[Just catching up on a couple of posts I wrote but never had the chance to upload. Why isn't there internet everywhere in the world all of the time???]
|From Sahara Desert|
Things no one tells you about camping in the desert:
But, the following might also happen:
All in all it was something we were glad we did, but it wasn’t not as romantic as one might think. The whole experience felt a bit manufactured, but that’s to be expected when you hire people to take you out to the periphery of the desert for no particular purpose. Overall, it was a cool thing to do, especially seeing the sun set over the dunes. Will we ever go back? Not a chance.
EDITED TO ADD: I wrote the first part of this post as we waited to leave Morocco, the first time, and the second part once we got out.
As we prepare to leave Morocco after two weeks in the country, we both can’t help but feel excitement at leaving.
By the time we got to Fes, we didn’t care to see another medina, historic or not. We were sick of the tagines that dominate every meal except breakfast. Breakfast, too, was like groundhog day for 14 days straight: orange juice, tea, yogurt, Moroccan bread with apricot jam, possibly a crepe like pancake if you are lucky, a fried egg mislabeled omelet if you were not. (Not bad, I know, but I’m American and I need variety). Although we rarely stray from the local cuisine while travelling, we found ourselves eating pizza three times. We had no desire to shop anymore because we had no desire to negotiate. Most of all, we were sick of paying too much for things, but we were so tired we found ourselves giving in all too often.
Our last day started with a leak in the shower hose, which blasted water sideways in our faces, on the ceiling, and finally, when it really started to get out of control, on the loose wires on the bathroom light. Mailing our purchases home involved a man who appeared to work for the post office offering friendly and much needed assistance, which quickly, of course, turned into a demand for hundreds of dirham. Opting for the 7 dirham bus ride to the airport instead of the 120 dirham grand taxi (less than 1 USD versus 15 USD), a man was in the process of reaching into the side pocket in my backpack when Sean turned around, yelled sharply, and scared him away. Out of the bus windows, we watched a fight between teenagers, and I spotted one of them wielding a large knife. Luckily, that wasn’t our stop. Now, we sit in Fez’s small airport, counting down the hours until we can board our plane.
Does this mean we didn’t like Morocco? I don’t think that it does. People who have travelled here before have raved about the country, and we can see why. As I talked about in my last post, the country has beautiful landscapes. Morocco has history, architecture, and vibrant colors. It also has friendly people, such as the woman who came to our rescue when a “parking attendant” tried to gouge us for more money than we likely owed for parking on a public street, or the woman on the bus who would have conversed with us had we known French but confirmed that indeed, the bus was heading to the airport, or the man next to us at the café who insisted we share his chocolate bar.
I just think you need to be in the right frame of mind to deal with certain elements of travel, and we were not in that frame of mind. I don’t feel we can give a trustworthy review of what it is like to travel through Morocco. I only feel qualified to give a trustworthy review of what it is like to travel through Morocco when you are ill for most of the journey. As with any travel, there are good things and bad things. It’s just when you are sick, all of the bad things are magnified and the good things are dampened.
As I mentioned in an earlier post, we got food poisoning while we were in Marrakesh. Bad food poisoning. Not just unsettled stomachs or even traveler’s diarrhea. Possibly from eating at the bustling food stalls in the main square like Eva and Jeremy from Forks and Jets? Possibly from a milkshake that we thought was safe, but perhaps contained ice or sour milk? We are not sure what was the cause, we just know that we spent a horrid night paying the price. From that night on, we have not felt right, culminating in another awful day we spent holed up in our hotel room in Meknes. We barely saw Meknes, and gave Fes complete short shrift.
One also has to keep in mind that we are still getting our sea legs. Morocco is the first time we have travelled through a truly foreign country, one where the people do not look like us or speak like us. One where standards are much different than those in the United States. Much of Morocco is more modern than what we initially experienced in Essaouira, particularly the cities we visited: Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, Meknes, Fes. This is particularly the case in the ville nouvelles, which are the “suburbs” set up by the French during their rule by taxing the Moroccans living within the old, crumbly medina walls. Much of Morocco is less modern than what we initially experienced in Essaouira. In the villages, the only sign of modern life is often the guesthouses and the Coke for sale everywhere under the banner with a picture of a sultry Arabian woman.
While I was curled up on the bed in a ball with stomach pains in Meknes, being forced to listen to an hour long call to prayer blasting over the loud speakers from somewhere in town, Sean and I discussed our next destination. It was supposed to be Egypt, then Jordan, then South Africa. We knew Egypt was going to be quite foreign like Morocco. We have heard that while the pyramids are amazing, you have no choice but to be subjected to very aggressive people in order to see them. We realized that we were not up for that right now, and discussed other options. That’s the beauty of travelling without firm plans. We really liked Spain while we were there, and cut it short to go to Paris. When we saw a cheap flight to Madrid from Fes, we knew that’s where we wanted to go next. When we found a cheap car rental, we put our plan into action. We plan to drive in a circle from Madrid for 11 days, to Valencia, along the coast, to Seville, to Lisbon, Portugal, then back to Madrid. We will need to watch to keep it cheap, because Morocco really blew our budget unexpectedly. After Spain, our itinerary will be similar, just in a different order. Stay tuned for Spain part dos…
So I wrote Part One of this post as we waited at Fes’s small airport for hours for our flight. The airport was much smaller than we anticipated, given Fes’s size and stature in the country, and not well marked. We finally figured out which of the long lines was the one for Ryan Air to start the check in process for our flight to Madrid. At some point, we realized we were the only ones with larger bags. Sean went to figure out why. When he returned, he did not look happy. They are saying it is cancelled, he said, incredulously. It was true. Ryan Air cancelled our flight. Our way out! We read an article later that night about how the volcanic ash cloud grounded most of Ryan Air’s flights. That would have been nice to know earlier. We had no access to television and very little access to the internet for days. After we found out it was cancelled, we waited for an hour and a half to get our money back. We didn’t know what we were waiting for, exactly, and we couldn’t understand any of the gossip circulating through the line. I call it a line, but that is a misnomer. People of various nationalities felt the need to push in front of others, and Moroccans got to jump to the head of the line.
When we finally returned to Fes, taking the grand taxi this time, it was too late to attempt to catch a train or bus out of town. I would have paid any amount of money to take a flight to anywhere, but there were no more flights leaving that day. We went to three hotels in Fes before we found one with space for the night. Walking around, with our heavy packs, surrounded by cars and people walking around in a free for all, I said, I never have wanted to leave a place so badly in my entire life. I wasn’t being melodramatic. I meant it. I felt trapped, and I didn’t like it. A cancelled flight shouldn’t be a big deal to people with no schedule, but there couldn’t have been a worse time for us to have our flight to be cancelled.
We caught a 6 hour long train to Tangier at 6:50 the next morning, and took a 45 minute long ferry to Tarifa, Spain – the closest access point back to Europe. It was overcast, rainy and dreary in Tangier, but the sun was shining and birds were chirping in Tarifa. We found a hostal with a comfortable bed and light, airy room. Tarifa looks like a fun, eclectic windsurfing and kitesurfing town. I think we’ll stay another night.
While is not exactly a shocker, we have become painfully aware than when you travel in a country in which tourism is the major industry, everyone wants to sell you something. On the drive from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate, we saw roadside pottery stands protruding off the mountain and threatening to fall into the valley below.
|From Atlas Mountains & the Gorges|
On the road from Ouarzazate to Tinihir, we’ve seen at least five men for every car that goes by optimistically holding dyed geodes on the side of the road. And we’ve done our part. We’ve consciously allowed ourselves to be snookered into buying a carpet from a Berber family in the middle of the Todra Gorge. We willingly let ourselves be talked into going on a guided hike into the Todra Gorge and subsequently stay a second night. But we had to draw the line when discussions about booking a camel ride in the desert went south.
Part of the problem – and blessing – of travelling long term is that it makes it very difficult to plan much in advance. It is a fine line between being spontaneous and being woefully unprepared. So far, we’ve taken the approach of planning each step a day or two in advance. While we’ve shown up places without reservations, we’re not yet comfortable with showing up in a town without some preparation. We’ve been trying not to go overboard with planning, lest we spend the entire day on the internet researching places to stay and things to do. Planning this way can get complicated, however, when internet is unreliable, we have no means of calling anyone except through Skype (which requires an internet connection), and places do not have online booking.
So while we knew we wanted to spend a night in the Sahara Desert, we did not have advance reservations. In our heads, the desert was going to be scorching hot and desolate. Alternatively, we heard and read horror stories of the uber-aggressive touts selling accommodations and camel trips once you arrived. (Turns out neither was exactly the way it was in real life, but more on that later). Either way, we knew we did not want to show up at the desert without reservations.
Our friends Heather and Greg travelled to Morocco in 2007, so we were relying heavily on their helpful recommendations. The place where they stayed in Merzouga, the town just outside Erg Cherbi (the sand dunes where we planned to explore the Sahara), did not have online booking. We tried calling the hotel on Skype, but for some reason the number did not go through.
The hotel where we were staying at while planning our desert adventure was in the middle of the Todra Gorge, in the valley between two tall rock walls, next to a small river and lush palm trees.
Big city, this was not. The hotel was a Lonely Planet pick, with good reviews on Trip Advisor. The room was simple and clean, the scenery was gorgeous, and the breakfast and dinner that came with the price were some of the better meals we had. The hotel appeared to be associated with a colorful cast of characters that constantly circulated in and out of the lobby area. All men, they each had a unique personality. Many were good salespeople – this is where we were talked into buying a carpet, guided hike, and second night at the hotel. All the men were friendly. The one whom we assumed was the owner, or at least in charge, was particularly friendly. One of the others sang, America! America! when he saw us. He asked to see our pictures from Essaouira. When we showed him, he laughed each time he saw a picture of a cat and said, Mrow! Too many mrow.
Sean decided to inquire with our hotel about a phone to call the place Heather and Greg recommended in Merzouga. I predicted that he was going to get a hard sell about the hotel’s own desert excursion. Sure enough, when Sean came back upstairs, he had not made the phone call but had the name and website of a place supposedly run by the owner’s “family.” We checked out reviews on the internet, and it appeared to be legitimate, and the price was good. While we were slightly wary, we figured this place was as good as any, and certainly the easiest option.
Later in the day, we saw the owner. Ahh…did you check it out? I will call my family for you. We told him, okay, please do so. He promised to call after dinner. We ate dinner in the dining room, and looked around for him in the lobby where all of the men who ran the hotel congregated. We saw a new man we had not seen before. The man began talking to us, and told us he was a grand taxi driver from Merzouga. He told us he knew English really well, and engaged us in a conversation. We then saw the owner, who offered us tea. We declined, saying we were going to head upstairs to bed. The owner feigned insult. The taxi driver told us, In the Berber culture, it is considered rude to turn down an offer of tea. You must accept.
This was not the first time we heard this. I really did not want any more tea, considering we just finished a pot after dinner. In Morocco, we have been forced to drink copious amounts of the stuff. When the tea is unsweetened, it is good. It varies slightly, but it typically contains fresh herbs and loads of fresh mint. Preparation of the tea is somewhat of a ritual, culminating in a long pour from high above the glass tea cups. The problem comes in when the Moroccans drop enormous sugar cubes into the pot, making it sickly sweet, almost as if you were drinking melted spearmint gum. Sean didn’t mind it as much as I did, but he too preferred it unsweetened.
After pressure from the owner and taxi driver, we relented and agreed to have some more tea. While we drank our tea, we sized the taxi driver up, and tried to figure out what he was after since he knew we had a rental car. During our first cup, the taxi driver chatted with us about our plans to spend one night in the desert near Merzouga. Oh, you are headed to Merzouga? You must spend two nights there! One is not enough. He repeated this over and over. Uncomfortable, we kept telling him that while two nights would be nice, our schedule would only allow one night. He then mentioned that because he was from Merzouga, he knew the best camps and could set us up with one. We told him we already had plans, and were just waiting to finalize them. He changed the subject. I finally gulped down what I felt was an acceptable amount of tea. I glanced at Sean and just as I was about to say, well, it is getting late, the taxi driver refilled my cup. Crap.
During our second cup, the owner of the hotel came out, and listened as the taxi driver told us again and again that we really needed to spend two nights in the desert. Periodically, they spoke in Berber to each other. I tried to figure out what was going on. The owner had seemed set on trying to get us to go to his “family’s” place. What would he get out of it if we were swayed into spending two nights at the taxi driver’s friend’s place?
The owner drifted in and out of the conversation, leaving us mostly alone to talk to the taxi driver. We finally were able to politely duck out of the conversation. Before we went upstairs, the owner told us that he had tried to call his family, but they were full for tomorrow night – opposite of what he told us earlier in the day. The owner told us that the taxi driver could call his friend to set us up in the desert. Before we replied, the taxi driver was pulling out his cell phone and about to make a call. We told them that we needed to discuss our plans upstairs, and that we would let them know in the morning. They looked disappointed. The taxi driver said, okay. I’ll leave all the information and he can call for you in the morning.
Upstairs in our room, we were fuming. It was close to 11 p.m. We had no place to stay the next night. We felt like everyone was trying to take advantage of us. We were mad at ourselves for even considering going with the hotel owner’s “family’s” place, and for not seeking out a public phone to call the place to which we wanted to go. We discussed how showing up in Merzouga without reservations was not an option. We discussed not going to the desert. Finally, we started looking around on the internet again. We found a place on Trip Advisor that was rated number one. We decided to try Skype again. Maybe something was wrong with the number for the other place. Maybe this number would work. It did. We made reservations to spend the next night at a camp in the desert. Thank goodness. Someone turned off the wireless router shortly after that. We joked they did it on purpose to neutralize our options, but I think it was routine.
The next morning, all seemed okay when we came down for breakfast. Phew, we thought. We can actually get out of here free and clear. But alas, no such luck. Just as we were about to walk out the door upon checking out, the owner asked us if we would like him to call the taxi driver’s friend. He had his cell phone in hand. No, Sean said. We booked a place last night. The owner peered at us suspiciously. We could tell he thought we were lying, since he knew we did not have a phone. He then bombarded us with questions. Where is it? What is the name? What is the price that you pay? This place is cheap. We claimed not to remember such details. He didn’t give up until Sean told him we already gave our credit card number and could not back out now. We to finish checking out. All of the men, with the noticeable absence of the owner, were friendly and gave us tips about the desert. The owner did not offer to help us with our bags, as he did on the way in. We left the hotel, hopped in our car and drove towards the desert, happy to have the freedom of a car.
I’m not sure what the lesson is here. Always pretend to have firm plans even if you don’t? (Then you must be prepared with many details to answer questions). Not trust anyone’s recommendations? Buy a cell phone? Be “rude” and refuse to drink the tea? It is unclear. All I know is that I hate viewing everyone with suspicion, but incidents like these are adding up to make it impossible not to.
They give us those nice bright colors
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, Oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away
Marrakesh (also sometimes spelled Marrakech) is a hot, dusty city. Much bigger than Essaouira, it has a sultry, Arabian nights type of feel. Although Essaouira is reportedly more laid back than other cities, we found Marrakesh to almost be refreshing. (Almost, because the scooters zipping past you within inches of your body in the narrow medina streets, leaving a trail of exhaust, would tax anyone’s nerves after long). Perhaps we preferred Marrakesh because there are more people to hassle, so the focus is shifted off of you. People are hustling about the medina and villa nouvelle (outskirts of the city) doing their own thing, whereas in Essaouira one gets the sense that the tourist and fishing industries keep the city afloat. That’s not to say that there is not a lot of energy devoted to tourists in Marrakesh – you can tell from the flowers lining the road to the airport, the snake charmers in the main square, and the thousands of people wanting to sell you something.
Jem Al Fnaa is the heart of the city. It is the giant main square locals called “The Big Square” in heavily accented English, as in, “Monsieur, the Big Square is this way. Do you need help, Monsieur? Come look in my shop. I’ll give you a nice price.” It is alive at all hours of the day, but particularly at night. Hundreds of people mill about. There are fresh orange juice stalls, nut stands, grills, henna artists, snake charmers, musicians, monkeys, donkeys, and men praying in every direction. At one end of the square, there is a maze of souks selling everything under the sun, including underwear. It was also a nice change of pace to get out of the main part of the medina, where we wandered around the city’s colorful gardens and former Jewish school, and made use of the cyberpark.
Everyone says you need a calm, peaceful oasis when staying in Marrakesh, and we found that to be true. We stayed at Riad Argan, a riad run by a French couple with the most gracious hospitality. The riad centered around an open courtyard with a plunge pool, with rooms above on the balconies. At about $140 a night, the riad was a splurge for us, but well worth it.
Unfortunately, our visit to Marrakesh did not end well. Although we have been enjoying the tagines and cous cous dishes, something we ate gave us food poisoning, me in particular. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that it was a very long last night in Marrakesh. On the plus side, I think my pants are too big again, but I much prefer the Parisian diet.