The last time we met, the magic carpet rested in the town of Erfoud, which is on the edge of the Sahara Desert. We were about to embark on the one aspect of the trip that I was most excited to experience … two nights in the desert in tents similar to ones Bedouins have used for thousands of years. Since I didn’t really know anything about ancient bathroom facilities, I presumed we would have something more modern such as a flushing toilet and a shower in the tent … I was not disappointed!
Before we reached our desert camp we stopped at a workshop where locals process fossil rock that is sourced locally and turned it into beautiful plates, bowls, jewelry and even table tops. This area was covered by the sea more than 3 million years ago leaving an amazing history of prehistoric plants and animals embedded in the rock. We even took a hand at trying to find our own fossils but with not much success.
When we turned off the main paved road in our Jeep 4x4s, there was an immediate change in the scenery. Suddenly we saw very little traffic, no overhead utilities, and only a few nomads, camels and small tent encampments. The vegetation was sparse and it was a really windy day. I often wondered how the driver could even see where to drive as there were no marked roads and the sand blew away any tracks of other vehicles. We stopped for lunch at a compound comprised of several tents near a small lake. It didn’t look like much but I was hungry and happy for a break. When we entered it was like another world. Every surface inside was covered with beautiful carpets and other tapestries with tables beautifully set up for us and our first meal in the desert. I continued to be amazed at the variety of food that was cooked in the tagine (earthenware pot), one very different from the other.
The Jeep safari continued after lunch until we arrived at our encampment and were shown our tents. The floors and walls were covered with large carpets, there was a cozy bed with lots of warm blankets for the cold nights and bathroom facilities that were suitable for the location; not The Ritz-Carlton but better than many places I have camped in the United States. We returned to the main tent for coffee, tea or wine and a cooking class where dinner was prepared in a tagine. This was my favorite chicken tagine of the trip. During the night a friendly cat jumped on my bed and spent the night, which was fine with me.
We arose before dawn to enjoy coffee or tea on the wooden porch in front of our tents before meandering into the desert to watch the sun rise. WOW … how amazing to see the Sahara at sunrise. After scrambled eggs cooked in the tagine, we hopped into the 4x4s for a short drive to where we organized a camel ride in the desert. I have to say that it was not very comfortable as the saddle was much too big and I slipped around lot. But it was wonderful to look at the ever changing flow of the dunes from that perspective.
After happily decamping our camels, we visited a local Berber (indigenous people of North Africa) woman and her son who live nomadically in a tiny tent following whatever water and vegetation can be found for their goats. Our guide interpreted her story about life in the Sahara and she seemed happy. Children are educated but it is a time-consuming process to gather them in a bus every day and take them many miles to school and then return them home in the evening. We also visited a desert cemetery with rock headstones to learn about Islamic and local burial rites.
Dinner was preceded by snacks, drinks and a discussion about Islam from our trip leader Aziz. I think we all learned quite a bit about its history, mores and differences between one Muslim faction and another; not unlike Christianity. We enjoyed a spaghetti dinner, which was a change from most other main meals. We then gathered outside around a campfire prepared by the staff. The sky was pitch black with stars that were crystal clear and seemingly so close you could touch them. The staff sang and played their local instruments and we all danced to celebrate our last night in this amazing place.
After leaving the desert we moved toward the Atlas Mountains once again. We were able to make an unplanned stop in a newly opened museum featuring local Berber history. There were ancient artifacts such as tools, clothing, guns, home furnishings, all well curated, even in English! We enjoyed a lovely lunch on their shaded patio before traveling on to Tineghir and a fancy hotel. A few of us went to a nearby hammam (steam bath) for a fabulous scrubbing, soaping, and massaging experience. This was followed by an opportunity to get a henna tattoo from a local artist.
The following day was “A Day in the Life,” which is an Overseas Adventure Travel (O.A.T.) experience on all their trips. It is an opportunity to meet local people, see how they live and work and have a chance to talk one-on-one with them. We learn more about the local politics, religion, education and health than is possible from just reading. It is a snapshot in time and place that I really enjoy on all our adventures. During the day we divided into three groups and each was given a list in Arabic of ingredients to buy for our dinner. It is often challenging as we had to use sign language to help us succeed. (Sometimes we bought the wrong ingredient but it was good for a laugh.) When we arrived at the restaurant that evening, our meal included the items we purchased. More singing, dancing and drinking were a festive way to end the day.
In the tradition of O.A.T. of “learning and discovery,” we met with an Imam (a worship leader of a Muslim community) at a local mosque before leaving for our next destination of Ouarzazate (nicknamed “The Door of the Desert”). He considered himself a moderate, typical of most Moroccans we crossed paths with, and he decried the actions of terrorists who misuse Islam as a tool to engage young and mostly uneducated men and women to their cause. This was just one more source of local education to see the many facets of complicated issues and to appreciate that people are more like us than different.
The landscape of Morocco continued to amaze me with huge mountains, river valleys carved from millions of years of erosion, vistas of fields planted with a myriad of crops, a Kasbah (type of medina or fortress) carved out of the mountainside and thriving small towns. There were market places everywhere with so many beautiful and unusual pieces of local artwork. A young man was painting with alum and then heating the painting to release the color. I had to add one of these creations depicting a Berber woman to my treasures to bring home and it is still one of my favorites.
The final run into Marrakesh was punctuated by a stop at an overlook showing a switchback road that I had seen in National Geographic. We zig-zagged down the mountain into the plains where our home at the Riad Nesma in the heart of the main souk (open-air market) in Marrakesh awaited us. The location of our riad was on one of many spokes that led into the iconic Jemaa el-Fna souk, which sits at the very heart of the city’s medina. It is a sprawling, chaotic square overlooked by the Koutoubia Mosque tower, interspersed with colorful food stalls, henna artists, snake-charmers, monkey-handlers and bell-clad dancers. We finished the day with dinner overlooking the souk from a second-story restaurant where we watched the hustle and bustle of locals shopping.
The next morning we were ready for a shopping excursion with lots of opportunities to buy. BUT, you needed to be able to say “No.” Many of us had asked about buying carpets during the trip and Aziz, our trip leader, told us to wait until Marrakesh. Now was the time and the place to find the perfect carpet to take home. Talk about pressure! There were so many choices and decisions that one couple bought two large carpets and had them shipped. I finally opted for a carpet that depicted the dunes of the desert of which I had such fond memories.
Our last day in Marrakesh was my favorite as we visited the Majorelle Garden with adjoining museums. As soon as we entered the botanical paradise our senses were assaulted by sights, smells and sounds that screamed Morocco. The French painter, Jacques Majorelle designed the gardens like a painting including giant palm trees, cactus of every size and shape, pools filled with fish and flowers and color everywhere you looked including flora, decorative pots and statues. He commissioned an architect to design a villa within the grounds for himself and his wife. In 1937, he painted the villa in a special shade of the blue, which Majorelle had developed after being inspired by the blue tiles prevalent in southern Morocco. This color was used extensively in Majorelle’s house and garden, and now carries his name, Majorelle Blue.
In 1974, Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent learned that the nearby Jardin Majorelle was threatened by a real-estate development project and decided to acquire the garden and adjoining villa. Together, they restored the gardens and created the Islamic Art Museum of Marrakesh, the Berber Museum and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum. They honored the memory of Majorelle by displaying many of his paintings. We were able to explore the Berber Museum and it was an indescribable experience to see the beauty and creativity of these desert nomads. We could take no photos but I have many wonderful memories of the collection of clothing, jewelry, weavings and other artifacts. This is a not to be missed experience when you go to Marrakesh.
Each day was packed full of sights and sounds of this fascinating country. We visited a madrassa (Koranic school), considered one of the most beautiful in Africa, and a former palace, now the Marrakesh Museum, where I had my name painted in Arabic calligraphy. Very cool! Our final dinner was at a huge private home where we had a fabulous dinner, including a belly dancer for all to enjoy! Aziz told us that belly dancing is extremely unusual in Morocco.
Our final stop on this trip was the beachside city of Essaouira located on the Atlantic Ocean south of Casablanca. The bay at Essaouira is partially sheltered by the island of Mogador, making it a peaceful harbor, long considered as one of the best anchorages of the Moroccan coast. Along with many artisans, the city has a strong presence of windsurfers who take advantage of the marine winds. I walked along giant ramparts with openings guarded by canon where I felt the age-old tension of those designated to protect the city from unwanted marauders.
Our hotel, Les Iles, was located directly across a road from the ocean, so wherever we walked, it seemed like the wind was always blowing. Fortunately, the medina was a hop, skip and a jump from our hotel and once inside the walls, the wind was not an issue. We visited a shop where thuya wood (evergreen coniferous trees in the cypress family; Tetraclinis) is used for decorative items, particularly wood from burls at the base of the tree trunk.
After lunch I wandered into the souk and struck up a conversation with the owner of a small shop where she served me tea. She practiced her English and I learned about her everyday life, which was a fair trade indeed. After a few other purchases, I returned to the hotel in time to join the group on a rooftop patio overlooking the Atlantic as the sun set in the west. WOW …
Our final day in Essaouira took us to an Argan forest (North African tree producing fruit and oil) famous for nuts that are sourced for cosmetics, cooking oils and pharmaceuticals and only grown in Morocco. The most fascinating part was watching full-sized goats clamber to the top of the trees to munch on the leaves and nuts. We visited a women’s cooperative where the nuts were cleaned and processed for use in these various products. This cooperative gives more than 60 women full-time, well-paying jobs to help support their families. A visit to a rare Moroccan winery ended our tour of some unexpected sights in Morocco. Then, as a new day dawned, we returned to Casablanca for a long flight home.
Recounting my adventures of Morocco brings back many wonderful memories about the people, their everyday lives and spectacular scenery of the oceans, mountains and the Sahara Desert. Do not miss a chance to visit Morocco and all it has to offer.
“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
~ John Hope Franklin, American historian