Tuesday, July 30, 2013

How to Go to a Moroccan Hammam (Public Bath)

My trip to Morocco for Easter vacation was one where I went outside of my comfort zone a lot—even if it was with the help of the tourist trail. I had to manage daily life with a language I barely spoke (French) and one I didn’t at all (Arabic); there was absolutely no question I was a foreigner, being Christian, white, and non-fluent in any of Moroccan’s languages; and I basically winged transportation day by day, be it trains, buses, urban or interurban taxis.

Moroccan hammam bathhouse
Douche et Bain Barakat, Chefchaouen (“Barakat Shower & Bath”)
One of the things I wanted to do to push myself out of my comfort zone and to *ahem* immerse myself in Morocco was to bathe in a traditional hammam, or public bath. Ideally, I wanted to try out a hammam in each of the three cities I would stay at (Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen), but because it’s such a time-consuming process and I didn’t have much down time in the first two cities, I didn’t end up bathing (I did shower though!!!) until Chefchaouen.

I was a little uneasy about doing this whole public-bathing thing out on my own, especially since there is this whole defined ritual with special soaps and often a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours vibe when it comes to cleaning your back. Thankfully, I ran into a guy from Chile named Antonio at my hostel (yay for speaking Spanish!) and we realized we both wanted to try out the hammam, so—after wandering through Chefchaouen’s blue medina for him to pick up a scrubby and getting 1.5-liter water bottles for us both—we mustered up our courage and entered the hammam at dusk.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Chefchaouen, Morocco: Photos of a Blue, Spanish-Style Town

To finish off a warm, spring week in Morocco this past March, I spent two nights in the city of Chefchaouen, a cozy place set on a hillside about an hour or so from the Mediterranean coast. While researching for the trip, I kept coming across stories and pictures of this town that made it seem like a fantasy world, painted all-blue everywhere. Blue is my favorite color, after all, and wandering through a city completely blue sounded super cool, so I put it on my list.

Chefchaouen, Morocco
City panorama
Pronounced “shuf-SHAH-wehn” [ʃəfˈʃɑ.wən], Chefchaouen was settled in 1471 as a military town to counter the Portuguese, who had been invading the region from the Mediterranean coast (think Ceuta). Because of this (and perhaps because of its location in the mountains), the town was hostile to non-Muslims up until the mid-20th century, when the Spanish came in and colonized the country.

Today Chefchaouen is a fun and safe city to visit that welcomes tourists Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Its medina or medieval walled city is easy to get around; you won’t get nearly as lost here as you might in Fez or Marrakesh because Chefchaouen is much smaller and also on a hillside, from where you can get some perspective. The general mood of the city is calm (perhaps it’s because of all the blue paint?), and a cool mountain river rushes by the southern limits of town, so ‘Chaouen makes for a great place to recharge from the excitement of the imperial cities or the intensity of the desert.

In this post I’m going to present six of my favorite photographs from my stay here and do a little write-up beneath each one. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

FAQ about Volubilis, Morocco: Roman Ruins in North Africa

Although the fascinating mix of Arab and Berber cultures was what drew me to Morocco this spring, something else spoke to my inner history major: the crumbling skeleton of a once-flourishing Roman city. This place, called VOLUBILIS by the Romans and Oualili by the Berbers, is one of the most important Roman sites in north Africa, yet many tourists to Morocco have never even heard of the ruins or shy away from making a day-trip from the imperial city of Meknes. Read on to learn why it’s worth putting on your Moroccan itinerary.

Roman ruins of Volubilis, Morocco
Strolling down the Decumanus Maximus

How do you say “boloo-blah-blah”?

Roman ruins of Volubilis, Morocco
Roman inscription recording the name of the city
Okay this one’s a little tricky. In Classical Latin it would have been pronounced “woe-LOO-bee-lees” [woˈlu.bi.lis], not far removed from the Berber Oualili or Walili. For English-speakers, however, it’s probably fine to voice the V since that’s what the French do as well. Go ahead—you can say it out loud if you like! “voe-LOO-bee-lees” with the stress on the third-to-last syllable, just like in the word “democracy.”

Monday, July 15, 2013

6 Weird Things We Do in the United States

I’m now in my fourth week back home in the good ol’ U. S. of A., and I’ve noticed a few strange customs that we do here in America that would seem rather strange to an alien visitor from outside the States. They’re mainly just silly things, but they prove that Reverse Culture Shock is a very real thing. Enjoy!

Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C.
American flags at the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C.

1) Carpet

(Source: Jim Mead)
What is this stuff if not wall-to-wall, glued-down rugs? It really is a strange concept but boy have I sure missed being able to sprawl out on the floor with things I’m working on or a movie. The linoleum is much easier to keep clean (and better for allergies), but is hardly an inviting place in which to cuddle up with a good book. Still, given how disgusted I was when I looked in the dustpan after my weekly bedroom sweep, I just don’t want to know how much dirt simply hangs around in the carpet.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fez, Morocco: The Medieval City of 9,000 Streets

I’m fully aware that I’m just now getting to blogging about Morocco well over three months after the fact. But even after being gone for that amount of time, one memory still vividly stands out in my mind:

Fez, Morocco
Three Moroccan teenagers chillin’ at the Borj Nord
After six hours of travel and one train transfer (not to mention an overnight ferry from Spain), I had finally emerged from the dreary rain to behold the houses and streets of Fez as we circled the city on the train tracks. The spring-green forests veiled the city once again, but it wasn’t long until we pulled in to the Fez Train Station, a white, horseshoe-arched structure that in Spain would be called Moorish Revival but in Morocco…simply the norm. Weary from a day of transportation, I strolled into the main hall and gaped at the beautiful wooden ceiling and tilework-clad walls. Although the beautiful interior was finished just three years earlier, it nevertheless linked the new part of town with centuries-old artisanal traditions found in the old town.

Mint tea, Fez, Morocco
Moroccan mint tea—all day every day
My sleeping arrangements also lied in the medina, or old walled city, but you couldn’t have paid me to walk across a new city in the dark with two heavy bags. So I joined the first taxi driver that accosted me in front of the station and asked to be taken to the Bab Bou-Jeloud, the colonial-era gate built in a corner of the medina that was also the gateway to my hotel.

With the windows rolled down, we set off in the hibiscus-red sedan as the evening sky entered the blue hour. My driver skirted the Frenchy Ville Nouvelle for a rolling highway on the edge of town. We spoke little, simply listening past the rushing wind to the beats of the Arabic pop radio hit. Turning at an intersection, I could feel we were going back in time—a great, hulking wall had appeared, illuminated in a golden, lemon-yellow light, probably recently lit up at dusk. As we accelerated, the wall kept going and going; endless turrets and merlons flickered beyond the shady trees on the shoulder as folks in long, flowing white robes drifted by.

Fez medina walls, Morocco
Northern medina walls
The months of preparing and anticipating, the hours of travel by boat and by train, the euros converted to dirhams and all the French and Arabic practiced had led up to this moment. I had arrived at the Fez medina.

Monday, July 1, 2013

June Monthly Update: Coming Home Edition

I’m writing this from my childhood bedroom, which means I’ve finally come back home to America after nine months living abroad in Spain. Whoa. It seriously feels like I just left Texas the other day, but this blog, of course, would say otherwise. Over this past month I’ve gone from one corner of Spain to another and back, hiked 204km (125 miles), explored two cities that celebrate their Roman heritage, and been reunited with friends from Spain no fewer than three times.

Woods west of Santiago de Compostela


The Roman theater in Mérida
One of the places in Spain I had been longing to visit for a while was Mérida, the capital of the Extremadura region just east of central Portugal and a treasure trove of Roman ruins. This city’s got temples, forums, aqueducts, bridges, theaters, amphitheaters, circuses (and bread, too). To be honest, I exhausted all of the big Roman sites (sights?) in one day, but the oldest Moorish castle on the peninsula, free tapas, and a TEX-MEX restaurant kept me in town for two nights.

Camino de Santiago

The compostelana or certificate for finishing the pilgrimage
The Camino de Santiago is what got me interested in Spain in the first place. This ancient pilgrimage route starts in the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France and runs across northern Spain before ending in the city of Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the Galicia region to the north of Portugal. The full route (i.e., the “French Way”) is 800km (500 miles) long, but since I had only a few weeks from the last day of work in May until my flight home and because I had limited funds to gallivant across the country with, I decided to start in the village of Sarria and hike the last five days’ worth, or 115km (72 miles). After all, the Catholic Church requires that you complete the last 100km on foot to receive the fancy certificate.

The hike itself was wonderful; I made walking buddies within minutes of arriving in Sarria, I took full advantage of the six-euro-a-night state-run pilgrim hostels, I got over my fear of public showers, and I got a lovely introduction to the region I’ll be working in next school year. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back and hike the whole thing, but I’m so glad I can say I did it.
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