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.

Lost in the Souk

I have been in Marrakech two days now and I have been lost in the souk (marketplace) at least three times. Far from being a problem, that means I am doing things right.

After traveling in Dakar, the touts, faux guides, and various other types of urchin are no problem for me. In fact, as they are incredibly effective at reading people, I get approched a lot less because they can see that they will have no power over me. Still, I get my share of them. I turned into an alley yesterday and immediately realized it was a mistake because this guy launched into a speech. I ignored him furiously, staring at my feet and pretending to be deaf. Out of desperation he started guessing nationalities: Vous etes francais? American? Spanish? Greek? England? Taiwanese?


He got me. I cracked up because it was so insane. And as his reward I turned around and gave him a big handshake and admitted that I was in fact not deaf, and that I am American. He was my new best friend for another 10 meters, but by then he was too far from his store and he had to scamper back to start the cycle again with the next “Taiwanese” traveler.

I got squeaky clean at a hammam last night. This is the same thing that is called a Turkish bath in other places in the world. It is really daunting when you don’t have a clue what the hell is going on. But it is really cool too and you get cleaner than possible in the dinky gross shower in the hotel. I went to the male version of a local hammam. Other options are female local ones and touristy ones which are more like western health spas. For 8 dirham you get access to the steam room and the cooler bathing rooms, and if you brought all the right stuff (soap and various kinds of washing glove things) you can wash yourself. But for 50 dirham you can get a “massage” which means that a guy washes you. Despite my embarassment, it seemed like a good idea, if only so I would not be alone and commit all kinds of faux paus in the hammam. The guy leads you to the steam room and you warm up there for a while. Then he comes and gets you for the washing. You wear bathing shorts, but that doesn’t mean he is going to miss many spots. He pulls up your trunks and washes each cheek, but not between them! The washing includes an abrasive step where he takes off the dead skin. It is really amazing and though it is not painful it is uncomfortable when you are not used to it. The final step is a bunch of stretches they guy does by folding you into knots and then leaning on you. These would be ok if you were expecting them, but I was too shocked, confused, and apprehensive to enjoy them much. I will try again in a few days when I am good and dirty again.

Today I saw the tanneries. My guide to find the tannery left me with the tannery guide, but promptly came back with a bundle of mint. They crushed it and gave it to me saying, “Moroccan gas mask”. It wasn’t that bad, but I did use my gas mask some. The active ingredient in tanning Moroccan style is pigeon manure. But my guide kept calling it “pigeon shit” as though it was a technical term. I mostly used the gas mask to hide my grin. As is always the case, much complaining went on as I tried to pay only 5 euros for the guide. He wanted 15 euros. And of course the guide from the street that helped me find the tannery had to get his percent from me instead of from (or probably in addition to) the tannery guide. But I really enjoyed seeing it all.

One thing I learned is that the work conditions of the tanners is absolutely horrific. If you want to improve the world, do not buy Moroccan leather until they put in place some kind of fair trade and safe labor system for the workers. It has happened recently for other industries like coffee and cacao. The problem is that European and American tannery workers already got their press and their reforms back at the turn of the 19th century. Present day Moroccan tanners got skipped by history, I guess.

Dinner last night was nice. I was working my way through the stalls in the square picking a place to eat and enjoying watching the touts hassle other people. This cute girl got nabbed in front of me and the guy was selling the air conditioned comfort of the (outdoor) seating. She dodged the guy, putting the tout right in front of me and said, “Oh, I don’t need air conditioning but this guy (meaning me) was just telling me he wants it.” I gave her a dirty look which was quickly interrupted as she disappeqred behind the tout. After I got rid of my new best friend I caught up to the girl and told her, “Just for that, you have to accompany me to dinner!” She laughed and joined me. She had a simple soup and bread and I had lamb brochettes and various salads and sauces. A very nice and very cheap dinner.

She is a medical photographer for Operation Smile. She is in Morocco for a conference. It was interesting to compare our two NGO experiences, as they are related but quite different too. She was shocked at the realities of how bad healthcare is when the government is disrupted. Her experience is with functioning but poor health systems.

I booked a four day tour today that will take me all the way out to the desert and back. I am considering hopping off the tour on the way back and taking my time at Ourzazate, but I guess I will see how it goes. So I will be off the net for a while and I will send an update next when I get back from that tour.

Finally, just a little plug for my hotel, Hotel Essaouira. It is clean and has a fair price and the people are really friendly and helpful. When I return to Marrakech in a few days I will return for sure.

Rome, Paris, then Morocco

I am still alive! Just a little post to keep something on the front page of my blog.

I am in Rome right now staying with the lovely and hospitable Kristin. Tomorrow I fly to Paris and meet the lovely and resourceful Lisa, who has scored us a room with the lovely and hospitable Nancy. In Paris, I will take Lisa to the lovely and educational Musee de Orsay, then go to MSF France to beg for a DVD of training films. I am heading on to Morocco to meet the handsome and helpful Aly, who will send me into the Atlas mountains on the back of a slovenly and surly ass, no doubt.

Should be fun!