Travels with George: Morocco

Travels with George: Morocco
My wife, Paula, and I are drawn to the unusual in our travel tastes. Part of our joy in this process is observing how other cultures exist around the world. In the past we have visited many countries including India, Bhutan, Cambodia, Peru, Laos, Zimbabwe and Namibia. What all these destinations have in common is that they are profoundly different from life here in the U.S. All these past adventures led us to choose Morocco as a part of a broader trip to Europe this past May. 
We began our journey in Marrakech, a city of approximately 1.5 million that is the gateway to southern Morocco and a traditional trade connection to Africa. The night we arrived, we received a call from our guide, Mohammed, who invited us to dine with him at his riad, a typical residence framed around a courtyard. Consistent with Muslim custom, the entrance to most compounds are very plain and do not reveal anything about what is behind the outer walls. We walked through the medina (the old city) around 9:00 p.m. and the streets were teeming with activity. The deeper we went into the labyrinth, the more confused we became. Rounding a corner, we finally found a nondescript door and tentatively knocked. Mohammed answered and guided us into one of the most stunning interiors we had ever seen. Beautiful mosaic tiles, architectural carvings in stone, and infinitely detailed woodwork framed every inch of this fabulous riadWe then sat down to a five-course Moroccan feast accompanied by very good Moroccan rose wine and stimulating conversation about contemporary life in Morocco. 

The next two days we walked extensively around the mind-boggling alleyways of the medina experiencing everything from gold merchants, snake charmers, carpet sellers and hammans (spas/community baths), to potion and oil vendors and, of course, food stalls. 

The food one finds in Morocco is likely to be fresh, locally grown and homemade, rather than being shipped in from other parts of the world. The produce and protein also are cultivated in an old-fashioned manner without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  

We ate lots of lamb and chicken, both roasted and prepared in a tagine, a distinctive Moroccan clay cooking vessel. Wonderful salads called “messe” came with most of our dinners. Dishes might include lemony cucumbers, roasted and spiced eggplant, couscous, herbed beets, cumin-spiked chickpeas, and pumpkin puree with cinnamon and honey. At lunch one day we stopped at a food stall and watched the vendor chop up an entire baby lamb that had been slow-roasted for hours in a wood-fired pit. This dish, called “Mechoui,” was served with couscous and prunes and placed on wax paper. We guzzled a couple of cold beers and devoured the meat with our fingers, Moroccan-style. One final word about Marrakech – do not miss Yves St. Laurent’s gift to Morocco, the Jardin de Majorelle, a fantastic series of gardens and design flourishes that are emblematic of the influence of the arts and fashion in Marrakech. From the Rolling Stones and Beatles to St. Laurent, Armani and Bulgari, these world-famous style-setters have been deeply influenced by Moroccan culture.
Our next destination was through the high Atlas Mountains into Berber country. The Berbers are the most numerous indigenous ethnic group in Morocco with their own separate language and customs. We began to see their influence upon entering the mountains east of Marrakech, the highest peak of which is Jebel Toubkel at 13,600 feet. We spent most of our first day driving through the mountains and seeing our first Berber villages, which appear to be frozen in a centuries old time-warp.
Our guide informed us that each village has its own distinctive culture and relations between villages tend to be limited. Marriages often are between cousins. The village houses we encountered were uniformly made from mud with dirt floors and had only intermittent electricity. But many, oddly enough, had a cable dish on the roof! (The Moroccan government pays for their TV.) Transportation generally was by donkey or motor scooter, so one can imagine that the local culture is severely constrained by distance from urban centers and economic subsistence levels focused primarily on agriculture. One of our stops was a large commercial center named Ait Benhaddou which has a Unesco-protected Kasbah and was the site of the filming of Lawrence of Arabia, Jewel of the Nile, Babel and Gladiator. Further down the road is town named Ouarzazate which is the unlikely center for the film industry in Morocco. We passed two large complexes that were purported to be major players in the international film business, although, from the outside, we certainly were not reminded of Universal Studios. (Keep in mind, we were six hours by car from the nearest large city and seemingly smack in the middle of nowhere.)
Our destination for the next three days was an idyllic small hotel named Dar Ahlam in the tiny Berber village of Skoura. The property had previously been a wealthy man’s Kasbah and would be comparable to a boutique hotel in our country, except Dar Ahlam had about 10 acres of beautiful landscaped grounds. Every meal we had at Dar Ahlam was at an individual table set somewhere on the property in a completely private setting. Once in the orchard with our own tent, once in the garden surrounded by flowers and once on a rooftop overlooking the grounds...very romantic.
Another wonderful feature of this magical place was the evening gathering of the small number of guests for cocktails. We met lively and interesting travelers from France, Argentina, Switzerland and the U.S. Each day we would venture out to nearby villages, once to see a real country market where the local surrounding communities come once a week to trade. Think of a mini swap meet combined with a farmer's market. One could buy used utensils, used toasters, irons, old tires converted to planter pots, sandals, tote bags, rustic antique jewelry, donkeys, cattle, goats, sheep or baby chicks.
There was no waste. They even sold empty used drinking water bottles to be used for storage of spices and oils. It was refreshing to see that in this poor economy nothing was “thrown away.” Other destinations nearby include the Valley of the Roses , the Dades Gorge (a mini-Grand Canyon) and the Draa Valley.
We spent eight days in Morocco and felt that we barely scratched the surface of this complicated country. We did not see the beach towns like Essaouira along the Atlantic coast, or the famous old walled city of Fez, or the business and financial center of the country in Casablanca. We did not camp at the edge of the Sahara in M’Hamid or tour the old hippie enclaves of Tangier. Paula and I have future plans to return to see these and other new and fascinating sites. Any traveler who loves the adventure associated with truly foreign places will find Morocco to be a stimulating and rewarding destination.