Archive for April, 2011

Merzouga – we reach the Erg Chebbi Dunes


The Road to Merzouga

We had another long day ahead of us.  But it was exciting because we were heading to Erg Chebbi Dunes and our camel ride into the desert! The drive was uneventful save for our visit to the Ksar and Brahim’s house, which I discussed in an earlier post.  Along the way we noticed that the Berber women were wearing black cape-type wraps with bright yarn embroidery.  Then we must have been in a different tribal area because they were all black with no color.  And finally, they were sort of stripy.

We also saw kids playing soccer in the middle of nowhere.  The only place they could have come from was down quite a ravine – but kids will find a way to play soccer anywhere.

A big thank you Riad Nezha for the good signage!

Riad Nezha

We made it just before sunset and were taken immediately to the rooftop terrace for mint tea.  What a view!  A gorgeous palmerie and the dunes in the background.

View from Riad Nezha's terrace

Riad Nezha terrace

Later that evening we ate in their dining room – the only guests, we were ahead of the tourist season – and it was delicious. So far, the best food of the trip had been at Boumalne Dades and Merzouga.  Lots of vegetables and great seasoning. We remembered wonderful seasoning from when we lived in Morocco, but had been a little disappointed this time around.  The dining room is beautiful.

Riad Nezha dining room

The riad is fairly new and still in progress but building a top-of-the-line resort is certainly one man’s dream.  In this case, that would be Brahim, the owner, but he was ill, so we were taken care of by Mohammed, who has a degree in English literature.  He said he knew that was a rather impractical degree, but there you are.  He’s developed a particular interest in American fiction.

Riad Nezha was a wonderful place to stay and is going to be a luxury retreat – everything is so well thought out and so tastefully designed.  We were very happy with this accommodation.  We asked to have a guide provided the following morning.  No, wait – Mohammed strongly suggested we take a 4×4 tour with a guide – in fact, almost insisted, and we’re glad we did.  So we went to bed awaiting our “quatre quatre.”

Quatre-Quatre (4×4) into the dunes

Breakfast was in the dining room and two men ambled in who were returning from the camel outing.  They had had a cold day – we were going to have a pleasant one thank goodness.  Although there was haze which distressed me because it was my only chance to take photos of Erg Chebbi Dunes – precursor to the Sahara!  Little did I know haze was the least of my problems in getting good shots.  I’ve taken successful photos from a vaporetto in Venice that was rising and rocking with the current; I’ve taken mostly successful photos from horseback in Haleakala Crater in Maui, but those are nothing compared to camelback.  More about that later.

Mohammed, called Ahmed, came to pick us up for our “quatre quatre.”

He spoke Berber and a little bit of French; no English.  We spoke English and French and a little bit of Arabic but no Berber.  Hmmm.  Somehow it all worked out.  Most of the time. He did manage to communicate to us that Bush was a “crazy guy.”   So many people we met seemed eager to comment about Bush and Obama and their remarks always gave high marks to the latter while disparaging Bush. I’m not disparaging Bush myself with those remarks – it’s just interesting to see how the rest of the world sees us.

How Morocco Works

This is a good time to digress about how money and Morocco come together.  It’s an unwritten code that people will be tipped.  For example, once Brahim started showing us through the Ksar, we knew we would pay him something.  He said no problem about leaving our car unattended, so we knew someone would be watching it and we’d pay him.  It was great to have lunch at his house, but we knew we’d offer some money after for the food.  So we knew that wherever Ahmed took us on our excursion, we’d give some money to those involved.  And the system works.  It’s not so much money to give 10 dh to the person watching your car (a little over $1) or 40 dh to someone who gives you lunch (a little over $4).  Whenever someone offered to show us the way somewhere, we knew that it was understood that he was doing us a favor and we were going to pay him.  Plus, you tip the gas station attendant – no one pumps his own gas.  It’s a way to keep employment up I suppose, and it works .

Back to the 4×4

As we drove out we saw a little demonstration taking place, but it was clear that Ahmed wouldn’t want to discuss it so we didn’t.  We began driving through the dunes and I worked it out so if I said “photo,” he’d stop.  Soon I realized we’d never go anywhere if I kept saying “photo.”

Erg Chebbi dunes

Erg Chebbi dunes

See what I mean?  You would look at the dunes and they’d be one color; then you walk 20 yards in one or the other direction, and there would be a whole other view and color.  I could have spent days just slowly walking amongst those dunes.

We were driving over the sand when we didn’t really need to so I wondered if it was for show, but soon we were out – where? We had no idea.  We were heading to a nomad tent for tea.

As we approached, there seemed to be a couple of tents and an abandoned structure that was being used.  One tent was the barn with goats and sheep in front.

A little fenec (wild fox) was sleeping by some debris, and a cat was resting on top of a wall.


The structure had a solar panel.  A little girl was in the yard (which was actually the entire desert) and when she saw my camera, she took off.  Most Berbers and especially girls and women don’t want to be photographed.

Ahmed said nomad children do not go to school.  He grew up a nomad in that desert and knows every inch.  He spent many years of his youth shepherding the family livestock.

So we bent down and made it into the tent, which was not easy.  It wasn’t what I’d call comfortable.  The woman brought the tea and Ahmed poured.

The husband drove up on his motorbike and sat outside the tent looking through binoculars.  I was trying to process this: we were in a primitive tent with a solar panel, the children were dirty and didn’t go to school, and Dad rides up on his motorbike and starts looking into the desert with his binocs.  Doing what?  Keeping an eye on his herd of camels so no one steals them.  Phew.  That alone made the stop worthwhile – all the incongruities.

Next up: a stop for a performance by the Gnaoua musicians.

The Gnaoas come from Africa, black Africa as Ahmed pointed out.  Their music is well-known and every year there is a huge music festival in Merzouga.  This year will be the 13th and Ahmed says the desert is full of people camping, musicians of all sorts – I’d love to be there for that.  We watched, clapped, and gave some money and we were off.

We drove and drove and drove and drove.  Where were we going?  Mining, Ahmed said.  So we figured we were going to some fossil mines since southern Morocco is a treasure house of fossils.  Geologists get excited about Morocco.  We had no idea.  We’d pass an oasis here and there thinking, well this has to be the mining.  When we finally stopped it was in the middle of nowhere.

Middle of Nowhere

The other side of nowhere

Ahmed took some water out of the 4×4 and I thought we were having a snack.  But he poured the water on some rocks and abundant fossils were revealed.  That was the “mining” we were going to.  Wherever there is a rocky outcropping in the sand, there are fossils.  We walked around and found our own.  Pretty cool.

It was lunch time.  We were taken to a riad, again in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, but then Merzouga itself is in the middle of nowhere.  We had a good lunch behind the blue door, paid for it, and got back to the Riad Nezha.  Time to rest up for the camels.


The Dades Gorges


We reach Boumalne Dades

We made it to the Hotel Xaluca Dades by sunset.

Hotel Xulaca Dades

I found it by looking at the National Geographic itinerary for Morocco and choosing some of the hotels they selected, especially in the areas where good accommodations are few. What an interesting hotel!  Berber musicians greeted us, much like the little band that played as we boarded the boat on the Yangtze River in China, but these guys were good.

We were offered mint tea, nuts and cookies as we entered. Our room was lovely – the walls were rock and there were actually places to put things – but there was an unnecessary high step up to the bathroom that was a hazard.  It was way bigger than a normal step and we wondered about elderly people negotiating that, especially in the night.  We’re approaching elderly and I wondered about me negotiating it.  But we managed, no problems.

The meals were buffets, which usually make me cringe.  But the food was excellent, some of the best we had.  And we could gorge on fruit, oranges especially.

We watched the sun rise the next morning over the town and the souk, which we found out is held two days a week.

Sunrise over Boumalne Dades

Our goal for the day was the Dades Gorges.  The sky was clear and crisp with billowing white clouds, perfect for the stunning landscapes of the Gorges.

NOTE ABOUT PHOTOS Most of these photos were taken from the car, which is why they aren’t always crystal clear.  People didn’t like being photographed, and sometimes I was too darn cold to get out (it was really freezing up there), and sometimes I was too lazy.

In the hotel parking lot we saw we were the only car.  The rest of the vehicles were tour buses (not giant ones), plus, there were many trekkers at the hotel getting a good, comfortable night’s sleep.  Mark checked the oil because of our creaky car, and found – no oil!  We went to a service station in town and the car didn’t even register the first liter.  Sheesh.

Mark checking the oil

Boumalne Dades is full of murals!  Wow – public art.  The subject matter is scenery of the area and the artists have put their names and email addresses on the murals.  That enhances the town so much.  After determining to come back later for photos, we headed up into the gorges.

Mural in Boumalne Dades

Mural artist contact information

Scenery on the road to the gorges

We drove past old Kasbahs…

Old kasbah

Another deserted kasbah

and ksars…

and an old kasbah that was dwarfed by the geologic formation…look carefully for the ruins…

women walking on the roads with huge bundles of sticks…

men with donkeys…

more women carrying burdens…

little hotels and restaurants, school kids at bus stops, men and women tending herds of sheep and goats…

trucks with loads of hay so precariously balanced that we were a little nervous to pass…

storks on minarets tending their nests…

and the most spectacular geologic formations.  There has been some violent uplift going on over the millennia for sure.

We also saw a soccer field in the middle of nowhere…

We noticed that most of the girls, even very young ones, were wearing head scarves in the mountains.  In Casablanca and Marrakech there was every kind of dress from modern to djellabas to head scarves to veils.  But in the mountains it was head scarves for everyone, young and old.

Throughout all the rural areas we saw plastic bags full of ??? dropped off everywhere at prearranged stops.  Turns out they are full of hay.  We also saw the Butagaz trucks.  People know which days to bring their empty Butagaz bottles to a prearranged location on the road, the truck comes, and bottles are exchanged for full ones.  Butagaz is what we used so long ago to fire up our stove and water heaters.  I was always nervous when the Butagaz guy finished hooking up the new bottle and then lit a match to see if there were any leaks.

Me at my stove in 1973. The Butagaz bottle is on the right.

We did stop at one pullout where a man had a little array of items for sale spread out in the dirt.  We actually liked him and I bought a couple of things.  He was so happy, he picked up an instrument and played a little for us, encouraging me to take a photo (I do not think he was an actual musician), and just as we drove away he asked for money for socks, showing us the sad condition of the socks he was wearing.  We did not give him sock money although I suggested Mark take off his socks and give them to the guy.

We stopped at a little store, little being the operative word, and got some pastries and nuts to snack on.  Right across the road was a shop nestled in a cave – really – full of rose products.  We bought some lotion that is awfully sticky, but the kid manning the store was so enterprising and had such an unusual store, that we supported him.  I think he needed a sale from the amount of dust on everything.  It was not tourist season.

Store in a cave

However, the Moroccans seem to know that tourism is important to the economy, especially in the future,  and they are doing everything to make the country tourist-friendly.  Up near the Gorges, some palm trees had been planted carefully – no reason we could see except to enhance the landscape.  Everyone we saw was working so hard – everywhere – and that made us wonder what constitutes unemployment.

We reached the gorges, were suitably impressed, and turned around.  It was freezing.  But the landscape was stunning.

Dades Gorges

Set the timer on the camera…we were really cold so did only one take.

Partway down we stopped for lunch at the Hotel Panorama (that’s a common hotel name) and it was a lot more marginal inside than it appeared outside.  Also, I didn’t like the food.  But a group of eight French people tromped in, sat and enjoyed their pre-ordered lunch, which started off with omelets, and seemed to think it was a fine place to stay.  We had a nice little chat with them, but as far as hotels go, I’ll stick with Xaluca Dades.

Driving back into town, we saw the souk was open and we parked, went in, and were besieged.

Take note of the round tube-like bracelet in the front.

This did not look like the kind of souk that got many visitors but I saw a couple of things to buy and that caused great excitement. They had a live one!  Negotiating the price of some Berber pins took Mark, me, and about eight other Moroccans, one of whom actually owned the pins.  I was looking at a bracelet that I liked even though I could tell it was new and it was touted as being old, but decided against.  So we wandered around, looked at some carpets, and left.  Tried to leave.  We were again besieged and I was urged to look at the bracelet once more, it was thrust into my hands, and we crossed the street heading to the car, actually reached the car and opened the door while I was still trying to hand the bracelet back to the vendor.  Another guy came out of a café and asked how much I’d paid for the bracelet and I said I hadn’t paid, hadn’t offered, didn’t want it, and was trying to give it back!  Something about this guy’s attitude let me know it wouldn’t have been worth whatever I paid for it.

Boumalne Dades souk

Boumalne Dades souk

Boumalne Dades souk

A note about the carpet: the Berbers are weaving carpets from yucca fiber now, and it’s a lot like plastic.  A big selling point is that it won’t burn!  The guys hold a lighter to the carpets to prove they won’t burn.  I was thinking to myself that one doesn’t usually buy an area rug based on flammability, but whatever.  It’s a showy thing to do.

As we got back to the hotel, with relief, the Berber musicians were outside again, we were offered a glass of mint tea, and we felt pampered.  They already had our names memorized.  We ate, slept, and that was that.

Next, finally, we head to the desert and our camel ride.


The Road to Boumalne Dades


Back to the story – on the road to Boumalne Dades

It took a long time to plan this trip to Morocco, yet I overlooked many little details.  Like the fact that we’d be driving Morocco’s three mountain ranges.  Between Marrakech and Boumalne Dades, we had to tackle the High Atlas.  This mountain range reaches a height of about 14,000 feet, but we traveled over the Tizi’n’Tichka Pass where the summit is approximately 7,000 feet.

One of the first things we saw outside of Marrakech was storks!  Lots of them flying.  Storks nest on top of minarets, but it must be unusual to see many at a time because other cars were stopped to watch.


We drove through palmeries (A palmerie is a place where there are many palm trees, a source of water, and the land under the palm trees is cultivated with different crops.)


and rolling hills


Our troublesome rental car

Note the mountains in the background.

that soon gave way to barren mountains.

Tizi’n’Tichka Pass

There was something eerily beautiful about this bleak stony mountain pass. At the lower elevations we passed abandoned Kasbahs and the occasional house.

Yet even when an area looks desolate, a person will pop up – tending sheep, harvesting bamboo, perhaps gathering plants or wood.

Berbers populate the mountains and a productive side business for them is selling fossils.  Apparently southern Morocco is a treasure trove of fossils.  We stopped at one stand and after a long while a woman came walking up a steep path.  She spoke not a word of anything we spoke, not even Arabic because Berber is a separate language.  We bought a dish and some fossils and I’m not sure she could even count the money.  Everything in her little store was so dusty that it seemed customers were few and far between.  In several places we stayed, we were the first guests since Christmas, so she was probably not expecting any business.

We could even have stopped for the pause that refreshes.

Our car didn’t seem to be sliding into gear very well, the brakes squeaked, and we were mildly worried, but it took us over the pass and down into the Draa Valley.  Most people stop for the night in Ouarzazate.  It’s not much of a town as far as tourism goes, but it’s growing quickly because a huge movie-making industry is in full growth mode.  There’s a big studio, Atlas Studios, one of the biggest in the world, and we drove by back lots with Kasbahs and other types of buildings.  The Bourne Identity is one of many movies that have been made there.

Being us, we pushed ourselves to the limit.  I figured if we could get to Boumalne Dades we could spend two nights there instead of one in Ouarzazate, then packing up to have only one in Boumalne Dades.  It’s much easier to be two nights in one place. As a result we had one of the very long days that were ahead of us.  Luckily the road system is excellent and the signage is clear.  I had printed out Google maps for everything, which turned out to be a colossal waste of time, as the roads had no names posted and highways were not marked by their numbers.  In Morocco, as in France and Italy, roads are indicated by where they lead, not what number they are, and it is usually in a roundabout when you find out if you’re still on the right track.

The Draa Valley is known for growing roses, and each year there is a huge rose festival.  Rose soaps, lotions and other rose products are sold all over this area.  Also in the valley is the incredible Road of 1,000 Kasbahs.  I had forgotten about that road but as we passed abandoned Kasbahs, one after the other, I remembered what we were supposed to be seeing.  This road is the former caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech.  Although we didn’t get out and explore any (having done so in the past), it made the road quite exciting.

Old kasbah

Remains of old kasbah behind more modern building

We did stop at the famous Kasbah Ait Benhaddou and took a few photos.  Ait Benhaddou is really a ksar (see commentary on politics) and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Many movies have been filmed there including Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia.

Ait Benhaddou

It was a glorious day – lots of driving, yes, but that’s the only way to see the territory sometimes, and see it we did.  The sky was gorgeous and the air was clear.


Next: Boumalne Dades and the gorges.

Goodbye Marrakech; Hello Infrastucture, Politics, and the Road South.


Goodbye Marrakech

Last morning in Marrakech. We had our breakfasts on the roof of the riad, which is quite charming.

Mini tagine dishes

All over the country these little tagine dishes are used for jams, butters, olives, and like foods.  They are quite charming.

Rooftop of Maison Do in Marrakech

This is how it goes in most medina residences – all spaces are used, and terraces on the rooftops are common.  We enjoyed the open air (of course, it wasn’t the hot summer) and little birds enjoyed it also.

I couldn’t resist a photo of the oranges.  Fruits are served for every meal.

Looking out over the rooftops of the medina we saw a sea of satellite dishes. That’s something new for sure in the last 40 years.  Morocco is a wonderful mixture of the old and new.  We may say, “oh, too bad, the satellite dishes are ugly” or some such thing, but I’m sure people are happy to have them.

Satellite dishes in Marrakech medina

Morocco has done a terrific job on infrastructure.

After breakfast Ali took us to the airport so we could rent our car, which is a tiny yellow-ish KIA something or other (without heat as it turns out. And without oil also – we had to put two liters in after the first day, but that’s getting ahead of the story.). The airport is new, or at least renovated, and gorgeous, as was the train station. Ali had us follow him until we were out of town heading the right direction, and we were off to the Southern Oases.

Interjecting a note about infrastructure

This might be a good time to insert a more extensive note about infrastructure. Since Mohammed VI took the throne 10 years ago, he’s been busy. The transportation systems are outstanding from roads to buses to trains. People were waiting for buses everywhere in the most remote rural areas – nowhere is there no public transportation. The airports and train stations are all redone and lovely.

Train station in Oujda, Morocco

We lived half a block from this train station 40 years ago, and it looked nothing like this.

The highways were in good condition and signage was easy to follow.

Road in the High Atlas Mountains

Even the roads crossing the highest mountain ranges were in fantastic condition.

The cell phone network is extensive – we had reception everywhere we were, even in all the mountain ranges. Landlines are no longer being maintained – all is cell. Internet is everywhere. Satellite dishes are everywhere, even out in the middle of nowhere.

Satellite dish can be spotted in this remote residence

The entire country is electrified, and in the rare instance electricity is not available, dwellings have solar panels.


Solar panel on desert dwelling next to nomad tent

In Boumalne Dades, we saw a solar water heater on a rooftop.

Solar water heater

Even on the Road of 1,000 Kasbahs, there are satellite dishes next to the abandoned kasbahs.

Find the satellite dish - Road of 1000 Kasbahs

All the kids go to school -we saw kids with backpacks waiting for school busses on remote, rural roads – and Morocco is full of remote, rural roads.  At lunch times the streets of the towns were thick with bicycles and kids going home for the afternoon recess.

Mid-day break for school kids

The main roads into cities all have street lights, which is something we didn’t see 40 years ago, and if what people are telling us is true, there probably weren’t very many even 10 years ago. Apparently Mohammed VI has been a very busy king.

Road into Ouarzazate

Round points have been constructed everywhere and my husband says the quality of work is good.

New round point under construction in Oujda

The old and the new

One of the examples I like the best of how the old and new are mixing, is shown in this photo.  We’re in a Berber tent in the Erg Chebbi dunes in Merzouga, really in the middle of nowhere.  While we were drinking tea, the husband drove up on his motorbike in his traditional clothing, pulled out his binoculars and stared into the desert.  What was he doing?  Keeping an eye on his camel herd.

Some commentary on politics

This too is getting a little ahead of the story, and there will be some duplication later, but I’m including it anyway.  So many people were worried about us going to Morocco in the midst of the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.  We were certain we would be fine, and also that Morocco would be fine.

The last few days have been exciting and interesting, giving us some new insights into Morocco today. We’ve been from Casablanca to Marrakech, from Boumalne Dades to Merzouga, from Guercif to our old home, Oujda. On the way we’ve had a number of conversations, and every time we’ve asked about demonstrations and unrest, we’ve been told that everything is fine (which basically it is) and everyone loves the King but people want jobs. Although people are working hard everywhere and there are massive infrastructure projects, there are also a huge number of university-educated young people who want work.

As we left Boumalne Dades for Merzouga, we stopped in Goulmima to see the Ksar – an ancient fortified village that is still inhabited by 300 people. Two towers mark the entrance to the Ksar, and the earthen passageways inside are dark. Each “home” has three or four floors, the bottom being a corral for the family goats, sheep, and cows, and worn stairs then lead from floor to floor, ending on the roof where at last there is open air and sunlight. There are holes in the floors to let light down to the corrals at the bottom. In what seemed like primitive conditions we found many satellite dishes, plus the Ksar has been electrified since 1984. Overall, the Ksar was a mystery, however, and we could never have found our way around without Brahim, who offered to guide us. In fact, he insisted on guiding us.

Satellite dishes visible from the rooftops of the Ksar

Passageway in the Ksar in Goulmima

But - the Ksar is electrified

Brahim asked us to lunch at his nearby home, and as we walked he asked about Obama, saying he was “first in the world,” meaning he was the best leader in the world today. It seems everyone we encounter knows who Obama is and admires him. Forty years ago, everyone from our Moroccan friends to our housekeeper to the Berbers in the mountains knew who the Kennedys were and mourned their deaths.

Brahim is 30 years old with a degree in Arabic studies, but he’d like to get IT training. He told us that to get a job you have to know someone or grease palms. However, he loves King Mohammed VI and blames the employment situation and corruption on the ministers. Meanwhile, he does what he can to help his family survive, living in the family home with his parents, siblings and 101-year-old grandmother. She lies on a mattress on the floor and gets up only to use the bathroom.

We pushed on to Merzouga where we had a “quatre quatre,” or 4×4, tour of the desert with Mohammed (called Ahmed) (there are many Mohammeds in Morocco, at least half the male population). As we left our riad we passed a government building and there were demonstrators out front waving flags and chanting while the police looked on unconcernedly.

Demonstration in Merzouga

The problem again is jobs – people want jobs. The country is full of university graduates with nothing to do. For example, in our riad Mohammed – yes, another Mohammed – is a graduate in English literature but he’s working in a riad. Probably not a very practical major for someone in a tiny desert town, but it’s what he liked.

During the 4×4, Mohammed started to comment on George Bush, calling him a crazy man, and was complimentary toward Obama. About his own leadership, he said that Moroccans have no problem with Mohammed VI and respect and like him, but they need jobs. Always jobs. It’s a worldwide problem.

Demonstration in Oujda

Mohammed VI is listening to what the protesters are saying. He’s a smart man – paying attention to what people are peacefully protesting and not letting a situation take hold as in the rest of North Africa. Just that afternoon, when we returned from the tour, we heard that Mohammed VI had made a rare public speech in which he announced reforms and acceded to demands, including that Berber be made an official language. More to the point, he said the Prime Minister will be selected by the majority political party in Parliament instead of by him. He is establishing a committee to recommend constitutional reforms that will be voted on by the population in June, as well as further strengthening the role of women in government and women’s freedoms. He aims to give more power to the individual regions and the courts. It’s a fitting trajectory for the first country to officially recognize the independence of the United States.

Of course, while acceding to “demands” for more political freedom, the King is keeping a firm hand on security. We have passed through many security checkpoints on the roads, and I don’t know if it’s our innocent and charming appearance or the ridiculous little yellow-ish rental car we have, but we are always waved through. We notice that trucks are stopped, sometimes busses, and the police are checking documents. Yesterday, we even saw someone being frisked.

Security checkpoint

I didn’t want to photograph this too closely and be suspected of anything, but you can see the circular sign on the right warning motorists to stop for a checkpoint.  In the distance, you can see stopped vehicles.  We were always waved through, sometimes just saying hello, oftentimes not even stopping, although we always erred on the side of caution.

Next post I’ll write about the road south to Boumalne Dades and the Dades Gorges.  Meanwhile, it seemed like a good idea to address the country as a whole and it’s stability.  Good economic conditions and good infrastructure go a long way in ensuring political stability, and we never felt unsafe for a moment.  There was no reason to postpone our trip so I’m glad we didn’t!

Marrakech: Part Two- the journey continues


Sunday, March 6

This was our only complete day in Marrakech and we thought we’d see more with a guide.  So Mustafa met us at the riad at 10 (we are not early birds) and we ventured into the medina.  First he took us to the Madersa Ben Youssef, a Koranic school founded in the mid-14th century by Merinid Sultan Abou el-Hassan.  It’s one of the biggest in the Maghreb (western North Africa) and holds 900 students. The building itself is unaltered from the original design and it is magnificent.  The details of the carving and tile work are boggling.

Detail from Medersa ben Youssef

The rooms to house students are very small, with three students per room.  The imam has a nicer and bigger room, but not by much.  The rooms have “Berber” ladders – a series of holes caddy corner that you insert a round bar into, then take the one you just stepped off of and insert it in the holes above you, and so on.  Like you’d expect to see on a challenge on Survivor.  That is how students accessed their storage space.

The main courtyard has an ablutions pool, and then the mosque – one for the men and smaller ones for the women on either side.  The rooms are arranged so that some are utilized in winter and others in summer to avoid extreme cold and heat.  There is so much that is important and unique about the decorations and of course, I hardly remember a thing.  Too much information compressed into a short time.

Mustafa then took us through the Berber souks.  While shopkeepers in the Arab souks close up their shops at night, they don’t do that in the Berber souks. They have a gate that is locked at each end and guards are posted during the night.   Souks may seem haphazard but they’re organized by merchandise: the jewelry souk, the leather goods souk, etc.

Metalwork in the Berber souk

Mustafa said that all the goods in the medina were made in Morocco.  The king decreed that there would be no “made in China” or anywhere else because the medina needs to stay authentic.  That may be a UNESCO requirement.  I know Jemma-el-Fna is a World Heritage Site.

We bought a coffee table and I’m sure we paid too much but how do you know?  We’re not there long enough to know the market and we have to bargain.  We did buy for less than half of what was originally asked, but still, who knows?  If the table holds up I do think we got a good price.  And what matters is we love the table.  We went upstairs to the workshop and like all the workspaces in the medina, it’s small and primitive by our standards, yet beautiful work is turned out.  There was one fellow up there sawing out table legs.

Our table

The whole bargaining ritual is just that: a ritual.  We stand around and look, talk casually, while the owner points out this and that.  Finally we get around to what we might like to purchase.  The owner runs around and comes back with a rickety plastic chair with a broken arm, and a saggy little straw stool, so we sit.  We talk about the table, he thumps it to show how sturdy and good it is, we see the photo of King Mohammed VI in the workshop and at his desk with this souk owner’s work, and Mustafa tells us this shop does the highest quality work in the medina.  We actually believe him because we can examine the wares ourselves, and I desperately want a large, exquisite trunk with a simple pattern of triangles, for which I have no use.

And so it begins in earnest.  A price is proffered by the owner, in dirhams and including shipping to the U.S.  We react in horror, discuss with each other and make a counter offer which is as ridiculously low as his price was high.  Anguish all around ensues.  The table is thumped some more to show its soundness, the mother-of-pearl inlays are praised for the precision work, and we agree it is excellent.  But we cannot begin to consider the price.  He offers another price, not much lower.  We counter somewhat higher than our original.

The game is on.  Mint tea is offered and we decline.  Mark and I decide what our final offer will be and finally we make it.  It is declined so we get up, thank him for his time and for showing us his fine work, and we walk out the door.  He keeps lowering the price but not to what we want so we continue on our way.  And then he’s there saying done and shaking our hands and we are half-scared that we paid too much.  And certainly, Mustafa will get a cut from the owner.   We get our coffee table, which we actually needed (or at least wanted) and we like it, but we are beset with doubt.

Undyed wool being wheeled into the medina

Undyed wool being taken into the medina


Dyed wool hanging out to dry

Onward to the Saadian tombs, which date from the 16th to 18th centuries.  When the first Alouite king, Moulay Ismael, ascended the throne in the 1600s, he was intent on destroying evidence of all the dynasties before his.  (The current king is from the Alouite dynasty, still in power.) Moulay Ismael, with significant encouragement from the French protectorate, walled off the tombs instead of destroying them since he didn’t want to disrespect the dead. In 1917, the French protectorate opened the tombs to the public.  Mustafa said that preserving history was the only benefit of the protectorate.  Kind of like Mussolini who didn’t have many redeeming features except that he preserved the Roman ruins.  This information comes via Mustafa, who is probably correct.

On the way to the Saadian tombs we passed the King’s residence.  Previously I mentioned that Mohammed VI stays in residences, not the palaces.  I must say that the residence is huge – is there a difference in anything but name?  I took a picture and Mustafa ran around a corner, literally.  He said that the guards dressed in red meant that the King was home, and he’d seen cameras confiscated for photographing the guards.  He didn’t want to be associated with a tourist taking photos.  I got my photo, kept my camera, but only photographed the normal guards, not the ones dressed in red – and they are far away.

Either the king or queen's tomb

Tile detail from the Saadian Tombs

After visiting the tombs we were tired and had used up our three hours with Mustafa, so he left us to lunch and we took a petit taxi to the Majorelle Gardens.

Majorelle Gardens

Majorelle Gardens

What a surprise!  Yves St. Laurent visited Morocco, fell in love with it, and established a residence with gardens that are just amazing.  There is a little memorial to St. Laurent in the gardens, but mostly they are full of bamboo, cacti, all kinds of plants, pools, bridges and benches, plus color – vivid blue, yellow and orange planters.  The colors ought to be garish the way they are used, but they are not.  They are stunning. The entire effect is amazingly tranquil and it was well worth taking a petit taxi out to the area.  We had tea and some cornes du gazelle (wonderful almond pastries shaped like gazelle horns) in the little restaurant in the gardens, relaxed, and headed back to Maison Do.

Detail, Majorelle Gardens

Detail, Majorelle Gardens

We were totally exhausted and washed out, but we walked through Jemma el Fnaa and saw that the huge empty area we saw earlier was being turned into outdoor restaurants and eating stands.  Just like that, from nothing to restaurants with tables, chairs or benches, sinks, cooking areas, etc. in a flash.  This happens every night.

Restaurants in Jemma-el-Fna?

In the evening, instant restaurants!

When we went out later for dinner, the square was abuzz – packed with people, festive with music and vendors throwing light sticks into the air in bright colors, all the snake charmers and other diversions. There were many food booths selling snails and people standing around eating them by the dozens.  Also, I realized that the huge carts of oranges all over Jemma-el-Fna are for orange juice.  Moroccans drink lots of orange juice and almond milk.  We were so tired, but determined to go back to Oscar Progres for dinner.  Finding it at night was not the same as finding it in the day but finally we did and had a dinner we enjoyed.

I find I am saying  “we were tired” frequently.  Traveling at the pace we are used to doesn’t seem quite as doable at 64 as it used to be.  It’s as if, all of a sudden, it’s been decreed that we slow down and consider tours instead of planning for ourselves.  But we pushed on.

Next – to the South and kasbahs, camels and dunes.

The Road to Morocco: Marrakech, Part One


Saturday, March 5, 2011

We took the train to Marrakech this morning.  Barely. I thought we’d be at the station one hour early but we were there barely in time.  Another “Venice” moment, which refers to the time I got up in the middle of the night in Venice, didn’t look outside because I didn’t want to wake my husband by opening the shutters, so checked the time on my computer, got dressed and went to the lobby until Mark was up.  As I blithely said good morning to the desk clerk, I wondered why no one was setting out breakfast. I also wondered why he looked at me like I was insane until I realized my computer was still on California time and so was I.  So this morning, my phone was on daylight savings time but we were not; thus my one-hour cushion was considerably shortened.

Casablanca Train Station

We sat in a train compartment for three plus hours with four Moroccan women.  I think the compartment (we went second class) is just what the compartments on the Hogwarts Express would look like. We did our best to converse but we shared virtually no words in common until a little child walked by and waved, after which we all shared smiles – lots of smiles and nodding heads and the desire to communicate.  I showed the pictures. (see the previous post)

Off the train in the Marrakech station

Can’t tell you how nice it is to walk into an airport or train station and see someone holding up a sign with your name on it.  We found Ali, who drove us to Maison Do, our riad in the medina.   We found out we’re not the only visitors in Marrakech.  King Mohammed VI is here also to check out the progress of various projects.  Ali said that when King Hassan II (the current king’s father) visited, the roads had to be cleared an hour before and after his passage, but with Mohammed VI, he is a man of the people and just goes on through.  Ali lamented the fate of Libya with Ghadafi turning on his own people.  We did notice more police and security than usual since the king is in town, but it certainly was not overwhelming.  The king is staying in a residence and not the royal palace.

How Ali maneuvered his car into the medina is a small miracle.  Besides narrow streets, people, bicycles, and donkeys, there are dozens of motorbikes zooming by.

Donkey cart in Medina

Somehow, everyone manages to squeeze through without incident.  Even Ali, however, couldn’t get the car into the small lane the riad was in.

The street our riad is on.

The front door to Maison Do

A riad is a traditional residence organized around a courtyard planted with trees and flowers, and you can look at Maison Do on this site:  From inside, we can hear children playing in the evening and the call to prayer, which is broadcast throughout the city five times a day.  While the lanes of the medina look nondescript, behind the doors there are many gorgeous homes decorated with tile, colored lanterns, carved and decorated woodwork and plaster. The colors are bright and beautiful.

Lantern hanging over the courtyard

Tile in the riad, Maison Do

Our room looked like it was out of Arabian Nights.  Describing the room is best done with photos, but we liked it very much.

Entrance into our bathroom

We headed out into the medina intent on lunch.  I needed food – my margin of error this morning cut out breakfast.  I bought a sandwich on the train – really a roll with some cheese inside – but it didn’t do the trick. Yolande, the French owner of Maison Do, sent us off to Oscar Progres, a Moroccan restaurant on the other side of the medina.  When we found it we realized we were in a local establishment not much frequented by tourists.  It was hard to find and not on the common path.  Refreshed, we headed out into the madness.

Jemaa-el-Fna is the famous square in the Marrakech medina.  In fact, it’s a World Heritage Site.  It’s huge and filled with water sellers who no longer have a function other than posing with tourists, snake charmers who never did have any other function but entertainment, women sitting under umbrellas offering henna tattoos, and all manner of colorful characters.

Cobras in Jemma-el-Fna

The streets of the medina are where you want to linger looking at everyone’s wares, except that if you even slow down a little you’re beset by vendors who have great sales pitches and stick like leeches.  You can’t blame them; it’s their living. You have to develop a careless banter while you look, and marginally engage in conversation while you actually do what you want.  Today, it was tiring.  Tomorrow, we are braving it again to buy babouches from Mounir, someone we talked to quite a while today in his shop, and hands of Fatima, necklace charms that keep evil forces away.  Plus – we have a guide and he will run interference.  When you have limited time, a guide is the way to go.  Except you have to set the parameters ahead of time – because all the guides will want to take you into showrooms from which they will get a cut of the sale.

The fun for me is seeing all the food – spices, olives, fruit, oranges, everything colorful, arranged so beautifully.  Photos are a little tricky because many people still do not want to be photographed.

Dried fruit




We found our way into the poultry market but we didn’t need chickens, turkeys, rabbits (not poultry, I know), ducks or eggs.

Poultry market

The egg stalls had literally thousands of eggs apiece from little blue mottled eggs to chicken eggs to giant (they seemed giant), duck eggs.

Thousands of eggs

We noticed that wherever meat was being sold, cleaned, or cut up, cats gathered.  Some are sad, scrawny creatures.

Cats waiting for a handout

A little kitten sits forlornly by a meat case.

On the other hand, we found a cat on the bed in our room that is gorgeous but a bit wild. Yolande, the French woman who owns Maison Do, rescued him from the medina.

The cat at Maison Do

We returned to Maison Do and took long naps.  Perhaps we are finally caught up on sleep.  We had dinner in the riad – taglne aux poulet avec citron et olives  (chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives, a tagine being a sort of stew) plus a huge plate of vegetables.  That made it feel just like home.  Sliced oranges with sugar and cinnamon for desert and of course mint tea.

Tomorrow we bargain and buy.

The road to Morocco


It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged.  I guess you could call it “blogger fatigue,” or the lack of any desire to express myself.  Part of the reason I’m starting again is to give my creativity a nudge.  More like a giant push, really.  Another part of the reason is that my blog was ill-defined, jumping all over the map, and it’s circled back to photography.  What I like best is photo essays, or essays with photos – depending upon the ratio of words to pictures.  I fear the words often win because I’m a wordy person.

A good place to begin again seems to be with my recent vacation in Morocco, my “second country.” I have dual United States and Irish citizenship, but I lived in Morocco for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it really does feel like home.  This was our first trip back in 40 years, and this is the first installment in how it went.  It starts with Eric Whitacre and Justin Beiber.

Morocco, March 4, 2011: Casablanca

Back in Morocco after 40 years. We’re in Casablanca which is a huge, noisy, industrial city teeming with people and traffic. So far, things seem to be much the same, only bigger and more crowded.  Compared to the rest of Morocco, Casa doesn’t have much to offer to the tourist. In a series of mad taxi trips, we saw what there was.

The flight over was long – from the time we left our house to the time we arrived at our hotel, it had been at least 30 hours.  I did sit next to a really neat person on the L.A. to London leg.  His name is Eric Whitacre and he’s a composer, musician and conductor.  You can Google him. His wife is an opera singer and they are opening a show at Disney Hall on June 25.  He’s going to give me two tickets – can’t wait! Check out the link for Whitacre, and especially the Virtual Choir, embedded below, which is quite an internet sensation and now getting air time on talk shows.

Justin Beiber was also on the flight.  We followed him off with his bodyguard and entourage, which was rather small.  He himself looked so small and so young, and I was so tired, that I couldn’t imagine the life of constant traveling, being on stage, having paparazzi at every turn, and giving your life up for fame.  I do understand the money part of it.

Justin Beiber

We weren’t happy with our hotel when we checked in at 9:30 p.m.  I had reserved a “budget” hotel and now I know that for the first night, I should reserve an extravagant hotel that I’ll be very comfortable in.  Mark agrees. I hardly slept – the blankets were scratchy and heavy, and we had two towels.  Period.  Two microscopic bars of harsh soap.  And it was cold.  But I can’t complain too much because I was prepared – having brought my travel towels, bathtub puff ball (whatever those net things are called), Kleenex and my expandable camping cup.  The most valuable thing I brought turned out to be my silk long underwear! And we had plenty of hot water, which is not always the case in the lower rung of establishments.  Nonetheless, I never sleep very well the first night somewhere, and last night was no exception.

The first day, like a zombie, I managed to get up and out, although I fried my new travel hair dryer because I forgot to turn the current switch.  I really should not do anything in the morning.  We took a taxi to Paul, a tea house (excellent) where we had breakfast; then we took a taxi to the Habbous District, but the cabbie dropped us off at the wrong place (which I was fairly sure of), so we got another taxi to go to Hassan II Mosque, and then the same driver took us to the Habbous for real.  That made three taxi rides back and forth across this very big, noisy city.  Man, my nerves were jangled.  The taxi driver we got after the one who took us to the wrong place insisted on waiting for us everywhere and we couldn’t shake him.  It actually turned out to be a good way to do it. At the end, after we had him drop us off at Place Mohammed V, he wanted to be paid like a tour guide, and we couldn’t understand each other, so I have no idea if he ended up happy or mad.  I thought he wanted more and my husband thought he was thanking us for being generous.  I am just glad there are many dirhams to the dollar.

Place Mohammed V

We walked around Place Mohammed V – that’s where the Feb. 20 protests were held in Casa. But there are no indications of unrest anywhere and that’s what we expected.  We’ve been talking to people and no one has anything particular to say about it.

Details of the Day

King Hassan II, who was king when our daughter Karen was born in Rabat, built a mosque – the second biggest in the world.  I’m sure he would have made it the biggest, but that one is in Mecca and it’s probably not a good idea to trump Mecca.  Anyway, it’s huge and impressive and beautiful but we couldn’t go in because – bad planning – we were there on Friday.

Mosque Hassan II

Detail from Mosque Hassan II

So the taxi driver, who had waited even though we had told him to go, took us to the Habbous, which is the “new” medina, or the medina that was constructed during the protectorate, so it’s not terribly exciting or interesting, but both the new and old royal palaces are in that district. (I didn’t want to go into the ancien medina because in Casa, it’s run down and not particularly safe.  It’s considered to be the breeding ground for terrorists, or what terrorists originate from Morocco, which are hardly any at all.)

We did see the juxtaposition of old and new in the Habbous, as we did all over Morocco, such as this man with his donkey cart and the woman carrying the mattress on her head.

Man and donkey cart

Woman with mattress (?)

We also saw rows and rows of babouches for sale.  These slipper/shoes are traditional and are still worn.  We brought some home – those of the first quality should last a good four years.


Thanks to our taxi driver, we got to spend time in the old Royal Palace. We did not request that he arrange this, but he talked to soldiers at one entrance, turned and told us, “Closed.” At least we think that’s what he said.  He didn’t speak English or much French, we only speak a tiny amount of Arabic, so when we were all in agreement about anything, I’m not sure anyone knew what we had agreed upon.

We walked around a corner to another entrance and the soldiers on duty there let us in, telling us ten minutes only.  When we came out, the soldiers were getting a talking-to from their superior who was not at all happy that we’d been let in.  We’re glad they did. The building is in fantastic condition and the decoration, carving and tile work were as good as we remember from the Alhambra. Mark said the quality of the workmanship is much better than that at the new Hassan II Mosque.

Inside the old royal palace; photo of Mohammed VI on the wall

Old royal palace detail

Old royal palace detail

Plaster carving, old royal palace

Tile mosaic, old royal palace

The biggest reaction we’ve had so far was right here in the Hotel Guynemer.  We were showing the desk clerk photos from when we were in the Peace Corps in Oujda in 1971, and soon six or seven other employees were gathered round.  We showed them photos of us with Jennifer, who was two at the time, and Karen, who was born in Rabat, and our Moroccan friends. Then we showed them photos of Karen and Jen’s families, and our daughter Kim’s also even though she didn’t have the Moroccan connection.  Just like we laugh at old pictures and old styles (I’m thinking avocado green and harvest gold appliances, shag carpets, macramé, etc.) the Moroccans started recalling past trends. One pointed out the dress Zohra, our housekeeper, was wearing and commented on how old the style was.  Another pointed out the pattern on a banquette and remarked that he had one just like that 40 years ago. And they all laughed about a white enameled platter that food was being served on and said everyone had one of those 40 years ago.

We’re heading out to dinner soon, and it better be good so there is a redeeming feature about the start of this trip.  If I sleep well tonight, all will be well.  If not, don’t know what tomorrow will be like as we take the train to Marrakech.  I’m sure it will be fine.  As long as the jet lag is gone.  At least I know how to wrangle the blanket tonight and that I should wear my long underwear to be warm enough.

P.S. Dinner was outstanding at Al Mounia.  It was walking distance, right around the corner.

Next: the road to Marrakech.