Thursday, June 30, 2016

ERG CHEBBI, MOROCCO: SAHARA DESERT TENT CAMPING

When Bob told me he wanted to stay a few nights in a tent camp in the Sahara, I was not quite as excited about it as he was. He assured me that it would be nice, but "tent," "camp," "Sahara," and "nice" didn't go together in my mind.

After about eight hours on the road, our driver delivered us to the small village of Merzouga, located about 30 miles from the Algerian border and on the edge of a section of the Sahara known as Erg Chebbi. ("Erg" means "desert" or "dune.") We were met there by a man named Hassan, the young, energetic owner of Merzouga Bivouac Experience. We got into Hassan's four-wheel drive, and he headed straight into the dunes in a crazy Mr. Toad's Wild Ride style, bouncing and sliding all over the sand, then climbing steep grades and skidding down the other side. Bob loved it.

Hassan pointed out our tent camp in the distance but didn't stop:

Instead, he deposited us at the bottom of a tall dune and told us to climb to the top and wait for the sunset. A nice wind had kicked up, and anyone who wears contact lenses like I do understands that wind + Sahara Desert sand + contacts + no sunglasses = misery.  I made it to the top, but I didn't stay long. I headed down the sand cliff far enough to miss the worst of the wind, but Bob stayed up on top:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

MOROCCO: A LION, SOME MONKEYS, A HORSE, AND SOME SHEEP EN ROUTE TO THE SAHARA DESERT

We had a long day of driving to get from our riad in Fes to our next place to sleep (not a hotel, not a riad--read to the end of this post to find out what). Bob had hired a driver through the company Naturally Morocco who acted as both our chauffeur and our tour guide. His name was Aziz, and he was a young, single Muslim man who had been driving for five years. He spoke quite good English, and we learned a lot about Moroccan life from him. For example, Moroccans have to be eighteen years old to get a driver's license, and the process is similar to what we do in the United States--class time, road time, and a test. At 21, a driver can get a professional license, and there is a re-certification process every three years for those who drive tourists around. That was nice to know. 

Aziz also did a fair amount of proselyting as we drove, including playing some recordings of a Muslim preacher "debunking" Christianity. To be fair, it was in response to questions that we asked. Since we come from a proselyting religion ourselves, it was interesting to be in the "potential convert" role.

After leaving Fes, we headed south, passing through a series of small towns, each punctuated by one or more minarets, much like the small towns of Utah are dotted with LDS chapels or the small towns of Europe are anchored by Protestant or Catholic churches. Our ultimate goal was the Erg Chebbi Dunes, one of two sections of the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The line meandering southward on the map below was our route:

As we drove, we noticed radar cameras everywhere, along with policemen stationed at blockades occasionally placed across the road, waving people through or stopping those whom they had caught on camera violating the speed limit. We even saw a big tourist bus that had been pulled over. The speed limits were often quite low on roads that seemed to be able to handle faster speeds, and I'm guessing speeding tickets are a good source of revenue for the government. Aziz said the fines are very expensive, and he assiduously kept to the speed limit. Had we been driving ourselves around, I am positive Bob would have incurred several of those large fines.

Our first stop was Ifrane, a town of about 70,000 people located in the Middle Atlas mountains at an elevation of  5,463 feet--similar to Denver. It felt very much like a resort city--we saw a ski resort, beautiful, expensive homes lined the streets, and parks and European hotels added their own cachet. In fact, we parked by the Hotel de Chamonix (Chamonix is a mountain valley in eastern France) for a bathroom stop. The hotel was across the street from a lovely park whose main attraction was a huge stone lion:
The story is that this lion was carved by a German soldier during World War II when Ifrane was briefly used as a prisoner of war camp.
It commemorates what some people believe was the last Atlas lion, which was supposedly shot near here in the late 1920s. It is now known that one was shot in 1942, and they were still seen in the Atlas Mountains into the 1960s.
1893 photo of a Barbary lion from Wikipedia

Sunday, June 12, 2016

MEKNES, MOROCCO: ARTISANS, THE PRISON DE KARA, THE GRANARY, AND THE ROYAL STABLE

As we walked between sites in Meknes, my eye was caught by this colorful flag:
Our guide told us it is the flag of the Berbers, the indigenous people of North Africa. The red symbol in the center is the Berber letter yaz, and symbolizes "the free man." The blue represents the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Oceans, the green is the coastal farmlands and mountains, and the yellow is the Sahara Desert. The flag was created in the 1970s by Berber activists. All together the flag shows man living in harmony with the land. We saw this flag fairly often. The Berbers are the dominant group here, the men being easily identified by their hooded robes. Our guide Hassan was a Berber and grew up in the Middle Atlas region.

The actual Moroccan flag is quite simple--a green star on a red background:
I kept thinking it was a Christmas decoration, but then remembered that Muslims don't celebrate Christmas. The five-pointed star is the seal of Solomon, and green is the color of Islam. Red symbolizes courage and strength.

Anyway, when we walked over to look at the Berber flag, we happened upon this metalworks shop:
It's not often one runs across a kangaroo in Morocco, especially one standing in a fountain.

I absolutely love this regal lion. Good thing it wouldn't fit in our luggage. It probably costs as much as our car:

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

MEKNES, MOROCCO: BOU INANIA MADRASA, THE DAR JAMAI MUSEUM, AND THE MAUSOLEUM OF MOULAY ISMAIL

Meknes, known for its beautiful architecture, is sometimes referred to as "the Versailles of Morocco." Three places in particular stood out to us as exceptionally gorgeous.

1. BOU INANIA MADRASA OF MEKNES (Not to be confused with the Bou Inania Madrasa of Fes)

This madrasa, or Islamic school, was built in 1341 by Marinid leader Abu al-Hasan Ali ibn Othman, famous for seizing Gibraltar from the Castillians.  It has the typical center courtyard with an ablution fountain for cleansing and a ring of classrooms around the perimeter. I suppose the decoration is also typical, but again, "typical" in Morocco means "*Gasp!*" Standing in the center courtyard is like being transported into Aladdin's Arabian Nights. 

Can you believe this craftsmanship? WOW.



Thursday, June 2, 2016

MEKNES, MOROCCO: LUNCH, GATES, SNAKE CHARMERS, AND THE SOUK

We had spent the morning in Volubilis and the town of Moulay Ismail, and we were hungry. Hassan took us to a restaurant in Meknes and sent us to the top floor--the roof. It was much like the place where he had left us the previous day. The other tourist groups were all eating on the main floor, and we were the only ones on the roof.

Here is THEIR setting:

. . . and here is ours:

We felt a little like poor relations, but we felt a little better after we checked out the view, which is not your typical restaurant view in the United States:

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