Serial Bus

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Our Time In Maghreb

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(I thank my co-traveler Nidhi for agreeing to guest-write this post for my blog.)

Sometimes I wonder how, in just 7 hours of flying, you can reach a place which is so different. For instance, my recent vacation to Morocco – or Maroc as French would say – or Maghreb as the Arabs once said. As he wrote in the previous post, Mohit had kept the destination a secret and he wanted me to find out when I reached the airport. I cooperated by not snooping around. Finally on 13th Feb, when I reached JFK, I was told that we were flying to Morocco and I was (to Mohit’s relief) pleasantly surprised. My first reaction was, “I don’t know a lot about it” and then, I was given a Rough guide to learn more about the country I would be spending the next 9 days in.

We flew Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca and frankly, there was nothing ‘royal’ about the flight. In fact, it was bad. Right from the time of boarding itself, we knew we were going to a developing country; I mean the unnecessary aggression to board the flight, which we see every time we go to India too. The flight experience was neither too pleasant nor too painful. Toilets were dirty, no personal TV, no promptness from the flight attendants and even English commentaries sounded like French. The only thing I liked about the flight was the food. It was salmon cooked with Moroccan spices and I was already looking forward to some good food for the next 9 days.

For both Mohit and me, travel is about exploring new places, new cultures and new ways of living. After Europe and Latin America, the next obvious destination which is close enough to US is Africa. And this is one of the reasons Morocco was chosen. We were going to an Islamic country for the first time, common languages were Arabic and French and we didn’t speak any. I was excited that it was my first visit to Africa. Originally, Morocco was inhabited by Berber tribes. Following Arab invasions, Berber people were converted to Islam and also pushed to the south of Morocco. The country became a protectorate of France in the twentieth century. As a result of this checkered history, the country represents an eclectic mix of Arabic, Berber and French influences.

We reached Casablanca in the morning. Airport was decent (much better than Delhi airport, something I observed at Lima also last year). It’s baffling to me – if a country like Morocco can have a swanky airport, why can’t India? I was immediately struck by so many African people in their native costumes (Casablanca is the international gateway for several Saharan countries). Like always, the immigration officer viewed my 20 years’ handwritten passport suspiciously and hung on it to for long. It was hard to explain the oddity to him as he understood little English – that gave us an inkling into what lay ahead for us in terms of the communication. Anyways, after consulting with his senior, he let me go. We boarded our train to Casa Voyageurs (the main train station from where one can get connections to other places), from where we left for Fez.

While waiting at the station, I spent my time observing people, which is my favorite pastime when I am idle in a new place. Women were obviously dressed head to toe and most wore headscarfs. Men kiss each others’ cheeks 4 times when they greet and there is absolutely no physical contact with the opposite sex. People travel with huge baggage (like in India) and the usual aggression was difficult to overlook; as if things were scarce and the opportunity fleeting.

We reached Fez by afternoon. Total confusion at the station and not knowing the language made matters worse. Finally, we managed to take a ‘petit’ taxi but forgot to ask him to use the meter. Rest assured, he charged us 30 dirhams where 15 would have been sufficient. He allowed us to make a 30 seconds call to our hotel and made us cough up 20 dirhams for it, when 5 would have been enough.

Mohammed, an ever-smiling guy from the Dar Seffarine received us at Bab Rcif (one of the main gates into the Medina, the old town of Fez). He guided us through the maze-like medina; the streets were so narrow that sometimes people could go only in one direction. The beautiful Dar Seffarine is run by the extremely warm and hospitable Norwegian designer Kate and Alaa who is of Iraqi descent. The old traditional house was painstakingly renovated by both of them some years ago. We were served the popular ‘mint tea’ as a welcome drink, referred to as berber whiskey (Since Islam prohibits alcohol, this is perhaps a Freudian wish). We decided to have our dinner at the hotel – it was our first proper meal of the day and we were glad to be served authentic Moroccon cuisine: harera soup, chicken-couscous tajine, artichokes and a yoghurt-based dessert with orange pulp. Oranges are commonplace and delicious in Morocco.

Next day, Atris, our guide, took us around the medina. Aside from several medersas, souks and mosques (latter only from outside), we went to a mosaic pottery factory also. One of the highlights was a visit to a tannery that has operated using the same technology since the eighth century. The smell was so overpowering that we had to constantly smell mint leaves. Yusuf, the salesman there was very adept at his trade and finally convinced us to buy a camel-hide seat.

If Fez was still mediaeval, Marrakech was amphibious in its embrace of the mediaeval and the modern. Our train ride from Fez to Marrakech was 8 hours long but we punctuated it with a visit to Volubilis, the ancient Roman city that lies in ruins. Some of the surviving mosaics that show scantily-clad men and bathing women make it obvious as to why several devout Muslim emperors made it their mission to demolish the once-sprawling city. It was late evening when our train pulled into a spotlessly modern train station at Marrakech, which to our relied, had a McDonalds outlet (we picked our dinner there). Soon, we were at our cozy and small hotel in the intricate Medina – Dar Maada, run by the very helpful Lidi and Gilles.

We took it easy in Marrakech, kind of treating it like a mandatory stopover between Fez and the Berberland (the desert beyond Atlas). After a leisurely visit to the ruins of El Badi palace where storks are currently in residence, we just wandered in the streets around Djemaa-al-Fanaa for a while, I got some henna done and then perched ourselves at a terrace overlooking the square. Until late evening, we just people-watched while I let my henna dry. The persistent ushers at the food stalls made us try a few a things – it was a sumptuous dinner.

Next morning, we took a CTM bus to Ouarzazate but got off at the turn (or ‘carrefour’, as Abdellah, the owner of our hotel put it) to Ait Benhaddou, the amazing kasbah. We walked around the kasbah in the evening and settled for an early dinner.

Sam Tours from Ouarzazate sent our car to pick us up early next morning and after some paperwork, we were on our way to Merzouga. We decided to pass Atlas Studios as only a French-speaking tour was available. We took the road through Agdez and El Nif and returned through the upper loop via Erfoud. We passed through beautiful landscape, largely deserted and were in Rissani by nightfall. Since we arrived at our auberge in the Hassi Labied village near Merzouga late, we did not see the sand dunes until the next morning.

After a relaxed day, we left for our night camp in the desert on camels, along with Omar, our camelman who was dressed in the Moroccan blue overall-type dress, called Zalaba I think. While Omar cooked dinner, we climbed up a tall dune near by. Walking in the sand while gaining altitude ceases to be fun after a while but the view from the top was worthwhile. At dinner, we were joined by a Polish couple.

The last 24 hours in Morocco were a travel marathon for us. We travelled by camel, car, bus and 2 trains to finally catch our flight to New York from Casablanca. As we settled into the flight after an over-cautious passage through security (my passport was checked about 15 times), we felt great. We had had a rather wonderful trip to Maghreb, small annoyances aside. Khuda Hafiz!


Written by serialbus

March 8, 2009 at 11:14 am

Posted in Travel

Tagged with , , , ,

One Response

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  1. Arey Nidhi, mere liye thode santre laane the.


    March 13, 2009 at 1:17 pm

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