Morocco 2017 – Epilogue

After realizing that I had no suitcase, and in fact had added to my cargo, I spend much of the night packing my most valued treasures into a shopping bag that would serve as my carry-on, and turning a tyvec grocery bag and a roll of duct tape into something resembling a suitcase that I can check in at the baggage counter.  

Duct tape. Never leave home without it!

It is hard to leave the Riad Adriana this morning.  It is even harder to leave Morocco…

The drive back to Casablanca today is 150 miles.  I take more photos from the car, trying to grab more of the landscape in shots that I would ultimately discard.  We check in to the Hotel Barcelo, the hotel that marked the beginning of our trip nearly 3 weeks ago. Brenda and I will fly out after midnight tonight, but the hotel is a nice base to take care of any last minute travel needs. After a sleepless night and a sudden onset of illness, I welcome a bed and a nap.

Dinner tonight is at Mohamed’s home.  He drives us by his restaurant, and circumvents much of the downtown area to arrive at his flat.  His apartment furnishings echo those we had seen elsewhere … low couches running without break along white walls, with a center table and small wooden end tables that double as dining room chairs.  He has prepared tagines, and a huge plate of fresh fruit for desert that he would turn into delicious smoothies which offered a soothing finishing touch to his masterly prepared feast.  

It’s time to go.  Mohamed drives us to the airport, and Doug follows us in to try to make sure I reunite with my errant luggage.  He suddenly encounters a stop point, and is forced to wave us goodbye.  

That begins my back-and-forth 45 minute post-midnight jaunt between the lost luggage department, the ticketing desk, a misdirect to a separate ticketing desk which is closed, and then a redirect to the one that is open, where I pay an extra baggage fee and receive my boarding passes. Three more compliments from men ranging from 20- to 50-something on my jeballah (which I’m wearing to assure that they make it home with me),  but they all look quizzically at my hat, thinking it’s Chinese.  

Finally, I catch up with Brenda, and we both wait for our 1:40 AM flight to Frankfurt, where we would catch our respective flights to Canada and the US.

Arriving in Seattle, I raise a few eyebrows at US Customs, until I relate how my luggage was lost and I had to buy new clothes, which elicited a laugh and a “no wonder you look like that” from the young guard who let me through without further question. Marie meets me at the passenger pick up, and drives me to a store where I buy a salad and fresh fruit. Then it’s home to cats whom would have my undivided attention for the next three days…

“I did not see the things I expected to… and I saw what I never expected to see…”

You never see or get to everything you want to on any given trip.  I saw the set for the Kingdom of Heaven but couldn’t touch its walls. We missed the Archaeological Museum in Rabat and the Arms Museum in Fez, and the Maison Tiskiwin (Berber museum) and Bahia Palace in Marrakech. I saw the Atlantic but did not get to walk on its beach.  Seeing the exteriors of some of the world’s largest mosques but not being able to enter them, was a little disappointing.

I saw things I never expected to see.  The magnificent architecture of the Kasbah Amridil in Skoura. The Atlas Studios in Ourazazate.  Yves Saint Laurent’s memorial, and the centuries old bakery in the souk in Marrakech. Books on the shelves at the Qarawiyyin Library in Fez. The antique store in Taroudant. The Todra Gorge where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.

There were experiences that defied expectation.  Hand feeding monkeys in the Forest of Cedars. Walking barefoot in the red sand of the Western Sahara.  Riding a camel. Weaving on carpet looms in two different cities. Posing on the set of “Return of the Mummy.” Tea and dinner in personal homes. Sleeping in historic riads and kasbahs. Doug sharing a YouTube video with Berber camel men around a fire in the Sahara under a sky pierced with a multitude of stars. Turning lost luggage into an asset, Being mistaken as a Berber a few times. 

Unlike my visit to Istanbul where I bought every Turkish cookbook I could find, I have not taken up the cooking of Morocco.  But on weekends, I slip on my jeballah and leather slippers, and burn incense of a morning like they did at Kasbah Moyahut and the Saharan camel camp.  I line up my collection of “red sand movies” which play in a continual loop.  I am looking for a carpet loom, and a course on learning Berber for when I return.  I am still pouring through notes for future blogs on Berber culture, Moroccan agriculture and Islamic architecture.  And of course, I hope to design a hat or two that echo this incredible journey.

Morocco is an exceptional country to visit. My original journal ended with plans to return to Morocco, to the desert and the Atlas Mountains. Time will tell if my path takes me there, or somewhere else. Africa has a kept a piece of my heart, like Istanbul did, and I hope to return in 2020 to see what else the continent has to offer.

With special thanks to Doug Baum and his Texas Camel Corps tours, who made this experience possible. 

Morocco 2017 – The Atlas Mountains

We arise to another rooftop breakfast, with a table laid in white linen and small colorful tagines filled with preserves and shreds of butter.  We are back in the lands of well-rounded breakfasts, complete with fresh yogurt and one-egg omelets, which will help to fuel our final day of this tour and a much anticipated excursion into the High Atlas Mountains.

I have enjoyed three weeks of mostly temperate climate, sun and brilliant blue skies. Today would be no exception. Once we clear Marrakech, I note the consistent mud brick walls that separate the farms from the road, which is  a stark contrast to the hodge-podge of materials that I have seen used in perimeter fencing over the last two days.  We drive through an unexpectedly lush landscape marked by forest-green palms, lime-green weeping willows and a variety of bougainvilleas in full bloom. 

We climb up the side of the mountain and stop at a scenic outlook, where camels and aggressive trinket salesmen outnumber the tourists.  There is a blanket salesmen hawking antiques, and I see a clay oil lamp in a Roman style, but since I cannot tell if it’s an antiquity or a reproduction, I don’t show any interest in it since I don’t want to engage with the salesman. I hear Catherine behind me, with her steady stream of “La La La” (La is the Arabic word for no).   I try not to make eye contact but am barraged anyway.  I am chastised for speaking Arabic to a young Berber who is anxious to sell me his strings of beads.

Camel men vie with eachother as they invite passersby to mount their camels for photos (and we know where -that- can lead you…) We watch Doug as he checks the teeth of one of the camels and converses with the camel’s owner.  It’s one of many times on this trip that I would wish I could at least understand Arabic.  We continue to be impressed at how well Doug can walk up and start a conversation with pretty much everyone he meets.  

Back in the car and a few miles further up the mountainside, we encounter another police checkpoint. This stop takes much longer than our previous ones, and Mohamed is asked to step out of the car to speak with the officer at their vehicle.  Doug joins a few minutes later.  Several minutes pass. One of the officers comes up and slides our van door open, and asks for our nationalities.  Several more minutes pass…  finally Doug and Mohamed return, having resolved the questions the officers had about our rental vehicle. No money exchanged hands at this stop, which we again credit to Mohamed’s exceptional negotiating skills.

Finally, we arrive at Oukaimden, a ski resort and town at about 10,000 ft. elevation.  It’s windy but not as chilly as I was expecting, and Doug points to the green and rock pasture where some sheep are grazing, and said that usually there was still snow there this time of year.  Doug orders lunch from a tiny roadside tagine restaurant, and I scamper around the rough terrain, at one point I trip and take a spill.  “You lose cred with the Berbers when you do that,” Doug kids with me as he extends a hand to help me back to my feet.  

Lunch is ready.  We are seated under a large umbrella at a table covered with a white plastic cloth and laid out with an assortment of floral patterned melmac plates.  Tagines filled with beef, chicken and goat, under layers of potatoes, carrots and canned green peas, cover the table.  The goat is pretty fatty, but the dishes are all piping hot and satisfying in spite of the complete lack of spice that is an unexpected deficit to the cuisine here.

Tagines for lunch. Photo courtesy of Mark Charteris.

After lunch, Doug gives us an hour or two to wander around, and drives the rest of the group towards the ski area for some photo ops. I go out to the bridge and find a place where there isn’t any grafitti, and lay down on my stomach to get this shot of Mt. Toubkal.

Next, I climb about halfway up the hill to investigate the stone ruins that Doug had pointed out.  They appear to be the remains of a small village, with only stone walls remaining of the original one-room structures. Doug says that shepards use these ruins as shelters during the summer season, when they bring their sheep to graze here.  The grass is emerald green but very boggy, and there’s a lot of rock outcrop.  But the scenery is pretty fantastic, especially the view of Mt. Toubkal, rising 13,000 feet in the distance, being the second tallest mountain in Africa behind Kilimanjaro.  

I have brief thoughts of just staying here…

But the van pulls up, and Doug comes up to see if I’m ready to go.  He takes my camera and snaps a few photos of me, “Berber Girl with her sheep and horse” and stone ruins and mountains in the background, which would become among my favorite shots from this trip. You will find a zillion additional photos at Daveno Travels.

We head down the mountain to the valley floor, and the town of Ourika, where we spend another hour just wandering around. The road is lined on one side with hotels and shops, and on the other side with restaurants lining the banks of a fast-moving river. More than one merchant yells at me in 6 different languages, trying to figure out what nationality I am in order to entice me into their shops…

There are a number of footbridges to the restaurants, some more stable than others, and I spend about half of my time just looking at these eateries, with their brightly painted furnishings so close to the rocks that some of the chairs and tables are actually sitting in the rushing water. The roar of the river is so loud that it must be hard to hear your waiter…

One of the many riverside cafes in Ourika

Then it’s back to Marrakech for our final night in Morocco.

Back at our riad, I start consolidating my belongings to determine how large of a suitcase I need to buy for the flight back home.  I pour my remaining vodka into a water bottle, and peel the label off to visually separate it from my actual water bottle. I sort through papers and toiletries and start throwing things away.  I really hope to keep my luggage under the 8 pound limit so I don’t repeat the lost luggage issue that I started this trip with. I am loathe to spend money on a new suitcase, but it’s on my list of things to shop for tonight, now that I have a visual of the size that I need to buy. I pack my purse with stuff I’ll need tonight, top off my water bottle and join the rest of the group for the walk to the van. 

We pull up to the curb at the Jemaa el Fna and determine a place to meet in about 3 hours. Brenda, Mark and Catherine are looking for a restaurant, and Doug has his own shopping list to complete.  I bound out of the van, determined to wring every last minute out of this final evening.  I find a cash machine and head towards the tannery souk that we had passed by yesterday, in search of the fancy shoes I had seen.  

For once, I navigate to a previous place without getting tremendously lost, and find the shop that sells the shoes.  I pull a pair off the wall, and after trying on a couple of pairs, choose the ones that will go home with me.  I also find a thimble here, and barter with the shopkeeper for most of the money I have just pulled out of the ATM.  I show him my turquoise shoes, which have separated at the toe, and he glues it back in place for me (at no charge!). 

Back in the square, dark has descended and a carnival-like atmosphere now blankets the area.  I decide to try some street food rather than a restaurant, and walk past booths selling snails by the bowl, and several types of snack foods, before settling on the Chez Hadj Ahmed Doukali, with its rows of county fair style picnic tables and benches.  I order a spinach dish (the spinach turns out to be canned) and a chicken bistilla.  I pull out my water bottle, take a big swig, and discover that it’s the one I had filled with vodka…

After dinner, I’m feeling pretty great : ) and head back out into the square, flitting in and out of souks. I buy a pair of red leather slippers and an embroidered pillow top that I whisk out of the center of the 3 foot pile without disturbing the rest – a magic trick that mystifies the salesmen, who looks at me wide-eyed and asks how I learned to do that.  I catch up with Doug who is looking for tagines and books, He helps me to buy a knit prayer cap before we part ways again.

My shopping done, I’m walking through the square under a starlit sky filled with smoke from the food braziers.  Neon whirligigs like what I saw in Istanbul during EID shoot up through the haze and pierce the sky before falling back down and being chased by the teenagers who are trying to sell them. The air is filled with the noisy clamor from a thousand strangers, as I relish my final hours here in the carnival that is the Jemaa el Fna of Marrakech.

Jemaa el Fna, photo courtesy of Mark Charteris

I find Doug and Mohamed at the designated meeting place, and after about a half an hour, we wonder if Catherine has accepted the invitation she was made earlier to drive one of the horse-drawn taxis.  Eventually they arrive, they had found a restaurant that had both wine and bellydancers, so they are also pretty happy.  All of us collected, we return to the riad.

…. and I find that I have completely forgotten to buy a suitcase … 

Morocco 2017 – Marrakech

We are on the road to Marrakech.  You can almost hear everyone humming the famous Crosby, Still & Nash song to themselves … 

After passing through an unremarkable landscape, our first glimpse of Marrakech is of a medina in the distance, with a mass of rooftop satellite dishes offering a stark contrast to both the sand colored walls and the brilliant blue sky.  

Downtown Marrakech felt a little like Casablanca, with its rounded front buildings and general noise and grime. We are once again booked into a riad in the old city. Driving in any Moroccan medina is a true art form, but again Mohamed demonstrates his skill, and in spite of another GPS failure, traverses the narrow passageways to get us close to our destination.  We cart our luggage (some of us more than others) through a small souk and to the door of the Riad Adriana.

We are met in the courtyard with tea and a tray of sweets, and seated on cushions around a center fountain filled with rose petals. I take note of the vases of roses and huge bowls of oranges in the corners of the courtyard.  I start nibbling on a second cookie when we are ushered to our rooms.  

See more photos of this riad at Daveno Travels.

Unbelievable!   Having just checked out of the Palais des Roses, we find ourselves in a true palace of roses … there are rose petals scattered everywhere in our rooms! There’s another tray of sweets and fruit on the small wooden table, along with a welcome bottle of water.  Once again, I am struck by the stark differences in hospitality between the large hotels – which didn’t even have water or menus in the rooms – and the riads which see to every potential need, even those that you didn’t realize you had … 

After a brief rest, we walk back through the souk to meet up with Mohamad and the van. I’m not paying enough attention to where I’m walking, and suddenly collide with a scooter after which we both take a spill. The driver is visibly angry and I find a safe place to stand behind Mohamed and Doug, who quickly deescalate the scooter driver.  I look down and find that remarkably I don’t have treadmarks across my foot, and my ankle seems OK, and so we continue on.  I would stick close to the sides of the souk every time we walk through here for the duration of our stay.

The Majorelle Gardens surrounds a villa that was built in the 1920’s for Jacques Majorelle (a French Orientalist painter). The property was purchased in 1980 by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge, who turned the villa into a museum, and also restored the gardens. (Click here for some history.) I did not find the gardens ‘breathtaking’ as the guidebooks will tell you, but it did contain some interesting cacti in sterile and oddly colored plantings.  I found the color scheme to be somewhat garish, in its green, blue, yellow and oranges, with even the fish in the pond seemingly matching the scheme.  

I left a kiss on the Yves Saint Laurent memorial, and then entered the Musee Berbere which he and Pierre founded in order to help preserve Berber culture here. 

Of all the places to not allow photographs !!!  It’s a compact space, set under a dark ceiling pierced with lights to simulate stars, and exhibiting ethnic clothing, jewelry and household implements.   I walked through twice before one of the curators helpfully pointed me towards the exit, where I spent another half hour buying books about Berber culture, but failed to find a catalog of the exhibit I had just perused…

Our next stop is the Jemaa el Fna, Morocco’s Central Square, where we would meet a local guide who would take us through the historic highlights of the Square.  

Marrakech is considered one of Morocco’s four Imperial cities, founded in 1062 by the Almoravids, a dynastic Berber group.  They build a kasbah and a mosque here, eventually uniting Morocco as well as much of Spain and Algeria.  Under Youssef Ben Tashfine, Marrakech became a center of culture and learning, with Andalusian style mosques and palaces.  

The Koutoubia Mosque is built on the site of the original Almoravid mosque which was destroyed by their successors the Almohads in 1147.  It’s minaret was the model for the Hassan Tower in Rabat, and stands 230 feet high.  As is the case with all mosques in Morocco, it is closed to non-Muslims. It is the largest mosque in Marrakech and would serve as our landmark during our visits to the Central Square.

We walk to the back of one of the souks, where the oldest caravansary stands, or at least the remains of it, since it now appears to be a dumping ground for junk and trash. Next is a bakery, with the oven so deep inside the building that the baker uses 6-8 foot paddles to move the loaves around in the wood fired oven.

The oven, photo courtesy of Brenda Dougall-Merriman

Next is the Medersa Ben Youssef, which dates to the 14th century and in its day was the largest school for Koranic study in Morocco.  It’s most outstanding features are its carved cedar and plaster ceilings and glass dome which you will find photos of at Daveno Travels.

We circle through the old souk, past a woodworker operating a bow lathe, past dyers and leather workers, where I spy some very ornate shoes I want to buy but the guide says we don’t have time to stop. He takes us to a women’s dress shop, decorated with a hot pink carpet and chandelier, with windows filled with jeweled caftans of the style you would wear to a black tie ball. We decline to enter the shop, which turns out to belong to some relation to our guide (which is fairly common here).  We speed past a few other shops before we say goodbye to our guide and pick one of the restaurants for dinner.  We find one with a rooftop terrace, the Restaurant Riad Omar, overlooking the square and affording a wonderful sunset view of the Koutoubia Mosque.

The Jemaa el Fna is the 1000 year old heart of Marrakech, filled with snake charmers, storytellers, monkeys on chains plying for coins; merchant stalls of every description and just about as many food choices. Marrakech is described as a true contradiction – African and Arab, Eastern and Western, religious and secular, chic and rough-and-tumble. When I return to this spot tomorrow,  I would encounter a riot of color and sound and a kaleidoscope of cultures in an atmosphere that would remind me of Venetian Carnivale after dark. 

But that would be tomorrow night, after a day in the High Atlas Mountains.