December 18, 2007

Casablanca to the Sahara Desert, Morocco

As I write this travelogue I am sitting under a canopy at Hotel Timbacktou in the Sahara Desert of Morocco.  The past several days have been a blur of color, texture, smell, food and experiences that we will try to reconstruct in words.

My first observation of Morocco is that the men in this country need plenty of training! At the airport Moroccan women, including OLD women, were struggling to retrieve their huge, overstuffed bags and luggage off the carousel while the men stood back and watched.  We helped older women carry their luggage while men they were traveling with were oblivious. On our trip from the Casablanca airport to our hotel we passed numerous coffee cafes with many men sitting outside, casually drinking, smoking and visiting…….not a woman in sight.  As we walked around the city it became evident, for the most part, the women are doing the hard work and shopping for the family while the men socialize and run (?) the businesses.  I can tell already, Dan will need retraining when we return home!

Before joining our tour group we spent a couple days in Casablanca walking the city, including the old and new Medina. By the end of our first day we had found all the necessities of life………..cold bottled water, great coffee, scrumptious bread, fresh fruit and REAL Mango juice (like we have been looking for since our trip to Bhutan).   The old Medina was especially interesting, filled with poor people living and shopping for all their needs within the old city walls.  We ate hot flat bread right off the grill, tree ripened bananas and pomegranates that cost little.  I am amazed at the price of pomegranates in the states, $3 each versus 75 cents in the Medina. While the old Medina is primitive and full of history, the new Medina appears to be more of a tourist trap, although the courtyard full of vendors of many different kinds of olives was a highlight.  We were delighted to find a different world as we ventured across the tracks beyond the new Medina. Camel heads (the real deal), decorated with leafy herbs as hair, and served as signage for the individual vendor booths selling fresh meat, including lamb and camel.  Old carts overflowing with fruits, vegetables and fresh herbs, along with exotic aromas and jillaba (traditional “cloak”) clad Moroccans, filled the dirt streets.   

No STARBUCKS here!  Instead, we are in coffee café Heaven.  Cafes are EVERYWHERE.  We quickly learned which drink to order by pointing to the drink most of the men had at their tables. Café Casse’, a strong espresso shot with just a small amount of milk served in what looks like a small shot glass, quickly became our drink of choice.   Move over men and make room……….no way was I going to be intimidated by the lack of women sitting at the tables outside the cafes.

We so enjoyed the time on our own and were wondering what it would be like to join our group of 23.  Little did we realize we would end up making a bus load of friends!  We are traveling with a group put together by Anita Mayer, a textile artist, Wearable Art Diva, and friend from Anacortes.  She, along with Meli from Melitours based out of Turkey and Haj, our Moroccan guide, has put together an outstanding tour for this cohesive group of five couples and 10 women. Fiber art is the common interest of the group.

We have traveled from Casablanca to Muhammedia to Rabat to Meknes to Volubilis to Mouly Idris to Fes to Ifrane to Azrou to Midelt to Erfoud to Merzouga in the Sahara Desert.  Whew….sounds like a hectic schedule over the first seven days of our tour, but it’s been fine, some long days with enough time spent at interesting places.     

As it happened we departed from Casablanca on a national holiday.  We came upon a gathering of people who had come a great distance to celebrate the holiday by enjoying food, mint tea and horseracing.  Horses had been trailered and Berber nomad tents set up in preparation for spectators, attendants, and 50-70 riders participating in horse racing that afternoon.  We were too early for the races and disappointed we had to move on.  Around dusk out in the countryside we came upon another celebration at a village. Both the horses and riders were dressed in elaborate costumes. Yahoo….we had arrived in time for the races.  What great fun we had, talking with the people, watching the races and taking lots of photographs.  This group seemed much more welcoming, probably because they do not see tourists often.  We were especially surprised and delighted to see two young women participating in the racing of the horses.  As we left  participants rode their horses home.

Visiting homes has been one of the most interesting parts of the tour.  In Rabat we were invited into a family home within the walls of the Medina.  It would be considered fairly modern in comparison to the Berber homes we visited on the road to the desert. At one point we saw a tent off the road and stopped to see if the family was home.  Haj was opening the tent doors and peeking in small openings to see if anyone was there.  We looked up and in the distance came a woman with a donkey piled high with sticks.  She had seen us and was coming FAST!  It appeared she was upset and about to chase us off.   Luckily she was happy and was coming to greet us.  In the Berber home in a tiny village on the road to the Sahara, we shared mint tea and peanuts, visited and asked question through Haj, and sang to the lady of the house, which brought tears to her eyes and many of ours.  She had broken her foot a month earlier and was bed ridden because it was splinted and wrapped. She was so happy when a doctor (radiologist) in our group looked at her foot and determined it was healing well.  We left food, pharmacy and sundry items we had gathered and purchased for the family.  The next Berber family we visited lived in a tent in the dessert.  Each of us determined what we would purchase for the family then went to a small market that morning to do our bargaining. In the middle of nowhere we joined together in the family tent to have lunch, drink mint tea and share conversation with the women.  The items we purchased for the family would make their life easier for some time to come.     

In the 16th Century King Moulla Ismail needed horses to defend his kingdom.  His horses deserved the best home, best water and best care.  As we entered the stable through arched gates, it was hard to imagine this as a military operation for the army against the Algerians.  The stables with ten foot thick walls once housed 12,000 horses, tack and feed, with water supplied from the high Atlas Mountains via underground canal.  

Shopping in the Souks, Medinas and markets has been outstanding, even for those who aren’t shoppers.  Many have been converted; others have just enjoyed the colors, smells, excitement, photo ops and the overall experience.  The Medina in Fes was definitely an adventure with the right of way given to donkeys hauling just about everything through the maze of narrow walkways.  BALAK, BALAK is yelled to warn of a donkey coming your way.  We learned to take this warning seriously and jump into a nearby shop door or press our body snugly against the cool wall.  In the Sahara we were treated to shopping at the Touarag family shop with an excellent collection of desert hand craft from rugs to jewelry and everything else you could image.  Very few people left without having purchased a treasure.  After shopping we relaxed in an outdoor tent where we drank mint tea and enjoyed the men drumming while a few completed bargaining inside. 

Bargaining, which makes shopping even more fun, is a part of the culture here.  Haj is always there to help us get our “last price”. “NO, NO, NO……TOO MUCH……these are poor people”…..then loud discussion in aerobic, he simply hands them the money and that is that. Although at one mosaic shop he was seen slapping the salesman while shouting the above.  Still, the customer walked out with a deal and fortunately police were not called.  Haj is a contrast in many ways.  So much of the male dominance of his country comes out in his actions yet he is working well with ‘his chief’, Meli.  He can be loud and demanding then soft and embracing. He is proud of his country, religion and this culture and wants to share it with us. He watches out for ‘his harem’ as if we are family.   He has made the trip so much more than it would have been without him.   He’s also good at teaching us how to wrap turbans which we now are addicted to wearing.

What a grand time we are having!  I could go on and on…… you well know.  But enough for now.  I’ll save my hotel, food and potty report, plus our visit to the Sahara for the next travelogue.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sahara Desert to Marrakech, Morocco and Happy Festivus!

You may have wondered if we EVER returned home from Morocco or if we decided to stay and rent a tent for the remainder of the year.  We returned home November 20th and our luggage followed a week later, but that’s another story.  We didn’t have enough time, energy or internet service to complete the second travelogue on the road.  Now that we’ve cleaned up and caught up at home, here goes.

I finished writing my last travelogue under a canopy at Hotel Timbacktou in the Sahara Desert.  Oh, to be back there, relaxing in the warm sun, enjoying a Cafe Casse while watching camel riders crossing the sand dunes.  We LOVED our two night stay.  It was nice to get out of the bus to take land rovers across the desert.  The gorgeous hotel reminded us of the adobe architecture of the southwest.   It seemed to be plunked out there in the middle of the desert like a jewel, along with few other hotels.

The first evening we all donned our turbans and rode camels into the desert to watch the sunset from the top of a large dune.  It was such a calm, serine feeling, sitting there watching the color and shadows change across the sand.  Once the sun was down, the camel boys took some of us by our feet and pulled us down the dune like we were sleds.  What fun!   Then it was time for the camel boys to open shop and begin the high pressure selling of fossils they had brought with them in those small pouches attached to the camel saddle.  Captive audience…….OH YA!  These guys could give a good car salesman a run for his money.  A few fossils later we were back on the camels enjoying the mesmerizing lumbering of these massive animals across the sand.

Our stay in the desert was fairly unstructured and relaxing.  We did some shopping at the Touarag family shop the next day but other than that we just “vegged”, enjoyed a walk into the dunes the next morning, relaxed under the cabana, visited with friends and enjoyed great food.  Dinners were served buffet style with the most luxurious display of food we could imagine.  The only bummer part was battling the tourists from a country which will remain nameless (political correctness and all) around the buffet tables.  Stand back or be trampled!  We watched in amazement as they converged on the tables and attacked the food.  It was if they were vacuum cleaners.  We saw one woman eating spoonfuls of pomegranate seeds directly out of the serving bowl while she waited in line.  Another person took her arm and scooped all the petite desserts off the serving tray onto her plate.  A person in our group decided enough was enough when someone actually tried to take food off HER plate!  It was quite a show.  And they call us ugly Americans………peaking of food, except for fried fish full

of bones in the coastal areas, the food was delicious.  We were pleasantly surprised by the “salads” served at lunch and dinner.  The first course was always numerous vegetables, carrots, eggplant, cucumber, potatoes, turnips, olives, tomatoes and more.  Each type cooked and spiced individually, and served cold along with fresh bread.  Soup often followed the salad.  Next appeared a chicken, lamb or beef dish usually cooked in a tagine, an interesting clay pot with a lid that comes up in a cone shape.  Talk about tender meat, and more vegetables, delicately spiced and cooked to perfection.  Dessert ranged from lemon meringue pie to French pastries, to fresh and dried fruit.  The norm was fruit, including pomegranates, oranges, figs and dates.  My favorite dish of the entire trip was stewed prunes with a mesquite flavor. 

Hotels varied but most were four stars. Most were clean with beautiful décor.  Beds were amazingly comfortable.  We were surprised, for a developing country, Morocco had mostly western style toilets.  We expected this in hotels, but found this to be true in many restaurants and public areas.  In more rural locations and in most Medinas we still enjoyed squatting over the porcelain holes in the floor.  In the desert at the Berber family tent we found the back side of the goat pen a welcome spot.

We were back on the road again leaving the Sahara behind us as we drove towards Quarzazate.  We passed Tuareg and Berber villages, people selling crafts from their tents by the roadside, and even a camel nursing her calf.

  In Quarzazate we visited an 18th Century 110 room Kasbah (administrative center) which once belonged to a high officer in the army.  This gave us a peek at how the rich once lived in Morocco.  Continuing to Ait Benhaddou, one of the oldest and well preserved Kasbahs in the Atlas region, we learned it had been used in over 20 movies such as Indiana Jones, Lawrence of Arabia and The Gladiator.  All the local people played a role in The Gladiator.  The big arena where the fight scenes took place in the movie was set right in the middle of this Kasbah.  The shop owners use the pictures from the movie to attract customers to their shops.  We had a choice, hike to the top of the Kasbah for a grand view of the stone desert or browse some truly wonderful little shops for all kinds of treasures.  You guessed it, Dan and his camera chose the view, while I chose to go treasure hunting, with Anita teaching the fine art of bargaining along the way.

On to Essaouira, with a stop to learn about and purchase saffron along the way, plus an overnight stop in Touredent at a very beautiful hotel with lush gardens.  In Essaouira we were back on the coast again to spend a couple nights.  The town was established by the Portuguese as a harbor for slave trade in the 16th Century.  We had time on our own to enjoy the harbor with all the fishing boats, the market with small shops and cafes, and the relaxing atmosphere of the town.  The weather couldn’t have been better.  In fact, the weather our ENTIRE trip was perfect, with not one drop of rain, sunny and warm, with temperatures in the high 60’s into the 70’s.  We lucked out, considering historically November is the month with the most rainfall in Morocco.  Good for us, but not for the people of Morocco, since they are experiencing their second year of severe drought.  While in Essaouira our group helped Anita celebrate her 75th Birthday.  What an amazing woman she is!  At 75 she is still kicking our butts…….up in the morning before most of us, journaling and exercising, leading the group into whatever adventure was ahead, game for anything, enthusiastic and tireless.    

Marrakech was our last stop.  On our way, we visited a women’s Argan Oil cooperative, learning about the use of this oil in cooking and cosmetics.  We all did a great job of supporting the co-op with $$ spent on Argan Oil products.  We arrived early evening at our hotel in Marrakech, hot, tired and ready to be off the bus.  Check in took forever.  Some in the group found their rooms with bathrooms not cleaned, beds not made, even a guest already checked into their room!  The five star hotel never did quite get their act together.

Staying in Marrakech for a few nights gave us time on our own to browse, eat, shop, rest and relax.  The first evening the group visited the town center were the remnants of medieval entertainment remain to this day.  At dusk, musicians, snake charmers, monkeys, fortune tellers, and tight rope walkers congregate in the middle of the square to perform for pennies of bahshish in a hat.  The entertainment, combined with numerous food, juice and dessert booths, plus hundreds of people, made for quite an interesting evening.  The next day when we headed to the souk in the same area, the square looked entirely different.  You would never guess all the hoopla had been going on the night before. 

We spent time in a group visiting a couple of small museums and getting a feel for the souk.  The souk in Marrakech is quite large and rather confusing.  One could easily get lost for hours trying to find that one booth passed up earlier in a visit.  Luckily for us, Dan has a good sense of direction and was able to get us back to a few booths we chose to visit again over the next couple of days. 

The final night of the tour, we ate at an amazing restaurant with authentic music, burning incense and outstanding food.  Quite EXOTIC!  We dressed in our recently purchased Moroccan finery and partied.  The next morning most of the group headed home.  We stayed, along with four others, to take part in a two day cooking class in the home of a middleclass Moroccan family.  It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.

It was a good thing the cooking class was scheduled for the end of our trip because the food we cooked was so outstanding, the rest paled in comparison.  We also would not have enjoyed the food as much over the trip knowing what we were ingesting.  As we learned in cooking class, seems the more fat, sugar and salt added to a dish, the more delicious it becomes.

We started early by shopping with Zora, our host, at the neighborhood market for the meat and fresh vegetables we would cook that day.  The cooking process was lengthy and far more involved than we will cook at home, but we learned many tips and will modify the process into something we can handle.  If you think couscous out of the box is the real deal you are sadly mistaken.  There are several steps to making good couscous and it takes a few hours.   While the six of us, Zora, and her sister worked in the kitchen we enjoyed time visiting and sharing.  The family, including extended family, was in and out, visiting right along with us.  By early afternoon after hours in the kitchen, much conversation and laughter, lots of questions back and forth, a few cups of mint tea and a couple of rich Moroccan cookies, the meal was ready to serve.  And believe it or not, even after the tea, goodies and tasting along the way, we were still HUNGRY!

We ate around a large table placed in the upstairs women’s portion of the formal living room.  We could not convince the husband, sister or other members of the family to join us.  In fact, the husband served us and cleared the dishes between meals, which is AMAZING for that culture.  The food was melt in your mouth good, no doubt, but the best part was getting to know Zora and her family and having these very private people open their home to us.  Zora cooks this kind of meal once a week while they eat simpler meals the rest of the week.  This was the first time Zora had given a cooking class in her home.  It really wasn’t a class.  It was more like getting together to cook a large holiday meal.  The next day, same process but different dishes, even more fun because we felt like part of the family by then.

During the two days we saw much of their three level home.  It was interesting that for such a beautiful, modern home, the kitchen sink didn’t drain without plunging, the supplies in their kitchen cupboards were sparse and their refrigerator was pretty much empty because Zora goes to the market everyday. An important piece of cooking equipment, Zora’s pressure cooker, had given out and had not yet been replaced.  While the high use kitchen was in need of some attention, the rest of the house, normally where guests would be entertained, was picture perfect.  We were being allowed a glimpse of the part of the house most guests would not see.  Very  interesting.  Saying our goodbyes at the end of the second day was kind of emotional.  Our group wanted to do something special for Zora.  We asked our driver to find us an appliance shop where we purchased a new pressure cooker for her.  When we took it back to the house, Zora was so surprised she was speechless.  Thus, a grand end to an unforgettable trip to Morocco!