Sunday, May 22, 2011


The main entrance to the Fez Medina
When Idris finally dropped us off in Fez we were able to avoid the typical "locate your hostel needle in the haystack medina" by calling up the riad and having someone come meet us. Although similar to Marrakesh in many ways, Fez seemed to lacked the giant central square and bustling souk.

But, the architecture was beautiful. Especially the main gate which featured three Moroccan doors with blue tile. From the front you could also see distant minarets framed in the biggest door. The blue tiles of the gates were also present in the many fountains throughout the Medina. These fountains were used by locals and livestock to get a midday drink or do a quick was up.
Fountain in the Medina
Fez is famous for their leather tanning and we were able to get a quick overhead tour of one of the tanneries. The easiest way to arrange this is to wander the souk until someone offers to show you around. The obviously expect you to visit their shop afterward but its easy enough to just say you aren't interested and not buy anything.
The process consists of dipping the hide in several vats which complete different parts of the process. These vats include, lye, pigeon droppings and other really good smelling stuff. Afterward, the hides are dyed and laid out in the sun to dry before they are cut to make various leather products.
Skins drying in the sun
The rest of the time in Fez we spent wandering the streets to see some of the various sights and taste a camel burger or two (actually just one).

Fuel Donkey

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Moroccan Sahara on a Camel with no name

How ya doin?
That night we headed to the edge of the Moroccan Sahara to prepare for our night in the desert. But first, Idris took us to see a surprise - which was an actual lake in the middle of the desert, with flamingos. It was really surreal. The flamingos weren't pink, because there was no shrimp, but just seeing the water will all of the birds in the middle of the arid landscape was amazing. I definitely thought it was a mirage until we were literally touching it.

Idris at the desert lak

As with most of these tours, the plan was to check into a desert hotel at the edge of the Dune Line where we could leave our things and get ready for our camel trek. Part of this preparation was covering our heads with our newly purchased scarves to protect us from the desert sun. It was a pretty good look for me... or not.
Next we headed out to meet our camels. Based on our previous experience we expected all our camels to have super cute names. This was not the case. We were told our Camel had no name, which promoted several rounds of singing "I rode through the desert on a camel with no name." I'm sure our guides hates us.
The Camel ride started out fun, but after an hour the novelty wore off I can tell you that I could die happy without riding another camel. Its really not the most comfortable mode of transportation and the view (camel butt) is a little off putting.
But we rode into the desert....

And rode....
And rode....

And rode some more.
After about two hours we stopped so that we could climb up a dune and watched the sunset. In the mean time I found a little friend. It was apparently a sand fish, which is basically a tiny snake with really tiny legs. I seem really pleased to be hanging out. together. Much more so than him.
Our two travel companions were a couple names Jack and Bernie from some Midwestern state. They told us they were inspired to travel to Morocco when they saw two camels in a Walmart parking lot. They were fully decked out in safari clothes and I think having the time of their life. However, Jack was a bit overweight and had some problems climbing the giant sand dune. Luckily we made it up just in time for the sunset.
The Sahara was actually very windy, and sand was blowing everywhere. I was really thankful for my head scarf because it could be used to cover my face so I was breathing in sand all the time. I tried to photo demonstrate the wind by picking up handfuls and letting the wind blow the sand off my palm. It didn't really translate so well but you get the idea:

After another half hour on camel back we finally reached our Bedouin camp destination. It was too dark for many pictures, but basically imagine a bunch of carpet tents set around a larger carpet. Then there is a camel parking lot nearby. And there are lots of sand dunes. We got there at around 7 pm and had to wait another three hours for dinner... with was more (not) delish Tanjine. I seriously almost cried. Dang Tajine.

When we finally got to sleep, a huge windstorm picked up, which meant I spent most of the night huddled in my sleeping back trying not to freeze to death. There had been talk of climbing a dune to see the sunrise, but in the end we just pulled our blankets out in front of our tent and watched from there. We all knew we had a loooong camel ride ahead of us.
More riding. Idris insisted on walking with frequent stops to meditate in very visible locations. He said that only women and children rode Camels. I think I would have preferred to walk because I was super sore from my previous camel ride, but that didn't really seem to be an option.
We finally made it back to the hotel for a quick shower before we hit the road again on the way to our destination of Fez. We had a long drive, but we did have time to stop to visit some monkeys. We brought peanuts and they were our best friends, begging and harassing us until we fed them.

One of the monkeys even had a baby on her back. I tried to feed her the most but one of male monkeys was pretty possessive of our time....

The Moroccan Countryside

After our time in Marrakesh, we had booked a tour to take us up through the atlas mountains, through the Todra Gorge and to the Sahara on our way the Fez. The tour was for three days with our guide and driver Idris. Idris... was a bit of a card and very full of himself. Day one was okay, day two was a little worse and by day three I never wanted to hear him talk again. However, we were still on day one and still okay with him and more importantly the air conditioned card.
After leaving the city, it was really amazing how beautiful the Moroccan countryside was. The contrast between the dessert landscape and the occasional green around the river valley made from some really cool overlooks.
I basically don't remember where we went. This is the main problem in my mind with booking a tour rather than planning it yourself. You get a list of places you will go and you say "okay" and then you sit back and get taken them to them. You get out, snap a couple of photos, listen to the guide and then you are done. If you have to do all the painstaking planning and figuring out transportation then you sure as heck know exactly what you saw and why you saw it.
We first visited a pretty run down building in the middle of no where. Its pretty much famous for its view from this window. Which is a pretty good view - I'll give it that.
After that, more driving. Lots of fertile valleys in the middle of barren desert mountains. Idris kept having like communing moments with nature that involve meditating. The whole thing would have been a bit more believable if he hadn't carried two cell phones which never stopped ringing.
Next onto the UNESCO world hertiage site of Aït Benhaddou - better known as the site where Gladiator (and many othe movies) was filmed.
The best part was the river you had to cross to get there using sand bags as stepping stones.

Also, the place was a Kasbah, so I got a lot of mileage on the song "Rock the Kasbah"- made it totally worth the trip. Sadly, there isn't much to do there and no one really lives there anymore. Taken over my tourists and shops.

Finally our first day was over and we stopped at some random hotel (the worst of the trip) to catch the sunrise and eat yet more Tanjine. It was around this time that I made a pact with god involving never having to see Tajine again. Sadly, I would see it every day till we went home. Idris took the oppertunity to tell us he never sleeps and jsut relies on coffee and cigerettes to get by. Not what you want to hear from the man responsible for driving you through the desert.

The next day we headed to the Todra Gorge on our way to the Sahara. We basically just drove through and took some photos - another problem with yours, there is no time to stop and smell the roses (or camels). We did stop at a food market nearby where we purchased turbans. Although this was a completely unnecessary purchase, Idris told us we would need a head cover of some kind for the desert sun and also I wanted to look awesome (next post you will find out this was not the case).
Moroccan Parking Lot

Drink Vendor keeping his wares cool

The Todra Gorge

Todra Gorge with Donkey