Posted by Ted on Nov 2, 2007 in Travel
Woke up with the rustling of the rest of the camp, and just made it to the nearest dune to watch the sun rise over the plains beyond. A desert sunrise to match the two sunsets that we’d shared in this magical place. We came down for breakfast; the usual bread, jam, la vache qit rit, and tea. After a somewhat rushed meal, it was time for the mass exodus of all of the tourists. We got ushered into our respective 4x4s, and had a very tired drive back to M’Hamid.
We arrived in town, changed, and failed to get on the first taxi out, as we got ourselves sucked into Ali’s cousin’s shop next door for tea. On the upside, a slower exit meant that we got to say proper goodbyes to Ali and Nezha. But, we did lose about two hours of precious time. Finally, we caught a very slow and very packed “grand taxi” to Zagora. This taxi was more of a passenger van with very tiny seats, and by the time we reached town, they managed to fit 23 passengers inside. While a taxi would have been a much nicer and more comfortable experience, I it was an interesting glimpse into local life; this was a very valid means of local transportation, and everyone just shoved in, and personal space was abandoned, and that’s just the way it was. An old man gave me his seat, clearly the outsider, and he did it in such a way as to avoid any argument or question.
Once in Zagora, I tried to ship the big mirror that I had purchased two days before but apparently the local post office couldn’t ship internationally. Thankfully, it was wrapped exceedingly well for easy and safe transport, so I ended up just carrying it throughout the rest of the trip, and right onto the plane. We had tea with Ali’s friend, who tried to tempt Liz with jewelry, but in the end traded her ill-fitting cargo pants for a broken mirror. We barely made it to the bus station to catch a 5p bus to Marrakech. It was better than the packed van we’d just taken, but it was not up to the CTM standards of the bus we’d taken here. The ride was very, very, long. The seats were broken, and there were annoying girls behind us listening to loud music. I barely slept, but Liz managed. Her ability to sleep anywhere amazes me; it comes in very handy for traveling. We finally got into Marrakech around 3a, and tried to go to Dar Soukaina where we’d discussed previously showing up late and catching a few z’s on their roof terrace, but apparently it was just rudely late, and they didn’t let us in.
Defeated and determined, we went back to the bus station, and caught a 4a bus to our next destination; Essaouira. This ride, our 4th of the day, was the worst. It was not only slow, but COLD.
Day 7 was a bit of a wash.
Posted by Ted on Nov 1, 2007 in Travel
We woke to the sounds of other people milling about for sunrise. We peeked out of a hole in the tent to find that the sun had already risen, so we went back to bed and got up a little while later. Everything in the tent was covered in sand. The wind had picked up during the night, and the morning was extremely windy. After a nice breakfast in camp, we set out on our camels back to M’Hamid. On the return trip, I was mesmerized by the sand flowing like smoke over the dunes and into the air. It slithered on the ground like snakes. The desert looked alive.
We learned that there were several types of Saharan terrain. As westerners, our image of the desert was the dunes themselves, called ergs, however they actually constitute about 20% of the Sahara. Much of it was flat and rock-strewn. After a couple of hours, we returned to the resort just outside of town.
After waiting for the other tourists to arrive, we all were driven to a nearby kasbah for some “local culture”. My first impressions were that it seemed like a large apartment building, built out of clay and bits of palm, and subject to the same labyrinthine design seen in the medinas. We were guided through, and had tea with one of the residents. Unfortunately, it mostly just felt staged for our benefit. We were embarrassed on behalf of the Swiss tourist who tried to insist that the guy sing for us. Then we got a tour of their rug shop, and we decided we didn’t need to be there, and so got a ride back to town. We waited at the cafe, paid for the next excursion, and went to the internet kiosk across the street to check our email. Back at the cafe we had lunch and met dinner. Literally. A hogtied lamb lay in the shade, waiting to be taken out to the desert camp as a sacrifice for the evening meal. We also made friends with the Sahara Services owner’s well-fed black cat, and were introduced to a Canadian tourist who had come South through the mountains. He had been to Chefchaouen, a city that we had hoped to visit, but would later decide to save it for another trip.
Finally, the 4x4s were ready, and we piled into one of them with the Canadian, a French, and two other Europeans, with the still-alive-and-barely-kicking lamb strapped to the roof rack. Not only that, but one of the Moroccan help climbed on top of it, and rode across the bumpy terrain, hanging onto the roof. We drove through and out of M’Hamid, first across hills with shrubs, and then very flat desert with rocks similar to what we’d seen the day before. At some point, the guy on the roof got off, and we acquired another lamb rider. We stopped briefly at an oasis with a brook filled with frogs.
12km further, we arrived at a camp at the foot of Erg Chigaga. It was absolutely stunning. The majestic dunes were tall and beautiful and stretched for miles. After dropping our gear, we hiked up one of the nearer dunes to watch the sunset. It was a hard climb, not unlike trying to walk on the beach, uphill. We shared the top of the dune with Reed the Canadian, and a couple of English girls. With no clouds, sunset was again simple, but what wasn’t reflected in the sky was around us as the sand itself changed colors with the dying sun. We stayed out until Jupiter became visible, and then made our way back down to camp. We had tea, and sat around a hookah with strawberry-flavored tobacco, talking and laughing with other guests and some of the Moroccans. As it turned out, our friend Belaide from Prends Ton Temps was the guest musician for the evening, and we were delighted to see him and hear his voice again.
Then it was dinner, which was actually underwhelming given our experiences thusfar. We got just skin and bones of the lamb, barely any meat in the tagine, not enough veggies, and too much couscous. Afterwards, everyone retired to the fire pit, burning bright and hot in the night. I camera-geeked with Reed for a bit, and then I watched goat belly dance in front of the fire, encouraged by the music of the Moroccan musicians, and emboldened by the spirit of the fire. Belaide named her Fatima Couscous. the former meaning “pretty woman”, and the latter being a reference to the stars in the night sky. I was so proud and thrilled to watch her dance by a fire in the middle of the Sahara, knowing that she was mine, being admired by Moroccan tribesmen as an unexpected surprise; a white woman dancing like an Arab. Belaide had given us other names as well. By day, she is Fatima Berber, and I was nicknamed Chuck Norris, presumably for my fair complexion, beard, and sense of adventure. Other Moroccans throughout the country called me Ali Baba.
As the fire and music died down, we relaxed beside it with Belaide and Reed, talking long after everyone else had gone to sleep, and eventually, so did we. That night was utterly magical. We were both giddily happy, lying beneath the Saharan stars.
(This entire travelogue can be viewed here.)
Posted by Ted on Oct 31, 2007 in Travel
We woke up, gathered the laundry that we’d done the night before, showered, packed, and headed into town. As we walked, we became increasingly surrounded by school children. We met Nezha at the cafe, and ate a simple breakfast of tea, bread, La Vache Qui Rit, jam, and hard boiled eggs. We chatted as we waited, purchased a case of water, and then after a bit we got driven to the outskirts of M’Hamid, where our camels and guide were waiting for us. Liz’ chameaux was L’Habir, a friendly white racing camel. Mine was L’Segal, bigger, brown, and the designated cargo camel, carrying our change of clothes, food, and water in two large straw baskets. The harnesses were very different than for horses; leather straps and saddles are replaced by ropes, rugs, and a simple metal T-shaped handle. Despite many warnings of ornery attitudes and a rough ride, they were actually quite comfortable. The worst part was after getting on and before getting off, when the camels would stand up or sit down, pitching us forward or backward.
We then began our desert trek, led by our guide Abrahim. The first part of the journey was through the lush palmerie, the area near the road and where the resorts were built. Next we passed into rolling dunes, scattered with desert shrubs and exposed rock. Abrahim pointed out many tracks in the sand, of people, camels, rodents, and birds. At one point he drew a picture in the sand, probably of a mouse, but it looked more like a kangaroo. We also saw evidence of lizards, which Abrahim informed us were called ‘Desert Fish’. It was so quiet that every sound was amplified by the silence of the desert. The soft plodding of the camels walking across the sand, flies buzzing, the creaking of the leather and wool of the saddles, the whistling of the wind that would sound at times like a busy road, and occasionally the idle singing of our guide. While I’m sure he sang more for his own benefit than ours, it was wonderful to hear, and made the trip all the more magical.
After a couple of hours, the shrubs ended, and there was an area of mostly loose rock where dozens of camps were set up. We went past the first set by another half hour to the edge of some bigger dunes where we stopped at another camp. We had some tea while we waited for lunch in a private tent of typical Berber design; square, divided into two or three rooms, with a larger living and eating room, a room for the preparation of food, and a storage room. Liz relaxed, and I went outside to explore and take photographs. I sat on the nearest dune and played in the sand. Mesmerized, I watched the fine sand flow like both smoke and water. Abrahim finally brought lunch, a simple meal of meat and couscous and fruit. Afterwards, Liz napped and I walked around some more, hiking farther into the dunes, away from the visibility of the tents. Surrounded by nothing but sand and sky was indescribably peaceful.
Finally it was time to return to camp, wake Liz up, and get on our way. The late afternoon sun caused our camels’ legs to grow longer and longer. Shortly before sunset, we arrived at the next camp, a more elaborate dining tent with several smaller sleeping tents. We watched the sun set over the dunes, and with no clouds to diffract the light, the sunset was quick and without fanfare. As night fell, candles and lanterns were lit, giving the sand a warm glow. Then we sat down to dinner with two couples from London and Switzerland, and we traded stories of shopping in Marrakech and camel riding. Apparently they had a much more difficult time of the latter than we did. After dinner, a campfire was lit, and everyone gathered around. The Moroccans sang and played drums with water barrels and clapped, and we joined them. There seemed to be “us”, the locals and ourselves, and “them”, the other European tourists. One by one, the other guests retired, and we stayed out by the dying fire, talking with the Moroccans about America, names, and the desert.
Finally the fire was nothing but embers, and we went to bed ourselves, and enjoyed each other in the pitch black of the tent, in the silence of the Sahara. At one point in the middle of the night, we got up and were rewarded by a moonlit desert, with Orion high in the sky. We saw many shooting stars, and even a satellite. It was so wonderfully magical.
What a great way to spend Halloween.
Posted by Ted on Oct 30, 2007 in Travel
157 miles as a direct line, the 10 hour bus ride to Zagora was very long. Not only did the bus stop several times along the way, but it was slow moving through the Atlas Mountains. Imagine, if you will, a dilapidated Greyhound bus traveling through mountains on a one-and-a-half lane road, with hairpin switchbacks. Liz’s ability to sleep just about anywhere served her well. Me, on the other hand, I could not get comfortable. The stops I remember were at this little town about 2 hours in, just before the mountains, with various food shops on both sides of the street. Then there was a longer stop at Ouarzazate, and at Agdz. Right around that last stop was when sunrise happened, which revealed a beautiful landscape. We were past the main mountains, into rolling red hills, and along a very narrow, very lush, river valley, dotted with blocky settlements built out of clay,
We finally arrived in Zagora, and our new friend Ali invited us to his friend’s shop so that we could drop our bags, change into clean clothes, and relax with some tea. We also had a very simple and tasty breakfast of bread, omelette with cumin, and avocado shakes. While we waited, we bought a couple of head scarves for our trip into the desert, and I bought a huge mirror. This turned out to be the most egregious purchase of the trip. The initial offer was 9000 dirhams, or $1170. Had I actually thought about this at the time, I would have realized just how ridiculous this was. I talked him down to 1800, or about $230, but later found out just how ridiculous even that was. I was clearly taken advantage of. On the upside, however, the shopkeeper did let us keep the mirror and our purchases from Marrakech in his back room while we went to the desert, and he did an amazing wrapping job on the big mirror, such that I was able to carry it on 3 buses and a plane without breaking it.
After breakfast and before starting the final leg to M’Hamid, the real end of the road, Ali took us to a nearby campground to relax for a couple of hours. Prends Ton Temps is this wonderful gem that I expect most visitors to the area never find. It is run by one of the friendliest people that we met, a Tuareg musician named Belaide. His warm hospitality was characterized by his deep voice, a mix of Bobby McFerrin, James Earl Jones, and Louis Armstrong. We also met Ali’s girlfriend, Nezha, who was also an amazingly generous and caring person. We hung out with her under a tent and relaxed for awhile, talking about our mutual pasts, and our experiences thusfar in Morocco. We listened to music, and were introduced to Tinariwen, a group that blends traditional desert music with modern influences. After such a wonderful chill time, we had a lunch of chicken tajine, couscous, and more delicious pomegranate. Then Belaide brought out his oud, Ali picked up a drum, and they played live music for us.
Finally it was time to continue on our way, and so Ali called a cab, and we took a 2 hour taxi ride to M’Hamid. Ali put us up at the being-built Sahara Services hotel just outside of town, where we dropped our bags. We then went into town to talk about setting up our desert adventures, after which Ali invited us to dine with his family. While we waited for dinner time, we hung out next door at his cousin’s souvenir shop, where we got a low-key introduction to the world of Moroccan carpets. He and his helper laid out rug after rug on the ground, one on top of the other, showing us the differences between Tuareg, Berber, Bedouin, Haratine, Nomad, and Kasbah. We realized fairly quickly that we liked the first two styles, but we resisted the urge to buy any rugs during our trip.
Then we followed Nezha to the home she and her two children shared with Ali, his parents, and his three younger siblings. We walked down dark sandy streets, our first introduction to the Saharan sand. It was fine like playa, but not without that silky alkali texture. Their home was simple; a large central anteroom, with smaller rooms off of it. The livingroom floor was laid out with carpets, there was a tea chest and a small TV in a corner, and a decorative bellows hung on the wall. The five little kids were running around, interested in having visitors, and Ali’s mom made tea. Watching her perform the tea ceremony was mesmerizing. She fanned the coals with the bellows, and when the water was at the right temperature, performed an intricate ritual. First there were the tea leaves, then she would take a big block of sugar and would break off large chunks and drop them into the pot. She added these amber crystals that I would later find out is the resin of the Acacia tree, which grows in the Sahara. This tea was notable in that it did not contain mint, as it is what the desert nomads would make. When the tea had steeped, she would perform a complicated set of pourings into and out of the glasses and the pot, until all the glasses were filled. They are small glasses, generally about half filled, and there were about 3 or 4 iterations of this. Nezha said that they have tea 12 times a day for good luck, and I was unclear whether this counted as 4 or 1 of them.
After tea and the children went to bed, Ali came home and we talked for awhile until dinner; was a delicious beef tajine with potatoes and olives, which we ate in a traditional fashion, with our fingers using bread to scoop up the stew. And finally, we ended with the usual plate of fruit, including more pomegranate. It was such an unexpected honor to be welcomed into their home, to share tea and a meal, and to watch the inner workings of the family. While men typically are the business owners and the leaders outside, the women rule the roost. And kids are kids.
Stuffed and happy, we walked back to where we were staying on the edge of town, guided by the moon.
Posted by Ted on Oct 29, 2007 in Travel
Our last day in Marrakech already? We woke up slowly and caught the end of breakfast. The lavender yogurt was truly wonderful, and we need to find a way to make it. Afterwards we took a nap, packed up, showered, and left our packs in the care of the riad for the day while we went wandering. We went to the bus depot to buy our overnight tickets to Zagora, the farthest “big” town towards the desert. We went to the bank, and each took out 2000 dirhams (about $260 each) and we ended the day with 90.
Did I mention that the vacation cost about twice as much as we’d anticipated? One of our original reasons for choosing Morocco was because it seemed cheaper than Spain, and not much more than Burning Man. The key point is that it can be done cheaply, but two things counted against us. For one thing, we decided to play it by ear. After the first two nights in Marrakech, we made no plans, and decided to let our whims guide us. This worked out great, except for the fact that the cheaper lodging was already booked. Also, we (or at least I) was unprepared for exactly how much shopping temptation there was. We figure that we spent over $800 on stuff; mirrors, jewelry, clothing, a lamp, and an amazing blanket. Some food is really cheap, but some is not. By US standards, even the expensive meals were pretty reasonable, but everything added up by the end of the trip.
By chance, and the fact that we stood out even among the tourists, the cab driver from the day before found us and tried to be our guide, but we wanted to wander on our own. We walked through the north of the medina, getting lost in the residential district, which was devoid of other tourists. We hired a horse-drawn carriage to take us across town to the Palais de la Bahia. It was closed when we arrived, so we walked through the Spice District and into a nearby plaza. Liz got a bracelet with interlocking snakes from a wandering woman, which we later found out from a different woman that she could have gotten 5 for the same price. Clearly we still had lots more to learn about the value of things and of haggling. There were many lantern shops, and a souvenir shop that was beyond anything we’d seen. A modest hole-in-the-wall entrance like any other, it was cavernous, dimly lit, each room leading onto another, filled with everything imaginable; lamps, mirrors, chests, doors, carpets, jewelry, pottery.. Time stopped while we were inside, and it felt like the storeroom for an archeological dig. Then we stopped for lunch, with poor quality meat, which was made up for by the potatoes which soaked up the superb spicing. Now that the palace was open, we wandered through and took pictures. It had a very run-down feel, but it was still beautiful. The zellij tilework was stunning, and the carved rock was unbelievable; such fine detail, carved by hand, blew us away.
We walked back through the Spice Quarter, and picked up some Ras el-Hanout (a blend of over 30 spices), some mint tea, and a 5-spice blend for fish. We meandered down a new street, looking at belly dance costumes, and then ended up back at Djemaa el-Fna. We walked around the back of the square, looking at different shops, and stopped at a lantern store owned by a woman. This was especially notable because it’s a culture where the men are generally the business owners. In fact, we met no other women shopkeepers in our travels. She was a welcome change from the typical pushy salesman. While very pleasant, she was also clearly well suited to her role. She was proud, professional, and talked about her empire of three factories which made lanterns, ceramics, and something else. We bought a lantern for our bedroom, unlike any that we’d seen in the multitude of shops. Across the street I found a mirror that I liked, and tried the “walking out” technique of haggling to the success of talking down his 950 dirham offer to 500. I probably still paid too much, but we were learning.
Spent, literally and figuratively, we went back to Dar Soukaina to pay our bill, rest, and repack. Then we headed out to dinner at Cafe Arabe which thankfully took credit cards. We relaxed on the rooftop terrace with a bottle of wine, our first alcohol since arriving. Forbidden in Islam, alcohol is not widely available, but it is offered in upscale restaurants who cater to tourists. For a country that doesn’t drink much alcohol itself, Morocco does have its own vineyards that produce very drinkable and very reasonably priced wine.
Then we caught a cab to the train station, and walked a couple of sketchy dark blocks to the bus station. While we arrived in plenty of time for our 11:30p bus, it was late getting in, and so it would be another two hours before we got on our way. During that time, we were approached by this guy in dreads and a robe who asked us if he was in the right place for the bus. It turned out that his name was Ali, has a relative who lives in Boston, and he worked for Sahara Services, and he’d be happy to take care of us when we reached the desert. He was gregarious and warm and crazy in just the way that we are, and would be at home at any Burner event. He was filled with glee at the existence of the soda vending machine in the lobby, and then asked us to watch his bags while he went across the street to grab a bite to eat.
Meeting Ali would be one of the best things to have just randomly happened to us, as it led to us meeting so many other wonderful people, and to experience the magic of the Sahara.
Finally the bus would arrive, and thus would end Day 3.