Essa-weird-a

morocco-march-2009-498Thursday, March 26.

My day in Essaouira certainly doesn’t start out the way I expect.

I hear crying as I walk into the ground-floor eating area for breakfast.

The grandfather of one of my tour-mates – who fell ill while she was away – has died. She’s understandably devastated and sobbing uncontrollably.

I don’t know what it is … perhaps it’s my own fatigue, my slightly weakened immune system, or even my thoughts of my own parents, which trigger my sudden thoughts of the realization of their mortality.  But I’m overwhelmed.

At first, my heart just goes out to her. Then, I feel my eyes water. Then a lump forms in my throat.

And finally Alex – sitting across from me at breakfast – looks at my face and says, “Are you okay?”

“Don’t say it!” I rasp, the tears rolling down face. Too late. I’m sobbing within seconds. Nobody knows what’s wrong with me. A few people seem to think I’VE lost a loved one, the way I’m crying.

Until now, I’ve NEVER, EVER reacted that way at the news of an acquaintance’s loss of a loved one – especially one I’ve just met. 

(I still feel like a complete jackass when I think about what happened. But perhaps it’s some weird psychic reaction; unbeknownst to me, my mom back home is suffering from a nasty flu.)

I eventually stop crying, but my eyes are still watering under my sunglasses as we gather near the entrance of the riad for our walking tour of Essaouira.

Our guide for today is Hassan, a slight, moustachioed man with glasses. He takes us out onto the main drag – Avenue Istiqlal – through the gate and out by the ports.

Seagulls are all over the place – flying overhead, swooping down, their cries echoing through the air. Rows of empty blue fishing boats bob in the water.

We morocco-march-2009-515wind our way through the back streets of the old town and Essaouira’s mellah (Jewish quarter). 

I am taken by the brilliant blue colour of a lot of the doorways we pass by. It would certainly be hard to confuse this city with any other.

We also pas through the old fortification by the water. We see the cannons lined up by the wall, their countries discernable by the various insignias.

A local woman stands nearby, selling small paintings and various other tourist wares. Close by her feet, about a half-dozen chicks, dyed different colours, hop about amongst themselves. A cute little hot dog lies not too far away, trying to take a nap.

morocco-march-2009-527We head back into the old walled part of the town, going through the souks. We see spices, colourful plates, catches of the day laid out at the fish market.

A merchant tries to get me to buy some spices. He ends up rubbing some amber on my arm and talking me into taking a clay pumice from him, for free.

Hassan also takes us to a woodworking shop, where an older man shows us a table made of thuya wood. We also see various boxes, game sets, bowls, etc, in the adjoining gift shop.

We also head into a jewellery shop, where people young and old are working on all sorts of pieces. In the gift shop, I finally find my Hand of Fatima charm (a bit smaller than I hope, but it’ll do), and pick up two more as souvenirs for friends.

Our tour ends after Hassan shows us what’s apparently the biggest ficus tree in Morocco.

The majority of us then head back into the old part of Essaouira, and, after getting a little lost, we find this tiny square with a restaurant.

But not just any restaurant. It’s a Mexican/burger joint, run by three ex-patriate Brits. Go figure. In any case, I break with the culture experience and have a burger with fries. While I’ve eaten tajine and couscous with no complaint over the last week and a half … the burger? SO. GOOD.

Upon returning to the hotel, we decide what to do next. The others plan on bumming around the souks or hanging out for the afternoon.

My goal for today was to spend the afternoon at the hammam. But given the fact I’m bordering on entering a food coma, I reckon that’s not a good idea. Plus, Will says, I can always arrange it for tomorrow morning.

So I end up doing something I never thought I would: I ride a quad bike (better known here as an ATV).

I’ve never ridden one before in my entire life, and before now, haven’t really had the urge to. But Will wants to try it out. And Alex and Grace are both interested. So I figure, what the hey?

Make no mistake – I’m nervous on the car ride over, when we pull into the garage in a nondescript suburban area, and most definitely as we’re standing in front of one of the parked quad bikes, as our bike “expert” gives us the 45-second lesson on how to operate the vehicle.

I’m sure the whole process is unbelieveably lax, sketchy, and maybe not entirely safe. (I mean, in Canada, don’t we usually need some sort of licence to operate one of these things?)

At any rate, we hop on and follow our fearless leader (whose name I still don’t know to this day) as he navigates our group down the street, through traffic, through a dry, dusty, construction site, over some garbage-covered brush, and then – FINALLY – along the beach.

When I’m not getting stuck in the odd dune and constantly trailing behind the others, I’m zipping along the sand, breeze on my face, seafoam rolling up along the water’s edge.

I think we were on those things for a good 90 minutes. And by the time we return to the bike garage, our faces and fronts are COMPLETELY covered with a fine layer of sand and dirt.

Mmmm. Quad bikes.

Even more mmmmm? Gelati. Which is what we had as a reward such a fun afternoon, stopping off at the parlour in the big open square.

Fast-forward to dinnertime … We head out to this restaurant, which is definitely more French than Moroccan, run by this big burly woman with badly-applied makeup and frizzy hair.

It also includes, of all things, a magician for our dinnertime entertainment. Named “Magic Youssef”, the young-looking wizard with the high-pitched voice goes from table to table showing patrons sleight of hand and card tricks. (His signature lines are, “Just one … just this one …” and “Brrrring!” whenever he makes something happen.) Tour-mate Amelia tries her hand at fooling Magic Youssef with a couple card tricks of her own. But he kind of spoils it.

Dinner, however, is leaps and bounds better than the night before. I have some monkfish in a wonderful cream sauce. Tasty!

After-dinner drinks are at this place next to Taros (where we were the night before). The rooftop, save for the staff, is completely deserted. A couple of musicians start playing for us, but walk away when we’re not paying them enough attention. So Will has to sweet-talk them into coming back and playing a couple songs that we request. It was really too cheesy.

We stop for more gelati on the way back to the hotel (seriously, there is no such thing as too much gelati!), and once there, we hang out for a while; Alex, Colin, and Will and I go to the roof, while the others (including Simo) hang out in the lounge, smoking shisha.

On the roof, we stand in the corner, away from the laundry still hanging from clotheslines. It’s dark, except for the lights reflecting from other buildings. And it’s anything but quiet. Aside from our chatter, the seagulls are zipping around above us, squawking.

Somehow, despite all the photos I’ve taken of in this city, it’s this last image at night – only in my mind’s eye – that reminds me most of Essaouira.

And it’s just perfect.

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Goodbye Mountains, Hello Seaside!

morocco-march-2009-477

We survive The Night of The Howling Wind in one piece.

The following morning, there’s an option to go on a guide-led hike through the area, towards a huge, white painted rock, which locals are said to visit to make wishes (especially those for fertility/virility). It’s got nothing to do with Islam; rather, it’s a local thing.

In any case, I’m still feeling rotten because of my cold, so I opt out of it. So do pretty much all of us “youngsters”, except for Nonnie. I hang out in bed until about 8:30 a.m., when I eventually get up. 

After breakfast, I go and chill out on the sunny part of the terrace, while the sunshine lasts … and I catch sight of one of the best mountain views I’ve ever seen. It takes me a few seconds to realize that the white wispy bit of mist I’m seeing is actually a CLOUD making its way past the peak.  It really is a sight to behold.

Eventually, us stragglers get our collective acts together and leave the gite to take a walk into the nearby village.

morocco-march-2009-4902We wind our way around, up and down makeshift steps, passing locals, stopping here and there.

We come to a river, which we crossing by hopping along huge rocks, with the help of some cute local school-aged village girls. (I almost fall into the water, if not for one of the girls, who holds my hand as I struggle to regain my balance.)

Once on the other side, tour-mate Grace takes over from Will to play tour guide; her version of things are way more entertaining.

We return from our walk just as the others – tour-mates Sally, Cathy and Colin – come back from theirs.

We have one last meal – a lovely lunch – out on the sunny terrace, say goodbye to our host family and make the 45-minute trek back down into the village to collect our things.

We leave Imlil and the mountains behind …

morocco-march-2009-4941

… And arrive in the seaside town of Essaouira around late-afternoon. It takes a few minutes to re-adjust to the warmer temperature. The seagulls cry in the distance.

I have been waiting to get here for days.

Sadly, we part ways with our awesome driver Abdul. We all chip in to give him a generous tip before leaving the minibus one last time.

Local men line the sidewalk, standing by big empty carts, waiting to lug our bags (for a small fee) from the drop-off point to the riad where we’re staying.

It’s not far at all – it’s literally a five-minute walk into the walls of the older part of town. And the place has got character – nice rooms, lots of mosaic tile – cute all round. And from the looks of things, it’s a family-run business. 

We also have company, as it turns out. Trip leader Will’s work-mate and friend – nicknamed Simo – happens to be in town, in our riad, for a few days before his next job.

From the moment he calls me “rasta”, I can’t decide whether he’s irritating or entertaining. Either way, he’s already been drinking, which could make for an interesting evening.

Later when we’ve all freshened up, we head out to a place nearby for dinner – this French-influenced restaurant. Expecting a little European flare with my Moroccan food, I’m a bit disappointed when I sink my knife and fork into a much-craved pastilla. What a letdown! It’s SO BLAND. The one I first had in Meknes was LOADS better. (Must be the chicken.)

We have our after-dinner drinks at another place close by – the rooftop patio of Taros , this huge, multi-level restaurant/café/bar. A live band is playing Gnaoua music (also spelled Gnawa), which is unlike anything I’ve heard so far on our travels. It’s not heavy on the base, but rather kind of light, with a fast rhythm – even a bit hypnotic.

Between the white wine I share with Nonnie and Cathy, and the rosé I help Alex finish, I’m unsure of how well the night will end.

But luckily for me, I have absolutely no trouble sleeping.

Slightly Ill in Imlil

Tuesday, March 24.

morocco-march-2009-470It’s official. I have a cold. 

SURPRISE.

 This completely sucks the big one.

Breakfast is spent on the terrace atop Action Couscous’ guesthouse. It’s a nice, warm temperature outside.

Our quiet meal is followed by a not-so-impromptu photo session with Action, and his son (when he comes wandering up to the terrace).

Leaving Ait Benhaddou, I watch as the terrain changes again, and the road winds upward (see above).

morocco-march-2009-469We wind our way along Tizi ‘n Tichka, which connects Marrakech with the desert regions we’ve just left.

We hit the Tizi ‘n Tichka Pass – the highest elevation of the route – and stop to take a picture by the sign, and also of the valley and winding road below, while fending off aggressive vendors trying to sell us cheap necklaces and other tacky tchotchkes.

morocco-march-2009-474We continue along the winding route through this enormous mountain chain until about mid-afternoon, when we reach the village of Imlil, where we’re staying overnight.

This is only the first leg of our trek to the mountain gite we’re staying at for the night. After we store our bags in the luggage room of a local hotel, we assemble in the parking lot while two donkeys are prepared for Liz and Nonnie.

Why? Because our trek up to the mountain gite is a 45-minute walk. Up.

Liz isn’t feeling well, which is understandable. Nonnie probably doesn’t want to tackle the walk. 

As we begin the walk, I think boastfully to myself as I walk, my day-pack strapped on, psssht! this ain’t bad at all.

By the time we cross the creek and start heading even farther upwards, I’m ready to die.

My nose is half-blocked. I hate breathing through my mouth because I’m pretty much behind Nonnie’s donkey – and inhaling the fresh mountain scent of donkey do0-doo doesn’t impress me. And my throat feels like someone stuffed it with sandpaper.

Adding to this, as we’re heading up the rocky “steps”, I get a little splashback from Nonnie’s donkey.

And I don’t think it’s mud.

I’m panting and sweating uncontrollably by the time we reach the mountain gite. I would just lie down, but I’d probably end up in a pile of donkey dung.

We’re taken upstairs to the sitting area, which has a low ceiling over the seats and tables, but opens out onto a terrace with a great view of the mountains nearby

The air is crisp and suddenly a lot cooler. The sweat evaporates, and I’m instantly shivering. I quickly start re-layering.

We’re given tea and biscuits; someone also shares some chips they bought on the trip up.

Two tiny kids – children of the family that runs the gite – come bounding out of the kitchen, having an impromptu wrestling match on the terrace. They’re brother and sister, possibly no more than 3 and 4 years old, respectively. And they’re so cute, with their cherubic, rosy-cheeked faces.

After catching our collective breaths, we work out the room arrangements. We’ve got three to choose from: one with seven beds, one with five beds at one end of the hall, and one at the opposite end with “Berber style” beds.

All the younger women take the largest room; the older women take the next biggest, and Colin camps out in the remaining room.

Night descends quickly, and the wind picks up suddenly, whipping around at a furious pace.

The hours spent before dinner are in this “dining” room of sorts, with lots of seating, outdated travel brochures, and a fireplace which doesn’t work – instead of exiting through the chimney, some of the smoke wafts back into the room. TWhich means the door to the cold, windy outside has to be kept open.

I’m also feeling increasingly craptacular. I’m so cold, I’m wearing my tights under my cargo pants, as well as a second pair of socks, my fleece sweater, spring jacket, scarf, hat and mitts. I’m convinced I’m getting a fever. 

This. SUCKS.

When dinner’s served, I eat a bowl of soup and some vegetarian tajine. I  start feeling better – and warmer.

We end up playing a few games before bedtime.

Ah. Bedtime.

Our beds are actually mattresses on the floor, done up with bedding and blankets (which is totally fine). The pillows are, well, ROCKS with pillow covers over them. At least, that’s what they feel like. Luckily I’ve brought along my spongy travel pillow, so I use that instead.

The first part of the night is tough. The wind’s so fierce, it’s shaking the locked windows above our heads. It’s a wonder they don’t break or unhinge and fly off, the way they might in movies involving small American towns and vicious tornadoes.  

I’m stuffed up, and my feet are still cold; I spend what seems like an eternity vigorously rubbing them together, like I’m trying to start a fire. 

Just when THEY warm up … I realize I have to pee. Which means I’d have to leave my now-warm bed and face that monstrous wind on the way to the bathroom downstairs.

I try waiting it out for as long as possible, hoping my bladder can make it until morning.

By about 4:30 a.m., I can’t take it anymore. I rifle through my day-pack for my trusty roll of toilet paper, put on my shoes and trudge downstairs.

I do my business as quickly as I can – it’s friggin’ cold and the wind is shaking the door. After washing my hands in the icy cold water, I make my way back towards the stairs … when I just stop.

I edge out onto the terrace and look straight up.

The stars are out, twinkling in all their glory.

The cold wind’s whistling and whipping all around me. The dark silhouette of the mountain facing me cuts a menacing figure, like a big schoolyard bully. 

All I do is crane my neck, looking  from left to right, taking in as many eyefuls of stars as I can handle. 

It’s awesome and a bit terrifying at the same time.

And at this moment in the middle of the night, I’m the only one here to to see it.

Action Couscous and the Kasbah of Aït Benhaddou

Monday, March 23.

I’ve left the Todra Gorge with good memories, clean laundry …

And the driest throat EVER.

For me, this usually means I’m going to get a cold. Several other tour-mates are having similar symptoms. Liz already has a cold. I’m just hoping it’s a temporary by-product of the climate we’ve been in.

The first place we hit after leaving Todra is a souk in a local town. Anything you can think of is being sold here – clothes, old electronics, spices, shoes, underwear, jewellery. I even saw an old handle being laid out for sale. What it USED to be attached to, I can only guess.

I’m not even remotely in the mood for this. I’m feeling a touch crappy. The LAST thing I want to try and do is barter with ANYONE for ANYTHING.

Sally and I pass by this one guy hawking his wares, and of course, he immediately starts chatting me up, because I’m from “the family.” This is the one thing I note about travelling through this part of the country: people who look more like me, using this fact to try and get me to buy something.

The “something” in question is a door-knocker in the shape of a hand, which apparently an antique. The “salesman” next to the guy we’re dealing with tries to get us going with the bartering process. But Sally doesn’t have enough money, and I’m turned off, so we walk away.

But it’s only a matter of circling the place before Sally decides to return so she can take a second look at that door-knocker. The salesman tries again for a sale. What he’s offering, Sally doesn’t want to pay. And what Sally has in terms of cash, the salesman doesn’t want.

Meanwhile, one of the nearby merchants latches on to me, trying to entice me. My heart’s only half in it, but I settle on this wooden bowl – again, supposedly antique – with a gold-coloured Tuareg design inlaid in its centre.

The vendor offers it to me for 750 DH (about $108 CAD); I barter him down to about 500 DH ($72 CAD), all the time wondering what on EARTH I’m doing buying a wooden bowl for that much money.

(Note: Writing this now – about four weeks after the fact – I’m looking it, STILL wondering what I was thinking. And the thing smells like either burnt wood or smoked fish … as stinky as the day it arrived home.)

Sally also successfully scores the door-knocker – for a third of the price! I’m impressed.

We make our hour-long lunch stop in the town of Ouarzazate (pronounced WAR-zah-zat). It’s generally known as a movie town, because of the movie set nearby that’s been used for big Hollywood productions.

I will remember Ouarzazate for the only pedestrian traffic signal I’ve seen on this trip so far. I’m not even kidding. It’s been so long since I’ve seen one, I almost forget how to use it.

After lunch, we re-group and head over to a non-profit organization called Project Horizon, which is sponsored by the tour company’s charitable foundation.

As we move from area to area – and with Alex’s superior French translation skills – we discover the organization does things from creating prosthetic limbs, to providing therapy for people with physical disabilities and children with developmental disabilities, to running workshops where people create various types of pottery, jewellery, carpets and other artisanal work.

By the time we reach the gift shop, I can’t NOT buy something. Even though early on in the trip, I’d told myself I wouldn’t buy a tajine bowl (because I wouldn’t be able to lug it home), I manage to find a beautiful decorative mini-tajine bowl, glazed a deep, dark blue, for 70 DH ($10 CAD). Not only it is completely reasonable, it’s totally worth it, knowing what the money is going towards.

We leave Ouarzazate, making no more major stops until we reach the town of Aït Benhaddou, where we’re staying overnight.

morocco-march-2009-454The maison d’hotes (guesthouse) we’re staying at is run by a man whose real name I don’t remember*, but everyone calls him “Action Couscous” (see picture at left).

He lives there with his other family members, including his sister, wife and four-year-old son Abdullah, who’s nicknamed – what else? – “Baby Action”.

Action’s fun moniker is the result of having been an extra in at least 10 Hollywood films. It’s his on-screen credits that he uses to promote his guesthouse …

And, as we find out, it’s also probably the reason he doesn’t appear to be camera-shy whatsoever.  In fact, he LOVES being in front of the camera and encouraging us to snap pictures whenever he can.

Action welcomes us to his huge desert abode with some tea. Alex also has her royal blue scarf tied professionally by  Action, Berber-style.

morocco-march-2009-451After getting our room assignments, most of us decide to  check out the huge kasbah on the other side of the river.

(As I’ve now learned, Aït Benhaddou is also known as a ksar – a fortified city – and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

Again, I find myself paired up with Sally, and we make our way over to the river.

The path leading to the river is lined with shops and aggressive salesmen, who  know EXACTLY where we’re staying. Before I left on my trip, I was told about how ridiculously observant Moroccans are. I didn’t believe it until this particular moment.

Sally and I are by the river’s edge within three or four minutes.

There are two ways to cross the Ouarzazate River:

(1) by donkey for a small fee; or

(2) by foot, through the river water, for free.

Guess which one Sally and I pick?

AAAAAAARRRRRGHHHHHH!

The nerves in my bare feet are cussing at the nerve endings in my brain as I unsteadily wade over bumpy rocks and pebbles, through excruciatingly cold water, trying not to drop my sandals.

I kick myself for not taking option (1) when, halfway through my painful crossing, I look up and see our driver Abdul already on the other side, dismounting from a donkey.

Dammit.

Once we cross and put our shoes back on, we begin our climb to the top. The place is absolutely HUGE. And apparently only now inhabited by about five or six families.

morocco-march-2009-464The way up is a bit treacherous in spots, because some stairways are covered by crumbling plaster and huge bits of rubble.

But the view once we reach the very top is worth every step, twist and turn we’ve had to take. It’s simply breathtaking.

On the way back to the guesthouse, I get sucked into a local shop and, once again, end up practicing my mediocre haggling skills.

This time, I purchase an alabaster ring for 125 DH ($18 CAD), and get two pictures of myself posing with the store owner, me dressed in traditional Berber garb. It’s quite funny.

At 7:30 p.m., Action Coucous and one of his sisters gives us the group a demonstration on how to cook tajine and couscous, the old-fashioned way.  Then it’s to the dining room, where we have our choice of veggie or lamb tajine. I am so unbelieveably stuffed I cannot even think of touching any of the bottles of beer I had purchased earlier.

We while away the rest of the evening playing a couple of card games. Following this, Grace decides she needs her bangs trimmed, so Will elects to play barber – with some hilarious results. He does get the bangs evened out, with Nikki’s help.

I go off to bed, hoping to fight off the scratchy throat and blocked nostril I’ve developed during the day, but knowing full well what’s going to happen.


* Editor’s note: This post was written back in 2009. But thanks to a kind reader, I know now our kind host’s name was Houcine. A two-year-old mystery, solved!

 

In The Gorge

The next morning, a group of us gemorocco-march-2009-426t up and at ’em, leaving the hotel at 8 a.m. for several hours of hiking along the Todra Gorge.

Our guide this morning is Aziz. Not the one from the day before, but ANOTHER guy named Aziz – whose nickname is apparently Saeed. (In my mind I call him “Little Aziz”, because he’s smaller than the other one.)

Also joining us on our hike is a newcomer – Will’s boss, Yassin, who dropped in on us the night before to check up on Will to see how he was doing. He comes with us instead of Will, who’s probably still recovering from that nasty cold.

We pile into a minivan, where we’re driving to the starting point along the bottom of the route we’ll take.

As we start our hike, a stray dog comes out of nowhere and walks alongside us. It’s likely she’s looking for food, and we assume she’ll eventually take off. But she stays with us the entire way up. She’s like our four-legged mountain guardian.

In total, we hike about three kilometres across (the easy part) – and 600 metres up (um, the NOT-so-easy part). Perhaps it’s because I’m out of shape, or maybe because of the elevation, but the higher we get, the harder I’m PANTING. It’s ridiculous.

I also find that my unease about heights is almost non-existent. Which is weird for me, ’cause even looking down from any decent height usually makes my stomach lurch.

Not here.

In an area where we’re surrounded by rocks, where one bad step could have me slip and roll down the side of the gorge, I’m completely calm.

We continue onward, and as we continue upward, the views only get better. I have never seen anything like it before in my entire life.  

Of course, this is what is supposed to happen when you come to the gorge.

Some visitors to the gorge aren’t as fortunate.

We see a local man with a woman, obviously a tourist, walking about 50 metres above us. Seems she got separated from her husband and they’re in the process of trying to find him.

Not even five minutes later, Little Aziz meets up with a guy he knows, who’s escorting a tourist in the opposite direction. An Italian tourist, as it turns out.

A really DUMB Italian tourist.

Seems he and some friend decided to tour the gorge alone, WITHOUT a guide, and got lost. So he spent the night up there, separated from his friend, and was being helped back down. Needless to say, Little Aziz and the other guy scold him for his folly.

morocco-march-2009-430We continue on our hike, finally reaching the top around mid-morning. We stop for a water-and-orange break, and take some pictures.

A local guy stops by to talk to Little Aziz and Yassin and he shows him his slingshot. It’s not the one you’re thinking of, with that Y-shaped frame. It’s more like this one, which you have to wind up with some crazy wrist action, and swing at a high speed. Either way, it’s pretty crazy.

Following this, we begin making our way horizontally and then down the other side. 

We stop to visit a local family who make their home in a series of caves – a man, his wife and their 19-month-old son. We sit outside as the man serves us small glasses of tea.

It’s hard to tell how old the couple are. Aziz says the man might be in his 70s; I’m willing to reckon he’s probably in his 50s or 60s, as I’ve noticed that people here in Morocco seem to look older than they actually are. His wife, named Fatima, is about 43 years old. She pretty much stays inside a nearby cave, never really coming out during our visit.

morocco-march-2009-433Aziz gets a hold of the little boy, named Youssef, and sits him on his lap, offering him a package of biscuits as a gift.

Little Youssef was just circumcized a couple of days before our visit, so this, combined with being stared at by a bunch of strangers, is probably the reason he’s pretty silent. 

But he’s just so cute, his upper lip jutting out in a little pout, as he sits there quietly.

After a couple glasses of tea each, we say our goodbyes and continue our descent downwards. This is actually harder than the climb, and a couple of times I slip a little bit on the tinier rocks and stones.

We reach our final destination at the bottom – lunch at the home of a local family – about 20 minutes ahead of schedule. When my other tour-mates arrive, we partake in some tea, soup, and pizza.

Next stop after lunch is a local carpet shop. We climb a couple flights of stairs and file into this little room, where we sit on benches against carpet-lined walls.

morocco-march-2009-437The people here – the woman who spins wool into yarn and then weaves it into a carpet, and the older man and woman who are also present- are so warm and kind when they welcome us.

The woman weaving on the loom even lets us try straightening out some of the wool (using brushes I haven’t seen since my elementary school field trip to the local pioneer village).

I’m having a go at brushing out the wool when Will interrupts me to tell me there’s someone on the phone who wants to speak to me.

It’s a work colleague from back home! I happened to mention to Will a few days ago that she’d also be travelling in Morocco with the same tour company, albeit on a different tour. But he managed to get in touch with his fellow trip leader in charge of that tour, et voila! It’s a good feeling to be able to talk to someone I know,  for a few minutes anyway.

Next, one of the men shows us an array of Berber carpets, all different sizes, colours and patterns. Tour-mate Sally – who’d already bought a carpet in Fez – ends up buying another three carpets, with the group’s “encouragement”. So does Nonnie, although she makes her buy quite sneakily.

Tour-mates Nikki, Grace, Amelia and Alex all decide to get henna tattoos on their hands and feet by some local henna “girls”. They’re all quite pretty – intricate flowers and leaves.

morocco-march-2009-416For the remainder of the afternoon, everyone in the group goes into town to the local hammam for a good scrub. Everyone, that is, except me. I opt instead to have a nice, loooong nap, followed by a nice, hot shower.

I don my pretty new baby blue caftan and a pair of jeans and join the others for dinner. Tonight, I have a great Berber soup, followed by an equally awesome Berber omelette.

And then, just when it seems most of us are suffering from food comas and are ready to pass out for the night … in come some of the local Berber guys from the hotel for a drumming session – a group that includes our driver Abdul and Will’s boss Yassin.

Everyone’s pretty timid at first to try banging on the drums we’re given. But then the guys give us a drumming lesson, and a couple of us loosen up. I think it’s so much fun!

There was even a little dancing later on, which I took part in and liked very much. (Apparently the ringleader/dancer, Mohamed, says I made him work. Ha!)

Our night ends sometime after 11 p.m., which is late for us, but just fine.

As my head hits the pillow for the night, I marvel at how the  Todra Gorge has won me over. I never believed I would have liked it as much as I have.

The landscape will stick in my mind because of its breaktaking views. The memory of the people will stay with me, because of the genuine kindness that seems to radiate from their caring faces … from every wrinkle and tooth gap … even if we don’t speak the same language. 

I’d like to come back here one day, to have the chance to share this amazing place with other people.

But for now, it’s onwards to sleep and the next part of our journey.

The Road To Todra

morocco-march-2009-398Saturday, March 21.

We’re woken up eeearly from our tents.

I’m chilly, and groggy from insufficient sleep. But right now, that doesn’t even matter.

The sun is beginning to rise.

I’m slower than everyone else in getting to the lookout point. I’m incoherent and still trying to wake up.  

So I bring up the rear, walking over with Will, who didn’t get much sleep in the tent and isn’t looking all that hot. His head cold definitely has a grip on him.

Probably about 100 metres away, I decide to make a run for it before I miss the sun rise completely.

And, panting, I see it, just as it’s peeking over the distant dune. It’s perfectly round and not yet blinding, but that soft yellow hue. It’s picking up its pace, quickly rising.

We all stand there for a few more minutes, watching the view, before we turn and head back to camp.

morocco-march-2009-405We switch camels for the ride back. And although I get a dromedary with a nicer hump, I can feel I know the damage has been done.

My lady bits are destroyed

No part of the trip is better than the other. It hurts THE ENTIRE TIME.

We grab our typical breakfast – bread and Berber pancakes (now cold), with a choice of butter, jam, or mini Babybel cheese – and then it’s back in the minibus for our next destination …

A day and a half in a place called the Todra Gorge, located on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains. I can only characterize it as Morocco’s answer to the Grand Canyon.

As I’ll find out, it’s a place of great natural beauty. But as the minibus bumps along towards a paved surface, all that Todra means to me for the moment is the promise of a hot shower, laundry, and a great night’s sleep.

We stop in a small town so people can stock up on things – especially booze. While we wait next to the van, across the road, we see these three little boys of varying ages, sitting outside what looks like a little construction job next door. They look to me like they’re brothers, probably as dark-skinned as myself.

(Looking back, I regret not taking a picture of them now, because they were SO cute.)

Cathy and I wave. One of them – perhaps the middle child – shyly looks away, then back at us, smiling. We wave again – the tiniest one waves back. We play “the waving game” for a couple moments more, until everyone returns. It just warms my heart.

morocco-march-2009-423It’s not long – or doesn’t seem like it – before we hit the Todra Gorge and reach our hotel. The building – which is the terracotta colour of the rock face surrounding us – is nestled amid some of the lushest palms and vegetation I’ve seen.

It almost seems as if the whole place is a mirage.

We grab our backpacks and make our way across the road and to the hotel,  passing by an older man painting a metal railing and crossing over a bridge which is fairly solid (despite earlier accounts that it’ll be rickety).

We drop our bags in the main sitting room and plunk our weary bodies down into the cushiony seating as we wait for tea. After catching our collective breaths, we get our room assignments.

And this time, I get my OWN. ROOM.

I love this place.

Seconds after I enter my lodging, I’m looking for clean clothes and soap. I check out the bathroom. The wall is completely covered in tile on two sides. The sink and toilet are closest to the “door”, which is basically a shower curtain. The shower is in the corner. Literally.

Sure, it sounds weird. But that hot shower is heaven.

Some time later, we assemble for a short tour of the aremorocco-march-2009-421a surrounding the hotel. We’re led by Aziz, one of the guys that works there.

He shows us the different kinds of vegetables grown in the small gardens by families in the area – maize, beans, dates, figs, and so on.

He even makes a few of the group members little camel “necklaces” woven from palm leaves. It was his first job as a kid, making and selling them by the side of the road to tourists who would stop.

After returning to the hotel, we relax, sitting around drinking wine or playing card games.

We go to another room for dinner. And it’s fantastic. I have a Berber 0melette. It’s nothing like I’ve ever tasted. And I finish it all.

We were told earlier that there would be drumming. But perhaps another night – all the travelling and food has made us tired.

But that’s okay. Perhaps tomorrow – we’ll have a full day ahead of us to explore what the area has to offer.

Desert Bound

Friday, March 20.

Hallelujah!morocco-march-2009-358

After a good night’s sleep, I wake up and have the privilege of TAKING A HOT SHOWER. (Call me spoiled if you want, but hot water is something I won’t do without, IF I don’t have to.)

There’s also enough left over for Nonnie, who had the misfortune of having an icy shower the evening before.

After breakfast, we set out for the leg of the trip we’ve been waiting for: a camel ride, followed by a night camped out under the stars, in the Sahara Desert.

People have been taking turns sitting in the front of the minibus; this morning, it’s my turn. I wedge myself and my backpack in between our driver Abdul and trip leader Will – who’s been feeling drained the past couple of days; he’d caught a cold from someone the week before.

Will and I chat for a bit, and I snap some pictures – or at least try – from the front seat. Following our first pit stop, Sally, one of the American tour-mates, comes up front and sits beside me.

We stop at the side of the road to take pictures of a huge rock formation. One of my tour-mates buys a little camel woven from palm leaves and hangs it on Abdul’s rearview mirror (see picture above).

morocco-march-2009-340During one of our scheduled stops, we have tea at this beautiful building with an equally beautiful roof terrace. Of course, it isn’t all peaceful. 

Down below, in the field on the other side of the road, some sort of dispute between two men is unfolding. One of the men stomps off, only to return moments later brandishing a shovel. They head into a bunch of palm trees, and the disagreement continues – and it somehow also involves a woman and small child, who we can just make out between the trees.

Nothing seems to come of it, other than raised voices in Arabic. And I’m glad for that. But for the longest time, I’m CONVINCED that the one guy is going to beat the other guy with the shovel.

Back on the road, we pass through an amorocco-march-2009-3661rmy garrison town, El Rachidia (pictured at left).

You can tell this place probably sprung up within the last few years – a lot of the buildings look brand-new – and look it. And there are kids – people – on bicycles EVERYWHERE, probably more than I’ve seen in every place we’ve been in so far.

We finally reach Merzouga, and the auberge where our luggage will be stored for the night. We’re only required to take daypacks with the things we’ll need.

Some of us don our scarves. I get help from Aussie tour-mate Amelia, who expertly ties mine round my head, Berber style, leaving enough to wrap around my face in case of a sandstorm on the camel ride over.

We’re told to each choose a blanket from a nearby pile. We’ll use these when we sleep in our tents. They’ll also double as partial padding while on the camels.

Our caravan of dromedaries – all making various gurgling and snorting noises – are lined up and one by one, we mount them and head for the Erg Chebbi dunes (located just 20 km from the border with Algeria). 

morocco-march-2009-384I believe the ride lasts about a half-hour to 45 minutes, but it feels much longer. And it’s really quiet, save for the talking amongst ourselves and the muffled clop-clopping of the camel’s hooves in the sand.

Occasionally we see a lone dune beetle skittering along, leaving its tiny tracks behind as it disappears down a shallow slope of sand. 

It’s simply breaktaking. The dunes are so perfect, they don’t seem real. The sun is still blazing bright, but it’s not really hot. It’s something right out of Lawrence of Arabia.

Letting my mind get caught up in the Romanticism of riding a camel in the desert (but partly because of my bad back), I sit up a bit straighter. Letting my mind momentarly wander, I pretend I’m  some sort of desert royalty. Or maybe a Victorian-era mademoiselle, being taken to my luxury tent in the sand.

 

The first half of the ride isn’t bad at all. But the latter half becomes downright uncomfortable. This is when I realize it’s probably because I’m riding  a camel with one of the boniest humps known to camel-kind.

When we dismount at camp, my thighs are trembling. And I’m sore down there.  

We figure out our tent assignments – there are four to choose from – and drop off our things.

morocco-march-2009-392Tour-mates Nikki and Amelia talk me into trying to run up this HUGE sand dune with them, located right behind our camp. Colin even joins in. I don’t make much of an effort and quit about half-way up, my out-of-shape lungs on fire. Nikki, Amelia and Colin all keep clawing their way to the top.

On my way down, Sally and Cathy decide THEY want in on the action, and they put me to shame – both of them persistently digging their way up the dune until they reach the top.

Back at the bottom, Alex – our resident artist – has been sketching most of the day. On the ride over, she created a watercolour sign with sand dunes and a little camel caravan that reads “Welcome to the Sahara”.

She’s now colouring in some of the other things she’s drawn, smudging the colours with water and bringing her sketches to life. She’s even quickly sketched our camp site, complete with a approximation of Will in his turban, sitting on one of the tables, slouching.

The sun fades. Sunset gives way to twilight. And one by one, the stars make their presences known. This is the part of the life experience that I’ve REALLY waited all week for: 

Seeing the best light show in the universe, in the middle of the desert.

As we wait for our vegetarian tajine dinner to cook (and while Will goes looking for scorpions with his special flashlight – yep, I said scorpions), our Berber guide, Mubarak, hangs out with us for a bit. Sally and Cathy pepper him with questions about his life and family.

Soon, dinner is served. And it’s delicious. Dessert is freshly sliced orange, which is oh-so-juicy.

After dinner, we gather around the campfire just behind our tents and Mubarak plays his drums. He passes a second set around. There aren’t many takers, aside from Colin and myself. (Apparently I’m really good, despite one-handing it because I can’t follow Mubarak’s advanced desert rhythms).

We ask him to tell us stories about some of the travellers he’s encountered.  A couple are funny; one’s a bit sad.

The air grows colder, and the evening draws to a quiet close. Inside the tent, I add layers and bundle up in the blankets I’ve been given.

I can hear the camels and other surrounding animals making noise in the distance as I try to fall asleep.