Posts Tagged ‘medina’

Finally – Tangier and the American Legation – after crossing more mountains


2011
05.20

Last stop ahead

Time for the last big drive, Al Hoceima to Tangier.  At this point I believe we were regarding this as a strenuous trip because we had NO IDEA how much driving would be involved.  As we left Al Hoceima, the countryside was beautiful with orchards in bloom, wild lavender by the road.

Orchard outside of Al Hoceima

Some of the hills looked like the farms along The Three Gorges in China – multi-colored and terraced.

The weather was gorgeous and there were people alongside the road gathering herbs.

We passed fascinating haystacks.

Haystack outside Al Hoceima

We passed prickly pear in full fruit, but we noticed something alarming.

We were going up.  We had forgotten about the Rif.  We were driving Morocco’s third major mountain range.  But the weather was lovely, we could still see the Mediterranean – how bad could this be?

Bad is the answer.  It was getting colder and I did not have my long underwear on.  The car heater of course was still broken.  And it was foggy, then raining.  We passed patches of snow up on a hill.  I took a picture, thinking, “Ooh, I’ll show the kids how high we were and how close to snow!”

Snow in the distance

You might be asking yourself right now, as I am asking myself, what do the kids care if we are passing snow?  We have snow all the time at our cabin in Alta Sierra.  And the kids aren’t little either.  The youngest is 37.  Old habits die hard.  So when we passed snow at the side of the road, I took a photo of that also.

Closer patches of snow

If I’d had my crystal ball with me I would have known that in a matter of moments we would be driving through a snowstorm.

Snowing

Yes, for about 1½ hours.

Visibility was low.  And snow was starting to coat the roads.

The snow starts to stick

Snow is beautiful, one must admit, even in the midst of it.  The trees were turning white.

And then rain.  The road tricked us – we’d be descending and Mark would say, “We’re out of it now, going down.” And we’d go up again.  Each time, Mark hopefully said the same thing, and finally, at last, the snow and rain and fog were gone and we were out of the Rif.  We’d seen the snow plows going up to 7,000 feet, where we had been, and where the roads had been awful.  It registered now why Joaquin had said, as we drove away from Casa Paca, that the roads probably hadn’t been fixed yet since winter.  This place gets torn up each year from snow and ice and rain.

And all of a sudden, as if we’d never been through rain, fog and snow, there were wildflowers.

Tangier

So.  Tangier.  We lived there for six weeks in 1971 during our Peace Corps training.  And we were going back.  The American Legation, where we trained and lived, was the first property the United States owned on foreign soil, and it is currently the only National Historic Site not in the United States.

George Washington and King Mohammed I had correspondence back when, trying to solve the Barbary pirate situation.  And thus Morocco came to be the first country to officially recognize the United States as an independent nation.  We couldn’t wait to see it again.

But we needed to get rid of that rental car which meant find the airport.  Signage had been pretty good throughout the country so I just said to Mark, let’s drive into town and we’re sure to see an airport sign somewhere.  Now understand that “town” has gotten a whole lot bigger and we drove a very long way, before, on the verge of desperation, we saw a sign.  We knew we couldn’t go very much farther without landing in the Atlantic Ocean, and we knew the airport was south of town near the coast, but nonetheless, we were beginning to look for airplanes and what direction they were landing.

Walking happily into the airport to the car rental desk, eager to tell them about the lack of oil and the squeaky brakes and the lack of heat, we found – no one.  There was one person in the whole array of rental car agencies and he said, oh, they aren’t here, just put the papers under the window.  OK? OK, we did, and found Andrew from Dar Jand who was picking us up, and we were on our way to the medina.

We wanted to stay in the medina since the Legation was in the medina and it would be like old times, sort of.  On tripadvisor I found Dar Jand.

Dar Jand

And a plug for tripadvisor – it was invaluable.  I got most of our lodging based on recommendations on tripadvisor, and none of them were in the guide  books.  Unless it’s Rick Steves, I don’t really trust those books like Frommers and Fodors anymore.

Andrew and Janet – the JAND of Dar Jand, are an American couple who own a quirky, four (or was it five) story place in the medina.  Janet spent five years renovating it while Andrew was still working in the states and I am in total awe of what she accomplished.  When she arrived she spoke no French or Arabic, and she says now she’d never do it again – had no idea just what she was in for.  But she did a fantastic job.  Honestly? It was nice to be with Americans and speak English.  Andrew showed us where everything was, including the laundry.  We’d been three days in the same clothes and I mean all the same clothes and were desperate for something clean.

View from Dar Jand - Medina Rooftops

How was it that we knew that medina inside and out once?  It’s a rabbit warren, a maze, it tricks you into walking in circles.  But we’d had the adventure squeezed out of us by now and lacked the energy to care about where we ate or what we saw.  We just wanted to be there.  And visit the Legation.

Medina steps outside Dar Jand

Andrew gave us directions, we set out, walked in circles and got lost.  Someone offered to lead us so we knew a tip would be in order, which was fine with us.  It’s a way of working, it provides a service, and everyone we saw in this country worked hard.  We wondered about how unemployment is defined.  Are people selling their vegetables in the souks considered unemployed? Or people selling on the side of the road?  What kind of living do those people make compared to the cost of living? One thing is clear, I expect to the population in general as well as outsiders: the country runs on tourism.  It’s only 10% of the GNP and that’s hard to believe.  The unrest in the Arab world isn’t good for Moroccan tourism, although Morocco is completely safe.

So we were happy to pay our self-appointed guide to reach the legation.  Jerry Loftus, the director of the Legation museum, met us and actually got pretty excited when he realized we really truly had lived there during a Peace Corps training.  We were searching for our room; when we lived there we had the best room of all since having a two-year-old daughter gave us privileges. Where other volunteers bunked together and shared bathrooms, we got our own room and bath!  We did not just have any room, however.  Ours had a secret door with a hidden area that one could escape to if one didn’t want to be found.  And I don’t think it was for getting “alone time.” Perhaps the area could be treacherous.  We explained all this to Jerry but we couldn’t find the room.  I knew in my head exactly how to describe it, and now we’ve found that Jerry is actually living in that room – but since he has not found the secret door, he didn’t match our description to his room.  It may not be there but then again…it was a secret.

Jennifer outside of our room 1971

How did Jerry figure out he was living in the room? We sent him old photos after our return, which he was happy to have, room identified or not, as there is very little in the way of records for that time period.  He did bring out a very old, very crude scrapbook that someone had given him, and Jerry wondered about the photos.  We knew who the people were because it was our training group!  (By saying “very crude” scrapbook, I’m not disparaging the work of whoever made it – but it sure makes a stark contrast to all the technology available today.)

Scrapbook in legation

Little by little, the Legation is being restored and the museum enhanced.  There are copies of letters between George Washington and Mohammed I – difficult to read with the florid script of the day but thrilling nonetheless.

Courtyard steps 1971

Legation courtyard 1971

Dining room American Legation today

Dining room during Peace Corps training 1971

Jenny at kid's table 1971 - on the balcony

Legation balcony today

Exterior Legation crossing over alley

A neat feature of the American Legation is that it spans the road in the medina.

So it was over.  We’d seen what we came back for – Oujda, the Legation, Tangier, and points in between.  Tangier was the most different of anywhere.  A tourist in Tangier used to feel like a gladiator thrown into the pit, set upon by people offering to sell you goods, guide you, or pick your pocket.  It was not so much like that now, blessedly.  Plus, many shops do not bargain anymore, which is a huge relief no doubt and makes the tourist experience livable.  So many of Tangier’s tourists make day trips from Spain, and to have one’s first experience of Morocco seem like a hell-hole can’t be good for extended tourism.

Tangier is also feeling more like part of the country.  Hassan II did not like the North and never set foot in Tangier, which left them the poor stepchildren of Morocco.  Mohammed VI, however, has a residence there, visits, and it’s made a terrific difference to the populace to feel like they count.  That, at least, according to our host Andrew, and if I’ve misremembered, I offer apologies.

Here are a few pictures of our wanderings in the medina.  Everything is interesting, colorful, exciting.

Purple wall, Tangier medina

Blue wall, Tangier

Blue passage, Tangier medina

Inside a holistic herb store, Tangier medina

Medina port, Tangier

Now our zip was completely gone.  We were ready for Spain.  We’re getting old and organized tour groups are looking better and better; but we couldn’t have seen all we’d wanted to without driving the country and it was worth it for sure.  We’d been on camels, in planes, cars, taxis and trains in a little over two weeks.  We found a country we loved that had developed incredibly in 40 years yet still retained its character and heart.  We headed through the medina to the port to catch a fast ferry to Tarifa  to the bus for Sevilla.  We got one last look at Tangier as the ferry pulled away.

View of Tangier from ferry

We’ll be back.  Next year is the 50th Anniversary of the Peace Corps in Morocco so chances are good we’ll attend, then go to Agadir and spend a week or so at a beach resort and spend time with Krim.  As soon as we recover our energy from this trip, it’ll look a whole lot better for a return.

Next – to Sevilla.

 

Looking for friends…Where are the Krims?


2011
05.11

Now began the search for our dear friends, the Krims.

Krim Family

Where are the Krims?

We walked up and down streets looking for the Krim’s house with no luck.  We were great friends with Mohammed Krim, his sisters Safia and Zahor, and his parents.  Oh, we had some delicious meals at their house, me eating with the men since I was a foreigner, Jennifer running back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen.

Jennifer spent more time with them than we did – they adored her and she was an independent sort.  She’d spend the night at the Krim’s, Mark or I would walk over to get her, and she’d usually ask to spend the night again!  She’d often stay several nights in a row.  They would have her carry the bread to the communal oven and go to the store to get the milk pail filled.  Remember, she’s only three years old.  Once, right before Aid El Kbir (the biggest feast of the year that concludes Ramadan), she was there when they slaughtered a lamb in the backyard.  I was horrified – oh, poor Jennifer, having to see that, etc. etc.  It didn’t faze her a bit.  (I just this minute looked online to make sure I spelled Aid El Kbir correctly (I did) and found out the holiday has a Facebook page.)

The day we left Oujda, Mark went into the Royal Air Maroc office because Krim used to work there.  I thought he’d transferred to Casablanca.  We found out he’s in Agadir, retired from Royal Air Maroc and has something to do with a travel agency so we think we can locate him now.  But according to the folks in the airline office, the family home had been torn down – no wonder we couldn’t find it.  No public oven, everything changed.   When our Peace Corps service was finished in 1973, we bought our tickets from Krim, who was an agent for Royal Air Maroc, for the return flight to the United States.  We were to land in New York but the plane didn’t have enough fuel to circle as long as was necessary, so it was diverted to Washington D.C.  We landed in a terrific thunder storm; the pilot came out of the cockpit and said that had been a close one (just what we wanted to hear, but we were aware of the tough landing). Customs agents were called back to the airport, it took forever (they were home, asleep), and we were beyond tired.  But we were closer to Raleigh than we would have been in New York so we asked if we could change our tickets and fly straight from D.C.  That is when we found out Krim had booked us – sold us a ticket! – on Braniff, an airline that no longer existed!  The airline industry must have suffered a change between the booking of the ticket and the actual flight. Finally, Eastern Airlines (which now no longer exists) said they would honor our tickets and let us fly out from D.C.

Back to the present

Back to Oujda and the present day: We found Mike’s old apartment…(Mike was our fellow volunteer in Oujda.)

Mike's apartment, 1972

Looking up at balcony of Mike's old apartment, 2011

which overlooked Place Mohammed V (I’m calling it Place Mohammed V but I think I’m wrong.  I’ll correct when I find out.).

He lived in the only building with an elevator for which we were so grateful, because he was on the 7th floor and it would have been  hard to walk up that many steps with a baby buggy – or to leave the buggy at the bottom trusting it would remain there!  We did feel relieved when the creaky old elevator made it, however.  We never got stuck.  The building looked just the same and the lobby looked just as run down and the elevator door looked just as untrustworthy.

The Souks

We could have entered from the square with the post office and the old Palais de Justice or through the walled medina.  We went by the post office.

Oujda post office, 2011

Here’s the post office in 1973.  When we were about to take the photo, this huge group of kids gathered (they’d been playing on the steps) and arranged themselves for a photo as if they did it everyday.

Oujda post office steps 1973

Time for the souks

Time to tackle the souks.  This is where we had a real difference of opinion.  Mark wanted to head off in one direction but I was sure it was another way.  Positive.  The only thing was, there was a wall around the medina that I did not remember.

Medina wall, Oujda

Medinas usually have walls, but if I had walked into this medina so many times, would I not have remembered a wall?  Was it put up later for appearance sake?  When we went in, we did find more covered areas than had been there before, so perhaps the souk had been “modernized” to give it more livability and a more traditional appearance.  I don’t know, and we didn’t ask anyone.  We went in.  All along we were debating if that was the real medina we used to go to, but then we saw the butcher shops.  Yes, this was it.  I was positive.  The layout of the stalls was a little changed, but they were the same.  No, Mark thought, it wasn’t right.  After we got home and Mark looked at the photos, he agreed that indeed the butcher shops were the same ones.  The lack of refrigeration hadn’t changed.

Medina meat market 1973

Medina butcher 2011

In fact, it makes you wonder if we have over-regulated the heck out of our country.  In Morocco, and many other countries I suspect, meat sits out all day.  People just cook it well-done.  Eggs are not usually refrigerated. In fact, when we lived there, we never refrigerated our eggs, and we had a refrigerator!  For some reason that currently defies logic, we kept them on top of the frig. The egg man would ring the doorbell each week, Jennifer would greet him and speak to him in Arabic; we’d bring a bowl of water to the door and put the eggs in one by one.  If they floated, they were no good and we didn’t buy them; otherwise, they were fine.  To this day I float the eggs if I’m not sure if they are still OK.  We didn’t refrigerate yogurt and neither do the French people (The French owner of Maison Do made her own yogurt and didn’t refrigerate it.).  We bought yogurt drinks all over Morocco from refrigerator cases – but if there was any operant cooling, it wasn’t detectable.  We survived.

Back to the medina.  There were the usual cases of cookies and cakes oversaturated with honey and overrun with bees.

Pastry case with bees inside

There were vegetables, fruits, dates and olives everywhere.

Oranges, Oujda medina

Olives, Oujda medina

I would guess that Moroccans consume as many fruits and vegetables per day as Americans do in a week.  It’s funny how that works – we found this to be true 40 years ago in Morocco, and we’ve found it the last 2 ½ years here since we’ve been getting local, organic fruits and vegetables from Abundant Harvest:  when produce tastes better, one eats more.  It’s really quite simple.  In America in the name of efficiency, crop yield and progress, we’ve bred the taste right out of our produce.  Little by little I think we’re understanding that and starting to buy local and organic.  In fact, if we were to put tasty produce in school lunches, it just might be consumed.

We had a great time wandering through the medina and of course showing our photos everywhere we stopped, even if it was just to ask permission to take a photo.  We went in one area where some kids were playing soccer – their goals were marked by egg cartons with rocks on top – but someone sort of official looking guy came to chase us out, telling the area was forbidden.  I think restoration was going on at a local building, maybe a medersa, and they didn’t want folks around.  It just seemed better not to inquire.

Soccer in the medina

Sunday afternoon was market/socialization day and the streets were packed with food and people.  There were vendors of everything from what you’d expect to the old “junk souks” we remember.  Want to buy a door that had been used possibly beyond the use of the wood itself?  Available.  Want a cell phone that couldn’t possibly work, but then used parts are there also?  Available.

Cell phones in the souk

How about a broken toilet seat?  Why not? Snails?

Snails in the souk

Sardines? Pottery? Baskets? Jewelry? Plastic? White ceramic dishes?

Anything? All there in abundance.

God I love souks.  Outside the walls, people were squashed together, laughing and socializing.  We were zonked and went to the hotel, which was right across the street from the medina entrance.

About our dinners – not much to say.  Unremarkable. We realized we’d had so much home cooking when we lived there that we were spoiled.

One other Oujda note: We visited Sidi Yahia Oasis when we lived there and it was so exotic!

Sidi Yahia, 1972

It was a holy pool of sorts, a natural spring thought to have fertility properties if I remember correctly.  Supplicants tied banners to trees for good blessings, and there was a big festival once a year during which there was a fantasia. (A fantasia is an event where horsemen charge as fast as possible and discharge fire-belching guns into the air when they meet.)

Fantasia 1972

 

John the Baptist was buried at Sidi Yahia – but then, if he was actually buried all the places he’s claimed to have been buried, he must have been chopped into little pieces.

We wanted to see the Oasis again so we just drove in the right direction trusting we’d find a sign, which we did.  We also found a demonstration and wished we could have understood what the speaker was saying.  Lots of people, no one seeming unduly upset, lots of police.  Anyway, instead of countryside between Oujda and Sidi Yahia, there was…city.  Wow.  And the spring had been turned into a lovely fenced park, which did negate some of the former charm.  Also, a cemetery nearby that I remember primarily for graves that were little more than mounds of dirt, was a full-fledged packed-to-the-gills graveyard.  So the best we could say about that venture was that we found it.

Cemetery in 1972

Cemetery, 2011

We have to go

Time to leave.  We felt oddly sad and nostalgic, as if we were leaving our home.  Both of us were taken aback at how intense that feeling was.  Yet the day ahead held adventure: we were going to drive through all the little towns that Mark worked on, and we had the original plans he did to compare to what actually had taken place since.  We would also drive through the Gorges of Zegzel and see if we could find the places where we’d had picnics with the Krims (picnics that involved a butagaz burner because a meal without mint tea at the end just wasn’t a meal, picnic or not).  It was going to be another long day, but there were no mountain ranges to drive through (the Beni Snassens, where Gorges of Zegzel are, didn’t really count as a mountain range), and it was going to be one of the most important days of the trip.

 

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


2011
04.22

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!

The Road to Morocco: Marrakech, Part One


2011
04.14

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: http://www.maisondo.com/.  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

Olives

Spices

Oranges

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.