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From the Desert to the Mountains--Road Trip Through Morocco, January 2018.

اسبوعنا على الطريق في المملكة المغربية

Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.


For some, Morocco might conjure up an image of an exotic and faraway desert oasis. It might, therefore, be crazy to think that you can fly to Casablanca from New York City in a mere six hours. Yet this is indeed the case, and in fact Morocco is so much more diverse than just a desert (although the dunes, or ergs, of the Sahara Desert are beyond stunning).


Morocco is Constitutional Monarchy whose history and culture spans Arab, indigenous Berber, and European influences. Those Moroccans who deal with tourists on a regular basis are skilled in various languages, and often switch swiftly from one language to another with great ease. Our guide through the Amridil Kashbah in Skoura, for instance, would switch between English and Italian, while also speaking to the other locals in his own native language. My own Arabic is pretty good, but I found myself a little out of my element when it came to the Moroccan dialect, which is more influenced by Berber and French. Whenever I did speak Arabic to the locals, however, it was always met with some degree of pleasant surprise, and some kind souls even made the effort to speak to me in Standard Arabic. I also made significant use out of my Spanish skills, which would especially come in handy when my husband needed a rabies shot in Chefchaouen (Intrigued? Hold tight, I'll go more into detail about this a little further down).


My husband, sister, sister-in-law and I did a 7 day excursion through Morocco with Enchanted Morocco Tours (who I highly recommend). Our knowledgeable and pretty hip driver, Mus (a Moroccan native of Berber descent), took us through mountains, deserts, valleys, Berber villages and cities in what was a pretty rigorous itinerary. Our tough SUV safely guided us through the twists, turns and occasional طريق منحرف (unpaved road) of the Atlas Mountains, as well as off-roading in the undulating dunes of Erg Chebbi in the Sahara Desert. All the while, "DJ" Mus kept the excitement up with an awesome road trip playlist that included everything from traditional Berber and Arabic music, to ultimate dance mixes, to Luis Fonsi's Despacito.


Our first stop was Marrakech, to which we drove immediately upon arriving at Mohammed V Airport in Casablanca. In Marrakech, we got our first taste of a riad--a traditional Moroccan structure with an interior courtyard--when we checked into Riad Maialou. Nestled in a quiet corner of a meandering narrow alley, Riad Maialou makes it easy to forget that you are in the heart of the medina (old town) of Morocco's fourth largest city. We did not have much day left to fully explore Morocco's "Red City," but we had just enough energy to brave the labyrinthine streets and dodge the unceasing scooters speeding through the alleys to get some dinner.



Marrakech

Narrow alley in the medina



One of the many elaborate doors that can be found throughout the country.



A welcoming of authentic mint tea upon our arrival in Riad Maialou.

Details in our room in Riad Maialou.


Dinner at Le Bougainvillier Cafe Restaurant.

Walking through the souks (markets).



Through the Atlas Mountains towards Ouarzazate and Dades Valley


Less than 24 hours after arriving in Marrakesh, we were on our way through the Middle and High Atlas Mountains towards Ouarzazate and the Ait Ben Haddou UNESCO World Heritage Site. Over the course of a few hours, the landscape changes so dramatically, from palm tree-laden flatlands to snow-capped mountains to vast rocky precipices scattered with earthen clay dwellings such as those at Ait Ben Haddou. A major tourist attraction, Ait Ben Haddou has acted as the backdrop for many films and TV shows, including Ridley Scott's epic movie Gladiator, and in HBO's hit TV series Game of Thrones. And if you're a GoT fan like I am, you get a little fangirl-y when you find yourself standing in front of Yunkai.


As a matter of fact, Ouarzazate is a major cinematic hub in Morocco, and it has attracted filmmakers in search of exotic backdrops for decades. Sites such as kasbahs will include lists of all the movies that were filmed at that location, and the tour guides certainly milk it up for those of us taking in these sites. For a list of movies filmed at Ait Ben Haddou, check out its Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aït_Benhaddou


We did not do a walk-through tour of Ait Ben Haddou, as Mus suggested we tour a more authentic (and less-touristy) kasbah in nearby Skoura. This is how we found ourselves walking through Kasbah Amridil (a centuries-old defensive fortress) with an enthusiastic English and Italian speaking Moroccan tour guide who was endowed with a solid repertoire of jokes and an infectious laugh.

High Atlas Mountains



My husband, Curtis, with the Atlas Mountains in the distance.

From left to right: Rebecca (sister-in-law), Mus, Danielle (sister) and I with the High Atlas mountains in the background.


Outside of Ait Ben Haddou; juxtaposition of transportation, ancient and modern.

Ait Ben Haddou UNESCO World Heritage Site

Curtis standing in front of Ait Ben Haddou

Left to right: Curtis, Me, Rebecca, Mus, and Danielle, with Ait Ben Haddou in the background.

Ouarzazate has been referred to as North Africa's "Hollywood."

Kasbah Amridil



Kasbah Amridil details






I often ate vegetable tajine for my meals. It is delicious, healthy, and vegetarian-friendly while also providing an authentic experience of Moroccan cuisine.

Cats are everywhere in Morocco, and it is not strange to see them nearby while you are eating at restaurants.

Curtis on the balcony of our room in Hotel Panorama, which overlooks the valley of Dades.



Sahara Desert


On our trek towards the Sahara desert, we drove through the Atlas Mountains some more, through the Todgha Gorges, and past the Road of One Thousand Kasbahs. As we got closer to the Erg Chebbi dunes, which are mere kilometers away from the Algerian border, towns and buildings became more sparse. Mus surprised us to a delicious authentic Berber lunch right outside the desert at a plein air restaurant called Maison Boutchrafine. We were welcomed by the friendly host as a gust of wind caused a small cyclone of sand to swirl about, and at that moment I knew we were truly in the desert. Immediately after lunch, we drove the short remaining distance to Erg Chebbi, mounted camels, and watched the sunset from the glorious dunes before heading to the luxury camp for the night.


If you are a city girl like me, you may have never experienced the isolation and clarity such as that which characterizes the Sahara Desert. When the sun went down, and I looked up at the pitch black, star-filled sky without the intrusion of any light pollution, I felt like I was literally in the middle of outer space. It was a little disorienting, actually. Nonetheless, this is one of those once in a lifetime bucket-list experiences that cannot be described with any sort of adequate justice. Our night in the desert was definitely the highlight of the trip.


Todgha Gorges

Vendors in the Todgha Gorges

Danielle and I in the midst of the Todgha Gorges

Curtis in traditional Djellaba and scarf.

Danielle in traditional Moroccan clothing.

Maison Boutchrafine, authentic Berber restaurant on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert.

Curtis and I at Maison Boutchrafine

Outskirts of the Sahara Desert

Erg Chebbi dunes



Mus excited to bring us into his home turf.


Camels and dunes

Rebecca wearing a scarf


Curtis protecting his skin from the desert sun.

Curtis, me, Danielle and Rebecca watching the sunset amidst the Sahara Desert

Our camel guide!

Our camels taking a rest as we wait for the sun to set.





Firepit at the luxury camp

"Glamping," or glamour camping, in the Sahara Desert.

Many fossil sites can be found scattered along the outskirts of the desert.



Towards Fes


From the isolation of the desert, we made our made back to civilization and onward towards Fes (an 8-hour journey). Fes is famous for its characteristic tile architecture, and so Mus hooked us up with a tour of one of Fes' well known ceramic production factories, Art Naji Ceramics. There, we were able to witness the process by which Moroccan ceramics and tile pieces (such as elaborate fountains and tables) are hand-crafted. We also purchased some of their works to bring a piece of Morocco home with us.

Driving through more of Morocco's varied landscapes.



The ruins of an old kasbah in Fes.

Riad Dar Golden, our architecturally intricate accommodations in Fes.


Riad Dar Golden, detail.

Curtis overlooking the city of Fes.


Riad Dar Golden, detail.


Riad Dar Golden, detail.

Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.

Ceramic pieces before their decoration is hand-applied. Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.

Production of tiled ceramic pieces. Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.

An artist working on a piece in Art Naji Ceramics factory, Fes, Morocco.



Chefchaouen, "The Blue Pearl"


Chefchaouen, a city nestled in the Rif Atlas Mountains that has a rich Jewish history, is definitely a photogenic location. I have a hate-love relationship with Chefchaouen, however, because although it was one of the more beautiful backdrops we encountered, this is where my husband and I experienced a taste of the complicated Moroccan health care system.


As I mentioned earlier, cats are everywhere in Morocco. They are not necessarily all strays, per se, because they walk freely among businesses and restaurants and, from what I witnessed, are often catered to by the locals. There was one particularly incessant black cat who interrupted lunch at our riad the day we arrived in Chefchaouen. After imposing himself quite brazenly upon us in hopes of receiving a morsel of food, he jumped up onto the bench next to my husband and scratched him on the hand.


Unfortunately, rabies is an endemic in Morocco, and though the major carrier of the disease in the country is stray dogs, it can also be passed via cats. The fact that my husband was scratched is also a mitigating factor, since the vast majority of rabies is transferred via bite wounds, but we were advised by our hotel and our tour company that we should not take any chances. In the urgent whirlwind of events that followed, my husband and I were whisked away in a taxi to the local emergency room. I could see the nerves in Curtis' eyes as we drove to a foreign clinic in the dark so that he could receive a rabies shot. Despite wanting to go run and hide in the corner, I knew that it was not the time for me to be the nervous wreck I usually am. My Generalized Anxiety Disorder to the side, I had to be the strong one for us to get through this.


While I do speak Arabic, Curtis does not. We had someone from the hotel, a kind soul named Bilal, who accompanied us as a translator, but I could only imagine how nervous he must have felt sitting in the clinic with no clue what was being said while he awaited an intense shot. I did my best to help translate and ask questions, as well, which in retrospect is really good practical life language experience, I suppose. At a point, I did have to leave Curtis' side as the shot was administered, and to help placate my fears, Bilal shared with me his own cat scratch survival stories and ensured that it is something that the locals often deal with. Soon enough, Curtis got his shot, he was given a piece of paper that the dose was administered, and we were out the door without needing to pay for anything or having had to wait any amount of time whatsoever.


When we asked about this the next day, Mus told us that this is most likely due to the fact that we were foreigners and that a رشوة "rashwa," had been paid by the hotel on our behalf. I learned a lot about رشاوي (plural= Rashawi) during my Arabic studies, and understand them to be part of a bribing culture that exists in some Arabic-speaking countries. Rashawi are, therefore, types of bribes, and one had been put into action so that my husband could receive preferential treatment at a local clinic when he needed a rabies shot. This is a level of privilege that neither of us had been thinking about up to that point, but there it was slapping us in the face. I am grateful that my husband got the help he needed in such a timely manner, and I am happy that the hotel took such lengths to make sure we got this help, but this is one dose of reality and inequality with which we both struggled, and are still struggling, to come to terms with.


Overall, Morocco was certainly memorable in both a positive and negative sense. Aside from the usual physical trinkets that one typically takes away from a vacation, there are many things I took away from this trip, the most valuable of which is a deeper appreciation for my fortune and that of my family.

Characteristic blue walls of Chefchaouen.

Courtyard in our hotel, Riad Dar Hicham.