Growing up in the United States in the 90s was an easy life. Scratch that, let me rewind. Growing up anytime in the 20th century in the United States was easy. We have created and perfected a system that saves us time and allows for a lifestyle of convenience. We go to Wal-Mart, Sears, Safeway, or whatever other respective store to buy everything we need in one easy stop, then if that wasn't enough we have online shopping, drive through banks and DVR so we have even more time to cram important things into each day. This structure saves us time on menial tasks, so we can focus our time and energy on education and careers which in tern benefits a productive culture. 

Now, imagine a society that has not reached the convenience store stage and is so wrapped up in fulfilling its physiological needs, no one can get to the seemingly "more important" tasks. That's Morocco. I'm not trying to spin this in a positive or negative light, but rather writing how I see things as an objective outside viewer. 

If you were to take Wal-Mart and explode it into 75 little stores and scatter them along a narrow street lined with donkeys and wheelbarrows you would have a makeshift Morocco. Each store has a specialty ranging from egg stores to oil markets and carpet shops. If you were to bake a cake for example, you would have to go to the egg, flour/sugar and spice shops before obtaining all the necessary ingredients. 

The average Moroccan makes $4,800 USD a year, so it is important for them to spend their money wisely and make the most of what they have. Things that would be thrown away in the U.S. such as plastic containers, ripped jeans, a pot with a hole and newspaper are saved, repaired and recycled to be used over and over in many different forms. In addition, many products that would normally be machine or factory made are made by hand in Morocco. 

I was shocked to see the amount of work that goes into handmade products here, and the sense of pride that the Moroccans have for their exquisite goods. From carpets to scarves to tiles and wooden goods, you can always count on a little shop with Moroccans hard at work to produce the finest items. 

During one of our days in Fes we toured a ceramics factory. The factory employed somewhere around 500 workers, and I was stunned to see the complex process to create ceramics pieces. For example, here are the steps involved in creating a fountain:

1. The clay must be shaped into a tile. 
2. The clay is fired.
3. The tile is glazed and hand painted with an elaborate design or glazed one color. 
4. The tile is re-fired. 
5. The tile is hand cut and chiseled into smaller square tiles, or the face of the tile is chipped off to create a design such as a flower or leaf. 
6. The smaller mosaic tiles along with the chiseled flower designs re hand glued into a specific pattern and shape for the fountain.
7. Occasionally, silver is welded onto the face of the fountain to add an additional design element. 

All of this by hand! It takes weeks upon end and many workers to produce a single fountain. 

It took me awhile to wrap my head around this huge cultural difference of handmade goods. I was mostly shocked because:

a. In my mind, handmade items are counterproductive. The time it takes to produce them and the labor costs associated seem like they could not compete with the benefits of factory produced goods. 

b. I felt really bad for the little people sitting at a loom tying knots in a carpet day in and day out or the poor man spending his life chipping away at tiles to create the perfect design. This type of lifestyle seemed horrible to me. 

The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize the benefits of the system and accept the realities. The bottom line is that it is a way to employ a lot of people in an country that is not yet developed enough to mass produce factory goods and with a highly uneducated population with high poverty and unemployment rates. At least these people had jobs they could return to day after day. Although not glamorous, they were in much better shape than the beggars and "guides" wandering around the street willing to do anything for work or money. 

While I appreciate all the beautiful handmade goods, I still don't feel great about the lifestyles many of these workers live, and continue to ask myself time after time why I was the fortunate one who got to be born in the United States. I think there is a lot we can learn from the thriftiness of the Moroccan culture, and a lot that we can be thankful for coming from the easy lifestyles we have. 
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Daily work in the tannery
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View of the tannery
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Making carpets...can you imagine doing this for eight hours a day for your whole life? Wow.
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Piecing together a mosaic bowl
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A chicken and egg store. You pick out the chicken you want, they weigh it and kill it.
 
 
I think it would be safe to say that most every American has a similar idea of what they imagine Africa to be like. We learn about it in school and see pictures on the news, yet not many Americans have actually been to Africa to confirm or revise these images we conjure up. To many of us, it is a far away and mysterious land. 

I pictured Africa to be full of dirt roads, crazy drivers with beat up cars, small villages rich with culture and vast expanses of desolate desert. I could go on about the socioeconomic status of the people and overall safety of the continent, but I'll let you fill in the blanks.

Even with this image in mind, nothing could have prepared for what I saw on my first day in Fes. Somehow I didnt actually believe that this fairytale land that I had learned about through such a narrow American lens would be anything like I imagined. 

My hostel was located within the medina, or walled area of the city. The Fes medina is one of the largest in the world and consists of 9,400 intertwined alleyways filled with street shops, riad houses, bustling street markets and lots of mud.

My first morning in Fes I went on a tour of the medina with eight other travelers from the hostel. Walking through the streets for the first time was complete sensory overload. I was exhilirated and fascinated by this far away culture and spent at least an hour snapping a constant stream of photos. 

The tour guide took us to a pharmacy, tannery, carpet shop, clothing store and mosque school so we could learn about the different aspects of the culture and see how the perspective items were made. This of course included a 30 to 60 minute sales pitch by the store owner at the end of each session. At first I found the speeches highly entertaining, but by the time we reached the carpet shop and sat staring blankly at the man unrolling carpet after carpet, thinking that this was really the last thing I would ever consider stuffing in my backpack and carrying around for two months, I had had enough. 

Ninety percent of the time I feel like I must be wearing a clown suit with a giant sign, "come talk to me!" Walking through the streets of Fes is like a parade. You are the leader and are followed by lonely Moroccans shouting, "hello, bonjor, how are you? Where you going? You need guide?" Sometimes three or four will congregate around you bartering with eachother to give you a good price on a service you didnt even want in the first place. The people are overly eager to help, as long as you are willing to pay. 

Even, if you were smack dab in the middle of the Sahara with no civilization for miles, I'm sure it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to run across a friendly Moroccan who will take you to his uncle's restaurant then offer you a great deal at his hotel with a camel to go along with it. 

In addition to these amiable offers, you must also take into account that you are getting ripped off 90% of the time. Morocco is not for the faint of heart. You must always be on top of your game, and be able to drive a tough bargin. 

After a few hours of playing the game, my new travel friends and I began to get the hang of how things worked and came up with a few ground rules for navigating the Moroccan maze:

1. Before ordering in a restaurant always ask how much the food costs (of course there are no menus in Morocco, and the prices change depending on what you look like. They will tell you the price, then after eating they try to bump it up, forget that they already told you the original price)

2. If someone wants to help you get somewhere start of by saying, "no money." They may or may not stick around, but at least you won't be obliged to pay.

3. Pretend like you don't speak English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German or Russian. This is a great deterrent, and excellent way to practice your non-native English accent.

3. When in doubt, run from the Moroccans.

I have found myself in several situations where I need directions, but don't want to pay for a Moroccan to guide me all the way to the destination. The running technique is perfect here. I let the helper point me in the correct direction or lead me down an alleyway, then, when they're not looking book it in the opposite direction. The medina is confusing enough that it takes virtually no effort to lose someone. 

This is also an excellent strategy if you get sucked into a bartering match with a shop owner. I made the mistake of asking the price of a small teapot just out of curiosity. The clerk responded with, "120 Durham"-an outrageous price in my mind ($15 USD). He asked how much I would pay, and since I didn't actually want the teapot, I thought I would be safe going with a ridiculously low price and walking away when he said no. I offered 40 Durham ($5 USD). He came down in his initial asking price, and when I showed no interest and began to leave the shop he wrapped the teapot in a plastic bag and chased after me coming down by ten Durham for every ten feet I continued to walk. He eventually hit 40 Durham, my offer and I had no other choice than to run from the man! Luckily, they are not too enthusiastic about pursuing you, so it is always easy to escape. 

I guess the thing the Moroccans have going for them is their extreme persistence! It has been a good learning experience for me, seeing how they conduct business and picking up on their bartering "tricks." I've surprised myself with my skills and made myself a few good deals!

 
 
My journey to Morocco was about as eventful as any first time trip to Africa can get. It started with me running through the streets of Algeciras in the pouring rain to make my 10 A.M. ferry. Once aboard the ship, with soaked clothes and a drenched backpack, I claimed a couch and settled down for the two hour ride. I put my earphones in, spread my soaking clothes out to dry and started a blog post. An hour into the ride I was approached by a frazzled boat attendant yelling in Spanish that I needed to pack up everything and get off the boat immediately! Shocked and confused, I began to gather my belongings, and she asked if I had my passport stamped by the Moroccan police during the boat ride. I replied no, I did not know this was necessary. In a complete tizzy, she snatched my (soaking wet) passport from my hands and ran to the upper level of the ship before I had a chance to protest or ask what was happening. Once again, I had visions of my passport disappearing and me being stranded somewhere between Spain and Morocco until the U.S. government could send me a new one. 

As I nervously waited for some kind of a response, I looked around only to notice I was the last passenger left on the ship. Evidently, I had miscalculated the time difference which lead to our hour early arrival, and I had completely missed the loudspeaker announcements requesting passengers to get their passports stamped. I was batting a thousand.

In my anxious state, I looked out the deck window and saw that the port was nothing but a huge pile of rocks with concrete barracks and a line of semi trucks. Welcome to Africa.

The attendant finally arrived with my passport and I was soon on my adventure. From the pile of rocks port (if you can even call that a port) everyone boarded a single bus waiting past the customs booth. I knew I had to get a taxi  to the train station in Tangier, but had no idea how to go about doing that, or even where Tangier was, as I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I started asking around and the general consensus seemed to be that I needed to deboard the current bus, and get on a new bus headed to the train station that would come in an hour...or maybe two hours, to a bus stop no one could really give me directions to. Not convincing. Alone in Africa, I was not about to wait at the sketchy pile of rocks port for some phantom bus that may or may not come. I stayed on my current bus, and eventually ended up at the official port building where I caught a bus to the Tangier center.  During the bus ride, I stared out the window at the green landscape and painted concrete houses, completly enamored with Morocco. When I was finally dropped off in Tangier, a nice Moroccan/French man accompanied me to the bus station and helped me find the bus to Fes. At that moment, I got a huge whiff of Moroccan culture. The bus station was a complete zoo with street vendors following me, travelers carrying heaping bags of goods, busses pulling in and out, and drivers and pedestrians alike shouting their city of destination to sell tickets. I felt like I was surrounded by the Do-Do Birds in the movie, Ice Age screaming "Fes, Fes, Fes."I had been warned about the Moroccan bus system by both travelers and guide books. Apparently there are direct busses and local busses. Both go to the same place but one stops for every person, donkey, camel, etc. along the road and can take up to three times as long as the direct bus. The advice I received was to avoid the possiblitly of ending up on a local bus, and just take the train. Now I was in a tight spot with my new Moroccan/French friend on one side, and a bus driver shoving a ticket into my hand on the other side. There was no turning back now. I asked how long the bus would take and the driver responded, "seven hours." I must have looked dissatisfied because he instantly correct himself with an optimistic, "uh, I mean five hours!" I accepted the ticket, boarded the bus and hoped for the best. As the bus pulled away I noticed a Moroccan woman in her fourties staring at me. I smiled. She continued to stare, so I waved at her, and she gestured for me to come sit next to her. Considering I was the only white person on the bus and everyone had had their fair share of staring at me by this point, I decided to take her up on the offer. Maybe it would deter attention from me, and it would be a good chance to learn about the culture. I scooted into the vacant seat and she quickly struck up a conversation in Arabic with me. When I proved unrespondant, the man sitting across the isle started a French conversation with me. Feeling like a complete idiot for not understanding either language, I nodded and pretended to somewhat comprehend what he was saying. Probably not a good idea, as this encouraged him to continue talking to me throughout the six hour bus ride. I eventually gave up and made the "I don't know" gesture to everything he said. By the end of the bus ride I had my new Moroccan friends email and phone number, and he insisted that I call him the next day so we could meet up and he could show me around. Considering I don't speak French and he doesn't speak English and we could barely communicate face to face, I decided against the phone call (although I'm sure it would have been really interesting). Disembarking from the bus was my moment of truth. After making several stops and passing some pretty dodgy cities, I was almost positive that my luggage was stolen. I imagined that a bright blue backpack with a United Kingdom flag would be a prime target. Before the trip, I had fully prepared myself for the possibility of getting robbed in Morocco, and was now accepting of the chance, except for the fact that I had left my airline tickets in my backpack. I realized this half way through the journey and replayed scenario after scenario in my mind of what I would do if my backpack was indeed missing. Lucky for me, my bright blue travel buddy was right where I had left him. I was ecstatic, and definitely learned my lesson about what to leave in the backpack. After a full day of traveling, foreign conversations, getting yelled at, stared at and almost robbed, I arrived in Fes exhausted and speechless. I booked it to the hostle, and once inside the doors, a wave of relief came over me. I had no idea what to expect from Morocco or Africa, and so far it had been exhilirating, shocking and tiring. This would later on prove to be a daily cycle. Hello, Africa.