There was so much to write about Fez that we moved it out to a separate blog. This continues our visit to Ribat el-Kheir and beyond.
Sunday 9th October 2011, Ribat el-Kheir, Morocco. Continued
We were soon back in Ribat el-Kheir following our hectic day in Fez. After a rest, a wash, a drink and a sandwich we were soon feeling human again. Around 5pm we went to Doug's cooperative to meet the staff and learn about couscous making and bread baking. Here the lady in charge spoke French. She was so friendly and seemed to enjoy talking with me as another woman. She and her colleagues explained their work, showing me each stage of the processes. They begged us to postpone our planned departure and return next day to watch them at work. Meanwhile Ian and Doug were talking with Mohammed who spoke English. He appeared to be responsible for the cooperative even though the workers were women. He was very easy to get on with and soon we were all drinking glasses of coke together.
This evening Pete again joined us for supper. This time we used the town's second "restaurant". A man worked from a stall in the corner of the market place in the evening darkness cooking chicken kebabs on a griddle serving them up in fresh flat rolls which we carried home to eat with green peppers and tomatoes, followed by Lidl's chocolate biscuits all the way from Exeter. Gosh, we do all live the high life here in Ribat!
Monday 10th October 2011, Azrou, Morocco
This morning we were up with the schoolchildren, our stuff packed away in Modestine ready to go. First though we wanted to visit the weekly souk in Ribat el-Kheir with Karen. It is held right across the far side of the town in the area still known as "La Gare" though the last train ran through there some forty years ago.
The short-cut to the souk took us, and hundreds of other residents from our part of town, across fields of bare brown earth along footpaths worn in the dust by countless men and women leading pack donkeys. Karen says in the spring the fields are bright with green crops and flowers. It was hard to imagine today with the bright glare of the sun beating down as we walked a hot kilometre across the parched landscape. Coming in the opposite direction people were returning carrying washing bowls, vegetables and cooking pots, walking or possibly riding a tiny donkey. Several men were leading goats by a string tied around their necks. One man had several sheep. The first one he dragged along. Its string was tied to the leg of the one behind. That in turn was tied to the following one. They had no choice but to run along behind.
Karen told us that immediately after Ramadan every family drags a goat up the steep stairs in the blocks of concrete flats where they are slaughtered on the roof. They have their throats cut and die slowly as they bleed to death. They are then cut open and their liver and stomach fat removed and barbequed while still warm. The rest of the meat is cut up and taken down to the kitchen for cooking. They were invited to such a ceremony but seeing a skinned goat's head on the table was just more than Karen was able to cope with!
The entire town seemed to be at the souk and there was a pleasant atmosphere. The stalls were all run by men except for a corner where the Berber women sat together selling milk, herbs and home grown vegetables.
There were blacksmiths shoeing mules, cobblers mending townspeople's footwear, tinkers fixing handles back on metal pots and buckets and the usual collection of hardware merchants, meat and vegetable sellers, stalls selling fabrics, ladies shapeless pyjamas and undies, cooking stoves, agricultural tools, donkey's saddles and large woven grass baskets.
Returning home across the dusty fields we collected Doug and went together for a final coffee at the nearby cafe. Then it was time to leave. We've had an unforgettable few days but who knows when our paths will cross again. Karen and Doug have another year before they return to Montana. Hopefully, before they do, there will be a chance for them to come to Exeter. With that thought we said farewell and left them together to continue their strange lives as American pensioners so far from the comforts of home. Thank you both from the bottom of our hearts. You've given us a fantastic experience and we've loved every moment.
We decided to cut across country to the campsite we used on our way to Ribat el-Kheir. Our plan is to reach the Atlantic coast and follow it northwards towards Tangier. Campsites are not plentiful and this one is strategically placed. The roads were not busy and took us through some spectacular scenery, over passes up to 1700 metres high, through a bare mountain landscape where shepherds guarded flocks of sheep that were exactly the same colour as the dusty landscape. Generally the whole country is burned and dry, nothing more than desert at this time of year.
It was mid afternoon when we reached Azrou and settled beneath the cherry trees. It's greener, cooler and fresher at this altitude. Soon we'd enjoyed hot showers, and hung our freshly washed laundry out to dry. Our friends are living in exactly the same conditions as the Moroccan people they are helping, so for the past few days we have been using "Turkish" toilets and living without the luxury of a hot shower or washing machine. The town has public baths known as a hammam where the women go each week and spend several hours chatting together. Karen prefers her privacy and a cold shower at home to being stared at by her neighbours at the hammam. I rather take her point!
Tuesday 11th October 2011, Kenitra, Morocco
Today we moved down from the Atlas Mountains and crossed to the Atlantic coast. Now we are here there is certainly a slight freshness to the atmosphere but we have spent the day driving westward in 40 degrees of heat. It has not been pleasant.
We are making our way slowly back to Ceuta. We have absolutely no desire to head further south to the Sahara or the seaside resorts so popular with surfing youngsters. We've had the full-on Moroccan experience and while we have savoured every moment we will be returning home with a sense of gratitude that we were not born to this lifestyle. We are interested to see the capital of Morocco, Rabat. That is where the country's administration and legal process happen, though it does not seem to be so well known as Marrakesh, Fez and Casablanca. Nor does it have the same exotic reputation. Kenitra is fifty kilometres up the coast from Rabat which does not have a campsite. Thus we arrived here this evening in time to work out how to get to Rabat by public transport tomorrow. The campsite is rather horrid being no more than a dried up patch of parched earth with a few pines and eucalyptus trees offering inadequate shade. Broken glass along the tops of the campsite walls do not inspire confidence and neighbouring French campers have warned us that they've been here eight days because they drank the water and are only now recovering. As with everywhere else we've stayed, there is no wifi so we look like being back in Europe before I can even send our first Moroccan blog. Ian reckons that is just as well as my frequent tirades about the poverty of the Moroccan people, the abandoned rubbish around the countryside, the role of women and the nation's complete inability to understand the ballcock are unlikely to endear me to the King.
Almost everywhere that we have encountered a token western toilet, the cistern is purely ornamental, the ballcock and internal flush mechanism are invariably missing. "Turkish" toilets do not have a flush at all. They have a tap and a bucket. The idea is to pour a bucket of water down the pan after use. Nor can the drainage system cope with toilet tissue. Moroccans it seems do not generally use it. (Don't ask!) Rarely on campsites are there any Moroccans so the toilets are regularly blocked because the rest of us have not been warned to take our used paper away with us! What with that and the demands on the knee joints of the elderly when the toilet itself is missing, we will not be too sorry to find ourselves back on the boat to Europe.
The other, far worse problem here is rubbish. There does not seem to be any organised system for collecting and removing it from the towns and countryside. In Ribat el-Kheir people put out their rubbish in bags on the roadside. Sometimes it would be collected and dumped in piles on the waste ground beside our friends' flat. When the smell became too bad it would be set on fire in the early morning, the acrid black smoke from plastic bags and drink bottles drifting in through open windows. Passing through the countryside it was easy to judge how far one was from a settlement by the amount of rubbish in roadside ditches. Every town or village would simply move the worst of the detritus from the centre out a kilometre or so along the road and abandon it, to be scattered by the winds across the landscape. It's hard to imagine just how horrid it all is. We stopped for a break at an "Aire de repos" in a woodland of cork oaks. It was so sickeningly filthy, with cans, bottles, broken glass, decomposing plastic bags of unidentified horrors and even a dead sheep with a white egret pecking at it, that we drove on without stopping. The concept of recycling is still light years away. While we in the western world attempt to save the planet, the third world has absolutely no understanding of what it's all about.
For her part, Modestine has been horrified to observe the way donkey's are treated here. They really are beasts of burden and treated without any humane feelings whatsoever. They struggle through the towns and villages with massive, heavy burdens, frequently beaten to make them run faster. When not in use their feet are roped together so they cannot move and they are left without shade, water or food for hours out on the baking hillside. They pull ploughs, carry cement sacks, gas canisters, firewood and people – most often a woman with a couple of children. Seeing the neglect and cruelty with which they are treated here, Modestine has been on her very best behaviour, terrified of us abandoning her and returning to Europe without her! She now realises just how fortunate she is to have Ian brush her down each evening and wash the messy flies from her brow. She works hard but she is loved and well nourished with Morocco's very best Diesel 50.
We stopped briefly in Meknes as we passed through. It was lunch time and we needed bread and vegetables. Marjane is the smart supermarket chain here that initially lulled us into believing Morocco was not so very different from Europe. We were oh so wrong! After several days in deepest Morocco however we needed a fix of western produce and we are ashamed to say we popped in to this air-conditioned, spotless supermarket rather than fighting our way through a village souk. We paid four times as much and our fellow shoppers were all European or obviously wealthy Moroccans wearing western clothes. The staff all spoke impeccable French, even to each other, and most of the produce came from France. All the signing was in French as were all the books and newspapers in the cultural section. Any of the inhabitants of Ribat el-Kheir would be more lost and at sea in there than we were in Ribat el-Kheir! We have recently discovered that not only is it the only such supermarket chain in Morocco, it is owned by the Royal Family. Another example of Moroccan/French symbiosis.
Apart from that, we've simply spent the day driving across the country on roads that have generally been excellent. Police are out in force sitting in shady patches by the wayside with speed guns to catch the unwary. We saw two adults and a child on a moped without a crash helmet between them. The police ignored them. They are only interested in speeding offences. We have been told it is necessary to purchase a job in the Gendarmerie Royale rather than be appointed. It doesn't come cheap but the pickings from speeding fines quickly recoup the outlay.
On another issue entirely, we have seen some very dignified men in their Berber robes. Photographing them can sometimes be difficult. We have recently been fortunate to have met somebody only too happy to pose for us, along with his charming wife who has become quite Europeanised.
Wednesday 12th October 2011, Kenitra, Morocco
Today has been really good. Leaving Modestine in the relative safety of the campsite we took a taxi to Kenitra main station. We'd been told to expect to pay around 5 dirhams. We were charged seven but didn't feel like arguing over a few pence. As we left the taxi we were surrounded by half a dozen elderly women wrapped from head to toe, their withered faces peering from beneath their headscarves. In common with many Moroccans we have seen, they all had gaps from missing teeth. We were admittedly the only Europeans at the station but presumably they are there most days hoping to be given a few coins.
The station and the trains were a revelation. We'd expected to find dirty, sticky carriages with plastic seats and torn coverings, as we remembered from Sri Lanka. Instead we found a clean, modern station with orderly queues and electronic boards for arrivals and departures. The trains were clean and very modern, painted in pale blue. They skimmed silently and smoothly on the rails, carrying us the fifty kilometres to Rabat in about twenty minutes. With such an excellent existing line running down the west coast, there seems even less need for the proposed high speed network that will only really benefit businessmen. Our return trip today cost us sixty dirhams, about £5 for both of us.
Rabat is the administrative capital of Morocco and is the seat of the monarchy. Here can be found all the embassies, government departments and the Chamber of Representatives. It is unlike any of the places we have yet seen in the country. It stands on the coast, the Atlantic forming a shining blue backdrop to the city walls. A gentle breeze from the south-west blows in from the Canaries, out beyond the horizon, keeping the air fresh. There are clean beaches and pleasant walks below the city walls.
The smart central station with its escalators, lavish use of glass, cafes, boutiques and restaurants, disgorged us into the Ville Nouvelle. Here a broad boulevard, Avenue Mohammed V, sweeps down towards the medina. The avenue has a wide central reservation of stately palm trees and flower beds. It is an area of smart cafes and shops and pleasant residential flats. Also on the Avenue is the imposing Chamber of Representatives behind an impressive gateway controlled by several smartly uniformed guards. Photography is not really permitted. There are beautifully manicured gardens and an impressive display of the red flags of Morocco each with their single gold star. Later in the day, as we returned to the station, Ian noticed a demonstration taking place at the gates of the Chamber and was just in time to see the crowd suddenly disperse and run away. We don't know what it was about.
The atmosphere of Rabat is a delight. It is completely civilised and a total contrast to the mayhem and rudeness of Fez. Apart from a man with a fruit trolley eager to sell us his figs, we have not been approached by anybody all day. Even in the wide streets of the medina we could browse the carpet stalls and leather goods without anybody paying us the slightest attention. The city feels very laid-back and easy going though it must be admitted that it lacks the impact of some of the tight-packed medinas of other cities. We've not set eyes on a donkey all day, nor have our noses suffered from the rank odours to which they've become accustomed elsewhere.
We paused for coffee at a smart patisserie in the Ville Nouvelle. Apart from us it had a very chic clientele. Smart Islamic women wore their clothing as fashion statements with high heeled shoes, co-ordinating long dresses and scarves and designer sunglasses perched on top of their headscarves. They were the complete antithesis of the rural Berber ladies we saw up in the Atlas Mountains. They arrived singly or in small groups to enjoy silver pots of fragrant mint tea. We watched them put several lumps of sugar directly into the pot while waiting for it to brew. With their tea, served in little glasses, they usually selected not one, but two large sticky cakes! Easily led astray, Ian added a sticky chocolate cake to his coffee order. It was too sweet even for him. We were intrigued to discover his cake was a "Santa Maria". Why should a Muslim country name a chocolate gateau after the mother of Christ?
Having made our way through the Medina we continued towards the Kasbah, passing little roadside ateliers where craftsmen produced furniture, marquetry work and decorated wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl and gold filigree.
The Kasbah lies within the ancient ochre-coloured defensive walls. Its blue and white painted narrow streets are spotlessly clean. It is primarily a residential area. Even here we were left in complete peace to explore and make our way to a wide area overlooking the old town walls with defensive bastions at each corner.
The walls protected the town from attack from the sea. They reminded me very much of similar ones we've seen in Cadiz, Spain. The view from the Kasbah is stunning, overlooking not only the city walls but the cemetery, the Atlantic, the estuary of the Bou Regreg and the town of Salé on the far side of the river, famed in the past for its fearsome pirates, the "Sallee Rovers" who even raided the coasts of Cornwall in search of slaves.
Also in the Kasbah we visited the lovely, sheltered Andalucían Gardens with a pool, a fountain and shady walkways between bushes of scarlet hibiscus, orange trees and purple bougainvillea. In a palace within the garden lies the National Jewellery museum which is full of stunning Moroccan jewellery dating back to ancient times. Techniques for producing jewellery were explained – bracelets, rings, head dresses etc for women; guns, swords and daggers for men. In both cases time and effort was spent decorating the items – filigree, enamelling, inlaying with gold or pearls. Different regions of the country wore different ceremonial jewellery for their regional festivals and events such as weddings. There was also a preserved ancient hammam covered in beautiful, blue and green patterned tiles. This was where ceremonial bathing and cleansing would take place before important events or festivals.
During the afternoon we walked across town to the huge Tour Hassan, built in the 12th century by Sultan Yacoub al-Mansour. It was to have stood sixty metres high as the minaret of a mosque that would have been the second largest in the world. The Sultan however died before it was completed. The work was abandoned and eventually the mosque was destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, leaving behind sufficient stunted columns for us to imagine how it might have looked.
Far more recent, but awesome in their beauty, are the tombs of the father and grandfather of the present King of Morocco. Carved and decorated in pale marble and brightly coloured tiles with geometric motifs the chamber housing the tombs is guarded at each of its four entrances by uniformed guards in brightly coloured, elaborate uniforms. We were allowed to enter the mausoleum where we found ourselves on a gallery that overlooks the floor of the tomb where the cream Parkistani marble sarcophagus contains the body of King Mohammed V. A side tomb contained the body of his son, King Hassan II.
We continued walking, passing into the area of smart hotels and restaurants, health clinics and foreign embassies. There were large queues outside the Egyptian embassy as people waited their turn to apply for a visa.
We were by now too weary, hot , thirsty and hungry to continue to Chella, the original Phoenician and Roman site with the later mausoleum of the various Merenid rulers. Greatly to my relief Ian agreed that for once a cool table with a hot chicken tajine with olives and a cold glass of freshly squeezed orange juice had the edge on Merenid ruins. Our meal was delicious and the atmosphere very pleasant though not in the same league as our morning coffee break.
Making our way gently back to the main station through the flower market we discovered the Cathedral! So far our Moroccan blog has been fairly free from religious buildings. We are not allowed to enter mosques or any other Muslim religious buildings and as 99% of the country is Muslim, Christian buildings are thin on the ground. Outside the cathedral young Muslims sat on the steps using their mobiles and chatting with friends. Inside there was nobody at all! Constructed in the 1920s during the period of the French protectorate, it wasn't a particularly interesting building apart from its context. We didn't linger but wonder how large a congregation the Archbishop has for Sunday service and whether he found it a thankless task.
It was nearly 5pm by the time we were on the train back to Modestine. It gets dark by 6pm.
Back on the streets of Kenitra we'd recovered sufficiently to walk back to the campsite. It really is scruffy, set behind an international tourist bar. Tourists don't actually use it – it's much too seedy - but alcohol seems to be available and it is frequented by noisy locals normally unable to obtain anything stronger than a glass of milk or Fanta. Loud droning Moroccan music is played until 3am. Next to us there is a lone Moroccan camper from Agadir. Every time we go outside he talks to us for ages in a heavily accented French we find hard to follow. The rest of the time he sits outside in the darkness watching U-Tube clips on his computer and spitting loudly and regularly. I think we will move on tomorrow!