Saturday, March 31, 2007

Back In Canada

Arrived back in Canada and have had no time for jet lag but lots of time for reminiscences of a wonderful adventure. I would return to Morocco at the drop of a dime or 1 Durham. What an amazing country- a living, thriving oxymoron, happening right in front of your eyes.

The strongest memories: The hustle, bustle, and cacophony of thousands of people in the square every night; The asking of money for any service, including a simple hello; The Moroccan handover where you suddenly get a guide and he hands you off to another guy and eventually (and always) you end up in a carpet store; The Moroccan massage, a combination of deep (really deep) muscle manipulation and forced stretching- it hurts but I always wanted more; The scotch girls finding the bootlegger and scotch Bob having an uncomfortable camel ride rather than give up his box of beer carefully balanced in the saddle in front of him; Being the oldest guy on the tour bus- it made me feel wise; The constant haggling to make any purchase and then finding out afterwards that I still paid far more than I needed to; Getting misplaced (lost) in the narrow streets of the Marrakesh Medina; Learning how to twist my body into weird configurations to avoid having my kidneys forcibly removed by the handlebars of passing motor scooters; Seeing grandma flying through the narrow alleyways perched on a scooter's luggage carrier; Seeing grandma driving a scooter at breakneck speeds thru the narrow streets of the Medina; My $28 a night, 3 bedroom apartment in the windy city of Essaouira where the sand continuously blew in the open skylight; My toothpaste tasting like sand after leaving Essaouira; Laying on the top of a sand dune late at night watching shooting stars; Dancing my butt off to Arabic techno; Laying on my rooftop terrace burning the bridge of my nose; Looking over the city from my hotel's rooftop terrace, beside me is a beautiful tiled terrace with umbrella's and fancy mosaic furniture, next to it is a roof top dwelling goat.

And the people- colourful, energetic, creative, lively, beautiful, and friendly. Like I said, I would return on the drop of a Durham

Saturday, March 24, 2007


The guide book said the Atlantic Coast town of Essaouira has laid claim to being the windiest city in Africa. They were right! I have just returned to Marrakech from Essaouira after having spent 4 days, mostly within the walls of the old city. The old city, which dates back to the 16th century is a small town enclosed by daunting fortifications. The town essentially runs on tourism and fishing. The fish port is a marvel in itself with about 20 stalls offering you your pick from a large variety of fresh from the sea delights. Each stall has a greeter (to put it mildly) doing his absolute best to entice you to eat at his stall. It is fish bedlam to say the least. Once enticed you pick your selection and it is cooked on the spot for you.

Tourism in the town is centred in within the city walls. Some tourists venture beyond the walls but few do as I witnessed when wandering about the newer section of town. Most tourists keep to the main streets of old town but the gem of the city, or better still, the heart of the city exists in the tiny alleyways that honeycomb the town. Many connect with other streets but one can get 'misplaced' every once in a while. No matter how misplaced you get you will always eventually find your way out, unlike the old city of Marrakech where there are legends of tourists never returning from their explorations.

The main streets are the shopping centres of the town. When busy you can hardly move. At the same time the noise level of hawkers, loud music, motorscooter buzzing,
and the general din associated with large gatherings of passionate people increases as the crowd swells. Like at Alice's estaurant, you can get anything you want. Sheep heads on planks, chickens killed and plucked while you wait- guaranteed fresh the sign says, spices ground in front of you, and everything else from rubbermaid to diapers.

The food here is similar to everywhere else- Tajines, CousCouis, or Brochettes. Most restaurants also have a complete italian menu of Pizza and other dishes. Moroccan fare tends to taste a little bland surprisingly since one would expect spicy food. Even the italian food tends to be bland, almost like Chef Boyardi with some curry throw in. They will spice things up for you but beware as the cooks often do not know their limits. It turns out that Moroccan salads and vegeterian dishes are really delicious and affordable.

Finding accomodation in Essaouira is done by reserving ahead,if you are smart, or wait till you arrive there and search, which typically, I did. The search ended as son as it began. I was picked up by one of the 'accomodation opportunists' who frequent bus arrivals. Despite the usual catastophic results of being led around by one of these characters, I had heard that sometimes they turn out all right. Luckily my guide, Jamel, was good and I was soon parked in a 3 bedroom apartment. A little seedy and dusty from the unglassed skylight, it was still pretty cool in a hippie kind of way. The best of all was the price- 200D a night which is 28 dollars, a little pricy considering my Marrakech digs that were costing me half that. As with all no-star accomodations this had it's drawbacks in addition to the sand blowing in the skylight - I did mention the Windy City tag. The hot water was an adventure in pyrotehnics, My neighbour often cooked with his porcelain bbq just on the steps outside my door, and Jamel keeps coming back with excuses to ask for some extra money. People do this a lot here- ask you for money for no real reason at all except that you will be helping their families.

The photography here has been incredible. Every new street offers something interesting. The colours, the architecture, the clothing, the stores, the life bursting around me all make up a kodak mosaic that I am feasting on. Talking about feasting it is time for me to do so as feasting is a good excuse to hunt down a beer. And in this town it is a hard hunt to find an affordable pint

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Morocco: Back to Marrakech

After we all gathered in the Berber communal tent we spent some time getting to know our hosts and each other better. Food soon arrived, a huge mountain of Couscous, large chunks of vegetables, and chicken. Being on the road for so long and the rigours of camel riding was demonstrated by our ravenous behaviour and the food was soon all gone. Dessert was the same as everywhere in Morocco- oranges. The tables were removed and we were then entertained by 5 of our hosts with Berber songs on drums and clackers. We leaned the ringy ringy ringa song, badly.

After all the festivities I left and took my camel blanket, yup the same one off the camels back, out into the desert and laid on my back watching the amazing starry display all around me. It got cold, real cold and I returned to my shared tent to sleep. Constantly cold I eventually covered myself completely under the camel blanket so some body heat might collect and sleep would come.

The next morning I was wakened by my tent mate at the crack of dawn, apparently I asked him to do this, and stumbled out into the cold desert dawn. Not much of a sunrise but it was the first time we had seen our camp in the light of day. It was a stunning location with large, no, huge dunes all around us. I wandered off to explore and photograph a little. I could see that our camels were being prepped for takeoff so I headed back to make sure that I found a camel with a rubber back bone- no more ridge riding for me. I got my blanket and made sure it was folded as many times as humanly possible so that the distance between the camels backbone and me was maximized.

We were soon off in the suns rising rays. It was incredible as the camel trains were backlit and sidelit by the sun. Shot till I could shoot no more. We arrived to a very mediocre breakfast at the oasis and then we were herded back into our bus for the 8 hour journey to Marrakesh. It was a killer ride and very exhausting. Picture 15 tired, dirty, and sore tourists being driven by a man who spoke none of our languages and determined to break distance and time records for the journey. He was nice to let us out occasionally for washrooms and a lunch break. Getting off the bus we were instantly absorbed, or more accurately, engulfed in the Marrakesh madness of Saturday night.

A welcome site, my hotel, and a warm welcome of: monsieur Paul, we thought you were not coming back!

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Morocco day 8, sands of the Sahara

I am back in Marrakesh madness after spending 3 days crossing the High Atlas Mountains to the Sahara Desert. I travelled in a large mini van with 14 others from a mosaic of countries including a Chinese American university student who rode camels in the desert wearing a pin striped casual blazer. We explored many valleys and towns on our way to the Sahara and stayed the first night in the Frozen Hotel high up in the High Atlas. I slept soundly but coldly to the sounds of a winter rushing river. We are being well fed with traditional Moroccan fare which means Couscous or Tajines. Dessert is invariably oranges: We managed to get a mini beer donated to our cause and had the pleasure of half a mini-beer before bed at the Frozen Hotel.

Up the second day we continued across the mountains again exploring Berber kasbahs, ancient mudbrick villages and thoroughly modern towns: Unfortunately the bus trip is not the best for photo ops as I have watched with despair as numerous Kodak moments have passed me by.

We left the highway at the edge of the Sahara and crossed overland to an oasis beside some huge orange coloured dunes. A camel train was waiting for us and we were quickly mounted up for our one hour camel trek to our Sahara Hilton tent accommodations. We all had heavy loads especially since our driver had taken us to the local bootleg store where we loaded up with beer and other refreshments.

The camel trek was probably one of the high moments of my life that I will always remember with pleasure despite the extreme pain that some of us endured as we cheek rubbed with the camels high spine. Done properly there is a ring of blankets placed around the Camels hump so that you ride above the backbone instead of on it. A Berber blanket is then placed on top of the ring to create a platform for the widely spread-eagled rider. An incorrectly placed blanket quickly results in suffering as described above: My cheeks still cringe in memory as memories are revisited with these words.

Despite some serious pain issues we arrived at the Berber camp, a set of blanket constructed tents sitting in a valley of huge sand dunes. We had left the oasis at dusk and arrived at the camp under a vast night canopy of stars. Our shared tent accommodations were quickly sorted out and we were instructed to take a walk while food was being prepared. As the only direction to walk was straight up the neighbouring dune, we did as we were told. The climb was a killer. Imagine going up a sleep incline in soft shifting sand. Half an hour later, and after many rests, 8 of the original 15 summited the crest of the dune. What a sight for miles around. We laid on our backs and were swallowed by the incredible blackness and light of the night sky. After the traditional group photos we yahooed our way at high speed down the side of the dune to the camp.

We were then ushered into the communal tent were we formed a large circle and became one with our hosts

Monday, March 12, 2007

Morocco Day 5

The good news is that I finally found a hi speed internet place, in the old town where I stay, and with a somewhat English keyboard. Picture a keyboard that has Arabic figures and the english letters are all in different places. I am not going to even think about spell check at this point, just happy to have got this far. The bad news is serious tummy turmoil, from what I do not know. Thank god for my little first aid kit and Toms magic tummy pills. I managed a triple scoop bowl of gelato today so far and it only cost thirty cents cdn. I still remember the same gelato in Italy for several dollars in price. I expect to eat little more as the day goes on. The other bad news is that there will be no postcards. I promptly lost my little black book with all the addresses. I would appreciate some of the important ones emailed to me

Morocco, how can I best describe it?

The smells
Dried Donkey dung dust whipped up by evening winds. Endless rows of aromatic spice stalls. Incense mixed with essence of latrine. The exhaust of thousands of little scooters racing along the streets and through the back alleys. Hashish burning in late night dark corners.The smoke from dozens of food stalls that magically appear each afternoon and gone by the morning.

The sights
Beggars on every corner in the most horrendous conditions. Wealthy Moroccans in rich flowing gowns and fashionable sunglasses. Back streets lined with small stores and shops with storekeepers shouting and tugging at your sleeves. Thousands of tourists and locals of every flavour and nationality like I have never experienced before and they are crammed together into the smallest of spaces. Everything is well utilized here especially space. It is just like a ongoing movie. And cats everywhere.

The noise
Endless noise, shouting vendors, long arguments, the wailing call to prayer 4 times a day, the snake charmers flutes, the African drum troupes, the clopping of horse drawn carriages and heavily laden donkey carts, the vehicles dodging in and out of traffic, oblivious to pedestrians, the silence of a Haman spa.

The experience
Ordering food that you have no idea of its origin or taste. Dodging scooters, bicycles, carts, cars, carriages, and people in streets that are ten feet wide in places. Being offered a carpet for my fifteen year old t shirt, being offered 3000 camels for my camera. A one hour totally muscle tearing Moroccan massage. Drinks around the pool in an upscale hotel with some new found friends then back to my fourteen dollar a night room in the old town.

The Plan
I leave Wednesday via mini van to cross the high atlas mountains, sleep in a tent on the dessert, and do some camel riding. Back for a few days then off to the coast to an old historic city on the Atlantic. After that I do not know.

Meanwhile I will keep to the right, it is traditional you know, or so I have been told by the dozens of instant guides that show up beside me matching my pace and asking the same questions:

Where you from?
Ah Kebec.
No British Columbia
Where you going?
For a walk
I show you tanneries (which means their friend the carpet seller)
OK my friend I take you there anyway.
Been there, done that, got the smell, au revior mon ami