The flight from JFK to Casablanca was, well... hectic. The waiting area in JFK Terminal 1, gate 10 was full of families and little kids and tons of carry on items and when the call came for boarding I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who were going to be getting on that plane. I rechecked the seat number on my boarding pass and was uneasy about 15E… and the very “middle seat” feel that it had. By the time I got onboard most of the seats were filled as well as the overhead spaces.
I scanned to find my seat… in the middle of the middle…. next to a tremendously large man, in seat F who was juggling a toddler in his arms. A cute little man soon filled seat D, and feeling trapped I regretted not using the bathroom before boarding. The 8:40pm departure time had long passed before we finally took off, adding a full hour to the “flight” time. I don’t often feel like “I’ve Had It”…but very quickly after sitting down, I wondered how I was going to keep it together for seven hours with the ample, fleshy arm of Seat F continuing to assault me over the armrest. He made no attempt at all to observe any personal space boundaries, nor did he acknowledge that he was pressed against me in a most inappropriate manner.
In the meantime, Abdul to my left began to unfold the details of his family and life in Morocco, about his wife Carol and his children who he had been visiting in Lynwood, Washington and his nephew who curated a private museum that I must visit while in Rabat. The stories and pictures of his family were a nice diversion from what was happening to my right side. Anywho… by the end of the flight, while the toddler peacefully slept in his father’s sweaty arms, his tiny feet resting on my breakfast tray, Abdul made sure that I had his contact information so that he could have me over for couscous or take me to the family museum and I was thankful for the kindness.
I arrived in Casa in haze of sleeplessness and followed the exodus of other passengers through all the hoops of passport control and customs and covid “checks”, which appeared more for show than anything else. Once cleared for entry I took care of the SIM card and currency exchange, and headed through the exit doors. I had expected the onslaught of taxi drivers and guides beckoning me once outside and was happy to only have to find the placard being held with my name on it.
I’m doing quite a different type of travel for this trip. I usually do all the planning myself but this time I handed it all over to Memphis Tours. Laila M. answered my initial inquiry and over a couple of weeks we refined an itinerary. I decided to trust her expertise and did very little research. My only concern is that the tour may be too history heavy for my liking, but as it is a private tour, I can make any adjustments along the way, as needed. My driver, also an Abdul, will be with me for the length of my time here in Morocco and has let me know that he is at my disposal 24 hours a day. When he got me checked in to the fancy hotel in the city center I realized that this was going to be a very different experience…a bit fancier than I am really comfortable with. …a far cry from the chicken foot soup situation of Ecuador last January.
After room service for dinner and a good night's sleep and breakfast on the 27th floor, I headed down to meet Abdul and my guide for the day, Sid, for a day out in Casa. We hit up the Jewish history museum, walked through a market place, and the Old Medina, did a drive by of some historical points, a palace or two, past the port and stopped to walk around the edges of the huge Hassan II Mosque…the biggest in Africa and nearly the entire world. It is impressive, to say the least, even from the distance. Unfortunately ***due to the Covid*** it is blocked off and we couldn’t go near the building and close to the archways. We finished off the day with a walk along the wild Atlantic coast in an area called the Corniche and I was deposited back at the Kenzi Tower hotel.
Casablanca is a very big, very busy city, which is not my favorite vibe. Tomorrow will take me to Marrakech…about 3 hours drive and a world away…
*Favorite take away from the day... The Musims, the Jews and the Christians live in peace throughout Morocco.
**My guide today insisted on taking my picture with every - single - sight along the way… the pigeons and Me, the French Consulate and Me… the mosque and Me. I have included only a small sampling.
Give Me Some Mo-rocco - Casablanca to Marrakech
May 27, 2021
Abdul came to get me at 10am for the drive to Marrakech. First through the busy city streets, then out through suburbs and soon into what looked a lot like California’s Central Valley. Wheat fields, some plowed, some not, stretched out far and flat. Occasional cows, lone donkeys and herds of goats and sheep dotted the landscape. After a while the scenery changed to red earth and rolling hills. Some farmers worked by hand in their rocky fields, loading their carts hitched to their donkeys. Soon the fields gave way to more and more olive trees. The few villages we passed were low, very cubic, made from the red rocks and the earth. It looked like a very hard life.
As we got closer to Marrakech, roadside shops with red clay pottery pieces by the thousands lined the street. We took a circular route around the old city wall and through some neighborhoods which felt very old Palm Springs, with oleanders and palm trees and high walls surrounding gardens with expensive villas and resort hotels. …of course these hotels have been closed for over a year and the economy has suffered terribly. Said, my guide in Casablanca said I was the the first tourist customer he had had since the covid began and it looked to me like western tourists may also be few and far between in Marrakech.
There were only a handful on my flight from New York.
After checking in to my hotel and a quick nap, Abdul came back to take me to Jemaa el-Fna. This is the central plaza filled with vendors and street performers and hustlers. From the plaza begins a winding maze of alleyways filled with shops. On the drive there Abdul began to instruct me, with some obvious concern about how I would need to be guarded and to not engage with anyone who wanted to show me their shop or guide me around or paint me with henna. Especially avoid the henna ladies. I had done my homework and understood somewhat what I would be facing when I got out of the van...amplified by the covid economy. Before he even stopped the car he was already waving off some men who were waiting for me to get out. I assured him I understood what to do and would call him to come back and get me as soon as I had had enough. Immediately upon getting out of the van a few guys were at my side. One seemed to take up my defense and shoo some of the others away. He quickly assumed the roll of my guide, which I explained was not happening and thanked him without engaging. As I navigated my way past a couple henna ladies and into the souks another guy latched on as though he was with me and leading me around until I called him out for telling me he was guiding me back toward the plaza when all my senses told me it was just the opposite.
It was a sensory overload and hard to focus and take it all in. I dodged bikes and motor scooters as they zipped through the narrow walkways and politely waved off each store keeper that beckoned me to come look in his shop. Trying to actually shop or take any pictures left me feeling vulnerable and I decided just to do a “souk overview” today and wait until tomorrow when my city guide will go with me and run defense for me, allowing me to shop, barter, take pictures and do this place up right. I loved it actually...super colorful and energetic and full of lots of stuff I want to look at more closely, tomorrow.
Not quite ready to wave the white flag and call Abdul to come pick me up though, I found a cafe overlooking the plaza to watch people and have a coffee, which now, at 3:45am seems to have not been a very good idea…
May 28 - Marrakech - Jour Deux
Late night slowly crept toward early morning and it was apparent I wouldn’t be falling asleep. At all. I stopped trying and instead just lay flat and let my mind chew on what I'm thankful for which was much more useful and rewarding than monologuing about how tired I was.
Around 7:00 I slapped my self around with some cold water and dressed to go down for breakfast. By 8 and I’d had all I could eat, but finished off with a cappuccino and an almond paste filled croissant situation, which sent my thank-o-meter to 100. But my eyes were heavy and I wondered if I could stick it out for the tour today.
We started at Jardin Marjorelle, a villa and botanical garden which was purchased by Yves St. Laurent in the 1980s. In the center of the busy city, it is a quiet, cool oasis. From there we walked around the old mosque, and then to Dar el Bacha palace in the Old Medina...a beautiful example of a Riad. The streets and walls of the Medina are earth tones, but once you walk through the door from the street into the riad, there are colorful tiled hallways which open up into a center garden so peaceful and serene, full of light, fruit trees, fountains and birds. From there we wandered through the markets and the streets of the Mellah, the old Jewish quarter and then to the Argan Collective where I got the low down on the products made from the fruit of the Argan tree. You can find oils and spices throughout the marketplace but they may be any kind of oil with an Moroccan Argan label. The collective certifies it's products so you know that what you are getting is legit. Many of the historical places which would normally be included in a city tour are, you know, closed due to the covid. But honestly, I'd rather wander the small streets and see how the people live now. By mid afternoon I could feel the blisters developing on my feet and knew it was time to call it an end of my day in beautiful Marrakech!
The Sport of Shopping
Marrakech - Alyawm Althaalith اليوم الثالث (Day Three) May 29, 2021
Today was my day in Marrakech with nothing on the itinerary. My "free day", they called it. Not free. The dirhams were flying out of my wallet by the hundreds. If you look at the exchange rate, that is not nearly as impressive as it sounds. But, none the less, the merchants are hungry for business and I decided to not go full press with my bargaining skills to give some economic grace. But bargaining is sport-like and I had a fun and exciting day wandering the market and making some purchases.
I did get suckered into following a guy to the Berber tannery market. I wasn't exactly sure what I was in for, but he made it sound like I would really be missing out if I didn't come along...so I went for it. I followed him for at least 15 minutes, winding through the streets... leaving the touristy zone and entering into a grittier, working neighborhood. He showed me through a door and into the tannery. Actually, he handed me off to a slick, fast talking, used-car-salesman of the Berber leather world, who thrusted a small bundle of fresh mint into my hand and signaled for me to hold it under my nose. "Gas-mask".
I was instructed to follow him as he told me the process of preparing the animal skins...
"Six days in the lime water. Six days in the pigeon shit. Six days in the dye. Then drying."
(The photo above shows where the pigeons who supply the ingredients for Step 2 of the process live.)
...And he was off again, walking quickly. And I followed. Ducking in through a doorway I was handed off to another man, younger and with better English. Now, they had me where they wanted me. In the showroom. Leather bags and purses, jackets and shoes lined the walls... camel, cow, sheep, goat and lamb. Up some stairs and then I was into the Berber carpet showroom. In no time, no less than 20 rugs had been rolled out onto the floor while a description of each design was given, as well as the elements used to dye the wools. Coal, mint, poppy, indigo... it was a lot to take in. I (finally) realized that I was going to have to be more aggressive in demonstrating my lack of interest if I was to bring my visit to an end. I felt rude, but it had to be done. I overpaid for a pair of shoes that were exactly the same as the cheaper ones I had seen in the street market, but it got me out of there. I was pretty pissed when I left. I was mostly mad at myself because I had allowed myself to be hoodwinked in going along with the first guy to begin with. Oh well. Part of the adventure.
Twenty or so minutes back through the maze of narrow streets found me in the Jemaa el-Fna square where I finished off my "free day" with a horse drawn carriage ride. ...and a few less dirhams in my purse. "Free" my eye.
Yesterday was the Atlas Mountain drive-by day tour. We left Marrakesh at 9 am and arrived in Fes about 6:30, with two "rest stops" and one quick lunch stop in Khenifra. It wasn't a good day to take pictures, but was very interesting to go from the desert landscape of Marrakech and climb into the Atlas mountain range with lots of sheep herding and olive trees...through small and medium sized villages and past olive oil factories. We then entered into the vast and varied agricultural wonder of Beni Mellal. Fruit trees of every kind, nut trees, melons, mint and venders set up shop along the road selling whatever was growing in that area. The watermelons are huge... like the ones I remember from growing up, dark green, oblong and full of seeds. It is cherry season now and the road is packed with farm stands selling them.
The rest stop situation was keepin' it real. There's a good reason that a gal should keep up on her squats... I'm just saying.
This morning I woke up in Fes ready for a new day. Abdul met me at 10:00 and Mohammed the guide showed up shortly afterward. Abdul was irritated because the guide was late. He called it a "Moroccan appointment" and said that Moroccans aren't hurried by time. Once we were on our way though, Mohammed was all about the hurry. He spoke fast and walked fast. He, of course took me to see the pottery factory, the carpet cooperative, his friend's silver shop, the dying area (for wool) and the leather tannery... "no pressure to buy, of course"... (That is not true, of course). My favorite thing was just wandering down the maze of streets, first in the old Jewish quarter, or Mellah, and then through the huge Old Medina and it's fresh food market, the metal workers market, candy shops, butchers, spices.... I took at least 100 pictures, but have tried to narrow down a slide show of the day.
Here's an interesting factoid: Fes is the home of the oldest continually operating university in the world, founded in 859. I peeked through a keyhole to look inside.
On My Way: Fes to Meknes to Chefchaouen
Back on the road again this morning, leaving Fes behind and making or way to Chefchaouen with a stop in Meknes. Once again, I had no idea what to expect and this city didn't disappoint. We pulled up to the main square and an older man in a jellaba and little hat came up to the window and had a few words with Abdul. This has happened numerous times along the road today... a couple of beggars, but mostly police at check points on the road. But this time, it was my guide while in Meknes, Moustafa.
When I got in the van this morning, I asked Abdul if the guides who have toured me about in each town are people he has worked with before. He let me know that they were, but he also immediately asked me why I asked and wanted to know if there had been any problems. I let him know that I didn't have any complaints, but I didn't particularly like it when one of the guides had shuttled me about between the shops where he would get a commission if I bought something. Especially because I had told him that I wasn't interested in doing shopping. ...especially because I had already gotten that treatment in Marrakech. ....anyway...
So, off I went through the main square of the Old Medina of Meknes with Moustafa in his jellaba, and into the narrow walkways and markets.
As far as guides go, Moustafa was killing it.
He took me into one of the neighborhood bakeries, where the ladies bring their dough to be baked. He showed me inside a fondouk (Fondouks are large houses inside the old medinas, organized around a central courtyard, bordered on the ground floor by workshops, stables for camels and bedrooms upstairs. In the Middle Ages they were used as places of exchange between artisans and foreigners, traveling merchants who would stay there). He took me through the olive stands and helped me get samples. He had me stick my head into where the guys tend the fire to heat the water for the Hammams (public sauna / baths).
AND, he didn't take me into any shops or showrooms. We finished off the day with a drive around the palace and a look at some of the buildings erected by Moulay Ismail, Sultan of Morocco from 1672–1727.
After Moustafa said his goodbye and we drove away, I told Abdul what a great time I had in Meknes. Then it occurred to me that he had probably told Moustafa not to take me to any shops, which he confirmed when asked. Abdul...looking out for me.
We swung by the Roman ruins of Volubilis (which is just plain fun to say. Try it), founded in the 3rd century BC... closed due to the covid...so I looked from afar and we continued on the winding country roads into the Ref mountain range and finally arrived in Chefchaouen. My accommodations for the next two nights are at the Dar Chaouen, a beautiful guesthouse built on a hill looking out over the blue city. ...which I'll visit tomorrow....
Chefchaouen - Morocco, June 2, 2021
Youssef met me this morning at my hotel to show me the beautiful Blue City of Chefchaouen. We started out by walking to the place where the water flows out from the springs at the top of the city. There is a place where the ladies do laundry and catch up on all the comings and goings about town. It's also where it is clear that the lifeblood of the city is tourism and the snow globes and keychains and refrigerator magnets were laid out with the hopes a tourist might come along. We stopped to make a couple of pictures of the laundromat and before I knew it, I was dressed like a country Berber woman by a little gal who just needed to make a quick dirham for the photo opportunity. I don't think it is my best look.
Unlike the other cities I visited, Chefchaouen doesn't have the great significance of being an Imperial City. As far as hand made goods, it is know mostly for it's weaving and textiles. But, I think Instagram was a boost to the popularity of the city and there were several vignettes in town set up for every influencer who comes along. I have enjoyed visiting the cities of historic significance but I really had a great time today just hearing about the people of this town... what life is like growing up behind the blue doors of the Andalusian or Berber homes. Youssef and I really hit it off and I felt like I had met a friend.
After my tour was done I took a break to charge my phone and rest my bones and then basically went back and navigated the same route again alone, more or less. It is a bit hard to tell, since every house is blue. I sat for a bit in the town square, had an orange juice and chatted up the young man who worked there. There are fresh squeezed juice stands everywhere. A-mazing. So good. A couple of more haggard looking old guys tried to strike up a conversation and lurked around a bit. One of them was saying something to me about cannabis and hash and making carpets...I don't know. And the other one took a seat across the plaza watching me and waiting. I noticed that when I got my wallet out to pay for my juice he got up and moved closer. It didn't make me feel unsafe, but I was irritated at the thought of being bothered. I asked the nice, young juice man if he wouldn't mind just walking a bit with me, which he did. The town is situated on the slopes of a mountain side and two peaks rise above it. The "chef" part of the word means "to see". The "chaouen" part means "the horns", referring to those mountain peaks. My hotel was located at the base of the horns, which made it easy to find my way back at the end of the day.
Wrapping it up in Rabat - Morocco, June 2021
My final Imperial City on the circuit is Rabat which is located just north of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast. Abdul and I left Chefchaouen in the mountains around 9am and made our way down through the countryside. We stopped in a small village to buy some plums. They were also selling the biggest figs I've ever seen.
Further along the way, as far as the eye could see were sunflower fields. At one point the number of donkey carts loaded with people and goods outnumbered cars. It was market day in the village and people were coming from far and wide to do their business.
Once into Rabat, my delightful guide met me just outside the gate of the Kasbah, which is the walled fortress used in defense of the city. The kasbah of Rabat sits at the mouth of the Oudayas river where it empties into the Atlantic. We had an easy walk around and stopped for mint tea at a wonderful outdoor cafe on the river. We discussed religion, philosophy, politics and modern culture with interest, respect and more points of sameness than difference. Totally enjoyable.
(Legally, there is a 300 dirham (30.00US) fine for not wearing the mask. I had to laugh about "Moroccan style" mask wearing. About 40% of the people wore a mask....and 99% of those mask wearers had it on their chin. )
We wandered through the very relaxed markets and continued up to the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which was built by his son, King Hassan II, who also is buried there, along with his brother. King Mohammed VI is the current King, the grandson. His son, who is next in line is 18 years old.
From there we drove to the Roman Necropolis, the Chellah, which, if I remember correctly was built in the 11th century. This is one thing that continually left me shaking my head on this trip, the age of the things and places I was looking at. America is such a baby country. That point was driven home at my last stop on my tour of Morocco, the Archeological Museum of Rabat. Artifacts and the like aren't my usual thing of interest, but it was fascinating to see things in such unbelievably good condition that were unearthed throughout the country, things from the BC, not just the AD.
So, I've come to the end of this journey. It has been a wonderful experience all around. Not at all the usual travel mode for me, but I think it was the best way for me to really see and know a bit about Morocco. This morning the PCR testing man came to swab me at my hotel and then Abdul and I drove the hour or so into Casablanca where I'll spend my last night before departing.
*I absolutely have to give a five star review and plug for Memphis Tours Morocco and my agent Laila. They took care of everything for me. I encourage everyone to come visit... soon. The people of Morocco are kind and friendly and welcoming.
Thanks for everything Abdul.
Goodbye until next time. Thank you Morocco.