Saturday, April 2, 2016

MOROCCO 2016

When we went to Spain in 2005 as relatively unseasoned travelers, we visited the Rock of Gibraltar. From the top of the promontory we could see the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Mediterranean Sea to the east. We strained to see the hint of a shoreline directly to the misty south, where lay the unknown, uncharted, and very scary (at least to me) continent of Africa. Bob fervently wished for a ferry. The distance from Spain to Morocco at that location is just 8.9 miles, and ferries can make the crossing in just over half an hour. My fear conquered his dreaming, but once a spark is lit in the Travel Center of my husband's brain, it is nigh impossible to extinguish it.
Fast forward ten years. We had just completed an incredible trip to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, and we were trying to decide where to go next. Our travel experience and confidence were much greater than they had been when we traveled to Spain ten years previous. Besides Egypt, we had visited three other African countries since 2005: Kenya, Tanzania, and Ghana. I had recently made a new friend at the AP English reading who had traveled in Morocco, had a wonderful time, and graciously shared her detailed notes with us. Before I knew what hit me, we were in the middle of planning a trip to Morocco.

And it wasn't going to be just the average trip to Casablanca, Fes, and Marrakech. Following the advice of my friend, we included a trip to the Erg Chebbi Dunes (one of Morocco's two Saharan Desert dunes), as well as a drive into the Atlas Mountains. Our trip of eleven days would include a substantial amount of driving, but we would see a good chunk of the country.

Here is the itinerary that we settled on with a teaser photo for each day:

DAY 1 (Friday, March 11): Arrive in Casablanca after flight from LAX via Paris. Driver picks us up from airport and takes us to Fes (181 miles, 4 hours). Check in at Riad Laaroussa in Medina (old walled city).
Day 1: Our room in the luxurious Riad Laaroussa

DAY 2 (Saturday, March 12): Tour of Fes with private guide.
Fes Madrasa

DAY 3 (Sunday, March 13): Drive with guide to Volubilis, Moulay Idriss, and Meknes, nearby historical cities/sites.
Royal Stables, Meknes

DAY 4 (Monday, March 14): Drive from Fes to Merzouga with several stops along the way (296 miles, 8 hours). Check in at luxury tent camp in Sahara dunes.
Sunset on the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara Desert

DAY 5 (Tuesday, March 15): Jeep tour of area and camel trek into Erg Chebbi Dunes.
Sahara Desert: Camel trek in Erg Chebbi Dunes

DAY 6 (Wednesday, March 16):  Drive to Skoura with several stops along the way, including the Todra and Dades Gorges. Check in at L'Ma Lodge in Skoura. (Total driving time about 6 hours.)
Road to Dades Gorge

DAY 7 (Thursday, March 17): Drive to Ouarzazate and Ait Benhaddou. Drive to Marrakech and check in at Riad Badi in the Medina (Total driving time 5 hours).
Ait BenHaddou

DAY 8 (Friday, March 18): Guided tour of Marrakech.
Souk (marketplace) in Marrakech Medina

DAY 9 (Saturday, March 19): Drive into High Atlas Mountains. Visit Saturday Berber market and hike in the foothills of Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in Morocco.
Donkey Parking Lot at Berber Market

DAY 10 (Sunday, March 20): Moroccan cooking class at Faim d'Epices. End the day by driving to Casablanca (152 miles, 3 hours).
Learning to make Moroccan bread at Faim d'Epices

DAY 11 (Monday, March 21): Fly home from Casablanca to LAX via Paris and Detroit.
Chocolate tart, Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris

Overall, I think this is the most adventurous trip we've ever taken, and we had a blast. Bob did a fantastic job of researching what to see and where to stay. We kept saying to each other, "Can you believe we're in MOROCCO?" The trip was much enhanced by the fact that we worked with a tour company who supplied English-speaking drivers and tour guides. We are pretty good at navigating, but we would have been in trouble had we tried to drive ourselves for a number of reasons I will cover later. We had very positive interactions with our drivers and guides, and our lodgings and most of the food get an A+.  We packed our days with a very wide range of memorable experiences. Of course, there were some glitches and a few negatives, but that's true for every trip. We never felt unsafe or threatened. I would recommend this trip to any daring traveler, and I'd recommend a tourist company version for those who are a little more timid.

Morocco is another world. Don't wait to visit!


Some interesting facts about Morocco:

*Size and population-wise, it's a lot like California:
       - Morocco is just slightly larger (in area) than California.
       - Morocco has a population of 33.1 million (2013), and California has a population
                of 38.8 million (2014).
       - Morocco's largest city, Casablanca, has a population of 3,145,000, and
                California's largest city, Los Angeles, has a population of 3,929,000.

* Green tea flavored with mint leaves is essentially the national drink and is served absolutely everywhere, from the fanciest restaurant to the most humble Bedouin tent. Its nickname is "Berber whiskey." (We discovered that hot milk with sugar seemed to be an acceptable substitute as we don't drink green tea.)

* Morocco is 98.9% Muslim, and the Muslims are very observant. The don't drink alcohol, smoke, or eat pork, and they are better at answering the call to prayer than any other Muslim country we have visited. The rest of the country is 0.9% Christian and 0.2% Jewish.

* Polygamy is legal in Morocco, but a man who wants another wife has to get permission from all of his previous wives.

* Morocco is the only African country that is not part of the African Union.

* Morocco was occupied by the French between 1912 and 1956.

* In 1786, Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation.

* Many American movies have been filmed in Morocco, including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Mission Impossible V, The Bourne Ultimatum, Seven Years in Tibet, The Mummy, and The Last Temptation of Christ, to name a few.

* Ethnically, Moroccans are almost all of either Berber or Arabic descent, and the primary languages are Berber and Arabic, although French is still used for business and is taught in the schools.

* The currency in Morocco is the dirham, and 10 dirhams = about $1.00 US, which made it pretty easy to spend money there.


READING

In the fall of 1917,  just as World War I was drawing to a close, American author and wealthy socialite Edith Wharton accepted an invitation from her friend and Moroccan Resident-General Hubert Lyautey to visit Morocco. She had already toured Morocco in 1915 with American diplomat Walter Berry and had written about the horrors of the war zone. On this second excursion, she aimed to create the first "tourist guide" to Morocco, and among other things she focused on what cultural practices she saw as doomed to disappear as the world had new access to Morocco. For the record, some of what she described does indeed seem to have disappeared (such as extensive harems), but I could still relate to many of her descriptions of culture, people, and environment.

In Morocco is a short book and provides a great introduction to the variety and wonders of Morocco. Like many books, I appreciated this one more after I had been there. It was much less interesting before I had some experiences of my own.

Here are a few quotes from the book:

"To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines."

"I stand in a portico hung with gentian-blue ipomeas . . . and look out on a land of mists and mysteries; a land of trailing silver veils through which domes and minarets, mighty towers and ramparts of flushed stone, hot palm groves and Atlas snows, peer and disappear at the will of the Atlantic cloud drifts."


Paul Bowles was an expatriate American author who settled in Tangier, Morocco, in 1947 and lived there for 52 years until he died in 1999.  The Spider's House is considered one of his best pieces of writing. It deals with the uprising of the Arabs and Berbers against French occupiers in 1954, part of the movement that led to Moroccan independence in 1956.  Various characters illustrate the complex relationships and ongoing tensions of this era. There is an illiterate but street-smart Arab teenager Amar, a disillusioned American expat novelist who has hooked up with a shallow American divorcee, and an anti-French group of intellectuals whose liberal lifestyle both fascinates and repels the very orthodox Amar. When violence erupts in Fes, each of them plays a part, and all of them are hugely impacted by the war.

Bowles's writing is complex and sometimes challenging. The title refers to the fragility of the spider's web, and Bowles uses it as a metaphor for what is being built in Morocco. His insights into the culture, mind, and spirit of Morocco help readers to become acquainted with the country in a way that tourism cannot.

For example, the young Amar, representing the Muslim consciousness, has a deep belief in predestination. He thinks, "Everything's explained by the constant intervention of Allah. And whatever happens had to happen, and was decreed at the beginning of time, and there's no way of even imagining how anything could have been different from what it is."

Explaining the growing political tension, Bowles writes, "If people are living the same as always, with their bellies full of food, they'll jut go on the same way. If they get hungry and unhappy enough, something happens."  At another point, he notes, ". . . before there can be change there must be discontent."

Finally, Bowles has a gift of describing the ordinary, everyday moments in a country torn by war, and in a life in complete upheaval. For example: "How peaceful it was, with the light evening breeze stirring the small leaves of the grapevine that clustered around the electric bulb, making the shadows move and change on the yellow mat below. . . . From time to time the dark water beside them rippled audibly, as if a tiny fish had come to the surface for an instant and then darted beneath. It was in peaceful moments such as this, his father had said, that men were given to know just a little of what paradise was like, so that they might yearn for it with all their soul, and strive during their time on earth to be worthy of going there."


3 comments:

  1. Morocco was really mostly your idea. Your friend who'd been there provided the itinerary and the inspiration. When I got involved, I tried to link in Algeria and Tunisia as well. That proved too ambitious on several counts and the trip got narrowed down to just Morocco. I certainly would not want to have spent less time there and we easily could have spent more time there.

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  2. Well your teaser photos did the trick--I can't wait for more! This looks like a fantastic adventure.

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  3. Interesting genesis to your trip, thanks for taking us along!

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