Morocco, Day 3 – Fes

April 14th – We wake up at 5:30 a.m. and board our little tour bus. It’s a seven hour drive north to Fes. The trip is a scenic drive through Moroccan fields and mountains. It’s wildflower season and we see varieties everywhere of yellows, reds and blues. Someone yells that they want to lie in a field of poppies. I agree. We are driving in the middle of nowhere and see the first cluster of huts we’ve seen for hours. There is one small shop in this cluster, with two signs outside. One says Coca Cola, one says Tide. No matter how far you go, work will always follow you.

We arrive in Fes after our long trip, and enter the magnificent Riad Tizwa. A redhead comes bounding down the steps, and we drop our luggage and run to hug Joya, who has finally made it to Morocco after her demanding legal job almost prevented her from taking the trip she had been looking forward to for months. She takes me to our room, which has a canopy bed with closeable curtains, a fireplace, and an intricate Moroccan lantern hanging from the ceiling. The bedroom windows look down into the hotel lobby, where the rest of our group is still getting settled and finding their rooms.

We leave the Riad to visit the famed Fes Souks, which are exactly as I imagined – crowded alleyways with shopkeepers trying to sell you everything from fruits, spices, camel meat, jewelry, clothing, shoes, herbs and more. At first I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy in these shops, although I was taking notice of some mirrors with beautifully decorated mosaic patterned frames. Some of them had little doors on them that opened to reveal the mirror, and many of them had a distinct orange color that I adored. I finally came across one that I decided I must have, with an orange and gold border. I’m told the orange is camel bone with henna dye. I bargain the shopkeeper down to half of what he first asked for, so I probably got a reasonable price for a white tourist. We make our way back through the souks to the clock tower café, where we eat couscous, vegetables, cheese, fruits, almond, banana and date shakes, and…camel meat.

Morocco, Day 2 – Marrakesh

April 12th – We all wake up at different times and meet in the sunny courtyard. I’m sitting there with my legs up on a chair when Rebecca, Kate and the boys find me. We have one more day of leisure in Marrakesh before our entire group arrives and we start traveling around the country to meet the Nest loan recipients we’ve come all this way to meet. We plan to take full advantage of this time by exploring traditional Moroccan spa techniques, right here in the hotel. Once downstairs in the spa, we change into our bathing suits and go into the steamroom changing area. We have signed up for Hammam, the traditional Moroccan scrub. I’m not quite sure what this means yet, but people rave about it so I agree to try it. Before we enter the steamroom, the spa woman instructs us to remove our bathing suit tops. None of us are comfortable with this, but we do as we’re told. The steamroom is beautiful, with a little candle shrine in the corner and four wooden “beds” with rubber mats on them. We each lay down on them and steam for about 15 minutes. The spa worker comes back into the room and one at a time, takes us to another corner and rinses our bodies by pouring hot water from a bowl over each part of us. She then puts some kind of soap or lotion all over us and leaves us to steam for another fifteen minutes or so. When she returns she gives each of our bodies an intense scrub with what feels like a brillo pad. I want to tell her to lighten up on the intensity of it, but I’m afraid to speak up – chances are she won’t understand a word I’m saying anyway. When she finishes, I’m sure I must be bleeding. As she rinses the brown flakes off my body, I realize they are dead pieces of skin. Gross. Next, I am led to a private room with a Jacuzzi, which I have to myself for about a half hour before Rebecca comes in and I am led out to my massage. The massage room has two beds, and Kate is already in the middle of hers. At some point during my massage, Kate leaves and Rebecca comes in, so I basically experience a couple’s massage with each of them. We’re all a whole lot closer after this experience. I fall sleep on the table after mine, and Rebecca gently wakes me up and tells me it’s time to go.

We have to meet for lunch in five minutes, so we meet the boys in the lobby full of argon oil and wet hair. They walk us to Mama Africa, a small café that actually seems more Jamaican than African, with reggae playing and Bob Marley flags draped on the walls. I order some salad that includes rice, lettuce, tomato, avocado, bananas, pineapple and shrimp. It is delicious. Kate orders a sandwich called “lots of love.” I’ll have the cappuccino with lots of love, please. Jenny from Houston is with us now, and sits next to me in a chair that has a backing carved into the shape of Africa.

After our delicious lunch we walk through a craft fair taking place down the street, but the boys tell us not to buy anything here, to wait for the craft fair where the women we loan to will be selling their crafts. Both Tim and Brian are doing business development in the Peace Corps and are the ones teaching these local artisans how to turn their crafts into businesses. That’s where we come in- to give them the small loans they need to further grow and develop their business. So obviously we’re all a lot more invested in these women and would prefer to buy from them at the craft fair the boys set up, which will take place in Marrakesh a few days from now. Tomorrow we head up to the mountains to Fes, and then Midelt to see Brian’s cooperative of artisans. Tonight, the rest of our group, four more girls from San Francisco, will join us. Until then, I’m laying on the roof of our hotel until the sun goes down, enjoying this one leisurely day in Morocco.

Arriving in Morocco

April 11th – We arrive in Marrakesh, sleep deprived and weary. We patiently stand in what must be this country’s version of a line for an hour to get through customs. After getting this much anticipated stamp in my passport, I am pleased to see a young attractive gentleman with curly black hair holding a Nest sign. He is the epitome of American in Morocco – sandals, faded cargo pants, a linen shirt with rolled up sleeves and rope bracelets tied around both wrists. The other Peace Corps volunteer who will be acting as our tour guide for this trip looks more like an all American boy, with a button down shirt and jeans. They introduce themselves as Tim and Brian, respectively, and help carry our luggage out to the cab line. Our cab drops us off at our hotel, and while Kate, Rebecca and I check in to the hotel, the boys stand outside shouting back and forth with the cab drivers in Arabic. We’re told this is the traditional way of bargaining in Morocco.

Once everyone’s settled, we go to the courtyard where we drink mint tea and eat pastries in the African sun. This architecture is consistent throughout the trip, buildings that wrap around a central courtyard. We see it everywhere, from the fancy hotels of Marrakesh to the remote villages in the south.

We take a walk through the streets of Marrakesh and come to the famous medina, where everything I’ve read about comes to life. Men holding snakes approach you (and if you’re like me, you scream and your friends laugh at you) Everywhere you turn, someone is yelling at you to buy something of theirs. It’s not so drastically different than markets I’ve seen in Israel or Guatemala, but it still feels more exotic. We turn up an alley, and a store owner grabs my arm. I pull away, and catch up to the boys. I stick near them for the rest of the walk.

We walk through a small door in an alley off the medina, and we are in Earth Café, which puts a vegetarian spin on Moroccan food. We eat lunch upstairs in a semi private room. After a feast of goat cheese salads, filo dough with cheese and vegetables baked inside, and an assortment of couscous and pastillas, the café owner comes upstairs and sits at our table. He seems to know Brian and Tim well, and he tells us visitors about the organic farm he owns, not too far from here, where he grows everything he serves in this restaurant. He describes the horses, donkeys, the litter of labrador puppies who were just born, and the rabbits who are populating by the thousands because they won’t stop mating. He also talks about the frogs that keep him awake because of their mating. We’re pleased to hear that so much love takes place on this farm. He invites us to visit if we have time. We oblige, and head back to the hotel.

Dinner that evening is on a rooftop overlooking the medina. It is a beautiful night, and I share an enormous piece of lamb with Tim. It is delicious, but incredibly large and overwhelming. Luckily, he eats most of it.