8. Morocco – Desert to Meknes
So far, throughout our adventures in Kabylie, Tom has managed to resolve all her little problems but this fuel pump problem has been recurring every time it has got over 30 degrees since Iran. After much head scratching and goggling it seems that it’s a sickness called Vapor lock where to petrol vaporises in the pipes as it is pumped up from the tank. Old cars apparently don’t like the low boiling point in modern fuels so some modifications are probably necessary when we get home. Luckily, the next day, the temperature had dropped as we wound ourselves up from the plain through the spectacular Todra Gourge to over 2800m into the Middle Atlas.
Nomad families with camels were slowly winding their way up the same slopes to their summer pastures that seemed to us as overgrazed and devoid of vegetation as the desert below. Running dangerously low on petrol we filled up from and toothless old shopkeeper who poured seven-up bottles of petrol into our tank.
The mountains of the Middle Atlas are spectacularly barren and as we started to descend the road became worse with vast potholes and shear drops to the valley below. Not ideal for a herniated disc so much of the journey I lay flat on my back with my head on Tom’s knee or on all fours leaning on the back shelf or occasionally squatting in the footwell so as to absorb the bumps with my legs.
After many orange juice stops we ate lunch at some famous springs, which were lined with little shacks where you could siesta and eat on a carpeted platform overhanging the raging river. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish between someone being kind and a ‘shister’ and this time we ended up being scammed for our lunch by the latter!
As the evening drew in we found ourselves with nowhere to stay and resolved to ask one of the farmers if we could camp in their yard, but which one? As the sun begun to set we spotted a man herding his sheep by the road with two children. Perfect.
We screeched to a halt and Tom jumped out to ask and luckily he spoke good French and invited us to stay. In fact he and his family could not have been kinder and we soon found ourselves cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his house being treated to everything he and his wife could lay their hand on. They showed us a kindness and generosity that would be hard to find in Europe and we are told by fellow travellers that this is standard hospitality across much of the country.
They had very little to share and we felt embarrassed to be offered so much. We emptied out our kitchen box looking for gifts to repay the kindness. The best we could do was a really good knife and potato peeler. Madame was delighted. It seems that at almost all levels of Moroccan society French is spoken – we can’t remember a time that we have been able to communicate so freely with people who have so little and whose lives are so different from our own and it was fascinating. The next day we took Abdullah, the dad into town as it was Souke day so Petra took the opportunity to buy some ingredients to cook that night’s supper.
When travelling with no reservations or appointment or things or places one has to go to, one soon looses all track of time and we relised we had no idea what date or even what day it was. I suddenly thought I had better look up how many more days we had in Morocco. With our fuel pump still playing up, Tom was keen not to have to do a last minute dash north or miss the ferry if we broke down.
As it turned out we had enough time to visit Meknes so as we approached the city Petra was tasked with finding us a place to stay in the medina. Moroccan cities are hectic places and as you approach the centre with the mass of humanity crowding onto the roads you begin to think there will be no chance of parking securely. However the ubiquitous toothless parking attendant always jumps out in front of you at the right moment to guide you into the waiting space. You feel like you might be backing into a china shop as he gesticulates wildly guiding you into an invariably massive space as if every inch was a mater of life or death. Our car when locked is far from secure, you could open it with a sharpened banana if you needed to but by giving the equivalent of a couple of euros to the attendant, everything is securely guarded. We would certainly be happier leaving Kabylie in the heart of any chaotic Moroccan city than unguarded in a European city street.
Meknes is not as chaotically beautiful as Fez but its Medina is still a fascinating labyrinth of industrious humanity. It is also one of Morocco’s principle royal cities so is surrounded by impressive walls and elaborate royal gates. With only a few days left this was my last time to fill the back of the car with local delights. Tajines, jilabias, carpets, lamps, spices, perfumes ahhh so much to choose from. To Tom’s great relief the pressure lead to indecision and I actually ended up being quite restrained! Hector however discovered someone who would sell him powdered sulphur that he hopes will work well in his experimental rocket engine so he was delighted he made his first purchase of the trip.
The guidebook says that in Morocco may women find that there single most rewarding experience is to visit one of the hammams used by the locals so Petra and I decided to give it a go! Click on the audio file link to hear what we discovered!!
Her stripy jilabia brushed the dusty ground as she led us through the twisting alleyways of the medina to the hammam. An unmarked doorway led down a dirty flight of tiled steps and down a passageway to a large tiled room. The smiling lady who had led us to the hammam translated the price for us and explained that it was the domain of the women until 8.00pm thereafter only men could bathe.
Petra and I decided we would return to the hammam at 6.00pm and amazingly we managed to find our way back there without our stripy guide. We entered with trepidation, as this was not the rather smart hammam you find in the bottom of your plush hotel, but the traditional bath house used by the locals, particularly those without hot water in their homes. Our guide book informed us that though some women would be topless, most would wear swimming costumes or underwear and be rather modest, facing the wall whilst they changed.
We were met at the doorway by a 60 year old woman in nothing but a pair of large black pants and a handkerchief tied in her hair. As she spoke to us she massaged her drooping naked breasts and gesticulated for us to come in. In a mixture of French, Berber and Arabic, we were instructed to shed our clothes, but were allowed to keep on our bikini bottoms. As we rounded the corner into the baths proper, a bacchanalian sight unfolded. Naked bodies in a multitude of postures and degrees of soaping up were sitting or lying around the room like a centre spread from the Kamasutra. Clearly the person who wrote the guide book had never set foot in a traditional hammam as there was not an ounce of modesty save the occasional pair of large pants. Several people were lying on the floor being scrubbed in every nook and cranny by their friends and others were scrubbing or shaving themselves. Everyone was far more comfortable with their own and other peoples bodies than we are in Europe or America, and it seemed quite normal for women to be busily soaping, shaving or massaging their ‘bits’ in full view or everyone else.
The age range spread from about 25 to 80 with most women quite overweight. The large amount of flesh was only counterbalanced by the plethora of plastic buckets that took up most of the floor space. Around each woman, there must have been about 4-5 knee high buckets of water, which the headscalf wearing woman who welcomed us would continually fill with more water of varying degrees in temperature. We were given a scoop with which to slosh water over ourselves and a lump of squishy jam-like substance to rub ourselves with, which turned out to be salon noir – a type of soap.
Petra was called away first and was instructed to lie on a piece of plastic on the floor as our headscalf wearing friend scrubbed her all over. It was not until my go that I realised the place that our ‘scrubber’ had chosen for us to lie was not ideal. As I lay on my stomach, I looked ahead to see that my head was only about 3 feet from the parted legs of a rotund lady busily shaving her private parts. Awkwardly, she kept trying to engage me in conversation which meant I had to keep looking up at her intricate work. Worse was to come though, for she then started sloshing herself with water, the runoff being carried away with her old soap, dead skin and pubic hair flowing across the marble floor past my arms and face and then when I turned over, through my hair!
Keen to cleanse ourselves of other peoples scrubbed off skin and shaved off hair, Petra and I then sloshed about 36 buckets of water and soap over ourselves and washed our hair thoroughly.
Petra wanted to stay longer, but I was overheating after an hour, so we dressed and made our way back to the find the boys. Tom was intrigued by the image of a multitude of naked and semi naked females all scrubbing and shaving themselves and I agree that in sounded fantastical. I’m sure in Tom’s mind they were all georgouse in their 20’s not in their late 60’s and of elephantine proportions! In reality it was a great experience and clearly a really fun social gathering for the women and fascinating to discover what these modest, head-scarf wearing women get up to, when the men are not looking.