Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cockroaches of Fes

In many ways Fes of Morocco is like Oaxaca of Mexico. They have a similar non-mainstream atmosphere - just as Oaxaca isn’t as bustling and sizzling as Mexico City, Fes also isn’t quite as exciting and colorful as Marrakech. They both also have cockroaches the size of tennis balls. OK, not tennis balls, but they are pretty puffy. The only difference is that when Oaxaca ones are arrogant bastards who climb on people when they feel like it, then Fes’s ones are somewhat little fluffy chickens. Of course me and Ylle didn’t know that, so when we first visited Fes, we were confronted already on the first evening with a specially juicy specimen, who was standing in front of our bedroom door, wiggling it’s antennae and looking positively disgusting. Quoting here Gandalf the Grey: “You shall not pass!” seems appropriate :). I’m not afraid of mice and rats, but I can scream the most girlish way when confronted by cockroach of any size. And mostly because they are just so r-e-v-o-l-t-i-n-g. So of course me and Ylle were being proper girls and squeaked for help. Nabil (the riad's manager) came, lifted it up with his two fingers and carried it outside. We were blood-thirsty and demanded for him to kill it ("Squash it! Squash it!"), but Nabil looked at us and said with uncharacteristic wisdom: "Why kill it? It also wants to live". As soon as he put it down on the street, the thing turned around and ran back into the house. In any case, we slept the next 4 days with the lights on and kept tramping our feet each time we entered the bathroom. Tramping of the feet scares off Estonian cockroaches, but it turned out to be a wasted effort on Moroccan ones - they are genetically cowards already. They were supposed to live mostly down in the sewers and you don't see them in the house that much. They do seem to like bathrooms though. I remember one particularly disgusting incident when i was under the shower and reached out for a shampoo and right before my fingers touched the bottle i realized that on the account of lacking my -6 dioptre glasses this weird black splotch on the bottle could only be .. a cockroach! RUN!

(c) Kaidi Peiker

One morning I came downstairs and the whole floor was full of cockroaches sunbathing on their backs, with their little legs stretched up in the air. Turned out they were dead of course, Nabil had exterminated them because some two flaky Estonian chicks were having a nervous breakdown upstairs and were cranking up the electric bill. I put a coin next to one of the bugs to make a comparative photo and almost dropped the camera, when the thing suddenly jerked, twitching it’s leg in the last dying breath. Creeeepy.

Exterminating cockroaches is told to be quite useless in Fes - even if you get rid of yours, half your neighbour’s colony will move in pretty soon. My first encounter with Moroccan brand of cockroaches was in June and i thought they were absolutely humongous. The next time i saw them was in October – believe me, they had grown considerably. I don't even want to know how will they look in December.

Someone once told me that there are no cockroaches in Marrakech. I don't really know if it's true, but if that's really the case, then that Dream-riad of mine that i'm going to buy one day in Morocco is going to be in Marrakech after all.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The story of Muahsin

So, after i had breakfast in the riad, Muahsin arrived. Muahsin is a riad’s .. bellboy, sort of. He helps around the house, runs all kinds of errands, goes food shopping if needed and so on. He also sometimes acts as a guide for people staying in the riad. Since his English is quite modest he can only show you where to go, for additional information about sights and places, one should really hire an official guide. Official guides in Fes are strictly licensed, they wear special nametags and are very knowledgable about history and local culture, or so i’m told. It’s forbidden for a usual person to supplement his income by being a guide for tourists. I’ve heard that punishments can be very harsh. But people still do it, it can be easy money if you find the right tourist. I guess forbidding locals to freelance as guides is for protection - both for the quality of the service and for the tourists themselves. If you’re interested in history and architecture for example, i doubt a random guy off the street can tell you much about it. He is also much more likely to drag you to his cousin’s leather shop, or even to potentially dangerous situations/places. Then again, i’m sure official guides have their little tricks as well - favorite shops or restaurants they might happily recommend etc. In any case, first time when me and Ylle were visiting Fes, we asked Muahsin to show us some nice places in the medina. Like tanneries, local markets and such. So we would all go walking in the medina, Muahsin would walk about 30m ahead of us and we would follow him. The deal was that if anybody was going to ask questions, we'd be like "We don't know him, we're just walking around on our own". Sometimes we lost sight of him and took the wrong turn and end up in a very wrong place somewhere, but he'd always find us very quickly and lead us back to the path of righteousness :).

When we went to visit the tanneries, he first gave us both a bundle of fresh peppermints.  (<< Ylle sniffing her little peppermint bush). Tannery is a place where they process raw animal skins and because of the raw materials and chemicals used the stench can be absolutely foul, so the fresh peppermint was a nice touch. I ended up chewing the leaves and breathing through my mouth, rather then trying to hide the stench by sniffing the peppermint plants close up. Tanneries are actually very health damaging places to work in, some workers spend their days waist-deep in the dye-pits full of harsh chemicals which usually cause permanent health issues. The pay is rather low and most of the workers are from quite poor background. At the same time, Fes is quite known for it’s quality soft leather and streets around tanneries are full of small shops all selling leather goods/clothes. I’m told that leather clothes in Fes are very reasonably priced (after bargaining of course), but I’ve no idea whatsoever what is reasonable price in this case. I’ve never bought a single piece of leather clothing from Morocco. Actually, now that I think about it – I’ve never bought a single piece of leather clothing in my whole life, how sad is that? I did buy a hippie-looking leather bag for about 200DH in Marrakech and although it’s a nice bag, leather is soft and seems durable, it’s trouble is that it tends to stain my clothes when I wear it too long. Makes me think that i probably wouldn't dare to buy a leather jacket for a conciderably more money and then stress about it possibly leaving residue. 

Tannery photo-stream:

Ylle with a donkey laden with raw cowhides, Muahsin on the background

Raw hides drying in the sun before being colored

Raw hides drying on the rack. Dye-pits

During our visit the dye-pits were very monochromatic, usually they are filled with all kinds of different chemical dyes and are quite colorful to photograph

Tannery worker

Colored hides drying in the sun

Tannery worker

A guy laying out colored skins to dry

Pieces of leather already cut into shape for future products

Me and Ylle told Muahsin from the beginning that we are not interested in shopping, that he shouldn't take us to any kinds of shops. So he didn’t, instead he took us to a local "bar" (can you even call something a "bar" if alcohol is not served?) somewhere deep in the medina and bought us tea. The bar itself wasn’t much to look at, a very local place with tired looking pool tables and dirty furniture. But it’s not like we were brought there to show us the establishment, the whole visit served a purpose of showing us off to his friends. It was kind of amusing to observe, he definitely seemed to score point for having two blond girls with him:

Muahsin with a friend

Ylle sitting and keeping a watchful eye out

So, when visiting Fes this time, it was very nice to meet Muahsin again. He is very eager and seems to be a genuinely kind person. There’s a certain flare of innocence and naiveté about him,

specially when he shows you his precious photo album of friends and family or takes you to visit his home. He displays also a complete lack of interest in flirting which is just you cannot imagine how refreshing. I don’t even know if he thinks the riad guests are out of his league, or it’s strictly forbidden for him, or his too shy, or maybe he just finds us all Europeans dirt ugly, but whatever it is, it makes it very easy to spend time with him.  I think he’s about 25-30 years old, but because he’s rather small and modest, it’s easy to think he’s younger. He is single, but i don't even know if it's perfectly normal in Morocco for a man in his age or is he rather an odd one out. He speaks English enough to converse, but far from very fluent conversation. I usually keep forgetting that i should speak slower and use simpler words. I remember once i had to ask Muahsin to organize a taxi for us. The conversation went something like that: „Muahsin, my man, do you think you could do us a tiny favour and get us a some wheels, around three would be super. How do you think, can you wing it?“ Muahsin /thinking/: „WTF?“. Of course he didn’t understand. But Ylle had it down cold: „Muahsin! Taxi, today, three o’clock. Thank you!“ /big smile/. 

This time however Muahsin was not well. As much as i could gather from his modest medical English, he had been in a motorcycle accident, broken his legs and spent a month in the hospital afterwards. All that happened already few months ago, he was now walking around with crutches. But nontheless, he wanted to go walking in medina so we headed out, very slowly and carefully. We visited that good old local bar again to score some points for him, dropped off some photo prints of his friends that i had taken on my previous visit, went to the food market etc. I should’ve known better, because although slowly and carefully, we covered a lot of ground that day and his legs started really hurting in the night. Me and the riad's last minute guest Richard were sitting in the riad kitchen, blabbering until the wee hours of the morning, when Muahsin came in and said that he couldn’t sleep. You could see from his face already that the guy was in major pain and he didn’t have anything to relieve it with. I gave him all my ibuprofen pills that i had left in my little medicine bag and warned him to use them cautiously. He is such a frail man, specially after being in a hospital for a long time, last thing i wanted was him to overdose on my pills. Later in the morning he said that the pills really helped and his legs didn't hurt anymore. He also said that he doesn’t have any painkillers at home which made me wonder later if he doesn’t know that ibuprofen-type pills are available as over-the-counter drugs in pharmacies or he just couldn’t afford them.


Muahsin, Karim and me in the riad's lounge

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The riad revisited

One of my Estonian friends has a beautiful riad in Fes, i always stay there when i visit the city. No different this time. When i arrived in the train station and took a taxi to the old city, it dawned on me that nobody really knows that was coming so it would be somewhat inconvenient if the house was empty and no one’s there to open the door. So i was pretty relieved when my fearful knock on the door was quickly answered. My friend herself lives in Estonia and the riad is managed by a local guy. At the time of my visit that guy was in London, but he had left two lovely non-English speaking chaps in charge. Two rather young chaps. And what do teenagers do when adults are away? They party of course!

The local youth was coming and going all day long and by evening the place was packed with them. They were mostly about 15-18 years old with few older men to boot. The older ones must’ve been making beer-runs to Marjane (local supermarket that sells alcohol) and thus earned their right to join the party. I spent the bigger part of my first day outside the house anyway, so it didn’t really bother me that there was a lot of foot traffic. My 3rd floor room windows opened to the riad’s inner courtyard so later in the evening i spent some time sitting by the window and observing the interesting social life of local teens, all on display down on the ground floor. Since Moroccan houses are not built with too much sound isolation in mind, i could hear the loud beat even with my iPod on. My only interaction with the youth was in every few hours when i went downstairs to prepare myself a pot of tea. But when some chick, who’d obviously had one beer too many, was getting in my face down in the kitchen for God only knows what reason, i started getting annoyed. Since i was the only guest in the riad and gone most of the day, they probably felt quite comfortable roaming around the house and doing what they wanted. But now that it was getting late aready, i felt that i was still a paying customer and at some point i would actually want to go to sleep, so it was time to call it a night. I don't really like Lebanese pop music quite that much to put up with it all night long while bunch of teenagers downstairs are drinking beer by carts. So a bit before midnight i told them to pack it up and move along, the party was over. It was hard to get my message across, since the only common language we had was an invented-on-the-spot sign language, but when the two young non-English speaking chaps realized what i was asking them to do, they eventually took some action and within half an hour cleared the house. Hehe, i felt like such a party pooper for breaking up the disco and i was definitely not the most popular person in the building at that moment. I could hear some unhappy girls protesting up to my very 3rd floor.

The next day the older non-English speaking chap had dissapeared and i only saw the younger one until the end on my stay. His name was Karim (on the photo >>) and he seemed to feel quite guilty for the party the night before, because he was super attentive and tried to be helpful in any way possible. He looked terribly young, at most 17-18, later it turned out that he is actually 20 years old and already married. How crazy is that? I know that Islam encourages marriages, on certain cases even demands it, but definitely not from 20 years old guy who judging by the beer party the nightbefore is not even particularly observant Muslim. His wife as i understood was Moroccan who went to live in France. Very complicated.

It felt nice sleeping in a private house again with a big cozy bedroom and a personal bathroom. As much as i enjoyed Marrakech, living in a box had it’s downsides. And living in a box with weird neighbours had even bigger downsides. I remember, one evening, back in Marrakech in my budget hotel room, i was getting ready to go to sleep when somebody knocked on my door. I open it and a fat middle-age Arabic man with a cigarette dangling from his half-missing teeth says to me: „You come to my room now, yes?“. I was too stunned to slam the door in his face, instead i was polite and said "no thanks". Jesus, it makes me laugh just thinking about it. Most Arabic men really do think that Western women are sluts, obviously.

I just love riad breakfasts, they vary a bit depending on the house and the cook of course, but generally a typical riad breakfast is one massive carbohydrates attack wrapped in the cozy protective layer of fatty acids. That said, it’s still very delicious. Freshly made croissants, bread, doughnuts and pancakes with butter, extra virgin olive oil, honey, strawberry jam, cream cheese and fresh olives. All that with hot peppermint tea, sweet coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. Couldn’t imagine eating like that every day and still fitting into my clothes a week later, but for a few days during the trip, how can you say no?

Most Moroccan houses have a rooftop terrace. It may not look anything special, but it’s a good place to get some sun and if you’re a tourist – maybe enjoy a cold beer. The first time me and Ylle visited the riad, we could actually sunbath on the roof. Other houses were too low to see what was going on our roof. And now, a mere year later, the nearby riad developments have progressed so far that there are hardly any places on the roof left without someone having a good view to it. A lot of those riads that are popping up here and there are future hotels, often quite high end. But i imagine owning a spacious private residence somewhere in medina would be a pretty nice way to live as well. Just the other day i was walking by a nearby house, the doors were open, builders were walking in and out of them. I took a quick peek in - it was the most gorgeous house i've ever seen and it wasn't even finished yet. Scaffolds were everywhere, building materials scattered around the place and so on. But even in it's raw and undecorated form, it was just superb. Of course from outside it all looked like a random rather unkept house, tightly squeezed between the other houses in medina. By just looking at the facade, you can't really guess how big is the house or what kind of people are living in there. Morocco is all about inner wealth. Moroccans, specially the older generation, believe in the concept of Evil Eye - that somebody who is jealous or envious can cast a bad spell on them or bring bad luck just with a negative look. But what you can't see, you also can't envy. Logical.

Photos of my friend's riad:


My bedroom. Aside from the wide-angle shot, it really was big!


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