Our Morocco trip was intense because my cousin Bettina who lives on the outskirts of Marrakech had put together a very ambitious program for the 6 of us which led us through a myriad of old casbahs (ancient, fortified clay burgs) off the main roads and to a different town almost every day. For the first 3 days we roomed in a luxurious riad (hotel) within the old town center of Marrakesh. It featured an enclosed court yard, a small swimming pool, spacious rooms decorated with local carpets and weavings and a lofty rooftop terrace overlooking the tiled, cluttered roofs of the old city. Naturally there was a minaret close by equipped with large speakers which blared forth 5 times a day, calling Adhan in zealous live broadcasts by a caller who desperately needed voice lessons.
Every night we were served a banquet of stewed meats and vegetables or a festive couscous with chicken and seven different vegetables, all layered on a grand, communal platter. We had daily access to wine and beer, a family requirement which was not available to the local populace, at least not visible.
Marrakesh is home to a vast labyrinthine market (souks) which started right at our door and led in a confusing maze past cave like shops, selling, leather goods, ceramics, carvings, weavings, tin lamps and countless ornaments, always interspersed with the pungent spice shops with their colorful displays. The merchants were aggressive and for the most part unpleasant, the prices they asked usually ten times what the goods were worth, much more exaggerated than anything in Mexico or Italy where the thieves are at least honest. As soon as you touched something, a garment or a vase the seller would hound you for the next ten minutes and follow you until you scolded him like a rude child. Of course all the vendors and shopkeepers were men, while all the sewing, weaving, potting and mending was done by women who never interacted with the customers, least of all us foreigners. There were lots of tourists in Marrakesh, mostly Europeans and of all ages.
On the third day we met our two drivers for the two Toyota Land Rovers. Abdil was our chauffeur for the next 8 days. He was a proud young Berber (Berbers don’t like Arabs or Jews and Arabs look down on Berbers while the Jews have mostly left for Palestine or the US) and he was a curious autodidact who taught himself a smattering of phrases in several languages. He was very keen on learning German so it was German class every day much to the chagrin of the two women in the back seat.
The landscape we drove through was monochromatic with seemingly endless desolate, dry and earth colored rocky plains and hills. Scraggly, thorny shrubs struggled desperately for life amongst the rocks and once in a while we came across a heard of goats wandering the barren hills, eating what ? rocks ? The deep gorges and valleys were evidence of rivers and water but most of them were bone dry, mostly because of whatever water there was is held back in dams, either for electricity or irrigation. The king’s plan apparently is to build a dam a year because water is glaringly absent from the country. It hasn’t properly rained in three years.
The roads were mostly in good shape and we passed dozens of road improvement projects with their workers housed in boiling tin cans right on site. The clay villages we passed, blended into the terra cotta colored landscape, clustered around a brown puddle and a smattering of green, as they have for thousands of years. Every night we stopped at another luxury accommodation, replete with drink and abundant food, mostly with pools and large cool rooms, while our drivers slept in the jeeps…guarding the vehicles at the same time.
We also saw new and modern suburbs outside of the bigger towns, evidence of an effort to step into the 21st century and the present king’s ambition is to remake Morocco into a more secular and modern country but he has to overcome embedded social and religious behavior and barriers which do not alter or disappear over night. We saw a slice of rural and backwards Morocco while the Northern cities of Rabat, Tangier and Casablanca are much more cosmopolitan than what we encountered. We skirted the edge of the Sahara and could often see tents of nomads in the distance. We were constantly reminded that the minute you turn off the electricity you were back in the middle ages. Of course every one, even the poorest goat heard had a cell phone and all of Morocco is internet connected inn lieu of lacking land lines.
We spent two days camel trekking with our Bedouin guides. At first we drove into the desert with our 4×4’s and then for the next hour our guides looked for the camels with binoculars and cell phones. Finally success! and we drove to a clump of acacia trees under which our camels reclined, chewing the thorny cud. We picked our camels, actually single humped Dromedaries, and after some hesitation we were mounted onto the crude saddles and then these beasts got up with two enormous jerks, first on their hind legs and then onto their front legs. We were now balanced precariously some 6 feet high while these ships of the desert started to sway forwards at a steady pace. Some of us took some gravol which was a smart idea. The sun beat straight down and since our guides forgot our head wraps (which we got the next morning) we tied whatever we could around our heads I tried some underwear and a tea shirt, much to the amusement of our local camel herders. We rode on for a couple of hours through the flat, featureless landscape and made camp under a large tree. Our guides prepared a fine lunch of kebabs and tomato salad, followed by dates and figs and then they reclined and took siesta for the next couple of hours or until the sun started to decline towards the horizon. We remounted our stoic camels and rode into the sunset towards our night camp which consisted of black woollen tents furnished with pillows and carpets. The bathroom was just over the next sand dune, pretty well a personal dune for everybody. Dinner was served under the starry sky over an open fire, accompanied with sweet tea (about an ounce of sugar for every small cup) We settled into our coarse blankets and soon enough had one of our best sleeps in days. We all awoke around eight AM to the smell of mint and pancakes that we ate with more sweet tea, seated on a carpet in the middle of the desert. Quite romantic and unique for us city dwellers. We rode for another couple of hours, chafing and with sore butts and happy to see the telltale dust clouds of our approaching Land Rovers in the distance. Back to our luxury accommodations, a dip in the pool to wash the sand from every pore and a cool beer in the garden and then the camel jokes were endless.
After eight days we arrived in the sea side town of Essouira which is a favorite surf destination and holiday resort for locals and Europeans. We enjoyed the long beach walks, wandered through the large fish market, clambered over the fortified walls (which were featured in Games of Thrones) and wondered among the usual array of touristy goods for sale in every shop. Our cousin Bettina met us there and together we headed back on the main highway to Marrakech. What took us 8 days we made in under 3 hours on the modern freeway, straight to the airport.