Wednesday, March 18, 2015


We hit the outskirts of Casablanca and are soon ensconced in THE most intense driving on the planet. There are three lines on the road, which in a normal world would indicate four lanes. In Casablance, it's five. Five lanes of whizzing, speeding traffic. I couldn't count the amount of times I looked at a car edge by with a hair to spare and thought "oh no, this is it". At least there are street names. Unfortunately they are one by one foot tiles up on the walls. They are dark blue and the writing is white, or was once white. Now the writing is kind of a dark grey and in the waning light of day virtually impossible to read until you're on top of it.

Wil focussed on the driving and the kids and I scanned for awnings, street names, anything that would give us an indication of where we were going. Thankfully you can only get so far in Casablanca before falling into the ocean. We managed to stop just short. I finally capitulated and jumped put to ask a parking attendant for some help. He had no french or english but some nice young man came along and translated and pointed in what I'm sure the parking attendant thought was the right direction.

Take two. I jump out and ask three men in suits haggling outside a car for help. One convinces his friends to jump in their car and lead us there. We follow, nearly losing them once, through the hairy traffic. They stop on a boulevard in front of us and the convincer jumps out of his car and comes and grabs my hand and we cross the wide boulevard. He motions to Wil to pull a U-turn into oncoming traffic and leads me down the street. I think Wil was having visions of me being abducted. He points out the hotel and gets on with his day. Moroccans really do have the hospitality thing down. We all offer many shukrans and then go check out the hotel. Of course there is no parking so I jump out with the kids and have a look. The rooms reek of smoke and are grubby and windowless. I tell them I'm going to talk it over with husband and head out.

Rather than sit in our illegal spot while I go back to explain, we start driving away, stressing that we are now going to have to try and find another address in this maze of streets. But the bellhop runs out and asks if we'd like to see another hotel. Sure, we say. He squeezes in the back with the surprised kids and leads us left and right and up and down 'til we pull up in front of another hotel. The kids and I check it out as Wil waits in the, again, very illegally parked car and it's grosser than the first. On we go, feeling guilty for taking this guy farther and farther from his job, to another hotel which is full and another which is also full. "Quatre étoiles?" the bellhop asks. If what we've been seeing is trois then definitely quatre, I'm thinking. On to another hotel which has a room that is out of this world expensive and has about as much charm as a airport bathroom. No, again. One more, he says. At every stop he convinces the surly parking attendants to let us leave the car in a bad spot as he whisks us inside. I can't take the pressure and ask Wil to veto the next one. I sit in the car poring over the map, trying to figure out where we are as he runs off with the bellhop and the kids. They come back. Success!!

We try to give him cab fare to get back to the hotel but he refuses. Wil forces some money on him and he dashes back to work as we head over to our new home. The Hotel Toubkal. We pull up outside and I feel as though I've entered a John Irving novel. The doorman explains that there are two elevators but only one of them will stop on our floor meaning you have to go to the fifth and walk up or to the seventh and walk down. The kids love the elevators — the kind without an inside door so you can see the floors pass as you ascend. The sign inside states that it's built for four people but it's more like two. Oh well, at least the place has charm. It's in a great neighbourhood, near the medina and the coast (which we find later is all walled off with high-end, high-rise construction). We go out for dinner at a steakhouse and everyone pigs out. We have a bottle of wine which feels like such a sinful luxury in this dry country.

In the morning we go for a wander and stop outside the market for breakfast. At a little stand, a man serves up Moroccan pancakes — a square, crispier, chewier crêpe — slathered with Nutella or Vache qui rit with a little glass of mint tea. We walk along the Avenue des Forces Armées Royales toward the Hassan II mosque. There are policemen and soldiers stationed every 20 metres. On one street corner are four groups of men in matching djellabas banging away on drums and tooting horns loudly and waving large portraits of the king, Mohammed VI. Something is definitely up.

We wander through the streets toward the mosque. Women wander around in fleece pyjamas with teddy bear prints. The alleys are strung with drying clothes on ingenious contraptions — long poles with guide wires that stick out of every window.

The women are definitely more present in Casablanca and the proportion of women in headscarves is definitely smaller. Despite this, however, the men are far more unpleasant here than anywhere else we've been. Leering seems to be a bit of a pastime. Despite being sandwiched between the not-unimposing figures of Wil and Henri, the men still see fit to gawk and hiss at Alice as they watch her wiggle by. Wil spends much of the day flashing the beady eye. I, in turn, greet the worst of the gawkers warmly in arabic. So taken by surprise, they respond before they know what they're doing and then I get to listen to them bear the brunt of their friends' mocking.

We get close to the mosque but much of it is cordoned off. When I ask a soldier guarding the perimeter very politely if I can ask a question in french he answers briefly, demonstrating the fact that he can both understand and speak it but then goes on almost entirely in arabic, sneering at me (and my ignorance). What I gather, through the information interspersed with major attitude is that the king is inside and we're going to have to come back later.

We take the long way around, determined to have a peek, and join the throngs hoping for a glimpse of the beloved king. (You'd be hard pressed to find a commercial establishment in Morocco that doesn't have at least one royal portrait on display — the most popular being the one of him and his wife with her crazy mane of curly red hair and their two kids blowing out the candles on a birthday cake.) Most of the men are wandering toward the mosque with a small, folded carpet tucked in the crook of their arm. We end up in the vast esplanade outside with an amazing view of the gigantic structure and the sea beyond. Apparently both the Koran and the Bible state that god's throne is on the water so Hassan II asked the French architect to site the building on this outcropping reclaimed from the sea.

On the square are tidy lines of men kneeling on carpets, all pointing toward Mecca. A good twenty yards behind them, tucked under the roof of a passageway, are the women, similarly laid out but more bunched together in the meagre shade.

The muezzin finishes up (how he can repeat the same call five times a day seven days a week without making it even a little bit musical is beyond me) and the imam's sermon (undoubtedly called something entirely different) is blasted from speakers outside. Sadly the only word I recognize is Allah. A shame, I thought, as he probably worked quite hard knowing he would be delivering it directly to the king.

As we left the square we pass a long line of parked buses with curtains drawn. I assume they're groups of people who've come for a chance to worship with the king but then catch a glimpse of a few uniforms and realize they are military on call in case something goes awry.

We went back to the mosque the next day to see the inside — the only time non-believers are permitted, finding ourselves among a busload of elderly Dutch tourists. The tour guide was a pompous prat more intent on showing off his ability to speak a few languages (poorly) than to inform his audience. Any questions he was asked were responded to in the most patronizing tone. Despite the crappy tour, the building is astounding. At 200m x 100m, it's big enough to fit St. Peter's inside. It is almost ridiculously huge. The craftsmanship is simply spectacular. We were taken through the main floor — admiring the plaster carving, stone work, wood carving, mosaics, painting — all on a crazy scale. It took only six years (and a mere 600 million euros) to build. It's the seventh largest (according to Wiki) in the world (third, according to our guide) with the world's tallest minaret. The coffered ceiling is retractable! Some of the floor is glass to allow a glimpse of the ablutions room and, apparently, the sea but that section was roped off as it's reserved for the king. We were taken into the basement, through the ablutions room with more than forty fountains — rosettes of pale, carved stone. I had a hard time believing the ablutions room was ever used as it was bone dry and prayers had been held there just a few hours earlier. There is also a hammam in the basement, complete with pool, but the guide admitted that it was only for show. ??? The floors throughout are heated. The minaret has a laser that points toward Mecca. All the bells and whistles.

While we stood waiting for the guide to do his pre-tip thank you speech (apparently when he asked for feedback he only wanted the positive variety), Henri bumped his elbow against one of the wall tiles and it sounded hollow. A poorly-laid tile, I told him. He proceeded to quietly tap all the ones he could reach and heard the same empty sound. I hope the building lasts. My impression is that the king is great at commissioning grandiose projects but, if the infrastructure of this country is any indication, maybe not quite so good on the upkeep.

We checked out of Hotel Toubkal, loading our gear into the trusty Kangoo. Our flight was in the evening but we'd run out of things to do in Casablanca. There doesn't seem to be much to do in Casablanca. We headed up the coast to Mohameddia (renamed after Mohammed V upon his death — to the delight of business card and letterhead printers and the dismay of everyone else, no doubt), a little beach town up the coast. We drove through more intense traffic, watched shepherds watch their flocks on the side of the highway, got our feet wet in the Atlantic, listened to cats begging for our tajine and heard the call to prayer one last time.

We're ready to go home. Ma'a as-salaama Morocco!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Essaouira and Oualidia

We were a little lost as to where to go next. The kids were sick of driving and most of our top choices were a long way away. I think it was Frances's idea to go back to Marrakech which makes a great starting point for getting to the coast because all good roads lead to Marrakech. It also meant that we could take the road through the Tizi n' Test pass, a spectacular switchback road through the High Atlas mountains which we'd been eyeing since we first decided to come to Morocco.

We hit the road early and the road was lovely, fresh tarmac through groves. There was almost no one on the road. We'd chatted with an English couple at the riad who had just come this way and said they'd only met four cars on the whole stretch.

The road soon started to go vertical and the tarmac pretty much fell away. Two lanes became one and a half and then one as we worked our way up the mountainside. The sheer drops off the side were pretty nerve-wracking and we were pretty damned happy to have the road pretty much to ourselves. We only had to pass a couple of times —a grand taxi and big truck. Wil craned his head to the left and me to the right hoping against hope that someone wasn't going to come flying around the corner. The nasty condition of the road was obviously having an impact on the volume of traffic because the two or three tourist cafés at the lookouts were shuttered. Like much of what we've seen in Morocco, there seems to be money for new construction but no money to maintain the infrastructure once it's in place. In many towns we've seen long stretches of very grand, elaborate streetlights, mysterious towrering pink cob gates on either the side of the highway to welcome you to something only the writing is gone and they're falling apart. The street lights are missing all the metal plates that keep the wires hidden, the pavement in the big cities is in pieces, making it all a bit of an obstacle course.

As everywhere, the countryside is dotted with herds and their shepherds. One man was out with his large flock and two teenage boys in the early morning of a school day. I think what we'd talked to the kids about — about many people not having the means to go to school after grade 6 started to sink in. Several kilometres later we passed a huge group of high school students standing around and laughing, carefree, outside their school. They were probably the classmates of those two boys — and all the other kids in the country who can't afford to be in school.

We make it back to Marrakech, finding our way around without a hiccup this time. We spent the afternoon walking around the souk while Henri slept off a fever back at the riad. It was more familiar the second time but no less exotic. We are instantly struck by how many more tourists are here this week than last. So many of the stands are selling identical wares. No wonder it is so incredibly competitive. My favourite stall was a woman sitting at a typewriter with a client sitting beside her dictating. In a country with so much illiteracy, services like hers must be invaluable. I couldn't help but think of the stories she must have collected over the years (I'm writing the screenplay, don't even think it!!). Shop owners sit in the passages, sipping mint tea or playing a hand of cards. They chew the fat or good-naturedly bicker with the shop owners across the alley.

We go back to the riad and get Henri for dinner. We all decide that we should eat in Jama el Fna, knowing what we know now. We wander around, taking our time to assess the clientele and appearance of the food on the tables — waving away the constant assault of menus — and settle on #31. We get greeted like old friends and whisked past the stand into a long line of benches and tables. We have a wonderful view of the cooking station. You would never suspect that this square, a heaving mass of mobile restaurants at night, is a wide open, empty square by day. This stand would make a boatbuilder jealous — a stackable, foldable restaurant in a four by ten foot wheeled cart. There is a deep frying station for french fries, a grill for the little chains of sausages manned by a man with asbestos fingers who flips them with his bare fingers, a grill for the brochettes, one for the vegetables, a little man who stands at the narrow end of the stall opening up round breads, pouring in a splash of tomato salsa and throwing in a pile of merguez which he cuts into pieces with scissors inside the bread and, of course, the man at the till. Wil points to a heavy, aproned man in his seventies who lumbers over for a sandwich. We wonder at how many nights & years he's been coming to work in the Jama el Fna. Scurrying around all the guys on the grill are the waiters. Six or more men who hustle people to the tables and get the orders up. There is also a young runner who goes to pick up drinks if the fridge runs dry or to get change. Every once in a while a man wanders off with a bucket of dirty dishes and comes back with a bucket of clean.

As we chow down on our amazingly flavourful meal I start wondering about where the dishes are going and see a little box a ways off that's closed on three sides where the dishes are deposited and retrieved. When our meal is over I head over to have a look and find it empty, the aproned man with the sandwich is sitting on a low stool right outside, calmly munching away.

In the morning we head east to the coast through rolling plains. We share the road with tour busses and motor homes which makes us wonder whether we've charted the right course. Our destination is Essaouira, a fishing village that is now a popular beach and resort town on the Atlantic.

All along the road are signs for women's collectives selling argan oil and the groves of trees stretch off into the distance. They really are beautiful trees. Like a thick trunked ficus or a bushy apple tree. We'd read in the guidebooks that the local goats sometimes climbed the limbs to get at the nuts. Wil and I were keeping our eyes peeled but we weren't very hopeful. The busses pulled over on the the side of the road tipped us off. That, and the huge crowd of people with cameras held in front of them, all pointing at one tree — a tree that very conveniently couldn't have been closer to the road that had SO obviously been planted with goats that stood awkwardly on branches looking incredibly uncomfortable and unnatural and in no mood to munch on argan nuts. The goat herd stood by, no doubt in case any of them fell or perhaps to take them down for a snack once the tour bus had moved on.

We pulled into Essaouira right outside the medina and went for a stroll. A small town chock-a-block with tourists but lovely all the same. The volume and caliber of tourists is a bit of a shock to the system — lots of day trippers in groups from marrakech, lots of people who don't even make the effort to say thank you in arabic. The medina is a maze of alleys through gorgeous porticos leading in a million different directions. I think we were suffering from souk fatigue however as all the kids wanted to do was eat. We found a lovely little restaurant tucked into an alley. The place was minuscule. Along each wall were two benches for two and two little tables not big enough to accommodate two place settings, with a matching bench and table along the back. Between the tables was just enough room for the owner/chef to serve the tables. We took three of the tables and waited for the owner's daughter, obviously on her lunch break from school, to write the day's menu on the chalkboard. As luck would have it they'd been closed for a week and had just reopened this very minute. We ordered up our best meal in Morocco. Fresh fish cooked to perfection and homemade gnocchi and pasta. As we were finishing our starters we were joined by a family of five. We had to do a little shifting of benches for everyone to fit. The mother and I shared a table and we ended up chatting about the usual. They had recently moved to Morocco from the south of France and were trying to make a go of it here. We talked homeschooling, moving to the country, having to reinvent one's career to live a different sort of life. The chat could have lasted 'til dinner but we had things to see and said goodbye.

We walked down the port to see the fish market, a string of fishermen standing behind tables with their shiny catches laid out before them. The seagulls screamed overhead, the cats skulked and housewives shopped around. We moved on to the other pier and the boatbuilders at work on huge and small skeletons of half-built vessels. I poked my head through one of the gates and talked to one of the builders about the one he was working on. The ribs of the boat were doubled-up 3 x 5s of eucalyptus which looked as though they'd been hacked into shape with a axe. The planking was all walnut, beautiful inch and a half thick cross-sections of trees out of which he cut the sizes he needed. The planking was about half-way up to the gunwales and he had big blocks of wood nailed into the ribs and was using triangular wedges of wood to squeeze the planking tight — the same way we get warped wood floors or decks to straighten out. I asked him how long he'd been at it and he answered thirty years. How long to finish the boat, I meant. A year, he said. I'd have been more than happy to spend the day walking around the boat and asking questions but the kids wanted to move on.

The kids had a swim at the hotel and we went into the basement for a little hammam action. I've never been a fan of steam baths or saunas but we went down into the bowels of the building to see what it was all about. We wandered around in the haze of steam going through a chain of rooms. It was all a bit underwhelming until Wil opened a door we hadn't seen. He walked in and disappeared in a cloud of steam. I mean literally disappeared. We all went in and fumbled around finding places to sit/lie down on the benches around the edges of the room. The kids messed around with some water at one end but I have no idea what they were doing. It was hot enough for me right beside the door (if I left it open a crack). We all tried to take it easy and I tried to relax into the feeling of not being able to breathe this dense, wet air. You can probably guess that I didn't last very long.

The hammam got Henri's fever kicking again so he hung back and slept while the rest of us went to dinner at a fabulous little hole in the wall. Decorated in Marrakesh meets the Santropole. Little rooms with a table or two, crazy collection of art and retro furnishings scattered artfully about and a killer menu. We ate like kings and enjoyed our first bottle of wine of the trip.

We walk through the medina. Mothers tug their very small kids along. Anyone over five seems to be in a small pack, running a bit wild and loving it. They have so much more freedom than the kids at home. Vendors stand over steaming vats and pull out lima and garbanzo beans for sale. On our walk home from the medina we pass a young couple on a date — our first of the trip. It was so sweet to see them doing the dance of early days romance, a time that is so lovely and innocent and natural and, from what we've seen in the public domain, completely absent here. Maybe it's just my cultural bias but I can't help thinking that this is a loss for everyone. I imagine that young man's thrill when he gets to see the girl's hair for the first time but, aside from that, I can't see the benefits of keeping the sexes apart.

Henri is happy for the big plate of pasta we bring home which he polishes off before falling back asleep.

The next morning we hang out for a while and then hit the coastal road toward Casablanca. The beach appears and disappears on our left. For twenty kilometres we pass horse cart after mule cart after donkey, all of them hauling vast quantities of greenery in the same direction. Along the road are piles of feedbags stuffed with more greenery, apparently waiting to be picked up by someone. Gone are the cob walls, everything is chalky stone. Pale pink and white craggy rocks that look as friendly as pumice. There are piles of rocks for fences, piles of rocks to mark the corners of fields and every house is made of rock. There is next to no soil. It's like a pale moonscape. The few fields there are are abloom in red poppies or barley. Swallows divebomb the road. The carts are carrying double the people they are designed to carry. Every man in the countryside is going somewhere.

We soon find out. It's the farmer's market — which, in Morocco, is not well-heeled locavores with their recycled bags looking for organic produce, it is a market for farmers. In a field on the left are trucks carrying a load of straw that towers above them and hangs out perilously by several feet on the front, sides and back. On the right side of the road are a long string of donkeys, horses and mules with one leg tied to an upended cart. Many with their heads busily buried in feedbags on the carts.

The road swerves toward the shore and back again. The beaches become cliffs and bluffs and dramatic. The water is an enticing pale green. The whole view soon disappears in a smoggy cloud as we first pass a huge sardine factory and then chemical and cement plants spewing nastiness into the air. Past the plants and the haze clears as we pull into Oualidia, a town known for its oysters.

We stop for a quick lunch and a walk down to the beach where the fishermen are coming in with their catch. On our way down we are approached by half dozen men on bikes with little plastic boxes on the back filled with inky black urchins, still wriggling shrimp, sole, etc. Next time we come to Morocco we pack a hibachi! On the beach are a few plastic tables and chairs with a man on the barbecue serving up lunch to a bunch of men in suits. We kick ourselves for eating at the bloody restaurant.

We sit and watch the fishermen pull out their boats. After some young man hauls out the motor and carries it up the beach over his shoulder, they turn the stern toward the beach and argue. Then they unload the catch, in this case a whole lot of crab in nets which the young bucks haul up the beach. Then they insert a very long log through a loop above the stern and another in a loop in front of the bow. They stand beside each other putting a shoulder under the log, wait for the right wave and lift. Then they stop and argue. Then they lift again and stop to argue. They argue some more and seem to decide it's not working. There's an incredible amount of shouting and what looks like a nazi salute with palm upturned followed by flicking in dismissal and more shouting. I have to restrain myself not to laugh out loud. Throw one woman into the mix, I thought, and she'd have them sorted. And there wouldn't be nearly as much posturing and macho bull. Another boat pulls into the harbour and the first group decides to wait for it to come in so the three backs in the second boat can lighten the load. There are more than a dozen boats already parked on the beach which leaves me wondering whether they go through this every time. It seems to me they would know by now how many men it takes to lift this boat which is identical in every way, except in name, to every other boat on the beach. With the help of the other three, they finally manage to get the first boat up. We didn't stick around for number two.

On to Casablanca.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

We love Taroudant

We start climbing out of Foum Zguid across washed out roads. That second day of rain obviously had a huge impact on the area as pieces of destroyed bridges are wrapped with trees and all sorts of flotsam. We have the roads to ourself. Again, completely in awe of the natural beauty and variety of the landscape of this country.

The roadsides are full of goat herds and shepherds — some with three goats, some with dozens. We talk about how many people in Morocco, in the world, spend their days following animals around and watching them eat. A great reminder of how lucky we are, having the freedom to choose what we do in life. We pass the occasional café or restaurant in the middle of nowhere, owner sitting at a table waiting for the clients that don't come.

The kids play food-themed Would you rather...? Spaghetti bolognese or Dim sum? Lasagne or a fried egg sandwich? Meatballs or spring rolls? The food in Morocco is a big surprise to me. Having tasted and loved tajine and couscous, I assumed those dishes were the ones that had been exported not that they would be the essence of almost every meal. Tajine, couscous (on fridays or special occasions), harira, aghroum, omelette, brochette, moroccan salad, tanjia (which we still haven't found on offer), olives. That about sums it up. There are endless variations on the tajine (in the halal spectrum) but we've found ourselves more than once wishing we could take the same raw ingredients and spices and just making something different.

We stop in Taznacht, a village in the high plains, for lunch. We are drawn to a place billowing with smoke with a few tables set up outside. Around the tables are several barbecues manned by men cooking meat sandwiched between grates. The smell is making us salivate. Between all the barbecues is a butcher stall with bits of meat hanging from hooks. The idea is you choose a cut at the butcher's and the barbecue man cooks it up for you. We ask for some ground lamb which Wil brings to the grill man who sandwiches between two metal grills. Under every barbecue lies a cat, waiting for drippings. Someone brings us some olives, some bread and little bowls of harissa. When the meat is nearly done the grillman adds slices of tomato and red onion for a last shot of heat and brings it all piping hot to the table. As we eat, we people watch — the bread vendor selling aghroum and baguette from his wheeled cart, the mule carts laden with hay, the teenage boys revving their motors for a captive audience.

After lunch we head across the street to what looks like a community centre to use the bathroom, a putrid squat toilet in the darkest corner of the building. To get there we cross a huge, empty room with two men in plastic chairs and a massive television flashing soccer scores.

The trucks on the road are piled high with everything from straw to live chickens. We come down off the plain into a fertile valley full of orange and olive groves. The orange trees are seriously fragrant, cutting through the choking diesel and the dust-filled air. We happily recognize the logo of our Christmas clementine brand on the gates of the huge plantations that line the road.

A car flashes its highbeams and we wonder at what it might mean. Duh! A minute later we're being waved over to the side of the road for a speeding ticket. Two uniformed officers stand on one side of road pointing a speed gun at the cars going by. If you register on the gun they wave you over to the side of the road where you park in the rough shoulder. One of the officers comes to tell you how fast you were going and invites you to join him across the road to pay. After all the tales of corruption and baksheesh I was feeling a bit spooked but Wil grabbed the paperwork and ran across the road. There were four cars parked at once. All the drivers had made their way to the makeshift desk hidden between a little stand of trees where another officer processed the payment. 300 dirham for doing 76 in a 60 zone, complete with signed receipt. Quite an efficient system. I don't know what happens to the locals — even less those who don't have the money to pay.

The orange trees give way to palm trees and we're on a boulevard heading into lovely Taroudant. The city, nicknamed Little Marrakech, is surrounded almost entirely by high walls that have been standing since the 16th century. Through a beautiful gate in our little Kangoo into another world.

There is no rhyme or reason to the roads. Most of the streets are about 6 metres wide, which technically would be wide enough for three parked cars. The roads are all two-ways but that would imply a lane for both directions. This town doesn't do lanes. There are stop signs but they are obviously no more than a suggestion — a suggestion that is universally ignored. The streets are a sea of pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, mules, donkeys, hand carts horse carts, caleches, cars and trucks. They move in any given direction at any given time. One second you're surrounded by cyclists, the next you are being overtaken at speed with centimetres to spare. Plot your course and keep moving seems to be the rule of thumb. There are no foreign drivers here and we quickly understand why. The total (and I mean total) absence of street names really makes it impossible to navigate. Struggling to find the occasional awning with an address, seeing one, looking down at the map to try to find the street name (which of course does not feature on the map) and back up again is a complete and utter waste of time. A compass would be more useful than this bloody map.

We head in what I hope is the right direction but we soon find ourselves in a dead end. A man on a bike stops and asks us where we're going. We tell him. He giggles (politely) and offers to lead us there. We turn around and follow his red bicycle back into the vortex. There is no way in hell I would have found the riad (which as it turns out is closed for renovations). The way he leads us through the door to reception tells me this is not the first time he has provided this service to lost tourists. He takes us to another riad, first leading us to a parking spot outside the fish market where he negotiates a not-quite-legal spot with the attendant, and walks us through a labyrinthine set of alleys to our destination. We are received by a very charming young man who has obviously met our friend before, who sits down for a coffee while we check out the place. Our saviour, Farid, offers himself up as a guide the following day which we, for now, decline but we do pay him a generous finder's fee for getting us here in one piece. If ever you're in Taroudant, we know just the guy!

Taroudant isn't a big city. The ramparts are seven kilometres long and encompass all the city we're hoping to see. The streets are a smooth cobble and take you places you never thought you were aiming for. Some of the streets are no wider than a supermarket aisle but people, bikes, mopeds, motorcycles, horse drawn carriages and mule carts squeeze past each other in a fluid sort of dance. One second there are two abreast going in one direction, the next you are in a sea of students riding home from school in the opposite direction. Every once in a while a young buck comes flying through at breakneck speed leaving a wake of irritated people stopped in their tracks but on the whole it works. I had my elbow brushed by more than one rear view mirror today and have yanked all of the kids out of range of some looming hazard at least once.

Shop owners sit outside their tiny stalls and jump up as you approach. The women are out. Lovely, gorgeous moroccan woman. They're so beautiful that you could imagine the root of the headscarf being fathers insisting their daughters cover their heads to keep their beauty under wraps. The proportion of girls without headscarves is higher here than anywhere else we've been and they are knock outs. Their presence makes us all the more aware of their marked absence elsewhere. Half the population so grossly underrepresented in public life. Except for the very rare shopgirls or pharmacists, exchanges with women are limited to smiles and salaam alaykums. Makes us long for the matriarchal life of Mexico where the men agree to something and then go check with the boss. Gone are the men and women or teenagers holding hands and necking. The men, in contrast, are far more affectionate with one another. It isn't unusual to see two men hold hands walking down the street, or hug and kiss when they greet each other but between a man and a woman... Never.

We go for a walk to the Arab and Berber markets, getting our bearings. We bail on one restaurant that seems to cater solely to tourists, as, it seems, do most places that serve non-Moroccan (pricey) fare. We opt instead for little Snack, a fast-food place with non-tajine on the menu. The kids chow down on burgers and surprisingly good pizza and we head back into the evening throng. Around the markets, vendors stand at their carts, behind piles strawberries or peanuts in the shell. Everyone is out. Around the main square, a man tries to calm his spooked horse as the poor creature is trying to flee the cart tied behind it. On almost every street corner is a sign advertising "Protheses dentaires" testament to the loathsome state of teeth in this country. There is no doubt that a half dozen glasses of heavily-sugared mint tea a day has had a detrimental impact on smiles in this country. So many young men with so few teeth. The ones that are left are often brown stumps. It's such a shame in a nation of truly beautiful people. You can see how it has an impact on jobs in the tourist trade as you rarely encounter someone in the service industry who doesn't have at least most of their teeth. It rules out more people than you'd ever expect.

On many blocks is a shop window with entirely blacked-out windows. Over the doorway hangs black fabric or rubber cut into strips like a fringe. I can hear gaggles of women chatting happily inside but can't even catch a glimpse. I have to see a few before it registers. Hair salons.

We call it a night and head back to our lovely little oasis. Unlike the other riads we've stayed in, this one has windows on the outside, in our case about five feet from the window of the house on the other side of the alley. We get to listen in as we fall asleep — to small kids singing to each other, to a mom scolding her kids, to a goat that is tied up somewhere in the middle of all these bunched up buildings.

In the morning we head out for a walk with a map provided by our host. He laughs, flamboyant, joking that his map is the enemy of the likes of our would-be guide. Henri, learning to trust his newfound gaydar, brings up the question of how gay men must fare in this oh-so-macho land. I don't have an answer for him.

We head out for a wander in the sunshine, making our roundabout way to the tannery. A man offers us the tour, taking us past the cement vats where people stand in foul-smelling liquids and soak camel, sheep, goat and cow skins. They then stretch them out on the ground and scrape the fat off the inside. This is the part where I kind of turned off. It is a fascinating process how they turn hides into all sorts of useful things but it is only fascinating if you can disassociate the product from the poor animal it came from. In the various vats are lime, water and another with a concoction of pigeon droppings and cow urine. Frankly the whole process is positively revolting and if I had a backbone I'd never wear leather again. I don't know who to feel sorrier for — the animals whose hides are being tanned or the poor folk standing in this stinky vats day after day.

We walk through the Berber and Arab markets, stopping at a date stand for a bag of mejool dates which are basically sugar in fruit form. We wander around munching and then head to a café on the main square for lunch. At ten to one, the call to prayer sounds. First from loudspeakers across the road, then a little further away and on and on, like an echo. The call in Taroudant is not the most artful — sounding a lot more like a whine than a song. The square begins to empty as men who have been hanging around in groups start to march off purposefully to some place we cannot see. The café is opposite a public toilet and a man sits outside on a chair beside a box of kleenex packs. Men drop coins in the box as they emerge from the bathroom, turn the corner and hustle through the next door, up a set of narrow stairs. It takes a few minutes for it to register that they are using the bathroom for ritual ablutions before going to pray. Young and old, in suits, djellabas, dusty rags. They all climb the stairs. Some men rush across the street toward to the bathroom with their pantlegs rolled up, anxious to wash their feet before they get to the mosque. Seventy-five men up these tiny steps. And ten minutes later they are pouring back on to the sidewalk, retrieving bicycles for the ride back to work. The last man down the stairs unceremoniously closes the door behind him. Only then do we see the decoration on the door — a line with three balls of decreasing size topped with a crescent which is what appears at the top of most mosques' minarets in Morocco except for maybe the 12th century Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh which has four. The fourth was gifted to the mosque — all the gold jewellery of the Caliph's wife offered up as penance for the sin of eating three grapes during Ramadan. The punctuation of the day with prayer really brings its own rhythm to life here. Walking through the market, we often see fine mesh or a sheet being draped across the front of the stall as the owner races off to the closest mosque. I don't know if there is some kind of agreement between owners to take turns watching each other's stall but they certainly don't seem to worry about their goods being stolen which you have to appreciate. We've seen little signs hanging in more touristy locales with Arabic script and underneath, the translation, "Back after prayers".

We stop on our way home for a snooze — picking up a bag of the biggest, juiciest oranges we've ever seen. We watch a young man biking with a 16 foot length of steel U-channel balanced on his shoulder. He's holding it on the diagonal and the back bit manages to make contact with a few parked cars while we were watching. Thankfully our rental car was on the other side of the road. We saw donkeys pulling a cart filled to bursting with bags of cement and rebar so long that is was folded in half and ran from the donkey's ears to the ground behind the cart. It seems to me the beasts of burden and the women in this country are in a tight race for who hauls the most stuff. Back at the riad we play a few rounds of Asshole in the shade.

We head out to dinner, first having a long stroll around the outside of the city's ramparts, watching teenagers heading home from school and moms out with their kids. We have our meal in a touristy, but delicious, restaurant run by a 40sh woman who wouldn't look out of place in Outremont. The restaurant window, a long stretch of glass which wraps around the building on a busy corner is like watching a zoetrope of vignettes of bustling Taroudant street life.

When we step outside into the night, two young men come blasting up the road, racing their caleches up the very narrow street. One finally pulls up, very reluctantly capitulating and we soon hear why, as his clients, two elderly women looking very uncomfortable in the back, scold him loudly.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lake Iriki

Getting up at 6:30 was, for once, a treat. We climbed up the nearest dune and watched the colours of the sky change as the sun emerged. Wisps of white cloud turned orange then pink. Saïd led us to the dining tent and laid out the mint tea. Then the aghroum (round flat bread), orange jam, honey, strawberry jam, yogurt, orange juice and, of course, la vache qui rit.

Back in the car to Foum Zguid via Lake Iriki. Out of the dunes, we are in the feshfesh for miles following the river bed to Lake Iriki. Hussein swings the steering wheel from left to right, trying to maintain speed so we don't sink. He very clearly loves to drive. With me white-knuckling the doorhandle as our rear end swings around, he is entirely blasé, chatting or texting on one of two phones on the go. I ask if the phones have arabic characters on the keypads. Some do, he said, but mostly we text in french because it's easier. Our revamped itinerary provides the added bonus of letting us see the breadth of the desert. We are really on the "border" with Algeria. There is a surprising amount of green. Shrubs tucked into the valleys of dunes. Much of it in flower. It rained a lot this year. Twice. It rains for a day or two. Hard. And it is enough to fill the wide oued (river bed) and then the lake for a month or so. Right after the rain, in "Mois Un" as Hussein put it, the piste becomes too dangerous as the clay beneath the sand gloms on to tires and pulls you down. In January and February, you have to make a track through the mountains to the north. The ground is at its firmest just after the standing water disappears.

Our timing is good. There are little pairs of piles of sand with rocks balanced on top every hundred metres or so, markers from Paris-Dakkar days, before it moved to South America because of the disputed border in south west Morocco. Hussein waxes nostalgic about those days. There is still a woman's rally, L'aïcha des gazelles, that comes through but I get the impression the whole region is suffering financially for the loss. In the distance bodies of water appear and disappear. Mirages. The real thing. Mirages that are entirely convincing. Again, a thought for the caravans coming through on foot.

Once we're in the bed of Lake Iriki — a lake that is nothing like a lake unless you see it in January. The only indication that it ever is a lake is the absence of arrrek or feshfesh. Every few kilometres is a little cluster of tents with plastic patio chairs or a fairly elaborate kasbah-like construction. Waiting for the tourists. What happens when the rain comes? we ask. They abandon the buildings and go back to their village, returning when the lake bed is dry. Every once in a while a colour that doesn't belong in the desert appears. Like a bright scarf dropped in a field of snow, the smallest flash of colour stands out in this monochromatic world. In the Sahara it is nomads. Distant specks of black of the goats, nomads in scarves and kaftans in electric hues, their tents lengths of colourful plastic and fabric strung from the acacia trees. They spend a few months here after the rain while the grazing is good, edging closer to civilization as the drought approaches, ending the year in the outskirts of the villages where animals can be traded for food. Occasionally we see another vehicle in the distance, charting its own parallel course through the desert — the choking cloud of dust behind them making us all the more grateful they've given us a wide berth. Once the dunes fade away to our left and we are through the lake it's back to the rocky arrek. On our right the folds of the anti-Atlas mountain range pull closer. If we were in Utah what was on the left I'd call buttes — flat-topped rocky outcroppings blown bare by the wind.

Hussein stops the car on a dark patch of rock. "Fossils', he said, 'Everywhere", waving his hand over the ground. Sure enough, it's hard to find a rock without one. Vertebrae of trilobites, big and small, encased in the dark stone, littered everywhere. With the sun beating down and the wind blowing hard it's next to impossible to imagine this bedrock once lay under a prehistoric sea.

Not far from some of the nomad tents, kids stand near the piste waving. We though they were saying hi but they're waving with no smiles in their eyes. Hussein explains that they spend their days standing there hoping for handouts of candy or money from the tourists. Hussein doesn't slow down. What is about the way a person's eyes go when they're begging? ouf...

The massive dunes of Erg Chigaga may be the most picturesque part of the Sahara but they're only one small part. We saw a sign entering the desert "Water is a treasure." Who can argue when a single day of rain a year can sustain this incredible array of plants, animals and the nomads who keep them.

We head into Foum Zguid, a town full of military buildings that underscore the conflict in nearby Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (I'd never heard of it either!) We stop at a café for mint tea. Hussein offers the kids souvenir necklaces, black beads with little pendants of the Free Man and the Southern cross, both potent Berber symbols to ward off the evil eye. Ismael is late (as usual, Hussein laughs) but eventually shows up. We shake hands, say a big, heartfelt Tanemirt Bzeff to Hussein and hit the road to Taroudant. Kangoo Away!


We were feeling a bit uneasy about our exchange with Ismael last night, about handing over a good deal of money and the keys to our rental car. The likelihood of it working out seemed kind of far-fetched. Wil was up early, as usual, and went for a walk and who does he run into but Ismael. Wil heart-on-his-sleeve Murray fesses up about our discomfort. Ismael reassures him. "On est pas des gamins". Okay, we thought, let's just trust in fate and see how it goes. We had breakfast in the garden, songbirds going for it, the poor screeching peacock getting chased down by our kids.

We drove up to the main drag for a banana-strawberry-orange smoothie. We watched the kids walking to school — the girls in headscarf and labcoats (designed to mask any attempt at sexiness). We watched pregnant women with husbands in tow go in and out of the obstetrical office next door. "The girls are so young!" Frances comments. The mosque and the souk, delivery men overloading their vans, donkeys pulling carts heavy with mint, or gravel, or sand. There were lots of women in full sahara gear, body size scarf covering practically every inch of skin.

We drove around Zagora and into the palmeraie, so green and lush in such contrast to the arid surroundings and stopped at a store for kleenex and treats. The place is probably 20 x10 feet, making it far and away the biggest store we've seen in Morocco.

We meet up with Ismael and are introduced to Hussein, our guide/driver. He is probably thirty and built like Wil, making him, by a long shot, one of the taller men we've met in Morocco. He's dressed in a dark djellaba with a pale green scarf tied around his head like a turban. We transfer our stuff to the Toyota Prado, a 4x4 small version of a Land Cruiser, hand over the keys to the Kangoo and head off with Hussein, Ismael promising to meet us with it tomorrow in Foum Zguid. We drive along past where we'd seen all the men hanging out on the road the day before. Hussein explains that it's a wedding — a three day affair in Zagora. The first day all the guests come to the bride's house for the actual ceremony and celebrations. The second day the bride, whose hands, feet and hair have been hennaed, is completely veiled and gets on a white camel for the ride to her husband's family home where she will now live. There is lots of tajine and couscous and harira. Three hundred people or more come. The whole community parties. Hussein went through all this five months ago. I asked if his wife and his mother get along. Yes, yes, he replies, smiling, amused. How did you meet your wife? I spotted her walking to the high school and knew she was the one. I choose not to ask about the age difference.

We hit the road. Stopping in Tamegroute for a look around a Koranic library built in the 16th century, one of only two in the country and now a place like Lourdes where the ill come to be healed. We also get the tour of the pottery collective. Tamegroute is the source of much of what we think of as Moroccan pottery — the tajines, the platters, the rough green pots. We were shown the whole process — the clay powder first being soaked in water in a big pit, the decorations, the wood-burning ovens, the gas ovens for the brighter colours. Small, snotty kids follow us around begging for a dirham. Hassan, our pottery guide, has instructed us not to cave — to contribute to the collective instead, which benefits the whole community. It's very hard to ignore them as they shift in front of you whichever way you turn. I'm kicking myself for not learning how to say sorry in arabic. We follow our guide through a series of passages with kasbah-like walls and then through the gift shop where we are steered toward the larger pieces. I try to take a picture of a pot and the memory card on my camera just stops, the camera telling me the card needs formatting. I thought myself quite brave for not breaking down and crying there in the shop. With my pathetic recall, my photos ARE my memories and there were so many of them from Marrakech, from our hike in the mountains... I hadn't even looked at them, conserving the battery and looking forward to savouring them once we got home. Back in the car, I sat in the front seat, barely able to contain my anguish. Hoping, as I turned it off and on. Hoping, as I removed and replaced the battery. Hoping, as I popped out the memory card over and over. Hoping! Hoping to no avail.

Not only to have lost all the photos from our trip, some of the most picturesque moments of my whole life, but facing the prospect of a once in a lifetime trip into the Sahara without my effin' camera!!!.. After sucking it up, I felt it only fair to tell Hussein what was up (aka, why the chick riding shotgun was losing her grip) as we entered the last village on our stop. He pulled a memory card out of his gps and I hoped again but it didn't work. If it had happened in Marrakech, I thought, I'd be able to pick another one up to salvage the rest of the trip but here, in this tiny string of concrete and mud buildings... Aargh! Suddenly Hussein pulls the car over to the side of the road and hops out, pointing to a tiny, dusty shop with the word Photographe painted on the pink exterior. I walk in with him thinking "Ya, right... and Hallelujah, they have a memory card that fits in my evil camera.

Soon after, we turn off the paved road between a few rocks onto the "piste", which is essentially a set of tire marks leading off into the void. The ground is pale packed soil dotted with greenery. The rule seems to be drive where you like — a million tracks like a crosshatch on the landscape. I chat with Hussein in french, asking him a million questions. He, like Mustafa and Majid, is Berber but of the Saharan variety. They speak what is meant to be the same dialect, Tamazight, but it bears little resemblance. Hussein's variety is guttural, sounding far more like arabic while Mustafa's was a little like Portuguese with lots of zuhzuhzuh. Hussein contradicts so much of what Mustafa said about Berber culture that I really begin to wonder who knows and who doesn't. Even the way they pronounce words that both dialects share differs so much. I suddenly think about asking a Montrealer and an Ontarian or Vancouverite about how to say something like milk or bag or bagel and understand.

The hard-packed soil eventually gives way to arrek (roll those rrrrs), loose softball-sized rocks that bounce the car and its queasy passengers in a million different directions. There are fewer tracks but the ruts are challenging for the shocks and the driver. Good thing Hussein knows where he's going because Wil, who normally has an excellent sense of direction, is lost. I, on the other hand, am always lost. After the rocks comes the feshfesh (a word I find so satisfying to say). I can only liken it to driving in deep snow in summer tires. The key, Hussein tells me is not to lose velocity. Keep moving or you dig yourself a sandy grave. We swish and swerve around, the steering wheel always in motion, the rear end fishtailing around shrubs and acacia trees.

In the distance on our right are the Jbel Bani mountains, which run along the southern edge of the Draa river valley. On our left is Algeria. We see wild dromedaries from Algeria (which Hussein tells us are darker than the Moroccan variety), wild donkeys, acacias (the parasols of the desert and the dromedary's favourite food) and little birds that flit alongside us.

A few dunes, gorgeous things in the midday sun, appear on our right, basically in the middle of nowhere and Hussein pulls the car up to a cluster of tents. He explains that we're stopping here for a quick lunch, pointing to one of the tents, and then driving on to Erg Chigaga which will take an hour or so. We take off our shoes and head for the dunes. The sand is gold and finer than sugar. Living sculptures. The kids have a blast sliding and jumping, letting off some steam after being cooped up for a couple of hours in the car. We watch a group of four people mounting dromedaries and heading off into the desert in fits of giggles. We head over to the tent — a thirty by thirty foot structure of wooden poles and camel hair. The outside is brown black. We step inside and it's as dark as night but our eyes adjust quickly. The floor is carpet upon carpet. The walls are also a mishmash of colourful carpets, more on the ceiling and the benches that line the walls. There are rough, wooden, round tables tucked into the corners. Henri chooses a corner and we all settle in, feeling like pashas. Soon comes the mint tea, the moroccan salad (chopped tomato, cucumber, peppers and olives) and the brochettes. Halfway through our meal the group on dromedaries joins us in the tent. A family of four from France — Mom and Dad and two grown girls. The girls are in short shorts and strapless bikini tops — a whole lot of skin for Morocco. It makes me feel uncomfortable — for them and also for our hosts. They tell us they're embarking on a four day dromedary trip through the desert with a guide. We say au revoir and head off toward Erg Chigaga. Once we're in the car I ask Hussein about their outfits and what he thought. "The other guide is not very happy, he said, He's going to ask them to wear something more appropriate for the ride." I wouldn't want to be on either side of that conversation.

Back on the piste toward the dunes. We see noone except for the occasional nomad tent. The distances are so vast and there is nothing. We pull into our bivouac, a circle of tents on a flat nestled between some dunes that are perhaps fifteen feet high. The tents are a patchwork of black camel hair, the doors are carpets hung over openings, kept closed to keep out the heat or the cold or the sand.

There is a dining tent and a cob structure for the bathrooms, a fire pit surrounded by sections of palm tree for stools. Hussein introduces us to Saïd, the caretaker, a small man with a huge smile who limps around, one of his feet turned inward so that he walks on the outside of his foot. He pulls out an endless supply carpets, laying them on top of the sand at the entrance to all the buildings. We dump our stuff in our tent and wander off into the dunes. We climb the first one see, something that looks glamorous in movies but is actually intensely awkward as it is a serious struggle to move forward and upward on the loose shifting sand without digging your hands in. Once we're over the first ridge we are all huffing and puffing and then downright breathless at the sight before us. A sea of motionless golden waves. Some of the dunes are the size we just climbed, others are mountains. The ridges snake off in every direction. Not a straight line to be found. The wind blows from one of two directions here and you can tell by the shape of the dunes. The side that gets the brunt of the wind is all tiny scalloped ridges — like a wave-combed beach. The lea side is just an accumulation of soft, fluffy sand — the sand that has been blown over the ridge and fallen where it will. Even the gentlest breeze sends a spray of grains over the ridge so that the dunes are ever being shaped and reshaped. Once over the ridge, we realize that the scalloped side is the one for glamorous walking, hard-packed by the incessant wind.

The kids jump and slide on the forgiving slopes, trying to turn on the snowboard they found leaning up agains the dining tent. Wil and I sit and watch, pinching ourselves. We can't believe we're here. As we're sitting there, we see a young turbaned man walking a line of five dromedaries toward us. The kids are giddy as we head down to meet him. The dromedaries sit down in a neat row and Assan, a young Berber from a village in the nearby mountains, introduces us to our mounts. We all jump on, settling ourselves on the thick blanket atop the donut-shaped saddle and hold on to the metal T in front of us. Sitting on a sitting dromedary is one thing. Sitting on the dromedary as it gets up is quite another! Unbending those five foot long legs only happens two at a time! The back ones go first lurching you forward toward the back of its neck, pretty sure that you're going to somersault over its head, then the front ones go and you're hanging on to the T for dear life. It only took a few steps to answer my question about why you only see tourists on dromedaries. The Moroccans are too smart.

Assan took us for a stroll in the dunes. Once you've settled into the rhythm of the pace you can almost ignore the physical discomfort and fear of falling and enjoy it. The kids found endless joy in the almost constant farting of Wil's dromedary. I found a little less funny their habit of swinging their tails as they pee, sending a fine spray of camel piss in every direction. Hussein had told us on the drive in when a pregnant dromedary is getting ready to calve, the herd will leaves her alone for the birth. When the calf is a week old, she will head off to rejoin them, finding the herd by picking up the trail of scent they leave behind.

The dromedary's feet are incredible. Their front feet practically double in breadth as they put them down, spreading their not-negligible weight on the sand to keep from sinking. I started watching Assan's footsteps alongside the dromedary's and was amazed to see that, despite the 800kilo difference, his footsteps displaced more sand than the dromedary's. We "parked" the dromedaries (a process which is even more of a carnival ride than getting on) and scrambled and scrabbled our way up the side of a big dune to watch the sunset. As we were getting near the peak, Assan called out to us. We'd forgotten our bottle of water. He sprinted up the side of the dune. Having cleverly first cleared the soft side lower down he pounded up the hard side and was waiting for the not-so-clever tourists when we finally managed to make it over the top.

We sat with him and watched the kids mess around. Conversation was limited to our ten words in Berber and his limited French vocabulary. But he did point out the two biggest dunes on the horizon, giving them names that now escape me. Henri had talked about heading over but Assan told us it takes a full day to walk there and get to the top. The distances are so misleading. Again, a thought for the people in the first caravans who actually made it across.

Although it is late in the day, the sun is still beating down hard. The wind has picked up, making it almost impossible to move without creating a spray of fine sand that gets in everyone's hair and nose. The scarf, again, makes so much sense. We watch the sun set in a nest of clouds but we're just so entirely gobsmacked to be here that I'm not sure a perfect sunset wouldn't have just been ridiculously over the top.

We get back on the dromedaries (lurch, lurch) and head back to the bivouac. We thank Assan and the girls thank their rides with greenery pulled from the nearest bush. Back in the circle of tents Saïd and Hussein have laid out a huge carpet scattered with cushions. In the middle is a round table with a white tablecloth. The temperature is dropping fast so we all dash into our tents for our down jackets. Back on the carpet, we watch the darkening sky. We're all on our backs pointing at the heavens. First the planets emerge, then our friend, Orion and the Dippers. None are where we expect them to be. Henri points out just how round the earth feels as the inky dome above us takes shape in sparkly wonder. Hussein magically appears with heavy fleece blankets to keep our legs warm. I am having a moment. One of those moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Lying here with my favourite people, all safe and warm and close in the friggin' SAHARA DESERT!!! In this moment I am the luckiest person on the planet.

After another marathon round of Henri's "Would you rather...?", Saïd turns on the light in the dining tent which signals it's time for dinner. We head inside and, yet again, CFL bulbs are again trying to spoil the mood. We turn them off, lighting a few more candles to compensate. All alone in a dining tent designed for dozens. Saïd brings us harira followed by a delicious tajine. Snaking underfoot and meowing loudly is a tiny ginger cat. It's very hard to eat a meal outdoors in Morocco without being accosted by at least one cat. They start meowing the moment you sit down (just in case you hadn't noticed them) and continue throughout the meal, shifting positions constantly in order to keep you interested. It can be comical or infuriating depending on whether you choose to engage. We can't quite believe that one has found us here! We feast and laugh and emerge to a spectacular night sky. We find our places on the carpet and lie down to take it all in. Just when it couldn't get any better, the almost full moon makes an appearance on the horizon.

The bed was (surprise, surprise) as gritty as a beach blanket but the sheets were crisp and cool. Up a couple of times to go pee, walking across the compound to the bathroom, a cob building still giving off the intense heat of the day despite the frigid temperature outside. The moon was high, the shadows as crisp as full noon, the blue of the sky deep and the sand gone ochre. The stillness is striking. Despite the fact that we live in the middle of nowhere I have never, ever heard/felt silence like this. In the daylight there was nothing but wind and birdsong. At night, just the occasional howl of the jackals in the nearby mountains. The quiet settles on you like a heavy blanket. Comforting and, to me, a little unsettling. I stood out in the opening, eyes pointed at the sky and absorbed the peace of the sahara. I just can't believe we're really here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Very sad to leave our deluxe, country compound. To get to Zagora, our stepping stone to the desert, we first must cross the Sahgro, another chain of mountains, round topped scrub that pale in comparison after the High Atlas but an impressive obstacle all the same. Thinking about the poor caravans that braved fifty or more days in the desert only to find this set of mountains and the even more forbidding Atlas Mountains beyond before Marrakech. Far braver souls than me!

The "arabes noirs", the Touareg Berbers, that Mustafa talked about are here. A broader range of skin tones than anywhere else we've been. It actually starts feeling like Africa. That, combined with the wild west feel of the dusty, tiny villages really give the area a frontier-like feel. The older women are dressed almost exclusively in black flowing robes, some with colourful edging or bangled fringe. Far more women are in niqabs. Many of the men are in white djellabas and white kufis. Not a lot of smiles and waves for the whiteys in the Kangoo. The occasional hand gesture we do see is someone trying to flag us down for a lift. Like our trips through Mexico, we seem to have an uncanny knack for choosing vehicles that look just like the local public transport.

We pass vans packed with tourists on day trips from Marrakech. We'd seen them early mornings in Marrakech's Jama el Fna square, looking sleepy and a little lost, waiting to be assigned a seat in one of five vans going to the Erg Chebbi dunes. A six or seven hour drive through some of the most nauseating mountain passes, only to turn around and do it again the following day. We were pretty happy in our little Kangoo.

Through a pass in the Sahgro, we stop for a look at the view, a breath of fresh air to recover from the winding roads and are approached by a man selling dates in tiny little baskets for 10 dirham ($1.30). He is without a vehicle, all alone up here with no company, no shade. Like so many other times this week, we look around at the remote location and wonder how the hell he got here and how he's getting back at the end of the day. Life is not easy for so many Moroccans.

We finally emerge from the hills and drive through some small villages. We round a corner and find a long line of bare feet and bums facing us from the pavement. We were too polite to slow down and gawk but we wondered about why these guys were worshipping outside, something we hadn't seen anywhere else. Around another corner and there was a circle of men in white sitting on low stools around a big platter, all dipping spoons into the communal dish of couscous. It suddenly dawned on me that it was Friday, the Islamic Sunday — day of congregational prayer and couscous lunch. As a muslim man, if you miss more than three fridays of prayer among your brethren you are straying from the path.

We are driving through the valley of the Draa river, Morocco's longest at over a thousand kilometres long. All along its shores are date palms, olive & orange trees, a swath of green in this pretty but washed out earth-tone landscape. We get stopped at one of the very regular gendarmerie road blocks. As tourists we generally get a polite bonjour and a "move along" hand gesture. We stop to chat to the uniformed officer — the gendarmes of Morocco are without a doubt the most strapping lads in the country. These are not the small, Berber mountain folk we've seen. We ask him about where to eat and he points across the road. Good tajine, he says.

The place isn't exactly welcoming. Even my smiliest Salaam is met with a polite nod or blank stares from the men on the hot, dusty terrace. We ask the owner if we can have lunch. He whisks us past the grumpy men around the side of the building and opens a big metal gate. Like opening the doors to paradise, the other side is a lush, flowering garden, bougainvillea, palm trees, a shady oasis atwitter with songbirds. He dusts off a table and offers us a tajine. The kids are less than excited about the prospect of another one, but when the basket of bread and four little cone-shaped bubbling pots come to the table a few minutes later, everyone digs in. We're coming to realize that tajine is moroccan fast food. Along the main drag of every town at mealtime is a line of little clay stoves/stands filled with charcoal with a tajine perched on top — single servings or big family size meals that have been simmering away all morning. When you order one up, they drain off a little of the liquid in the bottom, making it easier to eat with your hands, bring it to your table on a round woven trivet, remove the top and voila! This one was chicken — legs and thighs under long slices of carrot, courgette, potato, peppers, turnip — and particularly yummy. It can be a bit complicated in Morocco — forgetting to ask the price before you eat. There can be an alarming difference between the local price and the tourist price and it's generally a good idea to figure out where you fit in before you're getting ready to pay. We've seen more than one heated exchange between restaurateur and irritated tourist diner. In this case, lunch for five cost us an unbelievable twelve bucks.

We stop in at a museum in a kasbah on the road. The caretaker, a lovely man in brown djellaba and kufi, follows us around, clarifying and chatting. "The québécois are the berbers of Canada," he says, after finding out where we were from. It was a fascinating place — as much for the building as for the displays which were almost comically dusty. The building was ochre cob, walls more than a foot thick, illuminated only by shafts of sunlight coming through openings in the roof. The walls a deep brown, the floors are packed dirt, the second and third floor have a distinctive and disconcerting bounce to them. The doorways are designed for someone my height, whether to accommodate the smaller people of the day or to keep the cool air in I'm not sure. Tools, pots, doors, hinges, birthing room, costumes of the three main tribes of the Sahara and details of their wedding rituals. One information panel told us that after the wedding ceremony the bride rode a mule to her husband's home, circling the tent three times. If the mule stopped before the third round it meant the girl wasn't a virgin and the wedding was annuled. "What if the mule is just tired?" Frances asks. I have visions of desperate fathers devising barbs to plant under the saddle to ensure the mule doesn't decide to take an untimely break.

We make it to Zagora — almost instantly accosted by salesmen of every description. We find the place we'd like to stay and when we're checking in the hotel owner asks us about heading into the desert. We tell him we've already booked a tour. He is not at all happy, suggesting that we're getting ripped off by some fly-by-night enterprise. We tell him the name of the company (which, as it turns out, is less than a block from his hotel) but he pretends never to have heard of them and points to all the licenses on the wall and tells us he's sure the company we've paid doesn't have them. Not exactly a confidence-building exchange.

The room is almost comical, a corridor with five identical, single beds in a row. We wander toward the centre of town, thinking it might be a good idea to check in with the company before we leave tomorrow (partly to reassure ourselves after the hotel owner's outburst). The office (I've seen bigger closets) is being "manned" by an eleven-year-old girl who writes a phone number down in her school exercise book for us. Hmmmm... We head up to the main drag along our semi-paved road. On the slope by sidewalk on our left is a clutch of men sitting on the ground facing across the road. They are the smiliest bunch of men we've seen in ages. We get a full round of Bonjours/Salaaam alaykums. If I had any arabic or berber, I'd ask what was up but I'm left, yet again, with a long list of unanswered questions. The main drag (you guessed it, Mohammed V) is a wide, dusty boulevard. One side is lined with cafés and restaurants or Snacks (Moroccan cantines), the other is taken up by the massive mosque with its towering minaret and the souk. Crossing the street is a lot like an obstacle course. First past the delivery trucks and students cycling to and from school, then dodge the scooters, mopeds and donkey carts, then through the faster motorcycles, cars and grands taxis. Stop in the middle of the road to reassess speeds and repeat the process in reverse. There are a few tourists wandering around but no kids. Ours provide an excellent buffer. With them leading the way, no one pays us any mind when it's our turn to walk by. We just get to watch them gape. The awkward stares quickly turn to smiles with a salaam alaykum. Teenagers are especially fascinated. Watching the local girls, in headscarves and white lab coats, watch Alice, checking her out from top to bottom and back again is seriously entertaining. She and Henri give each other piggy back rides up and down the sidewalk and I'm not sure what the local kids make of it. I only know they are being watched. There is so little public physical contact between the sexes here. A surprising amount of hand-holding and close touching between men but none between men and women and next to zero contact between teens. It oculdn't be more different than our time in Mexico where every public space is essentially a place for teenagers to neck passionately. We walk behind the mosque, sneaking a peek at the massive carpeted space, to the grand taxi stand behind and watch the sun set on the pink desert.

We stop at a little shop to buy scarves for our Saharan adventure. Apparently they are handy if the wind picks up. The salesman is a young, little guy dressed in turban and traditional gear. His eyes are blacked with kohl and he is totally loaded. He reeks of cigarettes and booze (double no-no in Morocco). Wil and the kids are shopping so I hang back but he keeps getting very close to me —"dans ma bulle", as they say. Grabbing my hand and trying to pull me into the store. Just a look. Just look. He squeezes my hand uncomfortably. Yanking me about. I try to be polite. I try being impolite but the guy is just not getting my message. I say outright, you're making me very, very uncomfortable but he's just out of it. Frances tries to save me but I have to wait for Wil to come into the store to extract me. The guy freaked me out.

We turn the corner onto the street where the hotel is and a teeny white Renault 4 pulls up beside us. Out pops a carbon copy of Younes — his little brother, Ismael. Pale green turban, broad lovely face. All smiles and chest patting. I'm nursing a damaged calf muscle so we all pile into his car (holding the back doors closed from the inside because we don't quite fit) for a lift to the office. We talk over the plan for tomorrow. We talk to him about our next stop after the desert, Foum Zguid, and on to the coast. If we have to come back to Zagora it will mean backtracking on the same road (something we are generally loathe to do) and a whole lot of driving. There is a piste that continues through the desert, he offers. You can go through Lac Iriki, see the rest of the desert and I will come and meet you in Foum Zguid with your rental car. It sounds perfect. Except that we're going off into the Sahara with a perfect stranger. And asking another perfect stranger to drive our rental car (which I'm pretty sure is not in the rental contract) to a distant town to meet us ... in the middle of nowhere. He says it's a service he provides all the time. After our encounter with the hotel guy and then the scarf salesman, we officially have the heeby-jeebies about Zagora and we're spooked. The potential for badness is palpable. Fear is such a toxic emotion — once you get a sniff of it it can really poison the most genuine of intents. We say yes but our hearts are saying no. We really want to trust Ismael.

He suggests a restaurant for dinner called le Dromadaire Gourmand and we say a demain. We head over to the resto. It's Deadsville. The atmosphere of the whole country (and this restaurant in particular) has suffered immeasurably at the hands of bloody CFL lightbulbs. Yes, they consume less electricity but nothing kills an ambiance quite like the pallor and chill of their glow. Despite the lighting, we are served by a charming old restaurateur. The older generation definitely felt the brunt of the French occupation. They speak perfect, charming french. We are served a Tajine Marriage — beef, prunes, almonds and walnuts in a salty/sweet juicy, finger-licking (only the right hand!) delight. We make the mistake of thanking the owner in Berber. So many of our exchanges have been with Berber folk recently that it comes out quite thoughtlessly. Non! he scolded us. En arabe, on dit Shokran! Oops...

We head back to our dormitory through mopeds, galloping donkeys, men in white, howling dogs and, once in our room, birdsong.

Tomorrow the Sahara!!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ourika and Skoura

We drove out of the valley on a road that swung around with the river. The deviations and adjustments that are made here to bring water to fields would make our Ministere de l'environnement have a conniption. Any land between the river and the road is occupied with a few saddled dromedaries waiting for tourists and other goodies for sale. There is a lot of pointing to the eyes and then the goods as we are strongly encouraged to peruse. "Come have a look. Just look," the salesmen implore.

The road is beautiful, a weaving, winding route around river and mountains. The snowcaps fade as we swing eastward but are replaced with red mountains and village after village. Many building facades are decorated with mountains of terracotta pots — tagines, platters, gourds, vases. Henri wonders what happens at night as it is unimaginable that the goods get moved inside. Never, in a million years, would they fit in the wee shacks they surround and, were you to try, it would probably take longer than it did to make them in the first place. Other buildings along the road are hung with carpets, shaggy and not, some twenty feet square, others little runners. The colours are spectacular and I can picture one in every room of my house but the pressure to look and haggle (a skill I lack entirely) is enough to keep me from stopping.

We drive on to the tiny village of Ourika, to a hotel known for its gardens. We are welcomed by Kareem, a very smily guy who invites us to the terrace for — you guessed it — mint tea. Henri tried to excuse himself to go take a shower, which in all honesty was all any of us wanted after three days in dusty sleeping bags. Kareem wasn't having any of it. We went through every building on the compound — indoor and outdoor lounge area, indoor and outdoor dining area, bar, pool and foozball machine, then through the gardens. I believe there were five of them. Herb garden, fruit tree garden, the garden with the chairs that looked like hands and on and on. I began to suspect they had run out of hot water and were stalling. Whatever the reason, it was forty minutes before we made it back to our pretty room. Our door led into the side of a hill, giving it a cavelike feel with a fireplace ablaze, carpets everywhere and beds piled high with blankets. Sure enough, the hot water took forever to come but it did and we all cleaned up, had a tasty dinner, played a few rounds of cards and hit the sack.

Back in our Kangoo in the morning both Henri and Wil noticed the gas tank had lost half its volume. Hmmm. Another possible reason for the long visit? The morning drive was through an intense mountain pass. I kept picturing the little towers of sand the kids used to make dripping wet sand from their fingers on the beach. That's kind of what the road looked like — a cone of sand with the road perched on the peak. Stomach-lurching switchback. Looking back at what we'd just driven through was an exercise in anxiety management. I passed around the chewable gravol and we all watched the road. We regularly got stuck behind a diesel-spewing stinkbomb of a grand taxi (80's era Mercedes Benz) with 8 or 9 grown men sandwiched in. Passing becomes somewhat of a leap of faith. Losing one's nerve might mean several kilometres of noxious fumes and snaillike speeds.

The mountain villages are flashbacks. Most of men in djellabas and kufis, women in niqabs or kaftans and headscarves. The towns are almost entirely ugly cinderblock squares with a few feet cantilevered over the front for shade while the homes in the countryside are either squat cinderblock or mudbrick blocks with brightly painted metal doors. Almost every village seems to have the remains of the most gorgeous crumbling kasbahs.

The soil colour changes every few kilometres, from ochre to gold to black and back. Out of the mountains and suddenly all things green are gone. Bare, dusty scrub. We stop at Aït Ben Haddou, one of Morocco's big tourist attractions, the backdrop for a thousand desert movies. To be honest, after the hike and seeing the Berber village homes up close, the attraction less than attractive. It is full of tourists and salesmen selling seriously awful crafts. We do the tour as quickly as possible, enjoying the view more than the actual site. We are in the desert — not dunes, but desert all the same. Geology on display. Layer upon layer of red soil and rock with no vegetation in site. We stop in Ouarzazate, home of the Moroccan film industry. The almost empty boulevard into the town is inexplicably lined on both sides with towering, ornate street lights every 20 metres.

School is out for their two hour lunch break. High school kids are cycling home for their two hour lunch break. We can't quite figure out where they're going as there are no dwellings in sight and we can see forever.

Eventually, an oasis appears on our left. An incredible burst of green. Palm trees, olive trees, grass, barley, water! We turn off before the town of Skoura into the oasis, trying to find a renovated farmhouse we've read about. We drive through a dry river bed and come across a white van and who is driving the van? Younes, our guy from the Sahara. Seeing a familiar face in such an unfamiliar setting feels a bit like coming home. His van is full of German ladies and we get the sense that he'd much prefer to be in the car with us. Unfortunately he'll be in the desert the night after us so our paths won't be crossing again. We find the "farmhouse", the most lovely building we've seen in Morocco. Beautiful tadelakt & tile work in all the rooms, a million lounge areas, the exterior all warm cob walls and white cushions and shade. Aaahhh... We watch the sun set over the distant Atlas mountains.