Reviewing Morocco- Marrakesh to Ouzazate

We left Marrakesh and headed over the Middle Atlas mountains to Ourzazate. Finally we were going to see the desert. Driving through the mountains the scenery changed with the elevation,becoming forest in places, replacing flat -land agriculture with terraces and steep paths between villages and fields.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant with a panoramic view out to the mountains, and had brochettes of lamb and beef with rice and bread, and mint tea, the staple of Moroccan dining. One is never really done until the mint tea has been poured.

As we climbed up over the peak and then down we came into a village with its weekly market in full swing. The town itself clung to the edge of a mountain, with one long street snaking along. The market was also long, with only one vendor at a time in place alongside the road. Up above the main road was another apparently flat area, full of donkeys. A “donkey parking lot” was how our driver, Brahim, referred to it. The guys came in to the town for the market, to trade what they have grown for what they need, piling it all on the backs of small gray and brown donkeys, which they unloaded and led up to this space where they were tethered and seemed content to graze.

Donkeys should rate an entire essay. The small domestic animals are the backbone of rural, and often urban, Morocco. Carrying what looks like well more than their own weight in straw, produce, woven mats, bottles of water, and people, the donkeys plod along placidly up and down every bit of  the country.In Fez’s old city especially donkeys are hauling everything that needs to be moved from leather to bread. Even in the new part of Marrakesh, donkeys are pulling carts full of odd things to and from the city. One can’t help but feel for them, they get no respect locally. In fact, we learned that the worst insult is to call someone a donkey!Many times I caught a glimpse of an old man with his old donkey, sometimes riding it, sometimes walking along beside. They looked so comfortable, like dear old friends.A great story idea for the right writer.

Watermelons were in season during our visit, and they were everywhere. it reminded me of zucchini season in Wisconsin when you can’t give them away! We were offered tastes, chunks of bright red sweet melon suspended on the end of a saber, who could resist that!

Ouzarzate is a growing small city on the edge of the desert. It’s claim to fame is the fact that many movies have been filmed in whole or part there, using some of the spaces built for studios by the government. We passed on the studio tour, having been to Universal Studios in LA, but here at least, the palm trees are real as is the sand.

Our hotel was built with a garden where we had a late dinner.People tend to eat very late by our standards, usually around 10 pm or so. It’s just too hot before that to think about cooking or eating very much. We sat on a terrace where musicians performed local music, and some of us ( me included) were persuaded to join the dancing. In my case, it helped a lot to have just had a good amount of red wine. In the morning, breakfast was served in a black wool nomad’s tent, authentic down to the zillions of flies.

Before leaving town we spent some time with an herbalist who explained, and sold to us, local spices and herbal remedies. Great lotions made from Argan oil, it really softens the feet after wearing sandals for days. And the scents of ras el hanout and Moroccan saffron and rose water remind me every time I open my bag that I have been somewhere extraordinary.


Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 5:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviewing Morocco in my mind, arrival in Marrakesh

First impressions of Morocco from the Marrakesh airport were of a place cooler and more humid than I expected, with great relief! turns out to have been a momentary thing – it’s a hot place in June!

We got off the plane, made it through the administrative stuff, got our bags and looked for some sign of Youssef. We examined all of the signs being held up by drivers and guides, but not one “Slater”. Feeling anxious since I realized that I didn’t have the name of the riad where we were staying, I looked around some more. A youngish, shortish man walked up to me and smiled, “Karen?” he said. I responded, “Yousseff?” and we connected. he said that he never uses signs, he just knows somehow who the person is that he is meeting. I think it’s that he waits until everyone else has met their person and approaches who is still looking anxious!

With Yousseff we found the driver and car and headed into Marrakesh, it was about 1am by now and the city was pretty quiet.We parked  the large black SUV in a parking lot, where we were met by a young man who helped carry our bags to the riad. The path was far from obvious and included balancing over planks covering a large hole where a sewer line was being replaced while holding a suitcase at 1am! then we walked, turned a corner, walked some more, more corners and eventually to an unmarked door that let into the old house that was our riad. It was quite lovely, with a central courtyard typical of this sort of building, and stairs up two levels and then to a rooftop terrace. Our room’s only window was to the central court, and sounds carried very well within it, leading to some sleepless nights. And then there is the call to prayer. It is sounded about 5 times a day, but the 4am one is most memorable. I suppose next time I book a place to stay in an Islamic country, I’ll pay attention to the proximity of mosques! I’m only glad that I don’t understand arabic or it would have been harder to sleep through the loud voice broadcast through out the neighborhood.

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 4:16 pm  Leave a Comment  

Revisiting Morocco, part 1

I’m adding some posts that were sent out as emails. It is redundant, but allows me to keep everything in one place. Here’s the still unedited first email.

we did finally arrive in marrakesh, at our hotel at 1;30am. This keyboard is not arranged in the usual english style; yhe letters are in very different places,so please work with me on the spelling!
today we metthe other couple sharing youssefs guide skills; very nice folks from; of all places, woodstock; il!
we took q horse drawn carriage around the city to visit gorgeous gardens that are supported by the yves st:laurence foundation; nice gift to the city of marrakesh.
We had lunch at the jma el fnna square; met a snake charmer; dodged lots of motorscooters, looke into beautiful shops; and collapsed back at the hotel for a rather illicit feeling cold beer!
tonight e will have dinner here; then go back to the square to see the famous night time action : storytellers; gymnastics. I,ll tell you more after I actually see it for myself:
Another email already sent:
After a 7+ hour unairconditioned train ride in what was billed as a first class air conditioned train car, we arrived in \marrakesh for just one night before catching a bus the next  morning for Essaouria on the Atlantic coast. We showered,  rested and took a taxi to the main square for dinner and to see the action. I’d not gone to the Djma el-Fna on our first days in the city, and I wanted to see what I had heard about from so many books and people. We fouund a mediocre restaurant where I had a very nice beef with prunes and almonds tagine. John had a nicoise salad and spaghetti. Then we walked around the square, though the dozens of food stalls ( I was shy about eating there, guarding my stomach’s well being is a priority while traveling). It certainly smelled great, and the hustlers never stopped trying to get yo to their stall.
All around are groups of people watching performers and musicians, including at least one snake charmer and a guy with an elaborte set up out of a mid-west summer carnival with bottles and a fishing pole and a ring….
For some reason it did not  strike me as the most amazing place I;ve been, but still worth the stroll.
In the morning we walked our bags to the bus station, eventually figuring out we had to pay to check our bags on the bus, about $2.50 each bag, get a sticker for each bag then stand and wait for the bus to load. We did all that, got on the sweltering bus, and waited. The driver seemed to start the bus and then stop and get off several times. Eventually we were told to get off and their would be another bus. We all did as we were told, and eventually we did leave Marrakesh and the bus had marvelous cool air all the way to Essaouria.
Essaouria is a port town, small ( maybe less than 100,000) with ramparts and a harbor and lots of tourists. Still, the weather is coastal- cool, windy fresh. The contrast with the rest of the country is huge. I instantly loved the place. When we got our bags from the bus, young men offered to take our bags to the riad in a push cart, so we followed our bags around the edge of the city wall and through an archway into the maze of an ancient city. We knocked on the enormous wooded door and entered another lovely old home with a tiled floor and an open center court. It’s not a big place, only about 4 or 5 rooms. We reserved the studio apartment on the top, fourth, floor. It has two rooms and a bath, with a tiny fridge and a hot water kettle. The owner is from London, and happened to open the door when we arrived. She has had the place for 4 years and is still working on improvements, but it is ust wonderful, once you make it up all the stairs! There is a roof top terrace directly above us with to-die-for views of the harbor. Gulls are swirling around at all times of the day and night, very loudly calling and screaming. The luxury of time to just hang out is wonderful after all the hustle of the earlier part of the trip.
Yesterday it rained a lot, and even hailed in the morning. We did laundry, hung it out inbetween rainstorms, read and napped. We took a long walk to find some wine and beer, got caught in another downpour. John and I ducked into different places and never met up again for a while, until I returned to the square near our place where he was ordering a nutella crepe while waiting for me to find him! In the meantime, I had found the cutest hand-made slippers and an old Tuareg silver pendant. Shopping here is pretty great. The only trouble is that my bank will only allow me to withdraw about $200 at a time which seems to go quickly since few merchants will take credit cards here.
Today, the winds have changed, rather than from the east bringing the heat and causing thunder and lightening storms yesterday and the day before, they are from the west bringing ocean fog and cool air. I stood on the roof terrace this morning before breakfast and watched the fog coming in towards the shore and felt very at home. This is a place I feel I will come back to again, its peaceful and lovely, even it lots of other tourists feel the same.
My plan now is to spend some time thinking and writing about other aspects of the trip which I wasn’t able to write about while there. I’m in Oxford, on a more familiar computer at John’s place, with no particular pressures on my time today. I’ll see what happens.
Karen 22 June, 2009

Published in: on June 22, 2009 at 12:36 pm  Leave a Comment