Saturday, March 28, 2009

Morocco, land of fertile deserts and supple leather

Ah, Morocco! Tom has told me stories of his time in Morocco since the day we met, but I had no idea one day I’d see it all for myself. But there it was, a land of mystique and beauty; where a hostile environment can’t take away the beauty of the people.

Tom’s stories were all memories of a generation ago, when he was young and full of adventure. He was stationed at an Air Force base in Morocco, working for the base commander. He’d tell me of going to the King’s palace, and eating at the table of King Hussein. Although he was only an enlisted man, Tom always had a charisma about him that could charm…even a King.

King Hussein would spend quite a bit of time talking with Tom, remembering his name when others would only get a nod of the head. Tom had no fear of speaking with a King, and he helped Hussein work on his English skills by honestly telling him the correct way to pronounce words. This pleased the King, and he spent time at each meeting perfecting his English.

Tom also likes to relate stories of how the King would get on the train when it passed through Morocco. He enjoyed driving the train himself, and who could refuse what the King asked, right?

Scarf Shopping

So…here we were, in the beautiful land of Morocco. No, we didn’t visit the King. He has long passed and his son has taken his place. But Tom made certain to take me to Marrakech, Fez, Casablanca, Rabat and Tangiers. We traveled by train, getting a taxi at each city when we arrived. It was an adventure in itself just taking the train rides. We first had to visit the train station and find someone who could speak passable English. Then we determined when the train left to go to our city of choice. After some time we would come away with tickets for the following morning to take us to our desired destination. Then on that morning, we simply showed our tickets and we would be shown the correct train to board.

We visited the beach, the same one Tom had told me about all those times. And the shops, where people sit day after day painstakingly creating intricate mosaics, pierced and beaten metal trays and pots, and leather goods. Oh yes! The leather!

In the town of Fez, our driver showed us an old district of town where the houses are jumbled together so close you can only pass one at a time through the narrow alleyways. We passed a tour group, with dozens of people packed into a tiny room listening to their guide talk about the spices offered for sale in a tiny, dark little shop.

They had just exited another door, narrow and hand-carved, probably hundreds of years old. So we entered that same door. It was occupied by a tiny, bent old man who smiled and offered his hand in greeting. He soon offered us a sprig of mint, which we accepted questioningly. Our guide placed it close to his nose, indicating it was to help ward off the smell. By this time I had visited so many places with so many unusual smells that I didn’t see a need for it, but I held onto it nonetheless.

The old man began climbing stairs, up a tiny staircase barely wide enough to accommodate us. We followed up one, two, three flights of steps, through numerous claustrophobic rooms, until we reached a tiny, cramped little shop bulging to the seams with hundreds of leather coats. In addition to the coats there were belts, purses and many other items, one after another on racks. The colors were the usual blacks, browns and supple golden yellows. And there were reds, greens, fuschia and blues.

Tom began his haggling routine with the man, trying to bargain him into an acceptable price for a leather jacket. However, it was to no avail. Tom does not pay full price anywhere, and certainly not in Morocco. And the man was a hard bargainer, probably used to tourists that are willing to pay prices much higher than those Tom will accept.

After some friendly dickering, the man offered to show me upstairs. Tom nodded, indicating it was all right, so I followed. Four more flights of stairs later, the man showed me onto the rooftop of the house. There, before me was a panoramic view of the rooftops below, and between the buildings were round colorful pots.

But I was so high up there, it took me a moment to realize how huge those pots were. Each was so large a man could get inside of it. And yes, there were men getting inside the pots. As I looked closer, I saw the pots were each partially filled with the colorful dyes used to color the leather I had just seen in the shop. And the men were climbing into the pots of dye, making certain the leather was gaining the correct colors.

After a few moments to take photos and look around a bit more, I exited the rooftop and wound down those tiny staircases once more. Tom was waiting for me, and I showed him what interesting photos I had taken.

Soon, we were leaving the winding, narrow corridors and traveling to a bazaar. There I held poisonous vipers, and met a colorful water boy. All the things Morocco had to offer, and we only had a week to sample that fascinating country. On another day I’ll tell you more about that harsh but beautiful country. One post can never be enough to show you everything.

Until then…

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