Sunday, January 06, 2008
Last installment of the vacation writeup, only a little over a month afterwards…. So – a comparison of the two desert trips: well, they were both wonderful; that’s a start. M’Hamid was more of a turnkey operation – the same operator had the lunch spot, the camels, the 4x4 and the overnight oasis. We were the only people for miles around, although there were more people than in our camp in Merzouga. We had a personal guide take care of us at the campsite. The dunes themselves were comparable – awe-inspiring. I guess for me it was nicer to ride the camel through the Merzouga dunes as opposed to flat desert, but the sandstorm may have impacted that, and the 4x4 ride on the M’Hamid trip was too long for me, but you have to go that far to get to the big dunes. In a way I liked it better because it was more intimate, and if all things were equal I might go there again before Merzouga. But all things are not equal – it is much farther from me than Merzouga is. In Merzouga the flip site of intimate is that it seemed more touristy – but maybe also a better overall package. If you are of the mindset that five minutes on the camel is enough, you might not like the fact that you not only go two hours in on a camel but also two hours out! The side trips of the fort, the fossils and Rissani made it a more varied experience. Who knows – maybe I will do both again! Or neither. I definitely would recommend either – or both!
Even though I had not thought about it while in the desert, I had in mind that we would leave the area earlier than we did. I already knew it would be a long driving day to get all the way to Marrakesh, and leaving later made it longer. In retrospect, it might have made more sense to stay over somewhere on the way, but it was nice to wake up the next day and be in Marrakesh! And our baked goods and other car snacks came in handy. And I am glad we didn’t rush out of the Erfoud area – the camel ride was relaxing and the stops were interesting. We did make a couple of short stops on our long drive – one in Tinghir for lunch, a delicious Berber omelette, and one in Kelaa M’Gouna, where we met Shawn at a café and played four hands of rummy with him. A power –rummy visit but a really fun stop, all the more delightful because Helen and I had not had time to stop the week before – I didn’t want that to happen again!
Steve and Elisa said they didn’t mind sharing rooms – I shared suites with Martha and Susan as well, but they don’t have children, and I thought Steve and Elisa (who do) might want some time to themselves, but if they were okay with it so was I. In Marrakesh we had a room with a single bed on one floor and a double bed up a staircase, so at least they had some space. The riad I booked was about the same distance north of the Jemaa al Fna as the one Helen and I had been in was south, so once again we saw overlapping but different parts of the city. Lonely Planet has a “recommended walk” with interesting shops and boutiques – turns out our riad was right on the street mentioned in the book, so we looked at some of the shops and boutiques. We then did the triple attraction of the north side of the medina – the Medersa Ben Youssef, which was as striking and impressive as the ones in Fes, the Musee de Marrakesh, a stunning former palace with some interesting displays of costumes and jewelry, and the Koubba Biadiyn, the model from which all the koubbas in the country (and there are a lot of them – they are white-domed little shrines to founders of towns and other descendants of the prophet) was derived.
We then had lunch at Café des Epices, where I had met Rob before IST, with Rob – tried to see him later for gelato as well but the timing didn’t work out. On to the souks! To the dyers, who unfortunately were closed for lunch so we were unable to get a demonstration, and around – again, not souked out by Marrakesh yet! After our ice cream, we walked to the Menara garden, site of the postcard shot of the pool and pavillon with the snow-covered High Atlas in the background. The mountains were obscured, but the next day we saw a postcard truck with the postcard shot, so at least I could show them what it looks like! Maybe I will see it when I am there for the half-marathon; I haven’t seen it yet either. As it was, we saw the pavilion, the reflecting pool and the sunset, and we had a nice walk there and back. We also had a quick stop at the artisana. And then we had dinner in the same restaurant Helen and I and my family and I had been to – Rob had said that if he had one dinner to go to in Marrakesh, that is where he would go, and he’s a restaurant guy. And it wasn’t hard for me to go back to the same place – the food was delicious!
Saturday’s destinations were all new to me, and therefore especially appealing (not that the others weren’t, of course). This was a chance to fill in much of the Atlantic Coast between Essouraira and Casablanca – and to see the ocean. We started in Safi, which had much more to it than I’d expected, so we spent a good portion of the day there, and I might want to return! First the “castle by the sea,” an old Portuguese fortress. Safi is known for its pottery – where Fes (where I happened to go with Helen) is known for its blue and white and Sale (where I happened to go with Martha and Susan) doesn’t seem to have a distinct style (I thought it did, based on the Sale pieces at the Azrou artisana, but it turns out that those are the work of one cooperative, and each of the many sets of potters there has different things), Safi is known for bold colors and a few traditional patterns painted in black or blue onto the bold colors. We went to a fixed-price shop to get an idea of pricing and then to the pottery souk, which had an overwhelming abundance of offerings. Someone quickly spotted us and offered us a tour of the pottery works – we had wanted to see that anyway so we let him guide us. The clay is red where in Fes it is white, the works themselves are small and on a hill, the master potter sat in a hole and his wheel was level with his floor, so when he was finished with a piece he would rest it on the floor (I knew he would smash all of his demo pieces but it was still hard to watch that). The tour ended in a showroom of course, and we bought some pieces, and then went back to the fixed-price shop and bought more (Youssef even bought some!), and I thought safi (enough) for Safi (the place), but when they got home Elisa said she regretted not buying more, and I could see myself getting more before I am through as well – it really is festive!
We ate lunch there as well, and after ordering our food, Elisa and I walked around the corner to take a picture of the billboard of the king (I hope it is okay to say that!). The king’s picture (and/or a big crown sculpture – and/or a big “God, country, king” written in Arabic) graces every town, and his picture graces almost every shop. That last part isn’t a law, but it was when his father was the king, so it is still done. I started thinking about all the pictures of the king that I have seen: on the throne, in his fes and white jellaba, in his checked jacket (I call it the Lindsey Nelson look – for those who would get that), drinking tea, with his wife and son, with his wife and two children, in his military uniform, as a young man, making pottery (I have seen this one only in the Azrou artisana) – at one point I think we got to the high double-digits but can’t recall more at the moment so I will have to think more about it or write them down as I see them. Anyway, Safi was a great stop and we didn’t even get to the museum of ceramics (though the souk and the showroom might have been exhibits enough!) or to the Portuguese church, or to the giant tagine sculpture. And I don’t think that many of the other PCVs (or tourists) get there at all!
Our drive continued along the ocean, with views of cliffs and of beaches – it was beautiful, including a dramatic sunset. We had time for just a drive-by of Oualidia, known for oysters and for being quiet and relaxing, a coastal town with a nice beach and a lagoon. That might be a good place to return to and spend more time, although I don’t think there’s much to do other than walk along the beach, and there are closer places to do that – but of course the feel is different in each place. At any rate, I dubbed it my new favorite city, because we found Magnum bars there on December 1! And then it was on to El Jadida, where we had a beautiful riad to stay in, leaving the touring for the morning. The riad, Le Mazagao, is named for the Portuguese name of the city (El Jadida means “the new”) and it was the owner’s childhood home – he left for France for a while and then returned to his roots.
El Jadida was wonderful! Another place to try to get back to. We toured the Portuguese walled city, the crowning touch of which is the Portuguese cistern, used by Orson Welles in the movie “Othello” and maintained with water at the bottom to create a reflection. We went out the boat gate to the seaside as well, and around the ramparts past a former synagogue. The shops had attractive merchandise at off-season prices, and that is where I got my Tazenacht rug (the one with the squares of three different processes of weaving and embroidery) and also a blanket and a new leather pocketbook (my artisana one is ready to be put to new use – maybe as coasters, if I can cut it well enough) and Steve and Elisa bought poufs. The town just had a pleasant feel to it, though I imagine it is very different in the summer when there are tons of tourists! We then went on to Azenmour, a small town nearby, stopping to have lunch overlooking a wide beach with crashing waves. Azenmour is much smaller than El Jadida and few tourists visit, so we were quite a novelty. We walked around the medina, saw the end of the Oum Rbia, and found the old synagogue and got someone to unlock it for us so we could see the inside. And then it was on to Rabat and the card game that ended Steve and Elisa’s trip and started mid-service medicals!
I am so glad that these friends (and earlier, my family and also Mike and Carol) made the effort to visit, that in the case of the last three, Youssef was available to drive us around, and that I was able to show off my site and home and work, introduce people from home to Moroccans and fellow PCVs and vice versa, and show them both parts of the country I had seen but wanted to get back to and parts of the country I hadn’t seen and hope to get back to! The story of my life has been not enough vacation days, and between these visits, the upcoming See the World trip in March, and Reunions, I will have used most of my available days. But I’m still anticipating more visitors! Some have contacted me to set things up and some are still thinking about it. The visits would be different – you can either do what Janeila’s visitors have done and hang around with me at my site, or you can base yourself here and take day or even longer trips on your own and I could potentially go somewhere with you for the weekend – but I think they will also be memorable! There’s also the potential to visit post-COS, when I won’t have to abide by Peace Corps policy, though at the moment the plan on the table is to travel elsewhere right after COS – and also the potential to come back with me later in life; I hope to do that and would welcome company! Morocco is a wonderful place to visit with lots to see and do, nice people, good food, and so on….