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Forty Desert Days


“Forty days in Morocco!!!  Are you mad?” screamed my neighbor, Riaz. His perplexity was natural.  English is rarely spoken in Morocco and the language barrier may create problems.

Being determined, I boarded Emirate Airlines Boeing 777 on June 26, 04 for Casablanca.  There were nearly 300 passengers.  All applauded when the airplane made a smooth landing.  I joined them and appreciated a good custom. 

Immigration  formalities were brief and soon I found myself on a waiting train right in the terminal area.  In about 30 minutes, the train reached the city.  I had a reservation for a hotel which was located next door. In a moment, I was at the reception of Ibis Moussafir with a printout of my Internet booking. Never before finding a place to straighten my back was so safe and so convenient.

Casablanca

After a good night’s sleep, I was ready to explore the city. To start, I went to a nearby bank to exchange traveler’s cheques.  It was difficult to explain what I was looking for.  At last, I came across a bank employee who knew a little English.  He asked me to go the bank’s main branch. On my request, he scribbled on a piece of paper the bank address in Arabic. This paper served as a gate pass and I was directed from one block to another till I reached there in two hours. (The local currency is dirham and current rate was 8.8 dirham to US$.) 

Hassan Mosque

A long walk to the bank provided me an opportunity to have a look at the City Centre. It was like any European downtown. People were wearing smart business suits, designer dresses and sunglasses. Rare to be seen was the national dress, jellaba: a loose-fitting, hooded robe with full sleeves. The area was fairly impressive with big, lively, tree-lined boulevards and white buildings. I was looking for Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman around every corner because of the classic film “Casablanca”.  There were none except in “Bar Casablanca” (Hyatt Regency Ph + 212 2243 1234) which recaptured the ambience of the fabled “Rick’s Bar” echoing with the immortal words, “Play it, Sam.”

Next day, I went to see the world renowned Hassan II Mosque. Built on the edge of the ocean, the Mosque rose like some kind of a divine ship. Walking up to the mosque, I felt more like I was going to a large sports stadium with signs directing traffic to various underground car parks. Three times the size of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, it boasts a 200 meters high minaret. The prayer hall can accommodate 25,000 of the faithful and the esplanade 80,000 more. Its retractable roof can, in three minutes, transforms the prayer hall into a magnificent patio. The esplanade was very peaceful, away from the traffic, the ocean waves crashing against the rocks and families strolling around.

Meknes

Though I was on a pleasure trip, I had planned it well. It was time to move. For traveling within Morocco, a number of options were available.  Apart from comfortable and fast trains, the bus network was dense and efficient.  Running alongside the bus services were shared taxis linking one town to another.  One can leapfrog and cover the entire country.

I boarded a train for a comfortable ride. Meknes was about 230 kms away and the train reached there in about three hours. The approach to Meknes was a delight with lush green olive and citrus groves covering the surrounding hills.

Meknes Market

All old Moroccan cities like Meknes have an ancient market called “medina”.  Here daily life follows a centuries-old pattern. Goods are haggled for in tiny shops and stalls, often over a glass of hot mint tea. To wander through these streets is to be drawn into a wonderful feast for the senses. Small shops sell henna and other cosmetics. The merchant unfolds a piece of blue cloth with reverence. The pleasure becomes all the more intense when the object of the visit is the choice of a ring, a sword stick, a carpet, a woven basket or sweet smelling spices.

Fez

After staying for two days at Meknes, I took a train bound for Fez, only 60 kms away.  There were three towns in Fez. First, Fez-l-Bali, an old medina, a labyrinth of sloping and winding alleys. Second, Fez al Jedid, a modern city with broad avenues, and in particular the Avenue Hassan II, distinguished by the patterns of light playing through the leaves overhead onto the ornamental pools beneath. Third, Ville Nouvelle, a French-built city.  Here the buildings were much more like those in Marseilles or Nice, with walled courtyards containing lovely gardens. The place was blessed with great spots for wood-fired oven pizzas and decent pasta dishes.   

I remained there for four days and had a good view of the city from several surrounding hills at different times.  In a broad day-light, I got an impression of an ocean of flat roofs punctuated by soaring minarets with a gentle succession of terraces following both sides of the valley.  At dawn, the light climbed up the flanks of the hills and, at dusk, the sun flooded the cascades of roofs and cupolas with ochre-red light.

Fez is a holy city, a spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. This is where, as in Florence or Athens, one can find the whole treasure at one spot. This is a city of endless mosques. Mighty doors of the Andalusia Mosque invite the faithful to prayer.  Easily identified by its green and white minarets, the El Sahri Medersa (school) seems to be literally overflowing with luxurious decoration. The voice of enchanting children drifts down from the open windows.

Rif Mountain

While moving in Fez, I met Mike, an American tourist who had been in Morocco many times in the past. I joined him and we went to a town called Ketema about 200 km away in the Rif mountain. The approach was very scenic and fascinating, the valley sides being terraced as far as the eyes can see with kif (hashish) growth, sanobar firs and cedar forests. It was a land reminiscent of Southern Spain, only seventy miles away across the Straits of Gibraltar.

We left the taxi at Ketema and walked for  2 km to meet one of Mike’s friends, Elbrazi. He greeted Mike by seven quick kisses on both the cheeks and led us inside his house. A boy came in with a pitcher of hot water in his right hand and a basin in the left hand to start the hand washing ceremony. Mint tea was next. It was followed by Moroccan traditional dish, tajine with couscous ( semolina topped with meat, vegetables and species, steamed in an earthen pot and served sizzling.)  The dinner ended with sweet cinnamon-flavoured pastries drenched in nuts and honey. Afterwards, Elbrazi and Mike had a fiesta smoking kif marijuana. For the next two days, eating & smoking rituals were repeated three times a day until Mike vomited right on the table and realized it was time to move.

Our next destination was Chaouen, a town 5,000 feet above sea level in the Rif Mountain. It was famed for whitewashed houses, narrow blue-painted lanes, blue doors, little iron-cast balconies, and its very Spanish-like plaza. It was a pretty laid-back place. Many hippies with long hair and pale complexion were smoking hash openly in the cafes and balconies of the motels. Since I avoided smoked-filled places, I stayed separately in a nice hotel on the outskirts of the town. Next morning, I tried to find Mike but he had mysteriously disappeared. Once again, I was on my own to continue with my travel plan.

Marrakesh

From Chaouen, I boarded a night-bus to reach  Marrakesh about km 700 away.  I had reservation for a very friendly place, Hotel Ali (Rue Moulay Ismail, Phone: 044/44-49-79) and remained there for four days paying only $ 20 / day for a clean air-conditioned room with half-board and free email facilities. A buffet-style dinner was served on the rooftop. I had dinner and, the same time, enjoyed the panoramic views of the city. The hotel was quite near to Jemaa el Fna, the square famous for its nighttime food stalls and traditional entertainment. With the approach of dusk, one could see people making their way to the hot food stalls.  One after another, acetylene flames sprang into life.  It was a starry night, the moon came out to play the role it was designed for; to be the most magical of the thousand and one lanterns in the Jemaa el Fna Square.

Next day, I was awakened by  the prayer-call from the 70 metre high minaret of Koutoubia, the spiritual beacon of Marrakesh. It was good time to see sunrise and also have a long walk.  I had a city map depicting worth-seeing places.  I only had to approach a passerby and put my forefinger on a particular spot. In a long-winded Arabic language, one would explain to me how to reach there and then point out in a particular direction.  I only cared for the direction and move on till I was non-plus on the next crossing.

I spent one full day in locating the Majorelle Garden, only 7 km away from Ali Hotel. It had abundance of giant bamboo, yucca, papyrus, palm, cypress and amazing cacti with natural colours that contrasted vividly with bright blue façade of the villa. It was a place of rare individual expression and mystical force.

On my last day, I visited Menara. Set slightly out of town, Menara offered a pleasant escape from busy Marrakech. It had a rectangular pool that looked stunningly attractive with the towering Atlas Mountains in the background. A walk around the pool must be good for love as blushing couples were walking without holding hands, and most certainly without kissing.

I returned by the evening. It was delightful to feel the gentle caress of the light breeze on my cheeks.

Gorge Dades 

Cascades

On my way to Gorge Dades, about 294 km away from Marrakesh, I stayed for one day at Ourazazat (were-za-zat). There was a studio where Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars and Kundan, an India film, were partially shot. A little away was Aït Benhaddou, a village made up of several small fortresses.

I took a bus from Ourazazat to Boumalne where grand taxis were available for the gorge, about 35 miles away. I joined one taxi which ran on a serpentine road passing by picturesque villages in the Dades Valley. The taxi ascended on the hilly road gaining height as the valley got narrower and narrower.  Finally, it squeezed to a gorge barely 6-meter wide where river and the road had to be separated by a small wall.

Once the taxi passed the gorge, the area become quite flat.  I asked the driver to drop me at hotel Berber de la Montangne that was hardly 30 meters beyond the 310-meter high rocks.  It was a nice place to relax and was surprisingly inexpensive: just  $ 20 with sumptuous breakfast and dinner.  I stayed for two days enjoying the beauty of the gorge and rocks changing colours with movement of the sun.

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