(Via) Marrakesh Express

Marrakech is an active antiquity. A trade city founded upon centuries of commodity and artisan craft that breathes in tourist today with the same body that has inhaled merchants for generations with a similarly lucrative exhaust. We successfully navigated our way from Casablanca by rail and met with B's father and step mother for an escort into the medina (old city). Jet lag only took hold once we were speeding through the throngs of two-wheeled vehicles that made the bulk of Marrakeshi traffic.  Broad French avenues gave way to twisting medieval stone once we passed what little remains of the old wall.

Our vehicle was unable to bring us all the way to our accommodation so we continued on foot with the help of some local boys eager to earn dirham (Moroccan currency) as porters. Tucked deep into the folding narrow alleys we found our riad (pronounced: ree-yad). These old city mansions once provided lavish comfort to wealthy merchant families living in the crowded city. Now riads are central to the lure of Marrakech. They are tranquil out of design. Private outdoor spaces populated with flora, song-filled birds, and wall fountains gave relief from medieval city life to those who could afford as much and these intricately detailed courtyards remain a defining feature of the riad. The charm has only improved with age and many of these excellently preserved homes now cater to travelers.

Ours was a beautiful example of the riad style and every corner brimmed with Arabian geometries and details that were only noticed upon repeat inspection. The host was a young and helpful local that shared stories and insights with the air of a confidant rather than concierge. B’s folks generously treated us to room and board and planned out a busy week of both geographic and cultural exploration. Activities began the following sunrise with a balloon excursion over villages outside the city. Our guides were friendly French balloon pilots who were allegedly the first such operation in Morocco. They led us over the plains and foot hills of the Atlas mountains and shared some of their good humor above the land. The unreal sensation of floating in a basket can not be compared to other forms of flying; there may be nothing else so peacefully nor as beautifully done in the air.

Our guides landed outside one of the villages we saw from the air and took us to a nearby house for breakfast. Our man explained that the first time he came to this area, a local ran up to his balloon with a pot of tea as he landed. Nobody else came to the balloon, but this man brought tea and afforded all the hospitality required of a host to visitors. soon, a deal was arranged whereby the guide would bring tourists to the local man’s house for breakfast every week and provide a little extra income for him and his family. This arrangement lasted for years. The ballooner was well known in the area by the time jealousy took hold. Why was only one house benefiting from this trade? The community demanded a share. Determined to keep the peace, the local headmen were on the verge of banning the ballooner from their villages lest a feud arise when the pilot suggested a compromise. Every house would host tourists on a rotation. This would spread the wealth within the community and give everyone a chance to prosper. His arrangement still stands to this day and as we sat there enjoying beghir (Moroccan crepe-style bread) with honey and mint tea, B and I both felt a connection to his story harking back the time spent in our respective villages across the continent. We had experienced similar challenges related to jealousy: some beautifully resolved and other never will be.

We returned to the city for a rest before visiting the famous souks. This vast marketplace sprawls under impromptu roofing, through crumbling buildings, and across squares in a great organically cultured mall. A mercantile beehive stocked with the honey of every ancient kingdom in the realm. The souks literally buzz with bargaining in Arabic, French, and (last and most certainly least) in English from sun-up to sun-down. We found our way to the Souk Kimakhine, where musical instrument makers have sold their hand crafted wares for centuries, and I told my companions that I would catch up with them later. What begins as friendly conversation in the souks quickly becomes a transaction and my inquiries into traditional Moroccan music evolved into intense bargaining in no time. Bemba is said to be the language of business in Zambia, but I have never met a seller as vicious as can be found in the Berber race. We exchanged sorrows, laughs, pities, and expressions of outrage for almost an hour. The Berber cursed my family and shamed me (by exposing the white of his eye) but in the end he sold me a hand-made ribab, a one string fiddle-banjo cross, for a reasonable price. My blood was still pumping as we found our way back to the Djemma El-Fna (main square), flowing in a current of nighttime pedestrians who had appeared near the mouth of the souks past the mushrooming food stalls and snake charmers.

Frank and Tammy had arranged for a desert excursion the following day, so we retired early and woke before sunrise yet again to meet our driver, Ali. The Sahara caresses the length of South-Eastern Morocco along her borders with Algeria, Mali, and Western Sahara. Seeing our route on a map did little to prepare us for crossing the breadth of rural Morocco through high mountain passes, fertile valley, and barren desert. As we traveled into the High Atlas mountains, the prospect of seeing the Sahara dwindled with the dropping temperature. The colder, wetter, climate was home to numerous Berber communities producing the fine rugs and argan oil found in Marrakech. Passing through Col-du-Tichka, we learned that the pass is considered dangerous by most urban Moroccans who choose not to travel this route given the high frequency of accidents. Ali sped us through hours of winding mountain roads with confidence yet the stomach turning jack-knifes of the Tichka route still made us all nervous with each passing truck (the road was recently featured in a car commercial to demonstrate exemplary handling on the most dangerous roads in the world). The views, however, were breathtaking as we descended into the arid Anti Atlas region.

We arrived at Zagora in the afternoon and left the pavement behind us in order to reach a Bedouin camp on the edge of the desert. Ali furnished us with head scarves and instructed us on how to tie them while a few Bedouin men and boys readied our camels. We mounted the dromedaries and were arranged into a caravan line to make our exit from the camp. We wound between and around the shifting dunes led by a Bedouin guide as the sun set over the desert, arriving at an encampment near the border with Algeria an hour later.

The nomadic Bedouins of the Moroccan desert have dropped in number significantly in recent decades. The younger generation prefers life in towns and cities to the unforgiving desert landscape and modern transportation has eliminated the lucrative trade routes that sustained the Bedouins for centuries. The few families that still eke out an existence in the desert do so by inviting tourist into their tents and marketing their culture to romantics. Similarly affected by modernity are the Gnawa musicians who provide entertainment in the desert camps. With roots in the reaches of Mali, these musicians have played for merchant coin from Zagora to Timbuktu for centuries and now provide yet another attraction for desert tourist. The Gnawa chanted and played on the rugs outside our tent after supper, smelling deeply of camel and hashish. I joined them for a song after trying out one of their traditional banjos and found a common ground upon which to communicate across the language barrier. Rhythm and harmony sound the same in either English or Arabic. 

We woke up at sunrise under the desert sky and mounted our camels once more for a look at the dunes. Sore after the previous day’s ride, we opted for a morning walk after thirty minutes of punishment. None of us had been raised as these desert men and our muscles hated every swaying moment of the camels the Bedouin found so comfortable. Ali picked us up from our camp and brought us back through the Tichka to another riad in Marrakech. This ornate villa boasted a spectacular night time view of Katoubia Mosque, the longtime sigil of this ancient city, from the rooftop but lacked the personable appeal of our previous accommodations.

The following day saw us to cooking class to learn the art of the tagine, a traditional Moroccan cooking vessel. We spent the morning shopping for ingredients at the vegetable stalls and spice souks then preparing a chicken tagine lunch complete with traditional “salads” under the supervision of a local chef. The results were delightful and gave B the courage to purchase a tagine for ourselves. We enjoyed an afternoon walk around the medina and spent the evening on street food and wine as the familiar atmosphere of a country rapt by football surrounded us.

We toured the historic mansion of a famous merchant before boarding the train to Casablanca that last day in Morocco. Our lightening tour of this North African gem was coming to a close all too soon and the mists of the Atlantic were as good a place as any to spend our last night on the continent. An evening departure gave us time enough in the morning to explore the Mosque of Hassan II, the third largest mosque in the world and the only one to allow non-muslims to enter. Completed in the 1990’s, the mosque boasts amazingly ornate features, public baths, and titanium doors (containing enough material for 6 space shuttles). Proof positive that mankind still has faith enough to build incredible monuments to God that will last hundreds of years. B and I said goodbye to her folks and arrived at the airport in good time. They had generously offered to take some of our luggage to the States, leaving us with only what we carried upon our backs. We boarded an 18 passenger plane to Portugal with a prayer and said goodbye to Africa. The great continent no longer just a mother, but to us, a family.

 Katoubia Mosque miniret in Marrakech

 52 Days: Zagora to Timbuktu (by camel)

Camel that Ali knows in Ouarzazate, "he drinks a coke"

The ancient casbah fortress of Ait Be Haddou

Baths beneath the Mosque of Hassan II

Gnawa singing 'Ali Baba' at our camp. The locals referred to me as Ali Baba on account of my facial hair style

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