Hi loyal friends, new friends, first time visitors, Mom.
Some of you may have started reading my series “This American Girl in Morocco” and wondered, “what happened?” Well, I’m happy to say that the series is back, and I will (do my best to) post a new chapter to the story every week… until of course I run out of Morocco stories and then we will begin anew with another exotic locale!
If you need to catch up, you can find the past stories here:
Without further ado, the latest chapter:
When I Bought a Rug in Fez
Standing in front of a McDonalds, exhausted from sleeping on the plastic bench of a midnight train where I was occasionally awoken by robberies, desperately seeking a wifi signal to complete an online bank transfer while my patient taxi driver waited on the other side of the road with my large package, is the last place I thought I would ever be.
It all started with an antique rug.
Twenty-four hours earlier I was on a tour of the souks in Fez with a large group from my hostel. At the time I had no intention of buying anything at all.
I walked next to our guide, asking him every question I could conjure about Fez, Morocco, Ramadan, and Arabic. He spoke excitedly and gestured with his one good arm.
We passed men squatting in the street surrounded by chickens. Gorgeous handmade silk bathed in bright yellow saffron. Trays displayed goat heads like grapes or berries. Stomach, tongue, and camel heads hung proudly above smiling or scowling street vendors.
“If you’re single you may take a photo, if you’re married, forget it,” one shouted.
Somewhere between learning Arabic and the history of chicken coops in Fez, I found myself telling our guide that I wanted to see some authentic antique Ben Ouirain rugs that day. In my past life, my American life, my design obsessed life, I worked for a woman who filled suitcases with these gorgeous handmade one of kind rugs twice a year when she visited Morocco. I was curious to at least see what woven beauties Fez had to offer.
With a wink he confirmed he would take me.
We entered the open center of an historic Koran school in awe. I marveled at the intricate tilework, carved ceiling, and elaborate brass lanterns.
We toured the tanneries, smelling the acid bleached hides dipped in poppy, cobalt, and saffron dyes.
We learned to make rugs with Berber women and sipped mint tea in the grand hall surrounded by hundreds of hanging tapestries.
The rest of the group left after the standard tour, and I stayed behind for a viewing with the rotund man who appeared to be the rug king of Fez.
Three glasses of mint tea and twenty antique rugs later I was handed words sweeter than honey dipped Moroccan cookies, then practically thrown out when it became clear I was gun shy.
The guide collected me and we walked purposefully through the souks to other rug shops. We chatted and he picked up his groceries along the way. Bags of prickly pear hung on his short limb as he shopped with the other.
A small shop run by an older gentleman caught my eye. The owner snuggled close to me as we haggled.
“At this price it’s a gift, only because you are so beautiful, so sweet. It’s not about the money, it’s about the friendship,” he said with arms draped around me.
I continued to talk him down.
One hour later, after promising to marry his son, I signed the papers to purchase the rug. I bought it for ten percent of his asking price. I hadn’t exactly processed the decision I had just made, but I found myself so deep in negotiations there was no way out except shaking on the lowest price.
The details of shipping the rug remained a concern, but I was assured it was as simple as taking my cargo it to the nearby post office and paying a small fee to send it to the USA.
When I returned to the hostel, Mexico City looked like he had seen a ghost.
“Where were you?” he demanded.
He stared incredulously as I explained my rug purchasing adventure earlier that day. Questions closer to criticisms flowed from his lips. The German couple smoked hookah with him and said nothing. The female counterpart and I decided to walk to the neighborhood hammam, a Moroccan bathhouse, for a scrub.
The moment we entered it became clear why these sacred spaces were so integral to Moroccan society. Where else could a woman escape the judgmental gaze of a man?
We were instructed to strip down naked as a sweet Moroccan woman poured buckets of warm water over our heads. The hot stone floor singed my behind and the cool water that followed offered a welcome reprieve. She scrubbed us with black sticky soap made of argan oil and enthusiastically gave directions in a language we could not comprehend. Her wide smile and light inflection put me at ease.
Looking around the small, beautiful, steam filled room, women appeared happy, relaxed, and also at ease. Women who covered every inch of their bodies in the hot streets were comfortable nude scrubbing one another. They were social and kind with the German girl and I, explaining it better to not wear underwear at all than to keep our wet ones under our clothes, drenching areas sure to draw male attention.
That night, back at the hostel, I shared stories with travelers from all over the world. After ten days in Spain, two weeks in Portugal, and five days in Morocco, I felt like I had finally found a backpacker scene. We all parted ways as I reluctantly piled into the taxi with the boys en route to the new city to catch our three am train to Marrakech.
The boys took turns carrying the dense bundle that contained my Moroccan rug. Did I mention the post office was closed that day? I would have to ship it from Marrakech.
I fell asleep crumpled upright on the plastic bench in our train car. Sheer exhaustion sent me into a deep slumber, prematurely interrupted by the train stopping and Mexico City speaking angrily in Spanish with four Moroccan police officers.
The next part of this story does not paint me pretty. In fact I appear downright mean. But this blog is nothing if not a safe space for complete candor. I will do my best to tell the story as it truly happened.
He explained that the iPod mini his younger sister loaned him before he left to study in Zurich, the iPod mini she asked him to guard and protect, was yanked from his headphones as he slept in an empty train car.
The police continued to question us, the train remained stationary.
“Seriously, how much is an iPod mini even worth to you?!” I snapped with judgment and annoyance.
One hour later we were back in motion and I gathered my belongings and headed to a vacant car. I lay on the bench draped over my bag, hugging it tightly into my chest barricading it between my body and the seat.
At one point one of the Germans came in and collapsed on the bench opposite me.
Light flooded through the windows and the German woke to realize his wallet had been swiped from his back pocket. It contained the last of his money for the trip. His passport.
Did I respond with compassion? Reassurance? Support?
No. I scolded him for his foolishness.
“How could this happen to two of you on the same train ride? Did you seriously think your wallet was safe in your pocket? See how I slept on top of everything I own and nothing was taken from me? Use your head! You need to be careful when you travel.”
Was I immune to being robbed myself? Hardly.
Was I the savviest traveler the world had ever seen? Ha!
Did I put myself in foolish predicaments often? Absolutely.
I fell into slumber again and awoke hours later surrounded by Moroccan strangers. An old man read his paper and women sat holding their purses in their laps. They reminded me of Seattle train passengers making long work commutes.
A woman sitting across from me dug into her purse and retrieved a kit kat. She placed it in my hand. It was Ramadan, she had not eaten nor had water in hours, yet was concerned for my hunger. I graciously accepted. Eating chocolate at nine am in front of five people fasting oddly appeared to be the appropriate choice.
Hours later we arrived in Marrakech. The boys planned to change buses and continue to Essaouira on the coast. I decided to stay in Marrakech and arrange my trip deep into the Sahara desert for the next day. I needed space. I needed freedom.
My outburst on the train left them sour with me and we parted without hugs.
I lugged my suitcase and rug into a taxi and headed straight for the nearest post office. It would cost me one hundred euro to ship the rug. I regretted my decision already.
When I tried to withdraw money from the ATM my checking account was depleted. The taxi waited for me on the curb outside of the post office. Without cell service I needed to find an internet café to transfer money. We circled the city searching for a signal. Finally, we found a McDonalds.
I balanced my laptop on the railing as I logged in to my bank account. My location appeared “suspicious”. I could not login without cell confirmation.
I ran to the taxi driver and asked for his number.
In the end I retrieved the money and shipped the rug. One hour later. Now, I was finally free.
Free from the heavy bundled burden trusted in the hands of post offices crossing the globe.
Free from my four travel companions who showed me just how much patience I still needed to cultivate.
Free from any itinerary except the one I chose at precisely the moment I wanted.
I wandered the narrow alleys of the medina in search of my hostel. A local boy began chatting with me in English.
“What are you looking for,” he asked.
After a week in Morocco, I knew this game.
“Oh, I’m on my way to Equity Point Hostel, but I can find it on my own thank you,” I replied.
“I don’t want your money,” he said frankly but without offense “I hate these barriers between us and the tourists. That’s not my style.”
So I let him lead me.
The thirteen foot rug I bought after hours of negotiation in Fez. It now sits in storage.