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3 posts from November 2010


The sight of stars... (part 2)

Departing from the group we ran around the bus station trying to figure out what bus to take at what time, the end result of which was 6 of us crammed into a grand taxi (they can take you between towns) on our way to Ourzazate to catch a bus at 6am in the morning. After driving for 4 hrs our cab driver stopped us for the the night in a very small town just outside of Ourzazate. I should take a moment to define our driving situation. 6 Americans stuffed into a taxi w/ ipod speakers all singing along while our driver speeds around the corners of a narrow, winding, mountain road.We also went through a phase of saying, in unison, “snoo ahgi” every time we were about to go around a blind corner, which was a frequent occurrence.

Anywho, we survived just fine. At the hotel we manage to convince them to give us a triple room for the 6 of us. After getting our bags inside, we decided that rather than drawing straws for the floor shoving the 2 single and the double bed together to make a single giant bed for 6. This accomplished we walked off down the town’s single dirt road and found a small hanoot (small grocers) just as they were closing. Back in our room we feasted on Pringle’s (so expensive here), random packaged pastries, chocolate and a can of tuna for me. (No it was not cat food, it was actually pretty good, but yes eating it out of the can kinda overly reminded me of cat food.) 4:30am finds us groggy but getting a move on (after a mattress turning and waking up out driver who stayed down the hall), bundled up against the cold we all piled back in the taxi to Ourzazate.

Once we got to the Ourzazate bus station we found out that the bus had left at 5am. Not to be deterred and w/ our valiant taxi driver at the wheel, and for another 1000DH (we had already paid 600DH), we were back on the road. The sun was up yet  and it was absolutely beautiful rising from behind the palms and old buildings letting its rays hit the snow covered peaks of the mountains behind us, lighting up the rocky desert as we drove through.

Once in Rissani, we called our guide and he gave our driver directions to where he was (aka in the desert) in Merzouga. Hot and dusty, we stayed at this family’s house for lunch before leaving for the hotel our camel trek would take us from into the desert.

I hope I’m not killing any dreams here, but camels are one of the most uncomfortable modes of transportation. Ever. I do not recommend them. Additionally, dunes make it worse. Downhill = pain.

We’ll now return to our regular “there-are-no-downsides-to-traveling-in-Africa” program.

So despite some discomfort, the entire experience was extremely scenic and pretty much exactly what you’d expect from people making their living acting out their cultural traditions for tourists. Our guide, barefoot and decked out in turban and blue robes, lead our string of camels up and down the smaller dunes for about an hour before we stopped by our quaint Amazigh (read pc form of Berber) camp. Our group immediately bounded up (for the first few meters at least) the nearest large and steep dune so we could watched sunset. I don’t think I can adequately describe how beautiful it was to watch the sunset. The dunes are impressive and orange/red, Erg Chebbi (a huge wind formed dune) was to our left and slightly behind us, another large dune was to our left and in between, far into the horizon, stretched a golden sea of still cresting waves.

Sitting on top of the dune I felt so small watching the shadows shift, grow long and the sand turn red as the stars slowly crept into the dark edges of the sky, the sun sliding down into oblivion.

After the sun had set completely, we retreated to our camp, jumping and sliding down the dune side to pick out constellations and have a mediocre but Moroccan meal. We then sat next to the fire with a few others from another campsite and our guides, who did their part to entertain us tourists with songs.

Before long however, in the deep blue framed by the black silhouettes of two dunes we watched the near full moon rise into the sky and the shadows emerged to mirror those of day. The fire died at last and the outlines of camels and palms settled for the night, so we set out again for the top of the dune to stargaze. Five of us squeezed together under a blanket and did our best to stay awake until the cold drove us down into our tents.

“I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of stars makes me dream.” -Van Gogh (written by Ari dahling on the pages of my journal that now contains my entry on my night in the Sahara)

Dawn came all too soon, as us lazy late waking Americans finally emerged from our tents to clamber back onto our camels as the first rays of the sun licked the peaks of the highest dunes. Another hour and we were watching the sun bathe Erg Chebbi in its light, still half frozen from our night gladly letting the sun warm our bones as well. Once we returned to the hotel, we were thrilled to find breakfast and the promise of showers. Only for the dream to be crushed as our bus had arrived all too soon to take us back to Rissani. Our “bus” turned out to be a windowed van with a few extra rows of bench seats, unbolted, with a few goats in the foot of space in the back. Packed in this contraption we bounded through the desert back to the road and Rissani.


Marrakech and More

Marrakech. A lot of ppl love Marrakech, its big its bustling, things are happening, there’s the huge medina, and tons of nightlife. There are also tons of tourists and ppl who are going to treat you as a tourist. So I have mixed feelings about Marrakech, frankly it was a fun few days, but I’m glad I don’t live there. Its not my kind of scene. However, I did have a wonderful time while I was there. The best thing about traveling and having so much time to do so is that you have so much time to explore. After sleeping for most of the ride from Rabat to Marrakech, aside from a brief restroom/playground break (SWINGS! and an awesome slide and merry-go-round of death), we all woke up when we had neared the outskirts of Marrakech. As we were passing by a half dead, somewhat sparse palmery our Prof pointed out that the oasis was suffering from two threats, a disease effecting the palms and people either poisoning their roots or cutting out their hearts. “they tear up trees to plant concrete” That night we made it out to explore the medina. The huge squared absolutely pack with people, it was already dark but the lights of the food court beamed brightly and in the crowded circles of people, lamps burned with just enough light to to make out the faces of the story tellers, dancers and musicians. In no time we found a man peddling his pet monkey for pictures and we were all game and only somewhat surprised by the charge of 20DH/person (a number that had not been given when we asked prior to taking pictures and that would buy you a decent lunch). Trying to find a bit to eat, we jumped into the flood of light that was the food court only to be immediately bombarded with calls of “fish and chips” and “hey spice girls”, but as soon as our backs were turned, we would be heckled, rude comments throw like rotten fruits at us “bloody Americans”. Delving deeper into the medina, we obtained some tasty street meats for 7 DH a sandwich and dove deeper. Eventually, we walked past a tiny shop where goods and hookah smoke pouring forth into the street. Curious, we went inside a struck up a conversation with the owner, within 5 mins we all (6 in all) had a chair of sorts and tea was poured. A good conversation and a couple of hours later we were trying to find our way out of the dark, empty maze of the medina. It gave off a rather eerie feeling, being that the place was usually so full of people, light and noise; but a few stops for directions later and we hailed a cab back to our hotel. The next morning we went back to the English Teacher School that we had watched a film at the previous afternoon and continued our discussion on woman’s rights. Following this we went on a whirlwind tour of the Medina, a whirlwind tour that took roughly 4 hours. We were whisked along from one impressive building to the next, moving quickly through the streets to arrive in the wool dyers guild. After a quick demonstration of the different ingredients the used to make the dyes, we found our heads expertly wrapped in Amazigh (read Berber) fashion in brilliantly died scarves. Moving onwards we passed the tinsmiths and leather guild areas as well, before coming to an old Koranic school that we toured. After the best street food I’ve had to date, we were off to the ____ to watch a film on prostitution “Al Mansiyoun”, which was beautifully done and very intense. Afterwards, we were whisked off to our gender Professor’s, Prof Zizi, painting exhibit. After looking at all her works, which were marvelous and covered a range of subjects (her travels, Africa and women in Morocco). Exhausted, we bused back to our hotel. Another long day called for one thing and one thing only, a night in and ice creams sundaes. Jake, a fellow student, and I scrounged the supermarket (located under our hotel, convenience) and ended up with almonds, snickers bars, bananas and a tub of ice cream. The only thing we lacked was the self will to spend the equivalent of $8 on a can of whipped cream. Back in our hotel room, after I had dug up the spoon that had smuggled itself away in my bag to Morocco (thanks to packing silverware to work), soon we had a tub of ice cream sundae goodness and the only English channel playing Mission Impossible 2. A successful night. The next day we made our way to the Ourika Valley to have a discussion on local politics and visit one of the mountain villages. We stopped to light candles at the shrine of the tzaddik Rabbi Shlomo ben Hensh (a Jewish staint). His shrine is watched over by the last Ammazigh Jew in the area. It is to him that we make the donation for the candles we light and palce in the small alcove at the head of the tomb. After we have finished, he recites a prayer meant to bless us with happy marriages and lots of children. Once we were up in the mountains, it was so beautiful and silent. We had lunch at a ritzy bed and breakfast/hotel place and it was so peaceful. If I had to pick a place to spend the rest of my life, it would be in the top 3. After lunch we went on a short hike up to the village above the hotel, it was gorgeous. The next day we made our way to Essaouira which was the seaside version of Chefcaouen, I just wish they were smack-dab next to one another, it would be perfect. The best of both worlds. The best part of Essaouira was the sand at the beach. I have never felt softer sand than it. It was soothing just walking along the beach. We spent the evening wandering around the souqs and grabbing a bit to eat to go. After walking back to the hotel along the shore, I took advantage of the huge tub in my room. It should be noted that shampoo works well as a substitute for bubble bath and can make your skin surprisingly soft. After a truly wonderous bubble bath, which would be my last shower/bath for the rest of the week, we went on a tour of the city and by lunch the group was back on the road back to Marrakech. After much debate, 6 of us (Gordie, Nabila, Cat, Etan, Sarah and myself) decided that a Sahara adventure would be just the thing to do with our break.


when stars were still just the holes to heaven

Caitríona likes to mention, at least once a day that "There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand in the world." Lying in the Sahara, and tracing the various constellations, I realized she might have been telling the truth all along.

After our trip to Marrakech, and Essouria, a few of my friends and I trekked over to Merzouga, where we were to meet Omar, our sage of the Sahara. By trek, I mean cramp into a grand taxi, which is legally allowed to transport seven people, including the driver. More often than not, it can only humanely fit five people. Seeing as we opted to take grand taxis for the duration trip in southern Morocco, our relationships have ascended to new levels.

Once in Merzouga, we rode our camels out into the desert just in time to scramble up the dunes to watch the sun set. Breathtaking.



As a side note, camel riding for over an hour is not the most comfortable activity. Kudos to the boys who survived. After enjoying a delicious tajine and some Berber whiskey, my friends and I gathered around the fire for a jam session. Somebody brought out a dhol-like instrument so I couldn’t help but introduce everyone to “bari barsi khat se gaya si... and of course, “dholi taro, dhol baje, dhol baje, …” In return, the Berbers taught us a few sick Gnawa tunes; “Sudani Allah Allah, Sudani…” and “ya baba, muslami ya baba”

All of a sudden, the singing and laughing ceased. We were told to direct our gazes towards the East to watch the moon rise above the snow-white sand dunes. It was as if an invisible hand was grabbing the moon out of the sand. I’ve never witnessed such a marvel before.

We spent the rest of the night, which grew increasingly colder, bundled up beneath the stars. Besides Orion’s Belt, Leo, and Venus, I think our favorite find was the tajine in the sky. That is always a good omen.

A few hours later, Youssef woke the group up with a loud “Americans!” around 5 AM in time to watch the sun rise. That morning camel ride was like being on shrooms. To my left, the moon was still visible resting in the intense hues of blues and purples. To my right, the sun was just breaking dawn, enough to blind me. I was trying my best to recall a saying by Hafiz, and it only came to me later, l'espirit d'escalier.

Even after all this time 
the sun never says to the earth, 
'You owe Me.' 

Look what happens with 
a love like that, 
it lights the whole Sky.

After scarfing down breakfast, we took a sketchy bus, with a goat in the backseat, to the next town where we hailed another grand taxi, crammed onto its musty leather seats and drove a hefty five hours to the Todra Gorge. I enjoy horizontal hikes more than vertical ones, so the Todra, which is on the east side of the High Atlas Mountains, was fantastic. At one point we were able to see the Sahara in the far distance (or so we assumed). Cat and I attempted to give the adhan and hear it echo through the gorges, which was followed by our version of “Circle of Life” from The Lion King. However, a lone Berber woman’s chants overpowered our horrific covers.

That night we opted to stay on the rooftop terrace of a hotel right next to the gorge. The moon provided just the right spotlight for the gorges so we could still watch the infinite stars in the sky. To keep with the theme of the day, we even found baby Simba within the contours of older Simba! It was a perfect night, up until 4 AM when it had to have hit below zero. My body had been in survivor mode for the past week, so I endured the pain.

My favorite part of the entire escapade, however, was coming home to find out that my friend Hyder was looking at Orion’s Belt from his window all the way in Boston that same night.