1 - Its old city which is completely painted blue, 2 - its hiking, as it is nestled in the Rif Mountains, and 3 - its hashish.It was supposed to be a five hour bus ride from Rabat to Chefchaouen however, the bus that I happened to be on with some of my classmates broke down and we were delayed for a couple of hours (it ended up taking us a total of 8 hours). To make it worse, the guy who sat next to me this whole time was intent on convincing me to buy some of his family's hash. And, as he said, if I didn't want to smoke any of it, I could just come to the farm and see the whole process from the fields to the bags. I politely declined, several times.

Once in Chefchaouen we ate, explored a little, but decided to get to bed as we planned to hike the next day. Our plan was to hike in an area of the Rif Mountains known as Paradise on our way to God's Bridge, a very high natural bridge over a canyon and river.

As we slowly made our way out of bed we looked out the window of our hostel to witness the beautiful sight of the clouds falling away down the mountains as the sun climbed into the sky. It was an absolutely gorgeous spectacle.
We took a 45-minute taxi ride (for $4) out to the bottom of the trail up to God's Bridge and began our journey. The trail followed the river up into the mountains getting steeper and higher and zigzagging up the mountain. (the trail and people on the trail are visible in this picture)

One of my classmates and I were insistent on exploring everything while we climbed, including climbing out to some cliffs overlooking the river.We continued to climb until God's bridge came into view as well as the trail we decided we wanted to hike down to the river on the other side of the valley. (looking down from the bridge)

Following our arrival at the bridge, we decided to stop for lunch. In the process of unpacking my lunch and my friend's lunch from my bag I dropped both off the cliff we were sitting on and they fell to a landing down the cliff a way. I was quite hungry and so was my friend so I decided to attempt to retrieve our lunch. In my quest down the cliff I was hanging on to a tree with my feet planted on the cliff. Part of the cliff gave away under my foot and I swung from one side of the tree to the other, smashing my nose against a branch in the process. I gave up trying to get our lunch and began to worry about my nose. My classmates took a look at it as it rapidly bruised and swelled. Faced with the prospect of a broken nose, I decided to continue our planned hike down the other side of the valley. This ended up being one of the craziest hikes of my life.

Literally, the "trail" was no more and we were descending down the side of a mountain that promised at the very least severe injury with a single misstep. We were sliding, grabbing, scaling and slowly making our way down.
At one point when we thought all was lost, we looked down to see a mountain man motioning for us to stop. Five minutes later he was standing next to us, barefoot, and Muhammad was his name. He managed to guide us down to the river safely but it took us much longer than 5 minutes.He then informed us that to hike back, we would need to hike down the river. This was an extremely cold, fast-flowing river. Several times we had to cross the river, clinging to rocks as water flowed quickly past us and holding on to cliffs on the side of the river to avoid being swept away.
After 45 minutes of hiking through the water with cold, cut up feet we arrived at a place where we could climb back up from the river to the trail and make our way back to Chefchaouen.
Overall, it was a great birthday weekend. Luckily, after visiting the UN clinic and getting an X-ray, it turned out my nose wasn't broken. Regardless, I celebrated my 22nd birthday by embarking on the most dangerous adventure of my life; and I loved every minute of it.

Drinking Liberally: Morocco

So here's the thing about bars/clubs in Morocco: you have to be careful where you go because it may just be a brothel. In fact, one of the main hotels of Rabat, Hotel Balima, where I stayed my first night in Morocco, has a "nightclub" in the basement full of prostitutes and prospective customers.

The other pitfall of Moroccan clubs/bars: the alcoholic selection. Consumption of alcohol by Moroccans is technically illegal though the law is not enforced. Plus, the sale of alcohol to a Moroccan is also illegal. These two factors combine to make bars, clubs, and places that sell/serve alcohol somewhat hard to find and a little shady.

Luckily in a surprising twist, travelers to Morocco have the French to thank for the existence of quality drinking establishments. Being a former French colony, Morocco is rife with French ex-pats and French culture, including alcohol.

All of this leads to a weekend of craziness and merriment. Some of the other students and I managed to find a "club" that was highly acclaimed as a Western-styled club with Western-style music. It also ended up having the cost of a Western-style club as well. However, it ended up being everything it was billed to be plus some. Moroccan youth live in such a repressive society, from both religion and cultural traditions, that when they get a chance to let loose, they let loose. It's like the old adage about someone who had really strict parents in high school and arrives in college to just become a party animal.

Hence, Moroccans have no self-control when it comes to alcohol. Even more, everyone was participating in the sexual freedom to get some action on and off the dance floor. Speaking of the dance floor, Moroccans are horrible at dancing. Their dancing maybe suited to an Arab wedding but that's about it. This makes for a rather odd scene at a Western-style club; lots of wedding dancing. Now, my friends and I are nothing special when it comes to dancing but we didn't need to be great dancers to impress in Morocco. We quickly took up the dance floor and the attention with a couple "neat" moves but many more corny, cheesy moves that would get us laughed off the dance floor in the US. Oh yea, we busted out the sprinkler, and people ate it up. We were the stars of the show all night long.

But alas, Moroccans party long and hard. There is only so long we could go dancing and drinking horribly over-priced bad beer. We headed home around 5:30am. My ears were still ringing the next day.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Getting back to it: Marrakech and the Ourika Valley

So I realize it has been almost a month since my last post. I promise, there was good reason. Every single weekend for the last month has involved traveling somewhere. From just around Morocco to places like Madrid, Dublin, and London and there's more to come as I have booked a trip to Rome for Easter weekend.

Regardless, I plan to do several posts this week to get caught up on my adventures.

So, several weekends back I took the plunge and went to Marrakech for the weekend. Marrakech is known around the world as the tourist capital of Morocco and enjoys its stereotype as the quintessential Moroccan city. That perception is quite wrong. Marrakech is far from being the typical Moroccan city and is actually quite unpleasant for Moroccans and foreigners familiar with both Moroccan culture and language. However, the residents, store owners, and street vendors cater directly to this perception that hordes of tourists come to Marrakech to see. This includes storytelling, potion-making, snake charming, fire-throwing/eating, acrobatics, wild animals, street music, and all other imagined exotic ideas about Morocco. It makes for quite an event. All of these things come together in the central square of Marrakech where harassment reaches its peak. It is also full of tourists, particularly French tourists and nobody likes French tourists.
The first thing we sought to do (I was in a group of around 10 girls and one other guy) was find dinner. The main square is full of food vendors and they are quite relentless. They will grab you, pull you, and do anything they can to get you in their stall. Even worse, they all know English so there is no way to converse about things without them knowing. After settling on a vendor who promised us free tea, we proceeded to eat one of the worst Moroccan meals I have ever had. It was absolutely horrible. The only good thing was the fries. Attempting to get out from the cluster of food stalls was another adventure in and of itself. As the man of the group, all of the "salesmen" were coming up to me and trying to pull me into their stalls. I was literally yelling at them in their own language that I had just eaten and wasn't hungry to no avail!
After our foray into the food stalls we headed into the market. At one of the first stores we passed by a man asked us to come in and look at some purses. One of the girls politely declined and walked on. As I passed, the man yelled several English cuss words and derogatory terms for women at the girls that are too foul to repeat here because both my mother and advisers from UC read this blog. Now, I have taken a decent amount of Arabic but curses are not my forte'. One can't even gain much from watching American movies with Arabic subtitles because every curse word is replaced with one of two Arabic phrases: "Oh the horror" or "Dang." However, modern slang has seen the phrase for "Oh the horror" morphed into the Arabic version of WTF. We have also learned some Darija words (Moroccan Arabic) to say to people who are bothering us. All that being said, I promptly turned to this man and said in quite loud Arabic for all to hear "WTF stinky man! Shame be on you!" Needless to say, the man was speechless and quite stunned. Mission Accomplished. Later in the evening the other guy and myself explored the square to see the storytellers and potion-makers and listen to some of the music which was quite enjoyable (albeit, we are guys, not girls).

The next day we got up to head out to a small village called Seti Fatma where we planned to hike in an area known as the Ourika Valley, famous for its seven waterfalls. We went to the main square to find a taxi and to gawk at the snake charmers and the monkeys. Yes, I saw a man playing a recorder-like instrument to a cobra rising out of a basket.

After our brief time in the square we headed out for our hike. It was about an hour and a half drive with 7 people crammed into an 80s Mercedes: three in the front , including the driver (and its a manual) and four squeezed across the back seat.
It was well worth the ride. The first two waterfalls are relatively accessible from the road by most tourists who travel out here. From there on though things were tough and our group was quite alone as we ascended the valley to see each of the waterfalls (we had a guide as the trail was unmarked).
Areas of the hike were across the edge of cliffs or up fields of scree that made climbing and descending quite difficult. We even got high enough that there was snow on the ground. The landscape was absolutely gorgeous and the whole hike there and back took around 6 hours.
We returned to Marrakech that evening and after some much needed showers we set out to find dinner, having decided not to return to the main square food vendors. We managed to find a very upscale restaurant (around $12 average price) clearly catering to tourists and enjoyed some very delicious Italian food. Afterwards however, we decided to see what was going on at the main square only this time, it was a gaggle of girls and two guys late at night: a recipe for disaster. As we were looking in on a group of Moroccan men listening to an old man playing a Moroccan guitar the man jumped up and grabbed one of the girls in our group (blond-haired, blue-eyed American) and brought her to the center of the circle to join in the music. As I attempted to record the proceedings on my phone I noticed that our group, again mostly girls, had become enclosed; that is, we started on the outside of the circle and we were now on the inside. As I realized this, all of the girls began to be grabbed by the men around them. One of the girls next to me had a man trying to rub up on her so I began nudging into him and eventually just grabbed her and pulled her in front of me. At this point the girls were very uncomfortable and the girl who had gone into the center of the circle decided she had had enough as well. Then all hell broke loose. The scene was this: 2 guys trying to push away and stave off groups of Moroccan men all trying to grab the behinds of 10 girls at one time. It was the perfect storm. After much craziness and groping, the other guy and myself managed to get the girls into a group as we roamed around them telling guys to get away (one of the sayings we learned in Arabic) and staring them down. (For the record, most Moroccan men do not go to the extreme of touching girls but cat-calling is a very common occurrence that all women experience) Regardless, the moral of the story: never travel with a gaggle of girls and only 2 guys.

Regardless, we enjoyed some great hiking and some memorable experiences in what for me, and many others living in Morocco longer than a weekend visit, consider to be the worst city in the country. However, tourists continue to flock to Marrakech to see a so called "Moroccan city" full of snake charmers, street performers, fire-breathers, and all manner of exotic experiences in what is in reality, the least Moroccan city in Morocco.