Sunset on the Erg Chebbi dunes

The last time I drove through a desert landscape, it was on the drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon. Desert driveAnd here again in the Moroccan desert are the same red rocks and dramatic vistas around every corner. But these desert scenes are also filled with date palms, lush green oases of olive trees, shepherds tending to flocks of sheep and goats (and sometimes camels) and tiny villages bustling with schoolchildren on bicycles, men on donkeys and smoky tagines.

So we left Fes bright and early on Monday morning and drove through the Middle Atlas mountains, stopping in Ifrane which is the “Switzerland” of Morocco.  This mountain resort village was completely different to everything else we’ve seen, with little chalets and clean crisp mountain air. Then it was on through the cedar trees of Azrou and down into Midelt for lunch.

Our destination was Erfoud on the edge of the Sahara desert, and on the way we drove through Er Rachidia where the streets were filled with people waiting for the king. King Mohammed VIMorocco is currently ruled by a young king, King Mohammed VI of the Berber Alaouite dynasty which was established in 1669 and has ruled continuously since then. He is both the spiritual and political leader of the country and he travels to different regions several times a year to meet the people and hear their concerns and to announce new projects. There is a tremendous amount of construction taking place all over the country, with new schools and administrative buildings being built as well as old adobe kasbahs being restored using concrete.

Moroccan flag banners were draped over every buidling, schoolchildren were out waving flags and people were lined up in the heat waiting for the king’s procession from the airport.Waiting for the king Our guide, Abdul, said only positive things about the king and I got a sense that any negative talk would remain behind closed doors. The king seems to have done a lot to modernise the country but he also seems to be resisting democratic reform which would allow the elected parliament to maintain political power and actually run the country. But it was an interesting addition to this part of the trip and later we saw clips of his actual arrival on the local Moroccan news and people were cheering and pushing each other over to get to the front of the crowd to shake his hand. So royalty has its perks everywhere.

We arrived in Erfoud to this stunning hotel in the desert which was laid out with littla villas around a giant open air courtyard with a pool and palm trees. Sahara drive It was a quick turn-around before we all piled into Toyota 4×4 jeeps for the drive out into the desert. We were in a caravan of six vehicles in a row until we left the paved part of the road and  fanned out across the desert like some kind of James-Bond-movie style armada of desert villains, each jeep kicking up a trail of red desert dust.

We arrived at the Berber nomad settlement where all of the guides and camels were waiting for us to saddle up and head out to watch the sunset.

Berber guides

Our guide was named Ali and he showed us how to get up on the camels.Camel ride Basically you sat on a blanketed saddle while the camel was sitting on all fours and there was a T-shaped metal bar at the front that you held on to while the camel got up, hind legs first and then front legs. Each guide led two people, so Ali led Fran and I out and the whole group lined up and caravaned out into the dunes.

The camels were pretty docile and easy-going, a wee bit smelly, and the ride was bumpier than I expected. You definitely had to hold on to avoid the embarassment of being the tourist that fell of the camel.

Camel train

On the drive out we had seen a group of local people getting ready for a 2-week expedition out into the deep Sahara to trade goods and I imagine that with practice, you can achieve a rhythm, because I can’t see two weeks of bumping along like we did. Not without access to a chiropractor. But the camels changed life so radically in the Sahara when they were introduced sometime in the first 500 years A.D. and for a brief moment, I was able to see how being able to travel a long distance into the desert must have been liberating.

After a short trek out into the dunes, we all got off and climbed to the top of a dune where we sat as a group for about half an hour and watched the sun set. The silence and majesty of the dunes was breathtaking and again I was reminded of the Grand Canyon. It’s the kind of natural wonder that makes you understand how great the universe is and how petty human concerns can be and how to be alive is something special.

Sahara desert

The colour of the sand changed almost minute by minute as the sun slowly went down. Ali the guideWe chatted with Ali who told us about growing up Berber and about his pregnant wife. He speaks a little bit of about 15 languages, just from talking to tourists. On the way up the dune, he had helped Mummy up as she was a bit winded from the climb, so when it was time to go, he offered to pull her down on the blanket as several guides were doing with other people in the group. I didn’t think she would, but she was game and he ran down the sand dune pulling her along as she screamed.

Blanket pull

When we got to the bottom, the emotion of the moment got to her as she was overwhelmed by the realization that she was alive to experience this and that she had fulfilled one of her dreams. And you know me, it doesn’t take much to bring the tears so we both had a little cry there in the middle of the desert and gave thanks to Allah. The whole group kind of that glow about them as everyone was taking it all in and just smiling at each other and sharing a look of yes, I felt it too. We rode back as the sun finished setting and the sky was a landscape of colour as we said our goodbyes to the Berber guides and our camels (which I found out were all boys).

I’m not sure how much of this trip I will eventually forget but I really hope that I am able to remember how it felt to be under the Sahara sky, watching the sun set and giving thanks to Allah.

Sahara sunset

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4 hours in Fes el Bali

Morocco is a land of contrasts. Our guide, Abdul, keeps saying that but it is so true. We are in Fes, Morocco after arriving from Casablanca last night and we are on Day 2 of our tour. By the way, Fez refers to the hat and Fes is the name of the city. This morning we toured Fes el Bali, the ancient medina which is the world’s largest intact medieval city.
Fes medina  

It is is really hard to describe the sights and the smells of this place, which is made up of tiny streets, stone walls, wooden doors, all types of craftsmen and merchants selling everything from camel meat to spices to fine silk rugs. It was like going back in time as many things are still done the same way they’ve been doing them for centuries. Everything is still transported on donkeys and mules because the streets are so narrow, and there are constant shouts of “Attention!” and “Balak! Balak!” as someone makes their way past you with a donkey piled high with hides or boxes or rugs.

Fes transport

We walked around for 4 hours looking at the different sections of the medina and we also visited a rug store where several people in the group bought carpets. It was quite the scenario, as first we were all served mint tea and then the head salesman described all of the carpets and they were rolled out one by one by sales assistants in white labcoats. He explained the different types and then the assistants approached everyone who showed even the slightest interest. Mummy got caught up in a hard sell as one caught her eye but it was too big for where she wanted it and they spent the next 25 minutes trying to convince her that any one of a multitude of different ones that they brought out were just as good as the one she liked. They took her into another room, they took her upstairs, our guide talked to her, and they even steered her away from me when they realized that I was telling her not to settle for something else. She stayed strong though and escaped with all of her dirhams intact.

Drinking mint tea at the carpet merchant

Drinking mint tea at the carpet merchant

The last place we went was an amazing thing to see. We went to the Chouwara Tannery which is a traditional tannery where sheep, goat, camel and cow skins are cured, stretched and dyed with poppy, turmeric, mint and indigo. We walked through the leather goods shop that is attached and went up to a rooftop terrace where the salesman described the process and gave us each a sprig of fresh mint to help with the smell, which actually wasn’t that bad. The manual process has basically remained the same and they cure the skins in pigeon poo and then lay them out to dry.

Dying skins at the tannery

Dying skins at the tannery

Then it was back through the leather store for shopping and negotiating. A lot of negotiating. A small green bag caught Fran’s eye but one of the other tour members, Maureen from NYC (who writes for All My Children – how awesome is that!) saw it first. She didn’t end up buying it though and so Fran snapped it up with my utmost approval. Which she did ask for. It is made of soft goat skin and it was dyed green with mint. Right now, it still smells a little tannneryish but hopefully that will be gone by the time she’s ready to style it off on Queen Street.

The Referendum

So I started this blog before I went to Iceland and then I never posted because we couldn’t get online, I didn’t have time and it just didn’t get off the ground. But I like technology and I like writing and I love my new netbook, so let’s try this again.

I have so much in my head these days, and I think it will help me to have somewhere to write some of it down. Along with travel stories, of course. Sometimes it’s only when you have to find the words to describe your thoughts that you really realize what it is that you’re thinking.

Or sometimes you read the words that someone else found to describe what they were thinking, and you think, yeah, that’s it.

That’s how I felt when I read The Referendum, a blog post by Tim Kreider in the New York Times. He writes about getting to that stage in life where we look at how other people’s choices have worked out to reassure ourselves that we made the right choices after all — “that we are, in some sense, winning”.

The Referendum

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

              

I think I’ve made a lot of the same choices as many people and they haven’t worked out the way I expected. Now, I am in quite a different place to many of the people around me and I’ve made quite a different choice than might have been expected. And I guess that’s what all of this is about. How do I make the next choice that is right for me without worrying about what other people have and do? And what about the choice after that?