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July 5, 2008 I Want To Be A Part of B.A. Buenos Aires – Big Apple (apologies to Evita)

OK, so I didn’t go to Buenos Aires, but I did go to one of Morocco’s biggest cities. Morocco has about seven major cities (depending how you count them), and I spent the weekend in one! It was beautiful, though expensive, and I had a fantastic visit. We stayed at a backpacker-filled hostel, famous for its rooftop. We ate up on the roof a few times, and two of our group (there were five of us) slept up there, too. It’s cooler/breezier than the rooms, although it got cool enough at night that the rooms were comfortable, too. (Unlike SouqTown, which was sweltering last night.)

After arriving and settling in, we went for a tour of the medina. Medina is just the Arabic word for “city”, but it’s used in most of Morocco’s big cities to refer to the older heart of the city, usually walled and crowded, as distinct from the newer, usually French-constructed part of the city. This medina sloped steadily downwards from our hotel, so walking out was fun, and walking back was a (slight) challenge. The city was amazing. No two walls abutting each other were the same age, I suspect, and J** and I agree that we either want placards on every wall, giving the history, or else a portable carbon-14 dater, like a portable GPS, that you can carry and which will tell you how old anything nearby is. It doesn’t exist yet, but we want one anyway. Engineers, you should get on that. ;)

One of our first stops was at an escargot stand. I’ve never eaten snails, though I’ve eaten plenty of their invertebrate cousins (oysters, clams, mussels, etc), and decided that this was absolutely the moment to try them. So there, in an alley off the main drag (which was probably all of six feet wide) of the Big Apple, in the heart of Morocco, I ate snails. They were good. A little salty, and a lot chewy, but good. The most fun part was prying them out of their snails. I don’t know what implement I’d have been handed in a chichi French restaurant, but here in the medina, I was given a safety pin that had been pried almost flat. I held the round end and used the point to pierce the snail and extract it from its home. After we’d finished our snack (10 DH for a good-sized bowl, which three of us shared), the chef/snailman encouraged us to drink the broth. J** and I did (B** passed), and it tasted exactly the same as the snails themselves, except without the chewyness, naturally. :)

We also visited the tanneries that the Big Apple is famous for. I managed to avoid the temptation to buy lots of leather goods – barely – but I was fascinated by the vats where sheepskin (almost exclusively) is turned into leather and then dyed. The tanner who showed us around his family’s tannery was delighted that we spoke the local languages (we had some Darija speakers and some Berber speakers in the group), so he talked to us in his own blend of Tamazight and Darija.

The architecture of the tannery – or maybe it’s just the architecture of the Big Apple – bewildered me. In order to get from the entrance level of the tannery up to the second story (so as to have a better view), we went outside, turned three corners, went uphill, down two alleys, and then emerged upstairs. (Anyone remember “Adventure”? “You’re in a maze of twisty passages. You’re in a twisting maze of passages.”) I’m not even entirely sure it was the same tannery, but we were looking down on somebody’s vats. Then he offered to take us up another flight, which involved walking the circumference of the building, up two external staircases, and emerging on the roof level. The building is open to the air, though, so the “roof” is more-or-less a portico from which you could look down on everything. Our guide then showed us the tannery next door, which he dismissed as “Arabiya”. They looked identical to me, but J** said that she knew which one she preferred. I asked her what difference she saw that I didn’t. “This one,” she said, pointing to the Berber tanners, “has music.” Once I started listening for it, I realized she was right. :)

Our tanner-guide then offered to show us the whole of the Big Apple. We followed him trustingly through another twisting series of alleys, abruptly emerging on a hilltop from which we had a panoramic view of the city. I took dozens of pictures, naturally, and then we were ready to go. He offered (in a blend of Tam and Darija that B** and I later pieced together) that after we finished our shopping, we could bring back any clothes we’d bought and he’d dye leather to match, for us. Oh, and he never asked for a tip, and that was the closest he came to offering to sell us anything. He was just a friendly, helpful guy who wanted to show us his family’s business. :)

From the entrance to the tannery (to which he returned us, safe and sound), we headed deeper into the medina. I was tempted by the leather jackets and purses, some amazing leather candleholders (which I’m feeling nostalgic about even now, as I type this up four days later), skirts, blouses, earrings, and ice cream. I managed to resist everything but the ice cream (4 DH for a big scoop, half chocolate and half something-orange-that-was-probably-mango-but-might-have-been-apricot). We stopped for a sandwich that was shared by two of our hungrier members, and then decided to go to a sit-down restaurant for dinner. We emerged from the medina, picked a restaurant (based on the view from its roof, since the menus all looked the same), and then ate spaghetti while watching the sunset glint off the minarets and beige walls around us. Swifts (or possibly barn or cliff swallows) provided our dinner entertainment; hundreds, possibly thousands, of them were spiraling and swirling around us, eating flies and performing impossible-looking aerial acrobatics.

We’d stopped by the fruit market briefly, between the medina and dinner, and so after dinner we munched on the juiciest and sweetest peaches imaginable. Mmmmm. They were 6 DH for a kilo, which works out to about 35 cents a pound. I love the fruit here! I think after I move out of my host family’s house, I might become a fruitarian. Mmmmm.

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