Monday, August 24, 2009

South of Casablanca

You can imagine how badly the traveling bug must have bitten us to pull us away from this pool!

On Friday morning we started to drive down the coast. In a perfect picture of chronological confusion, we saw a man riding a heavily laden donkey cross the modern pedestrian overpass over the highway. Our first stop was El Jelida, the first big down south of Casablanca. The old town there was heavily inhabitated by the Portuguese, who used it as their major port in this area. In a shop a sweet man tried to sell Rick pants and shirt that unfortunately Rick thought he'd so rarely wear that it made no sense to buy them, and then the man said Wait! He took out a long, long blue scarf made of thin cotton. Near one end he made a knot and placed it on the back of Rick's head, spreading out the fabric in front. Then he wrapped the fabric around his head and even over his face: "Voila, comme les Tuaregs!" So Rick now looked like a Tuareg Arab, ready to do battle with endless kilometers of rolling sand, searing heat, and cranky camels and horses. I took a few pictures and hope at least one comes out.

In El Jelida we visited what they called the Portuguese cistern, a large room with Roman-arched vaulted stone ceilings and wildly thick stone walls. In the center was a small fountain, over that was a circle of daylight down through which the rain drained, and there was shallow water on the floor sloping down to the raised fountain. Children were having a wonderful time splashing around, and their laughter reverberated off the stone walls. It was not a peaceful spot, as our guidebook promised us, but an interesting one. This room had been the room in a chateau where weapons and arms were stored before the Portuguese arrived, and then over the years it fell into disuse and was forgotten. Early in the 20th centery a merchant whose business abutted one of the walls wanted to expand and broke through the wall to discover that huge space. Imagine if you had been that merchant!

We passed a place just outside the medina (old town) where dozens of people cooked the local fish, sardines and others-- grilled, fried, whatever, and served some salads. We wished like hell we had been hungry because it was full of smoke and fish smells and mysterious Arab words called from one vendor to the other, just wonderful, but despite a free taste we moved on.

After El Jelida we took the small coastal road south, and passed tiny agricultural villages. We saw many more men in jelabas and more veiled women (are poor people more religious everywhere??), and a lot of dust. The main means of transport consisted of small animal-drawn wagons, often covered against the sun, and animals such as donkeys, mules, burros, and an occasional horse carrying one to three people and heavily laden saddlebags and bundles. Plus of course motorbikes and a few bicycles. We almost never saw a motorcycle, occasionally a car, many trucks, and many of them had tall, tall loads that were impeccably covered. We passed many farm stands selling squash and root vegetables. The squash in particular were arranged with quite an eye to aesthetics. We saw between homesites fences made variously of piled up drywall stones (without mortar) which reminded Rick of the Greek islands -- there are so many rocks in the soil! -- cactus with ripe prickly pears, palm-looking plants with tall fronds and reeds, fences made from the reeds, and near the ocean seaweed walls. We saw tents erected near the sea with huge piles of dried seaweed the color of red wine, and speculated on whether that was used for fuel or fertilizer. Even by the ocean it was so dry: fuel must be terribly scarce.

In the countryside we saw high stacks of hay the shape of a Monopoly house, but were puzzled because many of the shapes had smooth sides. We finally figured out that after the hay is harvested, tied in rectangular bundles, and built into the house shapes, each big mound is covered with a thin layer of dried mud to protect it from the wind and the rain until it's needed.

Ouilidia is a seaside town we didn't stop at very long because we were low on cash and all three banks in town had ATMs that apologized in very polite French for their inability to open at the moment. We had found two banks and in asking a policeman where there might be another, he offered to show us. So he got into the back seat and directed us there! Lovely, but just as useless as the first two. So we continued on to the next big town, Safi. On the way we saw endless rocky soil and so many people riding donkeys, enveloped in endless lengths of fabric against the sun and dust.

The first bank we saw upon entering Safi worked fine, which was a balm for our peace of mind. (When I spoke to Naima later she was horrified that we had left Casablanca without all the cash we'd need and a full tank of gas, but we Americans are spoiled ...) At Safi I saw people giving four "bise" at a time: four "air kisses," left, right, left, right. It takes forever to say hello and to say goodbye here!

Safi used to have two claims to fame: their sardine catch is one, which is now gone because an enormous and terribly smelly and polluting phosphte factory has been built right next to the town. We can't understand the logic of that. If the chemicals killed the sardines, what do they do to the people? The second, however, remains.

Safi is known for its pottery, and it sells its pottery all around the country and abroad. Abdullah, a man who learned it from his father, who learned it from his father, etc., showed us exactly how it's done. The clay is quarried from 17 kilometers away and is dry. It's soaked in water 24 hours and then is cut in large slabs and shaped on a wheel operated by foot, like the old treadle sewing machine. The operator sits in a hole covered at the waist at floor level by a cloth, and shapes the clay with his fingers as it spins. While we were there he was making a tagine (I told you about this earlier), and since the top and bottom were from the same piece of clay they fit together perfectly once the top was cut off. Then white paint from Limoges was applied and allowed to dry in the sun for a day. After than natural color was applied, not paint but from natural substances such as saffron for yellow, tomatoes for orange, olives for green, which allowed these dishes to be used for eating and cooking. The designs were handpainted freeform, and there were hundreds. Abdullah said he was taught between 900 and 1,000 of them by his father and other artisans. The brushes were not bought: the handles were made from old pens, and the brushhairs came from their donkeys. There are small cuts made through the color as part of the design, using the tops of sardine cans as the tool, again all freeform by memory. There's a first baking, and then there's another coat of white stuff and a second baking, after which the color comes out shiny and the piece is ready. We bought a platter and a vase with exquisite designs in a saffron lemon color. Abdullah insisted on giving us several small things in addition, and went to a great deal of time and trouble finding carton material and strong string to box it all up well enough to withstand an airplane trip (although I wouldn't go so far as to be sure it would come through fine if checked as luggage!).

In Safi Rick bought a white embroidered shirt from Abdullah in another store -- Abdullah had nine brothers and sisters and five trillion cousins and other close relatives, and seemed related to everyone in the marketplace. The shirt had been embroidered by his mother. Abdullah spoke Arabic, his native language, French, English, Spanish, Italian,and German, all by picking it up. He told us he couldn't read or write because he never went to school, although his son was going to school.

It was getting to be late afternoon and we decided to drive on to our final stop on this trip, a town called Essaouira ("ess A weer A"), passing more dusty fields, flocks of goats and sheep, market towns, donkeys ridden by men or women, and often people out walking from one invisible place to another invisible place. The immensity of the distances here must be experienced: an occasional shrub, rocky soil, perhaps some dry grass, low hills, and nothing else as far as you can see.

At Essaouira we stayed at the Hotel Ibis, which is a chain that was recommended by Naima as being minimal but adequate, clean, and cheap. This it certainly was: a bed, a bathroom with a shower, shelves for drawers, a rod with 3 hangers, a TV, and breakfast included for 512 dirhams which equals approximately $60 in round numbers. We had brought sandwiches and fruit with us and didn't want dinner, but were really tired from driving a standard-shift car all that distance down the little roads, and went to sleep.

In the morning we started to explore. Essaouira has a sheltered port, essential because the waves of the ocean there are fierce. The winds make the waves splash on the rocks in huge plumes of spray. Fishing boats abound, with men coiling up the nets and floats. There were big battered steel-hulled boats and dozens of blue wooden rowboats all tied up 10 by 10, bobbing in the water. The smell of seawater and fish was dazzling. During the day we wandered around the medina and saw pottery fram Safi that wasn't nearly as nice as what we had bought and now understood so much better.

Essaouira is famous for its woodcarving of a wood that the guidebook says is endangered (meaning you're supposed to have a guilty conscience if you buy any): thuya, which I have no idea is a word in English since I didn't know it in French either. It's an extraordinarily beautifully grained wood, a very different grain from the trunk than from the roots of the tree. So many different objects were created from this wood, including many in which marquetry is used. We watched artisans making a circular tabletop in marquetry, which is the technique of using tiny pieces of wood chiseled to fit tiny spaces to make a design, the wood equivalent of mosaic in stonework. One worker planed and jointed the boards. Another used a bandsaw to cut the pieces into different widths and lengths, tossing the rejects to be recycled for marquetry. A third took five minutes to chisel a tiny triangular piece for the table top. Another whom we didn't see put the finish on it. In a shop we saw a marquetry dresser with three large drawers, curved on the sides and in front, so elaborate, which we were told the artist had put 13 years into making (not full time, we were assured): 45,000 dirhams, about $5,000 before bargaining. Frankly, that's cheap at the price. Totally beautiful.

Many pieces were ingenious. There was a cylindrical stack of four drawers which not only slid out but swiveled. The marquetry covered jewelry boxes and items of all sorts. We bought a sculpture of thuya wood suggesting a sailboat, a small figurine of a camel, and a small cup for pens. We had been in the markets of Marrakesh and Casablanca and were surprised that nothing, but nothing, was beautiful enough to buy, but here was a different story. In the wood shops I wanted to buy everything.

We saw zillions of other things, too, including of course carpets.

Before we left home we had thought about buying a carpet for under the coffee table in the living room, but these prices, although probably worth it for handmade carpets, were appalling, not for folks like us. One man got us, however, or perhaps we got him. Rick asked him where a toilette pour Madame was and he led us on a very circuitous path to the back corner of a carpet store, where I found a real toilet, not two grooved foot-shaped platforms over a porcelain hole in the ground: such luxury! (I've figured out that afterward you take the bucket that's there, put water in it, and swish out the porcelain, but I've never figured out what you do with the toilet paper. Now THIS is what guidebooks should tell you!) When I came out, there was Rick looking at three or four carpets that had been spread out on the ground. I was sweetly invited to sit on a small bench and a cushion placed for me. Delighted to oblige. Carpet after carpet was unfolded, all very beautiful and really the right size.

Then we got down to the hard part. This man did what others had done. When asked the price, even if we had a language in common, he required first a pen (sometimes that meant asking someone for one and waiting for it to arrive!) and a paper, on which he wrote the number. Always, by the way, "he." So he wrote 2,800 dirhams, which would be something like $320. No way, no way. Since we didn't make a counter-offer, he said (I'm translating from French now), "Madame, here we have the habit of bargaining. I say 2,800 dirhams (he pointed to the number) and you say 2,600 dirhams (he wrote the number below the first)." Still nothing from us. Finally he asked what price we would be willing to pay. I thought a long time whether I wanted one, really. 800 dirhams, I told him. He was appalled. We explained carefully that we were not bargaining (the very best way to bargain) but honestly couldn't afford to pay more, we were so sorry, we were sure the carpets were worth so much more, so sorry (and the best bargaining, for us at least, is the truth). He looked to be in agony. Finally he said, "1,000 dirhams," because tonight is the first night of Ramadan and it brings good luck to make the first sale. $125. I said I'd think about it. Which I did, at some length, and finally said yes. He looked like his parents had just died, like we had just stolen food from the mouths of his children. We followed him to an ATM where I took out 1,000 dirhams and gave them to him. We remain unsure if all that misery was real or part of the process: I wish I knew. But really, we would never have spent more money than that on a small carpet. It is very beautiful, though, and when you visit and see it in the living room under the coffee table you will appreciate how it came to be there.

All this bargaining is exhausting. We sat in a shaded cafe, listening to blues and jazz, watching an international parade from veiled women to girls in the skimpiest of shorts and halters, drinking sparkling water and reading the first Herald Tribune, now owned by the NY Times, we'd seen in a week.

Afterward we watched a bunch of men crowded around a fish seller, auctioning off the day's catch: why weren't they the women, since the women cook the fish? We saw dozens of adolescent boys, jumping off the walls of the port into the water, chasing a plastic bag thrown in first. The huge surf kicked up a lot of mist, making the light extraordinary which has caused this town to draw many artists.

We decided to stay at the Hotel Ibis another night, in large part because it had an air conditioner, a rarity here, even though it wasn't a very strong one. After lounging by the beautiful pool we went back into town for dinner. Ramadan started that night. Religious Muslims eat, drink and smoke nothing between first prayers, at around 4 AM, and 7:30 or 8:00 PM. We found a wonderful restaurnant near the medina at 8 PM, and here was the dinner we had. Each of us had a salade marocaine: a mound of cut-up tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and spices I couldn't identify, garnished with sprigs of lettuce and half-slices of orange. We shared a soupe marocaine, which had beans in the bottom and spices, one of which was curry and another cumin, but I'm not sure about others. I had a tagine d'agneau, lamb stew, served in the traditional terracotta dish on the bottom covered with a conical top where the top flared out to pick it up. It was still bubbling from the oven and was served on a wicker trivet. Rick ordered a brochette of beef, which came with rice and salady things. The beef was spiced, again with spices I coudn't identify. I had fruit salad for dessert (cut up apple and slices of banana in orange juice) and Rick ordered a crepe with orange and cinnamon. Because the waiter knew Rick has diabetes (we had asked for bread when we arrived, right away, because his blood sugar was too low), he took it upon himself to tell the cook not to add any extra sugar. He told us many people in Morocco have diabetes, including his mother, aunt, and many relatives. A cuisine so thoroughly built on carbohydrates is hell on diabetics. At any rate, the dinner came to 255 dirhams and we gave him 45 dirhams for a tip, so our wonderful Moroccan dinner came to about $35 in round numbers. A superb meal to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.

Yesterday morning we missed a turn and therefore took back roads to Casablanca, going inland. Most of the towns we passed through were poor and dusty, but every now and then you reached an obviously more prosperous town that either was more interested in its appearance or was able to indulge such an interest economically, or both. It's a good thing we still had a bag of snack food with us because in these small towns all cafes and restaurants were closed for Ramadan, although food stores and stalls were open. In fact, they were swamped. When we reached Casablanca we went to a couple of food stores before reaching the house: our favorite bakery, Amoud, for baguettes, and a supermarket, Label Vie (I know, pseudo French), and both were crammed to the gills with shoppers. We'd been at each several times before: no comparison. At the bakery they not only gave out numbers to customers but had food piled high up on the glass tops of the display cases as well as inside. People were lined up three and four deep. At the supermarket, a poor one in a poor neighborhood, it was hard to navigate the aisles for all the shoppers.

Leila explained that Ramadan is a month of parties, where people invite each other to dine every night, so buy a lot of food. We were planning to have dinner at a restaurant with Leila and her niece last night, but it was so hot and sultry when we got home all we could think about was the pool and no clothes. We were relieved when she suggested canceling the plan because we must be tired from our trip, which we were.

And it was a superb trip.

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