Sunday, February 18, 2018

Road to Morocco – Take 4: November 29 – December 6, 2017

And we finally reach the end of our trip to Morocco. Thanks to all who have hung in there with us!


The Euro-Moroccan fusion architecture, leafy plazas and clear, sea-side air of Essaouira (pron: es-sweera) were very welcome after a week in the desert and mountains. Essaouira is one of the international back-packer-vibe places that invite all manner of travelers to linger. Many come to Essaouira to wind-surf in the alizee (the name for the strong coastal winds of North Africa), others to visit the medina and art galleries and some because it was on the tour itinerary!

Bryce had to act as Team Abracadabra’s Essaouira expeditionary force because shortly after checking in to the pleasant hotel established within a riad - a traditional Moroccan house, built around an open courtyard - within the medina walls, Molly just sort of . . . wound down.

On a day tour with our Intrepid Travel companions, Bryce visited the fishing port and the 16th century Portuguese defensive towers (you may recognize them from Game of Thrones Season 3):

They also toured the medina which, because it has wider streets and white-washed buildings, looks more like southern Spain than the medinas of the desert.

Tagines, Anyone?

Necessity As The Mother . . . 

An excellent local guide dispensed information about the multi-cultural history of Essoaira and identified the evidence carved into doorway lintels of the city’s different historic communities. 

Star of David and Six Petal Portuguese
Flower (Or So We Think)

The Crescents of Islam - Three of Them Means
The Arch Was Built During The Reign of Mohammed III

The tour was shown vistas alleged to have inspired Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand”. The famous musician’s fondness for Essaouira is a favorite local legend, and even though we have since read that his visit there was for only three days rather than the long term stay locals describe -- we’re not sure that means Essaouira and the nearby coast weren’t inspiring for him. It’s very beautiful and even today the pungent smell of cannabis is in the air . . .  (FYI: we are too old and too cautious for that type of tourism!).  

On our second day Molly rallied and we had a lovely afternoon enjoying coffee and crêpes near the waterfront and a wander through the medina. We joined our tour group for a seafood dinner and a Gnawa music and dance performance. The Gnawa are an ethnic group of the Maghreb who mix Islam with rituals of possession which are expressed through rhythmic music and dance. Sorry – we left the cell phone video cameras at the hotel – but if you are interested, you can see a video about the Essaouira Gnawa Music Festival on YouTube.

The next day our luggage was loaded into hand carts and trekked out of the medina to join us on the bus to Marrakesh. Not exactly the famed Marrakesh Express – but probably much more comfortable.

Luggage Transport

Routine Street Scene

Traveling both in and out of Essaouira we passed large groves of heat-resistant argan trees, likely planted as part of a government program to reduce soil erosion. These trees have long been prized because argan tree nuts can be pressed to make an oil which has culinary (“It’s the new olive oil.”) and cosmetic uses. The traditional way to get to the argan nut was to feed the tree’s fruit to goats and wait for them to – uh . . . expel the nut. At that point the Amazigh women (of course it would be the women) would cull the goats’ leavings for the nuts and process them. Fortunately, when we visited an argan oil cooperative outside of Essaouira to view the production process, we were shown a more modern process which doesn’t require the participation of goats. It’s still done by women.

Women's Argan Oil Cooperative


In Marrakesh our tour group was lodged at Le Caspien, a pleasant tourist-grade hotel. Our room was fully equipped:

Even The Non-Smoking Rooms
Had Ashtrays!

Abdou escorted those who expressed interest to the Jardin Majorelle. The garden and a beautiful blue building within were established by a French painter, Jacques Majorelle, in the 1920’s. Majorelle was later forced to open his garden to the public in order to pay for its upkeep. Decades later, the garden and house, both of which had fallen into ill repair, were purchased by Yves St. Laurant and his husband Pierre Bergé. They financed the restoration of the garden and building, donated their personal collection of Amazigh art to establish the Musée Berbère, and through a foundation opened both the garden and the museum to the public. The garden and museum were highlights of our time in Marrakesh. 

The garden is one of the most beautiful cactus gardens we have ever seen.

The Musée Berbère has a spectacular, beautifully curated collection of Amazigh art. Visitors are not permitted to take pictures but a few are available at the museum's website

The Majorelle-Blue Musée Building

Our word pictures do little justice, but here is what we remember: In one room, with walls painted to look like the interior of a Kasbah, minimalist, black mannequins are dressed in traditional costumes of the Amazigh people. In another room the ceiling is a night of desert stars and black mannequin busts are draped with traditional jewelry. The costumes and jewelry reflect the breadth and diversity of the Amazigh culture, which stretches throughout the Maghreb.

Visitors to Marrakesh should not miss the garden or museum.

But speaking of fashion museums that we did miss: We apparently walked very near to the new Yves St. Laurant museum . . . and never saw it. Nor did we see any mention of it in the tourist literature around town. This new museum apparently opened six weeks before we arrived but whenever we asked about “the Yves St. Laurant museum” we were directed to the Jardin Majorelle. We eventually decided that we must have misunderstood about there being an additional Yves St. Laurant museum . . .  [Travel Tip: Do your own homework – not every change gets picked up in the local tourist literature or tour books!]

When our tour disbanded and our travel companions departed to faraway lands (many went on to Egypt, others went home to Australia or Germany) we changed hotels, opting to move a little further out of town to Le Meridian. It was too cool to make use of the lovely pool – but having a Western-style cushy king-sized bed was heaven after two weeks on a budget tour. Our van-weary backs loved it.

As we wandered on our own in Marrakesh, we particularly enjoyed:
  • Maison de la Photographie, a collection of photographs of Morocco dating from 1879 to 1950. Again, see their website! It was a very interesting peek into Moroccan history.
  • The Saadian Tombs, the final resting place of an important Sultan of the Saadi dynasty (Ahmad al-Mansur 1578 – 1603) and his trusted princes and advisors (oh, yeah – and a scattering of wives and children . . . ). These tombs were walled up by a subsequent dynasty (out of site, out of mind) and were only “rediscovered” when aerial photography identified them in 1917. They are pretty spectacular.

We wandered through Marrakesh’s famous main square, the Djemaa el-Fna during the day. The giant square reportedly becomes a riot of activity at night and well, we just weren’t up for a riot. We did see the afternoon run-up to the nightly activities. While trying to get a picture that reflected the activity that was to come, Molly almost stepped on a snake charmer’s snake! Fortunately Bryce caught her and she didn’t ruin the snake charmer’s business – or end up in the Marrakesh snake-bite ward.

Oh – and don’t take pictures of any of the performers in the square unless you are prepared to pay them for the privilege. Some don’t just ask for compensation – they border-line threaten.

Watch Out For The Guys In Turquoise -
Those Bared Teeth Are Not Really Smiles . . . 

We were just fine with leaving the growing chaos behind and retreating to a Spanish restaurant in a shopping mall across the boulevard from Le Meridian for some tapas and rioja. We mused that our energy for exotic places had become more limited and wondered if it was because we had been on the go for almost three weeks – or . . . oh, no, it couldn’t be our age! Oh, no.

And that’s it for our trip to Morocco. Thanks to those of you who held up to the end! We hope that you’re now interested in visiting Morocco – we know we are interested in visiting it again. Though probably not on a rapid-schedule budget tour next time.

Our Next Post?

Probably about what we have been doing while waiting around outside of Colón, Panama. A post about WHY we are still waiting around would be short: Waves in the Northwestern Caribbean have been predicted at 12 – 18 feet for several weeks now. Too much for sturdy, but little, Abracadabra. Patience. It’s a virtue for sailors.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Road to Morocco – Take 3: November 23–28, 2017

As promised in our previous post we now present: a camel ride in the desert, 

. . . some walks in the Todra Gorge, a visit to a movie studio . . . plus a mountain shrine!
But first:

The Drive Continued

As we entered the Middle Atlas Mountains the scenery changed once again. The views were spectacular in a Utah / Arizona kind of way but . . . 

. . . by the half-way point in the 500-mile long drive we were bum-sore and ready for more than a quick coffee/toilet stop. We stopped in:


The tourist attractions in the agricultural town of Midelt are a couple of large, clean gasoline stations and some large, clean and kitschy road-side hotels.

Hotel Kasbah Asmaa

Gas Station

Happily the tour schedule included a leg stretching wander through the nearby Amazigh village of Berrem. Our visit was particularly special because we met a young Amazigh man who invited us into his family’s home for tea.

Amazigh hospitality is legendary, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that our host had been on the lookout for a tour wandering through the village that might accept his invitation to tea (we were on the “gringo trail” after all). He might have even hoped to find a tour leader willing to tip him for his hospitality to said tour group. It's called being an entrepreneur.   

Our host’s ambitions notwithstanding, our encounter with him seemed genuinely unscripted. As we walked a path lined with both crumbling wattle and daub and more modern concrete block buildings, Bryce greeted a group of men apparently discussing a stack of concrete blocks. They responded politely and our future host introduced himself to our tour leader, Abdou, inviting our group to drink tea at his family home.

It was a wonderful visit (even for Bryce who only forces down mint tea in the interest of international relations). We particularly enjoyed the impromptu rhythm section our host and Abdou created using enamel-ware plates.

The Requisite Tea Service

The Requisite Television Set
Rhythm Makers

Driving On

The following day we drove through more beautifully stark scenery, crossing a portion of the High Atlas Mountains and continuing to a frontier town on the Algerian border.

Pink And Blue School Buildings Stand Out
In A Subtly Colored Landscape

Morocco And Algeria Do Not Share
A Peaceful Border

We stopped to purchase stylin’ caravan rider sun protection. [Note: Abdou kept reminding us that we were riding dromedaries rather than camels, but in this blog we will use both terms because, well – that’s what we do.]

Most Of The Women Effected A "Laurence Of Arabia" Look

Bryce . . . More Of A "Romancing-The-Stone" Look

Desert Caravans!

And then we were there, our mounts waiting patiently.

Abdou and two camel wranglers hoisted us onto our respective rides and strapped our overnight packs to the saddles (our luggage stayed with the van). Our mounts were tied together to form two caravans. And off we swayed.

We had heard dromedaries are unpleasant beasts so we weren’t surprised (though still a little grossed out) when Bryce’s, tied in line behind Molly’s, slobbered on the left thigh of Molly’s last clean pair of jeans. Ugh. What we weren’t prepared for was the exhibition of aggressive behavior by Molly’s camel. He (she?) started chewing on the base of the tail of the dromedary tied in front of him (her?) and Molly started wondering what a full-fledged camel fight might entail. Fortunately the bite-ee stoically ignored the assault.

Molly's Misbehaving Dromedary

Despite their crude behavior, dromedaries offer a fairly comfortable ride. We haven’t been on horseback recently but the swaying gate of our camels was more comfortable than we remember a horse ride to be. Bryce thought the motion might have had a positive effect on his van-ride-weary back!

Our accommodation was a camp of squat, dark woolen tents tended by three men who seemed to have successfully transitioned from nomads to tourist camp operators.

The Intrepid Intrepid Travel Travelers

The evening entertainment included a climb (more of an undignified scramble) up a sand dune to view the sunset. Yep – just what we’d come for, the sun slipping behind a Sahara sand dune.

Dinner was simple and good in that everything-tastes-good-when-you're-camping kind of way. Later two musicians visited our campfire and serenaded us with traditional music. We passed around one of their drums and joined in. Amazigh music under desert stars. Check. Later we heard the musicians playing for one of the other camps in the distance.

The Desert Rhythm Section

No, we were not alone in the desert silence. There were three or four camps in the area, each tastefully tucked behind a set of dunes. Sadly one was home to a group of quad riders. Sharing the desert with a caravan of combustion engine machines did detract from the romance of it all. 

We can confirm the oft-repeated Desert Truth that “it gets cold in the desert at night”. The big heavy blankets the Amazigh use? Picturesque and wholly insufficient. [Travel Tip: We took fleece sleeping bag liners which helped a bit, but consider making room in your day pack for a full sleeping bag.]

The next morning we were once again helped onto our dromedaries by Abdou and the wranglers. There may be a dignified way of getting into a camel saddle but, if so, it takes more than two tries to perfect.

Wake Up, Everyone!

Turn Left At The Third Dune . . . 

The two caravans swayed across the dunes. We held tightly to the metal saddle frames and tried to simultaneously take pictures. About half-way through our ride, Bryce looked up in time to watch our camera tumble from Molly’s saddle. The wrangler’s recovery effort was quick but the sand’s effect was quicker. The rest of our pictures of Morocco are courtesy of our cell phones. Sigh. [Travel Tip #1: When tying a camera onto a camel saddle – tie it well. Travel Tip #2: There are more expensive places to replace a camera than Panama City.]  Remembering our last camera loss [going overboard during our inelegant towed-boat arrival to El Salvador back in 2014] we decided camera death-by-sand dune was less traumatic by far! 

Desert Summary: Yes, it was a canned tourist experience. But for those of us unlikely to be camping in the Sahara any other way – it was wonderful.

Todra Gorge

The gorge, an impressive cleft in the Atlas Mountains, is at the end of a green and lush river valley. Our hotel – Kasbah Taborihte – was in a gorgeous location beside the river and was perfect because the hotel staff will carry one’s luggage from the road, across the swinging bridge and up the hill to the hotel, and even up (do you see the "up" theme here?) the several flights of stairs to the rooms. Those guys earn whatever tips they get.

[Travel Rant (ignore by skipping to next paragraph): We often hear travelers say that tipping too generously (or at all) “skews the economy for other travelers”. Interesting concern, that. Particularly when translated as: “Travelers (who are obviously wealthy enough to travel - even if on a budget) should be more concerned with People Like Themselves than with making the lives of the people in the service sector of the country they are visiting even the tiniest bit better." Hmmmm. A new spin on travel being for personal fulfillment. Okay, Travel Rant over.]

We took a morning and an afternoon wander near the hotel. The morning walk took us along the river, past small farming plots. Our guide, a charming young man named Mourad who had learned his very good English by watching American movies, explained the various crops, the community's method of assigning the small fields to arriving families and the clever, gravity-fed irrigation system.

Tiny Fields Fed By The River

Molly - Looking Very Determined
For Reasons We Can't Remember

Farming Equipment

We finished our walk at the gorge photo-op site, still pondering Mourad's information that the beautiful riverside hotels closest to the gorge had been closed because a house-sized rock had fallen and crushed a portion of one of them. No one was hurt but the local government seemed to think it was a good idea not to have too many tourists sleeping in the area. We decided to take comfort that our hotel was on the other side of the river and a couple kilometers from the gorge. Hmmmm.

Todra Gorge
(Van Included For Scale Reference)

The Smushed Hotel -- To The Right
Bryce To The Left

Don't Pass? Don't Park? Don't -  Oh, Never Mind.

We had been warned that the Amazigh consider it rude to have their pictures taken without permission (hardly surprising, that) so we didn’t take pictures of the most interesting part of our visit to the gorge: a group of Amazigh women and children filling water jugs from the river and strapping them onto mules. We were told these women and children and mules would trek the water back to their village in the hills. It made Abracadabra’s 100-gal water tank and tiny desalination system seem luxurious.

More Roadside Attractions

The next day we had another home visit. We stopped to visit Abdou’s family! His mother, sister and sister-in-law had prepared tea and couscous for us and gave us a tour of the family home – including an introduction to their goats.

It was lovely to see how proud they were of Abdou even though as a single man, living in an apartment in Marrakesh, he must be the cultural outlier of the family.

Couscous and More

The Family Goats

Abdou, Relaxing At Mom's House

Our next stop was at the Horizon Association for People With Disabilities, an organization sponsored by the Intrepid Foundation which provides rehabilitation services for people with physical disabilities. The man guiding our visit was better versed in NGO-speak (outcomes and measurables, etc.) than at storytelling, but we still got a sense of the organization’s work and were impressed by how much they could do with so little.

A Stark Reminder of The Mission

Our next roadside attraction was a total hoot. We joined a tour (about $5) of the Atlas Studios movie lot. The Atlas Studios tour won’t put Universal Studios out of business, but it was fun.

The Atlas Studios lot has been used for many desert-location movies. Through the magic of cinema it has been ancient Rome, ancient Egypt, Tibet, war-torn Somalia, Mexico and various unspecified Arab-ish places. Some of the better known films shot there are The Sheltering Sky, Black Hawk Down, Kundun and Romancing the Stone. 

Some Set Designer Had Fun With This,
Doncha Think?

One Season It Was Rome,
Last Week, A Maya Market

Big Crowd Sets


Ait Benhaddou

Our final destination that day was the Ksar of Ait Ben Haddou.

This UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site was apparently largely rebuilt with movie money (see above). The result of this intervention is well worth a visit, though note that it requires crossing a river on some tricky stepping-stones.

Inside the ksar (ksar: a fortified village) are several kasbahs (kasbah: a merchant house), most empty or occupied by shops staffed by people who commute in from the modern village across the river. It is said that only four families still live within the ksar. 

One Of The Four Families' Rooftop Terrace

For us the ksar is the site of our biggest tourist purchase – two rugs. More for the storage locker!

Our night was spent at a very nice guesthouse in the village. The evening’s entertainment was a pre-dinner cooking demonstration by Hassan, the owner of the guesthouse who proudly introduces himself as “Action” (as in when a movie scene is about to commence shooting: “Action!”). Action reports that he has been an extra in over 50 movies. He is quite a character off screen, so we’re sure he would stand out on screen.

Into The High Atlas

The tour described our trip up to the mountain village of Aroumd as a walk, luggage consigned to pack mules. When we got to the departure point several of us (including the local mules, we suspect) were happy to see taxis to take the luggage and the lazy (Molly included) up into the village. Those opting to walk up were rewarded with . . . a long steep walk.

Here They Come

When the lazy and the virtuous were reunited there was much discussion about which group had the more harrowing experience because the taxis were . . . sketchy.

Not Your 4-Wheel Drive . . . 

The next morning Molly, having skipped the exertion of the day before, joined the hike into the Toubkal National Park (named for the highest peak in Morocco – which we did not attempt, and is not a day trek!). Bryce decided to rest on his previous day's hiking laurels and stayed to enjoy the views from the guest house.

The scenery was lovely but the climb was tough.

About a third of the way toward the destination (a shrine outside the really tiny village of Sidi Chamarouch) Abdou recognized that at Molly’s pace he might have to find her lodging for the night somewhere along the trail. So he arranged for transportation. Her first mule ride.

Safer Than The Cab!

[Travel Tip: Mules are trustworthy as mountain transportation, but in general camels are a more comfortable ride.]

The shrine perched on the side of the hill at the end of our hike was very interesting. The condensed version of the story of the shrine is that a holy man’s house got squished by a falling rock; the rock was painted white; a white building was erected next to it; a trip to the shrine is believed to cure the dreaded disease of infertility; and sometimes the holy man comes out at night and travels the countryside in the guise of an animal though, frankly, it was not made clear why he does this.

We were also told that the shrine is not recognized by local Imams and that they have declared visits to the shrine to be un-Muslim. Still locals come. Our group was passed by a woman riding a mule and holding a baby, apparently returning from giving thanks for her new child. Very biblical.  

Molly's Side Note: The shrine was oddly touching given its unlikely story. It reminded me of mountain shrines I visited years ago in Nepal and has caused me to muse a lot about universal human needs and the intransigence of local myths and legends. Religions come and go and people still worship mountains and trees and spirits and ancestors. Even though visiting the shrine is prohibited by local Imams, the people still travel to ask the squished holy man for assistance in fulfilling their ancient obligation to procreate and continue their family's culture. Lately a vision of this shrine has come up for me during yoga. Not sure why - or that the Imams would approve of that either.   

Okay, that's it for this post. And if you thought this was a loooong read, perhaps you'll have a better understanding of why we had a comparatively lazy stay in Marrakesh. 

Next: Jimi’s Castles Made Of Sand and Marrakesh