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12. Ouarzazate

back to civilization

sunny 90 °F

This morning at about 6:15 one of the staff members assigned to us, walked around the encampment making just enough noise to awaken those of us who were interested in climbing a dune to seeing the sun rise over the Sahara. I was already awake, and had been most of the night. So I got up and dressed in yesterday's dirty clothes and trudged up several dunes with the assistance of one of the guides. It is hard work climbing sand dunes and I was exhausted and winded by the time I arrived at a high enough point. We stood there for quite a while waiting for the sun to come up over Algeria, which is only 30 miles away from camp. Now I can say I've done that. But what I cannot say is that I then enjoyed a hot shower in my luxury tent. Once again, no hot water. So I did the best I could, packed up my stuff, dined on an OK breakfast (the coffee was good) and off we went in our SUVs, back to Merzouga to board the bus. Destination: Ouarzazate.

Getting there involved another long day on the bus. The scenery was beautiful though, riding through the Todra Gorges looking out over steep canyon walls. We drove through a lot of interesting Berber towns and saw a acres of rich farmland with olive trees and date palms. Roses are a big deal around here. They export 50% of their rose crop (to France? not sure) to manufacture perfume.

Armani jokes that Ouarzazate is pronounced something like "where's it at" but we shortened it to its airport abbreviation, "OZZ". OZZ is a Berber town of approx. 150,000 and it is known for its film studios. Quite a few desert scenes are shot in Morocco. According to Armani, H2 has been very instrumental in bringing that industry to his country - or maybe he invented the film industry - I'm not clear on that point. It's a pleasant enough town and our hotel was very nice. It is more like a compound of condos, each with a large bedroom and a separate sitting room. Best of all - hot water! We got here in time to get situated, shower, and then go to dinner which was an extensive buffet.

About the food - it is mostly excellent and usually includes olives. They serve olives with every meal and incorporate them into their dishes when they can. We have noticed that we keep seeing the same four dishes listed on the restaurant menus. I think that at some point they discovered that tourists like 1) lemon chicken tagine with olives, 2) kefka (small meatballs) tagine, 3) chicken brochettes, and 4) Berber omelettes (a fluffy egg dish with lots of veggies baked in). These are the four dishes that keep reappearing. FYI, a tagine is the pottery cookware used everywhere to slow-cook food. As for me, I am particularly fond of the lemon chicken with olives. I'll probably buy a tagine on Amazon.com when I get home.

Well this is my last night in Morocco and I am anxious to get home. Although I am not looking forward to the two long flights to get there, the torture of modern air travel is a small price to pay for what I have experienced on this trip. The most important thing is the people. Moroccans are friendly, kind, peaceful, patient and are wonderful hosts. I hope to return, but I probably don't need to relive the Sahara camel experience. Instead, I think I'd go back to Fez. . . well maybe Marrakech too. There's a lot more to see in those cities.

Posted by Follow Carol 17:10 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

11. Midnight at the Oasis

through the Sahara, to a luxury encampment (not)

sunny 90 °F

Today started off with a cold shower. Our lovely riad had no hot water. So I got my hair wet and tried to clean up a bit but it was difficult because I had no washcloth. Some untrained maid in a prior hotel took it from the room when she gathered the rest of the towels. I'm not sure why she thought my bright poison green washcloth belonged with the hotel's white towels. . .but that's what happened. (In case you are wondering, washcloths are an American phenom and you don't always get them in other parts of the world. So I pack one.)

Another long travel day. It is 200 miles from Zagora to the "Luxury Tented Saharan Camp" described in the itinerary. Most of the miles were spent on the bus. We're in Berber territory now. From what I understand, "Berber" is like "Arab" in that it refers to a group of people who identify themselves as such. There is no one language, country, or religion that defines either. I don't really notice any difference in the people, but the villages we passed through are certainly more primitive. The villages spring up along the old caravan route that evolved into the highway that we are travelling. These villages are made up of clusters of small clay houses that probably have no running water or electricity. Narrow alleys run through the villages and are only wide enough for donkey carts. Interestingly, you can see that when their old homes have crumbled to uninhabitable, they simply build a new one alongside, or in a "newer section" and move, leaving the old one to eventually turn to dust. There's not a lot of farming out here - just enough to sustain a few families. However, small herds of goats can be seen out in the sand. Frankly, I am not sure how in the hell they survive, but they do, and they appear to be OK.

At 2:00 we arrived in Merzouga where we transferred to 4X4 vehicles in order to traverse the erg. "Erg"? I didn't know what it was either. An "erg" is defined as a desert area that contains more than 48 sq mi of wind-blown sand. Our destination is an encampment on the dunes of Erg Chebbi. I knew about this portion of the journey when I signed up but I envisioned open-air jeeps flying across the sand. Instead, we were cramped in late model SUVs - each containing four passengers and a driver. Most of the trip from Merzouga to the encampment was on a paved road but we did finally veer off onto the sand and that was a little more interesting. (very little - one of my fellow travelers is a banker so we spent much of the ride discussing how to finance a windmill farm - yep, we were that bored)

We arrived at what looked like a big hotel lobby and each of us were required to fill in a log that requested various pieces of info like country of citizenship and passport numbers. My passport was in my luggage, which was in the SUV. That's dumb - you should NEVER allow it to leave your person. I was eventually reunited with my luggage so there was no harm done, but in the meantime I had to make up a passport number. I expect a representative from the Moroccan Embassy to knock at my door any day now to verify my documents.

Afterward, we were ushered outside to board our next vehicle - a camel. Oh crap - I knew about this when I signed up but I very conveniently repressed that memory, only to have it forced on me now. I am afraid of heights and of horses. The thought of riding atop a tall animal almost made me swoon, and I tried to come up with a good excuse (other than fear) as to why I cannot participate in the short caravan up the dunes to witness the sun setting over the Sahara. My pride won the battle and I courageously mounted my assigned beast, which wasn't all that easy, they are tall even when they are lying down. It had a sort -of saddle that was mostly blankets, no stirrups, but a sort of handle-bar apparatus to hang on to. When the camel rises to a standing position, he gets up on his hind legs first which means you have to brace yourself so you are not thrown over his head. Then on the front legs, you are thrown back the other direction. That was actually the scariest part - don't get me wrong, my palms were so wet out of fear that I had trouble hanging on - but the worst part was over. YAY me! Now if anyone asks, I can say I've done that.

The sunset was a sunset and the dunes are a pretty peach color, but I'm not sure it was worth it. We got back on the camels and rode a short distance to our camp. It was pretty neat, but not at all luxurious. There were 10 huge tents nestled together in a space between sand dunes. Each tent was the size of a large bedroom and contained a sink, shower, toilet, and two hard, narrow twin beds (maybe 30 inches wide). There was also a giant tent with two large dining tables and a food service area. They trucked in a multi-course feast and served us there. After diner, some local music troupe came in and serenaded us with a couple of African songs. I loved that part. Next, a few of us trudged up the sand dune outside our camp to star-gaze. It was beautiful, of course. There are no city lights out there so all the stars were visible. But if you have ever camped "away from it all" you've seen this. I was amazed at the number of my fellow travelers who were oohing and ahhing over seeing the Milky Way for the first time. It's always been there, where have they been?

Although this day has been very interesting - full of "firsts" - I will not be sorry to leave for a real hotel tomorrow.

Posted by Follow Carol 13:19 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

10. Zagora

busing through desert and farmland

sunny 80 °F

Last night we dined at a beautiful restaurant near the square where the souks are. We ate outdoors in the courtyard of an old building that looked like a scene from "Arabian Nights". The food was pre-ordered and plate after plate was brought to the table. It was delicious. And then it happened, loud music began and a belly dancer took the floor. I guess she was very good at her craft but her Double D's were so close to falling out of her brassiere, that watching her dance was scarier than it was entertaining. She knew it too. Interestingly, she kept dancing to our two tables even though there was a table full of men on the other side of the floor. They completely ignored her so she was forced to find an audience in us. Also interesting is this additional evidence of a two-sided culture. 99.7% of the women here wear scarves to hide their hair. 95% of them wear long robes when out in public. So, why would would scantily clad exotic dancers be OK in a public restaurant? Armani will have an illogical explanation for it that will either sound like belly dancing is required in the Koran, or that H2 invented it.

Speaking of robes, a couple of days ago, on one of our "technical stops" (what Armani jokingly calls our pit stops while on the road) I saw a group of tourists in front of a big fountain posing for a photo. There were six of them, two men in western attire, a couple of kids and two women in long black robes with black veils that hid everything - even their eyes. These veils have a black netting over the eye area so they can see out, but you can't see in. So, what is the point of being in a picture that no one will ever be able to prove you were in? It's like taking a picture of a person behind a wall - all you really have is a picture of a wall. (although I will have to say that in most travel pics, I would look better hidden behind robes)

Today we traveled 230 miles to Zagora which involves ten hours on the road. Getting anywhere here takes time. The roads are pretty good, actually but they are only two lanes wide (1 1/2 sometimes) and you have to share them with trucks and donkey carts. Between Marrakesh and Zagora is the High Atlas mountain range so we climbed 7400 feet to get over that. On the other side is a valley of fertile farm land. I thought of Morocco as miles and miles of sand, but some areas are near rivers and it is amazing how much produce they grow and export: apples, dates, grapes, and oranges, to name a few. When not in an irrigated area, we were definitely in the desert, and most of us have seen pictures of it. This is where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed.

It was hot and intensely sunny when we stopped to visit the kasbah (walled city) of Ait Benhaddou. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that would probably have crumbled away by now were it not for UNESCO. In fairness to Morocco, it is a developing country so it has few resources available to invest in old buildings. But they could probably do more. Anyway, the point of the stop was to climb up through the old city, visit the home of one of the few families living there, and to appreciate the wonderful view - which you have also seen on Game of Thrones. It was quite a climb - up approx. 100 steep, irregular steps. The view was wonderful but most interesting was how they lived up there - a primitive existence, at best. The family seemed healthy and fed, but they are living like their ancestors did hundreds of years ago in small clay homes on several levels clinging to the hill. I was glad when the climbing was over - I was actually looking forward to getting back on the bus and settling in for a couple of hours of reading.

We didn't arrive in Zagora until after dark and had to walk down a dark lane to our riad (hotel) because the bus couldn't navigate the road. It was worth the walk though. We are only staying one night here but I bet most of us would like to hang out for a couple more. The rooms are large, and the grounds are beautiful. Of course, the first order of the evening was to find a glass of wine.

Posted by Follow Carol 09:52 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

9. Gold in Them Thar Hills

The Ourika Valley: a saffron farm and more argan nuts.

sunny 85 °F

As I look upon this day, there was a lot of time invested in riding up the mountain, following the Ourika River into argan and olive orchards. It was interesting riding through small villages with houses clinging to the sides of the valley. When it is scorching hot in Marrakech (120 ° in August), families escape to the mountains. There are cafes all up and down the road. Lots of foreign tourism in the hills too, as evidenced by the shops with the usual array of pottery, carvings, and leather goods. Also as evidenced by the appearance of "the Apaches". That's what Amani calls the guys on the motorcycles who follow your bus up the hill and then attack you with souvenirs for sale as you step off the bus.

Anyway, we made a few stops. We visited an argan oil shop and saw a demonstration of how the nuts are shelled, roasted and pressed to get the oil. Then we visited the home of a valley farmer and he showed us through his house and then we were shown the retail section where more of the usual stuff was for sale. Since his store is a co-op for local artists, there isn't any haggling back and forth like there would be on the streets. What I don't understand is why everything looks the same. There are some beautiful things but you see them everywhere. Although I was getting a bit tired of the day on the bus, I did enjoy the stop at the saffron farm. He has 114 acres of crocuses, from which the red stamens are plucked and voila! saffron! Very educational and a decent price (as if saffron is ever decently priced). I suppose now I'll have to drag out my risotto and paella recipes.

When we got back into town, we went by the Saadian Tombs again and we were practically the only ones there. So we saw the masters' tombs in a beautiful marble and mosaic room, and then we left. While waiting for the bus, several of us bought cookies from a street bakery. Almost every type of cookie he sells is drizzled with honey. Way sweet, but I liked 'em.

We actually returned home in the mid-afternoon today, so we had some time on our hands. Janet, Jacquie and I went to the Artist's Co-op just down the street from us. More of the same stuff, but I did finally buy my tassles. Moroccans are very good at textiles - weaving and dying. You see, I have two new ceiling fans and want something interesting for the on/off pulls. Tassles are everywhere, from tiny for clothing to huge with with metal ornamentation for wall art. I am still considering a large turquoise tassle.

Can we talk about Hassan II again? I think they DO have to post his picture in their shops after all. You see the same 20 yr old pic of him everywhere. Armani told another story of praise about H2 today. He is so brilliant that he actually suggested turning an abandoned building into a school. So my question is, in this poor country, why would you let a building stay empty if you need some place to put a school? Oh god, another opinionated mouthy woman.

Ok, I'll talk about conveniences vis-a-vis personal hygiene. I know you want to know. First, in this country, only drink bottled water. It is safe to brush your teeth with the hotel water. The salads at the good hotels and restaurants are fine, but otherwise, avoid them. In developing countries, take advantage of every opportunity to use a toilet. You need to create a long comfort zone of time between "now" and the next pit stop, cuz you never know when that will be. Always bring toilet paper and wet-wipes (or hand sanitizer) with you in your day bag. And try to keep some small change with you to tip the woman who manages the restrooms. She may not do much, but it is all the money she makes and your contribution (of 11¢ to 22¢) may help her today. And yes, I have been forced to use a squat toilet, and not all the "sit" versions have seats. OK enuf.

This is the last night in Marrakech so I WILL be social and join the group for dinner this evening. As such, i need to get ready and I need to pack. Tomorrow is another bus day. We are going to the land of "Lawrence of Arabia" tomorrow. I'm pretty sure we'll have WiFi, but you'll know when I do.

Posted by Follow Carol 09:35 Archived in Morocco Comments (1)

8. Getting to Know Marrakech

"I've been savin' all my money just to take you there. . ."

sunny 80 °F

I am so tired this evening, I can't tell you where i've been. We all piled into the bus at 9:30 and took off for a tour of the city. The first stop was the home of Yves Saint-Laurent who loved Marrakech, made it his home, and ultimately died here. His home is now a memorial to him and the gardens are open to the public. It was pretty, but I dont understand why it is important that I see it.

Next stop was the Saadian Tombs. These burial sites date back fo the mid-1500s when the Saadi family ruled Morocco. The attraction here is the intricate mosaics all over the place, and the marble columns and cedar carvings in the fanciest room - which we could not get in to see due to the crowds of tourists. We're going to try again tomorrow.

We also stopped to see The Bahia Palace which is a 150 yr old home built for an advisor to the Sultan. It's not huge, but it's big enough for all four wives. As i understand it, that is the law here, you're allowed only four wives. Armani says that it's handled very fairly because the existing wives have to approve the new ones. ("or what?" is my question.)

Finally we got to spend some time on the streets and in the souks (shops). We were given a presentation about argan oil (the "Moroccan Oil" that is so popular) and almost everyone bought something to aid in the quest for eternal youth. . . . myself included. The souks are located in a partially covered marketplace on a huge flat square. Walking through the square, one encounters all sorts of entertainment and services one can purchase for very little: snake charmers, henna artists, monkey handlers. . ...you know, the usual. Entering the souks is like entering the medina, narrow paths through stalls and stalls of the same stuff we've been seeing. Armani walked us through it to avoid losing anyone. But that's not how it should be done. One really should get lost in it and have fun with it. Some day I'll come back here and bask in the culture. This time I am being introduced to it. I know that the intro is a good beginning, but I am impatient to absorb more of it - and I will not achieve that goal on this trip. ("leave wanting more", right?)

A few of us stayed in for dinner this evening. Some weren't hungry, I was just tired of being on a schedule. So about six of us enjoyed wine by the pool for dinner (plus some mediocre snacks). It was fun a fun evening.

Posted by Follow Carol 08:26 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

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