The Ourika Valley and Dinner in Marrakech

I did not realize it at that time, but this was about the time that the pace of the tour started to slow down – bit by little bit.

The second day in Marrakesh was a “free” day for those who chose to hang out in the city on our own. Others of us signed up for a tour of the Ourika Valley.

This is a picture of the front of our hotel as we were preparing to leave for Ourika valley. Without realizing it, I had managed to capture the image of a security officer in the frame. I have a feeling he deliberately took action to hide his face.

There was a person selling pictures that he had taken of us the previous day. He had set himself up next to the bus we were boarding. It was not uncommon to have vendors come up to our bus as we were getting off or boarding to sell us things.

Our first stop in the valley was to visit a Berber home. We were told that the home over over 130 years old. 6 people live here. Two women were helping to take care of the tour groups wandering around their home. We had access to all areas of the home except the bedrooms.

There was a tea ceremony in the main room of the house at the end of the tour, its timing having been adjusted so that the family living in the house could manage the multiple tour groups moving through their home.

Tea ceremonies are used for occasions like meetings of tribes or meeting of families for match making. Sometimes, the outcomes of the meetings can be signaled via the process of the tea ceremony itself, for example, by the use of sugar in the tea.

This is a picture of the royal family in the area where we had the tea ceremony. A picture of the king is apparently a common sight in homes in Morocco. The picture above turns out to be a somewhat ironic commentary on the state of relationships in the royal family. Breaking with tradition, King Mohammed VI had married a commoner, Lalla Salma (top left of picture). They had met in a social setting when they were young. The princess consort turned out to be popular. She has served as a representative for the country at different international gatherings. She has also championed progressive projects in the country over the years. However, since those times, there has apparently been a falling out in the family. She has not been seen in any public role for years. The pictures still remain!

We drove to the end of the road along the Ourika river and valley, with a stop along the way for enjoying the scenery. I thought the view at that particular spot was not as spectacular as those we had already experienced. There were locals selling merchandise along the roadside.
There were a few camels in the area where we stopped, probably to give rides to the tourists. One of them had two of its legs tied together loosely with rope, perhaps to prevent it from trying to walk away. It had some difficulty moving and seemed uncomfortable. I did not enjoy seeing that.

The valley was actually quite pretty in many other locations. I took pictures from the moving bus.

We reached the end of the road where the bus had to turn around. There was a restaurant, empty at that time, on the other side of the Ourika river, with bridges across the river allow customers to reach it. The restaurant actually stretched out for a long distance along the side of the river. This is a view of one particular section.

In general, the road itself did not seem to be designed for use by tourist buses like the one we were on. It was narrow in places, with occasional overhangs where the branches of trees would scrape against the bus.

We stopped on the way back to town at a restaurant for use of the restrooms and for relaxation. I was feeling a little nervous about my innards at that point and stayed away from food and drink. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

Here is a view from the rest area.These are other views during the ride.

The next stop on our way back was at the botanical gardens for a tour. This place specialized in herbs.
After the tour, we had a relaxed barbecue lunch of chicken and ground beef with cooked Moroccan salad, all prepared on the outdoor grill.  We ate outdoors in the company of the noisy birds and the one cat begging for food.

This was the end of the tours for the day. We were going to be on our own the rest of the day. We had had a lovely and relaxed time so far. We walked back to the main road to get on the bus to head back to the hotel.

We were able to relax in our hotel room in the afternoon.

We took a walk into town in the evening. We first walked to the train station. It was located on the Boulevard Mohammed VI, the road that the hotel was close to.The opera house is next to the train station, on the other side of the traffic circle.We then walked the streets to the Jemma el-Fna square.

It was late in the evening by the time we got to the square.
We walked around looking for a place where we could eat with a good view overlooking the square. We encountered some other members of our tour group enjoying the evening from one of the cafes beside the square during our wanderings. We chatted with them and moved on.

We ended up at Zeitoun restaurant, seen in this picture taken the morning of the previous day. (The restaurant is to the right side of the picture.)

We headed up to the terrace of the restaurant. (The sides of the terrace are covered by transparent plastic sheets in the picture above, but the sheets had all been moved out of the way be the time we arrived in the evening.) We were greeted by our waiter to be, Aadnane. He was a very friendly chap who appeared to be completely at ease in dealing with tourists like us. (For some reason, I was thinking that he must have been exposed to cultures outside of his country.) The restaurant seemed to be somewhat full. We first parked ourselves on a low sofa seat next to the railing overlooking the square – facing the bright setting sun. It was a little uncomfortable. We got a promise from Aadnane that we would be seated at a more comfortable table next to the railing as soon as the couple that was currently seated in that location departed. Aadnane also passed on this message to his compatriot serving customers on the terrace. It was a promise that was kept.

I sensed that all of the customers on the terrace were tourists. Some folks were there just to chill out, having some snacks and drinks (non-alcoholic, apparently due to the proximity to a few mosques), waiting for the sun to set. (I tried the non-alcoholic beer. I should have known ahead of time that this would not be satisfying.)
One couple seated close to us just started playing cards at their table – with a promise to the waiter that they would order dinner later. The staff did not seem to mind. Consider that these were the prime seats in the restaurant, with the best view of the square and the sunset. There was no push to try to get us out of the way and maximize their income. Nobody rushed us while we were there. I was impressed.

A unique and unforgettable scene unfolded below and around us as the sun set.

The place was completely alive! The lights were being turned on for the evening for the shops that had been set up on the square. The tourists were wandering around in droves. There was another restaurant like ours on the other side of the square where tourists were also enjoying the scene. There was the one vendor of toys walking around shooting off some lighted toy high into the sky above the crowds, letting it slowly drift back down to earth, and retrieving it every time it landed on the ground. I kept looking at what he was doing, drawn to the lit-up object going up and down in the sky – in the midst of all the other random activity going on the square below it. The whole environment was completely mesmerizing.

Aadnane kept up his good spirits when serving our food, playing a joke on me when he brought out it out, leading me to believe for an instant that there was some kind of a problem with the order when there was not. The food was tasty, but there was too much of it! Between the food and the activity in the square, we were truly transported to a different place and kind of experience. What a superb and unique way to celebrate my birthday! We paid our bill downstairs, on our way out of the restaurant, after dinner. Aadnane accompanied us downstairs, offering us rosewater to clean our hands. He was, hopefully, happy with the tip that we left him!

As we started on our way back to the hotel, we passed just opened food stalls that were packed into the center of the square.Hustlers were stopping the passers-by inviting them for a meal.(We had been warned earlier by Youssef about eating at these kinds of places.)

We passed the now lit up juice stalls we had seen during the day.

These are shots taken as we departed the square.
After leaving the area we continued to walk through streets far away from the square that were still busy with activity even though it was late in the evening. We then got on some quieter streets with very few people around – trying to not look like tourists! We were alert even though the streets did seem to be safe in that part of town. The median on Mohammed VI Boulevard was a notable landmark as we neared our destination.

Soon we were back in our hotel room reliving the events of another wonderful day in Morocco!

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

The First Day In Marrakech

The breakfast spread at the hotel we were staying at in Marrakech was superlative even by the high standards we had gotten used to so far in our trip, and the service was also excellent. We arrived at the restaurant early enough that morning that the omelette stand was still not opened. The server had to summon the responsible person from the back room. The omelettes that were delivered to our table were incredibly fluffy. The variety of the food available was astounding. There was also a massive assortment of wonderful pastries to try for breakfast. There we plenty of fruit. It was all too much for a single morning. I ended up trying different pastries each day. Of course, the chocolate croissant was the constant every day. They had a bank of really fancy industrial strength coffee machines lined up in another section. It was easy to experiment with different kinds of coffee, and I did just that. You could also order freshly made orange juice from another location.

We had a surprise when we gathered outside the hotel for the tours of the day. Youssef, our tour manager, was not to be seen. Instead, we were met by our local tour guide (whose name I have sadly forgotten!), and we were taken on the bus to our first destination of the day.I had visions of Youssef having been pulled away to handle some kind of crisis or the other. He always seemed to be busy.

We got a further introduction to the history and culture of this area of North Africa on our way to the central mosque of the city. The whole of North Africa used to be populated by the Amazighs, or the Berbers as they came to be called. It was noted that the borders between countries in North Africa were created by colonists. Our guide claimed that the Berber language originated in Egypt. (Here is an interesting video about the Amazighs today.)

Marrakech itself is the southern center for religion in Morocco, Fez being the other one. The city was founded in the 11th century.

We encountered the people seen in the picture below as we were walking to our first destination. I happened to snap this picture. It turns out that they were dressed in the attire of traditional water-carriers, also called “guerrab“. Unfortunately for them, their business has dried up since the advent of plastic water bottles.

One of the guys approached me as we were leaving asking for money. He had noticed me taking their picture. I parted with a few dirhams. In keeping with what we had been told earlier on in the trip, I had expected this kind of an expense to be taken care of by the tour guide, but Youssef was missing, and our local guide was probably not fully informed!

The first place we visited was the central mosque, called Koutoubia. The Jemma el-Fna square and Koutoubia are both central to Marrakesh. Koutoubia means library. The mosque is claimed to be the oldest one in Morocco. It has a capacity of 2000 worshipers. It was designed for expansion. You can see the stubs for the pillars that were planned for this expansion in the picture below.

The next stop was the Saadian Tombs. They are named after the royal family that built them. In keeping we the nature of place we were visiting, we were informed about a few of the burial customs. Bodies have to be buried within 24 hours. They are buried on their right side facing east. The wife wears white during the mourning period when her husband dies. After four months and 10 days (to make sure she’s not pregnant, for inheritance reasons) she can then take another husband. Men have to only wait 40 days before they are allowed to remarry!

It is a custom among the locals visit tombs every Friday to pray for their family members, after which they go to the mosque for prayer.

Here are some pictures from the visit:

There were many tour groups of  foreigners (with guides) in the space. The picture above is of the actual entrance today to the complex of the tombs. The entrance is very narrow!

Youssef made his appearance at around this time, I cannot now remember exactly when. I was relieved to see him. It seems that he had been missing only because he had overslept! There was some joking around, including mention of him being on Moroccan time that day. We could not begrudge him some additional sleep. The man was working very hard to take care of us!

We walked to our next destination via the square of the Jewish section, or mellah, of the town. We were told that caravans used to arrive at this location and that there used to be Caravanserai in the area. The synagogue still remains. We had learnt earlier that many of the the Jewish people emigrated to Israel after the formation of that country in 1948.

We continued onward to the Bahia Palace on the busy streets. The smell of urine mingled with the smell of perfume.

Building of the sprawling complex of the Bahia Palace started only in the 19th century,i.e., it is relatively new by historical standards. It was named after the favorite wife of Si Moussa (also spelt Si Musa), grand vizir of the sultan, the person who built the place. It was a gift to her. The area of the palace was developed over many generations.

I did not do a good job keeping track of where we were within the complex itself. I only noted a few of the spaces that we walked through.

Based on my notes, I believe this was the open air patio of the guest house.

We saw the dining room and family rooms of the pasha of Marrakesh. The pasha had religious and political authority. (Vizier was only a political position.) The french apparently stole furniture when they left the Protectorate.

Our guide talked about the application of polygamy in Morocco. We were told that men had many wives in earlier times because there were less men than women around in times past due to the deaths during wars. It was supposed to be a way to support the women. (Hah!)

The buildings in the palace had roofs with detailed and exquisite designs.

The picture below shows the ablution area at the entrance to a classroom. Our guide spoke to us about the cleaning ritual before going into a mosque, something that was apparently followed by the students entering the classroom.

The picture below shows the amplification room in the classroom for the teacher. Anybody speaking from this space could be easily heard all over the room.There were a few gardens in the palace and a couple of courtyards. The picture below is of the smaller courtyard.

We gathered as a group after the visit to the palace to walk to our next stop.

At the culinary museum, we got to sit down and rest for a while before starting the tour again. We were served tea and cookiesin the atrium.

We then walked to the famous Jemma el-Fna square through the souk. I enjoyed the experience. It was more comfortable than the medina in Fez. The spaces were wider, but we still had to dodge motorbikes, bikes, carts, etc.. Vendors were trying to sell their wares along the way but they were not overly aggressive.

And then we were entering the hustle and bustle of Jemma el-Fnaa square.  Since it was still only morning time, it was perhaps not as busy as it could have been, but I loved the atmosphere and the sensations anyway!

Some of the places for dining in and around the square were pointed out to us. We would have two more evenings in Marrakesh when we would be on our own for dinner.

I would be remiss if I did not talk about the snake charmer experience in the square. It is one of the things that is mentioned in the context of the Jemma el-Fna square experience. Although it was interesting, the experience did not live up to the hype. The snakes might have been drugged and the poisonous ones perhaps even defanged. The snake charmers were in it obviously to extract money from the tourists. The cobras may even have been bored and disinterested in the proceedings.

There is the general atmosphere of a carnival, or a fair, in the square and things actually got more exciting later in the day after the sun set. I noticed a monkey that had gotten lose from its owner and was scurrying about amongst the visitors creating its little bit of excitement. It must have belonged to a person providing some form of entertainment for the visitors. There was a person walking around on stilts. Later on in the evening, there was entertainment being provided by musicians in an open area of the square. The square was meant to be a fun place for the tourists.

The guided program for the day ended at the square. We were going to be on our for the rest of the day, including lunch and dinner.

We joined up with a couple of our new friends from the tour and walked out of the square onto Princes Street for lunch. This area had been pointed out to us a having restaurants with grilled (or was it barbecued?) food. We walked over to a restaurant that had an open area on the upper floor overlooking the street. The place was not crowded and we could sit back for a relaxed lunch, experiencing the action in the streets.

It was a very chilled out atmosphere while having our lunch. It is somewhat challenging to put into words what I was feeling. We were visitors in an exotic land, basically soaking in the ambiance and atmosphere of a somewhat alien place, but ultimately we were being absorbed into this space and becoming one with it. We were immersed in the Marrakech experience! We belonged to the space!

One of the aspects of this restaurant experience that I appreciated was the fact that we did not feel rushed at any time while we were there. There was no waiter hovering over us and asking us questions constantly, there was no sense that we were expected to leave after eating within a certain period of time, and the waiter was quite relaxed and friendly in his interactions. No pressures, no worries! We could basically completely chill out. What we experienced that day at lunch was not an isolated episode in Morocco. We had the same feeling the next day, in a different place, under different circumstances, when it was actually quite crowded and busy in the restaurant. It was a very different feeling from what I am used to in and around town in our neck of the woods. It was clear that attitudes as far as the dining experience is concerned can be very different in different places.

We walked back to the hotel after lunch.

The organized activities of the day were over early, and we had the rest of the day to ourselves. We were tired since the morning had been very hectic. This was a our opportunity to relax after all the busyness of the trip so far.

We even stayed in our room for dinner that evening, trying to finish off some of the food that we had bought in Tangier (for the lunch in Chefchaouen!).

I have to add that it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.  In fact, the whole trip has been amazing so far – and we have a few more days to go!

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

The visit to Ksar Ait Ben Haddou, and then on to Marrakech

The morning was a bit cloudy as we prepared to depart our hotel and visit the fortified village of the clan Ben Haddou.

It was almost too chilly for us to partake of breakfast outside the hotel’s restaurant, next to the pool, before we departed, but we did just that!

The household animals in the rooftop enclosure just below the terrace opposite our hotel room were all awake and about as we left our rooms.

Youssef patiently waited for us as we all boarded the bus to head out to the ksar. Since we were checking out of the hotel, he had to make sure that all of our belongings had been loaded on to the bus before departure.

We heard a little bit about the history of the town on our way to the ksar. Its importance in times past came from its location along the Trans-Saharan trade route to Marrakech. This particular route followed the Ounila river valley.

We were dropped off in a part of the town not too far from the ksar.

We made our way on foot from the main road where the bus was parked to the bridge across the dry Ounila river.We could see one of the ksar’s kasbahs across the river.

A walkway marked with white stones lay not to far away from the bridge on the dry riverbed. One could cross over from the main road and the newer sections of the town to the ksar itself on the river on foot, and seemingly even on horseback.

Once we crossed the river over the bridge,we began our climb to the agadir, or granary, at the top of the ksar.Some of the stores for the tourists were beginning to open as we made our way up the hill.

The general theme of Hollywood movie making in Morocco (continuing from the experience of our drive through Ouarzazate the previous day) continued in the ksar. Many movies have been filmed in this area. The climb to the top of the hill was actually relatively short. We got some good views of the river and the rest of the town of Ait Ben Haddou across from the river as we climbed.
The climb was a little bit challenging in a couple of stretches, but these stretches were short. Finally, our destination!

We got some magnificent views from the top of the hill.

We did not linger too long on the hill. We were on a schedule! We started making our way back to the bus.We did some shopping on the way down.

The brown color in the artwork produced by the artist in the picture below comes from mint tea being applied to the paper, and then the paper being heated up over a burner.

After descending the hill, we crossed the river to get back to the bus and were soon on our way to Marrakech.

We got our last pictures of Ksar Ait Ben Haddou from the main road on our way out of town.

We were going to cross the Tizin’ Tishka pass on our way to Marrakesh that day. The highway across the High Atlas mountains was built by the French. The intent was to make it easier to exploit the country for its natural resources – including its minerals and precious metals. Moroccans generally have a negative reaction when talking about the impacts of french colonization.

There was significant road construction on the N9 highway to Marrakech. We were warned about the possibility of this slowing slowing us down.

This is a picture taken during the initial part of the drive.

Soon we were driving through the valley of the Imini river. The Imini is a tributary of the Tidili. The Tidili feeds into the Draa, the longest river in Morocco. We could have actually taken the road beside the Ounila river and the old Trans-Saharan trading route to the Tizi n’Tichka pass, and seen more of the artifacts of the old Moroccan towns along the old trade route if we had done that, but that would have taken too much time.

We got some good views of the valley during this initial part of the drive.

Soon after we left the river valley we reached our lunch stop.

You could get a good view of the mountains we were going to be crossing from the restaurant.

Youssef spoke to us about the tourism industry in Morocco. He noted that Morocco used to be a hot destination for tourism, especially for musicians and other entertainers. The pandemic was a difficult time for them because tourism drives a lot of other related work in the country, and all of this dried up. The king introduced universal health care and social security for everybody because of the situation. All Moroccans can register.

I had time to make some notes on a few other random elements of the visit to Morocco during this section of the drive. This is what I wrote:
The drive on many of the days of this trip has so far been over reasonable distances – distances that are too long. We have always had time to make stops along the way – for bathroom breaks and some local tourism, and for learning new things. It is always something different that we are exposed to. There is a lot of information to absorb about the country. And at the end of the day we are comfortably tired, and may even have some spare time on our hands.

Youssef has been really good about pacing things out, and keeping his sense of humor while taking care of people and managing the big group.

And then it was back to watching the scenery!

It was a cloudy day for the drive across the High Atlas mountains. Soon we were approaching the mountains.We were about to drive up the road you can see half way up the mountainside in the picture above. The road beyond that point, as yet unseen, would also take us past the mountain seen in the background in the picture.

As we had been warned about, there was a lot of road construction and widening of these roads going on in the mountains. Green valleys lay below us and towering peaks above us as we wound our way up and down the mountain sides. From the distance, we could see the fields in the valley, and the little villages with houses made of adobe.  We had just driven through this valley to get to where we were currently.

One of the pictures above actually also shows the alternate route from Ait Ben Haddou to Tizin’ Tishka through the Ounila Valley – the historical route of the caravans.

The views as we got closer to Tizin’ Tishka were spectacular. There were towering peaks around us. The narrow winding road snaked its way up to the pass.

It was foggy on the other side of the pass. The vegetation was supposed to be different on both sides of the pass, but I could not see anything just yet!

And then we descended below the clouds into a sequence of zigzags and hairpin bends that took us straight down the mountainside, dropping us hundreds of feet to a valley with a flowing stream – with signs of regular life, including green fields, homes and commercial establishments.

Newly paved roadway cut through the black rock in the higher sections of the road. Black rock changed to brown as we descended further into the valley.

The roads were wet as Youssef, our driver, got us safely down to the lower elevations.

And then we were climbing once again, into a fog that was as thick as pea soup. We made slow and steady progress. It was also raining. It was wet, wet, wet – nothing could be seen outside the windows of the bus in certain sections! Finally, we were able to pull up to a rest area. We made our way towards a barely visible building with its restaurant and rest rooms,while Youssef waited beside the bus.

The fog cleared up after rest stop. We got to Marrakesh shortly after that.

Some of the women on the bus indicated that they wanted to experience a Moroccan Hammam, which is a bath in a traditional bathhouse, in Marrakech. Youssef suggested doing it in Essaouira. I learned more about hammams. It is generally a place that women in a community can go to with their friends as a social activity. This is where information (and gossip) about the community is shared. Family alliances may also be discussed! From a practical perspective, women can help each other in the bathing activity – by rubbing soap on the backsides of friends, or even other people they have made arrangements with, people who have their confidence!

Once we got to Marrakech, we were first driven to the famous Jemaa el-Fnaa Square in order to help us get our overall bearings. The Koutoubia Mosque is also located near the square. (Youssef mentioned that nobody in Marrakesh is allowed to construct a building higher than the minaret of the mosque.) We were given instructions for managing on our own in town.  Youssef noted that Marrakech was a somewhat crazy place. We were warned about the dangerous elements of the place, and about having to be cautious. We were given instructions about getting around town, including the cost of taxis and other forms of transportation for exploration. Landmarks were pointed out to us as the bus was driven to our hotel, the Movenpick. Youssef also got us maps from the hotel. We could actually explore on foot.

I noticed that all the houses in Marrakesh were painted pink. It turns out that cities in Morocco have color codes for their houses. Each city has a different color code. It is against the regulations to paint the homes in a different color, and one can be fined for doing something like this. It is also interesting that a similar kind of color code holds true for the taxis that ply in the cities. Each city has taxis in a particular color unique to the city.

We checked into our hotel soon after. We happened to be in a very modern part of town, with the broad expanse of the Boulevard Mohammed VI located close to the hotel. We were able to walk to the Menara Mall close by to find a restaurant where we could get dinner. It was a rainy evening.

We were scheduled to spend three nights in Marrakech, our longest stay in any one place during this trip.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

The Moods of the Cacapons

We spent a weekend in a cabin in the hills of West Virginia. The cabin was in a location that was truly off the beaten path. The closest town was the hamlet of Great Cacapon. The village lay beside the Potomac river to the north of the mountain on which the cabin was located. (I have seen Great Cacapon from the other side of the Potomac river when hiking on the the C&O Canal towpath.)

We had to leave the main road at Great Cacapon and drive on a smaller country road running along the Cacapon River to get to our destination. The place was remote enough that the bridge over the Cacapon river that we had to cross at one point was definitely not designed for use in times of high water. In fact it was called the low water bridge.The bridge was apparently also not strong enough to support heavy equipment. That was probably the the reason for the poorer quality of the road surface on the other side of the bridge.As we neared our destination, we turned off this local road and drove up the side of the Cacapon Mountain ridge on a even less developed gravel and grave dirt road to get to the cabin. This road is probably accessible only to 4x4s in winter, and its slope in parts was significant enough that I would have been nervous about driving a vehicle with a high center of gravity and a narrow wheel base over it. And, of course, the quality of the tire tread was also quite important in this situation.The setting for the cabin was outstanding.and its amenities were plentiful.

It was important to arrive at the cabin with all the supplies one needed for the weekend because of its isolated location.

We got a good feel for the moods of the mountain over the next few days.

It was a weekend of relaxation, mountain walks, games, and last but not the least, watching some of the games of the soccer world cup. It was a great way for me to try to get back into the flow of things at home after having been out of the country for over a month.

To Ait Ben Haddou

I took a picture of the sink in our hotel room in Erfoud before we set out on the road to Ait Ben Haddou (also called Ait Benhaddou). As one can see, there are a few fossils embedded in the granite. Considering that all of the rooms in the hotel had sinks, and a few other items of decoration, of the same nature, it is an indication of the prevalence of fossils in products from this part of the world. I would never have guessed!

We started our journey for the day early, as usual. We turned west as we left the hotel premises and headed back towards the middle sections of the country, away from the desert.

The adobe structures along the roadside were familiar by now.

So were the fields of alfalfa and the date trees.

We drove past a system of water wells called Ketthara (use Google Translate to read the English translation of the link!) just outside of Erfoud. Even though we were close to the edge of the desert, there used to be a system for underground water distribution in this area. A series of underground connections is used to carry the water to these wells. The ketthara is not in use today.

I got a fleeting glimpse of the flag of the Amazighs as we were driving past it, but I could not get a good picture of it. This is what it looks like in its fullness. You can read about the symbolism in this flag here. The flag is relatively new, first having been proposed in the 1970s, and then becoming official in 1997. If you also consider the fact that the language of the Amazighs was made an official language of the country of Morocco only very recently, one gets the impression that the recognition of these native peoples of North Africa is on the upswing in recent years.

We passed wild Barbary Sheep. They are reddish, the color of the rocks. Fortunately, these animals have not gone the way of the Barbary Lions. I could not get a picture of these animals.

We drove through a number of towns like the one in the pictures below.This particular town had a few colorful compounds.

We saw many school kids that day. It appears that they have classes on Saturday!

We saw this writing in many places on the mountainsides in the countryside. It reads “God, country and king”.

In yet another town, I took this picture of a sign at a gas station. The price of gas (petrol) indicated here translates to roughly 6 dollars a gallon. The current prime minister of Morocco, who also happens to own one of the companies importing oil and gas into the country, apparently has a role in setting these prices. There is unhappiness in the general population over the steep increase in the cost of gas recently. Tthe prime minister has been accused of corruption in this regard.

After reaching the town of Tinghir (on the highway N10), we turned right off the highway to continue our drive through the town – to head into the Todra valley close by.

This is a picture taken as we were heading out of town. You can see the traditional clothing of the women of this particular town. The nature of the clothing worn by the the locals can actually change from town to town.

The picture below shows a valley we had to cross on our way to Todra gorge. The green of the valley from the fields of date trees and alfalfa is striking. We had to drive over a dry stream bed at the bottom of the valley to get to the other side. We eventually ascended up the other side of this valley. You can see the road that we took in the picture.

Todra (also called Todgha) gorge was stunning. I took a walk on the other side of the waters of the Todra river, inadvertently getting one of my sandals wet in the river on my way across. It dried up nicely as I made my way further upstream.

Black long haired goats with pointy horns, and donkeys, hung out closer to the building seen in the above picture.
It was a busy place. It was a place for locals to visit during the weekend. The weather was also nice.

There were vendors selling their goods,and families picnicking on the other side of the river. There also were panhandlers.

I got closer to the building that I had taken a picture of earlier. This used to be a hotel. It was destroyed in a flooding incident a few years ago and never reopened.

We retraced our path back to Tinghir for lunch. Tinghir turned out to be a big city. We had a nice lunch at the restaurant whose entrance is pictured below.

Moroccan dishes included tajine couscous and vermicelli. Almost all lunches and dinners that we were served in Morocco during the trip included fruit for dessert. Sliced melons and grapes were the most common fruits.  We were also offered many local specialties.

The next landmark that we reached was the Dades Valley (also called the Valley of the Roses). We drove on a section of a road called The Road Of A Thousand Kasbahs. I struggled to identify specific Kasbahs. This is one that I managed to take a picture of as we approached Ouarzazate.

Roses were introduced in Morocco by the French. They have a rose Festival in this part of the world that lasts a week. We were told that the Jewish people initially populated this area of Morocco.

This is a picture of one of the towns we drove through in the Dades valley. You can see the bus station for the town in the picture below. It is on the same side of valley as we were.

Views like the one captured below opened up to us as we got closer to Quarzazate.

Ouarzazate used to be a movie studio town. It is now a tourist destination. The castle for Game of Thrones was set up here. Some well known movies were made in these parts over the years. The two studios associated with the town are The Atlas Corporation Studios, and CLA Studios.

The picture below shows a set that has been constructed in the desert for filming purposes only. It is not a regularly occupied structure.

Our drive took us not too far from the Quarzazate solar power station. It is the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant. It is mostly a thermal solar power plant, with a small section generating power from photovoltaic cells. From the distance you can only see the tower in which the molten salt is formed from the focused radiated energy of the field of solar reflectors.

We were staying in the Riad Ksar Ighnda Kasbah in Ait Ben Haddou that night. A few miles after we left Ouarzazate, we took a turn off highway N9 onto one of the local roads, and we continued our drive west beside the Ounila river for the last few miles to reach our destination. We were told that that the Ounila was a salty river because of the minerals in the mountains. The road to Ait Ben Haddou that we were taking used to be the route of the caravans traveling along the Ounila Valley to Marakkesh in times past.

Our hotel turned out to be a unique and impressive establishment. Our room, in a building separated from the main Kasbah, was at the highest level of the building and adjacent to a terrace. It might have been one of the better rooms in the hotel. We could get a good view of our surroundings from the terrace, including a distant view of the Ksar Ait Ben Haddou itself.The picture below offers a zoomed in view of the hill at Ksar Ait Ben Haddou – with its agadir, or granary, on top. It appears as a dot in the picture above!

We stayed in at the hotel for dinner, and for breakfast the next day. The meals were all very sumptuous – as usual. Of note was the small fried fish (which I suspect were sardines) that tasted remarkably like the fried fish we used to eat as children growing up in India. Enjoyed it all!

This is a picture of our hotel taken from our hotel room later in the night.
This was a view from our room early the next morning.

We stayed only one night at Ait Ben Haddou. We would be climbing up the hill at Ksar Ait Ben Haddou after checking out of the hotel the next morning. We would then depart for Marrakech.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

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.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.

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.

You can read the next blog in this sequence here.