At The Edge Of The Sahara Desert

I took a walk early in the morning to get an idea of the lay of the land around Kasbah Xaluca Maadid. The hotel was set in an isolated location along the highway. There was evidence of this hotel being stop for a road rally that was going on. The only other creature that I found awake at that time was the local camel. It must have been wondering what was going on.

After breakfast, we started out the day with a drive to the town of Rissani. It is considered the home of the Alawites. We were informed that it was fortified village (a Ksar) and used to be a resting place for caravans.

A security van started following the bus as we approached the town. The Youssefs and Rashid do not show any signs of concern. It finally departed after we were parked at the first location we were visiting. It was a little disconcerting – some indication of perhaps concern for the safely of the tourists, or maybe even a way of checking on the bus. Later on, when looking at a map, I realized that we were not too far from the border with Algeria, a country with whom relations are strained.

We first stopped to take pictures at the edge of the ruins of a Sijilmassa, an ancient Moroccan city along the Ziz river. It used to be a center for trade. There was not much to see from this viewpoint except for a few gravestones,but the Internet reveals that there is much more that could have been explored within the ruins itself if we had time. According the the Wikipedia article, Sijilmassa was the northern terminus of the Western Trans-Saharan trade route.

After meeting up with our local guide, we proceeded into the town of Rissani to embark on a walking tour of the city. The guide’s name was Eshan. Eshan is a Berber. (The original name for these people of North Africa is Amazigh, and Amazigh is the way they prefer to be referred to these days. I shall endeavor to follow this preference in the blogs going forward.) Eshan is more specifically a tuareg. The taureg are also called the blue men because their skin turns blue from the Indigo dye in the clothes they wear. The tuareg were tradesmen. Eshan was wearing a boubou.His turban is called the Shesh. The cloth used for the shesh is very long. He demonstrated to us how it was wrapped around his head.If needed, the end of the shesh could be wrapped around his nose and mouth also in a manner that protected him from the desert wind and sand.

It turned out that Eshan was a guide in training. Youssef did the talking for the initial part of the visit.

We had arrived on Friday, the day of worship. Youssef gave us a talk on the weekly routine during this day of worship. People do go to the mosque, where the imam gives lecture, which is then followed by prayer.

The first stop was at the bakery that was open – to taste and learn about the local bread called medfouna.

We continued our walk. We were informed that over 200 multi-generational families live in the ksar of Rissani. Most of the houses were built of adobe. Adobe homes are claimed to be all natural. They have a foundation of granite. The sides are made of mud. In general the roof is made of the palm tree, while rich folks use cedar wood. Goats and sheep are kept on the roof.

We visited the local souk, or marketplace. It was quiet on account of it being the day of worship.

In one of the pictures above, Youssef is holding up the support for the seat that sits on a camel’s back. As we found out later in the day, it was very important to hold on to the handle of this seat with hands stretched froward and muscles stiffened when getting on or off the camel.

The final stop in town was at the Mausoleum of Moulay Ali Cherif.Eshan took over the duties of explaining things to us. This was part of his training in order to become a fully capable guide.

We walked to a central square where the mosque for the mausoleum was located.

Our next stop was a a place where products were being made from rocks containing fossils. Frankly speaking, I was skeptical about the whole concept. First of all, I was not aware the there were fossils on a large scale in Morocco. Secondly, I could not imagine commercialization of the use of fossils. I thought that fossils were only dug up for scientific purposes, and were to be examined and put away. I was wrong on both counts!

Fossils were found in in this area in 1960 in a local quarry. There are fossils from the Devonian period, about 360 million years old.We did see a fossil that was about 500 million years old. The place we were visiting had been business for 17 years. The fossils are easier to see when the rock is wet. Here is a slab that was brought from the quarry. It was minimally processed at that point. Water has been poured over it.The rock in the picture below has undergone a little more processing in order to highlight the fossils.They had a store with a couple of roomfuls of household items that they were selling, including big items like tables. The items below would probably belong in a display cabinet in a home.

The evening was spent in the Sahara desert. We visited a family of Amazighs, riding in a group of 4*4 vehicles, traveling over the desert sandsto get to the place where they lived. We were invited to a tent that was set up to welcome visitors.We sat around on the ground and enjoyed the welcoming mint tea. The matriarch of the family spoke to us about their lives.I learnt that he kids did go to school, but it seemed that it was not taken seriously. The picture below shows all the structures belonging to the family. One of them is the actual home.The above picture was taken from the location of another small structure far away from the rest, where the animals were kept.

The next stop was at a location where there were rocks with fossils embedded in them. We went searching.
Indeed, it was easy to spot the fossils – without even having to pour water on the rocks!

We stopped next to a sandy cliff to take pictures of the desert. There were some women selling trinkets there. My eyes were drawn to this girl, sitting on the side.For some reason, I feel a certain sadness when I see this picture. I wonder what is going through her mind when she looks at one of the well off tourists. Is her presence acknowledged?

The next stop was at a rest area set up in the desert! It was obviously set up for the tourists.

The next event in the desert was camel ride up the dunes to see the sunset. The dunes are called the Erg Chebbi.

After the camel ride, we walked over to a restaurant that was nearby. There were people seated outside the restaurant near the fire pit.

It was a sumptuous feast that we partook of for dinner. It included medfouna and some welcome libations.

There was some live entertainment going on outside the restaurant as we prepared to return to our 4*4s.We sat outside for a short while to soak in the atmosphere.

And then it was time to head back to the hotel. During the quiet drive through the darkness of the night, we had time to sit back and reflect on the eventful day that we were just completing. We were back to the hotel only by 10pm, a late night relative to the experiences of the previous days.

It was an awesome day all in all.  The days just keep getting better and better.

Blogus Interruptus

We are in the second day of a tropical depression that is supposed to last a couple of days more. Occasional torrential downpours dump enormous amounts of water on an already soaked city. The streets are flooded. It is still dark outside in the early morning as I listen to the sounds of the rain, not a gentle rain, but a pouring deluge – as the water rushes out of the downspouts that are the only means of preventing the rooftops from filling up with the H2O. There is the occasional sound of thunder. There is lightning. The frogs continue their cacophony of sounds all through the night enjoying themselves in the water that has collected behind the house – you cannot hear yourself in certain parts of the house! Later in the morning, as the rising sun somehow manages to bring light to the streets, somehow penetrating the shroud of thick clouds that envelope the city, the streets will fill with people and vehicles – in all shapes and sizes – splashing through these water-filled streets.

This is the welcome rainy season that brings relief to this normally dry part of the world.

I would never have imagined being here a month ago, just after our return from Morocco. I was looking forward to sitting back and catching my breath, to spending some time quietly reliving the days of Morocco in the peace of the home, waiting to celebrate the impending holidays with friends and family – before embarking on the next adventure. But duty called – soon! So I jumped into action, not knowing where the next step would take me – a feeling similar to how I felt in the situation I wrote about in this blog – but on steroids. The situation was more urgent.

I found myself on a Qatar Airways jet heading east, not exactly sure where the fates would take me. A gin-and-tonic, served by the friendly flight attendant, coursed through my systems, numbing me pleasantly for the moment. I could either try to get some sleep or watch a movie. I drifted in and out of consciousness.

I am in Chennai right now, trying to help my parents. Thankfully, the immediate issue that brought me here seems to have been addressed successfully. We have to see if I am successful in getting a system in place for their longer term care and comfort. My siblings are with me in spirit. I feel comfortable at the moment leaving my parents to fend by themselves in the home for short periods of time – with the new helper we have found, through the kindness of caring friends. Mahesh is his name. I can perhaps go out into the city to meet my friends now. There are still issues to be worked out, but we are surrounded by awesome people who help.

If all goes right, I should be able to head back home at the end of the month – leaving my parents in good hands.

Morocco seems a long time ago, but I do intend to return to its spirit.

Sorry, no pictures today!

The Drive To Erfoud

Today’s journey takes us to Erfoud, on the edge of the Sahara desert, via Ifrane. We are crossing the Middle Atlas mountains and the High Atlas Mountains into the desert.

In order to be fair to all travelers in the tour group, seat assignments on the bus for the long distances that we travel between towns are rotated for each such day of travel. Today we have the benefit of being able to sit in the second row of the bus, offering us a open view of the road ahead of us. This picture was taken on our way out of town.

As we were leaving town, Youssef started giving us a little bit of background about the nature of Moroccan society. He said that the Berber society was matriarchal. (I should note that I have not found any article that actually confirms this.) He talked about the topic of the treatment of women in Morocco. He said that there were a few issues of interpretation and implementation of Islamic law which have resulted in the treatment of women as second class citizens in some Arab countries. A couple of the specific issues in this regard relate to 1) the fact that polygamy is allowed in Islamic law, and 2) how divorce is handled in islamic law. Morocco has apparently been on a path of reform in this regard for a while, the efforts in the more recent past being championed by King Mohammed VI. Here is an article with excerpts from a speech he gave in 2003 in this regard.  I also found this interesting article written in 2013 that covers a broad range of subjects regarding Moroccan society. There is a specific section on the status of women. We were told that women participate in all aspects of the economy. We did encounter women policemen on a few occasions, dressed as professionally as their male counterparts, and without any additional head coverings.

The first mountain range we entered were the Middle Altas mountains. Ceder, pine and oak grow here. The major towns in this section of the drive were developed by the Europeans, more than likely the french, and the architecture reflects this.

We encountered a few checkpoints along the way during the drive that day. I took this picture at one of the stops later in the day.In general, you find checkpoints like this throughout the country. They are apparently meant to thwart attempts to carry weapons that could be used in terrorist activities – primarily related to the situation in the Western Sahara. As far as I could make out, terrorist activity seemed to be non-existent in this part of the country at this moment in time. The countryside seemed peaceful. People did not appear to be on edge. The thought occurred to me that these checkpoints could only serve as an annoyance to locals going about their business. Our bus was let through most of these checkpoints without further examination. We are not supposed to take pictures of the police. It became an issue at one checkpoint where an officer suspected that a person on the bus had taken his picture. Things were sorted out quickly.

Our first stop was at Ifrane for “Happy Time”. Ifrane is a ski resort town. The roofs of the buildings are very different from those in other parts of the country for a very good reason! We had a few minutes to walk around town. Here is a picture taken at a location in town that has become popular with tourists. From what I read, there is no particularly important reason, historical or otherwise, for the presence of this lion. It is not a memorial.

As we were leaving the town, Youssef educated us about the use of guns in Morocco. They are apparently very strict about it. Civilians cannot own guns. Police are not normally allowed to carry guns, and if there is a discharge of a weapon and somebody is hurt, there can be severe repercussions – even for the police.  But there is also an armed presence of security personnel on the street that we encountered, with units of three people, one of them military. They are apparently there for purposes of preventing terrorist acts, and they are forbidden from responding to other local problems. I did not even try to take a picture of such a group of armed personnel – for obvious reasons.

We entered the land of the nomad Berbers soon after leaving Ifrane. There are still Berbers that live their old lifestyle and move around freely. Land ownership laws are different in this part of the country. We came across a few isolated small settlements where a few families live together.The one below looks more permanent.
We also saw other isolated individual Berber homes. Wealth, in this society, is measured by the lifestock that one owns. The people do not own motorized vehicles, and move around using their animals. There are towns where the people go to to trade their lifestock. Sometimes they have to take the bus back to where they live. It is difficult to provide school education to children in this kind of a setup.

We stopped to see barbary apes.The aggressive barbary apes in Gibraltar are descendants of the ones in North Africa. In contrast to their Gibraltar cousins, the ones in Morocco seemed to be quite mild mannered in the presence of the tourists.

These are pictures taken during the drive that morning.

Despite the look of the place, agriculture is prevalent in these parts. They grow apples, peaches and pears.

Every now and then the open spaces were interrupted by busy towns that we drove through. There always seemed to be something or the other going on on the streets in these towns. We often saw groups of young people. In some cases it was obvious that they were kids going to school.

Most of the street stalls in the particular town we were passing through in the picture below seemed to be stocked with apples!

We passed through another town where the weekly market was going on, but I was unable to snap any representative pictures.

We saw vehicles transporting cattle.On one occasion, we even saw cows being transported on top of a vehicle.

We stopped for lunch at a rest area in an isolated section of the road between the two mountain ranges we were crossing that day.

We drove by the town of Midelt. Its theme was the apple.There was at least one more such piece of advertisement for the town, with a differently colored apple, at a second roundabout in town. According to the Wikipedia article, MIdelt is one of the highest large towns in Morocco. They apparently have a week long apple festival once a year. There are other cities that have their own annual week long celebrations in honor of the particular fruit they are known for.

We drove through town without stopping, negotiating the many traffic roundabouts. Incidentally, Morocco is country of traffic roundabouts. It is the preferred strategy for handling road intersections almost everywhere in the country.

We passed many forests of ceder trees. Ceder is used extensively for construction and other purposes.

Another section of the drive featured wild dogs beside the road waiting for food handouts from trucks. Apparently, they are quite friendly. I believe there is a story related to how the dogs began to make their appearance here, but I do not remember it.

The landscape becomes more spectacular as you approach the High Atlas mountains from the high plains. There are the isolated villages and settlements with the mountains in the background. The buildings are primarily in the adobe style. Most of the space is open land with agricultural farms.

The streams and river beds were all dry.The rainy season is from December to February according to Youssef.

It was a spectacular drive over narrow winding roads as we climbed into the mountains.We drove through canyons.There was a lot of road widening work going on through the mountains. Narrow roadways that originally wound their way around the sides of mountains were being shortened by cutting straight through the mountains instead.

It had already been a long day of travel, but Youssef urged us not to tire of the drive since there was more to see.

We were driving along the Ziz river during this section of the trip, and we would continue to do so all the way to Erfoud. The Ziz valley lay next to us for certain sections of the drive,and then below as we climbed to higher elevations – higher into the mountains. The green trees and homes that we saw at the bottom of the valley as we gained elevation caught my immediate attention!The trees in both of the pictures above are date trees. There has been a transformation in the vegetation since we left Fez in the morning.

We were told that many caravan paths through Morocco passed through the Ziz valley.

We drove past a lake created by a what is the largest dam in Morocco.The Barrage Al-hassan Addakhil produces hydroelectric power. It also supplies water to surrounding cities. As is obvious in the picture, the water level in the lake was low.

We passed a town called Errachedia soon after the lake. It is apparently a big military base. The map shows that it is not too far from the border with Algeria. The town looked deserted for the most part. The picture below shows the entrance to the town.

Youssef informed us that in this area of Morocco, Kasbahs were not forts, but were fortified houses for extended families. Fortified towns are called Ksars. Errachidia used to be called Ksar Es Souk.

We passed through another section of the road where we could see the greenery of the Ziz valley once again. It was full of date trees and villages, some fortified. The area covered was huge. Beautiful!

Youssef talked about the nature of the date tree. I found it very interesting but I did not take notes that would help me remember the details. What comes to mind is the fact that humans fully manage the cultivation of the trees including the pollination process, not depending on natural processes and the bees in this regard. The ratio of the female to male trees is quite large. This is managed deliberately because the dates only grow on the female trees. And there are ways to differentiate the male and female trees by their looks. They mainly grow Medjool dates in Morocco.

We passed adobe buildings that appeared to be in states of disrepair, perhaps abandoned. We were told that this was not the case. Because adobe is basically mud, these building need to be rebuilt every so often. There is a time of year to do this. The building lies unoccupied during that time.

We passed a few Berber cemeteries. The bodies are buried on their right side with the head facing Mecca. The marker on the grave site is a flattish piece of rock, and all of the rocks face a particular direction relative to Mecca.

Not the least of the interesting pieces of information that Youssef provided was the fact that they have iguanas in this area.

We were staying at a Berber Kasbah that night at Erfoud. We arrived there in the late evening. We had covered quite a distance that day, and traveled across different geographical areas and climate zones, crossing two mountain ranges in the process. We were now at the edge of the Sahara desert!

The Kasbah Xaluca Maadid was certainly another unique place to stay at. The vibe was that of a resort, but the accommodations were of a Moroccan Berber style. The place had a dated feel to it,with mementos of visits from celebrities of the early movie age to be found in the big and ornate reception area. Some Hollywood history seems to have played out in these parts, with movies having been filmed with the Kasbah as a base. Movie stars must have stayed here. Apparently, filming of parts of the new Indiana Jones movie, currently scheduled for 2023, will happen in these parts.

Just as at every other hotel we we have stayed at thus far, we got mint tea as a welcome. Dinner was buffet style. We crashed out early after a minor bit of drama regarding the lock to the door of our room. We could not get out of the room easily once we were in it! It took a couple of attempts to get somebody to fix the lock. Youssef was constantly joking about Moroccan time – in terms of how quickly things get done, and how prompt Moroccans were. Sure enough, we were told that somebody would fix the problem in a couple of minutes, but the issue was only addressed after we came back from dinner, after we contacted the staff once more.

It had been a long day. The next day would turn out to be an even longer one.

Fes, Morocco

Our drive from Chefchaouen to Fes (also spelled “Fez”) took us through flatlands and rolling hills. The land had been tilled in some places and the soil looked dark.
We passed orange groves and farms of pomegranates trees. Also farms of olives. Donkeys, mules, horses and sheep are the common animals beside the road.

Youssef grew up in the town of Meknes, not far away from Fes. Fes is in the Meknes governmental district. I was hoping that he could see his family for a short while in the evening. He said that there was no time. I am not surprised when I see the way he is engaged in his duties, seemingly every single moment of time that he is awake.

We arrived in Fes later than usual. We were staying in a riad. Riad El Yacout is an old, traditional, formerly residential home that has been restored to provide accommodations for travelers. According to the owners of the riad, the house was built by a famous researcher and professor at the University of al-Qarawiyyin in the 16th century. It was recently renovated and converted.

The Riad was located off the main road, where the bus could not travel. We had to walk down some narrow roads, and finally a narrow alleyway, between some buildings to reach our destination.Our luggage was brought to the riad on carts by porters.

The place was unique. It had a huge open area in the center, and rooms all around.
You could not figure out where your room was from the room number. We were taken to the top floor by an employee assigned to help us in the endeavor. A door that was not very obvious opened up in one corner of the verandah to reveal a narrow stairway that took us down to the room. We were apparently located in-between floors!The room was grand,but the bathroom had problems. The conversion of a big 16th century home – without electricity or plumbing, and also air-conditioning – into a building capable of hosting an army of tourists of this day and age was not without its issues. The guest rooms were also all unique and different from each other, each having been converted from whatever purpose they had served in times past. One, perhaps unkind, guess was that we had been given the maid’s room!

We had a view into a courtyard with an open pool from the windows in our room.

The expectation from the tour organizers had been that we would have dinner on our own on the day of our arrival. Instead, Youssef arranged for a late dinner in the hotel for all of us. We had a tajine dish with couscous and chicken. There was a lot of food! Three musicians entertained us with traditional music during dinner. The beats of the music sounded familiar. We have heard them in India. Folks were tired after the long ride and appreciated not having to hunt for food that evening.

Fes is one of the old cities of Morocco. It was its first Imperial City. It used to be a center of education. The city was built in the 8th Century by Idris 1st. He was an Arab.

Fes is very different from Tangier. We were warned by our tour manager about being very careful in Fes, especially in the medina we were visiting. Lots of pickpockets. Lots of people, including gangs of kids, trying to extract money from you. People would apparently try to peddle junk to you, trying to distract you, while their compatriots would attempt to rob you of your stuff. Others, selling stuff that was perhaps somewhat more legitimate, would not leave you alone even if you refused their offers.

The Fes el Bali is the older medina in Fes. It is the biggest and most complex in Morocco. It is like a labyrinth!  Apparently people get lost easily, even Moroccans from other places. It was developed between the years 789 and 1200. We were told that an attempt by a travel company to map out all the alleyways of the medina was given up after a few months of effort as being an impossible task. Our guide mentioned that the medina in Fes is of Arabic design, while most other medinas in Morocco are Berber in design.

We were met by a local guide before we set out into town that morning. We drove up to the Borj Sud, The Southern Tower, located on a hill,(please excuse the poor quality of the above picture!) to get an expansive view of the whole city from the south.You could also see some of the mountains surrounding the city through the early morning fog in the distance.

Our next stop was the medina. We were met here by an assistant guide who was also going to come along with us through the medina – to help keep us safe, and keep us from getting lost. He was kept busy throughout our visit.Both our guides are from Fes, and are very familiar with the insides of the medina.

We were told to keep put in one place if we ever got separated from the group, and not to follow random people who might offer to help. We were told to move out of the way immediately if we heard the word “Balak”! If we did not move, we were likely to be knocked down by a person or a donkey in the narrow crowded alley. We were also told to politely ignore folks who bothered us. Also, the guides were allowed to lose up to 10% of the people in a tour group during a visit to the medina. The last statement is, of course, a joke!

The experience of a medina is quite unique – the shops, the storefronts, the displays lining the streets and alleys, the people, etc,

We were occasionally followed by little kids who seemed to be in their element looking for trouble, and also by the insistent hawkers who picked on one person in the group, and bothered the person indefinitely even while being ignored, keeping pace as the group as it made its way single file through the alley. They targeted the women in the group, and it was a mistake even to look at them or give them a smile.Plainclothesmen accompanied us occasionally, people passed you with carts and animals, some even carrying stuff on their head. I barely missed being hit by the cardboard boxes being carried on the head of a person going the other way, while other more confident locals ducked under his load and passed us on his side of the alley.

There was the occasional dog poop. The cats were everywhere.There were the dark and sometimes narrow, empty, alleyways that lead to god knows where. Some of these areas were residential, and we were told that the nature of the door did not reveal the wealth of the people living behind them. The insides of the abodes were also built with security in mind.Spaces between buildings were supported by wood in some places, an indication of how fragile some of the old structures might be.This is a metal worker who is supposed to have gained some fame on Youtube. It seemed like he was performing in the small square for the passers-by.There was the man posing with his donkey. He was, of course, expecting money in return for allowing us to take his picture.

We stopped at a carpet place recommended by the tour group. We were given a lecture about all the different kinds of carpets made in Morocco.We learnt that the Berber carpets had their own characteristics, different from carpets of other places – including the way the materials came together, and their designs and the fact that both sides could be used – he described a side for winter and one for summer. We were free to purchase carpets here that could be shipped to the US.

We walked beside the wall of the University of al-Qarawiyyin, but could not enter the premises. This university began as a mosque, and its minaret and the green tops of some of its buildings, are visible in pictures of the medina in Fes taken from afar. The University is considered the oldest continuously operating university in the world. Maimonides, the famous Jewish philosopher and scholar of the 12th century, is known to have studied here.

We visited an old Al-Attarine Madrasa in the medina, where children used to live and learn the religious texts.About 50 children lived and studied here at a time. We could walk into the rooms in which they lived in on the upper floors of the building. The rooms were quite small. They each had their own mailboxes. The calligraphy on some of the walls was notable.

When I asked, I was informed that the text in caligraphy like this, and on the walls of mosques, most of the time consists of lines from the Koran.

We could not enter the Mausoleum of Moulay Idris II because it was closed due to Covid. This is one of the entrances to the mausoleum.The minaret of the mosque of this mausoleum is the most distinctive feature of the medina of Fes when seen in pictures taken from a distance. It towers over its surroundings.

We visited the museum called the Fondouk el-Nejjarine. It used to be a Caravanserai for travelers in times past. The museum was dominated by artifacts of wood.Lunch was provided in a restaurant within the medina. We had tajine once again!

After lunch we visited the tannery. We we were given mint leaves to hold over our noses to keep out the smells.They work on camel hide to produce the leather in this tannery, and they use pigeon droppings in the vats for softening the leather, the key ingredient in the droppings to make this happen being ammonia. We were given a lecture on the process of creating leather products, and, again, we were taken to the store where we could make purchases. We bought a couple of leather poufs. I also bought a belt, and a wallet to replace the the one in my hand that was falling apart. I was very naive when it came to bargaining, but Youssef helped me get a good price in the end. While I was standing around waiting for others to get done with their shopping, one of the service people struck up a conversation with me and started talking about India. He said he knew songs from Indian movies. I ended up singing pieces from a Hindi song with him!

We apparently walked about 4 miles through the medina!

The next stop on the bus was the Jewish cemetery,
after which we visited the Jewish marketplace.Apparently, the open upper levels that one sees in these pictures is one distinguishing feature of Jewish marketplaces in general. The pathways in the medinas of Fes are all covered.

We walked over to the front of the Old Royal Palace to take a look at the entrance.The palace is still in use.

We were supposed to get our own dinner that evening after we returned to the hotel. We were given a few options for places to go to for this purpose, including a restaurant where one could get a camel burger if so inclined. We decided to have dinner at the riad itself, and in a spur of the moment decision, after looking at the menu, placed the order right away for what we wanted when we came down to dinner a couple of hours later. It was a good thing that we did this, because people who came to the restaurant later for dinner were limited in their choices. Some decided to wander outside the riad to look for food more to their liking – with mixed results.

I have been enjoying the beers of Morocco with my dinners – Casablanca and Flag. Both beers are on the light side.

We are crossing the Middle and High Altas mountain ranges tomorrow!

To Chefchaouen, Morocco

We left Tangier for Fes early that morning. There was an intermediate stop and a visit to Chefchaouen planned for the day. Departure from town was delayed a little bit because of something left behind by mistake in the hotel room by one of the travelers. I took a couple of pictures of the modern buildings of Tangiers as we motored back and forth in town.

Our route to Chefchaouen took us out of town fairly quickly. We were headed, generally, in a south-easterly direction, towards the Rif mountains. Soon we were in a hilly area and entering the mountains. We were motoring up and down the mountainsides, with views of valleys below. Unfortunately, I was seated on the side of the bus away from the valleys for the initial part of the drive, and the sun was also in my eyes. I could not get good pictures.In the picture above, you can see the wall of clouds built up against the mountainside in the distance. The Mediterranean sea lies on the other side of these mountains.

I did get a picture of this wind farm in the mountains. We were told that there is a push towards renewable energy in the country. I think that what were seeing was the Dhar Saadane wind farm.

As we drove through the mountains, we passed a series of lakes formed by dams that had been built by the government for helping the farmers.We stopped near one of these lakes for to visit the The Happy Room.This is what Youssef euphemistically, and consistently, called our rest stops for the entire trip. People used the toilets, got some drinks and light snacks if they wanted, and also walked off the stiffness in the joints by walking around the area. With 41 tourists on the bus, many older than the two of us, there was good usage of these rest areas. In many places there were long lines that formed for the use of the facilities upon our arrival. The nature of these facilities varied throughout the trip.

Our drive took us to the west side of a big city called Tétouan. Tétouan lies along the Mediterranean coast, with the coastline facing in a easterly direction.It is Morocco’s second biggest port along the Mediterranean sea. Tétouan historically used to be a well known place for travelers from Europe and other parts of the world to come to because of its location. It saw a lot of historical action, again because of its location. The city is apparently also a destination for vacations.

We turned south, off the road that we were on that was leading further into the heart of town, on the outskirts of Tétouan, to stay on Highway N2 to Chefchaouen.

Here are a picture from this part of the drive. The sun was still in my eyes.We arrived at Chefchaouen without incident.

Chefchaouen is called The Blue City, or The Blue Pearl, of Morocco. The reason will be obvious once you see pictures of the place. The town is situated along the slopes of the Rif mountains. The city was founded in the 15th century. Moorish and Jewish people settled there first. The Jews were fleeing religious persecution in Spain.

In order to make the exploration of the town on foot easier, the bus was driven to a point above the town – so that the walk could generally proceed in a downhill direction. We were met by our local guide at that spot.

We entered the walls of the medina from one of its entry gates. We were told that there are seven of them.

These are some generic pictures of the alleyways of the medina.

I have many more pictures that I took of the medina of Chefchaouen that I liked – too many to present here!

I must speak to the picture of the water fountain in the above gallery. Water fountains like these are common on the streets of the towns in Morocco. The water is available for cleaning oneself prior to performing ablutions, and for drinking.

There is some commonality of experience of the medinas we have visited in cities so far. They are located in old, walled, sections of town, and they are full of alleyways that go in every direction. They are like a maze. They are full of small stores selling all kinds of different things. The merchants are all small businessmen. Locals are friendly with tourists. Some speak to you in English.

We stopped at El Haouta Square to take a break before continuing onward. People were going about their lives while we tourists wandered about in their midst. I could see that in this particular case our presence was disruptive to some.

We stopped at the main square opposite the town’s Kasbah to have our lunch.

A restaurant owner allowed us to use his space while we ate the food we had bought with us from Tangier. (The intent was to save time.)We compensated the owner by purchasing drinks from him. The owner was an intense bearded chap. He scolded me for letting Teresa take the trash from the table when she asked him where to put it. He was all about equality! He spoke to us about India, and Mahatma Gandhi, and about some other leader, spiritual I think, also from India, who he followed. (Later on, I read about the prevalence of cannabis in this area. It made me wonder.) In any case, I was perturbed by his initial response, but did not react. I knew that he was struggling with the sometimes confusing requests from the many tourists who had suddenly descended upon his establishment, and so was not sure if he was generally irritated. I realized after a while that some of the Moroccans we were meeting with simply had different boundaries than what we expected as tourists. They meant no injury or insult. The people we encountered were indeed generally friendly.

We had some time to wander through the medina on our own. We did not go too far from our meeting point in the square since I was worried about getting lost.

The bus was not where we expected to be at the end of the our walk through the medina after lunch. Youssef and our local guide led us on an extended walk into the newer part of town to get us to the place where it was waiting for us.

It was good to finally get to the bus. Youssef and Rashid were waiting patiently for us. We boarded and got on our way to Fes.

On the way out of town, I was able to take advantage of two photo opportunities that were presented to us by the Youssefs. We stopped beside the road so that we could take a picture of Chefchaouen of from a particular vantage point.Youssef (the driver) then slowed down the bus enough to allow passengers on one side of the bus to take a picture of the door at the entrance to Chefchaouen.There was a similar door beside the road when we were driving into town, but we were not able to take pictures at that point.

The town of Chefchaouen is probably a good place to hang out, not just to spend a small part of a day as a tourist on the run. The town square had an easy-going vibe to it. From what I hear, it is probably a good place to use as a base for explorations of the surrounding mountains. That is something I could dig!

Before I close, some last bits of information about the presence of a Jewish population in Morocco. Jews have apparently lived in Morocco since the times BC. The large migration to Morocco took place in the 15th century. They inhabited cities all over the country and maintained their identity. From what I read, their relationship with their Muslim counterparts seems to not have been ideal, but they were not persecuted as much as in some other Arab countries. Morocco apparently had the largest Jewish community in the Muslim world before the formation of Israel. We found Jewish sectors in many of the towns we visited. We also visited Jewish medina’s in a few cities. The king’s senior advisor today is a person of the Jewish faith. The numbers of the Jewish population went down after the creation of Israel in 1948, when many immigrated. We were told that Moroccans are now the second largest community of immigrants in Israel. While Morocco has had informal connections with Israel for a while, they only recognized the country in 2020.

There are also signs that more is being done in recent times for this Islamic nation to be more inclusive of this of its own Berber heritage. King Mohammed VI made history by marrying a local commoner, outside of the line of his line of Muslim ancestry and royalty. Recently, the Berber language was also made one of the official languages of Morocco, to also be used in the administrations in the future. An official script was developed for the above purpose. You might happen upon some Berber script in a few of the pictures that I present.

We arrived in Fes a little late in the evening that day. We are staying in a Riad. More about this in the next blog about Morocco.

On To Tangier

We left Rabat early in the morning, heading north for Tangier.

Youssef told us a little more about his country during the drive. He indicated that 75% of the population was Berber. They are the original nomads of North Africa. Other groups that reside in the country include Arabs, Moors, Jews, Christians, etc.. The country is a constitutional monarchy, with the king sharing power with an elected body. The current king is Muhammed VI. He is considered young and forward-looking. Morocco has been ruled by kings of the Alawite dynasty since the 1600s. They claim descent from the prophet Mohammad. The country used to be a protectorate of France and Spain. They got their independence in 1956. They are still undoing the damage that the French did. (That sounds like a very familiar story!) They do not have a good relationship with neighbor Algeria. There is disagreement over the ownership of the land now to the south, called the Western Sahara. They are a modern Islamic Nation. They have partnerships with the US and Israel. (The reasons became clearer with the passage of time.)

General observation – many people in Morocco tend to wear their traditional clothes. Also, women do not, in general, cover their faces. Many have scarves over their head.

Our route took us close to the sea coast and the Atlantic Ocean for a good part of the drive. We were on a toll road.

We passed through a park with forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees. The harvested cork oak tree has a very distinctive look because of the way cork is harvested.

Agriculture is the major occupation in this part of the country. It contributes significantly to the economy, and so does tourism. Morocco mostly has small farms.Our surroundings were surprisingly green. There are lots of donkeys, horses,sheep and cows
– and an occasional camel.The camels would dominate the scene more as we headed towards the east of the country.

More recently new crops have been introduced to the country, including banana and avocado. They also produce honey. 50% of the avocado is apparently exported to Israel. In order to ensure good and healthy growth, the banana trees are grown in an enclosed environment, but they seem to break out of their enclosures as they grow taller. We saw many banana tree enclosures along the way.

We arrived at Tangier in time for lunch. I was surprised by the design of the apartment buildings being built on the outskirts of the city,and by the line of modern car dealerships and other stores along the road. It felt very different from Rabat. This seemed to be a modern city strongly influenced by the west.

Tangier is considered one of the big cities of Morocco. Due to its northern location, it used to be a gateway from Europe to Africa. It used to be an international city for some time, governed jointly by several countries – including USA, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, and Sweden. There were different sections of the city that were administered separately and differently (including regulations and enforcement), and the architecture in each section reflected the architectural choices of people from the administrating authority.

Tangier is a famous city of international allure and intrigue, and notoriety – known as a center for spying, smuggling, etc.., during times past. It used to be, and still is, a favorite of celebrities, movie stars, artists, writers, etc.. Real estate is expensive. There are palaces built for kings – seemingly mostly from the Middle East.

We met up with our local guide just before we broke off for lunch on our own. Lunch was in a restaurant with an open terrace overlooking the bay.

After lunch, we went on the bus to Perdicaris Park, on the west side of the city. As we drove up the hills, you could get an expansive view of the sprawling city below us. (I was not able to get any good pictures.) Our local guide kept talking about the expensive real estate we were passing, and the owners of these properties. I really did not care.

Once at the park entrance, we were taken along the edge of the park to a spot where you are supposed to be able to see across the Gibraltar Strait to Spain. Unfortunately, it was a hazy day. Our guide continued with a story-telling session about the Perdicaris Affair. The house that we could see on the hill was a part of this story.The house was called the Place of Nightingales. It has now been renamed Chateau Perdicaris.

We would have loved to have had some time to actually explore the park, but that was apparently not part of the plan. The park did seem to be a very popular place for locals to visit.

We continued our drive further west, crossing some hills, and eventually caught sight of the Atlantic Ocean as we started descending towards the coast.We were in an area called Cape Spartel. Our first stop was at the Cape Spartel Lighthouse at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It was amazing observing Youssef, our driver, navigate the bus through the twists and turns of the narrow automobile-lined streets, to the more open space of the parking lot for the lighthouse.

Our local guide gave us a little history of the lighthouse. You can read the very interesting original agreement between all the countries involved in the creation of this lighthouse here. The Sultan of Morocco built this lighthouse for the benefit of humanity – for use by the seafaring nations of that time – those from Europe, and also the United States. Morocco itself had little to gain.

Our local guide told us that we could actually see the difference between the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean here. The Atlantic was supposed to be rougher, in general. I could not make out the difference. I did notice a tanker in the distance, through the haze. It seemed to be heading eastward, towards the Mediterranean sea.

It was during this stop that I noticed a somewhat distressing tendency of folks in our group to not pay attention to the tour guide and to get distracted by a bunch of other stuff going on around us while the person was speaking. This behavior was somewhat disrespectful for one thing. Also, it did not make sense that folks had come all this way, to another country, without the curiosity and interest to learn new things. Anyway…

It was in this general area that somebody on the bus turned on their mobile phone to receive a text message from their US network carrier, Verizon Wireless. “Welcome to Spain”, it said! We were close enough to the European continent to receive cellular phone signals from Spain!

We drove down the hill on which the lighthouse was located to a road that went past the beaches on the Atlantic Coast.There were people hanging out on the beaches. We were headed further south to the Caves of Hercules for a visit.

(If the good reader has not already realized this, now may be a good time to inform you of something that may be obvious to some – that many of my pictures from this trip have been taken under non-ideal conditions, from a moving bus, with internal reflections from the bus impacting the overall picture. That may be a good or bad thing depending on your point of view. In any case, what the camera captured happens to be the reality of the moment!)

I have to admit that I lost interest in the Caves of Hercules when I heard that the cave was partially man-made. I did not care for the mythological background either. It sounded like a tourist trap. In any case I went in along with the crowd. It seemed to be a very popular place among the locals.This was the end of the tours for the day. We started our drive back to the town of Tangier. After once again crossing the hills of Cape Spartel, we took a different route into town during the latter part of the drive into town. We ended up on a waterfront along the Mediterranean sea. There was a beautiful esplanade beside us. We drove past two ports – one for fishing boats and the other for leisure. (We would get a more expansive view of this area the next day.) The locals were out taking walks and having fun. I was thinking that this would be a nice place for us to walk during our spare time.

We were dropped off at the hotel that we were going to stay at. It happened to be close to the waterfront – a convenient location from which to start explorations of the city on foot. The hotel was a high end American brand. Our expectations were a little high.We were a little disappointed, especially by the view from our room. And then there were little things about the place that were not completely up to par.

We decided to do a little exploring in the evening. We went to a shopping mall close by, including a small food market and a food court. Neither seemed to be very inviting at first glance. We decided to walk along the water front to look for a place to eat. We had seen a few restaurants as the bus was making its way to the hotel.

It was in fact not easy to pick a restaurant, the problem being that we could not understand the French menus, and that we also lacked the communications skills to figure out if there was some food we would like to try.

As we wandered around looking for a restaurant to eat at, we were greeted as Indians on the street. Folks seemed to react in what seemed to be a very friendlier than usual manner. The thought occurred to me that we should use this to our advantage during the trip! We were greeted with a “Namaste” on a couple of occasions while in Tangier.

We eventually landed up at a restaurant that had the word “grill” as part of its name. It looked like a place for people who might be seeking a quick bite – with a Moroccan restaurant chain vibe. The food items seemed familiar, and there were English translations on the menu. We went in to find two other people from our tour group seated there. They themselves had just arrived. We had talked to them for the first time that evening when we arrived at the hotel. They were from Walla Walla, WA! I had heard of Walla Walla before, and had no trouble remembering the name – just because of the way it had sounded! It was a complete coincidence running into the folks from Walla Walla once again at the restaurant. It was time to make new friends from Walla Walla!

Based on my experiences of that day, I got a feeling that Tangier was probably not the best place to learn about the Moroccan culture – even though the city is amazing in its own way. It was so full of life. It was very much alive. I was to find out that I was wrong in this initial judgement. We had a more relevant experience about Moroccan life the next day. Also, as I learnt during the rest of the trip, different parts of Morocco are so different from each other.

Breakfast at the Hilton the next morning was on the 15th floor. The breakfast area, and the breakfast itself, was where the hotel started to redeem itself, and regain a little bit of its lost reputation. While enjoying breakfast, we had a wonderful view over the strait – where a ferry from Spain happened to just be coming in.

After breakfast, we wandered over to another open space on the 15th floor, facing the other direction, to get a view of the railway station.There was an Al-Boraq train on the move just outside the station.These “TGV Morocco” trains, built by the french company Alstom, started running between Casablanca and Tangier in 2018. They can run at up to 200 miles/hr in certain sections, and they have apparently halved the travel time between the two cities. They are the fastest trains in Africa today. Our road route into Tangier had paralleled the path of this train in certain sections. There was a moment during that drive when my attention was drawn to something flashing by the windows on the other side of the bus. It was the train, and it was gone in an instant!

Our program for the morning was a walking tour of the Casbah and the Medina in Tangier. This was more like what I was hoping to experience! We would get an exposure to history and life in Tangier.

We walked to the Casbah from where our bus had dropped us off.

There was a banyan tree near the entrance of the Casbah. I had to laugh to myself since it looked puny and pitiful by Indian standards.We walked through the alleyways of the Casbah where people still live and buildings are also used for commercial and other purposes.

The Hand of Fatima knocker that you see on one of the doors in the pictures above is there for good luck. It is is quite common in Moroccan homes.

We were able to go to the rampart of the fort to look at the harbor and the bay.

We then made our way through the alleyways of the Medina.

We were regularly accosted by street vendors selling their wares. We had been warned by our tour manager to not buy things from these vendors. He will be taking us to places that they recommend to buy some Moroccan keepsakes. The vendors are quite aggressive, but not to the point that you feel threatened. They have a very friendly demeanor, but it is difficult to get them to give up. I noticed that we were accompanied by a plainclothes policeman who did his best to not be obvious to the tour group. A group of 41 somewhat naive Americans make a good target!

We stopped at the American Legation Museum.
This building was the first American public property abroad, and is the only U.S. National Historic Landmark located in a foreign country. Morocco was the first country to recognize US independence from Great Britain (in 1821), and this building served as a diplomatic outpost after that for 140 years. Morocco’s relationship with the US runs deep.

Lunch was with the rest of the tour group at a restaurant in a location that, we were told, used to be a safe house in the past. The restaurant was located along the seaside wall of the Casbah. We had tajines for lunch. Tajines are uniquely North African, and they are used for slow cooking. We had tajines on many other occasions during the trip.

We enjoyed sitting in the terrace area overlooking the harbor – and making some new friends, this time from Missouri. We had good food and company for lunch.

We were taken by bus back to the hotel.The rest of the day was free time for us. I fell asleep at the hotel, knocked out from all the walking.

We went for a walk along the beach in the evening as the sun was setting.What a marvelous atmosphere! People were everywhere – kids, adults, couples, both young and old, young boys and girls on bikes and scooters whizzing around on the promenade. I especially loved seeing the young girls on their scooters. It spoke to the equitable nature of their society.

The promenade was nicely lit up.

The Moroccan women in Tangier are quite fashionable in their own way in the way they dress. Women also wear makeup and seem to feel free to present themselves as they wish. Even though a majority of them dress somewhat conservatively, many covering their heads, there were a few who were not shy about going out of their way to get themselves noticed. But, for the most part, even the stylish folks dressed more demurely than what you would see in a big city in the US on a summer day. Subtlety works better than an in-your-face approach most of the time.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge our adventures crossing the streets on foot in this and the other big cities where we happened to take walks. We typically had to cross wide boulevards, if possible at crosswalks – sometimes without the benefit of lights to stop traffic at the crosswalk. Automobiles approach people crossing the road at high speeds and only stop at the very last moment. But they do stop! When in doubt about crossing the street, it is wise to follow the locals. And do not hesitate!

One other thing, that I hesitate slightly to bring up, is the sight of indigent people on the street in some places. We came across a lady with a baby in her lap sitting on the sidewalk the two evenings we were there. She might have been trying to sell small packets of tissues. There were also other people at some locations on the street between our hotel and the beach. And there were the random ladies, not many, who might approach you with their hand out. In this matter, Morocco seems to have the same problems that many countries have, including the United States.

We are heading for Fes tomorrow morning with an intermediate stop in Chefchaouen. We had to get some food today for our lunch tomorrow. There were slim pickings at the food market in the mall, but I noticed that many in our tour group were also in the store the same time that we were looking for food. We improvised.

On our way out of the mall, we ran into a lady who was wandering around near the entrance trying to get people to try out a perfume from a certain company. Soon after we said no, she stopped “selling”, and started talking about herself. She was Filipino. She was by herself in Morocco, having left her home to find a job and make a living. She had kids she had left behind. She had trained as a nurse, but she had ended up in this job because of stuff that had happened since she left her country. She was hoping to get a better job and improve her life eventually in Miami. Things seemed to be difficult for her – her life story felt a little sad, but she had a cheerful and optimistic demeanor nonetheless. It was an amazing and unique encounter. In the end, she asked us to pray for her.

I was having a problem that last night in Tangier finding a place to get dinner, especially since I was on my own in this endeavor. We were both adjusting to the change in the diet since we left home. We were typically eating much more than usual for breakfast and lunch. Dinner could feel forced, and I was the only one interested that night. I ended up up having a Big Mac for dinner at the tail end of our walk – at the “McDo” near our hotel.It has been many years since I indulged in a Big Mac. I had squashed the craving for this burger for many, many, years!

Beginnings in Rabat

The first leg of our travel to Morocco took us on an Air France flight from the Washington, DC, area to Paris, France.We were to transfer to another flight there that would get us to Casablanca. We would then be taken by road from the airport to Rabat.

Unfortunately, the air traffic controllers had decided to go on strike in France on the day of our arrival in Paris and the number of flights departing the airport had been reduced. (We had been warned about this by the airline earlier, but had no choice about the date of departure from Washington, DC, because of the tour date.) Fortunately, our flight to Casablanca was not cancelled. There also appeared to be no delay in the scheduled time of departure of that flight. It was only after we had boarded the plane and sat in our seats for a while that we were told that there was a two hour delay in the flight, and that they had known about the delay all along. They had boarded us just in case a slot opened up earlier that would allow us to depart before the two hours were up. We ended up sitting in the plane at the gate for almost 3 hours! Passengers began to get more and more irate as time passed but the flight attendants somehow kept their cool. There was a big cheer of relief as we finally departed the gate soon after the clearance was obtained and the announcement was made. (Interestingly enough, there was one passenger who was missing from a seat near us at the time of takeoff. We found out later that she had taken up occupancy in the business class section of the aircraft while we were on the ground. She was sent back to steerage after the flight took off.)

A large percentage of the passengers on the plane were tourists. Many of them seemed to be from the US. Quite a few of us tourists were traveling with the same tour company – Gate1 Travels.

The entry process in Casablanca went off without a hitch, except for a slight delay in finding our baggage carousel because of poor signage. The Gate1 representatives were there to greet us as we exited the airport in spite of the delay. They separated the folks going on three different Gate1 tours so that they could be sent to the correct hotel to meet up with the rest of their tour group.

And then we were on the bus to Rabat. Along the way, we got our first impressions of Morocco. They seemed to have a good highway system. The road that we were on was a toll road.There were housing developments along the roadside,and a lot of unoccupied buildings,some with obvious signs of unfinished construction.

There were signs of some poorer neighborhoods, with ramshackle shacks, and also areas of trash, beside the highway – indicating that there was scope for further development.

The sign for a McDonalds restaurant beside the highway caught me by surprise.

There was a dinner organized for our tour group that evening, and the few us who were on this delayed flight were late for this. They waited for us, and postponed the introduction of the tour to the next day. We met Youssef Afallah, our tour manager, for the first time. Drinks and dinner were enjoyed and we were stuffed. I had my first taste of one of the local beers. It is called, appropriately, Casablanca! We found out that there would be 41 people on this tour. It was quite a large group! (Youssef told me later that the largest group he had managed before this was in the low thirties.)

We were tired because of the red-eye flight the previous night. We were supposed to wake up early the next day for breakfast, but slept late. No worries! Fresh squeezed orange juice and great espresso coffee got us going. I did get this picture of our first Moroccan sunrise from our room before we left for breakfast.

We were staying at the Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses hotel – luxurious accommodations beyond belief to me! They had a nice property that we explored a little bit the two mornings we were there.

Tour introductions were supposed to start at 8:30am after breakfast. Youssef kicked things off. The young man seemed to have things well in hand. He handled the big group deftly, and with a sense of humor. A lot of patience is needed when dealing with such a big and diverse group.

During this session, we found out that there were a few people on the tour who had not yet received their luggage. This was the first opportunity for us to notice Youssef’s endearing ability to take care of each and every one of us individually, and in a very smooth way. He had the most caring personality. Not only that, he answered each of our questions, no matter how silly they may have seemed to him – without any signs of condescension, and with infinite patience. I cannot recollect him forgetting to execute on something that he had promised to do for us some time in the future. I did not see him visibly lose his patience with any one of us. We even saw him go out of his way on many occasions to help us, without hesitation, sometimes even seemingly loosing his infinite patience with the people involved outside of the tour group in order to make sure our issue was resolved.

In the case of the missing luggage, most of the missing bags were expected to arrive at Casablanca airport that evening, and he made arrangements for the people involved to be able to take a taxi to the airport in the evening after the tours to get their luggage, and to return to the hotel. There was one couple that did not get their luggage until a few days later, in Fes. Youssef kept on top of that problem until the luggage was delivered, even making arrangements for a taxi driver in Fes to take the affected people to the airport in Fes to retrieve their luggage and then return to the hotel. He also had a contact in the industry who tracked the missing bags to Fes once they arrived in Casablanca.

We boarded our tour bus, the one that we were going to be using for the next 15 days, after our introductory meeting. We met our driver for the tour, Youssef (the second!?), and helper, Rashid, for the first time.

Youssef gave us an introduction to the history and the peoples of Morocco during the drive to the places we were to visit in town. I will talk about some of what I learnt later. The information was repeated a few times during the later days of the tour, and hopefully I remember it correctly. A similar description of Rabat followed as we approached our first destination in town. Rabat is the capital of Morocco. It is one of the four Imperial Cities of the country. The others are Fes, Marrakech, and Meknes. Youssef is from Meknes, near Fes!

The first stop was at the casbah. In general, casbah means a fortified area. This casbah is in fact a fort.
From the upper level of the casbah,one was able to get a good view of the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.People live in the casbah.Since this is a tourist destination, there are a few small stalls along the way, most featuring local artisans or artists, catering to the visitors. This was also our first introduction to the fact that most of the pets in the town were cats!They were everywhere!

The next stop was at the Mohammed V Mausoleum and Hassan Tower esplanade. This tourist destination includes an unfinished mosque. You can see the changing of the guard in one of the pictures below. They are present at both entrances to the complex. We noticed that the horses were brown on one side of the complex and white on the other side.

The next stop was at the king’s palace. The bus was parked at a mosque that is nearby. We walked to the palace from there. This is a picture of the mosque taken as we were returning to our bus.The facilities at the mosque were used first.This was the first of our many daily experiences with what Youssef called “The Happy Room”. This subject might be worth a diversion in some future blog, but now I must plow on!

In general, we were not allowed to get too close to the palace.

Note that the king has many palaces located all over the country.

The final stop in the morning was at the Mohamed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.There was some compelling art work on display, but we did not have too much time to linger.

Lunch was in a restaurant beside the river that flows through town. This was the first time we got to mingle and chat with some of our fellow travelers.

We got a view of Zaha Hahid‘s opera house on a few occasions as we were driving through town. This was the only clear picture I was able to get of the landmark.

There is another new landmark coming up not too far from the opera house. The Mohammed VI tower (also called the Bank of Africa tower) will be the tallest building in Africa when it is complete. I got a good picture of this place the next morning as we were leaving for Tangier.We drove past the medina in Rabat. Medinas in Morocco are walled old towns where people live. There are usually a lot of narrow alleyways and small shops there. They are fascinating places to visit. We are not stopping at this one, but we will be visiting the famous one in Fes along the way. For the time being, I had to satisfy myself with pictures of the wall of the medina taken from our bus.Those look like satellite TV dishes!

My impressions of Rabat include the fact that it is very clean and well laid out. There are big parks with greenery and trees everywhere. There are public places for people to mingle and participate in sports and other activities. There are people outside, all over town, indulging in social activities. There are roundabouts (traffic circles) everywhere to manage the intersections. Things look organized.

Youssef mentioned that the King wants to use Rabat as an example city for other big cities to follow to transform themselves. A goal is to make them more attractive to visitors, and to also improve the quality of life of people living there. Another random observation – there is more of an official uniformed presence on the streets than we are used to in the US. There are different kinds of police with different colored uniforms. There are also rules against taking pictures of the police. I noticed that the security guards (not the police) wear black suits everywhere they are present.

The areas that we visited in Rabat felt quite modern, dare I say westernized, although I suspect that the inside of the city’s medina is likely to be quite different.

Later in the evening, after the official tour for the day was over, just to get out of the hotel, we took a walk with another couple who were more familiar with the area near the hotel. I had thought that the hotel was located far away from the city, but a short walk on a road over a hill brought us to a commercial section of town. We went to a very modern mall. The place was packed with people. There was some entertainment being provided by a band in one of the locations. A crowd had gathered.We picked up some food items from a massive market in the lower level of the mall. Day turned into night as we departed the mall. We stopped for gelato on the way back. It was dark by the time we got back to the hotel. I had picked up a sandwich for dinner from the food court in the mall. They had both a McDonalds and a Burger King. Heck, I think I even sighted a Dominos Pizza across the food court! I wanted no part of American fast food that evening! I picked up a chicken sandwich from a local establishment (that could have been part of a local chain) – to consume after we returned to our hotel room. It was yummy and filling!

We are starting early tomorrow morning and headed for Tangier in the north.

BTW, the time difference between Moroccan time and Eastern Daylight time in the US is 5 hours. It took us a couple of days to adjust to this time difference.

Still Dreaming Of Morocco

We are back home from our trip to Morocco, but I am not fully here yet mentally. I dreamed of Morocco last night. But I also know that the feelings and memories will fade away quickly. I need to make my statement promptly before that happens. There are things worth remembering. We have experienced so much, and learnt so much about this amazing country and its people. I should be thankful, and grateful, and should also be spreading the word and the feeling – if possible!

I can still hear the voices of my fellow-travelers – 41 of us in all. I can still hear Youssef, our tour manager, as he tries to get our attention – to get us organized for the next move or for the next day, or as he tries to explain something to us, or as he gives us more background information about his country. Daily early morning breakfasts, many before sunrise – fresh omelettes, fruits, pastries, and juices – the chocolate croissants to die for, the orange juice with pulp in it – as we greet our fellow travelers as they sleepily join us in the dining area. We make sure to put our bags outside our room if we are moving to a new town that day. And then we are on the road once again, all counted and accounted for by our always smiling and efficient helper, Rashid – to see new places, to learn new things, to meet new people – the wonderful people of Morocco. Rashid gives each of us a bottle of water as we get going. Our driver, the other Youssef, gets us from point A to point B, with intermediate stops along the way, quietly and safely every day. He negotiates the tough spots smoothly. He does not do anything rash. He is patient. The big motor coach cannot be easy to manage.

We covered the entire nation of Morocco during our 15 days of wandering, starting off in the capital city of Rabat. We then visited the northern city of Tangier, the gateway to Africa from Europe. After that we headed into the Rif mountains, heading southeast to Chefchouen, the Blue City. Two nights were spent in the old religious center of Fes. We then crossed the Middle Atlas Mountains and the High Atlas Mountains – through mountain passes and over the high plains – to the get to Erfoud and the Sahara desert. Then it was onward and westward to the UNESCO Heritage site of Ait Benhaddou; then over the High Atlas mountains to the madhouse that is Marrakech. Finally, we crossed over the High Atlas mountains once again, to head to the beach and resort towns of Agadir and Essaouira, before completing the trip in Casablanca. The above list does not even begin to touch upon the various other places that we passed through and even visited along the way. We were rocking the casbahs and the medinas of the towns we visited!

I am not sure yet how to tell the entire story. Perhaps it will emerge in non-linear fashion. And I did take notes this time, perhaps for the first time on a trip like this.

But I do also feel that I need to try to provide a highlight reel of pictures before I start to tell the story, even though it is bound to be incomplete. The most complete set of pictures will be posted in a Pbase album, and some of these pictures will be used in further blogs that I will create to break down the trip and provide more information.

The pictures will be further identified in their contexts in future blogs.

The In-Between Time

There is no rest! We are off on another adventure out of the country later this week – assuming all goes well! The last time we prepared for a visit to this particular country, there was a bad accident on the trail just a week before we were scheduled to travel. It disrupted all plans. Hope things do not go awry this time. This time we have the uncertainties of travel during the time of COVID.

Meanwhile, life has been moving a fast pace in the time in-between. Two wedding celebrations, including the one during the trip to Colorado (that I wrote about), and two different singing gigs dominated.

Thankfully, I have also been able to put in a couple of volunteer sessions at Manna in the time in-between, and meet up with friends who I had not seen in a while. As I might have mentioned in the past, this is the place I come to to clear my mind of my worldly concerns. It is amazing how it happens!

We have not been able to go for Sunday walks during this time, but we made time for the weekly bike rides. Talking about the canal and the towpath, this is the time of the pawpaws. There was fruit lying on the trail the last time we went out, and I could even smell it in the air.

The second of the music gigs that I mentioned above was the participation of the chorus in the Gaithersburg Labor Day parade. I have not done anything like this before. It was a very gratifying experience even though the conditions for singing were not very good. We were on a float, we were moving forward steadily (the audience changed even during the course of a song), we had to keep changing the direction we were facing to sing to people all around us, and we did not have a good amplification system, especially for this kind of a setup. Nevertheless, folks seemed to appreciate our presence. They smiled, they waved, and they clapped their hands. Some people attempted to sing with us. Older folks perhaps recognized some of the barbershop standards. The kids in the passing audience stared at us with wonder. Perhaps they will remember us. I had a blast.

Finally, a quiz question! From this picture, can you tell me the city where we went to celebrate the second wedding I mention in the blog?

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine

This concept forms the basis of Information Theory. In digital communications, it places an absolute limit on the maximum possible rate at which data can be transmitted on a channel reliably. This limit is theoretical, and the challenge is to implement coding schemes that can get us closer and closer to such limits in real systems.

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine

How Claude Shannon’s Concept of Entropy Quantifies Information | Quanta Magazine