Monday, January 22, 2007


A must-see for anyone who visits, if logistically possible, are the dunes of the Sahara desert. Just saying “dunes of the Sahara desert” sounds so exotic and romantic to me – I remember sitting on the Cape of Good Hope and feeling the same way. You read about it, you learn about it, but do you ever think you will get there? And now I have been. When I was in South Africa I had to say to myself every so often, “I’m in Africa.” I say that to myself less often here because it seems so different from South Africa – and one of the reasons for that, if not the principal reason, is the Sahara desert.

Getting there may not have been half the fun, but it was about half the weekend. When I made the plan it was cold here and I thought it would be nice to go somewhere warm; I also thought I might receive a book by then and have something to occupy me on the bus. It’s been warm here, of course, so I didn’t need that aspect, and I took magazines, so so much for the book, but seeing friends is always a priority, as is seeing other parts of Morocco. Before I get to that, however, the trip down – long but extremely picturesque (if you visit and rent a car it will be shorter – the bus makes long stops in several cities enroute; grand taxis may be faster, or the wait at each grand taxi stop may equalize it). It took over seven hours each way but the time went by quickly.

First, you pass the forest with the Barbary Apes – I thought they might be active by the dawn’s early light but didn’t see them. The Middle Atlas at that time of day were purple mountain majesties above the semi-arid plain – Morocco the Beautiful. The first town of note that you get to is TimHdit - I know the road between here and there well. And after that it was an adventure into the unknown. The mountains get higher and closer to the road. There were trees and shrubs and some patches of snow. Not many people though, or sheep. In fact, I didn’t see any evidence of habitation for a while. I guess the next town is Itzer – there’s a second-year SBD volunteer there, but I’m not really sure which of the places I passed was Itzer. A plain opened up – the land between the Middle Atlas and the High Atlas mountains. It didn’t seem particularly fertile or occupied – a town every so often along the road, but I think I expected agricultural and I didn’t see it. Midelt is the next big city; there’s a second-year SBD volunteer there too (Cory, whose blog I have mentioned). It’s a sizeable city with a stunning view of the snowy side of the High Atlas – not sure how much higher they are than the Middle Atlas (I’ll look it up and get back to you) but the north side of them had much more snow than I had seen yet. I’m guessing that last winter there was snow from here all the way through the High Atlas; this year, no. The road turns and if you’re on the right side of the bus you stare at the snowy peaks for quite a while as you head for the pass in the mountains created by the Ziz River. And then you head up, with the hairpin turns common on mountain byways. Rich is the next big town – Lee described it as beautiful but with some of the meanest people he’d met in Morocco; still might be worth a stop some day. On the way back I texted Jesse, the Imilchil first-year SBD volunteer whose cyber town is Rich (Imichil is the site with no electricity or water and the cyber town is four hours away) – she happened to be there so she came over to talk for a few minutes while the bus was idling there; a nice bonus.

On the dry side of the mountains the land looks more like the American West – lots of sedimentary rock in various layers, a canyon created by the river, not much growing other than that. Growing up in the east, I remember marveling at how much land there was out west not being used for anything (or capable thereof), when the east was either city or farm; this part of Morocco reminded me of that. And then we were on the other side – Errachidia, the big city on the other side (also with a second-year SBD volunteer) is flat and the buildings are clay-colored and it looks like it can get very hot there in the summer, which it does. Here the bus terminated and I was surrounded by a swarm of men (in other circumstances that might sound appealing but here it was most definitely not); I shook them off and found my way to the grand taxi station. So close, but yet so far – usually the taxis fill quickly, I was told, but it took a while – I finally decided to pay for an extra place so we could get going. Having the entire front seat to myself made me feel like a queen - oh, those little things that mean a lot. From Errachidia to Erfoud the river had more water in it and there were palm trees along the floodplain – I have been whining about wanting to go to Palm Springs again (a la the joke) – this reminded me of that. And then I made it to Erfoud!

Frank is the first-year SBD volunteer there; a couple of weeks before site placement the volunteer who had been there ET’d so he ended up there; I wonder if he wonders what might have been, but I didn’t ask. He’s another mid-career person, our stage’s resident PhD, a former professor and policy worker, and he has an analytical and critical mind that I find fascinating. Jong came over too – a friend from my CBT group, she’s in Tamegroute, which I cannot get to over a Saturday night, so we thought it would be IST (In-Service Training, after six months) or vacation days before we’d see each other; it was over a six-hour ride for her too – but the good news is we can do this again! Frank also has a second-year YD sitemate, Matt, who is very nice; he came up to Azrou for our bike training and I sat next to him at the mock wedding. Erfoud is not a big town but it has everything one needs. It was laid out by the French Foreign Legion (!) in a grid; there’s no old medina. The streets are wide, the buildings red-clay and sand-colored, there’s still a military presence, I think. We went to Frank’s host family’s house for couscous and then to his place. He’s already started to furnish it and he has all the comforts of home (actually, more than I had in Chicago) – satellite big-screen TV, wi-fi, ponjs with custom covers, hot water in the plumbing system. And then his host father, who is a tour guide, picked us up in his 4x4 and we went to the dunes! Part of our route is the same one used by the Paris-Dakar rally. We passed the hotel where Hillary and Chelsea Clinton stayed in 1996 and the plateau we saw in the distance was Algeria. We went to a fossil shop. In addition to the dunes, that is what this area is known for – it was a sea, and they have trilobites, rose du sable and marble. This is what Frank’s artisans work with; I didn’t get to meet the artisans or buy a lot, so I’ll have to go back.

And then the dunes! Merzouga is the town nearest the dunes, or you may wish to search for Erg Chebbi (red mountain) – the sand is red-hued and at the time of the day that we were there the sunlight on them was spectacular. And I saw camels! Frank and Jong are already used to camels; I was thrilled. When I saw Bill Bradley in 2000, all the pictures of me with him were unsendable to the masses because I was smiling too much; some of the pictures of me at the dunes are similarly toothy. I was so happy! We started walking up the Grand Dune but didn’t make it far – Jong forged ahead while Frank and I kept stopping to take pictures. It was great. Next time maybe a camel ride. Or a palmery. Or the fossils. Or another trip to the shop where we stopped afterwards – some of the nicest products I’ve seen yet here, but I wasn’t in the frame of mine to buy. But there will be a next time!

Saturday night we talked and caught up and we dined with his host family – somehow it turned into Sunday morning before we retired, even though I had gotten up early to catch the bus, and then we had to get up early Sunday for Jong to get her bus. We went to a café and then walked around Erfoud a bit more – I saw the market and some of the shops and met some of Frank’s acquaintances; he’s done well at integrating. It feels, and is, far - from Rabat, from the Peace Corps staff, from other people – that was something I didn’t want, but I can see how it would have its advantages too. He has spectacular desert sunsets from his living room. He showed me pictures of a gorge that he went to the weekend before; I can get to it too, on a Saturday night trip, and I hope to do so. There are lots of other places in the south to visit and lots of Peace Corps volunteers – if I have long weekends or take vacation days I can explore more. It does get hot, though, in the summer – unbearably so, I hear. You sleep under a wet sheet. We (in a usual year) would be inside all winter and not getting a lot done; they would be inside all summer.

All too soon it was time for me to go too – grand taxi to bus through all the different landscapes. And time to catch up on lost sleep. And to look forward to the next journey!

And to shift this morning from thinking about camels to thinking about Bears! Can it be that the last time they were in the Super Bowl was the year before I moved there and now they are Super Bowl bound yet again? I had a wonderful day yesterday, but I also might have enjoyed being in Soldier Field in 30 degrees and snow...or being in front of the TV for what sounded like two great games. Maybe I can get the Super Bowl broadcast on my short-wave radio?

You look marvelous, by the way! Now about those Bears....Mike is beside himself with excitement and is hunting for tix w/friends in FL. It's certainly drivable from Atl and he considers this a "once in a lifetime" opp, so he's gotta try. I certainly am rooting for them, but never know which Grossman will show up that day and that scares me. We may get very embarassed or we'll be the champs....Beth :)
Nice hair!
I hope you get the Super Bowl tix! You're right, it probably is once-in-a-lifetime. It's a major sporting event I have yet to attend as well.

Haircut cost 50 dh - and that was with a generous tip! Of course, I can't reproduce it, but I do think I can get the occasional wash and blow dry!
Drool... For any number of reasons.

E-mail coming.
The photo - great hair! I like the effect of having two peoples shadows but only one in the photograph.

That camel looks almost real!
You should see some of the pictures Frank took (maybe I will post more) - they really look like I'm in a studio standing in front of a picture of sand! It was great there. And I guess it's official - I have to go back to that hairdresser again before all weekends away if I can!
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