In what is definitely some kind of personal best, I have succeeded in editing our Morocco photos and videos into a presentable state a mere 17 days after our return home. And so here they are: http://www.isaacman.net/morocco15/morocco15.htm
In what is definitely some kind of personal best, I have succeeded in editing our Morocco photos and videos into a presentable state a mere 17 days after our return home. And so here they are: http://www.isaacman.net/morocco15/morocco15.htm
A change in the weather seems to presage a change in our circumstances, as the wind picks up and our trip winds down. Last night’s daramati sunset was a harbinger, viewed from a rooftop bar near the fort overlooking the beach. We had gathered for a sunset happy hour before going out to a particularly nice French dinner, not quite our farewell meal but getting pretty close.
The wind strengthened during the night and brought some rain with it as well, the first we had seen since a brief drizzle at the Sahara camp proved to be the leading edge of our little sandstorm there, about a week ago. (I confess to be being a little disappointed that it had rained last night, as I had been looking forward to telling people ironically that the only time it had rained on this trip was when we were in the middle of the Sahara desert.)
The rain had stopped by the time we awakened this morning though there were still a lot of clouds and the temperature was noticeably cooler than yesterday. As any sailor will tell you, this meant that it was going to be a Jimi Hendrix, Orson Wells, and tree-climbing goat sort of day. (It is possible that you have never encountered that particular bit of folk wisdom.)
Our primary goal today was the women’s Argan oil collective, but our first stop along the way was in Jimi Hendrix territory, who as I mentioned passed through here in 1968. He stayed for about 11 days, including at our hotel, but one of his stops was at this café in a rundown little village, well off the beaten path for anyone except the residents, the occasional passing rock star, and the latter’s various drug connections.
If your French is rusty, the sign reads, “1968, a date that marks the presence of a great star at this location.” In other words, “Jimi Hendrix toked here.” Note also that the sign around the arched entrance advertises wifi, which Jimi was probably unable to enjoy at the time.
Our next stop was the local surfer’s paradise, a broad and at that moment isolated beach where the wind was blowing a full gale, throwing spray into our faces even from 100 yards away (hence no photo). The wind was whipping the waves into a froth, and there were no surfers (or anyone else) masochistic enough to suffer through these conditions. In other words, it was an empty windy beach on a cloudy day, and we did not linger.
The road through this area was one of the paragons of lousy Moroccan roads, barely wide enough for one direction of traffic but allowing two, and not so much having a defined shoulder as sort of petering out into rubble at the edges. Every time we encountered an oncoming vehicle — which was frequently — both drivers had to decide whether (a) there was enough room to actually get past each other and so barrel onward with an inch or two of clearance, or (b) to slow to a crawl and inch past each other. I am amazed that it has taken three weeks, but it was on this road near the windswept beach that both drivers finally made the wrong decision and we lost a chunk of our outside mirror. Both our and the other vehicle stopped and the drivers got out to collect the debris and discuss the situation. To my surprise this did not involve any yelling and gesturing; this must happen so often that it’s just one of those things, like getting jostled in a crowd.
We continued onward and as we approached the collective were rewarded with a wonderful sight: more tree-climbing goats! Real ones this time! A big flock in a grove of Argan trees! Who were actually climbing into the trees and jumping out of them! It was satisfyingly surreal, and you can see a couple of them in action here. The two guys in the foreground seemed to be in conversation just before the top one jumped down out of the tree:
…while this guy in the second photo is just getting started.
I was glad to see all this, as you can tell, since I was grievously disappointed to learn that the batch of goats we had seen two days ago had been put in the trees. And now that we were seeing them in natural action, I took the opportunity to resolve a question that had been bothering me since that previous goat encounter, namely, how did those other goats get “put” into the tree? Several mental images had come to mind at the time, including (a) a goat pulley system; (b) a goat ladder; or (b) some kind of goat catapult.
In my own fantasy I had come to secretly favor the goat catapult. I imagined some crude medieval-looking counterweighted rough-hewn structure with a range of maybe 100 feet. You could launch them way up into the top of the tree but you had to calibrate your aim really carefully because there’d be very little margin of error and a miss would cost you a goat. That would lead to conversations like this:
FARMER (trudging in at the end of the day): “We’ll be having goat for dinner tonight.”
WIFE: “You missed the tree again, didn’t you?”
As it turns out, no catapults are involved. Basically the farmers who are trying to attract tourist photos out of season carry the goats up into the trees.
But today’s goats were satisfyingly self-propelled. We could see some nuts up in the tree branches, some late bloomers that had not yet been harvested and which were sufficient in number to motivate the goats. There were also a fair number of them scattered about on the ground that no one had taken the trouble to harvest. As I think I mentioned yesterday, they’re about the size of olives.
We continued on to the “Marjana Cooperative for Argan Oil Extraction”. If you’re wondering what that looks like in Arabic (and French), here’s the sign:
The production facility is, well, a room full of women breaking open nuts with rocks, then grinding them up into oil. Here are two of them:
As you can see, the Berber women… hey, wait a minute, that’s no Berber woman on the right! I knew I was missing something.
As you can see, the Berber women open the nuts one at a time by placing them on Rock #1 and hitting them with Rock #2. It takes something like 60 lbs of nuts to make a quart of oil, so you might think that the management could hurry things along by, say, giving the women hammers. But they seem to zip right along with rocks about as fast as they could do it with a hammer, and so tradition is preserved. (There is little doubt that this process could be mechanized for great efficiency and probably eliminate the women altogether. But of course the goal of the place is to provide employment as much as it is to produce the oil.)
After the nuts are opened they are ground in a stone bowl, essentially a rotary mortar and pestle. If the oil is destined to be eaten (it can be used as a dip or salad dressing) then the kernel is roasted first; for cosmetic products it is not. And I can now tell you what an unroasted Argan kernel tastes like: terrible. Very bitter. But once roasted they are kind of almondy.
There’s a shop adjacent to the production building, but you already knew that. So of course we bought a variety of Argan oil products. (By the way, I am a little uncertain as to whether Argan should actually be capitalized. I suspect that it shouldn’t. But my iPad autocorrect believes that it should, so I have decided to live with it.)
Lunch today was our final family home visit, in this case a somewhat down at the heels family of five: a Berber widow, her three sons, and her daughter. They lived in a small but neat concrete dwelling on a trash-strewn dirt road. We met only the widow and her eldest son, neither of whom spoke English so our tour lead Mohammed translated. It was probably our most awkward encounter to date. They were certainly friendly and hospitable to us but rather incurious; they were happy to answer all our questions but asked not a single one of us, unlike all our other hosts. We did learn, however, that the street happens to be the dividing line between the Berber and Arab parts of the area. This has no practical significance since they’re not hostile to one another and intermarry with regularity, but I found it interesting that everyone is aware of the precise location of the imaginary border.
We returned to our hotel and I followed up on something that I had belatedly noticed yesterday (and that Alice had seen earlier but not remarked upon): we are directly across the hall from the “Orson Wells Suite”. So now I took action, marching to the front desk and asking whether Orson Wells had actually stayed there. Turns out he did, and the desk clerk kindly asked if I would like to see it. Of course I would, and as we walked down the hall towards it I fetched Alice, who rather sourly theorized that the chairs in that room would be twice as wide as the ones in the regular rooms. Turns out she was right. So for the historical record here is the living room of the Orson Wells Suite in the beachfront Hotel des Iles in Essaouria, Morocco:
There was also a separate bedroom. The bed was of unremarkable size. And there was a portrait of Orson on the living room wall, all bearded and scowly as though someone had sold him a bottle of wine before its time.
Our Moroccan adventure is basically finished now. We’re going out for pizza tonight (no more couscous!), then leaving tomorrow morning for the all-day drive back to Casablanca where we started, three eventful weeks ago. We fly out of Casablanca very early Monday morning, so this is probably the last blog post for this trip. (Once I have finished sorting and editing our photos and videos, as opposed to the quick-and-dirty ones I have been posting here, I will create a website for them and post the link as a final blog entry; over the next several weeks I will be editing 3000 photos down to a few hundred.)
Our next sojourn: Hawaii in late January. Inshallah.
Essaouira was founded by the Phoenicians but that part of its history is mostly gone, and the city as visitors see it really only dates back to the mid-18th century, which by Moroccan standards is last week. The elaborately-named Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah set himself up here in 1764, creating a fortified city with the help of a French architect, primarily to launch attacks on other cities along the coast to the south. Here are the waterfront fortifications:
The city remained pretty much a backwater until 1952. That’s when Orson Wells strode into town and filmed Othello here, putting the place on the map and imbuing it with a cool reputation that really took off when Jimi Hendrix visited briefly about 15 years later, in turn causing it to become a hippie magnet. You still hear about Orson Wells all the time; Hendrix not so much, possibly because his most visible legacy is a proliferation of random sleazes on the beach and in the street, offering to sell you weed or hash. (The code word for the latter is “Berber chocolate”.)
With an attractive broad sandy beach and shallow clear (but cold!) water, Essaouira today is very much an Atlantic seaside resort town, attracting large numbers of both Moroccan, European, and (interestingly) Israeli visitors. And investors, too: a large number of the hotels and riads are owned by Europeans, especially French. There is as a result a lot of new building going on, in some cases by tearing down abandoned parts of the old city. The new construction has a very Mediterranean look, like this:
Why is so much of the old city abandoned? The answer, as usual around here, involves Jews. (Mommmm! The tour group people are all looking at me again!) There used to be a whole lot of them in the city — amazingly, up until the mid-1940’s the majority of the town’s population was Jewish. Rather uncharacteristically by historical standards, this did not seem to bother anyone; the Jews were as usual the local finance guys, and were also renowned as silversmiths who infused the local culture with their skill, creating a whole craft genre called “Berber Jewish silver”. Even today there is a very small local population of Jews who are officially designated “Jewish Silver Masters” and who teach the craft to their Berber counterparts. (More about them in a moment.)
So this arrangement worked surprisingly well for everyone; the King even refused to hand Morocco’s Jews over to the Nazis. But unlike in Europe or the US, they never really assimilated, and so a large fraction of them left for Israel after its birth in 1948. Most of the rest left after the 1967 war when Israel pretty much established its permanence.
This left a lot of abandoned houses and not a lot of population to move into them; you can see the top of one of the doorways here. The town has grown as it has transformed into a resort, but those houses are undesirable now, being mostly in the old, narrow back streets of the medina. So it makes economic sense (at some historical cost) to replace those musty structures with new ones that incoming residents will actually want to buy and live in.
The “original” (18th century) part of town is quite small, bounded by the ocean at one end and a large city gate at the other, with a marketplace in between:
As I mentioned yesterday, it’s basically a broader, lighter, and moderately clean(er) version of the medinas that we have seen elsewhere. As you move away from this area, perpendicular to this main street, the gestalt becomes a little more familiar: dim narrow stone streets with intriguing atmospheric doorways… though far less crowded, more orderly, and generally less nervous-making than in Marrakech or the other cities.
Our tour lead Mohammed took us on a walking tour of the town this morning, and our first stop was a silversmith where those Jewish Silver Masters both create and teach the local Berbers to create beautiful jewelry. Interestingly, the skills are being taught to both young men and women with disabilities; this approach has the dual virtues of keeping the craft alive and providing an employable skill to people who would otherwise likely languish in dire economic straits. Here is a young deaf girl creating filigree:
There is of course a shop, filled with thousands of beautiful handmade silver items at unfortunately attractive prices. Alice went crazy until I finally had to bring her down with a chokehold, and I just got an email from Visa that reads, in its entirety, “HA HA!” But the staff were all extremely friendly, served us tea and did not pressure us. I had a delightful conversation with a young hijabi woman who proudly told me in excellent English that, by dint of having a friend of a friend in show business, she was the proud recipient of a letter from Oprah Winfrey. Which is more than I can say.
I will post photos of the haul later. This is because the last time I mentioned jewelry purchases in the blog I was roundly berated by a female friend with a serious jewelry jones for not providing pictures of the items. (You know who you are.) (It’s my friend Cindi.)
Our next stop was a woodworking shop, as it became increasingly apparent that our Walking Tour was going to be a Spending Tour. (Steve put a philosophical spin on this: “When you paid for this trip you actually spent something. When you buy a physical object it’s just an exchange of assets.” I am not altogether sure why he finds this distinction comforting, but I’ll admit that it sounds good.)
The shop had that wonderful woodworking smell of a mixture of woods, primarily walnut and a hardwood tree called thuya, which I had never heard of. The tools looked basic, the shop floor seemingly disorganized, but there was no gainsaying the quality of the items that the craftsmen were producing, nor the immense amount of time and workmanship that went into them.
And you might find this difficult to believe, but there was a showroom right next door where they sold the stuff they made. And once again, the Barclaycard gods laughed, for, lo, the objects for sale were of great beauty and modest prices, and mine spouse didst answer the primal call. (Actually, I am being unfair, as this time I myself bought two small items and Alice only one.)
After we escaped, Mohammed led us along the fortifications for the rest of the morning. We wandered among the shops for perhaps an hour afterwards, finding such photogenic gems as this musical instrument shop.
By this time Steve and I were salivating at the prospect of returning to the outdoor grilled seafood place where we had so enjoyably pigged out yesterday. Alice and Thumper were less enthusiastic so we split up, wives to a café, husbands to the charcoal. Alice then waded back into the medina, credit card glinting ominously in the sunlight, while I returned to the hotel for a short walk on the beach and a period of meditation about our regrettably high credit rating and the weight capacity of our suitcase.
Tonight, drinks at sunset from a rooftop bar, followed by dinner at a highly-rated restaurant where I should probably wear actual long pants. Tomorrow, a tour of the Women’s Collective for Argan Oil Production (really), which sounds suspiciously like a Stalinist goat poop refinery.
Our group split up this morning with much hugging and promising to stay in touch. But before I depart Marrakech journalistically I’d like to offer two final photos. This one is an overview of the square at night; the lit tents are all food stands and you can see the crowds milling in the darkness, overseen by the lit mosque at top right. (This photo was taken by our travelmate Liz, who also took the shot of me face to face with a camel at our hotel in Erfoud about a week ago. She demands a photo credit, so this is it. I will also provide an unsolicited plug for Elizabeth D. Kennedy & Co. Catering in Vero Beach, Florida. Are we cool now, Liz?)
And here at last is the grand final group shot of our 16-person OAT ensemble on our last night together. That’s our tour lead and father figure Momo at the far left. Alice is on the floor in the blue shawl, with Thumper behind and to her right. That’s me and Steve next to each other at lower right. And on the floor at center, dressed as either a Berber woman or Pocahontas (they’re surprisingly similar) is Liz the Caterer, who has now been mentioned by name four times in two paragraphs, which ought to be enough for anybody.
Goodyes all said and hugs all exchanged, the remaining six of us set off for Essaouira: Alice and me, Steve and Thumper, Pat (at Thumper’s right in the group photo) and Dave (3rd from right in the back). We have a new tour lead for this final leg of the trip, a handsome and fit-looking 32 year old named (wait for it) Mohammed, who has been with OAT for less than a year but has been a tour guide for seven. We have also downsized from our bus back to our original van, since there are only six of us again, plus Mohammed and the driver. Mohammed sits up front with the microphone and keeps up a pretty continuous patter of facts, figures, history, and legends.
Essaouira is a resort town on the Atlantic coast, about 100 miles west of Marrakech, known especially for kite surfing because of its winds. It’s also in a region that is pretty much the sole producer of the presently-trendy Argan oil. Which is how, halfway there, we came to encounter the tree-climbing goats.
What? You don’t know about the tree climbing goats? You are obviously not fully up to date on your viral YouTube videos. I will help you out by offering you these photos:
At this point you are entitled to ask exactly what the hell is going on here. Here is the official narrative:
The Argan tree bears a fruit that the goats like to eat, and they actually climb the tree to get at it. Then they do what animals of all types do, which is to say that they digest the edible part and poop out the indigestible part, which is a nut about the size of an olive. People then sift the nuts out of the goat droppings — you want to make sure you finish college so that you can avoid this career — and then crush and press the nuts to extract Argan oil. It is very popular for both cosmetic products as well as being edible as a dip or salad dressing. In addition, people like us come from far and wide to watch the goats climb the trees and do their thing.
That, at least, is the official story, which is in fact true as far as it goes but leaves out some significant parts. First, there aren’t enough goats in Morocco or anywhere else to satisfy the demand for this product, so in fact the virally famous tree-climbing, fruit-eating, nut-pooping goats are responsible for only a small fraction of the production; most of the nuts are harvested through conventional non-excretory means.
Second, the fruits bloom (and thus the nuts are only collected) from June through August, so if there isn’t any fruit then why are these goats climbing trees for us in mid-October? Answer: they aren’t. The guys who own the goats put them into the trees within easy sight of the highway so that passing tourist buses and vans (like ours) stop and the passengers (like us) get out pay the guys a dollar or so for the privilege of photographing their involuntarily-treed goats.
In our defense, I will remark that the goats seemed perfectly well fed and cared for and unperturbed about being in a tree out of season. A few munched contentedly on leaves. The rest kind of stood there and occasionally looked around, no doubt asking each other, “Wasn’t there fruit up here a couple of months ago?” and “Do any of you guys remember how to get down from here?”
So now you know. The day after tomorrow we will actually be visiting an Argan oil processing place, so I will probably have more exciting goat-related information at that time.
As we approached Essaouira from the hills to its east it became clear that it resembled seaside resort towns the world over: low blue and white buildings, hotels along a strip of beach. The are two small offshore islands, as you can see in the picture: the long low structure at the left end of the leftmost island is an old prison, no longer in use. (I guess it’s the Alcatraz of Essaouira.)
The town, as we inferred from the distance, could easily be a resort in Greece, France, or Spain. You can see the town square here; there’s a street off at the left that leads into a maze of shops, a sort of more sanitary, PG-rated version of the grimy souks of Marrakech. They are wider, cleaner, and generally more tourist-friendly if less authentic in their choice of goods.
Adjacent to this square was a promenade of open-air grilled seafood tents, all blue and white, all equipped with benches and shrouded in charcoal smoke from the fish, all displaying their piscine offerings on a bed of ice out front, all with staff inveigling inviting you to inspect the fish and come sit down. Which we did, Mohammed choosing stall #14. (I know this because as we left, the owner kept shouting after us, “Remember us! We’re stall number 14!”. Which is understandable, because there are about 25 of them, all identical.)
The ordering process was essentially random, the owner throwing some samples of aquatic life onto a tray for Mohammed’s inspection and then ushering us to a picnic bench. A short while later, vast quantities of shrimp, squid, monkfish, and sardines, all charcoal grilled, were delivered to our table, and we attacked it with a combination of plastic forks, our fingers, and gusto. It was as fresh as fresh could be, grilled to perfection, accompanied by fresh French baguettes, and fabulous. (I am a sucker for grilled sardines. Steve remarked that if I took off my sunglasses that he expected to see my eyes rolling back into my head.)
After lunch we headed into the market street, an activity that can engage Alice and our credit cards for hours but which I tire of quickly. Pat and I split off, intending to head back to the hotel, but as we passed back through the square our attention was drawn to the sea wall and the boats there. We wandered over to explore and were rewarded by finding ourselves in the fish market, among the boats themselves, where the catch was unloaded and the raw fish — the stuff we saw at lunch, plus some crustaceans and lots of eels — variously negotiated for and sold at stands.
Alice returned from her hunting and gathering a short while after Pat and I returned to the hotel, having bargained aggressively for more crafts that will somehow magically fit into our suitcase in three days.
Oh, speaking of hotels, we are staying across the sett from the beach, serenaded by seagulls, at the Hotel des Iles, one of the venerable hotels of the area. It is elegant in a spare sort of way, with wide hallways, high ceilings, and a lot of open space. One of its claims to fame is a room named after Orson Wells, who I think may have stayed here. It’s hard to tell: the entire town is Orson Wells-crazy because his movie “Othello” was filmed here in 1952 and no one has gotten over the excitement yet. There is a statue of him just off the town square.
Sunset is in about an hour as I type this. Our plan is to watch it from the hotel rooftop before dinner. We will tour the city tomorrow and probably learn more about Orson Wells.
I promised some nighttime photos of the main square near Marrakech’s bazaar, so here they are. When looking at them imagine that you can smell the smoke from dozens of grills while hearing chanting, percussive music, flutes, and people shouting. Lots of people shouting. It was total sensory overload, a great deal of high energy fun.
See the musicians in front of the fruit stand in the picture above? That’s a common sight in the square. And sometimes there are dancers as well, one that caught our attention being a fully burkha’ed drag queen who made nice with our friend Jerry. And it was just around that moment, amidst all the dancing and hilarity, that some less entertaining person pickpocketed Jerry’s camera. Welcome to Marrakech, where your fun is best taken with a heavy dose of situational awareness.
The gentlemen below is selling escargot, one of the popular types of food stands in the square.
Our first stop this morning was the Bahia Palace, within walking distance of our riad. It is not especially old, dating from the 19th century, and was built by the grand vizier (yes, they really did have grand viziers) of the time to honor his new favorite wife, Bahia. The architecture is spectacularly ornate, with thousands of square feet of carvings lining the walls and ceilings that look like this:
I mentioned that we went on foot. This is because we abandoned our trusty bus and driver altogether last night and have now adopted a lower-tech means of getting around the city: horse-drawn carriage. We’ve split up among four carriages and go merrily clip-clopping through the street from one destination to the next in grand eco-friendly (if somewhat low-speed) style. And it really is eco-friendly: if you look carefully at the top photo you will see that the horses are wearing poop-catchers.
We eventually cycled around back to the main square, which, while still a cauldron of activity, is far less crowded and madcap than at night. Still, it has its attractions: there are craft merchants instead of fruit stands and for sheer weirdness it is hard to beat the snake charmers:
You may have a mental image of a half-naked turbaned fakir playing a pipe in front of a wicker basket, but it is not quite like that. The are actually three guys, one doodling on a pipe, one beating a drum, and one running around like a madman and actually handling the snakes. The music is not soothing and hypnotic; it is frenetic and insistent, and the handler is in nonstop motion, waving his arms at the snakes, spitting at them, picking them up, putting them down, and generally acting like he’s got some kind of locomotor Tourette’s. There are two kinds of snakes: about a half dozen cobras and some larger reticulated variety that you can see at the lower right of picture. Those seemed pretty torpid, but the cobras were definitely active and not especially happy looking. (Though I will admit that I have a hard time reading reptiles’ state of mind.)
The handler stroked them, waved them around, spit and made kissing noises at them, and in one instance managed to put one to sleep on the ground. Here’s our guy making kissy face with a cobra:
Notice anything unusual about the snake? Remember, this is a deadly cobra who injects deadly poison into its victims with its razor sharp fa…waaaaaaait a minute. Where are the fangs? Back at the snake charmer’s house, I’m guessing. Yep, our snake charmers have a little insurance policy: defanged snakes. They may be weird, but they’re not stupid.
From the main square we clip-clopped around to the other side of the large mosque that overlooks it; the far side of the mosque is graced with a congenial well-kept garden dotted with benches and strolling paths… and water sellers. These are a traditional fixture of Marrakech, exotically-costumed men who carry goatskins full of water and copper drinking vessels in which to pour it for the thirsty wanderer. They announce their presence by ringing bells as they walk around, basically being the Good Humor Men of their day. At least, that’s the idea, and long ago it probably worked exactly like that. Drinking water is now rather more readily available than it was, back in the day, and their main function now is to have their pictures taken for money. So here they are:
Our next stop was the Saadian tombs, which date from about 1600 and were the necropolis for the Saadi dynasty of that era. Their distinction — besides a lot of royal dead people in one place — is the extensive use of marble. Outside the metaphorical velvet rope, in the courtyard, are the graves of honored servants. That’s what you see here:
But inside is the first class seating, with lots more legroom:
Not sure quite what else to say about them, really. They were very, um, marble-y.
Following the tombs, we gamely agreed to visit a rug merchant, which you might correctly guess is a high-risk endeavor. We’d done so in Turkey and enjoyed it, seeing the women weaving the rugs, spinning the silk from the silkworm cocoons, etc., before being subjected to a friendly high pressure sales pitch. This was the same, except without the interesting stuff: it was all sales pitch. A few members of our group bought attractive rugs at reasonable prices, but we were not in the market. In fact, we have never been in the market; the only oriental rug we’ve ever bought was a small one from our friend Warren, who unloaded it for $100 without explaining anything about silkworms. It’s still in our living room.
We had a blissfully non-Moroccan lunch for a change of pace — pizza at an Italian restaurant, yay! — before heading off for shopping at the souk. By now even Alice has caught bargaining fever, and we bought several items at about half their original asking price. But the highlight if the afternoon was a delightful unexpected encounter arising from the a broken strap on my leather backpack. I hunted around in the souk looking for a replacement but could not find anything suitable and had pretty much resigned myself to carrying the pack around by one strap when Thumper saved the day. She observed perspicaciously that since there were maybe 75 leather craftsmen within 200 feet of where we were standing, then instead of buying a new pack maybe I could find someone to repair it? Duh.
And so I walked into the next leather goods store I saw, about 20 feet from where we stood, and spent a wonderful 20 minutes with the young man in the picture and two of his buddies/colleagues, speaking a combination of French and English and talking about our families and our homes while he effected a repair that will without doubt outlast the rest of the backpack (which I bought about twelve years ago for twenty bucks in Tijuana). He wouldn’t name a price for the repair so I tipped him and his friends ten bucks — very generous by local standards — and everyone left delighted. It was one of those encounters that reminds me why we travel.
We had dinner with Steve and Thumper at an excellent local restaurant down the street from our riad: pigeon pastille (squawk!) topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar, and a belly dancer for entertainment. Then it was back to the main square at night, where Steve wowed the locals with a performance of his own, about which I will regale you tomorrow.
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!
Today was a slower day than most… literally, since we spent a certain portion of it slowly wending our way up a tortuous mountain road to visit a scenic gorge. More on that in a moment, but first a word about Berber Pizza.
We were told upon departure this morning that we would have a mid-morning snack in the form of what Momo described as “Berber Pizza”. Whether or not this is the actual local term I have no idea, but we parked our bus adjacent to a small Berber family compound and were led to a dark smoky outbuilding where one of the family and her son were busy making said pizza, as you can see here. She had prepared a savory filling of meat and spices (coriander, cumin, and the usual repertoire of Moroccan seasonings) and was busy pounding out flat loaves, spreading the filling, folding them over, and inserting them into the poorly-ventilated earthen oven that you see in the photo.
We went outside and sat low stools to be served a batch that had been prepared earlier, along with the required tea. It was tasty, nothing earthshaking, though I would like to report for the record that a much more accurate term for the dish would be Berber Quesadilla.
An interesting part of the encounter was the conversation with the homeowner. We talked about money; the average Moroccan income — which is about what he makes — is around $4000 US per year. Obviously the cost of living is very low here, but even so it is a struggle for many people. The good news is that health insurance only costs $40 US per month.
Then it was on to the locally famous Dadès Gorge, for which visit we ditched the bus in favor of two large vans, the better to navigate the mountain road. The gorge is about 500 feet high, very similar in appearance to the Toudra Gorge that we visited two days ago (and which is only about 15 miles from here).
As you may be able to tell from the picture, we are once again back in territory that strongly resembles the American Southwest, right down to the architecture. All of the buildings are adobe and have a squared-off appearance; constructed out of local clay, their color matches the hillsides in quite the same way as American pueblos. For this reason the drive, though scenic enough, seemed a little anticlimactic; we felt like we had more or less seen it all before.
Descending from the valley, we returned to the Berber village where we had eaten our non-quesadillas and parked the bus. Adjacent to the parking lot, though, was a jewelry store where Momo gave us (and by “us” I mean the ten women out of our group of 16) time to shop. But, he cautioned, with Berbers you must bargain, bargain, bargain. Take the price they offer, he added, then halve it, and halve it again. Seemed a little extreme, but in we went.
At this point I feel compelled to observe that Alice, despite her many virtues, is uncomfortable with bargaining in much the same way that Dracula is uncomfortable with sunlight. Indeed, in one memorable incident that I have been using to embarrass her for the last ten years, she once bargained a Tijuana jewelry vendor UPWARD from the price he quoted. (I should also remark in context that this woman had a successful career as a mathematican and system engineer at NASA, which just goes to show something, though I am not sure what.) in any case, she declared that I was in charge of bargaining.
She found two pieces of jewelry that she wanted and I asked her how much she was willing to pay for them, in the sense that she would be willing to walk away if the price was higher than that. She considered this and declared the value of the items to her to be $100 (I will speak in US dollars instead of dirham for convenience). So we got the owner’s attention and asked him for the price. At this point Momo walked over and got in on the bargaining action. The scene played out like this:
Owner: <Speaks rapidly in Arabic>
Momo: <Looks disgusted, says something back, turns to me, and makes a finger-twirling motion at his temple> “He’s crazy. Says he wants $200.”
Me: “I’ll pay $80.”
Owner: (in English) It’s real turquoise and coral. $150.”
Momo: “What? Come on! <puts his arm around me> This man <i.e., me> is my cousin! Give him a break!”
Momo: “You heard him! $90! That’s all the money he has in his wallet! Go on, Rich, show him your wallet!”
Me: “Here.” <reaching nervously for my wallet, which holds considerably more than $90>
Momo: “That’s it. $90. Put the items in a bag. Rich! take the bag and go.”
…and that was that. $200 asked, $90 paid, which was $10 below our limit. My father, who loved this sort of thing and was very good at it, would have been proud. Even if Momo did do the heavy lifting. Seriously, my cousin?
Our final stop of the day was lunch and a discussion at the family compound of a local imam. The world being what it is today, the word “imam” evokes mental images of wild-eyed bearded fanatics, at least to many Americans. But Morocco is a very moderate place, and this imam was neither wild-eyed nor bearded and seemed like a real gentle soul. He did not speak English, but served us a very nice lunch and then sat down with us to answer any questions we might have about Islam, with Momo interpreting.
The group had a lot of questions on a wide range of topics, including:
It was quite the discussion, lively and interesting, and the imam was unfailingly patient and thoughtful. I decided to pursue the discussion about mitzvahs that I had had with Momo out in the desert camp two days, and asked a lengthy question about whether Islam had an analogous concept of an act of personal responsibility or good deed without expectation of reward, either now or after death. His answer came at considerable length as well, which I can pretty succinctly boil down to one word: No. Islam is very strongly oriented towards achieving paradise in the hereafter. He elaborated that faith (the first pillar of Sunni Islam’s five pillars) is much more important than deeds, but that ultimately it was all about getting into Paradise. In this respect it seems that Islam more resembles Christianity than Judaism. All in all, an interesting and enlightening chat. We all really liked the guy.
At the conclusion of the conversation we held an ambush Islamic wedding. That is to say, Momo and the imam selected one of the couples in our group, the very outgoing Michie (pronounced “Mickey”) and Tom, and “remarried” them to demonstrate an Islamic ceremony. It was pretty cool, and very charming. (I should also add that Michie was totally in her element here: she’s all about getting involved in things, and in fact was the organizer of 10 of the 16 people in this group. They are all part of her understandably large circle of friends whom she convinced en masse to come along on this trip, which they inevitably dubbed “Michie’s Camel Ride”.)
So. Michie and Tom were first dressed up in full wedding regalia. That’s the imam in the middle (wearing glasses) while Tom waits behind him. Notice the curved knife at Tom’s side… you can’t be too careful at a wedding.
Michie was properly veiled (but you can still see her smiling):
…and after vows are exchanged and the veils lifted (yep, that’s her all right!), the couple sits down with two witnesses (friends Jerry and Betty from the group) to negotiate the marriage contract. Seems to me that that is the sort of thing that one would do rather earlier in the process, but hey, we travel to learn things.
Tom offered as dowry his entire fortune, which he declared to be two camels. Michie demanded five. Tom countered with two camels and two poodles. (Poodles are not a typical Islamic medium of exchange. I gather that there is something involving poodles in Michie and Tom’s history; they have been married 19 years. Or nine hours as I type this, depending on which starting point you choose.)
The contract was written (in Arabic, of course) with a bamboo or wood stylus dipped in ink. Both witnesses signed it, and here it is in progress:
They got to keep the contract and the pen. So here is a final look at the happy couple just prior to their honeymoon, which consisted of getting back on the bus with the rest of us. But we did raise a toast to them at dinner tonight, at a very elaborately decorated and beautiful casbah restaurant.
Tomorrow: on to Marrakesh. No “Marrakesh Express” jokes, please: we’ve already heard them.
We left the hotel at about 9:00 this morning en route to an alfalfa farm (yes, there is a reason for this), and our first sight as we crossed a low bridge was a group of Berber women doing laundry in the river at the foot of the hill on which our hotel is perched.
This gave us pause because we had sent out our laundry last night and thus could not altogether rule out the possibility that our teeshirts were in there somewhere.
Anyway, the alfalfa farm. Today’s itinerary is called “A Day in the Life of Tineghir”, and that day includes not only people doing laundry but people — which is to say, women — doing stoop labor in the alfalfa fields as well. We first picked up our local guide, a manic Berber named Mokhtar who knew the local ropes, had a 1000-watt personality, and whose clothing alone was worth the trip.
You can see the fields — and three very out of focus women — behind him. Most local women, and a large fraction of local men, are adamant about not having their picture taken, at least not of their face, so this is about the best I can do. The most common exceptions are beggars, whom one can pay to allow a photo, and the families where we have our hosted visits.
This is backbreaking labor, scything the alfalfa at ground level with a small curved blade about a foot long, and laying out the sheaves for the men to pick up and load onto waiting donkeys. This being an organized trip, Mokhtar inevitably wrapped a couple of the women in our group in shawls, gave them a blade one at a time, and had them cut a few stalks while the rest of us took pictures and the actual working women no doubt muttered imprecations under their breath. Then Mokhtar drafted some of our men to pick up the bundles of cut alfalfa and carry them to a nearby donkey. I wonder if perhaps we could put together a tour group of Berbers, bring them to the US, and have them take pictures of each other pretending to be consultants or programming a computer.
Our next stop was a very old mosque and school that had fallen into disrepair and was now being rebuilt. Part of the reason it needed rebuilding was its location on a steep hillside, where erosion had pretty much eliminated the possibility of having any of the building columns remaining exactly vertical. But the place had a pleasantly ancient and spooky air about it, like something from an Indiana Jones movie. You can get the idea from these two shots.
It turned out, to our surprise and delight, that Mokhtar is a muezzin, the guy who chants the call to prayer from the top of a mosque five times a day. In the two weeks we’ve been here we’ve heard it dozens of times, of course, but usually at a distance and always in a cacophony of echoing calls from all the nearby mosques at once, competing as well with day-to-day noise from the street. But now we were by ourselves well away from any distracting sounds, and Mokhtar wowed us by chanting the call in the very room we were in.
He puts his all into it, drawing deep breaths, cupping his hands around his mouth, and closing his eyes to concentrate. It is far less jarring to hear it this way than in all the times we’ve heard it thus far. It seems to me almost a shame that it is almost always heard that way, because in these more intimate conditions its musicality emerged, and it was haunting and strangely beautiful.
Our religious duties fulfilled, it was time to go shopping for dinner. Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) is all about participation, so when I say that we went shopping, I mean that we were driven to an open air market and divided into three groups of five or six people each, each group given a shopping list and a 100 dirham note (about $10 US), and told to be back in 20 minutes with the goods. Bargaining would be necessary. Steve, Thumper, and we were the fruit group, assigned to buy 4 kilos (8.8 lbs) of apples and bananas and 3 kilos of oranges. Off we went.
We thought the nearest fruit stand looked too touristy so we found another and were immediately distracted by pomegranates. We bought three big ones for the low, low prices of 7 dirham (70 cents US) because we could; at that price bargaining seemed superfluous and we still had 93 dirham left. So we looked first at the apples and decided that the quality was low, and maybe we were better off at the first fruit stand after all. We returned to it and, satisfied with the quality of the goods, started loading up plastic tubs with the required amount of each fruit. The stall had two scales, a modern electronic one and an old fashioned mechanical one with counterweights. We put items in and out of the basket till we had the desired weight of each of the the three fruits, and the tab came to 142 dirham.
Hmmm. We only had 93 out of our original hundred, and we didn’t want to front any of our own cash unless absolutely necessary. So we handed the vendor the 93 and said, in English and French, that that’s all we have. He thought for a second, handed us back the three odd dirham, and said (in English), “Twenty.” I fished a 20 out of my wallet and gave it to him, and the deal was done: 90 + 20 = 110 dirham ($11 US), about 20% less than the original price. We had fruit. We had bargained successfully. (I would also like to note that we paid $11 US for over 24 lbs of fruit, which seems like an awfully good deal in general.)
Our next stop was a school visit, a common feature of many OAT tours. (OAT is affiliated with the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports a number of educational and cultural institutions at their tour destinations; a small part of our OAT tour cost goes to them.) Our school of interest was a Berber boarding school of sorts; I say “of sorts” because it is not a school per se, rather it provides boarding and study facilities for poor students who are brought there to attend nearby public schools. It does have a study area and a very small library, seen here. Needless to say, they accept donations of just about anything. (While on our fruit quest earlier, we had bought some pens and notebooks from another market vendor to leave behind at the school.)
The facility has dorms that support 140 boys from 7th through 12th grades, and there is a sister facility down the street that houses 104 girls; the girls’ school is only 5 years old. Admission is selective and takes into account primary school achievement, poverty levels, and other factors. The facilities are basic, clean, and spare: the sleeping quarters are basically large cubicals with lockers, each area holding two two-person bunk beds. There was a soccer field and a basketball court; a dining area, and a grand total of three computers. The principal walked us through as he talked about their history, how they operate, and what they hope to accomplish. One interesting feature is their association with a nearby vocational school; students who can’t cut it in regular school are allowed to continue to board there while attending the vo-tech school. It seems like a very good model for bringing education to a large socioeconomic segment that would otherwise remain illiterate and unemployable.
Time for another home-hosted lunch, this time with a barely-middle-class Berber family whose income seemed to come both from a small garden farm and from these visits themselves; they host about four a week, for which OAT of course pays them.
Our host was Achmad, who was definitely a wild and crazy guy of about 40. He lives with his brother, two sisters (both well past marrying age, for reasons unknown), and his 80 year old father. They were warm and welcoming, Achmad doing most of the talking; his brother spoke a little English and his sisters and father less. (French worked, though, and we used it a fair amount.) Our gift to them, as we have done before, was some NASA paraphernalia that went over very well, as you can see from Achmad’s enthusiasm:
Lunch was excellent, a lamb tagine preceded by a first course that was completely new to us: angel hair pasta topped with cinnamon and sugar. Yeah, I know it sounds weird but it was really good: try it! It has the additional virtue of allowing you to pretend that you’re not eating dessert before dinner.
Achmad went around the table asking where we were from, whether we had children, and what religion we were. He was excited to hear that I am Jewish, and ran to get an old coin that he had found in the mountains to see if I could identify it. Here it is:
It’s about the size of a US dime and is featureless on the back. I have no idea what it is. Let me know if you do. (For all I know it’s an old rabbinical shirt button.)
The fun began after lunch: it was Dress Up Time. (One gets the sense that the family has done this before, which I expect they have about 100 times. Still, they seemed to genuinely enjoy interacting with us in this way.) Achmad got the ball rolling with his Ultra Macho Triple Decker Turban:
And it was not long before everyone got into the act, including me
Notice also that I am wearing a black robe with a gold banded collar. That is because at Achmad’s behest everyone went Full Berber:
That’s Alice on my left, Steve and Thumper on my right, and two of our other travel mates, Dave and Patricia. Dave got shorted in the turban department because everyone agreed that the white skullcap looked exactly right on him.
And then the music started: Achmad on a recorder-like pipe, sister #1 clinking a jar with a spoon, remaining siblings providing percussion on the tabletop and a plastic bread bowl. It was a Berber Shop Quartet, plus Dad in the background clapping his hands. There was dancing. It was surreal. It was also a total hoot, and I have it on video to prove it.
We get more Berber Immersion tonight, as we are having dinner at a Berber camp using the food that we bought earlier today. I’ll report on that in my next posting. (Postscript: never mind. The Berber “camp” turned out to be a hotel with a Berber-style tent next to it. But the meal was very good — we bought the fruit for dessert! — and the music, a three piece percussion band with castanets and drums, was excellent.)
We leave Tinighir for tomorrow for our next destination, the town of Ouarzazate. We will be having a discussion session with an imam there. Ouarzazate is also the home of Morocco’s native TV and film industry, and is thus known as — I swear this is true — “Mollywood”. I have no idea what kind of stuff they produce, but I can imagine some locally themed programming that might appeal: classic movies like The Sound of Muezzins, racy fare like Fifty Shades of Ochre, and TV series like How I Met Your Mullah and the crime drama CSI: Middle of Nowhere.