10/18/2008 - 10/20/2008
Morocco Day 4 (Trip Day 18)
We woke up to realize the magnificent view out our balcony. It was a winding river, nearly out of water in this end of the dry season, with a landscape dotted with defunct mud hut as far as the eye could see, ending in the rugged Atlas Mountain range that we had just crossed the day before, and would cross again before our trip was over. Truly spectacular!
We get back on the road and stop in town long enough to look for a cell phone. Mine had slowly begun to die since some sort of odd power surge in the hotel in Rome, and had finally given up the previous day. A phone was important, especially with the improvised trek we were doing, and we had been impressed that wherever there were roads in Morocco, there was cell phone reception. There were no reasonably priced phones in town, and the guys at the cell phone shops couldn't speak any English, so I was worried that the phones would not be "Unlocked" and therefore not work with my SIM card. So we traveled on.
We reached the large town that we were supposed to spend the night in, and decided to take a look around since we were ahead of schedule. It was amazing to see the butcher shops with bleeding animal heads and hides laying around, and dirt roads everywhere. We were directed to a cell phone shop were I was able to request the cheapest phone available. It would be 200 Dirhams, equivalent to $24 US, new in the box with charger...so I jumped on it. Still wasn't sure if it was unlocked, but the guy let me try it out before purchasing, and it worked like a charm! I was very excited by my new phone, and it must have been the smallest, thinnest phone I have owned to date, made by Alcatel.
We continued to wander around, and found grumpy Liz some espresso that worked like...a Valium, so she was happy again. I realized that I needed to restrain from suggesting her to take one of those every time I found her to be bitchy, and found myself instead feeling a growing distance from her which I hoped would not come to a head.
We drove on, and within a couple hours we were seeing vast amounts of fine sand...we were very excited! We happened upon some very interesting sand breaks on the side of the road which were designed to keep too much sand from moving onto the road, which seemed marginally helpful.
We also managed to drive through a minor sandstorm, which was very exciting, and something I was able to get on video.
As we enter the town before Merzouga, we come up against a T in the road in town, and are not sure which way to go. As usual, I quickly roll down my window and ask the first available bystander for help. He gives us a rundown of Merzouga; there are three distinct villages, and they all have resorts that offer camel treks. We thanked him, but he wouldn’t let us go; he needed a ride to Merzouga. He was well dressed and multilingual, and was fairly forward. I didn’t feel comfortable and told him no. He was not happy with this answer, and we exchanged some words before I sped off into safety. It turns out that a quick look at our map would have made the direction obvious, dually noted for the next time.
We finally reached signs indicating that Merzouga was only a few miles away, and managed to get pulled over AGAIN! We (I) had been ripping through the speed limit the entire trip, driving 120-130 KM/H instead of the indicated 80-100 KM/H. As we roll over a bridge, we see some policemen just hanging out in the distance...I start slowing down, and one of them flags me down. I brake as hard as a can, and still can't stop by the time I reach him...uh oh. There are four of them just standing around on the side of the road. There is no building, no stand, booth, or anything. They were obviously put there to make sure that the thriving tourism in this area remains safe for foreigners. He is very cool with me, asks me some questions, and stands back. Another one comes up, asks where I am from, and asks the speed limit in California. I exaggerate a little bit, and we engage in some friendly conversation, and we were on our way. The Frenchie from our broken airplane was right; in Morocco, TOURISTS ARE KING. LOL!
Well, we continued on, feeling pretty important, and finally came upon the sand dunes in the distance…it was beautiful. In one fell swoop, the rocky, almost black desert turns into pure, clean dunes of sand. Quite remarkable!
We begin to see signs for hotel resorts that offer camel treks, and worrying about the approaching afternoon, and sunset, we turned off toward what looked like the first village in the distance. We wandered around the dirt roads, and pulled into the nicest looking resort. The area was like a ghost town, but it was low-season after all.
The resort hotel was another mud establishment, finely crafted, and we wandered around to find the sleeping groundskeeper. Now, in Morocco, it seems like everything needs to be discussed in time, and over complimentary tea, so we were invited to the roof to discuss what we wanted, to sip tea, and get to know each other. Here is where I felt like a hurried, harried American. All I wanted was the price, and an indication if there was going to be other travelers in our expedition. Well, it took about 20 minutes of tact, tea, and sunlight to finally determine that this was not the place we wanted to be. I did not feel comfortable going on an overnight trek alone with a poor Moroccan, Liz, and myself. I even paid the guy off for the tea, and Liz and I ran!
We decided to go to the last village, which appeared to be the largest and most well stocked with tourists. We were approached by a Moroccan the moment we reached the village, and I was able to ask for just what we wanted: we would agree to an overnight trip only if there were other tourists in the group. He assured us that there were, and we proceeded to the “hotel”. There, we were introduced to a group of Brit tourists who were waiting to go on a camping trek. After much attempt to clear up the situation, it appeared that there were three different trek options. One was a sunset trek that would take only a few hours, one was a short trek to camp in a nearby camp, and the other was the venerable long trek into the dunes, for camping in a real Berber camp. Finally we determined that the Brits would be camping, but only at the nearby camp. So, we informed the “hotel” staff, and they said that they had just received word that two tourists were on their way to make the long trek, and if we waiting just a bit, we would find out if, in fact, there would be other tourists to join us.
Well, two young Italian guys came through, and sure enough, they wanted the real trek out to the dunes, so all four of us were delighted that we would have the opportunity to join each other for this once in a lifetime experience! We paid the money, and our troupe prepared the minimal belongings we needed, and were escorted out to the camel parking lot.
What would ensue over the next day was certainly to be a “once in a lifetime” experience, one that I would NEVER DO AGAIN. It started out innocently enough, but within 5 minutes of our two hour camel trek to the camp, we were all feeling extremely uncomfortable on the camels. The saddles, despite being covered by blankets, felt like they were made of pure steel, and the way the camel walks causes its rider to buck back and forth EVERY STEP.
It was a long journey in, and to top it off, the clouds rolled in, and there was no magnificent sunset to enjoy over the dunes. But we did see a few Oases, where Berbers would settle and live until their camels ate up all the vegetation.
We finally got to our camp around dusk, and prepared our tent. Liz and I shared a large tent, and each of our beds consisted of a thin single-size foam pad, such as on an outdoor chez-lounge, a thin sheet, and an old blanket. Wow, this was going to be one hell of a night.
We sat out under the clouds, waiting for dinner, and decided to climb the dune directly behind our camp. The Italians took advantage of the snowboard that was available, and we all had a good laugh watching these guys try to board down the dune…it didn’t work! Climbing the dune was hard, I managed to reach 2/3 the way to the top, and the view was rewarding! I could see into Algeria, and the point at which the sand dunes stopped, as quickly as they started.
Dinner was OK, but I had been suffering from grumbling insides since eating the fruit at the hotel the night before, and not having the anti-biotics with me. Conversation with the Italians was great; it was more politics, but also tended toward Italian history, and general social welfare theory and history around the US and Italy. I think for the first time Liz had an appreciation of meeting other travelers and sharing stories. I was determined to make her stay in a youth hostel before she left, just for the experience of meeting and talking with travelers, which is truly an important experience you just can’t get when staying in hotels. We finished our conversation and went to bed. I was unable to get a wink of sleep, tossing and turning and redesigning my bed all night, to no avail. At some point likely very early in the morning, thunder and lightning began, and there were a few sprinkles. I figured the sunrise would also be moot, and I was somewhat relieved since I really don't like getting up early in the morning...for anything.
Morocco Day 5 (Trip Day 19)
We were finally woken up around 9am, long past the sunrise portion of our camel trek. The Italians had set and alarm, which I heard, and did try to enjoy the sunset, but it was hidden by clouds. So we all stumbled around while the Moroccans cleaned up the camp, and were finally loaded onto the camels. I'm not sure if the trek back back was worse or better. On one hand, I was fatigued from a lack of sleep and consistently grumbling insides, and just didn't have the energy to deal, but on the other hand was somewhat numbed out and resigned to having a good experience. Long story (trek) short, 5 minutes before arriving at the "hotel", after 2 hours on the camel, we were caught in a torrential downpour. We arrived at the "hotel" soaked, and bitterly passed on breakfast or showers, though not before getting a nice picture with one of the Italians.
We rushed to the car, and got ready for a long drive "home", which we didn't quite know what would bring.
The drive provided spectacular views, and was overall easier than the drive out. We had driven in from Marrakech, but were riving out a different direction to Fes. The mountain range was not nearly as sheer and high in this part of the country, and it was much more pretty. We passed a vast reservoir which we stopped and looked at in the rain, and decided to take a short cut which would save almost 100 miles, but the quality of the road was unknown. Although the road was listed similarly on the map, it turned out to be much worse! There were potholes, little signage, and for about 100 miles, was not wide enough for two cars to comfortably pass, so we would need to slow all the way down and straddle the shoulder to get past the few cars we did pass. It was FUN beating our little Kia, and I was thouroughly impressed with how rugged the car was. I'd had A LOT of fun with this little car, from racing it through the mountains (thanks to the stick shift) to beating it over rutted country roads.
We reached a very interesting, ancient "home" built into a rock ledge:
After more magnificent views over the 600 kilometers of travel that day (not counting the 2 hours of camel riding) we finally reached Fes. We had to wander around town to find the basics. This is where Liz becomes a real pain in the ass. No adventurousness whatsoever. I must admit, this is the part I really like...starting with nothing, no map, no language, no reservations, and building an experience from there. It was so dicey that we had even asked a police officer where to get a map and pretended not to understand our request.
Finally we found an internet cafe, and got the addresses for a couple hotels, but couldn't get them up on the online maps. So we needed a map. Finally found one, but we couldn't figure out where we were on the map! All the road signs were in Arabic in this city, which was a first in all of Morocco that we had seen. I even asked numerous people on the street, and they were unable to point us in the right direction. Finally, we happened upon a military establishment, and the guard gave us some vague hints, and between his direction, and finding the McDonalds both on the map and in real life, we figured out our bearings. So, we went into the Mickey D's for a bite to eat, and a helpful young guy noticed our map and helped us further. He suggested a couple hotels in the immediate area, and after a familiar meal, we were able to examine a couple different hotel rooms and choose one.
By this time, Liz had had it with Morocco, and I had had it with Liz. So I left her in the hotel room and wandered about. I hope she took a Valium or three, because I think my distance was getting to be a bit obvious. I don't want to say that she ruined my trip to Morocco, but I think she ruined my trip to Morocco. I would have been happy to wander about the Medina in Marrakech, make our originally planned trek to the beach, and just have an easy time eating tasty food and shopping for cheap thrills. Great learning experience. I think she noticed what was happening, as she proceeded to pay for most things on our trip, everything except rental car and gas.
So, I wandered out, and quickly found a nice internet cafe to sit at. Within moments, I was engaged in conversation with Arab fellows, and found myself having exactly the kind of experience I had come to Morocco for: chatting with locals, working on my Arabic, and just having a simple good time. Suddenly, I didn't want to leave. In fact, I wanted to escort Liz back to Madrid, get my belongings, and come right back to Morocco. It was a possibility, but for the time being, I had to stick to the committment, and would make the best of our remaining days re-entering Spain and seeking out Flamenco on our way back to Madrid.
Morocco Day 6 (Trip Day 20)
I awoke this morning feeling good, and with a new conviction to make the best of the next few days until leaving to go to Athens. We had arrived one day early, and after driving 1100 kilometers in three days, and riding camels for 4 hours, I was tired of driving. I was going to go out to return the car one day early and try to get a refund on the extra day we didn't use. Well, I left the room early enough to secretly plan an excursion to the Medina in Fes. I was not done with Morocco, and I wasn't going to let Liz stand in the way. So, I drove off with about two hours to kill before I had to return the car, get back to the hotel, and then board a train for Tangier, our port of exit toward Spain.
As I drove through the outskirts of the Medina, an old man on a scooter spotted my tourist stature, and began driving next to me, asking me what I wanted to see. I knew this was going to cost money, so I told him I just wanted to drive around on my own. Well, he wouldn't take no for an answer. He knew I wanted to see the Souks, but I was hesitant to park the rental car and venture off, so I truly was just trying to drive around. He stuck to me like glue. I made u-turns, slowed down, sped up, and did everything to shake him, but to no avail. So, as we drove, I became more friendly, and as we passed by certain things, I asked him to lead me back. We had heard about the leather purchasing and tanning areas in Marrakech, but never had a chance to see them, so I told him to lead me back to that. We parked our respective vehicles, and he walked me around the very bloody and smelly animal hyde marketplace. It was quite a site. My heart went out to any vegetarians who had ever been accidentally led to such a site.
Then I asked about where the actual tanning areas were. This is where they have the bleach and the dyes, where they take fresh hydes and turn them into the finished leather that we know and love so well. He told me these were in the heart of the souks, and that he could lead me there...so I decided to go along with it.
He led me to a little parking area that was attended. This was a leap of faith, as I wasn't sure if these attendants were the ones to protect or infiltrate my stuff, but I decided to trust. We walked through some very rough souks, nothing like the ones in Marrakech. These were mostly deserted, obviously not the improved touristic sites we were used to. Finally we came through a gate, and I smelled an unfamiliar but obvious smell; it was the smell of the tanning factory. It looked like a rough area, so I told my guide that I was happy to look and take pictures from our birds eye view, which was a safe area, declining his invitation to actually walk through the factory.
After having my fill, I told him I was ready to get back and return the car, and we stopped in to a artisan shop where two Moroccans were doing a very talented job chipping small square tiles into star shapes, all with a flat hammer. The guy would hold the tile, tap each side a couple times, and what came out was a perfect star. WOW! Very cool. They were putting the star shaped tiles into larger mosaics that would be sold as artisan building materials. I was offered a couple of the star tiles, and gave the artisan a couple bucks for letting me watch and take a picture.
As we walk back to the car, and I see that it is still in pristine shape, I was ready to bargain with my guide about how much I needed to give him for the unsolicited tour around the city. We had it out as he wanted an exorbitant amount of money for the hour he spent chasing me down. I gave what I felt was appropriate, and he finally conceded to be friendly, and led be back to the main road, and sped off to acost another unsuspecting tourist.
It was a rough morning, as I also had it out with the rental car company. I was informed when I picked up the, though through translation, that any unused days on the car would be refunded. Well, it didn't happen, and I decided to forgoe the $35 so I could get back to the hotel to pick Liz up and get to the train. So I did so, we got onto the train, and had an easy ride into Tangier.
We had to switch trains halfway through, and when we did, we ended up in a car with three other travellers. One was an aloof white guy who didn't speak much English, and two females who looked of Indian decent. Well, it turned out to be a replay of Italy; the train conductor came through the cars, and the aloof white guy had no ticket to provide, so he was given a talking to, fined, and he walked off, likely out of embarrassment. This started a nice conversation with the rest of our cabin mates, who turned out to be Canadian-Indians, on a large family trip through Morocco. We ended up having great conversation about many topics, and other members of their family, all fun loving and outgoing people, were in and out of our cabin. We had many laughs, and again provided Liz with a great experience of meeting travelers through taking "less than luxurious" accomodations.
We arrived to Tangier, andmade our way to the Medina and the Souks, which were also next to the port where we would eventually take the ferry to Spain. I was determined to find that leather bag, and was led around by a number of Moroccans to find it; all they could find were very small versions, and I was back to my plan of making it when I get back home.
After wandering about, we decide there is nothing to see in Tangier, and we were ready to leave Morocco. We peruse the many ferry agencies in order to find an appropriate boat to Spain, and after visitng 3, all of which had different boats with different departure times, and different types and speeds of boats, we settle on a high speed boat that was leaving promptly. We purchase our tickets, and run towards the port. We didn't realize that boarding such a ferry would be alot like going through an international terminal at an airport...long lines, passport control, and x-ray baggage scanning. We were informed that our ferry was running late, but was we waited in line, it looked like it would take at least 30 minutes to get through the line, and our ferry was schedule to leave in about 10 minutes. So we were panicked. At first inquiry of a guy with a badge, he said not to worry, but was vague. 15 minutes later, we were more panicked, and another inquiry ended up being an unintended request to bribe the official into getting us through the line more quickly. Well, it was very interesting to be involved in such a thing, and it cost us each $12 (100 Dirhams) to have the guy take us aside, take the passports directly to the officer, and have him process them between serving the people in line. The control officer turned around, shouted out some happy comment about my being Lebanese, handed us our passports, and we were off. We were even escorted around the X-ray machine, and we were off and running to the boat!
Well, we arrived to the entrance of the boat...and waited. And waited more. The boat ended up leaving an hour late, and we would have easily made it through the line without bribing anyone, but it's nice to know that a little money goes a long way in Morocco in more ways than one!
I would have liked to say the one hour boat ride to Spain was uneventful, but it wasn't. If I were to do the trip again, I would choose a slow boat with a V-Hull, in case thats any kind of subtle suggestion. Our boat was a high speed boat, a catamaran type, and we were in the midst of a storm brewing. Everything started great, and people on the boat were in good cheer, but before long, the boat started a steady rocking back and forth, and people were getting sick left and right. Liz and I moved from one part of the boat to another; first to determine the part of the boat that moved the most, then to escape the foul smell of sea sickness. It was quite a site to see the way the passengers, as a whole, went from good spirited to sick and quiet and unhappy. People were even lying on the dirty floor to help ease their stomachs. We finally did arrive at the port of Algeciras, and it was time again to improvise a plan around where we were going to stay.
We arrived at port around 9pm, and all was dark and sleepy. We were lucky to find a couple of attendants at ticket booths, and solicited their help in determining what to do. The message was clear; we were in the bad part of a town where there was no good part, no commercial or hotel area, and we would best go to the closest hotel, then get the hell out of town ASAP. So, we walked across the port and saw a few hotels, and again started asking questions. The gentleman we asked was a business owner, he suggested we not walk around alone at night in the immediate area, and said that if we took a 5 Euro cab ride 2 minutes down the road, we would find a nice hotel, though expensive. So we checked out the room at the hotel we were at the foot of, and it was clean but somewhat sterile. I think we were both feeling adventurous, since we decided to look on. We began to wander around the immediate neighborhood, against suggestion, and ended up finding a couple of hostels with disgusting, molding rooms. We were passed on the streets by numerous prostitutes; Liz was sure they were all transgender, and I did notice that they were all tall and burly. So we hailed the cab to the famed Hotel Vicky Cristina.
The cab shoots off the main road, up a hill, and through some very nice gates....wow! The hotel was a HUGE refurbished royal palace, and obviously catered to the high class crowd. I had sat in the cab while Liz went and checked out the room. She came back THRILLED and said she would pay for the room. So we checked into this 5 star, beautiful hotel that was formal royalty. There was a bar onsite which we gave plenty of business, a piano in the salon that I enjoyed playing after a few drinks, and a room that was absolutely memorable! And that was it for Morocco and Day 20 of my trip!