April's Notes from the Road: Morocco (1999)

Continuing my efforts to re-post my travelogues from years past…this time from Morocco, where I spent several weeks during the summer of 1999. It is much shorter than my other travel tomes, edits are light and needless to say a lot has changed in the interim. But as always, I hope you enjoy it!

As-salaam alaykum. "May peace be with you," in Arabic.

Morocco is in many ways surreal. It certainly feels like a world away, and my trip there was quite an adventure. It was one of the more "difficult" journeys I have taken in recent years, yet it was equally rewarding and delightful in different ways. So let us begin the journey...

Several weeks ago I departed from Paris to Casablanca, Morocco's largest city and "melting pot" (but in my opinion not a place worth spending much time as a tourist, at least not if time is limited). I quickly made my way to Rabat, the capital of Morocco since 1912 when Morocco became a French protectorate (the country later regained its independence in 1956). Rabat is a relatively easygoing, modern place with a labyrinthine kasbah (fortress-citadel made of red clay) and impressive Tour Hassan and Mausoleum of Mohammed V. Little did I know at the time that a week later these public spaces would become the international focal point for the funeral of Morocco's last king, Hassan II. I also quickly learned a couple of lessons for any single Western female traveler:

  • Do not look at any man in the eyes (best strategy = wear sunglasses); and
  • If possible, do not go out alone at night. If you can, get a male escort to and from your destination – even more than for purposes of personal security, they will help deflect unsolicited catcalls.

As a foreign female I attracted far more attention than I ever expected, and I say this despite currently living in Italy and having traveled to numerous countries known for machismo. The men in Morocco are unrelenting, and this was one of the trip's (few) downsides – most of all because it made it really tough to get to know the locals without having gawks, hissing or a marriage proposal involved.

From Rabat I headed east into the interior and two of Morocco's four Imperial Cities, Meknes and Fez (the others are Marrakesh and Rabat). Immediately the scenery and architecture changed. Endless parched brown hills dotted with the occasional olive grove or small shrubby forest, small low villages of baked brown earthen clay (known as pise), single-lane gravel tracks that somehow managed to accommodate two trailer-trucks simultaneously as well as the local mule-carts... Italian driving seems tame in comparison.

Meknes itself was a treat – visits to the imperial Palace Dar Jamai for my first taste of zellij (the intricate mosaic work for which Morocco is famous) and luqarna stuccowork, and one of the very few grand mosques/mausoleums open to non-Muslims, that of Moulay Ishmail. I also used Meknes as a base for excursions to the phenomenal Roman ruins at Volubilis (those Romans covered some serious territory!) and the hilltop town of Moulay Idriss where an 8-year old guide took me on a stairmaster-special goose-chase to find the country's only cylindrical minaret. (A minaret is the tower atop a mosque from which the call to prayer to Muslims is delivered 5 times a day – at 4:30am, 12:30pm, 4:30pm, 7:30pm and 9:30pm.) There is nothing quite like being wakened in the morning by the call from the minaret and the mesmerizing, shrill chanting that accompanies it and somehow seems to waft and linger throughout the day.

After Meknes, Fez was a shock, in many ways. It was here that sensory overstimulation really hit. The sights, sounds, smells and general atmosphere each were unique, and the combination of them together all too often overwhelming (and at times even offensive, such as in the leather tanneries). My strategy to see the medina (old town) was similar to what I usually do in Venice – forget the map, throw all sense of direction to the wind, follow the general flow of foot traffic, occasionally veer down a silent empty alleyway and enjoy getting lost. And so I did, in the various souqs (markets) for spices, medicinal herbs, woodwork, silversmiths, copper mongers, slipper makers, embroidery, pottery, leather goods, wrought iron and and and... the list goes on. I had my first experience of bargaining for kilim (carpets) and only barely escaped without a purchase. They are tough salesmen! I also visited the Maison Berbere, housed in the city's oldest synagogue and still home to a fantastic Jewish history museum. Nearby I gazed at the enormous Karaouine Mosque and University from the outside only, as non-Muslims are prohibited from entering holy places. Later on I went to two medersa, those of El-Attarine and Bou Inania. Historically medersa were schools for religious learning for children. Today several are exceptionally well preserved and represent one of the few religious places open to non-Muslims. These complexes (and especially their courtyards) are decorated with ornate woodwork, ceramic and stuccowork, ultimately creating a visual textbook of the Islamic faith and history. They were also home to some of the best rooftop terraces I found in the country – great 360 degree views of Fez and the surrounding parched countryside.

Morocco’s revered King Hassan II passed away just as I was preparing to depart from Fez, and this event singlehandedly colored the next few days of travel. According to custom, there were three days of formal grieving during which time everything – and I mean everything – was closed. As I was by this time in a very off-the-beaten-track area in the southeastern part of the country, it was difficult finding a bottle of water to buy, much less a restaurant or taxi driver. Yikes. However during this time I was also witness to a large number of processions honoring the king. Women are normally scarce on the streets, but they were out in droves – veiled and usually in black, and such a pleasant, beautiful, intriguing and different sight for me. The streets and public places were also abuzz with conversation, TV programs about him could be seen on every set in sight, and daily prayers seemed to increase in frequency, pitch and participation. The population was paralyzed and many people looked like they were in disbelief, yet generally they appeared to be mostly focused on celebrating his life and preparing for his eldest son Mohammed VI to take the throne. It was incredibly moving for me to observe it all.

By now I was in the south, at the great sand dunes of Merzouga from where I headed westward through the Dades Gorge. Stark landscape, lavender "plateaued" mountainscapes (it looked like majestic peaks had been truncated with a geologic saw) and red kasbahs around every bend. Most of the riverbeds are dry at this time of the year, and it gradually began to remind me of either Montana or the moon. During the spring roses are in ample supply in this area, and throughout the year rosewater stands are everywhere. I made the final push to the western Sahara and, after a total of 10 hours on a series of stiflingly hot busses through the date palm-filled Draa Valley, arrived in the town of Zagora. It was here that I hoped to depart on a camel trek into the western Sahara desert, and here that the "chergui" (a hot, sandy, intense wind that turns the air an odd shade of salmon) welcomed me to foreign terrain. A memorable experience, but not one I hope to ever repeat.

What I would repeat in a heartbeat, however, is the camel trek. For this I donned an indigo turban, climbed on my dromadour named Zuin (which means "good" or "beautiful" in Berber), and along with some Frenchmen and our guides headed into the desert. It was something else, and an experience I will never forget. We spent two days and one night wandering around endless dunes and to palm-filled oases. It was horribly hot during the day (45°C, or 113°F, I was told) and chilly enough for a wool blanket at night. Crazy!

I returned to Zagora very happy, very tired, very dirty and with eight hours to kill before I could get out of the desert outpost. Not about to be bored, I decided it was time to partake in an activity I had heard very little about – a hammam, or public bath. There are separate communal bathhouses for men and women in every town, which I found only with the help of a local lady. Within five minutes of entering I had been stripped of everything and given a pumice stone, a bucket of tepid water and a small container of brown goo (which turned out to be one of the best organic soaps I've ever used). I decided to go all-out and treat myself to a massage. What I didn't realize, however, is that to the hammam-matron who tended the bath, "massage" meant roughly "scrub the living daylights out of this young, pale woman." I swear, I have never been so squeaky clean in my life! It was very moving to watch all of the women, mothers, and children cleaning one another and catching up on local gossip. No fewer than five of them asked me if I was married, and when I responded no, they all-too-directly invited me home to meet their son (or brother, uncle, cousin, etc.) Moroccan women typically marry between the ages of 16 and 20, and for me to be 25 and without child was nearly unbelievable for them. Cultural and social diversity at its best – one of my favorite things about travel.

So having decided to live and be “in the moment," I accepted one of the women’s invitations – not to meet a potential suitor, but rather to have henna put on my hand. Henna is an organic substance, usually rust in color, that when mixed with water forms a sort of putty that is also a semi-permanent dye. Women use it for everything from sun protection to an indication of marital status. I got relatively mainstream designs all over my hands and wrists. Quite a conversation piece – good thing the dye lasts only 15 days!

The bus finally arrived in Zagora and I bolted from the heat. Over the Tizi n' Tinififft mountain pass (yes, that is really how it is spelled) to the boom town of Ouarzazate. Relatively speaking Ouarzazate is a modern, clean and organized town. Coming from the desert it felt like another world. I checked out the town's Glaouit kasbah, the neighboring Kasbah and village of Tifoultoute, and took a private taxi to the kasbah Ait Benhaddou (which was made famous by Hollywood). Great panoramas and oodles of photo opportunities, which were equally fun to develop.

Continuing on my loop itinerary through the country, from Ouarzazate it was over yet another mountain pass, the Tizi n' Tichka summit, to arrive in Marrakesh. Wow, what a place! An enormous medina with non-stop souqs of all types, the organization of which was relatively straightforward and what I would even term civilized (at least more common-sensical for the average tourist). The Place Djemaa El-Fna, an open space on the border of the medina, which every night becomes home to a chaotic spectacle of snake charmers (including pythons), story tellers, self-professed medicine men, cap weavers, and innumerable open-air food stalls serving everything from harira (spicy chickpea soup) to kebabs to boiled sheeps' brains. I thought I was going to pass out after about two hours of all this and have no idea how people sustain it on a daily basis. Thankfully the city is also home to some amazing palaces and museums that offer respite from the mayhem, such as the Palais de la Bahia, El-Badi and Dar Si Said. To say nothing of the grand hotel La Mamounia, which I visited and on whose terrace I gladly spent an afternoon sipping tea and regathering my thoughts. Phew! [Note: La Mamounia is currently undergoing a two-year restoration and is scheduled to reopen in late 2008.]

From Marrakesh I headed southwest through the tourist resort of Agadir and on to the foothill village of Taroudannt. Here I pretty much vegetated, hired a horse-driven caleche to take me around the city walls, and wrote a lot in my journal. Then on to the final stop of the trip before returning to Casablanca – the superb little seaside town of Essaouira. There is a continual cool coastal breeze, the fish comes in fresh every morning, all of the town walls are white and all of the doors and windows are brilliant turquoise. Essaouira was one of my all-trip favorite spots, and I gladly would have stayed on another week there. Thuya woodwork and workshops abound, along with stone carving and wool-weaving. It is a very relaxed, mellow place where one can drink coffee and people-watch all day and never get bored. (Guess what I did – hint hint…) I would advise any traveler to Morocco not to miss this place. I stayed here as long as possible before hopping on a final bus to Casablanca, the airport, and back “home” to the European continent.

On balance my time in Morocco was significant in many ways. It taught me about the Islamic world and its ways and architecture, North African history and geography, and the diversity within the country (Muslim, Berber, Jewish, and Christian). King Hassan's death was a unique (albeit unfortunate) opportunity to observe the country's social norms and values, and I found the population's reaction to it remarkable and inspirational. The food was exotic and spicy, the freshly-baked loaves of round bread divine, and the pungent spearmint tea addictive (rumor has it that any "true" Moroccan drinks upwards of 30 cups of it a day). Although it was obviously hot in the desert in summertime, I gained new appreciation for cold showers – and would love to return especially in the spring for the rose blossoms. M’shallah – “Allah willing” (or “let’s hope”)!

TraveloguesApril Rinne