Rockin’ in Morocco!
I’d like to say “Salam – Marhaba” (Hello) to all of you in blog-land.
In January, I was fortunate to travel to the exotic country of Morocco with two dear friends and fellow photographers, Jed Appelrouth and Mark Hinton. It was my second time in Africa and worlds apart from my previous experience in South Africa. We started in Casablanca and proceeded on a circuit throughout the country which led us to Fes, the Sahara desert, Imlil (situated below the highest peak in the High Atlas–Toubkal mountain), Marrakech and then back to Casablanca. Since our companion Jed is a gifter writer, I am posting his detailed account of our travels below.
Also, check out Envision’s Facebook page for a full photo album taken by yours truly: http://www.facebook.com/MyEnvisionEyecare
If anyone else has been there or is thinking about going, we’d love to hear your comments 😉
Happy Travels! Enjoy!
In Casablanca we met our overzealous, though well intentioned guide, Hamid. We grabbed a quick café and learned our first Arabic phrases: “shokrun” (thank you) and “saahaar” (to your health). We picked up a few additional phrases and greetings, but the hands down favorite was “meshy mooshkill” (No problem). We played with messy moosekill for days.
We loaded up the Forerunner and headed east to Meknes, then to the Roman ruins of Volubilis for sunset photos, and finally to Fes. The riads (B&Bs) we stayed in were all lovely, but Riad Yacout, in the heart of Fes, was exceptional. As a bonus, we had the riad completely to ourselves! During our entire trip in Morocco, most everywhere we went, we were the only tourists; and we savored the relative privacy afforded by the off-season.
Dinner gave us our first glimpse of the dozens of flavorful Moroccan salads. Breakfast was carbohydrate heaven: nearly a dozen varieties of breads, pancakes, and pastries were arrayed before us. After breakfast we met our guide, Hassan, who would take us through the labyrinthine Medina of Fes. Little did we know that the theme of this “tour” was “sell the gringos goodies.” We took a quick stop in the Medersa el Attarine and marveled at the intricate mosaics and woodwork. From there we headed straight into an ambush.
Under the guise of “seeing the best view of the medina” we were led into a giant carpet selling co-operative and were sent up to the rooftop terrace. Mid-day sunlight precluded our taking any salvageable shots, so we went back downstairs to find Hassan. Our guide was nowhere to be found, but the sales team of the century was ready to go to work. “Please, my friends. Have a seat.”
Suddenly the carpets began to literally fly off the stacks, onto the floor, one after another. “We didn’t come to buy rugs.” “Please, just take a look, no obligation.” “You cannot take just one…Make me an offer….How about a million dollars?…Polite laughter….” Then after 20 rugs were arrayed before us, our interest was actually piqued. (Hmmm…maybe I could use a rug, and it would be a nice souvenir….) The lead salesman insisted that we make an offer on multiple rugs- at least three- rather than one at a time. Did we actually want three rugs? Was this our game plan? Before it was over, I ended up buying a rug and Larry walked out with a pair of rugs. Mark, a sales consultant by profession, was in awe of the seamless tag-team sales approach.
As we walked out of the rug shop, mildly disoriented, we began to process what had just transpired. As clarity returned, I began to recall some of the rules of the game I had learned during my carpet buying days in Turkey: drop any and all emotion, ignore every attempt at manipulation, listen to the first offer and counter extremely low and stick to your price. Finally, walk out when the negotiation is stagnant. Nearly every time, the vendors will come after you, especially during the off-season.
We regrouped and headed to the next stop on our “tour,” the leather tanneries. This time we had our game faces on and were ready to play it our way. I found a stylish suede jacket, and Larry and Mark found matching black leather jackets. As expected, the shop owner opened with exorbitant prices. We did some quick calculations, decided what was reasonable and we counter-offered. His eyes bulged, as he responded with my favorite expression of the trip, “My friend, you want a Camel for a Donkey’s Price.” How brilliant is that!!!!! I do want a Camel for a Donkey’s price! In subsequent negotiations I would actually open with that phrase to set the proper tone. Inevitably, the negotiations came to a standstill; we began walking down the stairs and out of the store, and we reached the street level when the merchant came running after us to match our price. We were honored with the designation that we had negotiated like Berbers!
Eventually, we determined that the majority of vendors will sell their wares for 40% of the initial price. So that became our standard. Take the price, multiply it by .4, simple enough. Mark won the negotiating prize of the trip when he was able to get an inlaid wooden platter for 22% of the opening price. He might win a guest spot on Pawn Stars with his negotiating prowess.
By the time our tour was finished, our wallets were significantly lighter, and the Forerunner could no longer cruise along in 5th gear, given our newly acquired cargo. We drove south towards the Sahara. En route we stopped to shoot pictures of harried, peanut-addicted monkeys. After a roadside meal of lamb and beef, hot off the grill, we found an iPhone hook-up for the car radio so we could take a breather from Hamid’s mix tape of Gypsy Kings, Berber Disco, and Celine Deion. We passed the foothills of the Atlas mountains, captured some great sunset shots of the rolling hills, and ended the night in Merzouga, Hamid’s hometown.
Hamid was quick to let his Berber shine as he chucked his western garb and donned his pointy-hooded, sand-resistant, homemade Jillaba. Merzouga was clearly a Berber town. We drank plenty of Berber whisky (tea), used the Berber toilet (au naturale, in the woods), negotiated for the prized Berber price (camel for the goat’s price) and took out our luggage the Berber way (letting everything fall all over the place). We learned “Berber” was derived from “Barbarian,” and we eventually developed a sense of kinship for these hearty people.
Our morning in Merzouga consisted of a headgear fitting, a trip to the local mine and a performance by a group of Sudanese drummers. Fresh off my Guinean training, I was excited to join in and smack the djembe to the Sudanese beat. That evening we met up with our Berber guide, Hassan, and his 3 camels. I chose the cantankerous camel, suffering from indigestion and not too happy to see me. Larry and Mark picked the more mild-mannered beasts. We headed into the Sahara for our sunset tour, which concluded at our private campsite. After a Berber dinner and evening tea, night fell on the Sahara. I suggested a night hike to Larry, and we spotted the highest dune we could see and took off towards it.
As we walked deeper into the dunes, the moon climbed into the sky, encircled by a stunning 360 degree halo. The air was cold, but we were sweating from the effort of hiking up and down the great dunes. After an hour, the summit was still a distance away. Clouds began to cloak the moon, and we decided to return to camp, lest we find ourselves hiking in complete darkness. We managed to navigate back to the camp using the stars and lights of the distant city.
As dawn broke, Larry was the first up and out to photograph the warming dunes. By now, we were no strangers to the dunes, and we were running everywhere trying to capture shots while the light was just right. Satisfied with my morning shots, I decided to return to the camp, but realized I had wandered quite far from the camp. I struggled to find familiar landmarks to guide me. Eventually, I made out the sound of a distant drum; I followed it, and finally arrived at camp. Our guide, Hassan, had intentionally called us back with his doumbeck, classic desert technology. After our morning tea, it was time to return to the riad. At this point, our backsides could not take another camel ride, so Larry and I decided to exit the desert on foot.
Back at Riad Nezha we cleaned up, dined, packed the car and then drove west. We passed Berber towns (more camels, women in more colorful garb) and Arab towns (more donkeys, women in jet black garb). Mid-morning, Hamid embarked on the most outlandish monologue of the trip: the cognitive/biological differences between men and women. Women’s brains are different than men’s brains. Apparently “science” has shown that woman can think/remember, and they can talk, but they cannot perform these two tasks simultaneously! Hamid had watched a scientific TV program about this. He told us that in a Muslim court of law, a single man can be a witness, but two women are required to give testimony that will be accepted by the court. A single woman’s testimony cannot be accepted at face value. Hamid insisted that it’s just “science.” Larry, Mark and I looked at each other in complete disbelief!
Our drive took us through the Valley of the 1,000 Kasbahs, through the Todra Gorge and finally into the stunningly beautiful Dades Gorge. Dades Gorge, also known as the Rose Valley, is home to a rock formation known as the Monkeys’ Feet. At sunset, we arrived at the monkeys’ feet as deep shadows began to descend upon the blood-red valley, while the full moon rose and hovered in the sky.
That evening we stayed in a West-African-themed hotel, the Xaluca Dades: a chorus of drums signaled our welcome into the hotel. The cuisine was outstanding and marked a point of culinary transition for our tour. At Xaluca, we officially swore ourselves off of Tagines and couscous. Having consumed tagines every lunch and dinner for five consecutive days, we were tagined out; from now on, our diets would be tagine-free.
The next morning, we returned to tickle the monkey’s feet anew, but the light wasn’t nearly as cooperative as it had been the previous evening. We certainly had fun scampering around the rocks with our cameras blazing for several hours. We headed towards Marrakesh and noted the great city of Orzazate, the movie capital of Morocco where films like Babel, The Mummy, Jewel of the Nile, and Alexander had been shot. But Orzazate, more importantly, gave us our most reliable running joke of the tour. In a thick arabic accent: “Either it’s this, or Zazate.” That joke had seriously long legs. Or maybe we had simply consumed one tagine too many.
From Orzazate we made the journey into the High Atlas mountains, passing through the epic Tizi Ntichka pass. In Marakesh we hankered down in Djamaa El Fna square to grab grub, listen to music, and watch the fully clothed belly dancers, wrinkled fortune tellers and skilled snake charmers ply their trades. We shopped and ate our way through Marakesh. Restaurant Row was fun: dozens of barkers, some quite physically aggressive, jockeying to lure customers into their establishment. I loved one barker who kept hounding couples, repeating “Sorry. Promise. No Touch.” The second night we managed to find a sit-down café where the three of us ate a satisfying dinner of soup, bread, and desert for a grand total of 28 dirhams ($3.41).
The next day, Youssef, our savvy guide, gave us a great tour of the city. The haggle-free, state-sponsored department store was a highlight as were the Majorelle gardens and the Yves Saint Laurent museum.
From Marakesh we turned south for the mountain town of Imlil. Upon our arrival, we proceeded to hike up to our accommodations perched on the hill, Kasbah Toubkal. We hiked at sunset and then again at sunrise, where we met a snowstorm while ascending the footpath towards Jebel Toubkal, the 4150m mountain, which towered 3000 meters above the valley. Hamid thought my new Vibram five fingers toe-shoes looked just like monkey’s feet, but they provided great traction on the mountain! After the hike, we relaxed in the Hamam, a hot water fest where you pour buckets of hot water over your neck and shoulders again and again until you become silly putty: so relaxing!
After Imlil, our trip quickly came to a close. We drove the final leg back to Casablanca and headed directly to the enormous Hassan II mosque, which was beautifully illuminated against the night sky. Apart from the mosque, Casablanca was dirty and generally uninspiring. Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman were nowhere to be found.
The next morning we took to the skies with our cargo and our memories and memory sticks. It was another great trip: some adventure, some culture, great company and some solid photos! As always– if you’ve made it all the way to the end, thanks for coming along for the ride!
Dr. Larry Golson is a photographer living in Asheville , NC