We only had a short week to explore Morocco but it was a wide-eyed 7 days! We flew directly from Granada, Spain across the Mediterranean Sea to Marrakech in the northern interior. For those of you of my vintage, there should be a nostalgic memory of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash hit song, "The Marrakech Express". There is a bit of mystery and intrigue about this Morocco city, that was romanticized by American hippies in the 70's. Although the flavor of Morocco is definitely north African and Muslim, it has retained much of it's historic Berber and Bedouin tribe roots. We were fortunate to stay in Marrakech at a very authentic but modern Arabic Riad called "Riad Mur Akush". I would highly recommend it as a welcome refuge from the helter skelter chaos of the main street, heat of the city, and buzz of the omnipresent scooters. As you enter the Riad, you encounter the smell of mild incense and quieting sound of singing birds, centered in a courtyard hidden from the outside and shaded by lovely courtyard trees. Venturing down the street to the Grand Bazaar takes some courage and wary attention, as you are dodging whining scooters, donkey carts, taxis, and occasional horse drawn carriages. Finally, you make it to the open bazaar that is throbbing with the beat of Berber drums and the shrillness of Berber woodwinds that are directing the mystical cobra snake to hold it's venerable pose as if ready to strike but remaining always still. There are also the famous Berber water merchants with their bright red costumes and wild hats eager to provide you a drink of fresh(?) water oblivious to the potential public health risk of every Tom, Dick, and Harry sharing the same brass cup to drink the water! No, we didn't partake in this ritual and Annabelle was pretty creeped out with the snakes, so we didn't linger in this bazaar. Easily, the highlight of our Morocco visit was the four days we spent on a 4X4 tour with the Desert Safari Tour Company. We left early Monday morning, picked up by Khalid, a real live Bedouin off spring in his bright blue Arabic balloon pants and consistently Moroccon multi-lingual abilities. Khalid told us he lived his first 14 years with his family in a Bedouin goat-hair tent until they moved into a village. Like most Moroccons, he had scant formal schooling but yet commanded working knowledge of Arabic, Berber, English, Spanish, and French languages. it reinforced my language inferiority complex and the need for Americans to extend their language skills. Over the next four days, we explored seemingly impassable mountain roads, viewed Berber villages clinging to mountainsides, and the vast foreboding magnificence of the Sahara desert. Many Moroccons work very hard, especially women in the villages, as they are the ones that are responsible for sowing, harvesting, and maintaining the harvest of alfalfa hay, barley, olives, apricots, and assorted vegetables from irrigation-fed terraced fields. Often the men need to go into neighboring towns to work, leaving their families for weeks at a time, because jobs are scarce in the rural areas except for those lucky enough to snag a tourism-related position. If visit this country, you'd best polish your French language skills as this is the common language spoken by most Moroccons and European tourists, although many Moroccons with less than a high school education also speak some English, German, Spanish, and Dutch (in addition are fluent in Berber, Arabic, and French). Leaving this country we felt quite ignorant linguistically.
This is the exciting moment at 35,000 feet, as we are winging south from Madrid (connected from Granada, Spain) and encounter our first glimpse of north Africa's Mediterranean coast line. We had wanted to take a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar but timing and potential rough water supporting our short plane ride instead. Supposedly, several million years ago, there was a geological event that caused a colossal waterfall to form at the area of present day Gibraltar as water from the Atlantic rushed eastward to fill the dry basin that is now the Mediterranean Sea, dwarfing our Niagra Falls.
The open courtyard of our Marrakech lodging, Riad Mur Akush, was a welcome refuge from the throbbing Arabic life at roadside down the street. When we first entered the Riad, we were welcomed with Berber herbal sweet tea and a plateful of delicate pastries. These riads were homes to wealthy Muslim or Frency colonist families, but many fell into disrepair after the French left following Moroccon independence in 1956. In more recent years, either local Muslim or non-native (Europeans and Australians) investors have bought up these former palatial homes and restored them to B&Bs (Riads), hotels, or lavish personal homes. Stark contrast to the more humble homes of the average Moroccan day laborers.
Inside the souk ("market") of Marrakech that housed every type of shop you could imagine, including fish, meat (chickens and rabbits were waiting patiently in wooden cages for their common destiny as the inventory was sold, thus not requiring extensive refrigeration), clothing, fruit, vegetables, pastries, dates, and as shown here - spices of every kind. Still not sure how they can get those tall conical mounds of paprika, cumin and others so high without collapse. As you gawk at all these wares you also need to be wary of the passing motorcycles, donkey carts, and bicycles that share the space with a throng of pedestrians.
In the Grand Bazaar there were several of these date vendors, exhibiting more kinds or dried dates and figs that I thought possible. I had always thought that dates were dried and treated with sugaring processes to preserve them but our Bedouin guide told us these dates come like this from the tree as they ripen and no other preparation is necessary. I did buy a pound of very nice brown, sweet dates despite the hordes of honey bees that were frequenting these sugary masses. My stomach tolerated the dates quite well, thank you, so apparently a bit of bee traffic doesn't harm the dates.
One night in our Riad, after a delicious dinner of lentil soup, fish tagine, locally grown melon, and frozen chocolate pudding, we were entreated to a mini-concert by Mustafa of the Riad staff playing his Arabic stringed instrument. Cindy was tempted to forego all protocol and burst forth with a Bedouin belly dance but I restrained her!
Moroccan combine! Similar to methods used for centuries, many of the rural agricultural practices have changed very little. The photo of village women cutting and shocking barley was taken from a long distance with a telephoto lens because most rural women were very adverse to having their photo taken, apparently to prevent internet posting invading their privacy. In late May and early June when we were in Morocco, the barley harvest was in full swing, but I saw a total of one combine (just outside of Marrakech). The women provide the cutting, shocking, and transport of shocks to collection sites where commercial threshing machine separate the grain from the stems and chafe. Most of the hauling in these villages of either hay, cut alfalfa, or barley shocks is done with tough little donkeys maneuvering the rocky hillsides much better than prohibitively expensive pickup trucks. Seems like some things never change, and perhaps don't need to.
Typical scene in the high Atlas Mountains east of Marrakech - a verdant green valley surrounded by seemingly barren, arid mountain terrain. The green that you see is usually barley, alfalfa, or assorted potatoes, vegetables, and hay, all made possible only through irrigation from the mountain streams that course downward from the snowfields high in the mountains.
As we drove through one of the many verdant irrigated river valleys surrounded by arid mountain terrain, we came upon the decaying vestige of a previous Kasbah (Muslim castle). These structures were constructed with the historical method of mud brick with straw and then plastered over with mud/straw stucco. Works great in the dry, arid climate but with the occasional rain like Morocco received last November these walls soften and decay. In the foreground, there is a collect of barley shocks awaiting the threshing machine to extract the grain. The palms in this photo are date palms providing dates for eating of course, but also palm fronds for roofing and lumber for ceiling beams and door frames.
Dra Valley ("Date Palm Valley") on the eastern side of the High Atlas mountains with very typical oasis-like date palms, olive trees, and barley-alfalfa-vegetable fields existing only with the grace of river water irrigation. The backdrop of these earthen geometrically similar homes provides a consistent "Bethlehem" Christmas card image (but no Christians around these parts!).
In the front of "Monkey Paws" rock formations in the Gorges areas with our guide and driver Khalid (guttural Halid, drop the K sound). We had a little fun with Khalid, an authentic Bedouin nomadic-raised young Moroccon, with our Nemo App of Arabic language. Apparently my voice and the App commentator were somewhat similar and there were times he wasn't sure it the Arabic was coming from the App or from me. Berber was a much more difficult language, spoken by most Moroccans but up to only a few years ago was not written. There is now an alphabet created with some very interesting almost hieroglyphic-like characters that is being taught in the school system. The Berber and Bedouin tribes are very proud, intelligent, and fiercely independent peoples. You would have to be that way to survive the harsh conditions of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert.
Razouk El Mahjoub, Vice President of Marketing, and his sister, Chief of Operations at their in residence Berber carpet manufacturing site. I jest of course with their titles, but Razouk proved a very effective salesman, convincing Cindy and I to purchase a Berber sheep/camel hair carpet for about $600, including shipping to the US. We thought we'd drove a pretty hard bargain but Razouk easily went from his feigned disappointment at the final price to pure giddiness by the time we left. I also noticed his sister was quick to get that rug packaged up and ready for shipment before we even got out of the house. It was a very nice and colorful rug that you can see in our entryway after we get home. By the way, the Berber guide that took us on a hike before this rug buying business, did a very nice job showing us the oasis-like valley and gorges areas, but the interesting thing was that his name was truthfully, 'Ali Baba". When we kidded him about his forty thieves, he laughed it off and pointed to a cave in the hillside where he kept his treasures.
A very typical see of a Berber village woman bringing in the harvest of barley shocks to the threshing site. One of Berber male guides freely admitted that the Berber women are much stronger than the men, presumably related to the hard work they do on a daily basis. Not to mention that this work is conducted in the heat within the normal Muslim dress protocol of long dress, long sleeves, and head scarf. Amazingly though most people here live well into their 80's and 90's despite the hard work and spotty medical care. This photo was also taken with a telephoto lens as most of these village women are very adverse to being photographed. Respecting that wish, even with a telephoto lens, you can't recognize the woman.
This is a sight that I never thought possible - pools of water in the Sahara desert. Last November there was a multi-day deluge of rain that caused damaging flooding and incredible water pooling at the Sahara-Black Desert interface. Although there was some increased amounts of grasses in the dunes, these pools of water were almost lifeless as they were slowly evaporating in the sand.