Essaouira day 2 (MA)

With a full day in Essaouira and not knowing exactly what to do with it naturally we went shopping. We had seen the entire medina already and there is really not much else here but the weather is great and the place is stress-free so walking around some more was fun. I bought nothing. The only things of interest I found were in actual non-touristy clothes shops but the stuff I tried on didn’t fit properly and was too expensive for what it was.

 

What surprises me is how much fabric is used even for very fashionable clothes. We found two boutiques that were catering to affluent stylish women but the shirts could also be worn as mumus. They were of thin delicate material but so much of it! I could have wrapped them around me three times and would have still had room for another person.

 

In the afternoon I rearranged my ever shrinking bag. I was determined to get rid of most of my clothes for my trip back – so I could buy new ones and also because it’s getting old wearing the same thing over and over. I actually have plenty of t-shirts because I bought a bunch in South Africa and I also tend to forget about the ones I brought for specific reasons (I sleep in one, wear another for running only, wear a third on flights etc). They are all still fine but once I have binned them I forget about them anyway so the guilty conscience factor only comes in when I think about the fact that I spent good money for them not too long ago… the winning argument is that many of them I didn’t even wear for a while knowing fully well that they’re not my favorites. This will most likely not change. So what’s the point of holding onto them? The same goes for two pairs of zipper-leg hiking pants… away with them!
I have also decided to leave the gray backpack behind that I left in the van a couple of days ago. I’m getting it back today and I will only take its contents out and then trash it. I hadn’t used it once during the entire trip. It was meant to be my daybag but it never left my bigger daypack which had more room for snacks and water and wet wipes. The bigger daypack was also only used occasionally because I just hate walking with a bag when I don’t need 99% of its contents. I usually left it on the truck and once I got to Morocco my valuables were all kept in the hotel. I figured there’s a risk in that, but it’s still better than potentially getting mugged in the medinas.

 

We had dinner at a nearby fish restaurant that ran out of fish after four of us had ordered it – the place was otherwise empty and the people who came after us were sent away. The service in African countries will forever be a mystery to me. We didn’t see our waiter for ages after we had ordered. The drinks that are usually simply taken out of a closeby fridge always take forever and will not be refilled even if you down them right in front of the waiter. A Nicoise salad looked suspiciously like the classic Moroccan salad (canned carrots, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, onion) with the addition of an egg. My buttered fish with herbs looked and tasted exactly like the fried fish the others got sans herbs. All our first selections didn’t exist that day. You learn quickly to pick at least three dishes before you order. Many times the first choice goes through only to be denied a few minutes later when a feeling of triumph and success has settled in and you can already taste the dish on your tongue.

One of the American ladies from the other GAP group joined us for dinner. She had left her trip early to stay behind in Essaouira and do her own thing and also to lose the group as they had been as exhausting as they had appeared to us. We learned that her tour leader had similar maturity and temper tantrum issues as ours. Must be a control thing for Moroccan men maybe? There were some good stories in her nonstop monologue.

This dog has more eyebrows than I do

 

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Essaouira (MA)

We had a new van for our drive to Essaouira and I promptly forgot that I had left a small bag on my seat in the old van. That’s exactly why I like to pack small with as few bags as possible. Luckily I’m getting the bag back in Marrakech.

 

The drive took about four hours and we stopped somewhere on the road in a village that had a huge if somewhat random fair going on. Mostly it looked like a fleamarket for household items but there was also a tent with live music (the audience seemed to have been separated by gender?), really basic amusement rides for kids and candy. From speakers someone was talking nonstop, not sure if he was praying, calling out the latest on sale offers or looking for missing kids.

 

 

Morocco’s answer to the Cyclone

 

Essaouira is a city by the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Our hotel is by the beach. It is almost cold here compared to other places so far, that’s due to the constant wind. The beach is well populated but the only people in swimsuits are kids, some guys playing soccer and tourists. The local women are covered head to toe, even in the water.

We had lunch in the medina right away, at a place that was very laid back and not expensive either. Turns out that most of the city is like this; affordable and with a quiet vibe. No stupid comments from guys and only a handful of overly welcoming vendors.

The medina is small, it seems to consist of four main shopping streets and a few interesting side alleys. We were on a quest for finding more happy pants but although we came across a few none of them were really what we were looking for. It’s hard to find a pair that doesn’t make you look like a clown or that has much too much fabric.
You can get henna tattoes here, slippers in all varieties and leather bags but nothing tickled my fancy.

 

On the way back to the hotel we stopped for a coffee and beer at a beachfront cafe that also had wifi. They let me take two unopened bottles of beer with me which was nice. Unfortunately there was only one bottle opener in the hotel and it had already been given to someone else. My bed frame now shows signs of attempted violence.

There was a bottle shop indicated in the Lonely Planet but as it turns out it was closed because…it will be Ramadan in two weeks. This is not the first time we heard this, though it seems to make no sense. Surely the people who follow Ramadan don’t drink alcohol anyway, so why lock it up weeks in advance?

My dinner was a still warm boiled egg that I had grabbed from a corner store. It hit the spot.

High Atlas Mountains (MA)

We drove up long and winding mountain roads for hours to get to tiny Imlil, a classic backpackers last shopping stop before a big hiking trip and the chance to rent a donkey that carries up your stuff. Our driver is a grumpy mute it seems, and like so many others he considers himself a race car driver. He overtakes everyone and ideally in blind spots or narrow curves. Even a puking passenger couldn’t slow him down on the way here. Nobody was sad when Rachid told us that tomorrow we will have a new driver.
In Imlil we had a questionable pizza for lunch that my body is still trying to break down a day and a half later. I will be glad when I can eat less bread (but real cheese) and not feel like a bloated whale all day. I certainly look the part.

From Imlil we walked up the hill for 45 minutes (the donkey with our stuff had already left) to a sleepy town called Aremd. There is nothing going on here, a small water stream flows by but other than that it’s just a hostel town for hikers. Everyone who goes hiking in the High Atlas Mountains will ultimately pass through here.

Where it’s at in Aremd. Our hostel is in the top right corner

We are staying at a family run hostel which serves fantastic food but isn’t too generous with toilet paper. Nice people though.

 

On Sunday we set out for a hike. Our leader, Rachid, is not the clearest when it comes to communication, so we may have mortally offended him when some of us decided to stay behind past a spot he had determined to be a good rest stop for anyone who didn’t want to climb up all the way to basecamp. We made it worse by proclaiming that we would probably not wait in the sun for five hours until the rest of the group returns. It was a bizarre situation about absolutely nothing, one of many that has triggered somewhat childish behavior on his part.
We did have a good rest in the sun for two hours and a somewhat strenuous hike back for a couple of hours through a beautiful though not too interesting landscape. The High Atlas Mountains are nice to look at but at the end of the day they do not look much different than other mountains, I wouldn’t come here because Tobkal is a must-see (it is however the third biggest mountain in Africa).

 

The evening ended weirdly as well because nobody had served Rachid his dinner… I asked him if he didn’t want to eat and he launched into a speech about how he had filled all our plates last night and that was the nice thing to do and how today nobody had done this for him. And he was dead serious!
We have had a bunch more of these situations with him and it floors us every time as it is so ridiculous. It’s an endless source of fun in the end as we cannot pinpoint at any given time what exactly it is we did wrong now.

 

I have once again started to shed clothes. Today it was my beloved red pants and the blue Icebreaker tshirt. Both highly functional, expensive and far from dirty/unusable but definitely not flattering. I am dying to buy new clothes, I’m just sick of them. I will keep the two pairs of beige trekking pants though, they can sit in the closet for years although I’m not a fan…but they are useful to have (though I didn’t wear one pair of them much because they are so ugly. Come to think of it, I may dump them as well).
My green Smurfette tshirt will be binned tomorrow, other stuff will follow shortly. Sadly my bag is not getting significantly lighter though.

Ouzarzate, Morocco’s Hollywood (not) (MA)

Today’s car trip took us to the movie capital of Morocco, located in the south of the High Atlas Mountains. I had high expectations as many historic films have been shot here and according to Wikipedia the city hosts the biggest movie studios in the world and we all know that it must be true since it’s on the internet.
The city as such was dead (it’s Friday, prayer day) and the most exciting development for me was to find a.) an open supermarket that had b.) yet another different kind of Mc Vities digestives – whole wheat – but aren’t they all whole wheat???
Anyway, there wasn’t much to see other than that.
We passed two film studios, ‘Atlas’ being the bigger one with a Hollywood type of gate around the compound. There was a fake red Ferrari parked behind it, a prop helicopter, a fancy hotel (real) and that was it inside (for a small entrance fee you could apparently visit a museum or sound stage or something). Outside six plastic pharaohs were standing guard over the parking lot, along with a Chinese tiger dragon usually seen at entrances of temples. I couldn’t believe that this was supposed to be it.

 

However we then moved on to Ait Ben Haddou a few kilometres further and there is what I had expected to see all along; the fortified village (kasbah) which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in the 80s. It was used in ‘Gladiator’ and many other famous movies. It looked amazing.

Right next to it at the bottom there was a big field that was used for the amphi theater scenes in ‘Gladiator’, the theater was an added prop that no longer exists but there were pictures of it displayed in the nearby souvenir shop.

We walked up the steps to the top. The kasbah itself is not in the greatest of shapes and only about 10 families still live there now. Since it’s not tourist season it was not busy at all. One guy was sitting on his steps doing pyro aquarelles; i.e. paintings with saffran and green tea that he then held over a gas flame to bring out the colors and dry the picture.

Up on top we saw the original wall that goes further out than you expect, and also the new part of town that looks pretty ugly in comparison. There are green fields and palm trees nearby and in winter a small river flows next to the kasbah, right now it’s completely dry.

When we got back we watched the end of a local soccer game. Only men were watching and most of them seemed to be comatose.

For dinner we picked a place that advertised itself as ‘Fast Food Kentucky’ but fast was not the adjective that applied. The food was good and cheap, but the waiter sent his 5 year old son to deliver plate by plate minus any cutlery, and when everyone finally had their food he himself walked across the road numerous times to buy our drinks and bread at the store.

Todra Gorge (MA)

We rode the camels back to our hotel after a non-visible sunrise, showered and had breakfast and got out of there. On the way we stopped in the desert at a water provision system in the form of wells dug in the 9th century. There were at least 100 of them in three neat lines on each side of the road. They are dug in sand with water and clay hardening them over time. They are still used today occasionally.

 

We had lunch in town close to the Todra Gorge. There was a market area and a few local restaurant next to it. We sat down where it smelled great of grilled meat and where many locals sat around large plastic tables. There was no menu, we pointed at the meat on skewers and received that with fresh bread and an onion & tomato salad. It was delicious.
Afterward I bought a kilogram of the freshest and crunchiest raw almonds I’ve ever had along with some fruit and finally a plastic container in which I will hopefully be able to save some of it from spoiling.
Our hotel today is located directly in the Todra Gorge right by the ankle deep stream in which all day locals were relaxing. The landscape is stunning, we are at the bottom of huge canyons with steep and high walls that are almost flat and seem to be a perfect location for climbers and abseilers.


In the afterenoon we had a guided walk along the stream through a woody area and many gardens that were planted by the locals. Pomegranate, figs, almonds, peaches, mint, tomatoes, peppers, squash and cabbage grow here among other things. Many plants are used to dye wool to make clothes and carpets. Half of the year nomads live in this area and buy the colors from the locals and use them on the wool they provide themselves. There was a tiny kasbah on the way and inside was the nomad association; i.e. a house where the nomads run weaving workshops. We visited, got tea, chatted with two nomads about the project and were ultimately reminded of a classic tourist showroom. There was supposed to be a weaving demonstration which never followed, instead the guys kept unrolling carpet after carpet telling us that there was no obligation to buy anything but which one did we want? It got slightly annoying as one of the guys kept repeating the same jokey phrases and the other one would not stop bringing more carpets. We made it out alive and sans carpets.

Which carpet will it be?

 

For dinner I fulfilled a spaghetti (‘spagetiti’) craving and the nice waiter called a friend to have him bring beer for us from the supermarket. Unfortunately the market was closed already but we appreciated the gesture.
I’m back in the hot room now under my mosquito net – just in case. The power will go out at midnight and not come back on until 6 am, this reminds me of Ethiopia…

Buried in sand (MA)

I should have slept on the roof last night but instead I was sweating away in my room. It’s brutally hot here. What a great idea to do something even hotter: a sand hammam! Designed for people with rheumatism but probably not bad for healthy joints either I joined Rachid at 11am in the boiling heat on a dune to get buried in the sand. Walking up in shoes was already a challenge, I could feel the heat through the soles and I singed off the skin exposed to sand around it. Luckily inside my sand tomb it wasn’t quite as bad. I was probably in there for about 10 minutes, constantly had the guy feed me water, and I could imagine how it would be to stay longer…getting dizzy first, then unconscious…?

 

After the sand bath I was wrapped in a heavy blanket and I had to lie down with it in a sweat tent for 30 minutes.

I emerged sweaty, sandy and thirsty but feeling strangely relaxed. The following shower and a dip in the pool were fantastic, all that was missing as usual was a beer…

Towards the early afternoon I had another dip in the pool and I got rained on. Rain in the desert! A first for me. Luckily it cooled the place off considerably and when we boarded our camels for the overnight safari I didn’t even feel hot anymore.

My new ride

The safari was much like the one I had done in Egypt with minor differences. For one we only took as many camels as we sat on and they were tied together so that they were forced to follow the man in the front in one long line. We were taken up and down dunes and we went to a camp that had a bunch of big tents set up permanently. There they had mattresses, pillows and blankets and cooking stuff for our dinner.


We didn’t see a sunset again, it was too hazy. In the evening we had a few minor sandstorms and a bit of rain again. I was already dreading to sleep inside one of the stuffy tents but when I went to bed after our three course dinner the wind had calmed down and I pulled my mattress outside and rolled up in the middle of the camp. Unlike most of the others I slept fairly well despite the wind picking up again around 4 am and dumping a boatload of sand on me.

 

Also in the hotel and at the camp with us was a grop of American teachers, all women, mostly in their late 30s with one crazy one who is 60 and tells everyone about it. They are doing a GAP tour of sorts and we’ll most likely run into them a few more times. Small world: one of them is from Park Slope and another one has a job in my hometown, Wiesbaden.
Collectively they confirm many stereotypes. Conversation piece: “So is New Zealand a different country from Australia?” “I don’t know, I’ve never been to Europe”.

They bought tons of wine in Fez (I had some so I can’t complain) and played drinking games all night with at least one of them constantly saying “like”. Eavesdropping at the dinner table provided hours of entertainment for us – nobody in my group is American so it’s easy to stereotype.

En route to Merzouga (MA)

A private van took us to the desert today. Since I am now used to long truck days I found the frequent breaks we took almost annoying as I was either really enjoying Tina Fey’s book or just about to drift off to that in between stage of half awake and dream lala land. We stopped at a Morocco’s ski resort town whose name I can’t remember now and which looked like it could be a sleepy town in Canada – completely out of place. We also stopped in the woods to watch monkeys being fed by adults who didn’t care about the big ‘do not feed the monkeys’ signs posted everywhere. One woman had a monkey drink from her bottle of water.


We went up to the Atlas Mountains where the vegetation changed to flat and green and later to red and rocky when we came closer to the desert. We had lunch from plastic bags in the middle of nowhere, fighting big ants and strong wind alike. We stopped at a gas station and at another cafe for which nobody wanted to leave the van. My theory is that Moroccan men go into withdrawal if they don’t have a tea every hour or so.
We also stopped at a canyonlike landscape with an oasis in front of it.

 

And finally we stopped at the hotel which is literally right by the first dune in the desert, a pretty cool spot.

We couldn’t see the sunset as it was very hazy in the dunes and once it got darker and windy our footsteps were blown away and I could see how people get lost in the desert.

We had dinner at the hotel and started what became one of my best nights out in Africa so far. There were drums and a banjo lying around and naturally the least musically enclined people (incl. myself) had their hands on them first. We attracted another GAP group, 7 mostly American women who for some reason travel with a vast amount of red wine and who were kind enough to share it with us. Soon the hotel staff and our tour leaders joined us and took over, the musical part of the evening. Once again I was fascinated by the enthusiasm African men show when it comes to singing, playing instruments and dancing. All of us literally had to be dragged onto the floor to dance a bit. Meanwhile only the women were drinking alcohol and all the guys were completely sober. Naturally we couldn’t reciprocate with a musical performance of our own either. Pathetic, really.