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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Moroccan Whiskey.......and a Funky Blue Medina.

No sooner had we set food on terra firma than we noticed that there were cafes everywhere, predominantly patronised by men I might add. No sandwiches or snacks, just lots of good coffee and Moroccan whisky, with an obscene amount of sugar. Sugar in whiskey, I hear you ask? Well, Moroccan whiskey is the term used for the ubiquitous mint tea here. As it is a Muslim country and, in theory at least, alcohol is not served, this is conjunction with the proliferation and abundance of mint, has given this country its famed and of drunk beverage. Not a bad "drop" I might add, although with the shameless amount of sugar that goes into each glass, one soon reaches saturation point.....pun, very intended!

Tangier was not really what I had expected. As soon as we stepped off the boat and into the port, I realised that it was much more modern and cosmopolitan than I had envisaged. I suppose with Egypt still very fresh in my mind, I was expecting something much more conservative. I probably had not accounted for Morocco's proximity to Europe, both culturally and geographically. Here we saw many local women who were not totally covered up, including their heads, and even the men were generally less covered than in Egypt. I am not going to lie, there was indeed a moment of euphoria, as I realised that I would not be destined to three weeks of searing heat wearing long pants. Yes!!!!!!!! I do like to be a conscientious traveller, and respect local customs, but after what I had briefly seen, I was already dreaming of finding a place to stay, so that I could strip off and put some shorts on!

We ended up in a cheap, small but very clean place, close to the shore called Hotel L'Ile Verte. I highly recommend it. The staff, especially Said, were super friendly. If you happen to go, say hi from Alex and I. Of course, the obligatory thing to do in ANY Moroccan town or city is to get lost in its medina.....they all have one! A medina is literally a "city", but it is a word now used for the original Arab part of any Moroccan town. It is usually encircled by a high and old wall, and the buildings within are tall and narrow, and the roads between them are more like alleyways, as they snake around in any which way. Usually no cars in a medina, as the cars are wider than the roads. Most medinas are a labyrinth, that only Moroccans seem to be able to navigate. We foreigners have two choices, to stick to the 2 or 3 main alleys and not get lost (90 percent), or just go with the flow, get lost, and end up............wherever (10 percent)..........destination Ombi and Alex!

So, Tangier for us was a place of lots of great coffee (coffee culture is alive and kicking here!), mint tea with way too much sugar, amazing olives (remember, we are in the Mediterranean here), getting lost here, and, as usual, chatting to the locals. We even had our own corner cafe thing happening for the few days that we were there, where we would meet up with our new friend Johan, and chat about the meaning of life.

One day, we bought some bread, olive, cheese and other bits and pieces, and decided to sit on the beachfront promenade and watch the world go by, as we ate our picnic lunch. We were really feeling good, life has indeed been great to us. We were soon approached by a young girl, who was perhaps 12 years old or so, wanting to sell us a rose. In my mix of both broken French and Arabic, I tried to explain to her that I did not need a rose and that I had nowhere to put it. At this point I should mention that due to the past French colonisation of the country, many Moroccans also speak French. Whilst she realised that I neither wanted nor needed a rose, I too understood that the rose was merely a means to an end. I looked into her soulful eyes, and asked her if she was hungry. She placed her beautiful henna-tattooed hands (here the custom amongst women is to paint designs on their hands and feet; henna is the natural reddish dye which comes from a plant, and therefore is temporary and not permanent) on her lap, and bowed her covered head, whilst nodding slightly. She was hungry! If somebody had have smacked me over the head with a crowbar, it would have had less effect! With my heart in my stomach and a knot in my throat, I quickly prepared her an olive, cheese and tomato sandwich, and handed it over. We watched as she ate it, ever so slowly, relishing each bite as if it was her last. Every time she looked up at us, her eyes expressed what her mouth would never have been able to tell us in a million years, and I had to focus and concentrate so that I would not break down and cry. When she had finished, I asked if she wanted another. The reply was no! She had had enough, and that was that. She thanked us several times, and took my hands into hers. I will never forget those big brown eyes as she said goodbye and walked away. She thought we had given her so much! We had in reality given her so very little! When I could no longer physically see her eyes, I looked out into the huge expanse of water in front and cried brazenly, as I am doing now as I recall and type this. I can only repeat the million dollar question, Why do some people have so much, when others have so little?

Whilst in Tangier, we also met a Spanish couple, who had come across by car, and they invited us to go and watch the sunset with them one night. The areas, both east and west of the city, sit up higher than the city and offer staggering views......yep, just like in the movies. We also visited a cave called the Grotto of Hercules, and the most impressive aspect was the shape of the hole in the rock overlooking the sea......Africa..........tingles ran up and down our spine.
Next was a place called Tetouan, in the Rif Mountains, and not too far from Tangier. Surrounded by remarkable scenery, I would imagine that the mountains would look impressive topped with snow, in the winter months. At this time of year they rise and loom spectacularly over the township. To be perfectly frank, apart from this, and someone trying to get into the back pack that Alex was carrying, it was a bit of a non-event. I will not go on and on, except to say that we were in the crowded medina (which although classified by UNESCO, failed to impress), and suddenly saw Alex swing around. He quickly told me that someone had tried to unzip his pack. We knew exactly who it was, as we are always aware of our surroundings. Although nothing had been taken, the prospective thief knew we were onto him like a chubby kid onto smarties, and you should have seen him do a runner, when I flapped my arms and started screaming, "Gendarme, gendarme" (police, in French). Acted out like a tried and true backpacker Alex! Good teamwork! Starsky and Hutch eat your heart out!

And then there was the funky blue medina......not to be confused with the cold one, of course! Chefchaouen, is a small mountain-top village, also in the Rif mountains. It is laid back, easy going, pretty in the real sense of the word, and .....painted blue, and various shades of it! In pockets it really looks a little like the Greek Islands, without the sea. We stayed inside the picturesque medina; which perched up high, was surrounded by picturesque mountains. Another little treasure that has made our "We've found paradise" list.

Does the word Rif sound vaguely familiar to any of you? This is what my friend Greg O'Hern (also travelling the world, and having been here recently) said about it in his write up of the place:

"Reefer – that's got the attention of a few of you I'm sure! The word "reefer" actually comes from Morocco. In the Northern part of the country are the Kif mountains, an area renowned for its marijuana cultivation. In these parts its called "Rif", and quite often comes in the form of hashish, the compressed and compacted form of Mary-J. Over the years the hippies that have come and gone from the area in search of good dope started referring to it as "reef" and from there to "reefer". It's the Rif in the Kif.
On a more serious note, I cannot tell you the amount of times that we were offered hashish here. Not being a user and jack of being asked (we ARE foreigners, right, so we DO use it, right!!), I resorted to telling the sellers that I was a member of the Australian Police Force. My other tactic was to ask them if they were Muslim, and thus challenge them on their either selling or using it. Got a few interesting responses, best discussed over a cuppa or a beer, whatever you are into!

As Alex and I have a penchant of doing, we rocked up to this funky blue medina on the opening day of the Alegria Festival We struggled to find accommodation at first, but walking up and down those steep alleyways for a few hours eventually paid off ( read.....we were eventually exhausted). I could totally see the laid back veneer of this town, but for the three days we were there, it rocked to the tunes of Cuban and Spanish artists, as well as Moroccan ones. Street performers, including fire breathers, made the place come alive. It was all free, and let's face it, who is not into free entertainment. Foreigners mixed with locals as well as other Moroccans from all over the country, and a good time was had by all.

Coffee and tea are so cheap here, and one of our favourite pastimes has fast become people watching, whilst sipping on a mighty fine drop!

NOTE: Congratulations Australia! On the 1st of July you FINALLY went totally smoke free! Both Alex and I are sooooooooo excited at the prospect of being able to go to places that had prior to this date been on our no-go-zone list. May I be blunt, would I be anything less; smokers have rights.......BUT SO DO WE!!!!!!!!!!!!! The right to breathe in air which is unpolluted and not toxic, as is our choice! All of this aside, I urge smokers to be conscientious and to dispose of their butts appropriately. You do not throw your trash on the floor, so why your cigarette butts? We are destroying our Earth, and whilst our generation talks of WHEN global warming will occur, our kids will talk about WHAT effects global warming is having! There have been places on our travels where we have seen more cigarette butts on the floor...than the floor itself! Ugly, unhealthy or an environmental disaster?

Dedication: We would like to dedicate this blog to our dear friend Harry Kontos. Harry, it would be impossible to write about all of the environmental damage we have seen in the last 11 months without dedicating an entire blog to it. I will say this, however, we are wrecking our world, and we are wrecking it fast, and the effects are profound! What saddens us most and has us particularly perplexed is watching supposedly intelligent, educated and first world individuals treat their world like an ash-tray. And here, we are NOT only referring to cigarette butts. If we keep adopting the "she'll be right Jack" attitude, and waiting for the next person to deal with it.......we will soon find that by slowly hacking away, and killing our Earth and "its contents", that there will be NO next person! It's time to wake up and smell the roses!

"It is only possible to live happily ever after on a day-to-day basis" - Margaret Bonnaro.
(If you have a quote that you particularly like, send it to us and we may use it.)

Ombi

(Photos: 1.- Can I have a glass of mint tea......and about 8 cubes of sugar please? 2.- Collecting water, daily life in the medina. 3.- A typical medina sight. 4.- Olive-topia!. 5.- Afternoon nap, in the midday heat. 6.- Funky blue medina, Chefchaouen. 7.- The medina & the Rif mountains,Chefchaouen. 8.- Dancing salsa with Abdel, Alegria Festival, Chefchaouen. 9.- Wake up and smell the roses.)

Next: Fez, Azrou and Azilal. Our attempt to wander away from the beaten track.

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