Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rampage in Medina

One of the remarkable things about the old city, Medina, in Fez is that the buildings are so dense that you cannot see some of the impressive architecture of the city from inside the city. Ahmed showed me an Islamic school, claiming that it was the oldest still-active university in the world. From inside the city, I saw only a dirty wall and a large, time-worn door. It was dramatically unimpressive. He also showed me a famous mosque where I saw nothing but a courtyard with some nice mosaics and a pleasant fountain. I observed through a door from the street because the non-faithful were not welcome inside. Later, Ahmed took me to a high vantage point, perhaps two or three miles a way, and from there the university was an impressive tower and the mosque a beautiful domed building.

The tannery proved to be the most interesting part of the Medina. Both my "guide" and my guide had warned me about the smell, but I wasn't worried. The only smells that have ever bothered me are ones produced by human bodies. Human body odor and sewage offend me as much as they do anyone, but cattle, pigs, rotten milk and eggs: none of those things effect me. I have shoveled half-liquid excrement from a pig pen and didn't mind the smell and I expected that the odors of tanning would be no worse. As it happens the smells were very mild on the day I visited, due in part to the cold weather, and no one was complaining about it.

The tannery was a village within a city, a group of shops surrounding a large courtyard lined wall-to-wall with large tubs. I was able to observe the area from a high balcony in a shop of leather goods overlooking the workplace. The ground of the courtyard was not earth but the ever-present ancient concrete paving; it slopped dramatically from one end of the courtyard to the other and the concrete ditches between the rows of buckets proved that this slope was a matter of design, intended to aid in drainage.

In the caustic tanning tubs, men wore protective waders, but in the dye tubs, they worked bare-legged in the cold water, protected by nothing more than a layer of grease. Some of the manual labor of this tannery was back-breaking. Men stood in a few of the enormous tubs, emptying the water bucket-by-bucket into the ditches. I was told that they would be refilled in the same way. There was no automation. Men stood in the vats to stir the leather as it was being dyed.

On the flat roofs surrounding the courtyard lay spread-out piles of dead wool, drying in the faint winter sun. Dead wool is that scrapped from sheep hides as part of the tanning process; it is inferior wool, weak and brittle, suitable only for such uses as padding in mattresses. To be suitable for thread and cloth and rugs, the wool must be live, sheared from living sheep.

From the balcony overlooking the tannery I was able to see much of the rest of the walled city, an endless sea of satellite dishes stretching off as far as the eye could see. The flat roofs also held clothes lines and an occasional of spread drying wool or some other stuff.

There was only one break in the vista of flat roofs: a broad road near the tannery that went through the middle of the Medina. Even on that broader road, I saw no vehicle, only pedestrians, men riding donkeys, and some boys playing with a soccer ball ball on the dirty pavement.

I had been in the market for a leather jacket, so I ended up buying one from a man who could be the twin brother of Gregory Hines. I got a hand-made, personally tailored goat-skin leather jacket for about the same price I would have paid in the US for a factory-made off-the-shelf cow-skin jacket. They made it for me in just a few hours but got it wrong the first two times and I had to send it back for adjustments. I was impressed with the price but not the workmanship.

After the tannery, we proceeded to a building that I was told dealt in rugs. As I was trying to formulate a polite way to explain to Ahmed that I had no interest whatsoever, however neurasthenic or and minuscule, in even seeing any rugs, much less buying them, I found myself inside the shop in the hands of the Salesman. I looked about and Ahmed was nowhere to be found. And here began a remarkable experience.

I tried to explain to the Salesman that I had no interest in rugs. He was not put off at all. The man was quite pleasant and explained that it was of no consequence that I did not buy anything. He would be pleased just to show me his wares and hope that if I bought nothing myself, I would tell others about his rug shop. He explained to me that I was in the shop of a sort of union, a union of women who made and sold rugs in order to better their lives and the lives of their children. By some miracle of psychology, he managed to get me to sit down. He poured me some green tea, much sweetened, into a glass of mint leaves, producing one of the best drinks I have ever tasted. I had this mint tea several times subsequently, and it is always poured from a height of twelve inches or so into the glass, probably to add a bit of fizz.

The Salesman started talking about rugs as two more men laid out displays. He talked about dowry rugs, about winter rugs about two-sided rugs, He talked about Arabic rugs and Berber rugs, about rugs of the desert people and rugs of the coastal people. And as he talked, his co-conspirators kept laying out rugs. Dozens of rugs. Big rugs, small rugs, thick rugs and thin rugs, bright rugs, pastel rugs, colorful rugs, plain rugs. Lots and lots of rugs.

Out of courtesy, I tried manfully to see the art and beauty of the rugs. They were, after all, the works of an old and noble craft. People all over the world, I knew, delighted in just such rugs. My own parents acquired a couple of such rugs in Morocco and were thrilled with them. Yet try as I might, all I could see was a bunch of boring floor coverings whose only value is to keep bare feet warm in winter and off the sticky floor in summer. There was only one that caught my eye, a rather gaudy little number in a deep, royal blue. It sits in my living room today.

Yes, the Salesman actually sold me a rug. I have no idea how he did it. Never had the idea of buying a rug ever entered my head before. I had no idea what it was worth or what I was going to do with it, but somehow he managed to convince me that I would be happier buying this rug than not buying it.

I think back on the experience with awe for the Salesman's skill. He was by no means aggressive; I could have resisted aggressive. He was almost retiring, and he had me quite nearly believing that it really made no difference to him whether I bought a rug or not. I think what won me over, at least to the point that I was willing to buy, was the Salesman's very courteous and non-aggressive attitude. He gave me nothing to dislike about him, nothing to focus my buying resistance on. He just came across as one genuinely nice and pleasant guy --the kind of guy you want to do business with. He was either such a guy or a great acting genius.

Ahmed reappeared immediately after I had bought the rug, a startling coincidence. We had lunch in a small restaurant buried in the heart of the walled city. The salad consisted of about a dozen different plates: pickled green olives, black salad olives, beans of several varieties, pickled carrots, a fried potato dish similar to hash browns and various other items, served with a thick, coarse bread. The main course was a sort of lamb or sheep sausage served without vegetables. The drink was mint tea.

We had to wait on lunch for my American "guide" who showed up late. After lunch, the three of us went back to the tannery, ostensibly to pick up my jacket which was not scheduled to be done for another hour or more. It turns out that we were really going back so that my "guide" could buy a leather jacket for herself. I waited around for an hour while she tried on various jackets and harangued the merchants. At one point she started asking me what I thought of the jackets and I tried to flatter her and steer her towards the one she liked most in order to hurry up the process. It didn't work. Just about the time my jacket showed up for the first fitting, she was ready to order hers.

After this, Ahmed and my "guide" dropped me off at my hotel with three hours to kill on my own before dinner that night. I later came to realize that my "guide" had appropriated the services of the professional guide, hired with my money, for her own purposes for those three hours.

That night Ahmed and my "guide" took me to a tourist restaurant with some unconvincing cultural entertainment: ethnic music and belly dancing. Only one of the four belly dancers actually bared her belly, so I can't verify that the other three were actually doing anything with their stomach muscles. And I was too far away to really verify anything about the stomach muscles of the fourth. The music was dominated by that characteristic Arabic/Middle Eastern instrumental screeching. After careful listening, I became convinced that the music has no melody, consisting of nothing but repetitious chord structures, and that this is why it is so tedious. To be fair to the characteristic Arabic/Middle Eastern instrumental screeching, the ethnic drum band was too annoying to be tedious. When Ahmed told me that we were about to begin the final feature of the evening, a fake wedding, I asked to leave. The food wasn't very good either.

Well, sorry to end this one on a negative note again. I truly enjoyed most of the day, but the negative bits make for better story so I suppose they get emphasized a bit too much. Tomorrow I'll have to decide whether to talk about the spa visit or show some decorum and skip right to the attempted mugging.

Rampage in Fez

My "guide" passed me off to a licensed Moroccan guide for the day in Fez. His name was Ahmed along with every other Moroccan male I met. Ahmed was courteous, intelligent, professional, skilled, and generally unlike my original "guide". He spoke excellent English. He was even honest, if by that you mean that he was open about the fact that he got kickbacks from some of the merchants he directed me to.

Ahmed took me to the Medina, an enormous and ancient walled city that still has people living in it. As I mentioned before, I wasn't all that thrilled in the beginning about visiting Spain and Morocco, but I was thrilled to see this ancient city for two reasons: first, because it was an entirely new experience. I had read descriptions of places like this, but until you see such a thing for yourself you can never really grasp what it is like. Second, I write fiction about places like that city, and the experience of actually being there will allow me to describe the place more vividly.

The streets were so narrow that one must often stand aside to let pass a heavily laden mule. We walked through deep dim canyons beneath massive yellowed walls that seemed to radiate the cold of the winter day. The streets were too narrow for any car. Even scooters could not traverse these streets because of the many stairs and steps, probably following the contours of an earth buried now for a millennium beneath the concrete. In many places the streets became caverns, roofed over by ancient builders seeking more space in the wealthy and growing city. The walls were continuous, high and massive, eighteen-inch-thick brick and mortar with an occasional block of embedded ceder for pliancy. There was no space between individual buildings; any break in the walls was another street. Old and unsafe-looking electrical cables snaked along the walls, often just above the small doorways --old for electrical work, but astonishingly young compared to the walls that they adorned.

Still, ancient as the city was, it swarmed with activity. Behind the heavy walls were shops and homes, workshops and temples, and little tea houses catering to somber rough-looking men. It was a working, breathing city, not a mere tourist setting. In consequence, the streets were overrun with men, mules and donkeys bearing burdens to such an extent that I was astonished at the energy that was spent in merely moving things from one place to another. Mules with baskets on each side on top carried food and supplies and raw materials into the maze of cobbled streets and carried out again the products of the craftsmen, many of whom worked with their hands very much as their forefathers had done a thousand years earlier. The narrower alleys could not even pass mules, and for them we had donkeys, intricately packed to make the most of their small size. Some burdens were too awkward for animals. Several times I passed a line of men carrying long boards and beams, raw material for some construction project, probably some sort of maintenance for the ancient buildings.

Shortly after we entered the walled city, a woman intercepted Ahmed and walked along with him for a few paces speaking with animated hands as I trailed them, wondering what she was saying. Ahmed told me that she had met a man before who wanted to buy her house and that the man looked like me, so she wanted to show me her house. I was still struggling to take in this new environment and maybe for that reason I found the experience so surreal as we were ushered into the woman's house, my mind confused, as I tried to sort out the odd story. Was this just what Ahmed said it was? But even accounting for differences in culture, it was just too odd to countenance.

I ducked through a low doorway and started up a flight of narrow winding stairs. My shoulders brushed both walls as I climbed. Perhaps Ahmed had meant that he was thinking of buying the house and that I was just along as he inspected it. Or was this a common tourist incident, a face-saving excuse for the woman to show me her house in exchange for money? Should I offer her a tip or would that be taken as an insult? I just didn't know enough about the culture to decide what to do.

The stairway terminated in a surprisingly large square room. Inside, the room was chilly but it had the atmosphere of a home. I can't describe the furnishings well because I was distracted by my speculations and by the young woman inside. I recall some sort of wooden loom. I seem to recall that there were two of them, or two different devices. Although I cannot say what it was that gave me this impression, I was quite certain that the looms were used to weave carpets. I think that they contained half-made carpets.

The girl was quite attractive and she seemed to be surprised by our entrance. We had caught her reclining in a large, deep alcove that seemed to serve as a bedroom. Perhaps she had been lying down and started to rise when her mother entered ahead of me. At the other side of the room was another alcove and on another wall was what looked like a third alcove that had been walled off for privacy, leaving only a small tunnel-like doorway. The woman, by motions, invited me to look inside this hidden alcove but I pretended not to understand, reluctant as I was to invade their privacy further.

The girl came out into the main room and then the woman and my guide led me up another flight of stairs. As I entered the stairway, I turned to look back at the girl and she met my eyes boldly for the first time. It was a striking experience. I conjecture that women of the Muslim world, through centuries of having to hide their face and body, have evolved the ability to attract men with just their eyes. Part of it may be cultural, but I think that selection would have played a part as well. Women who could attract men with their eyes would have an advantage over women with merely pretty faces or nice bodies. They would tend to end up with the most desirable men, usually the men best able to produce and raise healthy and safe children. Therefore the women with the most remarkable eyes would have had, on average, the most children that lived to reproduce, passing this feature on to their daughters and granddaughters. Perhaps this is why I found the eyes of the women of Morocco so striking.

As I climbed the stairs, another thought occurred to me: had the woman simply wanted me to meet her daughter? For what reason? Two rather different reasons occurred to me, but again, I was too unfamiliar with the culture to make a guess. The guide offered no help whatsoever, as he showed me the city from the flat roof of the woman's home. My mind was still spinning and so, again, I remember little of the view. I do remember noting that the center of the roof was only basketwork, loosely woven so that it could be seen through. I realized that the large "room" of the house had in fact been a courtyard, built to be open to the sky. It was now covered over --whether permanently or only for the season, I never learned.

By the time we got back downstairs I had pretty much decided that it was Ahmed who was in the market for the house, that I had merely misunderstood. The girl proceeded us outside to the street, leaving the two of us briefly alone for the second time as I followed her out. She actively sought to meet my eyes as I passed her and I smiled, the only flattery I could offer one whose language I did not speak. She smiled back shyly.

As Ahmed led me away through the streets, I tried to get him to explain what had just happened, deliberately not looking back at the girl; there was too much about the culture that I didn't know. Ahmed insisted on his first story, that the woman wanted to show me her house because someone who looked like me had wanted to buy it. Now I think that I should have tipped her.

Well that's it for today. I hadn't planned to tell the story of the girl with the striking eyes because I'm going to look enough like a hound when I talk about my date with the Spanish TV actress. Still, it was one of the more singular things about my trip so I decided to include it. I'll get to the remarkable salesman tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Rampage to Morocco

During my trip to Spain, I wanted to take a quick side-trip to Morocco, just so that I could add Africa to the list of continents that I've visited. To tell the truth, I wasn't that excited about the trip in general. Neither Spain nor Morocco was on my list of places that would be interesting to visit. I was going largely just because it had been so long since I'd seen my brother's family so I didn't want to take a lot of time in Morocco away from them.

But my sister-in-law is an organizing dynamo. I barely mentioned my desire to visit Morocco and she was all over it, looking up tours on the Internet, emailing and calling tour companies. Over several days of offers and refusals, one tour company eventually offered a pretty amazing deal on a 4-day, 3-night individual tour with my own personal "guide" (the reason for the sneer quotes will become apparent). The offer was too good to pass up, so the day after I arrived in Spain, I was micro packing from my 2-week luggage into a 4-day bag.

My brother put me on a 7am train to arrive in Malaga a bit before 1pm. This was, according to my "guide", enough time to get to Algeciras for the 1:30 ferry to Tanger in Morocco. And it would have been enough time, too, if my "guide" had bothered to either get gas or buy the ferry tickets before picking me up at the train station.

When she picked me up at the station, I was mildly impressed that my "guide" had a bottle of water waiting for me in the car. Very organized, I thought. That was the one thing she did the entire trip that suggested any level of organization at all. She was even disorganized about the water. I kept my bottle on my side of the car, on the floor by my feet. Which would have been fine except that she kept putting her bottle down there too, and then would ask me if I knew which bottle was which. No, I didn't. The freaking bottles were identical. The only way to distinguish them is to keep them in DIFFERENT FREAKING PLACES. WHEN YOU KEEP PUTTING YOURS RIGHT NEXT TO MINE, WE CAN'T TELL THEM APART ANY MORE SO STOP DOING THAT, YOU DITZ.

Sorry for the shouting. I'm too polite to actually shout at someone, so I have a lot of rage bottled up inside me that may come out during this account.

As we are driving down to Algeciras, my "guide" starts pulling out various documents from a compartment beneath the steering wheel and asks me to hold them. She wants to make sure that she has all three things she needs. She pulls out three things and hands them to me. I hold them for a few minutes as she drives along. She seems to have forgotten the incident. I kind of wave the documents I'm holding to attract her attention. The effort fails. I'm thinking, "OK, you have verified that you have all three documents, now you can put them back. Why am I still holding them?" I didn't say anything, just put the documents down on the dashboard.

I ask her if she wants the money now. She had asked for cash and I wanted to get it into her hands before anything happened to it and I didn't want to have to declare it going over the border. The "guide" wanted me to count it for her as she drove and then gave me instructions on how to divide it up, putting some in her purse and some in her brief case.

I was a bit annoyed at being given menial chores by someone who was supposedly working for me, but I assumed there was some reason for it, having to do with the fact that we were late for the ferry. I was wrong. She did things like that throughout the trip. I think it is her way of compensating for her extreme ditziness. She tries to shovel off little responsibilities (like holding documents) onto other people in hopes that they are more organized than she is. Quite remarkably, I am more organized than she is, and I'm one of the most disorganized people I know.

Well, since we were late for the ferry, she did this cute trick of pretending to drive down the wrong lane, past a bunch of other cars to a spot that was still empty. Then she pretended to be surprised, backed up a bit, gunned the engine and tried to hurdle the concrete barrier with her 4WD Land Rover. All a misunderstanding, you know, but throughout the trip it became apparent that she didn't think that rules applied to her.

My "guide" got hung up on the barrier with her front wheels over and her rear wheels behind because she had no clue how to handle her vehicle. She tried several times to get over by gunning the engine, but she only had one wheel on the barrier and just the corner of that wheel so she couldn't get traction. I tried to tell her how to handle the problem, but she was incapable of following the simplest of instructions.

Did I mention that she was an American ex-pat? There was no language barrier, my "guide" just couldn't grasp simple instructions like "square up with the barrier" or "get both rear tires on the barrier at the same time" or the several other ways I tried to explain the solution. Finally I got out of the car and directed her, "Turn your wheels that way. ... No that way. ... The other way. TURN YOUR WHEELS THE OTHER WAY. ... THE OTHER WAY ... NOT THE WAY YOU HAVE THEM, THE OTHER WAY. OK, now, back up .. NO, BACK YOU'RE MAKING IT WORSE. No, don't turn your wheels that way, turn them back like I told you before, now back up. ... put the car in revers and back up ... OK, now turn your wheels the other way ... turn your wheels the other way ... OK, I'm making a motion like I'm steering a car, do this. No, this. OK, Now, ease forward, you don't have to gun it ..."

That's when she gunned the engine again to literally bounce over the barrier, (not so literally) nearly killing me and another man who had come over to help/observe. Then she raced over to park in an illegal spot and took off to get the tickets, leaving me to run a hundred yards or so to the vehicle.

She eventually came back to inform me that the ticket counter was closed. We had missed the ferry by five minutes. After she had stopped for gas on the way.

We drove another twenty minutes to catch the 3pm ferry in Tarifa. The 3pm ferry in Tarifa was out of service, so she bought tickets for the 5:30pm ferry, and the first day of my Morocco trip was officially hosed. We had another bout of excitement when she lost one of the ferry tickets and were kicked out of the line to board the ferry. I eventually I found the ticket behind her seat.

I later learned that we could have taken a 2pm ferry from Algeciras, but that would have landed in Ceuta instead of Tanger. My "guide" wanted to land in Tanger, I infer, because she knew the way from Tanger to Fez (sort of) and she didn't know the (shorter) way from Ceuta to Fez. Since the other way would have been about an hour shorter, her lack of knowledge cost me about four hours of my Morocco trip (her lack of planning cost me the fifth hour).

Then I had the pleasure of a five hour drive through rain and darkness at high speed on dangerous roads with a barely competent driver with a bad habit of running stop signs and red lights. I was so tired that even the terror couldn't keep me awake, but the erratic driving did. Every time I would doze off, she would make an abrupt maneuver to wake me up. Usually these abrupt maneuvers occurred when my "guide", through lack of attention, found herself too close to a barrier or a vehicle that she was passing and would jerk the wheel the other way. Did I mention that I was terrified?

My "guide" misplaced all three toll tickets during the drive because she kept putting them on the dash where they were blown away by the wind from the open windows. Each toll station was an adventure as she searched in a panic for the missing ticket.

It was freezing outside but the windows had to be open or the windshield would frost over. I don't know whether this was because my "guide" didn't know how to use her vehicle's climate control system or whether the Land Rover really did just have a badly designed defroster. I suspect the former.

Counting the documents that she didn't have organized before she picked my up, the lost ferry ticket, the three toll tickets, and the document she lost while we were waiting in the vehicle customs line, my ditzy "guide" mis-handled six important papers on the first day. This is not a performance to instill confidence.

Tomorrow: my tour through an ancient walled city and the performance of a remarkable salesman.

Monday, January 09, 2006


I'll be hosting the next Storyblogging Carnival here on January 16. If you have ever posted a story on your blog, no matter how long ago, you too can have a story in the great Storyblogging Carnival. There are no a priori restrictions on what kind of story you can enter.

Email your entry to docrampage[at]gmail[dot]com (replace the [at] with @ and the [dot] with .)

Be sure to include
* title of story
* url of story (eg: "")
* name of blog
* url of blog
* name of author (optional)
* a rating for the story (P, PG, R, etc.)
* a word count
* a blurb that gives the reader an idea of what the story is about.
The deadline for entries is this Saturday 1/14 at midnight.

Check out the previous Carnival.

Rampage in the Land of the Moops

Well I just got back from two weeks in Spain and Morocco. Among my adventures: I ran over a concrete barrier in a Land Rover to cut in line at a ferry in Algeciras, I was almost run over by a mule in Fez, was nearly mugged in Asilah, got lost in Granada, and dated an actress in Madrid. All in all, a successful vacation.

Mostly, I was visiting my brother and his family for the holidays. I got an extra holiday out of it since in addition to Christmas and New Years, the Spanish celebrate King's day on January Eight. The Three Kings left candy bars in my shoes. Go figure.

I had a great time with my brother and his family. I just haven't spent enough time with my little brother since I moved out of the house twenty-six years ago. My sister-in-law has a gift for making someone feel at home in her house. My nephew reminds me so much of myself at that age that it's scary. And my two nieces ... well, what can I say about nieces. I have a great time with all my nephews (I have five), but there is something so special about having a little girl run up to give you a great big hug.

There was a Storyblogging Carnival during my absence (according to Donald, it's the thrity-fifth (sic), but I think he may be confused). I think this is the first Carnival I've missed but I just didn't have time to do any writing. Also, I think I'm hosting the next one, more on that later.

Sheya and Shreya were both nice enough to say they missed my blog while I was gone. Thank you, ladies. I hope to get back to speed immediately, but with jet-lag issues, I don't know if I will be successful. Sorry, Sheya, but most of the next week I'll probably be writing my vacation adventures instead of Ink Magic.