Under the Desert Sky

Day 280 – 6 Dec, 2015

Feeling a little underwhelmed with Morocco so far, by the time we joined our second group, my hopes were high and expectations were low on whether I would enjoy the southern half of our adventure.

Besides Carla and Kirk, my new group added Kristina from DC, Liz from Australia, Alex from Switzerland, and Martyn from England. We were only 7 this time and would spend about 8 days in a private van navigating the southern route of the country.

After city hopping for the previous week, I was pleased that our first stop would take us into the High Atlas Mountains. If I had been on my typical solo itinerary, I would definitely have carved out a few extra days so that I could climb Mt. Toubkal. It seemed very attainable and it had been awhile since I had done something so physically challenging. However, our rapid-fire schedule only allowed us an afternoon hike within viewing range of the great peak. Even this was time well-spent, though. I thoroughly enjoyed the autumn colors and the warm welcome from our hosts at the evening’s homestay.

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We were beginning to get a taste of the cold desert temperatures. A desert can’t always be hot! The homestay was comfortable and basic. We were served traditional Moroccan salad, Berber omelette (poached eggs simmered in a tagine with spicy tomato sauce), and lamb tagine for dinner. Mint tea was readily available to keep us warm. Most of us sat by the crackling fire until it finally died out and we had to retire to bed, where we each used a boatload of wool blankets to ward off the chill.

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The next day our destination would be Ait Benhaddou, the UNESCO World Heritage-recognized ksar, where several familiar movies have been filmed, such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Sheltering Sky, Babel, and of course, the most famous, Gladiator. You can almost see the dust and smell the grit, while listening to Maximus say “My name is Gladiator.”

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Back at our hotel, we were treated to a cooking demonstration of local specialties. Few times have I missed my kitchen quite so much as I did then. Owning my own tagine so that I can bring some of these flavors back home one day will certainly be on my to-do list.

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Now well past the High Atlas Mountains, we had entered the Anti Atlas Mountains and Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco. Ouarzazate is home to 2 large movie studios and employs the majority of the town’s residents in the film industry. We visited Atlas Studios and were given a tour by a young energetic film student. He took great pride in showing us the elaborate sets and then in true movie magic, he showed us how everything was fake, made out of styrofoam or plywood.

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Nearer still to the fringes of the desert, our transport dropped us in Zagora. The sign reading “52 days to Tumbouctou” was en route, bringing home the reality of how close we were to the wild frontier. This was the part that I had been anticipating the most – a camel safari and a pilgrimage to a Sahara Desert camp! I had to temper my excitement, though. With a few lackluster tours under my belt in the past, I was afraid if I set my expectations too high, I would be highly disappointed.

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This is the part where I tell you that it was all that I hoped…and more! Mounting a camel is accomplished by straddling your beast of burden before it stands, first with the back legs causing you to shift forward into a nearly horizontal position, then the back legs jolting you to the vertical. You squirm a little to get comfortable, realize it’s not going to happen, and then you settle in to gentle rocking back and forth while your butt falls asleep. The camel ride was just that – a ride for an hour. BUT, in a caravan, we were so close to the desert landscape that we were easily led into the vastness of the Sahara. It was easy to pretend that we were treading in unchartered territory, the first explorers to ever reach this particular corner of Earth.

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Shortly upon our return, we were divided in 2 groups, packed into 4x4s, and sent barreling into the vast unknown. We were keen to reach camp well before sunset so there would be time to negotiate the best place for a view. Two hours of unmarked off-roading, sand flying up in our wake, breathtaking landscapes, dropping temperatures…I was thrilled to be so far off the map. Our Sahara Camp was reserved only for us, with imposing sand dunes on all sides like a fortress. When you climbed to the top of the highest dunes, you could see other camps scattered nearby, similarly hidden in their own private real estate. Our Berber hosts prepared mint tea and popcorn as a welcome snack before the 7 of us began climbing the dunes. The highest dune was only 100m away, but required much traversing up and down much smaller dunes before we finally found the ideal perch for a sunset that can only be found in the desert. It’s the kind that doesn’t seem real and at the same time, it’s the only thing that is real, in that moment, when the sun finally kisses the horizon, you can’t think of anything else except how you didn’t know so many colors existed and how lucky you are that you are alive and present.

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Back in the dining tent, our communal meal was ready – more tagine, Berber omelette, mandarins. I was getting a bit burnt out on the same food for every meal even though it was always delicious, but after our epic afternoon, I was grateful for the coziness and laughs accompanying the fare nevertheless. With Christmas soon approaching, Kristina and Liz decided that some mulled wine next to the camp fire would be the perfect finale to our already perfect day. In a Muslim country, at a Berber camp, we were going to defile their cooking pan with cheap red wine and try to prepare a traditional Christmas beverage. Ironic much? After Abdou, our guide, did some careful negotiating, they agreed we could use their pan. In went the wine and some spices and out came a warm and bitter concoction, quite possibly the worst offense someone could commit against wine. Not only did we defile the Muslim pan with alcohol, but we also defiled our tastebuds! Stubbornly, Liz stood by it and after adding heaping teaspoons of sugar, a few of our group decided that it was tolerable and was acceptable enough to drink. I don’t care for mulled wine on a good day so one taste was sufficient for me.

Meanwhile, outside of the dining tent, I had no idea what was waiting for us – a new moon and about a billion stars from horizon to horizon, like little diamonds proudly sparkling in the sky. I was hypnotized and in awe. I had never seen anything like it. Previous visits to the desert had never been during a new moon, which seems to amplify the effect exponentially. I wished for a reclining chair or a blanket to lay on the ground. I could have studied the stars for hours. Martyn had an astrology app on his phone so that we could study obscure constellations – I still don’t understand how a triangle of stars is designated as Capricorn or a T-shaped cluster is Cygnus, but who cares? It was magnificent. The Milky Way was the most prominent feature. I didn’t want to leave that night sky. If only it was possible to bottle it up and carry it with me for just a little while…

Despite the cold temperatures, I slept quite well in the Sahara Camp. We slept in rustic beds with wool blankets underneath big canvas tents, finding it necessary to keep the door locked from the inside lest the wind would blow the door ajar.  Checking our shoes for stowaway spiders and scorpions, we were packed back into the jeeps and sent back to civilization way too soon. I had to bid farewell to that epic desert sky. Kristina had a particular interest in fossils so as a special treat, we stopped at a dig site to search for our own. Truth be told, I am equally fascinated by fossils but it would be impossible for me to lug around a giant stone in my backpack so I had to settle for a few photos. It was remarkably easy to find your own fossils as it turns out. Within two minutes of stepping out of the vehicle, Abdou had already spotted the first one. Once we knew what to look for, it was game on. This particular strategy involved locating a rock (they were abundant), throwing it against another rock to break it, pouring a little water on it to see if you got anything good, repeat. We mostly found trilobites, a marine arthropod from Early Cambrian to Late Permian, and ammonites, a marine mollusk from Devonian to Cretaceous.

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Nearly the entire day was spent en route to Taroudannt. From what I could tell, this destination was just organized as a halfway point between the desert and the ocean. There wasn’t much to see in Taroudannt but we stayed at a beautiful riad that was originally built as a fortress. We were the only guests.

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The fishing village of Essaouira was up next. You can’t feel the true vibe of this place without getting your hands dirty (literally) at the local fish BBQ. With a little trepidation on my part, we each selected our fish of choice. I chose the monkfish, but others went for the crab legs, lobster, and sardines, the regional specialty. After selecting our ideal catch, we paid another middleman to take care of the gutting and cleaning part, and last, we carried our raw fish to the BBQ at the beginning of the dock. Abdou, once again, negotiated a fair price for the BBQ, bread, and some mint tea before we sat down at a plastic table and chairs in the sun to wait. The smoke from the grill was a bit suffocating but the energy surrounding this makeshift restaurant was fascinating to watch. Eventually, our meals were delivered, one by one, wrapped in paper. Inside the local custom, utensils are unnecessary – we dug in, fingers first. All things considered, the price was around $3, although we argued vehemently when the restaurant owner jacked up the price as soon as Abdou departed – the tourist tax, you know. While still a little chaotic, none of the places we visited in the south, including Essouira, came close to the aggressive vibe I had experienced in the north. This was a perfect way to conclude a lovely tour of Morocco.

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Our group’s final evening was back in Marrakech. We had a farewell dinner and thanked Abdou for taking such good care of us. Not wanting the festivities to end quite so soon, we bought a couple of bottles of wine and crashed Alex’s hotel room, chatting and laughing until our teeth and lips were stained red. The 7 of us had gelled well together, but I knew I would especially miss Carla and Martyn. Carla and I had been together for nearly 3 weeks. She was quiet and reserved, but with a fun sense of humor and had become a good friend. Martyn and I had become more friendly toward the end of the week. He was quiet as well, but I found myself drawn to him in a way I had not expected. Funny and intellectual and handsome, we seemed to have a lot in common. In fact, our last night in Essaouira, we shared a bottle of wine during our group dinner while I was pretending in my head that we were on a date. At the same time, I realize this thought, this fantasy, is futile. Travelers don’t date. As much as I thought it might be possible in the beginning of my round the world journey, I have since accepted that the cruel truth is that it’s impossible. A few days here, a few days there, another goodbye. It’s always the same. Until it’s not…. Perhaps I will always be a romantic at heart, hoping the next time will be different. Maybe goodbye doesn’t always mean goodbye?

Marrakech was the finale of our tour, yet I had 2 days left to kill before my next flight. After 3 weeks and feeling brave, I was ready to do a bit of traveling on my own. My international flight was departing from Casablanca so I had to take a train to that city, if only for a few hours. The train was easy. The shuttle to the city was easy. Finding a place to stay was not so much. There were loads of hotels nearby – I was looking specifically for the one where we stayed on the first day I arrived. No luck. I couldn’t find it among the traffic and disorganized urban planning. The trick being that I’m on a budget and hotels in Morocco charge however much they think you will pay. I wasn’t in the mood for such games so when I finally picked one, it required some harried bargaining to settle on a price. The hall lights were on a sensor and I was seemingly the only guest so the hallway was always dark, but otherwise, the place seemed decent enough. In fact, during my time there, I only left the hotel to eat. Casablanca is a wretched place. I was followed by 2 men for several blocks while I was searching for a restaurant. I tried to ignore their pestering. Most restaurants were only patroned by men so I needed to find a place where it would be acceptable for a Western woman to eat alone. While scanning the menu of one such place, the men hung around outside calling after me. I realized I needed to find a place without windows or perhaps a second floor seating would be even better. Back on the sidewalk, the leader of the two approached me and began asking why I didn’t like him. I responded rather loudly (so that others could hear) that I didn’t like people following me. Immediately they both stopped following, but they were not above some childish name calling as I walked away. “Bitch!” “Whore!” “C-word!”

See you Later, Morocco!  Actually, no, I won’t. Once is enough.

Intrepid Traveler

Day 271 – 27 Nov, 2015

“Excuse me? I would like to check in.” I presented my passport to the desk clerk.  In return, I’m greeted with an icy stare now that I have interrupted what must have been a very important phone conversation. The hotel lobby was dim and tired and smelled of incense. The girl behind the desk said nothing, but just pushed a key back to me, gestured to the stairs, and went back to her phone call. 

Whoosh! Just like that. Culture shock. From the vibrant lively enticing streets of Sevilla to the dusty dirty aggressive avenues of Casablanca, where everyone speaks French, yet this place is definitely not France. 

  

I was apprehensive about going to Morocco, especially alone. Morocco has a certain reputation in the western world. Beautiful and wild, yes, but also it’s not a comfortable place for single women. Women are not respected. Men are aggressive – they harass, they touch, they follow. Giving this prospect a lot of consideration, I decided the only way I would go is if I joined an organized tour so I wouldn’t be alone. I had a short list of budget-friendly companies I would consider but ultimately, it came down to the itinerary and the dates. Would it fit within my timeframe?  I booked an 18 day country-wide venture with Intrepid at twice the cost I had budgeted to travel there independently.  Nevertheless, it was with peace of mind that I knew I would be with like-minded travelers. 

My group of 11 included Julia, a doctor from Germany living in Switzerland, Liz from Toronto and Kirk from Australia, both also on a round the world trip, Derek from Minnesota, Carla from Portugal, Tanya and Nadia, mother/daughter from Australia, Heather from New Zealand, and Alex and Michelle from Texas and UAE, respectively, a long-distance couple that only sees each other a few times a year. Our guide, Abdou, was funny and helpful and generally a likable kind of guy. All but 3 of us, Carla, Kirk and I, would be going home after only the first week. 

  

The first morning when we departed Casablanca we took a local train to Rabat. We had second class seats, meaning unassigned and first come first serve. Abdou kept his composure but I could tell this was somewhat stressful for him as our group leader, to make sure we all got on and that we all knew when to get off given that we were spread out over 3 train cars scavenging for a place to sit or stand. 

In Rabat, a few of us stayed together. We had about 4 hours to wander around the medina, kasbah, and a quick visit to the mausoleum of Mohammed V, the late King of Morocco.  Being our first city on the tour, the “stick together” method seemed to work well.  Most people left us alone, if not for a few stares.

   
 

In the afternoon, we continued by train to Meknes and immediately were loaded into taxis to Moulay Idriss, an important Muslim pilgrimage city.  And it was about now that I realized what this pace of travel feels like.  Don’t get me wrong.  I knew what I signed up for.  I just didn’t know what this fast pace would actually feel like.  I took comfort in the fact that someone else was organizing it all behind the scenes.  Our accommodation in Moulay Idriss was a homestay, but was really more like a guest house.  Our hosts were very kind, offering mint tea and sugar cookies when we arrived.  By now, we were in the Mid Atlas Mountains with cold temperatures at night.  The showers followed suit.  Ice.  Cold.  

   
 

The next day we toured the Roman ruins, Volubilis, with a local guide.  Oh those Romans with their wine and orgys….

   
 

Back to Meknes in the afternoon for some free time exploring the local markets and our first real encounter with aggressive Moroccan vendors.  Little did we know until much later, but we had a police detail for the day that was following us around to make sure things didn’t get out of hand.  Our lunch in Meknes was a camel burger while we huddled in a small booth filled with smoke from the grill.

   
   

No time for rest before we are on a train to Fes for the next 2 nights.  Fes’s old medina is a tangled web of nearly 10,000 streets and alleys.  Getting lost in here would be an alarming prospect.  Fortunately, we were with a guide for the entire day.  The good news is that our guide served as a protector and most of the locals left us alone.  The bad news is that we spent the majority of the day visiting factories where we were expected to buy something – a tannery (leather factory), mosaic factory, dress factory, and bronze factory.  On my meager budget, I had no plans for shopping but a tactic I have adopted that seems to satisfy my souvenir appetite is that I take photos of the items I like instead of buying.  

       
  

  


Fes is also known as the city with the best pastilla, a chicken or seafood pie topped with cinnamon and sugar.  Of course, I had to try it.  In general, the food in Morocco was delicious – the tagines, the couscous, the salads with assorted accoutrements.   Every meal was accompanied by fresh bread and finished with ripe mandarins.  We ate like royalty, although it didn’t do any favors for my waistline!
 

Chefchaouen was next, the blue city.  The medina in Chefchaouen was small and manageable so our guide set us free for a few hours to wander.  A great place to capture photos of blue doors and stunning backdrops, I was inadvertently separated from the other group members as I strolled around with my camera.  Uneventful at first, I barely realized I was alone.  Soon, a few men were seemingly popping out of nowhere with propositions as tour guides or husbands.  Time to head back to the hotel, but not before a 10-year-old boy asked me for money and then told me “nice tits” (with the gesture to go with it) when I politely declined to give him a handout.

     
 

With a full day to explore Chefchaouen on our own, I was keen to stay with the group this time.  Tanya, Julia, and I walked up to a couple of viewpoints to look down over the city.  It seems so tame from up high.  

   
 

In the afternoon, Julia, Carla, and I went to the local hammam for a bit of pampering.  The Moroccan hammam is not unlike the Turkish hammam where you can hire a woman to aggressively scrub you with an olive seed soap, leaving your skin as soft as a baby when you emerge.  A few years ago, I had a Turkish hammam in Bodrum at a fancy-ish spa and it felt like a luxurious treat.   This time felt like something different.  All 3 of us ladies were assigned to the same woman responsible for scrubbing us down.  We were wearing nothing but a pair of underwear and we each had to sit patiently while the other 2 were tended to.  A mat was laid on the floor where we were to lie down and try to relax while our bodies were manipulated into strange positions.  Meanwhile, we washed our own hair using a cup and a bucket. The voices and laughter of the other local women echoed from the adjacent room while they bathed and participated in daily gossip.  When all 3 of us were complete, we dried off and stepped outside of the thin curtain to get dressed.  The owner of the hammam seemed surprised that we were done so soon.  Suspiciously, she asked if we received our massage.  None of us had expected a massage so we shrugged, a bit confused.   She angrily ordered us back inside where she berated the woman responsible for not giving us massages.  Uncomfortable as it was, we sat again and waited for each other to get half-hearted massages before we were permitted to leave.  A true local experience.

  

Onward to Tangier by bus, known for its population of hippies.  Given a few hours on our own, a group of 8 of us set off to the kasbah through the old medina.  Perhaps it was the size of our group, or perhaps it was because we were 7 women and one man, or perhaps it was Tangier itself, but nevertheless, I found Tangier to be incredibly vile.  We were followed, grabbed, cursed at, harassed, intimidated, threatened, etc, etc, etc.  All of us agreed to go back to our meeting point about 2 hours earlier than planned.  Sitting in the relative “safety” of the restaurant, I thought what a shame it must be for the good-hearted Moroccans to have such a poor reputation when we, as tourists, are only exposed to the seedy characters.

    

That night we boarded an overnight train to Marrakech, 4 to a cabin.   Quarters were extremely tight with no room for luggage except at the foot of the bed, but I know we were all happy to be rid of Tangier.

  

To the other extreme, Marrakech was a pleasant surprise.  Julia, Liz, Derek, and I ventured out to see the snake charmers and do some shopping.  I didn’t find Marrakech to be any more dirty or aggressive than anywhere else I have been.  It was almost charming.  As chance would have it, the Marrakech film festival was to begin that same day so feeling brave, a couple of us wanted to check it out.  Bill Murray, who has oftentimes proclaimed his love for Morocco, was to be the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies. Only moments before the red carpet arrivals were to begin, we were permitted to enter the viewing area.   The best real estate was already taken, but we managed to squeeze into position with cameras held high.  I never would have guessed that Bill Murray would be such a big draw in Morocco.  Funny enough, there were a boatload of Moroccan celebrities that elicited squeals from the crowd. After an hour of being pushed and shoved in a fluid audience, Derek and Julia and I agreed to go.  A bit like a parallel universe, it was hard to be excited when we didn’t know who any of the stars were.  We never did see Bill Murray.

   
   

   
 

Sadly, most of my group had to depart and the rest of us were rematched with a new group.   So far, my feelings were mixed on my exact impression of Morocco, but I remained hopeful that the second half, which would take us out of the cities and into the desert, would be well worth the wait.