Chapter 06: Africa, Just the Tip

Uncle Jimmy!

Guess where I’ve been (again)? Morocco!

OK, you need to fluff up the padding in your casket and settle back. This is going to be a long one. Too much has happened in the past nine days to skip a single moment.

I’m pretty sure your travels around Africa were similar, but it’s always a shock when you first leave the airport and try to enter a city in Morocco. Just hours before, organized roadways were the norm. Now it’s just utter chaos everywhere.

I call it the Game of Whiskers.

Do you remember seeing bumper-car rides at a carnival? That giant rectangle, with cars racing every which way, some missing by inches and most slamming into each other? Same thing here, only without all of the slams. Oh, and you need to introduce pedestrians, who never use sidewalks. Jaywalking isn’t a thing because there are no cross-walks. Just a constant stream of humans and machinery, going every which way, and all having not even a paper’s width of space in-between. And it never pauses, just an endless flow of near death experiences. This is how I again entered Fes, just eleven days ago.

I tell ya, New York cabbies would be petrified.

Our host was a wonderful woman that we had met last trip. Her name is Batoula. And to set the stage for our entrance, I need to hark back to how we initially met.

Back in 2017, we were wandering the sprawling alleys of the medina, when we ran into this kid named Asseade. Charming guy, full of energy. We named him Mr. Charisma. He seemed to be everywhere we were, and he decided to adopt us.

He took us to his cousin’s riad (Batoula’s), and she too decided we had to be family. They became our instant friends. They fed us, showed us how to cook and how they lived, and gave more hugs than you can imagine. And asked nothing from us. Wouldn’t take anything. They just wanted to show us their culture and their hospitality. I really do think of them as family.

So this time around, we decided to stay with her at her new riad, Dar Zerbtana, which is right in the heart of the old city. (And if you ever decide to go the reincarnation route, I highly recommend using your next life to visit them). So again, as we walked in the doorway, they welcomed us just as if we were blood relatives. An incredible feeling.

Asseade decided that he wanted to show us around the next day, because the city had changed a lot in the past two years, and he really wanted to be with us. Sadly, that was when we had our only real negative experience of the trip.

We were sitting in the car, Nikki, Asseade, our driver, and me. Just waiting for traffic to move, chatting and looking around. Mr. Charisma is sitting in the front passenger seat when two men suddenly opened his door, grabbed him, and dragged him out of the vehicle. Which seriously stunned Nikki and I. They quickly closed the door and took him away, and when we looked to the driver for help, there was none to be had. For sadly, he didn’t speak much English and seemed just as confused as we.

Turns out they were the “Tourism Police”. After a bit, one of them opened the door again and said in stilted English … “He is false” and shut the door and left. Nikki is now between rage and concern, yelling that he is a friend, not a guide. That we had actually come to Morocco to see him. Didn’t matter. Our driver mumbled “I take you to riad” and that was that. Asseade was in custody and we couldn’t do anything about it.

Nikki alerted Batoula and she went on the war path. Short story is, he was back rather quickly and I’m sure the police were still stinging from the experience. I wouldn’t want to mess with Batoula when it came to family, as I’m sure they got an earful

Seriously unpleasant experience.

OK, on to more interesting things. And I need to flashback here again for a bit, to our last trip. To a day where I had a traditional hammam, or as I call it, ‘The Weirdest Bath Ever’. It’s a story that just needs to be shared often. Especially now, since I’ve had a second go in quite a different way.

Here was the original scene …

I entered a small, yet ornately tiled room in a basement. Filled with heat and steam. Along both walls to my left and right were built-in benches, also ornately tiled. In the center of the wall opposite the door was this grand fountain, with hot and cold taps pouring water into a cistern. Standing in the middle of this intimate little room waiting for me, was a small thin gentleman, somewhere in his late 60s.

He was maybe five feet tall. Hairless. And mostly nude. I was taller, far more hairy, and just as almost nude. No words were spoken between us (that I understood, anyway). Just two strangers, a flimsy loincloth-like thing each, and moisture.

I laid down on one of the benches, the one on the right, with my head and feet just touching the opposing walls. Side-to-side I completely covered the width of the bench. And my wiry little man grabbed a bucket and basically water-boarded me.

Once rinsed with gallons of incredibly hot water, he slid his hand into this stiff mitt and proceeded to remove several layers of tissue. The glove felt like a giant cat’s tongue. He was not gentle. Not gentle at all. I knew it wasn’t possible, but I feared he might actually be able to scrub off tattoos.

Another water-boarding and a hard slap on my leg. Time to flip. Backside got the same treatment. Slap, repeat. Slap, repeat. Then I was sat up and it was time for the head.

That bald little man was brutal. He was going to wash every inch and damned if he was going to leave anything that I wasn’t actively growing or using. One final deluge of a rinse and I was done. Maybe thirty minutes had gone into this procedure.

I dried off, was given a robe, and my abuser opened the door to the room. Instant coolness flowed in. He started up the stairs and then had to stop and pant for a solid ten minutes. He put that much effort into his work.

Sounds interesting, right? Men washing men in a fabulously tiled setting? Well, I did it again this trip, a hammam, only this time I decided to go “local”. Let me describe what a public bath looks like.

Picture an extremely old and abandoned sub-basement, perhaps under a Chernobyl subway station. What might have once been white tiled walls and floors now resembled the results of a post World War III apocalypse that happened a hundred years prior. Everything faded and aged. Cracked. Doorways without doors, instead covered with torn canvas. A huge, open space with deep, dark corners leading to what I swear were the sounds of rats eating the long dead.

Inside this underground cavern, a small man with bowed legs and one eye waited to wash me. No benches, only an endless floor. No one else down there. Just us two mostly naked men.

In an adjoining cavern, two connected and giant concrete vats were built into the wall One was filled with near-boiling water, and the other contained blessedly cold liquid. Both had gushing taps that were running non-stop.

My initial thought was that these containers could easily be used to melt down a body, should the need arise. I kinda hoped it wouldn’t arise this day.

My bather spoke no English, and I no Arabic. Everything was done in pantomime (on his left side, so his one working eyeball could see) and with a stolen batch of other languages and grunts.

He sloshed a bucket of water on the tiled floor and had me lay face down, just off the center point of the room. And then the usual pours of boiling water and scrubbing began. Only his mitt was more like coarse sandpaper. With a ragged finger-hole in it, so one nail could poke out and add to the process.

Several times he would stop, grab my hand, and rub it on the part of my body he had just finished. It felt like wood shavings, only it was not wood. It was my ex-flesh. He smiled proudly each time we had that “look what I removed” moment.

After the scraping, he went and found a bucket of water that was somehow hotter than boiling. I was on my belly and he motioned for me to sit up. I didn’t quite make it off the floor before he dumped the entire contents of that crucible onto where I was just laying, moments before. Thankfully, the only parts of me still touching the floor at this point were knees and hands, which instantly acquired a painful burn. So when he motioned for me to flip and lay down on my back where he had just melted the floor tiles, I was skeptical. But potential second degree burns aside, I thought “why not, in for a penny”. And strangely, the super-heated floor felt rather good on my back.

Many buckets of water later, I was done. The echoes of my scrubbing fading in the cavernous space. He took my hand and walked me to a smaller room with tiny wooden benches along one wall, none of which I was sure could hold my weight. There I was to relax, dry, and change back into my street clothes. I think. The message was not completely clear.

Oh, there was one other person in this room. An old man in the near corner, praying softly. I really wasn’t sure what the protocol was for standing naked, mere inches from a praying man. And I really didn’t have the pantomime to ask. It was awkward.

Bottom line is yes, I enjoyed the results of both of my hammams. However, one was definitely “resort level” and the other was quite the opposite. I was so transfixed with the absurdity of being alone in an abandoned subterranean horror film set that I really didn’t get to enjoy the actual flaying of my skin. Perhaps next time I’ll pay more attention to those details.

OK, onward.

One of the highlights we had planned for this trip was an adventure in the bottom of the country. Riding camels through the Sahara Desert, and camping for the evening.

It started with a grueling nine hour car ride, with only Moroccan Air Conditioning to cool us (meaning semi-open windows). Six of us plus a driver, all tightly encased in a tiny econo-car. We proceeded through a progressively changing landscape, basic city becoming mountains which then became desert. Not the sandy kind, but like the Wild West of the United States. Endless grayish and medium brown nothingness, with mesas popping up here and there. Some occasional scrub brush, but not much of anything else. Desolate.

And all of that eventually ran right up to these huge mountains of light tan sand that was our destination, the actual Sahara Desert.

Our first day there was spent in a desert “hotel”. Just relaxing in the heat and dipping into an ice cold swimming pool. We took a jaunt that first morning with a Berber guide to a nomadic camp, there to meet those that lived that life. It was incredible, but in a way that’s hard to describe.

The location these people chose was not what you would call an oasis. It was bleak. Black sand and rock as far as the eye can see, maybe half a kilometer from a common water well. The tents were made from very natural components. And the Berber people themselves were extremely warm and friendly. They very much wanted to show us their lives.

When you looked beyond the obvious, these folks know how to not only survive, but how to thrive, even in a fairly hostile environment. They keep family and culture alive by sharing and working together. It was enlightening and thought provoking.

Then came evening and what we had traveled those nine hours for … the camels. And the sands of the Sahara.

It was around 5:30 in the evening, the sun just starting to drop low on the horizon. The light was incredible. There waiting for us were a team of camels tied loosely in a line. One by one, we mounted. I was the last rider up. Or technically the first, since they started from back to front.

How does this work, you ask? Well, the camel lies on its belly with its legs tucked under it, and you swing a leg over your saddle very quickly, holding on to these short metal handles just in front of you. Quickly is the key word here, otherwise the beast lifts up with your ass only halfway mounted, and with the obvious consequences. (Don’t ask).

The camel starts by rising on his hind legs, so that you are tilted 45 degrees, facing downwards. He then struggles to get his front legs under him, which jerks you about six feet up in the air.

There are no stirrups, your legs and feet just hang. And once he starts moving, there is no “just go with the cadence” as there isn’t one. Sometimes the under-hoof sand is soft, so you lurch in a direction unexpected. Sometimes you get a few moments of calm, just long enough to take out your camera and realize your mistake, because the sand is changing again and you’re not holding on.

I wish I could explain what my eyes saw. That gorgeous light on the dunes. The color of the sand. The sheer immenseness that is all around you. The utter quiet, except for the steady wind and the random snorts and bellows from the camels. And the laughter of the riders.

Our trek was two and a half hours long, in a saddle which was not shaped for a human rump. But what we were traveling through made all of that secondary. Here we were, in the freaking Sahara Desert, on freaking camels. Who does this? It was beyond a dream sequence. I wish you could have seen us.

Just after the sun had set, we found our camp nestled deep inside of a large sand bowl. Eight large tents for people, and an even larger one for the dining hall. Persian carpets lined up between all to guide you. It was amazing, to say the least. Our tent had two beds, wall to wall rugs, a shower, sink, and a toilet.

(Can you say Glamping?).

We met some wonderful folks that evening, from Germany, Greece, and the UK. It’s incredible to me how easily friends are made when shared experiences are afoot. I think our new friends added to the trip almost as much as anything.

The overall trip to Morocco was far too short. Walking in the medina and visiting all of the shops. Seeing the handmade items being handmade. Visiting other places, including Chefchaouen, the fabled Blue City. Plus that impossibly incredible desert. Learning how to walk in the streets of Fes with mere whiskers to spare between us and the speeding cars. It was a complete blur, and one I’m still trying to process.

There was one other downside to the trip, by the way, during the desert portion of the week. The flies. I think the natives wear those elaborate head scarves not just to shield themselves from the sun and sand, but also to thwart the flies. They are everywhere, and for some reason, they don’t like to land on your food. They only land on humans.

Me, to be specific.

I sort of got used to them on my arms. They kind of tickle. But on my face, no way. I actually started the day by informing them of the rules: “Below the collarbones, I’ll accept. Face is a no-no”. They didn’t listen. After a few hours, I was actually yelling at them “Not the face! Didn’t I tell you, not the face!”.

Nikki was obviously mortified and pretended I was a stranger. 🙂

So … that was our week. Filled with family, friends, and camels. Driving through the countryside, trying to avoid hitting the herds of sheep and goats that are wandering on the roadsides. (Only whacked one, for the record). Playing the fun but deadly Game of Whiskers (no whackage to report there).

OK, dear uncle. Time to unpack, get the smell of camel out of our clothing, and to relax a bit here in Barcelona. As soon as we dive into the deep end once again, I’ll write more.

Love, Rick

LETTERS TO A DEAD UNCLE

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