Morocco Part 2: The Sahara to Marrakech

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Morocco

Part 2: The Sahara to Marrakech

February 25, 2014

Dateline: Teneghir

Latitude at Teneghir 31.30 Degrees North, Longitude 5.31 Degrees West

 

Leaving Our Sahara Camp

Leaving Our Sahara Camp

We took a brief walk in the desert this morning, which was cool and crisp at this time of year. We then boarded  our 4×4 vehicles to head back to the village of Rissani for a stroll in the local souk. One of the most unusual sights we saw here were the snails for sale in the souks.  They are tiny – maybe the size of a pinky fingernail and people eat them for snacks. Merchandise was brought into the souk with hand carts which were pickup truck beds with traces for an animal or human to pull it where the cab and engine used to be. We continued on to Erfoud to meet our bus.  Our destination today is the town of Teneghir, known for its

 

The Rissani Souk

The Rissani Souk

artisan workshops, gold, fig trees and date palms.  We crossed the J’bel Sahro Mountains and dropped down into a valley where we got our first glimpse of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains to the north. The landscape was still quite barren and scattered with the marabouts, (the term applies to both the holy man and his tomb) built as places for reflection and inspiration for the pious.  We also stopped to see an ancient irrigation system, called a khattana along the way – sounds boring, but was anything but.  It is a series of wells dug into the desert at regular intervals which tap into an underground aquifer dating from the

Our Tour Guide at the Kittana

Our Tour Guide describing Irrigation in the Desert

11th Century. However these are not the typical wells where you lower your bucket and get water.  While there is a hole going straight down, there are tunnels that channel the water toward the kasbah.  That way, you don’t draw your water and have to schlep it into town. You just let it flow to town and draw it there next to your house.  Townspeople were allowed to draw water for irrigation of their crops and gardens based on how many hours they worked at excavating the tunnels. They had to keep excavating to keep the flow going in the desired direction.  The landscape is dotted with small mounds of dirt resembling giant

 

A Kittana (Desert Well)

A Khattana (Desert Well)

termite mounds that are the tailings of the various excavations.

This area is rich in minerals, particularly phosphate and magnesium, and fossils and geodes.  It was interesting to see the geode sellers along the road who had taken liberties with Mother Nature by coloring the stones every garish shade from magenta to turquoise.  The herds here were camels, sheep and goats which can survive on scrub brush, the dominant flora here.  We saw no horses, nor cows, since they need to eat grass and hay which is nowhere to be found in this part of Morocco. Jaafar told us that this area was the site of a number of uprisings by the Berbers that had to be quashed by the French Foreign Legion in the 1920’s. With the occasional oasis featuring a grove of date palms, the occasional mirage in the distance, you can almost picture the action, particularly if you have seen the old 1939 movie, Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper and Ray Milland.

Desrt Oasis near Teneghir

Desert Oasis near Teneghir

We had what was billed as a picnic lunch – fresh mandarin orange juice and cold chicken, cheese and bread at a small café near a hillside that spelled out the country’s motto God, Country and King in white rocks on the hillside in Arabic.  We arrived in Teneghir in mid-afternoon. It is a modest sized city built in a river valley oasis. The buildings were brown adobe, surrounded by brown rocky mountainous terrain.  It is considered a wealthy town in that there is an abundance of silver in the surrounding mountains, but of course that wealth doesn’t trickle down a whole lot. Many of the houses had decorative metal garage doors, most

 

A Typical Teneghir Garage

A Typical Teneghir Garage

often padlocked, which we found interesting since so few people own cars here. We noticed that many of the people here wear white toga-like garments, but without any bare shoulders (or any bare skin at all for that matter).

We stopped to let a funeral procession go by, a casket carried by several men and a procession of people following it. Jaafar pointed out that we would only see men present.  The women traditionally do not attend funeral services since it is believed they would show unseemly emotion.

We also learned a theory about the religious ban on alcoholic beverages in the Muslim religion. That is that Allah was displeased with the excesses he saw among the people that often began with excessive drinking. So it was decreed that there should be no drinking before prayer, and since prayer is mandated 5 times a day – it essentially evolved into a ban.

The Todra Gorge

The Todra Gorge

Before going to our hotel in Teneghir,  (pronounced Ten-ah-heer with accents on the first and last syllables) we drove north to visit the Todra Gorge with its 900 foot cliffs, carved by the Todra River which emerges onto the desert, having traveled underground from the Atlas Mountains. Snow melt fills up an aquifer and the water eventually comes to the Todra River. Today, as it has for centuries, it provides water for an extensive grove of date palms, forming an oasis along its banks. The road is narrow and steep with multiple switchbacks. The rock formations were both beautiful and dramatic with boulders seeming to be teetering above our heads.  They have likely “teetered” there for centuries, but it seemed as if they would plummet at any moment, and given the boulders scattered on the ground and in the river, it was apparent that it had indeed happened before. We wondered if any tourists had experienced mishap here and more than once looked for evidence, like maybe a pair of sneakers peeking out from a boulder crater. The gorge runs for 7 ½ miles and there is a path to walk along the river for much of it. At one end is the village of Teneghir and an

Bandoned Casbash of Teneghir

Bandoned Casbash of Teneghir

extensive date grove  and at theother end is a stony track leading to a small village. All along the wadi (the Arabic word for river) there are a number of abandoned ksour, (the plural of ksar) where up to a hundred families lived at one time. To the west of Teneghir is an abandoned kasbah and to the east is the old Jewish mellah (neighborhood) called Ait el-Haj Ali.

In the oasis along the river there are a number of seguias, or channels, that were dug to take water from the Todra River to the palm groves and fields. Today many of those have been replaced by clay pipes, more efficient, but not nearly as picturesque.

The View from our Teneghir Hotel

The View from our Teneghir Hotel

We had the opportunity to go to the hammam (Turkish bath) but we passed on that since we had been in Istanbul. Several of our group went and reported it was a most unique experience.   We found our experience in Turkey to be unique as well – the opportunity to take off all your clothes and get scrubbed down in a room full of strangers – yep, unique pretty much describes it.  We had dinner at the Hotel Kenzi Saghro, and while we appreciated the great hot showers, we found it way too close to the minaret and this particular muezzin, (pronounced moo-eh-zin with the accent on “eh”) whose job it is to call the faithful to prayer 5 times a day, must have had a tin ear.  In fact one of our tour group members thought it was, no disrespect intended, a donkey braying.  We have noticed in our travels in Muslim countries that the tone and pitch can vary greatly. Sometimes it sounds almost musical – but with this particular muezzin – not so much.

 

February 26, 2014

Dateline: Teneghir

An Oasis Farm in Teneghir

An Oasis Farm in Teneghir

Today’s adventure is billed as “A Day in the Life” and the goal of our tour operator is to showcase what a day in the life of someone living in Teneghir is like.  We stopped at an ATM (Jaafar pronounces it “ITM” since the long “A” is not found in the Arabic language. It took us a few days to understand that “ITM” was not some separate entity. We then visited a farm where we watched local women (who do most of the heavy lifting in the Berber community while the men sip tea), were cutting alfalfa by hand.  The farm was irrigated from a local river and all the trenches were dug and maintained by hand.  They build small dams by shoveling mud when they want to divert water, and this is a daily activity – sort of the way we might move a sprinkler, only with their system there is a lot more manual labor involved.

The Old Medersa in Teneghir

The Old Medersa in Teneghir

We visited the ruins of an ancient medersa ( Islamic School) and then walked through the Jewish quarter of the medina where craftsmen were creating tools and assorted hardware such as bridle bits on small forges and bellows.  We saw some little girls playing virtual jump rope, as opposed to actually jumping rope, since they didn’t have one and had to pretend.  Gary immediately went from stall to stall in the souk looking for a jump rope for them. He finally found one, but couldn’t find the children again so we gave it to Jaafar for the school we would visit in the afternoon. There are many empty deteriorating buildings here. The Jews who once lived here migrated to Israel in the 1940’s 1950’s (some not necessarily voluntarily) . Some, it was rumored, had ties to Israel’s Mossad and that, along with opposition to the King, was grounds for deportation.

Our Local Guide in Teneghir

Our Local Guide in Teneghir

From there we went to a Berber market – cash only – to buy food for our evening meal.  What an adventure this turned out to be. We were given 150 dirhams by Jafaar, our tour guide, and divided into purchasing groups – one group for vegetables, one group for fruit, and one group for chickens – live chickens that is, all to be obtained there in the market. This market,  like all the other souks we had visited,  also had a vast array of spices that were introduced into Morocco by the Arabs when they came hundreds of years ago. They included ginger, saffron, coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cloves.  We ended up in the meat hunting

 

The Chicken Corral

The Chicken Corral

group with 3 other people and set off on our mission, which was to buy 3 or 4 live chickens, get them butchered, pay for them and bring them back to Jaafar.  After floundering a bit and listening intently for chicken clucks and squawks , we met a young man named  Said who was not only fluent in English, but also knew the location of the live chicken market.  The chickens were kept discretely lodged behind a large metal door. Since the goods looked a little scrawny, we decided to buy 4 and so by pointing and holding up 4 fingers, we made our desires known. The chicken man quickly caught the slowest 4 in the flock. With two

The "Processing" of the Chickens

The “Processing” of the Chickens

chickens upside down in each hand, with wings flapping and throats squawking he strode up the street to his (open air) butcher shop.  I was interested to see if he would do an old fashioned Southern neck wringing, but he used a large knife and it was all over for the chickens before they, or we knew it.  Well perhaps the chickens were a little more aware than we were, but still it was quick. They were unceremoniously dumped upside down into 5 gallon buckets for the blood to drain and then plunged into boiling water.   Just as those of the Jewish faith adhere to the rules of kosher, the Muslim faith has their own similar rules, which are called hallal. One of the key principles of hallal is that in butchering meat, every last drop of blood needs to be removed. From the drain buckets, the butcher plunged the chickens into boiling water and from there they  went to a surprisingly modern convenience – a chicken plucker – which was a big drum( it spun  like a clothes dryer) that literally  knocked the feathers off the chickens. We had to supplement the cash we received from Jaafar to close the deal, but we felt that most Moroccan dishes we have had don’t have enough meat in them, and that tonight we would feast, if not like kings, then at least like Americans.

Lunch with the Technical Students

Lunch with the Technical Students at Dar Et-Taleb

From the market we went to the Dar Et-Taleb Education Center – a residential facility for rural students around Tenghir that is supported by Grand Circle Foundation (the parent company of OAT). The academic students were on holiday, but we had lunch with technical students (learning accounting, sheet metal working, carpentry, etc.). The Berber language, Tamazight, is not spoken or taught in schools, but it still survives. We had learned a few of the letters of the Berber Alphabet, which all seem to have “Y” sounds.  E.G. what looks like the Target logo is pronounced “yas” and what looks like an upside down Q is pronounced “yass”. Then there is the right side up Q which is “yar, the U looking character that is “yaw” and the upside down V which is “yad”. If Berber toddlers learn the Alphabet Song, it’s got to be a real assault on the eardrums. It was fun listening to the  plans and goals of these students, all very practical – no aspiring  movie stars, models, race car drivers, sports stars or astronauts here. Another new Arabic word we learned during out time was “yallah” (pronounced just like it looks) which means let’s go. We had lots of “yallahs” from Jaafar since almost everywhere we went, someone in our group wanted to linger, but it was indeed time to “yallah” since we had a day packed with adventures.

Muktar the Rug Saleman and Raconteur

Muktar the Rug Saleman and Raconteur

From here we visited the Taib carpet cooperative and were greatly entertained by Muktar, who was a former Peace Corps worker, which is where he learned English, including English slang, and also we think developed his delightful sense of humor.  He baptized 3 birthday people including Gary with rosewater to kick things off.  He showed us a long flat carved board that he identified as a camel tongue depressor. He says if camels eat oleander or anything else poisonous, the camel drivers have to grab up this device and gag the camel to the point of throwing up.  There were some believers in this Camel First Aid, but I thought it looked suspiciously like the tent stakes and pannier holders we had seen in the museums.)  They were selling antiques in the basement and we were shown and antique and bejeweled “camel tongue depressor” for $700. We decided to pass on this particular treasure.

Tea Ceremony at the rug Store

Tea Ceremony at the rug Store

After the comedy act we had the rug show, preceded by a special ceremony for mint tea  (Muktar calls it Berber Whiskey). Two costumed men brought in an elaborate tea service complete with coals and a tiny bellows to keep coals hot in order to keep the tea hot. We sipped our tea as the rugs were brought out for our inspection and appreciation – sort of like a fashion show with Muktar rhapsodizing over each one. We learned a new word from Muktar as he gave us his spiel. It is “waha” which means “do you understand” or “capisce” as the Italians would say.

 

Berber Rug Sale

Berber Rug Sale

The rugs were indeed beautifully made and very attractive. These rugs are hand woven by Berber women and Muktar takes camel trains all over the Sahara to buy them.  No two rugs are alike, and there are no established patterns. The women make them up in their heads and weave them as they go.  These rugs are all of very fine silk or wool and are really exquisite, and quite costly since many take years to make. Muktar did well with our group, selling 7 rugs to our 15 people.

 

Zahra and the Henna Tattoos

Zahra and the Henna Tattoos

We went back to the hotel to get ready for our dinner out at the Kasbah Amarani restaurant. Prior to dinner we had Zahira, (her name means “flower”),  a henna artist, talk to us about how paint made from the henna plant is used for decorative designs on faces hands and feet. The tattoo mixture is composed of henna, hot water, and lemon into sort of the consistency of mud. A fixative made of garlic, pepper lemon and sugar is applied after the design is completed.  Henna designs supposedly bring closeness to God and/or protection from evil spirits, the evil eye and so forth. Traditionally a new bride will have her hands and feet painted. We all got our henna tattoos and proceeded to smudge them immediately.  (note – do not get a henna tattoo anywhere skin will crease such as the wrist)  My bracelet turned into a blob that looked like a skin disease – fortunately it doesn’t last more than a few days.

The Berber Birthday Band

The Berber Birthday Band

We had a big feast of a dinner under a huge Berber tent. Berber tents are typically woven from camel hair but this one looked to have some not so traditional elements. We ate the food we bought at the souk and then had 3 birthday cakes for Gary and 2 other people on our tour – all with the same birthday.   We had some raucous Berber music, not so melodious we thought, and danced into the wee hours (if you call 10:00 p.m. wee that is.)

 

 

February 27, 2014

Dateline:  Ouarzazate

Latitude at Ourzazate 30.55 North, 6.53 West

We left Teneghir and started the drive to Ouarzazate. (pronounced Or- za- zah- te with the accent on the first and third  syllables)  where we would spend the night.  On the drive, Jafaar told us a little bit about jinns (supernatural entities with supernatural powers) that many believe in. Some also believe these  are ghosts from the dead. There are good and bad jinns – e.g. Lucifer was a bad jinn who asked Allah to give him the opportunity to win souls over.  Allah agreed and that is why there is evil in the world, but Lucifer only gets to do this until Judgment Day.  Islam is a way for people to learn how to get on and stay on the straight and narrow path of goodness.  Jinns occupy empty places like drains, empty buildings, etc.  It is believed that some people are afraid to pour hot water down a drain for fear of angering a jinn, who might otherwise be napping.  Humans can thus inadvertently harm jinns and bring down their wrath unawares.  Jinns can come into the body via the nose or ears or any other opening in the body.  They can also take other forms such as insects and can also come up through the toilets (very crafty these jinns). There is a belief that shooting stars are jinns being punished. Fortune tellers can be influenced by jinns, so you have to make sure you are not misguided in that respect. The bottom line is that adherence to the Koran is the best antidote for evil jinns

Our route took us via the Rose Capital of Morocco, a place called El-Kelaa M’gouna which means fortress. The altitude here is almost 5,000 feet and certain types of roses flourish here, dating back to the 10th Century when pilgrims returning from Mecca brought a variety called Damascus Rose.  Petals are harvested each year and taken to distilleries where rosewater is made and the excess is exported for the perfume industry. There is a Rose Festival at harvest each year and it is the largest shindig in the Dades Valley. The Climate here is Arizona like – hot summers, mild winters, and much colder in mountains. There is construction everywhere – we assume a certain level of prosperity, but suspect a small middle class, even smaller upper and a large lower on the economic front.

The Dades River Gorge

The Dades River Gorge

We are on a highway called the Road of 1,000 kasbahs and indeed they seem to be everywhere, now largely abandoned and in various stages of disrepair. We also would pass through the town of Dades and visit the gorge of the same name, carved by the Dades River. The storks are here for the winter and just about every minaret is host to a nest. We noticed that here, like in Teneghir, the women seem to do all the manual labor, particularly farming and hauling. The man’s job is to buy food and goods from the market and drink coffee or tea. Men do hold the construction jobs, but other than that they are pretty much “house husbands”. Women also do the cooking and childcare.  A hard working woman is prized much more than a beautiful one.

 

The Road to the Dades Gorge

The Road to the Dades Gorge

We drove to the Dades Valley Gorge, which is also known as the Valley of the Dead. All along our route were abandoned kasbahs with fortified granaries ( ksours) to keep the nomads from raiding their harvest. There was a narrow winding road, so much so that we had to park our bus and take other smaller vehicles. The scenery was breathtaking. There were giant rock formations that  looked like dominoes that had been knocked down in a chain reaction.  We drove along the Dades River,  lined with poplar, almond and walnut trees and the canyon narrowed as the walls rose around us.

 

A Berber Pizza Oven

A Berber Pizza Oven

We had a snack of Berber Pizza, which was a mixture of spiced hummus  in the middle of pita bread and continued up the canyon. The houses here are all shades of terra cotta, even when painted  and the way they are situated among rocks creates  a monochromatic look  to the landscape– very pleasing to the eye. The kids here are our most enthusiastic welcoming party yet, hanging out of windows and waving.  There are many campers here (called caravans) of vacationers – almost exclusively French.  There are plots of crops watered from river – no pumps – all gravity fed, creating green fields all along the Dades River. There are watch towers with guards to ensure that no one pulls out too much water.

We had a home hosted lunch in Kelaa  M’Gouna at the home of an imam, and we learned about local wedding customs and even had a costumed reenactment. The ceremony resembles a real estate closing much more than American weddings.  If it were not for the unveiling of the elaborately costumed bride, you might not know it is a wedding at all.  The unveiling in olden times would be the first time the bride and groom saw each other, so there were undoubtedly a more than a few rude shocks.

The Imam's House

The Imam’s House

We had several surprises at the iman’s lunch (probably remembering the bad old Iranian Hostage days). We entered through his very tidy garden with fruit trees in bloom along above hedges of the famous Damacus roses of the area. Parked outside the door was a somewhat weather-beaten bicycle.  The imam, whom we first mistook for a houseboy/waiter type since he served us tea and lunch, smiled and welcomed us most graciously. We found him to be very humble, congenial and friendly. Jafaar interpreted for us and for him. And that bicycle outside the door – that’s his primary mode of transportation.

Jaafar told us a little about the Imam and then he answered our questions. We learned that his salary is paid by the Ministry of Islam and his is a government position. He is married with children. He has not been to Mecca yet, but of course wants to go. They have a lottery to see who gets to go so he is waiting for his chance. The older people take priority since everyone’s chances dwindle as they age.  Our group gave him presents we had brought from home (Georgia Peanuts from us) and we had our pictures taken with him.

The Berber Wedding Re-enactment

The Berber Wedding Re-enactment

We then watched a mock wedding ceremony so we could see how it is done. Prior to the wedding the bride’s family often rents a big house for 24 hours for celebrating the wedding.  This imam’s house could certainly fill the bill there.   Brides prepare for the wedding be getting “decorated” with flowers and henna tattoos. Traditionally she gets one on her own hand called the “Hand of Fatima” which, when held aloft keeps any bad juju away. The groom in the meantime is getting ready at his house, gathering gifts in a donkey cart, and then he proceeds along with musicians and family to present them to the bride’s family

To start things off there is the unveiling where the bride’s face is covered with a veil that the groom cuts away with a knife. For the ceremony, both bride and groom are ceremonially costumed, wearing fancy caftans and sitting in facing chairs. They are wearing  special yellow slippers – something akin to Big Bird Feet for those with larger feet  (like most Americans)They sign a contract written by the fathers of the bride and groom, and the couple is considered married when it is signed with 2 witnesses and the wedding is a done deal.  Then the celebrating starts.

Closing the Deal at the Wedding

Closing the Deal at the Wedding

Once the contracts are signed the bride changes into a traditional costume of yellow and red or green and there is a large dinner.  In olden times the meal was provided by neighbors and the women and men celebrated separately and it lasted several days, but today, the family provides everything and it only lasts  a mere 24 hours.  Also in the olden days if a marriage did not work out, either person in the marriage could utter the words “I divorce thee” three times and that would be that, but today, they have to go through the legal process with a 40 day waiting period.

We learned that imams do not do counseling or give advice the way Christian priests and ministers do. They have strictly defined roles, i.e., lead daily prayers and deliver sermons which are lessons from the Koran on Fridays.  He does not get involved in anything secular or relate his sermons to current events. The imam’s clothing is typical for the area and imams dress like everyone else in their region. Here it is a white jellaba over a shirt and trousers. Imams usually have a second job (e.g. carpenter, waiter, sheik).  They are appointed by the Ministry of Islam and vetted to weed out extremists and nut cases. (the latter is my phrase, not his).  His salary is 1500 dirhams (about $125.00)  a month. He is not at the mosque 24 x 7 – he comes when he hears the call to prayer. He has 25 students to whom he is teaching the Koran.

We resumed our journey passing by a lake created by a dam where the King has one of his Royal Palaces complete with jet skis and  a golf course. The amount of water required to keep the greens and fairways grassy is something that is not really popular in these parts. We could see the High Atlas Mountains in the distance, along with miles of ruins of abandoned kasbahs, as we travelled to our stop for the night, the oasis town of Ouarzazate (pronounced War-za-zah-te with accents on “War” and “zah”.

The High Atlas Mountains

The High Atlas Mountains

Ourzazate was originally created by the French as a garrison outpost (think French Foreign Legion) and is today the largest city south of the Atlas Mountains. The women here all wear black,  unlike in the larger cities where bright colors are popular. There are bars on many of the windows so the children don’t fall out – we were thinking to stop crime, but Jafaar says that’s not a problem here. He said there is very little crime in Morocco and what there is is drug related, although prostitution is a problem here as well. He told us they have a TV show on once a month that features a crime committed in Morocco (true crime) and some months they have to have re-runs. We concluded our day with another tagine dinner at our hotel, the Ibis Moussafair Ouarzazate.

February 28, 2014

Dateline: Casablanca

Latitude 31.37 Degrees North, Longitude 8.0 Degrees West

Atlas Studios Ouarzazate

Atlas Studios at Ouarzazate

Today we traveled northwest over the High Atlas Mountains  (the highest mountain in Morocco is  13,600 feet) which stretch for over 500 miles, running southwest to northwest from the port city of Agadir in the west into Algeria to the east.  These are ancient mountains formed in the Devonian Period, shortly after Continental Drift took place (short being a relative term) They vary in width from 30 to 60 miles.  We were enjoying some of the most dramatic scenery yet. It is that scenery along with the light and the absence of rain that has attracted several movie makers to the area. There are two major studios on our route just outside Ouarzazate where many well-known films have been shot and .  We stopped briefly at the Atlas Studios, whose gates were “defended”  giant stylized  faux Egyptian figures that were sort of a combination of Ramses, King Tut and the Sphinx.

The River at Ait Benhaddou

The River at Ait Benhaddou

Our next stop was the iconic Ait Benhaddou, (pronounced Ayt Ben ay-do with the accents on  “ayt” and “ay” ), built on top of a mountain above the Wadi (River) Mellah. It is a UNESCO site and a great example of very well preserved Southern Moroccan earthen architecture.  It is built of pise which is essentially compacted , compressed and molded clay, the same building material we have seen across Morocco. While a ksar is a fortified city, a kasbah is a fortified dwelling (anything from a house to a castle) and it is always built in a square). In the case of Ait Ben Haddou, there are several kasbahs within the walls of the ksar. It

 

Ait Benhaddou

Ait Benhaddou

also contains an igherm which is a communal granary. This ksar was the setting for scenes from the films, Lawrence of Arabia and the Man Who Would Be King as well as many others. We crossed the river and hiked the 400 steps to the summit.  It was fully loaded with character and charm at every turn.  Most of the residents of  Ait Benhaddou have moved across the river,  but  a few families still live there.

We crossed the mountains with several stops at scenic overlooks.  The roads are lined with stalls (or in some cases just

A Tight Squeeze on the Mountain Roads

A Tight Squeeze on the Mountain Roads

blankets) with local people selling pottery and mineral rocks whose colors are way too bright to be found in nature. We were stopped from time to time by gendarmerie (traffic police more or less), but are mostly waved through. Our lunch stop was above a narrow green valley at the Palais de Tichka. We have noticed they play fast and loose with the word “palace” in these parts, but it may be all relative. Here we dined on soup and bread followed by a Berber Omelette made of egg and goat cheese, which was served a bit on the rare and runny side. This was followed by kebabs and fries which were quite tasty and a welcome break from the ubiquitous lentils and chick peas. We saw one of the waiters drop and break an entire tray of glasses and throw them over the railing down the mountain side.  So much for environmental, safety and aesthetic concerns   – issues that generally don’t perturb anyone but the tourists.

The North side of the High Atlas Mountains

The North side of the High Atlas Mountains

As we continued downward, having crested the Tichka Pass at over 7,000 feet, we could see more people, more vegetation and more agriculture, including the famous argan trees, found almost exclusively in Morocco.  The oil from these trees is enjoying a lot of popularity now for hair and skin care products. While the sights and sound were becoming increasingly more modern, there were still women washing clothes in the river by hand. There are 3 tribes of non-nomadic Berbers in these mountains (and of course many more in other parts of Morocco speaking as many as 300 dialects) including those from the Glouai Tribe, who

 

Houses in the High Atlas Mountains

Houses in the High Atlas Mountains

under the supervision of the French are responsible for building the road. The hillsides were dotted with huts and houses built by Berbers called Schluh Tribe who tend livestock herds grazing nearby. They also farm and are largely self-sufficient. Perhaps the best known    Tribe of Berbers in the Western World is the Tuareg, made famous by Volkswagen which made an SUV by the same name.  I am thinking other candidate names such as Schluh probably didn’t make it through the focus group studies. The Berber are indigenous here and they consider Arabs to be immigrants. Berbers have their own hammams, often adjacent to their homes, even out here in the country. It is not unusual to see a teepee like structure made of bamboo covered in adobe that serves that purpose.

Countryside Near Marrakech

Countryside Near Marrakech

Leaving the mountains and foothills, we emerged on the plains which are considered as the granary (we would say bread basket) of Morocco. It is quite striking with the snow capped mountains in the distance.  We continued to Marrakech, which we learned means “Go Quickly” in Arabic and it is speculated that this came from the days when bandits roamed freely in this area and you needed to move out right smartly to avoid them. It was interesting that within an hour we went from seeing nomad huts to seeing luxuriant golf courses as we entered the City of Marrakech.  We checked into the Hotel El Andalous in a very nice

 

The Hotel Andalous

The Hotel Andalous

quarter called Hivernage (French for hibernation) which was a neighborhood where many Europeans would spend the winters and it definitely had a old money, colonial flair to it. Upon our arrival here, we would bid adieu to our driver Samir and his assistant Abdrahim ( an Arabic version of Abraham)

The mayor of Marrakech is called the pasha.  I always wanted to use that word, but until now lacked the context for it.  I am expecting than in the next two days, it will come up countless times, along with such exotic titles as sultan, concubine and grand vizier.

 

March 1, 2014

Dateline: Marrakech

The Walls of Marrakech

The Walls of Marrakech

Marrakech was founded in 1062 by a group of warrior monks from the Sahara called the Almoravids. In the ensuing years, they created an Empire that stretched from current day Algeria into Spain. As the power of other tribes waxed and waned, Marrakech languished in decline from 1668 onward as other cities were made the capital by the latest ruling party, until it once again flourished under the French Protectorate in the 20th Century. Today, there are many distinctive quarters, both beautiful and exotic and we resolved to make the most of the few days we had here. The main street is a beautifully landscaped  wide boulevard called the Avenue Mohammed V only a block from our hotel that we would use repeatedly to find our way around. .  Both strongly traditional and drawn to the modern world, the city embodies the words of King Hassan II: “Morocco is like a tree whose roots lie in Africa, but whose leaves breathe in European air.

A Caleche of Marrakech

A Caleche of Marrakech

We were picked up this morning at our hotel in a traditional horse drawn caleche that would trot us around town. Our tour included the beautiful wide avenues of Gueliz, the modern part of the city built by the French in the early 20th Century with its fountains and walled gardens. Each caleche was drawn by two horses and carried 4 passengers. Our first stop was the Koutoubia Mosque where we left our caleches and proceeded on foot through a horseshoe arched gate with elaborate designs molded into the walls. Here we saw the ruins of the old mosque right next to the new  (or actually newer)  mosque. The old mosque was ripped

The Foundation of the Old Mosque

The Foundation of the Old Mosque

out in 1147 when a new dynasty came to power (the Almohads drove out the Almoravids)  because the qibla (the niche than indicates the direction of Mecca) was not properly oriented toward Mecca, plus the sultan at the time wanted to build the largest mosque in the world with a suitably proportioned minaret. In order to make it as high as he wanted (about 230 feet) he had to build per a proscribed formula: The height must equal 5 times the width.

The stones of the old mosque were reused to build the new one and the stone supports of the foundation are all that remain

The Koutoubia Mosque

The Koutoubia Mosque

today.  Jafaar says he used to play soccer here among the ruins as a child before UNECO came in to preserve the site.  They actually had to excavate the site because the foundations had become buried over the centuries. Each side of the minaret has a different motif of floral designs, inscriptions, and arched windows with molded terra cotta design.  The minaret is topped with merlons which are small squared off humps that rim the top and it is capped by 3 gilt bronze spheres.  The minaret is the tallest structure in the city and affords great views so we are told. Only Muslims may go up in the tower to see it.

 

The Bahia Palace

The Bahia Palace

From here we took our caleches to the Palais Bahia ( Bahia Palace), one of the few palaces in the country that are open to the public. The name means Palace of the Favorite (that would be favorite wife/and or concubine).   It was stared 1866-67 and  later added on to by two father and son Grand Viziers ( which means they are  more or less the right hand guys of the reigning sultan, with varying degrees of influence).  The palace was built in two distinct parts. The dad Grand Vizier, Si Moussa , built  a very architecturally pleasing suite of apartments  around a courtyard in the riad style.  The son Grand Vizier, Ba  Ahmed

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

The Interior of the Bahia Palace

went for a much larger and more opulent design and brought in the finest materials and craftsmen to decorate it, but without so much of a unified plan. When Ba Ahmed was Grand Vizier he assumed the role of regent to the then 14 year old sultan, with pretty much free access to the sultan’s piggy bank.  Ba was reportedly quite obese so he had almost all the apartments built on the ground floor.  He had 4 wives and 24 concubines so he needed a lot of space.  The size of each wife’s or concubine’s living quarters was commensurate with their importance. And of course with 28 women living together and competing for the

 

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

The Courtyard of the Bahia Palace

attentions of one chubby Grand Vizier, things were always interesting at the Palais Bahia . When the Ba Ahmed died in 1900 there was a mad scramble for his stuff among wives and concubines and assorted other acquaintances and persons unknown to him. Some  of the ladies of the house escaped with their goodies, but those left behind got tossed out with nothing by the new king. When the French Protectorate was established the first Resident General,  Marshal Lyautey chose this as his residence.

 

The Spice Shop

The 100,000 Spices Shop

We were scheduled to visit the Saadian Tombs dating back to the 16th to 18th centuries, which we arrived at though a series of narrow alleyways, but it was so crowded, we opted to go first to the Moorish Spice Market  Shop  which was blissfully air conditioned with chairs for all. The name of is is the 100,000 Spices Shop.  We didn’t count, but they did have a lot, plus they had a wide selection or Argan Oil products and a very entertaining Moroccan Spice Girl hawking the products. Our whole group loaded up on assorted spices as well as argan oil products.  It comes from kernels found on the argan tree and, and of course, we are guaranteed that we will look fabulous once we use it. I also bought some Berber lipstick which involves wetting your finger and applying a stain to your lips.  The verdict – it is colorful, but not glossy and doesn’t moisturize much.

Entrance to the Saadian Tombs

Entrance to the Saadian Tombs

After the Spice Shop we tried the Saadian Tombs again and were somewhat impressed with the ornate funerary architecture of the mausoleums there, but after the Bahia Palace, it didn’t seem to offer too much drama. There are 166 tombs here, but only 12 of the most exalted royals are inside the mausoleum.  The rest are outside and are the tombs of servants and soldiers who served the Saadians. The entire complex in within high walls erected several hundred  years ago when the tombs were sealed off by a succesive dynasties. And even though they are in the middle of the medina of Marrakech , they were only discovered in 1917 and restored.

Streets of the Medina

Streets of the Medina

From there we walked around the medina (which is really the only way to see it). The area is completely encircled by ramparts built of pise and the walls change colors throughout the day in shades of terra cotta and ochre. These walls are 12 miles long, 6 feet thick and 30 feet high.  Access to the medina is through elaborate gates (Babs in Arabic) of carved wood and stone which could be closed in case of attack.

 

 

AGame of Chance in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

A Game of Chance in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

We stopped and had to simply gawk at the most iconic square in Morocco, the Place Jemaa El Fna (pronounced  Plass Ji-mah-el- fin-nah,  with accents on “plass”  “mah” and “nah”).  It has a carnival-like atmosphere day and night with games of chance, (e.g.  using a ring on a string on a long pole to place over an upright coke bottle to win a fabulous prize).  There was also a vast array of entertainers – musicians playing assorted exotic instruments, dancers, acrobats, mimes and so forth. There were all sorts of vendors including water sellers, fresh orange juice vendors and souvenir merchants. Here we also saw  fortune

 

Jemaa El Fna Vendors

Jemaa El Fna Vendors

tellers reading palms, snake charmers with live cobras sinuously ascending out of woven baskets, and men with tame hawks  and costumed macaques (very tiny monkeys) ready to clamber on your head for a photo op in exchange for a modest (if you could negotiate it) fee. The bane of their existence is the smart phone with tourists snapping away and wandering off before they can collect for the goods (the goods being the digital image captured on the phone).  This collection business actually becomes part of the entertainment. Picture the snake charmer cramming his cobra back into the basket and taking off after the offending

A Caleche in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

A Caleche in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

tourists in hot pursuit.  But there were so many, and they have gone in different directions.  If he does catch up to one, there is a lively exchange and sometimes money changes hands, sometimes not. At this point the snake charmer has to make a business decision. His internal dialog may go like this (expletives deleted – feel free to insert your own): “Should I try to collect from this pilfering deadbeat at the cost of losing revenue from other people who want a photo op? Oh there are people taking my picture now creating this scene with a tourist – can I collect from them?  Oh here come the tourist police who are going to drag me off for harassing the tourists which is not allowed. Oh crap someone is lifting the lid of my cobra basket back at my blanket and everyone will see my cobra is a fake” . . . and so forth.

Tea Sellers offering Photo Ops

Tea Sellers offering Photo Ops

The Place Jemaa El-Fna has not always been so much fun. Until the 19th Century criminals were beheaded here, sometimes as many as 45 a day. Their heads were pickled and hung on the city gates. Talk about a photo op. The souks of Marrakech  branch off the Place Jemaa El-Fna in all directions, and are generally grouped by craft. For example, there is the Souk Chouari for baskets and wood crafts, fabric and finished leather goods are sold, the Souk Smata for shoes and belts, and the Souk Kimakhin for stringed instruments . Some shops are mere open air stalls, but the Kissarias are more upscale shops in buildings with lights and doors.  One of the most interesting (and seemingly disorganized) market places in the medina is the Rahba Kedima (Old Square,) selling everything from rugs to healing potions to live chickens in lively open air chaos.

La Mamounia Hotel

La Mamounia Hotel

We had lunch at a great Italian place.  It was pizza – thankfully not Moroccan which we had grown tired of after 2 weeks of a steady diet of it. We followed up quite appropriately with a most delicious gelato. We had some free time so we did a little shopping at the souk, which is the largest one in all of Morocco, and explored the medina and square on our own for further entertainment.   We walked back to the hotel which turned out to be a major trek, but we treated ourselves en route to a peek at Winston Churchill’s favorite hotel – the most luxurious La Mamounia Hotel and Gardens, formerly the home of an 18th Century  sultan. It opened as a hotel in 1923 and has hosted a vast array of personages of note ever since.

Sunset in Marrakech

Sunset in Marrakech

For dinner we walked back to the Jemaa El-Fna Square for the night’s entertainment. We found it to be wall to wall with people.  The walk itself was akin to being among a horde of people heading into a stadium for a major college football game, or perhaps more apt in the case, a Barnum and Bailey Circus. En route, one of our fellow travelers found a horseshoe, quite worn, that had apparently been “thrown” by a local caleche horse at some point and she gave it to Gary.  Shortly afterward a few of us did have a narrow escape from a caleche being driven at a gallop through a red light down one of the  streets we were

Finding a Lucky Horseshoe

Finding a Lucky Horseshoe

crossing,  but we promptly scattered and scampered out of his way and remained unscathed, no doubt we felt, due to the finding of the lucky  horse shoe. We started out from the hotel with about 12 people from our tour group, but ended up with only 6 since some were not as enchanted by the mob scene vibe as we were.

The snake and monkey people were replaced by street vendors selling all sorts of food, although the games of skill and chance remained and some magicians had cropped up and the familiar scent of popcorn was in the air. The venue had morphed into

 

Food Seller in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

Food Seller in the Place Jemaa El-Fna

something like a State Fair with probably 10 times as many people, with a few extras not found at State Fairs such as tooth pullers and barbers. There were literally thousands of people eating and drinking – (tea that is), laughing and having fun at food booths and tables that had been set up for the evening.  We found it reminiscent of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but no guns and no booze, which with this many people present, cannot be a bad thing at all. We are told that this gathering happens nightly, but on Saturday night it is always the most crowded. We found it to be endlessly entertaining, and apparently the Moroccans do as well, although I will say this is something travelers will enjoy, tourists maybe not and the faint of heart should really not attempt it.

Place Jemaa El Fna at night

Place Jemaa El Fna at night

We went into one of the local restaurants (in a building versus and tent or stand) to take in the view on the second floor terrace that is designated the Terasse Panoramique, which was indeed panoramic and afforded us a great view of the goings on in the Square, which proved to be so much larger than we could imagine down below amidst the throngs of people. We enjoyed a Fanta Orange while taking in the spectacle before us since our first choice (wine) was not offered at the Terasse Panoramique.  We rejoined the crowds on the square and strolled among the food stalls trying to decide where to eat. Each stall had its own

 

Dining Among the Throngs of People

Dining Among the Throngs of People

“barkers” who entreated us to come to their establishment for the most fabulous meal ever. If a party agrees to sit at their tables for dinner, the staff,  (chef, cashier, waiters)   at that particular place breaks into spontaneous applause. We settled on  a place for dinner  at the intersection of two  “thoroughfares”  in the rows of vendors to maximize our people watching amid our own thunderous applause from the staff. We continue to be impressed with the warmth and hospitality of the Moroccans.  It is not the least unusual, and in fact hospitality is part of their religion, and they definitely walk the talk.

 

Kebabs and Fries For Dinner

Kebabs and Fries For Dinner

Seating was family style although we ordered individual dishes. At our table we had 2 Brits, 2 Japanese, 1 Moroccan and 6 Americans.  We had mixed grill kebabs (lamb and chicken),  French fries and more Fanta, all for only $13. The whole experience here may best be described as an assault on the senses, almost all positive, but I must say the music was really  quite a cacophony of sounds – interesting, but not so melodious that you’d want to get the CD.

Back in our hotel room, Gary took the horseshoe out of his backpack and placed it on the dresser. As we were getting ready for bed we detected a most distinctive odor that we immediately diagnosed as horse poop. Sure enough, there in the grooves and nail holes was the offending substance. After some soaking and scrubbing (you never know when those disposable back up toothbrushes will come in handy) we got it clean and left it on a towel to dry.  I can only imagine what the hotel maid must have thought when she cleaned our room the next morning.

 

March 2, 2014

Dateline: Marrakech

The Jardin Marjorelle

The Jardin de Marjorelle

We awoke to another beautiful day to the sounds of doves cooing and horses’ hooves clopping.  Today’s plan started with a tour the Jardin de Majorelle. (Majorelle Garden) in what is called New Town or Gueliz which is northwest of the medina,  The builder of gardens was a French painter named Jacques Majorelle who came to Marrakech in 1919 and found the light to be exceptional for painting and moved here. He built a villa and lived here until his death in 1962. His chosen colors to complement his garden where he planted specimens from all over the world  were rich shades of deep blue, dark red and

Garden Grounds

Garden Grounds

emerald green.  The gardens are quite luxuriant with fountains and ponds and all sorts of plants including giant clumps of bougainvillea that tower over all the buildings. Majorelle had gathered plants from all over the world to create this beautiful green oasis of peace and quiet in the middle of a very raucous city. The villa and gardens were later bought by French designer, Yves St. Laurent and there is  a tribute to him in the gardens.

There is a small museum on the grounds referred to as the Berber Museum, which contains Moroccan crafts ranging from

The Berber Museum at the Jardin de Majorelle

The Berber Museum at the Jardin de Majorelle

rugs to ceramics and Berber doors as well as 40 engravings of villages and casbahs created by Majorelle.  We also briefly visited the Marrakech Museum, but by this point we were feeling quite overloaded with Moroccan museums so we had a rather cursory look. I did see a quote on the wall  by Voltaire that  I felt worth noting: “ I choose to be happy because it is good for my health” Amen to that.

We visited the  Ali Ben Youssef Merdersa , a Koranic School with a capacity to house 900 boys  in its 18,000 square feet.  It was established in the 14th Century, along with a mosque by the

The Merdersa Ben Youssef

The Merdersa Ben Youssef

same name which was once attached to it.  It is a riad, in that is has an interior courtyard, built around a fountain and is very elaborately decorated with intricate zelijj (fired clay, colored and glazed) tile work, carved cedar,  plaster and marble. The lodgings for the boys were cell-like arranged around the courtyard.  Here we had the ablution (washing) ritual explained to us. Washing before prayer is required by the Islamic Religion to achieve Purity. God saw that people were dirty and it displeased Him and so he decreed that people should was before prayer and thus there is water at every mosque. If there is not any

 

A View from a Student's Room at the Medersa

A View from a Student’s Room at the Medersa

water, there is still a ritual that is used in lieu of it called Tayammum which involves earth or sand.  There is the Big Ablution called Ghusl which involves washing  the whole head, then the Left Side and the Right Side of the body and all other parts in that order.  The Small Ablution is called Wudu and it involves washing the mouth, nostrils, hands and feet.  You would perform the Big or the Small based on what you had been doing before prayers.

We then  again re-visited the souks of the medina  and found it not the least bit repetitious.  The medinas of all the places we

In the Streets of the Medina

In the Streets of the Medina

have been were fascinating, but the Marrakesh medina is more or less the crown jewel of medinas and defies adequate description.  In the narrow alleys of the souks there are mostly pedestrians, but there are a sufficient number of donkey carts, human powered push carts,  bicycles, mopeds and scooters to keep you on your toes. The merchandise is seemingly endless – not just tourist kitsch, but things we would buy in supermarkets and department stores – all in a glorious apparent hodgepodge, despite knowing  the craft groupings such as leather goods, metal goods, clothing, spices, jewelry, shoes and so forth.  The trick was finding your way to the section that sold the things you were looking for with going in circles, but the locals are always obliging and willing to help.

The Shoe Souk

The Shoe Souk

We started out in the leather goods sections with seemingly acres of shoes and belts for sale. Not only did they sell the goods here, they made the goods here. There were stacks of tanned leather hides piled in every conceivable place, even draped over a motorcycle. We were not sure whether it was running and if the driver would have to move the hides to take off on it, but it did provide rather distinctive storage. We were stunned by the vast array of merchandise and wondered how it is ever all sold. Jaafar told us that the merchandise that does not sell here goes to people out in the country to sell, and is thus the source for all  of

The Silver Souk

The Silver Souk

the inventory that pops up along the roadsides and at tourist attractions. Also the big souks funnel merchandise to the lesser souks in the small towns – another version of trickle down economics.

One of the most interesting stops here was a special bakery where local people who do not have ovens bring their bread dough to be baked into loaves.   A baker typically bakes for the whole neighborhood.   The specialty bread here is the round loaf called khobz (to pronounce you would drop the “k” and “h” to

 

At the Local Bakery

At the Local Bakery

pronounce it “obz”). These are not conventional ovens as we know them since no electricity is involved. They are made of clay, wood fired and shaped like an igloo. For fuel the baker uses scrap lumber collected from various building projects around town. The baker brands a mark into each loaf so he can distinguish one customer’s loaf from another. We tasted samples right out of the oven which were mouth-wateringly good. If they had fresh butter to smear on them, we might still be there.

 

A Little Hammam Music

A Little Hammam Music

We also stopped at a local hammam (steam bath) which didn’t have any customers at the moment to see how it was done in the olden days and is still done today in the poorer quarters of the city. The proprietor was quite a character who demonstrated how he uses straw from old mattresses as fuel for the fire to heat the water to make the steam. He also plays music on a strange guitar looking thing (but with not so many strings) and twirls the tassel on his hat in time with the music. He offered us the opportunity to try it, but no one could spin a tassel like he could.

 

Lamb to Go in the Medina

Lamb to Go in the Medina

We stopped for lunch at a place that roasted a whole lamb and chopped it up and slapped it on a rickety table on a sheet of butcher paper. The presentation was a little lacking, but this was the most delicious lamb I’ve ever had (and I don’t even like lamb as a rule).  It had been cooked whole in a pit in the floor of the food stall. They skewered it with a really large skewer and lowered it down to cook for hours. Then they chop it up and serve it in the restaurant (using the term loosely) upstairs.

We had free time this afternoon so we visited a government run

 

Donkeys and Drivers for Hire in the Medina

Donkeys and Drivers for Hire in the Medina

artisan’s market.  Our timing must have been off since many shops were closed so we decided to walk to the train station (Gare) to buy our tickets for tomorrow. We were thinking of  the Marrakesh Express  which was the title of a 1969 song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. We got a lot of blank stares, when we mentioned it so we suspect some artistic license was taken – plus this was way too far back for the average kid in Morocco to hear and the local adults our age, well they weren’t listening to American Music back in the day.

 

There was an interesting queue to purchase tickets at the train station. Instead of a single file line, it was more like a scrimmage with people crowding in from all sides.  We finally got to the ticket window and found the seller spoke little English so I tried some Spanish on him, with a smattering of French words that I know thrown in for good measure.  Somehow he understood what we wanted and we got a reservation and tickets (cost was $280 dirhams – ($23.00) for the following morning to Casablanca.  Not totally trusting our success, I had Jafaar verify that we achieved our mission successfully and were not accidentally ticketed to Timbuktu.

We had a Farewell dinner at La Jacaranda, a very nice French restaurant and bid our traveling companions and guides farewell. Our fellow travelers were flying out early the next day, but we were going back to Casablanca by train for an extra night.

March 3, 2014

Dateline:  Casablanca

The Gare du Marrakech

The Gare du Marrakech

We were awakened just after dawn by rather loud cooing and pulled back our drapes to see two plump doves on our balcony providing us with a most melodious send-off from Marrakech.  Under cloudy skies we took a taxi to the train station for our 11:00 a.m. train trip – 3 and 1/2 hours to Casablanca. The city could definitely use the rain, not only for the vegetation, but for the streets. The caleche horses wear poop catchers, but when they otherwise relieve themselves,  it splashes right on the street where it accumulates until  it rains. Our destination on the ONCF  (the French abbreviation for Office National des Chemins de Fer)  train today is the Casa Voyageur (not Spanish – casa is short for Casablanca).

On the "Marrakech Express"

On the “Marrakech Express”

On the train we passed through very non-exotic countryside – farms for the most part, with much more modern farm equipment than we have been seeing, but there was the occasional donkey hauling somebody or something. We took a taxi to the hotel with a very entertaining cabbie and a very exciting ride. It seems that while they have wide streets where cars can drive 10 to 12 abreast, there are no marked lanes and few signal lights so it is pretty much like a cavalry charge. Downtown Casablanca seems much more cosmopolitan than other Moroccan cities, with high rise hotels , office buildings and banks,  but you can still see the stray chicken strolling the sidewalk and apparently there is no cable TV since there is a satellite dish sprouting on every roof top (and not the little inconspicuous ones either).

Hardware Shopping in Casablanca

Hardware Shopping in Casablanca

We checked into the Hotel des Almohades which was just a short walk to the old medina (they actually have an old and a new. The old medina dates back centuries and new means built in the 1930’s in an attempt by the French to spread people out a little. Prior to the arrival of the French, the entire city of Casablanca was contained within the walls of the Old Medina.  It started to rain and we had no umbrella so we stopped in a small shop and bought one. Not 5 minutes later the rain ceased and did not come back the rest of the day. It remained cloudy, but we were glad for the cooler temperatures it afforded us.  We also needed to buy a nut and bolt to repair a wheel on Gary’s duffle which had suffered a mortal injury on the train trip. We went into a lamp shop and tried a little sign language and we  got a bolt but that was all.

Mickey D's in Casablanca

Mickey D’s in Casablanca

We ran across a McDonald’s on our way to the medina and greedily wolfed down burgers and fries and Diet Cokes, which tasted fantastic after two weeks of exotic dishes. It was filled with local people in all manner of dress. The younger ones, say 40’s and under, tended to wear Western dress. The older ones were more traditional with head coverings called hijabs. It was not until we went through the gate of the  Old Medina that we saw the women in really traditional dress with caftans, jellabas and hijabs, but very few covered faces.  And speaking of faces, we saw several older Berber women here with facial tattoos just below their lower lip. It looks kind of like a skinny soul patch, but I understand it is a tribal symbol called siyala and was believed to provide protection from evil spirits.

At the Hardware Store with Omar

At the Hardware Store with Omar

We met a sign painter named Omar who, having no work that day, sort of latched on to us and ended up giving us a free tour. His English was quite good and he was able to understand the nut and bolt dilemma right away. He proceeded to shepherd us through the souk to a stall of sorts which happened to specialize in hardware odds and ends. Within minutes the proprietor came up with a nut and a washer, and even a tiny wrench faster than you could say Home Depot.

We then walked with Omar through the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Jewish Quarters. Omar said that Jews and Muslims have

The Old Souk - Casablanca

The Old Souk – Casablanca

lived side by side for centuries here with no problems.  In fact he pointed out a doorway that is shared by a mosque and a synagogue – sort of a duplex arrangement. Omar says the fighting between Muslims and Jews is both economical and political – not cultural or religious. We have heard this said throughout our Middle East travels as well.

We saw several tables where the services of letter writers could be obtained, and Omar explained that there are still many older Moroccans who are illiterate. We also stopped at the shops of

 

The Alabama Sandwich Shop featuring Omar's Handiwork

The Alabama Sandwich Shop featuring Omar’s Handiwork

several of his friends in the souk, including one vendor who had interesting crafts from the Atlas Mountains and we bought a mask to go in our collection. Omar pointed out along the way various signs that he had painted (a tour highlight of Omar’s Tours), many of which were in dire need of new paint.   One such highlight was the Alabama Sandwich Shop, named for the U.S, Navy ship that the owner had served on at one time. He introduced the son of the owner who gave us samples to taste.  He also showed us one of the commercial bakeries where everyone brings their dough to be baked and again we had more samples.

 

Inside the Spanish Church

Inside the Spanish Church

He showed us around the souk, plus several historical sites including the Spanish Church, and the Fortress, which overlooks  the shipyard and harbor. He also showed us the derelict house where Marshal Lyautey (France’s first Resident General)  reportedly discretely rendezvoused with several gay friends. Marshal Lyautey played a major role in France’s ruling of Morocco as a Protectorate for over 4 decades. The happenings in this particular house were considered quite scandalous at the time, and thus the house has been largely ignored by UNESCO and other organizations dedicated to preserving history (At least

 

Marshal Lyautey's Hideaway

Marshal Lyautey’s Hideaway

this is the inside scoop from Omar).

From there we went through the Bab el-Marsa which translates as the Gate of the Sea on onto the grounds of the sqala, a fortified bastion build during the 18th century which afforded us a view of the harbor. This gate also marks the spot where the French  landed in  1907 to establish the Protectorate outlined in the Treaty of Algeciras, and of course they kept right on “protecting” Morocco until the mid 1950’s.

 

In the Old Medina

In the Old Medina

We came to the conclusion that Omar apparently knows everyone in the medina. We also noticed that almost all people in the medina that we encountered were locals and thus we were fairly sure we were off the beaten path, which is one of our favorite places to go.  Everywhere we went there were smiles and greetings and warmth and out of the hundreds of people we encountered, there was not a single grouch in the bunch. We found this re-enforced our belief in the warmth of the Moroccan people – i.e. they hadn’t been coached on how to treat tourists – it just comes naturally to them.

Omar's Signs on Display - Ready for a Touchup

Omar’s Signs on Display – Ready for a Touchup

Omar, himself, was a very interesting person – He is an army veteran who is one of 18 children and now has 5 of his own children. He is small, quite gaunt and only had 2 teeth that we could see, which along with his Arabic accent made him kind of hard to understand, so we had to listen closely. We were stunned to learn he was in his 40’s since he could pass for late 60’s on a good day, but he was such a serendipitous find and we ended up spending 3 hours with him.  He did not ask for any money, but we gave him 90 dirham (about $7.50) for the “tour” and he  was so excited. He said he was going to buy a chicken and some fresh vegetables at the souk for his family to eat that night, so we gathered that he is having trouble making ends meet.

Walking back to our hotel we heard multiple calls to prayer by what sounded to be dueling muezzins (as opposed to dueling banjos). We had been told that all muezzins use the same words, but there are certainly  differences in the quality and musicality of their voices.

We went back to the hotel for a little Wi-Fi time to sort of ease our way back to the First World. Then we went out to buy some chocolate and have dinner. We ate at the neighborhood Kentucky Fried Chicken. It tasted good to our taste buds that had been awash in tagines for so long. We found it to be good, but a little goes a long way. Sometimes you just need to eat some fried chicken.

We were surprised at how many people are out on the streets at night mostly socializing and strolling, even in this urban high rise neighborhood. This is in stark contrast to so many suburban Americans (like us)   who often insulate ourselves in our homes.  We have always found it enriching to get out and about and experience new things and meet new people.  We certainly have been afforded that opportunity here in Morocco.

 

March 4, 2014

Dateline: Atlanta, GA

We took a taxi to the airport in Casablanca with no shock absorbers and lots of squeaks, and lots of thrills too as we darted though traffic. Taxis in Casablanca are almost all ancient Mercedes Benz sedans (35 to 40 years old) and painted beige. This is the luxury cab. You can get what they call at petit taxi, all of which are red, for a cheaper fare, but we had luggage and we wanted a touch of luxury ( a very small touch) on our last morning in Morocco. The price should be 250 dirhams per the hotel which was about $20. The cabbie, we assume having given us such a thrilling ride, thought  we would want to round it up to 300, but we said no and paid him the 250 which he took with a shrug and a sheepish smile. We had left the hotel at 7:30 for a 10:25 on an Air France flight, again connecting at Paris DeGaulle, so we had time for croissants and last minute shopping to get rid of most of our leftover Moroccan money

We had a 3 hour flight to Paris, a 1 and ½ hour layover, and then caught a 4:10 flight bound for Atlanta which should have taken 9 hours, but due to a powerful jet stream, turned into an uneventful 11 hour flight. Things did turn “eventful” however when we landed at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard time and our luggage failed to appear.  We learned that it apparently has missed the connection in Paris and after two days in Paris, it came home to us, none the worse for wear for its French sojourn.