I just returned from a wonderful 3 week trip to Morocco with Overseas Adventure Travel. We started in Chefchaouen, an amazing little blue city at the northern part of Morocco. They call it the blue city because all the houses and small shops are painted the most amazing shades of blue. We were also fortunate to have been there during the festival of Eid (more in my trip report). We spent 4 fabulous days in Chefchaouen and then began the main tour in Rabat. We made a circle around Morocco and visited Rabat, Fes, Meknes, Volubilis, Ourzazate (the amazingly scenic movie capital of Morocco) as well as Marrakech and Casablanca and many other small towns. We also visited nomads and semi nomads (who knew what the difference was??) But the highlight has to be the 2 nights we spent tenting in the Sahara. To see the night stars where there is absolutely no pollution makes the night sky look like sparkling jewels. And the climb up the dunes before first light to see sunrise over the Sahara was awesome. We were helped with the climb by our wonderful Berber Blue Men (couldn't have done it w/o them). When we got to the top, we oohed and aahed and were then offered a Berber sleigh ride. We sat down on the sand and were pulled down the dunes on our butts by the Blue Men. The Sahara was truly an amazing experience. The whole trip was one of the better ones I've take made even better than usual, by our warm and wonderful tour guide, Mohammed, who made it much more than a sightseeing trip. I'll post a trip report here. It's sort of long -- about 12 pages. Let me know if you want more info, I can talk about this trip for hours. --Charlotte
Thursday, November 3: Framingham to Paris
We had an easy uneventful 5 hour flight.
Friday, November 4th: Paris to Casablanca
We arrived at CDG at 6:30AM - our flight to Casablanca left at 12:55 and we arrived in Casablanca at 4PM. We were surprised to see the rain, but to make up for it, we saw a beautiful double rainbow. Mohammed, our Program Director, was waiting us. It was about 1/2 ride to our hotel. We met at 7 for dinner. There are 4 on this pre trip.
Saturday, November 5th: Casablanca to Chefchaouen
We leave for Chefchaouen. Our first stop was at a small market where we saw fresh and local veggies, meats and fish. The food and premises are inspected daily. Our next stop was a very upscale mall to use the “facilities.” Then to Marjane (the Moroccan Walmart) to buy wine and to use the ATM. Weather has been strange -- bright sun and rain. We passed through a cork forest. The cork trees are not native -- they were brought from Portugal centuries ago. We are in Morocco for the Festival of Eid, also called the Festival of Sacrifice. It’s an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac (Ishmael) as an act of obedience to God, before God intervened to provide him with a sheep to sacrifice instead. Eid Al-Fitr marks the completion of Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer and acts of worship. In Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world, it's a day of thankfulness and celebration. We saw sheep wherever we stopped. Big cookouts, family gatherings, schools are closed. To ensure that even the poor can enjoy the holiday, all heads of household must donate food to the needy on behalf of each family member. We were surprised at the good condition of the roads. We saw many storks everywhere we stopped. We were also surprised to see sugar cane, bananas and strawberries. We crossed over the Sebou River, the largest North African river by volume. The source is in the Middle Atlas mountains and it passes near the city of Fes and flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It rained on and off and eventually the sun came out strong. We stopped for lunch at a small town. Busy, busy, busy. People are buying supplies for Monday’s holiday. We had lunch at an outdoor restaurant of Moroccan salad (tomatoes, chopped onions and spices), potato and eggplant, and a delicious tagine. Then freshly killed and cooked goat. We dipped the delicious bread in the sauce and it was heaven. And to finish off the meal, fresh mint tea. We drove for quite a while and stopped a local market. It seemed as if people were buying mainly sheep. We finally arrived in Chefchaouen (or as I’ll call it from now on Chaouen) at ~ 5PM. Chaouen is in the Rif mountains and the name refers to the shape of the mountain tops above the town that look like the two horns (chaoua) of a goat. "Chef Chaouen" comes from the Berber word for horns, Ichawen. We had a beautiful view of Chaouen from one of the mountain tops - the sun was perfect to see the beautiful blue buildings of the city. After checking into our beautiful Riad, Casa Hassan, we met at 6 for Happy Hour. Some of us have our liquid refreshments that we bought at Marjane. We had the specialty of the house for our dinner at Casa Hassan, tagine of short ribs, pears, apricots and prunes. It was fabulous! Also olives, many different kinds, pickled in lemon. garlic and thyme. And again wonderful bread for dipping. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to begin this vacation!
Sunday, November 6th: Chaouen
I was up at 6:30, and at 7, everyone was still asleep. I got dressed and went out for a walk. It was a lovely, peaceful morning. The shops were still closed - blue, blue, blue city. I was back at the hotel by 7:30 for breakfast. We had sweet semolina in the shape of donuts and they were to be dipped in olive oil. It was an unusual taste for us. Then crepes with honey and optional scrambled eggs. We all went out for a walk around the town. Everyone was getting ready for Eid. So many sheep and goats all over town. Town was very clean. Then we went to the home of Fatima for a cooking lesson and lunch. The lunch was again lamb tagine and again it was delicious. Fatima remains unmarried and she cares for her family and runs a farm. It rained on and off. We were originally scheduled for an optional trip of a donkey ride around the area and a visit to some local farms, but since the roads were too muddy and everyone was preparing for Eid, we didn’t do the optional trip. We went back to Chaouen where we had a presentation by a young college educated woman about the changing lives of women in Chaouen and in all of Morocco. She was well prepared. Her presentation and life made an interesting contrast to the life of Fatima on her farm. We had dinner again at Casa Hassan of shrimp tagine.
Monday, November 7th: Chaouen
The day began early with many Muslims heading to their local mosque for a morning Eid sermon and congregational prayers. Following the prayer, extended family may gather for festive meals, or individual families will eat at home and then visit relatives in the afternoon and evening. The tradition is to have sheep liver for lunch, broiled sheep head for breakfast and barbecued sheep head for lunch. Yum! About 7:30 we had breakfast and a walk around the walls of Chaouen. We saw women doing laundry communally and saw more people taking their goats and sheep to be slaughtered. We also took a walk outside the walls, to the more modern area, and saw beautiful blue murals on the walls and groups of people (mainly men) just chatting. Then we were on our bus and rode to a hiking area. We stopped at a local olive processing business and tasted the extra virgin olive oil on bread. We drove a little higher into the mountains and hiked for about an hour seeing sheep being slaughtered (from a distance). We were back at Chaouen for lunch. We saw men going to prayer wearing jelabas and pointy slippers. The jelabas with their pointy hoods, are very ancient and are spooky looking -- almost like KKK robes. Lunch was at an outdoor restaurant -- a very tasty meatball tagine made of either goat or lamb. So many olives at every meal. Back to the hotel to find out that someone had used my credit card to charge 900.00 of stuff in Italy. I had to cancel the card. Fortunately, I had another card that I was able to use. We think it happened at the Marjane in Casablanca, where I foolishly let the card out of my sight. After lunch we drove to another area, where we did some more hiking. We were trying to make the best of this day. We now know Chaouen like the backs of our hands. We met again at 6 for dinner - we split a meal -- chicken with lemon and olives. It was excellent. We are now ready to move on.
Tuesday, November 8th: Chaouen to Tangier
We left Chaouen early and drove through the Rif Mountains to Tetuan in the middle of a belt of orchards that contain orange, almond, pomegranate and cypress trees. The symbol of the city is 2 doves. A beautiful area. We continued north towards the city of M’dig on the Mediterranean Sea. The city is fairly new, it was built in 1999 and now it’s a popular resort area. We stopped to walk along the beach and pick up shells. We drove by Ceuta, still part of Spain and saw the border between Morocco and Ceuta where there were military outposts and electrified fences to prevent Moroccans from illegally entering Spain. We are headed for Tangier, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. We stopped at Cap Spartel and saw the Straits of Gibraltar (from a distance) and also saw where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean. Tangier is in the process of building the largest harbor in Africa and will then be competing with Barcelona. Phase 1 of 3 is almost complete. There are/will be jobs for 30,000 people. There is also talk of a French car factory moving to Morocco. The original port of Tangier will become a pleasure harbor. We visited Hercules Grotto, a large cave with a hole in the rock where one can see the Atlantic Ocean. The entrance of this mythical place has the shape of an upside map of Africa. According to legend, Hercules rested here after digging the Straits of Gibraltar. We continued on to our hotel walking through the grungy looking medina. Apparently, it was much worse, but the present king has a fondness for Tangier and is devoting time and money to clean it up. Lots of discos. Very quiet since it’s off season. We walked from the medina to our lovely modern hotel -- quite different from our Riad in Chaouen.
Wednesday, November 9th: Tangier to Rabat
Early morning walk down to the beach and out on the breakwater and on the road to Rabat by 8:30. Fairly uninteresting highway ride. We arrived in Rabat about noonish and checked into the Hotel Rive. Mohammed left to pick up the rest of the group at the airport and we took a very long walk over to La Mama’s, an Italian restaurant recommend in our tour books. It was a nice meal, but huge. We could’ve split a meal. We walked to the Medina, it was pretty dirty and had fairly uninteresting stuff. The other 10 arrived. Glad to be beginning the main trip.
Thursday, November 10th: Rabat
Another early walk with Mary. We met after breakfast for a trip overview and an Arabic lesson from Mohammed. We left shortly after for our trip to La Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V. The complex was completed in 1971 and contains the tombs of King Mohammed V and his two sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The building is considered a masterpiece of modern Alaouite dynasty architecture, with its white silhouette, topped by a typical green tiled roof. The Mausoleum is decorated with elaborate mosaics from floor to ceiling and the tower is the minaret of an incomplete mosque. Construction began in 1195 but was never completed. Next stop was Kasbah des Oudaras, a delightful oasis of green trees and beautiful gardens. Then on to Chellah, the necropolis and ancient and medieval ruins on the outskirts of Rabat. Here the Romans set up the outpost of Chellah, which became a thriving city. In the 13th century a sultan built a necropolis on top of the Roman site and surrounded it with defensive walls. Many of the structures in Chellah were damaged or destroyed in an 18th century earthquake. Currently the area is occupied by cats -- hundreds of cats, cared for by a religious sect. A very beautiful spot. Then lunch of tasty fish skewers at a scenic area overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Our next stop was the archeological museum with lots of displays from Volubilis, which we will see tomorrow. Then Marjane again to add to our stash of wine and snacks. Fabulous dinner at a beautiful home in the medina. Appetizers of carrots, eggplant, lentils and curried squash. Then Chicken Bastilla (shredded chicken, with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and other spices) followed by braised lamb shanks with sesame seeds, prunes and apricots. For desert, we had desert bastilla -- layers and layers of phylo dough that we all smashed with our forks. Wonderful day!
Friday, November 11th: Rabat to Fes
On our way to Fes we passed the King’s ranch and the Royal Stables. Mohammed told us that the King loves golf, but can’t hit the ball out of the sand traps. He even hired Tiger Woods to give him lessons. No go. So now the golf courses in Morocco have no sand traps. If you’re King, nothing is a problem. We stopped along the way to see the acorn sellers. This is the season when the acorns are harvested. They were fairly tasteless -- almost like coconut, but much milder. Drove up a little way to see the truck carrying the last watermelons and melons of the season. We tasted some and again, they were fairly tasteless. We passed vineyards were the grapes have already been harvested and farmers are waiting for the rain to clear the fields. We had another stop to see a women’s collaborative selling buttermilk and semolina (which we did not taste) and pomegranates (which we did). Delicious and sweet. We passed the town of Tiflet, a region rich with ancient history including a settlement by Phoenicians and Romans during the first millennium BC. Main income comes from farming. Before 9/11/2001 Tiflet had many Peace Corps workers helping local women in a beekeeping cooperative. The U.S. government evacuated them because of concerns over their safety. Many Moroccans who now live in Europe, build retirement homes here and come to work on their homes during the summer. We arrived in Meknes and entered through the Saddle Makers Gate. We saw the Talmud Torah of Meknes, currently closed, but plans are in the works to rebuild and restore. We stopped at the market and saw beautiful displays of Moroccan spices and olives. As we left Meknes, we stopped to see the king’s granary and stables for his Arabian horses. We also saw the statue of the Waterman. Lunch was at a lovely restaurant where we were served a variety of olives, and small plates of lentils, eggplant, fava beans and a tasty soup as well as barbecued turkey (unusual), meatballs, chicken, rice, and french fries with fruit for desert. After about a 45 minute drive, we arrived at Volubilis, a Roman city built in ~40AD and remained with a population of ~20,000 for quite a while. The Romans at Volubilis exported the lions that were used in the fights at the Roman Colosseum. Mosaics still decorate the “rooms.” People continued to live in Volubilis for more than 1,000 years. It was first abandoned in the 18th century when it was demolished to provide building materials for palaces in nearby Meknes. If that destruction had not occurred, Volubilis would have been one of the best preserved Roman sites anywhere. We left Volubilis for Fes. Beautiful fertile countryside. We were surprised to see dogs along the side of the road. Mohammed told us that they wait for people to throw them scraps of food. We arrived in Fes and our hotel was a beautiful Riad (riads are large private homes, usually with a garden in the center that are currently being converted to hotels). Delicious dinner once again. Wonderful appetizers and chicken with preserved lemon and fruit for desert.
Saturday, November 12th: Fes
Early morning walk with Mary. Unfortunately on our way back we got made a wrong turn and got hopelessly lost. To add to the mess, we didn’t remember the name of our hotel. We had quite the experience. Led back to what we hoped was our hotel by a young man, through the innards of the souk -- tiny, tiny alleyways along a completely different route. Then joined by another kid, this one surly and scary. Nerve wracking walk. Finally we got back to the right hotel. I should have known better than this. It took us 30 minutes of walking at a very fast clip when it should’ve take us no more than 5 minutes tops. Lesson learned. We left for a scheduled walking trip with the group after breakfast. First stop was one of the King’s palaces, with its 7 doors, one for each day of the week (not yet open to the public). Next was the old synagogue of Fes. Open only as a museum and funded by a Moroccan/Israeli family. Occasionally services are held, but the main synagogue is outside the medina in the Nouvelle Ville (new city) area. All through the small streets of Fes were the garbage men with their donkeys, collecting rubbish using the packs on either side of the donkeys to pile the rubbish. Next stop was the Bou Inania Madrasa, built in the mid 1350’s, and as we were told, an excellent example of Berber architecture. The madrasa was both an educational institute and a congregational mosque and is the only madrasa in Fes with a minaret. It became one of the most important religious institutions of Fes and Morocco. The madrasa was renovated in the 18th century and then again in the 20th century and is one of the few religious places in Morocco accessible for non-Islamic visitors. It has beautiful carved wood, colorful tiles and carved plaster, inscribed with verses from the Koran. The effect was fabulous. Our next stop was to see the Funduqs (or Caravanserais) - small inns used by traders hundreds of years ago as hotels for them their livestock to rest for the night. Next stop was the tannery. Sheep, goat and cow skins are processed to make the millions of slippers we saw all over Morocco. They are cured, stretched, scraped and dyed in many vats. This process has basically remained unchanged since medieval times. The dyes are made of natural materials. A pungent mixture of pigeon poop, acids and cow urine is used to make the hides supple. Pretty gross. We all needed a sprig of mint for our noses to ward off the smell. Then the shopping day began - the leather store, the carpet store and the jalaba/kaftan store. Finally we arrived back at our Riad and had time for a quick rest before we went off to our home hosted meal. We were very fortunate to be in a home with a college aged young man and his mother, a professional, middle-aged woman, both spoke English. The husband, who wasn’t at the dinner, is a professor. She prepared a tasty tagine and bread for us. Since they are accustomed to visitors, the conversation flowed, made easier by the young man’s interest in technology. A long and very interesting day!
Sunday, November 13th: Fes to Erfoud
Mary and I began the day with our early morning walk -- no getting lost this time. We actually saw where we went wrong yesterday. We left Fes, the Arab area, for Berber territory. 56% of the population are Berbers, with a different language, different traditions and different customs. According to Mohammed, the Arabs are more religious and more educated and Berbers are warmer and more hospitable. As we drove through the countryside, we saw the same rich soil. Farmers don’t pay taxes, no matter how much land they own. Until the past 3 - 4 years, there was quite a drought, so to encourage farming, all taxes were eliminated. Illiteracy rate is higher among the Berbers than the Arabs. The main reason is that the French built many schools to provide education just for the Arabs. French interest was copper and other minerals that are abundant in Morocco. The hope was that there would be fighting among the people thereby making an opening for the French to take over the country. It didn’t work. We are now driving in the foothills of the Atlas mountains. This is where the history of the Berbers begin. Change in terrain to rocky fields. The people here prefer to grow trees, specifically apple trees. People rent out their apartments in the Atlas mountains during the summer to city people from Fes. Temperature is much better during the summer in the Atlas mountains. There is a major reforestation project happening in the mountains and big fines are levied for anyone caught chopping down trees. Next stop was Ifrane in north-central Morocco in the Middle Atlas Mountains. It’s a fairly modern town catering to international tourists. The Switzerland of Morocco, they call it, with pseudo-Alpine villas and large suburban streets. It’s also the home of Al Akhawayn University, based on the American system of education. We were surprised to see snow and also surprised to see sleds for rent and adults dressed in their winter jalabas as well as children having a wonderful time in the snow. This area has been very different from other areas we have visited. Leaving Ifrane, we traveled through a cedar forest and made an unscheduled stop to visit a semi nomadic group of women. The men are out with the sheep so Mohammed asks if we can visit. They agree and invite us into their home where they offered us warm bread and olive oil. They are very tribally dressed. Since they are semi-nomadic, they spend several months here, and when it gets too cold, they move back to the desert. We saw the oven made of mud and straw outside their dwelling which they use to bake bread. What a wonderful stop! We continued on through the Middle Atlas Mountains until we reached Kasbah Asmae, our lunch stop. Again, meals are beautifully prepared and presented with colorful table cloths and napkins and interestingly patterned dishes. After lunch, we drove through the largest oasis in Morocco at 71 miles in length. This is the season when dates are harvested and we saw dates drying all over rooftops and any available open spaces.
Monday, November 14th: Erfoud to Daya El Maider in the Sahara
Our last stop before we actually got to the Sahara, was the factory where tables, washbasins, fountains and other small items are made from fossils and trilobites. Millions of years ago, this area was the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. Pieces of rock containing fossils continue to be found and are being made into items for sale. Now we are in the Sahara... amazing dunes, not the red sands of Namibia, but amazing all the same. Our camels were waiting for us and we rode for about an hour to our tent site in the middle of the desert. The camels cooperated and gave us a nice gentle ride to our tent site. Since the sands shift constantly, no permanent tent sites can be erected. The tents are very basic, no electricity and no running water -- nothing like Kenya or Namibia, but given the view of the dunes -- 2 nights here will be just enough! Lunch was served in the dining tent by our Blue Men. We settled in for a while and then drove for about 45 minutes by jeep through the dunes to the little village of Khamlia, for a performance of North African Berber music and dance performed by the group, Gnawa Khamlia. This village is the only settlement in Morocco where all its people are from black African descendants, mainly from Sudan. We were back at the tent site at 5 and I sat out on the beautiful dunes where it was peaceful and silent. We had a cooking demo at 6 by Mohammed and our Blue Man chef. They prepared chicken and lemon tagine and it was wonderful. Back to the tents by 8:30 for our early wake up at 5:30 for some dune climbing. The clear crisp air and the bright stars were set off by the blackness of the sky. Don’t remember ever seeing such a sight.
Tuesday, November 15th: Daya El Maider in the Sahara
It was peaceful and beautiful on the dunes before first light. We saw tiny scarab beetle tracks and desert jumping mice tracks. It was very hard to climb these dunes and our “Berber camels” the local blue-robed Berber men arrived just in time to help us make the climb. Never could’ve made it without them. We saw dunes after dunes after dunes - just like the photos - I always thought the photos were altered in some way, but they are as they look. We climbed 3/4 of the way to see sunrise -- the sun came up in an instant. Joyce brought a bottle of champagne and we toasted sunrise and our success. Then 5 of us struggled up the other 1/4 of the way, assured by Mohammed that the views were different and we would not regret it. He was right -- the views were even more awesome from the top of the dunes. We saw our camp, which appeared no larger than a speck of sand. Mary was the only one who made it to the very top of the dunes. After congratulating ourselves, another treat was in store, and that was Berber sledding down the sand dunes. We got down on our butts on the sand and were pulled by our feet down the dunes. Much easier than climbing up. Great fun! It was worth the struggle up. After breakfast, we walked over to the Nomad school. It’s so difficult to teach in these schools -- the parents don’t value education, so unless the kids are self motivated, they will not continue. The government will build more schools, but only if the people will give up their nomadic lifestyle. The teacher is wonderfully patient. Often there is a younger sibling who is there just because... Then we walked back to the campsite for lunch. After lunch we took the jeeps to visit a nomadic family. They have no fixed home and move from place to place, according to the seasons, in search of food, water, and grazing land. This nomadic family consisted of the 43-year-old wife, the 55-year-old husband, and their 9 children. Their lives are very simple. Most are uneducated. When asked where they thought America was, the father answered - near Rabat (was he just putting us on????). They don’t consider themselves Moroccans, just Saharans. Then it was back to the tent site for a discussion of Islam by Mohammed. What a wonderful representative he is for his religion and his country. My stomach was not right and as much as I hated to miss the evening’s activities and dinner, I went back to my tent to sleep. I missed a wonderful birthday party for Maureen and singing and dancing. But I conquered the dunes and that was my main goal for the day!
Wednesday, November 16th: Daya El Maider in the Sahara to Tineghir
Our breakfast was camel omelette -- pretty good, actually. We packed up and walked for about 45 minutes. We watched women filling their water buckets from an ancient well. Mohammed and the drivers stopped to help so we took pictures. Next we saw the camel well. A motorcycle whizzed by driven by a nomad in full sandstorm dress -- quite the picture. A few miles away was the ancient aqueduct with its series of wells that seemed to go on and on from the desert to the Atlas mountains, to water the desert crops. The water table is just 15” down from the sand, so water is readily available. Our picnic lunch was leftover breakfast --hard boiled eggs, cheese and tangerines, was perfect. We arrived in Tineghir mid afternoon. I Next was the Hammam - (the Turkish Moroccan baths). With fear and trepidation, 8 brave souls braved the Hamman. Clothing off except for panties. Not a pretty sight. Clean plastic (hopefully it was clean) was spread down on the floor and hot water was poured on the plastic so our bottoms would be warm. The worker women gave us olive oil cake (soap??) to rub everywhere except our faces. Then they washed it off with buckets of hot water. In the next room we were washed with a loofah and had a shampoo. More buckets of hot water. Next room was the rub down room - body, fingers toes, face, ears. Then more buckets of water. I was glad I did it -- wouldn’t do it again. The Hamman is a real social event for Moroccan women, nothing like it in our society. They bring young children and often spend the day, just chatting and washing. Pretty amazing experience.
Thursday, November 17th: Tineghir
The town of Tineghir and the dwellings are the color of sand -- many homes looked like the adobe dwellings we have in our southwest. After breakfast, it was back on the bus for a ride through the eastern part of the High Atlas mountains with its dramatic scenery. We drove down to the Todra Gorge, a canyon (or wadi), formed by the Todra and Dades rivers The last 2000’ of the gorge are the most spectacular as it narrows to a flat stony track, in places as little as 33’ wide, with sheer and smooth rock walls up to 525’ high on each side. This tiny glacial stream was once a river which filled the gorge. Lots of rock climbing in the area. We had a beautiful walk along the bottom of the gorge and saw evidence of life in the gorge. People live in the gorge. We saw old adobe abandoned buildings -- they almost blended into the stone. As we ascended out of the gorge, we were awestruck by the colors -- all pink and ochre. We began to see ripe date palm trees. We drove though the oasis again -- so interesting to see huge swaths of green in the middle of the sandy landscape. People own or rent sections of the oasis and plant fabulous crops such as tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc. Donkeys sure earn their keep in this part of the country. Parts of this landscape could be in the mid west with its mesas and colors. Next we drove down into the oasis and watched the women harvesting the crops Men do the planting and women, the harvesting. We stopped at an old madrasa -- they have been closed in Morocco since the 16th century. Next stop was the boarding school (funded in part by the Grand Circle Foundation). The school is quite unusual in that kids go to classes at various schools of their choice, but they board at this boarding school. Most are kids who don’t have the discipline to study at home. The schedule is rigorous- they are up at 5 to pray, breakfast at 7, school from 9 - 12 and then 2 - 6. Homework for 2 - 3 hours, 6 days/week. The boys were terrific - friendly, smart, able to converse in English, or if not English, fluent French. The boys we spoke with all had lofty ambitions and it was fun to talk with them over lunch. Then it was back on the bus. We toured the women’s market and visited a Berber carpet store which had many beautiful carpets, antique camel valises, and kaftans. We had our hands hennaed by Resident Expert Fatima. Another amazing day!
Friday, November 18th : Tineghir to Ouarzazate (War za zat)
No walk for us this morning -- a rainy day here in sunny Morocco. We traveled along the Middle Atlas mountains along the same route that the trading caravans would have taken on their way to Timbuktu, Niger and Sudan. In the olden days they were laden with salt which they would exchange across the desert for slaves and gold. We drove through mining areas and saw silver mines. There are lots of flash floods in this area during the rainy season. Today is Independence Day in Morocco. On this date in 1956 Mohammed V, the grandfather of the current king, returned from exile and ended the French occupation. Independence Day is one of the few secular Moroccan festivals in Morocco. We were told that it is celebrated in Morocco with much pomp and circumstance, although we saw no evidence of this in this rural mountain area. The people will observe a 1 minute of silence tonight to honour the dead when the King makes his speech. All farming activity stops on rainy days. We are still in the Berber area where the main industry is farming. We are getting to higher elevations. Although the date palm trees still grow, they don’t produce fruit because of the elevation. Until the 1950s, the Dades valley was home to the infamous Glaoui clan who for hundreds of years controlled large tracts of the Middle Atlas by highway robbery. There is a 45% illiteracy rate in Morocco. Hopefully within the next few generations, this number will change. The wife of the King is doing as much as she can to foster education and health care. We continued to drive through the mountains with bright red rocks on either side. It looked like someone had taken gobs of boulders and thrown it against the sides of the mountains. Pretty dramatic scenery. Our first stop was at the house of the leader of the village, a wealthy man chosen by the people because of his problem solving skills, his honesty and his money. We watched the women of the household make Berber pizza. Flat dough with mix ins of garlic and veggies folded up and baked in hot clay oven for a minute or 2. Quite good. Tribal leader was out and his shifty-eyed son gave us info about the family and the village. We changed from our busses to 2 jeeps to go down to the Dades Gorge. The son drove one of the jeeps and a driver drove another. The road dates from the 1930’s and is a good paved road, although not a bus route. There were switchbacks all the way down to the river. I bought a Moroccan mirror from a souvenir guy at the gorge for 100 Dirhams (~12.00). After walking the path at the bottom of the gorge for about 15 minutes, we got back into the jeeps and retraced our route back up. Ruth was going to do some shopping and noticed that her Dirhams were missing -- her credit cards and American money were untouched. Someone had taken her Moroccan money. Mohammed was right on it and we were confident the mystery would be solved. We got back on the bus and continued for about an hour until we came to the house of the Imam, our lunch stop for the day. Suddenly Val noticed she was missing some Dirhams also. The mystery continues. Mohammed is constantly on the phone as we try to continue on with our enjoyment of the day. We learned that after the attacks in Casablanca in 2003 (supposedly incited by radical Imams), Imams are now appointed by the government and are well trained by the Ministry of Religion to ensure that no extremist views are taught. To be an Imam, a man must have at least 6 years of religious and secular training and, in advance of attending Imam school, he must memorize the Koran. This is no small task since the Koran, according to one source, contains approximately 604 pages of non-linear structure – it has no defined beginning, middle, or end. On with the meal...we had delicious soup, chicken, couscous, veggies, tea and fruit. The Imam showed us how to roll the food up in a ball and use 3 fingers to pop in his mouth. Magnificent home - totally restored by UNESCO because it’s a one of a kind building. After lunch, the Imam and his handsome brother re-enacted a wedding ceremony with Mindy, one of our group. Mindy was dressed in traditional garb and the marriage contract was signed with no protest from other family members. Then it was goodbye to the Imam and his family, and back onto the bus heading to Ouarzazate. More amazing scenery -- deserted as far as the eye can see with red clay in both directions and the mountains in the distance. When we got to our hotel and got settled, Mohammed left to meet his boss and head back to the tribal leader and his village and his shifty-eyed son to talk about the missing money. We later found out that the shifty-eyed son confessed after a long evening of denials. Father finally got the Koran and told the son to place his hand on it and tell what happened. The son ran out of the room. The father was humiliated and made full restitution for his son and begged Mohammed not to tell anyone in the village. Of course Mohammed agreed. OAT will no longer visit that village. An exciting day in more ways than one!
Saturday, November 19th: Ouarzazate to Marakech
Ouarzazat is the movie capital of Morocco, and we could see why. It was the perfect setting for Egyptian and western movies and has been featured in many films, mostly as a replacement for Jerusalem. Ouarzazate became famous when it’s nearby Kasbah appeared in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. We stopped in the village of Ait Benhaddou with its 6 kasbahs (city or fortress) and nearly 50 houses. Almost all are in ruins since most of the original inhabitants moved to the other side of the river, closer to the modern road. Ait Benhaddou was named a world heritage site and is one of the most scenic places we’ve seen thus far. Morocco has undergone an attempt to save many of the kasbahs. Ait Benhaddou was established in the 13th century and the buildings are made of earth and straw and are scattered everywhere (as are the vendors). We visited with a woman who still lives in town. Her daughters would like her to come and live with them, but she doesn’t want to leave the village. She is very self sufficient with her chickens and ducks. Some of us climbed to the top of the kasbah -- the views were fabulous. We saw the 17th century coliseum that played a prominent role in the movie The Gladiator, with Russell Crowe. Back on the bus, we drove through the High Atlas mountains. Lots of reforestation taking place -- mainly oak and pine. We stopped at 6,400’ for lunch. Very nice meal of soup, chicken shish ka bob, french fries, yogurt and hot chocolate. We reached the highest part of the road at 7,000’. We saw the ancient camel route through the oasis. We stopped at a women's cooperative to see how argan oil is produced and processed. The oil is very valued and is used both in cooking and in beauty products. It’s produced from the kernels of the argan tree, endemic to Morocco and well adapted to drought and other environmentally difficult conditions of southwestern Morocco. It grows wild in semi-desert soil, and its deep root system helps to protect against soil erosion. Argan oil remains one of the rarest oils in the world due to the small and very specific growing areas. Before modern times, the Berbers would collect undigested Argan pits from the waste of goats which climb the trees to eat their fruit. The pits were then ground and pressed to make the nutty oil used in cooking and cosmetics. The oil used in cosmetic and culinary products available today has most likely been harvested directly from the tree and processed with machines. But it was interesting to see the women actually cracking and pressing the pits. We all contributed to the health and welfare of these women by buying lots of stuff. There are pictures on the walls showing goats climbing a tree, eating the argan nut, and later defecating. Just seeing the picture of the goats climbing trees and eating the nuts was worth the stop. Then it was on to Marrakech. As we drove into the city, Mohammed pointed out the La Mamounia, a luxury hotel where Winston Churchill once stayed and painted the Atlas Mountains and surrounding countryside. Churchill and Roosevelt came to La Mamounia when they met for the Casablanca Conference in 1943, and were said to have had discussions from the roof of the hotel while gazing out at the mountains and walls of the old city. Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Charles de Gaulle, and Nelson Mandela have also stayed at la Mamounia. Our hotel, not as ritzy as La Mamounia, but did have a 4* rating and was in a very good location. We walked to the Koutoubia mosque and minaret after dinner.
Sunday, September 20th: Marrakech
We toured Marrakech in traditional horse-drawn caliches (carriages). It rained on and off. Our impromptu stop was at the pharmacy and herb shop (to escape the rain) where we had demos of Moroccan makeup, shampoos, kohl and argan oil. The salesperson was fantastic -- no NY salesperson had anything over her. She sold everyone of us something. Our next stop was the Koutoubia mosque, the largest mosque in Marrakech. The minaret was completed in the 10th century and used as the model for the Giralda in Seville. It is considered the ultimate structure of its kind. The tower is more than 200’ tall and has 4 copper globes at the top (rather than the 3 we have seen). According to legend, the globes were originally made of pure gold and the fourth globe was donated by the wife of the Calif who built the minaret, for her failure to keep the fast for one day during the month of Ramadan. She had her golden jewelry melted down to form the fourth globe. We had a group photo taken in front of the minaret. Our next stop was the Bahai Palace in the medina along the northern edge of the Jewish quarter. Beautiful architecture. Colorful marble tiles and ornate wooden ceilings. Much more crowded than any of the sites we have seen previously. Portofino, a nice little Italian restaurant outside the souk was our lunch stop. The chicken pastilla was outstanding and beautifully presented. Then the souk, a true shopping experience. Thousands of tiny stalls, each having “the best.” Good fun! Everyone seemed to have a good sense of humor about buying and selling. I was saving my buying spree for the next day. The main square Djemaa el Fna is teeming with snake charmers, story tellers, fortune tellers, monkeys on leashes, water boys and enough sensory treats to cause overload. Some of us opted for the Mystical Morocco tour. We walked through windy, narrow streets to a home where we would see Suffi mystics. We all had our fortunes told by a Berber woman. First we rubbed a white stone or rock, then the fortune teller draped white plastic beads between my thumb and fingers. What was my fortune? Pete is fine –not to worry; I am hesitating to do something and should just go ahead and do it; I am in good health; I have a kind heart. All eight of us miraculously had fairly identical fortunes. Hmmm. Then to Djemaa el Fna square to see it at night. What a transformation! Food courts appeared, as well as the snake charmers, etc. Every kind of food imaginable is available. Then to a lovely restaurant, Dar Es-Salam, which was featured in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. Suddenly, a Berber dancer emerged bearing a tray of lit candles on her head who proceeded to perform a dance requiring a high degree of balance. Then the Berber band broke into some more oscillating music and a lithesome belly dancer in costume appeared performing a traditional Arabic belly-dance. Mohammed who had left us, returned and pointed out President Juan Evo Morales Ayma of Bolivia who was sitting at a table near us. Meal was excellent. Our favorite desert (100 sheets of pastry laced with yogurt, honey, pistachios – smash-it-with-a-fork ) was served. We were all very happy campers.
Monday, September 21st: Marrakech
Our last full day in Marrakech. We spent our day walking to the Majorelle Gardens right smack in the middle of Marrakech. It was created in the 1920s and 1930s by French painter Jacques Majorelle (1886–1962), and later renovated by fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. It took us a little under an hour to walk there from out hotel, after asking directions many times. We almost believed the guy on the motorcycle who told us that the gardens were closed for the morning because of the rain the previous day. He wanted to lead us to another “shopping opportunity,” a Berber auction (whatever that was). We would have been very annoyed had we followed him and then later learned the gardens were, in fact, open. It was misty, humid, and somewhat cool day. The garden is a lovely, peaceful space with lots of bamboo, succulents, dwarf palms, a cactus garden and lily-covered pools surrounded by vibrant blue and yellow pots and other decorations. Wonderful feeling of tranquility. We visited Majorelle's former studio, now a Museum of Islamic Arts that exhibited YSL’s personal collection of North African carpets, pottery, furniture, doors, Berber history, jewelry and costumes. It meant so much to us since we had been to and seen so many of these costumes and places. Fabulous setting and a gem of a museum. We then walked back to the main square, Djemaa el Fna and had lunch once again at Portofino’s. This time I had delicious pizza. Now our shopping begins at the souk -- we had a hard time finding the right entrance, but after about the 5 tries, we found it. Lots of buying -- scarves, snake boxes, bracelets, earrings, wooden toys... After our shopping spree, we stopped off at the best gelato place in Marrakech (according to Mohammed). He was right -- it was delicious. Another wonderful day. The Majorelle gardens were a special surprise.
Tuesday, September 22nd: Marrakech to Casablanca
We left Marrakech at 8:30 bound for Casablanca. Population of 6 million. It’s Morocco's largest city as well as its chief port. Casablanca is the economic and business center of Morocco, while Rabat is the political capital. The Port of Casablanca is one of the largest artificial ports in the world and the primary naval base for the Royal Moroccan Navy. The French built its huge harbor. Textiles are the main industry of Casablanca with much competition from China. People work from 8 - 12 and from 2 - 6. There are lots of job opportunities but living expenses are very high. We drove through the upscale area and saw the building where Churchill, FDR, DeGaulle and Mohammed V met to discuss WWII. The King of Saudi Arabia has a magnificent home high on a hill. Lots of night life and discos. Casablancans are party people. Next stop was the King Hassan II Mosque - a magnificent building --the 3rd largest mosque in the world after Mecca and Medina. It was completed in 1993 and has been estimated to have cost as much as 800 million. Almost all the materials of the Hassan II Mosque are from Morocco, with the sole exceptions of the imported white granite columns and glass chandeliers from Murano and marble from Carrara. More than 6,000 Moroccan master craftsmen and artisans were employed to work these local materials into the intricate decorations that embellish the entire structure. When construction passed its deadline in the early 1990s, 1,400 men worked by day and 1,000 worked by night to bring the vast project to completion. It is estimated to hold 100,000 people. We did a short tour of other sites in Casablanca and met again for dinner at Rick’s Cafe (from the movie Casablanca). new, only Delicious meal of salad with figs and goat cheese, and stuffed peppers with risotto. One of the best meals of the trip.
Wednesday, September 23rd: Casablanca back home
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