Morocco's South, September 13-17

After returning to Marrakech from the trek, we picked up a rental car and set off to explore Morocco's south, the region between the Atlas mountains and the Sahara desert. The route we took is quite common for tourists, passing by two impressive gorges; the town of Ouarzazate, which is Morocco's version of Hollywood (bearing no resemblance whatsoever, but numerous well-known movies have indeed been filmed there); and through what's known as the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. It took us a while to understand what a kasbah is exactly, although we soon had no trouble recognizing them -- both the crumbling originals (a few restored; most not), and the modern ones that are usually tourist hotels. Photo 1 depicts Ait Benhaddou, one of the biggest and best of the restored old kasbahs (also featured on Wikipedia's kasbah page), while Photo 2 is more typical. Technically, a kasbah is any fortified collection of dwellings, but the original ones usually housed a few wealthy families, and served as stopping points for the camel caravans traveling between Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.

At our closest point to the desert we embarked on a little caravan of our own (photos 3-5). It was Tim's turn for tears when, after bumping across the Sahara dunes on our camels, we arrived at our overnight camp (shown at dawn in photo 6). Tim's not the animal-rider Emily is, and camels aren't especially comfortable for anyone. But the dunes are stunning, and Tim was hanging in there. The blow came when we discovered we wouldn't be staying in an enclosed private tent with Berber furnishings as we'd mistakenly imagined. Instead, we were in a make-shift lean-to with aging blankets and thin mattresses, covered with a layer of blowing sand, shared with six other tourists.

The situation did improve, however. The wind died when it got dark so we were able to shake everything out, and our camel tender had brought fresh sheets to put on our mattresses (unlike the other group, who were envious). The dinner was a delicious chicken tajine cooked on the spot, only a little crunchy from the sand garnish. The other tourists moved their mattresses under the stars, so we had the lean-to to ourselves. We actually slept very well, and sunrise over the dunes was beautiful. The camel ride out was also enjoyable, and thankfully not too long -- our behinds were sore from riding in the evening before. (Emily rightly suggests that the names we gave our camels ought to be included in the travelog: Caramel, Camille, Humpty-Dumpty, and Joe. Can you guess whose was whose?)

It turns out southern Morocco is well known for its fossils and minerals, including a remarkable marble filled with perfect fossils of creatures millions of years old. (Counters and sinks made from it are something to behold.) Predictably, Tim quickly developed a strong interest in fossils. Twice we hired a local "guide" to help us fossil-hunt. The first time was a roaring success (photo 7). The guide, Mohamed, took us to a spot right off the road where we found oodles of interesting small fossils right under our feet. We were joined by a 15-year-old boy who collects in the same spot and then sells to passing tourists.

The second fossil expedition was less successful. Our guide, named Mohamed yet again, was to take us to a quarry where the remarkable fossil-marble is mined, then on to the cutting factory. The fist stop required driving on dirt roads through the desert, but "no problem for your car," he said (in French). Wrong. Only a few minutes off the paved road and we were profoundly stuck in the sand. Mohamed wasn't much use, but we were fortunate that an extremely nice passer-by stopped to assist us, and he was quite knowledgeable in matters of stuck-in-the-sand. (We didn't get his name, but it seems Mohamed would be a reasonable guess.) After 1½ hours of jacking up the car, placing rocks under the tires and bundles of grass behind them (photo 8), backing up a few feet until stuck again, then repeating the process, we were out. Our joy was brief. Thirty minutes later we were still skidding around dirt roads looking for the marble quarry -- it seems Mohamed didn't actually know where it was. At that point we cut our losses, drove out, dropped off Mohamed, and went to the excellent fossil museum on the main road.

Dirt roads notwithstanding, driving in Morocco isn't too bad -- or at least better than one might imagine. The cities are chaotic, but the rural roads are in reasonable condition and fairly uncrowded. The biggest dangers are getting stuck behind a slow truck with a load so high it appears a tip-over over is imminent (photo 9 for example), or suddenly coming upon a herd of goats or a few camels crossing the road. We did have some excitement when Alex was stopped for inadvertent speeding. There are quite a few police checkpoints along the roads, but tourists are typically waved on through. Thus, we were quite surprised when we were flagged down emphatically at one of them. The reason became clear when the policeman showed us his radar gun clocking 84 kilometers/hour in what turned out to be a 60 km/hour zone.

Alex and Jennifer began to envision a day in a rural police station fighting bureaucracy, a confiscated drivers license or passport, or worse. Stories of speeding tickets in some third-world countries are nightmarish, although at the time we hadn't read up on Morocco in this respect. Fortunately, Morocco is making a conscious effort to promote tourism (a policy of the current king), and one facet is to keep life easy for tourists when possible. We were pleasantly surprised when the policeman handed back Alex's license and let us go with a reasonably friendly warning. Whew.

Our internet access in Morocco has been almost nonexistent, mostly because we haven't been trying very hard. The highest terrace of our guesthouse in Marrakech had a nice view across a sea of rooftops; late in our stay Tim discovered we could often pick up someone's wireless there. Internet "boutiques" are all over the place, but we haven't ventured in one yet -- they don't look like attractive places to hang out, and most don't advertise wireless. (We suspect they often consist of one or two old computers hooked to a modem, but we haven't confirmed.)  A few do have wireless, though. When we passed through a town and Jennifer was anxious to post a travelog, we parked outside an internet boutique where we were picking up an open network. The scene was comical: motor running (for air conditioning), all four of us on our laptops in a small car chock full with our luggage, stealing wireless access (which seemed easier than dealing with the tiny internet shop, and we didn't want to leave the car unattended with all of our belongings), sharing a minuscule amount of bandwidth and cursing each other for hogging it since each of us found we couldn't get anything accomplished. That's not to mention the curious passers-by peeking closely in the windows -- Moroccan sense of personal space is very different from what we westerners are accustomed to.

When we planned our trip we knew we'd be traveling in Morocco during Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. (The starting date changes each year, since Ramadan is on a lunar schedule.) Most Moroccans do adhere to the requirement of not eating or drinking anything at all, not even water, between sunrise and sunset. There are also increased visits to the mosque and a strict prayer schedule. We specifically scheduled our trek to finish the day before Ramadan -- guides and muleteers are willing but not anxious to work during Ramadan, and when they work they prefer short treks to long ones like ours. Traveling on our own, Ramadan doesn't affect us too much. We try not to drink or snack in front of Moroccans during the day, though sometimes they'll make a point of telling tell us it's okay. Most cafes and restaurants remain open, but the daytime customers are exclusively tourists. Moroccans get up for a pre-dawn breakfast, which we haven't witnessed, but we have seen the daily celebratory evening meal. So far, traveling during Ramadan has been interesting and not a big problem, despite some warnings to the contrary.

On a more general topic, we've been observing that when we tell people we're traveling for a year, there are two common reactions:
  1. Tim and Emily are informed of just how lucky they are. This reaction is particularly common among locals. For example, one Moroccan shopkeeper told the kids: "Every morning you must kiss both your Mama and your Papa on the head to thank them for this trip. Not once in a while but every morning." (Apparently the kids have decided not to follow his suggestion.)
  2. Other travelers inevitably ask about school. Most of them are from Europe, where school is a much stricter proposition than in the U.S. They're flabbergasted we can pull this off. A French family told us that at Emily's age it might be possible to do a trip like ours, but only with detailed daily lesson plan reports back to the school, and extensive testing upon return. At Tim's age, impossible.
Finally, a souvenir update: Back in Italy we mailed a shipment of souvenirs home, and the booty has been rebuilding ever since. We were worried initially about space, but things have taken a turn, and weight is the new issue. Morocco is a bonanza for crystals as well as fossils, both for finding them and making purchases at the many roadside shops. We're now toting several large bags of "rocks" (as Jennifer calls them), adding up to 25 pounds or maybe more, and the crystal and fossil hunting and shopping isn't over yet. For better or worse, we were well under easyJet's fairly strict baggage weight allowance the last time we flew, so we don't have a lot of leverage for insisting that the collection be cut back.

Next: Continue our driving tour to the Imperial cities of Fes and Meknes, then to Casablanca for a flight to Paris

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