Thursday, August 7, 2008

Morocco: Marrakesh to Zagora, 22-25 July, 2008 (Written 3 August 2008)

Morocco. It seemed that I was destined to go there. It started because I realized when I arrived in Paris in May that although I was thrilled to be back in Europe, it is, or so I thought at that point, quite homogenous; I wanted something within my 14 weeks that was a truly different experience, an assault on the senses.

So it was that I arrived in Marrakesh at 2am. Amine had come to meet me at the airport, and as we jumped in the taxi to his house, I was literally blown away by the hot wind, even at this hour. The wind blows against you but it heats you, rather than cools you. Little did I know…

We got up at 7am, and I was introduced for the first time to Moroccan breakfast, which can consist of fresh bread, dipped in olive oil, followed by apricot jam. I have never before seen a combination of olive oil and fruit jam, but of course I tried, and I liked it. We headed into town and walked from Ville Nouvelle into the medina.

Marrakesh was, I won’t euphemize…completely disappointing. I have no idea what all the hype is about. The souqs have got nothing on the Middle East wonderlands, there is a lack of atmosphere, and for a city of just a million people, the amount of noise and air pollution is completely unacceptable. The main square that is so often romanticized is Djemaa el-Fna. There are snake charmers playing for cobras, Gnaoua dancers spinning their heads to make the tassels rotate (watching them made me dizzy), orange juice vendors…but for me it didn’t click. However, the two main palaces that we visited DID impress me…the Moroccan tilework, the woodworking, the carvings, and the exquisite architectural design of open rooms opening up onto a central courtyard with a marble fountain…beautiful.

We met a Japanese couple and we set up an appointment to meet that evening. Amine and I went to lunch with his relatives who live in France, and it was a wonderful introduction to Moroccan cuisine. Veal brochettes, a kefta and egg tajine, wonderful tomato salad…

By mid-afternoon it was beyond scorchingly hot and I felt there was little option other than passing out. It was at least 46 degrees…and I don’t mean Fahrenheit. We returned home and I did exactly that, but the sleep I was having in Morocco wasn’t restful, and I would awake drenched in my own sweat and not feeling any less tired than before. Yes, I know, I chose to go to the country in July…

In the evening we returned to Djemaa el-Fna to meet the Japanese couple, and watched as the square transforms into a giant entertainment complex. Hundreds of street vendors come; snail soup, gingerbread, spice tea that is supposedly viagric, kebabs and brochettes and tajines and…of course, the snake charmers, dancers, storytellers, and singers are going full strength and all forcefully demand your dirhams…

Wednesday morning, there was little time to do anything more than prepare my things and head to the bus station. The ride to Zagora was about 8 hours, and the first part of the trip, climbing up through the Atlas Mountains, was breathtakingly beautiful. Green terraced fields, rocky mountains with goats scaling the sides, occasional nomad tents dotting the horizon…

As we descended into Ouarzazate, the temperature climbed again and I began to grow worried. In Marrakesh when I told people I was headed to Zagora, I received bemused looks and occasional chuckles, as they warned, Il fait chaud…for Marrakshis to say this, where it’s averaging 45 degrees now, I thought, uh oh, I really don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into.

Descending even further from Ouarzazate to Zagora, the temperature continued to rise as the landscape grew more desolate. Rocks, pebbles, trees became bushes, bushes became patches of grass, and soon there was nothing green in sight. I arrived in Zagora at 7:30pm and even at this time it was scorchingly hot. I was met and taken to Hamid’s house.

They made me fall in love with Morocco. Hamid is on CouchSurfing, and is a 24 year old Arab born and raised in Zagora. He has this childish, innocent smile that just invites trust. I was brought in and introduced to all the family…and that means a lot of people. He has 5 other siblings, and his 3 sisters have 7 children combined, and then there is his mother, Fatima. With my extremely limited Arabic vocabulary, and their limited French and English vocabularies, we managed to connect and exchange welcomes and thanks and smiles.

Hamid had told me I should try to arrive by that day because the next day there would be the engagement party of his brother. What a day. Baskets of gifts were prepared to bring to the village of the bride-to-be; dried henna, almonds, dates, candy, clothes and other gifts; after the women dressed in their finest kaftans and applied their makeup, using ground stone as eyeliner, the drums arrived. The women either drummed on the instruments or the table, and a wailing chant began, and didn’t stop. The whole way we were in the van for 30 minutes they continued to sing and drum, announcing to everyone along the way of this happy event and the beautiful bride.

We arrived in the village and the singing and dancing continued as we entered into the mud house, women and children in one section, and men in the other. I was embraced by dozens of women who kissed me numerous times, and thus began the day. From what I understood, the majority of the day was sitting in this part of the house and chatting and gossiping, playing music, dancing, and lots, I mean lots, of eating. Brochettes with fresh bread were the first savory item served, following the coconut cookies and various other sweets, of course always accompanied by delicious sweet Moroccan mint tea; and then I watched the people cooking. Lunch was a gorgeous tagine with lamb, and in the afternoon I had my siesta while the kids and women played more drums and sang.

Later on, the young men took me through the palmeraie. The palmeraie is basically a parcel of land that is cultivated near the village where each person, or family in the village, has their own plot of land to grow things on. In this particular palmeraie, the grand majority of production was dates, followed by corn and grass for livestock to eat. If you have only ever had dried dates that you buy in a supermarket, it may come as a shock that fresh dates taste completely different, and I would argue infinitely better than the dried dates. Mustapha climbed up the tree and handpicked dozens of dates of the perfect ripeness, and it was pure joy in our mouths.

The evening continued with more dancing and then I was escorted to a woman’s house, who wanted to show me her house, and we ran across the tiny village. She went to milk her cow, and for the first time in my life (after all I’m a city girl), I watched a cow being milked, and drank the fresh milk straight from the cow. I’m lactose intolerant to some degree, so I kindly declined a large quantity but for cultural sensitivity and curiosity I knew it was important to try the milk, and I was not disappointed – it tastes completely different from what you can buy in a store.

By this time, the sun was going down and I was getting exhausted, so we feasted on the hand rolled couscous and went home to Zagora. I was thrilled, having gotten the opportunity to see a real Moroccan celebration that was completely not contrived, the real thing, and I was allowed into a woman’s space that is seemingly unbreachable.

The next day was spent in Zagora until about 2.30pm when I decided I should try to start heading further south. I had debated about whether I would try to head more into the desert, because I thought maybe it was too hot for me, but I decided that since I had come all this way, I should go, even if it was just one overnight visit. Hamid’s friend Salah had a friend, Hmad, that works as a guide in Tagounnite, so he said I could go there.

Well, Friday is the day of Islam, and most Moroccans are sane and choose not to travel in the midday hours. Not the idiot Japanese girl. The bus and grands taxi station was deserted, as temperatures soared. Finally we had enough people to get into a big taxi and off we went. Desert. The desert is deserted. Definitely.

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