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Saturday, August 30, 2003

Moroccan Greetings
Marrakech, Morocco

I've watched with great interest the way that Moroccan people greet each other. There seem to be many different ways, depending on whether you're male or female, what region you come from, and who you are greeting.

The most common way I've seen men greet one another is with a handshake and then a cheek to cheek kiss, first the right, then the left. Once in a while, I've seen a man greet another by touching his heart with his right hand accompanied with a small bow. Often when they speak greetings to each other in Moroccan Arabic (which incidentally sounds quite different from the Arabic we heard in Egypt), they seem to say several different phrases to each other very rapidly in quick succession. Occasionally, we observed someone who was apologizing to another person also touch their heart with their right hand, quite a sincere gesture.

Women greet each other with a four-time cheek-to-cheek kiss, which sometimes seems to take a while. Once in a while, we've seen a two or three time kiss. In the Rif mountains, the women from the village towns touch each other's hands, and then touch their own lips, which was unusual, but pretty interesting.

Greetings towards us have become pretty routine. They involve one or several young men calling out one of the following: "arigato," "sayonara," "konichiwa," "Jackie Chan," "karate," "Toyota," or "Japon-eeze?" In one day, we counted 26 such greetings; we actually lost count after a while. We're quite used to it by now, but I have to admit, it did get to me at one point. When they start spouting gibberish like "hawazeewazee," or "noonywaiya," or other such garbage, we knew they weren't really trying to be friendly. I haven't been able to figure out how to best respond to all the bizarre greetings, but usually a few words in French followed by "Canada" are enough to confuse them enough that we can walk by while they're processing the fact that we're not Japanese.

It will be interesting to see if these similar greetings are used in Tunisia and Turkey, the two other Arabic countries that we are visiting. Until next time, sayonara!

Essaouira: Lazy and Laid Back
Marrakech, Morocco

We're back in Marrakech after a two day jaunt to the Atlantic Coast and back. Jen's last blog spoke of a fancy dinner we went to; it was memorable enough that I think we're going to dedicate a separate page just to that dinner. Stay tuned for that.

Our little escape to the coast was to the little town of Essouiara, a two and a half hour bus ride west of Morocco. Incidentally, we took the "1st Class" bus this time, and boy, what a difference from our Chefchaouen to Fes experience! It was pretty much the same kind of vehicle that you would take if you were doing a coach tour through western Europe. Quite comfortable, but lacking any local flavour or interaction.

Essaouira is a sleepy town that Moroccans visit to "clear their heads," as said by Nancy's Moroccan friends. It is definitely a place to relax and take things down a notch or two. Primarily a fishing town, the smell of fried fish being cooked on small charcoal braziers is pervasive throughout the entire medina around lunch hour. The shopkeepers are so laid back that they don't even pressure you to "come in, just to look, no problem." In fact, several shops didn't seem to have any shopkeepers around at all, just an open shop with all their wares sitting there!

The cool sea breeze could be felt drifting through the whitewashed buildings all adorned with blue shutters. In a way, this could have been the town of Chefchauoen just picked up and placed down on the coast. Little girls grin shyly from the doorways of their houses and young boys chase each other through the streets. Sunburned tourists stroll hand in hand through the medina, occasionally moving out of the way as men with push carts call "barak, barak" to move pedestrians out of their way.

It was a great place for Jen and I to celebrate our anniversary; because of this, we decided to spluge a little and get ourselves a room at the Villa Maroc, a bit of a fancier hotel at the edge of the medina close to the water. From our room we could see the curve of the beach stretching down to the south, and from another window, we could see the famous ramparts and towers of the town walls.

We highly recommend the Villa Maroc, by the way, it's not that expensive by US standards, $80 USD for a double room. The first night we got a double, and the second night when we were joined again by Harriet and Nancy, we all split a four person room which was really very nice, especially compared to most of the places we have been staying in. Throughout the hotel there were tastefully decorated sitting rooms and all kinds of nooks and crannies filled with hand woven pillows, camel hair lamps, and other Moroccan pieces.

One of the highlights of our two night stay was having fresh seafood at the fried fish booths close to the fishing boats. There is a whole row of tents where vendors do their utmost to win your business; they then arrange an assortment of mixed seafood on a platter for you to choose. You need to negotiate a bit (yes, even for lunch), but it's totally worth it because the shrimp, crawfish, lobster and fish is absolutely fresh, plus they clean and fry it in front of you.

The girls enjoyed a visit to a hammam, a Moroccan bathhouse, where they were scrubbed down and rather lightly massaged in a big steam room. I guess you'll have to ask Jen for details; men and women have different hours so I didn't go with them. On the way there, we did have a fun encounter with a bunch of kids in an alley who were falling apart with laughter after they saw the picture of themselves in my digital camera.

Essaouira is famous for its wood products, and we enjoyed strolling through the hassle-free stores looking at all the woodcraft. We didn't end up buying anything though, so hopefully we won't regret it. We definitely can't say that Fes, Marrakech, or Tangier are hassle free places. Walking around the town is pretty easy as it's a small place. We checked out the ramparts where several cannon still sit, pointing out to sea as if still protecting the town. A really nice restaurant to check out is La Licorne; lots of variety, which is not typical of most Moroccan restaurants that we've visited.

If you only have a week to visit Morocco, Essaouira is perhaps a place that you could miss. But if you have two weeks or more, it's definitely a place to include on your itinerary; we're certainly very glad that we did!

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

High Atlas
Marrakech, Morocco

Continuing south from Midelt, we drove across the High Atlas and took many pictures along the way. Just a few kilometers past Er Rachidia, we picked up a hitchhiker who turned out to be incredibly useful for our visit to the desert. Read Winston's blog for details on our incredible trip to the desert.

Leaving the desert on Monday morning, we had Abdul, a staff of the Kasbah Tombucktu lead us out of the desert back towards Erfoud. What a difference it was driving on asphalt (entrance at the end of a long driveway from the hotel). It only took us 45 minutes to get to Erfoud compared to the over 2 hour journey across the Piste for a shorter distance. Nevertheless, we would not trade that experience for anything else.

From Erfoud, we headed west and drove along the road of the thousand kasbahs. Sure enough, we did locate many kasbahs along the way though many of them are in ruined state. We stopped for lunch in a town called Tinerhir (Tinghir), which is at the base of the Todra Gorge, quite famous in the High Atlas. At the La Kasbah, we enjoyed good food after enjoying a 360 degree panaromic view up on the rooftop of the building. Here we met Jounh Brahim, a very friendly Moroccan who is married to a Canadian from Vancouver. We had a great time conversing about his marriage to his wife Cathy, and also about Morocco and places to visit and/or avoid. He told us about the big wedding festival happening this weekend in Imilchil; unfortunately the timing does not work out for us to visit.

He ended up taking us on a tour around the ksar in this town. It is in the old Jewish quarters (mellah) and was very interesting indeed. All the buildings are made out of adobe, a mixture of straw and mud. With such soft exterior, one can see several places where the rain has washed off the cover for the buildings. However, it was explained that since it is such a cheap product, they are not too concern about it. The children were all very friendly and called out 'bon jour' whenever they could.

After dropping Jounh off at the restaurant, we continued up to see the Todra Gorge, which is only about 14km from the main road. It was a beautiful drive filled with views of mud villages, palmerias (palm groves; normally green areas with date palms and other fruit trees), and lovely hills. It was so refreshing to see so much green here as the rest of the drive has shown us dried up river beds. We were told that the south has experienced a four year drought, and much of the palmerias have been ignored. Quite a sad sight indeed.

At the Todra Gorge, only 1km in length, we got our of our car and walked along enjoying the beautiful view. Many people were out and about, with families enjoying picnics along the river at the bottom of the gorge. The road through the gorge is at the very base, so it was quite a sight to look up at the towering walls.

By now it was getting late so instead of making it all the way to Ouarzazate as we had planned, we decided to spend the night in Skoura, at the Kasbah Ait Ben Moro, a beautiful restored 17th century kasbah. There was only one other set of guests there besides us, so we felt as if we 'owned' the place. Hehe. We had 2 rooms on the top floor of the kasbah, with views of the sky immediately outsi`de our doors. It was a bit warm that night, so we decided that it would be much nicer to sleep outside. Hehe. I think we were spoilt from our night out in the desert. So, we basically dragged our mattresses outside our rooms, and had a wonderful sleep out with the fresh air.

Tuesday morning, we walked across the dried out palmeria to visit the Kasbah Amerhidl. We were disappointed to find out that just 2 weeks ago, the brothers who owned this kasbah got into a disagreement about the 'money' collected from tourists that they have shut it down from visitors. Darn. We did end up having a great tour from two young men, both named Ismail who were workers on the reconstruction of this kasbah. They explained many things to us, and showed us part of the ruined areas. It was quite neat to be climbing through holes and walking on old floors made out of bamboo and mud. They also climbed up date palms and picked several for us to eat. Yummy.

We drove into the town of Ouarzazate and viewed the beautiful Kasbah Taorirt from the outside. After stopping by the tourist office and supermarket, we headed just a few kilometers west of town to visit the Atlas Studios (Morocco's Hollywood). Movies such as the Mummy II and Kundun were filmed here. It was very obvious when we got to the studios as they had giant mock statues of Egyptians outside the walls.

Next we drove to visit the famous Ait BenHaddou. It is a huge kasbah that sits on the side of a hill, normally in front of a salty large river (which is currently dried up as a result of the drought). This site has been used to film Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, the Gladiator and Jesus of Nazareth. It is truly a beautiful place. UNESCO is currently working on the restoration of this area, and they think that it will be complete in about 6 years time, and that more people will move back into the village. Interestingly enough, the highway is on the other side of the river, so there are also plans to build a bridge so that the kasbah can be accessed when the river is flowing again.

While eating lunch at the La Baraka Restaurant (very yummy), we inquired about the guide used by Hilary and Chelsea Clinton when they visited Morocco in 1999. The waiter of our restaurant made a call, and our guide showed up. He even had a laminated letter from the American Embassy recommeding his services. It was quite neat. He was very good, and took us on a wonderful tour of the village. He only spoke French (not much English) so luckily for me, Nancy was a wonderful translator so I was still able to learn about the history of this village. He explained about the 6 powerful familes, each owning a kasbah. Back in the days when the village was active, all other inhabitants of this village worked for one of the six familes, whether it was tending to the fields, or working in their kasbah. We were able to walk into a Berber man's home and looked at the pictures of the various films that were made there. In fact, there is still a room in the house that was used in Mel Gibson's Jesus of Nazareth that they have never changed.

By the time we were finished at Ait Benhaddou, it was already 6pm and we had to rush out to drive to Marrakech. We had not realize that the drive to Marrakech was going to be through and down the High Atlas. Needless to say, there were several adrenaline raising experiences as we were driving on very sheer (and high) clifts as we descended from the High Atlas. The scenary was indeed beautiful, though as it got darker, all we could see were headlights from crazy trucks speeding through the curves. Yikes.

We finally made it to Marrakech at 9pm and had to manuever through the crazy traffic (both pedestrians and vehicles) to attempt to park our car in the medina. We ended up getting lucky, finding a parking spot just a few minutes walk from our hotel, the Hotel Central Palace, which is just a block away from the main square (Place Jemaa el Fna) inside the old town. The hotel has a very pleasant courtyard, all the walls have colourful mosaic tiles, and the staff were friendly. We were definitely pleased to be arriving after a long and tricky drive.

We set off towards the square which was filled with people. There were several stands set up to sell orange juice (2.50 dh a glass = about a quarter), all kinds of food, and more local or exotic (however you want to see it), sheep head, snails, and brains. Still feeling a bit funny from our previous tummy issues, we decided to skip the stalls and head for a restaurant. After a yummy meal, we headed towards the smoke and crowd to see what we might eat the following night. Here were had many entrepreneurs inviting us to eat at their stalls. To each, we had to say "maybe tomorrow". The prices definitely were great, and selection was quite varied. We are looking forward to trying the food and eating there with the locals.

Around the square were several circles of audiences watching storytellers, musicians, henna artists at work, etc. It was very exciting to watch the people, the listen to the sound of the drums and songs, and to smell all the different aromas of the food. However, by then it was 1am, and time for bed.

This morning, we decided to give ourselves a lazy day. We had originally planned to drive down to the Toubkal National Park, but having already spent two days in the High Atlas, and driving with the Jbel Toubkal (the tallest mountain in North Africa) along us on the descent to Marrakech, we were content with our time spent on the High Atlas.

Since we didn't need the car to get around Marrakech, we decided that it was more economical to return our rental car, and take the bus to Essaouira, a town on the Atlantic coast. We bought our bus tickets (this time on CTM, the first class bus); Winston and I will head off tomorrow morning to spend two nights on the coast, and Nancy and Harriet will spend an extra day here before meeting us in Essaouira on Friday. Winston and I also bought our train ticket to Rabat for this Sunday, August 31st. Sooner or later, we needed to get to Rabat to take care of our Indian visa, so I suppose we are going to try for first thing Monday morning (wish us luck that it doesn't take too long!).

After returning our car, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch at the Cafe-Glacerie Siroua, in Gueliz, Marrakech's villa nouveau. The only thing we have done since is sit at this Internet cafe, getting caught up on our blog, and emails. Tonight we will be going out to a fancy dinner with the girls (I forget the name of the restaurant). It sounds promising and we are looking forward to a similar experience as the one at the Maison Bleue in Fes. Yippee! I will write more about that next time. Internet connection appears to be quite cheap here in this city. Our time is costing us just 7dh (about 80 cents) an hour. Not bad! Till next time, bisslema.

The Desert of Our Dreams
Marrakech, Morocco

Almost everyone who has been to Morocco has told us that we HAD to visit the desert and if we didn't, our Moroccan experience wouldn't be complete. Well, all the superlatives that are used to describe people's desert experiences are completely justified, because our one night in the desert was simply incredible.

Just being in the desert was serendipidous for us to begin with. We weren't planning on going because we were under the impression that we'd be faced with intolerable temperatures. We couldn't be more wrong; not only were the temperatures more than bearable (approximately 34C), but it was also relatively cool in Fes and here in Marrakech as well. Lucky us I guess, because it is August after all.

If we hadn't had bumped into Harriet and Nancy (and Diana), who were pretty much set on visiting the desert no matter what stood in their way, we would probably not have made the trip ourselves. But things work in mysterious ways and we were presented the opportunity to share a car to get down to the desert dunes.

Our good luck didn't end there though... we were taking a picture by the side of the road just south of the High Atlas mountains when we were approached by a fellow in a turban who we originally thought was another souvenier vendor. As it turned out, he was only looking for a ride to Erfoud, a small town on the way to Merzouga, which was our eventual destination. After some deliberation, we actually agreed to give him a lift, as he seemed pretty harmless, and Harriet was going to bonk him on the head with her water bottle if he got out of hand in the passenger seat anyway.

Well, lo and behold, but Yusouf, our new friend, turned out to be a desert trekking guide who owned 15 camels and oh by the way, because we were all so nice, would we like a discount on a one-night trek out in the desert? We all had a hard time tucking our chins back into our heads, we were so surprised by our good fortune. Yusouf had been attending a wedding of a friend in the ksar (fortified village) close by our photo stop and had been waiting for four hours for the bus when we had driven by.

Not only did Yusouf lead us to a little cafe in Erfoud where we tried the local specialty, a wonderful tagine dish, but he led us through the ridiculously confusing dirt/gravel road that led to Merzouga. There was a paved highway that went through Rissani and was much faster, but driving the dirt road was a lot of fun; the road eventually disappeared and basically just turned into very flat terrain with no markers or any indication of direction, just wide open barren wasteland with lots of rocks. The telephone poles that all the guidebooks told us to follow had actually been removed with the advent of cellular technology, so somebody is going to have to update the Lonely Planet and the rest of the books!

As we topped the last rise, the Erg Chebbi sand dunes came into full view for the first time, and we took a few minutes to soak it all in. These famous dunes are upwards of 50 meters, and stretch endlessly into Algeria, comprising the outside edge of the Western Sahara desert. Yusouf led us to the Toumbucktu Kasbah (made famous locally by Hillary and Chelsea Clinton's visit) where we watched the setting sun ply its rays over the immense sand dunes.

We all got a few overnight things together, locked the car, and walked to where Yusouf and his assistants were arranging our four camels. By now, the sun had set fully and the stars were starting to come out; there was no moon out yet, but the stars were bright enough for us to see. Yusouf's nephew Sayid led the first camel by its halter and off we went, our camel caraven galumphing along as we struggled to control our excitement atop our mounts.

The sure-footed camels made there way in and around the dunes as our animated chatter eventually diminished to contemplative silence. Nothing could be heard, there were no other souls around in site, and as the lights of Merzouga disappeared behind the dunes, we finally fully realized where we actually were. My verbal description can't really do the scene much justice, but perhaps some of the pictures will; look for those in a few weeks when we get the Morocco pictures posted.

After walking for about an hour, Sayid decided to stop and we dismounted in the darkness of the desert night. He spread blankets on the sand and we all lay down looking up at the Milky Way, trying to find constellations. All of a sudden, a candle and a hot tagine plate was put down in front of us; somehow Sayid had magically produced dinner, which we dug into eagerly. We stuffed ourselves quickly and talked and laughed for several hours before falling asleep under the blanket of stars accompanied by a cool Sahara breeze. It was a fantastic evening.

In the morning, at about 5am, I woke to see the shadow of one of the camels looming above us. We all slowly got up as the sky started to brighten, and eventually we climbed a nearby dune to prepare for the sunrise. The changes in colour were subtle, but the shapes and shadows of the dunes were spectacular; we could see them stretching in all directions as far as we could see. Once the sun actually did rise over the horizon, the colours changed rapidly with purples, beiges and rich oranges dancing along the sand. I went nuts with the camera of course, taking as many pictures as I could, finding all kinds of great photo opportunities. The wind had carved sharp edges on some dunes and had shaped some smooth curves on others. I think it's fair to say that all four of us were in awe at the visual feast we experience that morning.

With the sun rising higher we reluctantly packed our things together and got on our camels again for the walk out of the desert. The experience this time was obviously completely different from our previous night's desert trek, as we could see all the huge dunes we had traversed earlier. Eventually emerging from the desert an hour later, we happily greeted Yusouf who had come out to meet us, and sat down to a pleasant breakfast of crepes and honey with tea and orange juice.

We were only in the desert for one magical night, but it was something that we will undoubtedly treasure in our minds for a long time. For me anyway, it was definitely the highlight of our visit to Morocco so far.

Middle Atlas
Marrakech, Morocco

The days since my last blog seems short yet we have done so much. However, I must be patient and go back where I've left off with Volubilis. These Roman ruins are amazing. Apparently this city used to have up to 20,000 inhabitants. It was very impressive to see the beautiful mosaics (many still in situ) and the grandeur of some of the larger homes. Remember how we were impressed with the mosaics at Conimbriga in Portugal? Well, this is much grander and definitely more impressive. Apparently many of the artifacts found here have been moved to the Archeology Musuem in Rabat, so we will try and visit when we are in the city.

Our guide at the site was Rashid. We ended up getting him to lead us through Moulay Idriss as well, a town just a few kilometers away from Volubilis. Moulay Idriss is unique in that it is the only place where one can find a circular minaret (all the other ones are usually square). It's always so interesting for us to arrive anywhere in the afternoon and see no one. Just a few hours later, the streets are packed, and you can hardly move around. It's almost as if there is an invisible gate that is opened only at certain times of the day. Again, we are shown of the practicality of the siesta concept. Hmm.. wonder how that will work if we try to implement that at home?

We drove back to Fes for dinner, and made plans to meet the next morning to go back to Meknes and explore the city. Unfortunately I woke up still ill (from the previous night), and Winston eventually also felt sick (sympathy sickness?). You can read more about this in his blog from a few days ago.

On Saturday August 23rd, we felt well enough to get out of bed and check out of our hotel. We picked up our Peugeot 206 (not as new as the one we had in Lisbon) from Avis and said good bye to Diana, who caught the train to Tangier. After picking up some groceries from the supermarket, and spending time at the Internet cafe (our previous visit), we got into the car and headed south.

Our first stop is Ifrane, this strange town in the Middle Atlas. Strange, because all the buildings here are chalet styled! We felt as if we were driving through the Alps or something like that, with the European style buildings there. Situated above 2000m, this town sees snow in the winter time. It was funny to note the huge stork nests on the chimneys of the houses in addition to all the arabic signs.

Our destination for the day is Midelt, which was a half-way point between Fes and Merzouga (the desert). We ended up taking a detour (scenic route) through the Middle Atlas and spent the night in Khenifra at the Hotel Restaurant de France V. The windy roads took us past very interesting terrain. It was indeed beautiful, and we were happy with the detour even though it meant 2 extra hours of driving the next day.

We saw lots of mountains and valleys, and were extremely curious about the growth of the trees. Harriet made the observation that at home, even when there is a clift, trees sill grow perpendicular to the ground, as they move upwards towards the sky. The trees here, however, were growing perpendicular to the clift side, so they were pointing at various angles towards the sky. Very strange, indeed.

We past by several Berber tents, and saw the people working out in the fields and tending their sheep and goats. It was always neat to see people riding their mules and donkeys, though after a while, we got used to the scene. We drove past sunset and it was late by the time we arrived in Khenifra. We did observe two sets of villagers standing on the side of the road singing and dancing. We don't know what they were for, but it was still quite neat to have witnessed it. The guidebooks did warn us that young boys would run and hang on to the cars, and sure enough, they did. No harm done though.

Sunday morning we woke up early and drove east towards Midelt, in the High Atlas. I am going to start a new blog right now so read on.


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