First you see Ouerzazate, then you die.

Trip Start Mar 11, 2007
Trip End Apr 13, 2007

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Flag of Morocco  ,
Sunday, April 8, 2007

Yeah, that's the old saying from guys in the French Foreign Legion who were stationed here.  Quite the introduction for a newbie.  Our stay wasn't quite that bad, but we chuckled later several times due to our bad luck here. 

We had a blast in Marakesh, especially at the night market which was so alive and jumping with locals and tourists alike. But because of the hotel shortage, we took an afternoon bus here that crossed the High Atlas mountains. We got some good views before the sun set.  We arrived at about 10:30 pm or so and Mike got a recommendation for a hotel on the bus from a businessman working 2 cell phones simultaneously.

Earlier that day, on an exploratory walk, I went to the CTM bus station (the foreign owned company whose buses were still running).  I asked about tix to Ouerzazat and the guy said he had 2 left and they'd sell out fast, so I bought them without checking with Mike. Sometimes you gotta take risks like that.

And so we found ourselves in a lovely little town known as the Hollywood of Morocco since they filmed parts of Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and many other films here.  We drove by huge studios when we came into town. And Ait Bennadu is just 18 Km away. That's a village perched on a hill that makes a great backdrop to any desert movie scene.

The hotel seemed OK. We checked in, dropped our bags, and found the local version of "Arnold's" of Happy Days fame.  Teen guys hung out joking around with the hard working owner. We ordered the special: an egg sandwich and then called it a night. The hotel room had a weird stench when we walked back in.  We weren't quite used to the stenches yet at that point.  Mike, ever the chemist, set out to find the source.  He's been quite busy fixing everything that's wrong with our Moroccan bathrooms: leaky sinks, broken toilets, strange smells, etc. Me, I just accept that this is what you get here.  At least we're getting western toilets.  Mike's yet to experience the joys of squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground.

In a matter of moments, Mike noticed that the same drain is used for our toilet, sink, and shower.  The stench was coming from the shower drain which gave us a fresh dose of whatever was just flushed down the toilet. Hooray for Moroccan Plumbing!  And this hotel was less than 10 years old.  Jaded, me?  Mike covered the drain with an ashtray and we went to sleep.

In the morning, the hotel owner told us another guest was driving to Zagora, our much anticipated destination on the Sahara's edge. From here we'd take a camel trek and camp in a Bedouin tent. It's one of those "must do's" when traveling in Morocco.  But it wasn't meant to be.  We went out for breakfast just in front of the hotel and when we got back, the manager said the guest had left already, even though he indicated he'd find us.  That was the first of many bad omens in Ouerzazate. We set out to find a tour and had no luck. There were some leaving tomorrow or maybe the next day, but there was no transportation from here.  It seems everyone was stuck due to the strike.  We went to the CTM station and the woman said she couldn't sell tickets until 8:00 that night. Strange. They have a computerized network and I should be able to buy any ticket at any time.  Long story short: everyone we talked to tried to separate us from our money as fast as they could. We went back to the CTM later to find all tickets sold out for 3-4 days.  A car rental was expensive and the cops are notoriously corrupt and shake you down at every town's roundabout. We were going to hire a car and driver and just decided to fly out instead.  Given all of the unknowns and the possibility of getting stuck in the Sahara when Mike had to fly out of Case, it seemed the logical thing to do.

But before we left, we did hire a guide and car to see Ait Bennadu.  Check out the pictures. And if you see Gladiator again, it's the background location in the fight scenes in Africa, where he's taken to train in the desert.  It's also the scene in Lawrence of Arabia when hundreds of Berber horsemen rush out to meet Lawrence after agreeing to fight with him.

It was well worth the money.  Our guide was an old guy with one front tooth. He was a real ham, maybe a bit too much and he toned it down a bit by the end.  Near the top of the hill, I started to get stomach cramps pretty bad, probably from my "Berber Omelet" that morning.  I told "Abdul" I needed a Berber toilet, stat.  He led me down a trail and then took me into alleys and walkways and former homes that were missing roofs.  He pointed to a corner and said "there".  Good enough for me.  And yes, I ALWAYS travel with toilet paper.

Just as he left, I looked up and saw 3 French tourists looking down at me from a walkway above.  Not a good spot, I suppose.  I moved into another abandoned room and then the wave of pain just disappeared as quickly as it came.  Close call.  We finished up the tour and headed back to Ourzezate.  Nobody dying here, but if we had to stay any longer, we might die of boredom.

After we got back, we grabbed our bags from Hotel Stinky and checked into another one with a window view of a teen poolhall.  We drank some local wine and watched the town derelicts light up outside the door and called it an early night.  In the morning, we'd hike the several clicks to the airport at 5 to catch the flight to Casablanca.

I found a beach town in the Lonely Planet (by the way, the 2003 LP Morocco was the WORST ever.  They repeatedly recommended $200 rooms and $60 meals.  In Morrocco!  Dear God, the Lonely Planet has turned into Yuppie Softies.)  This one gave Conde Nast a run for their money in the unnecessary expenses category.

The town was El Jadida, a former Portuguese stronghold an hour or so south of Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast.  It's a working town of 200,000 or so, and more of a beach getaway for people in Casablanca than French tour groups, so we decided to settle there for our last 3 days or so to chill out.
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