To visit Morocco is still like turning pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines. ~ Edith Wharton
The other night I attended my granddaughter's dance recital. She was in several numbers but her colourful veil dance set to the beat of the oud and the riq, instruments of middle eastern music, was most enticing and it brought back wonderful images of a week I spent in Morocco last year. Of all the places I have visited, Morocco leaves an indelible imprint for its many contrasts and its exotic experiences.
We traveled from very cosmopolitan cities such as Rabat and seaside Casablanca to unforgettable Marrakesh where we visited the Koutoubia Mosque and the Saadian Tombs and experienced the bustling night life during an hour-long caleche ride through various city streets. In Marrakesh or the red city, the contrasts are most jarring: the snake charmers are found not far from the exclusive boutiques and high-end hotels.
Our next destination was Ouarzazate in southern Morocco, home of two immense movie studios and location of films such as Gladiator, The Mummy, and Prince of Persia. To get there, we would be driving through the high Atlas Mountains and we were advised to take a motion sickness pill before our climb began. Our guide, Rachid, wasn't kidding. In one 30 km section of the road, there were no less than 99 hairpin bends if we cared to count. By this time, the passengers who were nauseous had moved to the back of the bus while I was gripping the edge of my seat listening to those who were ooohing and ahhhing at the deep gorges that appeared on one side or the other or even on both sides of the road.
High up in the mountains we felt the cool refreshing air on our skin. And then we saw snowploughs stored away for the summer. Snowploughs in Morocco? Whaaat? Our guide told us that they do get snow at this high altitude. In this rather barren area, people survive by selling fossils and beautiful rocks with minerals and semi precious stones.
From Ouarzazate to Erfoud, castles or kasbahs appeared here and there as well as adobe houses as we continued along our route. A little lower, closer to the valleys, there were walnut and apple trees, olive groves, dates, fig, juniper, pistachio, cedar, pine trees and fields of roses. We saw few animals other than sheep that were fed alfalfa. Families do not have enough land here to feed livestock. We see cooperatives for milk or for argon oil. The women in the argon oil cooperatives have been quite successful in selling their oil to the beauty industry and it is touted as beneficial for all types of ailments.
In Erfoud, the sky was dark and menacing. There was talk of a storm approaching. Our group was split up and our Berber drivers would bring us to Erg Chebbi, the desert sand dunes of the northern reaches of the Sahara, 45 minutes or so from our hotel. (http://www.journeybeyondtravel.com/news/morocco-travel/erg-chebbi-morocco-2.html)
On this grey overcast day, the desert is an eerie place. It is as if a big bowl has been placed over the entire area from which nothing can escape and every sound is muffled. To the uninitiated like us, there are no visible signposts to guide us to our destination. In the distance we see dromedaries and an occasional stone hut.
By the time we reach the big Berber tent in the midst of this vastness, a sand storm is working itself into a fury. There is no escaping the grit. It is in our hair, our ears, our eyes, and even in our mouths. I feel like every drop of moisture has been sucked out of my skin.
We seek shelter in the tent staying out of the storm for about an hour while some people in our group go out for more sand blasting (great natural skin cleanser) further into the desert on dromedaries. By the time we are all ready to return to our hotel, it is dark. Again, our amazing driver navigates very confidently over the dunes and around the rocks, and we reach the well-lit paved road within an hour. What a thrill this whole experience has been!
Morocco is a land of breathtaking open spaces, of deserts, canyons and caves and gorges. It is a window to the past with its kasbahs, and medieval walls. But Morocco is also a chaotic labyrinth of crowded souks and leather tanneries where the sights and smells overwhelm the North American sensitivities. Then again, it is a land of olive groves as far as the eye can see, of strawberry fields, of vast arable lands, of pristine beaches and fields of sweet smelling roses. It is a place of friendly family meetings in town squares and sidewalk cafes where everyone is welcomed with sweet tea and honey-coated desserts. In Morocco, you will never be bored.