Nov 7, 2006

The Exodus Story

Our pastor Scott Grant seems to have two favourite Biblical themes, the Exodus and the Woman at the Well. These themes are repeated in the Bible, and Scott loves to find them in various stories through the Old and New Testaments.

Jason, having just quit his fulltime position at Microsoft, has beem trying to find his own Exodus story, and the next part of the trip has to be the Wilderness.
Our driver, Driss, showed up a little late at our hotel. I have to say I was a little annxious waiting for him, both as to whether he would show up and whether we'd get along with him. He would be our driver for the next 6 days, and I suspect a good relationship could make all the difference in this trip.

The first day consisted of mostly driving from Fes to Erfoud, a town on the edge of the Sahara that's ysed for tourists for staging excursions into the desert. Along the way, we drove over the Middle Atlas mountain range. It reminded me a bit of Nevada or Arizona, or southeastern California, rocky with small dry shrubs dotting the landscape. Huge sedimentary rock formations were all around, and the layers were visible, often at an angle.

Occasionally there are small stands at the side of the road, selling honey, rocks containing fossilized shells, or crystallized minerals or figuerines carved from them. The other common sight were nomadic shepherds tending their flocks, and sometimes tents or huts.
Eventually we got to the river Ziz, which carved a valley in the rock that was filled with green date palms, an oasis in the rocky mountains. Along the way here, terraced Berber houses lined the valley walls. On the roofs, piles of dates were being dried, the fresher ones yellow, the drier ones brown. We happened to hit the annual date harvest season.
For lunch, Driss brought us to a typical tourist restaurant. It was built in a kasbah style, with three tour buses parked out in front. This had me annoyed. If I wanted bus tour food, I would have asked for a bus tour. I suspected he was bringing us there for the kickbacks. However, being fairly non-confrontational, I was just going to suck it up and deal with it.
Jason saw my disdain though, and walked us right out of the restaurant and asked Driss for another, more local choice. It's funny how one of us would be "daring" in ways the other is totally uncomfortable with. I'm not sure which part of the wilderness journey this would be (I'll need a post-mortem with Jason on this), but we ended up at an empty truck stop, with the three of us, the owner, a cat and a beggar. The three of us ate a rather tasty chicken tagine on a plastic patio table with our hands. In retrospect, this could have been the big mistake of the trip, but it was certainly off the beaten path.
I'm not sure if it was my cynical side, but I noticed that Driss got a lot quieter after we declined the fancy restaurant. Jason thought maybe he was hungry and we made him drive further, but I'm suspicious that we screwed some business deal of his.
He did cheer up as Jason asked him for a suggestion for a better place to have dinner than the hotel since it was my birthday. He immediately picked up his phone and set up something special for that evening, and was back to his semi-cheery self.

We arrived at the Hotel Kasbah Tizimi in Erfoud around sunset. It was more roomy than the one in Fes, with a better air conditioner, and no mosquitos in the room. The shower was a bit odd, with the showerhead mounted about chest level and having no curtains. Like all the other showers we've seen in this country, the shower head is handheld and attached with a hose.
The hotel was located a bit out of the town center, but once we walked out we were accosted by kids who either wanted to sell us trinkets or guide us to the "downtown" where their friends owned shops. We let one 15 year old Hassan lead us along after he hounded us for a good 10 minutes. He took us to a shop where Jason bought a head scarf for the desert, for 70dms (from 150dms).
We headed back to the hotel, where Driss met us to take us to the home of some Tuoregs, nomads of the Sahara.

Driss had driven us to the nearby town of Rissini, to a large building where we were greeted by a gentleman in traditional dress named Abdul. He led us into a large room in what was obviously a large carpet shop, with walls lined with rugs. It really was rather beautiful and expensive looking. We had a seat by the wall as Abdul opened up a thick orange rug in the middle of the room (dyed with saffron, as we later found out) and set up a short table and invited us to make ourselves at home. His cousin Ali joined us and they told us how their family would travel in the Sahara in caravans and find tribes in the desert with whom they would trade.

After some time, the food came out, a large flatbread, much like the inch tall circular breads seen in shops all over, except that this one was maybe 18 inches in diameter, rather than the typical 6. As they cut it up though, we realized the inside was filled with spiced meat, liver and onions. It wasn't just bread, it was a meal. They told us this was a special Toureg dish, which I appreciated, since everywhere else we've seen the same couscous, tajines, and brochettes.
The food was pretty good (could have used a bit more salt, but I've noticed every restaurant tends to be low sodium here), and we ate to our fill. It was followed by fruit and tea. The lights then dimmed as they bought out a birthday cake, complete with my name mispelled in icing and candles, and Ali pounding away on a hand drum.

This was all quite festive, and I was getting kinda cheery, but it was after the cake that the magic happened. Ali got up and gave us the grand exhibition of their carpet collection, from tribes of nomads, berbers, touregs and bedouin. He said they were called kirim, meaning message, as the design of each rug held a story, with symbols and icons representing different facets of tribal life.

By the time he was done, the large floor was covered in carpets, Ali was sweating, I was asked which ones I liked, and Jason was on the porcelain throne.

"What style do you like?", asked Ali, "Buy or no buy, we are still friend" (a line I've heard a number of times after this incident). "Pick which ones you don't like", he saidn dutifully folding up and tossing aside the ones I disregarded.
Franlky I wasn't interested in most of the carpets. Even though they're made of wool, and varied between basic and intricate designs, most where fairly rough to touch. After saying no to his various carpets for a good 20 minutes, and feeling almost guilty for the dinner and festivities, Jason reappeared and I buckled and picked a few that didn't feel so rough.

"Buy more, we give you a good price", said Ali, trying to get us to buy 6 or more, "sell them to your friends". Eventually after we had a few that we liked, he pulled out some paper and a pen and wrote down some prices. I was aghast, with rugs I figure to be $50 coming in at $250 or so. "I cannot help you have expansive tastes", said Ali. "I can sell you 500dms rug ($60)", pulling a huge gaudy coloured monster out, "but it is cotton and. synthetic dye".

Eventually we went from 8 or so rugs down to 2, and talked the price of the two rugs from 5400 dms to 2250. "Just a little more", said Ali, which, we figured means we hit a good price. In retrospect he might have been happy with less, but we bumped it to 2500 (too used to dealing with nice round numbers).

Driss chimed in (all part of the game), "they're young, give them a break. Maybe when they're older they'll come back for more, ensh'allah". Ali looked disappointed and started to roll up the carpet. We had struck a deal. Jason paid by credit card, and our rugs were packed up and we were ushered out. We also paid 300dms for the dinner.
Driss seemed quite cheery as he popped in Bob Marley for the drive back to the hotel.

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