Morocco: Reaching The Coast! Essaouira: Beach, Seafood, a Shave and a Massage.

21 09 2020

This trip to Morocco was full of one completely epic highlight after another. But nothing diminished our expectations for the Atlantic coastal city of Essaouira! It was 180-degrees different after the desert. Seemingly in a flash, we switched from dry, hot, desert to a cool, breezy beach, seafood and surf rich climate infused with nothing other than Moroccan twist!

We arrived late in the day and wasted no time enjoying a sunset dinner right on the shore, above the city’s battlements. Mohammad got our group a perfect restaurant reservation, a table with an ocean view. For the entire trip, I was looking forward to lobster here, and ordered despite the $80 price. I did not care for its preparation however. It was grilled, which lent a different slightly smokey flavor, and which dried it out somewhat. I definitely prefer steamed, which is more moist, and leaves lobster’s magical, ethereal flavor to stand on its own. I was glad to try a different cooking method, either way.

Essaouira is known as a very windy city, for much of the year the wind blows so hard, strolling the beach is challenging. This characteristic leads windsurfers and kiteboarders here late spring to fall, when other beach lovers go elsewhere. We were there in early March, and it was perfect.

Leaving the hotel, it was about a 10 minute walk to reach the beach. There, one can stroll over a mile of sidewalk people watching. You can sample a citrus beverage or a popsicle offered by cart vendors. Shirtless young adults exercised at an open air gym. Women in full-length niqabs share the sidewalk with women in wetsuits and men in swim trunks. There is a surfing center with rentals and lessons. Or choose to walk the sandy beach by the waves. The surf was pretty gentle, with a dozen or so surfers enjoying the break. Kite boarders were also out. On my last afternoon, Sandy and I strolled the sidewalk. We were approached by art students from Senegal selling mini-paintings. Rather than bargain for a painting, which would have perished in my luggage, I turned the tables and inquired about his story. Unexpectedly, he unleashed a confession of escape from poverty, oppression, and a hope for a new life in Morocco. My question turned things around from defending myself from a hawker to immediate friendship. He was so open to talking about his hard, hopeless life in Senegal, his journey to Essaouria, his art education, and his hope to bring his family north. Sandy and I were so moved. I didn’t want to insult him by not buying a painting – I admired them but explained I couldn’t transport. Instead, I offered him twice the value just as a gift of support. After all, I was only to be in Morocco three more days. He was so grateful! I was sure there are many such stories so close to sub Saharan Africa.

Essaouira’s other name is Mogador, founded in 1764, and was literally erected with battlements so that the Sultan could launch corsairs against attackers. Today, these battlements are locations for movie sets, and The Citadel has been featured in Game of Thrones. When you see the video, it really is a perfect location!

Essaouira is famous for its fishermen and its seafood. Countless indigo fishing boats lie in the harbor, each morning voyaging out to catch the day’s bounty. So, for lunch, our guide Mohammed went to the wharf to purchase a variety of seafood for lunch. In this city, grilling seafood is the most popular preparation, and there are dozens of “You bring it we grill it” restaurants. We met at one of these places, sat at an extended open air table on the 2nd floor. WOW the variety of delicacies from the ocean he got for us! There were cuttlefish, squid, mackerel, sardines, bass, sole, shrimp, snapper, and more!

Later that day, I carried out a tradition for all my overseas adventures. Finish it up with a shave, and what the heck, a massage, too! Like elsewhere in Morocco, my French came in handy. I was able to ask and get directions to a laundromat, find out when it would be ready for pick up. Then, where is a barber? It was not long before I was in the seat!

I signed up for a two-hour traditional Berber Hamman massage, complete with Argon oil, at Les Massages Berbers. I had no idea what I was in for! I have had massages in various far flung places. Amsterdam, Bali, the National Thai Massage School, and Hue Vietnam. They’re all different. Some stories involved for sure. But this one, I was totally out of my element, for the first half at least!

I went with Anna, innocently enough, wending our way down the medina. Like everywhere in Morocco, a door led to a completely different world inside. After greetings, I was told to strip down to my underwear and was ushered into a piping HOT steam room. I was instantly uncomfortable, what was I to change into later? Then this woman enters and starts spooning hot water over me. Then, I’m to lay down on a flat, hot bench. She departs. I have to tell you that I don’t like humidity. I don’t like hot springs. I don’t like hot tubs. Or steam rooms. This was like all of those times 10! I sweated, I thought I might burn on the hot bench. I finally felt like my blood pressure was about to boil over, so I got up and asked to be excused. The attendant brought some normal temperature water and spooned it over me. I felt somewhat relieved. But then, she began what was to be the exfoliation process. The whole point of the steam was to prepare the skin for exfoliation! OMG. It was not a delicate process at all. More like a sandpaper with a handle scooping up dead skin. Yikes! With that indignity complete, only then was I to hobble across the hall, where I was to get a ‘normal’ massage! Now I was told to take off the underwear and wear a towel.

The massage itself was most relaxing and reinvigorating. My wet underwear was returned to me, and I went back to the hotel commando style! Not sure I’d do that again.





Morocco’s Todra Gorge

1 06 2020

On this day, we awoke in our castle inspired hotel nestled in a fertile valley with cliffs towering hundreds of feet above.

Morning hikes were on the agenda, followed by walking in the Todra Gorge. Either a sun baked climb to further up the cliffs, or a more gentle walk along the palm-lined valley through which the Todra river flows. I chose the latter, which seemed to offer shade.

This valley and its village, like many in this part of Morocco, has hot, dry walls above, and anything by the river is verdant, green, and lush, frequently with palm groves. This is where people make their homes.

We met our local guide and began the hike. It was very comfortable, the temperature starting about 60 and rising to 75 degrees while on the walk.

It was early spring. Things were greening up, and flowers emerging.

Cherry blossoms.

Before long, we came across fields of crops tended by members of the village.

It seemed the pace of daily life here was somewhat dictated by the needs of the plants in the fields and gardens. And right now, crops needed some tender care to get them established. It was such a beautiful sight and sweet smelling as well. The air was dry, the temperature comfortable, and the view was a contrast of blue sky, reddish orange canyon walls, flowers, and green fields and palms.

 

Further upstream, the village came into view. These homes were made of rocks and sun dried clay bricks. Thus, their colors often resembled the walls of the gorge. Sometimes they were built into hillsides. They have levels and the levels are for different activities. It was beautiful to glimpse the contrasts of field, sky, gorge and structure.

The trail ended on the road, not far from the entrance to the Todra Gorge. After a break for tea and Citron at a cafe, we headed into the Gorge. It is 2,000 feet high at the entrance. Further up, the narrowest passage is about 30 feet wide. It is a popular destination for locals seeking recreation, athletes like rock climbers. Hikers, tourists, and even a crowd of students making merry were in attendance.

If you can zoom in, you can peek in on a woman rock climber!

I also found a lady who had brought everything necessary for a family picnic. Chairs, blankets and a charcoal grill all ready to go.

We made it back to the village for a late lunch. Walking through the winding lanes, it was a mix of buildings in every sort of condition imaginable.

Some were abandoned, some looked very old, and yet, like elsewhere in Morocco, a door could lead to something wonderful inside.

 

I videoed my walk to our lunch riad to show that you just cannot predict where you are going to wind up. Just when an area might seem to be in disrepair, you pass through a door into an oasis!

We had a leisurely lunch. We also saw a demonstration about carpets. I have so many carpets I don’t have room for another!

On our way back to our micro bus, Mohamed took us to his sister’s house. She had a newborn baby to show off!





Morocco: Nomads of the Steppe

25 05 2020

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Leaving the sands of the Sahara behind, we had a long drive to the Todra Gorge. We traveled on a well maintained highway through the flat, arid steppe. It’s a sparsely inhabited land. For centuries, farmers irrigated this land by digging down to the aquifers below. But in the last 20 years, the aquifer has dropped significantly.

Still, there are wells in places. And the Nomads will set up camp near these wells. Their lives are migratory. They will move to a spot, set up camp, and spend months there. We spotted a Nomad house whilst traveling, and stopped to pay them a visit.

On this day, we saw a mother with two sons. They had a multi room home, goats, chickens, and many things we have at home. Just different. Husband wasn’t there, he was probably working in the fields somewhere, or in town. Mother was welcoming, we didn’t bother her at all. And, she loved showing off her children! At one point she was laughing hard at the antics of her children, and their goat.

It was clear there was a lot of love. The Moroccan Nomads are a culture all their own. They don’t do well in school because they are so different from the other kids, and because they move on. Also, it isn’t long before they’re needed at home to take care of things. They are a dwindling culture. We were fortunate to interact with them for only a short while.

Their camp had many things familiar to us Westerners, but they took different forms.

I think it’s important to respect their culture. It’s delicate. And they seemed genuinely happy to be “living on the fringe,” with little of modern society’s pressures. Their lives are in tune with nature.

At long last, we reach our multi story lodge in the Todra Gorge region. It’s got a nice pool outside. And a river running just in front. Palms line the river. It isn’t long before we were resting around the pool! But it didn’t last all that long, because in this north south valley, the sun went behind the western cliff, and it became chilly right quick!

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This lodge had a restaurant with a substantial wood burning fireplace! Quite a nice spot for dinner. Here I ought to mention a beverage I loved as a child, but it has disappeared from American grocery stores. It is the Schweppes Citron! In America, it was called Bitter Lemon. It has bits of lemon floating around, and is simply marvelous. Available everywhere in Morocco!

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Camels in the Sahara

7 05 2020

We’d all been looking forward to being in the Sahara Desert – by far the biggest in the world. Riding camels, and seeing stars. We’d be spending the night at a glamping campsite on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes. It’d been a long day on the road getting out there, across the arid steppe. But in the late afternoon, the dunes rose above the village of Merzouga.

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We were to ride camels into the desert and stick around until sunset. It was a really epic experience being out there. Not long after arriving at an auberge (lodge) we began suiting up for the ride.

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Aditi and Mohamed

We brought along minimal supplies such as water, cameras, and jackets for after sunset.

While we waited, a truck drove up to me and the driver asked me in French, “Where can we get water, is there a natural water source around here?” I was like, “Dude we are in the Sahara!” Anyway, it wasn’t long before we found our camels. They all seemed to know what was coming up.

 

Our guides assisted us getting into the saddle and getting the camel to stand up.

David gets his camel to rise! Well done! When the camel stands up, you’d better hang on! And trust the camel knows what it’s doing.

With everybody on their camels, it was time for a group shot before we set off.

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We entered the dunes in a “camel train,” with lines connecting each beast. Since they have done this thousands of times, the camels all know what to do. The sand seems bottomless, but the camels feet are quite wide and don’t sink in very much. Still, it’s a very bouncy ride, and when climbing, descending and turning on a dune, it’s pretty unsettling for a newbie like me! Add to that trying to take a photo!

Before long, the timeless view of the rusty colored desert in the late afternoon brings up awe and emotion. I’ll never forget the endless sea of dunes.

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We reached a spot where we could explore the dunes under our own power. There was something about the setting that made me just take in the wonder. How many millions of years have these sands been here, shifting, moving, changing shape.

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Once the sun set, we rode to our glamorous camping site. I’m used to roughing it, but this was something else! It had rooms with blankets and beds. A bathroom with flush toilet. But still, it had a spot with a campfire for music and conversation. Katie and I were hoping for a sea of stars. Instead, it was a full moon, which blocked out the sky for much of the night. I was able to rise an hour before dawn, just as the moon set. But I only got 20 minutes of Milky Way Galaxy viewing.

Dinner time with a toast!

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CHEERS! No shortage of wine tonight!

 

 

 

 

 





Onward to the Moroccan Sahara: Road Trip Videos

25 04 2020

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Hello! These videos will bring alive some of the magic of my trip to Morocco. On this day, we head to the desert town of Merzouga, and we’ll cross desert badlands before riding camels. You’ll see a town this time with people milling about. Enjoy some of the music we had. Drive through a blinding sandstorm. Ride on a camel! See Sahara sand moving in the wind. See camels foraging in the dunes.

I had the luxury of riding in the front row of our 15-passemger van. It has a terrific view of the road ahead, and Mohamed and our driver had some good music playing! Plus at this time of day folks were milling about in this rural town. I love the fact that this video shows a woman sweeping the street – a very common sight! They like things cleaned up.

In this region of Morocco, rivers cut into the flat plateau. Flora found a rich source of water and soil all along these rivers. In a way, the rivers have become “winding oases” in the middle of the harsh environment. Date palm groves go on for miles, and this is where the people live. Often, the images of the buildings amongst the date palms evoke images of the Bible.

As we were getting closer to the sand dunes, we were suddenly engulfed in a sand storm! Visibility almost nil. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, it vanished.

At last! It behold the Sahara! The Erg Chebbi dunes.

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The edge of the dunes come into sight.

Riding into the dunes on camels.

In the distance, camels roam free amongst the dunes.

And sand moving in the wind.

Hope you enjoyed! The full Sahara post will follow! We camped out at the edge of the dunes.

 





Our Kasbah Hotel in Midelt, Morocco

23 04 2020

 

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We left Fez for a long day on the road through the Mid-Atlas Mountains and then onto the high desert plateau. Along the way we witnessed a market for sheep. And got ourselves a picnic lunch, which we ate at a riverbend site. A shepherd with her flock of sheep passed through.

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Like every day, it was sunny, dry and comfortable. The wind was light.

We descended into a high plains landscape, passed through the town center of Midelt, reaching our hotel on the outskirts of town.

Right in front of the hotel, the snowy northern High Atlas Mountains dominated the view.

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This hotel is built to resemble a kasbah. I though it was cool architecture. It had an outdoor swimming pool as well.

The style of the rooms, and some of the surrounding buildings, walls, and even geography made me think I might be on the other side of the Atlantic, in Mexico! No doubt this is because of the Spanish-Moorish interchange over the centuries, and the shared architectural styles, which the Spanish brought with them to Mexico.

The rooms were airy and generous. The terracotta colored floor and the colors of the walls and drapes made me think of Mexico, too. I’ve never been to Spain myself. Perhaps it has a flair of Granada? The rooms were very generous. Each had a “sitting room” capable of sleeping two and a main room capable of sleeping three.

There was a little hike we could do to a pond nearby, and on the way, once again, I felt like I could be in Mexico. The look of the houses, the walls, end even a nearby mesa completed the image.

The walk wasn’t without beauty, as spring cherry trees were flowering and some peacocks strutted around!

Down at the pond, an information sign got me grounded. It definitively reminded me that I was NOT in Mexico, because it was in French! Essentially, it said the surrounding area and Atlas mountains drained into this river, which the pond is part of, and that it joined other rivers heading north to the Atlantic. It is 13 meters deep. The fish that find home here are bass and trout. There are also Green North African frogs.

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That night, I ate trout, which was quite tasty, from this pond!

On the way to the hotel, we passed through central Midelt, and like many towns in rural Morocco, it was very quiet. In my pictures, there’s nobody in sight. There are many reasons. There are people, but the men are out working their fields, or women are inside cooking and cleaning. We passed through at a time later in the afternoon. We’d see lots more people when children are going to or coming from school. Or, on certain days of the week markets are open, and locals plus people from surrounding areas are all shopping. We’d see women gathering discussing women stuff, or men at the Mosques or cafes. In the most conservative rural towns, there is a culture about women and their attractiveness to men. Women stay inside and the homes are designed so that women can see out, but men cannot see them inside. That way, the men can concentrate on the tasks at hand, rather than “distractions” or “temptations.” In the cities, this was not so much the case.

On the next day, we were traveling to one of the HIGHLIGHTS of our trip! We would be riding camels on the Sahara! And spending the night in the desert.