Morocco: Land Of 'A Thousand Welcomes' - Camel trekking in Erg Chebbi
Morocco:Camel Trekking in Erg Chebbi

by Cindy Ross

The best introduction a traveler could possibly have to Morocco at night is Marrakech's gigantic square, Djemaa el Fna -- in the heart of the city. Nothing else can compare.

On the periphery, motorbikes whiz by carrying men wearing long hooded caftans, circular Fez hats, and mustard-colored leather slippers. Women with headscarves and long skirts walk arm in arm. Donkey carts weave through the congestion and cars beep their horns in an attempt to penetrate the crowd.

There are circles of drummers, storytellers, acrobats, and musicians. Women carrying syringes of henna coax us to have our hands tattooed. They show us photo albums of designs from which we can choose.

But like moths to a flame, we are attracted to the lit center of the plaza where rising smoke and delicious aromas swirl around wagons heaped with almonds, figs, and dates strung on cotton cords, behind them orange and grapefruit juice stands.

We stand out with pale winter skin, gaping mouths and wide eyes, wearing backpacks sporting airline luggage tags.

"We're not in Kansas anymore."

A fruit salesmen calls to us.

"Where you from?"

"United States."

"A Thousand Welcomes!"

The central plaza is choked with cafes. The pungent air is thick with the smoke of grilling meat. Chefs dressed in greasy, full-length aprons, beckon us to sit. In fact, all of the four-dozen vendors crowding the square coax us to have a meal. They roll camel sausages around on a charcoal-fired grill, offer bowls of steaming snails or glasses of mint tea. This amazing "carnival" occurs every single night, 365 days a year.

After wandering for hours, soaking it all in, we crash in our nearby hotel. But at 5 a.m., we are abruptly woken from our sleep by the "Call to Prayer." More than 100 surrounding mosques broadcast through their loud speakers in deep, guttural voices. The muezzins beckon all Muslims to rise and realize that prayer is better than sleep.

During daylight hours, the frenzy of Djemaa el Fna moves down only a few notches. Snake charmers play a lively, repetitious tune on their oboe-like ghaitahs. The slowly starving cobras with their sewed-shut mouths dance on their carpets. Guaouna dancers beat on drums and swing a tassel on their hats in a circular motion. A Moroccan man grasping shiny metal pliers approaches my husband and gently feels his jaw. "What is he doing?" I ask.

Then, at his stand, we spot hundreds of bloody molars lined up on a cloth, and rows of dentures along side them. He's ready to relieve you of your misery, right here on the street.

"Thank you, anyway ... dentist!"

This is our introduction to Morocco. Located in northern Africa, it is only an hour's ferry ride from Spain, but it feels very far from Europe. It is a unique combination of European, Arabic and African cultures. The Moroccan people have a foot in modern times but are still deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. In the Medinas, the ancient walled part of the old city, life goes on much as it did 500 years ago. And the best part is, Moroccans are some of the most welcoming, hospitable people on the planet.

My family has come to this exotic country for three weeks, a memorable place to celebrate my teens' 16th and 18th birthdays. American money goes far in this developing country. We'll stay in inexpensive hotels ($20 for the four of us), travel by local bus and train, and rent a car to get us to the more remote areas. Our American friend, Allen Hoppes, works with Morocco Exchange, a nonprofit organization for cross-cultural education. He has taken American exchange students on more than 35 cultural immersion trips and is now taking families or private groups to show them the real Morocco.

For a country roughly the size of California, it contains an amazing variety of physical characteristics and we hope to experience them all. We're crossing the High Atlas Mountains on a local bus to Ouarzazate. It takes a serpentine route on the Tizi n' Tichka road, a spectacular engineering feat (pass at 2,260 m). The driver blows his horn around each sharp turn as he overcomes slower vehicles. Then we head into the great southern river valleys where long, wide palmeries contrast with the arid landscape. These narrow watercourses are crowded with date palms, fruit and nut trees, olive groves with vegetables and grains growing underneath. Paths wander through the emerald maze.

Above these oasis are pumpkin-colored mountains, canyons, and kasbahs -- massive fortified castles that once served as the community's defense. They are made of the same burnt orange mud as the landscape and look exquisite when bathed in the low light of sunrise and sunset. Two gorges not to miss are the Todra Gorge and the Dades Valley.

One of our favorite nights is spent in the Dades Gorge at the Hotel de Gazelles. A Berber mountain family runs it. Berbers, the original indigenous people, make up 90 percent of Morocco's population (pure Arab -- only 10 percent). Berbers have their own language, customs, even music and their women are very visible in society. Berber women dance, sing, play music and mix with the outside world, contrary to most traditional Arab women. And at the Gazelle, they are putting on the Ritz for my family.

Dinner is served in a salon, with low cushions around a table. After lentil soup and warm bread, a tagine is typically served -- a stew cooked in a heavy ceramic plate covered with a conical lid. Inside, the food is arranged with the meat in the middle and the vegetables piled around it. It cooks slowly over a charcoal fire, seasoned with spices and fruit. After dinner, a ceremonial "tea party" is always held, pouring the silver teapot from great heights above the glasses, as it cascades in a perfect arch. At first, with four cubes of sugar in each glass, it is sickeningly sweet, but you get used to it and even learn to crave it.

Then the festivities start. Ceramic drums with stretched goatskin are brought out while young Berber men dressed in kaftans and headscarves entertain us long into the night. They encourage us to try drumming, and then, to our delight, teach us a Berber wedding line dance. Next come magic tricks and puzzles, which we both exchange, never letting a language barrier get in the way of our fun. We learn quickly that laughter is universal as well as warmth and hospitality.

After our stay at the Gazelle, it is a quick run down to Merzouga, the kicking off point for the Moroccan experience every visitor should indulge in ... a camel trip into the Sub-Sahara desert. Erg Chebbi is a sea of giant sand dunes, rising 150 meters in some places, lining the border of Algeria and Morocco. From our hotel, we arrange for a cameleer to take us miles into the heart of the dunes.

We mount the gentle beasts, which are strung together, while the young Berber leads them over the ridges of the dunes. The sand is cantaloupe colored when we depart at 3 p.m., smooth and rolling like great ocean swells. As the sun lowers, the color intensifies. The shadows darken and lengthen until our camels' silhouettes look as though they're walking on stilts. It's incredible peaceful and quiet and we gently rock to the swaying of our camels.

Camp is five miles in at the base of the highest dune, which we are encouraged to climb for the sunset while our dinner is being made. We hustle up the backbone ridge, our bare feet pushing the flour fine sand down the slopes, rolling like rivers of molten copper. The view is extraordinary -- an ocean of rippled sand dunes with our camp below -- a dozen rug-covered Berber tents, clustered together. To descend, we leap into the air and drop a dozen feet at a time. We are in camp less than a minute!

Tajines, mint tea, Berber drumming, and a show of the most brilliant stars are on tonight's agenda. The stars reach all the way down to the horizon, and not a plane, nor satellite mars this canvas.

After our camel-packing experience, we circle back to Marrakech, return the car and ride a bus out to the beautiful seaside town of Essouaria. It's colorful dock of working fishermen, fresh sardine grills, white-washed and blue-shuttered houses, feathery Norfolk pines, art galleries and world famous marquetry woodworkers, make it Morocco's most likeable town. Most of the workshops are gathered along the town's ancient battlements, where you can hear the pounding surf and stroll the cobblestone street, peering into the artists' tiny workshops. Their specialty wood is from the Thuya tree, a highly prized wood and with a delicious perfume. It is not found anywhere else on the planet except for this part of Morocco. We purchase some boxes for presents at a very inexpensive price. After lulling away a few lovely days here, we head north on the train to the imperial city of Fes.

Fes is the most complete Medieval city in the Arab world, a place that stimulates all our senses. The souks, or markets, have no rivals, for never will you find a more intricate web of convoluted alleys, stuffed with countless items to buy: leatherwork, fabric, silver jewelry and teapots, pottery, carpets, etc. "Just look. Looking free today!" the clerks call.

Then it's off to Chefchouen, the most beautiful Moroccan city, nestled in a fold of the Rif Mountains. All the stucco buildings of this sloping town are painted in multiple shades of blue, as if the sky dropped down to earth. A town of extraordinary light and color, it seems to glow at every time of the day and night.

Our trip's conclusion will take place at a "Home-stay" that Allen has arranged. We will overnight with a farming family, share their meals, walk their farm, ride donkeys, and learn what real life is like for a Moroccan family. In the evening I help the ladies scrub vegetables for dinner, while the kids play cards and soccer, and the men examine irrigation, orchards and building projects. Over a huge tajine, we sit with the family in a circle. We eat with our right hand, scooping up the tender vegetables and savory juices with the delicious homemade bread, made in the outdoor oven minutes before. Into the night, the kids play cards, laughing and teasing ... once again, no language barrier here.

Perhaps the greatest gift we have found in Morocco is that these wonderful people are our brothers and our sisters, and are not very different than us. We felt welcomed, no matter where we traveled in this beautiful country. We embrace our home-stay family when we leave, and they tell us, "You are family now ... always welcome."

-- Morocco Exchange, www.moroccoexchange.org, Arnd Wachter -- founder and director, 0034 628 237 301.

-- Morocco Tourism, www.visitmorocco.com, 212-221-1583.

 

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Vacations & Travel "Morocco: Land Of 'A Thousand Welcomes'"