Sunday, February 28, 2010

excursion: Marrakesh to Erg Lihoudi

It is my first full day back from excursion, and the routine reality of Rabat is setting in hard. Tomorrow brings class, homework, responsibilities, and the experiences of the past week remain only in memories and pictures. Thus is the nature of the post-vacation funk when you realize that your time is no longer free. It is universal and inescapable; I know you have all felt it.

But do not despair. I sit here and evaluate, take stock of my situation, and realize all the things I am thankful for. I think about what is to come, of all the vacations and experiences that exist only in a calendar or the imagination. In my opinion, one of the best ways to deal with days that feel boring or routine or downright shitty is to look forward to things in the future with great anticipation. Hopes, dreams, and happy thoughts of things yet to come; these can never be taken away from us and they are always there to provide solace and comfort.

So with that in mind, let me go over some of the highlights of the past week’s trip in chronological order. There were many, and I know I will never forget this excursion as long as I live.

We left town early on Saturday, February 20th and headed south. Our vehicle: a 17 seat Mercedes-Benz tourist van. Its contents: 10 people (8 students plus RD and the driver, Simohamed), their luggage, and enough bottled water and toilet paper to last a week. This left a good amount of space for us to spread out, though getting comfortable was always a bit of a struggle. The first couple of days we had a tupperware full of Farida’s cake to smooth out any kinks in the journey.

The drive to Marrakesh was about 4 hours and pretty unremarkable (besides the fact that we were in Morocco). We passed Casablanca, some small towns, some green fields, and soon the pinkish-red buildings characteristic of (as in mandated by) Marrakesh began to appear. We ate lunch at the hotel after checking in. It was standard hotel fare besides the tasty cinnamon-sprinkled orange salad dessert. After a brief siesta we went out to explore the city.

We were encouraged to check out the many attractions by the fact that we were promised reimbursement of admission prices for all museums, palaces, etc. upon return to Rabat. With trusty, but at times confusing (because of their small size), Lonely Planet maps in hand, we took in the Koutoubia Mosque, the biggest mosque in the city.

Then with a bit of searching we found the Sa’adian Tombs, the final resting place of a sultan of that dynasty. This guy went all out on his tomb, using Italian marble and gold, and it was worth seeing. His mother also got a pretty nice final resting place. After the tombs we went to the Bahia palace. With elaborately painted wood-carved ceilings and intricate tilework, it was certainly beautiful. But each room looked the same to me, and, as Aura pointed out, the fact that it was unfurnished made it less remarkable than it could have been. I know I sound jaded; it was more work for the visitor’s imagination I guess, which is not always a bad thing.

We finally wound our way to Djemaa El-fna, the city’s main square and most famous attraction. It is an exciting and hectic place that is guaranteed to get your heart pumping faster. Tons of people milling about, tourists and locals alike, soaking in the action and enjoying the sights. We had to duck away from cobra snake-charmers who tried to put snakes around our necks (at least they enjoyed it, and we did after the fact). We tried this amazing spiced and slightly spicy cider/tea/chai hot beverage, small glasses for 2 dirhams. Cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and probably a score of other spices made it indescribably delicious. There are tons of numbered dining carts that set up shop each evening at sunset and intensely advertise their food with every tactic in the book. I saw circles around musicians and huddles of men listening intently to storytellers weaving (presumably lewd and crude) yarns, part of the street theater acts. I drank my weight in fresh orange juice and wandered through some of the souqs and markets surrounding the square. It was an unforgettable place.

We returned later for dinner, though we chose a sit-down place just off the square. Fadoua informed us that we each had 80 dh at our disposal, and with that in mind we let rumbling stomachs choose for us. Nearly everyone got two plates and a drink, and we chowed down with a vengeance. I had the spiced and intensely flavorful tanjia marrakeshia, a local delicacy, accompanied by a ¼ rotisserie chicken and fries and topped off with a café au lait. It was an incredible meal. Unfortunately rain shut down Djemaa El-fna and spoiled any other plans for the evening. The verdict on Marrakesh (slightly soured by the rain): plenty of historical sights, plenty of tourists; its worth seeing if only for the square, but it’s far from my favorite place in Morocco. It makes me a little sad that some tourists only see a place like that when the country has so much else to offer.

Sunday the 21st was a long day in the van, but I still preferred it to Saturday. We left at 8 and headed southeast. The scenery began changing pretty quickly, and soon we were rewarded with beautiful mountain panoramas out of every window. I was not prepared for the grandeur of the high Atlas mountains, and that made it all the more stunning. Some people were sleeping, but I could not take my eyes off of the landscape. The hills became mountains, and the mountains soon became snowy peaks. We crossed over the tizi n’tichka pass at 2,260 meters and stopped for some breathtaking scenery. A little later we enjoyed a picnic lunch (at a restaurant) of bread with tuna, cheese, pb & j, nutella, and chips. It was deliciously plain fare.

The descent out of the mountains went pretty quickly. The road was winding, switchback, at times hairpin, and always narrow, and I held my breath on more than one occasion as we rounded a corner or passed another vehicle. But we made it down safely, and I knew that Simohamed was always in control. It reminded me of the mountainous roads we took in Costa Rica, where you are liable to get passed by a local going uphill around a corner if you are not driving fast enough for their liking (which is never fast enough). People who say driving in Boston is scary have no idea what they are talking about.

A refreshing stop to frolic and smell the almond tree blossoms rejuvenated everyone. We continued on, passing through Ouarzazate, aka Ouallywood. We did not stop, and I was fine with that. It seemed like a place trying too hard to become something it is not, though the King and his development plans are sure working hard. (Correction from a previous entry: Black Hawk Down was filmed in Rabat, not Ouallywood.)

Then we continued southeast towards Zagora, entering what I shall call the cubist realm. The rocks and the landscape between Ouarzazate and the Draa valley were bursting with right angles. It was incredible to look at, a cubist’s version of Mars. The cubes slowly faded, and we crossed into the Draa Valley, the homestretch to Zagora. It is lined on both sides with beautiful rocky hills. The left side reminded me more of the walls of the Grand Canyon, with distinct layers of rock and majestic slopes. The right side was more rounded foothills and seemed less inviting to me. Down the middle runs a wide swath of date palms that is the main source of the livelihood of the people who live there. It is lush and green and very inviting, fed by an old and extensive system of irrigation.

Finally we reached our destination, the ‘gateway to the desert,’ and checked in to our very decorated and gaudy hotel, Kasbah Asmae. After a stroll around town and a coffee, we enjoyed dinner in an open-sided tent in the courtyard. It was very tasty, a lamb tagine with salad and fruit for dessert. Afterwards I led the expedition to the Kasbah Sirocco, described in the Lonely Planet guide as having a “subterranean stone cave bar,” which I was very excited to enjoy after a long day of driving. However, and to my great disappointment, the bar has recently been converted to a parking garage. This was only the second time Lonely Planet let me down during the trip. The other time was in Marrakesh, when we could not find the ‘special coke’ (cheap red wine in coke bottles sold in Djemaa El-fna) they described. Fadoua says that a government crackdown probably made that specialty unavailable. I have to write them an email so they update these two things in the next edition (otherwise Lonely Planet has been a very faithful and informative companion, thank you Mommy dearest!). But we enjoyed Sirocco’s bar nonetheless, though we were forced to sit by the pool instead. Good memories and just a generally good vibe from Zagora.

Monday was the best day all around that I have had in a long time. In the morning turbans were purchased by all; it would not have been a proper desert experience without one. Picture 8 turban-clad Americans going around with Hassan, our Berber guide. He was dressed to impress: brown leather shoes, a 2 piece tailored suit of cloth reminiscent of West Africa, an emerald green grand boubou with wide open sides, and a pale blue turban perched with extra swaths of cloth that seemed to be a part of him. Oh, and he also has an iPhone, though Fadoua said it was a fake one. First he took us through a Kasbah which was inhabited by Jewish people until 1963ish, when they all went to Israel or elsewhere. It was either in Zagora or close by, I don’t remember exactly. We went into the old Synagogue, which is now a dusty and somewhat creepy place.

Then Hassan led us to a silver smithing house. It used to be the Jews who made the silver in this area, but in their absence other people have taken over the trade. We watched two guys make silver pieces literally in front of our eyes in only 10 minutes or so, it was amazing. They were pushing around red hot coals with short metal pokers and at times bare hands (like thick leather I’m sure). They make the molds with only two loops of metal and 2 cakes of mud, which consists of water and the dirt inside the compound. Perhaps the dirt is imported, or perhaps it is naturally useful, I am not sure. Then the molds were sealed with fresh mud and we watched as they poured molten silver from a red hot cup (of iron, perhaps?) that had been sitting among the coals. In barely a minute or two the mold was opened and there were five small hands of Fatima, connected like branches of a tree. They have to be polished and carved later, but the raw formation stage is very quick and very cool to watch. After a session of jewelry buying and bargaining in their shop, we headed back to the van.

It was time for the real desert fun to begin, and what is the most important thing you need in the desert (after a turban of course)? A safari jeep of course! Two old white land rovers to be exact, hunking solid machines with minimal comfort and maximal utility. We took them to the village of Bono, about an hour or more from Zagora. There we stopped for lunch with the Sheiyk (chief) of a semi-nomadic tribe. He welcomed us into his house with big two handed-shakes and a plain but tasty meal of salad, lentils, beans, and fruit. He served all the food, with the help of another younger man, and he made us tea afterwards too (strong, very sweet tea, no mint, flavored with a powdered root whose name I forget; not my favorite tea). Then, with Fadoua translating, we had a little discussion with the chief, whose name I also forget.

Okay so it was more of a question and answer session, but it was very interesting to hear about his life and his responsibilities as the leader of this tribe. Being old and respected he lives in the village, but as far as I know most of the younger members of the tribe are out living with the animals. He has two wives and 7 children; 2 girls and 5 boys, of which two are away at school while three are out being nomadic. His tribe keeps goats and sheep, but their main source of livelihood is their camels. They also grow crops for subsistence, including wheat, beans, etc. We talked about his relationship with the country’s government. He says they do not pay taxes, and it does not seem like they get many services or benefits from the government. He says when they get stressed, either from life or from the government, they go camp out in the desert with their camels to sing, dance, eat, and just get away from life. It was very amazing to get a small glimpse of this man’s life and to see how he lives in this day and age. Here we are as American tourists (and students) on vacation in the desert for a day, and we are doing the same thing that he does to get away. We have to do a paper on a site of memory for history class (the site can be anything), and I think I might write about this chief and our time in his house. I will let you know.

After lunch, it was finally time to head to the desert proper. The landscape began to get sandier and drier. We saw triangular patterns of brush or straw fences along the sides of the road in the sand, which are apparently to keep the sand in place and counter desertification. We soon turned off the pavement, and then the fun started. Whipping over bumpy terrain, with rocks and dust flying we made our way across the barren landscape. The driver was having a lot of fun, and we were too. We went over and around dunes, skidding through corners like we were in rally cars. After about 20 minutes or so we came to the camp. It is a ring of semi-permanent tents, plus one larger dining tent, a toilet and shower tent, and a couple of other tents for the guides and workers. It was basically a desert hotel of sorts, though, along with a French family of 6, we were the only guests.

Immediately it was off for some dune fun, including jumping and sliding down the sides of small hills of sand. It was the Sahara desert as you might imagine it, dunes as far as you could see. I was surprised by the many scrubby pine-ish tree, and also a few other plant species. There is life in the desert of course (there is life everywhere).

Then we played toss with the Frisbee that I brought (thank you Stiglitz, where ever you are). It was the first time I have played on this trip, actually the first time I have played in way too long. After that came tea and peanuts before our camel ride. Unfortunately the cyber café is closing down so I will be back in a day or two with the rest of the desert and then our trip north, to Rissani, Fez, chefchaouen, and finally home. Geez this is going to be a lot of writing, I hope you all can bear with me. Oh on the way home I finished reading Brave New World, which is a must read for everyone. And some of the stuff that Huxley describes seems all too real in these days of genetic engineering and industrial global capitalism.

I miss everyone, and I hope all is well, especially with the recent storm in the northeast. Boxford is still without power as of an hour ago, and I haven’t heard from my Mom in a couple of days. Maybe Ipswich is too. Hope everyone is safe and happy. Back to the grindstone here in Rabat, but I do get to see my lovely Jill within the next couple of weeks, inchallah. The prospect makes me glow inside. Love and hugs.

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