Worcester State University Faculty Led Morocco Program – 2013 (Day 5)
This leg of the trip is by far the most exhausting – but it is made easier to handle because the group stops regularly at many different cities and towns along the way so that it is broken up. There are hours of driving ahead. If you are able to sleep, I would suggest catching some zzz’s on the bus TODAY while driving because later on tonight is going to be full of dancing, laughter and music when you arrive in Merzouga.
—- *Blog Photographs are Courtesy of Christopher Lippmann, one of thirteen WSU Morocco 2013 Travelers | **Video Links are short ‘clips’ uploaded from the entire WSU Group to our WSU Flickr Account to enhance the blog experience. —-
Today we left our hotel bright and early, we were all packed, and had eaten breakfast by 7:30 am. We began our travels on the roads in the Low Atlas Mountains. Our first stop of the day was in Ifrane. This town was incredibly clean, beautiful and for some reason reminded me of Switzerland. It is a college town up in the mountains and is very well maintained. We stopped to fill out some postcards and dropped them off at the local post office. Storks flew over head which we recognized from the birds that were nesting at Volubilis on the ruins. We walked around perfectly manicured grounds to a giant stone lion that was carved out of rough stone.
- A stone lion carved in Ifrane.
Side Note: ifran means “caves” in Tamazight, the regional Berber language.
Ifrane is definitely the cleanest town or city we have been to so far. We really enjoyed this quick visit. All of us girls (Me, Meghan, Kayla, Olivia and Victoria went shopping for gifts). I found a nice set of matching ammolite fossils. Surprisingly, there are many fossils around here in the mountains and they are very inexpensive! The air was crisp and refreshing. Such a nice little stop and shop.
Here we go…back on the road – Christopher snapped pictures of the countryside. There is very beautiful country out here.
Driving. Stopped at this castle place that we dubbed “Moroccan Disney Land”. Took pictures of two giant pots. We are all uncertain as to what this place is called. When I asked Mohamed about this place, he said, “The country of UAE built that, I am not sure what is the name.” I guess that I will need to do a little more digging to find out.
We drove through many practically deserted towns (Azrou, Hajab, Ain Louh, Errchidia, Arfoud).
While we were driving, Mohamed taught us about a town nearby named Ain Louh where prostitution rate was really high. NY Times did an article on this town and helped create micro loans to teach women different trades (like basket weaving) to have a source of income different than through prostitution. We did not visit this small town, just drove by it. It is in the Middle Atlas region. I have learned that azro means “rock” or “stone” in Berber language.
Adil stopped driving in the middle of the woods in the mountains because he saw three monkeys. They live in the cedar forests and are Barbary Macaques, or Macaca sylvanus. He fed them cookies through the window and we took pictures of them. I have never seen monkeys in the wild before. It was an interested experience. The forest was beautiful – called the Cedre Gouraud Forest in the Middle Atlas Region.
A little ways up the road we stopped. Everyone spent a good 30 minutes snapping pictures of a whole group of monkeys. There was even a mother and her baby. At this stop, there were a few stalls selling wares. I bought 2 camels made of the same stone that the pyramids were build with. I’m not sure if this is true or just a selling ploy, but either way, the stone was warm, alive and very smooth to the touch. I couldn’t help buying them. In the dark shadows of the shop I saw a pile of items wrapped in newspaper. Curious, I took one down from the dusty shelf and unwrapped it. A beautifully preserved fish fossil swam before my eyes. I was intrigued. The one that I had taken down from the shelf was probably as long as my forearm and perfectly intact.
The shop keeper could see that I wanted it and asked a ridiculous amount for it. I believe that he asked for 2,300.00 dirham. This is approximately the equivalent of $630.00 US Dollars. I couldn’t be swayed. In Morocco, you learn to walk away from shop keepers but that doesn’t keep them from following you around. “How much you pay?” “How much for this?” “What you pay?” “What can you afford?” NEVER show interest in an item. When I threw back a number at the shopkeeper, he laughed. “300 Dirham? – sphsawww… I need to live for my family!” I shrugged and walked away. I wish I got that fish!
Brightly decked out horses stood on the side of the road with braided reins for photos, but none of us rode them. They were immaculately groomed dark chestnut beauties with long silky manes. This was the location that started the dagger obsession. Everyone, especially Megan, was obsessed with daggers.
The monkeys loved AJ — they were jumping all over him trying to get food!
We drove through a small town called Timahdit. I looked up information about this town and details online say that the 2004 population of Timahdit was only 2,507. This small town is found on the N13 National road through the Atlas Mountains which is where we were traveling. The town has very harsh winters and the roads can sometimes be impassable for months during the winter months due to heavy snowfall.
There are fields and fields of bright red poppy flowers out here. We were out of the hotel this morning at 7:40am and it is only 11:40am — we have seen so much in just the past 4 hours! A farmer and herder just waived a stick with a piece of cloth on the end to get his sheep out of our way on the road. Our van has passed numerous nomadic tents out in the dry arid landscape. Every once in a while we will see manmade obelisk or stone structure that seems completely out of place in this broad, empty landscape.
Sometimes characters are painted onto the landscape in gigantic characters. Other times they are created with rocks in patterns against the mountain walls. I wonder what they read.
Drive to Midelt
Midelt is known for its apples, there is a very large apple fountain in the center of town. We are literally out in the middle of the desert. My pen died from writing notes about our travels in the black book so much, Olivia was nice enough to allow me to borrow hers for a while. If you are planning on recording your travel experiences on paper, definitely make sure that you have backup pens. They are very hard to come by out here.
We took photos at an oasis out in the mountains after visiting Midelt — there was no vegetation lining the water, the water was a magnificent turquoise blue color. We drove through the gorges called Gorges du Ziz. The roads were very windy through here, but not nearly as bad as the Road of 1000 Kasbahs which I will talk about later on!
We stopped in Er-Rachidia for lunch at a café and to charge the battery for Christopher’s camera since we were going to be way out in the desert without any real way to charge the batteries once we were to arrive in Merzouga.
There was a very strong military presence here with trucks passing and many men in military uniform. The convoy spanned far down the road. Mohamed quickly ushered us into the café for lunch but did not dissuade us from taking furtive photos of the military personnel. We were told to be tactful with taking photos of them.
Lunch was only 70 dirham apiece for salad, water, tea, chicken, rice, french fries, and olives with bread. This is a standard meal and very filling. Our lunch was a little late today, it is around 5pm now. Moroccan time frames for meals are definitely different, at least from what I have experienced so far. We all eat a very light breakfast (usually sliced cucumber, tomato, olives, bread, tea), coffee and/or orange juice. Every so often there are hard boiled eggs. Dinner has consistently been at 10:00pm or later. It is a long day, but completely worth every moment.
After shaking up AirHead candies like crazy people and Kayla’s attempts to secretly feed the neighborhood cats – we loaded up in the van and took off again so that we could make it out to Merzouga before the sun set. Mohamed really wanted to get a photograph of the entire group on a sand dune in the Sahara on our camels as the sun set. It was a tall order and we were falling behind schedule, but we were hoping to get there in time.
It was pretty hot out here in the dusty desert, the AC was blasting but not really doing all that much. It is to be expected though. It wasn’t intolerable, just really warm. We were cruising through little towns and saw a large group of kids on bikes leaving school. Adil asked for directions to Merzouga.
We quickly drove through Arfoud stopping only once. Our group stopped to feed a camel some Coke and take pictures of the giant dinosaur out front of the fossil museum. Inside of the building, we all bought some scarfs for out in the desert for pictures and to protect ourselves from the whipping sandy winds. The sun was setting so quickly! It is 7:18pm and we are still not there! It seems to be taking us forever to get to Merzouga but none of us want to say anything about it. We all keep glancing at the sun.
- Camel says, “Hey! Thanks guys for the Coke, I was parched out here!”
The van bounced all over the place, off-roading at only 10 mph. We were frustrated that we couldn’t go any faster but there wasn’t even a road to see in the sand any longer! We passed another fossil museum with a giant brontosaurus and a giant triceratops out front.
7:45pm — still not there yet! —- All of a sudden an ATV came out of NOWHERE to pick us up. We couldn’t seen any buildings on the horizon but this ATV came bombing out and we all had a dilemma of who would go in the ATV and who would go at a snail’s pace in the van. We ALL decided to go in or ON the ATV. Five or six of us climbed inside and the rest of us climbed on top of the vehicle and clung on for dear life. I’m surprised that nobody bounced off the top!
- Kayla and Tim inside of the ATV on our way out to saddle up on our camels for our night ride.
As soon as we arrived, our camels were already laying down waiting for us all outfitted in their colorful saddles. We threw our leg over and our camels were guided to their massive feet. You never realize how LARGE a camel is until you actually have one stand up with you on it. It seems to be much higher than a horse. It was really neat. All of us started naming out camels to make it more fun. The camel ride was one of my most memorable experiences in Morocco.
The ride itself seemed to last forever, but I didn’t want it to end. Our camels plodded out into the falling darkness and the men who were leading our two caravans of camels would yell back warnings if there were valleys to ride down.
We were up and heading out into the darkness of the desert. Throw your head back and look at the stars. It is unbelievable.
To have a little bit of fun, we started singing songs and clapping our hands. Pat shouted out, “I don’t hear safe riding!” — commenting on our unsafe riding habits when we should be hanging onto our handlebars in front of us on our saddles. We passed a small adobe village that looked abandoned and faded into the darkness. It was very difficult to see. There were absolutely no lights lit there. All of a sudden, a baby cried out. It is strange for me to think that people actually live out their daily lives in the middle of this desert and this is normal life for them. It is so unreal… so different.
We arrived to our destination, a little building warmly lit and inviting after being in the pitch black. We all said thank you to our camels for our ride and walked up to the building. The walls were decorated with tapestries and blankets. There were instruments and random pieces of artwork all around the place. We were immediately offered tea, like usual. Dinner was definitely an experience. We ate at a long, low table by candle light, propped up by pillows. Our meal was a huge tagine with vegetables and beef. It tasted just like beef stew. Christopher and I were just talking about how we really enjoyed having meals with everyone. No matter where we went, it was always very comfortable and plush to relax and talk at the table. We were never rushed and always had a good time. It is expected that after your meal, you would take your time to spend with each other and not just get up and leave. We really like that about sitting down for meals in Morocco.
- A candlelight dinner with friends on a low table seated on plush pillows is the way to end a long day of travelling.
Pillows and stools were all around for us to use and be comfortable, especially on the floor around the spinning hookah.Some of us enjoyed smoking the hookah but we couldn’t put our finger on the flavor of the tobacco; and we all forgot to even ask.
We were guests.
- Performers sang, danced and played cymbals for us after dinner. Omar decided to join in on the fun too.
A few Moroccan performers were clothed in old traditional garb with turbans. They jammed out with us on instruments and finished up the evening by singing/chanting and dancing while playing drums around midnight for us. We said our goodbyes to them and some retired. Others from the group came back out to hang out and dance around.
A couple people from our group were getting sick at this point in time and retired early in the bivouac tents outside set up in a Bedouin fashion. They were brightly colored and had beds made up inside for us to sleep at. When Christopher and I finally retired for the night, a giant sand storm had kicked up and we needed to cover our faces with a thick scarf to be able to see our way back to our sleeping tent. The storm howled all night. We set our alarm for 5:30am so that Mohamed, Christopher and I could see the sunrise over the dunes and take photos. We wrapped up against the sandstorm but wind was still kicked up and too sandy for the camera, we didn’t want the lens to get stuck so we went back to bed for a little longer.
Bed… for a while….