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Posts from the ‘Morocco’ Category

Essaouria, Jimi Hendrix, and Castles in the Sand

Evening on the Balcony

Fresh air from the Atlantic Ocean blows into our lungs as we settle into the beach town of Essaouria. We find a room with a balcony overlooking the bay, where people kite-surf during season. Nothing has been really inexpensive in Morocco, but being here in the off-season provides some good deals. Yes, I can see why Jimi Hendrix would hang here, and how it inspired him to write, “Castles in the Sand.”

Hendrix's "Castles in the Sand"

After the madness and mayhem of the larger Moroccan cities, where venders constantly call and tug at your sleeve, and people elbow each other through enormous, smoke-filled crowds, Mare and I savor the sound of the ocean. We love the loneliness. The most difficult task we have today is to go to the Medina and purchase bread, fruit, cheese, and beer – at the one and only alcohol store in the entire town. Of course we will find it! We learn that beer is forbidden in the Koran, but rif (marijuana) is not mentioned thus…not an infraction for a Muslim. I’m glad that they can relax once in a while.   

Essaouira

         I turn down several offers to purchase kif, hash and opium, still not quite comfortable with the scene. We hear about scams and rip-offs, and even set-ups to get arrested by the police. We love to visit new places, but a Moroccan prison is not on the list. Traveling in this country is hard enough without adding additional stress and paranoia. We sneak beer, and feel like heroin addicts doing that. Tourists get a pass on the beer, albeit not a friendly one, but this country is nothing like back in the days when it inspired Hendrix and Graham Nash.…not even close.  

Dinner

When we see hoards of seagulls flying by the docks, we head down to watch fishermen unload their catch. Sardines, crabs, eels, and types of fish we have never met before draw some of the largest cats I have ever seen. When fishermen have a good catch, everybody’s happy.

Everyone eats well!

We decide to chill-out on our balcony for three nights. Sunny weather, no harsh winds, and no traffic noise provide the oasis we seek. We get a whole new backpack wardrobe from the laundry service and catch-up on some internet stuff. We would enjoy a longer stay here, at Hotel Miramar, alas; the downside of a rental car is that you have to return it. Besides, people are starting to recognize us.

Leaving Essaouria

             Back into the car, we hump it up the coast to the town of Azemmour, but not without first downing two dozen fresh oysters for lunch, in the small city of Oualidia. A definite advantage of having a rental car comes in all of the stops you can make along the way. I even taste raw sea urchin, as an independent vendor hands it to me, but decide not to purchase any. I don’t feel right driving around with sea urchins in my backseat. In Azemmour, we stay inside the Medina at “Riad Azama.” The owner tells us how he renovated this old house, and the place truly shows off the crafted woodwork and tiles. I hear him yell at the receptionist for not offering us tea upon our arrival. But, to tell the truth…we are pretty full of Medina’s, Kasbahs, Riads and Castles in the sand. We feast on fresh bread and cheese from our bag of goodies. From the Riad’s terrace, we see the tops of old Medina houses, covered with satellite dishes, and catch a glimpse of the river, running into the sea…eventually.

Riad Azama

We drive hard the next day, and talk ourselves out of a traffic ticket for speeding. Of course, we get lost in a few large towns, like Rabat and Kenitra, and become happy over little things, such as finding a smooth toll-road where the speed limit is 120 kilometers per hour. Our destination town of Assilah, just outside of Tangiers where we will turn in the car tomorrow, seems to us as just another town full of hustlers. It rains and turns cold. Again, I get lots of offers to purchase drugs. I guess I look pretty ragged from travel exhaustion, hair growing from everywhere besides my head, so perhaps they think I need some dope. Yep, when things look like “just another town,” it is time to go. We just know.

            Today I sit in Tarifa, Spain, after a fast ferry ride from Tangiers. Mare catches food poisoning from a meal of Octopus. Imagine that. After all of our travels in Africa eating everything, everywhere, in less than sanitary conditions, she gets sick in Spain. At least we relax in a clean hotel, and even better, in a country much more travel friendly to us than Morocco seems.

Taking Me To Marrakesh

On the road to Marrakesh, we swing down a side road to visit Ait Benhaddou, where producers make films such as Jesus of Nazareth, Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Jewel of the Nile. This place is a UNESCO protected Kasbah. Smack! The narrow road forces us into a near head-on collision with an on-coming car. My driver’s side mirror gets smashed, and we are lucky to avert disaster by a few inches.

Ait Benhaddou

People still live in this red, mud-brick Kasbah which hangs onto a mountainside. I’ll bet many of them have been in the movies, at least as part of the crowd. We walk around, and then force ourselves back into the car. The road climbs through the Tizi n’Tichka pass in the High Atlas Mountains. We whip around switchback lanes that seem to never end and in winter, the road is often closed due to weather. In 2005 several tourists died, stranded in their snowed-in car. At this point, we are driving up one side and down the other of a simulated Grand Canyon, as if in a movie. Truly, photos cannot capture the depth and distance of this humongous scale. Neither can they capture trucks flying around curves, often in our lane, and squeezing through impossible passageways.

Tizi n'Tichka Pass

Finally, we stop for lunch at a mountainside café. Everything is difficult. Even trying to order food exhausts us, as the language barrier relentlessly peels away thin layers of our energy.

Numerous travelers advise us that spending one night in Marrakesh is plenty. Some even say that we should skip it altogether. At this stage, we are not looking forward to the callousness or chaos of a large city. But, how can we visit Morocco without seeing this magical place?

We roll through Marrakesh with relative ease, and park in front of a clean hotel. Yes, we take the clean room and the indifference that comes along with it. However, the indifference disappears when we walk the streets. Mare attracts sneers from men in suits. Younger boys actually turn around after passing us on the sidewalk and disdainfully utter…”Blonde.” We do not expect this in Marrakesh, and chalk it up to big-city life. I mean, we expect peace, love, acid, happiness, you know…like the song. I want to see folks smoke hash, dance, sing, and charm snakes here. I guess we should be here forty-years ago. For once, we are too late, rather than too early.

Djemaa el-Fna

The Djemaa el-Fna, (Assembly of the Dead) is a major market square and open air theater. Now, the magic we seek lights-up. This street theater has been alive, nonstop, since cAD1050, when it was the site of public executions. Currently, an international film festival is getting under way, and crowds gather around a large outdoor screen in anticipation of the red carpet arrivals. Smaller crowds encircle local performers, such as clowns, acrobats, and magicians. The scent of sizzling, skewered meats competes with incense and cigarette smoke. Food-stands fill the center of the square, while venders attempt to lure us into their tent for a taste.

Free samples

Carts of colorful spices, fruits, olives and vegetables line the perimeter. Mare and I dodge scooters and horse drawn carriages that whiz through the mass of moving bodies, as we stroll through the souqs, (shops lining alleyways). All of the rooftop terraces, full of people looking-out, over the crowd below, seem like a perfect place for a beer. Alas, we can only find water, tea, and Fanta beverages being served this night. I guess that one night in Marrakesh is indeed, enough!

Not Rockin’ the Kasbah

The long, hot, dusty drive from our friendly oasis in Merzouga wears on us. The vast desert scenery reminds us of Arizona, only much larger. The eternal stretch of road finally starts to show some form of life, in the form of scrub growing on rolling hills. We tire from slow driving through smoky, smelly, small towns where again, nothing but hoards of men walk the streets, with no regard for traffic. What do they do? Where are the women? We already know that the men have little option for employment, and that the women stay home, but witnessing this lifestyle still amazes us.

Todra Gorge

Eventually, we start to climb in altitude and see the likeness of Grand Canyon scenery, though not nearly so dramatic. This breath of rejuvenation brings us into the Todra Gorge, where a fault divides the high Atlas Mountains from the Jebel Sarhro. We stop and walk partway through the gorge, but…we have been here before. The red rock jutting from a small stream below reminds us of the southwest in the States, which we’ve hiked in many places. Not to diminish the splendor, but our guide book tends to see flowers where there is nothing but solid rock. I am convinced that some guidebook writers get most of their information from telephone and internet, while lounging in a recliner at home.

Dade's Gorge

Onward through Dade’s valley to the Dade’s gorge, the towns become more impressive. Boxed dwellings painted pink, clash against white rock in the background. Okay, sorry tourist guidebook industry, but we’re in Utah and Arizona once again. We appreciate this scenery, and discover a renewed appreciation of our hometown as well. Perhaps we are growing travel weary. No, check that…we are indeed exhausted. It happens when you travel. Just once, I would love to read a truthful line in a guidebook that says, “This town stinks,” or “don’t bother going here because…”

 We roll through more end-of-the-world type of scenery to a Kasbah, in the town of Skoura. Off the road, through gravel and rutted dirt, (wishing we had four-wheel-drive) we’re lost in some narrow, dirt alley with typical mysterious smaller passages, where men stand in the shadows. Eventually, we find our guidebook-targeted Kasbah. I mean we are in Morocco. We must stay in a Kasbah…right? The old, tiny castle is all but deserted. The room reeks of musty rags, and despite being tired, we must pass on it. We do not rock the Kasbah. The proprietor, a very nice young man, drops the price considerably, but even we cannot stay here. Not even for free. Off we go…in search of a non-dreary room, maybe a beer, and possibly some food.

 Wella! We find the off-road guesthouse of “Chez Talout,” where the view shows off a massive valley full of palm trees. 

The view from Chez Talout

The towns in this area are built in an oasis, resembling Palm Springs, minus the golf courses. Abdul, the proprietor, drops his price considerably, as we explain that Abu, from Mezouaga, recommends his place to us. We get a fair deal, $100(US) that includes dinner and breakfast. But, we must drive back into town to the one and only grocery store, if we want to purchase beer. We must want beer pretty badly, because we make the drive across sharp rocks, all the while hoping to not get a flat tire. As soon as we walk into the small grocery store, the clerk says, “We have beer and whiskey.” We must look like we have escaped from rehab. 

More Moroccan fare

 That evening, we dine with the only other guests, Mark, and I am sorry but I forget his husband’s name, a nice couple from London. They get excited when they see our beer. So we share beers, the left over wine that Abu gave us the night before (Moonshine-tasting after a day in the heat) and travel stories over dinner. Our group dines on yet another Moroccan feast, but this time featuring chicken.

Tomorrow, “they’re taking me to Marrakesh…all aboard the train.” Go ahead, try and get that song out of your head!

Making Gymnastics

The dunes of Erg Chebbi

After driving to the end of the road, we do not want to leave the Sahara quite yet. The endless dunes, camels, and friendly people draw us in for one more night.

While I sit in an internet café, I hear Mare outside, entertaining a group of young men, making them laugh. So I listen through the window.

            “Do you drink?  Do you ever drink too much?” A male voice asks her.

            I stick my head out of the window to see. Mare lifts her sunglasses and points to her black eye. “Does this answer your question?”

            The hoard of men howls with laughter. I figure I’d better head on outside before Mare incites a riot, as the crowd is growing. Shoot…she has them eating out of the palm of her hand.

            I show up and say, “I didn’t do that to her!” One of the guys speaks some English, but mostly I speak by pointing and using hand signs. More laughter ensues. Then they seemingly all at once, invite us to stay at one guest house or another. We drive off, wave goodbye to our new friends, and find our own guest house.

            Abu greets us in front of “Maison Merzouga Guest House,” a place we target from in our guide book. We ask about the price of a room.

            “No, no…let’s have some tea first,” he insists. “Come up onto the terrace with me. Do you want sugar in your tea?”

The terrace

            The three of us sip tea, on the rooftop terrace, basking in the sun, while overlooking dunes, the village, and gardens below.

            Abu calls us part of his family, not just guests. He leads us to a second story tower, and shows us a clean room with an orthopedic mattress, sparkling bathroom, an air conditioner, heater, and a window overlooking some of the Sahara’s mounds of sand known as Erg Chebbi. Of course, we have to take it. For less than one-hundred US dollars, the price includes dinner and breakfast. Abu says he will get us beer, and even join us for one after the sun goes down and Allah cannot see him.

Running in traffic

After Mare and I take a long-overdue shower, we sit on the terrace and once again marvel at the Sahara scenery. A camel runs loose down the dirt road while the owner chases it. The scene reminds us of our lost love…Marley, our dog who has similar characteristics as the camel. No worries, as Abu shows up with three cans of beer, and joins us, despite the daylight and apparently, the possibility of being seen by Allah. We love this place. They even have Wi-Fi downstairs.

The beers keep coming, as does a group of motorcyclists riding “Honda Gold Wings” (Not everybody’s perfect). I want to show them my old Harley tattoo as a joke, but am having a good enough time on the roof. The Maison Merzouga guest house is filling up. The coldness of night forces us to join the group of people inside this huge house next to a roaring fire. It’s a jovial atmosphere, children running around, a few folks on internet, and Abu and his brother Omar becoming our best friends.

            He hugs Mare and looks at me. “You make gymnastics with Fatima tonight!”

            I laugh. (I get it)

            “Yes,” he says. ‘Make gymnastics every night and every morning. Keep Fatima and you happy!”

            We chuckle over this several times throughout the evening as Abu brings up “gymnastics” repeatedly.

Ready to "make gymnastics?"

            Mare and I feast on a King’s dinner, consisting of several courses of cooked vegetables, tajines of beef and chicken, way too much food. Abu sends us a bottle of wine, on the house, and we are too full for desert. We sneak off to bed.

            The next morning, while saying goodbyes, I tell Abu that we made gymnastics.

“No,” he says in disbelief. “You had too much alcohol.”

“Yes,” Mare says, “At night, and again in the morning!”

Abu, Mare, Omar and two of Abu's children

 Abu hugs me with approval and kisses me on the cheek. Mare and I ride off on a new adventure, heading towards the high Atlas Mountains and Marrakesh.

Festival in the Desert

We leave Fes on friendly terms. A day to relax does wonders for our psyche and we realize that nobody is out to get us. Traveling in Morocco simply takes us a little longer to assimilate…good for the soul.  

The High Atlas

            The long drive to Merzouga takes us through the mid and high Atlas Mountains. We roll quickly along straight, well-paved roads, and make a few stops, despite facing a good eight-hour drive. We stock-up on bread and cheese in the Alpine-style village of Ifrane, home to a University, as well as a refuge for affluent Moroccans. The route offers vast, mountainous scenery. Plus, nobody tailgates us, or tries to pull us over with offers to take us to their house. We almost miss them.

            We enjoy another small town, Coldu Zad, where a roadside merchant, Aziz, brags about the friendliness of the  Berber culture. The King of Morocco instituted teaching of the Berber verbal language in all schools in the country, in an effort to preserve the traditional culture. Berbers are the indigenous people, with no standard, written language. Romans coined the term “Berber,” meaning “barbarian.” No longer considered a slur, being Berber, or partly so, is now a source of pride. Berber-style architecture resembles rectangular boxes, made from lime and straw rather than concrete. This type of block also absorbs sound.

Aziz sells us some fresh produce, and then jumps into our car to takes us on a secret mission to purchase ten beers. Thank you, Aziz.

Another picnic on the Peugot

Several hours later, we stop along the road to eat lunch. As I slice tomatoes, bread and cheese on the car’s trunk, a traditionally dressed man appears suddenly out of the desert, and eats with us. Before long, we share lunch with several women, a donkey, and a French traveler. One woman pours a white, milky substance into our used water bottle, as a gift. We each take a sip, and tell her how good it tastes. She keeps making a motion with her hands, as if washing clothes. Mare asks me if we just drank laundry soap. Either way, we figure it’s organic. The robed man gives me air-kisses, past each cheek. Lunch lasts over an hour, and reaffirms our newfound comfort with the Moroccan people.  

            The high Atlas Mountains hold glacier looking ice, and the smooth road twists comfortably. Once we overtake the mountain pass, the vastness of the Ziz valley offers a glimpse of the Sahara desert, as it opens up in the distance. We can’t resist toasting each other, so we crack a beer, wondering if the penalty for such an infraction could be a be-heading. Eventually, we pull into the town our destination, Merzouga, which snuggles up against the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert. The end of this road is only about 12 miles away, close to the closed border of Algeria.

Sahara Desert

            Before we can even get out of the car, a guide asks if we want to take a camel trek into the desert. Of course we do! He jumps into the car and we drive a dirt road to the Hotel La Tradition.

Let's go!

 Within 30 minutes, Mare and I are sitting on camels, led by a walking guide through the massive, tan-shaded dunes of the Sahara. The camels gurgle and groan as we sway back and forth on top of them. The sun sets and we feel we’re floating in a fantasy land. Some dunes seem to have spines. The descending darkness displays a great glimpse of the Milky Way Galaxy. A notion that there are more stars in the Cosmos than grains of sand on Earth blows me away.

Two hours later we arrive at a camp, complete with short, boxed Berber tents in place. Mare and I sit outside our tent by candlelight, marvel at the most stars we’ve ever seen, and chill in the coldness of a Sahara night. A wool blanket covers the fine-grain sand, making for a soft landing. Several other camel-campers get served food. We are starving, and once again deal with the lack of food issue. We gave our food away at lunch on the road, and Mare’s stomach is growling like a camel. Finally, our guide appears and serves us big bowl of potatoes, carrots, peas and chicken. That just about does us in for the evening. The stars disappear from the light of a not-quite full moon, which casts its own milky white glow onto the sand.

Berber Tent

We lie in our tent, wrapped in our sleeping bags, as well as some extra blankets. Outside, the guides build a small fire, bang on some bongos, and the singing begins. It’s not the festival in the desert in Mali, which we had hoped to attend, but perhaps even more magical because of its spontaneity.

 In the morning we sit on top of a dune and watch the sun rise. The sand glows with an orange tint from the light of the African sun. We could stay here, in this calm, meditative state, but guides are loading up camels. It’s time to go. Our guide is from the town of Taouz, where the road ends. He leads this camel trip daily, sometimes twice. He doesn’t say much, only that he loves the desert.  

It’s hard to imagine that a small town exists just two hours away, from what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Hotel La Tradition provides us breakfast, and then we head out…for a quick drive to the end of the road, where this part of the Sahara runs across the closed border of Algeria. We have to see the end. It’s in our nature.

The end of the road

Medieval Medina

Yesterday’s scooter guide hands us off to his other friend, Ahmed, this morning. Ahmed speaks better English, and works as a special Medina guide. After driving to an entrance near the ancient walls, Ahmed takes us on a medieval walk through Morocco’s largest Medina. Home to about 200,000 Fassis, an estimated 90,000 of them are artisans. Donkeys clop along the cobblestone roads carrying raw animal skins through this labyrinth, as if suspended in the 9th century. Morocco’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site certainly shows some signs of modernization, by the look of satellite dishes bolted onto the roofs of the stone dwellings, but this is also the World’s largest car-free, urban center. Fes does not look polluted this morning.

Old Fes

Walking along the rain-slicked, limestone passages, we quickly realize the value of a guide. There exist no known accurate maps of this massive medina, and I’ll bet that even some residents get lost on occasion. We see markets offering everything from fresh produce, hand-woven rugs, hand-carved doors, and jewelry, to herbal pharmacies and hardware stores. Anything you want to purchase could be among the seemingly infinite alleyways and carved crevices, where you can watch your bread being made, or your sheep slaughtered if you so desire.

            Ahmed explains how Fes is divided into three main sections – the “New” (700 years old); the Jewish Quarter; and the 9th Century Medina. In the Medina we pass Africa’s largest Mosque which is also possibly the World’s first University, “Kairaouine Mosque & University.” Mare takes photos from the outside, as non-Muslims are not permitted to enter. The Mosque can accommodate 20,000 people for prayer.

First University in the World?

I ask him, “Why are the sidewalk cafes and streets filled with only men. Where are the women?

“They are home,” he explains. “It’s cultural that the men go out, and women stay home. But, the women visit with each other.” He continues, “Another cultural issue is that the whole family lives together. Only one of them may work, and the rest, maybe nine siblings, do nothing. They need to go somewhere.”

The tannery

            For Mare and I, a visit to the Tannery provides the most fascinating glimpse back into time. As unrealistic as a Mad Max movie, we can hardly believe what we see. Men straddle slippery, clay vats full of an acidic mixture of lime, salt, pigeon feces, animal urine, ash and water. This mixture removes the meat and fur from the skins of goats, camels, cows and sheep. Dipping large hooks deep into the brown mix, workers pull out wet skins and slap them over the side of the vats. After the skins are washed in a massive, wooden, turning spool, they drop them into vats of different dyes. All dyes are made from natural ingredients, such as saffron, indigo, and poppy.

Don't slip!

 Workers appear to wear no protective gear other than rubber gloves, and health problems are common. The Co-op provides medical care from local pharmacies, but when a worker gets injured, a member of his family must fill-in for him until he can return. During our visit, in the winter, the smell of rotting flesh is bearable, but tourists in the summer months must place mint leaves under their noses in order to fend off the strong stench. 

Purses and pumps

This fascinating process produces some of the best leather in the world. The only difference between modern, and 9th century practices, comes with electricity moving the massive, wooden washers and ceramic tile lining the tubs. Camel and goat produce the strongest leather, cow, and then sheep follow. We see piles of animal carcasses along the passageways.

I see dead animals

   Finally, Ahmed drops us at Restaurant Touria for lunch. We feast on a three-course meal beginning with mezze – fresh bread and cooked vegetable salads in five different clay pots, including bean soup, with spices and chilies. This is followed by chunks of ground meat in a spicy tomato sauce, with a sizzling egg on top.  Fresh fruit, almond cookies and mint tea complete the meal. We only consume one beer, as each beer cost $8 (US) each.

            We return to the hotel totally amazed and satisfied.  Tomorrow we will take a day off to catch-up on the blog, and plot our course across the Middle and High Atlas Mountains, into the Sahara.

Finding Fes (Fez)

The drive to Fes proves to be white-knuckled. Roads narrow even more, and twist around “S” curves as we climb through the fabulous heart of the Rif Mountains. Snowcaps in sight, we glimpse at Grand Canyon-like vastness, but must focus on the road ahead. Again, we watch for donkeys, sheep, goats and people popping up from out of nowhere. But now, we encounter a different twist…cars tailgating us, honking, flashing their lights, and the driver motioning for us to pull over.

Backbone of the Rif Mountains

First, I think that I am driving too slowly. So, I pull over, and the car behind me pulls over also, only in front of me. So, I take off again. Another car tailgates, then passes me and slows down, waving me over. We begin to think that maybe something is wrong with our car. At that, I pull over. Two young guys approach my driver’s side window and shake my hand. One reaches into the car and shake’s Mare’s.

            “Hello! Welcome! he says. “Come to my house. My wife will feed you and we can smoke hash.”

           “Thanks, but we have to get to Fes.”

He stays persistent in broken English. “No, I will show you my family and how we live, come!”

I laugh, and slowly roll the car away. He follows me for a while before giving up. This long, slow travel on hairpin curves might be the most nerve-wracking I can remember driving in any foreign country. We are lost again. We pass through some dirty, dusty towns which are crowded with men, yelling and whistling at us. Finally, passing through the town of Ketema, we realize we’re heading in the right direction, because it is on our map. The crowds of men increase, along with the yelling and cat calls, as if we have a neon sign above our car that blinks, “Tourists Need Kif.” Some pedestrians even run alongside our slow moving vehicle. I simply smile and laugh, pretending to be stupid…not a stretch by any means. I must mention that the men, dressed in long robes with pointed hoods, do not harass or bother us at all. It is the young men dressed in western clothing. We drive on, still puzzled.

A car, a Mercedes, follows me, blinking lights, and honking his horn. No way will I stop, remembering Ahmed’s advice of never letting anybody in the car. The driver behind me persists, for close to thirty minutes, beeping, hand gesturing for me to pull over, so I start to have fun, laughing, making my own meaningless gestures, shrugging my shoulders, and finally he leaves. Shortly after, I pass somebody and get pulled over by the police. They laugh at my lack of understanding the language. Once they figure out that I don’t want to pay a $400 Dirham fine, they let me go, and one says in broken English, “Slow down.”

Fes

Finally, we find Fes, which looks like traffic chaos, air pollution, and an impending accident. Yet, another example of the disadvantage of a rental car…if on a bus, we simply would get off and hire a taxi to take us to Hotel Splendid, a moderate place that we hope has a clean bathroom. We quickly realize that we will not find that targeted hotel, as this city is huge…1.6 million and still counting.

A guy in a scooter pulls next to my open window. “Where are you going?” he asks.

I look at Mare. Without saying a word, we know we have no choice. “To the Hotel Splendid,” I respond.

He nods. “Follow me.”

Mare says that he will want to be our guide. But we agree that we need one. I follow him through impossible traffic, but somehow the traffic flow works, similar to a school of fish. A long ride later, scooter-guy pulls up in front of Hotel Splendid. How splendid. I give him, Arjay, ten dirham, and promise to meet him outside the hotel tomorrow morning, for a tour of the Medina, which is three kilometers away.

When we tell him where we drove from today, he laughs. We learn that we just toured the heart of kif country where 50% of the World’s cannabis supply is grown. It kills me to think that I just traveled through the heart of cannabis land, and did not even get stoned! Further investigation reveals that the town of Ketema is considered “lawless” and that fugitives flee there from the Moroccan authorities. Whether those men following us wanted to sell us hash, or rob us, or take us to their homes just for fun, who knows? Sometimes it pays to be naïve, but we are sure whatever the motive, it would have cost us something.

Our hotel room has a clean bathroom, shower with hot water, and best of all, a hidden bar near the lobby!

King's Palace in Fes

Tonight we walk the streets of “New Town” Fes…imagine that, “New” is about 700 years old. Traffic and pedestrians jam the place. Huge crowds of men fill every sidewalk café table, sipping coffee. Not a woman in sight, except for Mare. Where are the women? What do they do? The men stare at us. A couple men comment on Mare’s blonde hair. Are they also looking at her black eye?

We find a small café’ and order tajines, (skewered, spiced meat) along with a delicious lamb stew. We will have to wait to go back to the hotel for a cold beer.

Which Way to Chefchaouen?

We love the independent travel that a rental car offers. Rolling down the road, we get lost numerous times. Many people, lots of them dressed in long robes with pointed hoods, wander along the roadside. We ask for directions often, cannot understand a word, but head out to where the person points us.

            The road narrows when we start our climb into the Rif Mountains. With no shoulder, donkeys, sheep, cows and people often dart from out of nowhere, making for cautious, slower driving, often with an impatient tailgater behind. We dodge pedestrians while driving through several small towns full of men standing road side.  There is not a woman in sight, we get whistled at, waved at, and wonder why we stand out so bright.

Chefchaouen

            Finally, we see the town which clings onto a mountainside. One disadvantage of a rental car is that we must drive into the heart of the village. We are hopelessly lost, even in the relatively small town of Chefchaouen, looking for the “Rif,”a budget hotel. The darkness of the evening makes the going tougher. Groups of men, dressed in long robes with pointed hoods, make a silhouette of grim reapers in the distance. Mare and I again realize how Ahmed tried to hustle us by advising us to dress in that manner. We would indeed look pretty, pretty ridiculous.

         I make U-turn after U-turn, and some kid asks if I’d like some marijuana. I reply, “Yes.” (Bad mistake) He tries to sell us kif, (marijuana/hash) even as I drive away.  Because the going is slow in the crowded street, I end up running in to him over and over, as we are driving in circles looking for the hotel. He gives us the hard sale, but getting stoned right now is the last thing I need…or is it? Looking back, perhaps it would have mellowed me out some.  

            Finally, we find the “Rif” and take a room. ($30US) The bathroom smells so bad that even I won’t take a shower. The hand-held shower sits next to the toilet, by a drain, where the toilet paper would normally be. I understand that this is a cultural thing, but it kind of grosses us out.

            We need a beer. The one and only bar in town is a “man” bar. I purchase six, small bottles of beer to go, ($16US) while Mare waits outside. Kif is much easier to obtain than beer. The hotel owner will not allow us to sit with the men around the tables on the sidewalk. We either drink beer in our smelly room, or on the rooftop terrace, out of view.

View from the rooftop

            We sit on the rooftop terrace and enjoy expansive views of the Rif Mountains. Mare sees the kid who wants to sell us kif, camping by our car. We are too exhausted to search much for food in the darkness, so we settle for decent pizza at a pastry shop.

            In the morning we hike one of the Rif’s peaks to a small, stone church. We welcome the heart pumping exercise, our first since walking the beach back in Tarifa. The beauty of Chefchaouen reveals itself to us in the morning light. We enjoy stupendous views of the town and the valleys hidden in these mountains. The descent of our hike glides us through fluorescent passageways that open up into the Medina’s market square.

         An artist that works at the Rif Hotel stares at Mare’s eye. I tell him that “It wasn’t from me.” He laughs, and gives us a brief history lesson. He tells us that every April, at least 1,000 Jews come to the city to visit one of the original Temples, a First House of David, which sits on the other side of the peak we just hiked. This town is the only one where the Muslim symbol of two horns respects one horn as Jewish. Muslims and Jews respect each other’s traditions, as most Muslims in Morocco understand that Judaism’s roots were here prior to Islam. In fact, the blue color of the city was introduced by Jewish refugees in the 1930’s. Christians were not allowed in the city until the Spanish invaded in 1920, but a Jewish leader successfully fought them off.  Of course, this is all based on the stoned artist’s interpretation.

            Soon, Mare and I hit the road en route to Fes…now a story of its own.

Tarifa to Tangiers

Preface

            Mare has a black eye. Sitting in the “Bear Bar” in Tarifa, Spain, a fight breaks out, and she catches a random fist, elbow, who knows for sure, to her left eye. After the brouhaha, where I stood by, separated from Mare, I see her being tended to by several women. They place ice rags onto her eye. She remembers little. I am outraged. Through the window of the bar, I see one of the perpetrators of the fight standing on the road with his friends. I go outside.

“Who punched my wife?” I ask him.

“It was the other guy,” he says.

I grab him by his arm and bring him to the bar window. “Show him to me.”

“I don’t see him, he must of left.”

I go back inside and check on my love. She has quite a doozy of a black eye. Then, the bar manager tells me that the guy I talked with outside was the one who punched her.

I go outside again. “You punched my wife!” Then I snap out a left jab directly onto his jaw. “C’mon,” I shuffle backwards and get ready to fight.

He drops to one knee and holds up a hand. He won’t fight. So I turn to his group of friends in the street, “C’mon, let’s go!” I’m ready for revenge.

A blonde, young man says, “We don’t fight. We’re peaceful.”

I go back inside, tend to my wife, and take her back to the hotel.

Mare’s eye is swollen and bruised. My revenge on the kid did not help her eye. I do not like reacting with violence, especially, with not enough, or poor information. I am ashamed to mimic an ex-president. I deserve the black eye, not Mare. But, this is the story, part of our travels, and somehow, I am bound to tell it. Obviously, I’m not writing for Travel & Leisure Magazine.

Best to stay on the balcony

The fast ferry from Tarifa drops us onto the shore of Tangiers, Morocco. Almost faster than the ferry, a freelance guide starts showing us around, asking what we need. Our guide book gives mixed messages about hiring one of the hoards of persistent guides all over Morocco. However, Ahmed, (who tells us that everybody is named “Ahmed”) gains some of our trust by shooing away a taxi driver who wants five Euros to drive us to Avis Rental Cars. Ahmed says that we should only pay two Euros, and he hops into the taxi along with us.

We acquire a rental car, which needs gas. So Ahmed will ride with us, show us where to get gas, and then the way out of town. We are headed to Chefchaouen, a town that sits amidst the peaks of the Rif Mountains. Sometimes it’s called the “Blue City” because of its bright blue buildings.

“You cannot leave Tangiers without tasting the couscous,” Ahmed insists.

Okay, that sounds fair enough, besides we are hungry. In the front seat of the car, Ahmed talks nonstop. He’s about my age, (55) and is bald like me. He tells us about the good days of Tangiers, when “groovy” people visited like Jimi Hendrix and Beat Generation writers including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

Tangiers

“Now, Tangiers is different, not so good.”

Then he wants to take us to his house to sell us kif, (marijuana/hash). He explains that the substance is legal in Morocco for personal use, we know it is not. He says he sends hash to the United States, first by covering it in wax, smashing it into a mirror, then sending by DHL from Spain to his many friends in the United States.

“I can’t smoke hash and try to drive these crazy roads,” I say.

“Okay, I’ll sell you a small packet to take along,” he responds.

“No thanks, really…it would make my wife very nervous.”

He asks me what happened to her eye, and we both explain, sure that every onlooker thinks that I beat my wife.

We eat a late lunch with Ahmed in a fancy restaurant, complete with live music and a belly dancer. No doubt, the best couscous I have ever eaten, with a blend of saffron, light curry, other unknown spices, as well as chicken. The belly dancer vibrates to the live music, while we drink beers and eat meat pies that are part pastry. Yes, it is a truly great meal.

Lunch time entertainment

The tab shocks me. It totals 500DH, (about 80US) and our second lesson teaches that beer is hard to come by in Morocco, as well as very expensive. Ahmed explains that Muslims have to hide alcohol for the most part. He climbs into our car to lead us out of town, while the call to prayer blares from a minaret. “I live right below a minaret, and that thing wakes me up at 4:30 a.m. every morning. I roll a joint, eat breakfast, and go to work.”

Ahmed tries to talk us in to buying long robes with pointed hoods. “You wear these and will get respect, plus protection.”  Mare and I imagine how stupid we would look. Finally, we have had enough of Ahmed.

“No robes, Ahmed, but please, just get us on the road to Chefchaouen.”

Before he gets out of our car he warns, “Be sure to not let anybody into your car.”

“Well, we let you in, and it already cost me too much money!” We all have a good laugh. “How much do you want for your services?”  I pay him 20 Euros and we are glad to be rid of him. Perhaps we get hustled, but at least we got a great meal and are now headed the right direction out of town with a full tank of gas.