Thursday, December 8, 2011


So I'm back in LA (wooo, I can drink the water!), and wanted to give you some observations and thoughts on Morocco. In no particular order, here's what I got for you

There is the wonderful, super friendly, generous side. And then there is the touting, in your face, "good price" side that sees you as a walking ATM. Now this happens in many of the developing countries I've visited. After all, on my budget trips (This one averaged about $63 a day), I'm spending 4 times what the average Moroccan makes in a day from work. In some places I've been the gap is even more. In some places less. So I want to say, that I don't think it's wrong that this is the attitude. It is a little unfortunate, as it makes for some rather frustrating encounters (see endless list of touts in the emails) but it also makes for rather cool ones (sleeping Kasbahs, sharing cuss-cuss before a jewelry purchase).

2. "I'VE BEEN HERE FOR THREE WEEKS" is the magical phrase
As I mentioned before. After some polite "no thank yous", "I know where I'm going's", just drop the magic phrase above, and they will smile and walk away "Welcome Morocco."

3. I'd say that Morocco was one of the more challenging places that I've gone. Looking at my "Levels of Travel" from, I'd say it was a 4 (on a scale of 0-5). There were good tourist services...sort of. But the language barrier (for me) and the street smarts required (see touts above) made it quite a challenge. A good challenge. A challenge I'm glad to have had. And one I wouldn't be afraid of taking on again.

4. Moroccan's are good sales people.
Yep, I bought more random souveniers on this trip than any other. A cool geode from a berber guy at the bus stop in the mountains. 80 Dirham. I offered 40. He said sure. 5 bucks. Cool geode. I don't need it. But it's cool. :) You too will buy lots of things. But if something's too expensive, just walk out the door. That's cool too.

5. Hammam's are fun.
So yeah, it's a little weird to us western folks to get a scrub in a Hammam by someone of the same sex. But it's actually fun. And is a normal occurance to Moroccans' (And Turkish folks too). So don't be afraid to try something way outside your comfort zone. It makes for a good story and a better understanding of how the world works.

6. Getting outside the comfort zone is good.
I did it on purpose this time around. I wanted some Culture shock and some comfort zone expanding adventure. I got it. It wasn't always a "good time", but it was always worth it. I think in life it's far to easy to get used to our routines and our comfort zone. The places we eat, the places we drive, the friends we hang out with. And though having a comfort zone can be good, as it gives us the ability to refresh and reenergize. I'm a firm believer that ultimately, the comfort zone is a negative thing. Life is to be experienced, and if you're afraid to go out and see it, encounter it, get a scrub down or get dirty on the streets, you're missing a huge portion of what it is to LIVE.

7. Coming back is always a bit of a downer...
Yep, I got some "back-to-LA-blues". But that's ok. I'm not feeling sorry for myself, but just acknowledging that I was living in the moment much more when I was on my trip. And that's good. Some people find that feeling of being alive by playing sports, or travel, or building something, or making love. These are all good ways. (Drugs, hurting people and blowing stuff up are bad ways.) But there will always be a come down after the ride. That's cool. It's normal. Let's you rev up for the next adventure.

8. Moroccan's are friendly.
Going back to the 2 faces. They really are a nice people. I missed a lot because I didn't speak French or Arabic. But I still encountered great generosity from many people.

9. Morocco is safe.
Yep, I know I had my "F#$K YOU" experience in Fez. And it was a bit scary. But statistically you are more likely to have a violent crime committed against you in a big city in Europe than in Morocco. Sure, keep your street smarts, keep your valuables hidden. Don't walk down dark alleys alone. (Sounds like any big city safety). But in the are cool. Small town Morocco, is like small town America. Safe and friendly (but with Minarets on many corners calling to prayer).

10. Islam is cool.
Yep, I said it. Islam is cool. Just like Christianity is cool. Judaism is cool. Buddhism is cool. Etc etc etc. Islam does not teach people to kill to goto heaven. Islam is not about destroying the west. Yes, there are radical Muslim's who think this. Just as there are radical Christian's who think everyone not white is an abomination. Sometimes people are just stupid.
But Islam is cool. It's respectful. It is amazing to see hundreds of people flood into Mosques 5 times a day when the call echoes out. And pray. To allow themselves to be second to something bigger and more powerful than themselves. This isn't something to be judged, like "hey you're crazy to do that", it's something to be admired. Whether you believe in what they do is irrelevant. But I think it's important to realize that people all over the world are looking for the same sense of purpose and place in the universe, and in Morocco, this is how many find it. My point being, don't judge a religion and a people based upon all the negativity you see on TV. Go experience it first hand and you might learn something good. This doesn't just apply to Islam either...

11. Some women are covered in Morocco. Some are not. Very rarely did I see any cleavage or skin, but there were many tight jeans and stylish tops, and tons of adds for hair product. TONS. The more rural you get, the more conservative it gets. The more covered up. Though, it wasn't that common to see the style where you only see the slit for the eyes to peak out. Usually entire faces were exposed. And often, someone dressed like that was next to someone with their hair out, and they were talking. I wish I could have spoken to more Moroccan women to find out what they thought, how they felt, and all. But it's very uncommon for men and women to intermingle at length. And I don't speak French. I always find gender roles fascinating.

12. Morocco isn't all desert.
Go figure! From every picture you see, it's all desert and hot as balls.
Well, not in November, not to hot at all. In the 70's or 60's or colder during the day. (My Centegrade friends will have to translate that one themselves. :). And it's not all desert. Sure, everything south and east of the Atlas mountains is desert. Either rock, barren, or sand dunes. But the mountains have evergreen forests. And the north west, though some desert, has a lot of fertile plains. Who knew?

I just finished editing the footage I shot on 11-11-11, for the film the world day. It was the great waterfall hike in Azrou with Youness, Rachid and Mike. It's strange, it feels like a million years ago already. I look at the footage, and see the town and the falls and the people and it's almost like it went past in a blur. I think "was I even really there?" But the memories come back strong with photos and video. I guess that's the forever balance of capturing the memories, so that you can relive them vs. living them fully in the first place. As always, I probably took too darn many pictures. But hopefully I will get some up on the blog before too long.

And so it really ends.
There isn't much left to say.
Go to Morocco.
You'll push yourself, and it'll be worth every step.

This is Craig Ouellette,
last surviving member of the Nostromo
Signing off.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


I told you there was one more Morocco you go!

I'm 6 days in Morocco when this happens...I've seen almost no travelers of any kind.

"Are you sketching?"
I look over and a man in his early 40's is smiling at me on the Meknes train platform, as I wait to goto Fez.
"Nope, just writing in my Journal."
"Ahh. Where are you from? America?"
"Yep. Los Angeles"

And so begins a nice conversation with Zack. He's on his way to work. He lives in Meknes, and works in Fez. It's about 40 minutes on the train. We ride together in the same compartment. He tells me about how he just got married a week ago to a 20 year old gal. They'd been dating for 2 years, but never played "Noodle Soup" until they got married. She's not very good. But she will be, he thinks.

At this point, you're probably thinking what I was thinking. "Are we really talking about your wifes sexual prowess when we just met?" And the answer is "Yes." Welcome Morocco.

He says it's normal for a man his age to marry a younger woman. See, it's important that the woman be a virgin when you marry. I joked, that it doesn't matter as much here in the USA (Feel free to disagree good readers if you want :). If a man is a virgin in Morocco they will laugh at you. I see a fundimental delimma there, but didn't bring it up. He was married before, has two kids. Still friends with his wife. Just didn't want to live together anymore. He says if I was there last week he would have invited me to the big wedding party. It went till 6 am.

By this point we're like pals, just riding the train. I pulled out my Lonely Planet to decide which hotel or guest house to stay at. He said he "has a friend" who has a spot. (Everyone in Morocco "has a friend" :), but he said it was 150 Dirham (that's less that 20 USD), which is the same price as the ones in the book. So he called his friend, they said there was room, and that "2 American girls who were studying at the Arabic school in Fez" would be staying there. That's cool. And I get a ride from the Train station, and can avoid all the touts. Woo-hoo.

Well, after showing me some dirty text from an American girlfriend he used to have, who apparently doesn't know he's married. (She wanted his "big banana so bad"), he invited me to a bar that serves wine in the evening. Said he'd be there at 7pm. (Never refuse an invitation...) so I plan to meet him there.

He rolls out as the train pulls in, and I wasn't able to snap his photo to commemorate a fun encounter.

In the station I meet his buddy, Mohammed (yep), but you can "call me Mo". So Mo is this gregarious, fun, outgoing goofball. He said Zack told him to look for my safari hat. We roll through town. He teaches English at the school. We head to the medina and he walks me through a couple twists and turns to Fatima's guesthouse. He says he'll be back in an hour and we can grab lunch and he'll show me around. Sweet!

So I get my room, which is just off the living room of their house. And as I mentioned in a previous email, I was shown my bathroom which HAD A SKINNED GOAT CARCASS hanging in it. Welcome Morocco!

Well, an hour later the phone rings, and it's Mo. Something's come up, so he'll have to meet me later, but he's sending his buddy Akmed (I think that was his name), who "looks like me" (aka, he has no hair), to take me to lunch with his family.

Hmmm... okay.

So Akmed shows up. He's stylish, leather jacket, cell phone, sunglasses, and as promised, no hair. I'm a little suspicious, and honestly pretty hungry. Ready for the catch at any moment.

But there isn't one. We head out of the medina, and hop a cab, which takes us all the way around to the otherside. (Which would be a 20 plus minute through the Medina). Well, it smells like something died. Bad. Dead stench is all over on this side of the Medina. He tells me it's the Tanneries, where they make the leather. Whew.

We go down various twisty alleys and up to his home. We go inside and...

...his mom is cooking goat-kabab's on a little charcoal grill in their living room (which is about 3 stories tall and surrounded by all the other rooms of the house). His dad, sister, brother, sister-in-law and their 2 kids are there. And we eat goat kababs. And bread. And drink mint tea. For like 40 minutes. Eat away. They kept shoving more food at me. At one point they plopped half a boiled goat head on the table. I laughed out loud in surprise. Akmed just pulled a chunk of meat off it. I tried a little, but it was pretty hard core.

After we just sat and chilled. His brother went to sleep in the next room. His sister cleaned up. It was cool, but a little awkward, as no one really spoke English. Lots of smiles and laughs.

Finally Mo called, said he could meet us at a cafe. Ok. I wanted to snap a photo of Akmed and his family. Got the family, but Akmed said "You can take one of me when you come over tomorrow for lunch." Wow, that seems generous (and a little odd...)

So we head back out to taxi, and all the way to some Cafe in the new city. Akmed paid for the first cab. I offered to pay for this one. We sit, drink tea, watch football (soccer for you USA friends) and waited for Mo. I thought "Wow, this is cool. It's so elaborate, it must not be to sell anything. I lucked out and tapped into a group of cool folks."

Two minutes later Mo arrives, sits and says "I'm heading to buy my aunt a Blue Tagine for the holidays. Do you want to come with me?"

I thought "There it is! I can't believe this was all to get me to go to a pottery shop! Crazy!" I say I'm not really interested. He mentions the leather place. I realize that all this has been for a sale, but I also thought "I haven't had this experience yet". So I said "I guess the leather spot". After all, because of the Holiday ("Christmas with goats") there was a "sale". I bet there is.

He also asked what I do. I mentioned movies and DJing. He wants to be in movies. I said "Well on 11/11/11, there is a film the world event. You can shoot yourself and upload it."
Mo: "Cool. Is there money in it?"
Me: "Nope. No money."
Mo: "Ahh, I'm a businessman. I can't do that for no money".

We hop in his car. He proceeds to joke about going to strip clubs, licking champaigne off girls, and having sex with lots of different students that study here. (I think they think all guys traveling just want to screw random chicks, so this is a way to bond with us. Who knows?)

We drive BACK to the other side of the Medina, straight into the stink. And up to the tanneries. Where I'm passed off "to a friend". They hand me a sprig of mint, which I didn't know what to do with. (Later I learned it was to hold under your nose to get rid of the STINK.) So he explained how the tanneries work. How the goat skins (or sheep or cows) are cleaned, soaked for 1 week in PIGEON SHIT, then died using different natural dyes. With Yellow being the most expensive. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands of pelts stacked up, being cleaned, being tossed pile by pile from the road, along the rather nasty river, over to the tanks and then hand massaged to softness.

AFter the "tour" we goto the shop. "Just to look. No have to buy. You don't buy, we wish you well and you go." The shop is filled with jackets, purses, other things. I try a couple jackets, they are very accomodating. They put fire to it to show the quality. And dump water on it, to show it's really. I went in today thinking I'd spend no more than 20 USD on a souvenier. With the jackets, I'll be lucky to get out of here for $50.

As they're showing me, I hear a "hello Craig".
Turn around and THERE'S ZACK from the train!!!

"And it all comes full circle" I say.
Zack is glad I came here, good to see him. He said "I told you I worked in the tanneries". Yes he did.

Zack leaves and the barter begins. They tell me that normally the price for the jacket is 8000 MAD, but because I know "the boss" Zack, I get 5700. I laugh outloud.

"That's $750 US Dollars".
"Good price. Very good price. In Europe, Calvin Klein would put their name on this and it would be 1500 Euro".
"Um, okay"
"What price to you want to pay?"
I think a second.
"400 Dirham (that's $50)"
He laughs, and the back and forth begins.
He drops a thousand.
I go up 10.

This goes on for 10 minutes or more. It's a slow process. They let you look at it. I tell them I don't expect them to sell it for the price I can pay. I take it off. They let me wander a bit more. But we finally come to an impass. I'm ready to go. The sales man looks like I killed his puppy.

So they go to get Mo.
Who comes in, and says "You know, I have a date tonight, so I'm going to get a jacket. Help me pick one out."
Wow, these guys don't give up...
So he tries it, looks good. He asks the price. They say "2400 dirham ($300), and he pays it right there. (And I'm sure he'll get it back later). So during this, the salesman comes up and says "What's your last price? Final price? Good price?" no less than 5 TIMES. And over the course of this I end up at around 1200 Dirham ($150). Um, I don't really want to pay this, but am not sure how to get out of it... (later I learned you just walk out the door, down the stairs, to a cab and leave...except they know where you're staying...) They also like to say your either the last customer of the day, so it's a good price, or the first (whichever applies). It's bad luck to not sell to the first. And the last gets a "good deal" because they might as well. Right...

I would go no higher than 1250. So Mo calls the woman in the corner over, who is now "the Boss" (Even though Zack was "the boss" earlier), and says "Can you help him out. He wants to buy this coat for 1250, will you do it?" She looks through the hole in the floor that leads to another level of the store. Someone says something, she nods and says "Yes".

And then I'm scanning my credit card for 150 bucks. But "No 5% credit card charge for you." Oh boy. I'm now the proud owner of, frankly, a really fricking nice leather jacket. (I finally looked up prices on simalar coats now that I"m home, and I did get a good deal. They run $250 - $600. Of course, I never really wanted one in the first place. Or did I?)

But my friends, This isn't over yet...

So we go downstairs, and I'd mentioned earlier about my desire to ride camels in the desert. And naturally, Mo "Has a friend" who does tours. I talked to him on the phone, and of course he woudln't give me a price, he wanted to tell me all that would happen and meet me in person. Why not? Then I have a starting point for figuring out camel treks. But there's no way I'll pay for anything now. (And I didn't)

But while we're sitting, waiting for his friend, in a room with Zack, Akmed, some weird guy who kept rubbing his teeth with tobacco, and a guy who did all sorts of American Accents, Mo asks to see my wallet. In theory to compare the leather with his (he was trying to sell me one). I show it to him, but of course I know he really wants to see how much money I have. Fortunatly I keep my main stash in my belt pouch, and only a little bit in the wallet. So it had 100 dirham ($12). He also checked out my Lonely Planet book, and out of it fell my Travel Agent card. And WOW, how their attitudes changed when they saw that.

"You're a travel agent?"
"Yeah, I have a site. I also write a travel blog."
"Oh, cool. Wow, maybe you can send people our way, and tell them about us and stuff."
(Oh, I'll tell them my friend...:)

So, since I'm going to the desert, Accent Man offers to take me to the scarf, and "Jedi" robe store. I'm 100% not going to buy anything, but go along. Get the tour. Take some pics and flat out refuse to bargain for the $25 the scarf cost. I leave. He takes me to the "Berber Pharmacy", and they show me all the oils, and natural this and that. One thing interested me, I figured it'd be 40 dirham or less ($5). She says 200 ($25), and I get up and walk out. The Accent man gave me lots of grief on the walk back, but I was done. And getting kind of annoyed.

So back in the room, STILL waiting for the camel friend. Mo was originally going to put me in a taxi to some gas station to meet his Camel Trek friend. When I gave him a weird look, he said he'd get the driver from the Arabic school to come and get me. And that's what we're waiting for...

So I say to Mo "Don't take this as a criticism, but you guys are good."
Mo goes "No, it's not like that at all. It's friends."
Me "Come on. This is SO elaborate. You guys are good."
He looks at me... and smiles "We've got to make a living somehow".
And for a brief moment, I got behind the curtain.
He said that the boss (zack) probably made 200 Dirham ($25) off this. That they have to work together to make it happen. He says he has a good apartment, his own car, he gets to sleep with lots of different girls from the school (whether he's a teacher or not, I doubt), and this is how he pays his bills.

If you do the math, they each maybe made $25 to $40 MAX off this. After all, there was Zack, Mo, Akmed, The Salesman, and the actual co-operative store itself. And from the time Zack met me, until I was put in the car to go meet the Camel guy, it was 6 HOURS of work. Now, maybe they got more people in there that day. Though I didn't see them. And somewhere I read that the average Moroccan makes 100 Dirham a day ($12.50). So these guys are doing allright really. And if I'd paid more. Or they got a couple folks in a day, they might all be doing well.

When I asked to take Mo's photo, he laughed, and said "no photos". (The no photo thing is curious, until I found out later that what they are doing, "Faux guides" as they are called in Morocco, are illegal and could end them up in jail for months or years. And cops go undercover as tourists and nab them. A photo of course being the best way to do so...)

So off I go, all invitations for drinks, or meet ups later, now void after the sale has been made. I have a leather jacket in hand, and one heck of a story to tell when I wear it.

Welcome Morocco.


PS: The observations of Morocco email is still to come...