Saturday, March 14, 2015

We love Taroudant

We start climbing out of Foum Zguid across washed out roads. That second day of rain obviously had a huge impact on the area as pieces of destroyed bridges are wrapped with trees and all sorts of flotsam. We have the roads to ourself. Again, completely in awe of the natural beauty and variety of the landscape of this country.

The roadsides are full of goat herds and shepherds — some with three goats, some with dozens. We talk about how many people in Morocco, in the world, spend their days following animals around and watching them eat. A great reminder of how lucky we are, having the freedom to choose what we do in life. We pass the occasional café or restaurant in the middle of nowhere, owner sitting at a table waiting for the clients that don't come.

The kids play food-themed Would you rather...? Spaghetti bolognese or Dim sum? Lasagne or a fried egg sandwich? Meatballs or spring rolls? The food in Morocco is a big surprise to me. Having tasted and loved tajine and couscous, I assumed those dishes were the ones that had been exported not that they would be the essence of almost every meal. Tajine, couscous (on fridays or special occasions), harira, aghroum, omelette, brochette, moroccan salad, tanjia (which we still haven't found on offer), olives. That about sums it up. There are endless variations on the tajine (in the halal spectrum) but we've found ourselves more than once wishing we could take the same raw ingredients and spices and just making something different.

We stop in Taznacht, a village in the high plains, for lunch. We are drawn to a place billowing with smoke with a few tables set up outside. Around the tables are several barbecues manned by men cooking meat sandwiched between grates. The smell is making us salivate. Between all the barbecues is a butcher stall with bits of meat hanging from hooks. The idea is you choose a cut at the butcher's and the barbecue man cooks it up for you. We ask for some ground lamb which Wil brings to the grill man who sandwiches between two metal grills. Under every barbecue lies a cat, waiting for drippings. Someone brings us some olives, some bread and little bowls of harissa. When the meat is nearly done the grillman adds slices of tomato and red onion for a last shot of heat and brings it all piping hot to the table. As we eat, we people watch — the bread vendor selling aghroum and baguette from his wheeled cart, the mule carts laden with hay, the teenage boys revving their motors for a captive audience.

After lunch we head across the street to what looks like a community centre to use the bathroom, a putrid squat toilet in the darkest corner of the building. To get there we cross a huge, empty room with two men in plastic chairs and a massive television flashing soccer scores.

The trucks on the road are piled high with everything from straw to live chickens. We come down off the plain into a fertile valley full of orange and olive groves. The orange trees are seriously fragrant, cutting through the choking diesel and the dust-filled air. We happily recognize the logo of our Christmas clementine brand on the gates of the huge plantations that line the road.

A car flashes its highbeams and we wonder at what it might mean. Duh! A minute later we're being waved over to the side of the road for a speeding ticket. Two uniformed officers stand on one side of road pointing a speed gun at the cars going by. If you register on the gun they wave you over to the side of the road where you park in the rough shoulder. One of the officers comes to tell you how fast you were going and invites you to join him across the road to pay. After all the tales of corruption and baksheesh I was feeling a bit spooked but Wil grabbed the paperwork and ran across the road. There were four cars parked at once. All the drivers had made their way to the makeshift desk hidden between a little stand of trees where another officer processed the payment. 300 dirham for doing 76 in a 60 zone, complete with signed receipt. Quite an efficient system. I don't know what happens to the locals — even less those who don't have the money to pay.

The orange trees give way to palm trees and we're on a boulevard heading into lovely Taroudant. The city, nicknamed Little Marrakech, is surrounded almost entirely by high walls that have been standing since the 16th century. Through a beautiful gate in our little Kangoo into another world.

There is no rhyme or reason to the roads. Most of the streets are about 6 metres wide, which technically would be wide enough for three parked cars. The roads are all two-ways but that would imply a lane for both directions. This town doesn't do lanes. There are stop signs but they are obviously no more than a suggestion — a suggestion that is universally ignored. The streets are a sea of pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, mules, donkeys, hand carts horse carts, caleches, cars and trucks. They move in any given direction at any given time. One second you're surrounded by cyclists, the next you are being overtaken at speed with centimetres to spare. Plot your course and keep moving seems to be the rule of thumb. There are no foreign drivers here and we quickly understand why. The total (and I mean total) absence of street names really makes it impossible to navigate. Struggling to find the occasional awning with an address, seeing one, looking down at the map to try to find the street name (which of course does not feature on the map) and back up again is a complete and utter waste of time. A compass would be more useful than this bloody map.

We head in what I hope is the right direction but we soon find ourselves in a dead end. A man on a bike stops and asks us where we're going. We tell him. He giggles (politely) and offers to lead us there. We turn around and follow his red bicycle back into the vortex. There is no way in hell I would have found the riad (which as it turns out is closed for renovations). The way he leads us through the door to reception tells me this is not the first time he has provided this service to lost tourists. He takes us to another riad, first leading us to a parking spot outside the fish market where he negotiates a not-quite-legal spot with the attendant, and walks us through a labyrinthine set of alleys to our destination. We are received by a very charming young man who has obviously met our friend before, who sits down for a coffee while we check out the place. Our saviour, Farid, offers himself up as a guide the following day which we, for now, decline but we do pay him a generous finder's fee for getting us here in one piece. If ever you're in Taroudant, we know just the guy!

Taroudant isn't a big city. The ramparts are seven kilometres long and encompass all the city we're hoping to see. The streets are a smooth cobble and take you places you never thought you were aiming for. Some of the streets are no wider than a supermarket aisle but people, bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, horse drawn carriages and mule carts squeeze past each other in a fluid sort of dance. One second there are two abreast going in one direction, the next you are in a sea of students riding home from school in the opposite direction. Every once in a while a young buck comes flying through at breakneck speed leaving a wake of irritated people stopped in their tracks but on the whole it works. I had my elbow brushed by more than one rear view mirror today and have yanked all of the kids out of range of some looming hazard at least once.

Shop owners sit outside their tiny stalls and jump up as you approach. The women are out. Lovely, gorgeous moroccan woman. They're so beautiful that you could imagine the root of the headscarf being fathers insisting their daughters cover their heads to keep their beauty under wraps. The proportion of girls without headscarves is higher here than anywhere else we've been and they are knock outs. Their presence makes us all the more aware of their marked absence elsewhere. Half the population so grossly underrepresented in public life. Except for the very rare shopgirls or pharmacists, exchanges with women are limited to smiles and salaam alaykums. Makes us long for the matriarchal life of Mexico where the men agree to something and then go check with the boss. Gone are the men and women or teenagers holding hands and necking. The men, in contrast, are far more affectionate with one another. It isn't unusual to see two men hold hands walking down the street, or hug and kiss when they greet each other but between a man and a woman... Never.

We go for a walk to the Arab and Berber markets, getting our bearings. We bail on one restaurant that seems to cater solely to tourists, as, it seems, do most places that serve non-Moroccan (pricey) fare. We opt instead for little Snack, a fast-food place with non-tajine on the menu. The kids chow down on burgers and surprisingly good pizza and we head back into the evening throng. Around the markets, vendors stand at their carts, behind piles strawberries or peanuts in the shell. Everyone is out. Around the main square, a man tries to calm his spooked horse as the poor creature is trying to flee the cart tied behind it. On almost every street corner is a sign advertising "Protheses dentaires" testament to the loathsome state of teeth in this country. There is no doubt that a half dozen glasses of heavily-sugared mint tea a day has had a detrimental impact on smiles in this country. So many young men with so few teeth. The ones that are left are often brown stumps. It's such a shame in a nation of truly beautiful people. You can see how it has an impact on jobs in the tourist trade as you rarely encounter someone in the service industry who doesn't have at least most of their teeth. It rules out more people than you'd ever expect.

On many blocks is a shop window with entirely blacked-out windows. Over the doorway hangs black fabric or rubber cut into strips like a fringe. I can hear gaggles of women chatting happily inside but can't even catch a glimpse. I have to see a few before it registers. Hair salons.

We call it a night and head back to our lovely little oasis. Unlike the other riads we've stayed in, this one has windows on the outside, in our case about five feet from the window of the house on the other side of the alley. We get to listen in as we fall asleep — to small kids singing to each other, to a mom scolding her kids, to a goat that is tied up somewhere in the middle of all these bunched up buildings.

In the morning we head out for a walk with a map provided by our host. He laughs, flamboyant, joking that his map is the enemy of the likes of our would-be guide. Henri, learning to trust his newfound gaydar, brings up the question of how gay men must fare in this oh-so-macho land. I don't have an answer for him.

We head out for a wander in the sunshine, making our roundabout way to the tannery. A man offers us the tour, taking us past the cement vats where people stand in foul-smelling liquids and soak camel, sheep, goat and cow skins. They then stretch them out on the ground and scrape the fat off the inside. This is the part where I kind of turned off. It is a fascinating process how they turn hides into all sorts of useful things but it is only fascinating if you can disassociate the product from the poor animal it came from. In the various vats are lime, water and another with a concoction of pigeon droppings and cow urine. Frankly the whole process is positively revolting and if I had a backbone I'd never wear leather again. I don't know who to feel sorrier for — the animals whose hides are being tanned or the poor folk standing in this stinky vats day after day.

We walk through the Berber and Arab markets, stopping at a date stand for a bag of mejool dates which are basically sugar in fruit form. We wander around munching and then head to a café on the main square for lunch. At ten to one, the call to prayer sounds. First from loudspeakers across the road, then a little further away and on and on, like an echo. The call in Taroudant is not the most artful — sounding a lot more like a whine than a song. The square begins to empty as men who have been hanging around in groups start to march off purposefully to some place we cannot see. The café is opposite a public toilet and a man sits outside on a chair beside a box of kleenex packs. Men drop coins in the box as they emerge from the bathroom, turn the corner and hustle through the next door, up a set of narrow stairs. It takes a few minutes for it to register that they are using the bathroom for ritual ablutions before going to pray. Young and old, in suits, djellabas, dusty rags. They all climb the stairs. Some men rush across the street toward to the bathroom with their pantlegs rolled up, anxious to wash their feet before they get to the mosque. Seventy-five men up these tiny steps. And ten minutes later they are pouring back on to the sidewalk, retrieving bicycles for the ride back to work. The last man down the stairs unceremoniously closes the door behind him. Only then do we see the decoration on the door — a line with three balls of decreasing size topped with a crescent which is what appears at the top of most mosques' minarets in Morocco except for maybe the 12th century Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh which has four. The fourth was gifted to the mosque — all the gold jewellery of the Caliph's wife offered up as penance for the sin of eating three grapes during Ramadan. The punctuation of the day with prayer really brings its own rhythm to life here. Walking through the market, we often see fine mesh or a sheet being draped across the front of the stall as the owner races off to the closest mosque. I don't know if there is some kind of agreement between owners to take turns watching each other's stall but they certainly don't seem to worry about their goods being stolen which you have to appreciate. We've seen little signs hanging in more touristy locales with Arabic script and underneath, the translation, "Back after prayers".

We stop on our way home for a snooze — picking up a bag of the biggest, juiciest oranges we've ever seen. We watch a young man biking with a 16 foot length of steel U-channel balanced on his shoulder. He's holding it on the diagonal and the back bit manages to make contact with a few parked cars while we were watching. Thankfully our rental car was on the other side of the road. We saw donkeys pulling a cart filled to bursting with bags of cement and rebar so long that is was folded in half and ran from the donkey's ears to the ground behind the cart. It seems to me the beasts of burden and the women in this country are in a tight race for who hauls the most stuff. Back at the riad we play a few rounds of Asshole in the shade.

We head out to dinner, first having a long stroll around the outside of the city's ramparts, watching teenagers heading home from school and moms out with their kids. We have our meal in a touristy, but delicious, restaurant run by a 40sh woman who wouldn't look out of place in Outremont. The restaurant window, a long stretch of glass which wraps around the building on a busy corner is like watching a zoetrope of vignettes of bustling Taroudant street life.

When we step outside into the night, two young men come blasting up the road, racing their caleches up the very narrow street. One finally pulls up, very reluctantly capitulating and we soon hear why, as his clients, two elderly women looking very uncomfortable in the back, scold him loudly.

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