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.

Into the Countryside

Thursday, March 19.

The melancholy over leaving Fez has been quickly replaced by misery over having to deal with one the thing I had hoped NOT to deal with on the trip: case of the runs.

YEEEAARRRRGH.

Since arriving, I’ve used bottled water to brush my teeth and rinse my mouth. I’ve steered clear of tap water, fresh salads and any uncooked vegetables. I’m racking my brain to pinpoint what it could be.

Maybe it was the slices of orange sprinkled with cinnamon I had for dessert two nights ago? Dammit. 

(My tour-mate Liz, on the other hand, has been brushing her teeth with the tap water since the beginning and is fine. Go figure.)

Either way, the damage has been done and I pop a quick-dissolve Immodium tablet to make it through today’s long drive.

We pile our luggage – and ourselves – into the rented minibus and take off for our next destination: the town of Midelt.

One of the things people who’ve never been to Morocco might assume about the country (including myselfBEFORE I started reading about it) is that it’s mainly desert and palm trees. Which must mean that it’s hot and sunny all the time.

Which is completely false.

The region we’re heading into – locamorocco-march-2009-290ted in the Middle Atlas Mountains – has rougher, rockier terrain. There are also parts with lots of green grass and other shrubbery. Other parts still have snow melting on the ground, and covering the hilltops. But that’s not unusual. It’s just March – early spring – in Morocco. And it’s not much different from parts of North America, Europe and other continents at this time of year.

For the moment, we have left the bright, shining sun behind; in some spots, darkened clouds have taken its place.

We have a tea/pee break in the ski resort town of Ifrane. We also get a chance to try some Berber pancakes. They’re remotely similar to the pancakes my parents used to make at our house when I was a kid. These ones, though, are thicker – and square. I spread some butter and some jelly on them. Yummy.

We also stop in at a convenience store to pick up some goodies for the long ride. Remembering the gurgling in my bowels, I go in search of yogurt, in an effort to battle the gastrointestinal menace. 

Success! I have never eaten a cup of yogurt so fast in my entire life.

morocco-march-2009-269We travel a bit farther before stopping to see some Barbary apes. These aren’t domesticated; they’re the real deal. Big and small, some drink from pools of water, hang out (or jump out) of trees, or spend some time cleaning each other.

We also see another stark reality about Morocco while we’re moving in closer to take pictures. There is garbage EVERYWHERE. Pieces of plastic bags – which, we’re told at the beginning of our trip, is a huge problem in the country. Lots of other bits and bobs of trash, in the shrubbery, on the ground. And it’s a shame.

We continue onwards; I catch my first glimpses of real mountaintops. A couple hours later, we stop off at a place called Kasbah Myriem. An establishment run by Franciscan nuns, Kasbah Myriem takes in young girls and unmarried women to teach them embroidery and rug-making, as a skill and a source of income.

We’re taken into their gift-shop/showrmorocco-march-2009-309oom and see all sorts of things – cloth bookmarks, placemats and serviettes, handkerchiefs. Since I happened to start reading a book on the ride over, I decide to purchase a bookmark, with pretty blue and yellow stitching.

Back in the minibus, we continue onwards, passing by and through village after village. It’s late afternoon when we reach our final stop  – an auberge, run by an older Berber gentleman named Saeed. (He doesn’t match the image in my mind of what a Berber looks like. It shatters yet another one of my perceptions.)

It’s cold and has been raining off and on, so sitting inside with a nice hot glass of tea and a fireplace is more than welcome.

We get our room assignments; this time I’m paired up with Nonnie, the really nice Australian woman on the trip. We take our backpacks to our rooms and decide the sleeping arrangements. I get the bigger bed of the two in the room which, as I find out later, isn’t really all that big.

The room is freezing cold – no built-in heating. And there’s no hot water. Shower time will be interesting.

But it’s not a complete loss. We’ve got lots of blankets, and there’s a space heater, which we turn on before we leave for dinner.

My meal consists of a huge bowl of harira, followed by a plate of chicken couscous, which, AGAIN, I don’t come even close to finishing. Moroccan food is quickly becoming my Waterloo.

morocco-march-2009-320While some of our bloated bellies undertake digestion, the entertainment has started – Berber singing and dancing.

How do I go about even describing it? CAN I even describe it? I remember the rhythmic beating of drums … the  singing … the sound of sequins that jingle when they move …

Some of the movements are so simple, it doesn’t really seem like dancing. It’s hard to resist, but the music and dance becomes infectious – and it’s almost neverending.

Two of the younger tour-mates, Alex and Grace, get into it right away. It takes some of us older peeps to join in the fun. Even Colin – the lone male of the group, other than Will – gets into it (with the help of a couple of gin-and-tonics).

Too bad the stuck-up French tourists also staying at the auberge aren’t embracing it as much as we are. They sit at their tables watching (likely with disdain), drinking and smoking.

One of them says to Nonnie, “You Americans are all crazy.”

Nonnie merely replies, “Not all of us are American.”

Near the end of the night is where it gets entertaining. One of the Berber women dancing – who’s probably about 5’4″ and, if I were to guess, about 160 pounds – displays this one signature move where she takes a pillow, lies on her side, beats the pillow and then the floor in time to the music, and – with someone who happens to be doing this with her – grabs them close to her body … and ROLLS them over. It’s quite hilarious.

A few people in our group get Berber-rolled, including our driver Abdul. The first time our trip guide Will tries to get him in on it, he actually BOLTS out the door and runs around the side of the building. (Keep in mind, Abdul is a portly, middle-aged Moroccan dude. So I’m impressed at how fast he moves.) But we get him later, and he gets rolled, Berber style. 

Getting to sleep after all this excitement is a breeze. And just as well – tomorrow we have another looong drive ahead of us.

A Full Day in Fez

Wednesday, March 18.

Before this trip, I was given one piece of advice, should I ever find myself in Fez, especially in the medina: Prepare to get lost.

On the morning of our only day in Fez, I come pretty close to making this a reality.

I oversleep, and end up rushing around to get ready so that I can catch the group’s laundry run and grab some breakfast before our tour starts for the day.

My stomach rumbling, I reach the front lobby, only to have the man behind the front counter say, “The group just left.”

Still a bit foggy-headed – and a bit panicked – I ask, “Which way did they go?”

The desk manager says they’ve gone out the door and turned left onto the main street.

I set out into the breezy Moroccan morning, striding – and carefully trying to cross the street – thinking I can actually can find them and catch up to them.

After about three blocks, reason finally takes over, and I stop and turn around, since I’ve absolutely NO CLUE where I’m going.

I remember my way back to the hotel, in time to see the others standing in the small front lobby.

So I miss out on both laundry and breakfast.

Soon enough, our minivan arrives – with our tour guide, a Fassi woman named Hakima. (Fassis are residents of Fez.)

morocco-march-2009-175First stop on the tour drops us in front of the Royal Palace. We’re not allowed in, so we’re just outside the front gates. That’s okay, though – surrounding us are seven of the prettiest doors – made of cedar and embossed with gold colouring – that I’ve ever seen.

There are also a couple of other tour groups milling about, so I’m fighting for clean photos of the doors, and the guards in ceremonial garb (which is all different, by the way).

From there, Hakima takes us through a souk and then into a medersa (religious school). We stand in the courtyard, looking at the beautiful tiling and woodwork. Off to the side, a couple stray cats lie down for naps in the sun.

Coming out of the medina, we pile into the minivan, which takes us up and away from the main town, to a spot with a great panoramic view of the three parts – the old, the new and the Mellah (Jewish quarter) – that comprise Fez. Will also gets a visit from a four-legged friend – a resident stray dog that he gives a little food to as a greeting.

We then head to a ceramics factory, wmorocco-march-2009-218here a man named Abbas takes us around, showing us the processes – and people – involved in making the great pottery we’ve been starting to see wherever we go.

We see a man in a pit of grey water and clay, clad in a dark cap, rolled-up pants and a shirt rolled up to his upper biceps, sorting through the soft clay, separating what’s “good” and “bad”. It’s obvious his clothes were once white; his work has dirtied and darkened them to a greyish shade.

We see men sitting on the floor, cutting and shaping. Potters spinning clay into tajine bowls and lids on their wheels. Young people  hand-painting the designs onto plates, bowls and egg cups. Men chipping and chiseling mosaic tiles … and workers putting the finishing touches onto a prettily-designed rectangular mosaic-tiled tabletop.

Following the ceramics tour, it’s back down into the medina, where Hakima takes us through the souks, showing us facts and people she meets along the way (occasionally to briefly stop and chat in Arabic).

The crowds, sounds, smells and general ambience is almost to much to take in at once. But I remind myself that sensory overload is part of the experience.

morocco-march-2009-236We eventually arrive at the tanneries – one of the many sites of interest virtually synonymous with Morocco.

The sprigs of mint we receive earlier in the tour – to hold under our noses and thus minimize the stench that normally wafts up from the dye pits – aren’t really needed. The spring breeze pretty much eliminates most of the odor.

I end up buying a cute little bag with a shoulder strap. It’s tan-coloured and presumably sheepskin leather, judging how incredibly soft it is. With Hakima’s help, I get it for a slightly reduced price.

Next stop is a carpet factory – the one place at which I’m not expecting anyone to buy anything. The building  – which is just huge – apparently used to be a riad owned by a Moroccan family. We go to see some of the weavers at work, their flying across the room, plucking the yarn like the soundless strings of an instrument.

We see an enormous blue carpet hangingmorocco-march-2009-2422 across from where we’re standing – and we’re told that it would take about 25 days for two people to make.

Following the ten-cent tour, we’re taken into a room of just carpets, sat down and given a round of mint tea. The carpet-seller who’s taken us round – with the aid of a helper – rolls out some examples of the work (probably in hopes someone will buy). Carpet after carpet is rolled out with a thump. One of my tour-mates – Grace from Australia – takes a couple pictures of her favourite carpets, and has a little fun with the carpet-seller. But no dice.

We get up and move into the main room near the entrance/exit. We’re waiting around as Sally, one of my American tour-mates, is contemplating whether to take the plunge and buy a rug. While I wait, this weird sensation comes over me. It’s my worst fear come to life. I’m not nauseous. But the last time I had this sensation, I ended up with a nasty case of giardiasis. The feeling eventually passes – if only for the moment.

Some of my tour-mates grow bored waiting for Sally to make up her mind, so we go to a nearby clothing shop to wait. They have all sorts of fancy men’s and women’s robes, djellabas, tunics, etc. Before we know it, we’re all trying on various outfits and snapping photos for posterity.

I go in thinking I’m going to land myself a djellaba to wear while in Morocco. But after trying one on, I’m not so convinced. I end up trying on this really cute cotton, short-sleeved baby-blue caftan with white embroidery.

When it comes down to haggling, my first pass isn’t that great. I manage to get the caftan for about 300 DH (or $43.51 CAD). I probably could’ve come down further, and feel a bit bad that I didn’t. But I’m still happy with the purchase.

We stop for lunch, at the restaurant of this older Moroccan gentleman who is just – what’s the word? – crazy! He’s in his early 60s, but his grizzly white beard and wizened skin make him look older. He talks in a flurry of French, Arabic and gibberish (for entertainment’s sake) – and he’s big on cozying up to people and giving them kisses on the cheek. Throughout the meal, most people within his reach aren’t safe – not even me.

I order a Berber omelette and by the time I’m finished, I’m completely full. Even when we complete the meals we’ve ordered, we STILL get more food – tea, followed by two plates of something resembling a meatball stew with an egg in the middle. Hakima explains it’s a token of his appreciation for eating at his restaurant; if we don’t eat it, we run the risk of offending him and his cooking. (Half of us manage to finish our plate of it [which happens to be really good]; the other half only picks at it.)

After lunch, it’s on to the scarf shop, where we have a chance to purchase scarves for our trip to the Sahara desert. Compared to the clothes shop, the prices here are fixed and completely reasonable. I get a brightly coloured-and-striped one for myself, and buy a plain one for my mom as a souvenir.

morocco-march-2009-249Last stop on the tour is an herbalist’s shop, where the man who runs it shows us some of the things he sells for medicinal, practical and herbal use – and tests some of it out on us.

(One herb in particular – apparently good for allergies and clearing sinuses  he wraps in a hankerchief, letting each of us sniff in through one nostril. It’s so strong, it shoots straight to the back of my head – and the sensation stays there for at least 30 minutes. I’m surprised it doesn’t burn off my brain stem.)

It’s early evening by the time we return to the hotel, and it’s dark by the time I’ve changed into warmer clothes for the evening. I step out into the night air and go down the street to the nearby internet cafe.

By the time I return, I’ve – once again – missed half the group, who are starving and have gone to dinner (and, as it turns out, a shisha cafe afterwards). So Sally, Cathy, Colin, Nonnie and I decide to head out for a late meal at a really nice restaurant about five minutes away by foot.

I order a harira to warm up. By the time my pastilla arrives, I’m already half-full and can’t finish it. But it was nice, nonetheless.

As I make my way to my room for the night, I’m a litmorocco-march-2009-171tle sad that we have to leave Fez the following morning.

I mean, we’ve only been here a day and a half and have barely scratched the surface of this intriguing city.

I count myself lucky to have had the chance visit the place at least once in my lifetime.

Perhaps if I’m fortunate enough, I’ll one day have the opportunity to return.

More Meknes, Some Ruins and Onward

Tuesday, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day.

morocco-march-2009-066After breakfast, we set out in cabs towards our first point of interest in Meknes – the royal Granaries. We arrive, only to discover they’re closed to the public – construction.

So trip leader Will shows us the location and we have to make do with walking around the perimeter.

 

 

We have better luck at the tomb of Moulay morocco-march-2009-072Ismail, said to be one of the greatest rulers in Moroccan history and the man who built Meknes on the backs of at least 25,000 slaves.

Just outside the entrance to the tomb is a old man dressed in the colourful garb of a traditional water-seller. Will asks on our behalf how much it will cost to take a picture. The man says five dirhams. I make a mental note of this as we enter.

We’re first met with a prettily-tiled but dark inner courtyard with a fountain. This turns out to be quite deceptive as we step through another entranceway to see an outdoor courtyard, painted a sunny yellow.

We pass under a series of arched doorways until we reach another even more beautiful indoor courtyard, with various tiles and wood-carved designs adorning the walls. The tomb itself is in another room off to the side and is gated off.

Leaving the tomb, I approach the water-seller and ask if I can take a photo. He tells me it’s 10 dirhams, not five.

Sneaky old codger.

morocco-march-2009-088So I take the first picture – and he’s not even looking at the camera. I get his attention to look my way and I snap a second.

Perhaps he didn’t even know I snapped the first picture. But since he increased the price, I personally resolve to keep both pictures – that way I get my money’s worth.

(Petty, I know. But still – who likes to be cheated out something that was apparently a set price?)

Personal lesson # 1: There is (for the most part) no such thing as a set price in Morocco.

Next stop: the dungeon where a number of slaves – including Christian slaves – were kept. The guide tells us Moulay Ismail made his slaves build a tunnel from the dungeon all the way to the ruins of the ancient Roman town of Volubilis.

On the way out of the dungeon, I come across a dog-eared Joker card, practically embedded in the dirt. I don’t know why, but I pick it up and slip it into my pocket. Must be some sort of symbolic significance, but I can’t figure it out yet.

Next stop for us is Meknes’ main square and the medina, with the food markets and other various souks. We pause briefly in front of this huge doorway – apparently called “the fourth most beautiful door in Africa”. It is pretty.  And so enormous, it dwarfs anyone who passes it.

We stop for a drink break – juices, avocado smoothmorocco-march-2009-101ies and such – and then split up. Tour-mates Alex, Colin and I head straight for the food market. I’m just a bit bedazzled by the huge displays of sweets, olives and spices.

Then we make a few turns and before we know it, we’re in the butchers’ section of the market. I hear the incessant crowing (a cry for help?) of a rooster at one of the stands. And I’m immediately reminded of what Will told us about a day or so earlier – about a type of spinning contraption (akin to a rotating meat grinder) some butchers use, into which they fling chickens WHOLE … and likely alive. As a meat eater, I’m filled with a momentary feeling of dread.

We (luckily) don’t see any of this. But see all sorts of meats – and parts on display – goat heads, cows’ tongues and feet, and organs I can’t even identify. Alex mentions she’s ready to leave the section, and I’m more than ready to follow.

We hit the fish market, just in time to witness some men pulling a small shark in a plastic bin. We don’t stay very long, as the section isn’t terribly big and there are people trying to do their shopping.  

We head outdo0rs into the nearby souks. Alex gets a brand-new pair of sequined slipper-shoes from a boy who claims he’s 16 (but looks like he’s about 13).

We continue wandering until we run into our other tour-mates Sally and Cathy (sisters-in-law from the States), who’ve been searching everywhere for the meat market (to satisfy their curiosities about the meats on display), but to no avail.

Alex and Colin double back while I offer to take them back through there, getting yet another glimpse of the meats and heads on display (and a brain or two, too).  

morocco-march-2009-1121We meet up with the group a little later, and are then taken to lunch. Our meal of the day: camel burgers.

Now, let me preface this by saying: when I first f0und out we’d be eating camel, I actually took offense to the idea of eating an animal we’d be riding in about four days. But then I had to realize that Moroccans probably see camels the way we see cows in North America – that they serve a utiliarian purpose, that they’re not endangered (quite the opposite) and, well, they get eaten. 

This being said, I’m actually surprised how tasty the burgers are when we actually chow down. Vegetarian friends, I TRIED not to like it. I so DID. But I failed.

Next, Will takes the group to a shop run by a Moroccan man with an apparently funny laugh. (I hear the laugh in the shop; I’ve heard funnier laughs. But men with high-pitched laughs are pretty funny to listen to, anyway.) He tells us about Meknes’ artisinal speciality – iron plates with tiny threads of silver inlaid into them in traditional Berber and Andalucian designs.

And you can guess what happened – yep. Another one for the crazy plate collection. Will also scores a walking stick for himself. The top is inlaid with pieces of what I can only guess are bone or ivory.

We morocco-march-2009-129say goodbye to Meknes and visit the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, with the aid of a raspy-voiced tour guide with a sharp sense of humour.

It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

But during the period of Roman conquests, it was an important administrative town in Roman Africa – and it’s evident by the sheer size of the sight. There are just ruins as far as the eye can see, and despite the damage done by time and the huge Lisbon earthquake of 1755, it’s still relatively intact.

morocco-march-2009-1701From Volubilis, we head to Fez – the first point of interest on the trip that I’ve REALLY been waiting for. We reach there late afternoon. The place is overrun with cars (both moving and parked), scooters and dudes pretty much everywhere. (Note: I merely said “dudes”. I did not say “good-looking dudes”.)

We reach our hotels and go through the exercise of getting our room assignments and moving upstairs. Liz and I are paired up once again, after getting Alex as a roommate in Meknes. The room is what we’re coming to expect in Morocco. It’s got a neat view onto the sidestreet below and of the main street.

What I’m not prepared for is the bathroom. It’s got a sliding even tinier than the last hotel – just enough space to turn around, maybe once. The shower is a stall, which is fine. The toilet, however, is one that requires a bit of dexterity and balance. The bowl itself is pitched on a forward angle, which means the lid can never be kept open. And anyone using said toilet has to brace themselves against the sliding door to keep from falling off.

If this doesn’t help with my quad muscles and my glutes, who knows what will?

Later in the evening, Will takes us to a restaurant just down the street, run by an older gentleman he refers to as “my Moroccan father”. The man also apparently knows seven languages.

(Will told us that once he showed the man – whom I will now call Moroccan Dad – a flashlight that beamed an image of Saddam Hussein (that he got as a joke). When Will demonstrated this, Moroccan Dad was so taken aback, he spat on the floor of his own restaurant.)

Dinner goes fine; I also get my first taste of what a number of Moroccans will be saying to me for the rest of my trip, when Moroccan Dad says, “Ah! Jamaica!” and to humour him, I say, “Yeah, mon!”

(At least HE is nice about it.) 

Back at the hotel, some of us stay up longer, playing a couple of card games, before turning in (not before I briefly encounter some unwanted attention from a small group of Moroccan guys staying at the hotel. It’s what I have been dreading most. But it’s brief).

Tomorrow – our first full day in Fez. I’m so excited!