A June 1998 trip
to Morocco by lina
Quote: These are a collection of anecdotal adventures that I experienced while living and working in Morocco for six months. I was doing relief and development work and was therefore able to travel the country - via well-traveled tourist routes and unchartered paths.
Aug 6, 1998
I'm back from my 10 days in the field. I think the last story was the hammam. Well, the next day was the wedding. I was lucky enough to borrow the 'caftan' of a friend's sister and it was absolutely beautiful. The wedding was boring, but i spent the entire evening admiring myself and my outfit and trying to strategize how not to return it to the owner! Basically, we sat at a table the entire night and ate finger foods and watched the bride and groom sitting on a stage. the bride changed outfits 4 times. the band was miserable. I didn't care because I was amusing myself and trying to act 'like a lady.' Don't underestimate the difficulty of this task!
Anyway, monday morning i hit the road. I was sent with a man from the office who, needless to say, is not the most charming of people. We were stuck in a car together for 5 hours that day (no air conditioning and no radio) and of course I had to make small talk in French. The conversation was totally constipated and I had to 'fake sleep' so that i could avoid it! We arrived in Marrakech and I quickly ditched the dude and went exploring. The first CRS office is in a village called Tahannaout (province of Al Haouz), but the closest place with hotels is Marrakech, 30 minutes away. I was happy to get to satisfy my tourist urges! Marrakech was fun and no one gave me a second look because the place was filled with foreigners. I loved the anonymity, finally!
The center is a huge square with tons of stores and stands of all sorts of things like snake charmers, kabob fryers, OJ squeezers (the best I've ever had!), sandal sellers, etc. You get the picture. It was a zoo. I had a blast. Basically, we'd work during the day and I'd hit the square at night and stroll around and drink glass after glass of OJ. That was the first 3 days.
Our next stop was Essaouira, again a happening town. Filled with reject surfer types, this city is a popular hippy spot known as 'windy city, afrika'. very interesting and soooo charming! I made friends with all the hotel people, the man that made my nightly soup and the man that sold me 100 little chocolate cookies. It is a fun, friendly, laid back place, by far my favorite. For those who plan to visit me, I'll surely take you there. We stayed in Essa for 3 nights.
Our next stop was Tiznit but we spent a night in Agadir on the way. I didn't like Agadir much although it is supposed to be the chic place to go. The beach is nice but that's about it. Tiznit was a hole! The town is sooooooooo boring except for the Berber jewelry sellers (silver). We stayed in a nasty hotel with Berber musicians blasting music every night for 5 hours. Berber music is great but this band was miserable. Needless to say, my head is still spinning with Berber songs! The ride back was 12 hours! Recall: no air con and no radio. AY CHIWAWA! Anyway, that's the tourist business.
Work was also good. The first day was spent in the office and the second was in the 'douars' (little village circles). In the office i had to present the project I'm working on (a proposal for a project of basic education in rural areas). That was fun because I'm very into that project. Alas, others are not as interesting. The douar visits were great! The people are wonderful and we had to stop in every house for mint tea (the moroccan tradition) and bread and butter (homemade) and apricot jam. The village people are much better than their city bretheren! I loved the douars and look forward to going back. Unfortunately, it won't be so easy since i have a load of work to do! hopefully soon!
I got back to rabat yesterday. It's nice having a real toilet and a shower that works. I'm going to have thighs of steel after all this squatting! Other news: I have a TV now! Yes, you all know that I hate TV anyway but it's a luxury for me here. it is a loaner from my only friend here. I think it's a gift from the heavens. I get 2 channels: one that has egyptian soap operas and the other that has some US TV shows dubbed in French. Yesterday I saw 'Fresh Prince' en francais! I didn't understand too much because our charming American slang does not translate well. That's all for now.
I will not be in the office for the next 10 days (max 2 weeks) because I'm going out into the field. Yes, back to latrines, tajines, roaches, and other such delights. I'll be in the south in a place called Tiznit. It's Berber territory - therefore more interesting. Arabs just don't excite me as much! Anyway, i may move around a bit down south so hopefully i'll come back with some good stories!
Where do I begin? I just got back from two incredible weeks in the field. Here's the story...I started out in Tiznit - a little hole of a town in the south. We were conducting two final evaluations of different projects. the first is to verify that the latrines and water pumps we constructed in homes and schools were working. the other was to check on hygiene education. As we were working in Berber villages, I picked up a few words. I can now say 'can we see your latrine?' in Tashelheet (the Berber dialect). Anyway, I was with a Berber woman from the city of Tiznit and she served as my translator most of the time. We got to go into the women's houses and checked on their latrines. Usually they would then invite us to tea and almonds and i would ask them tons of questions. I was also doing research for an education project I'd like to start. Anyway, these little villages are 2-3 hours outside of Tiznit so every morning we'd get up early and hit the road. Actually, there was no road! Thank goodness for 4-wheel drive. (But my back will never recover!). I can surely say that i have seen and driven over a large part of the anti-atlas mountain range (and i have some great pictures to prove it!). Anyway, back to the berber houses.
So, I had about 15 cups of mint tea and 6000 almonds every day (hence the extra weight on my bootie!). Often we were invited for lunch too. Lunch is a tajine (a big clay pot) of turnips and onions and mutton and LOTS OF OIL. The more wealthy a family is, the more veggies they have in their tajine. Needless to say, one little turnip was a feast. vegetarians beware! in one house, the girls dressed me up as a Berber bride and told me to come and live with them in the village (hmmmmm.... tempting, but no thank you!). Yes, I took pictures of that too!
After hours in Tiznit was not terribly exciting. There are only a few cafes so by the end of the week I was well known. In fact, the hotel guy remembered me from the last time i was there (July!) and gave me a big hug! Anyway, i did get to do some silver shopping (tiznit is known for its berber jewelry). I found some interesting things, but i must say that the best stuff comes in from Mali and Mauritania. My next trip perhaps!
Next stop was Agadir (just for a night). This is the chic part of Morocco, but I don't seem to care for it very much. Bars, clubs, restos, beach, the usual. I was with a greasy man from my office and two consultants, so it was not a night of partying for me! The next morning i took the 6am bus to Essaouira. I was quite happy to be on my own again. Essaouira is the little surfer town - my favorite place in Maroc! I use any excuse to get there. Anyway, once in Essa, i met up with Fatima (a woman from our Essa office) and we toured the town. I ate delicious meals three times a day. Fresh fish at an outdoor grill, incredible desserts at beach-side cafes (my favorite: 'boule de chocolat!'). We really had a blast. I went crazy with shopping and bought all kinds of cool things. We did go out into the field quite often in Essa. We hosted meetings with school teachers and village associations (all MEN) and talked about education and why it isn't working and how we can fix it. Interesting. Essa was more partying and less work, so i'll continue talking about that. Anyway, we found lots of funky places to hang out, including a cafe that is super-cool and very unique. I have yet to see anything come close to this place.
Anyway, Essa is the woodworking region and you can buy anything from little boxes to surfboards. As I said, surfing is quite the thing in Essa so there are tons of foreigners and tons of weed. The city was once frequented by the likes of Hendrix and Zappa, so you can imagine what sort of place we're talking about. Anyway, I spent a wonderful week of indulgence in Essa and then took another 6am bus to Marrakesh. I saw the sun rise over Marrakesh. Absolutely beautiful.
In Marr, i met a friend of mine who was on her way into Rabat. We went to the famous square (Jamaa el Fna) for breakfast (Moroccan pancakes!) and then took the noon train to Rabat. We spent a nice weekend together. She left her cat with me for a few weeks while she goes traveling. Now it's monday morning and I'm back in the office. Bummer. These two weeks were truly marvelous. However, it's nice to be back to showers with hot water and 'western toilets' (I feel like a queen on a throne!). And I'm tired of mint tea. and I never liked almonds anyway! And what exactly IS mutton??? Still, I'd give anything to go back!!!
This is the story of my wacky weekend visit to the famous sand dunes in the south of Morocco. For those of you who have told me I'm fearless, you'll surely appreciate this. It was by far the funnest, dumbest thing I've done since I've been here. But it makes for a great story !
It started last Thursday night at 9pm, when my friend Dawn and I boarded an overnight bus to the end of nowhere. I had a small backpack with one pair of sweatpants, two t-shirts, one sweater, and a toothbrush. Money and passport down my pants, and I was ready to go. The bus ride took 12 hours. The first 5 hours were spent trying to tune out the painfully loud Moroccan soap opera playing on the TV screen (yes ! a TV ! this is a 'classy' bus). The bus maintained meat freezer temperature for the entire 12 hours, and as a result I was forced to put on every single piece of clothing I had brought with me (supposed to last 4 days !).
We arrived in a town called Er-rachidia and boarded another bus (this time 'local') to Erfoud. 2 hours later, we had reached Erfoud. We wandered for a while until we found a hotel ($5 per night) and settled in. Breakfast and a little nap followed. This hotel had rooms with bathrooms (squats) and hot water (but you have to ask the hotel man to heat the water one hour before you want to shower!). We went exploring and bumped into a Peace Corps Volunteer. We recognized him right away because Erfoud is a small town with one main street and no foreigners. Spotting a lone Asian man in such an environment is no difficult task! Anyway, he spent the day with us.
Any gathering of foreigners in Morocco usually leads to several predictable things : 1. Complaints 2. Bowel Movement Analysis. Yes, we talk about shit. How often, what consistency, all details ! Nothing is private or left to the imagination. This is especially true with Americans in Morocco, who are constantly worried about their health. I have discovered that my stomach can withstand most mysterious foods quite well. Although I do participate in the discussion, I don't have any nightmare stories to relay. Recall also that we are in a toilet-less region ('squats' only, if you're lucky), therefore whatever you 'produce' you don't really get to analyze (that's one inconvenience of the 'western toilet'!). Anyway, the first day was relatively uneventful. The next morning, we visited another town called Rissani. We took another 'local' bus for an hour and saw some interesting abandoned palace. From Rissani is where it gets interesting... (see part 4 for more!)
For those of you who don't know, this is a story of 3 American travelers in Morocco. It's a story where everything that possibly could go wrong does. It's also a story that will keep any traveler from ever wanting to travel again! Somewhere along the way, we picked up another stranded turbaned man, plus his box of chickens and his sheep. So, now it's 4 men plus Dawn and myself plus a few chickens and a sheep. The van would bounce and the sheep would burp (just like a Moroccan man!) and the chickens would fall out of the box and start to jump around and I would laugh and laugh and laugh. I was sure we were not going to make it alive ! This comedy scene took 3 hours.
Finally, out of the middle of nothing, we saw the dunes. These are pink (yes, pink!) sand dunes like an island in the middle of a dry desert. This type of sand is typical of Algeria - and we were just a few dunes away from the Algerian border. Black camels were lazing around all over. Pink dunes and black camels, i felt like i had just stepped into a cartoon. We finally reached a small hotel in the middle of all this nothingness. We got a room not too far from the 'outhouse' (squat and showers 100 meters away). We explored the dunes a bit and socialized with the guests. I took a shower, but by the time i made it back to the room, I was all dusty again!
Dinner was good couscous. 'The English Patient' soundtrack (my favorite!) played in the background. It really added to the mood, considering that we were in the middle of the desert. The sky at night was magnificent, filled with stars and (just for us!) a full moon that looked like a marshmallow. The next morning (Sunday) we were up by 5am. We hiked for a few hours and saw the sunrise over the dunes. Truly spectacular ! By 10am we were on the road again on our way back. This time a kind couple gave us a ride in their 4WD vehicle. We were back in Erfoud by 11am. From Erfoud we took a 'public taxi' (5 people in the back and 4 in the front!) to Er-rachidia. From there, we walked to the bus station. The next bus to Rabat was not until 8pm, so we hopped on the first thing we saw (1pm going to Fez). This was a truly local bus, with seats that were falling apart and a hideous odor (perhaps that was coming from the passengers). Somehow, Dawn and I got separated. I was in the back and she was a few rows ahead. The bus stopped every 15 minutes for the entire 7 hours. It gradually got more crowded and soon people were sitting on the floor. The scenery was beautiful and we ignored the crowds and the blasting Berber music and contemplated the wonders of nature. The moment was ruined when my seat-mate decided to throw up on the floor nearby. I tried to breathe as little as possible. I called out to Dawn and said in a whisper, 'Dawn! The guy next to me puked!' And she said 'He's cute ? ? ? ?' I said 'He PUUUUUUUUUUUUUUKED !' And needless to say, it was far from cute.
At 8pm we made it to Fez, tired and irritable. Clever as we are, we had not made any plans to get back to Rabat. Sometimes you just can't plan these things. And besides, Morocco is not a country with sophisticated transport systems. We just had to wing it. We found out in Fez that we had missed the train by half and hour. We tried for a grand taxi but found the driver too sketchy, so we opted for the bus. We found a 9pm leaving Fez going to Rabat. We bought our tickets and waited in the bus station.
We had not eaten all day so we went to a little stand and got 'la vache qui rit' (laughing cow cheese, a safe bet) and tomato sandwiches. The sandwich man fell in love with me and gave me his address so I could write to him (whoops! I dropped it! Too bad !). Anyway, I looked so frumpy (still in sand-coated sweatpants!) that I deserved to be admired by the sandwich maker. Anyway, at 9pm we were on the bus and ready to go. This bus was full (all men!) and Dawn and I were careful enough to sit together. At 10pm we noticed that we still had not moved. The bus driver had gotten into a fight with someone. We finally began to pull out of the bus station. One minute later, the man that had fought with the bus driver crossed in front of the bus and smashed the front windshield of the bus with his bag. Splendid. We were stuck for another hour.
Now, this is a very shady bus station. So, we planted ourselves on the ground outside and waited. At 11:30pm we were back on the bus. Everyone hooted and cheered. Our joy was only momentary when we realized that we were not on the road to Rabat but only driving 5 minutes to get to the Fez police station ! Yes, once again we were out of the bus. At 12:30 we started moving. By this time, Dawn and I had spent 15 hours on the road. We were not feeling cheerful or pleasant. Once again, the bus stopped for a peepee and tea break every hour. It costs 1 dirham (roughly $.10) every time you tinkle. I was running out of change. At 4am we were back home after a total of 18 hours in transit. All in all, it was a great trip. Perhaps a little short, but certainly an adventure.
My time in Morocco is soon over. This has been a very interesting experience, as you all can surely tell from my crazy stories. The culmination of my 6 months in Morocco was a visit from my two dear friends, Lilly and Shereen (Names have NOT been changed to protect the innocent. None of us are innocent anyway!). We traveled the country for 9 days and had a vacation we are not likely to forget anytime soon! To even try and recount this adventure is a task far greater than my time and ability permit. Plus, since Shereen and Lilly will be reading this, we need to have 3 versions of the story to make sure I don't leave anything out! So, this will be a brief recap of the highlights of our trip. (keep in mind my distorted concept of 'brevity!').
The story starts when Lilly and I met up with Shereen in Casablanca to catch a flight to Ouarzazate (in the south). We almost missed the plane! Ouarzazate is a town famous for its Hollywood movie sets. Films such as 'Lawrence of Arabia' include scenes from Ouarzazate. 'Cleopatra' is currently in process. Despite myriad attempts, we could not get auditions and our dreams of Hollywood stardom were destroyed.
We 3 'Cleopatras' arrived after a rather difficult journey to find that the hotel, although rated '5 star,' was run by a bunch of buffoons. We quickly became a nightmare for the hotel staff. Despite being clad in jeans and sneakers (Yes! Even Lilly!), we dressed ourselves up with east coast attitude and eventually got what we wanted. This is where the pattern of ravenous feasting began. We ordered room service and devoured it. This is also where Lilly began her frequent sampling of packaged cookies off the street. 'Spofy ' (a sponge cake with chocolate filling) was a big hit. We all envied Lilly's courage. She unfortunately regretted it later! Rest assured, dear readers, that the 'spofy' was not to blame!
Anyway, the next day we explored the town and visited the numerous kasbahs. The better part of the day was spent in a Berber pharmacy, where Lilly bought little white Vicks-scented crystals in a vial. At five-minute intervals, she proceeded to take out her vial and inhale her Vicks to clear her nose. Needless to say, the natives appreciated this scene tremendously. Had we been in DC, she would have surely gotten arrested for snorting cocaine. The reason Lilly had taken to drug use in public is due to the well-known Moroccan phenomenon that we call 'berber boogers.' The further south one travels in Morocco, the more mysterious particles one finds up their nose. No need to expand on that concept. The rest of the day was spent hiking up and around a famous kasbah called Ait Ben Haddou, with its plastic columns (thanks, Hollywood!).
Our problems at the hotel continued. Incidents such as getting a wake up call at 1 :30am (scheduled for 7 :30am) and toilet paper shortages were frequent. Our 2nd day in Ouarzazate was spent in Zagora, a town 3 hours away. Its claim to fame comes from its status as a camel caravan point of departure into the desert. From Zagora, it takes 52 days by caravan to reach Timbuktu. We didn't have time to make it that far. In Zagora, I befriended the camel caravan drivers and spent some time chatting with them. I met and photographed all the camels (including the oldest one, whose name is 'Masoud'). On our way out of Zagora, we saw truckloads of supplies followed by a group of Khaleeji men. They journey to Morocco every year to spend some time in the desert hunting with falcons. Lilly and I became very excited by the prospect of joining them!
The next day we were off to Essaouira, my favorite town by the sea. Hassan, our driver, kept us well entertained. For the next week, Hassan's verbal diarhea gave us few moments of silence. We were more concerned with diarhea of another kind. In fact, Lilly had been ill that morning, but managed to survive the spectacular and scary 6 hour ride. In Essa, Shereen and I explored the town and ate some great seafood. The next morning we did some shopping and tried to avoid the aggressive shopowners who called out to us 'no buy! look only! for the pled-jure of your eyes!' Next stop was Marrakesh where we were guests at the best hotel in the country, La Mamounia. We had a suite waiting for us and a huge discount to go along (thanks to a b.s. letter i wrote to the manager!).
The highlight of Marrakesh was our 8-course dinner at a restaurant called 'yacout.' We ate salads, bread, chicken, lamb, couscous, dessert, tea, and cookies, amongst other things! We were going to explode! thus, shereen coined the term 'yacoutitis.' This phenomenon of excessive over-eating continued throughout the vacation. The next morning we decided to treat our weary bodies to massages and a hammam. We were scrubbed by the 'big mama of the hammam,' a huge woman that could have carried us all over her shoulder if she wished! She wore nothing but a bathing suit and a bonnet. We were scrubbed and cleaned and washed and steamed. 'Big Mama' took care of everything as we sat there naked and at her mercy! The afternoon was spent with hassan, running all around Marrakesh. And I thought I was the nazi tour guide! Every hour we were pleading with him to stop so we could have tea, eat pastries, pee, whatever!
We bought tons of little crazy things in the Marrakesh medina. Sensory overload! too many tasty things! The next day we left Marrakesh and stopped at Ouzoud, the waterfalls. We hiked up and down and all around. Hassan was practically carrying us 3 wailing women! Hassan was a welcome asset to our adventure. I think we all agree that some of the most amusing moments took place in the car. We will never forget our constant battles over music (the ladies vs. hassan) and our one tape that was played 4 times a day! Hassan surely benefitted from the experience as he acquired a new appreciation for skincare. I was armed with the basic wet wipes and chapstick, while Lilly carried an entire cosmetic counter in her bag. She spent much time with Hassan explaining the benefits of hand sanitizer, eye cream, rose facial spray, and other products. Thus she earned her nickname from hassan as 'princessa productos.' In fact, every time we pulled out a product, Hassan's hand was extended to accept his due share!
Next stop was Fes, our final destination. From Fes we went to the nearby towns of Meknes and Moulay Idriss and also had time for a romp in the ruins of Volubilis. Our last day was spent in the fes medina where harassment was high ('psst! psst! gazelle!') and quality purchases were low. Shereen and i did not appreciate being called 'gazelle' because of our knowledge of the virginia gazelle - a monster! the highlight of our Fes experience was the 'sound and light show,' where images are projected onto the wall of the medina at night to go with a 45-minute rendition of the history of Fes. We were all clad in bournouses (big cloaks with hoods) like members at a KKK meeting. The next day we were back on the road to Rabat! This was an incredible adventure. Thanks to the girls who made it possible and who showed me a side of Morocco that I would not otherwise have had the chance to see!
washington, District of Columbia