Posts Tagged ‘Morocco’

Trip to D.C.- Tribute to Richard Holbrooke


Much earlier this year we took a trip to Washington D.C. and I wrote a series of blog posts talking about viewing my father Edward Reep’s World War Two art work at the Army Art Archives, visiting the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian to view my father’s work in their collection, and a whole series of  posts involving a particular painting of my father’s titled The Shrine and a successful effort to get it on permanent display.  I also talked about our visit to the Newseum and seeing the Berlin Wall, which was so interesting since we had just viewed my father’s paintings at the Army Archives of that very wall, which he painted when he was temporarily commissioned brigadier general and sent on special assignment in the 1970s to paint the wall before it fell.

All of that was tremendously exciting but it’s not why we went.  We went for a tribute to Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat who died last year.  For those of you unfamiliar with Holbrooke, you can check out his resume here.  Besides being an Assistant Secretary of State, the person who brokered the Dayton Peace Accords, and many other seemingly impossible achievements, he was to us Dick Holbrooke, our in-country Peace Corps director while we were volunteers in Morocco in 1971-1973.  So we went to Washington to honor him and the founding of CorpsAfrica, a sort of in-country Peace Corps by and for country nationals, by establishing a fund to support the Morrocan in-country director in a pilot program.

Tribute to Richard Holbrooke

We only heard about it a week or so before the cocktail party reception and that was sure a new kind of thing for us to do – say, well, ok, let’s just do this, fly across country for a cocktail reception.  We stayed at an interesting place – the Hotel Harrington.  It was very old, in fact, Washington’s oldest continuously operating hotel.  I might call it marginal but I also think I’ll stay there again because it was cheap and within walking distance of everything – including a Forever 21, H and M, Macys, and other shopping.    We rented a car for an afternoon to go to Fort Belvoir, the Army Art Archives, but other than that, we walked.  (We did not brave eating there.)  I will say that I left lots of clothes in a closet and they mailed them to me, no charge, for which I was very grateful.  Especially when they arrived and I saw I left many more than I remembered.

Hotel Harrington

We enjoyed the reception.  We were the only volunteers from our group who came although one of the staff members attended.  We did have the honor of meeting Rachad Bouhlal, the Moroccan ambassador to the United States and it was his first official function- he had just arrived in the U.S.  His easy, friendly manner belied the sophistication and knowledge these diplomats have.  Besides having a degree in mathematics, speaking three languages, serving as the head of several government agencies and the ambassador to several countries including seven years in Germany, this man is a pilot and founded a wildlife film festival in Morocco.  Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent my life sleepwalking.

We did urge Ambassador Bouhlal to visit us in Bakersfield.  After telling him we lived two years at 38 bis Hassan L’Oukili in Oujda, we told him Bakersfield is like the Oujda of California – under-appreciated but full of interesting things and actually, agriculturally important to his country.  Or potentially so.

My husband Mark Smith and I with Ambassador Bouhlal

So that’s about it.  We did have a lovely dinner at the home of friends Larkin and Katie Tackett and their children Maya and Ben.  They have just recently moved to Austin where we will visit them again as we are driving through there in a couple of months.

Me, Larkin and Katie with Maya and Ben

Finally, I again saw my friend Jack Duvall.  That is so odd.  We went to high school, graduated in 1964, may have seen each other 30 minutes in the intervening 40+ years at reunions (I’m sure that’s an overestimation), and then last October when I went to New York for Occupy Wall Street I heard someone call my name and it was Jack!  We had dinner together several times.  Since he lives in Washington, Mark and I had dinner with him again.  I’m not complaining since Jack was always one of my favorite people. I guess leaving California was the key.

Dinner with Jack Duvall at Bombay Club

Mark and I walked back to our hotel.  It was quite cold, the walk was brisk, but who could complain?  We had scenery like no other.  It was a splendid trip.  And finally – six months later, that concludes the blog posts about this trip!  It’s about time.

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


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.


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.


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.


Our Peace Corps Work Worked


The Fruits of Mark’s Labors

Forty years ago we set out with our two-year-old on our great adventure – joining the Peace Corps.  We were just burning up with the idealism of the late ’60s and our desire to make the world better.  Mark heard a radio ad recruiting for architects and planners (he is an architect and planner) so we applied.  One day we got a phone call from Dick Holbrooke (yes, the Richard Holbrooke who just died, the master diplomat).  We were each on an extension when Dick asked us, would we like to join the Peace Corps and go to Morocco or Tunisia?  Yes, we would.  We hung up and raced to the bookcase to find the atlas.  Where was Morocco anyway? We had no idea.

We went, and right now let’s get it out of the way – the question I am always asked, What did I do in the Peace Corps?

This is a loaded question for me.  My husband is an architect and planner, and we were invited into an architect/planner training.  I was called a non-matrix spouse but promised I (and the other non-matrix spouses) would be given a job once in our final destination.  I pretty much didn’t have any formal skills at that time and didn’t have a teaching credential, but the Peace Corps knew that and said something would be available.  We were assigned to Oujda, Morocco, which made us very popular since Oujda was the least desirable location and we requested it, getting everyone else off the hook. After being somewhat angry for months about the lack of a job and the lack of action by the Peace Corps office to get me one, I realized it wasn’t going to happen.  Mark had been so valuable as an architect/planner that they wanted us and probably only had a vague idea of what to do with non-matrix spouses.

I started asking around on my own, trying to find some sort of meaningful activity but I wasn’t able to.  Part, or most, of that was political.  Oujda was at that time a small town on the Algerian border.  (Now it’s a bigger town on the Algerian border.) Women were treated passably well but they didn’t work at anything I could do without taking a job away from someone else.  Everyone thought we were CIA agents anyway, so I gave up the work idea and focused on being my own little personal good will ambassador.   And had a child.

See why this is a loaded question? I never know what to say when people ask me, “What did you do?”  So we were there just because of Mark, and it would be important that his work counted for something.

We went, and Mark spent two years in the office of planning and housing, as well as in the field, making site plans.  These are plans to guide the development of towns –  analyses of where housing should go, where the mosque should go, where business should be located – so that infrastructure can be utilized more efficiently and a town can be a pleasant place to live.  The theory behind this was good: the government did not want to see mass migration to the cities and the development of shanty-towns; they wanted people to live satisfactorily in rural areas.  By and large, this strategy seems to have worked.

Mark kept copies of all the site plans for 40 years and now we were going to see if they had been effective.  We were driving through Zaio, Taforalt, Sidi Bouhia, and Mt. Arrouit. We also wanted to drive through Berkane, the town fellow volunteer Mike Zelinski worked on for his entire two years.  First, however, we headed to the Gorges of Zegzel, where we had been on excursions so long ago with fellow volunteers and our friends the Krims.  We left Oujda, headed for the night to Al Hoceima, with these stops in between.  It was going to be another long day.

First stop: Gorges of Zegzel – we drove to the Grottes de Chameaux (cave of camels) and it had changed for the worse.  Whereas water used to gush from the opening into a pool where people swam, no water was gushing now and the pool was concreted in.  The cave entrance looked blocked inside with debris.  Forty years ago, you could walk through huge rooms and come out at another end.  That was disappointing, but at least we found it!

Grottes de Chameaux in 1973

Grottes de Chameaux 2011

Picnic in Gorges of Zegzel in 1973 - with mint tea

Look in the back right and you’ll see the Butagaz bottle.  It wouldn’t be right without mint tea.

When we went on these picnics or to the Gorges, we needed to fill up on gas.

Filling up at the Shell Station 1973

We headed on to Taforalt to see what changes 40 years had wrought.  This one was funny.  A housing tract had been constructed right where Mark had indicated on his plan, but it was a design unlike any we’d seen in Morocco!  More like Swiss mountain homes.

Housing development Taforalt

Not the style you’d expect, but at least they followed the plan.

We were hungry and had arrived at a traffic checkpoint, so we asked the soldier/security police/whatever he technically was where we should eat.  We had a little chat about how we used to live there, etc. and went off for lunch.  We were just a tad worried because we had all these city plans spread around in the car as we were talking to the officer, but I guess he thought we were harmless.

Outside town there is a strip full of butcher shops, cafes, and individual tagines sizzling on grills.  We each got a tagine, which surprised the waiter – I don’t believe very many non-Moroccans end up there!

Lunch in Taforalt

We had tagines for lunch

Sidi Bouhria was the next stop.  Mark was able to orient himself with the plan and found that it had been of some use. The mosque was right where it was supposed to be.

Sidi Bouhria

We stopped in Zaio and again, plans had been used.  The town had developed just as it should have.



Still lots of room for growth, but I think it’s incredibly gratifying to know that two years worth of work in the Peace Corps did actually amount to something.  The towns aren’t exciting to look at in the pictures, but when you think about what it represents, and when you  picture the slums and shanty towns in India, for example, you can really appreciate the forethought of Hassan II, never mind his other shortcomings.

Mt. Arruit had developed more than any of the other towns.  This next is a picture of Mark and others from his office taking a look at the site for Mt. Arruit.  There’s pretty much nothing there.

Mt. Arrouit 1971

This is what it looks like today from the same vantage point.

Mt. Arrouit today

On to Al Hoceima

Our trip down memory lane was finished and we pressed on to Al Hoceima.  Since we didn’t want to rush visiting the little towns, we again were in a race against dark, plus we were tired, hungry and grumpy.  We missed our turn and went into the thick of town – it was still light then.  But Al Hoceima was crowded, full of one-way streets, bumper-to-bumper traffic.  It was the wrong time of day to be there for sure.  By the time we got it all sorted out it was dark and we blindly drove out of town searching for the correct turn.  How we did it I don’t know because we ended up in a residential neighborhood high on a hill, but I reasoned that what goes up must come down and it did.  Where was Casa Paca?  Apparently I was to have called Joaquin at Casa Paca for him to meet us and guide us to his guest house.  But I didn’t.  We did see a sign:

So we thought it would be a piece of cake until we found ourselves winding up a road – not even a road, a rock path – up and up and up.

Road in the daytime

No lights, pitch black.  We thought we were horribly lost and were going to turn around when we saw what looked like a parking lot prepared for three or four cars.  We stopped.  It was Casa Paca.  It was dark.

I called “hello, hello” and as we, despairing, were about to drive back down the hill, a voice called, “Susan?”  Saved.

It was Joaquin, who had given up on us.  We were the first guests since Christmas (Casa Paca is on the Mediterranean and guests just don’t go there in winter.  It’s a beach place.) We went in.  I said, “Do you have any food?” I must have looked awfully frazzled, because he and his wife whipped up a dinner of the most tender and flavorful grilled steak, grilled zucchini, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and homemade French fries.  I will forever be grateful to this wonderful man.  We wished we had more than one night to stay, but it was just a stopping off point on the way to Tangier.

Casa Paca

Joaquin built this place just about on faith.  He had constant doubts if anyone would want to come there and watched his savings evaporate as the house took shape.  He did a wonderful job – really thought out all the details to make guests comfortable – and it’s been a success.

Casa Paca Patio

The door on the left is our room. From our room we looked out on the Mediterranean and two interesting things: one a fortress, and the other, a big rock.  The fortress is a Spanish garrison with very high walls and the only way in or out is by helicopter.  The other, the rock, is Spanish territory and if you look closely you’ll see a Spanish flag.  This apparently is hotly contested land.  Maybe someone can enlighten me as to why Spain just can’t give the rocks to Morocco.  Not too long ago there was a little skirmish here.

There are a couple of towns in Morocco that are part of Spain, Ceuta and Melilla, both on the Mediterranean coast.  I’m sure Spain strategically is happy to have the towns and even the garrison, but those two rocks?  Really.  If I’d waded over there I’d have been in Spain!

If anyone is ever in that part of the world, I’d recommend Casa Paca.

Casa Paca comfortable sitting room

Joaquin takes pictures of all his guests and puts them in the stairway.

Now, our pictures will be up there also.

With Joaquin at Casa Paca

Next, we cross the Riff Mountains and go to Tangier, our last stop in Morocco.

Looking for friends…Where are the Krims?


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.


Heading to Oujda: You CAN go home again


Our journey through Morocco continues, proving that Thomas Wolfe was wrong – you CAN go home again.  We were finally heading to our home of two years – forty years ago!  It’s quite amazing how much it felt like going home. We left Merzouga and passed by another demonstration – the same place as the day before.  My photo is blurry – no apologies: it just didn’t seem wise to stop, get out, and take photographs, so I snapped one as the car went by.

Merzouga demonstration

The road to Guercif

There was much discussion before we left Merzouga; everyone had an opinion which route we should take.  Many suggested the southern route, which I kind of wanted to do, and in retrospect I wish we had.  The problem was where to stop for the night as there were no  hotels in the little towns.  So we settled on the road that went to Guercif, which at least had a hotel. And thus we blithely headed off, not realizing we’d be driving through the Middle Atlas Range!  We went through many of the small towns we passed through on the way down.  In one, we encountered another load of hay that seemed  precariously balanced – but as far as I know, it stayed upright.  I’d always been under the impression that if the base were larger than the top, it would be more stable.

Load of Hay

We always seemed to be passing through a town when kids got out of school for lunch break, and today was no exception.

We hit the mountains.  Oh no, not really.  More mountains?  it was cold and rainy, and this is when we found out the car’s heater did not work.  These mountains weren’t as beautiful as the High Atlas, but I was shivering and freezing so maybe I failed to appreciate the beauty.  I was not interested in getting out to take pictures.

The Middle Atlas Range

When we came down – which took far too long – we found the turnoff to Guercif, thinking we really had it made and we’d get there before dark.  We turned and  said, “Uh oh” because it was a one-lane road.  Seriously, a narrow one-lane road with bumpy rocky shoulders.  But it was a good road, so we took heart.

Good road

This was the only road we encountered like this on the whole trip and we have to assume they’re going to widen it someday because there was plenty of traffic considering.  It was scenic; plus, we drove by more old ruins.

And then things took a turn for the worse.  The good road was a trick and only went a short way.  THIS is the road we traveled on.

Not-so-good road

Did I mention there was quite a bit of traffic? We went through some more security checkpoints on this leg, and finally we saw Guercif.  It was dark, but trusting to luck, we drove down the main street and saw the Hotel Atlas.  I took a photo of a checkpoint – from a distance as you might imagine.  (If you click on a photo, it enlarges on another screen; then arrow back to return to the blog.)

Checkpoint in the distance

The Hotel Atlas was trying very hard but not quite cutting it.  The lobby was smoky.  Bad sign.  The desk clerk was trying to take my payment but didn’t quite know how to work the credit card machine so we decided we’d pay in the morning.  I asked where we should park and he said just right there in front of the hotel and told someone to move his car so we could have the space.  He was very kind and trying very hard to give five-star service. We were taken to our room, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or how to react, really.  Were we in a brothel?  There were little pink and red petals of incense scattered all over the beds and the nightstands and around the bathroom sink.  The effect was rather shocking, really.  There was a red lamp – with a red bulb – and candles all over.  Plus, on a shelf there were four decorative pitchers that looked like upright Aladdin’s lamps in graduated sizes.  It was so overwhelming, I forgot to take a picture. We tried to get comfortable and sleep because the sooner we fell asleep the sooner we’d wake up in the morning and the sooner we’d be out of there.  As I said, they were trying very hard.

To Oujda!

We were finally on our way to Oujda.  As a city it’s isolated, way in the eastern part of the country on the Algerian border, and since there are no tourist attractions, no one really goes there.  When we told Moroccans where we were going, the standard reaction was a blank face, then, “Ah. Oujda.”  I’m not so sure everyone knew where it was.  We did, or we thought we did, but on our way, a message came into my cell phone saying “Welcome to Algeria.”  Had we crossed the border? Were we in Algerian air space?

Welcome to Algeria

The drive was uneventful and when we reached town, we drove down a long boulevard with elegant street lights.  Oujda grew up in the 40 years we were away.

We encountered a large – really large – round point and saw a brand new McDonalds.  We stopped for lunch.   We like to eat at McDonalds in each country we visit to check out the different menu items and the ambiance.  The drive-through is something completely unknown to Oujda.  Looks pretty standard.  For us.

This McDonalds was brand spanking new, very modern, with a picture of Mohammed VI and his young son on the wall.  That’s one thing – pictures of Hassan II were everywhere when we used to live there, and now it’s Mohammed VI.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case in most monarchies – remind people constantly who’s King.

The most fun part of this McDonalds was watching the employees – they were so proud, intent on doing everything right.  It’s not cheap, and going to McDonalds is a step up for most people, so the employees were bright and shiny and smiling.   We ate.  We left.

Again, counting on blind luck we drove to the Hotel Altas Terminus at the train station where we thought we were staying.

We did this all throughout the trip: just set out without preparation, trusting we’d find the way.  Since there aren’t that many roads in the country, it worked.  We reached the Atlas Terminus, which looked fantastic.  It was not our hotel.  We were going to the Atlas Orient so the manager had someone get in the car with us to show us there.  I’d reserved a suite, thinking that at this stage of the trip, we’d be tired and want to relax.  It was nice but not as nice as the Altas Terminus would have been.   We checked in, we unpacked, and we walked straight to 38 bis Hassan L’Oukili – our old house.  It looked exactly the same except the gates were gray when we lived there.

Our house

Let me explain the next picture.

We’re looking back at what looks like three rows of buildings.  Our house is a couple of houses in on the road on the right.  Then there’s a curve, another street, and a multi-story white building that used to be the Hotel Ibis and an epicerie on the ground floor.  When Jennifer was three, we’d send her to the store alone if we needed something.  Some flour, maybe.  It was completely safe.  No cars to speak of back then. The store proprietor knew Jenny and where we lived.  And Jenny conducted the transaction in either French or Arabic.

While we’re looking at this corner, I must tell you one more thing.  I’m taking the photograph just outside of the train station, so you can see how close it is to our house.  One day Jennifer, being quite independent, packed a little purse, put a knit cap on her head and told us she was going to take the train somewhere.  That’s fine, we said.  Have a good time.

Jenny going to the train station

How cute, we thought.  Actually, it was cute, but when she was halfway down the block we realized she indeed was going to the train station for real, so we zipped after her.

Oujda may have grown but the core of the city was the same.  It felt like home.  How could that be? You live somewhere two years, forty years ago, and it feels just like home?  I think the Peace Corps is like that.  The experience is so intense that everything is etched into your mind.

We wanted to find Café Colombo where we had café au lait many mornings a week.  We remembered it as being extraordinarily good.   We somehow blindly got to Ave. Mohammed V and walked right to Café Colombo which was still in business, and where, indeed, the café au lait and pain au chocolat were just as good as we had remembered.

It’s nice to have the old memories validated.  Another thing that hadn’t changed was that I was the only woman sitting outside at the café.  I didn’t feel self-conscious forty years ago and I didn’t now.

The pictures.  We had the old pictures.  We showed them to everyone – the waiter, the person sitting next to us, the security guard.  “See?  That is us, forty years ago.  We lived here for two years.”  We showed them pictures of Jennifer and Karen in Morocco and then Jennifer and Karen today.

Picture of friend Safia holding Karen, and Mme. Krim with Jenny

We showed pictures of Jennifer and Karen’s husbands and kids and tied it all together.  And to be fair, we showed them photos of Kim and her family also, although she wasn’t born until after Morocco.  People looked closely at them all.

Now the office.  Where was Mark’s old office?  I actually remembered how to get there better than he did!  We found Place Mohammed V, then the Palais de Justice and the post office, and then where the French Marche used to be.  Sadly, it was no longer the open-air fruit and vegetable market surrounded by charcuteries and epiceries and boulangeries.

Old French Market - the square filled with trees

And we walked to the office.  How did I know?  When we lived there I shopped mostly at the French Marche because it was a lot closer to our house than the souks in the medina.  We used baskets – now they are using plastic bags – which is not a change for the better – and I could get three days worth of food in the baskets and still be able to carry them.  Jennifer and I would walk to Mark’s office, which was right near the market, and leave the heaviest baskets for him to carry home.

Mark's office now

But you know what?  I have no recollection whatsoever of going inside the office.  I must have sent Jennifer in to find Mark while I stood on the sidewalk with the groceries instead of leaving Jen on the sidewalk.  It must have been too difficult to carry them up the stairs. Or did I go in? I think I would remember that.  Today, I would just text! But we had no phones and cell phones weren’t even an idea yet.  To call Mark, I would have had to go to the post office.   At any rate, we had a photo of the office and I said this has to be it, here.  But no, Mark said.  Yet after walking around a while, locating the mosque it was close to (and let’s face it, it’s not too hard to find a mosque) we ended up back in the same place.

Mark's office 40 years ago

And indeed, it was his office but an additional floor had been added to the building and the front had been changed..  Now, it is an attorney’s office.   Of course, since we were standing around looking at pictures and buildings, it attracted interest.  We fell into a conversation with a French man and a Moroccan and explained the whole thing, bringing out the photos.  The French guy said he moved to Oujda 50 years ago and he was a tennis coach.  Later on, as this information had been ruminating, I realized that we had actually met that guy and had dinner with him and some other people!

That concluded a very satisfying day.  Tomorrow we were going to tackle the medina and looking for our old friends, the Krims.

Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley: our camels in the Erg Chebbi Dunes


Finally, the camels

First of all, to be accurate, we rode dromedaries, not camels.  Camel just sounds a whole lot more exotic.

Moha (another Mohammed who works at the riad and goes by Moha) took us down the street to a store to buy scarves for the desert trek.  We really didn’t need them but if it had been windy, we couldn’t have done without them. Pulling them over our faces (like outlaws) would shield us from blowing sand.  Moha wound them around our heads and we went across the street to Hamid who had Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, our camels, ready for us.

Susan on Jimi Hendrix, Mark on Bob Marley, and Hamid

We ride camels into the dunes

What contrary beasts! They don’t want to get up or sit down, stand still or walk.  They seem to want to do the opposite of what is required.  And can they ever screech and scream!  Their gait is not smooth and there are no stirrups.  Hamid told us to hold on and kept looking to see that we had our hands on the little steel bar, and I found out why.  Because in the middle of the trek, for no apparent reason, Jimi Hendrix sat down.  When a camel folds up those legs, the rider is at a 45-degree angle heading down! That’s just one of the things that made photographs difficult – doing them one-handed with a Canon 5D and an 18-250 lens was a real challenge.

When Jimi Hendrix did abruptly sit down, I asked Hamid why.  The answer?  He was tired and young – only three, whilst Bob Marley was 15!

Palmerie - as we head to the dunes

So just like that we were off on our trek – no permission slips, no signing our lives away and holding anyone and everyone harmless.  There is no adequate way to describe the dunes.  Every step reveals a new pattern, a new angle, new light.  It’s all astonishing.  Photos tell the story.  In the photographs in this post, you’ll see so many colors.  I look at them now and wonder, were they really like that?  How could it be?  But it was.

Late afternoon

We were lucky to have a cloudy sky – a vast improvement over the haze of the previous two days.  Seriously, I would have been devastated if that haze had remained.  I had been looking forward to this for so long – to taking my very own pictures of dunes in the Sahara Desert, and I almost got cheated out of it from having to photograph from camel-back.


The patterns of stripes and the undulation of the sand were mesmerizing.

The last three photos were taken not too far apart, yet notice the difference in the colors of sand.  Every little cloud that passed overhead yielded a new color on the sand.

Look at the shapes and forms!  Hamid probably thought I was batty because I couldn’t stop gasping at how remarkable it all was.

Me, Mark, Hamid, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix

Two hours on a camel was just enough.  We got to camp and were shown our tent with little flat lumpy mattress things on the ground.  (Those guys in the breakfast room this morning gave me one good piece of advice – bring a pillow! I did of course; I never travel without my pillow.)

Trudging into camp

Our tent

We were alerted when sunset began and tore out into the dunes, running up as fast as we could, to take photos.  I was barefoot and was happy to learn that camel dung is hard as I ran over a whole field of it.  It was simply stunning, sunset on the sand.

Looking out of camp

Sunset begins

Looking at this photo especially is when I begin to think, could it be so?  Yes, it was.

Mark and me in the dunes

Happily, someone took a photo of us.

Back in camp we were sitting in our little “lounge” area and heard laughter and fun from another little area next door.  We went over to find young Dutch women with wine, so of course we joined them.  I don’t believe I’ve even seen anyone have as much fun as they had.  They’ve come to Merzouga and done this desert trek at least four times.  One was a teacher, one an artist, one a voice teacher, one I forget, and the fifth had a pretty high position with Alcoa and she had the most money and was generous with it according to them all.  We talked, laughed and drank wine and then Hamid came and took us for our dinner.  After that, the women were singing and having a great time while us old ones went to the tent and to sleep, only to be awakened at 5 a.m. so we could be on the camels for sunrise.

Wow – what a beginning to the morning…

The show of colors and shapes continued as the sun rose.

Two colors of dunes

In the photo, you can see me taking the picture.

All too soon, we were back – not that we minded getting off the camels and back to the riad for breakfast and a shower before we set out on the next leg of the journey.  We were about to head to Guercif not as a destination, but a stopping point between Merzouga and Oujda.  And we had the next surprise – we had to cross the Middle Atlas Mountains!

Next:  what do you mean it’s freezing and the car has no heat?


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.