Arabian nights

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 15, 2012

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Wednesday, October 19, 2011

We found a trip company in the Lonely Planet guide owned by a guy named Mahamed. He came to our riad to discuss our desire to travel outside of Marrakech and see some of the real Morocco. At the end of last week, after the kids finished their schooling for the week, one of his drivers, a man named Aziz, came by to help us with our luggage and load us in the car. We departed Marrakech in a blare of honking, swerving, and fits of chugging behind mules and pedestrian traffic. We lost the crowds as the road turned to highway, straight and dusty and lined with the remnants of yesterday's dream projects. These projects go on for miles in all directions from Marrakech and other Moroccan towns and have the Baja aspect of looking like they would remain permanently in progress. Not abandoned, because the ground floor and one or two floors above it are being used for commerce and habitation, but the upper floors dissolve into a bare look of cinder block and rebar. Aziz tells me that Moroccan construction is always like that, they leave their options open as to how many floors they will need.

Farther out from the city the concrete and rebar changes to the mud brick style that defines the real Morocco. It wasn’t too long before all the construction we saw was in this style, and we would live among it for this entire road trip.

We drove and drove. In fact, we drove for an unreasonable amount of time for four days. Aziz would tell us that we would be in the car for four hours, for example, but we would find that seven is more accurate. The driving itself was pretty exhausting, and I’m not sure we would have embarked on this adventure if we had known how much driving it took. But because we had such a great experience in these four days, we are so glad we did it, and wouldn’t want to have lived without this memory.  The drive was dusty and hot, as air conditioning is not a normal built-in amenity that Moroccans use.  Aziz drove with his window open the entire time, with a CD of Berber music blaring in the car. As far as the music went, Aziz simply could not go without it, and we enjoyed it for a little while, but after four days of listening to the same four 'songs’ had us a little on edge. He did, graciously, occasionally put in his second CD, a very old copy of Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits, which was quite a relief to us even though the last five tracks skipped and jumped around a lot. The Berber music was a mixture of a howling man, then a howling woman mixed in with a heavy beat from bongo drums. To call this singing would have been very generous, and each song went on and on with the same chant in a hypnotic beat that seemed to shout ‘Arabian Nights’. Perhaps if I had a smattering of the Berber language at my disposal I might have appreciated it more. I guess Aziz grew up with it, and it sort of runs in his blood, but I would have (God help me) preferred to listen to ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ over and over for four days straight. Oh to hear something familiar. Even ‘Ruby, don’t take your love to town’ seemed like a happy lullaby in comparison.

We drove over the high Atlas Mountains on our way eastward toward the Sahara. There is really nothing to see in the moonscape of the Atlas Mountain range, at least the part we saw. There was no drama, just a series of fairly steep hills that rise to a height of 6000 feet, and then descend back to the elevation we started at, around 1000 feet. There are no trees, no cliffs and no interesting features of any kind, except the miles of minerals that line the road that were set there by somewhat enterprising sellers of minerals. They dig large chunks of mica out of the hills, and featureless geodes of poor quality, some even painted in order to fake some semblance of beauty, most in a blaring and ugly orange-red. One man might stand on the road and guard a mile of minerals entrusted to him, and he is willing to take almost anything for them. Some men would hold a representative orange-red painted geode up as your car drives by as if expecting somebody to stop and enquire about the price. I can’t imagine an uglier decoration for a home, a garage, or even a garden. Their eagerness to stand by their products indicates to me that they occasionally make a sale, but I can’t imagine to whom.

Past the Atlas Mountains the landscape opened up to reveal a high desert terrain, punctuated with mile after mile of ruined mud brick buildings and small towns, kids racing down roads on bikes between school sessions and women in black burkas slowly meandering along the roadside. The landscape was remarkably dry, as fall has left a void of water all over the country, but there is little vegetation to show for the seasonal rains. After almost a whole day of driving we dropped into an oasis of date palms in a valley they call the ‘Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs.’ We stopped at a famous, old, and very picturesque Kasbah, walked up through the ancient town to the top of the hill, snapped some pictures and got back on the road. Soon these very picturesque tumbledown Kasbahs will soon begin to look the same to us, as they seem to be around every bend in the road. At this particular one, however, we had a couple of very small boys take us up there as their ‘special guests’. They were a very energetic couple of kids and never stopped jumping around, doing cartwheels and one of them actually performed a number of flips onto the rocky ground, landing consistently on the flat of his back, sometimes on rocks the size of a human heart. It really was only three quarters of a flip, but it didn’t seem to stop him from trying to get a full one in. If we would have been patient, and continued to stand there watching him, he would have done these until the end of time, I’m sure.

We drove on the outskirts of the city of Ouarzazate, with its huge desert studios and bases of movie production companies. Aziz told me of the rich history of movie making of the area, including the making of Cleopatra, the Mummy movies, Indiana Jones, some Brad Pitt movie I can’t remember the name of, and lots more. The landscape is similar to Egypt and other areas of North Africa and the American west, and the prices and infrastructure are right for movie production. I had the impression that I was driving down the middle of the Baja Peninsula. If only the country of Mexico had been able to capture this market they would have been a lot better off, and would have saved Hollywood a lot of money in the transport of people and equipment.

We pulled into a second oasis at a town called Agdz (pronounced Agadeez), the start of a valley 350 kilometers long; a valley a mile wide and saturated with date palms and seasonal crops growing in their shade. The valley is a remarkably beautiful valley, rich with the green of the palms and the rich red of the mud brick buildings and walls throughout the valley. We pulled into a newer Kasbah to spend the night.

The place they chose for us was a great selection. It was called Chez Jacob and was a recently built mud brick building among a city of cracked and crumbling walls that have been in slow decline for many decades. We were shown to our rooms and what looked like very comfortable accommodations. The walls were mud, of course, with mixtures of hay built into them to add strength, but totally devoid of steel or cement. These walls are three feet thick, resistant to rain and wind, and tend to last for about 200 years. They also keep the building cool all day long and the evenings warm. I think they built the mattresses out of the same mud brick because they were the hardest mattresses we have ever slept on, but surprisingly none of us had any aches or pains the next morning.

We went down to the restaurant to have an excellent dinner of tajines and couscous, kebobs, rice and soup. It was among the best meals we have had in Morocco so far, and served by one of the most vivacious and entertaining young waiters we have ever had. He was about 18 years old and had personality pouring out of him. He maintained a symphony of relationships around the room, all different to match the different personalities at the different tables. One guy he went up to and pounded him on the back twice and yelled ‘knock knock’ in his ear. We gave him a big tip and went upstairs to relax.

Later that night all of the kitchen staff went to the veranda and put on a music show that other guests told us about the next day but we entirely missed. I asked how in the world we could miss it because the show would have been so loud, but with the 3-foot thick walls it was easy. I wish they had told me of their plans because we would have loved to be part of it. Before settling in, and before the big show, however, Mason and I sat out under the clouds and moon and just looked at the valley of the oasis and talked about things. Mason had a thousand questions about animals, the moon, the clouds and the desert, and I tried to answer them all. He helped me take some time lapse photos, and then we went to bed.
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