Morocco Sahara Desert Camp

Had a reasonable start in Zagora this morning, but by the time we went to a supermarket to pick up some picnic supplies, and some more wine, it felt like we were getting a bit of a late start.  Zagora has this thing about being 52 days walk from Timbucktoo – spelt here as Tomboutouc, so we had to stop at the famous sign that shows you are in fact, 52 days walk from Timbucktoo..?!  No idea why, but when the Chinese tourists finally got out of the way we took a photo. Our first stop this morning was the small town of Tamegroute.  Tamoutgroute is a famous zawiya (religious learning institute) which houses thousands of manuscripts, and at once time was the largest and richest library of North Africa. There is a very nice collection of some 4200, some of which are still on display in the zawiya.  You can go in, but there is no photography allowed. Among the manuscrispts is a rare 14th-century Quran with beautiful calligraphy in Kufic script.  The library also contains writings on theorlogy, astronomy, georgraphy, sciences, mathenatics and traslations of ancient Greek philosophers and mathematicans.  The collection started in the 16thC by a man named Ahmad bin Nasi, and was transferred to the zawiya on his death  Also in the zawiya complex is the mausoleum of several prominent sheiks and religious leaders since that time, and a hospital for the mentally ill, as Ahmad bin Nasi had a particular interest in mental illness. Outside the library.A picture shamelessly stolen from the internet of the old manuscripts kept in the library.The zawiya’s mosque – and of course fountains for ablutions.
And the door to the aforementioned hospice for the mentally ill and our guide, Mohammed, showing us the door handles.. The door to the asylum has four door-knockers – the top right for men, the top left for women, the bottom left for children and the bottom right for people wanting good wishes.  If Mohammed explained why this was the case – I missed it in amongst his extremely thick accent.  I love the intricated mosaic, carving and painted work on the buildings here. Further around from the zawiya, is the Tamagroute underground kasbah.  The people here would take refuge from invading nomads and bedouins in the event of an attack on their granaries or resources.  It was a particularly dark, narrow and kinda dismal kasbah, which still housed many people.  At irregular intervals, there was light penetrating the dark alleyways, which served no other purpose than to blind you when you plunged back into the dark again. Quite a significant portion of the kasbah was in serious disrepair. It certainly gives a different perspective on things back home – we need to finally fucking fix our back fence, but every single time I travel to a country where people are living in houses with massive holes in them, or tarpaulins for a roof or maybe holes gaping like this in the wall – I kinda go, ‘Meh, the back fence can wait, it’s not that bad’. Not overly helpful on the home maintenance front but the more I travel the less I care about the little things about the house that aren’t perfect.

Not far from the underground kasbah is Tamegroute’s famous green ceramics production centre.  This ceramics post creates all their wares with natural dyes and paints only.   The red comes from henna, the blue from indigo, the yellow from tumeric and saffron and the distinctive green comes from various local plants in the region.This particuarly green glazed style of tagine is unique to this region of South East Morocco. Tagines up and down the country are usually terracotta, but here they make distinctive green ceramics.  We also for the first time saw domed shaped tagines rather than the usual funnel shamed ones.  Apparently, they are used to create more steam in the tagine and allow red meat dishes to be cooked quicker.It was about this point that a few of us needed to use the bathroom – now, we have been educating our fellow travellers on the Happy Room Rating System, and this was barely a 1 Star Happy Room – no paper, a toilet that was flushing somewhat temporamentally, and water all over the floor but it was free and it had a door, so 1 Star.  When I found the bathroom, there were our two young American lads, Jake and Tyson looking at each other awkwardly wondering how they were going to go to the loo.  I didn’t get it?  They didn’t have to sit down, they didn’t need for paper and yet, they were too cowardly to use the ‘facilities’ (oh yeah, I’m using that term loosely!).  I said ‘Get out of the way boys.’ and in I went.  Hiked up the bottoms of my jeans, one piece of paper to wipe the seat, a spare one for me and a guard to watch the door that didn’t have a latch and a well practiced hover pee later and out I came.  The boys were standing there saying ‘You’re braver than me!’… to which I repsonded – ‘Once you’ve peed in Asia, you can pee anywhere!’.  Having said that, I still think the worst loo I ever encountered was at an internet cafe run by a bunch of geeks in southern Turkey…

After out visit to the ceramics cooperative, we were back on the road again heading for the Sahara camp.  The occasional photo stop is always welcome as a chance to get off the bus and stretch out legs. In among this gorgeous desert landscape was a camel train… The gang enjoying the views. Not too far down the road, we arrived at the small town of Mhamid and joined our 4×4 convoy and loaded up to head to the desert.  We drove down the road a short way and then the road just disappeared.  Suddeny the little town Mhamid was gone and we were faced with this: The landscape seemed to change dramatically form sandy and dry to rokcy and dry to dry lake/creek bed and dry. Not much was growing here but there were Arugala plants – who knew they were a desert plant?! About an our into our drive (with a driver named Mohammed who ‘drove it like he stole it!’) we stopped at a bee keeper’s place.  Of all things!  There
We all got to try the honey which had an extremly distinctive taste having largely come from the flowers on the arugala plants. Before we knew it, our convoy had arrived at the camp.  We were greeted with Moroccan mint tea, of course and a few minutes to settle ourselves into our ‘tents’.  To be honest, the facilities out here were way better than expected.  Our tents were made of extremely well insulating traditional mud brick walls, lined outside with wool. After tea and a 15 min break it was time to go find a camel!  As we were riding the camels up into the dunes to see the sunset. This is the camel I rode up the sand dunes.  This poor camel also was nameless – it seems giving beasts of burden a name is not the done thing in Morocco.  The camels live to be about 13, and most of these animals were in their prime at 5-7 years old.One yawned at me which I found somewhat disturbing.  I don’t know what passes for ‘normal’ camel orthadonture, but the poor thing appeared to have hardly any upper teeth!  There was another camel in the group that seemed to be grinding his teeth all afternoon, though I know not why.

Our little camel ride into the Sahara was quite fun, and riding Nameles Camel Number 3 was a lot easier than riding Frank the Mule the other day  The regular loping gait of the camel was far easier to deal with than the irregular all over the place side to side motion of the mule. Out there beyond Samirr is the Moroccan/Algerian border, barely 30 kms away.  This has been hotly contest property for nearly 50 years now and the last King made it a seriously unsafe proposition for the Algerians to try and enter the country by effectively creating an enormous strip of ‘no man’s land’ by planting tens of thousands of land mines all along the Moroccan border between the two countiries to keep the Algerians out… I bet no one was claiming the old king of Morocco is soft on immigration! The view from the top of the sand dunes looking to the east. The sunset was spectacular – everyone who walked up that stupid dune seemed to really enjoy it.t Sadly, we did have to return our camels and go get washed up for dinner. Which was served in a restaurant in the cmpsites – again way more swish than I anticipated.The enormous chicken tagines that were served fro dinner.  Absolutely dieicious.After this we’d had a few drinks over dinner, some of us congregated around the bon fire, but it was stariting to get seriously cold – so we had a quick shower (it was hot thank fuck; almost too hot!) before turning in and sleeping the exhuasted and slightly inebriated sleep we so richly deserved.

Zagora Oasis

Finally got a decent sleep last night – only took an entire bottle of red on top of the usual drug cocktail.  :/  Wooo… Happy New Year.

Ait Ben Haddou is as gorgeous in the sunrise as it was in the sunset.
We started out day off this morning with a spot of rug shopping at a local women’s weaving cooperative.  The Berber style of rugs prevalent throughout Morocco is quite distinctive.  They’re very busy and have a lot of motifs (many of which are for good luck or fertility) that repeat through the patterns.  They’re also really asymmetrical compared to other hand made rugs that you usually see coming out of Eurasia and the Middle East. The boys looked very exciting for their second foray into Berber home furnishings.
Our hosts laid out about 100 rugs for our viewing pleasure… some of them gorgeous, some of them downright hard on the eyes.  We seemed to have an extraordinary shopping experience this morning.  These rugs actually had prices on them, which is unusual in places where you expect to barter (ie: where they really truly want to fleece the tourists good and proper), and the marked prices were quite reasonable compared to what we had seen in other rug shops in the various medinas.

Like many other cultures I have visited, the traders here believe if they offer a good bargain for the first customer of the day, then they will have good sales all day.  So you can sometimes get a nice bargain if you happen to be the first in the door on any given day… but today we were the first customers of the day, on the first day of the new year, which happened to be the first day of trading of the new decade.  Our salesman told us ‘This morning is special day, so this morning for all of you, I make special prices’. And far-out was he true to his word!  The prices tumbled from the marked prices without any haggling or difficulty whatsoever.  One couple was looking at a rug marked 6000DH and they picked it up for 3200DH.  Another guy was looking at once for 4000DH and he scored it for 2300DH.  I think our salesman was either particularly superstitious or at the very least a strong adherent to tradition.  Allah bless his cotton socks. Mr K getting worried for his wallet…
In the end, our small group of sixteen purchased seven rugs – and for a fraction of what they would have cost in Fez or Marrakech, and with no bullshit bartering at all.  There were smiles all round.
Then we were off in our little bus, with Mohammed at the wheel, into the desert heading towards Zagora.  On the way out of town, we got to see some of the large movie studios that have grown up around Ait Ben Haddou – I guess when you have the whole production crew in place, and are using the location, there’s no point moving everyone to another studio area when you can just build a studio in Morocco. Very quickly though we were into the mountains again and into the pass.  Unlike the terrain around Aroumd which was formed by glaciers, this entire area was formed by volcanic actions however many millions of years ago.  You can see the swirling layers of rock that form the desert.  It’s so dry here and barely a tree in sight. It beggars belief as to why you would bulid here, but there are the Berber people who live in these walled towns, and Bedouin and nomadic people who used to raid them all fighting for resources in the region.  Each little town has a kasbah or fortress which can be retreated to when the nomads or Bedouins come invading…?
The scenery was really impessive, enormous rocky canyons, and steep cliffs as we approced the mountain pass which was 1800m above sea level (much lower than Aroumd at 2640m).
The rock formations were enormous and amazing… and unbelievably, on occasion, we could see handfuls of little black dots on these extremely arid areas.  Little black dots that would turn out to be goats and a shepherd.  Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to grab a photo of one of these herds of goats (herd? flocks? pack?  *shrug*  (Fuck who what the collective noun for a group of goats is?).
Once we had passed the pass, we found ourselves in the ‘oasis’.  Now this confused me somewhat – I always though an oasis was a spring of some sort in the middle of the desert.  A kinda Disneyeque situation where there’s nothing but sand in every direction and suddenly a small pool of fresh water with four or five palm trees… but not so!  This oasis spans 200kms down the valley and supports an enormous amount of people, commerce and agriculture. The mountain is Mt Kissane, and the oasis here supports and enormous date palm industry which spans the entire 200km length.  It was along this oasis that we stopped for a picnic lunch at a ‘truck stop’ (which looked more like a fancy hotel).  At lunchtime, I asked Samirr if he could enquire about the young woman from Aroumd who had tried to jump from the mountain… being stuck on the bus for hours, my mind kept wandering back to how the lack of education and bullshit religious superstitions may have driven this poor woman to desperation – he made a phone call and found out that she suffered only a broken leg and a broken jaw, and was due to have a surgery on both today.  I’d like to think she will get the medical attention she needs for her epilepsy, and her subsequent mental health issues… but I somehow strongly doubt it.
Anyway.  Another day another earworm. Every time Samirr mentioned the oasis, I could hear ‘Midnight at the oasis, send your camel to bed…’ going through my head.  We followed the palms and the mountains for a few hours. With beautiful, typically Moroccan vistas in every direction – this is more like what I expected  Morocco to look like, not the lush green rolling hills of the north. This was the only that I actually saw the water source that was sustaining all this growth: the Draa River which feeds the entire valley. We did one stop and it was date palms as far as the eye could see. Eventually, our drive came to an end and we arrived at Zagora.  Zagora is the major town in the Draa River valley. So anyone in the entire Drâa-Tafilalet region in this part of the country comes here for major supplies. The town is flanked by the mountain Zagora from which it derives its name.

Our hotel, Le Tinsouline is our jumping-off point to the Sahara camps, as is tradition for most tourists it seems, because there is scant little to do in th is town, yet it’s full of hotels and tourists.Pretty swish for being in the middle of nowhere. After we got settled, we went for a ‘gently walk for an hour and a half through the date palm trees of the oasis’, which turned out to be nearly a 6km walk, an easy third of which was over fucking sand dunes.  Nice one!  I wasn’t wearing my boots, just sneakers, and was exhausted from five hours being jostled around in the bus for most of the day, and here were expecting a nice easy walk in the cool of the palm trees, and instead, we were slogging over two kms of fucking sand dunes to see… well, I still don’t really know what?!

Le sigh.  The walk started out okay.  We walked through the oasis and the date palms.  The locals only keep the fruit-producing palm trees, if they don’t produce, they get cut down for building materials.  Each tree is capable of yielding 60-120kgs of dates per year, which are harvested by hand.  Inside the oasis in the middle of the palm trees are homes belonging to the land owners many of whom own about 50 or so palm trees, as well as small Riad guesthouses where people like to stay in the summer as it is so much cooler in the oasis than out in the town. Following the paths through the palm trees in the oasis was a bit like winding through a medina – lots of nooks and crannies, cool door ways and arches. Many impressive building facades and doorways, that you would never know was in here among the palms.
At the base of the palms, there are small spaces of other produce being grown – turnips, henna, lucerne, alfalfa and the like. Samirr demonstrating how the locals climb the palm trees to trim the fronds off the trees.  The trees themselves can live and keep bearing fruit for a century, but the fronds get cut off every five years or so.  These fronds are used as a building material – primarily in the building of fences.
Here is where we saw the fronds coming into use as fencing – the oasis is a naturally occurring space thanks to the river that runs through the valley, but the Sahara is an ever-changing landscape that encroaches and retreats where it pleases.  Here, in the oasis, the people have learned how to try and keep the Sahara at bay, by making fences to stop the sand dunes from overrunning their water sources and changing the geography. They weave the fronds into fences which are then laid out in a grid or checked type arrangement, so when the sand storms come, they hold back the sands. Fresh fencing. It was roughly at this point that I got sick of the walk in the sand dunes and lost the energy to look around me properly and keep taking photos – I was in a lot of pain, was trying not to throw up, and working hard on reminding myself to keep breathing.  But it’s one of those shitty things – I was kinda committed, and it’s hard to know whether to pull the pin or not, because at this point it could be further to try and walk back the way we came than to keep going to fuck knows where?  Additionally, I don’t want to impact the entire group’s walk just because I’m falling apart – some of them might have actually been enjoying this?!  Samirr had told us we were going for a ‘gentle walk through the palms’ but here we were up and down small sand dunes and my hips and back were like ‘wtf this doesn’t resemble the brochure’ – I had zero energy for it but had to keep plodding on.  Eventually, our walk went ended back at a Riad I recognised called La Soleil du Monde, where I could have waited for the mad bastards that actually wanted to walk 2kms in the sand to see very little more of I know not what?   :/

I can walk, especially on flat ground and will quite happily walk until my feet are ready to fall off when there’s actually something interesting to see – but trudging along not knowing how much further we had to go or if there was anything worth seeing at the end of it is really stressful for a chronic pain sufferer.  The whole time Samirr was so far in front of me that I had no way of asking him any questions either.  By the time we were finished, I was gritting my teeth, feeling hot and bothered from failing to breathe properly and my pain was through the roof.

Thankfully, we were heading straight back to the hotel and had time for a shower and a heatpack before dinner.  While I had tried to explain to Samirr that I had limited capacity for some things at the beginning of the trip, he obviously didn’t really understand.  I had to take Samirr aside and let him know how difficult this walk turned out to be (especially after five hours of being jolted around on the bus), how his description of the outing was misleading and that I simply can’t make good decisions based if he is going to be so vague.  I can’t tell you how much I HATE having to admit defeat in a situation like this.  It’s almost as much as I HATE having to share half my life story and medical history with a relative stranger just so they can understand what I’m talking about.  Honestly, I’m not sure why he thought I have been always asking for so many details about each walk we were doing:  ‘how far is it’, and ‘how high do we go’, and ‘how many steps are there’… maybe he just thought I was fucking lazy and didn’t want to go to some places?  This is where having an invisible illness really works against you.

Anyway, I was sufficiently recovered from a shower and an hour on a heat pack that I managed to hobble over to the restaurant for dinner. It was kinda touch and go, Mr K was getting so worried, he was talking about us ditching the remainder of the tour entirely and heading back to Marrakech – something I would never want to do!  I haven’t come all this way to miss out on the Sahara.

Dinner was in a really pretty restaurant and I had the veal and prune tagine which was really tasty, and then back to the room and onto the heat pack again and well, bed soon.  I have a feeling tomorrow is going to be another big day…

Ait Benhaddou – Are you not entertained?!

Unfortunately, I woke up in our little Berber guesthouse way too early for my liking, and I went into the common room so as not to disturb anyone.  It was barely 0600 and the sun doesn’t rise until 0830, so I was huddled under a blanket waiting for everyone to wake up.  It was nearly an hour until the hosts came to make breakfast for everyone… yay for being a bad sleeper.  :/

After breakfast, we collected up our day packs and put them on a mule for the walk back down to Imlil – by the road!  It was a 5.5km walk down but I needn’t have taken a mule up yesterday, I could have walked up the road instead of scrambling over the rocky path with the hiking folk.

As we were leaving Aroumd, we encountered a long line of concerned villagers, some in tears, heading towards us.  We respectfully waited until they had all passed us.  Samirr told us after they left that a young 28-year-old woman, who had epilepsy and was not responding to the cure of the shrine and prayer, had thrown herself off a building onto the steep rocks below.  Of course, there may have been plenty of other factors leading to her suicide attempt, but epileptics are shunned by society and treated like they are possed by the ‘jinn’ – evil spirits. The news of this woman’s plight was deeply saddening and disturbing – this is the result of a lack of healthcare and education.  We don’t know if she survived, but if she did not, this death may be attributed to religion and superstition.

The village of Imlil.
We passed quite a few mules on our way down the road – none of them was Frank.
A six hundred-year-old juniper tree, with its gnarly trunk – juniper is one of the preferred building materials here for roofing… it smells nice inside the home and is immune to termites. After we returned to Imlil, we collected our larger items of luggage and jumped into the minibus.  We had a six hour drive ahead of us and I was not looking forward to it.  The landscape was very changeable as we wound along the roads through the High Atlas Mountains. Around 1300, we stopped for a barbeque lunch… there was meat hanging on the street and smoke everywhere with about half a dozen BBQ restaurants all in a row largely catering to truck drivers and tourists.
Out the back of the row of restaurants was a small bridge leading to a patio dining area. After a meat-heavy meal we hit the road again – the landscape was much more like I expected from Morocco, unlike the north of the country that was so green and lush. Another stop to have a look at a fossil and gemstone store.  With no fancy cut stones, or any jewellery to hunt through, the women were largely back on the bus in no time – the men, however, fossicked through the fossils and geodes for quite a while.  Several of our party bought a few pieces to take back home. A roadside puppy was perched high on a rock overlooking the construction site – a large part of this road was being rebuilt into a proper dual carriageway.  Samirr said the contractors in the north were doing a great job, but the contractors in the south were lazy and working with old equipment – we can vouch for that! The ones that were working south of the pass were on machines belching out massive clouds of black smoke.  Gross! The landscapes were really quite pretty and we had several opportunities for photo stops, and to stretch the legs a bit. These guys had their trinkets set up beside the snow markets… the yellow and red poles are to tell drivers how deep the snow is and to show the edge of the road.  By mid-January, these guys won’t be able to hang out here.e After what seemed an interminably long time to be stuck in the bus, we made it to Ait Benhaddou.  We walked through the modern side of the town to get to the picturesque ‘movie set’ side of the town. Aït Benhaddou is a great example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture, it was built in the 17thC and sufferred only a little under French occupation in the early 20thC, so it is incredibly well preserved  It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and has been a popular place for tourist to visit due to its unique beauty and connection to Hollywood films.

Straight off Wikipedia – here is a list of films that have been shot on location in this town:

  • Sodom And Gomorrah (1963)
  • Oedipus Rex (1967)
  • The Man Who Would Be King (film) (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
  • Time Bandits (1981)
  • Marco Polo (1982)
  • The Jewel of the Nile (1985)
  • The Living Daylights (1987)
  • The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • The Sheltering Sky (1990)
  • Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
  • Babel (2006)
  • One Night with the King (2006)
  • Prince of Persia (2010)
  • Hanna (2011)
  • Son of God (film) (2014)

These gates were also used in season four of Game of Thrones where Danerys is roaming the deserts releasing slaves – this was the city of Yunki. Below is the space used as a slave market and later a fighting arena for the movie, Gladiator. It’s a particularly pretty and very well kept city. Wandering the streets was interesting – cute little alleyways, and fun little shops. I stupidly made the mistake of pottering around by myself, and had several men trying to lead me into their dark little shops!  The views from the top of the kasbah: After this, we made our way down to our hotel, where we managed to get ourselves half sorted.  We also got to enjoy a cous cous cooking demonstration. After this we found ourselves settled into the upstairs terrace to see in the New Year, ther was beer (oh so much beer – thanks to a language communication error with the driver Mohammed who collected supplies for us while we were up at the Berber guest house!) and wine and late night pizza snacks.  Everyone had a wonderful night and I slept like a baby for the first night since we arrived in Morocco.  Yay for the muscle relaxant effects of alcohol! Happy New Year from Morocco!

Aroumd and a mule with no name

Had the worst night sleep yet at the Motel Marrakech – there was an annoyingly loud buzzing noise in the room that we couldn’t seem to do anything about.  It was an electrical box (somewhat alarming) that sounded like something a hoard of angry bees, so I had barely four hours sleep, unfortunately.  :/

We left Marrakech by private bus this morning heading for the village of Aroumd. Aroumd is in the High Atlas Mountains and to get there, we needed to first take the bus to the village of Imlil (it was roughly 2 hours from Marrakech) On the way we stopped at what is known as ‘Winston Churchill’s Morocco’, which is basically a spot where he came and painted a town – this one actually:iFor some unknown reason there were people there hawking super cheap ‘genuine’ silver jewellery and some dude with a snake wanting to get it up into your face for photos.
And a small tagine shopping village – whereever there are tourists there are shopping opportunities. Local mosque: Some high-speed landscape photography on the way there… We arrived at the main village of Imlil, where we stored our main luggage and took an o’night pack to walk into the village of Aroumd.  It is a one hour trek up a bloody steep and rocky mule track to get to the village and if you’re like me and you have a fucked back or mobility issues, you can ride a mule up instead.  I made a particularly sane choice and decided to ride the mule up…not that riding the mule is an easier option, you’re hanging on for dear life on steeper sections and actual stairways, but I think this hike would have taken me about three times longer than anyone else, and I’m not sure my hips would have thanked me for it for days. I was given a mule and asked Samirr to ask the handler what his name was (my guide only spoke Berber, no English or French), and it turned out my sturdy friend had no name, so I promptly dubbed him ‘Frank’ for the duration. Anyway, Frank and I plodded up the mountain while most of the rest of our group walked up in front of us.  He was certainly sure-footed, though not quite as sure-footed as the mules I remember in Nemrut Dagi back in Turkey years ago.

About half-way up we all stopped for a break, and I just sat around on Frank feeling like a noompty. At the top, the views were magnificent.  Back down the valley, the village of Imlil seemed very happily situated.

And once we reached the village of Aroumd there were lovely views of the High Atlas Mountains.  Wandering around the town, there wasn’t a lot to see – there was a four hour hike down into another valley and to see a shrine (a painted white rock) where people pilgrim to be cured of epilepsy (the Berber people believe that epilepsy is a condition where the human is possessed by evil spirits and can be ‘fixed’ by miracles which occur when coming here and saying lots of Koranic verses over the afflicted).  It might have been interesting to go see it – but I kinda googled some images and decided the walk down and back simply wasn’t worth it. So instead we went for a wander around the town to see how the Berber mountain people lived. Life seems very simple here – the farming of apples, walnuts and other frost hardy fruits, some goat herding and well, fleecing tourists seems to be the primary industries.  We were staying in a traditional ‘gite’ or Berber guesthouse which was very colourfully decorated: T
The purple and orange was a particular treat.

Our little room for the night was bigger than a Shinkjuku APA hotel room, but only just. We discovered all the power points were at waist heigh above the ground and none of the furniture was – so necessity being the mother of invention.  😛
After everyone was done with their exploring (only the five new arrivals to our group went for the walk to the shrine)  we came back together for a traditional Berber meal consisting of lamb tagine and vegetables, and fruit. 

Then it was up onto the terrace for a bit of stargazing, which was super confusing because nothing was in the night sky where I expected to see it!  Before early everyone collapsing early.  My ride with Frank certainly made the day bearable, but hanging on like you have to has caused my neck and shoulders to feel like they’re burning.  Stupid nervous system.

Hopefully nothing that some drugs and some sleep can sort out.

Marrakech Cooking Class

Well, we had a rocky start today. Not sure exactly what happened but at breakfast, we found out that we had to move hotels today at 09:00.  Either Samirr fucked up and failed to tell us, or Intrepid fucked up and hadn’t booked properly for all of us… we haven’t been able to figure it out.  But our plan had been to head down the Palais Royal this morning and instead, we were packing and moving our stuff to a different hotel just four doors down the street, and putting things into storage there as rooms wouldn’t be ready until well after midday…?  We weren’t overly happy, but there were some of our group who had breakfasted stupid early and head out to do things to miss the crowds, so they came back to the hotel late in the afternoon only to be told we had all moved?!  I haven’t done an organised tour like this in years, so I can’t say if this is ‘normal’ but a communication breakdown like this does not lead to good reviews nor does it lead to good tips at the end of the tour.

We eventually made it to the medina around 11:30 to do a bit of shopping before Zita and I had to meet up for a cooking class we had booked.  When we arrived at the Square it was even more madhouse than yesterday – if that is at all humanly possible.  Still plenty of noisy monkeys, snakes, watermen and whatnot, but the winding narrow alleys were CROWDED beyond belief.  Way too much humanity if you ask me!

Undeterred, we did manage to dive in and get some shopping done.

Grinding spices for the tourists… or rather tourists rather inelegantly and ineptly grinding spices for shits and giggles. Cones of ‘spices’ for display… this is literally a timber or cardboard cone with spice coloured cement over it to lure tourists into the shop to look for things – this is not the bright coloured piles of spice you are looking for!

At the main entrance to the medina are two walls lined with a homage to the current king – lots of photos, trinkets and mementos. The populace seems to really love him and his modern ideas for improving Morocco and its infrastructure and social programs. Shopping, shopping, shopping.  So many lovely things; so much of it so hard to bring home. At least this stall had piles of spices that were actually made of spice. I’m in love with this silk rug – it’s probably made in Turkey though, based on the design and the knot count. We managed to find the store again, so now I have a week or so to think about whether I really want it when we get back to Marrakech. More knitted beanies in every size and colour… Rug stores. Everywhere. Cane and wicker baskets and handbags. More leather goods – some of it fantastic, some of it tacky as all shit. The poofes aren’t as nice as the ones we saw in Fez, which is a shame. Carved timber – all I can see is having to get in the ‘something to declare’, line when coming back into Australia.  :/ After nearly three hours and four kilometres of wandering around the medina, we found ourselves back out in the Square where we needed to meet our cooking class guide/teacher.  This is a very popular spot for tourists to sit and watch the world go by. Zita and I met up with Hannan, our mentor for the afternoon, and she set us off at a brisk pace through the medina to buy ingredients for our meals.  Turns out that it was just the two of us, so we had a private little group which was lovely.  We marched past about a kilometre of touristy handicraft shops before popping out in a slightly slower-paced area of food shops more populated by locals.

I had a look at the map and we were well off the tourist track this deep into the medina (the Mhamid Marrakech site is the main Square).  First stop was the chicken shop, whereupon Hannan chose a live chicken.
The poor thing was quickly weighed, and before Zita could say, ‘Are we going to have to pluck it?’, it was swiftly slaughtered and skinned.  Yep, that’s right, skinned. I saw, just after the poor chicken lost its head and feet, the butcher de-feather and deskin the bird in a very swift very smooth and obviously practised motion – much like how one skins a rabbit.  I was actually quite surprised, I didn’t know you could clean a chicken that quickly – the whole transaction barely took two minutes. Buying live chickens is no doubt the result of there being very poor (if any) refrigeration in the medina.
Next stop was to buy some fresh produce, some of which bounced off the ground a few times and yet still ended up in the basket to come back to the Riad. We bought tomatoes, onions, garlic, capsicum, sweet potato, beans and other various items that I probably would walk right past at home. After this, we stopped to buy some preserved lemons and some olives at a different little store… preserving lemons is not difficult, but takes months, so the locals tend to buy them already preserved. The final stop was to buy some spices – you’ll note that this deep in the medina, there are no fancy cones of pretty spices to attract the tourists, just dump bins of spices for the locals to buy. Here, we bought some ground ginger, cumin, ground coriander, mixed spice and sweet paprika.. not all of which ended up in our dishes? Another 600m or so of winding streets and we found ourselves at the Riad where we would be doing our cooking.  It was amazing how it was so chaotic out in the alleyways (full of women marching with purpose, motorbikes zooming around the alleys, bicycles pinging their bells, touts yelling for your attention, and under-employed men seemingly just loitering about everywhere), yet as soon as you stepped into the Riad, it was quiet and peaceful.  You couldn’t hear a single two-stroke motorcycle going past and the sounds of the touts and tourists seemed miles away.
Hannan laid out all the ingredients we were going to need for our dish, while we made mint tea.
Making the mint tea is quite a process, and now I understand why it seems to take so long to prepare when you order it at a cafe.
Then it was onto the cooking!  We had our fresh chicken, produce and spices, and Hannan led us, step by step, through making a chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. It was a lot of fun and we learned a lot about Moroccan everyday life as well. Zita wrangling the garlic press into submission. Eventually, all the onions had been sliced, the garlic all pressed, the chili finely chopped, fresh coriander and parsley minced, and spices added.  Then the mixing.  By hand…which I was somewhat reluctant to jump into…… And which, naturally resulted in this:  ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, I have lotion to get it off later.’  Hmmm… sure. Our tagine went onto the gas while we prepared a Moroccan salad comprising of peeled and seeded tomatoes, red onion, and grilled green bell pepper, plus lemon, herbs, spices, and a tiny bit of olive oil. After the salad was set aside to soak in its own juices, we set to making the third course, a fruit dish of sliced orange, prunes, sultanas, honey, cinnamon and orange blossom water. Which was perfectly timed to then check on the tagine and add some olives and the preserved lemon peel. While the tagine was finishing cooking, we were encouraged to have a look around the Riad and found ourselves up on the roof.  Most Moroccan homes have a rooftop space to recreate on hot summer evenings.  A lot of people will sleep on the roof if the nights are really hot. This Riad has created some particularly lovely spaces for their guests to relax and enjoy in a really nice rooftop patio.  You could hear the noises of the medina up here, but it still felt distant being four floors down. I was keen to see across the rooftops to see how crammed it all looked.  All the buildings are definitely packed in tight.  Medieval town design, clashing with modern living. Unfortunately, when I looked down over the side of the patio, I saw this… on two sides of the Riad, were two enormous holes in the ground that are basically being used as rubbish dumps.  No one lives in these spaces, and no one is looking after these spaces.  It seems mad that there could be hundreds of these dilapidated spaces that were once buildings sprinkled throughout the medina when space is at such a premium.  I honestly can’t understand it. Who owns the space? Why did they fall into disrepair?. In stark contrast, by the time we came back downstairs, the table had been set with the good flatware, and our bread warmed under the fancy bread warmer, and the dinner we had prepared was served to us. The Moroccan salad was really quite tasty, and I am not normally a fan of bell peppers at all.  Skinning and seeding the tomatoes made them extraordinarily sweet compared to how we usually serve tomatoes in salads at home. A little spice pot shaped like tiny joined tagines was on the table with salt, pepper and cumin to add to our dish if we so desired.  I have seen these little pots everywhere in the medina for sale and had no desire or plan to bring one home, but now it seems almost essential. And, finally, ‘la piece de resistance’, our chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives – and OMG was it delicious.  It was literally the best chicken tagine I’ve tried since we arrived in Morocco – and we’ve shared about five at various restaurants so far.  Just a really fabulous combination of fresh ingredients and a nice balance of spices resulted in spectacular flavours.
Admittedly, Zita and I couldn’t come anywhere near finishing the chicken dish, so I hope the family’s children enjoyed their dinner (no doubt they are sick to death of this dish!), but we had to leave some space to try the honied orange slices we had prepared.  This was a truly simple and refreshing finish to a lovely meal.

It was after eating, however, that I asked for the ‘lotion’ to try and remove some of the stains from my hands… only to be given a bottle of bleach.  Yeurck!  And now my hands are sort of burning, still a little bit yellow and well, they still stink of bleach five hours later.  Live and learn, I guess… not that they would have had any disposable gloves for me to use to rub the spice into the chicken anyway.  *shrug*

After this, it was time to dive back into the chaos of the medina – and holy shit!  I thought it was chaotic earlier in the day, now it was just beyond hectic.  As part of the end of year celebrations that were going on – there was a concert happening in the Square, some famous French performer who we had never heard of, but who was attracting a crown of some 40,000 people.  There were roads blocked off, traffic being re-routed, and a huge area covered in security for paid ticket holders and thousands of more people lining the outer areas of the Square and the surrounding rooftops.

Hannan power walked us through the medina and, to be honest, I’m surprised that neither of us either tripped or was run down by a motorbike. People, just everywhere! The locals on their motorbikes tear around the tiny streets – as soon as you hear one behind you or see on in front of you, you have to dive to flatten yourself against the walls or risk being run over.  Seriously, they don’t slow down and they won’t stop for anything other than a larger vehicle or maybe a donkey or a large handcart – it sure gave us an appreciation for Fez’s vehicle-free medina.  We damn nearly ran the 1.9kms back to the Square where we grabbed onto our belongings for dear life and dodged and pummeled our way through the crowds to try and find a taxi.  It was an assault on the eyes and the ears, so noisy and dangerous and I have rarely been so glad to be out of a place.  Note to anyone thinking of coming to Marrakech – check the ‘What’s On’ calendar before choosing your dates!  I honestly can’t describe how crazy this was, and I really wish I had video’d part of our mad dash out of there – but I honestly could not keep my person safe, keep an eye on the uneven ground, another eye on Hannan who was weaving in and out of the people like a pro, as well as try to operate a camera that would be a target for an opportunistic thief!  It was totally nuts!

And now, I’m well-fed, have yellow hands and am fucking exhausted.