Morocco Field Report 1: The haggles, hassles and hustles of Casa & Fez
> Morocco Field Report 2: Belly Dancing Berbers & Barbary Apes
Morocco Field Report 3: Rocking the Kasbahs and Girdling Goat Trees
Morocco Field Report 4: Boats, Cats and Castles Made of Sand
We woke up in Fez and decided we’d had enough urban hassle, haggle and hustle, so we headed out into the countryside of the country of Maroc. Not an easy thing to get the hell out of Dodge when you can't even understand what the road signs are saying. Ended up back-tracking back to Meknes to find the road, then passed through Ifrane, a modern university town that looked more like it belonged in Switzerland. Chalet architecture, and by this time we were high up in alpine forests. All that was missing was lederhosen instead of djelabas. Not what we imagined of Morocco, it was surreal. We went through Azrou, which had a beautiful river running through it, then took a slight detour to search for Barbary Apes.
We drove through these desolate oak forests but didn’t see anything resembling monkeys. So we backtracked and continued on the main road and as luck would have it, there they were, hanging out near the road asking for handouts near where some guy was selling fossils and gemstones. The apes (actually, they're monkeys, or macaques) were quite tame and would come up to you and eat out of your hand, especially the dominant male. Maybe it was the habitat we were in, but they reminded me of snow monkeys.
The road went higher and soon we were in high flat plains with snow. There were sheep and goats everywhere, always with their herders, sometimes with dogs. And donkeys with their legs tied together. And Berber huts made of stone, or mud.
We went higher still until we were in cedar forests, and even more snow and frozen lakes. This was the Middle Atlas.
Then we dropped down into a valley, still high but very flat and deserty, with blocky mud houses that made it seem like Sante Fe or Taos Pueblo, complete with ladders going up to the roofs.
Onward to Midelt, which is in the shadow of a 3700 meter mountain. The hotels in town were booked, again, probably on account of the damn sheep slaughtering, but thanks to our trusty guidebook (though I think this one was in our Lonely Planet, which for the most part was inferior to the Rough Guide), we eventually found this crazy place way outside of town. If you’re looking for it yourself, trust us, you just got to keep driving. Just when you think you're lost, driving through shanty villages with gangs of youth glaring at you and pounding on your car as you drive by, you'll get to this dirt road headed for the mountain and eventually come across this derelict Kasbah which I can't remember the name of. It almost felt like the Varykino house in Doctor Zhivago (minus the icy rhime). Unkept courtyards and all these random rooms with mismatched furniture.
This guy in a fur hat (Sayid) found a woman that kind of spoke Spanish to give us a tour of the whole complex before she gave us a room, something they seem to do here. It was a maze of random rooms, some half-decorated in gaudy Berber style, and like every house, store, hotel or whatever in Morocco, with a huge requisite picture of the king. It was very cold and we were hungry so they made us tajines that we ate near a fire they made for us. Then we went for a walk towards the base of the mountains. The ground was spongy and I found a fossilized clam.
12/29 El Kelaâ des Mgoun
Last night, after our walk, we were hanging out in our ridiculously cold room, like now, so cold the pen doesn’t work. They don’t heat the rooms here and hot water is a luxury. I’m wearing all the clothes in my backpack, huddled under every wool blanket we could find from the closet and spare bed. I walked into one of the random rooms in the Kasbah, and there were these women getting dressed up. I asked what was going on and from what I could understand they were going to sing and dance, and one woman emitted this trilly yodel which kind of freaked me out.
We got our dinner in the main room near where all the workers and locals were hanging out near the fire, warming up for some merry-making. All Berbers, far more casual than Fez, they didn’t care or even seem to notice we were there. They were drinking and shooting the shit, men and women together. Some were decked in traditional garb, others dressed in western wear. A drummer was warming his drum skin near the fire. A violin player (he played it upright, and their own scales) was tuning and applying resin to his bow. They were casually talking and then talk-singing, and it gradually progressed into full-blown music, and a few of the women started doing this impromptu belly dance, and since we were the only ones in the room with them, they of course recruited us to dance so they could get a good laugh at the gringo belly dancers.
After a few songs, some more wine, and after some of the more squeamish travelers had finished their dinner and gone off to bed, they cleared some of the tables out of a cozier room, threw some logs on the fire, brought in a few more bottles of wine and kicked up the party a notch. The belly dancing was getting looser and wilder, and that one woman kept doing the trilly-yodeling thing that really was freaking us out. She was not shy. When a glass of wine was handed to her, she acted like it was a shot, not something to sip.
Here's a video montage of the belly dancing:
They pulled us in too (yes, that's Jess in the last segment of the video), and some other travelers including this big bald German guy who was totally into it and turned the belly dancing into a form of dirty dancing. Some of the more proper women were aghast but couldn’t keep from watching. Soon the belly dancers were rolling on the floor making a sandwich out of the fat German guy (who was also wearing a traditional Berber tunic that made him look like a fat Obi-wan Kenobi. Speaking of which, in general I'd have to say that the first Star Wars totally ripped off the fashion sense of Morocco, especially the Berbers. The scene where they go into town (Mos Eisley) and to the cantina to get a ride off the planet (from Hans Solo) was pretty much what it was like to arrive in Fez.) Some of the Berbers, like the alpha male, Sayid (shown below), were getting totally lit, drinking glass after glass of wine.
The German guy was really pushing the limits, and the party felt like it was on the verge of getting out of control—we had mixed feelings about what was going on, as did some of the Berber spectators. But everyone kept laughing and was in good spirits. During one dance, the woman with the freaky trilly-yodel, let down and shook out her long hair and then started walking around and shaking it into people’s faces, which seems about as racy as you can get for a Muslim woman.
This morning we headed out, up over the Atlas, through the Ziz valley and descended into the low desert on the Sahara side of the Atlas. It felt like the painted desert of the four corners region. Adobe Kasbah compounds dotted the landscape, and we finally saw our first camel. Every time we would stop, even in the middle of nowhere, we would get harassed. Whatever you took a picture of, somebody would want money. Even if you thought you were miles from the nearest house, and stopped on a mountain road, some kids would appear from behind a rock or bush, or jump down out of the sky. It’s almost like they were staking out every pullout with a potential photo op, and hiding in the bushes waiting for tourists to stop. It was a bit unsettling and made you want to just keep moving.
We’d planned on going further east into the Sahara to Erg Chebbi, where you can take a camel ride out into the dunes and spend the night. But we’d heard you freeze your ass off without a sleeping bag, and we were cold enough as it was, and it all sounded like another hassle racket, so we decided to save the dunes for another trip.
We got to Dades gorge and the harassment reached absurd proportions. You couldn’t even stop the car. The faux-guides and hawkers would act like they were hitch hiking, standing in the road and you’d have to almost hit them before they’d move out of the way. If you stopped, of course they’d launch into some sort of routine or want to sell you these crumby origami camels made of palm fronds. Or they’d wave their hands and yell for you to stop like someone had died or the road had washed out. It was nice to have a car to hide in. Never thought I’d live to say that. After a while I just started imitating everything they’d do. If they stuck their thumb out, I would just stick my thumb out and smile back like we thought that was there way of saying hello.
We drove through the gorge, quite impressive. The big bald monkish German guy was trying to tell us the night before that the Dades Gorge blew away the Grand Canyon and Zion. What a crock of shit. It was nice, but nowhere on that level of grandness. And there were French sport-climbers all over the sides of the rocks. It was quite the scene. We had lunch up high in the gorge, sitting in the sun. Very nice. Jess had a tajine and I had moussaka.
Our plan was to drive to Ouarzazate but we hit these towns and traffic would come to a grinding halt. There were these massive protests (considering the size of the towns) that completely blocked the bridges and roads. Riot police kept things relatively in order and they seemed like peaceful protests, but we had no idea what they were about. Finally it cleared and we drove in heavy traffic to the next town and the same thing happened again. Another protest and traffic was at a complete standstill, the grid-locked cars surrounded by people marching in the streets and chanting. We had no idea what was going on [In retrospect, I realize now that this was the day Saddam Hussein was either sentenced or was hung, but at the time we were blissfully ignorant].
We did a u-turn and found a hotel in this town El Kelaâ des Mgouna. Not much of a tourist town, though I guess it’s famous for rose water, maybe that’s even the name of it. There’s only one decent hotel, and one bar in the town and it’s in this hotel (la Rose M'gouna) that is perched up on this hill. The hotel is big but seemingly abandoned and vacant, and the interior is, again, so cold you can see your breath.
12/30 – Ouarzazate
Last night in Kelaâ des Mgouna got strange. Downright scary. After all the protests and mayhem that forced us to stop prematurely at this cold and desolate hotel on a hill, things got quiet. It felt like we were the only ones in the hotel, but later in the evening we heard distant loud music so we wandered through the dark hallways down to the bar, and it got louder and louder until it was comically loud, like they had cranked their tinny amps to 11. Pretty good music actually, seemed more Algerian than Moroccan, with two drummers and a traditional stringed instrument (a guinbri, perhaps, a goatskin covered gourd that was heavily amplified with lots of reverb and echo), and nasally singing that sounded devotional and dark. All the guys in the band were really clean cut, with white shirts and moustaches. It was all tough-looking Moroccan guys in the bar but the band sounded so good we had check it out.
I bellied up to the bar and ordered a bottle of wine, and the bartender handed me the bottle in a paper bag. I told him we wanted to drink it in the bar and he eyed me suspiciously and said he thought we were going to drink it in our room (or maybe he was just wishing that). I said no, that we wanted to drink it in the bar, and he reluctantly opened it and handed me glasses. It was pretty uncomfortable. We sat down and all the guys were just staring at us, especially Jess, and they seemed very pent up. They were all smoking and not sipping, but pounding their beers and having very animated and loud conversations. [Again, this tension all might have had something to do with Hussein being hung, but we had no knowledge of it]. Eventually we retreated to the restaurant it got so tense and uncomfortable. Quite a difference from the merry-making of our previous night in the Berber Kasbah.
After dinner we had to walk back through the bar and some of the guys were yelling at us in Arabic. I turned and they yelled “Bon Soir,” sarcastically, like good riddance. I smiled and said bon soir back like I thought they meant it for real. It was close to freezing in our room. We put on all our clothes and got all the blankets out of the closet we could find. It felt funny, because it was a nice room. At least it would be in the summer time, or in it's day. At 1:30 a.m. I awoke and heard singing. Not the band, but just untrained and drunken vocals, singing passionately, almost like devotional prayer. The singing was interspersed with arguing and yelling that was echoing through the empty halls and chambers of the hotel. It all sounded very angry and drunken, masculine and Muslim. Unless I was crazy and it was all in my head. It was a scary thing to wake up to in a cold dark room. Soon it seemed the yelling and chanting was getting closer to us, in our section of the hotel. Then they were pounding on a nearby door and yelling. And then they were pounding on another closer door, like they were going down the line. My heart started pounding, my mind racing wondering what to do if they started pounding on our door. Stay quiet obviously. We had a phone in our room, I could call the police, but wouldn’t know what to dial and didn’t know French. We were on a second floor, we could jump off of our balcony. Jess was still sleeping. I let her. Then the pounding stopped. Their voices went into a room. I finally fell asleep but kept dreaming about it. Finally, it was the next morning.
It felt like when you camp out in the desert and sleep in your clothes in your sleeping bag, and it’s all cold until the sun comes up and then you get too hot and forgot what it was like to be cold. Our car barely started and the windshield was iced over. But once we got going, we heated up. We drove to Ouarzazate which wasn’t that far. Saw a few more Kasbahs on the way. And of course, lots more sheep and camels, and miles of miles of mountains and scenic terrain.
Got a room right in the Kasbah in Ouarzazate. Of course faux guides insisted on leading us around and to the hotel, but they were easier to get rid of then Fez. The room we got is incredible, with windows overlooking fields and palm trees. The room has earthen walls and red velvet curtains, chandelier, and Moroccan rugs. Truly exotic, like some sort of harem chamber.
Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of it and it's not in the guidebook, but it's the only place that's right in the Kasbah. It's run by some couple-- a fat chain-smoking French guy, an attractive black Moroccan, and her daughter (we presume) who is living in the room next to us with a baby which we’re not sure if it's hers or her moms. They are very nice and hospitable, but of course we can't talk to them so we have to mime everything.
After we settled in, we explored the Kasbah. They were slaughtering sheep all over the place. Saw one guy kill one in his arms. Somewhere else, in a market stall, we saw a guy kill a chicken with the same demeanor that someone in the states would make a smoothie. He held it upside down to drip the blood out. Sheep blood was dripping from rooftops and gutters, forming streams and puddles in the alleys of the kasbah. We could smell burnt hair. They were airing the carcass skins out to dry in the sun.
We bought some things, a rug, some spices (for tajine), all sorts of stuff. Then we Went to Atlas Studios outside of town, where they've filmed a lot of movies like Gladiator, Kingdom of Heavan, Jewel of the Nile, etc. It was very cool. We took a tour of the sets.
Scenes from the Kasbah ... Not! Atlas Studios, one of the sets for Gladiator. Though the bones are real (used for a documentary on cavemen)
Came back, had a tajine and mint tea on the streets with some wild cats. That's another thing, they have cats everywhere here. Moroccans seem to like them, that cats have no fear and are for the most part healthy. We did more shopping and wandering in the kasbah. Now we're chilling in our luxurious room with the family outside watching Superman in French. Our door is screen so it feels like they are in the room with us. Jess is reading The Sheltering Sky. I’m reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth but am not that into it. Can’t get into the mood of pompous academics here. We’re thinking of getting pasta where the Italian film crews from Atlas Studios go.
>> onward to Morocco Field Report 3: Rocking the Kasbahs and Girdling Goat Trees
(c) 2007 Derek White and Jessica Fanzo. Please just ask before using photos or words elsewhere.