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Vagobond in Sefrou, Morocco

2/9/09

The adventures began with getting some money and some coffee and then heading to the bus station where I thought I was supposed to meet Hanane, I had misunderstood, a consequence of not having a map or a guidebook. The place where I was supposed to meet her was in Fez-Safrou, about 35 kilometers away from the Medina where I had been staying. I called her, but since I was incapable of really understanding where it was that I was supposed to go, a friendly shopkeeper got on the phone and she explained. He got me a taxi to Safrou, I thought, but it turns out the taxi was only to the place where the taxi’s to Safrou congregated. At this point, I still had no idea of the distance I would be going. The taxi driver, that is the first taxi driver, not the second, didn’t have change for the 100 dirhams I offered so this entailed he and I going from person to person of the other drivers to find change. He was another honest man that used his meter and while he could easily have overcharged me, instead, he patiently helped me to find change.

At this point, I had to find a taxi to this place Safrou which I was just starting to realize was some distance away. A driver agreed to take me and I sat in the back seat, then two women crammed into the front seat of the beat up Mercedes cab, and another woman and two more men crammed into the back with me. It was right around a dollar and we rode thus for about 20 minutes until we finally reached the tiny town of Safrou. At this point I was supposed to call Hanane but since the payphones only take cards I had to find a phone center. There was one across the street which a kind man in bright yellow clog like shoes helped me to find.

I called Hanane and then figured it was about time I get a sim card for Morocco and since I was at a phone shop, I picked one up for 30 dirham. I called Hanane again and she told me she was on the way.

When she found me, I was very pleased to see that she matched her very sweet voice. She is a tiny little thing with a great smile and a wonderful command of English. Quite pretty in her colorful hijab. We got a cab to go back to her house since at this point it was raining quite a lot. She told me that there was another couch surfer that was supposed to be nearby, from Italy named Claudio. Now here, I have to confess, I was a little disappointed since I honestly didn’t want to share her attention with anyone else. We searched for him to no avail and then Hanane said we should go to her house and if she had to she would come back for him.

We took the taxi to her house after looking for him for quite a while. At her house I was introduced to here sisters Fatima and Zahara. Also she introduced her mother, Kadija, and her father. I also met her brother Mohammad and several nieces and nephews. These are absolutely lovely people. Their house is a sort of typical Moroccan house with many sheep in the yard, a squat toilet, retro-fitted electricity, and warm hearts of wonderful people.

Hanane then went to find Claudio and I was left with her sisters. These were not the demure and shy women I might have expected, instead, they were affectionate enough to make me slightly uncomfortable but not in a bad way. Simply put, there was quite a lot of affection and hand holding. Zahara is quite the diva and perhaps one of those beautiful women who demand your attention a little too much.

To be honest, I was quite thankful when Claudio arrived and she transferred her attentions to him. To be sure, the ego was a little bit bruised, but certainly I am not here looking for this sort of relationship. My preferences, if I were to be asked are much more along the likes of Hanane, who while very attractive is not so diva-like. In any event, I am here to learn about Morocco (al-maghreb in Arabic) and her people and this is one of the finest shows of hospitality it has ever been my pleasure to receive.

Just moments ago, this saint like woman Kadija, their mother, came and placed a pillow behind my neck since she thought I might be uncomfortable where I sit and type. When I sat down, she brought me a blanket for my lap and a sheepskin (not that kind dirty minded readers!) to keep my feet warm.

Shortly after Hanane and Claudio arrived, we were brought tea of a kind I don’t quite know. Then the wonderful Kadija brought out a huge tray of couscous and Claudio and I learned how to eat couscous with vegetables and chicken (djaj) Moroccan style. Everyone eats from the same big tray and one picks up the couscous and sort of bounces it in the hand until it forms a ball and then you plop it into your mouth. The vegetables are eaten with the main couscous and underneath, the djaj sits like a special treat which is broken into bits after it is exposed and shared around.

After eating, there was more tea and then the mess was cleared. As an American, it is hard for me to sit when people are cleaning, especially when I am the subject of such hospitality, but I understood it was proper for me to remain seated and so I did so. Hanane sat across, Fatima sat next to me and we shared a blanket and the Zahara shared a blanket with Claudio. I was quite surprised by the affection of these girls and especially since it is in front of their parents.

Hanane taught us a song in Arabic, Claudio at first refused to learn Arabic since he is studying French but for me it is very nice to learn new things and learning them I certainly am. After singing a bit, Hanane had to go to work and that left me and Fatima under one blanket trading Arabic and English and the other blanket trading French and Italian. After a bit, Fatima had to go to work as well, she is a beautician and that left me as a bit of a third wheel.

I don’t want to make any of this sound scandalous as I think it is all quite innocent. the youngest sister, Zahara is 21 and was married once already but divorced, she explained that she doesn’t like Moroccan men because they tend to put women down. She expressed disdain that Hanane always wears a hijab and said that to get a good job, a woman cannot wear a hijab these days. Hinane has her masters in English literature and Zahara is studying marketing.

It is one of those situations where I am ever so slightly uncomfortable, and yet, I feel that things are working out quite the way they are supposed to. It is nice for me to be able to observe this unfolding.

Before Hanane left, she told us that the plan was for us to go for a walk with Zahara and then we would meet with Fatima and then we would meet her for coffee. The weather here is quite unusual, I know that I never expected to be cold in Morocco but it is very cold. In fact, it snowed! So we cancelled our walk and I’m not sure what the plan is now. They tell us that the weqther has not been this way in at least 20 years.

I should point out that we ate massive amounts of couscous at about 1pm, at about 3 pm we went into the kitchen and Kadija was baking a huge piece of flatbread. I thought this was for dinner, but no, this was the middle, middle meal. Not dinner, just a huge snack of bread with olive oil, jam, and cheese. I am completely stuffed and slightly worried about what massive form dinner will take. I am totally charmed by these people. I tried to pay for the taxi but Hanane refused to let me.

I know that I have a suspicious mind and am always looking for the ulterior motives behind the actions of people around me, but I wonder what the cost of all of this could possibly be. I don’t think for a second that they will demand anything, they are humbly offering all of this. Hanane has said it is okay to stay for 1 day or 9 days, I will accept at least a few days and perhaps as much as a week. One nice thing is that Hanane is a teacher and she has offered to tutor me in Moroccan Arabic, this is a very nice thing. This will make all of my travel in Morocco or other Arab countries a much more rewarding experience.

I am glad to be away from the Medina in Fes even though it was beautiful and I am happy to be able to see it. It is a world heritage site and the largest auto free urban area in the world. At one point Fes was the largest city in the world. It is miraculous and wonderful, but the problem with areas like this that draw many tourists, is that they also draw the more base elements of humanity. While it is wonderful to see our common human heritage, it is depressing to see the predatory nature of those who come to fleece the tourists. I’ve seen it in Hawaii and I’ve seen it everywhere else tourists go. England, Spain, Tahiti, The Bahamas, Philippines, Thailand, China, and well, like I said, I think it is everywhere.

This is part of the reason I love couch surfing. It provides an opportunity to see the world and her people without the predatory capitalistic ethic that is so common in all sorts of travel. All of this is true and yet, yesterday I bought a blanket I wasn’t necessarily looking for and hired a guide that I wasn’t really looking for either…I was glad to find both.

After Hanane came back, we had a third meal. This was a lovely Moroccan soup made by Kadija. Then Fatima came back. If I had to choose one sister, certainly it is Hanane. There is a certain righteousness about her that I find to be more than simply good looks or affability can account for.

Hanane loves books and told me about her six year relationship that caused her heartache and pain. She took in a traveler who had been beaten and robbed and fed, clothed, and took care of him. She is a truly good woman. She is Muslim but not the kind of Muslim that is self righteous, instead, she said, we are not perfect Muslims or I wouldn’t have my hajib off in front of you’ and I like this acknowledgment of imperfection in self and in faith.

As we went to sleep last night in the living room, Claudio said to me “We are staying with a crazy family! They are crazy! I think he may be exactly right. If this is a typical Arab family, then the world needs to know that things have been terribly misunderstood. Their last name is Suidee. And sweeties they are. Crazy in a wonderful way.

Today, Zahara took us to the medina of Sifrou. Much smaller than the one in Fes, but still awash in color. At the medina she was as concerned for us as a mother hen and warned us to hide our wallets and money before entering. After entering a rather comical old beggar latched onto the idea of being my guide and despite our best efforts it took nearly ten minutes to shake him. I professed to speak no English but could barely restrain my laughter when he said he was an old hippie, that he was part of the Woodstock generation, and that he knew Bob Dylan. No doubt he was here in that era and quite possibly he even hung out with Bob Dylan, lord knows there were enough American hippies making their way to Morocco in those days. As nearly always though, when someone wants to be my friend too badly, I tend to shy away. I think this is always wise, because even though I think that most people in the world would like to be my friend, I feel more comfortable about this when they at least know who I am. So I pretended to know no English and played the Hawaii card. When he asked my language I said “Je- parler Hawaiiano’ in halting French and then broke into humuhumunukunukuapua’a no ka oi I ka pono and followed with my grandfather’s mystery phrase
kwelasamachimingmingalomatimbupakarugentihi, we’ve never discovered the meaning of this or the language and I crossed my fingers hoping it wasn’t berber since family legend says that it is quite a filthy phrase in whatever language. At this point, he said “If I talk to you in Berber you won’t understand either and I laughed as if I didn’t really understand him” Finaly he gave up and said “Come back if you want to experience something”, quite a nice phrase to part from an ungrateful tourist. Just the sort of thing I might say if frustrated in my efforts to procure a client when I was a stockbroker, akin to “Call me if you want to stop losing money and start making some.”

Claudio and I bought some chicken, cakes, bananas, and olives for the family larder. All told it came to about 100 dirhams. Incidentally, this is the price Zahara said I should have paid for my blanket, but I am okay with having paid too much in this case. I think it will be my only major purchase in Morocco unless I decide to pick up some shoes, and if I do that I will ask Hanana to assist me. Also I keep thinking that a jacket in olive drab with some fur on the collar might be a nice thing to have rather than my blue one.

I think it is too cold to go to the desert and I may have to come back to experience the Sahara another time.

Certainly I could live here on my $300 a month and have a garden and some goats and spend quite a lot of time doing art and writing. In addition I might be able to eventually arrange safaris and do some guiding for people. The problem of course is that I like to be able to blend in and here, despite the words of the berber man, I don’t think that would happen, as evidenced by the ‘old hippie’ from this morning.

From here I will go to Rabat and then Marrakesh. I must pay a visit to Casablanca if only to wear my hat to Rick’s Café and then I will return to Spain, go to Sevilla and on to Lisbon. Hopefully this bitch of a winter will ease up at some point, or else we will all be struggling to survive in the new ice age and Iraq will again become the center of the world as America moves there en masse.

Is it fate that has me improving my Arabic, learning about the Arab world, and sitting in a place that will be better to be in as the world comes to an end? Perhaps Sallie Mae will crash before my loans become due…that would be a nice thing.

On the second day here, it rained all day and I started to feel a little trapped with Fatima and Zahira as my guards, I anxiously waited for Hanane to finish with her work so that I could have some conversation. Claudio is a nice guy and a kindred spirit. Whenever we start to talk to one another, we are sort of intercepted. To be honest, I had many thoughts of escaping yesterday. Zahira took us to a café in the evening which was a nice break from being trapped inside the very cold house. We are told that it has never been this cold and rainy here before. I believe it because the house is not suitable for subsisting in the cold at all. We can see where the water runs down the walls and since there is a huge hole covered with plastic on the roof, it is obvious that rain has never been the issue that it is here before.

There is much more, but for now, this is enough. I am writing on my computer and then trqnsferring it to a zip drive and then to here…so more later…Here are just a few of many pictures here…

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Vago Damitio

Damitio  (@vagodamitio) is the Editor-in-Chief for Vagobond. Life is good. You can also find him on Google+ and at Facebook

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