Morocco, Maybe

Our 10-week trip is roughly symmetrical -- 4+ weeks in Europe, 4+ weeks in Asia, with 1+ week in North Africa in between.  Another symmetrical aspect of our trip is that we're roughly making a U-shape in terms of the development level of the countries we're visiting.  That's just coincidental.  If Zika hadn't taken over most of the world, we'd be spending almost all of our trip in developing countries as originally intended.  Though, today, while we hang out near the bottom of the U, I'm glad we've got an upward path ahead of us.  Traveling in developing countries can be extra difficult.

As a curious aside, here's the Human Development Index ranking for the countries we're visiting:

  • Prologue, 4 days:  France - 21
  • Norway, 12 days- 1
  • Spain, 8 days - 27
  • Portugal, 11 days - 41
  • Morocco, 9 days - 123
  • Sri Lanka, 9 days - 73
  • Japan, 16 days - 17
  • Epilogue 3 days:  China - 90

We started our Moroccan adventure in Fes (Fez) and then took a train to Marrakesh (Marrakech) yesterday.  It's July in the desert near the equator, so it's HOT.  But we're told it's even hotter than normal.  The full time we've been in the country so far, the high hasn't dropped below 110 degrees.  Our highest day so far has been 115.  It's a dry heat, thankfully -- 8% humidity today.  Looking ahead to next week in Sri Lanka, it's only going to be a high of 85 degrees, which sounds amazing until you see that it's going to be a high of 94% humidity!  I don't know which will feel worse.  We'll report back when we know.

I don't do well in heat.  And we're in a Muslim country where you have to have your knees and shoulders covered at all times.  :-P  So, it's been tough.  Although it could be worse -- no heat stroke for me yet.  The problem right now is that our current hotel's air conditioning isn't equipped to handle heat quite this bad, and so our room feels like a toaster while outside feels like a frying pan.  In Fes, the air conditioning in our room was strong enough to handle it.  Last night, I slept on the concrete floor under the air conditioner.  :-P  And we're not paying the cheapest possible prices for this place, either.  This is like the cheap-end of fancy at $75/night.  But that's how developing country travel goes, anyway.  

Speaking of air conditioning, it's been cool(ish) to experience first hand how well a properly designed building cools itself.  Of course, in developed countries, we stopped designing buildings properly 125 years ago and started tacking bigger and bigger machinery onto them in order to heat and cool them.  The vernacular architecture here goes back 2,000+ years, and the streets of the medinas and the interior courtyards of the houses are easily 20-30 degrees cooler than the overall temperature of the city.  It's impressive how well it works and how far astray we've gotten.  And, of course, it inevitably frustrates me, as we continue to debate whether to start paying for air conditioning for our public housing residents in the US for the first time.  On one hand, it'd be such a dramatic increase to our utilities budget that it's generally considered unfeasible.  On the other hand, we're experience climate change, which exacerbates an existing struggle to keep our vulnerable tenants safe and healthy.  On the third hand, we would have saved money all along, avoided the need to spend even more money now, and lessened climate change in the first place if we'd just designed buildings well from the beginning.  Damnit.  I swear, when I'm president...  ;-)

Getting off of my soapbox and back onto the subject at hand...  Fes is like walking into a time machine.  There's not a lot to do there as a tourist other than wander the 9,500 street labyrinth that is their medina and haggle over handicrafts.  Some streets are only as wide as a donkey, and some are only as tall as a donkey, too.  There are thousands of feral cats.  And, in the food souks, chickens being slaughtered in the open.  Somewhere in there, they also butcher cows and camels and goats.  I walked into Fes a lapsed vegetarian and walked out a renewed one.  (We'll see how long I last...)  As, ultimately, I am the biggest hypocrite in the world... crying after hearing chickens screaming before slaughter and abandoned newborn kittens dying in the streets and donkeys being whacked and driven to carry hundreds of pounds through 115 degree heat.  Then buying 5 leather poufs as gifts.  ::sigh::

Speaking of haggling, Marcus and I tried so hard.  So hard.  Haha.  But inevitably, perhaps, we came out having spent too much overall, paid too much for each item, gotten some poor quality things, and at least one thing that's not what it's supposed to be.  ::sigh::  We are defeated.  It's David and Goliath, anyway.  We may be the rich Americans, but the souk owners are professional hagglers.  Maybe we just need to look at it like gambling -- go in knowing that you're paying for the experience and set a limit on how much you're willing to lose.  :-P

Marrakesh is markedly more cosmopolitan than Fes; more influenced by Europe and tourists in general.  For that reason, we wanted to buy most of our souvenirs and gifts in Fes where it was supposed to be cheaper and closer to the artisans themselves.  But now that we're in Marrakesh, I wish we'd waited.  First of all, we overpaid anyway.  Second of all, the souks in Marrakesh are much more curated.  It's as if they pulled out the high-quality and well-designed items from the Fes medina and brought them here.  And as far as I can tell, they aren't actually more expensive than Fes.  So, my advice:  shop in Marrakesh instead of Fes unless you're a professional buyer.  And, generally speaking, visit Marrakesh instead of Fes unless you're a professional traveler.  I have only moderate shame about being someone who prefers a slightly inauthentic but slightly cushier tourist experience.

This brings me to the more dramatic parts of our trip.  I've buried the lede so significantly, I'm hoping our moms won't get this far (Hi moms!).  Conclusion first:  We're perfectly safe and healthy!  Really.

We've had 2 legitimately scary experiences in Morocco so far.  The first is one that the guidebooks warn you about but that is really difficult to avoid.  In Fes's medina, which, as I said, is a labyrinth of 9,500 tiny alleys, it is guaranteed that you'll get lost.  No one suggests anything less -- even the guidebooks say "The best way to see Fes is to spend the day getting lost!"  That's true.  But then they also say "People are friendly and will point you back to the gate."  That's also true.  But then they also say "Don't get lured in by the guys who promise to point you back to the gate."  See the problem there?  :)  

Basically what happens is that 25% of people are nice and will point you where you need to go.  25% of people are trying to get a commission and will direct you to their friend's store (and sometimes keep following you to make sure you go there).  Another 25% of people point you the way but then "no problem, I'll walk with you, I'm going this way anyway" or "no problem, let me show you this turn so you don't miss it" and then hassle you to pay them once you get where you're going.  The last 25% of people start out like that, but then instead of leading you to where you need to go, they start winding you deeper and deeper into the medina until you're much more profoundly lost.  If it's 113 degrees out and you've gotten into a quiet part of the medina and/or dark alleys, you're in trouble.  Either of having to bribe your way out or of something worse.  That's what sort of happened to us.  To be fair, we had already wound ourselves pretty far in and we knew we were in trouble right away when this guy started "helping" us.  But when you're lost, you really have no power.  You can follow him for a little bit and hope that it gets you closer to a main street or you can wander around yourself.  The extra frustrating part about it is that if you're lucky enough to reorient yourself and tell the guy to leave you alone, he just follows you for 10 minutes, yelling at you to give him more and more money until you are finally out in a packed market again.  I wouldn't say this guy was specifically dangerous, but he definitely wanted to get as much money out of us as he could and knowing that you're being led in circles in 113 degree heat is ultimately a scary experience.  We used breadcrumbs from then on.  ;-)

That brings us to when we got attacked with a knife!  


This afternoon, we were out in the Marrakesh medina wandering around and not getting particularly lost because it's smaller, less confusing, and there are at least a few signs!  But Marcus and I were walking down a street into a small square and turning the corner into another street, when this guy shoved me in the chest with a bag full of something or other and then took a swipe across my face with a knife.  He didn't make contact, and I don't think he intended to.  I think he wanted me not to walk down the alley that he was guarding.  Either that, or he was crazy.  

It took me a second to process what was going on, but when the knife was in my face, I got it.  :-P  But Marcus was just behind me and hadn't seen it yet, so when I spun around and grabbed his arm, he was still moving forward.  The guy put the knife point right into Marcus's chest but did NOT cut him.  It has to have been a really dull knife.  It wasn't a butter knife -- it was a weapon -- but it must have been as dull as a butter knife.  Because just while we were getting 10 feet between us and this guy, another tourist couple came wandering down the alley right behind this guy.  Of course, they hadn't seen what just happened to us, so when they tried to walk past him, basically the same thing happened to them.  He slashed the knife at them.  The lady was a step ahead of her boyfriend, so she got it first, and then she yanked her boyfriend past and the guy slammed the knife down on the back of the boyfriend's neck a few times as he went past.  But he didn't seem to be cut or even really hurt by it.  

So, we're all fine.  We went with our hotel manager to the cops, and they said they already had the police out in the market to arrest him.  So supposedly that's the end of that.  I've never been attacked with a knife before, but I've definitely been grabbed by scary guys on the street, as is sadly not uncommon for women in the US to experience.  And Marcus has seen someone get shot before, so it'd be a bit unfair to judge Morocco only by these experiences.  That said, I'm about ready to move on... in 4 days.  :-P