Morocco was fascinating and befuddling. We docked in the Casablanca port, which unlike Cadiz, is a busy industrial port. It was not beautiful. Rather it was dirty and dusty, on the edge of a city of 5 million people. Casa (as it's called) is the commercial center of Morocco and is not designed for foreign tourists!
We arrived on Sept. 9, the last day of Ramadan, so most things were closed during the day. And because of the nature of Casa, most people on the ship were getting ready to head across the country one way or another. We had a diplomatic briefing by two US Embassy officials who were engaging and patiently answered the many questions about how to find ATM's and how to exchange money, etc., etc. Unlike Cadiz, many people stayed on the ship the first day as we got ready to travel on the 10th.
The 10th was also the first day of Eid-al-Fitr. As my trip was leaving Casa the whole city, it seemed, was streaming home from the magnificent Hassan II mosque. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and one of the largest in the world. More about that later!
From Casa my bus (and the one in front of it) was headed to Marrakech for our first night. Our first stop was in the city square where we were having lunch.
45 students streamed off our tour bus and were instantly accosted by people in traditional dress asking for money in exchange for pictures with them. Several men were draping snakes around unwitting tourists while others coaxed trained monkeys onto their shoulders. The population of Marrakech is 1.5 million, and at any one time there are an additional 1 million tourists there. So these folks knew what they were doing! Some students were delighted, others were not. I protectively herded several as they were trying to pull a few bills out of their money belts as the salesmen eagerly watched. There were also women in traditional Muslim dress with only their eyes visible, catching women's hands and decorated them with henna before the young women even knew what was happening. At that point it was too late for them to say No, and they felt caught and obligated to pay the price the henna artist asked, or demanded. It was a shocking introduction to Moroccan salesmanship! Some students became expect bargainers, others hated the whole experience. I successfully avoided the monkeys, snakes, and henna and waited to shop when our tour guide could help me out with the haggling!
After separating ourselves from the entrepreneurs, we had the first of many wonderful Moroccan meals. We would all sit down while the wait staff brought out the pre-ordered set menu for the 90 people from both tour buses. Each meal began with a plate of cold salad items - strips of pickled carrot, cucumber slices, tomatoes, and sometimes bell pepper slices, avocado, or a lemony cole slaw. The meals are served family style, so each person at the table serves him or herself from the main plate. After the salad plate was whisked a way, a waiter would place a covered tajine in the middle of the table and then dramatically pull the cover off.
This one was a Berber dish of ground lamb in a tomato base, with scrambled egg on top. It was better than it sounds, and than I expected! One student said he wanted to buy a tajine because every time one appeared and the lid was lifted there was something delicious inside. He wondered if it would work like that at home!
The next day we drove about 7 hours across the country toward Zagora near the southern border of Algeria and on the edge of the Sahara desert. The high desert reminded me so much of New Mexico it was eerie. We passed many villages clustered together in the vast landscape. Then we crossed the Atlas Mountains, with breathtaking vistas. And not a little motion sickness. Our bus actually slowed down because of the several people puking. (Not me this time!)
After dark we arrived at the Nomad Camp and were greeted with singing and drumming from a traditional Moroccan musical group (who's name I did not learn.) We were then offered the traditional mint tea and allowed to settle into our tents. Berber carpets formed the center courtyard with 6 person tents situated in rows around the center. The tents were made out of heavy blankets stitched together, with carpets on the floor. The mattresses were better than the beds in the hotel! We had another delicious meal from the magic tajines and then more singing and drumming from the musicians.
We were awoken early the next morning by the braying of donkeys - which I haven't heard since Girl Scout Camp - and whatever you call the sound that camels make! After breakfast (boiled eggs, fruit, & bread) we were put into small groups for the camel trek. The best part of riding a camel is getting on and getting off!
One climbs onto the camel when its on the ground and then hangs on for dear life as it stands up, tipping its rider far backward. Getting off is the same thing in reverse. One hangs on tightly while the camel kneels down on its front knees, tipping the rider far forward. It helps to have a camel herder brace your shoulders! Everything in between is less exciting and less comfortable. I commented that there is a real need for more research and development on camel saddles! They were basically a metal brace the fit over the camel and provided the handlebar, with heavy blankets over it. We all had bruises from sitting on the "saddle." The ride is less rhythmic than a horse - or maybe it's just that a camel sways more in every direction so its harder to stay centered and adjusted. I'd kind of get the hang of it, and then list off to one side or the other and have to get readjusted, all while continuing to sway. I'm so glad I did it, and I probably don't need to do it again! We did learn that Timbuktu was 52 days away by camel. We rode for less than 1 hour and decided Timbuktu would have to wait!
We rode through stands of date palms - some were able to pick some and eat them - and around communities of people who looked at us like the crazy tourists were were. We saw several cars and motorbikes to underscore that point! We also saw lots of children delighted by the spectacle, and a lot of sheep and goats. I understand now why Jesus told a parable about separating them - they run around together and are almost indistinguishable until you get up close.
After the camel trek we had a long drive back to Marrakech, through some different and equally amazing terrain, especially in the middle Atlas.
In the next post - hopefully later today - I'll talk about our cultural shopping tour in Marrakech and the Hassan II mosque in Casablanca.