Wednesday, March 14, 2012

عيد ميلاد

26-29.01 - Ouarzazate - Tinghir - Todra Gorge - Dades Gorge - Tinghir, 423 km, sixteen rides.

A little about hitchhiking in Morocco... What can I say, it's a hitchhiker's paradise for us! A mixed couple gets a ride faster than a girl alone in Europe. We hardly ever have to wait more than five minutes - usually cars stop immediately, sometimes even two at once. Even if we only want to get a ride to the center, they don't mistake us for somebody who wants to take a taxi. Who cares it's only three kilometers? Every little helps. Vast majority of people react, grin, make some hand gestures that we answer back. Lack of common language doesn't drive them away from helping us - they talk to us in Arabic or Berber, ignoring the fact that these languages are unintelligible for us. But their kindness isn't. They make us believe that hearts of some people are made of gold.

Moreover, all the rides you're not very likely to get in Europe because of safety reasons/too big crowd inside, you get here. Family with two kids, more than five people in a small car, more than two passengers in the truck, van with sheep on the top, around ten people squished in the back of a pick-up - they're all more than eager to give you a hand. It's the best example of effective carpooling. Due to the low rate of car ownership in some areas, people put them into good use by taking as many co-passengers as possible.

We've heard stereotypes and opinions about unknown concept of free hitchhiking in Morocco, of being expected to contribute as a rich foreigner. These concepts are now overturned. Nobody mentions money, nobody wants to rip us off. Out trip is so far pitfall-free.

Dry and empty road out of Ouarzazate

View from a hill in Kelaat M'Gouna where our driver took us

There are people who are almost inseparable companions of ours the day we leave Ouarzazate: the Germans. First we stumble upon them in the hitchhiking spot where they arrive in a car just a moment after we get there on foot (and around an hour after we leave Abdelilah's house); then they pass us in another car they got; finally as soon as we get out of the car that took us to Boumalne Dades, we see Ellen and Kai in a restaurant sipping tea. We watch Africa Cup match and discuss our plans. They'll stay in a hotel in Boumalne for a night, we'll continue our way to Tinghir.

Our host Jamal meets us in the center and soon takes to the house of his friend. Jamal used to be a student of hotel management academy, with a focus on cooking. As befits a skilled graduate, he gives us a cooking show worth watching. First thing he prepares is - how could it be otherwise - Moroccan tea. Here it's made the old-fashioned way using gunpowder green tea made of leaves tightly rolled into tiny pellets. This makes the tea stay fresh longer. It's prepared in a metal teapot, usually beautifully adorned with some patterns. Jamal precisely explains every step on the way to receive perfect result.

You fill about 1/3 of the teapot with water and put it on a medium gas or on a stove. After around 5 minutes you put 2-3 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour ½ glass water. When it's boiling, you discard the water, but keep the leaves - this helps purify the tea. You fill the teapot the way to the top with water and add sugar (a lot of sugar, broken off from a huge hunk) and bring it to boiling. In the summer it's popular to drink tea with added bunch of mint to cool yourself down. Now just tea is fine. After a couple of minutes you mix the tea by pouring it to the glass and then back to the pot. This has to be repeated a couple of times to dissolve the sugar. When the tea is ready you pour it from high above to the glasses (almost impossible to avoid pouring the drops all around; don't hurry!) and enjoy the sugary flavor.

For the dinner we have another tajine. We had it before, but restaurant-made, not home-made. Here we can take part in the preparation, but the main thing still belongs to Jamal. Guido and I cut the tomatoes and zucchini into slices, carrot into bars, removing the inner part. More or less, that's where our help ends. Jamal continues to mix the olive oil with spices (salt, pepper, cumin, ginger, paprika) in the clay tajine (it's the name of both the pot used for cooking and the meal itself). He adds onion, puts the chicken in the middle of the pot and vegetables on the top, so they cover the meat, pours some water. Here the slow cooking starts. Tajine has to be simmered for around an hour to provide the best taste and aroma of ingredients. Once in a while Jamal adds some water. Thanks to the conical shape of the cover all water that evaporates can drip back to the bottom.

The only drawback is that the cooking process started quite late and Guido and I are dead tired after all day on the road. Jamal's friends offer us some home-made Berber drink made of prunes and figs that has no alcohol content but smells like slivovitsa. I reluctantly take a small sip, I won't take any more. We impatiently wait for the tajine and almost fall asleep under warm blankets. Jamal assures us: "it's almost ready, we're going to eat soon." One hour one and a half two hours before tajine appears on the table.

It's the first time we've eaten tajine with our hands. To be precise we use small pieces of bread to pick our food. You should eat only from the section of the plate that is right in front of you. Hands are much more useful than spoon or fork since you can finish the meal entirely by soaking the bread in tasty sauce. Once done with the meal, we keep licking our fingers. It's so good not to have to behave like well-mannered, modern day people.

We have a great day in nearby Todra Gorge, the one that climbers take a fancy for. It's the first place where we've seen nomads - they collect water from the river, graze sheep, make laundry in the river. The living conditions in this remote area are difficult and, these people scratch out a living selling scarves, jewelry, and small Berber rugs at roadside stalls at the base of the hiking trails. Seeing white people makes them greedy for money and as soon as they realize we're taking photos of them, they run to us and in a very demanding way ask for money and food. They seem to appear out of nowhere; we walk in a place that seems desolate and suddenly we hear "bonjour! Un stylo!" But we don't meet only the people who want some gifts from us. Two little boys say "bonjour" to us and only smile, they don't ask for anything. In return for their lack of self-interest we give them more sweets than we usually give. The kindness comes back to us - they give us some dates. Another boy, when asked for a way back out of the palm grove, leads us without expecting anything in return.

Jamal introduces us to bigger part of his family. His sisters live in the same house, together with their husbands and kids. That's the striking trait of Moroccan families - even when the kids grow up they seldom leave their family home and continue to live with other family members, even when they have families of their own. We can see that Moroccan society is male-dominated - husbands (often the only breadwinners of the family) come back home late, while women take care of the kids and housekeeping. Apart from Guido, me and Jamal, also his two sisters and two nieces are present for the dinner. The husband of one of the sisters is back home around 21.

The dinner is less fancy than yesterday - only pasta with vegetables. Guido had an idea to cook something Italian for our hosts. But his favorite meals - carbonara and risotto - are difficult to make here because of lack of ingredients - no parmesan cheese, wine is forbidden, pork is forbidden. Even if the meal is not Moroccan, it's Jamal who does the cooking. There's one cute person at home we immediately fell in love with. It's Jamal's niece, Kawtar. On one hand timid, on the other fascinated with the guests, always in a playful mood, laughing when she sees Guido juggle. She teaches me how to tie a hijab, the piece of clothing that she doesn't wear at home. Her demonstration of this skill is impressive, I'll have to polish it a little.

These smiles like thousand suns...
28th is my birthday. First time I've spent it in a country I've never been to before (one more tick on my bucket list), second time I've spend it outside Poland. We'll for sure hitchhike on that day (destination Dades Gorge) and I really want to hitchhike with a sign I was tempted to use on my way to Morocco: "My birthday" written in a local language. Here some help is inevitable. Jamal writes this phrase and adds some wishes in Arabic for me ("It's my birthday and I'm in Tinghir with Guido, Jamal invited us home and I'm very happy" - something like this). My eyes are wide-gazing when I see how easily and out of hand he writes these beautiful doodles. No wonder, it's his mother tongue. What seems so difficult to us, people used to Latin writing system, for them is like cutting cake. I try to rewrite the short phrase and find the result awful. Arabic script is charming but intimidating to write for a hand that is not trained.

Jamal's wishes, transliteration of most useful phrase (aid' milad) and my feckless attempt to write in Arabic
Just before we hit the road, I make the sign. My impressions are the same - my handwriting looks terrible and my only hope is that I didn't accidentally write "fuck" or something equally offensive. To make sure, I show it to a man on the street and ask if it's intelligible for locals, he assents: "mon anniversaire, très bon!" So we roll, the sign doesn't change too much about the speed the cars stop but it makes me smile more when passing drivers smile because the sign announcing it's my birthday. There's even one gift - a small pack of cookies from an elderly driver. In exchange I offer his some candies. There are no bad moments to share the candies.

On the way back from Gorges de Dades Jamal calls us and says his couchsurfers from Lithuania came and they want to do some camping. We meet them is a shop (of course...) in the center and it turns out that more people are coming with us. There are Dovile, Eva and Lukas from Lithuania, but also Ilze from Latvia, Nadene from Australia and Christine from Denmark, who aren't familiar with couchsurfing. Ilze, Nadene and Christine started their travels in Morocco on their own, met each other in a hotel in Fes and have stuck together since then. They all say it was easy to travel on their own in this country - absolutely no unwanted attention, no cat calls, no reasons to refrain from walking alone in the street. Their stories fire me with hope that even if Guido and I have to split at some point, I won't be lonely for too long.

The "camping" turns out to be a hotel but it's the first night like this so it won't hurt our pocket if we spend 50 MAD. Since negotiating is a default mode in many places in Morocco, I try my luck and ask the receptionist if I could get a discount for my birthday. He shows the price list to me and says a double usually costs 150 MAD, so we're already paying less.

Some of us feel like drinking at night so we check the prices of wine in a corner shop. Because of the religion drinking is frowned upon in Morocco. However, it can't be considered a dry country - local Islam has smoother standard. Sale (mainly in some chain supermarkets, bars and restaurants) and consumption are allowed but the laws concerning them them are very strict. Alcohol can't be presented in plain view - the shopkeepers have to keep it in locking cases and can only show it to you on request. Drinking in public places doesn't go down very well and you should abstain from it. During Ramadam alcohol is not available in the supermarkets, though for a foreigner the rules can be bent a little. On the top of that, the taxes charged are incredible and lack of competition makes the prices exorbitant. Here a bottle of wine costs an equivalent of 8 € and it's only one kind they have in stock. We all unanimously agree it's too much (in France you can get good wine for around 2-3 €). This evening Berber whiskey will be our only "alcoholic" beverage.

I try to speak Danish with Christine and it goes fine but I'm not satisfied with my level of Danish. It's been definitely impacted by everyday conversations in French. Before I used to subconsciously use a Danish word when I didn't know the French equivalent. Now it's the opposite.

The Lithuanians turn out to have had Polish classes at high school. They also know the Woodstock Festival. So many memories are brought forth when we discuss where we camped, which concerts we went to, how good the hare krishna food was, how crazy we got.

The chef for tonight is Jamal again. He does his best - this vegetarian tajine is the most divine one I've ever been treated to. Perfect mix of spices, one that I could really call hot, and if I say it's hot, it's really hot.

Lukas, Nadene, Dovile and Christine waiting for the tajine.

Meatballs with eggplant and chicken tajine

Vegetarian tajine, this time for me and Christine

We're so hungry we voraciously devour all this good food and we don't care how dirty we get. Somebody says "here's a spoon, if anybody would like to use it" and Guido replies "yes, but who would be so spoiled to use the spoon?"

We wrap up the night with a campfire on a hill. The time spent in Tinghir and its surroundings was amazing but this night deserves extra mention. It's a memory that cannot be erased, an experience that will not fade. All thanks to the excellent international company in the middle of Moroccan nothingness!

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