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:
|1893 photo of a Barbary lion from Wikipedia|
Although now extinct in the wild, descendants of the Barbary lion live on in today's zoos. However, most, if not all, have been cross-bred with other types of lions. The "Barbary Lion Project" aims to isolate the Barbary lion DNA and "re-create" the original species through a selective breeding program.
We pulled over at a place where wild Barbary apes congregate to glare at the tourists and disdainfully accept offers of food:
We had met some of these monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar on a trip to Spain in 2006. They were less arrogant than these Moroccan ones and more anxious to sit on our shoulders and have a nice conversation. In contrast, during this stop in Morocco, when I slowly reached out to try to touch one, she slapped my hand and glared at me.
Bob was very patient. He was The Monkey Whisperer:
The cute little babies reminded me of Curious George:
It's hard to resist a baby of any species:
This face, on the other hand, has an adult expression I know only too well. ("You're assigning what for homework over the weekend? Don't you know I have a life?")
Yeah, I know. Sometimes I feel like this too:
Barbary apes remind me of the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. I wonder if MGM used Barbary apes as the model for their monkeys?
I'm not quite sure how I ended up riding this sad old horse with the beautiful, somewhat shabby saddle, but suddenly instead of looking at monkeys, I was trotting up and down the dirt road. Moroccans have a way of making things happen:
It was March, and there were still patches of dirty snow here and there. The horse's owner also used his magic to get my camera, and he took about 100 pictures:
All of the sudden, Bob was up in the saddle behind me. Our poor old nag was not having as much fun as we were. In fact, she probably regretted being in the "Atlas" mountains where everyone is expected to carry such heavy loads:
Of course, when the owner finally let us off, he wanted an exorbitant sum of money. Bob had handed him a 10 dirham note (about $10), which we thought was generous, but he (nicely) demanded 200 dirhams as there had been two of us. We resisted and he persisted, and you can guess how the story ended.
We continued on over the mountain pass, enjoying the snow-dusted high plateaus:
If we looked hard enough, we could always find a shepherd standing among or very near to the sheep:
Occasionally we also passed a Beduoin camp comprising a primitive, somewhat untidy tent that was a strange mixture of rather ancient blankets and new blue tarps:
Inside the restaurant:
View from the restaurant: