Morocco Part 1

December 23, 2007 at 9:46 pm | Posted in Morocco | Leave a comment

Morocco Part I October 12 – 28 17 days

Morocco was like a dream. Vivid colors, hypnotic music, bucolic landscapes, delicious foods, got-to-have-some-of-those handcrafts and the kindest, gentlest people on our adventure so far. We are finding it difficult to write just the highlights for the blog. There is so much to tell that we have divided Morocco into parts so you don`t get too overwhelmed by our ramblings.

Our adventure started when we flew from Egypt to Madrid, Spain where we planned to take a train to the southern coast and then a short ferry ride across the Gibraltar Strait into Morocco. We needed to fly to Madrid because our airline alliance did not fly direct from Egypt to Morocco. We arrived into Madrid on a sad note. We had been sleeping on the plane and the boys were sleeping with their blankets – the blankets they`ve had since they were babies and which have travelled everywhere with us for the past 8 years. When we awoke, Oliver’s blanket was mysteriously gone. We were rushed off the plane because it needed to stay on schedule so we had no time to figure out where it had gone. Oliver was too excited about our next destination to notice but Mom was going through a painful separation. We didn’t have time to stop and fill out “lost and found” paperwork because we wanted to try to catch the train to the coast. So, Mom attempted to deal with the loss while we rushed off to find a taxi.

It turned out that it was a public holiday in Spain and everyone was heading to the coast so the train was booked. We have been mentally prepared for things not going our way and we were able to easily change our plan. After storing our backpacks at the train station, we bought tickets for the afternoon train and learned from tourist information that Madrid was having a huge parade at 10:00am to celebrate their national independence day. We got to the parade shortly before it began. Calling this a parade was definitely an understatement – there were tanks, bands, cavalry and a dozen flyovers of different military aircraft. It was great for the boys and for us. After a tasty tapas lunch, we caught our train and six hours later arrived at our hotel by the pier. Early the next morning we ran to catch the ferry for the quick scenic ride over to Tangier, Morocco.

When we arrived we needed to get to a car rental agency and the only people to greet us at the dock were some hungry-for-business taxi drivers who advised us that Morocco was celebrating the first day after the end of Ramadan – the biggest holiday of the year. We were told that EVERYTHING would be closed for three days, maybe four, even the car rental places. Now Tangier was not on our itinerary due to its lack of touristic qualities, and to be stuck there for four days of our precious 14 would be a blow. One of the taxi drivers “called” some of the major rental agencies and said there was no answer. Interestingly, the taxi drivers had plenty of cousins and friends of friends who would rent us a car for “good price”. After getting some Moroccan dirham from a nearby ATM, Peter was smart to insist that the taxi driver first drive us to a car rental agency anyway. We drove through the empty streets wondering how we were going to spend four days here when we passed Avis whose door was partially open. With a glimmer of hope, we jumped out of the taxi and were pleased to find out that the robed, slippered, turbaned man was open for business and had a car available for us. What a rollercoaster of emotions the past 24 hours had put us on!

We sped out of town eastward toward Chefchouen which we`d read about in our guidebook. If this lovely town represented Morocco, we were in for a real treat! Everything was so colorful – even the whole town was painted a lovely ice blue. We walked through the labyrinth of alleyways filled with small shops all selling handcrafts. We hadn’t bought much up until now – we actually never considered ourselves shoppers nor did we ever think we would want to possess some of these unusual items yet the moment we arrived, we instinctively wanted to take some of this place for ourselves and try to be a part of it. Everything was different and special – the spices were shaped into tall cones with the earthtones of paprika and ginger glowing in the afternoon sun. The soft wool robes and delicate slippers worn by the Berber locals conveyed a feeling of peace, comfort and warmth. How could such a quiet, lovely, vibrant and welcoming place exist nestled beneath the mountains and not be full of tourists? It seemed like a Disney set up. And they speak French! The only language we can get around with. We passed ornately decorated restaurants with cumin and coriander wafting through the air. We indulged a man eager to sell us his woven carpets and spent a few hours with him as he fed us nuts and tea while the boys high-jumped the piles of carpets we had discarded while we selected our favorites. The boys eagerly stepped into each craft stall investigating all of the wares. They watched while a man sewed fabric into colorful jackets on his sewing machine and were fascinated by the wooden instruments and unusual candies being sold.

After enjoying some of the best food we`d had so far on our world adventure and a good night sleep, we reluctantly left Chefchouen and headed south toward the Middle Atlas mountains. We noticed that people walk the landscape no matter where they are. By that we mean people walk where most Americans don’t such as along the major roadways and so many of them just sit under a lone shadetree or on a guardrail doing nothing. We were always wondering where these people came from and where they are going because there are usually no houses, towns, stores, shacks or other shelter for miles. They walk and live on the land.

We landed in Fes and luckily found a reasonably clean and reasonably priced hotel with parking right within the old district- very lucky. We indulged in a dinner show complete with belly dancers, traditional dancers and exotic instruments. The food kept coming. We were the only table that was not part of a tour. Henry got a lot of attention when he was called up to participate in a dance involving twisting single-handedly on the ground and turning out rightside up. The next day we shrewdly fended off the touts wanting to show us around the town for a small fee and we negotiated the ancient streets just fine by ourselves. We were prepared for a city full of opportunists as we had read about and instead, in part because of the children, found people eager to meet us and show us their world and wares and willingly share their time with us. One shopkeeper taught Henry how to play nearly every handmade instrument in his shop while another man gave each boy a bead necklace simply because. Once again, the children reign supreme in the countries we have visited as everyone lets their guard down and their hearts show through. We realize more each day that travelling with children was the most fortunate of circumstances for us.

Our circuit around Morocco was shaped like a giant “J”. We continued south through the mountains and visited small towns with the desert as our ultimate destination. Along the way we visited wild Barbary Apes and desolate landscapes where four-year-olds tend sheep and Berber nomads live in tents in the most obscure places among the rocky outcroppings. The landscape changed with each day and none of us grew weary of the 3-4 hour car rides each day. We had audiobooks (Arthur, Berenstain Bears, Frog & Toad, Hans Christian Anderson, Rabbit Ears Series – thanks Aunt Amy) and plenty of kids music to pass the time. Each new hotel was pure excitement for all of us especially when the hotels were Arabian kasbahs that erupt from the sand in seemingly the middle of nowhere. The kasbahs literally look like sand castles and inside they are decorated with mosaics and all of the scrumptious dishes are served in the ceramic or clay tagines – a conical-shaped casserole dish. One tagine has the meat which was usually slow cooked beef, like stew meat in its own gravy and covered with carmelized onions, garlic, prunes and apricots and melted in your mouth. Another tagine had the couscous in it infused with light spices and vegetables.

We made arrangements at the last kasbah to go into the desert and stop at another kasbah who would arrange for an overnight camel trek. We were nervous about possibly arranging something hokey – we wanted the real deal. We headed out across the barren landscape and were the only car travelling this grey rock-laden lunar wasteland towards the glistening golden mounds miles away. We pictured ourselves in a movie where an aerial camera looks down on our car and then pulls up higher to reveal the miles of emptiness in every direction as we innocently travelled further and further away from civilization while happily listening to ABBA on the i-Pod remaining naive to mysteries of the otherworldly land ahead. Is it safe to be out here alone? Are we putting our children in danger? What if we run out of gas? What is in the desert, actually? Who is in the desert?

We finally arrived at the kasbah and were greeted warmly by a group of robed young men running the massive place. They`d been expecting us and quickly escorted us to the giant dining room for our lunch. We were the only ones and it was strangely exciting. Behind the kasbah is the golden, yellow desert – an isolated patch of soft golden sand stretching for miles around and containing the highest sand dune in Morocco. It is as if someone poured the sand there because it is so different than the rest of the terrain. There were camels and a number of nomadic camel-drivers lounging around. At 4:00, after discussing whether or not the boys should ride their own camels, we decided on three camels and half way into the two hour trek the boys would switch and have a turn on their own camel but otherwise ride with one of us. Our driver’s name is Youssef and he told us, in french, that he was a nomad – a family who lives in a tent and moves from place to place. His family makes a living harvesting sealife fossils from the nearby mountains. We trekked two hours over the seemingly infinite sand dunes. The boys were so excited at the prospect of sleeping in the desert as were we. The shapes and colors of the dunes were mesmerizing and we could not understand how it was that it was just our little family setting out alone with Youssef. We were relieved because we thought we might be out there with a large, boisterous tour group and feel like outsiders but here we were, just the four of us, slowly and silently making our way across the desert taking in all of the nuances of this foreign landscape.

We stopped to watch the sunset and dismounted our camels somewhat gracefully as we were getting used to the jolting experience of a camel`s awkward efforts to lay down and stand up. While we rested, the boys made a beeline for the nearest dune and rolled and slid in a flurry of laughs and giggles. They couldn’t wait to bathe in the golden suds and splash around. Peter and I enjoyed a quiet moment on a nearby dune watching the sun go down and anxiously awaiting the starlight extravaganza. We remounted our camels after the boys were sufficiently covered with sand in all of their nooks and crannies and were told that we`d be staying in a traditional bivouac. A BIV-OO-ACK is a small group of tents. The tents are sewn by hand from goat hair and decorated with colorful fabrics. After the sunset, we made it to our specific dunes – it was fascinating that Youseff knew his way with seemingly no landmarks. In the distance we would occasionally see another small group trekking or hear the sound of a distant dune buggy. We were happily greeted by yet another group of men who live and work in the bivouac. Some spoke only Arabic while some spoke French. We were shown to our tent and then enjoyed a lovely lantern-lit dinner of roast chicken and couscous and a bowl of fresh fruit. After dinner we stargazed and listened to the nomads play their traditional music. The nomads told us how they work and live there together for about a month at a time and only travel home to see their family for a day or two before coming back One man had 7 children. At home, their families either farm or dig for fossils to make a living. There was one other family from France staying at the bivouac that night and we sang some songs from our respective countries. We were only allowed to bring a small bag so we visited the nearby outhouse and and made our way to our goat-hair tents outfitted with mattresses covered in a myriad of colored blankets. Since we were behind a large dune, we were protected from the wind and the silence around us was deafening. It was so comforting surrounded by these mounds of soft, golden hills like a blanket – sort of like when you are surrounded by a new fluffy snowfall. Everything is quiet, blanketed and comforting and you just want to wrap a wool blanket around you and sit and ponder. We were very proud of ourselves for getting to this point and it continued to build our confidence in travelling independently. We have found that when the travelling becomes stressful and we`re not sure of our choices and wonder whether we should turn back or be accompanied by others, our perseverence has always been sweetly rewarded well beyond our expectations. It may not always end up that way, but this time it had.

We fell asleep to the distance chants and drumming as the men went about their duties and we didn’t wake until the 5:30 wakeup call to see the sunrise. We had slept in our clothes and simply got up and climbed to the top of the nearest dune as is the custom to take in the full impact of the morning’s sunrise magic. It is quite a workout to the climb a dune but Henry went to the top of the tallest one and Oliver followed. Peter and I stayed halfway down as we watched a sandboarder ride the waves down the dune. Without a chairlift it is hard to imagine that the trek up the hill is outweighed by the thrill of the ride but there is nothing else to do, so why not. Shortly after some tea and biscuits, we reluctantly made our way back to the kasbah with a stop or two for sandsliding. The trek truly epitomized adventure for us as we are pretty conservative when it comes to trying true adventures that involve endurance, bravery and will. We tend to spectate more than participate so this was great for us. One might say that going out into the world with backpacks epitomizes adventuring but you can still travel around the world and not inject yourself into the world. We felt we did that here. We arrived safely back at the kasbah and bought some of Youseff’s fossils and headed back to the road that would take us along what’s known as the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs.

(click photo for slideshow)

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