Category Archives: Morocco

‘Ma Petite Soeur’

A long day of bus travel, after a short ride in the French family’s camper, took us from Merzouga to Ourzazate, a former fort town in eastern Morocco, recently made famous as a backdrop for numerous films including parts of Gladiator and Star Wars. Somehow, we managed to navigate the confusing separation between the main town and the area where most of the housing options lie. Hotel Nadia had an attractive description in the Lonely Planet and the price was low, so we headed there.

For less than $30, we found a perfect oasis for two road-weary travelers, complete with breakfast and a chilly courtyard pool. A lot of the sites around Ouarzazate are spread out, so we bargained with Hassan, the owner of the hotel, to go out and see the Kasbah where Gladiator was filmed. He also threw in a stop at Atlas Film Studios, which houses a huge collection of memorabilia from a host of movies. Apparently, sometimes it’s cheaper for moviemakers to hire locals or fly in planes full of extras of whatever ethnicity needed for certain films than it is to actually build the set and shoot the movie in a place like Hollywood. On the way out to the Kasbah, Hassan told us that Brad Pitt became a local hero when he paid to have electricity brought to a village involved in the filming of Babel.

Hassan and a woman named Melika who was staying at the hotel joined us for the tour of the hilltop Kasbah, with its stunning views of the valleys around it. Melika is a nurse from Rabat and was in town for a wedding. She liked Anne-Claire so much, she bought a beautiful white shirt for her ‘petite soeur’ (little sister).

We shared a terrific lunch at Hassan’s friend’s restaurant at the base of the hill, during which Hassan invited us to a meal later that day of baddaz, a fine-grained couscous made from corn that was served with a cornucopia of vegetables and some goat meat. Melika and Hassan helped us learn a few more Arabic words and phrases, delighting in both our successes and miserable failures as we tried to catch the subtle differences in pronunciation and pick up the range of new sounds required for Arabic.

It was a great last night in Morocco. So much of this beautiful country has become touristy for just that reason: The people, their traditions, and the land are all exquisitely unique. Beauty here abounds.

On this last day in Morocco, we experienced both the pragmatic opportunism and the generous hospitality that I suppose are present in every country. Like everyone else, Hassan has to feed his family, and we provided a source of income for him. But at the end of the day (literally, in fact), he didn’t have to invite us for dinner.

It’s a lesson we learn over and over as travelers – you’ll find what you’re looking for in the cultures you visit, whether it’s the salesman who’s learned English only to sell you a rug, or the gracious hostess who delights in seeing a white-skinned American drink Berber tea, try to make pastries, or struggle with a foreign language just for the pleasure of the exchange.

A Night in the Dunes

Running short of time in Morocco, we had to choose where to go for our last few nights – head to the beach, or spend some time in the east of the country near the desert. We’d met an American Rotary Scholar studying in Rabat whose family was visiting. They’d been out to Merzouga and spent a night in the desert, and they spoke so highly of the experience that we decided to try and make the trip to the edge of the Sahara from Khenifra in one day.

With a hodge-podge of 3 rickety buses and 3 grand taxis, we made it to a Tuareg-run auberge that backs right up to the dunes just in time to catch two camels to the Berber tourist camp about an hour’s ride away. Though it felt like a bit of a movie set, with the string of similarly placed hotels that had the Sahara in their backyards, the dunes themselves were very real, stretching for miles in nearly every direction.

At the Berber camp, we met a charming French family who loved Anne-Claire and were patient with my paltry French. We shared a dinner of lentil soup, a delicious vegetable tajine, and melon as the sun set and a few stars started to pop out from behind the clouds. It was still warm when bedtime rolled around, so we all had the brilliant idea to sleep on the sand, instead of taking shelter in the heavy woven-blanket tents set up around us.

Almost immediately upon lying down, hot winds from the east began to kick up the fine orange sand onto our mattresses and into our ears, noses and mouths. I looked down at my sheets at one point during the night, which I’d remembered being white but now were swirled with dark patterns that shifted as I moved my hand over them. The sand was everywhere – eyes, ears, hair, elastic bands in our clothing.

Forget the hamams (the traditional Moroccan bathhouses where you’re exfoliated with grainy soap by a masseuse or close friend). A night of sandblasting left us with little unscrubbed skin. I didn’t decide until halfway through the night that sweating under a sheet to cover my face was preferable to being hosed by the Sahara. To say the least, it was a long night.

We awoke the next morning, commiserated with the French family over the night’s lack of sleep, and boarded our camels for the trek back to the auberge. The showers they had waiting for us were certainly welcome, though I still feel like I’m sprinkling Moroccan sand all over West Africa, even several weeks on.

After breakfast, the French family took us on a tour of their ‘camping-car.’ We said goodbye, wished them well, and promised to keep in touch. We set out on foot from the hotel to catch a taxi, but just as we were reaching the road, Mael (the young boy) came running after us yelling, “Anne-Claire! Anne-Claire! Where are you going?” in French.

We told him we had to get to Rissani, a nearby town, to catch a ride toward Ourzazate. It turns out Mael’s family was also headed that way, so we all piled into the camper. Though it was a quick trip, it saved us a lot of time, as we didn’t have to wait for a taxi to fill up before it left. Transport from Rissani on was pretty straightforward, if not altogether easy. So for the 30-km ride, we flipped through the pictures of the family’s vacation in Morocco in perhaps the most comfortable ride we’ve had since leaving Europe.

The Life of a Volunteer

In my last post, I wrote about our time with a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. If you ever have the opportunity to spend time with volunteers in their ‘natural environment’ as it were, you should jump at the chance. In addition to Christine, we’ve spent time with a Senegalese volunteer, an RPCV from Ghana who’s now working in Senegal, and a volunteer in Mali. From an ex-pat’s perspective, no one knows more about the culture than a PCV.

Our time in Kerrouchen was magical. Here’s a short video of a quintessentially Peace Corps moment with a woman at the cooperative. It’s difficult to remember that every day during Peace Corps service is not like that. At times it feels like you’ll never learn the language or that the heat will never subside or that your work won’t do any good or that the mosquitoes will never stop biting.

Anne-Claire and I have the privilege of reliving our experiences and remembering the best days we had in Niger. Time softens the hard edge of the struggles, and in the end they become good stories: “Remember the time I spent 9 hours on a bush taxi ride – I could’ve gotten there faster (by several hours) if I’d walked;” or “Wasn’t it funny that time I threw up so hard that cabbage came out my nose?”

On this side of service, you never remember the mosquitoes.

Peace Corps Days

Perhaps the best days we had in Morocco came thanks to a Peace Corps Volunteer who was also a classmate of Anne-Claire’s at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Christine lives in a town called Khenifra in a valley in the Middle Atlas. The ‘bowl of heat’ where Khenifra sits keeps it well off the tourist trail, especially in mid July.

For that reason, we enjoyed strolling the streets as Moroccans went about their days rather than trying to get us to buy something. Anne-Claire even went behind the counter at a schpeckia (forgive my spelling for these delicious pieces of thin, fried dough covered in honey and sesame seeds, often a treat during Ramadan to break the daily fast) shop and helped the workers there to their delight. We left loaded down with far too many of the sweets to eat ourselves.

Our second day in town, Christine needed to have some paperwork completed for a boy she’d gotten into a USAID-sponsored summer camp. He lives in a village a few hours up into the mountains, so we set out early of the first of two taxis we needed to take to get there.

In Morocco, these ‘grand taxis’ are a bit better than the bush taxis you’ll find further south in West Africa, but only just. They’re usually wide, boxy Mercedes a few decades old, and drivers use the extra space added before fuel consumption was much of a concern to pack 4 people in the back seat, and three across the front, including the driver.

Wedged in against the door I gradually got a little more room, the car’s other passengers settling like the contents of a bag of potato chips as the car trundled around the mountain roads. We arrived in Kerrouchen just after two in the afternoon. The town is stunningly situated on a dusty, sloping plateau with the jagged peaks of the Middle Atlas rising around in every direction. The family that Christine had lived with met us at the taxi stop and took us back to their house.

Like every family who has hosted us on our journey, they pulled out all the stops for us (no doubt due to the excitement of seeing Christine again), beginning with this deliciously sweet sesame paste (the name of which I can’t remember). We had a Moroccan salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, followed by pasta, two whole chickens (one fried and the other cooked with saffron), and dessert of water melon, in addition to some mint tea, of course.

Afterward, we relaxed with the family, especially enjoying Rachid’s two-year-old daughter, Souhaila. Their neighbor joined us for part of the meal. He’s a mountain guide, and it’s his 14-year-old son that Christine is getting into the summer camp. Tanned and sinewy with clear blue eyes that reflect the region’s Berber roots, he comes off as no-nonsense, so much so that it was difficult to get him to accept our polite refusal to stay the night at his house.

Alas, we knew we had to keep going. Before leaving the village, we visited a couple of women’s cooperatives on the edge of town. Both groups produce beautiful textiles, and they greeted us warmly. The second group of women was particularly excited to see us. They sat on the floor with their backs against the wall in what felt like a large school room, with giant weaving looms sitting in front of three to four women each. Their chatter was punctuated by the thump, thump, thump as they smacked the threads into place.

As soon as we entered, a few of them hopped up and offered us tea, this time the more potent green tea similar to what the Tuaregs drink in Niger. Their hands were gnarled from decades of hard work, and their faces – creased by birthdays and children and husbands – testified to the diversity of the Moroccan people and its age-old importance as the gateway to Africa. You might expect to see their light skin and rounded noses in Eastern Europe, but here they were, blue eyes and all, on the edge of the dark continent; only the tattoos that the older women have on their foreheads signal the vast difference in cultures.

Most younger Berber women these days don’t have the tattoos, but the legend behind them demonstrates the cohesiveness we felt standing among the women at the cooperative as we laughed, drank tea and admired their handiwork. Long ago, some Berber women were taken to Europe as slaves, and they were given these tattoos to denote their lowly status. When a few of the women escaped and returned to their homes, everyone knew they’d been slaves because of the tattoos. So that these women wouldn’t be ostracized as damaged goods, the other women decided to tattoo themselves as well, making it impossible to know who had been a slave and who hadn’t.

After a lengthy goodbye, we headed back toward the taxi stand and eventually started the drive home, accompanied by a beautiful sunset. Peace Corps service is full of ups and downs, but it’s days like this you remember – time spent sharing food, laughter and simply time with others. I left my service in 2006 believing that the best part of Peace Corps is the exchange between two vastly different cultures, and I remain convinced of that. More often than not – as was the case this day in that little town in Morocco – I was on the receiving end of the generosity toward visitors that pervades cultures all over the world.

Ruins in Rabat

The view from the Kasbah

So I mentioned that we had a couple of unexpected surprises in Rabat (I’m sorry for the long cliffhanger – internet access has been spotty here in Senegal). The first surprise was a good one. Though the streets of this massive, cosmopolitan city are as chaotic as any I’ve seen on the African continent, the medina in the old town, though not as picturesque as Fez or Chefchaouen, is relaxed and laidback. Perhaps it’s because most tourists avoid Rabat, but hassling from vendors was kept to a minimum.

The sea breeze brings a welcome reprieve from the hot summer sun, and the underrated sights included an old Kasbah with beautiful gardens overlooking the ocean and some impressive Roman ruins on the edge of town. Even the new part of the city, bustling with all the intensity of a European capital, made for a lovely stroll.

I haven’t talked much about the food in Morocco to this point in our travels. That’s because, while it’s been decent, a lot of the places we’ve been are so focused on tourists, so nothing yet has been outstanding. Our meals in Rabat changed that.

Perhaps another Venus de Milo?

The first was a simple lunch at a workaday diner in the old town. We were the only non-Moroccans in Restaurant de la Liberation. Taking a cue from our fellow patrons, we had delicious couscous with vegetables for cheaper than any prices we’d paid in Morocco. The food was so good, we went back the next day for lunch.

Our second meal in Rabat was a dinner at a little nicer place called Le Petit Beur in the new part of the city. The ambience was great, with the wait staff breaking up their service with sessions on traditional instruments. I had great brochettes, and Anne-Claire had a magnificent lamb tajine (sort of a crock pot that’s used over an open fire) with apricots.

In my mind, these positives still outweigh the struggles we had with the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat. The procedure calls for dropping off your passport before noon, and then you come back and pick it up with the visa after 2 o’clock the next day. Oddly strict protocol, but at least you know what you need to do.

Anne-Claire walking among the ruins

After waiting in line for about two hours the first day, the nasty attendant took our passports. We arrived a little before 2 the next day and stood in the already-formed line outside the embassy gates. At 3:15, the door still hadn’t been opened, and the people standing in line were getting restless. A few even banged on the big metal door, eliciting a shouting rebuke from the (same) nasty attendant inside.

Around 3:30, they finally began handing out passports, but ours weren’t among them. We waited until nearly everyone had gone to see if there was anything they could do, but they just told us we’d have to wait for a decision from Nouakchott (the capital of Mauritania). We met another American couple who had been trying for several days to get their visas. They were particularly stuck because they had their own vehicle, which they’d imported from the States.

The husband, Mitt, said he thought this was due to tensions between the US and Mauritania brought on by America’s imposition of democracy there. I’ve also since heard that the government wants to make it as difficult for Americans to get Mauritanian visas as it is for their citizens to get American visas.

Whatever the reason, we took our passports back and ended up flying from Casablanca to Dakar, thus missing our first African border crossing (and perhaps the most dangerous one) on this trip.