Definitely not a sandstorm… (Morocco, part 3)

Continuing on our Moroccan adventure…

June 18 – 22

From Midelt we headed towards the Ziz Valley, a deep green snake of palm trees that meanders through the desert for thirty-some-odd kilometers as it follows the water, flanked on either side by earthen towns the same color as the surrounding hills. I remember visiting the same overlook where we stopped when I visited Morocco in 2008; it is a pretty stunning view. The desert seems virtually lifeless but then you come to the edge of a gorge where all of a sudden you can see life in abundance.

Our guide Mohammed grew up in the Ziz Valley; his mother and some of his siblings still live there, and he is building his own house connected to his family’s. We went down into the valley and Mohammed brought us to his family home. His mother had prepared some snacks for us: honey cakes, dates, a traditional mixture of ground almonds and spices, and, of course, mint tea. It being Ramadan, Martin and I enjoyed the treats alone while Mohammed caught up with his family and Yousef took a nap. Everything was delicious and it was very special to be able to experience the traditional foods in a traditional home.

Mohammed also took some time to show us around their house and date farm. Before he started working in the tourism industry, Mohammed worked on his family’s date farm and took the dates into the larger markets to sell. He explained how you have to pollenate the female palm trees by taking the stamen from the male trees and then climbing up to pollenate the trees by hand. He told us how his father died not long ago from falling from a palm tree. Mohammed changed professions because now he has to help support his mother and younger siblings.

I think this was one of the most special and interesting experiences we had in Morocco. It was a very authentic slice of Moroccan life and culture, we got to see something that wasn’t geared towards tourists, and got to ask Mohammed questions about his life and family.

From the Ziz Valley we headed to Merzouga, just on the edge of the Sahara desert, where we met our transport to take us to our accommodation for the night. Yup, we rode camels out into the dunes of the Sahara desert and spent the night in a Berber camp. This was also a pretty cool, if touristy, experience. There were just five of us on camels, plus our desert guide, Mohammed (different person). Mohammed led us through the dunes, five camels all in a line, their funny gait making us all sway from side to side.

Just a few minutes into our dessert journey at dusk, we turned around and saw a dark wall of rain coming towards us. Now, we had previously asked our regular guide Mohammed if there were ever sand storms and he assured us that it was only ever little ones, like dust devils. Looking forward to a little bit of cooling rain, we were not pleasantly surprised to discover that it was, in fact, a large sand storm. 🤦‍♀️ It encompassed us like a fog and we were whipped by the winds and not-so-gently exfoliated by the sand. Luckily, we had all been equipped with a shesh (Berber headscarf) and shown how to use the extra fabric to cover our faces to protect from sun or sand. It was actually quite an adventure.

We got to camp and ate dinner in the communal tent while the winds and sands continued to howl and bellow outside (and a little bit inside…). We were with three other Americans: a mother and a daughter, and a guy that they had met at a hostel. We chatted about Morocco, traveling, and life at home; while they were both American, the guy had been living in Madrid, and the girl was living and working in Afghanistan, so we had some good stories to share about living away from home.

After dinner was done our Berber hosts brought out their drums and played for us. An awkward little dance party ensued and then they gave us all a little music lesson on the drums. Mohammed couldn’t remember our names so he called Martin “Mohammed” and called me “Fatima.” I picked up a couple of the beats but couldn’t play them now if you asked me.

We got up before sunset to see the light come up over the dunes (since we hadn’t been able to see sunset the night before), and then rode the camels back to Merzouga for breakfast and de-sanding.

We continued on our road trip, stopping for Mohammed to show us around a market and buy okra for his sister in Marrakech, to visit some old underground canals which used to bring water from the mountains into the arid desert, to walk through a lovely but sweltering gorge, and then we ended up in the Dades Valley for the night.

The next morning we drove through Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood of Morocco.” At various times Ouarzazate has been turned into Egypt, Ancient Rome, Arabia (as in, “Lawrence of —”), Pentos in the fictional land of Westeros, Tibet, Mogadishu, and a gazillion other places. When Mohammed asked if we wanted to stop and visit one of the film studios, I of course said yes (although I could feel his eyes roll at my desire to do the stupid tourist thing). We wandered around some old and crumbling movie sets for a little while. It was fun to see them up close and examine how fake everything looks in person. We saw parts of sets from The Mummy movies, Kundun, Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, an Asterix and Obelix movie, among several others.

We also stopped to explore the kasbah of Aït Ben Haddou, a fortified earthen city in the High Atlas Mountains (and the real-life city of Yunkai from Game of Thrones!). It was interesting to wander around the red clay streets of the city and get a glimpse of life there. It’s primarily a tourist destination—there used to be eight merchant families that lived in the city, but now the descendants of only four of those original families live there. Mohammed told us about how the city has been there for centuries, but the buildings themselves are much younger because they are constantly being fixed and rebuilt when storms and rain cause the clay to disintegrate.

Continuing on our way to our Marrakech, we traveled through the highest pass in the High Atlas Mountains. The roads were windy and Yousef was being a little too cavalier with his passing strategy for my taste, but we somehow managed to avoid any crashes. We stopped to see an argan oil cooperative, which was interesting. All over the country there are these “female cooperatives” that produce and sell the oil, and other products made with it, where only women are involved in every aspect of the business. We got to see how they shell the nuts, grind them, and extract the oil—all by hand! Being in a shop that was 100% run by women highlighted for me their absence in almost every other business that we visited in the country.

We said goodbye to Mohammed and Yousef in Marrakech, where we spent the last two days of our official tour. We explored the city a bit on our own and also had a guide for a day who took us around to visit palaces and museums and memorials and madrasas; we visited the gardens of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. We saw more men creating incredible gifts, souvenirs, furniture, all by hand: leather shoes, intricate wooden boxes, wrought-iron railings, etc. One craftsman showed us how he uses his feet to carve wood on his hand-powered lathe; he also showed us a magic box that has no visible hinges or openings, and when we couldn’t figure it out he pulled out his photo of Leonardo DiCaprio visiting his shop and also failing at it.

Like Fès, Marrakech was also quite overwhelming, but it is much more open and less claustrophobic. There were many many more tourists in Marrakech, despite Ramadan, and we didn’t have the same sense of un-welcomeness that we had felt in Fès. It’s a city that is more geared towards tourists, which was unfortunate because it is less of an authentic experience (“snake charmers” and photo ops with monkeys), but also good for us as we felt less like intruders and more like guests.

You can find more photos from this part of our trip here: Sahara, Dades Valley, Ouarzazate, Aït Ben Haddou, and Marrakech.

From Marrakech we headed towards the Atlantic coast, to the beach town of Essaouira.

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