Morocco, Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition

[MOROCCO PART I]  [MOROCCO PART II]  [MOROCCO PART IV]

I’ve just parted with Part I of my tour, and the affable tour guy steers me in the direction of my new bus, plunking me in a scene that feels like I’ve walked into the middle of someone else’s family reunion gone wrong, only these are unrelated groups of twos and threes, none of whom seem to be speaking to one another.

It’s a strange and silent ride from Ouarzazate through the Oases of the Draa Valley and into the Dades Gorge, 15 minutes late for sunset proper. The landscape is other-worldly, magnificent rolling hills flanked by kms of lush palms, oases fed by the Draa River. The scenery is quite different than the cartoon oasis image in my head, the tiny lush tropical island in the middle of a sandy sea. Tho, from a birds-eye view it might look just like that. The gorge is still gorge-ous. I redouble my sentiments from earlier: I’d love to go hiking here.

 

 

Lodging: The proudly 2* hotel is freezing – there is no heat here either, but the hot shower feels wonderful, the dinner mediocre and the company, still weirdly silent. So it’s not until late in the evening, when I’ve wandered back to the dining hall and to the only lit fireplace in the building, that I meet some fellow travellers. We’re warming by the fire, and I’ve engaged the Berber kitchen guy, Izil, in a conversation because a colleague is doing some research on the linguistic origin of oranges. And I guess this interests the others, because soon we’re talking about travels and oranges and traditions in broken Spanish, French and English (I’m feeling optimistic as my broken Spanish and French are better than their broken English), all of us trying to learn some Berber words.

izilBerbers account for 40% of Morocco’s population, yet according to a recent census, the nomad population is below 5000 (this number strikes me as ironic, tho, since they by definition move around a lot and the population is predominantly illiterate).

And we also talk about the nature of Berbers (Amazigh, in their tongue) and how different people are as you get farther from the cities (the farther you get, the warmer they are; I concur!). And Izil tells us his family has some relatives still living in the caves.

Removed from the tourist/vendor relationship, the people I’ve met out here have been warm and welcoming. And I detect an unspoken tribal friction when he describes the thing I felt but could not place in Marrakech. It’s something of a transactional game as you get closer to the city; this thing the guide books warn of: people you meet want you to give your money over in a “I know you know I know you know I’m scamming you” sort of charade. Whereas in this part of the country, I feel that you would be invited to one’s home (or cave, as it were) for supper.

As I settle to sleep this night, I’m grateful for my Berber blankets and interesting conversation.

The road to erg Chebbi.

Draa ValleyMorning comes, and we drive from Dades to Todra Gorge via the aptly-named road of 1000 kasbahs. It’s here we visit another one, this kasbah occupied by some nomad families for the winter. It’s a different experience than Ouarzazate, as we are much more remote and the surrounds much more rustic. The landscape is alternately breathtaking and sad, as the living conditions in the kasbahs cannot be much better than the caves in the gorges; a trickle of river in which to bathe, wash clothes and find water to drink. They’re used to some level of tourism, tho, and we are lead through the kasbah and to a room for a demonstration of Berber weaving techniques – I can’t help but compare this experience to some similar in India, where the local way of life is peddled as a tourist attraction and I’m not sure if it’s heart-breaking or -warming to know that our presence contributes to their livelihood.

 

 

Back on the bus, the road runs through a flat expanse of brush- and trash-dotted brick-red plains, scabbed with crumbled rock, and flanked by rolling hills on either side. It’s a barren, in-between land, but the hills are morphing into higher mountains as we travel north. The periodic olive groves remind me that there’s hope for greener things. And, as if the road reads my mind, a semi-modern-looking town emerges, its redbrick buildings and Coca-Cola signs in a mélange of French, Arabic and English. Long Berber robes (djellabas) and burqas prevail. Even in the day’s warmth (striking, really, compared with the frosty nights), all are dressed head-to-toe. Men, old women, children…all visible. Also striking is that you do not see any young women. Anywhere.

Our driver has not said more than a combined paragraph this trip. Luckily, those on the bus are chatting – I think the previous night’s fireside chat broke some of the ice. So, as we roll to a stop at a weird hotel-looking place from which you can see some MASSIVE dunes, his, “descender ici” is the note on which nous descendons du bus. 5 minutes for a potty break, then it’s camel time!

Last night I learnt that “Sahara” means ‘magic’ in the Tamazight language. It also means ‘desert’ and ‘dawn’ and ‘wilderness’ and ‘wild place’ – depending on who you ask. It is all these things, I’m thinking, as we mount camels and in a matter of minutes we’ve crossed a dune and entered a Martian universe. It’s just before sunset, and the camels are moving sure-footedly through the powdery sand. I’m in awe of this landscape unfolding around me, not sure if everyone else behind me (I’m on the lead camel) is thinking the same: I’m riding a camel in the Sahara Desert…it looks just like the movies. The sun sinks lower and the sand begins to glow with its evening touch, a golden-red hue I’ve only seen in pictures, the purity of which is only just now confirmed: no photoshop required.

 

 

It’s after about an hour that we reach the campsite; a few meagre tents surrounded by dunes. We climb the highest (no small feat in itself!) and at the top are rewarded with a real Sahara sunset. Again, I’m in awe and truly speechless. Our group is quiet, but this time I know why…this moment in time makes the entire cheesy tour worth it.

 

Berber dinner. Frosty night. Heavy blankets (and a silk sleeping bag liner that has made this and the past two nights much more bearable!). A bright moon and a sky full of stars. I’ve underestimated the dryness of the desert and my headache sends me to bed a little early, so I’m wide awake well before the sun rises, and surprised to find one of our guides already up and getting ready to do his wake-up rounds.

 

As we depart with the rising sun, I’m on the front camel again. My Berber guide offers me a tasty meal of camel tagine (my camel is on the older side and will be retired soon), and proposes I stay on in the desert with him at camel camp. While the landscape offers amazing photo ops, the air is clear and dry, and a simpler life seems novel, I graciously decline. This day will be spent on the bus back to Marrakech, where I’m to meet my own (not particularly) Arabian Knight, to share the 2nd half of our Moroccan Adventure.

As seen on the road back to Marrakech from Merzouga (550+ km):

 

Marrakech, encore: This chapter winds down with one Travel Girl warming to the idea of Morocco, a bus that is an hour late, a serious need to go to the WC, and an unexpected drop-off at the opposite end of Jemaa el Fna at peak madness. It ends, happily, navigating back to the riad (on my own!) without getting hopelessly lost, then meeting a travel-weary Calvin to continue our adventuring. Next up: L & C do Marrakech.

Want to read the rest of the series? [Morocco, Part I]  [Morocco, Part II] [Morocco, Part IV]. Cheers!

Morocco, Part II: A tour, the Milky Way and a Berber fortress.

[Morocco Part I]  [Morocco Part III]  [Morocco Part IV]

The 6am wake-up came trop tôt, but it was written: quick brekkie then onto the bus and into the desert for a 4-day, 3-night adventure in Berber-land. I navigate the labyrinth with help (compris), then out into the bustling morning to be assigned a spot on my tour.

I’ll reiterate that I’m not a fan of tours, so this one, slap-dashedly herding me onto a bus, has me peeved far too early in the morning. It’s loaded with millennials chattering in Spanish, a quiet German woman and two Russian girls. Everyone is friendly-enough, but I find out hours after we’ve left the city walls that this is a 2-day tour and I’ll be switching to another bus tomorrow. Fun times.

Atlas and the pseudo-desert.

Some hours into the ride, we wind our way through the Atlas Mountains, where sparse, snow-capped peaks peek out, piquing my interest in hiking here in warmer months. Lunch is in the Moroccan version of Hollywood, Ouarzazate, about half-way between Marrakech and the Algerian border. The area has a fair share of movie studios; films like Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Last Temptation of Christ and even some GoT episodes were filmed here. There’s a tour of a small Kasbah, where it seems life goes on as it has for centuries, and I’m as captivated by the architecture as I am the storks nesting atop the minaret. I learn that a Kasbah must have three things: a mosque, a madrassa (Islamic school) and a public fountain. There’s even a character actor here who has built a small museum to himself, containing nothing but framed photos of his walk-on roles in films shot in the area. But there is no time to see more of the town, as we’re half-way to Zagora and need to meet some camels before sunset.

After a couple more hours of driving, and like a well-oiled machine, the driver drops us at a place in the road, barren, flat and seemingly uninhabited but for a pack of camels (of the dromedary, not carcinogen, variety) and our Berber guides. Thus, we trek out into this mini-version of the desert, flat and crunchy underfoot, some small dunes visible in the not-so-distant distance. We ride into the sunset and arrive at our desert camp for a Berber dinner (tagine), campfire songs (Russian folk and Brit pop), and an attempt at shooting stars (cameras).

This is what travel is about, I think: I’m in North Africa, in the Sahara Desert (or the outskirts of it, at least), with a passel of people I didn’t know yesterday, representing 7 different countries on 4 continents, and we’re listening to songs around a campfire, sung by a Russian girl playing ukulele.

DSC_8455-171

The next morn is camel caravan in reverse, then a visit to the exceptionally cool 17th Century UNESCO World Heritage site ksar Aït Ben Haddou, a fortress-like compound where some families still live. I’m something of a castle freak, tho this construction is red stone walls and desert floor, adorned only modestly, but with prominent carved-into-stone Berber symbols of freedom that look something akin to two Greek psis stacked on top of one another, or a man with outstretched arms. It’s the last letter of the Tifinagh alphabet, yaz, or ⵥ and this shape was also used in ancient wars as a weapon. Ironic, that. There’s no electricity or running water here, so most families have moved to other accommodations because it’s a 3km walk just to get water.

It’s like a miniature kingdom (they filmed Gladiator here, among others), small castles and dwellings mish-mashed together, steps and pathways leading you through the place, and when you climb to the top of the highest landing, you’re rewarded with a panoramic view of the sprawling desert below. The night sky from this place must be breathtaking. Small shops dot the base, where locals hawk their wares and artisans paint with saffron and tea.

It’s a pleasant hour and a half, as the uber-chatty millennials have boycotted the tour on principle due to the 25-dirham fee (at the equivalent of 2,5€ it really is their loss). So it’s me, my new German friend (pediatrician and fellow solo female traveller/photography buff), the Argentinian future Médecins Sans Frontières provider, and a couple of other stragglers. We’ve got ample space to wander without the conspiratorial giggling and selfie-mania. Just hours earlier, I was feeling a tad old as I watched in wonder as one of the Russian girls missed the desert sunrise in favour of getting the perfect selfie angle, and then again in astonishment as she did acrobatics on the back of a camel, selfie stick in hand – I’m not sure if I was more appalled or impressed by that stunt.

And then it was a little weird. Just as I’m revelling in the novelty of it all, I’m whisked away on a moment’s notice to find my 2nd bus so I can continue the desert adventure. Hasty goodbyes are said to my bus-mates and to the short-lived new friendships.

Travel is comme ça: fleeting connections made over foreign food and new experiences. If we’re lucky, some of these become people to visit across the globe. If we’re really lucky, some of these become lifelong friends. I’m fortunate to have some in both categories.

Next up: Morocco Part III: Gorge-ous terrain, Sahara proper, a declined proposition.

Go back and read [Morocco Part I] if you missed it. And also [Morocco Part III] and [Morocco Part IV]. Cheers!

Morocco, Part I: Marrakech; On being a rat in an ancient maze

3 years ago plus 1 month and 9 days, there was suddenly a new person in my life, one who often makes me feel like a better version of myself. I’m grateful for this kind of human in my world, for we rarely find them. So today I flew to Marrakech, the place from which the initial contact was dispatched, to reconnect with this person whose presence makes my entire being feel at home, wherever in the world we may be. We’ve travelled a lot together, he and I: short trips and long. But this winter has been brutal in New England and I needed an escape. So, to what was intended as a long weekend for C, I’ve added a few days up front to justify the travel time and the airfare (I dream of the luxury of living Europe, where a weekend getaway really gets you away).

ch-exploringThe itinerary: Day 1: arrive in Marrakech; Days 2-5: visit Berber country; Days 5-8: meet my Calvin-like co-adventurer back at the riad for a few days of Medina madness.

As they say: Let’s go exploring!

The trip from the airport is via taxi, to just outside the Medina’s inner web, where cars are not permitted in the afternoon; then via hand cart, dodging donkeys (and scooters and bikes and other handcarts and shopkeepers and hawkers of Every. Possible. Thing. No, really.) To the riad, whisked away in those 8 minutes to a very foreign-seeming place. Marrakech is a whirlwind. The Medina, a labyrinth. I don’t quite know how to describe it without sound or colour. Even so, the riad is a kind of oasis; decked in carpet and copper lamps, wooden furniture, large cushions…warmth oozes from each étage. Within moments of arriving, I’m served traditional mint tea and Moroccan biscuits by a smiling, welcoming Abdul.

For reference, Marrakech’s Medina is the walled-in old city, a maze-within-a-maze that leaves you feeling at times like a baited rat that would do anything to find the cheese; or the riad, in my case. There are a few meandering main streets, barely wide enough for one car to pass: rues lined on either side by cafés, shops, and their wares on offer. The streets bustle with merchants and shoppers (and hagglers) and ogling tourists, one of which I’m about to become. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, walled-in in the 12th century, The Medina’s wall is a 19km stretch of stone, bounding the old from the new. A tangle of alleyways connects the “proper” streets (one must use proper as loosely as possible), and it’s here you find the homes and riads (the mansions of old that have been transformed into lovely guest houses). The 15 metre-high buildings create an inner sanctum of sorts, blotting the din of the Jemaa el Fna, and the market streets that radiate out from its madness.

Thus, my first half-day in Marrakech is a blur of light and sound and smell and primal tendencies. Between hunger, jetlag, curiosity and restlessness, I decide to go see the famed ‘Fna to catch a glimpse of this experience for myself, because it’s so much more than just an historic site. Literal translation is either “large open space” or “death” depending on which definition you choose; history tells of another mosque here originally, but it was erected pointing the wrong way towards Mecca and was replaced by the impressive 77 metre-high Koutubia Mosque in the 12th Century (Oops). Not-so-urban legend tells that Jemaa el Fna was also used for public executions.

Heeding warnings of pickpockets, scammers, gropers, and general miscreants, I set out. And after a couple of wide-eyed hours of wandering the ‘Fna and the streets nearest my riad, I turn back to go home. The late-afternoon frenzy at Jemaa el Fna is only just beginning and I’ve already seen snake charmers, Berber musicians, chained monkeys, tea sellers, fortune tellers, henna hawkers, would-be stalkers… I haggle (poorly, I decide, but it’s a first attempt) for a Taureg amulet, its price includes a story about Berber marriage and the need for keeping one’s many wives in different parts of the country (to ensure they never meet), since Allah suggests up to 4. And while Marrakech is a melting pot of old and new, Berbers and Arabs, Europeans and ex-pats, I feel more of the old culture prevailing in this part of the city. As a solo woman here, I feel a strange impulse to layer on more clothes, even though it’s warmish and dry and the only parts visible are my hands and head.

Google maps is utterly useless, and I find myself near, but not near-enough, to my riad. I’m lost, feeling tired, hungry, shell-shocked, alone amidst a bazillion strangers, and I’m trying to talk myself out of crying (in French, so at least there’s that). I see a clean-cut youngish man up ahead and ask him to point me in the direction of the rue. Note: I’ve momentarily forgotten this item in the list of potential Marrakech scams and don’t ask up front what the directions will cost me. I’m just grateful for a smile and some help getting un-lost. Moments later (we were, literally, one tiny alleyway away), we’re at the riad, where I greet my hosts and thank my guide (really, all I wanted was for him to point, not lead) and he says, gruffly, “you pay me now.” Hm. So I hand him a small coin for his trouble, knowing that all I have in my pocket are larger bills and a few Euro coins. He says, “50 dirhams.” (roughly 5€) To which the riad ladies guffaw and reply, “non… you go away.” And a shouting match ensues, in French-laced Arabic, where the only thing I remotely recognise goes something like, “she has a big fancy camera, she can afford to pay me…” to which we all reply, “a taxi would cost less, get lost!” Finally, some smaller coins are produced to shut the guy up, and he goes away hurling ancient curses at this Western witch, I’m sure.

I’m stressed now, a little freaked-out, hoping the rest of my trip won’t be as terrifying. But a hot shower, tagine dinner with an unforgettable courgette soup, another cup of delightful Moroccan mint tea, and the knowledge that in a few days, my smiling ami who has been here before will meet me and meander the maze of The Medina by my side. Tomorrow, I leave on a short tour to the interior and into the Sahara.

The score for Day 1 in Morocco – Marrakech: 1; Travel Girl: 0.

Read on: [Morocco, Part II]  [Morocco, Part III]  [Morrocco, Part IV]