Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Morocco Trip: Tour of the Medina

This was one of my most interesting days yet! I learned so much and had such a great time! I learned what they do with olive pits, how many streets are in the Fez medina, how they tan leather, and a whole variety of other things.

Daniel came over for breakfast this morning. We’ve sort of adopted him. We ate fruit, bread, and yogurt. I wasn’t feeling very well, but I felt better as the day went on.

At 8:30, the three of us walked to McDonalds to meet Adair, who was going with us on a tour of the medina! I made everyone late by forgetting to dump pictures to my computer until the last minute, and then when I got my computer up, the scanner & camera wizard would not pop up, so I had to do it manually, which I don’t like, because it names the files all wrong.

Anyway! We caught two separate taxis and went to the medina where we made our way to a travel agency where we had a tour guide lined up. We had to wait for him to come, so Adair and I walked to a café where she got crepes with honey and I got water. I started counting how many donkeys/mules/horses I saw. Yesterday I did it, too, and I saw about 14, so I wanted to see if I would break my record.

Our tour guide came, and he led us into the maze of streets that is the Medina. The medina, or old town of Fez, is walled, and only accessible through certain gates. It is home to 500,000 people, it contains 9,000 small streets, and there are an estimated 7,000 donkeys inside.

The streets are either lined with shops or the walls of houses. Where there are shops, the street is a little wider, but when you have house walls on either side, you can stretch out your arms and touch both walls.

Mohammed was the name of our tour guide. Dressed in a light blue t-shirt that said “Gulf Shores,” he looked almost like a tourist himself, and apologized for not wearing his djallabah. He said he didn’t have any prior notice, so he had to come as he was when he got the call. He showed us tubs of camel’s meat in fat, sheep’s heads that people eat for breakfast, and chickens from the countryside that taste better than ones from the city.

After the first few turns, I gave up trying to maintain a sense of direction, and just embraced the feeling of “lost in the medina, but not lost, because the guide was born here.” We came to one place where there is a huge public wood-fire oven, where all the Moroccan families bring their bread to be baked. Like a big kiln, it held hundreds of loaves at a time, and a man stood at the small opening, constantly putting in new loaves, flipping them, and taking them out. It was a little dark door that I would never have seen if I was by myself, so it was nice to be shown these places by a guide.

At another place, he stopped and let us watch a man hand sewing a djallabah. It was beautiful material with beads and lovely trim. Moroccans are artisans, and the men do extremely fine work. It’s all men that do it, even the sewing.

We went into a spice shop, where the lady also sold essential oils and different interesting things. We visited a cloth “factory” where they had four huge floor-sized looms set up. A man was working at one of them, and he doesn’t use a pattern or any type of design. He just makes it up out of his own creativity, weaving cotton, wool, or silk into the cotton warp. He can make a 2 x 4 yard piece of cloth in 2 days. The fabric in there was beautiful. I thought about getting some, but waited until I got to see the rest of the tour and decided I would come back if I wanted to buy something.

Then we went to the leather tannery. That was interesting! I had always heard that tanning leather was stinky, and it was, but it was fascinating to watch. The work is done in a lot of big vats of all different colored dyes that we looked down on from a balcony. It’s really indescribable unless you’ve seen it. The guy there told us all about how it’s done, from the messy pelts they receive from the slaughterhouse to the beautiful leather items they make. It gets washed in plain water and then soaked in lime for several days. This makes it easy to remove all the hair, which is scraped off. Then the leather goes in a water/pigeon poop/and something else bath to make it soft and supple and thicker. From there it is dyed, which also takes several days, and somewhere along the road it is washed again in a washing machine with water to clean it and remove the smell.

We also saw the guys making shoes from the leather. It was so interesting to watch, because you could see them at all different stages of the process.

I bought a belt at the little store there. I also saw a really nice bag and a “poufy” (footstool/cushion), but I didn’t get them because they were too much money. The poufy was 350 dh and the bag was 600 dh. I can always go back if I want to, though. I love my belt! It reminds me of a saddle in its color, shape of the buckle, and just general characteristics. It was 150 dh…gulp…but I think I should have bartered with a counter offer instead of just taking his asking price.

We left the leather tannery and walked to a beautifully ornate building where they sell carpets. The place was huge, and the proprietor spoke perfect English. He led us up three flights of stairs, past one intricate carpet after another, and into a room where four women were seated at a frame, using colored merino wool to create a huge carpet. The woman closest to us was moving so fast, her hands were a blur.

Marie, Adair and I got the opportunity to sit down with them on the bench, and we got to participate in making a few knots. We would take a strand of wool and wrap it around two strands of the carpet warp in a way that made a latch hook knot. Then we had to break off the wool at the right length to create an even pile. It was difficult to do it in a smooth, consistent motion like they did. Their skill and speed was amazing, yet the guy said that this would be a lower-quality rug, since 4 people were working on it. Usually, he said, one lady will make a rug from start to finish at her home, and therefore the tension and pile will be perfectly consistent.

Then we went downstairs and were served mint tea while they rolled out lots of carpets for us to buy. The smallest ones (4 x 6 feet) were about $250, while the largest were thousands of dollars. I kept asking interested questions because I was curious about learning more, solely for information, but think I led the guy to believe I wanted to buy something. I had a hard time convincing him I was not. I just couldn’t justify putting hundreds of dollars on the floor.

From there we went to lunch. We ate at a very upscale restaurant where the entrees were 140-200 dh each. It was good though! I had pastilla, a sort of meat pie that had powdered sugar on top—very odd combination, but quite tasty. The meat in the pie was pigeon meat. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted pigeon before.

Then we went to the ceramics factory. My camera battery had died at the restaurant (sadly enough), so I didn’t get to take any pictures, but it was fascinating, nonetheless. [Pictures shown here are from a subsequent visit to a different ceramics factory.] A man showed us every step of the process, from the chunks of rock-like gray clay, to the tubs of water where they soften it, to the people who shape it into tiles, to the kilns, to the painters, back to the kilns, and then to their other uses. Some of the tiles are chipped into amazingly precise mosaic pieces that are then fitted together and made into tables, fountains, walls, and many other things. Stairs, floors, pillars—everything is mosaic here.

We also got to see a man at the pottery wheel. He was a master of his craft! Effortlessly, he shaped a tajine pot before our eyes. Then, just as easily, without measuring, he made a perfectly fitting lid. He made a candlestick and a beautiful fluted bowl with equal dexterity, then lumped them all on top of each other and squished them, causing me to gasp with surprise. But it was only a demonstration. The guy unobtrusively put out a little money dish at the end, so I gave him 10 dh, my only coin.

Then we saw someone putting mosaic tiles together. The mosaic is assembled upside down on a perfectly flat floor, and then it is ringed or bordered with an iron band to keep it all in. Concrete is spread on top to set it, it dries for a few days, and voilĂ ! A tabletop is made. The fact that the mosaics are assembled upside down is amazing, though, because some of them have intricate color patterns and multiple pieces of the same shape but different color. The person’s memory would have to be very good in order to trust that it was perfect. Once the concrete is poured, it’s stuck, mistakes and all. I never saw a mistake in any mosaic, ever.

The kiln is heated to 900° the first time and 1200° the second time. They use olive pits and cedar wood for fuel. They obtain the olive pits (and all the other dry waste products of the olives after they’re squeezed) from people who make olive oil. Resourceful, isn’t it?

Then we went into their shop, where I bought 2 beautiful bowls for 700 dh. Gulp. That was over $80.
So that sums up my tour of the medina. I saw 54 donkeys today!

Keep Reading: Train to Rabat
Read the Previous Post: I Escape Being Robbed
Start at the Beginning: The Journey Begins

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