February 8–22, 2003  (click thumbnail to view picture full size)

Eating at a food stall in Marakech Pit stop
Camel train “Blue Men”
Sahara camp Desert john
Village transport Craft shop
Fez Fez
Fez Village children
Fez Village along river
Atlas Mountains Chellah Gardens, Rabat
Chellah Gardens, Rabat e2
Volubilis Volubilis
Volubilis Hassan II Mosque, Casablanca
King's Palace, Rabat One of the King's Palaces, Fez

It all started very well.  Royal Air Moroc was on time.  Flight was smooth.  I recognized the yellow “OATS” tag on the carry-ons of several fellow passengers and said “Hello.” And then I slept, walked, drank water, watched that little plane on the TV screen creep closer and closer to Africa. 

The Airport at Casablanca.  During the week that was about to start was the highest holiday in Islam.  Families congregate, children are gifted, etc. (like Christmas), so our flight had brought a herd of Moroccan Americans, many of whom had brought six big boxes of goodies from USA for the family here at home.  So the baggage pickup was absolute chaos.  They kept throwing bags off the carousel into scattered piles.  I wandered around for a half hour looking for my carry-on size bag with its red duct tape band.  Finally a fellow Oater asked me “Is your name Ruth something?” “Yes.” “Well, your bag is against the wall over there.” And then we couldn’t find one couple.  I finally wrote their name and “OATS” on my sketch paper and another fellow paraded it.  We found them.  We were introduced to Latif, our guide, more or less to one another, herded onto a bus, and off we went.  We were in for our first day of sight seeing. 

It seems we were touring a mosque in every city and hamlet, but in Casablanca the mosque was appropriately our first.  It is the second largest mosque in the world, second only to the mosque in Mecca.  All the mosques we saw were truly beautiful.  The mosaic, tile, and wood carvings were all worth drinking in.  The interiors were just peeked at by us infidels.  We were not permitted to go into the mosques.  However, in the Chella Gardens in Rabat we saw the ruins of a Koranic University.  There Latif showed us the keyhole shaped cubicle, a feature of every mosque, from which the Imam intoned the prayers.  It is so shaped that it acoustically magnifies the voice and sends it out to the whole mosque.  We saw the King’s mosque in Marat, and the half-minaret of the mosque destroyed in the Seville earthquake of 1755.  This same earthquake toppled Volubilis and left it forgotten for a couple of centuries.  (It must have been a “lulu,” for references to it kept cropping up.)  The Iman’s call to prayer is now electrically amplified, but always the Iman calls — it is never broadcast by recording.  At the same time a white flag is hoisted to the top of the minaret so that the deaf may know it is time to pray.  On Friday the color is black signifying that it is time to come to the mosque.  All the minarets in Morocco are square as opposed to round as is the custom in the rest of the Moslem world.

Another favorite tourist site is the mausoleum.  I lost count of how many we saw.  We were introduced to them immediately in the Chella Gardens, which is really a necropolis.  I can’t remember how many we toured, but I suppose in any kingdom the site of kings’ burials are important.  Traditionally, men and women were buried in separate but adjacent sites.  Women were buried in wooden caskets, but men were buried in the ground without caskets.  All were buried on their right side facing Mecca.  The size and complication of the grave covers indicates the importance of the personage.  Servants and slaves had their burial ground adjacent to the family graves.  I understand that today man and wife are buried in the same site.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.  They just had an election and on many buildings we saw twenty-four squares, one for each legal party to state its candidate and program.  Latif often reiterated that they now had three women in parliament!

In this moderate Moslem state, women are “people,” dressing as they choose (we were informed of this right off), and indeed we saw it for ourselves.  In the cities some extreme “western” dress is seen, such as knee-high boots and above the knee skirts (seen in Marrakech).  In one restaurant the maître d’ was a woman, dressed in a man-tailored pant suit with a braid down her back.  Head covering was usual, and occasionally a half veil, and very occasionally, full covering.  That was in the cities.  When we ventured into rural areas, head cover was the rule, but we saw no veils among the Berbers and the Tareg peoples. 

We had our first lunch at a seafood restaurant on the Atlantic shore at Rabat — good fish soup, good mixed grille of seafoods, and flan for dessert.  And this brings me to the food.  For breakfast we were usually served buffet style — coffee, coffee au lait, the ubiquitous sweet peppermint tea (the national drink), many kinds of breads and sweet breads, juice, cereal, spreads, cheeses, eggs (scrambled and hard boiled), fruit, and olives!  Good enough!  Frequently we really had to bide our time while hoards of Japanese and Turkish tourists pushed hungrily into the fray.  For lunch and dinner we were really overfed, and fed monotonously.  We had Moroccan “salad” — cooked veggies and fruits, olives, and bits of meat.  This was followed by a Moroccan soup, vegetables and beans in maybe a chicken stock.  Then we had Tagine, a stew based on a meat (usually chicken) with vegetables, built into a tower and covered by a conical cover, into the top of which one could put the serving utensils.  All of this was really quite tasty, but for noon and evening, day after day — really!!  We were only rarely offered couscous.  We observed other delights on the menus (kabobs, for example) that our OATS chose not to order for us.  Desserts were varied and usually good.  This same menu prevailed, even deep in the Sahara.  Even at our posh “farewell” dinner we were served the same, but with extraordinary tidbits like pigeon turnovers and several desserts.  At this dinner we had a belly dancer to entertain us and then “African” musicians.  (African seems to be a term used for anyone not Arab, anyone haling from sub-Saharan Africa, or perhaps it is polite for Negro.)  These musicians were great.  At their bidding I danced their foot patterns with them and had a great time.  We did have a lot of oranges and clementines, grapes, melons, apples, almonds, dates.  We were not hungry, just a mite bored in the belly.

Belly dancers — we were treated to a demonstration of such twice, once at luncheon in the same restaurant where the maître d’ was female in a pant suit, and once at our last dinner in that very posh restaurant in the medina in Marrakech.  The men in our group all seemed to be experts: this was good, that was not so good.  And their comments were almost as much fun as the dance!

By design our guide had us go to Fez the day before the Festival of Abraham, which celebrates God’s substitution of a ram for a son at the instant of Abraham’s obedient sacrifice.  Since all businesses would be closed for the holidays, the medina was crowded.  The bus took us into the center where it was stalled among more people, carts, donkeys, rams, and other vehicles than I have seen in one place since India.  We walked and walked, and shopped rugs (which was of interest; I bought two, 2' x 4', as my bedroom rugs were wearing thin) and djellabas, which I purchased in place of the cloth I had promised myself.  The djellaba is the national dress worn by both men and women.  Mine is heavy blue silk and I can wear it for “state” occasions.  I had to suffer through many more “demos” and “hard sells.”  It would seem that acquisition was a primary goal of travel for many of my fellows and that a part of the OATS deal with Morocco is that they bring in the U.S. dollar.  I feel that both OATS and Latif were beneficiaries of our purchases.  Kosher?

What of those crowded streets?  Open stalls of baskets full of nuts, dates, beans, veggies — you name it — buzzing with bees on the sugar stuff, flies elsewhere.  Open stalls dying and drying skeins of wool, all brilliant, beautiful colors; hammering, bending, welding, punch cutting all sorts of metals to fashion into chandelliers, candle holders, window grilles, locks, and hinges; turning clay pots and the display of beautifully decorated plates, tagines, urns, tiles; and chizzeling wooden décor for furniture and doorways.  Every five feet on both sides of the six-foot-wide street a different stall and a different sense-assault.  There were the knife grinders every hundred feet or so, grinding sacrificial knives.  And the rams (offered for sale or being brought home), tied to the sides of carts by their horns, or slung on donkey back, or in the case of two proud purchasers, one leading the poor animal by the horns and the other restraining its back legs, hurrying it along on its two front legs not unlike a wheelbarrow.  There was the usual traffic of carts of plastic water containers and other goods, mostly by pushcart, wheelbarrow, mule, or donkey, and the constant cry of “watch your back” (its Arabic or French equivalent, that is), and we had to press ourselves to walls or stalls to avoid being run over.  Latif told us this was the busiest day of the year as tomorrow not a business nor stall would be open, and no one could purchase any necessity anywhere.  The medina shut down.

We gradually came to understand what the hubbub was all about.  To celebrate the miracle of Allah allowing Abraham to sacrifice a ram in place of his son, every father in every family sacrifices a sheep.  The king leaves his palace in Rabat riding on a white horse and goes to his own mosque, and there at nine o’clock in the morning sacrifices his sheep.  After that every family will perform the sacrifice.  Our special Fez guide told us that he hated the holiday.  The streets of the medina ran with blood, and . . . well, he said he couldn’t walk there then.

Although Fez was our most crowded medina, we visited one in every city.  The stalls, the shops, the narrow ways, the mixture of satellite dishes and drying laundry on the roofs, the Spanish balconies, the occasional ornate doorway, the in-street drains, dark alleys, and the push and conglomeration of humanity was the same.  And hidden in the dark, narrow alleys are many sumptuous dwellings.  One sometimes sees rooftop gardens, or garages with BMWs.  But many of these are now converted to restaurants. 

The following day we went to Volubilis.  I had never seen a Roman ruin before, but I suppose because of exposure since grade school to Roman history, it seemed to me that I had seen it all before.  The road with the chariot grooves, the drainage and the aqueduct, the colonnades and the arches, and the mosaics were old familiar friends.  What’s new?  We did sit on a toilet, which was a sort of group affair with bench-like arrangement on two sides of a room, possibly 10' x 10' in size, under which was a drainage ditch, and we looked into the vomitorium which was conveniently in the same room, all of this a part of the home of a wealthy inhabitant.

On the way back to Fez we saw them burning the hair and horns off the rams’ heads in the middle of the streets.  People pay young lads to do this outside because of the stink.  The head is a desirable part of the animal for eating.  I don’t recall, although I think I was told, in what exact order the parts are consumed, offal first, including intestine.  My hot dog loving companions didn’t seem to know that real wurst is intestine encased, and they seemed not to have heard of headcheese.  I don’t know if Moroccans make blood wurst, but I hope so.

We drove to Erfund, which is the jumping off place for the big “sandbox” and transferred from our bus to Toyota 4 x 4s.  (We saw many Japanese cars, many Euro cars of all manufacturers, but very few, if any, American cars.)  Here we went through our first tipping ritual.  One by one we palmed our tip, shook hands, and thanked the bus driver and then his assistant.  Is this necessary?  Of course, I am accustomed to Elderhostel, which takes cares of all such things for us travelers.  Such tipping adds about $200.00 to the cost of our trip, which we knew all about prior to contract, so there is no subterfuge, but I do question why.  A thank you and farewell would give a personal contact, if that is the reason, and be so much less complicated.

Into the Sahara!  With our luggage on top of the lead 4 x 4, off we zoomed.  And I mean zoomed.  After a brief passage on a one-track paved trail, we hit off into the sand and away we went.  I loved every minute of that ride, a real-time, real-place “Disney World “ carnival ride.  We zoomed off the trail and raced the 4 x 4 in front of us.  We bounced and flounced at every hard-hit gully.  We turned on a dime and veered in another direction.  A real-time, real-life “dodge ’em.”  I really don’t know how long it took to get to the first encampment.  On the way we passed several nomadic tents of the Tuareg peoples — black, woven camel hair, short structures (short, we learned first hand, to hug the earth in storms).

The encampment — two rows, facing each other, of small, white tents for sleeping, four “out tents” behind them, two shower tents to one side (one could ask for hot water to be placed in the water “tower” and take a gravity-driven shower), a dining tent. and a kitchen tent.  The “out tents” were equipped with a seat, low to the ground, and a bucket of water with a cup for “flushing.”  In the sleeping tents were one or two cots with sleeping bag, liner, blanket, pillow, towel, and a “night” table with a candle lantern and bic lighter.  I checked my lighter.  It was empty.  It was replaced.  The floor was a sort of rug.  All tents were the same size (mine was a solo), and I know that the couples must have been crowded, especially those with big suitcases and lots of carry-on loot.

The dunes, tan and brown and fabulously shadowed in the setting sun and all around us nothing . . . nothing . . . nothing.  We sat outside the dining tent drinking our wine (Moroccan wines are good) and soaking in the glooming light, the soft air, the empty land, the endless sky.  After dinner we had a campfire and the Blue Men musicians visited and we all drummed and danced until bedtime.  It was maybe 9:30 p.m.  I looked for my sought-after sky, but no-go; it had clouded over. 

Then the battle with the sleeping bag began.  It was a square bag with a two-foot zipper in the center of the top.  I did manage with much difficulty to squirm my way into the liner and bag, but how did the six-foot men and the women, a couple of them less agile than I, manage?  Several reported sleeping in their clothes on top of the bag and under the blanket.

I awoke at 2:00 a.m., my usual pit stop time, crawled out of my bag and ventured to the out-tent.  The sky, the sky!  Clear, deep saphire blue, with an almost full moon blinding out my miriad stars.  A miraculous sight nevertheless.  I can close my eyes and see the clarity and the color even now.

Up before dawn to watch the sun come up over the dunes.  Breakfast and the camel ride.  Somehow I was assigned to camel no. 1 but the last to mount.  And while others were being mounted I took time to examine the beasties.  They have beautiful eyes, big and fully lashed.  Their nostrils have flaps, which must keep out unwanted particles.  They are cloven hoofed with wide, wide pads, which must keep them from sinking too deeply into the sand.  Indeed their physique really makes them fit for the desert.  They have manes like zebras, short and standing up.  Not one spit as legend would have them do.  But they do hump and bump and rock along with their slow and patient tread.  They took us up and over our adjacent dunes to a high point where, looking south we saw nothing but rolling dune upon dune, leading farther and farther into vastness of empty earth.  My video battery went dead!

We packed up and moved three hours deeper into the desert, same trackless sand, and came to our next encampment, which they said was near Daya El Maider, although it seemed near nothing.  (I think the Daya El Maider must be a dry lake.)  We had a demonstration of how the cook builds his stew, had supper, and hit the sacks (literally).  It wasn’t long before Mohammad’s revenge hit me.  I struggled out of the sack, unzipped my tent door, and stepped out into a rage of wind, sand, and RAIN!!!  When I returned, my tent door would not re-zip.  Rain had misted my blanket.  I fumbled for my medication and squirmed again into my bag to listen to the wind, rain, and sand rattling my tent until my next attack.  I don’t know how many times I made that trip to the out-tent.  I do know that several times the upper problem never reached it.  It is a profoundly elemental experience to retch your guts out as you stand in utter darkness and space between tent and out-tent with sand and water blowing everything back into your face.  I do remember that I dutifully kicked sand over the mess.

Come dawn!!  And it did come.  I was wet and sandy.  The tent roof had leaked onto my suitcase.  The tent floor had welled up, wetting the bottom of suitcase and knapsack.  Sand somehow had found its way into both case and sack.  With my guts still grumbling up and down, I knew I needed out!  Latif arranged for one of the drivers to take me to our next destination, the best he could do, for we were completely without communication!  No way to contact another person, another place on this earth.  We were truly more alone than the inhabitants of the space station.

Again the 4 x 4 struck out for “nowhere.”  No road, no trail.  Only the vague suggestion of maybe mountains on the distant horizon.  For hours we just drove and drove.  (My medication held effectively, miraculously, for this journey.)  With just the driver in our speeding vehicle, no vehicles before or behind, the sense of vast space and isolation truly presented itself.  The driver got me to Tinerhir and explained me to the concierge.  I found my room, managed to find a soup for supper, tried to dry me out, and bang sand from my stuff.  I medicated and slept, grateful for my in-room bathroom, the hand-held shower, the bidet, and the roomy bed that I could get in and out of in a hurry.

I burrowed in with my misery, getting out for small sustenance, until the “gang” arrived in the afternoon.  Latif got me a doctor; the doctor prescribed medication, and for the rest of the trip I had my before-meals and after-meals routine.  Thankfully I was vaguely familiar with Flagyl (neither MD nor pharmacist provided any instructions other than when to take it).  I used my high school French to read the label.  “Do not use alcohol while taking this medication.” So my wine was donated to the “gang.”  And fortunately, I did know the words apres and avant and repas.

Morocco has two official languages: Arabic and French.  The French protectorate terminated in 1956 with an amicable treaty (unlike the French departure from Viet Nam).  The relationship seems cordial.  Both languages are taught from grade one in school.  Then in college (the French system: first year of college sorta comparable to our junior year in high school) other languages are offered; German and English seemed most favored. 

From Tinerhir we proceeded through the Todra Gorge, with its 1,000-foot cliffs and the narrow fertile valley along the stream below.  We were still on the fringes of the desert.  Practically everywhere we drove we found that the fertile land was farmed and that most buildings were situated outside the fertile areas.  Latif told us that all the land was privately owned and farmed.  Fields were often outlined with stones culled from the fields, not in fences as in our New England states but in low lines of stone that separated one from the other.  There are fields of wheat, grapes, beans and orchards of almonds, apples, oranges, figs, and date palms.  Many of the fields are terraced.  Water is diverted from the streams into troughs with gates that open onto fields as needed, all this gravity driven and not unlike the Inca or the Indonesian systems.  Man the world over solves his similar problems in similar ways.

Place names became a little hazy (so much to see in so short a time), but sights I do remember.  There is a world heritage site, an adobe village on a hill top, which was practically destroyed in a deluge, and which is slowly being restored by UNESCO.  To get there we had to ford a river on rocks.  There is a town where movies were and are still being made, Lawrence of Arabia, for one.  It seemed more like a set piece to me than a real town.

We were hosted by local families for lunch, dinner, or tea.  The first hosting for me was in Fez.  A taxi delivered me with two others to a home in the medina, just off the junction where we were stalled on our trip to “see it all.”  It was strange, not because of the location or the food, but I had the feeling that we were not really welcome by anyone but the old grandmother.  An aunt lounged on the couch (where we all sat) rolled up in a blanket.  We learned that it was she who supported the whole family with a job at a bank.  The mother did not appear until the food did.  A six-year-old nephew showed briefly but disappeared before the food came, as did a son, who had a lot to say.  He had graduated from college and was unemployed, a young man who was all talk and no action.  We had soup and a sort of Tagine and dates.

The next hosting was for tea.  This was a pleasant meeting.  We were seated in a room that was partially covered with a rug.  Everyone discarded shoes before stepping thereon.  We learned later that this is where the parents slept.  A fourteen-year-old boy poured the peppermint tea with the pouring from on high that we had become familiar with.  There were dates and nuts to nibble.  A six-ear-old begged for tea but was not allowed.  Mother had a two-year-old on her back.  Near the ceiling there was a ring on a rack and bloody drops on the floor.  On the skylight we could see the wrapped carcass of their sheep.  We asked about the ceremony and were told that they had an Iman come to perform the rite for them here in the home.  Would we like to see the rest of the house?  The one other room, partially carpeted, was where the children slept and where the family cooked.  The kitchen side had neat cupboards for both clothing and utensils.  Outside the house in the open way was the oven for bread, and there was the pelt of the sheep, drying.  Where was the toilet?  We were told on the roof.  This abode costs $25.00 a month.

I surmise that here it was that I picked up that anaerobic bug.  I unwisely drank my tea, the glass rim of which was handled by the boy.  I nibbled both a date and a nut.  Also unwise, as I had seen the open baskets in the open, insect-tormented stalls of the medina.

Our third home hosting was for lunch, which was hosted by an Iman and his family in his rather sumptuous Kasbah.  By this time I had been through several days of medication and felt the need to lay low.  Although there was to be a mock wedding ceremony after the repast, I opted not to climb the flights of stairs to the dining place.  So our host placed me in the sun in the courtyard and delegated his sixteen-ear-old nephew to be my companion.  I had a truly delightful hour with him in the sun, sipping a bowl of soup, and, of course, peppermint tea.  I managed to get him to join me drinking the tea.  He is in his second year of college, studying English, so he made good use of our time together.  His ambition is to be a tour guide.  After our tea he asked me if I would like to see the rest of the house?  Yes.  The stable once had horses and camels, but they had had to sell them because of the drought.  Feed and water was too scarce.  They had chickens and sheep (the lucky ones who had escaped Abraham).  There were two courtyards, one dry and scraggly, but the other watered and green.  There he asked me if I would like to see the baby (his youngest sister).  “Sure!” Mother took a key and unlocked a door. There in a cool, dark room was the three-month-old baby, in a bed covered with blankets, and tightly swaddled from neck down.  She was sound asleep.  I touched my forehead and then the babe’s.  Apparently that was an especially auspicious thing to do, for both mother and brother were effusively pleased.  There was also a sort of padded enclosure in the room that I assumed was a “play pen.”  By then I was tired and asked to go to the bus to rest.  The young man escorted me and we parted with good wishes.

European and American dignitaries are familiar names in Moroc.  In Marakech our hotel was on the John F. Kennedy Blvd.  We toured a college for women founded by Hillary Clinton (her sister is married to a Moroccan).  Winston Churchill was at home in Morocco, so much so that, as the Moroccans like to say, his initials are seen everywhere.  Even in that UNESCO village we saw a hut with the sign “W.C.”

Morocco is an old, old land.  Beyond the fertile coastal plains are the Mid-Atlas Mountains, which must have been deforested when the Greek Isles were.  Their rock faces are creased with erosion.  The federal authorities have been planting evergreen trees to hold back whatever soil may still be there.  The High Atlas Mountains were snow covered when we were there but they are far enough removed from the coast to have escaped complete deforesting.  Along the highway on the plains are eucalyptus trees.  Every seven years they are “polled” (all branches cut off) and the wood used for the bread ovens.  In Berber country we saw women (who do all the work in Berberland) carrying huge bundles of bamboo, a common shrub.  This they use for cooking and baking fuel.  I noted that this same bamboo is used for woven fencing and yard enclosures.

In contrast, Marakech, our last city, despite its medina is 21st century.  Many broad streets, sumptuous private homes, prosperous shops, and two MacDonalds.  We had a delightful evening its Jamaa El F’na Square, a huge area bigger than ten football fields, where every evening lots of food stalls, snake charmers, henna designers, shell games, musicians, dancers, and jugglers are set up anew — a grand enlargement of a Moroccan version of the Pompidoux Center.  Here we had a good supper.  Our hotel pool was touted to be 28° Centigrade, so I went swimming.  And I began to feel that recovery was coming.

We did not have assigned seats on Royal Air Moroc.  When we qued up at the desk in Casablanca, I was the last in line.  Then at the gate I was the last in line.  They delayed the plane three hours while they were persuading someone to give up his seat for me.  They would not let me out.  They did seat me finally.  And we took off for home.

An interesting aside is airline security.  At Kennedy I removed my zipper coat, my watch, et al., and still I buzzed the sensor.  They went over my shoes.  Nothing.  They went over me and found my bra hooks had triggered the sensor.  At Casablanca I went through the gate with my zipper coat on.  No buzz.  But they went through my carry-on by hand at the plane gate.  The man in front of me had to beg for his throw-away razor.  They removed the blade and gave it to him.

By the time we emplaned, all my good bugs and all my resistance things had been gobbled up by that Flagyl.  Twenty-four hours after I got home I knew I had upper respiratory problems, and three days later I could not talk.  Of course, I hit all kinds of good stuff, gradually got rid of my temp. and in two weeks I began to treasure my sojourn and even its problems.

I enjoyed knowing Morocco, the varied beauty of its earth and peoples, and I feel that much of my troubles could have been avoided by a little more custodial care on the part of the touring agency.  Our guide Latif did absolutely everything in his power to make our journey positive.  And I am thankful for his imparted knowledge and personal caring. Although he was a little deficient in natural history.  “What, Litif, are those birds?” “Ibis.” Methinks, no curved bill?  They are probably cattle egrets, right size, right color.  “What, Latif, are those birds flying in V formation?” “Pidgin!” I laughed and he took my rejection good naturedly.  After that I took pains to I.D. even the storks as “pidgins” to his amusement.  To his credit, he took pains to learn that crystal nodules are geodes, even seeking the spelling.  His next tour group will learn that also.  He’ll not forget.  Nor will I.

— Ruth E. Grauert, February 2003