NOTES FROM MOROCCO
R. and I returned from our hiking/camping trip to Morocco on Saturday night. I went to the moderate trouble of keeping a diary while there, and I’ve transcribed the contents below. I’ve edited the notes very slightly for some spelling and clarity issues, but I’ve left it otherwise untouched. Any further thoughts and reflections will be added between or beyond the diary entries, and will be italicized.
21 March 2008
We’re now on the 747, sitting in business class (which R.’s Grandpa has paid for posthumously; “Thank you, Grandpa!”). The captain just announced that we’ll be delayed due to weather, de-icing, blah, blah. That gives me a chance to give you an update on our journey so far.
R. scheduled her acupuncture appt. for 1345, which I thought was pushing it a bit considering our 1730 scheduled departure and the admonishing of the airlines to get to the airport 2 hrs. in advance of an int’l. flight. The weather is absolutely crap for flying today too, what with the steady downpour of heavy, wet snow. As it turns out, the weather worked in our favor. The traffic on 90W was horrific at the outbound junction (right where we got on at Keeler), so we jumped off at Montrose so that we could hop the CTA Blue Line for the rest of the trip.
Flo, who’s watching Isabel while we’re gone, took the car an the li’l one home. I gave Isabel a quick kiss goodbye and didn’t look back. R. followed, though she dropped her camera on the snowy ground as she jogged after me. She discovered 1) that the lens is likely broken and 2) that Isabel was bawling as we left her. I feel like cold, wet shit about leaving Isabel behind. Sure, Flo is awesome, and I know she’s good hands and they’ll have a great time together, but R. and I have never left Isabel alone with anyone other than one or both of us for more than a few hours. I have a horrible feeling in my gut for leaving my baby behind, and sitting here on the tarmac– where departure is now practically inevitable- barely mollifies that feeling. Oh, well; best to buck up and get on with it. I’d better focus on enjoying myself and on helping R. have a whale of a time.
Which reminds me of another pitfall that may come back to haunt us (mixed metaphor alert!): R., in her haste to get out the door, left wearing gym shoes. We’ll be hiking for parts of five days over some rough, rocky terrain, and she’s left her Birkenstock earth crunchers at home. I hope she does okay without.
Taking the CTA was a good idea all around. Not only do I feel better about Flo having a shorter drive home in the lousy foul-weather traffic, but we got into O’Hare sooner than we may have by driving. Anyway, the snow had all but stopped falling by the time we reached Terminal 5 (we had to walk through to T2 and take the tram, of course). The check-in staff for KLM seemed a bit discombobulated, but we managed to get through in not too long a time.
Security checkpoint wasn’t bad, either. I decided a while back to be as nice as I can with the TSA folks. As much as I despise the chickenshit nonsense the Bushies foist on the public (like taking off our shoes, and having to listen to threat level updates: why do I give a fuck what the color is? Does it mean I have to remove my shoes with more angst?), I realize the TSA folks have to administer this counterintuitive scheme day in + day out. I don’t envy their position, and they make the best of it.
Once past security, we took the lounge passes we’d been given at KLM check in (business class passengers get this little perk) and used ’em. The lounge in T5 is just a room with comped snack + liquor bar. Nothing special, but the snacks and water hit the spot. “Thank you, Grandpa!”
Business class is the way to go, if one can afford or otherwise finagle it. There is an obscene amount of space between the chairs, for one. And the chairs themselves recline and massage and all that. We were offered beverages and given little blue travel kits (I don’t need the oral hygiene stuff, but the socks are handy for being able to walk to the potty without having to put my earth crunchers back on). We were also given a fancy-looking multilingual menu with some middling-to-posh sounding dinner options. Think I’ll be having the stuffed chicken breast.
Well, R. just pointed out that it’s really slushy outside. We’re still at the gate, but we’re only 40 minutes behind schedule. We originally had a 6-hour gap between arrival at AMS and our Royal Air Maroc flight to Casablanca. I figure that gives us 4 more hours to waste here, but I hope for the sake of the folks riding down where we normally ride that we leave sooner than that. In any case, the less time we spend as Schiphol the better. I don’t think it will be wise to leave the airport and go into Amsterdam just to get a quick breakfast.
All that said, my hand is cramping from all this free-hand writing. There isn’t much to say now, so I’ll set the notebook aside until something noteworthy happens. Overall, I still feel lousy about leaving Isabel behind. But R’s company is good, and I shall enjoy that along with my books (Amanda Marcotte’s “It’s a Jungle Out There” and David Walker’s “Appeal”) and KLM’s business class hospitality.
Both books were very engaging. Marcotte, as usual, cuts through issues with biting wit and florid rhetoric. I don’t think I’d ever heard of David Walker before purchasing his book for an abortive DePaul U. class. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in an African-American point of view regarding the antebellum U.S.
22 March 2008
We arrived at Schiphol a respectable 2 hrs. behind schedule. We tottered around for a while looking for our boarding passes. Though KLM/NWA have a partnership with Royal Air Maroc, we had to go out through passport control to the Departures area and get boarding passes there for our flight to Casablanca. By the time we figured that out and found the correct check-in counter, we only had to wait 30 min. for it to open. A quirky little thing: even though we had to go to the small trouble of going to get boarding passes, we had already been assigned seats on the flight to Casablanca. Even better, our checked luggage is presumably being transferred as well. Before I forget. The flight was pretty decent. Though the food was not as good as I had hoped, it wasn’t bad. The flight crew was great, as was the reclining chair. Overall, though, I’d say we spent 3 g’s apiece for the comfortable space. “Thank you, Grandpa!”
Now we are sitting in the McDonald’s dining area. Yeah, I broke down and ate the corporate shit. Schiphol is just like most other airports: the food choices are either rancid or badly overpriced (sometimes both). Since waiting too long to eat is not an option in my jet-lagged state… well, that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it. We’ll just sit around here and read our books + people-watch until our flight to Casablanca (currently 30 minutes delayed) boards.
In fairness to the people who make Schiphol run, we didn’t really explore the entire airport on the way to Morocco. There were a couple of decent choices that we discovered on our return trip. At any rate, Schiphol has an abundance of really comfortable seating (including what must be hundreds of cushy reclining chairs) for passengers who don’t want to leave the airport for longer layovers. There’s also a duty-free shop to fulfill just about any retail desire. Combine all that with a very open, welcoming design, and Schiphol just might be my favorite airport ever.
The flight to Casablanca was late leaving, but apparently there was some time padded into the schedule as we arrived with an hour to make our connection to Agadir. It was a simple matter of walking through “security,” which was incredibly relaxed by our Chicken Little standards: we had to walk through a metal detector before going down to the gate. The guard waved us through one at a time and checked our passports while his colleague ran our bags through the x-ray. Every other person who walked thru the detector triggered the alarm, but the guard didn’t seem to notice. He checked every passport, though. His colleague may have been giving a false impression, but it seemed as though passing the bags through the x-ray was little more than a formality for him.
The flight to Agadir was short and uneventful, and R. and I probably napped through most of the hour. We were feeling wiped out and grungy by the time we left the plane, but more laid-back security and customs meant we were out of the terminal building in ten minutes– counting the time it took to pull our bag off the carousel and get some local currency.
A porter led us to a waiting taxi for the half-hour trip into town. We discovered that traffic habits here are a bit different from what we’re used to. Our driver barreled his old Mercedes rather aggressively, but I got the impression he knew what he was doing. Our hotel room is a bit seedy by my standards (I value cleanliness above all else), but it will do for the night. The room is a little grimy, and our trip guide stopped by, among other things, to warn us that the water on tap is not safe for brushing teeth, much less drinking. A charming fellow whose name I will retrieve for you tomorrow, he will give us more info at our orientation in the morning.
We decided to stroll out and get some dinner at about 1930. We walked down a fairly busy street. We noticed that all of the restaurants up to the one we chose seemed to cater to working-class Western European tourists. More fascinating, though, was the people-watching. We were told by guidebooks that Morocco is a conservative Islamic country, and that may be true. I don’t think it’s the rule here in the tourist trap of Agadir, though. I’ll try to write more about this tomorrow. R. is really wiped out, and I need to turn off the light.
One thing I recall from walking around Agadir is the variety of clothing choices utilized by the people there. There were a few ladies dressed from head to toe in full chador and veil, but most ran the range between hijab atop modest attire and Western-friendly anything goes ensemble (tight jeans, form-fitting skirt, etc.). The men also displayed a variety. Some wore what I guess was traditional Arabic and Islamic garb, while others wore more Western clothing. I didn’t really have any expectations in this regard before arriving, especially since Agadir is known as a tourist trap.
It is noteworthy, though, that things changed once we got away from the coast. Beginning in Igherm and continuing into the villages further from the highway, men and women tended to wear traditional Moroccan fashions. There were some exceptions, of course.
23 March 2008
Not much to report. 0500 call to prayer was cool to hear. We just came back from breakfast, which was some bread with orange or fig jam, boiled eggs, and olives. Not bad. The dining room was filling up with Western European pensioners as we left it. R. and I were discussing comparisons of the balance between facilities and services at places we’ve been. China, for example, seemed to have an endless supply of young people to turn revolving doors for you, and they put them in five-star hotels (immaculate). Here, the dining room staff is attentive and cheerful (though R. notes that they aren’t obsequious) while the building is dated and well-worn (but sturdy).
Time to brush my teeth and finish packing for the next phase of the trip.
23 March 2008
I’m now sitting in our tent under two LED flashlights. Today after breakfast, about 0930 or so, we met up with our guide, Lahsen, and the rest of our group. Seems like charming group, mostly from the UK but also from Deutschland, Austria, Poland, and Ireland. We drove from Agadir to Taroudannt, which was the capital of some former Moroccan dynasty or other. It was really cool how the old city walls (don’t know how old; will find out later) still surround the market area. Anyway, we got a nice tour of the souks, then had lunch and piled into a minibus and an SUV. I volunteered R. and myself to ride in the SUV with the other Lahsen (the cook) and the driver. Franke joined us in the rear seat. The ride to Igherm, where our first camp is set up, took about 90 minutes (I can’t remember exactly). There’s not much happening in Igherm, but it is a nice village. We met our muleteers, had some tea in the mess tent, then walked out to take a look at the village. I tried to be friendly with everyone who made eye contact, offering up my best “Salaam” or “salaam Alaikum.” Most people smiled or nodded, some more than others. Some people greeted R. and me in French. A group of schoolgirls stopped us during our stroll and began quizzing us in French. I think the best we managed to communicate was that we are married and that we are “Americans.” (R.’s French is not good, but she knows more than the few pleasantries with which I am currently equipped.) I think the girls found us rather amusing, and they kindly offered us some crunchy, unripened almonds they’d just plucked from a tree.
Anyway, we had dinner at about 1930 (after settling into our tent). We chatted with Lahsen a lot, and after dinner we chatted with each other some more. Note to self: stop talking about politics! Yeah, who am I kidding? It was a good meal with great company, anyway. I couldn’t help but offer my usual blanket invitation for everyone to come visit Chicago. To date, none of our fellow travelers has taken me up on it. Must stop scribbling now, as R. is ready to sleep.
24 March 2008
Damn fool roosters are trying to crow the sun into rising. That, I’ve heard before. But the goofball canine that keeps mimicking them…
24 March 2008
Today was the first of our hiking days. Like the Inca Trail in 2003, it was easy at first and got tougher as the day progressed. Unlike the Inca Trail, this trek had more variety in topography (up and down as opposed to just up). Also, it helps to not be at 13,000 ft. The terrain is rather gentle, and R. and I are in pretty good shape for this. This group is great to trek with, too.
Anyway, R. just pointed out a flock of sheep moving down a mountainside across from our camp. It’s enough to ask how the sheep keep their footing, but what about the shepherd? Hats off to that fellow.
Alright. The trekking is fun, and the temperature is perfect for it. It’s rather cool except in the middle hours, where it doesn’t really get hot. I know I’m rancid anyway, not having showered since yesterday morning. But the cooler evenings help to keep the stench from ripening.
Our camp in on the side of a valley next to a tiny village. Dinner is a 1930. I miss Isabel.
25 March 2008
This morning we left the camp and hiked up to the peak of Jebel Aklim, the highest peak in the Anti-Atlas. It was a difficult but not-too-taxing ascent. As usual, though, coming down was much steeper and more difficult.
We stopped for lunch about 30 minutes ago, and we’ll be leaving at 1500.
Most of the group is napping, including R. She’s right next to me. I’m sitting facing a massive wall of rock. With the exception of a gentle wind and R.’s breathing, there is no sound. Well, there’s the flapping of the paper and the noise of the pen crossing it (and my sleeve against the paper as it trails my hand while I write). Okay, and this fly who seems to have taken interest in us and is buzzing by every few moments or so. But when the wind stops blowing, the silence is eerie.
I suppose we have another hour or so of walking before we reach the camp early. Not much else to say, except that in the face of all this natural majesty I am still homesick. I miss our shower and our refrigerator, and our walk-friendly neighborhood. Most of all I miss Isabel. Just a few more days and we’ll be home. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the good company and make the most of things.
In spite of my carping about a lack of convenient amenities (especially those related to hygiene), I was quite impressed by the rural Moroccan folks’ ability to live a fairly decent life without such things. While electricity is available in all the villages we visited or passed by, there is very little in the way of water supply and waste infrastructure in the Anti-Atlas area. There are also very few paved roads, so most people simply walk on rocky trails to get from village to village, and they use donkeys or mules to carry heavier loads. I imagine that in many ways, the Amazigh people are living much as they have for centuries.
On top of that, most of the people we saw weren’t much surprised to see a group of white Westerners (plus one conspicuously darker chap); the trek we took comes by every other week along the same path. The vast majority of folks we saw were quite friendly, and I imagine that comes from the Exodus’s insistence on being respectful to the local culture and environment. That insistence is likely respected by Exodus clients, as it was with our group. I’m really glad to be here with these folks, as they are a worldly, fun, and fascinating bunch. I get the same melancholic feeling that I did on the Peru trip: I feel as though I’m making some friends who I’ll likely not see again. Well, I suppose that’s up to me, to an extent.
26 March 2008
Along our trek from camp at Teghreghra 2, Lahsen reminded me of something he said last night at dinner. The Berber people, of which he is one, are actually called “Amazigh.” “Berber” is a name derived from the Roman name for the Amazigh (which means “free men”) that meant “barbarian.”
This may not be entirely accurate, as this Wikipedia entry hints. However, since Lahsen is an Amazigh from the High Atlas, I’m going to give his version the benefit of the doubt.
27 March 2008
Yesterday we arrived at camp after about 6 hrs. of walking + climbing. We took a couple of breaks, but the walk finished in a hot, dry valley and we didn’t get a chance to replenish water supplies. I won’t make the mistake of not carrying the max today, even though the morning walk is supposed to be shorter.
The camp here is really good. We’re in a tiny village that has a wonderful system of aqueducts and reservoirs. In spite of the ongoing drought in this region, one of the reservoirs has enough water to be washing-quality. R. and I traipsed over there at first light, and I gave myself a much-needed head-to-toe bathing.
But back to last night:
After dinner, Lahsen and the muleteers (there’s a band name, I reckon) regaled us with a few traditional Amazigh folk songs. They used kitchen and camping instruments for percussion, and we (trekkers) clapped along. When Lahsen told us it was our turn to sing, we hemmed and hawed a bit before I opened my stupid mouth and offered to butcher a Beatles song. You haven’t heard “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” until you’ve heard my atonal, rhythm-free version. Just so you know, I wasn’t even drunk. It was all in good fun, and others offered some really nice songs and stories. It was nice.
Today we’re off on our next segment. We’ll see how long it takes for my bath to wear off. The next camp is supposed to have a stream. Running fresh water! Woo Hoo!!
27 March 2008
Just finished lunch. The walk to this village took less than four hours, and that was with a couple of breaks. The weather was nice (not too hot, sun not overbearing). The trail never got too steep or rocky, either. I found myself singing again; must stop that before returning home. But its interesting to figure out how many songs I know.
We ran into “Berber rush hour,” too. There were several groups of women– some of them young girls, really– out walking donkeys laden with various items (mostly bundles of hay). One young lady carried a bale on her back, and appeared to be struggling with it (she seemed to be in good enough spirits, though, and was joking with some other girls). One woman walking a donkey began talking to me in Berber language as I was standing amid the rest of the group. Apparently, as I am the darkest one here, she assumed I was the trek leader. She didn’t notice Lahsen, who was reclining with his back to her. She kept chattering long enough to get Lahsen’s attention; he sat up and conversed with her. That’s how I knew what she was saying.
We’ve stopped for lunch at a more substantial village, and we’ll be resuming our journey in about an hour. Perhaps tomorrow at this time we’ll be on our way back to Taroudannt. This is still enjoyable, but I’m looking forward to getting home.
This wasn’t the last time, and probably not the first, that I’d be mistaken for a Moroccan Berber by one of the locals. Later, in Taroudannt, a young gentleman who our hotel concierge enlisted to escort me to the market told me in French (something to the effect of) “you have a Berber face.” I wonder if some of the children we encountered, like the schoolgirls in Igherm, might have gotten that first impression of me as well. Funny. I take it as the highest compliment, of course.
27 March 2008
We’re at our final camp. There’s a spring that’s pouring a stream of fresh water into a cascading series of pools adjacent to the camp. The water is clear, cool, and delightful. I’d like to strip down and bathe myself like I did this morning, but I’ll probably get up early and do it tomorrow (if at all). We’ve been promised 6 more hrs. of walking tomorrow, so the only point in bathing again is to try and mitigate the inevitable ripening during the ride from Igherm to Taroudannt. As I have no clean shirts left and only the rancid pair of trousers I’ve had for the entire trek, I don’t see that there is much point. We’ll see tomorrow.
The trek to this camp (from the lunch site) was tougher and hotter than I expected. Over at the pool here, I pulled off my shirt and R. informed me that there are several nasty-looking red marks on my back. I don’t expect that they are sunburn; most likely they are irritation from the incessant sweating and the lack of bathing + clean shirts. I really need a fucking hot bath. To be honest, this trip has been a lot of fun in many ways. But I find no fun in the “roughing it” parts. Going without personal hygiene and clean clothing is in now way fun. But I’ve belabored that point enough. I want to get home to Isabel.
28 March 2008
Bathing at 0430 was a bit chilly, but wonderfully refreshing. It was great for the overall mood. Last night we gave tips to the muleteers and the cook. I hope they’re satisfied. They worked really hard, and I hope we made it worth their while.
After an early start, we’re on our way to Igherm.
The last day was long and difficult, but it was rewarding. We returned to Igherm shortly after 1300, and after a brief lunch we bid the muleteers goodbye and boarded our vehicles for the drive back to Taroudannt. After arriving at our hotel (a really nice place, especially compared to the run-down joint we’d had in Agadir), Abdullah (the chap who’d showed us around briefly the day we’d arrived in Taroudannt on our way to Igherm) wanted to know if anyone was interested in a hammam. Right away R. raised her hand, as did Francoise and Neale (who were a couple). Another couple, Rob and Margaret, raised their hands. I wasn’t going to let R. go without me, and the prospect of a skin-sloughing, purifying steam bath sure sounded good after five days on the rocky, dusty trail without hot water. So I raised my hand, too.
The hammam wasn’t what I thought it would be. Sure, it was segregated by gender, and sure, it was done in a hot room and involved hot water. But I was under the impression that there would be a moderate massage that was intended to help loosen dead skin, and that there would be soap provided (Abdullah advised us to bring ‘shampoo,’ which I discovered meant shower soap in this context. I brought only a towel and a change of clothing). We stripped down to our underwear as instructed, and we lay on the hot floor as instructed. The attendant came in and pitched really hot water on all three of us, which was bracing if not surprising. What came next was surprising: the dude commenced to pulling and stretching my torso and limbs in directions and to angles that I would have sworn they weren’t designed to approach. It was more shocking than it was painful, and my yelling (interspersed with laughter) was a source of amusement for Rob and Neale. After we each got our brutal Gitmo massage, we were instructed (one by one) to stand under a cool shower. That was it. I had been expecting the hammam to relieve my building anxieties about hygiene, and the conspicuous inattention of the procedure to that end only made my anxiety worse. I thought I was going to go into full panic for a moment there, because when we returned to the hotel it was time to accompany Abdullah to the souks and I really needed to put some soap on my body and shave my head. So after taking a few steps with the group headed to market, I tersely told R. that I had to get back to the room to finish the bodily cleansing bit. She told me later that my demeanor was a bit worrying to her, but she let me go nonetheless.
When I made it to the mirror in the bathroom, I was briefly both horrified and fascinated: a layer of dead skin was peeling back from my forehead, and large flakes of it were popping up from my crown. Five days of walking unprotected in the Moroccan sun had burned me but good, and five days without a good wash had saved me from worse. Still, I jumped into the shower to continue the process that the steam bath had begun. It must have taken me at least half an hour to scrub my body and head to my satisfaction, and that included the shave. Finally clean enough, I dressed again and headed down to the street.
It was still very bright out– I think it was after 1700 at that point– and I managed to catch Franka and Fiona (the two single women who shared a tent on our trek) walking past the hotel door in search of a coffee shop. They allowed me to join them in lieu of my trying to find the others at one of the markets. Long story short on that end: we had a nice walk, found some coffee, and had a really nice time. By the time we made it back to the hotel, there was still a bit less than an hour to dinner (scheduled for 1930), so I asked the concierge to point me in the direction of the markets. That’s when he called Mohammed up from the back.
Mohammed almost ran to the market, and it was a pleasure to have to keep up with him. After five days of trudging over rocky, uneven ground, a quick pace over level pavement was a welcome change. Anyway, time was short, so I told him I was looking for a waist-length men’s jabador. He took me to a shop in the Arab souk run by one of his friends, who led me to the big and tall jabador rack. I quickly narrowed my options to a black one and one cut from the shade of blue that I’d noticed was quite popular in Taroudannt and the surrounding villages. The cut was the same on both, so I opted for the blue. After that, Mohammed ran me to the Berber market to show me some artisan shops. At this point I indicated to him that I was short on time, and he asked me if I’d like to return the next day. Knowing R. and I had to leave Taroudannt by 0300 to make our flight out of Agadir, I lied and said I’d see if I could make it the next day. I felt really bad about fibbing, and as I think about it now I wonder why I just didn’t tell him straight up. Maybe I felt bad that he ran all that way just so I could buy one shirt. Anyway, I mollified my guilt by giving him a nice tip.
Our last dinner together, in the same restaurant where we’d shared lunch on our first visit to Taroudannt, was really nice. The food was good, the company better. Francoise, who had volunteered to present our collective tip to Lahsen, made a speech to him in French. I don’t know what the hell she said, but it sure sounded purty.
There’s not much else to say, except that the flights out of Morocco were a bit of a clusterfuck. We made it on time, though, and the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit was as comfy as the one from the states (and the food was better, too). We had a brief layover in the Detroit airport, which isn’t bad (food sucks, as usual). Anyway, we grabbed our bag at O’Hare and took a cab all the way home. We slept in our sleeping bags on our own living room floor that night, and that was that.
The area just above my forehead is still healing from the sunburn, but other than that all I have are positive memories and a great feeling at having shared yet another wonderful adventure with R.