If you are lucky, you have five senses.
If you go to Morocco, every single one of of these senses will be aggressively overstimulated.
This overstimulation began immediately after we touched down in Marrakech on an early morning flight from Milan. The custom line was a bit of a mob scene if the mob wore turbans and birkas. What struck me right away were the lines. And what I mean by that is the line seemed to be there simply for consideration. As I stood in place taking in the herd of people trying to get into the country, I felt a body pressed against my side. This was a bit alarming. Then the body, or “old-man-with-no-personal-space-sense,” sneakily moved in front of me when I allowed for some courtesy space between me and the next person in line. Then he cut underneath one of the ropes which zig-zagged back-and-forth until he reached immigration. He continued this game until he got to the front. I began to notice that ”old-man-with-no-personal-space-sense” wasn’t the only perpetrator. Numerous people were playing this game.
At one point an airport personnel opened a rope and ushered some people to an empty line while explaining something in Arabic. Naturally, Peter and I made ourselves part of this group. The odd thing was that this line actually ended up cutting in front of a bunch of people, saving us at least 45 minutes of painful waiting time. This of course made this bunch of people unhappy. Unhappy might be an understatement. Livid, probably. Particularly a very fiery, spicy, and loud woman. What transpired was thrilling and a little scary. I’m going to call her “Pink Neon” because she was wearing very bright, vibrant pink pants.
So “Pink Neon” started yelling. I have no idea what, because it was in French. I think. She was going on and on – pointing directly at our group of cutters, specifically Peter and I. The yelling wouldn’t stop. Then suddenly, she busts through all the people to the front of the line and is standing right next to a customs box, facing the crowd, still yelling and pointing – now at the officer. Peter and I were drilling holes in the ground with our laser beam focus on the floor in front of us trying to carry confused-tourist looks on our faces. Then, our savior, an unrelated woman who was also in line beelines through the crowd and gets in “Pink Neon’s” face and started shouting at her. The Real Housewives of Morocco were in a full fledged screaming match to see who could be louder. It was amazing. No way you would see anything like this in the U.S. and if you did the two screamers would be face down and handcuffed, or at the very least escorted away and questioned. Unbelievable. When “Pink Neon” saw this other woman meant business, she finally retreated back to her spot in line.
Welcome to Morocco!
Peter and I stayed for a few days in Marrakech’s Medina at Riad Kniza. The Medina of Marrakech is the historical walled city. Located inside the Medina are Riad’s (hotels), souks (merchant shops), narrow maze like passageways, and restaurants.
Our car dropped us off outside the Medina’s wall at the closest gate to our Riad. Everything is located down an alley-way then another alley-way. Then another. A staff member from our Riad met us outside the walled city at the taxi-drop off, grabbed our bags and started escorting us to our destination.
The first thing I noticed outside the car was a cage on the back of a truck. Inside the cage were chickens – some dead, some alive but all together. As we walked through the small passageways, scooters beeped and nearly brushed us as they drove past. The smell was punching me. I looked up and saw a shop with dead skinned animals hanging with small pools of blood settled in a discrete corner. Dirt everywhere and still desert air punctuated the smells. What did we get ourselves into?
We finally charged down a small alley, knocked on a large door, and suddenly entered a world of utter peace and beauty. We were greeted by Kamal, the manager of Riad Kniza. He had a calming demeanor and terrific smile. The contrast of heart-pumping sensory overload to tranquility was one in which I won’t forget any time soon.
Originally most of these Riads were owned by rich merchants in Marrakech. Now, all sorts of people own them, including hotels who have converted them for tourists to stay inside the Medina. Architecturally, Riad’s are purposely built inward. So from the outside, all you see is bland concrete walls with no idea what’s inside. In Morocco wealth is not expressed ostentatiously, but modestly, which means all the beauty is on the inside (great concept), which goes for the Riad’s as well. These buildings are built straight up and typically have a courtyard in the middle with a small fountain or pool to allow for good air flow and serenity. Again, the extremes of being outside the Riad which was gritty and loud and then walking into clean, calm serenity was incredible
It was going from this. Look at my expression in the second picture. I don’t know what is going on.
We started our trip by doing a walking tour with an employee from the Riad, Hamza . As we started out Hamza tells me, not Peter, to walk carefully and to the right and that he is worried about me. I am already fairly unnerved by the smells, scooters, donkeys, and narrow passage ways, so his concern on top of all this didn’t help. Within the first 15 minutes of the tour, a donkey cart almost ran me over and a group of older Moroccan men yelled at me.
Peter was taking a picture of me when a donkey cart was coming through an arch way and just didn’t stop. It was a close call. Then I tried to take a picture of a group of Moroccan men sitting on the street. When they saw me take out my camera and point it in their direction they made their unapproval of me doing this really, really apparent. My guide looking at me with fear said, “You must erase it.” I didn’t take the picture in the first place which I told Hamza. He then relayed this to the angry men and brushed them off. Problem diffused? Not quite.
Immediately following the picture debate Hamza guided us through a door where cow-hides were being stored. Peter had been in the business of exporting cow-hides from Africa so was very keen on looking at the hides and went deep inside for a better look. Out of the corner of my eye I saw another man starting to close the large shed door behind us which would have made the area we were standing in very dark and trapped. At this point I am completely unnerved from the donkey cart, the yelling men, and the intensity of Morocco in general. I darted for the door and let myself out. Peter followed me and asked if I was alright. I replied, “No.”
The first picture shows the image caught right before the donkey-cart almost hit me. The next picture shows the cow-hide shed. Behind the donkey is about six men sitting who were unhappy by the non-picture I took. The door on the right is the shed door. Can you see why it would have been scary to have that door closed on us? Also the uneasiness in my face in the first picture?
We continued our walk where we visited Ali Ben Youssef Madras, a historical building that used to be a school that boasts really beautiful architecture.
The Mosque and minaret. However, non muslims aren’t allowed inside the Mosque. Hamza communicated to me that inside the Mosque women aren’t allowed to walk in front of men because the men would be too distracted by the female form that they would not be able to concentrate. I guess that’s one interpretation.
Of course the souks, the local markets where merchants sell spices, clothes, shoes, crafts, food, etc.
The stand out for me though was the men in the blazing heat that were tucked away in these narrow passageways working. Sitting, concentrating, working with metal, steel and animal hides. Working for hours and hours in these conditions to support their families. A way of life so far different.
In the middle of the Medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the area where you can see anything from snake charmers to child boxing matches (disturbing) to soda bottle fishing to live musicians. Peter and I still laugh thinking about a man that seemed to be about 7 feet tall and was all around just a huge person, dressed in bright pink wearing a fez. He was rolling his head around in large circles with the tassel of his hat flying. His eyes wild, approaching us, dancing ridiculously while playing the finger cymbals. It was like looking at a car crash. You didn’t want to look, but it was hard not to. Whenever we speak of him we refer to him as “Dancing Flamingo.”
These pictures are of Jemaa el-Fnaa, the center of it all. The first picture shows the snakes and their charmers. Where’s Waldo (Peter) in the last one.
As unnerved as I initially felt, this did go away. Quickly. On our second day of walking around the medina Peter and I both realized that we were both at ease and that it was the culture shock of going from Florence, or I suppose going from most places, to Morocco that was at first unsettling. Then you get use to it, or as much as you can get use to it. The chaos starts to make more sense as you understand its beat. Morocco never felt unsafe. However, the one thing that I did notice was a sense of desperation in the air. For example depending on what restaurant you grab a table at in the Medina, you can experience children the homeless and dismembered aggresively begging you for money. To the point of touching you, pulling your shirt, getting in your face. I also had a woman who was trying to sell me on getting a henna tattoo grab my hand as I was walking. I kept moving forward as she held my hand back without letting go. Suddenly I felt a prick on my wrist and I realized she was putting her henna pin on me. I had to yank my hand from her tight grasp. Even though it is safe to walk around the Medina there was that underlying tone of desperation that was apparent.
To counteract the overstimulation of the Medina we took advantage of the hammams, similar to a Turkish bath. A hamman is a weekly tradition done by locals. You enter a hot room, lay flat on your stomach where you are doused by bucket or hose with water, cleansed with black soap, then vigorously scrubbed with a loofah glove. You can literally see all the dead skin being scrubbed off of you. A clay mask is then applied to the body and remains on the skin while you have your hair washed. Your body is doused again with buckets of water then you are ready for your massage. You are left feeling utterly relaxed and with really smooth and soft skin. Its a funny feeling being super relaxed from a hammam and then walking right out into the chaos and bustling Medina. Oh, the contrasts. Also, the hammams are not for the modest as you only wear a tiny pair of disposable underwear provided by the spa while the attendant scrubs and washes you.
After a few days in Marrakech we were off to our next adventure in the Sahara Desert to an area known as Erg Chebbi. We hired a driver, Youseff, to take us the 240 miles to our destination. Our tour was a 3 day 2 night excursion including Moroccan landmarks along the way.
We visited the famous fortified city (or ksar meaning castle in Arabic), Ait Benhaddou built in 757. This Ksar use to serve as a trading point on the caravan route from the Sahara Desert to Marrakech. Merchants traveling from the desert would exchange their camels for horses to make the rest of the trek to Marrakech over the Atlas Mountains. There are 8 families still currently living in the Ksar. This area now serves as a backdrop for Hollywood movies, including The Jewel of the Nile, Gladiator, Babel, Kingdom of Heaven, more recently King of Thrones, amongst many others.
We also visited Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate located at Kasbah Taourirt. This area is where the actual movie sets are built. The picture below shows one of the sets for Ridley Scott’s epic Kingdom of Heaven. We learned that because there aren’t any luxury hotels nearby A-list celebrities are helicoptered in every day for filming from Marrakech. Movie stars, such divas.
Then through Dades Gorges to see the mountain ridge Monkey Fingers.
Dades Valley. How about those narrow roads?
Along the way we had many stops to take in all the beauty of the Moroccan landscape.
Our first overnight was a hotel in Dades Gorges where we had the entire hotel, which was more like a bed and breakfast, to ourselves. The only person at the hotel who seemed to be working checked us in, made us dinner, and breakfast the next morning. We had a small quaint room with a great balcony overlooking some spectacular scenery where we enjoyed our meals. The Gorge itself has many oases, green areas, amidst the desert for yet another stark contrast experienced in Morocco. It is quite beautiful. Peter said it was his favorite spot along our tour.
Early the next morning Youssef picked us up and we were off to Erg Chebbi to play with camels or actually dromedaries. Dromedaries are a camel with just one hump. It was another long day of driving till we arrived at our destination, but so worth it.
When we arrived at the dunes we were greeted by the tour owner, Hassan. The three of us sat together drinking mint tea discussing the course of the rest of the day. Hassan relayed to us that we would be taking the camels to a nomadic Berber camp which would be about an hour trek during sunset. In the morning we would awake before sunrise and enjoy the peace and calm of the morning while treking back via camel. It all sounded wonderful. As we talked some more he told us about a ritual where people come out to the desert during the hottest time of the year, which happened to be when we were there, and get buried up to their neck in sand. This is a remedy for arthritis. He then said, with no emotion, “sometimes people stay in too long and then they die.” Peter and I glanced at each other with a double-take look. Did he just say they die so matter of fact? He did. If people come out to the desert and try this and have a heart condition they can die.
After some mint tea and disturbing conversations, we put our suitcases away in a room, grabbed our necessities, and met our camels. Because I was the lead camel trekker and my camel had a golden mane and seemed a bit high all the time, I named him “Hollywood.” Peter named his “Snickers” because it constantly looked like he was chewing on a snickers bar.
I can’t quite describe this experience. Traveling by camel across the breathtaking beauty of the sand dunes with clear blue skies above is one the the most peaceful, but thrilling things I have ever done. Peter and I were lucky enough to be on our own tour because we did book during the low season. We were able to enjoy this experience, just the two of us. The silence at times was almost deafening. We were happy that the tour was strenuous enough to take us far out to really feel the isolation. As far as the eye could see there was only sand dunes. If you are curious about our turbans. The bright sun on the sea of sand makes for an intense heat on your head. Protection is necessary. Also if the wind picks up and you have all that sand coming at your face you can use the bottom portion of the turban to cover yourself.
When we arrived at camp we we still had a bit of sunlight left so Peter took advantage of the snow board available for use to do some sand boarding and also do a sand dune photo session.
As evening set in Peter and I strolled into our camp where we met a few of the nomadic Berber villagers. We were shown the grounds which took a full 7 seconds and we were taken to our tent. We got situated then sat for tea and dinner prepared by the villagers.
We were served a local cuisine of Berber culture called Tajine. Tajine is cooked in earthenware which is a type of pottery and typically cooked over charcoal and can be ordered as a meat, fish, or a vegetable dish. There is a ton of flavor given with spices, nuts, and dried fruit. Dates are used frequently. Tajine dishes use the same concept as a crock pot. I found this to be a delightful and healthy meal. The following are various Tajine dishes I ordered throughout our stay in Morocco.
After our meal our nomadic friends joined us for a night of music and singing. They brought out their instruments and Peter and I were treated to our own private concert. After a few songs they insisted that Peter and I play with them and we were given bongo drumming lessons.
After our concert we took a walk just outside the camp up a hill so we could lay on our backs and stare up at the starry sky. Peter and I talked about the perfect and beautiful day we had just had as we watched shooting stars and a brilliant Milky Way without any other light to interfere with a perfect night sky. With a heart full of happiness and gratitude we walked back to camp and climbed into our tent for a brief night of sleep.
We woke up the next morning to take the excursion back with Hollywood and Snickers to catch the sunrise. It was the most peaceful morning with no other movements then us and our camel rides. The only unfortunate occurrence was that the tagine from the previous night had gotten to Peter and he wasn’t doing so good. I think this pictures does a good job of capturing his feelings of having food poisoning at 6 am while riding a camel. At one point he said, “I wonder how many people can say they vomited off the side of a camel in the Sahara?” Notice how it does look like Snickers is in fact chewing a Snickers.
The last thing you want to do when suffering from food poisoning is to jump on a camel at sunrise for a one hour walk to civilization. The second to last thing you want to do is be told you have an eleven hour drive ahead of you to your next destination. Through winding roads. In a van with terrible suspension. But that’s what Youssef said and off we went to the Atlas Mountains with a lot of “can you stop here real quick” being demanded to Youssef.
I sat up from with Youseff for some of the trip and learned a little about the Berber culture while Peter moaned in the back.
Youssef was married about a year ago and told me the story of meeting his wife. Youseff’s sister was friends with his wife and suggested they meet. He went to her house where she lived with her family. They all sat together meeting and talking. Later that day after he left he called her Dad and said he liked his daughter and a courtship began. He dropped off a cell phone to her later that week since unaccompanied dates don’t exist and he wanted to get to know her. Within four months they were married. The wedding took place over three days. One party thrown by the bride’s father and the other two nights by Youseff and his family. When someone gets married you invite the entire village so cows and chickens are slaughtered to feed everyone. He said the cost was around $10,000 which is a small fortune in most Berber communities. He said that his entire family helped him and he did the same when his brothers got married. After the wedding his wife moved into his house with his family. Talk about really needing to get along with your in laws. I asked him about the divorce rate and he told me that essentially it doesn’t exist. If there is a problem in a marriage the family and friends will support the couple and do whatever they need to help the couple through their issues. I told him about the divorce rate in the US and he thought that it was really sad and had a hard time understanding why it would be so high.
We also discussed the bombing that took place in Morocco in 2007 and how some people think that it could have been the government that was responsible as a way of controlling and scaring the population. There was a lot of uprising in the Muslim world at that time and some, he say, felt it was a preemptive or suggestive act to send a message. He did say Morocco is safe but “you never know what could happen.” I asked him what he meant by that and he suggested that, “Muslims could be negatively influenced by Muslim extremists.” I suppose this is the case everywhere in the world, people getting influenced by the wrong people. It happens in religion, politics and even business.
Our long road trip from the Sahara to the Atlas Mountains was one of anticipation. We were heading to Richard Branson’s hotel, Kasbah Tamadot. Peter’s friends Noah and Kim had visited this property a few years back for a wedding and convinced Peter he needed to experience this hotel while in Morocco.
A little history of the opening of this hotel. Richard Branson was taking a hot air balloon ride through Morocco when the balloon took on complications and he and his crew emergency landed in the Sahara where Algerian soldiers picked them up and they were taken to a warlord. It wasn’t until days later that the Algerian President got word and they were rescued. But it was Branson’s parents that fell in love with the area where the hotel is located and asked him to turn it into the worlds most beautiful hotel. He paid the owner $1.5 million in 1998 and has indeed turned it into an incredible oasis of luxury, tranquility, and beauty. This for example was the view from our balcony.
We spent a couple of days and night lounging by the pool, drinking wine on our balcony, eating room service for breakfast, enjoying the spa, and loving life. We didn’t want to leave.
The day we checked out we did receive some exceptionally exciting news that elated us so much that it cured our sadness to check out of this world of perfection. We Skyped with Lisa and Devin, Peter’s sister and husband (my awesome in laws) and we found out that Lisa is pregnant. We were thrilled! Peter couldn’t wipe a smile off his face for days and the good news seemed to cure his food poisoning. We are so excited to see both of them and Lisa’s baby bump in December. This is the first grandchild for the Fotheringham’s, so this was big news. Oh and we just found out, it’s a boy! The smiles in the picture below says it all.
For our last couple of nights in Morocco we stayed at an AirBnB back in Marrakech where we went back to the madness of the Medina and were overstimulated once again. We enjoyed our remaining days walking around, taking in the sights and smells, and eating good tagine. I thought I had escaped without food poisoning but I bought a bag full of nuts our last day from the middle area of the Medina, which we had been warned not to eat from, but I figured nuts would be alright. Well, in Italy the next day I realized I was wrong in my assumption. Despite our best efforts, we were 2-for-2 in food poisoned Fotheringham’s in Morocco. Look at that guys smile. It’s like he knows…
So off to Rome where a couple days later we were meeting my Mom and my Aunt Becky for an Italian adventure of a lifetime. We left Morocco with one last memory. The airport security essentially handling all our body parts as their search protocol. Got felt up as we said good bye.
Thanks Morocco for an adventure of a lifetime like no other.
Love to all my followers.