Saturday, July 14, 2012

"Sleepless in Casablanca?"

July 9, 2012

What seems to be a no brainer can often times become a brain burner. Such is our predicament in deciding where to spend our last night before catching an early morning flight home via Paris and Amsterdam.

The Casablanca airport is located miles from any hotel except one, the Atlas Airport Hotel. The hotel has a generous rating of 2.5/5, with numerous complaints about its poor service and dumpiness. We feel the hotel and its lack of any competition may be owned by the king or some army general. Internet sources indicate it is fully booked.

Staying in a distant Casablanca hotel for a few hours then trying to find an expensive early
 morning taxi seems problematic.

Changing our flight to a later one means a late night arrival in Minneapolis at an additional cost of $3,900 plus a $500 airline fee seems extravagant.

Sleeping in the airport seems to be the only viable though horrific solution.

Why this is worthy of a few words on this blog is these choices plagued our trip for days, until the night before we were able to book a room. Issue resolved. End of story.
 Atlas Airport Hotel, Casablanca
(Official hotel website photo)
The hotel is something out of the space bar scene in "Star Wars". Its guests, including us, are creatures from distant lands thrown together. We have no complaints. The showers and air-conditioning work. The bed, sans a few sheets, is sleepable. Our predawn shuttle driver awaits us after the first prayers of the day and a surprise breakfast. We give it a 3.5 rating just because it is dumpy and are thankful.


July 8, 2012

Ouarzazate is a city on the Saharan side of the Atlas Mountains. It is also known as "Quallywood". The city, its studios, film museum, and landscape are the reasons why such movies as "Babel", "Gladiator", "Kundun", "Lawrence of Arabia". and other desert-themed movies are made here.

The person who sold me the tour assured me the van would be air-conditioned and the driver would speak English. It van was air-conditioned. It just didn't work. As for the driver he was good and safe, his English consisted of "Huh?".

The trip in a rented van takes four hours one way over the Atlas Mountains with hundreds of switchbacks, missing guard rail sections, trucks, and large tour buses. Of the starting eight people, one couple got out early to catch a bus back to Marrakesh after the woman vomited at the side of the road for twenty minutes, another young man passenger simply vomited in the van and continued.

Mary took and passed out to others her Peace Corps motion sickness pills. Other than bruises on my thigh and her gasps, the trip went well.

The road to Quarzazate

Medina of Ouarzazate
Medina of Ouarzazate

Entrance to movie studio
 Movie set

French High Society and us

July 7, 2012

The "Bab Hotel" in Marrakesh is described in the "Lonely Planet" as "upscale boutique", a trend setter. For us backpackers, it seemed like our kind of out-of-the-way place: a totally black painted toilet with a roll of toilet paper in a lighted niche; a washroom on the other side of the room with glass vessels, glass-walled rain shower, no soap dish, and heated towel rack; mini bar; no clock; master light switch; sliding doors; the walls covered with B&W photos of Andy Warhol with celebrities; outside our hall door, walls covered with sheer curtains bathed in soft pink light, a white large number "4" stood to announce our level.

We knew we where in a different world when we went to the roof top "Sky Bar". There seated opposite the entry in our best, but slightly wrinkled and auspiciously odorous clothes, we witnessed to the most gorgeous French people in the world entering, each more beautiful and stylish than the last.

We then knew, they had nothing on us.

 Sky Bar
 Dining Room
 Interior signage
Arriving guest (not Mary)


July 7, 2012

Marrakesh, the ancient city and major tourist destination, is all that it is hyped up to be. Construction cranes dot the skyline with new resorts seemingly everywhere beyond the medina walls.

The major attraction is the "Djemaa el-Fna" square in the middle of the walled city. It is literally an 24/7 circus with snake charmers, fortune tellers, musicians, monkeys, Moroccan clowns, orange juice vendors, hawkers imploring you to a restaurant, traders in just about everything vying for space amongst zooming motorbikes, cars, dazed tourist, and horse drawn carriages.

It was too much for us. We walked around it for about 30 minutes, ate some food, looked at each other, and returned to our hotel.


July 4, 2012

To celebrate July 4th, we walked along the seaside promenade of Assilah for a wonderful meal of vendor cooked snails and a visit to the amusement park. Mary said she wasn't hungry.

Hanna, our Samoan Peace Corps travelling companion now a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia, and I enjoying snails. Snail broth is equally delectable.
Seaside amusement park, Assilah.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Marrakesh Express

July 6, 2012

Train travel in Morocco was quite inexpensive and efficient with beautiful stations. We decided to upgrade in advance for a few extra dollars to a First Class compartment for the long trip between Rabat and Marrakesh (not quite as romantic as "The Marrakesh Express" of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but just as eye opening).

In our six seated compartment were four to five women; a family of four consisting of a grandmother and her daughter,traditionally garbed, not veiled, another older daughter in western dress with her attractive eighteen year old daughter in tight, metal-studded jeans and sleeveless top. A fifth older unrelated woman in traditional dress entered the cabin at the next station. The eighteen year old and her aunt spoke English, the others French, but they could also pick up on some English words. There we sat with the two older women reading their Koran's, later one on her Kindle, and the two younger ones on their smart phones. This was going to be a long trip, or so I thought.

Talking to people about their smart phones was always a good way to start a conversation, especially about how much they pay. So it began.

When I mentioned that I had fasted during entire Ramadan and worked with Muslim exchange program,YES, the conversation suddenly came to life with all involved, speaking in tongues of French, English, Arabic, Berber, and who knows what else, veritable Babel.

What became clear to Mary and me was their desire to make clear to us the differences between good and bad Muslims, as well as, between good and bad translations and interpretations of the Koran. These all were intelligent, well-educated women trying to understand us as we were trying to understand them.

After exchanging email addresses and all getting off at Marrakesh, Mary and I tried to grasp what we had just experienced. How easy for us to mistake what we perceive to be overly-covered, outwardly withdrawn and suppressed women while they probably took us as being immodest and garrulous. How difficult it was to understand a different culture. How easy it was to jump to generalizations.

Thursday, July 12, 2012


July 4-5, 2012

Rabat is the capital city on the coast Morocco with about 2.5 million. Compared to the chaos of Casablanca and Tangier, Rabat is staid and organized.
Our top floor room at the old French era Hotel Royal in the center of Rabat has a wonderful patio overlooking a park. This follows my pathetic pleas after being shown our first "rat's nest" room.
Other than our continuing trip-long shortage of toilet paper, the place had a touch of aged elegance.
Moroccans don't readily talk about their own politics. Although technically a democracy (aren't they all?), it is ruled by a king, Mohammed VI who follows his somewhat notorious father, Hassen II, and the "Years of Lead". This quiet student lead street demonstartion is about freeing people jailed without trail for expressing their opposition to the government.

Note: Morocco is considered a non-NATO ally of the U.S.

Moroccan Weddings, Assilah

July 5, 2012

The main activity in Morocco during the day is sitting and drinking tea.
It is the night when all comes alive!

Moroccan summer is wedding time. The night is filled with blaring Moroccan horns and drums as wedding processions march down the streets. The procession is led by a man holding a shelf of wheat followed by a line of male dancers.
Next comes the bride being carried aloft in a veiled carriage.
Finally, girls and women trail behind yelling well wishes to the bride.
The receptionist at the hotel desk describes European/American weddings as quiet affairs. How right she is!

We can't get any sleep.
The only thing to do is join the parade in our pajamas.

Friday, July 6, 2012


July 5, 2012
Exhaustion is one of those words you don't read about in travel magazines. Jet-lag, yes, as a form of being tired, but exhaustion is just too exhausting a subject to handle.

There are two types of exhaustion; one physical, the other mental.

The physical exhaustion comes about from lack of routine. There are the common causes like lack of sleep, moving your bags from one place to another, irregular eating times and foods.

Mental exhaustion is harder to overcome. It is dealing with the strangeness of a place, the customs you expect, but don't get or others don't respond. It is turning a corner to find you are suddenly lost and those you seek direction have no idea what you are talking about, or will help you for a fee. It is planning your next step and wondering whether taking another step is really worth the effort.

Yet, it is knowing that exhaustion awaits you which makes it all the more adventuresome. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Sheltering Sky

July 4, 2012

One of my favorite books is "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles. The story is about a group of wandering Americans in Morocco. They have no real schedule or planned destinations. They just wander without purpose. The story has always intrigued me and may be the reason for my desire to visit Morocco.

Here we are like the characters in the book, just wandering with no real destination, other than to catch a plane for the return trip (which the characters never do). There is a strangeness about drums beating all night until dawn outside our window, restaurants not being open until 8:00pm, women in all sorts of dress, the streets overflowing at night, and language misunderstandings. It is not frightening, just strange.


July 2, 2012

Assilah is a small resort town south of Tangiers on the Atlantic Coast. It looks like a Greek town with bright whitewashed buildings, but with a typical walled medina found throughout Morocco. The mayor boasts that it is clean like a Swiss town. This is the case where tourists and we are located. The women really like it. The town is a favorite of rich Moroccans who own the houses within the old city.

Since Assilah has nice beaches, cool breezes, and wine served in some of the restaurants, we plan to stay 3-4 nights.
 Part of Assilah's wall
Hanna and Mary enjoying a relaxing stroll
On the ramparts

Paradise Beach

July 3, 2012

While I "rested", Mary and Hanna took off to fabled Paradise Beach a few miles from town for a swim (Mary forgot the bottoms of her bathing suit) and a seaside lunch.
 The way down to the beach when  you don't take the more expensive cab.
The journey down is best told by Mary.
Part of Paradise Beach
 Camels by the sea
 Mama camel with babies and extra luggage

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Courteous Americans

July 3, 2012
Courteous? This is not a word one hears often describing Americans. Yet this is what a desk clerk said here in Assilah, when comparing her American guests to the numerous Spanish and French visitors.

I am wondering whether our inability to communicate and total unfamiliarity with Moroccan customs have anything to do with our reticence to exert ourselves?


June 30-July 1, 2012
To get from Fez to the Rif Mountain town of Chefchaouen, we took a modern, Greyhound like, bus for five hours through the fertile valleys and hills of this area.

The landscape is filled with large fields of moan wheat, olive tree orchards, vineyards, and grazing livestock. I was amazed at the high level of mechanized agriculture. There did not seem to be many small subsistence-level farms, but poor families working larger farms. In many ways, the topography
reminds me of the American west.

Chefchaouen is a picture postcard town in the Rif Mountains and a popular tourist destination (50% of the worlds hash is grown in the region). The buildings are built into the side of a mountain and are painted white with lots of blue tones. The temperatures are mild, even cool at night. The architecture is from southern Spain and the people speak a lot of Spanish. The town plaza is filled with open restaurants, shops, and a Kasbah. Very delightful feel. Inexpensive and good food. Difficult to move on.

Street Scene
Tower of the Kasbah
View from Kasbah Tower
Spanish Mosque overlooking city
Need more be said?

We discovered a route between our small hotel and the main plaza. Although it was not the shortest and required us to walk up and down a couple of steep hills, we had learned our lesson not to stray from the  way we knew among these mazes which they call streets.

Sometimes you just need to take a nap.


June 29, 2012
Meknes is a large city not too far from Fez. It is centered in a rich agricultural region, vineyards abound.   Wine is one of its most important products.

Outside the palace in Meknes

Lots of ceramics sold in the square, especially tagines,
 kind of clay Dutch ovens, used in a lot in Moroccan cooking.
 Olives, olives, and more olives