Friday, April 3, 2009

Reflections on Northern Morocco

It is not quite a month since my return. Although I have been busy with moving the rig from Arizona to California, getting servicing, seeing friends along the way, restocking the refrigerator, doing taxes, my mind is still in Morocco. I bought a mint plant to carry with me so I always have fresh mint and I sit, working on the computer or reading, sipping my Moroccan style mint tea. I cooked a Moroccan meal of couscous and beef with prunes and apricots for friends in Tonopah, AZ. And I am reliving the experience as I organize my photos and update the blog.
I finished with the photos of Spain two days ago. The highlight of Spain was the Pueblo Ingles program (check it out at http://www.puebloingles/ and look for the Anglo section.

I loved Morocco. What more can I add? Look out, I can probably add a lot.

My most intense impressions of Morocco are of incredibly good food, colors, geographical diversity, and warm hospitality. Its hard to know how to share it all with you. Briefly I will give an overview of the way I traveled and include photos to try to convey some of the experience.

I flew to Casa Blanca. The next afternoon I met the group. This was an Intrepid trip. I traveled with Intrepid on my Bejing to St. Petersburg rail trip through Mongolia and Siberia a few years ago and I like their small group, use of small guest houses, involvement in social projects in the countries where they operate. The company is out of Australia and the participants are generally young English speaking travelers. In the case of my Morocco trip, I chose to do the "Best of North and South" which was actually a combination of two trips. The first half had 10 participants, mostly from Australia, but one from Canada, me, two from England but one lives in New Zealand now, one New Zealander who currently lives in Australia, one Australian studying in Austria, and others traveling on many month journeys. Since Australia is a long ways from elsewhere, I have found round the world trips are not uncommon.
Our leader was Redouane, a 22 year old Berber man from the High Atlas Mountains. Still a student, he is a superb leader. His thoughtfulness, his humor, his smooth organizational skills, and perseptiveness made him an ideal person to spend 8 days with.

A couple of us visited the Hassan II mosque in Casa Blanca. This is a showpiece and the only mosque in the country which non Muslims may enter. Other than this experience, Casa Blanca is a big city and not my favorite spot in Morocco.

Hassan II Mosque from the outside and two details of ceilings.

Like teachers everywhere, this one was encouraging his students to run around and work off some excess energy before their visit inside. Intrepid, when possible uses public transportation. So the next morning we took a train to Rabat, the capital and had several hours to wander in the whitewashed Medina (old quarter), with views of the ocean. We took taxis for a 45 minute ride to Moulay Idriss. This town is a Mecca for Moroccan Muslims as Moulay Idriss was the man who brought Islam to Morocco. The town is small, built on a steep hill. We stayed in a small guest house and had a demonstration of how to make pastille, a pastry filled sweet and savory mix of poultry, almonds and seasonings. We hiked the steep streets to watch the sunset. I ended up talking with a young student who's English language book I spied. We exchanged email addresses and have emailed a few times.

I was up early and went for a walk. At first I was surprised at the liter on the streets as, up till that point, streets had been clean. Then I realised it was garbage pick up time and unfortunately some of the many cats had torn open some of the bags. But soon a man came along with his donkey and picked up the trash and put them in the baskets on the donkey. A donkey would be the only way to have garbage pickup as the streets are frequently flights of stairs. I enjoyed being awakened by the call to the faithful from the minarets, seeing people headed to the mosque or to their work, children carrying the bread to the communal oven before heading off to school. When I returned there was tea and delightful square "pancakes" which I ate as my travel companions slowly emerged from their rooms. On Intrepid trips rooms are shared, a boon to a solo traveler who does not want to get hit with single supplement payments.

The next morning our taxis took us to the ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis. It was beautiful. This city remained a major city until the 8th century. Although much of it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 18th century, enough remains or has been excavated to give a sense of the majesty of the city. Storks nest there and there is a photo of that in one of my other blog postings. Our guide thru Volubilis was excellent. I am always amazed, probably because of my own lack of other languages, when someone not only learns another language but can make puns, use idioms well, and discuss complex issues. He gave us the history of a couple of idioms we all use today, and which I cannot at the moment recall. But the idioms related to the ancient Romans and tied in well with our walk through the city.

We rode our taxis to Meknes. Again, a delightful city of narrow streets, bustling markets and a chance to try a camel burger. I will emphasise right now that all the food I had in Morocco was excellent. I loved the spices, not hot but varied and complex, the plentiful use of vegetables and fruits, and the colorful and beautiful presentations. Photos of food are general examples; not necessarily from Meknes.

She is making the thin pastry used for the pancakes, pastille, and other pastries.I watched for awhile and then asked if she minded if I photographed. Often men said yes, but women were less inclined. I was delighted when she gave me a big smile and indicated yes. S

Fes is a densely populated city with a medina which is a confusing warren of narrow alleys, shops selling every conceiveable thing from mobile phones to sticky pastries, shoes, cloth, tools, and fresh meats, fish and produce. I did go with the guide as I am not sure I could have found my way out without her. We visited the tannery, pottery and mosaic cooperative, rug cooperative, and the souks, the streets where stalls are arranged by type of product. One street (actually a narrow alley) may have leather goods, another may be for knife sharpeners, another for metal workers. It was great fun.

Colorful shoes and slippers were everywhere, every city, every town. And yes, I came home with a pair of sandals and a pair of turquoise slipper\shoes.

below are scenes from the Koranic school in Fes.

I was encouraged to step into the doorway of the mosque (below) . Although I could not enter, the entranceway is permitted and people are eager to point out the intricate ceiling of the entrance. Inside people were arriving for prayers. Before praying, washing of face, hands and feet is required. Shoes are never worn in a mosque.

Chefchaouen was my favorite stay in the northern region of Morocco. Its hilly streets, white-washed and blue houses, cobbled streets, the fast running mountain stream runnning through, and its more relaxed pace after Fes was perfect. Our lodgings were way above the fairly basic style of Intrepid. They do not use the large, Euopean or American style hotels. This was not that. It was a small riad, a restored nobleman's house. It was delightful as you will see from the photos.

Thee bedroom Ann and I shared. And doing laundry at the communal wash area.

I did write a blog entry, using Ann's computer. I won't put more on Chefchaouen here. Read that entry. There are additional photos at that spot.
The public bus was late leaving Chefchaouen two and a half days later. That meant we didn't see much of Tangier but that was okay. It could not have compared with Chefchaouen. During the bus ride, I had a chance to talk a great deal with Redouane about Morocco, culture, history, religion, and his own schooling and plans for the future. A special experience.

Our rids in trains, taxis, and buses between cities gave us a look at the countryside. Northern Morocco is blest with water and good growing weather. Citrus groves, olive groves, vegetable farms provide the cities with abundant foods.

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