Monday, October 26, 2009

If you sit long enough with an artist....

Caitlyn and I took advantage of the break between our Darija final exam and our first FusHa courses to travel to Tetouan, in the north just about an hour from Tangiers. Cait, who will be researching Spanish-Moroccan relations during the Spanish civil war, is thinking of living in this city which used to be the capitol of the Spanish protectorate. She went to check out the city to see if she could live there, and also to check out the archival resources and finally (but most importantly) so that we could visit our fellow Fulbrighter, Eric Saline, who teaches at the art school in Tetouan.

After a 6-hour bus ride, Eric and his beautiful wife Maria and 3-month-old son Alexander met us at the CTM station in Tetouan’s Ville Nouvel. Eric has a Fulbright teaching fellowship and classes just stared this week. Also, Maria and Al just arrived on Sunday, so it was extra gracious of them to host us for 3 days. Right away they fed us chicken stir fry and chocolate and wine and great conversation. Man, I haven’t eaten so well in a long time: pumpkin soup and fresh (sugar-free!) yogurt and avocado/tomato/gouda sammies. Cait and I made dinner for our hosts as a thank-you: Mexican stuffed tomatoes and dates stuffed with walnuts and blue cheese and the famous “Fessi Fruit Salad” and red wine from Meknes.

Eric is an artist specializing in paper creations and printing. (Check out his website at: – he is amazing. I highly recommend investing in one of his pieces before they become unaffordable  ) Their apartment is gorgeous, with balcony views of the Rif mountains and the old medina. It is minimalist in true Scandinavian style, but full of art and baby toys, with an air of creativity permeating each room. We spent the week walking around getting to know the city. Eric took us to some art galleries and schools and even to a lecture by Jan Elliot, an American cartoonist who was in town for a conference of female cartoonists. It was refreshing to live around Eric and Maria’s creative energies.

Eric said that his favorite students are those who look at one of his pieces and say, “I don’t get it.” They are the most unpretentious and open to instruction and able to find their own style. Maria is just like that. She says she appreciates beautiful things, but doesn’t try to “fit into” the art world by bothering with pieces that don’t interest her. Spoken like a true Biochemistry Ph.D. She is just so genuine and kind…and a true Swedish beauty. Let’s be friends.

As we sat and drank our post-lunch coffee in the square, it hit me how refreshed I felt…mostly due to our delightful hosts, the mountain air and thunderstorms, and some accidental laxative tea. Tetouan is known for its social conservatism, but is quite unthreatening. One thing that Cait and I noted right away was the striking absence of tourists and annoying comments from men and lack of pursuit by shopkeepers- something we have already grown used to. The medina is so chill and accessible- easy to get to know vendors. About 8 km from the Mediterranean coast, the mountainous landscape is profoundly beautiful, especially in the red-gold of the sunset. The architecture is Spanish, with big public squares and elaborate balconies that you wouldn’t see in Fes. Also, Tetouan is only about 35 minutes from Ceuta, which is actually a Spanish town on the African continent…so it is easy to travel across the border and from there traverse the Straight of Gibraltar into Europe. Handy. I would like to spend more time in this city, if only I spoke more Spanish, or had a reason to take the long trek.

After our early-morning goodbyes to The Family Saline, C & I took a 2 hour bus ride to Chefchauen, a city high in the Rif Mountains, known for all the blue painting. Indeed, from far away, the entire city looks periwinkle, because most of the houses must be colored a certain shade. We checked into Pension Castellano (decent shared bed with a great mountain view. Very blue, inside and out. 50dh each) We changed clothes, bought some veggies & tuna & fresh ricotta-esque cheese called jibly…then set out for Kalaa Mountain. We intended to hike to the top, stop for lunch, then hike back in the day.

We followed the 4WD trail until it split, then continued forward, walking almost halfway behind the Mt. We asked a boy if we were on the correct route, and he showed us the way back- for a small fee. We ended up backtracking to a small, almost indistinct trail, then headed up and around for nearly an hour and a half. We met only goatherds who asked if we wanted kif, and sturdy mountain women carrying entire olive trees on their backs (while the men carried these trees on donkeys, might I add). When we hit the trail in a pine forest, we decided to go off-trail, straight up to the top. Bad idea.

I don’t know why, but I hate being lost. I hate getting off trails. I guess I don’t trust the ground ahead of me if I can’t see it. Hmm… We cut through brush for a while, then sat a cliff overlooking the sheer drop and ate our lunch. I was definitely discouraged at the prospect of having to backtrack down to the forest, but we did. C tried to keep me chipper, but I was intent on finding our way back. With the help of a guardian angel goatherd, we found the trail, which eventually connected to the steep 4WD track. 4 hours later, we were back where we started. And of course, at the bottom of the mountain, we found a posted map.

Back in the Blue City, Cait and I headed straight for the hammam. I’ll describe them more eventually because they deserve their own treatise, but Hammams are public baths for either men or women where alternating steaming and freezing water is dumped on you, then your skin scrubbed until layers of dead skin are sloughed off and you are slicked down with brown tar-like soap. Upon leaving, your skin glows pink and you’ve never felt more refreshed. Promise. It was just what we needed after that dirty hike.

We chilled out, then found a delicious last-night-of-vacation dinner of tomato salad, chicken tajine, fresh melon, mint tea and flan for dessert and- what we do best- conversation.

Chefchauen is beautiful, but must too touristy for my taste. I’d like to go back to attempt some more hikes and to eat their incredible version of the Fessi Fruit Salad- which includes flan at the bottom!

4 hours via crazybus and I am so happy to be back in my dear little apartment. It was so silly, but Caitlyn and I were so delighted to see Hassan, the sweet little man who owns the corner store below our apartment. He asked us where we had been, because we hadn’t been in to buy yogurt for the past few days. We begin Modern Standard Arabic class tomorrow, which I have basically completely forgotten since taking it in college. I feel refreshed now, though. I just need a good nights’ sleep….

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Up to the Mountains, Down to the Desert

Fulbrights in Morocco are administered by the Moroccan-American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE). Wednesday through Thursday, the heads of the commission, Saadia M and James M (no relation) came to Fes to take us out for an excursion to Azrou, a quaint town in the mountains. The purpose of the trip was to get to know Saadia (who is, by the way, completely and utterly fabulous- I want to be as classy as her when I grow up) and Jim (who is the new head of Moroccan Fulbright, just started last month). The trip included a 3-hour hike in the cedar forests, where we did see a monkey (!), fabulous meals at the hotel, and stimulating conversation about life in Morocco.

One highlight for me was waking up at 6:30 am to do yoga on the terrace that overlooks the valley, with mountains all around. The sun came up rosy and golden while white cranes sang open the morning. I have not been in a place so serene in a long time. It is so true that mountains have a personality all their own, and that they influence those who choose to explore them.

We passed through a small town called Immouzer, which may just be a place I might consider settling someday, if only it weren’t landlocked. It is lost in the mountains somewhere between Fes and Azrou and I was amazed to see the leaves on the trees turning colors- like a legit Autumn! Along the main road, stucco houses with terra cotta roofs are interspersed with public gardens (!) and cafes. I didn’t see a single foreigner, but I haven’t done a very careful investigation.

We were back in Fes for one day before I left again for an excursion out into the Sahara. A group of us from my language school chartered a bus for the 8-hour southward trek. The first night, we stayed in a swanky Hotel Xaluca outside of Errachida. This place was amazing: a buffet spread of tajines and fruits and salads and desserts, a swimming pool and indoor Jacuzzi and tourists abounding. The hotel was a walled compound in the middle of the desert and was quite a trip in itself.

3 friends and I took a long walk into the village outside of the hotel compound. As we were walking, children were gathering to stare and the women of the village came out to greet us. In true Moroccan style, we were invited to a home for tea and cookies and dates. We used our broken Darija to communicate that we couldn’t stay long, but the nicest salon in the house was unlocked and fresh, warm bread was brought. We exchanged simple questions and took some photos and played with the kids. When we got up to leave, one woman asked us to come back to use the car wash that seemed to be the village’s only attraction (ie, source of income). They will be filed with my list of “hospitality I must pay forward someday”.

On our walk back to the hotel, our conversation turned to the topic of exploration such as this. As foreigners, do we have the right to enter into the lives of Moroccans, explore and ask questions, and leave again without paying back anything? The thought that I may be treating them a little like zoo animals always leaves a bad taste in my mouth . But on the other hand, who am I to think that they are looking for some compensation for their hospitality, as if I am some superior being who can help the humble? And moreover, how does any exploration and intercultural education get accomplished if we never enter diverse communities, even if we have nothing to offer? It is a tough question because, as my friend Kristen said, I just don’t want to play tourist with someone’s life.

That day- in the spirit of tourism- we continued on for 2 hours deep into the Sahara in order to ride a caravan of camels to a Berber encampment, where we stayed in tents for the night. The camel ride was similar to riding horses, only more unpredictable. I got a muscle workout just trying to keep myself from being flung off a camel as it clomped through sand dunes. We started our camel trek as the sun was setting, so we were able to watch the sunset over the desert. There is nothing like this experience.

Paul Bowles wrote an amazing essay called Baptism of Solitude about the wonder of the Sahara desert. He describes:
“Immediately when you arrive in the Sahara, for the first or tenth time, you notice the stillness. An incredible, absolute silence prevails outside the towns; and within, even in busy places like the markets, there is a hushed quality in the air... Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem faint-hearted efforts… At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting it into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really grows dark.
When you leave the fort or town behind…you will let something very peculiar happen to you, which the French call le bapteme de la solitude. It is a unique sensation, and it has nothing to do with loneliness, for loneliness presupposes memory. Here, in this wholly mineral landscape lighted by stars like flares, even memory disappears; nothing is left but your own breathing and the sound of your heart beating. A strange, and by no means pleasant, process of reintegration begins inside of you…For no one who has stayed in the Sahara for a while is quite the same as when he came.”

I spent little time in the desert, but I know that it is captivating. As the oceans of sand turned from brown to white to gold to flaming red, I was overwhelmed by the immensity of creation and the littleness of me. The route was pretty much silent, because there seems to be little conversation that is appropriate for the splendor of the desert. And besides, what phrases are spoken seem to get whisked away by the wind or buried in the ever-shifting sand.

Our guides knew the exact route to take, even in the pitch dark. (Were they led by stars? Intuition? Habit?) All of a sudden, we arrived at the Berber camp hiding behind a massive sand dune. Our guides served us simple but satisfying Moroccan foods, but it was probably better that we couldn’t really see what we were eating in the feeble candlelight. I think I heard one man say they had cooked the slowest camel.

After dinner, drums materialized from thin air and, of course, I couldn’t resist a dance. I was even able to bust out some Senegalese mbalax and bellydancing I had just learned. Rod, Caitlyn, Sam and I broke free from the group and climbed up the huge dune in the starlight. It took us about 45 minutes to the peak, and climbing in sand is exhausting….but it was so worth it. I felt like, if I had just reached my arm up, I could have swirled the Milky Way with my fingers. We lay up there and listened to the Profound Silence of the Desert punctuated by the dance party below. We were joined by some more friends, who brought with them some good conversation and laughter. I have to say, the hilarity of Moroccan jokes are not found in the punchline, but in stilted translations.

We descended the dune in a fraction of the time it took to climb, by sliding on our butts and rolling and, Andrew’s preferred method, flinging and bouncing down. We grabbed each other’s ankles and pulled as fast as we could. I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time. But I’m not gonna lie: I still have sand in aaaaallllll my nooks and crannies.

The temperature drops hugely at night in the desert, so it was difficult to sleep, but we were awoken by clapping just before sunrise. We scrambled to an eastward dune and again I met God in the glory of a sunrise. After the obligatory mint tea, we returned to the “base camp” hotel 2 hours via camel to shower and pack up. We were in for a 9-hour bus ride back to Fes. It is times like these that I’m so glad to have friends who don’t take themselves too seriously. Good laughs.

So that is the epic story of my brief sojourn into the Sahara. I hope to go back and spend some more time inside those dunes…but for now, I have to give my backside a rest and go pick sand out of my belly button.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Home Sweet Home!

My roomate Caitlyn put up some photos of our new apartment, which we are affectionately calling "The Red Tent". You can check 'em out here:

Inshahallah. Hope that link works.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

New Address!

I moved into a brand new apartment this weekend, with another FBer, Caitlyn. I absolutely love it, and ye shall have photos soon. 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a big kitchen, 2 living rooms, fully furnished part...2 balconies (one is off of my bedroom)!

Because mail is not really private property here, all please send all mail to the following address now:

Catherine Skroch
The Arabic Language Institute in Fez
2 rue Ahmed el Hiba
Fez, V.N. 30000, Morocco

And...PLEASE SEND MAIL! I can only get letters and flat packages there, but if you send anything else it will come to the closest post office. So do send me stuff, but nothing too valuable.

until next...