Flying into Marrakech was greeted with just a little free floating apprehension. I don’t know why. It was instantly apparent that it was very….for want of a better word….”foreign”. It was VERY different, and I was on edge. First time ever I got all my luggage x-rayed and physically searched coming into the country. I have no idea why. They weren’t looking for alcoholic beverages, as this area seems remarkably different than the area I was warned about by Mike Darwin. Every hotel had a bar, but alcoholic beverages were quite expensive. Probably supply and demand.
There is al least one five star hotel in Marrakech and they are trying to improve the tourist trade, but it’s a pretty tough sell. rather hostile environment for people that like limos and playing golf. They dammed up the only water supply to provide extra water for the tourist trade and this had the detrimental side effect of decreasing the water table downstream in the desert and so now the nomads are dying out quickly. Seemingly small ecological changes generate huge unplanned consequences.
Trip into town assured me that this city was VERY different than most of the other areas in the world I never paid much attention to. There was no readily apparent variation on any European theme, even though there is a strong French heritage. The hotel was located on a narrow, winding street barely wide enough for a small motorscooter. It was, small, dark and full of intrigue. Mercifully air conditioned although their systems are not terribly efficient. It was unusual but clean and tidy. I hid out the rest of the evening.
Morning spawned a nice breakfast on the roof, with fresh squeezed orange juice and a loud call to prayer over a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque. I was picked up by the driver for the trip over the Atlas mountains to Zagora, the jumping off place for the Sahara, and incidentally, the last outpost of the original French Foreign Legion. But my love life was OK and I had no interest in joining, so I passed on the opportunity. The mountains were very impressive, high passes with no protection on the side of the road for the several thousand foot drop on either side. Myriads of open air vendors with huge stacks of fossils and geodes. Hundreds of trilobites, fossil shells some four feet in diameter, all found in the area. First time I ever saw red crystal geodes. On closer exam though, it was apparent that the vendor had poured food color into them to get the color. It was a long trip full of switchbacks. About eight hours to Zagora.
The weather changed rather dramatically from Marrakech to Zagora. The temperature in the dead of August in Zagora is said to be recorded at 142 F in the sun. Usually around 110 F in the desert. ever a cloud. A monument in the center of town states that the original caravan route from Zagora to Timbuctu (Mali) is 52 days by camel. You can see from the photo that the desert runs right up to the city limits. But the real Sahara starts just after a small mountainous ridge just outside Zagora. It takes about four hours to get over it by Jeep, and then I met my camels.
Camels are truly curious beasts. Said to be capable of about 50 km on a drink of water. Also said to be mean and nasty. Mine weren’t. They seemed resigned to their duty as ships of the desert and never gave anyone a hard time. Getting on and off one is like a roller coaster ride. If not careful to roll with the punches, they’ll toss you right off. When actually walking in the desert (clopping) there is a rhythm that must be accommodated to, and once settling in, I think it is more comfortable than horseback. The full Lawrence of Arabia outfit including headset is mandatory to preserve every molecule of water possible.
The desert does not exude a pall of death, rather an absence of life. There is a difference. Life is plausible in the desert if the requisite conditions are met. But the desert doesn’t care one way or the other. The desert does not give any assistance or advice. Life or death only occurs according to the whims of those willing to wager on seemingly small omissions in logic quickly thaqt generate huge consequences. The desert is just there. It cares little or naught as to the welfare of passers-by. You decide what you will make of it, and the range is possibilities is extensive. I was impressed by the desert in every respect and I maintain a healthy respect for it.
At about noon, everything stops and the camels are hobbled to prevent them running off. They wander off to find any shade possible and the humans do the same. No one, man nor beast ventures out into the sun from noon to about four pm. It’s rough out there. No clouds (no moisture). Just shimmering off the sand. The Sirocco comes up abut three and can be fairly heavy wind. The amount of blowing sand is not usually considerable, but it can be. Sandstorms are fearsome and I’m glad we were not involved in. The Sirocco usually blows out about seven and we stop about eight to make dinner off a small propane stove and ready for bed.
Sleeping under the stars is over rated, even though the temperature becomes much more comfortable at night. A very slight wind cranks up about midnight, just enough to get sand in every orifice. Since there is no light pollution, the stars are bright enough to read newsprint by. First time I have seen the Milky Way in years. the photos tell the rest of the story. Most definitely an experience to remember. Happy to see Zagora again after three days, and another six hours back to Marrakech by jeep.
Next day, off to the “souk” (big shopping den) in Marrakech. Again , the photos tell the story without much narrative. Never saw any Americans but there were lots of French tourists and some Spaniards. Marrakech is a natural for the French since it’s fairly close and with it’s French heritage, everyone on Morocco speaks the language fluently. Very little if any English spoken, so eating at restaurants is a hit or miss proposition. Pick something at random and hope it’s amenable to American taste buds. Lots of things to photograph, again very non-European. King cobras just hanging out on the edge of blankets minding their own business. People walking by ignoring them. Countless rugs. I purchased one for my office that I think is stunning. Weave so tight you cannot get a needle through it. Brilliant colors. They say the women that weave them can only do four rugs in a lifetime and their eyesight goes by age 40. Again, the photos tell the tale better than I can in verbiage.
Several reflections. This was a VERY stressful two week trip for a guy my age to do by myself. In retrospect, I should have broken it up into two trips. It was stressful physically and emotionally, and much of the stress came from flying, airports, hotels and endless waiting for everything. I got some recent photos from my medical school graduating class of 1976 and I was flabbergasted. those guys are OLD and hey look OLD too. Snow white hair and they look old and retired. Many are. And they’re dying like flies too. I refuse to believe I am like that, but I definitely cannot do the same things I could do at age 30 in the same time frame and I must accept that. Damned lucky to be doing any of them at all.
I did not bring a laptop, and in retrospect this was a good decision. I didn’t really need one. Anymore, there is an Internet Cafe on every corner of every city in the world. And my cell phone worked everywhere. What I did bring was my iPod and that was just perfect. I had the entire first season of “24” on it, and I treated myself to two episodes a night before sleep. There was no TV of any kind in Morocco and the Spanish TV had nothing in English. Evenings would have been pretty boring without Jack Bauer and the Counter Terrorist Unit. Ambien was my friend for sleep. I also found out that the new Ambien CR (controlled release) did not work at all. Straight up Ambien 10 mg worked reliably every night and there was no after-effects. Travelers Diarrhea was also my companion, and in retrospect I should have taken some Cipro along to start early. Resolved without any problem.