Category Archives: Morocco

Once Was Enough: A Visit to Marrakesh

In the Medina-The PlazaWe took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. We gazed out the windows at the dusty, brown landscape, piles of trash here and there and shabby towns passing by and we talked about a song from the late sixties, Marrakesh Express, sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  For us, the city symbolized some of the spirit of the sixties and seventies, attracting rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, celebrities and the wealthy from all over the world as well as the young and adventurous.  The city sings its siren song to travelers like us, older with many experiences behind us but still eager to explore its souks, gardens, ancient streets and history.In the streets

We climbed into a taxi and set off for our lodgings located within the Medina of Marrakesh, the older, walled portion of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Fez and Casablanca, the streets were teeming with people in western and traditional dress sharing the thoroughfares with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, mules, horses and carts.  Here and there we spied some of the many scruffy cats that slink about the streets, lingering occasionally to enjoy a bit of sun.  Our attention was drawn to two mules, hitched together alongside the road and a man beating one frantically with a stick who had his teeth sunk into the neck of the other.  And then, in an unexpectedly shocking act of violence the man picked up a large rock and hit the offending mule savagely in the head.  Shaken and a bit sickened by what we’d seen we continued on, our anticipatory moods subdued by the event.Dar NaJat

For our living arrangements we had selected the Dar Najat, a traditional hotel, featured on Trip Advisor.  A dar is similar to a riad in that it is a three to four-story residence organized around a central courtyard but it lacks the interior garden and fountain. Our host, an energetic and dreadlocked young man with a wide, welcoming smile showed us to our small but clean room with rock hard beds and vividly colored bedspreads and pillows. The vibe was most definitely young and hip (in fact, we got the feeling that a joint or chunk of hash could be ours for the asking) but we felt comfortable and joined the few other travelers on the roof top dining and lounging area.  During our stay, we started each morning with a vast assortment of Moroccan pastries, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and bitter, strong coffee to fuel our adventures.In the streets - Medina wall

Today, Marrakesh is a huge draw for tourists all over the world and consists of its old city, the Medina, fortified by the (not so) red sandstone wall which gave it the nickname, “The Red City” and is surrounded by modern neighborhoods.  However, it should be kept in mind that it is one of the world’s most important trading centers, stretching from antiquity to the present day drawing merchants and buyers from the Maghreb (all of North Africa west of Egypt), Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Europe. One of Morocco’s four former imperial cities built by the Berber empire, its history stretches back over a thousand years to its founding in 1017; a city that has survived feasts and famines, plagues, anarchy, the plotting of feudal lords, military coups and political intrigues.in the Medina

We spent a couple of memorable days in the company of our driver, Taoufiq, who showed up our first morning at Dar Najat promptly at 9 to collect us and walk us the short distance from the Medina to the square where his van was parked. His older brother Daoud, an erudite and well-spoken gentleman, accompanied us and shared the history of this fascinating city.  The following are some of our favorites:

  • The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.  An interior courtyard let in the day’s weak sunlight and featured intricately carved stucco walls, marble floors and ancient, hand-worked cedar trim enclosed by a warren of dormitories.  It was fascinating to imagine the lives of its male inhabitants, as many as 900 at a time, who studied in its environs over the years.  The madrasa closed its doors in 1960, underwent extensive refurbishment and was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.Medraza de Ben Youssef
  • The El Bahia Palace, first begun in the 1860’s, was completed a couple of decades later by a former slave who rose to wealth and power, Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought hundreds of craftsmen in from Fez to lavishly embellish it.  Intended to be the greatest palace of its time, Ahmed Ibn Moussa lived there until his death in 1900 with his four wives and an entourage of twenty-four official concubines as well as the multitude of children who accompanied them.  With 160 rooms of reception halls, private quarters, interior courtyards with fountains and the two acres of gardens surrounding the palace, the place is a mouth-dropping delight of carved stucco panels, zelig tiles, arched doorways, carved cedar and painted ceilings.Palais BahiaPalais Bahia
  • The twelve-acre botanical garden, Jardin Majorelle, was designed by the French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947.  In 1980 the garden was bought by Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there after his death in 2008) and his partner, Pierre Bergé, who continued the efforts to preserve the garden and share the artist’s vision with the public.  Bird song and the play of water trickling from fountains accompanied us on our walk and voices were hushed, much like being in a church.  An astonishing variety of cacti, some fifteen to twenty feet high, are included among the three-hundred plant species from five continents. The buildings on the grounds are painted a bright blue that is named after the artist, bleu Majorelle.Jardin MajorelleJardin Majorelle
  • We’d missed seeing a working tannery during our time in Fez so a visit to the Tannery District was high on our list, a chance to see how leather has been processed for well over a thousand years.  Our guide, Dauoud presented each of us with a large clump of mint and told us to breathe through the leaves while we were there.  The noxious stench was visceral.  The animal skins are brought by mule or donkey from the slaughterhouse and then piled high awaiting their turn.  Men worked in and near vats filled with various mixtures of diluted cow urine or pigeon feces (ammonia cleans the hide of remaining fat, flesh and hair) and the hides are spread out to dry.  A ghastly pile of scrapped-off animal hair stood to one side.  Then the hides are immersed in other vats filled with natural vegetable dyes (indigo, henna, poppy, cedar wood, etc.) and at some stage the men knead the skins with their bare feet to soften them further.  The process was fascinating to watch but we definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with vegetarian preferences.tannery
  • We’re not shoppers by anyone’s definition but a stroll (if you can tolerate the aggressive vendors who surround you whenever you pause to examine an item) through the Souks of Marrakesh are an integral part of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the city.  Here it seems like everything you can imagine is for sale from slippers to jewelry, medicinal herbals to geodes, leather goods to carpets.In the medinaIn the medina
  • Lastly, the heart of Marrakesh, the Jemaâ El Fna (historically used for public beheading by rulers seeking control) is the center of Marrakesh’s activity, tourism and trade.  We’d thread our way through the narrow streets of the medina and throngs of people at the end of each day to sit on the second-floor balcony of one of many restaurants overlooking the huge square and meeting place of the Medina. We could easily have been transported back centuries as we ate lamb, chicken and sausage dishes along with the ever-present hovis, round unleavened bread, washed down with a-ti’, sweetened mint tea. Below, unfolded a tapestry of musicians, dancers, snake-charmers, henna artisans, food vendors, alms seekers, magicians, acrobats and hucksters out hustling the masses that flowed through and around the square striving to make a living.  Wandering through the surging throng seeing what was to be seen took fortitude to ward off the persistent vendors who weren’t turned away with a polite headshake or firm “No.” It soon became apparent that when one’s camera was raised what quickly followed was a hand insisting on a small remuneration for the privilege. It seemed that everywhere we turned there was a demanding hand or a wheedling voice trying to sell us something and it didn’t take long before we’d decide to forego the fascinating scenes playing out before us and tire of the intimidation and harassment of the vendors and flee.In the medinaIn the Medina-The Plazain the medina plaza

In 2015 Marrakesh was named by Trip Advisor as its most popular travel destination in the world.  That fact alone should have served as a warning to avoid the city…  While we enjoyed much of our time there we found that we were also uncomfortable many times with the repeated demands for money and pestering to sell us goods in which we had no interest.  At the end of our third day in Marrakesh a full moon hung low in the sky and we boarded a night train heading back to Tangier and home to Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

 

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

It’s FEZinating! Ten Things We Liked About Fez, Morocco

Even though the sun was out and the sky was a deep blue, we were cold as we stood on a barren, windswept hill overlooking the ancient city of Fez.  To our backs were some crumbling ruins with sections of an original wall and a free standing gate and on either side of us, climbing up and down the hills were whitewashed grave markers dating from eons ago. old cemetery overlooking Fes

We watched some men below us carefully spreading out animal hides to dry in the sun before taking them to the tanneries, just like their ancestors had done for centuries.  Our surroundings felt timeless but, in a jarring contrast when we looked below us at the thirteen-hundred year-old, walled city of Fez, we noticed the satellite dishes, all faced in one direction awaiting the magic signals that would bring them to life.

satellite dishes

The feeling of stepping back in time and watching things done just as they’d been for centuries past juxtaposed against the bustle of daily commerce followed us during the days we spent in Fez.  As the oldest imperial city of Morocco it was a major market located along the Trans-Saharan trade route connecting the empires of Western Sahara to the Atlantic and Mediterranean shipping lanes.  Goods like salt, cloth, beads and metal were exchanged for gold, ivory and slaves and caravanned by the Berbers of the Atlas Mountains, first in two-wheeled chariots pulled by oxen, donkeys and horses.  But, as anyone who’s watched an epic desert movie knows, it was the introduction of the camel, probably from the Levant, which revolutionized the industry of desert transport.  Even some of the various names by which Fez is known reflect the mix of civilizations passing through:  the French spelling of Fès, the Berber name Fas and the lacy script of the Arabic culture.

The days spent in Fez flew by quickly as we tried to pack in as many sights and sounds and tastes (and smells!) as we could. However, even self-professed history buffs and aspiring culture vultures have limits and we soon realized that one visit could not cover everything.  The following is our list of recommended favorites:Ryad Ayla

1)  Stay in a Moroccan Riad. These traditional houses of two or more storeys are built around a courtyard with a garden and fountain and are decorated with carved stucco and colorful tiles in geometric patterns.  Once the homes of the wealthy and powerful many of these have been renovated into fine hotels like the Ryad Ayla where we stayed and wrote about it and our next listed place herestreet market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

2) Wander about The Medina of Fes.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this was one the highpoints of our stay and later we had to laugh when we recalled various guidebooks and posts we’d read that suggested “Get lost in the Medina” as a chosen activity.  Once you enter this maze of narrow streets and alleys twisting in various directions there are no other alternatives.  With its shops and bustling souks (an Arab market or bazaar) bakeries and restaurants, crumbling architecture, many historically recognized buildings, mosques, museums, schools and homes, visiting the Medina is an unforgettable experience and a great example of full sensory overload. La Belle Vue de La Tannerie-refurbished tannery

3) Visit the Chouara Tannery in the Moulay Abdellah Quarter of the Medina.  Unfortunately for us, a major renovation was just being completely at the time of our February stay including the restoration of the earthen vats.  In fact, the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, was scheduled the very next week for a dedication of this site that dates back to the 11th century.  A later visit to another tannery convinced us that we may have been lucky to see the Chouara Tannery at its cleanest as the stench from the centuries-old tanning process which includes vats filled with pigeon feces, lye baths, various natural dyes and piles of animal skins is not for the faint-hearted.  But the proximity of the tanneries leads to our next suggestion …La Belle Vue de La Tannerie

4)  Shop in a Leather Souk.  Here’s a much better way to appreciate the smell of leather and the luxury quality of handbags, coats and jackets, vests, shoes, wallets, hats, furniture and poufs.  The leather goods are all beautifully handcrafted in their original colors or rich with the brilliant hues from the dye baths.  And, despite the hard sell tactics, we managed to escape with just a reasonably priced pair of slippers.pottery shop

5)  Watch a master potter and artists at Art D’ Argile.  Visiting this ceramics shop gave us a true appreciation for the artistry and craftsmanship that goes into making the beautiful quality Moroccan pottery found in reputable shops.  We watched a potter making the conical shaped tagine dishes using a foot-driven wheel and women hand-painting ceramic bowls, cups and dishes with beautiful designs.Ceramic factory

However, far and away the most impressive sight was watching the three men seated on the floor chiseling away with small hammers at the colorful, glossy, enamel-painted zellige tiles and patiently chipping them into precise forms. The tile shapes are put together like puzzle pieces using a template to form a geometric pattern that becomes a larger tile, tabletops and other mosaic works of art.  There was a bit of a soft sell here but really, the pieces sold themselves.mosaic

 

Jardin Jnane Sbil-Royal Gardens-Royal Gardens

6)  Stroll through Jardin Jnan Sbil. Sitting just outside the Medina walls, the gardens were once a part of the Royal Palace and were donated to the city of Fez in the 19th Century.  Although it was a cold day we still saw people walking about admiring the grounds and enjoying the open, green space with its towering palms, fountains and other plantings.  However, it took us a while to figure out what was missing but in this traditional Islamic country there were no young lovers strolling about hand-in-hand or seated on the benches, canoodling.King's Palace (one of them)

7)  Admire the exterior of Dar el Makhzen, Fez’s Royal Palace with its seven massive, bronze doors.  Built in the 17th century the mansion covers 80 hectares, about 200 acres and is the (humble) abode of the Moroccan royals who stay here when they’re in Fez. One important note is that, while we had no problem with taking photos of the palace at the elaborate entrance of the seven doors the guards in another area several block away indicated that no photos were allowed.building details in Medina

8) Find your way to the Mellah, the Jewish Quarter of Fez dating back to the 15th Century and follow the winding lanes past homes with intricately carved balconies.  For centuries Jews lived peacefully alongside Muslims in this once vibrant community, now with only about fifty families remaining.  Once there were several synagogues within the quarter and we recommend a …carved doors Jewish synagogue

9) Stop at the 17th Century Aben (Ibn) Danan Synagogue.  This 17th century synagogue is reached by climbing a short flight of stairs and appears almost plain when contrasted to other much more extravagantly decorated Moroccan buildings.  However, this only highlights the beautifully decorated Torah Ark, a huge cupboard of carved wood also dating back to the 17th century which houses a centuries old Torah Scroll.  The building was placed on the 1996 World Monuments Watch which provides funds to help preserve cultural heritage sites at risk.  And we can’t forget to mention the Jewish Cemetery nearby which can be seen through slits in the Medina’s walls or from the rooftop of the synagogue.weaving a traditional rug

10) Practice saying “No.”  A-L-O-T.  Perhaps we should have written this advice first …   No matter where we went in the marvelous city of Fez, there were shopping experiences galore whether we wanted them or not.  At one point we found ourselves in an enormous two-story carpet emporium where it seemed hundreds of rich wool and shimmering silk carpets in deep hues and intricately woven patterns hung from every surface – ceiling, walls and floors.  Any comments we made of appreciation resulted in them being rolled out in front of us with a flourish while the vendor began a steady barrage of offers and counter offers. Saying “no” seemed to amp up the hard sell even more and we finally escaped (or rather skulked away) feeling a bit cheap and ungrateful for not supporting the artisans’ cooperative but with our hands empty and wallets intact.  Shopping in Fez requires enormous willpower and is not for the faint-hearted!handwoven traditional carpets

Our list is, of necessity, limited to the amount of time we had to invest in this marvelous jewel. We’ve only mentioned some of the many things to do and places to go to when visiting Fez. The hardest part of any traveler’s stay might be selecting among the myriad of choices.  The three days we had allocated were totally insufficient to the task. We resolved to make another visit and immerse ourselves, again, in this fascinating cultural milieu.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard