A Travellerspoint blog

October 2012

In Abdel's House

Abdel's house was quite charming. Though obviously still a work in progress, it has an inner courtyard, colorful furniture, and original sculpture and pictures by, you guessed it, our fearless leader. It has been in the family for many years, and his mother still lives in the house for part of the time, when she is not staying with other family members.


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And it was quiet, except for the occasional rooster, kept by Abdel's uncle next door. In the morning Abdel brought us breakfast with homemade pastry, made by his 76 year old mother. Later some of his relatives from France and Belgium called to say they were coming over for lunch and Abdel asked if we wanted to join them. I could not say no to what was sure to be a feast, and then went out shopping with him in the labyrinthine streets of Taroudant. I watched as his mother and a woman next door prepared the meal, all cooked on a charcoal fire which they started inside and then brought up to the roof in charcoal braziers, and then placed large pottery tagine bowls on top, more or less like a hibachi. I'm sure they got a kick out of seeing me help shuck peas in the kitchen while they chatted away in Moroccan Arabic. They first sauteed the lamb in oil and spices inside, before putting it in a marinade, adding veggies, and then taking the mixture upstairs to the simmering tajine pots. When they do it like this, altogether, it is called Mifune, or Jewish Tajine. I guess its in our blood, because I tend to throw everything together when I cook, unlike the Chinese who are very particular about what goes with what.

It feels as though we have quickly become part of the family, thanks to Abdel's hospitality.






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In a few hours we sat down to eat the meal with Abdel's two brothers, along with one of his nieces, very sweet, who is a pharmacy students in Paris. She had brought a friend, a young woman who is a Paris bus driver. They would love to visit the US, although they had each been one time as children. We sat together, except for Abdel's mother, who ate separately in the kitchen with the woman who helped prepare the food. It was by far the best tagine I had in Morocco and I ate a lot, as did Katya. Nanette and Bjorn, still queasy from their stomach ills, had very little.





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In the afternoon, we went to visit a children's foundation which helps street kids and women in bad situations. Abdel is quite involved with this place, as are his brothers, particularly the one from France. Both of his brothers are also named Abdel, but all have a second name as well. Our guide Abdel, is actually Abdelatifa, which means servant of God. This is a loose segway into the ubiquitous phrase Inshallah, which follows practically any conversation here. For example, someone might say, I will meet you tomorrow, Inshallah, or God Willing. It reminds me of what the shop owner near Dharamsala India said to me while sewing plastic bags for our hike in the mountains. "You never know what will happen," he said. "Things are out of your control, and only God knows what will happen." They seem to know this instinctively in places like Morocco and India, but not in the developed Western world.

I have found it to be a very useful concept, both for myself and my patients. Surrender to what will be, and realize so many things are out of our control. Easy to say, but hard to do.

The following day Bjorn and Katya left to return to Germany. It took several days for Bjorn to recover, though Abdel and his family took wonderful care of him, and Nanette as well. After they left, we went out for tea, which is always very sweet mint tea, with his brother from Belgium, and a neighbor of his, Ibrahim. More political discussions followed, about how the US reacts to Muslim countries, about why our country always supports Israel, etc. We made it clear that we do not always agree with the policies of our government. We also discussed how euthanasia is legal in Belgium which this brother is quite opposed to because all life is precious. However, because he is a nurse, he is often the one who has to give someone a lethal injection. This creates a very difficult predicament for him, and yet he feels he has no choice because he needs the job and the money, which he couldn't make if he stayed in Morocco. He is obviously resentful about this.

His friend, Ibrahim, who acted as a translater for Abdel's brother, is a tourist guide, primarily for Brits, and so his English is quite good. He was convinced that there was a law in the United States that you had to be a Christian in order to be elected president. We disabused him of this notion, but it is easy to see why he might think this way. So far we have not mentioned our Jewish background, but I plan to do so with Abdel. It is curious that although his brothers live in Europe, he has never left Morocco. He later told me that he has been refused a visa to travel to the states and Europe many times. He is clearly the most open and liberal member of his family, perhaps because of his history of using drugs and living on the streets before he got his life together. Now he is in his 40's, never married and has no children, but he identifies and listens to the music of the 60's. In his own way, he is a most spiritual person who doesn't want to take on the encumbrances of his brothers, who felt forced to leave their country to support their families. He wants to continue guiding and trekking in the mountains where he feels most at home.

We returned to the house, where is I sat in the garden. Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day. The call to prayer is loud and insistant, AAAALAAAH, AAAALAAAH, AAAKBAAAR, God is Great. I can hear the roosters crowing, perhaps they agree that God is Great, but then again, maybe they don't. After the loudspeaker ends, softer, and more melodious chanting can be heard. It is more peaceful, a little like the Buddhist chants in Ladakh and Laos. Yesterday was very hot, but today is cooler as the sun is blocked by clouds at times, and there is a nice breeze with the sweet smell of orange blossoms. There is also the constant chirping of the birds.




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Posted by jonshapiro 09:56 Archived in Morocco Comments (2)

Trekking in the High Atlas Mountains

I am sitting on the earth-roof terrace of the house of our 2nd Berber hosts, roughly 50K from Taroudant.




The View looks like this
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We have spent the last two days hiking in the dry High Atlas. They are drier this year than most as the last rain/snow on this side of the mountains was October of 2011. On the first day of hiking we got started later than we hoped and it was very hot for the first few hours. The walking was not especially difficult as the mountains are round in places, rather than craggy. However, despite our intentions, we got a late start, and it was hot, very hot. We stopped for a much needed two hour lunch before continuing around and down.



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Bjorn and Katya
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The Author and Nanette
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During our break, I got a chance to talk to our guide Abdel, who is a most interesting man. A sculptor who has seen some hard times, he now makes money by taking visitors trekking in the mountains. He seeks out and finds out of the way places, and seems to understand that roads and so called progress are always a mixed bag. He is quite sophisticated and knowledgeable, and, as we were soon to find out, an absolutely doll. He took care of us in unbelievable ways.

He is, in my humble opinion, The Man to go trekking with in Morocco. And did I mention that he speaks English, as well as French, Arabic, and Berber. I guess this is an unsolicited commercial. Forget about Said, and contact Abdel directly at abdelroudana@gmail.com.

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At our first home stay, the family more or less left us alone and cooked us a simple dinner. The children, however, were most curious.


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The second day of hiking was more difficult, and we got up as high as 3000M, where the altitude slowed us down. It was a long day, and the way down was the hardest part, at least for me.




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We descended many switchbacks to the green oasis you see below. Lots of loose scree and some exposure and we didn't arrive until 6 PM. Our hosts immediately came out to meet us with tea, freshly squeezed warm milk from their cows, and homemade bread. They went out of their way to make us feel welcome to this idyllic spot.






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Mother of the Family
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Daughter in law and Baby Baking Bread
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Unfortunately, every silver lining has a dark cloud. Not long after we arrived, Bjorn got sick. Violently sick. Shitting and vomiting, everything coming out from both ends. Now, Bjorn is a big guy and he was laid low by a stomach bug, like a giant tree toppling over in the forest. To make matters worse, this was Katya's first real hike. She was a trooper on the trek itself, but this kind of thing threw her and she didn't know what to do. Luckily we did, having dealt with this on many occasions. Unfortunately there is not much you can do, other than to keep hydrated, not an easy task when everything wants to come out. And then, when things settle down a bit, pop a Cipro, if it seems like you are still quite ill. Our lovely Berber family was upset about all this, and they seemed to feel responsible, as did Abdel. We did our best to try and convince them otherwise, but I'm not sure it did any good. They kept bring out more food which we couldn't eat. After we went to bed, Nanette got sick. Not as badly as Bjorn, but bad enough. The night was not especially restful for obvious reasons, but the barking dogs, braying donkeys, sheep and goats, a real menagerie, didn't help. The 4 AM call to prayer was blissfully muted, but I still heard it nonetheless. The local mosque, smoke rising in the background, looked quite beautiful in the morning.





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Katya and I, who avoided getting sick, tried to figure out what the others ate that we didn't. Hard to know, but perhaps it was the dates they had for lunch. We both skipped them, not being date fans, but it really could have been anything.

Our original plan had been to hike for five days, but Bjorn and Nanette were both quite weak in the morning, and so going on didn't seem like an option. We spent the day with our Berber family, while the sick ones slept for part of it. They were really special people, making rice gruel and other easy to digest food, and then kissing and hugging us, the women anyway, trying to convince us to stay with them longer. It seems that many of the villagers are like this, and despite everything, it felt like a privilege to be so welcomed into their home. We could tell they still felt badly about the stomach problems, despite Abdel's saying to them that it wasn't their fault.




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I chatted with Abdel about politics, money, economics, Islam, and how it has been distorted almost everywhere. We were solving the world's problems together, and it seems we think very much alike.


When our ride didn't materialize at the end of the day, Abdel went in search of another, and managed to arrange for us to ride in the back of a truck. Along with a half a dozen other men, and a pile of scrap metal, we zoomed around the s curves in record time, holding on tightly to avoid being thrown from one side to the other.

Abdel invited us to stay in his house which he was in the process of fixing up as a guest house. It wasn't quite ready yet, but he had two bedrooms that were finished. After finding out that it was quiet, ie, far away from the mosque, I didn't hesitate, and we went straight there after arriving back in Taroudant.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:08 Archived in Morocco Tagged landscapes mountains backpacking Comments (1)

Taroudant, Morocco

It was a long, slow bus ride to get here, almost 7 hours, stopping first in Agidir. A share taxi would have been faster. The word Taroudant means, she who lost her children by the river. Because of the river, the Sousse Valley is very fertile, with many fruit trees and vegetables, including the famous argon tree. When we arrived at Chambres Les Amis, our guest house, our host was not here as his wife is in the hospital expecting a baby very soon. We went off in search of a tajine restaurant in the main square, accompanied by Katya and Bjorn a young German couple who will trek with us for a few days. We had no idea they would be joining us, but are happy to have their company. Said, who we thought would be our guide, and whose name we got from the Lonely Planet, will not go, but instead has arranged for Abdel, to take us. This came as a surprise. Said is apparently only a middle man who runs the guest house, and managed to get his name in The Book , because of his former French wife's connections. Hmmm.

We managed to find the restaurant after a while, and Said met us there to give us a brief tour of the souk. No doubt he took us to merchants where he would receive a cut if we bought anything. Our German friends bought a small carpet from some persuasive nomad shopkeepers, a bit of an oxymoron I realize. Taroudant is somewhat like Marrakesh, surrounded by old walls and darting bikes, both non-motorized and motorized, but it is smaller and more manageable.

In the afternoon Said brought us, for 375 dh, to a nearby palmareie, a palm oasis in the desert. Springs make the desert bloom, enough to support about 300 people here. The remains of an old fort stand on a hill overlooking the village, part of which has been turned into a restaurant. There were other tourists, but it was a peaceful and blissfully cool place in the shade of the palms.

There are many donkeys amid the red abobe walls of the village.



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We returned to the guest house where we relaxed on the roof top terrace, though we were again blasted by the call to prayer of the mosque right next door, and yes it did wake us up at 4 AM.

Tomorrow we will get up early to start our trek in order to avoid walking in the mid-day sun. Some clouds have gathered each day and perhaps we shall see some rain. Always hard to tell what mountain weather will bring. We are not sure exactly where will be trekking. It seems we will find out tomorrow when we meet up with Abdel. There are no good maps, though Taroudant is centrally located in between the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas Mountains.

Posted by jonshapiro 08:39 Archived in Morocco Tagged cities_postcards Comments (0)

Ourika Valley and Setti Fatma

CHECK OUT BLOG ON MARRAKESH, WHICH ALSO DIDN'T SEND OUT A NOTIFICATION WHEN POSTED

After a rest day, we were ready to tackle a day trip to the mountains. We made our way to Bob er Bab on the outskirts of Marrakesh. Bob means door in Arabic, and apparently at some point there was a door in the old city not far from this point We were hoping to get a share-taxi with other people, but it quickly became evident that no one was headed to Ourika and so after some negotiation we agreed to a price of 400 Dirhams, about $50 US there and back. Not terrible, but then the middle man demanded another 50. It took about an hour to ge there through lovely foothills and villages to Setti Fatma, at the head of the valley.



Baby Camel and Ourika Valley Pots
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The road continues another five to ten Kilometers, but it becomes a four wheel drive dirt track. Imlil, jumping off point for Toubkal, 4167 Meters (almost 14,000 feet), is three days walk through the High Atlas.




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We considered trekking there, but it was still early in the year and there was too much snow. Setti Fatma is a touristy town, full of mostly empty tagine places serving mediocre and expensive food. It would have been better to stop at one of the many restaurants along the way. The surrounding countryside is quite impressive with soaring rocky and snowy peaks, small villages clinging to the sides of the steep mountains. A stream runs through the center of the valley creating good farmland . There are apple, cherry and walnut trees growing nearby. Various faux guides approached us wanting to take us to the cascades, about an hour's walk. Instead we continued on the dirt road out of town where small boys demanded, "d'argent," or "oro." There are few tourists here now. Although the sun was quite hot, it was enjoyable to walk along the narrow road with green pastures next to the river.



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Ibrahim, 17, soon showed up and advised us that one way continued up a trail to another village several hours away, and he then offered to take us to his village by the river and have tea, or he could also take us the the falls. Of course, he too was a faux guide, but less intrusive, and he spoke a bit of English. We asked him what was higher up on the road. "Nothing." "That's good," Nanette answered, and we continued walking up the steepening track. After a bit it became apparent that Ibrahim was still following us, though at a respectful distance. He caught up with us at a bend in the road after taking a short cut straight up. We were at a rocky outcrop with a view overlooking the entire valley.



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By now it was obvious that we weren't going to get rid of him so easily, but as he was informative and interesting, we decided not to try. He told us he was the oldest son and was off to school in a village several kilometers down the road. He was studying to be a teacher whereas the rest of his family were all farmers and lived in a village above the river. We started back down and followed him to the other side of the stream through some villages with high stone and adobe walls. Most people smiled and said "Bonjour." We then headed up to his village to meet his family. In the small cement house, he introduced us to his great grandmother who he said was 110 years old. Possible, but unlikely. We took pictures which they all wanted to see, possibly grannies first pic of herself. They offered us the ubiquitous mint tea which we declined due to time constraints, as we had promised our driver to be back by three. Just as well since the water might not have been boiled.



Great Grandma,Sister, Mother and Brothers,
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We headed back down to the river and across to Setti Fatma. These old villages are a world away despite the satellite tv's and cell phones, although no computers, at least not yet. We eventually caught up with our driver who drove us back in his grand taxi, a beat up old Mercedes. He dropped us off at the Koutoubia, the tall mosque in the center of town, and then demanded an extra 40 Dh for the privilege. An agreement about a price here, doesn't seem to mean all that much as people seem to find a way to add on another 10 or 20% on top of what you had settled on. I would probably opt to refuse, but Nanette doesn't like the tension so I went along despite feeling somewhat cheated. On the ride up, she stopped to purchase some argon, from what we were told was a woman's coop. Argon grows in the south of Morocco and is practically a magic tree. You can make cream, oil, and what has to be the world's most expensive peanut butter, from its fruit and seeds. We later heard from our trekking guide that most of these "cooperatives" are scams that exploit the women working there, but are good at luring in tourists.

We stopped for another tagine in Djamaa El Fna and watched the parade of humanity once again. Around eight, we met our driver who brought us back to Villa Akbar, a long but satisfying day.

The following morning we went back into the kasbah to cash some money. We were able to get some from an ATM machine, no problem, but then we noticed a bank around the corner and decided to cash another $500 worth of travelers checks. The exchange rate was 8.37 dh to the dollar and the female clerk handed Nanette a print out saying 4,137 dh, which was the right amount. She then counted the money in a very big hurry, and then we counted it and realized we were short a few hundred durhams. She then handed us some more money with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. We counted it again, still short 100. She counted it once more, and it was obvious that she was trying to confuse us by counting different denominations at the same time. We counted it a third time and were still short 100. With the greatest reluctance she handed it over with a sneer, as if to say, there, are you happy now. What incredible chutspah. I've ben taken in a number of places in different parts of the world, but never deliberately in a bank, and with no apology. As the Lonely Planet mentions, they must think we are all stupid, certainly fair game to try and cheat us. After all, what's a 100dh to us. About $12 US to be exact, but that's not the point. The Moroccan mentality, at least in Marrakesh, tourist capital of North Africa, seems to be to get what they can, any way they can. They are clearly used to foreigners here, and while they want our money, there is obvious resentment. I will not be sorry to leave the city and hope that Taroudant, our jumping off point for trekking, has a different vibe.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:40 Archived in Morocco Tagged postcards Comments (0)

Marrakesh

After a short flight from Oporto, we are now in Michael and EJ's villa outside of Marrakesh. It is a very posh and gated community about 40 minutes from town. We were met by the maid and then later the cook, speaking only French and Arabic, neither of which is our strong suit. It is quite a place, with three big bedrooms, red concrete and tile floors and walls, and even our own swimming pool and backyard. The sun is quite strong, but the water is still too cold, for us at least, to swim. This is definitely a place to relax and do nothing. Extremely private, there seems to be almost no one else around. Although there is a free shuttle service back a forth to the city a few times a day, it takes a while and is not something you want to do more than once a day.


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Out here you could be anywhere, although there are distant views to the snow capped Atlas mountains from other parts of the development.



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We spent a couple of days walking around the old walled city and its enormous medina. Full of narrow streets and alleys with bicycles, horses,motorbikes, and people, lots of people. You can get anything you want at this restaurant, and not just food. There are carpet and cosmetics shops, clothing and material shops, spices, kitchen utensils. You name it.


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The shopkeepers aggressively try and pull you in. "Good price, good price," they cry. Some seem prepared to bargain a great deal, others not at all. In a carpet place, "morning price velly good," which is exactly what they said in India. In the P.M. it would be "good afternoon price." In fact Marrakesh feels a bit like India, full of touts and locals hitting on you to buy stuff. Eventually, Nanette did buy some ground minerals to make natural colors for artwork and kohl for makeup. You take your life in your hands in this medina though. Traffic from all directions, you have to have eyes in the back of your head to avoid being mowed down by something or someone, motorized or not.

In Djamaa El Fna, the main square, there are snake charmers, story tellers, street musicians, even break dancers, as well as some good, if expensive, (relatively so) tagine restaurants.

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In the evening, we hear the place is really hopping, but we never made it much past sunset. It was plenty lively when we were there. It is an interesting scene, a more or less constant parade of tourists and locals, some dressed in head scarves, others completely covered in djellabas, often in bright colors. There are horses and buggys, and men balancing plates or other goods piled high on their heads as they zoom around on motorbikes Although some of the women are almost completely covered, many of the young seem to wear stiletto heels and a lot of makeup. Its a mix of traditional dress and high French fashion.

At one point we went to look for an old Jewish cemetery, which we managed to find after going in circles for a while.


Castle Wall Near Cemetary
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It was nothing special, but Jews have apparently lived among the Berbers here for 1700 years, though there are few of them now. We got lost on the way back to meet our ride to Villa Akbar. Luckily we managed to find an upscale hotel and someone at the desk spoke some English and was able to call our driver. Somehow my own phone, complete with a new sim card, did not work. French is the lingua franca here, along with Moroccan arabic and various Berber dialects in the mountains. English is not widely spoken and so it is a bit difficult to find our way around with our minimal French and the maze like streets in the old town.In some ways Marrakesh still seems like a French colony. There are lots of French tourists and a number of the more upscale shops and hotels seemed to be French owned and managed, especially in Gueliz, the new part of town. Gueliz is confusing enough in its own right, and it took us a while to locate a few well hidden art galleries that we had set as our destination.

I went off to inquire about renting a car to explore some of the surrounding areas, but managed to walk right into a closed glass door banging my noggin hard. Shortly afterwords I twisted my ankle on an uneven patch of sidewalk and then once again banged my head after leaving the WC. I felt like I had been in a street fight with myself. Yet another reminder that the old bod and my perceptual skills ain't what they used to be.

We made our way to the Majorelle gardens and house, former home of Yves St. Laurent who lived here for years.



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The garden was quite elaborate, but chock full of French tourists. Instead we preferred a room in the museum full of Berber artifacts, but set up with lights and mirrors to look like a clear night in the mountains. A lot like a planetarium. On this day we did manage to find our way back to the driver, but not before Nanette lost a book in an internet cafe. It is easy to lose things simply by setting them down and then moving on. Perhaps another, gasp, symptom of aging. We lose things at home of course, but usually they show up somewhere in the house. But, no worries, with the help of our driver, we were able to retrieve the book and all was well, other than the bump on my head and ankle. I think today qualifies as a "hard travel day," despite the fact that all we did was tour the city. Tomorrow we have declared a rest day, and we will simply hang out at our villa by the pool.



Koutoubia Mosque at Night
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Posted by jonshapiro 06:05 Archived in Morocco Tagged cities_postcards Comments (0)

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