Archive for April, 2014

The Road to Marrakech


In the midst of the desert and the Middle Atlas Mountains lie the towns of Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou – movie capitals of Morocco! Ouarzazate, historically a trading town, became a French garrison in the 1920’s. When the French left, a studio business built up there based on films set in Tibet, ancient Rome, Somalia and Egypt.

Nearby Ait Benhaddou is the real setting for these films. It’s an Almoravid caravansary from the 11th century that’s protected by UNESCO, so it looks pretty much like it did then, 1000 years ago – mud houses perched on a hill with lots of narrow streets and overlooks.

A wacky variety of movies have been made here, including:

  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Jesus of Nazareth
  • The Jewel of the Nile
  • Gladiator
  • Game of Thrones
  • Sex and the City II

We walk around, get hot and take some pictures, but, no movie stars around today!

Adrift in Marrakech20140427-Morocco-1805

The bus gets to Marrakech mid-afternoon on Saturday. The sun is hot, but there are snow-capped mountains in the background – amazing! We can’t get to the hotel because it’s on one of the windy souk lanes, so we grab our gear, throw the suitcases into a couple of big pushcarts and start walking. The lanes are eight feet wide and mostly covered with mesh screens to cut the sun. They’re lined with shops and packed with traffic, and here we’re dodging to avoid motorcycles and bicycles, not donkeys, so the stakes are higher. After 15 minutes of rights and lefts there’s a small explosion – one of the tires of a luggage cart has blown – so a couple of us grab suitcases and the guys helping have to push much harder. And then, we get to the hotel. It seems lovely from the alley, and I have visions of a bed and a quick shower. But, alas, they’ve made a mistake with the booking and there’s no room for us. We stand, sweating, for fifteen minutes as alternate arrangements are somehow fashioned, then set off again with camera bags, backpacks, tripods and the luggage carts. Another fifteen minutes of wandering brings us to the Riad Moulay Said.
This Riad is a hoot. It’s huge, with three floors of rooms overlooking a large swimming pool. The ones on our floor, the lowest, have entryways studded with low couches and many beds. The rooms get smaller as the floors go up, with the top one seemingly a place for backpackers. The floors are nice tile, the walls are tile or painted plaster with stucco trim, and the ceilings are decorated. But the place is unfinished and dirty. In our bathroom, the toilet seat is unattached and the shower stall is covered with contact paper from the manufacturer. The lobby is dark and dirty, unvacuumed and undusted for weeks. But for the next two days, this is home. And, it’s only a ten-minute walk from The Square.

20140427-Morocco-1858The Square – Djemaa el-Fna

The name means “Assembly of the Dead” for its original use in the 11th century – public executions. Now, the hot with the direct, blinding sun of the Mediterranean, it’s packed with tourists and locals in search of carnival. At a quick glance I see snake charmers (with pythons and other sorts of live snakes,) a dentist with a card table studded with a huge pile of teeth offering extractions and replacement crowns, rows and rows of food stalls (these are set up every day and are famed to offer fresh food from the area, but I see one with snails laid out in midafternoon heat for dinner hours later,) whirling dancers, water-carriers and the usual assortment of shoe, t-shirt and hat vendors. Overlaying it all and defining the senses are drummers who beat a never-ending tattoo. I want to climb out of my skin.

There is finally some loosening of the clothing patterns here. Although most of the mothers are covered completely as in Fez and the mountains, the teen girls wear tight jeans and shirts and coordinating hijabs. According to Rashid, our guide, the practice of covering is fast losing popularity with teens in the country. So far, no Al Quada in sight!

Palace Bahia20140427-Morocco-1832

In Marrakech is a 20-acre home built 160 years ago for Morocco’s Grand Vizier (Prime Minister.) It’s lovely, large and airy, Andalusian design, with tile floors, stucco walls and decorated cedar ceilings
and windows, every room unique. Three waiting rooms for people who would come with their problems – two for Moslems decorated with Koranic verses and one for Jews decorated with motifs in the Star of David.

Most interesting were some comments from our guide, Mustafa:

  • The Grand Vizier had four wives and 24 concubines. There were over forty children.
  • The children stayed with their mothers, but played together as one family and were all treated the same no matter who their mother was
  • At five, the boys stop going to the women’s hammams (baths), and at nine they leave the mothers rooms completely and live with the other boys in a madras.
  • The girls were married at 14
  • Parties were given often in the Palace. For formal parties, women watched from their barred windows; for family parties, everyone attended. Musicians who played regularly were blinded so they could not see the women (and so they could be more focused on their music, theoretically.)
  • The French occupied the palace during their stay, adding fireplaces and chimneys which weren’t used but which were normal to them.
  • When the French came in, they banned the regular Friday public beheadings in 1912.  They also banned slavery, taking several years to accomplish because of the economic consequences. It was finally ended completely in 1920.

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Sensory Whiplash

 20140419-Morocco-1188Morocco is laid out as a group of semicircles facing the ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The coastal region, home to Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca, has a gentle, moist climate that grows fruits and vegetables for the country and for export. Back from it are the Middle Atlas Mountains, filled with Cedar forests and fertile valleys. Beyond is the High Atlas region, wrapped by the Southern Oases, then the Sahara desert to the south and west. After our first few days, we cut straight south through these diverse geographic layers.

First to the city of Fez, its medina colorful, crowded and noisy and not changed much in the millennium of its existence. Over 150,000 people live on the pathways that twist and turn with no pattern, and are so narrow that donkeys and mules are the main vehicles. Walking the alleys is sensory overload, you get lost immediately, so we just give up and relax, plan to pay a young boy to take us home at the end of the day. Each turn leads to a something different: a small souk, a street crowded with shoppers carrying loaves of bread, or a lovely square with a teashop. Sounds are varied and musical – women talking, children playing, muezzins calling, and most important to hear, the scream of “balak!” meaning that a loaded donkey is hot on your back and you have to move aside or get mowed down.

From Fez we begin a trek to the desert, through the Middle Atlas Mountains and a culture shock in the town of Ifrane. The French built it in the 1930’s to resemble an alpine village: the roads meet at right angles around parks with fountains and flowerbeds, and there are stands selling popcorn and ice cream cones. In the winter, Moroccans come to ski and play in the snow. The high point for me is a shop with cappuccinos, lovely French pastries and hi-tech bathrooms.

And then, onto the Sahara. After four more hours of driving the mountains give way to a sparse, arid flatness where we turn off-road onto rough terrain. Another hour of jarring ride leads to the edge of 20140421-Morocco-9855the Sahara, which rises suddenly in front of us. The Erg Chebbi Dunes, running for twenty miles and climbing over 800 feet, are colored from beige to red to black cut at their ridges by the lowering sun. Magnificent. The near sand is edged by camels roped in a line and dotted with tent villages and Berbers sitting by piles of trinkets.  Children racing around with shovels and four-wheel drive buggies sully the sand, but the wind is strong and these assaults are smoothed over quickly. We sit on the veranda of our hotel watching and drink hot tea, eat peanuts and feel the sand build up in our teeth, eyes and cameras. A sunset, then a sunrise of photography is followed by a long siesta then a trek into the dunes on camels for more sunset shooting.

The Gorges

From the Sahara we move west into the High Atlas Mountains. To see them close up, we have to take four-wheel-drive vehicles, past silver mines run by the royal family, complete with protestors who want a piece of the profits for some of the people outside that family, then down into the Todra Gorge. This is a steep-sided canyon with pink and gray walls up to 1000 feet, lined with palm oases along the Todra Wadi. After lunch, the vehicles circle back through the Dades Gorge, much broader with sides of dramatically eroded limestone faces and thin towers. It’s much greener along the Dades Wadi – fig, almond and walnut trees, apples orchards and corn are visible today. There’s lots of herding along the wadis and also up in the barren canyons away from the water, where there Berber dwellings scattered every few miles in the rocks – corrals for the animals made of stone with basic tents alongside for the family. It’s the most primitive living I’ve ever seen. At one of these homes, a few of us go up to take pictures. The people are very dirty, don’t want their pictures taken, but offer us tea.

Forced Leisure

 Photography is best done at dawn and sunset so any trip like this has big blocks of time with nothing to do. Some are spent on a bus driving between interesting locations, and some in dinky hotel rooms20140420-Morocco-1356 waiting for the sun to be right, the rain to stop, lunch to be served. Every guide I’ve travelled with has been good at finding events to fill this dead time – tea breaks, walks through a small town, stops at random museums and craft factories, and yet there are still hours of forced leisure. What to do with all of this time?

A quick look around the bus is illuminating. There is one “youngling” with us on the trip – a high school girl with a creative bent for photography and a travelling grandmother who brings her along. Her time is filled with her iphone – wired to its stored music and texting, clearly equipped with some plan that lets her do it, oblivious to everything else happening around her. There are some talkers. The men are always talkers, seeking each other out, opening a bag of peanuts, and jumping right into the latest move Obama has made, who has the worst property taxes, or what’s new in lenses. They’re content, fulfilled. There are some obsessive camera cleaners, blowing off dust, rearranging gear, going through today’s pictures immediately to sort the wheat from the chaff. Some people just stare out the window, thinking, I presume. I retreat to reading books, up to one a day now. It’s getting frighteningly easy – a new recommendation can be quickly scarfed up into Kindle at the next internet connection.








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What’s a Berber?

I had expected a trip to Africa, but instead I could be in the Middle East somewhere.. It’s mild and damp, there are olive trees everywhere, and meals are couscous, lamb and fish. The people are light skinned. It’s not Israel – almost all of the women are in hijabs with long robes or pants, but it could be Syria or Lebanon. Not an ankle to be seen anywhere. And the people speak French, which is a plus, since I have some hope of conversing with them, my Arabic being non-existent. So Morocco, a strip that hugs the northwest coast of Africa, strikes me as more Mediterranean than African.

20140417-Morocco-0991They call themselves Berbers. The origin of these peoples is Eurasian, a mix of the forebears of the ancient Egyptians, fishermen from the Mediterranean, horsebreeders from the Sahara, and the Phoenicians. And even though the Arabs came through in the 8th century to convert everyone to Islam, they didn’t stay around long enough to become part of the gene pool.

We started off in Casablanca and spent the first day on our own in search of a sim-card. Apparently Rick and Ilsa didn’t use cell phones, because there wasn’t one in the city that would fit Jim’s iphone. The young man who attached himself to us at the restaurant we found for lunch said he would find one, but first – it was our lucky day, he’d take us to a unique exhibit at a local museum – rugs made by old women from the Atlas mountains who spent the entire year tying and dying for this one-day event. And, sophisticated as we think we are, we’re taken in: led to a rug merchant’s, then mint tea foisted into our hands and rugs unfurled one after the other in front of us. No old ladies in sight, maybe they had just hopped some camels and left.

We ended the day, phone still unfunctional and embarrassed by our gullibility, going to Rick’s Café for a drink. Yes – Rick’s – begun ten years ago by an enterprising American, it looks just like the one in the movies and there’s a guy who plays the piano. Guess what the most requested song is?

Meet me at the Casbah

The group gets together the next day.  Some old friends from earlier trips, and some new, including a trio of Venezuelans – two women and one granddaughter, outspoken about their politics and fascinating to talk with. And we’re off to Rabat.

Today Rabat is pretty pedestrian, even though it’s the capital. But its history is wild. Originally settled by the Romans, it was built by the Berbers into a “ribat,” a fortress-monastery, who added a “kasbah,” a launching point for Moorish forays into Spain in the 12th century. When the Spanish expelled the Moors and most Jews from Spain in the 15th century, some came here and settled in around the kasbah. The area still survives as the old town, or medina. The streets that were Jewish were painted in blue and white to distinguish them. For a time, the exiled Moors and Jews lived well in the same area, but that eventually fell apart.

As the refugees poured in, the city became open and ungoverned – a site for Corsairs – Christian and Moorish pirates who raided European ships.


Getting meals is part of the adventure when you’re travelling. In Meknes, an old city on the way to Fez, we visited the souk, market. You can get any part of any meat you want (as long as it’s not pork,) in any form you want. The shops that sell camel are identifiable by the hooves that lay on the counters. So, you select your favorite cut of camel, they grind it, with the spices you want (it was not immediately clear to me what goes with camel, but they seemed to know,) then walk it to a different stall where it is cooked for you and put into a “bun” (actually, really good bread.)

It was perfect with mint tea!




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