Visiting the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara

I got back a few days ago from a big trip across southern Morocco. I signed up for a four day trip but it got extended to a five day trip because a storm came in and dumped snow in the pass.

The main thing I remember from the trip is how cold it was! The weather in Morocco is about like weather in California. It gets cold in the winter, cold enough that we all have heaters in our houses. This is the difference between rich pampered Americans and Moroccans. They know the cold only lasts through January and February so they just put on a coat and a blanket and get on with it. The problem is that there is literally nowhere that is heated, so you spend days and days never really getting warm. Like you come in out of the van with windows that don’t quite close and a heater that doesn’t really work, and you go into the restaurant which is really just a terrace and a kitchen, then after you check in to your room where the tile construction makes it feel just like a meat locker. The hotels do not have hot water, or certainly not enough to take a shower. When I put water into the sink to wash and warm my hands the sink itself cooled the water down to less than lukewarm as it was filling!

The only relief is the hammam. I went to one in Ourzazate, but it was not quite as hot as I hoped and they were repairing some pipes. So they were banging on a huge pipe with a big pipe wrench. Hammams are built with vaulted ceilings, so it was like being inside a bell that was ringing. Not relaxing but at least it was warm.

The Berber communities we saw were really beautiful. The landscape is like Nevada and Arizona so the native buildings fit into the landscape in the same way the adobe in the southwest does. People are tiring of resurfacing the mud buildings every 3 years so they are moving out of the kashbahs and into concrete and tile buildings of typical Arab construction. This trend will cause these amazing communities to be lost to erosion and neglect. Perhaps the King of Morocco should work with Unesco to find a solution.

We rode on camels into the desert two nights in a row. Which was sort of strange scheduling, but whatever. We joked that the first night was camel training and that the second night we should show our camel licenses. Apparently “camel licenses” does not translate into Berber too well because the camel guys didn’t think it was nearly as funny as we did. The stars were absolutely incredible, totally unimaginably bright and clear. Totally worth the two mornings with a sore butt from camel riding.

I traveled with a Latvian family and a Serbo-Croatian couple. It was a big surprise when I found out that the Serb is currently working in Monrovia for UNMIL Radio. I told him that it was very popular with the staff in Saclepea, especially the “drive time” show. It always struck me as funny that the drive time show was so popular, since most of the staff walked to work and the closest Saclepea had to traffic jams was when ducks lay in the road and refused to move until a passing woman threw some rocks at them for us.

I am feeling a little sick with something that makes hadaches and sore joints. Instead of rushing off to the coast, I took it easy today. I went for a nice walk in the sun, then finally gave in to the pain and got some Tylenol (thank god I worked for MSF and learned the INN drug name for it, paracetemol). Then I watched Casino Royale in French. I was expecting a regular Bond movie where I could just figure it out by the chases and explosions. But it had a bunch of stupid talking in it so I don’t have a clue what really happened! I will have to watch it again in Englih I guess.

Tomorrow I will take the bus to Agadir or maybe Essouira. I don’t know, I am not very motivated to travel around right now. I guess I am just impatient to be back in Geneva. Morocco is just a little to reminescent of Liberia for me… it doesn’t feel so much like an interesting place to travel as an uncomfortable place to make the best of until it is time to go home.

The other day to nice guy who works at the Internet cafe asked me how I liked Morocco. I went to some effort to explain how beautiful it is, and how clean, and how much I liked his Internet cafe before letting loose with what was really on my mind. I told him I was tired of being targeted by the touts trying to get my money and that I did not think it was a very respectful way to treat guests. I told him that I would recommend to my friends not to come here as a result, and that the only worse place I have ever been was Senegal (and that I tell people not to go there too). This really made him sad, as it is a point of pride in the Arab world to treat guests well. I was feeling a bit irritable at the time, but I’m still glad I said what I said. This is not a very fun place to visit, and if Morocco wants to expand tourism and attract different kinds of people, they have got to get the message out and make people stop hassling the tourists.

The problem is that the few who act poorly undermine trust, making it impossible to have a normal interaction with the multitudes of friendly helpful Moroccans. For instance the first two times I went in the souk I found myself lost and willing to get some help from the kids who say “This way to the big square.” But both times they steered me into a dead end and into their brother’s shop. After that, how am I supposed to trust kids offering to give me help? I ignored one today and chose wrong, ending up in a dead end. When I walked back by him he laughed at me. Not a very nice experience; not a very nice kid.

So now I stick to places I know, and avoid any tourist aspect of Morocco as much as possible. I have my favorite place to eat (it is Lebanese, not Moroccan alas), I am staying with a family that gives me good advice (and who sadly agrees with my complaint), and I am counting the days until my plane flight out of here.

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