Saturday, August 1, 2009


Jacob and I are having a slightly different experience here in Morocco.

Jacob is positive this was the right place to come. The people define Jacob’s experience while traveling. Unfortunately, sometimes I love buildings more than people. I’m more likely to get excited about a great piece of architecture than a friendly stranger.

But while I am enjoying my stay here in Morocco, several of my experiences here have been growing experiences, one might say. Slightly uncomfortable, sometimes quite uncomfortable. Some of these apply to Jacob, but most of them don't because he is fluent in French.

The Language

I don’t speak French, and if you don’t know their language and they don’t know English—a very pronounced situation here in Morocco—it’s difficult to make friends or even to go shopping. I’ve got a French dictionary and I’m learning some words, but I can’t communicate with anyone but Jacob. He translates for us back and forth, and he enjoys that because he can tell people wrong things as a joke that I said and vice versa.

The Heat

It is so hot people don’t go out during the day. Fortunately we enjoy being in our apartment, and the people above us cook for us, so there’s no need to go out and venture around when the sun beats down. I used to think the people here were crazy for dressing in long sleeves and skirts and headscarves, until I got a nice rosy sunburn. Now I see the way they dress makes sense.

The Dryness

While humidity bestows allergies and makes heat feel exacerbated, dry heat is sluggish and makes it so that even when you drink a bottle of water you don’t have to go to the bathroom because it’s like your body’s thirst can’t be quenched.

The Internet

Here the internet is very fickle.

We walk around trying to get the right angle, spot, time of day to connect. Which is unfortunate when it does not because, here in Ouarzazate,

The City

There is not a whole lot to do. It’s a relatively small town. It doesn’t have a library. I’ve never been to a city without a library before. Literacy in Morocco, especially among women, is rather low and I can see why. They have something they call the library, but it’s more like a notebook and paper store. At least I was able to get a French dictionary from there.

The People

The people have been very kind, but it is easier to be a man and let someone be friendly to you. When you are female, you can only let other women be friendly, because you don’t want to talk to strange men on the streets. So Jacob gets to meet and speak with many more people than I. This is a Muslim country, so there are a lot more men on the streets in general anyway.

This guy asked for a photo and Jacob's autograph. Note the bottles in the background. If you don't ask for fois boissons you're as likely to buy a warm bottle of pop as a cold one.

Food Preparation

Welcome to Africa. For me this equates Montezuma's revenge. When we walk around the streets and look at produce or restaurants, the food doesn’t look all that appetizing. There are always flies buzzing around it, and it’s kind of wilted in the heat, and it just kind of sits out there all day. And everybody just uses their bare hands to cook and serve the food, and I haven’t seen any soap at any of these places…the food we are served from the women upstairs is a literal feast, however. Fatima is an excellent cook, and she hopes to open her own restaurant soon, so it is a privilege to get to test her recipes.

Moroccan couscous, my favorite

Typical Moroccan salads


This was one of the weirdest experiences of my life. Turea, one of the sisters who lives above us, invited me to go to the hammam. I didn’t know what it would be like, and on the way there, I couldn’t really ask her because of the language barrier. I was wearing my swimming suit and figured it would be ok to keep it on in the hammam. Nope. When you go inside there’s topless Berber ladies walking around. It was a shock, let me tell you, considering how modest they’re usually dressed. Ok, I thought, maybe they’re just getting dressed. No, I’m expected to take my top off too. I didn’t at first. European ladies go topless sunbathing all the time, and I hear Japanese baths you are completely naked. So maybe only Americans would find this uncomfortable, I don’t know, but the next thing I know my new friend Turea is just wearing a pair of underwear and encouraging me to do the same.

Eventually I caved it because I was looking way too self conscious. Turea had thoughtfully brought all the materials I would need. We each had our own little mat to sit on the floor. The hammam wasn’t particularly clean. It was made of cement and there were windows on the top of the building to let in the sunlight. It was very hot.

These are the materials you need for a hammam visit:

A mat or a stool to sit on because you don’t want to sit on the floor with soap suds and skin peelings from someone else’s experience

Two large buckets, one for warm water and one for cold. You fill them up along the faucets in the rooms.

Brown olive oil soap wrapped in newspaper. You use this before you exfoliate.

A rough mitt-like apparatus in which you scrape and scrape at your skin until it rolls up into little folds. You do this all over yourself

A partner or friend to help you get your back and to rinse off.

Your own shampoo and soap, to give yourself a scrubbing after you’ve done everything else.

Turea and I kept moving back and forth between the hot, steamy room and the less hot room. She filled up the buckets and would direct me to find a spot on the floor.

The experience lasted a couple of hours. Turea and I didn’t talk much, and I was trying not to look at anyone but that was hard because it was very full in there with mostly-naked women of all ages, including little girls, scraping at their skin and rinsing off the residue with their bowl of water to head towards the drain in the floor. I quite liked the exfoliating, actually. As I finished before Turea, she had me go home with the neighbors, one of whom spoke English. I asked if the women bathed in their homes, or only went to the hammam.

“Oh, women bathe at home as well, but it is a great tradition to go to the hammam,” she replied. “We love going and bathing with our people.” I guess it's common to go about once a week.

So it was an honor to get to go bathe with the Berber/Arabic women. And I do have to say there seems to be a sort of silent unity among the Muslim women. It could be my imagination, but there seems to be less cattiness like you can find among groups of western girls, and more of a sense of universal sisterhood. Anyways, I arrived home with a story to tell my husband, and I survived that particular rite of initiation into Moroccan culture.

Here is a video on the night of Throne Day.


oh said...

Jacob enjoys the language barrier and interpreting things wrongly? I can't imagine that. . . What a tease! haha.

Awkwardness indeed! I'm glad that I don't need to visit the Hammam for myself, but could live it through you. Showering after PE class in 7th grade every day was enough awkwardness for my lifetime.

Adespain said...

I can see why you titled this post "awkwardness".

I also enjoyed your fourth of july post.

and . . . we need to skype.

Laurene J said...

How much longer will you be in Morocco? We will be going to Spain and staying in Ronda (Andalusia) at the end of this month and will be hoping over to Morocco for a day or two. It would be awesome to see you two and catch up!

Jacob and Kalli Hiller said...

Hi--This is Kalli. You should add me as a friend on Facebook and we could chat about meeting up.

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