Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Round the world Trip: Morocco Part II

The next morning we had what we'd learn was the standard Moroccan breakfast, regardless of where you stayed: some coffee or mint tee and an assortment of Moroccan breads. This was great for the first few days, but after a while I started to long for bacon and eggs.

After breakfast we went to pick up our rental car since we'd spend the rest of the trip driving around most of the country. Trouble started when the rental car location wasn't where Google maps said it should be. We walked up and down the street for a good hour, using a combination of extremely basic French and hand gestures to ask various people on the street. They were all very nice but no one had any idea where it was.

We finally chanced upon the address -- it was just a single door leading off the sidewalk up some stairs into a collection of offices, one of which had an 8"x11" Enterprise Rentals sign on the door. The man working there spoke solid enough English, which was great. While he was doing the paperwork Sharon joked about whether the Audi A6 we saw outside was for us. It was -- it turns out when you don't drive stick and have to get an automatic they only have luxury automatics. That got us excited; we'd have some sweet wheels for the trip. We got less excited when we finished up and Sharon asked if the GPS was already in the car.

"GPS? Uh, no we don't have a GPS," the man responded. No GPS?  I had "only" booked about three months in advance; how could they not get a GPS for us in that time? And he had just charged my credit card for GPS. And now we were going to be driving through a foreign country, where the signage is in Arabic and French, without a GPS or so much as a map. There was an Enterprise office in Fes, our next stop, perhaps we could get a GPS there. We held out hope -- we could definitely make it to Fes on our own, I thought.

We went back to our riad and I spent 20 minutes taking screenshots of Google Maps' instructions to Fes on my iPad since I'd lose WiFi as soon as we checked out. I would drive and Sharon would navigate. We couldn't make any mistakes or we'd be seriously screwed.

We loaded the car and I gingerly pulled into traffic, which is a bit like crossing a highway during rush hour, and we began our journey. We saw two accidents right away -- two cars merged into each other on one of Morocco's cities' hellish roundabouts and then a motorcycle ran into and under a dump truck. I was a bit stressed, to say the least.

Once we left the city center things got better. A long straight road was bordered by forested parkland on either side and watermelon vendors had set up shop every few hundred feet. The highways were actually very well maintained and the drivers were extremely courteous -- a big departure from the chaos of driving in the city. We raced through open, green farmland with low green hills in the distance, which was totally unexpected. When I heard the word Morocco I pictured massive bazaars and ancient buildings and desert.

Sharon and I had one planned stop en route to Fes: a visit to Volubilis, a UNESCO world heritage Roman site just north of Meknes. I had captured directions to Volubilis on my iPad as well. The problem with our directions, I soon learned, was that they referenced routes, such as "Take the exit to A5 North". Morocco doesn't label its roads with routes. There will just be a sign saying "Meknes West" and then another saying "Meknes East". No routes. Time to guess.

Since I knew Volubilis was north of Meknes I just started driving north through the city, using the afternoon shadows to keep me oriented. I hoped, given that the site was famous, we'd see some large signs pointing the way. We went on like this for about a half an hour, my supreme confidence in Boy Scout-level navigation waning each time I was forced to make a choice at a fork in the road. Eventually we stopped at a gas station; I had given in and decided to buy a map. The gas station didn't sell maps, though. I made eye contact with the woman working the cashier. "Volubilis?" I half said, half asked. I made some hand movements to suggest a castle and repeated myself. "Volubilis?" It occurred to me that I was probably pronouncing it completely wrong. But in the face of adversity plain old idiocy remains resolute. "Volubilis? Vol-lu-bil-is? Roman ruins? Vol-you-bil-ees? The ruins?," I tried.

Somehow she told me it was just down the street. I immediately lowered my expectations for the ruins. The way we'd come didn't suggest much room for any grand Roman remains. Then a mechanic popped over and asked what was going on. He and the cashier talked in Arabic for a few seconds. (Moroccans generally speak Arabic to each other, French to white people in the southern part of the country, and Spanish to white people in the northern part). Then he drew me a map. Through a combination of French, broken English, and hand gestures he was able to tell me where to go. It turned out we were actually pretty close to the road we needed to take.

We drove another thirty minutes north on a winding, hilly road, past the town of Moulay Idriss -- where the first ruler of Morocco, who was escaping an assassination attempt in the Middle East, made his home; and until recently where it was forbidden to spend the night if you weren't Muslim -- to the understated entrance of Volubilis.
City of Moulay Idriss

Volubilis had been inhabited since the 3rd century BC but came into its own under Roman rule from the first century AD until it was conquered by local tribesmen in 285. It remained a Latin Christian community for another 700 years before becoming one of Morocco's early Islamic settlements. It was completely abandoned in the 11th century when the capital was moved to Fes and rulers looted much of Volubilis for building material.

You can hire guides but we decided to use a map from Lonely Planet to self tour around. After a few buildings I started to have my doubts about the map. What looked like a kitchen of some kind was labeled 'baths' (it was an olive press). What looked like a temple of some kind, with giant columns that had once supported a grand roof, was labeled a 'fountain'. I later checked other maps online and found that the Lonely Planet map was completely wrong. Still, the site was impressive. It sat on a big hill above a huge green valley. There was a triumphal arch, a long parade avenue, the foundations of homes, and well preserved mosaics -- one could almost picture it in its heyday. Other tourists rambled around the grounds but it was not busy.

This is not a joke!

After we'd had our fill of history we got back on the road, retraced our steps to the highway, and continued on our way to Fes, which was only another 45 minutes away or so. We first entered Fes' Ville Nouvelle, the old "new" city established by the French in the 1930s, and drove along a big boulevard lined with shops and parks. As we rounded a traffic circle and effectively crossed into the medina the road signage failed us and we weren't sure if we were on the right street or not.

I thought driving in Rabat was stressful, but that was child's play. As the street we were on continued deeper into the medina, and became narrower, it essentially turned into an open air market. Hordes of people crowded the street, not caring that a car was coming through. As I inched along they'd give the car a berth of maybe a quarter inch. It was only a matter of time before I ran over someone's foot. I had both hands firmly gripping the wheel and my neck craned forward. There was no way to turn back or turn off, so I had to keep moving forward, albeit at about 2 miles an hour. Welcome to Fes, I thought….

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