Note: To try and expedite getting the blog closer to up to-date I’m going to post just the text and, hopefully, add pictures later.
We boarded a train for Fez, the one-time capital of Morocco, the next morning. The fares were incredibly cheap. We bought first class tickets and were told that we’d be able to put all our luggage in the cabin with us. The train ride was nice but long. Eight hours. There was a mother and her two young daughters as well as a young woman in our cabin. After a couple of stops the family disembarked and a young man entered. We spoke to him and the young girl for a bit. I don’t remember where they were each getting off, but I got photos of them with Mary’s cat.
After they left two older men got on and they proved to be super nice and very informative. They asked us how we were finding Morocco, where were we from, etc. Turns out one of them owned one of the cooperatives of the tannery. We’d done the tannery in Marrakech and weren’t that excited to do another, but he assured us this was the real deal. He gave us his card and phone number and said we should come early in the morning as the Berbers would be lining up with their horses and donkeys to bring in their skins for sale, which only happens on Sundays. We’d also get to see the ladies doing intricate design work! He said he’d send his nephew to come get us and bring us to the tannery. He told us also, that when we get off the train to go past the taxi stands and walk to a gas station outside the terminal. He said that 15 dirhams each should be the price to get us to where we needed to go.
Well, it was quite a little journey just to get to the terminal, much less outside of it. When we finally stepped outside we were practically accosted by taxi drivers throwing out prices. We ignored them and began making a beeline for the gas station. One guy was really getting in our faces and wanted something like 75 dirhams for the ride. I said 30 and he laughed at me. I shrugged and we walked on. He kept coming up trying to get us to ride with him for 75. I kept insisting on 30 and he finally blew us off. We were just about the cross the street for the gas station when that same guy came up and said 35. Fine.
We threw our stuff in the car and there was another passenger there as well in the front seat. The driver was brusque and fairly rude. Jon had remembered that we should be dropped off at the Post Office and he had instructions on how to get to our Riad from there. The cab driver had other ideas and stopped at the Police Station. Jon pointed at it and said Post Office? Which of course it wasn’t. Jon told him that we wouldn’t get out of the car until we were at the Post Office. The guy was totally exasperated and peeled out doing a crazy K turn in this busy street. He zoomed around the corner and across another street and into a cul-de-sac and there was our Post Office. We paid the man and he peeled out, totally pissed off.
Our Fez adventure had begun.
Fez started out on a rough note. Jon was aggravated, having just arrived loaded with bags after an 8-hour train ride and then arguing with the taxi driver, and so some of it bled into his initial interactions with the staff at Riad Louna. I think I was just too tired to be reacting to anything, really. He later apologized and we both found our stay at Riad Louna to be incredibly nice. The entire staff has been wonderful and the room well maintained (with AC!). Riad Louna (pronounced Luna) is located inside the Medina down a long narrow cobbled passageway just past an herbalist. The atrium is pretty with an ornate fountain in the middle where birds fly down and bathe. The wifi connection is best down there but it does get up to the rooms, though only a weak signal. There’s a restaurant up top and various levels of rooftop to lounge about in. We ran about a bit and found a place to eat, then made an early night of it.
We got up early and met Omar’s nephew, a quiet, bearded thin man, who led us to the tannery. Because we were up so early there was no one in the medina. The shops were all closed, no merchandise was out, shutters were bolted and the morning light was slowly beginning to reach into the dark alleys and passages. Wandering down those narrow labyrinthine lanes with no one about and the light feeling a bit otherworldly one could really see the old Fez peeking through. The confined space, more hallway than street, was wonderful and mysterious and so out of what we see in the course of our every day lives back home. Everywhere I looked was a painting waiting to happen. Compositions everywhere! We would turn down an alley and confront a mule loaded down with who-knows-what, just standing beside a great doorway framed by a wall right out of all the paintings we’ve seen by Sargent and Fortuny, et al. At another turn would be a poor beggar dressed as though he or she were out of the same paintings. As if time stood still. Later these passages would be teeming with vendors and vagabonds and tourists from all over the world. As we walked Omar’s nephew filled us in on some of the history of Fez, what certain symbols on doorways meant, and why there are two metal knockers rather than one on doors (one for the guys one for the girls, each with different sounds), how to use different signs to know your way around Fez, to get to different colored gates, etc.
This morning’s stroll seemed to take a fair amount of time and the narrow path we were following, in contrast to Marrakech, angled downward so much sometimes that I could look far down ahead at another dark arch, and at other times could only see a few feet ahead. We both remarked that Imlil’s exhausting hikes were great workouts for Fez. Looking up one could see some of the ancient superstructure of hand-tooled wooden beams angling up the sides of the walls, seeming to keep the buildings from colliding with each other, forcing them to keep their distance, pushing back against each other.
We finally pulled up short as our guide pulled a leather thong bristling with keys from under his djellaba and unlocked a thick metal door. We found ourselves inside a large cooperative leather shop. He informed us that Omar, whom we’d met on the train, would not be coming in today, and introduced us to a young man who took us on a tour of the facility. We taken to the top of the building which looked down on the dye vats of the tannery, and brought us hot steaming cups of sweet mint tea. He told us that we could work from here and draw or paint as we pleased. The tea was great and the sun was not fully up so the heat wasn’t slamming us yet. We thanked him and pulled our sketchbooks out, found a couple of good spots and began drawing. The ever-present cats came over to keep us company. We worked this way for a couple of hours trying to captures some essence of the views we had to work with. Later we made our way back down and were given the hard sell that is typical it seems. I agonized over slippers for my mom and my daughter. I’m a softy. It’s a weird position to be in. I’m bummed that I’m being hit up, but I also want to buy something to help people. Not that Jon didn’t but his tolerance was a lot lower than mine. Rather than all the bargaining and back and forth he would just give the guy some money and be ready to bolt. It’s something that became a virtue for sure, otherwise your time would be totally eaten up with bargaining.
It wasn’t lost on us that there were no donkeys lining up outside as we were told would be happening, or that we didn’t get to see the ladies who would do all the embroidery and handwork. So as we were leaving I hit up a guy in what looked like a lab coat to get down where the tanning vats were and to shoot some pictures there of the men working. He agreed that we could do that. My mistake was in not wearing my hiking boots. I was in my sandals and the area down there is wet and muddy and who knows what-else, but I bit the bullet and traipsed on in. It was pretty precarious because it was so slippery and you definitely didn’t want to fall into a vat of pigeon shit, which is what they treat the hides with. Anyway, I got some interesting shots of various workers. There was an older gentleman dipping a large, heavy brush into a pail and slathering this over several hides. There were piles of these hides stacked on top of each other, small mountains of them. The stench was unbelievable. My heart went out to this guy. He had to be in his seventies or eighties and the work was obviously hell on his back, arms and legs. I thought of people that age back in my hometown and what if they had to do that kind of work? Hell, I hate that people that age have to work at McDonald’s back home! I pointed to my camera and he smiled and nodded as he sat down for a much needed rest. It’s an interesting shot because his smile is genuine and welcoming as he’s surrounded by this foul-smelling mountain of hides.
Leaving I paid the guy in the lab coat some money to give to the workers, who gave me a thumbs up and a smile. We were glad to get out of there because of the smell. We were there for only a few hours and the smell is nauseating. It makes you wonder what the effect is on the health of those men working in those vats just so people can wear these colorful leather goods. According to an article I read (Fascinating & Toxic – Traditional Moroccan Tanneries —Air Date: Week of October 31, 2014) on “Living Earth”, PRI’s Environmental News Magazine, it’s been going on since the 14th century, and it’s a job that only pays $2-$5 US dollars a day. And the fact is that it’s horrible for their health. It has to be. Those pits are full of the chemical chromium which has been in use in the tanneries since the 1800s. And this chemical loses its potency fairly quickly, so the vats need to be drained and refilled. The drained vats are dumped in the river, so it affects the health of not just the workers but the popuLation of Fez as a whole.
We found our way back to Louna and took a nap. On waking up and after getting some chow we planned a trip to Chefchaouen, the Blue City. Chefchaouen has been on my radar for a long time. I’ve salivated over the imagery I’ve seen of this town on the internet. I’m a blue nut. This is a blue town. Need I say more? I couldn’t wait to get there!
Note: To try and expedite getting the blog closer to up to-date I’m going to post just the text and, hopefully, add pictures later.
Returning to Marrakech was tough. The heat had not dissipated and we immediately missed the cool breezes that wafted from the ocean in Essouira. We returned to Riad Empty Canvas and were set up in a different room this time, a little bigger, actually. We were there for only one night as we were heading off to Imlil and the middle Atlas Mountains. We packed our backpacks for the trip, and even making them lighter we were still hampered by the weight.
Jamal helped us organize this trip and his buddy at the travel agency got us all squared away. We were taken by a private driver to the mountains, which was about a three hour drive. The landscape was beautiful! Jon and I remarked how much it resembled the Southwest in America.
Imlil was not a large village and the streets were tight, like everywhere else, it seemed. We were deposited at a small coffee shop where there were other hikers sitting about drinking coffee, sodas, or “Berber Whiskey” (sweet mint tea). We were introduced to our host, Hassan Azdour, and our guide, Hamid. Both were very, very nice and they hefted our bags and shook their heads. They informed us that there was no way we could bring all this stuff we had in there. I was worse off than Jon. They ran and picked up another backpack and I put essential stuff in there. Hassan would take our bags to his house (Gite Tizi Mizik — I’ll include information for anyone interested) and they would be there waiting for us. What we didn’t know was that we’d signed up for a major hike.
We left the coffee shop and began to hike up the Main Street of Imlil which quickly turned to a dirt road. On either side were small shops with various colorful robes hanging from the wooden rafters, tajines and baskets lined the floors. Small restaurants had tajines bubbling with wonderful scents of vegetables and spices. Donkeys were coming up and down the road we were traveling loaded with the bags of tourists. The way forward was at a pretty good incline and I was getting winded quickly having to stop and catch my breath. Yes, I didn’t get in shape before leaving for Morocco.
As we made our way up the mountain we came to a very steep incline of large rocks that we had to work our way over. Presently we could hear a commotion and a large group of young boys came sprinting by leaping over the rocks like goats. It was crazy. One misstep and they would be dead. The drop from the rocks they were running full tilt over were 30 to 50 feet or more. It was amazing to see.
When we finally arrived at the village we would see what all the fuss was about. Guys dressed in the pelts of freshly skinned goats and sheep were chasing the boys about with sticks, smacking them with their switches. They had masks on and horns growing out of the tops of their heads. They were pretty frightening, and they reeked! The smell was practically a physical presence.
This hike ended up being five plus hours long and we were walking and climbing up some pretty precarious stuff. We really didn’t know what we’d gotten into. Jon did much better than I did and our guide wasn’t winded at all. He was walking at a leisurely pace, like a Sunday stroll. I was dying! My heart was pounding, I was gasping for breath and I was sweating buckets. But I stuck with it. I let Jon and M lead on and I followed in fits and starts. At times the ground was just a large field of rocks. At others it was dirt and small bushes. The vistas were breathtaking. You could look out and see the Atlas Mountains and the homes built into the side of them. Just beautiful. And the quiet! Oh, the quiet! It was heavenly. No planes flew overhead. No cars or horns or beeps or — anything! Just the wind and our footsteps. It was healing for sure. A salve for the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.
Horses ran free and you could see them, black and white dots off in the distance on the side of the inclines. Goats and sheep were there too. When we finally got down off the mountain we stopped at a small grassy area across from the home of an elderly lady. Hamid went to her and was able to borrow a large plate from her whereupon he laid our a picnic lunch of olives (olives are served all the time here in Morocco — I love olives to this is wonderful for me), Mackerel, Cheese, some kind of sausage, and bread. I passed on the Mackerel, though Jon had some, and it was nice to sit there and catch our breaths.
Everyone, it seems, knew our guide and he was well liked. Another large group of young boys was being chased by guys dressed in the skins. The skin clad guys came over to hang out with us, smell and all. They were laughing and cavorting and were happy to have their pictures taken. This, it turns out, is the way they celebrate Eid here in Imlil and it has been going on for a long, long time. Centuries? All the various villages come together to celebrate Eid, traveling from village to village. There are dances and music with much singing and laughter.
One thing that stood out the most to me were the voices of happy children in this village. You could hear children laughing and playing at all hours. They were extremely happy and it was uplifting to hear the joy in their voices. At night we could also hear the drums and the chanting and singing as the villagers celebrated Eid. This extended well into the early hours.
The Riad we stayed in was called Gite Tizi Mizik and it was very nicely appointed. The rooms were extremely clean, each with its own bath. The entrance room where all rooms adjoined was neat and overlooked the village and you could look far out at the mountain range and the buildings lining the slope. While we were climbing and hiking I was sweating like crazy. But in our rooms we left the windows open and the cool mountain air was a joy. Such a change from the oppressive heat of Marrakech. I’m an oven. I have a high metabolism and am usually cooking on a good day. I usually sleep without covers, or at the most a thin sheet. In the Atlas Mountains I was sleeping with layers of covers and it was perfect.
I was sketching in the main room when another of the guests came out and began talking to me. His name was ? and he was from Quebec here for studies. But he was going to go for the summit and had hired a guide for just that. He would be leaving the next morning. Very nice guy and it was fun to chat with him.
That night over dinner we met another two guests, two German girls who were also going to go for the summit but who had not hired a guide. They were laughing about how they were worried about whether they had enough warm clothes to actually stay comfortable. Also they didn’t quite know the route but figured it wouldn’t be too hard. We ended up being worried about them because we were told it was not an easy trek and that there were tough spots up there. We don’t know how they faired, but we had a great time talking with everyone and recounting our various travels. We were served a large tajine of couscous, vegetables and meat. Sweet mint tea, of course and for desert fresh apples from the trees outside. Delicious.
We took another two hikes, neither as difficult as the first, but tiring all the same. The second one took us up the mountain behind Gite Tizi Mizik toward the pass, which is part way to going to the summit called Toubkal. We had no illusions about trying for the summit. Forget that. Hell, I had no illusions about the pass! The first hike had cured me of that. Jon, however, wanted to try and make it. I had them drop me off at a neat spot next to some interestingly twisted trees and I’d wait on them and sketch. They took off and I settled in to draw. I was in the shade of the trees I would be drawing and got out my sketchbook and pencils, etc. I’m not a detail guy, but I was fascinated by the striations in the bark of these trees. It was right out of Arthur Rackham illustrations and I gave myself over to trying to capture the minutiae of what was before me. It was a total meditation about this one tree. As I drew, a man leading a heavily laden donkey sidewinded up the arid path and passed me. I’m fascinated by the use of donkeys and how anachronistic it seems to us, yet how effective it is in these environments.
I drew the tree as a double-page spread in my Moleskine and was hoping to get finished enough to do a nice crayon drawing of the mountain and pass to my right, where Hamid and Jon had gone. But the tree occupied my whole time there, which was ultimately fine. After awhile a mother and daughter came down the mountain and stopped to chat. They were from North Carolina so we had a good bit to talk about since I’d lived in Chapel Hill for quite awhile. They were very friendly and were happy to have a pause in their trek. Their guide had actually zoomed down and left them there, not that they seemed to care. I got some good pictures of them with my daughter’s cat in a teacup plush toy.
Not long after Jon and Hamid returned Hamid whipped up a picnic to have in the shade of those trees I was drawing. Jon confessed that he’d finally reached his breaking point. They did not make it to the pass and he said he just gave out. I was somewhat glad to hear this because they both had done so well on the other hike. I wondered how Jon could keep up with Hamid all that time. Glad to know there was a point of no return.
On the way down we passed an interesting house cum cattle shed that Hamid said was tended to by various family members throughout the seasons. It looked like it belonged in a Sergio Leone film. I took some photos of this and then we headed on down. At times we were walking on what seemed like very thin slices of land with very steep drops below us. There were no walls or hand holds anywhere and if you thought about it you’d get a little nervous. We ended up in a part of the village that I’d only seen from a distance, the houses built into the side of the mountain. We went to the roof of the highest home and the family came up and served us sweet mint tea. Below us in varying levels of height was the village and on the street we could hear the drums and the raucous sounds of the boys being chased by the Eid. Off in the distance we could see a large throng of white robed people gathered in a line walking slowly down the thin trail of the mountain chanting, singing and playing drums. All about us we could hear the children laughing and playing. Great bursts of uncontrollable laughter. It made everyone smile.
The tea was delicious and with it were various nuts and cookies, all wonderful. We stayed there for awhile and then made our way further down, entering the rocky ravine and following its course. We were surrounded by cherry trees, oak trees, walnut trees and apple trees. Each stone wall fenced in a different family’s plot of land where they were growing apples or walnuts. Each family could have multiple plots scattered all over the place.
Hamid reached up and pulled ripe walnuts from the trees, peeling off the green outer shell, then taking the Walnut and setting the pointed end down on a rock smacked it with his closed fist. The nut popped open and he fished the meat from within. I’ve never had a fresh walnut, only the ones that we get in the stores. This was a very different experience and it was delicious. I couldn’t get enough of them. All the way down we would pick ripe walnuts from the path or from the trees and eat them. Never got enough of them though. 🙂
That night Jon and I were the only guests at Gite Tizi Mizik. We called it an early night, but not before I got a photo of Hassan and his daughter with Mary’s cat in a teacup. Such a nice family.
Our last day in Imlil included yet another hike, but the easiest of the three. We actually took a road to begin with and made a stop at a sort of trading post where Berber carpets, blankets, jewelry, wooden boxes and chessboards, as well as fossils were sold. It was a cooperative which meant that people would bring their goods to this place and get a fair price, money being divided equally and fairly. Jon picked up a blanket and I snagged a couple of things for my daughter. Lots of good-natured bartering and bits of history were thrown in and we left happy with our purchases.
This trek was to be a much more leisurely walk to see Hamid’s village. I actually don’t remember too much about this trek, but there was more of the Eid going on and laughter. We ended up on the top floor of a coffee shop that overlooked the village. We had tea, of course, and coffee and Jon and I got ourselves orange Fantas as well. Hamid knew the proprietor and he sat with us for awhile to chat. On the street below was an odd mixture of transportation: donkeys, some with carts some without, men pulling carts themselves, taxis, broken down (but still running) SUVs and the one odd sleek Mercedes looking for a parking spot. People were climbing the rocks on the river, laying blankets out and setting up camping stoves. There are times when the light was right, I would look around and could believe that I was seeing into the past, that time had stood still and I was rewarded for some good deed with a glimpse of how it used to be.
On returning to Gite Tizi Mizik Hassan and Hamid began to lay out a feast. Hassan’s little boy of about 4 or 5 would hang out by the door to the Riad and wouldn’t come out. Hassan, with a gleam in his eye, said he was scared of the Eid. Two large tajines were brought out, bubbling with cooked meat and vegetables. Plates of olives were set down and platters of bread. Hot sweet mint tea was served with M raising the carafe high and pouring from close to a yard from the glass and its intricate designs. He took that glass and poured it back into the pot then poured again. He did this three times and it became a ritual we enjoyed throughout our trip. This might have been when we first heard the tea called “Berber Whiskey” as well.
When I was much younger I read a passage from “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by T.E. Lawrence. In it he described dinner with the bedouins, the breaking of bread with the right hand and dipping into the bowl or platter to scoop up rice or meat. I was enthralled with that and here it was. We all dug in. It was so damn hot that I practically scorched my fingers. But it was so very good. The meat was succulent and the vegetables tender. Wonderful. One of the best meals we had in Morocco.
After we had fresh apples and more tea. Then Jon and I packed up and walked to the coffee house where we’d been earlier that day. There we were met by Hassan and he walked us to the original coffee shop where we met on our arrival. There we found our ride home. We said our goodbyes and piled into the car. The ride home was uneventful, though it was sometimes hair-raising to see a lone motorcycle rider stopped on the side of precarious roads winding through the mountains. He would be sleeping on a stone wall that had nothing on the other side of it but a sheer drop of hundreds and hundreds of feet into the chasm. The light as it sculpted the mountains was entrancing.
NOTE: Gite Tizi Mizik: Chez Hassan Azdour
Mobile: +292(0)6 66 39 59 21
On returning to Marrakech for our last night at the Empty Canvas we had yet another room which was also a nice room and a bit cooler than the others. We got dinner then crashed. The ancient city of Fez awaited.
Note: To try and expedite getting the blog closer to up to-date I’m going to post just the text and, hopefully, add pictures later. It sucks having to add pictures later (thanks to the slow internet) because Essaouira was beautiful! But I’ll get some up soonest!
We are now in Imlil, a mountain town in the Atlas Mountains. It’s our second day here and we’re exhausted. I’m set up in a beautifully fitted sitting room with long lounges and pillows. Behind me is an open window framed in ornate metalwork. Beyond the window is the town built into the mountains, homes stacked upon one another. A cow is lowing in the distance, roosters are crowing, and I can hear children laughing uproariously. Eid is still going on here and drums and chants echo as young boys are chased by what look like werewolves with horns but are in fact young men dressed in the skins of freshly butchered goats and sheep. They carry switches and they symbolize the spirits of the sacrificed animals looking to spank the boys. More on that later!
It’s wonderfully cool here, in the mountains, a nice change after the heat of Marrakech. It was a bit cooler in Essaouira as well, but this is cooler. Before I regale you with Imlil, I’ll try and catch up on Essaouira.
Essaouira was a pretty coastal town of white buildings and golden bricks of the fort. We traveled by bus which was amazingly inexpensive (and it had air conditioning!) After a three-hour ride we arrived in Essaouira and caught a cab to the port. There we walked to our hotel, Hotel Sahara. We’ve been using Airbnb and it’s been very good so far. We got situated in our room then struck out to explore a bit.
We walked along the wall next to the ocean, seagulls hovering in the air. We made our way to where all the ships where. Beautiful green and blue boats were tethered together at the port surrounded by larger fishing trawlers. More of the blue and green boats were on dry land, sometimes stacked on top of one another. Very picturesque. The mood was much more relaxed in Essaouira compared to Marrakech and there were not nearly as many people bustling about. We were still hustled a bit, but not nearly as badly. Jon found a great place to eat in what used to be an ancient granary. The food and service was excellent. The manager was so nice and enjoyed hanging and talking. We went back a couple of times as the food and atmosphere was perfect.
I noticed a neat small shop in the granary that specialized in tribal jewelry and ornate daggers, and went in to scope it out. Every inch of wall space was covered by earrings, bracelets, rings, necklaces, and daggers. The shop was manned by a turbaned gentleman who later told me he was a Berber. He was very nice and didn’t push or try to give me the hard sell. I was interested in what he had all over his walls and asked to see several items. He explained what they were and what tribes made them. I picked out several things, we bargained a bit and I bought them. I showed him a picture of my daughter and my son. He said he would make something for my daughter as a gift. He pulled out various boxes full of colored stones, pearls and coral, as well as silver fittings and extenders for making jewelry. His fingers dug through these and he extracted several items, as well as taking a couple of things off the walls to be cannibalized and added to what he was making. He spent a good amount of time putting together a beautiful necklace for Mary. So nice!
Unfortunately, as Jon and I wandered and photographed and sketched the packet of things I bought either fell out of my pocket or was snatched. I was heartbroken for the necklace he’d made for Mary. I was walking through the Souk and felt someone tugging on my sleeve. It was the gentleman from the shop. He asked how I was and I told him how I’d lost the things I’d bought from him. He seemed genuinely concerned and invited me to his shop. I stopped in and he told me I was now family and that he would help me out. I picked out similar items and a few other things and he gave me an incredible deal on them. Very nice. Again, he took the time to make something for my daughter and gave me a nice Berber necklace for my son as well. Such a nice guy.
We enjoyed Essaouira very much. The second day we were there the Eid took place and so just about everything was closed for the holiday. We did find a place to eat, though not as good as our favorite. We decided to venture out beyond the sea wall and we’re headed there when a woman asked us if we were Americans. She was dressed in a sun hat that looked as though it folded up like a Japanese fan. Kathella was from ? and we spent an hour or so sitting and talking about Morocco (she’s living here) racism, etc. A really enjoyable time speaking with her. She gave us the name of a contact who could really help us with great destinations in Morocco.
We ventured out beyond the wall and walked over what seemed like volcanic rock, pitted and tunneled by the tides. On our right the fort’s walls loomed, canon peeking from their emplacements. On our left, the ocean and monstrous waves rising and barreling in to crash on the rocky shore. The colors were magnificent, rich blues and greens, sparkling yellows and oranges, a real sight! We were out there for quite awhile and got a little fried by the sun. Back to the room, chug a ton of water, then a good long nap.
In Essaouira I finally saw some of the old world walls and gates that I remember from Sargent’s paintings. One in particular absolutely caught my fascination. It was a huge blue door built into the high white wall surrounding the city. The first time we saw it the sun was setting and it was the golden hour. The cool shadows of royal palms played over the white wall and the recessed blue door while the golden light slowly faded. Incredible!
Cats are everywhere in Essaouira. We were told that Mohammed had a fondness for cats. They lounged in the warmth of the sun, climbed the fences, and ran between the blue boats. Some were frail and it was obvious they were not long for this world. I drew one such kitten. The poor thing was not doing well. We brought food to it later, but were just prolonging the inevitable. Very few dogs to be seen. Though the ones we did see seemed happy enough.
Of course we were pressed constantly by vendors on the streets to check out the bracelets, necklaces, boxes, jeweled daggers and all laid out on their brightly colored blankets. As in Marrakech they could be dogged in their determination to get you to look. If you looked then get ready, the bargaining began in earnest, even if you didn’t want to buy anything.
One night in the room a bizarre cricket flew in through the open window and landed on my shoulder, unbeknownst to me. It began to chirrup to me, close to my ear, scaring me half to death. I picked it up and let it out the window. I’m hoping it was a sign of good luck or something.
It’s now about a week later and we are in the coastal town of Essaouira. I’m finding it hard to keep up with the blog because there’s so much to see and then try to put down. We’re wiped out at the end of the day because of the heat and the amount of walking we’re doing. Plus, not being able to post puts a damper on things. Yet, here I am again hoping to dig in and play a little catch up.
We were shown the tanneries, after being handed off to someone by Mustafa. We were given a clutch of fresh mint branches so that we could smell them instead of the various noxious smelling vats (pigeon shit!) where they were curing and tanning. It was pretty stinky. They weren’t working with color yet, so it was kind of a letdown. Also, it looked nothing like the photos I’d seen in books. Bummer.
We were then led and handed off to a shop which we were told was a Government shop (not sure if it was or was not as we hadn’t yet heard about those shops having the red flag outside). We were taken to a room and mint tea was brought in (did they just throw the mint leaves we were using to sniff into the kettle? We’ll never know) and then the hard sell commenced. We were surrounded by wondrously colored rugs and they began to present them to us, laying them out on the floor, telling us all about their history and how they were made, what the symbols stood for, which tribes made which rugs, etc. It was fascinating. They showed us how they resisted burning by waving a lighter over the coarse weave (we were shown this repeatedly at various rug dealers).
And, since it was our first day and we had jet lag we were sucked in and eventually broke down and bought some things.
On leaving the rug dealer we were led through what looked like a pharmacy, which I guess it sort of was, but what got us was the colors in jars. Unbelievably rich colors lined the shelves like rare jewels. The man who ran this shop wore a white robe and immediately set about describing the colors to us. I couldn’t resist and began asking about different colors on the shelves. He would grab the jars and line them up on the floor. Then he grabbed a spoon and a water mister. He squatted on the tile floor and using the spoon would dip into a jar, scoop a small amount of color and transfer it from the spoon to the floor. With the mister he would spray the color and using his finger swirl the color out from the small pile of powder. The colors were luminous and rich. I had to have some! I ended up buying several colors in powder form.
Our first several days in Marrakech were good ones. Tiring, but neat. Hey, we were in Morocco! We did a couple of drawings but have been slow to draw consistently each day, instead relying on photography to capture impressions for now. Every time you turn around there’s something visually interesting. Stopping to sketch means missing a pile of stuff.
The Main Square comes alive at night. Throngs of people fill the square and the smoke from all the food vendors lends an otherworldly atmosphere to the spectacle. Snake Charmers, guys with monkeys on chains, African and Moroccan bands, drum circles, blinking drones in the sky, young Senegalese men selling art made with butterfly wings, each professing that the art was theirs (yes, we bought a couple), iPhone knockoff sellers, watch sellers, little children selling travel packs of tissues, all are instant tour guides (happy to take your money if you look the least bit lost), sheep being tied for the upcoming Eid holiday, and more.
We shot all over the place and trying to get to the other side of the Medina a guy with a monkey on a chain came and threw it on Jon’s arm, against his wishes. He did the same to me, also against my wishes. To get the thing off our arms we had to give the guy some dirhams. The ape was heavy and the fur dry. It kept going for the fountain pens in my pocket. I posted these pictures on Instagram and Facebook and got slammed because some felt I was supporting animal cruelty. Far from it. But as Jon said, “There’s no way I’m going to startle and manhandle a primate that could rip my face off and hand it back to the guy.” I had to cover my pens as the monkey was trying to grab them. We were able to keep the snake charmers from putting the snakes on us. Score one for us!
We finally got away from there and went to Café de France for dinner. The food has been very good, especially that cooked in a traditional Moroccan tajine, which is like a sort of Dutch oven. They bring these out and lift the lid revealing a sizzling, bubbling, and aromatic feast of fresh vegetables (carrots, beans, potatoes, sometimes eggplant, and, if you order it so, with meat — chicken, lamb, or beef.). Another treat is the couscous with vegetables. So good. And of course, mint tea. We’ve been constantly drinking piles of water. And every once in a while we’ll get an Orange Fanta or a beverage called Hawaii, which is a carbonated fruit drink that’s very good. During dinner we saw the traditional drummers form their circle and I was quickly drawn to them. Sitting around a bright electric lamp, five drummers beat an incredible traditional cadence that I couldn’t resist. I approached them and the leader waved me over. I held up some dirhams and indicated my camera. He nodded “yes” emphatically with a smile and they increased their tempo.
Using my Canon and my iPhone I snapped as many photos as possible while they played some beautiful music, the rhythm resonating deep in my chest, their faces lit by the orange glow of the light. My Canon 35mm lens is a fixed lens (I don’t use the zoom on the iPhone either) so I’m constantly moving back and forth between subjects to get close. I remember reading Annie Leibovitz’s book, “At Work”, and how she loved her 35mm Prime lens because it forced her to get up close and personal with her subjects. That motivated me to search one out. I picked the Canon Prime lens up for a steal several years ago when one of the big photo suppliers went out of business, and I haven’t looked back. There’s a lot that happens when you get close to your subject that way. There’s an energy there that cannot be had any other way. And the thing is, they have to let you into that space, to feel comfortable enough with you. It’s invigorating.
These guys have the most remarkably expressive faces. They were lost in their music, their individual drums dodging and weaving themselves into a singular powerful rhythm. I started capturing everything I could, alternating between my Canon and my iPhone, getting closer and closer to them and they were into it. That moment signaled to me that I would be able to find a path here in Morocco for myself. That Morocco would let me in. You know when you click into something real and honest. It’s like pouring water out of a glass. It’s a rare and wonderful feeling.
On the iPhone I shoot almost exclusively with the app Hipstamatic. I love the filters and the square format. Sometimes I’ll shoot something with Camera+ by taptaptap because it allows a lot of control over exposure and focus.
I was able to photograph these guys a few of times. The successive times were neat because they remembered me and and waved me in to photograph, smiles all around. I still gave them money, but it was nice to be let in.
Poor wi-if has prevented me from posting during my journey. But I think I can finally get some of this posted – insha’Allah (as they say here.)
Marrakech. The narrow street is a never ending tide of robed and sandaled humanity. Bicycles and motorbikes career through the crowds, threading their way in fits and starts, the sharp smell of exhaust clouding the air and blending with the smell of urine, a blunt smackdown of the rich scents of various spices that tinge the air that resonates with the Adhan as muezzins through loudspeakers call the faithful to prayer. Merchandise is ubiquitous, splayed upon the street, hanging above and piled into small storefronts. Lanterns of meticulous and intricate metalwork, clothing, hats, shoes, slippers, wooden boxes, whistles, tajines large and small, fly swatters, necklaces, bracelets, spices, musical instruments, tiles, fruits and vegetables, on and on and on. To the left and right small vendors cooking pastries or cookies, live chickens in and out of cages awaiting their doom. Eye contact with any of the sellers is an invitation for them to try to get you to buy something and then haggle a price from you, or be lead somewhere (usually someone’s shop they have an understanding with) to then look at some other kind of merchandise. They are incredibly persistent and we’ve finally learned how to be firm and say, “La Shokrun!” (No Thank You!) Even then we have to repeat it several times, shaking our heads and moving on through the press of humanity. And not looking at people here is a crime, really, because there are so many wonderful faces to enjoy! Marrakech is a kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, aromatic and tactile textures, and throngs of people all jostling and sharing the stark heat of the day.
My fascination with Morocco was sparked by the watercolors of John Singer Sargent when he visited in the 1880s. In 1981 I was in art school in New York City by way of Beaumont, Texas and those stunning watercolors hit me as extremely, powerfully exotic, filling me with a wanderlust I’ve barely been able to scratch the surface of. Morocco became my Grail, the destination that nestled and burned in my heart demanding that I get there someday. It was the allure of the traditional garments, the robes, the burnooses, the camels, the architecture, the Arabian Night stories. Time had other plans, but here I am now.
Other artists have also piqued my interest and stoked those fires further. Frank Brangwyn’s oils when he traveled through Morocco, as well as his traveling mate Arthur Mellville and his extravagant watercolors.
There’s Delacroix, Gerome, Matisse, Lord Leighton, Mariano Fortuny, and on and on. Each adding another stent opening that space in my heart until finally I could wait no longer. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been awarded a sabbatical from Ringling College of Art and Design, where I’ve been teaching for the past ten years. Everything aligned perfectly and during my teaching with the Illustration Academy I hit Jon Foster up with the possibility of joining me, and here we are.
Jon’s asleep right now and I’m up finally taking to the task of starting my blog entries. There’s a fan in the room with us circulating hot air. It makes a difference, but only *just*. I’m working by the dim bathroom light that’s spilling weakly into the room, sitting on my bed hammering away on the iPad.
It’s hot. 108˚F. I live in Florida and grew up in Texas on the Gulf Coast and I don’t remember being this hot. Brutal. But the heat gets pushed to the back of your mind and you get blown away by the sheer weight of the layering of people, the close quarters maze of hallways and textures and smells of this place. It’s sensory overload. Endlessly fascinating and draining all at once!
We’re staying at a nice Riad, The Empty Canvas, and the hosts are wonderfully pleasant and engaging. Jamal and his mother are sincerely nice, warm individuals. We feel totally welcome here and it’s a great place to come back to each day and night. We awaken to a nice breakfast of a hard-boiled egg, Moroccan bread with fruit jam, orange juice, mint tea and coffee. Perfect!
I left from Florida and Jon from Rhode Island and we connected in Madrid and were on the same flight to Marrakech. After landing and getting through customs we went out looking for a cab that was supposed to pick us up. Apparently there was some kind of confusion on the part of the driver and we never found him. We ended up sharing a different cab with a nice girl from England, Janice, who was here for a yearlong study abroad program. We were going in pretty much the same direction and she filled us in on things while we blew through traffic, our lives flashing before our eyes. The streets were crazy! Traffic from every direction! Cars, bicycles, trucks, donkey’s pulling wagons, horses pulling carriages, motorbikes, you name it! All jostling for position, cutting each other off, crisscrossing each other at crazy speeds. Our driver was first rate and handled it with ease. A real feat!
We were dropped off at the street that was listed in the communication with the Riad, but we didn’t know what we were really looking for and the phone call I made to the Riad connected me to Jamal’s mother who doesn’t really speak English (of course the real problem is that I don’t speak Moroccan Arabic). There was a group of guys there and they wanted to walk us to our destination, but we didn’t have a solid address. One guy got a little surly, but we eventually just left and walked to the Main Square, which was quite a walk. I was dragging along my luggage — a rolling duffle filled to the brim, a backpack also filled to the brim, and a smaller rolling case that had my Ala Prima Pochade Box in it. Jon had his backpack and a large duffle. Janice also had a few pieces of weighty luggage. The streets are uneven cobbles and, as mentioned earlier, are rife with motorbikes and bicycles and people and cars and donkeys and horses! Crazy.
We walked for what seemed like forever through the maze of the medina and finally found the Café de France. There we sat down and had big bottles of cold water and piping hot sweet mint tea, the national beverage. I finally got through to the Riad and someone came to pick us up. Janice was on her own at that point, but I lent her my phone to make a call and she also finally got through to someone.
That first day Jon and I did no drawing whatsoever, just wandered and ogled at the kaleidoscope of colorful clothes, the press of humanity, the bustle, the cacophony. We took lots of photographs and muddled our way through the day trying to get a handle on what little bits of the language we can pick up and parrot back to people. We were wide-eyed at the number of people that crowded the narrow walkways. We were consistently called Ali Baba (which we were beginning to think was directed at me because of my beard. This proved to be true.). Everywhere was an interesting sight and it was hard to take it all in. Our jet lag got the best of us and we came back and took a little Spanish pause that lasted roughly four hours of sleeping like the dead. We went back out and got dinner and wandered a bit more. Jon had gotten up earlier than I and had met a guy named Mustafa who said he could get us to places. He seemed like a very nice guy and off we went.
More to come!