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Monday, April 12, 2010

Adventures in Morocco

One week in Morocco is a wonderful, exciting adventure bringing to life images from great films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Othello and, of course, Casablanca.

Two weeks in Morocco provide ample time to see past the beauty of the ancient kasbahs and clearly view the trash, filth, poverty and stench which makes one thankful for having been born in a developed nation which is exceedingly rich by world standards. Ok, that may be a little harsh. I loved Morocco, but after getting extremely sick from something I ate, not to mention being 5 months pregnant, I was pushed to my limits towards the end.

Here’s a summary of our trip in 2001, the unabridged version.

We landed in Casablanca on a Sunday afternoon and decided to immediately head south along the Atlantic coast to find a quiet fishing village for our first night of vacation.  Driving out of the city we were forced to share the road with donkey carts, black-smoke spewing diesel cars, antique motorbikes, and hoards of pedestrians carrying their fruit, chickens, etc to market.  The drivers in Morocco put my offensive skills behind the wheel to shame.

After about 2 hours on the road we entered a city which we believed to be the small coastal town of El Jadida.  After passing through the main street we saw only one hotel which was located above a „tea café“ (no bars…Muslims drink tea instead of alcohol).  Sound quaint?  Then I haven’t accurately portrayed our surroundings.  All of the buildings of the narrow street were old and dilapidated, the street was riddled with piles of garbage, people were all over the place, darting in and out of the street, not watching for cars in the least (why should they?  Normally only donkey carts pass through!), everyone stared at us and made gestures to enter their shops or yelled Bonjour (second to Arabic, French is their common language), there were almost no women in sight but the few that we saw were covered from head to toe with traditional loose garments, wild cats and dogs were roaming the streets looking for scraps, the tables outside the tea café below the hotel were packed with men (absolutely no women) with nothing to do, some drinking coffee or tea, many just sitting, watching the world pass by.  Frank gestured to the hotel….“Don’t even think about it“, I said, followed by, „There’s no way I’m even getting out of the car.“

We continued on through the town towards the beaches were we saw signs for a golf club with villas.  We never found the golf club but upon asking for directions realized that we had not yet reached El Jadida, we were told that it was not far away and were shown a road to follow which was unpaved and ran through thick woods.  At one point a wild dog came running out of the woods and jumped up at my window with a nasty growl.  Thanks for the warm welcome, Lassie.

Eventually we came across a main road which ran into El Jadida.  This city was also very dirty and falling apart, but at least they had lots of cars and young women were abundant, dressed in normal slacks and blouses.  Whew!  I still wore long pants and a long-sleeved shirt but at least I didn’t have to worry about wearing a scarf over my head and face.  After touring around a bit, we came across the Hotel Royale, quite run-down, but suitable.  The best room in the hotel cost us $10, well worth it even though we had to provide our own toilet paper and bath towels.  Many thanks to someone on the Internet for suggesting we bring these with us!

We found a small restaurant on the water with two items on the menu: Fruite de la Mer and Seafood Paella.  We tried one of each.  Both were delicious but very messy, as we had to use our hands to eat it.

So ends our first day in Morocco. 

My first breakfast in Morocco introduced me to the country’s favorite drink, mint tea, or, as they call it, Moroccan Whiskey.  They brought me a beautiful silver teapot and a small glass.  It was the best cup of tea I’ve ever had, I think it’s black tea, but the tea pot is stuffed full of fresh mint leaves, add a little sugar and it’s fantastic (for breakfast it’s great, but I still don’t think it can replace a good ‚ol Bavarian beer with dinner)!

The national language is Arabic, although many Moroccans also speak French, thankfully so does Frank.  I remembered enough of my high school French to understand much of what I heard, but every time I tried to speak it, German came out of my mouth.  Anyway, the road signs are in Arabic, and if you are not familiar with Arabic it looks very similar to a child’s rendering of waves in the oceans, with a few scattered dots here and there.

Now, imagine this, we have our map in hand and are trying to get from El Jadida to Essouira, we work our way out of downtown and see road signs ahead, as we come closer we saw three rows of squiggles with a number at the end of each.

Ok, according to the map Essouira is approximately 225 miles from here, maybe we should follow the signs for the bottom squiggle? It says 234 miles. Frank comments that he wished that he had brought his compass.  Well, at least we can always use the sun for reference??  (What year is this? 2001 or 1601?) Actually once we got onto the main roads the signs were in both Arabic and Latin alphabets, and considering that there are extremely few paved roads in rural Morocco we only got lost once….great story that I’ll get to later.

Fish market in Essouira
Through the plains, over the mountains and back to the ocean….we made it to Essouira by early afternoon.  A beautiful town with a thousand-year-old medina (walled city).  It was apparently a favorite hangout of Jimi Hendrix in the 60‘s.  The fishing boats came into port around 3pm and the town livened up, stalls were set up along the docks which allowed you to choose your own fresh fish which they would filet and cook right before your eyes.  The fish market was in a huge open hall and all the fish were laid out and auctioned off.  As we walked through the entrance to the hall I noticed that there were no women inside, I hesitated because I wasn’t familiar with the Islamic culture, so I turned around in doubt and saw an old man sitting at the entrance door who, seeing my doubt, made a motion to allow us in, I pointed at myself and he smiled and waved us on.  What a spectacle! Thousands of fish laid out orderly by species, color, and size (or so it appeared), some of the fish were such unique creatures from the deep that they looked like they should be in a sci-fi movie rather than on a dinner plate.

We fell right to sleep that night lulled by the sounds of the ocean, until 4am when we were awakened by chanting from huge loud speakers perched on the Minaret tower at the city‘s mosque, I think it was a „call to prayer“, so I prayed, „Please God, make that stop so that I can sleep a couple more hours!“  It lasted 45 minutes!  Actually, it was quite beautiful and I would have been able to appreciate it fully had it been at 4pm.  At 6am (a little jet-lagged because Germany is two hours ahead) we climbed to the roof of the hotel and had a view of the city waking up from over the rooftops. Breathtaking.

From Essaouira we headed to Marrakesh (my gynecologist tells me that Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have a song called Marrakesh; CSNY and Hendrix, what is it with 60's music and Morocco?).
FACT:  Drivers in Marrakesh are the worst in the world.
It was total bedlam, the main road heading into the city was wide enough for three lanes in each direction but there were no painted lanes, so it was a free-for-all.  The road was over-crowed with cars, trucks, pedestrians, bikes, motorbikes, tractors, and don’t forget donkeys and goatherds!  It was crazy, everyone switching lanes at random without turn signals, without looking, just weaving in and out with constant horn blowing, yelling, and the fumes were suffocating!  We had no map of the city so we just tried to follow the „flow“ hoping that it would lead us to a hotel, turns out a man on a moped spotted us as in need of assistance and herded us to a relatively decent hotel, overridden by French, apparently he makes commissions for leading poor lost tourists to the hotel.  We were just happy to have our feet on the ground!

We took a petit taxi to the city’s medina, which we shared with an old overweight Muslim woman dressed in the traditional garb, as she left the cab at her stop, the cab driver told us that she was Director at one of the largest banks in Marrakesh and has two sons living in Germany.  Who knew?

The medina was a madhouse so we took a horse and buggy tour around the city with a young man who spoke no English, no French, just Arabic.  We tried to find a driver who spoke English by conducting some preliminary interviews, here’s an excerpt:
Frank:  Do you speak English?
Driver: Yes. I take you to Palace, to Mosque, to old medina and around city.
Holly: Have you ever visited the United States?
Driver: Yes.
Holly (with doubt):  Which cities did you visit there?
Driver: Yes.
Thus, the city tour was conducted in Arabic.

Boiled sheep heads anyone?
It was in Marrakesh where we learned that apparently in the Islamic culture it is believed that the male gender is not only „superior“ in the human race but in animals as well.  For example, cleaned carcasses are hung in the meat markets to proudly display the „manly feature“ of the beast.  (Frank and I both lost weight during the two weeks we were there and I was 5 months pregnant!)

Driving through the mountain villages between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate was like in a dream; the hillsides were green and dotted with old villages carved into the hillside that reminded me of photos of ancient Peru (or so I imagined).  Fresh streams weave along the roadside and provided the perfect setting for photos, I think we have two rolls of film from a 100km stretch of road!

Ouarzazate is at the entrance to the Sahara and is often the setting for movies.  There is an ancient Kasbah in the town which is well maintained and could be toured for 10 Dirham per person ($1). 

Ok, now the „getting lost“ story.  Leaving Oarzazate we decided to take some side roads to check out some small villages.  After about an hour driving through rural markets and forgotten towns the paved road turned to dirt and was then diverted into a dry riverbed, we thought it may be just a detour because of road construction and we queried a man on a donkey. Nothing he spoke was recognizable to us, he smiled proudly to display his two remaining teeth and gestured to the riverbed as though it were the autobahn.  So, we tried it.  We bounced around over small stones and other debris for about an hour, passing women and children who had certainly never before seen a blond-headed human.  The kids were a little afraid when I tried to hand them candy, but once they saw that we came bearing gifts, they cheerily followed us along, shouting for more.  Then, up ahead, we saw a road winding up the hillside.  Yippee!  Back to civilization we thought!  We began climbing the road, then realized that it was a) extremely steep, b) extremely narrow, c) made with donkeys in mind and d) had a sheer drop off and no structural reinforcements!  Frank stopped and told me to get out of the car, then he slowly backed down into the riverbed again, as I followed behind praying the road would hold.  It was an interesting adventure, even the second time around, as we saw all the same familiar faces driving back the same two hours we just came.  But we stopped at a small school and handed out pens and candy to a crowd of children who were released by their teachers to experience a visit from the „Europeans“.

We then headed deep into the Sahara which, even in May, was hot and dry and very dusty!  We drove to Erg Cherbbi, a couple of kilometers from the Algerian border, which is the Largest Shifting Sand Dune in Morocco (or claims something to that effect).  It was a ridge of sand mountains, just sand, as far as you could see…JUST LIKE IN THE MOVIES!!!!  Is that a tropical lagoon or just a mirage in the distance?

After drying out our hair, skin, lungs, nasal passages and bottled-water supply, we left the desert for the city of Meknes some 300km to the north.  We were approached there by an un-official tour guide who brought us through the medina and showed us a 1400 year old music school still in operation.  He took us inside houses, which from the outsides looked like slums but inside were tiled palaces where the rooms surrounded beautiful courtyards, open three stories to the sky.  He pointed out the donkey taxis, showed us an elementary school where the cutest little kids were learning their prayers, then he took us to a medicine man who sold us some dirty little bottles full of mystery spices in a sticky bag for 45 Dirham; then we saw mat weaving, rug making and ended up in a rug store where we bought a beautiful Berber Kilim for our dining room.  (Comment on the rug purchase:  Negotiating is a way of life for the Moroccans.  It took us 1.5 hours over a few cups of mint tea to settle on a price about 1/3 the original asking price and I’m not even sure we got the better end of the deal.)

We next went to Fez (I think that’s where the name for the little hats comes from).  It has the largest and oldest medina in the world.  We had a guide to show us the way or we’d still be there, lost in the labyrinthine maze.  There we were escorted into an obscure doorway and up a dark narrow stairway which came out onto a terrace overlooking a tannery.  The tanneries are where animal skins are dried in the sun and then soaked in vats of dye for coloring; poppies are used for red, indigo for blue, urine for yellow…just kidding ‚bout the last one…but while on that subject……The smell of urine is everywhere, the stench in some of the city streets was nauseating.  Lunching in Fez I ate something which tasted wonderful the first time it passed over my tongue….but when it came back across twelve hours later it was less than delicious.  I couldn’t eat for two days, add that to the urine stench and I was ready to truncate the vacation five days early.  But I persevered and we headed back to the coast, the Mediterranean this time, in search of fresh air and fresh fish.

In Al Hoceima we stopped at a lovely beach and, after taking in the natural beauty of the surrounding cliffs and bright blue water, we noticed that only men populated the beach…where are the women?  We found them later on at a dingy, dirty beach a few kilometers away, even swimming and sunbathing they wore long pants and collars to their chins – little girls too!  Where are the Women’s Rights Activists when you need them?!?

Leaving Al Hoceima we drove through the windy Rif Mountains to the village of Chefchouan hidden in the hills.  The hidden aspect made it the perfect location to become the marijuana capital of Morocco!  A man approached us in a back street asking us if we „were looking for something special?“  No, we replied.  He regretted his error as he realized we were „straight“.  Two hours later I saw him again giving a walking tour of the medina to a group of about 20 French people.  Which is his day job?  A shop keeper asked us if we had arrived from Tetuan today, we said no, from Al Hoceima, he was completely shocked that we had driven through the mountainous roads between the two cities, he said that it is usually very dangerous and asked if we were chased by drug pushers.  Um, no, as far as we were concerned it was a pleasant drive…glad we found out about the pushers after the fact.

From Chefchouan we drove through Tetuan, Tangiers (adjacent to the Strait of Gibraltar) and back to the Atlantic coast to the small fishing village of Asilah.  There we found a surprisingly pleasant beach hotel with a pool!  We decided to spend two nights here to recover a bit from our adventures.  The city’s old medina was painted white and blue and scrubbed clean, beautiful little shops actually had good prices, we wondered why they weren’t trying to scam us like all the other tourist shops?  Oh, well, we took advantage of it and bought some Christmas gifts!  The beach was actually clean except for the two or three huge dead fish that had washed up the night before.  It was here though that Frank found a giant cockroach in our bathroom, I was just climbing into bed as he came out of the bathroom with a sour face, I asked him what was wrong and he told me about the „visitor“, I told him just to kill it. He said, "I really, really hate those things".  I said don’t be a wuss, just kill it.  He hesitantly turned back into the bathroom from which moments later I heard the shower running, but it sounded as though the water was not contained to the bathtub….several minutes later Frank came out and was then trying to squeegee water back into the bathroom which had seeped out and was now flooding the hotel room.  Where’s the roach? I asked him.  Umm…well…it kind of disappeared, he said.  You mean, all that water action and the roach escaped?   Ummm…yea.  Neither of us slept well that night for fear of roach-revenge.  That, and the fact, that next door to our quaint hotel was a disco which played Arab music extremely loud from 1 until 4 am.  We thought the hotel was too good to be true…apparently it was….time to move on.

Morocco is riddled with roadblocks, police randomly stop tourists and locals alike, for what reason we were unsure, but we guessed that they may be looking for drugs, or just trying to stop speeders, unfortunately we found out first hand that they were simply trying to pocket a few Dirham.   Leaving Asilah on our last full day in Morocco we were finally stopped at a roadblock and asked to pull over.  The two policemen told us that we were speeding and that radar caught us doing 61 kph in a 40 zone.  (Note: there was definitely no radar anywhere in sight, they had no vehicle near-by, no radar guns and carried no two-way radios, I think the 61 kph was the standard tourist quote)  So, they demanded that we pay 800 Dirham cash to them on the spot.  Ok, to put this in perspective, 800 Dirham is only about $80, but if they were to have asked a local Moroccan to pay 800 Dirham, with their average earnings, that would have been equivalent to a cop in the US asking us to pay up $5000, cash, on the spot.  We didn’t have that much on us considering it was our last day and we were trying to unload our Moroccan currency which is worthless (and not even exchangeable) outside of Morocco.  So, from another tip from the Internet I had brought with us a package of Marlboros, for bartering purposes.  I waved the package at the cop, apparently he saw it but Frank did not, so I just tossed them on the dash.  Frank continued to haggle with the police who finally reduced our „fine“ to 100 Dirham, Frank continued to explain that we didn’t even have that much on us (which of course we did but Frank didn’t want to give up a dime…or a Dirham) and after about ten minutes the police walked away for a moment, then one came back and said „Cigarettes“, we handed him the pack and were sent on our way!  Fine free!  Yippee!

Hassan II Mosque
That afternoon we toured Rabat, the capital city of Morocco.  We went to the Royal Palace where Frank asked at the front gate if we could go in and have a look around; the guards laughed at us.  Hmmm…I guess the King wasn’t seeing any visitors that day.  From there we drove to Casablanca for our last evening in Morocco, Rick’s Café was nowhere to be found.  Actually the only thing worth seeing in Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque which was just completed in 1991 at a cost of $600 million „solicited“ from the Moroccan people. I’ll bet the inhabitants in the slums next door to the Mosque were glad to see it built, really gave property value in the area a boost……not. The mosque is the second largest in the world, behind Mecca‘s; its Minaret is over 600 feet tall, it can hold 100,000 people and has a retractable roof.  The building, which is so massive that it can be viewed from just about anywhere in the city, was erected on a man-made jetty jutting out into the Atlantic; but tourists are only allowed to view it from a distance, as we approached the main gates a guard came hurrying towards us and told us to leave.  We explained that we just wanted to take a look and he suggested we take a look at his gun instead. Okay, next destination! 

The next morning we were off to the airport to catch our Sabena Airlines flight home.  (Sabena Airlines is the official airline of Belgium, on which Flemish is spoken by the flight attendants)…..ahhh, I think I see the Alps already, there’s no place like home...there’s no place like home….

All in all, it was a fascinating two weeks that I will remember for the rest of my life but I think those two weeks will be more than enough ‚Morocco‘ (for me) to last a life-time!

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