Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Remembering Morocco (4)

An enforced day off, so finally catching up with some of the things I have been meaning to post for months. First up, the rest of our trip to Morocco.

But after four days of wandering through souks and sitting in gardens, we decided that it was time to do something a bit different. We rose early on the fifth morning, earlier than usual, about the same time that we would do at home to go to work. By 8.30am we were sitting in Djemma El Fna, waiting for Omar to pick us up. All we knew was that we were going for 3 days. One night we were to stay in a riad, the other a tent. We knew we were heading over the High Atlas, across the desert the other side, eventually for the sand seas of Erg Chebbi, near to the Algerian border.

We had been told 8.30am. It came and it went. The minutes ticked by towards 9am and we began to wonder if it had been such a good idea after all. And then, there was a white landie pulling up. A man jumped out. He loaded our bags in and we climbed aboard. An English voice greeted us.

"Hi" she said.

"I'm Fizz".

And that was the last time we doubted Omar.

And so ended the last entry, which can be read in full here.

I paused, awkwardly balanced on the step of the landie, not yet used to the height off the ground, looking up at her. She was wearing Gucci glasses and the early morning sun was reflecting off them. Blonde, pretty up turned nose. I suddenly felt scruffy in my already grubby trousers and plain long sleeved yellow top. I could feel M, impatiently waiting behind me, eager to get in and for us to leave.

"Hi" I replied, "I'm Rachel".

I hauled myself into the back seat and tried to find a place to stash my rucksack.

"This is Ben" she said, gesturing to a straw hat on some blonde straggly curly surfer hair, sat facing away from us in the front seat.

And so began our strange journey to the Sahara. We left the small, red, dusty streets of the medina and joined the wider grey straighter roads of the outskirts. No real road markings, occasionally a set of traffic lights, the purpose of which was hard to ascertain. Bikes of all shapes and sizes flooded past on the edge of the road. Palm trees lined the sides, their roots pushing up cracked and barren soil. We turned towards the mountains in the distance, the snow caps which were visible from all round Marrakesh.

And then, we were pulled over by the police. It was the first time, it was certainly not the last. They wanted papers. Our driver got out and they argued. I thought we were going to have to turn back, but then, as suddenly as it started, there were smiles, patting on shoulders and we were back on the move.

The road began to get steeper and we started to climb through the foothills of the Atlas mountains. We paused every now and then by the side of the road to look at villages built into the side of the mountain, clustered around river beds, to take photos and to use progressively worse squat loos. At each stop, people would appear, as if by magic, trying to sell us fossils, jewellery, tagines. And we would take photos. Omar, our guide, told us to pretend to be Japanese and take many photos.

The air began to get cooler and patches of snow appeared on the ground. The drivers knew the roads well, too well, I thought on occasion, as they overtook on bends of a road with no barriers and a several hundred metre drop to one side. But we made it across the pass safely and were soon dropping down the other side of the mountains and back onto flat land. A complete contrast to the mountain range - this was red, dusty, cracked flat-ish dirt.

We drove for hours across the desert, there were no roads where we were driving, just an occasional barrell or marker. Every now and then there would be a piece of human created rubbish -if it hadn't been for that, there was no sign of human life as far as the eye could see. Until the land got slightly hillier and we rounded a bend; a small settlement appeared out of no-where and we had reached our first destination: Ait Ben Haddou Kasbah.

As we all piled out of the landie, Omar and the two drivers watched with amusement the preparations of 2 english girls. Handbags, suncream, water, a hat. It's hot out there in the desert, you know, our english skins aren't as used to the sun as you Berbers. But wait, lip gloss Fizz, surely not. Omar leads us down towards the river, winding through the small lanes of the little settlement. Suddenly we pop out on the river bank and stand for a moment, taking in the imposing majesty of the kasbah on the other bank, before our attention is drawn to the procession of donkeys in the fore-ground, ferrying passengers from one side of the bank to the other. Some of them seem a little small for the work - one man is so big that his feet drag in the water and his guide is almost having to carry the donkey across for him.

This kasbah is now used for filming; Gladiator and Troy both used it to film town scenes. In the past, this is where the pasha used to live with his hareem. The construction of the buildings is remarkably simple, but is why it does not last forever and has to be re-built; it is red mud mixed with straw to make a sort of concrete and turned into the walls. Bamboo poles are then laid over the top and covered with more of the concrete mix to make the roof.

And then, just as quickly as we arrived, we were off, driving again through Quarzarzate and pass the film studios, through the valley of the roses and finally reaching the Dades Gorge at sunset. We stayed the night in a small riad/guesthouse which was right on the bank of the river. Lying in bed we could hear the water rushing past, but we were too tired to stay awake for long. Besides, in the morning we would be setting off again for the Erg Chebbi sand seas.

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