Wednesday, August 27, 2008


After the close of COS Conference, several of us took a walk to the Chellah, the Roman/Phoenecian/Carthaginian/Almohad/Merinid necropolis/ruins/garden near the hotel. I had been there with Martha, Susan and Youssef (and then again for the Jazz Festival, but I didn’t walk around then) and had been wanting to go back. It meant not getting to the medina at all, a Rabat first for me, but the Chellah is special. Three of the seven of us had been together for our first walk outside of the hotel in September 2006, and while we still weren’t into processing, we had nice conversations. The Chellah has a spiritual quality to it – there are dozens of storks’ nests and cats that travel in a herd (really) and strange-looking trees and all sorts of interesting architectural fragments from the different eras. A final dinner at the Goethe Institute included, among other people, the entire TimHdit CBT group (those who lasted past Phase I, that is) – we are rarely all together, and that was a nice footnote. There was a big crowd that went out dancing afterwards, but I wasn’t part of it – too loud, too smoky, too late – I had to get up early the next morning (though it didn’t stop me from talking with Rose for about an hour once she came back).

Thursday was a holiday – one of the celebrations of Moroccan independence. The following week there were two days off for the king’s birthday – so with three holidays and a weekend, I could stretch my last three vacation days into a week-long vacation, long enough to go farther than I had gone before (we’re not allowed to take vacation in the last three months, nor could we in the first three months – then it was for community integration, now it’s for closing things out). I had a first-class ticket for the 7:45 train to Marrakesh. A couple of weeks ago, I had suggested we get first-class tickets to Oujda, remembering how hot and crowded the trains were last August. Rose and Jong didn’t want to buy tickets in advance, and when we got to the train station, first-class was sold out – but that’s when I bought my Marrakesh ticket. It costs 50 dirham more, and it’s not traveling in the style of the people we’re working and living with, but it is traveling in style. Six to a compartment instead of eight. Comfortable plush seats. Working air conditioning. Quiet. I napped for most of the ride. Once in Marrakesh I went to the Café du Livre and had a light lunch and a lemon tart (since I hadn’t had one in May), and then it was off to the taxi stand.

I had assumed that taxis to Taroudant would go through the Tizi n Test, a pass that is supposed to be more dramatic than Tizi n Tichka, the famed pass between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate, but they don’t – they go east of the High Atlas. Just before I left, I got an email from Anny, the first-year SBD GAD rep, who lives in that area, telling me about a three-taxi route that did go through the pass – so of course I wanted to do that! I think Tichka was more amazing because of the range of plant life and the various villages, but I am glad I went through Test, especially since I barely had to wait for any of the taxis – that was true for my entire trip. Buses and trains may be crowded and hot and slow, but taxis fill quickly and are bearable as long as people agree to open the windows (some don’t, because of djinns), so maybe that’s the way to do Morocco summer travel.

The long days helped too – I got to Taroudant well before dark. It may be the best-preserved walled city in Morocco, and I had a chance to walk a lot of it on the way to the hotel Anny had recommended. Matt, the volunteer who lives there, came to pick me up for dinner. He had been to my house for VSN training and it was nice to see him again. He, Anny and Megan, a first-year SBD I hadn’t met yet, were leaving early the next morning to climb Mt. Toubkal, and we had a fun conversation and a delicious chick pea tagine that Anny made (find it on Nice PCVs down there in the south!

The next morning I set off to explore Taroudant – one of the books likens it to Marrakesh but much more manageable, and it has a history as a staging point for conquering dynasties. I agree about the manageable part. I went to the tanneries, where I bought a pocketbook (the strap of the emergency one I had bought in Tetouan just before COS Conference, to replace the one whose zipper broke the day I left for this journey, had broken on the way to the train). Then I went to the Souk Arabe, which is known for traditional sandals and slippers (I keep saying I should get some, but I am just not a shoe person…I can get some here) and silver jewelry (since I was planning to go through Tiznit but not stop there, I thought I might just take a look…) and stone carvings. And then – I couldn’t talk anyone into joining me for the trip because people thought it would be too hot – I spent the afternoon by (and in) the hotel pool! Yes, the trip covered a lot of kilometers, but I designed a reasonable pace for myself. In the late afternoon, I went back out – to the Souk Berbere, which had spices and fruits and vegetables. Taroudant is in the area where argan trees grow – the southwest of Morocco is the only place in the world that they grow, and I was hoping to see some with goats in them – no luck, but I did see camels grazing along the road, and that will never get old. I walked to the mellah, the old Jewish quarter, and then the kasbah, the oldest part of town and a walled city within the walled city, and saw the Palais Salam, the hotel that hosts visiting heads of state; I sat in its garden for a while. Then I did the de rigeur caleche ride around the ramparts, had a tagine dinner at a rooftop restaurant, and slept well after a full day.

After breakfast by the pool I took a taxi to Agadir (avoiding Inezgane, the out-of-control huge taxi/bus transfer point outside it, where the head-kisser was – Agadir was a little out of the way but worth it) and then one to Tiznit – which took longer than I remembered – and then one to Mirleft. I had debated going to Mirleft, an oceanfront hippie kind of place, rather than Sidi Ifni, just to see something new, but I so loved Sidi Ifni that I felt drawn back there. So I stopped in Mirleft for lunch – the town wasn’t really near the beautiful beaches that we had seen from the taxi, and the restaurants were full of people waiting for food but nobody eating, and I decided that that was enough of Mirleft – I had a Magnum bar and headed for the taxi stand. It was not a great stop, but that was a good call – I was not to see another Magnum bar for the rest of the trip, which was quite a disappointment.

Sidi Ifni was as wonderful as I remembered it – the art deco blue and white Spanish buildings and the long beach, leading to the magical red rocks. Now that I have been to Ceuta, I have more appreciation for the fact that this was a Spanish enclave until 1969. Ceuta and Melilla, the two extant enclaves, are on the Mediterranean, facing Spain, and you can take a ferry from either to Spain. Sidi Ifni is way down south on the Atlantic coast, and when Morocco cut off the land access, it wasn’t as if the people there could hop on a ferry to Spain – so Spain ceded it to Morocco. I took a long walk along the shore (water cold even in the middle of August – hooray for Mdiq last weekend) and then sat on the roof of the spirit-filled Hotel Suerte Loca. The moon was full that night, adding to the mood – and reminding me that when the moon disappears it means Ramadan will begin. It was nice to see the Summer Triangle – my rooftop faces the other way so I usually don’t see it – and other constellations in a sky darker than the one above my site. I had paella and talked with a man who works at the hotel – when we were there last year, he gave a hotel business card to Rose and one to me – and on mine he wrote his name. I used that to my advantage when I called to make the reservation – he said they were full, but once I told him that I was the American from Azrou, he said to call when it got closer and they would find a room for me. And they did! I walked along the beach in the morning, and all too soon it was time to go – but I had the strangest feeling that I will be back. Note to anyone thinking that they might want to come to Morocco with me some day – Sidi Ifni and Azrou are nowhere near each other – but we might have to go to both.

It was weird to think that I was at the halfway point of my travels but still on the front end of the vacation; it really felt as though I was away for a long time, maybe especially since I was by myself at that point, and because I didn’t go to a cyber at all. Back to Tiznit, and then on to Tafraoute. It was the site of one of the then-second-year PCVs who was at IST last year, and she invited Rose and me to come for a day after our planned trip to Tiznit. At the time we had been planning to go to Marrakesh and then home, and we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go to Sidi Ifni. We both meditated by the red rocks and found energy and peace in being by the ocean, so it was the right decision, but the idea of going to Tafraoute stayed in my head, and as I was thinking of a plan for the balance of my vacation days, I felt it was the part of Morocco that I had not seen yet that I most wanted to see. Tafraoute is in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, the southernmost range in Morocco (if only the Rif, the northernmost, were called the Pro-Atlas). Paul Bowles said that it was like the Badlands of South Dakota, only on a larger scale, and while there were rocks of various marvelous and interesting shapes, having been to the Badlands I would have to disagree.

Both last year’s volunteer and the current one, who I met at the Warden conference, recommended an auberge in the Ameln Valley, about four kilometers from town, called Chez Amaliya. It’s owned by a Dutch woman, Liese, and since my father said the Dutch were the nicest people in the world (I used to take his word for it until I realized that maybe he just said that because he was Dutch – but I am predisposed to agree) I was happy to stay there. Amaliya is the name of the four-year-old future queen of the Netherlands; she had just been born when Liese had the idea to stay in Morocco and build the hotel, and her picture is proudly displayed near the ever-present one of Morocco’s king.

Chez Amaliya had air conditioning (which we also had in the Chellah but not elsewhere on the trip) and a wonderful pool, where I spent the afternoon, gazing at the formation of a lion’s head in the mountains straight ahead. In the Ameln Valley, most of the young men emigrate to work and send back money or build retirement houses there – they are successful, so the Valley is prosperous, but it is also populated almost entirely by old men, women and children, and it is said that the lion watches over the women (Liese told me that the women were unhappy, because there’s nobody to marry).

In the evening, Liese took me past Tafraoute to the Painted Rocks – a giant art installation painted by a Belgian in the mid-80s (the Dutch think the Belgians are a little crazy anyway….we all have neighbors to make fun of). The rocks are painted in various shades of blue; it is way cool. I could have stayed there for hours, walking around, but I was conscious of her time. I did walk down closer to the rocks and several times through a graffiti-rock labyrinth that someone had assembled near the blue rocks. Liese also took me to a spring in the village next to the former PCV’s site. What customer service! I went to the bar to order dinner and saw that the Olympics were on the big TV – so I decided to eat at the bar; that was the most coverage I saw (we did have a few minutes each day at the Chellah as we dressed). I did see a variety of events, more or less commercial- and feature-free, but I did feel I was missing out; oh well, I knew I would be away during a Summer Olympics.

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