Week one in Morocco. One word......awesome! OK, many words; beautiful, frenzied, raucous, stimulating, colorful, fragrant and home to the friendliest people ever and simply spectacular! To say the old city centers, medinas, of Tangier and Merrakech are impressive is an understatement. It is more like they are alive! They are a labyrinth of passageways, some just large enough to walk through. In just slightly larger passageways merchants lay out there wares, shoppers peruse and bikers and moped riders seem to move seamlessly in some pre-orchestrated dance. Why there aren’t more accidents amazes me. We seemed to always be in the way. Fanatical jihadist were the furthest thing from my mind, not getting hit by a speeding grandma in a burka on a moped was an ever present possibility it seemed (how’s their peripheral vision in those things anyway?).
After leaving the boat in Marina Smir near M’Diq on the Mediterranean side (yes, there were many jokes about the name, most coming from the very immature adults on the boat). We spent a whole day in Tangiers because we wanted to get there early to book the overnight train to Marrakesh. The guidebook makes Tangiers sound like a nightmare with ferry loads of tourists coming over from Spain to buy cheap goods and set a foot on the African continent, so our expectations were low. We were expecting to get a bit hassled, but instead we were pleasantly delighted with the town. It is the off season, and maybe tourism is down due to the current world affairs, but we didn’t see a single tourist the whole day. We browsed through antique stores, wandered through the maze of city streets and had our first tastes of savory Moroccan food. Sure, there were a few “aggressive” sales-men, but most were pleasant and very engaging with friendly banter. Moroccans love kids and ours appear to be little ambassadors traveling with us. We never felt hassled.
The night train in a sleeper car was a first for the kids and I. While not the Blue Train of South Africa, it was comfortable and we slept well. We awoke to a brilliant African sunrise coming up over the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Refreshed, we had a great day exploring Marrakesh. Words cannot convey the complexity and the enormousness of the Marrakesh Medina. It is a maze to end all mazes and you just get pushed along with the flow of humanity, passing souqs (colorful markets) full of everything you can imagine from leather wares to exotic spices to pet chameleons. Occasionally we’d get expelled from the river of people and get to rest in a hidden square with a cup of sweet mint tea only later to plunge back into the mass again if we eventually wanted to get back to our riad (old mansion converted into a guest house in the old part of town). I can’t describe it other than to say it felt alive and pulsating with energy. In the large square we had fresh squeezed fruit drinks for $.30, watched snake charmers......charm and musicians jam. I had boat cards with contact information in all the kids’ pockets, strict instructions “in the event of separation” and a death grip on Ana’s hand. You don’t just visit Marrakesh, you experience it! The energy was amazing, but we were exhausted by the end of the first day. After the first day we got the hang of how things worked and were able to relax a little. At some point we realized we had been there too long when Ana didn't even flinch when a snake charmer tried to drape, yet another snake, around her shoulders.
Along with experiencing Marrakesh, we took a tour out to the edge of the Saharan Desert. We joked that nothing the tour guide promised us came true, but it was one of those adventures that we ended up enjoying in the end and in a few weeks we will have a completely different description of. The 3 hour ride turned into 6, but it was through the Atlas Mountains and beautiful. None of the included guides at stops along the way were actually “included” and our group had to pay for additional guides. The hour sunset camel ride to our tents in the Sahara was really a 20 minute ride in the dark to our camp still within sight of the lights of the road. It literally was the edge of the Sahara, not the big towering peaks we were expecting. That said, camel riding is, as it turns out, really, really uncomfortable and 20 minutes was fine for most of us. The sound dunes were small, but sandy and we had sand everywhere! You can get upset about the inaccuracies, or you can embrace the awesomeness of what you still have. We decided to embrace it! We watched the moon come up over the smallish dunes, reclined out on rugs around the fire to listen to our guides sing traditional songs and slept in Berber tents under thick wool blankets. A full breakfast was actually a hunk of bread with some paste (maybe camel butter, maybe rancid margarine), and sweetened mint tea minus the mint and sugar! Z was not happy, but we scrounged through our packs and ate a few pistachios and dates we had from the day before and survived until lunch. On the way back we stopped at a few villages, wandered around some viewpoints in the mountains and unsuccessfully looked for geodes during breaks from the van. It was an adventure!
Back in Marrakesh we split up and Mike took the boys and bartered for antiques with a variety of merchants and apparently he “bargains like a Berber”, or so he was told on more than one occasion Porter later confided to me. Ana and I did some X-mas shopping and brought home some treasures of our own.
One of the things the Atlas Mountains are known for is their trekking. My only disappointment in visiting this part of Morocco was not getting to do some real trekking. We did a few short walks into the hills during our tour, but we just weren’t prepared to do any of the big hikes. They have fantastic multi day treks that would have been fun to do. Another day, another trip......
While driving through the Mountains life looks like it hasn’t changed in the last 2000 years. We passed shepherds guarding their flocks as they have for thousands of years. We saw adobe villages that, with the exception, of a few lightbulbs have not changed in a thousand years. Driving down from the mountains there were aqueducts that moved high mountain snow melt down hundreds of miles to the dry land near the desert. Small houses clustered around oases’s in the valley overflowing with date palms and citrus laden trees. There were fruit trees here and there, but I never saw huge grooves of trees, yet the markets were overflowing with produce that was all local in origin. I don’t know where it all came from, but we bought clementines, navel oranges, pomegranates and dates for next to nothing. Everything in the markets looked so fresh and tasty.
After a few days in the interior it was back on the train, back to the boat and a few days of catching up on homework and boat chores. The boat was filthy from the desert sands being blown across the continent to the coast. Mike has been busy watching u-tube videos about changing regs between propane and butane tanks (apparently they use different regulators in Europe and it is harder than it seems to convert between the two systems) and he is a wealth of information that he loves to share about freezing points, and PSI standards on different gases used for heating. Thrilling!
We will spend a few days here on the coast, checking out the less touristy towns and then head back to Gibraltar.