I won’t even do metric

December 10, 2011

So! Now, to elaborate on one of my least favorite things about Morocco: people trying to covert me. Because I am a friendly person, I’m always willing to talk and entertain new ideas, so a lot of people try to convert me. Even here in the US. I tend to cut the Muslims a little more slack when they try to get me to convert than I would if it were an American Christian trying to get me to convert. Generally, when Muslims want me to covert me they do it with  a subtext of “oh come on man, we have a good thing going here! Sign up!” and when Christians try to get me to convert it always has a subtext of “You’re an idiot, and you’re going to fucking hell, you bag of shit. Also, I am smarter than you.” Plus, as an American, I’m exposed to a lot of the hysterical midwest Islamophobia that automatically makes me think someone trying to covert me to Christianity is a… how to say it? A Rick Perry. Whereas very few Muslims I’ve met ever mention the golbal Christian conspiracy to undermine their laws and subjugate their women.

In the past, I just told Moroccans that I was a Christian and didn’t elaborate. Just say enough, not too much, and pretend there isn’t any more, as the convicts say. Although, I was (and am) about as Christian as a telephone pole. One of my favorite stories involves a cab driver, who, after I told him I was a Christian, asked “but if God told you to become a Muslim, you’d do it, right?” And I told him that if God told me to do something, of course I would do whatever it was. And he said, more or less, “Okay, that sounds fair” and we were cool. Anyway, as far as religion goes, a few months ago I started going to Quaker meetings, and I really like it, but not for Jesus-related reasons. For people being quiet, against war, and not telling me what to do -related reasons. Quakerism has what I’m really looking for in a religion: a total lack of structure, ritual, and ideology coupled with a history of vaguely leftist utopian idealism. But anyway.

So! There were two stories related to conversion. First, I ate lunch every day with a group of 7 other people, and we called ourselves The Conference Debris. Because we didn’t have our own groups to sit with. One of the men was an Algerian, and when he found out I wasn’t a Muslim, it became his mission to a) convert me, or b) convince me to return to America and tell everyone how awesome Islam is. It was sort of endearing, except that he insisted on telling me his plan to make me an evangelist from a position 200 nanometers away from my face. He spoke very little English but managed to tell me he wanted me to go back to America as a prophet. “Oh shit.” I said, “Don’t call it that.” At one point, a Moroccan got so fed up with this guy that she snapped “Leave him alone, he’s not going to change his religion” during lunch. This was the first time, ever, that something like this happened, and I was startled, in a good way. But later, he said, in English, “All you need to do is recite the profession of faith, and you will be perfect” and I felt an incredible revulsion. I think it was the word “perfect”. I wanted to reach out and punch him.

Trying to be polite, I said “well, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.” The Qatari sitting next to me sat up like she’d been hit by a lightning bolt. “What are your feelings on free will?” She demanded. This must be a hot topic in Qatari theology or something. I told her I was trying to be polite, and she looked at me as though I’d just admitted to eating a rotten egg to be polite.

At lunch, the Algerian asked me if I was a Catholic, an Orthodox, an Evangelist, or a Protestant. To him, these were the only caetgories of Christianity, and I’d have no idea where Quakers fit in. I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell them that I wasn’t raised religious, but had started attending meetings and was thinknig about perhaps joining one, some day, at age 30. I told him that, just like in Islam, with it’s Sufis and Alawites and Rachidis and Salafis, there were a number of very small sects in Christianty, and the entire group looked at me as though I had decided to take a very slow shit across the table. I wish my linguistic skills were better and I could have found out why. But I decided to press the issue, and asked if they had every heard of the Religious Society of Friends.

One of the other members of the Conference Debris table was a stocky man from the Ivory Coast. He was dressed in a navy blue suit, giant flowered shirt, gold rings, giant gold watch, and gold rimmed sunglasses, and he looked so much like the ubiquitous corrupt west African cop that every time he spoke I instinctively reached for my wallet, or as they would call it, the “bribe container”. When I said the word Quaker, he stopped chewing, looked up, and spit the words “LES TREMBLEURS” onto the table as though they had turned incredibly sour in his mouth. He said it the way I say “Republican”: with the understanding that if my child ever claimed to be one, I would punch it in the mouth.

The other conversion attempt ocurred on the train to Taza. I sat in a compartment with an old man, a young girl, and a couple. The man of the couple reminded me of my buddy Scott: he had the same general… face shape, expressions, and hand movements as he spoke. After being on the train for like and hour and a half, the old man frowned at me and asked if I understood what they’d been talking about. I told him I understood some of it; Libya is a goddamn mess, but also, apartments in Fes are getting sort of expensive. So we shoot the breeze for a while, and of course, it turns to religion. The man asks if I’m a Muslim, and I just say no, I’m a Christian.  At one point, he turns to the old lady next to him and starts chatting rapidly, and a young lady in the compartment translates. She worked at the Marraksh airport and spoke decent English, and was going home to her shit-farming rural ass village.  “He says that old people can tell. The things we have done are written on our faces, and you are a good man.” I played it humble and blushing, as though I was flattered, but the first thought that went through my head was “you poor stupid asshole.”

Later, when I declined to convert, he said “It’s okay, when you die, you’ll find out if Islam is better or not.”

“I absolutely agree. You are totally correct” I said. But he didn’t understand it the way I meant it.

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Boom dee ah dah, boom dee ah dah

December 6, 2011

I check into the pensione in Taza. I’m given a 2-bed room, and the next day a 1-bed room opens up. So I move in. There’s graffiti on the door (yes, I know the singular is graffito, eat me) to the little closet. It reads:

“ZTOTI.You.Are.A. Slut.One.Day.I.Have.And. Girl.Chritien.From.U.S.A. With.A.Bleu.Ayes. Hicham+girl U.S.A love”

There’s a lot going on here. Ztoti! What did you do? Hicham! Where are you today? Did you ever get your Girl USA with a Bleu Ayes? Why in the shit of ass did you write this thing on the door of a $3 a night hotel in rural Morocco?

There’s so much going on here.

WTF is going on here? Is that... written in lipstick?


Morocco II: Gouffre de Friouato

December 4, 2011

First, let me be blunt about this: Whoever wrote the Taza entry for Lonely Planet has either never been to Taza, or passed by it in a bus. I wanted to get that out of the way first, in case you don’t finish reading this entry. Go to hell, Lonely Planet.

So! I decided to go somewhere I’d never been before: a tiny mountain town called Taza. Which they should call Tizaaaa, because that’s how it’s pronounced. A number of my friends had told me that Taza is awesome, and I think I’m now pissed off at half my friends. Half of them, I think, liked the mountains and scenery of Taza (it’s near a giant National Park and reminds me of California, what with the mountains and forests and all) but I think the other half of my friends that recommend Taza are poverty tourists. “Oooh, these people haven’t got enough food, how quaint!” Anyway. One thing they were right about, though: people were friendly as all get out.

I stayed in a Pensione for $10 a night. There was no heat and it doubled as home to the noisiest family in North Africa (go to hell, Lonely Planet). It was a little strange, wondering about all the little old pensioners that waited to die in my room. I survived the entire time on “omlette sandwiches” which consisted of a hadboiled egg, hot sauce, and a boiled potatoe on a roll.

The second day, on a lark, I decided to visit the Gouffre de Friouato, North Africa’s largest cave system. The steps for getting to the Gouffre are simple: first, say goodbye to your loved ones. The next time anyone sees you will be the year 2387, when future archaeologists are trying to reconstruct your diet based on fossilized organs they found several miles below the surface of the earth. Second, make peace with your creator. Third, find a grand taxi. A grand taxi is usually an old mercedes sedan, and it seats two in the passenger seat and four in the back. Finally, step on the gas and don’t let up, roaring as fast as possible along unmarked, sometimes unpaved mountain roads that aren’t wide enough for a goat. The actual drive to the Gouffre consists of an hour of mocking the laughing face of death, which you will be able to clearly see through the car window. Under no circumstances should you let go of the door; if it were to pop open, you’d be launched horizontally out of the car like an ejection seat due to the fact that you and three other beefy, sweaty men are jammed into the back like one of those trick peanut cans with the spring snakes inside.

So, I tumble out of the grand taxi at what looks like a lonely mountaintop cafe. The man inside says something to me in rapid-fire Moroccan Arabic (if you say “hello” without an accent, everyone assumes you’re fluent and makes no effort to help you out and/or speak clearly, apparently) and I nodded stupidly. He proceeded to call a guide for me after I hand over roughly $35, hand me a flash light, and give me a red jumpsuit two sizes too small. In his defense, when I visit Morocco, I’m the tallest man in the country by a good 6 inches. The smile on his face indicated that this was to make the corpse-retrieval activities he had planned for the afternoon easier. Nervously, once I squeezed into the jumpsuit I blurted out the first full sentence in Arabic of my trip: “I AM AS A SAUSAGE MADE ENTIRELY OF FAT AND ORGAN MEAT.” This may be a Moroccan proverb of some sort, because the man nodded wisely at me, as though I had shared some deep wisdom on him.

The guide takes me to what I initially think is a bathroom built into the side of the mountain. It’s not a bathroom. It’s the entrance to the gouffre. Inside, there was a stairwell, and Indiana Jones was standing next to it, trying to drum up his courage to descend. The guide claimed there were 530 so stairs, but this doesn’t do it justice. There are 530 or so creaking, slippery cement slabs, sometimes with a handrail, sometimes not, that descend into an enormous, barrel cactus-shaped cave. (Should I have just said barrel-shaped?) I didn’t even know that cement COULD creak. A thick black tube was, and I am not exaggerating for the sake of comedy, nailed into the rock wall, and the guide sometimes used it as a handrail. I later found out that it was an electrical line for running the floodlights inside the cavern that they didn’t turn on for me.  The top of this initial cavern is open to the sky, and the stairway goes down the outside of the cavern. I passed a number of Morlocks on the way down, and standing at the bottom of the cave, the guide told me that I was now one kilometer below the surface of the earth. Above, I could see the sky and tiny birds, and I thought to myself that it really was a shame that I was never going to make it out of this place alive.

In five years, this is the first photo I've uploaded. The initial cavern. You can see the stairs, starting at bottom left and zig-zagging up the wall.

Holy shit, I figured out how to add a photo! I’ve had this blog since 2006, and this is my first photo. Anyway, the stairs (bottom left and zig zagging up the wall) give a sense of scale. Immediately behind where I took this picture, there’s a hole in the rock floor. The guide dropped down into it gracefully, like some sort of subterranean cat, and told me to follow. Here’s the thing: that guy was packing, maybe, 30 kilograms. To get all 100 kilograms of the handsome man that is me down that hole was… undignified. To my surprise, once I wriggled my way down and tried not to think of the fact that I’ve had nightmares that end this way, I was standing in a cavern about the size of a school gymnasium. That’s how the caverns work: it’s like there’s a house with a bunch of rooms, but each room is connected by a ten-foot long doggie door that you’ve got to squeeze through.

At one point, as I squeezed through a little rock tunnel, I asked the guide if he ever had any problems down here with tourists, especially big fat American ones. He said no, but he didn’t look  me in the eyes from that point onwards. I am pretty sure that the Gouffre is not just the largest hole in North Africa, but a tomb. Later, when we came to, and I’m not kidding, a subterranean pond, I asked him if there were any fish in the pond. In the same voice, he said yes, there were fish, but god willing, we would not encounter any of them. I resigned myself to the fact that somehow, in some way, I was going to be devoured by a fish in a lake miles below the earth’s surface.

We continued down, down, down into the steaming bowels of the earth. Oh yeah: Go to hell, Lonely Planet. They advise you to dress warm on this trip, because the mountains are cold. But the air inside the Gouffre comes from some sort of horrible underground lava carnival, and is easily 100 degrees. So I was all bundled up, and sweating like a hog. We descended, in total, something like 2 kilometers below the surface of the earth which, if I am doing my conversion correctly, is 36,000 miles. Everything is wet and slippery; sometimes there are peices of rebar cemented into the ground to act as steps, and we crossed a handful of wooden bridges that had been there so long that they were now made of stone. Science!

At one point the guide stops and points down what is more or less a stone hallway going down into the earth, and it’s full of water. He says, casually, as though this isn’t something that would terrify the poop straight out of my ass, that because it’s raining outside the caverns are slowly filling up with water and we should probably leave now.

Apparently, the caves were filling with water from below, and also the wooden beams that served as bridges were being washed away.

So, we went back up. It wasn’t easy. A 2 km walk would be one thing, but this was a 2 km vertical ascent, and everything is wet and slimy. When I got back to the main cavern, I was hurting bad in a number of very specific muscles. It’s a weird set that you use when trying to sneak into Mordor. There was also a Moroccan family there, and they made fun of my red jumpsuit and the hardhat I was wearing. But that’s okay, because they next time I saw them, they were spackled with cave shit. Jerks.

So! Those 530 stairs? Uncool on the way back up. I had to stop a couple of times. Some young Moroccan guys showed off by jogging up all the stairs, but they hadn’t entered the underground (which requires paying a fee, they were just hanging out at the bottom of the stairs.) I didn’t know how to point out to them that I was trying to get up these stairs AFTER a strenuous workout, and they were being pretty friendly about it, like they were just kidding, but when one wanted to take a photo with me to show his family the out of shape, Arabic speaking American, I didn’t feel too bad about calling them all dickheads over and over again in English.

It all went downhill from here. I came out and gave the suit back to the man, and declared “NOW I AM AS LOOSE GROUND BEEF”  in Arabic once I got out of it. I asked the man how to go about finding a taxi, and he looked at me like I had tits on my forehead. Taxis? Here? There are no taxis here, he said. I said, this is a huge attraction in a national park, there’s a cafe and restaurant up here, and you’ve never had to call a taxi for someone? and he gave me that half-smile that I realized meant I was going to get ripped off. Twenty minutes later, he said he’d called a friend, who could drive me back to town for 150 dirhams. I told him I’d only pay 100, and he said okay, he’d call his friend back. He didn’t, and then told me everything was okay.

At 3, the same guy that drove me up there came back and got me. I realized that he’d arranged it with the cafe man before hand – when  he dropped me off, I thought he’d said something about 5, but was too excited about the cavern to care. I realized he’d told the man he’d return at 1500, i.e. 3 PM. On the way back, we keep stopping to pick people up. When the guy asks if this is okay, I tell him I’m not a Saudi, and he laughs and ends up only charging me 80 dirhams. So, $10. That’s not bad, but it’s irritating to get ripped off, even if it’s just for a little. (And yes, I know that they need to do stuff like this to rich tourists because they’re broke, but it’s still mean.)

So! That was my time in the Gouffre. Aside from that and the view of the hills, I’d say there’s not much reason to go to Taza. But it was still nice.

Oh, also, go to hell, Lonely Planet.

I was holding the helmet like that, because I didn't think the flash would work


Morocco II: Scraps

December 4, 2011

So! It’s been a while. I got back yesterday from a trip to Morocco, my first visit back since I lived there in 2007/2008.  There was a conference in Rabat, and I stayed an extra week to see Taza, Fes, and Casablanca. Every single person in Fes remembered me, name and all – at first I thought the guy coming up and saying “I know you! You bought a hat from me 4 years ago!” was a scam, but no actually they just have really amazing memories. I also met the littlest Faux Guide – he was maybe 10 years old, and I saw him 3 days in a row in totally different parts of town. His introduction started with “Remember me?”

The conference was all right, although it was entirely in French. I was jetlagged, and had trouble staying awake in the morning; the monotone french industrial chemistry presentations really didn’t help. But it turns out that if I’m fading away to sleep, my brain automatically turns foreign words into the closest sounding english word. So I start falling asleep, and then I start hearing all of this gibberish English.

I should have traveled first, and THEN gone to the auction – it took 3 or 4 days to get back into Arab mode. I was a stuttering dunce at the conference, but after a couple of days, my Arabic was good enough that as soon as I said hello, people assumed I was fluent and just jabbered away at me. I’d kill to have a Moroccan that speaks to me the way I speak to the Chinese dude at work: slowly and clearly.

I got evangelized again, most prominently by a guy who insisted on standing within 2 inches of my face while trying to convert me. For the first time during all my Morocco trips, though, a Moroccan got exasperated and told him to be quiet, I wasn’t going to convert.

Anyway! I took notes during my trip. Not all of them… make sense to me now. So here’s the scraps of the notes:

1) For some reason I wrote down “This music sounds like the score to a snuff film directed by Mama Cass”. I have no idea what I was referring to.

2) “I wouldn’t say that the hotel [in Taza] was dirty, but when I woke up, the bed was gone and there was a note on the nightstand telling me to get tested for transmittable diseases.”

3) The Muezzin in Taza isn’t actually a person, it’s a whole flock of chickens standing on each other’s shoulders inside a trench coat. But he’s well educated, he has a degree from the Cairo Institute for the Deaf. (What I’m trying to say is that the Muezzin in Taza was the screechiest, most terrible Muezzin in the Maghreb.)

4) There was also a Tunisian who complained that there were traffic-blocking strikes in Tunis now. “Now we have too much freedom!” He said. So I guess there’s a 1 % over there as well.