Friday, January 04, 2008


Vacation writeup, continued….M’Hamid is at the end of the road, the end of the Draa Valley. It’s small and dusty. I had in mind a one-hour camel ride and desert overnight as outlined in the Sahara Services web site, but when we went to pay at his office in Marrakesh (Helen’s chance to see the Ville Nouvelle as well), Abdoul upsold us – we didn’t want baby dunes, did we, when we could see big dunes? Couldn’t argue with that! We had a quick lunch (a Berber omelette – basically eggs with vegetables, made in a tagine – something I would like to learn to make! Maybe I can even figure it out for myself, now that I have that tagine that Youssef gave me!) and then got onto our camels! It’s a good thing that Mohammed gave us those turbans, because right about then the wind picked up and there was quite a sandstorm! I know another PCV who says that a two-hour camel ride is about an hour and fifty-five minutes too long for her, and I think Helen felt the same way, but I enjoyed myself – we picked our way among sand and stones and scrub. We reached the camp where we would have stayed had we not gotten upsold - the setting was all right but not spectacular - and then got into a 4x4 for a long ride to the big dunes, stopping for the sunset just before getting to our camp. Abdoul was right – big dunes were the way to go! Our camp of Berber tents had music and tea and cookies, and we took a little walk – there were a few other guests at the camp, but other than that there was nobody as far as we could see. We had a delicious vegetable tagine, and afterwards a guide, wearing the traditional blue robes of the Tuareg, took us up to the top of a dune in the moonlight and told jokes.

How do you get a camel into a refrigerator in three steps? Open the door, put the camel in, close the door. How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator in four steps? Open the door, take out the camel, put the elephant in, close the door. I got that one, but then had to ask where the elephant was going to come from in the Sahara – not to mention the refrigerator! Then some jokes that seem to be more Tuareg in origin - What is born with a horn, lives without a horn, and dies with a horn? The moon. What eats everything but dies when it takes water? A fire. What talks on its head and knows every language (something like this)? A pen. The neatest thing our guide told us is that what we know as Orion is called the stars of the caravan – since when it is in this position in the sky, it is neither too hot nor too cold, so this is the time of the year for caravans. It was great to be on the dunes – really relaxing. Eventually, though, it was time to go down – we had climbed quite a bit! The guide grabbed Helen’s legs and pulled, and Youssef and I slid down in the track she’d made. Later that night, I got myself out of my cozy (if sandy) bed to see the stars after the moon had set. Stars and dunes all around! It was quite a sight.

I was even more glad to have gone to both M’Hmid and Merzouga (the ones near Erfoud) when I went to the latter with Elisa and Steve the following week – I’ll save the comparison for that description. For now, suffice it to say that they were both similar but also different and that I would recommend either or both! We woke up the next morning for sunrise – climbed partway up a dune, but we had climbed enough in the moonlight, so partway was enough. Then breakfast and back to the 4x4 and then back up the Draa Valley with a quick lunch stop in Agdz (delicious chicken, as recommended by the COSing volunteer there, but since she was in her final days, she didn’t come out to meet us) - we drove through Tamegroute and Zagora and then Ouarzazate and then turned into the Dades Valley, which was new to me. I had in mind that we might stop in Kelaa M’Gouna to see Shawn, the rummy-playing PCV, but we were running out of day; the area near his site looked beautiful and might merit a return as well. Our stop for the night was the Dades Gorge – in the rain (just the night before, our guide in the desert said the last time it rained there was six years ago! Not all that far away, it is completely different), we found a nice auberge about 28k up the gorge.

The next morning we did some exploring. If you don’t have a car, you probably explore the area around the 28K mark, where the valley is small and farmed and has trees. A little ways up, where the river narrows and there are beautiful walls around you, it felt like the Todra Gorge. We had a car, so we kept going – up above, where we could see the narrow walls and the river below, and even farther, where we saw little Berber villages and a small souk and some caves. And even farther, it looked like a grand canyon. There is a way to drive off-road up the Dades Gorge and down the Todra Gorge – that would also be an interesting thing to do – but driving down the Dades Gorge we saw some interesting rock formations that we hadn’t seen in the rain – fingers and toes. This might have been Helen’s favorite part of the trip, and I know Youssef enjoyed seeing another part of Morocco he hadn’t seen. We then had lunch in Tinghir, very close to the spot that had previously been my westernmost point of exploration. There was no time for the Todra Gorge, though, because we had to press on to Azrou, though we did stop for ten minutes to see some stage-mates who were gathering in Tinjdad for Thanksgiving dinner. Yes, it was Thanksgiving! We crossed the High Atlas and the plain and as we entered the Middle Atlas we encountered snow! Lots of it – already inches on the ground and lots of it falling from the sky. This made Youssef quite happy. No snow in Azrou though. Our Thanksgiving dinner consisted of rotisserie chicken from the place down the street, since we got back too hungry to cook, but we did dress it up with cranberry sauce and yams that Helen had brought with her, and we made pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread with canned pumpkin and pie shells and brown sugar that she had also brought!

Friday was our Azrou day – we started with pastry from the Escalade and coffee at Bilal, and then – based on rave reviews from Martha and Susan and other people Helen had talked to – went to the hammam, which she too enjoyed! Then we went for couscous with Youssef’s family – again, delicious – and on to see the monkeys. Next, to the artisana and then Dar Neghrassi, where she bought a carpet. Rose came for the previously-planned Thanksgiving dinner, which was sage-rubbed steak and mashed potatoes, made by Youssef, along with some more trimmings and the pumpkin pie.

And then it was on to Fes! Rose came along with us and spent the day. First we went to one of the potteries, where we saw the production process from start to finish and of course the showroom. Then Youssef left to pick up Steve and Elisa at the Rabat airport, dropping us off at a Bab R’Cif, at the far end of the medina. As soon as we were on our own, or so it seemed, faux guides and other predators started to ask us if we need help and/or otherwise harass us. We told one fellow that we just wanted a place to eat – maybe chicken and fries – and he showed us a place (it even had fried shrimp – a find). We suspected that he would be waiting outside the restaurant after we were finished and sure enough he was – and we decided why not have him show us around. It turned out to be a great decision – he was friendly and knowledgeable and not hard-sell and kept other faux guides away from us and showed us interesting things, and I felt able to put away the tour book and the map and just put myself in his hands and be a tourist and not a tour guide. I was able to relax! He showed us the Andalusian quarter, including a medersa in some disrepair (not the one I have been to before, and I’m glad to have seen it), a rooftop view of the medina from the top of a music school, a carpet shop where Helen bought a rug, a tannery where she bought a pouf, and a brass workshop where I bought a door knocker. The Royal Palace in Fes has some beautiful knockers, and I had been on the lookout for a while – eventually it became a quest (for what I call “the king’s knockers.”), fulfilled that day!

That was the end of the trip with Helen – she left early the next morning. Steve and Elisa overlapped with Helen for dinner (and confirmed that they did not know each other in business school, which is how I know all of them), and the next day we started the next trip. To be continued…..

In the meantime I want to mention the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. I haven’t heard anyone here talk about it – there’s much more talk about the weather. Wednesday was windy with clouds coming in – but I couldn’t breathe, so I didn’t go for a run. Yesterday was rainy and then it got quiet – looked outside late at night to see my laundry on the clothesline covered with snow! This morning there is a lot of snow on the ground but it is raining again. I have mostly stayed inside, but I still have time to get more runs in before the ns-marathon. It’s a good thing, actually – we need rain and snow! The snow may close the mountain passes and keep me from going away this weekend; if I go I’ll write all about it next week and if I end up here I can read a book! Except – I was dreading this, knowing it would happen some day – the light bulb in my semi-warm kitchen blew out and I cannot reach the socket to change it. Youssef! (There’s a joke in there somewhere – how many PCVs does it take to change a light bulb? Or should it be Moroccans?). In a New Year’s message, our country director mentioned that Bhutto’s death is a reminder of “how fragile peace is and that it is important that we remain committed to do our part and to encourage others to become involved in helping others.” He also said, “As 2007 is about to end, and it is time to both look back and look ahead, I am reminded of a meeting with Volunteers in which I was asked: ‘Are we about development or are we about cross-cultural understanding?’ When I answered that we are both, I was then asked: ‘But what is Peace Corps really about?’ I was somewhat surprised by the question because for me, our name speaks for itself - we are about peace and all that is involved in working for peace.” I wrote back to him that when I was first applying for Peace Corps, I mentioned it to my aunt in Holland, expecting her to be encouraging. Instead, she replied that she did not think it was a good idea; it seemed to her that people are much more interested in making war than in making peace. She didn’t live to know that I did indeed continue with the process and am here now, but I like to think that she would, upon learning more about it, be supportive of my decision to come here. For his part, the country director said it was a great supporting story.

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