Sunday, March 14, 2010

Writing about vacation on vacation

Spring break is here, and I am enjoying myself exactly as I needed to and intended to. This weekend is reserved for relaxing and catching up on a few things that I have been meaning to do. Last week, while procrastinating a bit, I actually made a to do list for break. Now you may chuckle at that, which is fine by me. But most of these are personal things, not for school or the benefit of anyone really, except me of course. Well I guess catching up on my excursion blogs and uploading pictures to spacebook is something you all can enjoy too, but besides that its all me. This afternoon I watched Sicko, Michael Moore’s documentary that I have been meaning to see and that Fadoua graciously lended me. It is about the state of healthcare in America and also his argument for free universal health care.

Though it is a bit sensationalist at times, it is an excellent film that I highly recommend. I especially enjoyed the part when he went to Cuba with a handful of people who have lasting health problems from working at Ground Zero after 9/11, our “heroes” who have not been adequately compensated or cared for in exchange for the sacrifices they made. They tried unsuccessfully to receive care at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, for the detainees there receive top notch healthcare at the expense of the American taxpayer, so instead they seek care (successfully, for free) at Havana Hospital.

Of course as fellow humans, no matter what crimes they may or may not have committed, those imprisoned at Guantanamo deserve no less. But it is a travesty that the average American, paying an arm and a leg for insurance, is not even guaranteed access to an equal or greater quality of healthcare (not to mention the 50 million or so Americans who don’t have insurance) as their most notorious ‘enemies’ or their elected officials. But then again those elected officials, our representatives, who are supposed to be speaking for we the people, their boss, are too busy accepting money from corporations (including of course insurance and pharmaceutical companies) and defending the interests and profits of the elite and wealthy to recognize the irony that Moore is employing in Cuba to make his case for free universal health care. That would render health insurance companies useless; though, something that is not likely to happen anytime soon, maybe never, as we have seen in the past year or so and the efforts to reform the system.

There are some things that capitalism is great for, for example maybe the market for personal computers, clothing, construction, I don’t know. But there are some things that I think should be held securely out of reach of for-profit corporations, and one of those things, perhaps the most fundamental, is an individual’s health. The idea of health insurance companies, who we pay a sum each month in order to insure access to the necessary care that will ensure our health, turning away sick people or denying clients a necessary procedure or test, and doing this in the interests of increasing profit margins, makes me furious. There there is one of the stories in the movie where an uninsured man, who accidentally sawed off two of his fingertips, was forced to choose which finger he could afford to have reattached. Isn't there some extra money lying around, somewhere?

On a side note, see here about the wonderful educational reform that is happening in Texas.

I guess these complaints represent more and more reasons to stay in Morocco. That and the olives, mmm. If only olives could grow in New England…Okay I am going to pick up from excursion where I left off on Tuesday morning when we left the desert. We stayed in the jeeps for a while, which was fine by me, for it was a safari I did not want to end. Taking a different way back to Zagora than we came included a few interesting stops...

First was a date palmerie, where the-ever graceful Hassan answered our questions about date production. He showed us the different female and male trees, which are differentiated by not being regularly pruned. He also talked about the irrigation ditches that form grids throughout the palmerie. They have a communal system where access to water, controlled by blocking ditches with dirt or alternatively opening them, is rotated between the different farmer’s or family’s plots in an area. I’m not exactly sure how it works, no matter, because the point is that it works. Oh and the palms take a while to get established, but once they do they can live for several hundreds of years, producing dates all along. I like dates, or date I should say, because I can’t eat more than one in a sitting. Too much date, and very sweet, really a complement to the salty tangy olive, for both are intense in their own way. I hope it is clear by now which one I prefer.

The next stop was a small library of Arabic texts, all hand-written and ancient, with some of them displayed open in glass cases and the others lining shelves all around the room. Our charismatic djellabah-clad host there, who in appearance seemed older than some of the books he extorted us to examine, was entertaining. Part of this came from his rather high-pitched voice spouting a wonderful mix of Darija, French, and heavily-accented English, and part came from the way he attached himself to one of our group, Ciara, at times pushing others of us out of the way in order to give her a better view of the gold-accented script of a Koran or the “dictionary Turkish-Arabic.” The conviction of his desire for us, but especially Ciara, to see these books was hilarious and heart-warming. The 4,000 book collection included one that he was especially proud of, a Koran written on “skeen, skeen gazelle.” There was no photography allowed in the library, which was attached to a school or some other institution, but I have mental images a-plenty.

Our morning tour, and our time in the jeeps, concluded with a stop at a pottery cooperative. I forget where it is located, somewhere not far from Zagora, and it can be found in the Lonely Planet guide I remember. This region is famous for its green pottery, and we got a little tour to see the process from start to finish. There were men mixing and partly-drying the clay in the sun, which is then formed into various size products on pottery wheels by other men. Our guide hopped down into a hole, his legs disappearing to work whatever hidden mechanism, probably pedals, turns the wheel. It was a funny sight, but our laughter quickly turned to oohs and awws as he formed a perfectly conical miniature tajine, and its base, in seconds. We saw various bowls, shingles, and other pieces waiting their turn to enter the “keeln;” there were several of these mud-brick wood-and-sawdust-fired structures around one end of the yard. The guide explained how different paints, made from natural pigments, applied before kiln-firing yield various colors in the final products. I think he said the green color comes from magnesium, but I might have made that up.

The tour ended in the pottery shop, for where else would you take American tourists after making them appreciate the labor that goes into a product but the place to buy said product. (It was a recurrent theme, touring an artisanal place of production, sometimes of questionable authenticity, and always finishing in the gift shop. I can’t blame them for desiring the tourist buck, its just an observation.) There were all sorts of really beautiful platters, tajines, bowls, you name it, and I felt like I had to buy something (their tactics work). I probably would have made a bigger purchase except for concerns about fragility during the rest of the trip.

Being back in the van had its pros and cons, but either way it was a definitive signal that it was time to move on, jellah, on y va. We headed north and slightly west, passing through Zagora again and going part of the way back through the Draa Valley (palms in the middle, Grand Canyon walls on one side and l’autre cote rounded rolling) before taking a right to go northeast towards our scheduled stop for the night, Rissani. After leaving the valley the scenery got decidedly drier in a fairly short amount of time.

We stopped for lunch in N’Koub, a quiet town in arid terrain that has gained notoriety, and a place in Lonely Planet, partly because of the 40-50 kasbahs that are located there. From our view on the hotel’s terrace we got to take in the view, and it was pretty astounding. They looked like little castles, fortified houses of sorts, mostly square buildings with little towers at each corner. I don’t know the story of these constructions but I certainly would like to. It was a good lunch and an intriguing hotel with all manner of things growing in the courtyard, some of which probably were in our lunch, including various herbs, collard greens, oranges, wheat, and more. Seems like a good idea to have a functional and producing courtyard garden that is also beautiful.

Back on the road, the final leg to Rissani. A few rounds of spades, a card game similar to hearts with 2 person teams, other games, good conversation about everything, and also nothing, all helped to pass the hours in the van on this day and others. Taking semi-decent pictures out the window was another past time of mine, as well as writing in my journal and taking not-very-satisfying naps. I can usually sleep anywhere if I am tired, but it was a constant struggle for comfort in this van. We stopped to pee and take in the sunset, sort of the official goodbye to the desert-portion of our trip. It was good.

The hotel at Rissani was nice, big, and empty. We had the place to ourselves, which felt weird. That, plus the fact that we did not see any of the actual town because we were a couple of kilometers outside it, made it feel sort of like the shining, Moroccan-style. Highlights were a quick dip in the chilly pool (the staff laughed as they gladly turned on the lights) and when Anthony, Alex, Jessica, and I stayed up late talking after dinner.

Wednesday was the dreaded day of lots of driving and not much else. It was not as bad as I expected, mostly because of all the natural eye candy available outside every window. We headed north from Rissani through the Ziz Valley, which was similar to the Draa with a thick swath of date palms guarded on both sides by impressive walls and rocky outcrops. The scenery changed a lot that day. We went from Arizona, to Switzerland, to Ireland, and finally ended up in Fez, definitively back in Morocco.

After the valley the land opened up a bit, and we saw the High Atlas Mountains (I think) again, this time from a different angle. The snow-capped peaks were on our left, generally to the west, but soon they came to us. Or rather we came to them, to be precise the Middle Atlas, and stopped for lunch at a hotel in Midelt. The guidebook said this town is known as a lunch stop for tour buses heading north to Fez, and soon after our arrival our lunch stop became overrun with 2 buses full of German package tourists. Of course, as someone who stepped out of a (smaller) tour bus just minutes before, I was in no place to pass judgments.

Yet as a student living with a host family in the country I was touring, I somehow felt more entitled to be there, I could not help it. How different was I from these German tourists after all? I would say very different, though at that moment we were pretty similar. I was very aware, then and throughout the week, of how much this was a trip, prepaid and preplanned (package is the word I hesitate to use) in nature, of pure unadulterated tourism, and I had no choice but to revel in the glory and simplicity if provided. The hardest part was waking up at 7 or 8 every morning to find my way around strange and fantastic cities and places, one after another. This was a kind of traveling that I am not accustomed to. I prefer vacations that involve visiting with family who live far away, spending time at Windwhistle, and exploring Canon Beach. I have never been on a cruise, or seen Disneyworld, or snorkeled and suntanned on a Caribbean beach. The 8 days I spent with Mommy, Allan, and Hugh in Costa Rica in January, 2008, a wonderful and amazing time in a such a rich and incredible country, was the last time I had such an experience. I think this excursion was more memorable (perhaps because it is fresh), but not by much.

The mountainous scenery continued after lunch, and when I woke up from a short nap we were driving by patches of snow at the base of pine trees. We stopped in Ifrane to use bathrooms and stretch our legs. This is the town where rich locals and foreigners come to ski, and with its Swiss-chalet-style buildings and quaint green square, plus of course location in the mountains, I can see why it is known as Morocco’s Switzerland. Unfortunately there was not enough time to go snowboarding, something that I was only able to do once this winter in the US before my departure. No worries, there will always be other chances to snowboard, whereas I will (most likely) never be studying in Morocco again. We never know what the future will bring, right?

The rocky hilly land that slowly came into view, with its sheep herds and small houses, as we descended from the mountains reminded me of Scotland. Or maybe Ireland. Something like that. Of course I have never been to these places; I was generalizing based on stereotypical images I have in my mind of what I think they look like. Have someone give you a random place name and the mind will immediately conjure up your personal mental image of that place which, depending on your experience or knowledge, could be correct, very misdirected, or most likely somewhere in between.

But regardless of what I labeled it, the landscape was beautiful. We descended from the hills into the valley, finally and thankfully arriving at Fez. We were all going a little stir crazy by this point, and we knew we would be rewarded with a whole day in the city and (in some ways more importantly) 2 nights in the same hotel. We arrived as it was getting dark and checked into our hotel, which had a very beautiful lobby, nice dining areas, and very unremarkable rooms. They certainly lacked the charm and decoration we had become used to in Zagora and Rissani, and the character could not compare to our desert tents, but otherwise it was a fine hotel. It is unfortunately located more than 30 minutes walk from the huge ancient medina, and the neighborhood did not have much to offer. We caught up on internet access with 45 minutes in a cyber before dinner, an experience I would liken to a dose of some weird medicine that is simultaneously desired for its effects and detested for its side effects. Typing furiously, trying to read and send as many emails as possible and sound sincere and interesting in all of them, while also briefly checking for world news and glancing at facebook, and…realizing that was the quickest that 45 minutes have evaporated in a while. Oh the wondrous monster that is the internet, keeping you connected, keeping you hooked, keeping you ‘in the know.’

That’s all for now, the mysterious beauty and intensity of the Fez medina, and the rest of the trip after that, will have to wait for another time. It is important to get a lot of sleep while one is on vacation, especially when they will be traveling on Monday. Alex and I will be taking a bus down to Essaoueira, a beach town about 8 hours away that I have only heard good things about. The laid back atmosphere, amazing seafood, friendly people, beautiful and not-overcrowded beaches, I could go on. So 3 nights there, with two full days, then north for one night in El-Jedida after a stop in Oualidia for oysters. Friday will be for heading back to Rabat, at a leisurely pace, and then meeting up with my dear Mommy and of course Hugh too. Or that is the plan, of course, plans can change, this I am very aware of. But it will be good no matter what happens, and receiving such honored visitors is a great way to cap off what will be, inchallah, a fun and relaxing ocean-themed spring break.

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