Days 6-7: Kicking it Berber style

Morocco_2009-2010 050Fes to Merzouga (Erg Chebbi)

One of the perks to living in an Islamic city is that there is no need for an alarm clock. The frightening sound of the Muezzin calling for early prayer from the smokestack minarets pierces into any dream no matter how wonderful. On this morning, the call was welcoming because we needed to meet Abdul, our Berber guide for a drive to the desert. Missy and I piled into the Mercedes grand taxi, while Melody and Kristof chased after us in the car that they had rented.
We drove through the snowless ski mountains of Ifrane and forded a 50 meter meter flooded part of the road going through the Rif mountains, Oregon trail style. Then we stopped in a small one street town in the countryside while Abdul and the driver stopped to pray leaving the four of us to wait disgustedly in front of a restaraunt where full goat carcasses hung right next to the grill. Since it was Friday, the “Muslim Sabbath,” the prayer session took like an hour longer (more than the promised 10 minutes). As we waited, to entertain ourselves, I made friends with a local restaraunt owner who let me sample the face and brain from a pot of boiling goat heads.

Morocco_2009-2010 039

We then took off through the cedar forrests of the Middle Atlas mountains and then after through the Ziz Valley, where the milenia of running river beds dragged a rake across the snaking canyon faces. We arrived at the Auberge (hotel) in the pitch dark and were greated with Tajine and beer by a hashish smoking guide of another group of Brazilians who accompanied us on our travels.

The next morning, we woke up and walked around the compound that we could not realy see the night before due to darkness. Missy and I walked outside the gate for a second and we started jumping up and down in excitement because of the scene that was presented to us- an endless rolling sea of yellow-orange Saharan sand with dunes piled ontop of each other in a shoving match. I ran to the first dune I saw, throwing sand like confetti that was taken by the desert wind to a nearby camel (dromadaire to be precise) who was standing pensively looking at me, an ameuture who is used to regular rainfall preventing soil from becoming sand.

Morocco_2009-2010 070 Morocco_2009-2010 047That day we piled into a 4×4 and drove through the “Black Desert” to see a Berber tribe play Gnawa music, then to a lake with flamingos and then returned to our Auberge for the camel (dromadair) excursion. It took an hour to caravan to the touristy tenting area in the desert and as we arrived the sun was setting. The group wanted to climb a steep mountain dune 1000 feet high to see the sun fall off into the horizon. Our eyes were certainly bigger than our muscles as climbing that beast, through the deep sand and took an immense amount of energy, but seeing the entire desert change into a glowing neon tangerine hue and the sun become a melting grapefruit was all worth it.

Morocco_2009-2010 064

Morocco_2009-2010 087Missy and I shivered ourselves to sleep that night and woke up early to catch the sun rise, animating the desert. Tragedy took place as three minutes before the crest of the sun appeared, the camera decided to break from all the sand clogging the parts.

Morocco_2009-2010 079

Continue: Marrakesh express

Morocco_2009-2010 051Tips

-Transport from Fes to Erfoud can be accomplished by bus. ONCF, the most reputable line at the time of our trip had one that traveled overnight. This will make you miss the beautiful scenery of the Middle Atlas mountains and Ziz valley on the 8 hour ride. We found a price of the grand taxi of 2000 dh ($250). Abdul, our guide charged us 3000 dh ($380) for Missy and I for a ride, one night in the Auberge, meals, travel around Merzouga for the day to see sites and one night camel excursion.

-A better way to go to the desert we found out is through Marrakesh. There are more trip outfitters and with more competition, lower prices. Although in our experience we were able to avoid acting like typical tourists and learn much more about Moroccans by interacting with Abdul, we could have avoided using such a shady guide.

-You should not enter Merzouga without a guide. They will circle you like vultures upon arriving and supposedly can take advantage of you such as initially charging 50 euros and then at the end claiming they charged 200 euros and there is no regulation down there.

-To travel from Merzouga to Marrakesh, you need to find a ride to Tinehir (I believe) and there you can find several buses that can take you to Marrakesh. This is a long and miserable ride and you will drive through the High Atlas Mountains at night arriving very late to the ochre city. A better way is to spend the night in Ourzazatte (try to check out Aiit Ben Haddou nearby!!!) and enter Marrakesh the next day.

-Dress warm for the nights- especially in the winter- because it is quite cold int he desert.

-Take care of your toilet needs before you leave if you can because there is only a Berber toilet in the desert (sand) with little trees to hide your business.

Continue: Marrakesh express

Days 4-5: Fes- taking a bath in Morocco’s spiritual core

Morocco_2009-2010 033Fes, Morocco

We took the train from Meknes to Fes at noon and were picked up by the owner of the Dar that we were staying at- Bernard. A Dar is basically a smaller version of a riad, more like a pension where you stayed at someone’s home rather than a fully dedicated hotel. Now Bernard was a combination of Santa Clause and the father that you wish you had but both have the same fantasy lore. Except he spoke French and little English. Despite our linguistic barriers we understood his kindness without translation.

He parked his car and when we walked through the entry to the Medina, I can only describe it as the cliched “assault on the senses.” The putrid scent of sheep flesh drying on the nearby walls (to eventually become leather) mixed with the sweet smell of Argan oil products, the devastating sight of street children was superimposed on opulent tiles and carpentry work of mosques, the shrieking cries of the Muezzezin calling for prayer harmonized with the rhythmic bumping of carts trudging down the streets. To feel and taste Fes is to peel a layer of dust off your being but Balak! Balak! Watch out! Make sure you don’t get too lost in the moment or you will get run over by a donkey.

When we entered Dar Melody, a seemless mix of French and Moroccan coziness, Bernard served us fresh strawberries and orange juice and after we settled, he drove us to the Bab Boujloud, the main gate of the Medina. He introduced us to Sayeed, owner of his favorite restaurant and Missy and I proceeded to get lost down several of the almost 10,000 narrow streets that make up Old Fes. We stumbled into a tannery to learn about the 3 month process of turning sheep, cow and goat skin into leather, bartered with various shop keepers, met spice sellers teaching about safron and argan oil and made our way through the dizzying maze back to Sayeed’s restaraunt.

This is how leather is made
This is how leather is made
From cow hide to jacket
From cow hide to jacket

At dinner, we had one of those rare moments in life where the perfect alignment of events makes one reconsider atheism and question how meaningless coincidence could be so fortuitous. Now in two days, Missy and I planned on traveling to the desert on a nine hour overnight public transit bus before meeting a guide for a camel trek. When she saw the bus and learned about the treacherous mountains we needed to pass, she wisely decided that the risk of death to the benefit of saving money was too great and insisted on finding a driver. As we sat down to eat, and told Sayeed of our dilemma he enthusiastically informed us he had the perfect guide and driver for us. He contacted him and told us that he would meet us after eating. As dessert was being served, we spotted Melody and Kristof down the street, the Belgian couple we met the previous night in Meknes. We invited them to sit and eat with us and they obliged. When we told them of our plans to travel into the desert, while this was not on their agenda they said it sounded interesting. So we sat as they enjoyed Tajine and cous cous and then came along Abdul, our soon to be guide. He introduced himself as an aspiring philosophy student, the same age as us, very proud of his Berber culture and experienced in taking travelers into the desert. As he was describing the trip, Melody said she felt something click as if there must be a Reason that she was in one of the 10,000 streets at the exact same time we were eating, as we were about to meet Abdul, whom we met indirectly from Bernard. She agreed to join us on the spot.

This was our second day in Morocco. A land where mystique was abundant to the point of pasee and it became apparent that our trip would be truly special.

The next day, we hired a guide to help us navigate the overwhelming narrow streets of Fes to cultivate our curiosity of the history and culture rather than fixate on the ever-present feeling of being lost in a maze. We visited the shrine to Moulay Indrissi- bringer of the crescent to North Africa, the Madrasa Bou Inania – oldest university int he world built in 1351, a hotel to house pilgrims making their way to the spiritual pulse that is Fes, herboristes selling spices, herbs and goat skulls to ward of evil spirits (Jinn). Islam is a literally translated as submission, and this made all the more clear as the intricate hand wrought trellis and carpentry work, the need to pray 5 times a day and a mindset dedicated to a power greater than any mortal beamed through every narrow corner that we turned.

Bab Boujlod- the main entrance to the medina
Bab Boujlod- the main entrance to the medina

In the afternoon, we meet up with our new Belgian friends and Kristof and I let the girls enjoy mint tea as we head into a Hammam- a traditional bath house.  I put on my swim trunks and followed a half naked, one eyed man to a centuries old, steamy tiled dungeon type room where other men where washing themselves with buckets of hot water.

He gestured me to lie on the ground and proceeded to dump piping hot water on my head (heated by a man hired to throw wood chips into an over all day underneath the Hamam). He then lathered me down with a generous amount of argan oil soap all over my body, well almost all over. Then he took out this rough hand-sized cloth that had been dangling in his elastic band near crotch, used on previous customers, and scrubbed me hard. I could see layer after layer of dead skin exfoliate off my body (oh I hope that brown stuff was my dead skin). I then went through a couple of rounds of hot and cold water dumped on my head before going back to the changing room to relax with some mint tea.

How great do I look in this jelaba?)
How great do I look in this jelaba?

Relaxed, Kristof and I returned to our women. It was getting late and we had a long drive down to the desert tomorrow, so we split ways excited for the next adventure. On our way back to the Dar, Missy and I stopped to sample snail soup from a humble looking street vendor and we noted that this was a very merry way to celebrate Christmas.


Next Day:  Sahara Desert

Morocco_2009-2010 027

-To get a guide or not get a guide? Many people told me that it was essential to get a guide because Fes is such a maze. In my view, I think it is a good idea to get a guide, but if you have more than two days in the city, you will probably be able to figure it out with enough motivation and save the money (although you should not pay more than 200 dh or $27). Also, I did not find my guide or others chock full of information to satiate my curious mind. Anyway, when picking a guide, first you need to get one that is registered. This is a good quality control measure. You will be approached by many people offering their service, but they will likely have an agenda to bring you to their family’s shops and pressure you to buy. With a registered guide, you will definitely see the main historical sites, but you will also be brought to stores (whether he or she has a relationship to them or not it is difficult to say), where you will be pressured to buy. Bernard recommended the guide to us, so it is best to go through your hotel/hostel to find a guide as an added quality control measure.

-In the maze, try to have the Bab boujloud as your reference point as this is universally known

Dar Melody- Do yourself a favor and stay here if in Fes. Bernard is amazing! His home is gorgeous, breakfast was perfect… all for 50 euros.

Morocco_2009-2010 026-tile
When you enter the Bab boujloud, the main entrance to the medina, as you walk to the left, you come across a handful of traditional Moroccan restaurants. They taste the same (absolutely delicious), cost the same and allow you to people watch. Sayeed’s restaurant is Restaurant Guenoune.

Cafe Clock– a little break from tajine and cous cous can be found here. The food was not amazing, but they put together interesting plates. I recommend the camel burger.


Next Day:  Sahara Desert