Friday, January 01, 2010

Trip Report: Morocco

These posts are mainly for the benefit of my family and friends, but all are welcome to read it. They constitute a trip report for my recent vacation to Morocco, Egypt and Dubai.

Please forgive my tragic misspellings of names and placenames; I jotted down what I heard, and I'm going to avoid too much fact-checking just to get this up on the blog quickly. Likewise, I'm not editing this too closely, so you're reading whatever I blathered out in that evening after the tours finished.

I will put large blocks of history/trivia in red so that, if you're not interested, you can skip quickly over that material.

Lastly, my husband is quite a bit shyer than I am about having details of his life put up on the internet, so I'll refer to him as "El Husbando" everywhere. Those of you who know his real name can substitute it in yourselves. :-)

Day 1, Vancouver to Casablanca

Because our planes mostly aimed at the sun, this was actually two shortened days combined into one long one for us.

And, because it was a series of plane rides, there's not much to report here except our excitement at setting foot on the African continent. Yay!

Going through customs was the usual wait. We found it both frustrating and amusing that two separate parties skipped to the head of our line by wandering up and asking someone if they could bud in. I guess they had persuasive reasons. In general, Moroccans seem to make a habit of treating their fellow human beings with great generosity and kindness, as you'll see when I talk about the traffic.

On our ride into Casablanca, we got to see a bit of the countryside and non-tourist bits of the city. This part of Morocco is extremely flat and very agricultural. At first glance, it looks like Saskatchewan, but then you notice the palm trees and cacti by the roadsides, and the fact the medians at traffic interchanges are often planted with birds-of-paradise flowers. We saw a lot of roaming livestock--cows, chickens and sheep--even in town. Speaking French here is definitely a good tactic; most of the people we've dealt with have enough English, but their French is way better. (Pity ours isn't!)

The traffic, oh my. Imagine a divided highway with four lanes in both directions. It's busy enough that everyone's moving at fairly stately highway speeds. Now add some motorcycles to the mix. Now add some bicycles--and the bike riders take up a lane of traffic and appear very comfortable about sharing the road with all the cars. Which is not a surprise, really, because now you need to add the PEDESTRIANS to your mental picture. In the busy parts of town, every fifteen to thirty seconds, you see someone walk across the road, pausing to wait for gaps, hurrying when they spot one--or not hurrying, if they're with their kids. And, again, there is no evidence of fear in any of these people. In the rural areas, the pedestrians were only frequent, but no less brazen.

But you need to add in two last details to understand why the traffic is really so interesting to witness: The nonchalance and the generosity.

I've mentioned the bikes and pedestrians are unbothered by sharing the road with cars. The thing that's interesting is the cars are just as calm about it. Drivers slow down for pedestrians and waggle around bike riders without even a trace of impatience. They never get upset or aggressive, and the only time they honk is at each other, usually for daring to slow down. The traffic is chaotic but extremely civil. As I mentioned, being kind to your fellow human being seems to be part of Morocco's national character.

After we got to our hotel, we wibbly-wobbled down to the restaurant in exhaustion, got fed, then went to bed and fell asleep promptly despite the club downstairs blasting obnoxiously-loud dance music. And, as is typical of jetlag, we woke up again in the dead of night feeling like it was time to start the day. Hence, this journal entry! I needed something to do while I waited for dawn.

Day 2, Casablanca, then on to Rabat

Casablanca has a population of 5 million (all of Morocco is 30 million), and it's divided into six districts. The original name of Casablanca was Anfa, and the ritzy district of town is still named that. Casablanca turns out to be the only city we visit on our Moroccan trip that WASN'T the capital city at some point in its history. It seems like a very safe town, if only because there's so many people on the streets. We also noticed tons of kids, although our tour guide Ahmed said the nation's birth rate is dropping.

We started by seeing the Central Market, which was built in the thirties. This featured flowers and food mostly, with a few stray cats for good measure (Morocco seems to have plenty of these.) The market also sells pork and wine, which turns out to be not so surprising. Morocco is mostly Muslim, but has a variety of religions and a long history of interacting with people of other nations. As a result, it makes a habit of being very tolerant. Casablanca seems a night town, in that the traffic was busy at 1 AM, but non-existent the next morning. I suspect, at 10 AM, we were in the market before it was really open since there seemed to be only our tour group and the vendors setting up their stalls for the day.

Next we stopped at Notre Dame du Lord, a Catholic cathedral with walls entirely made of coloured glass. It's extremely thick glass held together with mortar, so I hesitate to call them stained glass windows, but the effect is certainly beautiful when you're inside and the sun is shining.

We took a quick look at Place de Mohammad V, which features some pretty buildings and gardens, and some locals dressed colourfully as water sellers who are really there to be photographed in exchange for gratuities.

The next stop was the truly beautiful and impressive Hassan II Mosque. This is built on a tip of land next to the ocean, which was also beautiful and impressive. The waves were just HUGE; later on, we sat and watched them for an hour.

The Hassan II Mosque has a huge square and a massive minaret with lovely white and blue decorations, which the mosque itself also features. The mosques doors are about three stories high with complex silver and blue decorations. The mosque takes up 20,000 square metres.

And at the mosque, I got my first opportunity to try out a squat toilet. Thank goodness I read up on how to use them ahead of time, and thank goodness I had a pack of kleenex in my purse, too, because I was NOT okay with the idea of using water and hands instead of toilet paper. Eek!

After that, we began our drive to the city of Rabat and got a little history on the way.

Morocco was the first nation in the world to recognize the United States as an independent nation, and as a result Morocco has a long standing free trade agreement with the US.

80% of Morocco's population are Berbers, and there is an association trying to get the Berber language recognized as one of the official languages. Currently, only Arabic and French are. The word Berber comes from the Romans referring to them as barbarians, which hardly seems fair. Berber scripture is the oldest in the world; that sounds pretty civilized to me!

The king (Sultan) of Morocco, Mohammad VI (grandson to Mohammad V) is very hard-working. He has absolute power, but cedes most of it to an elected parliment. A few years ago, he was going to hospitals in the middle of the night in various cities to see if their emergency services were effective. He had schools put into all the prisons. He is responsible for equality of the sexes being legislated and for ending polygamy in Morocco. He is currently making strides toward guaranteeing freedom of speech. His wife and sisters are also very involved in charities and causes. As you might expect, he is extremely popular with his population for all this.

Rabat is currently the capital city. In Rabat, we drove through the Wind Gate and then saw the king's palace, or rather the entrance of it. There are people in three different colours of uniform guarding the entrance. The red ones are Royal Gendarmes, the green ones are civic police, and the grey ones are some kind of royal militia. There are also people called Tuareq (slaves in the past, but now respected members of the royal household) in white robes and red hats who carry messages between those inside the palace and those outside. Weapons aren't permitted in the palace, so the Tuareq are unarmed.

The palace also contains a mosque where the king's relatives are buried, and the palace is currently building a biblioteche, i.e. a library, also.

Mohammad V, however, has his tomb in a different place, which is where we went next. His casket is in a beautiful little white building with an ornately decorated inside and huge brass braziers bracketing the stairs up to the building. The tomb is furthermore set inside the walls of a ancient mosque that was never completed. The minaret of that larger mosque is made of warm brown stone and stands over the ocean. It's quite beautiful, but the walls (and hence the ceiling) of the mosque were never finished. If they had been, it would have been the largest mosque in the world at that time. Instead, the interior has been left as a large plaza for the public. While we were there, an electrical storm was just blowing in off the ocean, and the combination of the huge minaret and the bruised sky behind it was wild.

Next we went to the Oudaya Kasbah, which is a walled city we would have loved to spend more time in. How much did we enjoy it? Well, we got so distracted we lost our tour group and had a hectic fifteen minutes trying to navigate our way back to the van via all the winding tiny side streets. Before that, however, it was great.

In the Kasbah, we saw a lovely garden. Its walkways are made with the original 12th century stones. We also saw a cafe called the Cafe of the Jews, since a population of Jews found respite from persecution in Oudaya. (By the way, "Kasbah" means fortress.) The tour ended (for us at least) at a lookout where we got fantastic views of the ocean crashing, the storm blowing in, and the sun setting red and huge under the lip of the clouds. You could also see another city across an inlet, which our guide said used to be populated by pirates. Then we took a bunch of pictures, and then we had our little panicky adventure trying to find our bus again. As it turned out, our hotel was within walking distance of Oudaya anyway, but it was nice to get there alongside our luggage!

Day 3, Rabat to Meknes to Fez

Rabat is one half of a pair of twin cities separated by a river. The other city is Borogret, which is the former pirate town I mentioned yesterday. Today was Monday, so we got to see the rush hour first hand, and there seemed far fewer pedestrians and bikes in evidence.

We started off for Meknes, but got to see the king's ranch along the way (lots of soldiers!) as well as the Mamoro forest, which is "ten hundred thousand acres" according to our guide. I guess that's a million acres? It was a very large forest mostly consisting of cork trees. The Romans were the ones to name it "Mamoro", and were in the area (then called Mauritania) for 440 years. The forest also provides truffles, which are a fungus that grows under the ground and is much sought after by Europeans. However, Moroccans don't eat truffles themselves, so they can be bought fairly cheaply--about 3 to 4 Euro for a kilogram.

Moroccans grow eucalyptus trees (imported from Australia, obviously) for wood, paper, decoration, and cough medicine. They've started growing olive and fruit trees in the same fields as their cereal grains because the harvest times are staggered and they can get two harvests of the same piece of land. We saw quite a few storks today, including two families that had built their nests on top of a government toll booth on the highway.

Farmers in Morocco pay no taxes! The government plans to look at that policy again in 2013, but for the moment, the farmers keep all their profits.

In Casablanca and Rabat, we saw a lot of stray cats. In Meknes, these seemed to have all been replaced by stray dogs. Meknes has a population of about 700,000 (people, not dogs) and is quite wealthy due to its rich agriculture. They had orange trees growing along the streets, which quite charmed us.

The name of the city comes from "Meknesa" which means "tribe of the olives". Romans brought olives to Morocco when they moved in. Meknes produces excellent red wine, by the way, but European protectionism has limited its availability there. Morocco does sell it to Canada, however. (Also, although the Muslim locals are forbidden to drink alcohol, our guide says they do anyway, and that he enjoys it himself.)

Meknes has 40 km of walls, which is the most of any city in Morocco. The wall is triple-layered, with a short wall to stop cavalry, a moderate wall to stop infantry, and a tall wall to stop any persistent bastards who got past the first two.

The walls were build by king Moulay Ismail, who was a contemporary of France's "Sun King", Louis the 14th. Moulay Ismail idolized Louis, and although the two men had good relations, they were nothing alike. Our local guide was quite frank that Moulay Ismail was both cruel and paranoid, but he did leave behind some amazing constructions. The king had 500 concubines and 12,000 horses, and we saw both the stables for the horses and the massive granary the king built to feed the city in the event of a siege. Beside these was a massive pool Moulay Ismail built to store water for the city.

We walked through the granaries (the stables' roofs collapsed in the same earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755, but the granaries arched ceilings held firm.) The individual granary rooms are about half the size of a high school gym with three story ceilings and golden stone walls. There are dozens of rooms. A series of water channels running under them keeps the structure at about 15 C even when the temperature outside is 40 C. This was done to keep the grain from spoiling.

Which would be important, given the granaries were constructed to be big enough to feed the entire city for TWENTY YEARS. As I said, king Moulay Ismail was a bit paranoid about sieges.

At the time, Morocco and Italy traded sugar and marble at par in terms of weight, i.e. one kilogram of sugar bought you one kilogram of marble. The sugar got eaten, but Meknes still has many attractive marble pillars decorating it.

Next we went to king Moulay Ismail's Mausoleum. This was very beautiful also, featuring a series of courtyards leading into a very ornate tomb.

After lunch, we went on our way to Volubis, the ruins of the Roman city that was capital to Mauritania. Volubis may be one of the highlights of our trip, but then again, El Husbando and I are suckers for running around ruins!

Most of the walls are only a few feet high, but some large arches and pillars have been reconstructed, and the ruins have many lovely mosaic floors featuring images of various deities enacting scenes from myth. There are also dining rooms and sun rooms still visible, and garden areas with water cisterns (think decorative ponds) in them. There was one house that had all different styles of pillars, including some very attractive cigar-shaped ones with swirling ridges up their sides.

Volubis has a triumphal arch at the intersection of the two main streets, and its forum and oratorium were rebuilt by the French. We saw another stork nest on top of a pillar there.

After Volubis, we drove on to Fez, although our tour of that city takes place tomorrow. Since El Husbando and I snoozed most of the way, I can't report much about the rest of the ride. I will note here, however, that the countryside around Meknes is very beautiful, with rolling emerald hills and a variety of orchards. The olive groves were probably the prettiest, although what I found most amusing was the neatly-rowed garden of prickly pear cacti someone was growing!

Day 4, Fez

Fez reverts from stray dogs back to stray cats, and apparently there are more of those in Fez's future. In a clothing shop that had a bench with a rack of clothes behind it, El Husbando and I sat down. We heard a cat squawk. Of course we worried we had squished its tail, so we pushed the clothes back to check. As it turned out, there were two cats back there, and they were, um, busy.

Yes, no shortage of stray cats in Fez's future!

In other news of fertility, both the orange trees lining the streets and the olive trees planted around Fez were just coming ripe, which meant we got to eat the most amazing local mandarin oranges. Imagine an orange candy, and how intense, sweet and tart that synthetic flavour can be. Now imagine it in a juice-plumped, tender-fleshed mandarin orange. They were that yummy!

Today we had a local guide, Mohammad, who asked us to call him "Momo". He's the youngest in is family and his mother has always called him "Momo", which means "baby", so he goes by this knickname. He and our regular guide, Ahmed, greeted each other by kissing one another's cheeks as they shook hands, which I knew was normal in this part of the world but which I hadn't seen anyone do yet.

First we went to a 16th century fortress to see a panoramic view of the city including the areas we would be visiting later. The fortress is being restored, as are many buildings in Fez, thanks to the city being designated a world heritage site by Unesco.

After that, we embarked on a walking tour of the old city, also called the medina. This proved to be amazing, and Momo was a fantastic guide because he actually grew up in the old city.

The old city contains about 10,000 alleyways and is a complete labyrinth. Momo stressed that we must NOT get lost in there, and upon entering, we all understood exactly why. The streets are wriggling little slots between the buildings, and they join each other at random angles. No complete map of the area is available, and you couldn't even get one from satellite photos because many of the streets have been covered by the shops and homes that were extended over top of them over the course of centuries. In other words, there's absolutely no way to orient yourself in that rabbit warren; you can't see the sun and the streets run together like a plate of spaghetti.

The streets are in some cases only about a metre wide, but in most are two to three metres wide. Cars are impossible, so donkeys transport most of the goods in and out. When a loaded donkey comes by, everyone has to flatten against the walls to let it through. The outside of the buildings are plain, but the interiors are spectacular. Most houses have no windows, but are open to the sky instead. Rain falls down to the marble floor in the courtyard at the centre of the house, which is sloped toward a drain. The houses tend to have two stories, the lower one being made of marble and cooler for summer and the upper being built of cedar to be warmer in winter.

Our first stop was to a small madrassa, or school. It was typically beautiful, with a courtyard featuring a tiled floor, mosaic walls, and decorations of carved plaster above that, with the second story above that decorated with carved cedar. The plaster is mixed with marble dust, and so has the luminous white of marble. At the very top are stained glass windows made of coloured glass and plaster. Islam forbids the depiction of humans or animals in art, so all the decorations are very stylized floral or abstract shapes, or calligraphy, and they clog every surface with beauty.

Attached to the courtyard is a heavily decorated room used as both lecture room and mosque. The niche on one wall points the way to Mecca, so people know which direction to face when they pray, and the niche contains more symbolism than I realized. The arch shape represents the moon, since Islam uses a lunar-based calendar, and the two pillars bracketing the niche represent the two angels they believe accompany every person, one angel recording your good deeds and the other recording your bad ones.

What was interesting to geeky old me was that the niche acts as a voice amplifier. The Imam faces Mecca also, which means facing the wall, but the curve of the niche causes his voice to echo back to the other people in the room as he prays.

We walked along a street of coppersmiths, then visited a weaver's shop. That family has been weaving in their shop for 190 years, but they were weaving long before that too. The shop itself was built in the 11th century. It looks cave-like and melted with age, but it's still quite functional. We got a short lecture on how the weaving was done, and then we were free to look at things and succumb to the sales skills of the younger cousins and brothers.

This turned out to be a repeated theme, and yes, we all (the whole tour group) ended up buying more than we intended to, but it was also a blast! We learned a lot about a variety of industries, and were able to buy quality goods (cheap knock-offs abound; Momo was steering us toward quality wholesalers so we could get the best stuff for the best prices.)

After the weavers, we visited the tomb of a holy man and ate some excellent bread at a communal bakery. Locals can make their own dough, then bring it to the communal bakery and cook it there.

Next on the list was the oldest tannery in the city, and it was...quite appallingly stinky. They gave us all fresh mint leaves to stuff up our noses so we could stand it while they explained to us how everything worked. They took us up to the roof via a tiny spiral staircase so we could look down on the tannery during the lecture, and it was quite interesting even if it was also gag-inducing and rank.

Next we stopped by the shrine to Indriss II, who was one of the descendants of the prophet Mohammad. They put wooden posts across the street at head height near the shrine to enforce respect; people can walk to the shrine by ducking under the post, but they can't ride a donkey there.

We stopped often at the many hole-in-the-wall shops so Momo could explain an element of the culture to us. We learned that during Ramadan, girls aged 3 to 13 are treated like brides, dressed in white outfits and hennaed hands. We learned boys are given circumcision outfits, which are embroidered with gold and silver thread. We learned that the red "Fez" hat comes in two colours, dark red for scholars and bright red for aristocrats. We learned that women do embroidery but men do the sewing as commercial tailors.

After walking for hours through the maze, we got our first opportunity to sit down in a carpet factory. They served us "Moroccan whisky" which is green tea poured over fresh mint leaves. Then they discussed the carpets and showed us a bunch of them as a way to coax us into buying them. The sales tactics could be a little heavy in some of these places, but I think most of the group still thought it was more fun than irritating.

After the carpet shop, we visited the clothing store where we saw the, ahem, cats. Visiting that shop was definitely fun because the staff pulled members of our group up and dressed them in traditional Moroccan robes to model how these clothes were put on and worn, as well as how pretty they were.

Finally, we had (a very good) lunch, and wound our way back out of the medina, still stopping frequently at shops so Momo could explain bits of history and culture to us. Momo's regular job is schoolteacher, and you could certainly see it in him; he was a combination of cuddliness, enthusiasm, and the desire to share knowledge. We thought him an excellent guide.

Next we drove to a ceramics factory to see how tiles and pots were made. The potters work with massive lumps of clay and they spin their wheels with their feet, not with electricity. The kilns are made of straw and clay, and fired by burning olive pits and wood chips under them. The kilns take two days to fill, six hours to fire the pots within, and another two days to cool down enough to be opened and emptied. We were shown a studio where artists paint all these lovely geometrical patterns on the pots--completely freehand! The skill level was quite impressive.

Then we were shown the area where mosaic tiles are chipped to the correct shapes, and another where the tiles are assembled upside down into the mosaic. Concrete is then poured over their backs to form a panel. The finished mosaic is remarkably flat and perfect. Finally, we had some time in the show room to see all the finished products.

We next drove up to the ruins of a fortress to see a panoramic view of Fez from the other side of the valley, and we got to see people gathering olives from the trees there. Apparently this is a family pastime for Moroccans like berry picking in the Fall is to Canadians.

It was beginning to get dark, and we were tiring, but Momo wasn't. We drove to the gates of the Royal Palace of Fez, which the current king is considering making his official residence, since both he and his son suffer from asthma and Fez has a helpful climate for that. The gates feature doors of worked bronze where the patterns are tapped in with a small hammer. The work was incredibly fine, given the large size of the gates, and Momo next took us to the workshop of the artist who created the gates.

Oh, how easy it was to be tempted by that shop! It was full of bronze and silver metalwork, all very shiny and made beautiful by the intricate hammered patterns. Lovely stuff!

Finally, we walked through the upper medina (this is a younger part of the city than the old medina we had walked through earlier, but it's still quite old compared to the youngest, modern parts of Fez). This took us to the "Blue Gate". In the sixties, the area was apparently very popular with hippies, and Momo recounted seeing Jimi Hendrix there when he was too young to know who Jimi Hendrix was (although his older brother was appropriately awed.)

And then we went home, exhausted and happy, with less money and more packages than we started out with, but with an absolutely awesome experience under our belts. El Husbando remarked it would be difficult for the rest of our trip to top that day, and indeed, it remained a stand-out highlights for us!

Day 5, Driving to Marakech

Today we drove for ten hours to travel the 480 kilometres between Fez and Marakech--which was actually more interesting than you'd think, since we drove over the so-called "mid" Atlas mountains, i.e. the medium sized ones. We saw the big ones in the distance as we were driving in to Marakech at the end of the day.

Marakech was an imperial city--and once even the capital of all of Africa. The word Marakech means "market of slaves". It exported slaves mostly to South America, but also to Mexico and the United States. It seems like quite the hotspot even now, based on the number of really big, fancy hotels in the area we're staying in.

Our first rest stop on the way to Marakech was at a town called Ifran, which is sometimes called the Switzerland of Morocco. It sits at 1650 metres (~6500 feet) above sea level and gets about a metre of snow every winter, so the buildings have European-style roofs. It reminded El Husbando and me of the skiing town Whistler, a town near where we live in Canada.

Despite the cold winters, Ifran grows cherries and has monkeys living in its forests. It has cedar trees and even maples.

Speaking of forests, the previous king of Morocco, Hassan II, was concerned about air quality and the environment, so he ordered his citizens to begin planting trees. This included encouraging homeowners, schools and businesses to plant trees on their properties, but also each governor being ordered to plant one million trees in their province. This work is ongoing, and we saw evidence of it in the mountains. The army plants forests of trees there on otherwise very barren and marginal areas. These days, Moroccans tend to like planting fruit-bearing trees in order to improve their finances as well as the environment.

Here's some neat trivia about the town of Ifran. The locals lived in holes dug in the ground when the Romans first conquered the area. The Romans called these people "Barberos", or barbarians, and these people are now called Berbers. The hole a family lived in was called an Ifri, and the plural of that is Ifran, which is how the town of Ifran got its name. Furthermore, the Romans called the place Ifrikia, which eventually became Africa, the name of the entire continent.

After Ifran, we saw a lot of countryside that could change between very lush looking forested areas to very barren, desert-like areas, but all areas were populated. There don't seem to be a lot of fields that aren't pasture land in the upper parts of the mid Atlas mountains, but there must be some. One thing our guide mentioned is the locals plant barley--not to harvest, but to pasture their sheep. Wheat doesn't grow back as well as barley when it's being eaten regularly.

Other things I noticed while we drove was long wooden troughs snaking down the hills for irrigation, and the fact that the landscape glittered near the roads (the reason why isn't as pretty as the effect; the roadsides are littered with smashed bottles people have tossed out their car windows.) We saw a flock of storks on a hillside; they are large white birds with black feathers on the tips of their tails and wings. The storks apparently summer in Europe and winter in Morocco. I also saw a few people tilling fields using a donkey dragging a plow that looked like a glorified log. Our guide once pointed out a man riding a donkey in one of the towns and called it a "Moroccan Land Rover" because it's the most dependable way to travel up into the mountains. El Husbando also saw some people on racing bicycles training in the mountains.

The tops of the mid Atlas mountains doesn't look like being in the Canadian Rockies. It's almost like being in the foothills, because you're travelling in a plateau-like area with small peaks littering it. The altitude is high overall, but there aren't any large changes in altitude visible while you're up there, i.e. no deep valleys.

We heard a bit more about why the current Moroccan king, Mohammad VI, is so awesome. Last year he had a helicopter field build in the mid Atlas mountains so he could fly to remote villages and find out first-hand about the lives of the people living there and what they need. When visiting the town of Hennafra, where his mother came from, the king arrived early via a route he wasn't supposed to be arriving by in order to talk to some of the locals in person. Apparently he just walked up to some very poor old men sitting in the sun, introduced himself and started chatting.

Mohammad VI also was the one who made it illegal for girls to get married until they were 18 using the rationale that he was making education compulsory until 16. Before his decree, parents did arrange marriages for girls as young as 13 and 14. Our guide told us something interesting about Islamic marriage; he said it's a social contract, not a religious contract, so divorce is easier and more accepted. The rationale is people are born free and should be able to free themselves from a marriage they don't want to be in anymore.

We found out our guide, Ahmed, was born in a tent; his parents were nomads. His father had four wives, and Ahmed would likely have wound up tending goats on the mountain like the rest of his family had his mother not decided to send her four sons to school. This story was a surprise to me, since Ahmed comes across as very urbane and sophisticated. You would never guess he was almost a goatherd!

As we began to come down out of the mountains (via really twisty roads, urgh), we stopped briefly to look at a hydroelectric dam. The dams are not just for power; they are also very important for irrigation. We drove through an area that grows sugar beets, oranges, paprika and cotton thanks to irrigation, and the difference was amazing. Within the irrigation area, everything looks lush and green. Outside of the area, it looks like the Arizona desert, all rocks and scrubby ground plants.

When we stopped to look at the dam, there were some young men playing music in hope of getting tips. The instruments were one-stringed with a body made out of a petrol can, and thus obviously home-made, but Ahmed said the basic design is the same as that of a classic Berber instrument.

We drove into Marakech at sunset, with the light silhouetting the date palms they grow in the region (harvest time in September and October). The sunset was even more spectacular since it was leaking between the large Atlas mountains (highest peak, 4167 metres) and a bank of rain clouds that were just sliding in.

Our hotel rooms was amazing--at first glance. It was a suite with a separate living room and bedroom, plus another room containing just closets, and a huge bathroom with the toilet and bidet separated from the shower in their own little closet. The furniture was very dark wood with hammered silver decorations.

Then we noted that half the lights didn't work, and the heat didn't work, and the phone didn't work, and one of the televisions almost didn't work. So we moved to a perfectly ordinary-looking hotel room where everything worked and were much happier with it!

PS for Canadians: Moroccan cops also like to cultivate great big moustaches. It's not just the RCMP!

Day 6, Marakech

Marakech enjoys the most wonderful birdsong in the mornings! We opened our balcony door as soon as we woke up to hear it better.

We had noticed a lot more black people (wearing awesome African wear) in Marakech than we had anywhere else in Morocco and assumed it was just that Marakech is a hub for Africa. As it turns out, the Congress des Afriques is in the hotel right next to ours and thus all the hotels in the area are housing a lot of delegates.

The founders of Marakech were nomads from the Sahara, which means they came over the high Atlas mountains. Eek! These people eventually became known as Berbers, and then Arabs moved in to the area and brought Islam with them.

Our first two stops this day were both palaces, one of which is a museum and the other being used, on the day we were there, to display a modern art exhibit (which was a bit weird, since we were all there for the history.)

The first palace was built only a little over a hundred years ago by the Grand Vizier--the prime minister, really, who was ruling as Regent until the young king turned 18. It was typically beautiful with tiled floors and walls, carved marble-plaster stucco, and carved cedar ceilings (cedar is used since it resists insects.) The Grand Vizier named the palace Bahia after his favourite wife.

The palace had a lovely garden with four rooms facing onto it for the four official wives. All the rooms were beautiful, but the favourite wife had painted, rather than plain, stucco decorations. The garden would have been private for the family's use, and it had oranges, grapefruit, poinsettias and other plants in it.

A much larger courtyard was used for large parties, and the Grand Vizier's twenty-four concubines had rooms facing onto it. Their responsibilities included taking care of the official wives, as well as serving and entertaining, via their dancing, guests at parties.

Our local guide, Rashid, led us through the "Koran Kindergarten", which contained a well inside it so the children could wash the requisite three times before reading the Koran. Then we went through the "Koran High School", which was for older children but also doubled as a private mosque for guests to use. It was here one of our tour group members pointed out to me that the decorative designs carved into the plaster were angled in such a way that the designs would look best when your point of view was low, i.e. when you were kneeling at prayer.

We looked through more of the palace, then moved on to the second palace that was set up as a museum. It had displays of embroidered leather bags, painted leather panels used as wall hangings, Bedouin-style pillows for riding a camel upon, various traditional rugs, ceramics, weapons, jewelry and wedding attire.

Upon leaving this second palace, we got to walk through some picturesque (i.e. alternately pretty and disreputable-looking) alleyways in the old medina.

Next, we visited the Tomb of the Saadians, which is the king's family. The necropolis was actually very peaceful and lovely.

We stopped at--well, at a tourist trap, but kind of a fascinating one, and then we went to the garden of Menara, which houses the first reservoir of Marakech. The area contains a forest of olive and palm trees, and the reservoir itself is home to these big green fish that tourist feed potato chips to all day. I got some good shots of the high Atlas mountains at the reservoir, and also clicked a few shots of some camels whose owners were selling rides on.

After lunch, we went to the souk, i.e. the market. On the way, we passed Marakech's most famous landmark, which is a mosque that used to be the largest in the country and is still the largest in town. I didn't catch when it was built, but it was rebuilt in the 12th century because it faced south instead of east. The tower was left as is, but the rest of the mosque was torn down and rebuilt facing the correct direction.

Our guide led us through the square and then into the market, although a few of us nearly got run over by motorcycles first. The square is fascinating, as it features a bunch of musicians, snake charmers, henna artists, monkey owners, acrobats and others all angling for a bit of money. The guide warned us not to take pictures of anyone unless we were willing to give them a few coins, or the person would follow us around until we did. As a result I only have furtive photographs of most of that.

My dad, who is phobic about snakes, would NOT have enjoyed that square. The snake charmers wander up with friendly smiles and their arm extended toward you with a snake wrapped around it for you to pet. Furthermore, their buddy is usually sitting on a blanket nearby playing his pipe while three hooded cobras just sit there on the ground with nothing between them and the ankles of the people walking by (most of them have been defanged or had their venom sacs removed. It was still pretty alarming-looking, however.)

Monkey owners and vendors of various unwanted products wander up the same way. I only had one henna artist try to grab my hand and start painting; the majority of them only show you their designs and try to beckon you over. We also saw a fellow selling human teeth; not sure what that was all about, but he also had dentures on his tray.

The market wasn't as crazy as the medina in Fez was, but it was still a sensory explosion. Happily, however, we didn't get harassed in there, even when El Husbando and I ventured back in alone later (although we did tend to get stared at a bit.) There was everything from rugs to clothing to food to metalworkers (welding things right there on the street) to upscale restaurants entered via little slot-like hallways between the shops.

One place we stopped at as a group was an herbal pharmacy. They showed us "Moroccan Viagra" (Red Ginseng), "Moroccan Whisky" (green tea with mint), "Moroccan Vic's Vapor Rub" (crystals of Eucalyptus oil), "Moroccan Imodium" (cumin; apparently taking 1 Teaspoon in a small amount of water tastes terrible but helps diarrhea), and Aragon oil--which is from the pits of the fruit of a tree unique to Morocco. The oil makes very nice ointments and cremes and can be eaten on salad (although not cooked with.) They also showed us a green lipstick that changes to a pink colour based on your body temperature and gave us all a dab on our hands to demonstrate. To my surprise, my pink was the brightest, so the clerks dubbed me "dynamite".

We bought about 30 grams of Saffron for a dollar a gram. That's a lot cheaper than you can get it in Canada, and this is much better quality than you can get so far afield.

After the guide had shown us around, he gave us an hour to wander by ourselves. El Husbando and I went in search of a tall Fez hat, and instead found out that the tall Fezes come from Turkey, not Morocco. Thus, it may be El Husbando won't buy a Fez while we're here, although he says the short ones are beginning to grow on him.

That evening, El Husbando got the urge to take a ride in a horse-driven carriage, something we hadn't got the opportunity to do in Vienna when we were there last year, so we snagged a fellow on the street and spent 40 minutes trotting around for a lot cheaper than we could have done in Vienna. It was a lovely end to a wonderful day.

Day 7, Marakech to Casablanca

This travel day marked the end of our tour in Morocco. The morning started with an utterly torrential rain, but then cleared up rather well. We drove from Marakech back to Casablanca, which took about three and a half hours of driving, then had to say goodbye to our excellent tour group (everyone was great; friendly and good-humoured) and wonderful guide and driver.

Marakech is quite green, and called the town of flowers because of it. However, the area just outside of Marakech looks like the moon. The landscape, as we drove across the Plain of Phosphate, looks like the Canadian prairies in scale and topology (ranging from gentle hills to Saskatchewan-flat), but it's dry brown and barren looking. However, it's obviously being cultivated, and our guide did say they grow cereal crops there, so I think we were just looking at endless fallow fields. The stalks are gathered off the fields to use as hay; we some some piles that had been covered with either plastic or soil to keep the feed dry.

There were no trees on the Plain of Phosphate, although people do use prickly pear cacti as fences, and apparently the fruit is quite popular with the locals. As you might expect for such a flat landscape, it was wickedly windy.

The plain is called the Plain of Phosphate because that's what they mine there. Morocco is the biggest exporter of phosphate in the world! The United States and Russia come in second and third, respectively. The phosphate lies only about four metres under the ground, so the mining is open-pit.

There are three plains on the way to Casablanca from Marakech but I didn't catch the name of the third. The second is the Plain of Setak, and it looks more fertile to me because the soil is black and there are a few rivers and some trees.

Day 8, Casablanca to Cairo, Egypt

Our plane left at midnight, so we spent most of the day in Casablanca. The rain was torrential again, so we lay about the hotel room.

In general, Morocco seems like a very safe and nice place to visit. Walking around, even at night, seems completely safe, the people are nice, warm, and well-educated. It also seems a very tolerant society, and although it's old-fashioned relative to more developed nations, it's obviously forward-thinking and becoming ever more progressive. I would definitely recommend it to people as a lovely place to visit.

Pageloads since 01/01/2009: