Our hotel in Ouarzazate (there will be a spelling quiz later) was quite the place, by far the nicest of the our lodgings so far. In fact, it felt like we were trespassing, but I’m not complaining. The decor was Desert Movie Prop; remember that Ouarzazate is the “Mollywood” of Morocco, the center of the film industry, and…
WAIT! WAIT! I just had another can’t-miss idea for a locally produced, Moroccan-themed TV show. It’s a reality game show called “Survivor: Sahara”, and the idea is that contestants get voted off the oasis, one by one, like in the American version except that unlike in the American version they are kicked out into the Sahara where they actually die. Pure ratings gold! But anyway…
The hotel lobby and common areas are decorated with the actual movie props from assorted desert epics that were filmed in the area, including Gladiator and the granddaddy of them all, The Ten Commandments. And indeed, just off the lobby is a familiar-looking seat, namely Yul Brynner’s pharaonic throne! You can even sit on it and pretend to be pissed off at Charleton Heston. Although on reflection I realize that because of his gun control views I am in fact pissed off at Charleton Heston. But I digress. Here’s the throne:
As our luggage was getting loaded onto the bus we realized that ours was not the only vehicle departing the hotel. There is an auto rally going on, a Madrid-to-Marrakech race by a British group, and they were all revving up their beautiful but pretty beat up classic cars in preparation for the final leg. Here is one of the cars: notice the Sahara Challenge tag in the front.
Here’s another, with their route painted in the side. They had been underway for 10 days and were in their next to last leg.
They were all very dashing looking, and I fell into one conversation with a handsome cigarette-smoking throwback to the 1930’s, complete with aviator scarf. He asked about our trip and I explained that we were in a small group touring the country for three weeks. He responded slightly ruefully, “I’ll bet your vehicle is all comfortable and air conditioned, isn’t it?” I agreed that it was, and observed that though it might be a lot less romantic than their means of travel, it did have its virtues.
The rally cars, about a dozen of them, went roaring away amidst much din and exhaust smoke and adjusting of goggles, and we pulled out rather less dramatically a few minutes later. Not far out of town we passed the two largest movie studios, both set back from road and both marked at roadside by very retro-looking movie scene clap-boards (or wherever those things are called):
This particular studio was in a compound that included a hotel, surrounded by an adobe wall and gate that was guarded by giant Egyptian statues that I assume were left over from one or another movie. You can see them here (though not very well since the studio was a ways off the road). Notice the scenic Atlas Mountains in the background; this whole country is one giant movie set.
The movie industry brings in something like $100 million per year into Morocco’s economy, much of it spent in the Ouarzazate region, which as a consequence sports a lot of very modern looking apartment buildings, wide streets, and of course our hotel. Morocco is an attractive place to film a movie: the weather is pretty reliable, labor costs are low, and if you need a lot of extras for (say) a battle scene, you can rent the Moroccan army. Yes! This is true! I have no idea how much it costs to rent the Moroccan army — I assume they charge per soldier — but you have to agree that it opens up a world of possibilities.
We didn’t have enough cash with us to rent the army, so we continued driving for another hour or so until we reached the hilltop village called Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. The ksar is a fortress-like warren perched on a hilltop overlooking the town across a nearly dry river, otherwise surrounded by desert. It makes for quite the panoramic view from the top, as you can see in the two photos below.
It took a couple hundred steps to get to the top, but the view was worth it. When we finally did reach the summit, we were serenaded by a beggar playing a stringed instrument with a haunting, almost Asiatic melody, a perfect background to the view.
Berber families have occupied the ksar since 11the century. It can hold 20 families but there are only only seven there now. Vendors line the narrow twisting, uneven, up-and-down streets, selling drawings and paintings of the ksar, movie-related postcards, and assorted merchandise — clothing, knives, musical instruments — that unlike in the northern part of the country have a strong sub-Saharan theme. These include the instruments and castanets that we had seen the Sudanese Berbers play.
We spent most of the rest of the day driving….slowly. In order to get to Marrakech we had to once again cross the High Atlas Mountains, the road being tortuous in the extreme and sometimes more than a little scary both for its extreme narrowness and for the occasional gaps in the guardrails. The narrowness in particular seems like a an act of extreme traffic engineering insanity; passing an oncoming bus on a tight curve involved clearances of inches, a very small distance indeed especially when compared to the several hundred foot drop that awaits you if you get it wrong. Here’s a view of the terrain, not far from the 7400′ (2260 m) crest of the road at Tichka Pass.
At one point we faced a truck in what can only be called a Moroccan Standoff since the road was clearly not wide enough for both. The problem was solved by the truck driver folding in his outside mirror and innnnnchhhhhhing forward, oh so slowly, and squeezing past us with perhaps two inches of clearance.
We arrived in Marrakech around 5PM, cruising past golf courses and expensive hotels — there is clearly a lot of investment going on here, and more of a sense of both money and Westernization than in most places we have seen in the country. But it is very unevenly distributed, as you might expect; our lodging, a very beautiful riad, is located on a rather seamy looking side street about halfway between the royal palace and Marrakech’s famous souk, known for its 5000 shops and 500,000 pickpockets.
We’re a straight 5 minute walk from the main square outside the souk, and so Momo matched us there for dinner on the street. I’ll post some pictures of it tomorrow, but it was an extraordinary sight, an utter madhouse of people and food stands and smoke and beggars and street performers. It is energetic in the extreme, an overwhelming cacophony of shouting and smells, and getting variously bumped into by people or brushed by motorcycles. It’s a vast plain of Third World free enterprise, a cauldron of people buying, selling, begging, stealing, cooking, eating, strolling, dancing, playing, and probably a whole lot else that I never even saw.
Momo led us to a favorite food stand (number 55, if you happen to be in the area), known to be honest and acceptably hygienic. We crowded onto benches under the open air tent, sandwiched among the other crowded stands, and had quite a good meal — kabobs, couscous, tagine, etc — for about eight bucks a person including tip. There were other kinds of food at other stands — escargot seems to be popular — as well as fruit places, and hijabi women pushing around desert carts loaded with cookies and baklava-type sweets. It was, in short, total sensory overload, and we had a grand time. More tomorrow!