OK so here is the Morocco round-up! I've written extra here because some friends and sailors have expressed interest in visiting and asked us to share what we found. It has been a great country to visit and we're so glad we came.
When you arrive in Rabat, the capital city, and radio the marina, they come out in an escort boat to guide you through the breakwaters and up the river about a mile. Since the entry is shoal compared to open ocean, you can't arrive in more than a 2 meter swell or any rough weather and it should be on a rising tide. The staff really takes care of you and sort of holds your hand which we have come to know as Moroccan hospitality. Check-in was free & easy at the welcome dock and you get your first taste of "Moroccan whiskey" as they call it, sweet mint tea. Being a Muslim country, there is no whiskey here and actually on our 2 week road trip, we were officially on the wagon as we didn't find any place to buy anything! The marina is nice and well guarded as the royal family keeps their boats there. We came home to a filthy boat from all the red African dust with everything as we'd left it.
The first few days we were in Rabat were spent exploring the capitol and the medina. There are cats everywhere. While they do live outside and don't have vet care, many are generally cared for in that they are fed and given boxes and places to shelter. I enjoyed taking pictures of the various places we spotted them and we both cracked up when we saw how this one was glued to the fish counter. Waiting, hoping... We toured the city monuments, went to the zoo and bought a couple of handicrafts. Some monuments were lit up at night.
Morocco has good roads and a solid tourist infrastructure which makes it easy to get around. Drivers are unpredictable though and no one cares about dents, scratches and door dings so defensive driving takes on a whole new meaning. There are roundabouts everywhere and there is no clear method to how they work. We witnessed shooting the bird does help people show their dissatisfaction with other drivers. We picked our car up at the airport, a cheap taxi ride away from the marina. We started out by driving to the city of Fez which has a famously huge medina. After so many months in Europe, we got used to things generally making sense and to our anonymity. But in Morocco, just like other countries we've been in, we stick out like a sore thumb and there is no making sense of whatever the system is that this culture uses so you have to be on your toes. Everyone is trying to sell you something. But the people have been very kind and friendly when you say you don't want it. But it doesn't mean they don't ask again! Jon maintains that if we got decked out in the seemingly universal outfit of countries like this- the NY Yankees baseball cap and either an Emirates or Qatar Airways shirt we could blend in as locals much better! Armed with a smart phone you are more independent than ever because you can find your own way around and don't need to be guided. Regardless, you are well taken care of without a lot of outlay of cash. A little goes a long way here.
The medina of Fez was extremely interesting. It is an almost overwhelming dive into the intensity, smells, bustle, and pure industry of this compressed space with narrow alleyways spread out in a dizzying maze. Whole lives are lived out within these walls and have been for hundreds of years. We stayed in a Riad, once the home of a wealthy family, now turned guesthouse. The medina is full of these- they look like nothing on the outside but when you stoop to get through the often low doorway, everything opens up into a courtyard with rooms all around and upper levels. I still have a bump on my head from banging it multiple times on the low overhead in Riads and restaurants. We stayed on the top floor in a large room with stained glass windows. Like every place we've stayed in Morocco (all on a budget), breakfast comes with it in a multitude of little containers with cheese, eggs, jams, olives in each one. We spent a couple days immersing ourselves in the medina and surrounds including a visit to the tannery, a couple of interesting museums, and just looking at all the stalls of everything imaginable from chickens to flowers to woodworking, metalware makers and seamsters. We now have Moroccan leather sandals. There are so many shops it is overwhelming really if not a bit repetitive..
Morocco has some impressive roads. Once we left Fez, we headed toward the Sahara desert over a couple days because its a long way. We crossed gorges, passes through the Atlas mountain ranges (of which there are 3) and we started to see what they call palmeries which are essentially oases in the desert terrain. There the people grow their vegetables and the thousands of dates that are being harvested at the moment for export and hopeful sale to tourists. The swath of bright green with the reddish mountain backdrop is beautiful and unique to the things we've seen before. One morning we took a cab up to the top of a gorge and then walked down through the palmery on the little paths made by the farmers to get to their plots. The smell of the herbs growing and the sound of the birds enjoying the dates was great, not to mention the green! All along the way you could see the ladies in their all-covering gowns stooped over weeding or picking greens for the buroughs that were practically invisible under their heavy burdens. The buroughs carry a lot of volume of greenery (probably for their own consumption) as well as heavy loads with supplies for their owners. We had fun making up what we thought they were thinking given their expressions while their owners continued to pile crap on for them to carry. The farmers offered us dates right off the tree and they were delicious. We were surprised not to be seeing them on our breakfast plates. We can't talk to the ladies much because they don't know much English and seem a little shy. In this society the men do all the business so are therefore better with languages.
On the night between Fez and the desert we stayed in a crossroads town that felt like we'd stepped out into the epicenter of an earthquake. You just can't understand how an area can get so bombed out looking. In some towns there is no sense of beauty whatsoever. And yet we had dinner in a local grill and one of the staff sat down with us and we talked for a long time together. We will never forget him. He was one of about a hundred Mohamed's we met. When in doubt, call out Mohamed! You really feel for these people who are no different than us except for where they were born. There were huge hunks of meat hanging on hooks not far from our table. Morocco is a country of contrasts. There are beautiful spots and also towns that are butt ugly. But this is not new to us...
I couldn't wait to get to the dunes, hop on a camel and stay overnight on the Sahara. It is common, inexpensive and a great experience. I loved the way our guide put turbans on us and the blue of his gandoura and turban seemed so beautiful to me. The way it works is you ride camels for an hour and a half out into the dunes away from the base town to a camp where you spend the night. We came out alone with our guide and then met up with 2 other couples at the camp and since we all spoke English, we sat together for a great dinner under the stars with a few drops of rain every now and then. They were from NZ and S Africa. Before sunset, Jon & I scrambled up to the highest dunes to get a look at all the waves of sand stretching out before us. It was dead quiet and the colors were lovely. After dinner, the guides played the drums and we all took tries too and it was a simple but fun evening together. The next morning we hopped back on our camel and they led us back to town where a nice breakfast and shower were waiting. We learned that unlike a horse, you don't control your camel, but rather they are led by someone on foot. At least that goes for all we've seen. They were gentle & peaceful and they would call out before you got on and once you got off of them. I don't know why really and neither did the guides but it really tore me up in a way. I like camels. We spent another day just walking around in the dunes ourselves. Catching them in different light is interesting and very peaceful. I like the way the wind washes away your footsteps like the waves do on a beach and everything is clean again.
Once back on the road we started traveling what they call the Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs. It passes through a lot of beautiful mountain scenery, a deep gorge called Todra where we did an awesome hike, more palmeries and a lot of old berber villages where there are old natural mud & grass kasbahs that have since been vacated for more modern dwellings. Many of the kasbahs are in a state of ruin, picturesque in their own right while others have been restored and you can walk through them. These have been the settings for various movies including Gladiator as well as TV series like the GOT. We went through some more interesting towns and a few unremarkable ones, stayed in some OK and really nice places and met more travelers from Germany, Portugal & the Netherlands. One of the nights we ate at the guest house we had a particularly good group and the owner of the hotel sat with his friends among us and they played the drums while we listened drinking tea. After that, they moved on to magic tricks. It was a great night. One thing we've noticed is that the pillows are really hard and weigh an absolute ton. No pillow fights going on here or you could end up in the ER! As far as food goes, we wouldn't say Morocco is an incredible culinary experience but we did enjoy trying some new things. We'd most often get "tagine". It is the name of the covered pointed dish that the food is cooked in, most often a meat topped with carrots, potatoes, tomato and zucchini with Moroccan spices. We joke that we count the number of nights we've been in Morocco by the number of tagines we've had. They're good, but they vary in how good and like most of the meals we've had in Morocco, they lack variety. One night we got couscous but it was kind of plain. They also serve a lot of bread. And olives followed by more bread. And tea of course! Just for curiosity, we looked at what high end restaurants were serving to see what we were missing. They list cuisine of other nationalities or fusion. We wanted to eat like a Moroccan, at least for 2 weeks anyway, so bring on the tagine!
You definitely see some sights when traveling around by car. Lorries filled with more hay than you would think could be safe, locals sitting alongside the road in some of the remotest places, and plowing through people, animals, bikes, motorbikes, other cars, trucks and horsedrawn carriages on the main road that passes through a town on market day can be claustrophobic at best. Some towns have wide, fancy streets with paving stones all over and elaborate streetlights under which locals ride donkeys side saddle and kids commute back & forth to school on bikes. It is incongruous at best. How does it all work? We remind each other all the time that there is no figuring it out. You can't understand how things work if you haven't grown up in this culture.
We made our way to the mountain town of Imlil in order to climb Morocco's highest mountain, Mt Toubkal. It is 13,671 feet high, our highest mountain yet. The drive over was beautiful with multicolored mountains like we hadn't seen before, sheep in the fields with their shepherds and locals on roadsides selling fossils- some real and some oh so not real! If you stop to take a picture, someone will materialize out of nowhere to try to sell you one, or 10. Our Rough Guide terms section suggests using the word "imshe" (which means go away) as needed, among other pleasantries and Jon did use it once on some kids who wouldn't stop asking for lollies and it worked great! They went away..
We hiked up to Mt Toubkal Refuge on Jon's birthday, stayed overnight and then did the summit and packed back out the next day. The weather was perfect, the summit was clear and there was no wind whatsoever. We didn't have any problems except I had an ice cold shower at the refuge when the gas tank ran out on me. There were hikers from all over the world at the refuge which was packed and very busy. The food was pretty bad but at least we didn't have to carry it up! This summit is easy to do on your own and you don't need a guide. You can get a donkey to carry your stuff up but we just carried our own. On the way down the mountain, we took a different trail from the summit that had no one on it except a pair of ultrarunners that went blasting by. It passed by a couple of small plane wrecks and had a lot of beautiful scenery. We stopped at one of the little stands further down on the mountain because we were hungry and a nice old man made us each an omelette, bread and hot tea. After that we were refreshed and felt stronger for the last couple hours we had to go. It reminded us of trekking in Nepal somewhat. This hike was another highlight of our trip and when all is said and done, backpacking gives us the biggest buzz. It just so happened that the best place we stayed (and with the best food) the whole time was in Imlil, on either end of the hike. Said, the man who ran the hotel was so good to us and was a fantastic cook! We pigged out that night and again the next morning but overall we still lost weight on this trip. I really liked the mountain town of Imlil. Because it is time for the apple harvest, the whole town was bustling with apples everywhere. All the donkeys were working OT carrying crates and the air was sweet with the smell of them. There were few cars as compared with other towns and most of what you hear is the sound of hoof beats and the muffled call to prayer. Unlike SE Asia, the volume is turned down a bit in Morocco but the calls are still there. A local told us that all the men that sing over the speakers in the minarets of each mosque are paid by the government. Some have better voices than others...
Our last stop was Marrakesh. Once again, we'd booked a riad to stay at, inside the medina. Our bed was all decorated. Unlike Fez, where we had no problem finding the lot to park in, this one was harder and we accidentally ended up inside the medina with the car! Needless to say, it became challenging to squeeze through the tight alleyways with no place to turn around, going deeper and deeper trying to not run over toes or damage the car. But the locals were really nice and helped clear the way for us to get through. I felt like I was in a movie. Eventually we got out and found the parking with the help of a riad staff person who got in the car with us. But not before a couple of kids ran into us with their bike handlebars scratching the car. Jon managed to compound it out but it was still very stressful. It took several hours to shake off the adrenaline from that! We would have rather been on the Marrakesh Express for sure..
With all the anticipation of Marrakesh, we ended up preferring Fez over it. The biggest reasons were that in Marrakesh, the motorbikes are allowed to go through the medina and the narrowest alleyways where all the shops are. It is something to be browsing goods with people trying to lure you into their stores and have motorbikes narrowly missing your elbow and leaving you in a puff of exhaust that lingers in the covered spaces. And we thought the medina was neater in Fez with less tourists. Regardless though, it was great to see and to hang out in the famous square at night and witness all the activity. I got a chuckle out of all the people sitting at outdoor tables drinking tea, soda or water, watching the activity. This after Spain where McD's sells beer with your burger. We visited some museums, parks and wandered around taking it all in.
We returned the car this morning after a big, decent mug of coffee and walked back from the airport feeding some cats brunch along the way. It felt SO good to turn over the keys and not have to worry about being crashed into or dinged for a change! We set about changing the oils on our engine and generator and cleaning the red dirt off the boat. Jon got his birthday cake, we broke the drinking hiatus with a bottle of champagne and a nice dinner, our own style. We started checking the weather and think we'll be heading off to the Canaries tomorrow. Should take about 3-4 days.
All in all, Morocco was wonderful and we're so glad we came and stayed long enough to get a really good feel for it. While it requires a bit of guts to drive around and a bit of patience to politely deal with so many people trying to earn a living out of your wallet, a little bit of perspective keeps you centered (most of the time) and able to really enjoy this wildly different place. Plus, dropping a few coins into someone's hand can really make a difference here as opposed to other countries. Morocco has a raw beauty both in some of the scenery as well as the culture. Neither of us got stomach upset once the whole time, no one shot at us and no one treated us differently because we weren't Muslim. Nowadays you can't take that for granted.