Rock the Kasbah

On Saturday we left Essaouira behind, and headed for the mountains. Our guide Omar is, fortunately, an expert behind the wheel. Most of the trip consisted of hairpin turns through the High Atlas Mountains, reaching an elevation of 2260 – 3200 meters.
We passed many damaged buildings and washed-out roads, due to heavy rains. Because the buildings are made of adobe, a heavy rainfall is very problematic.
After a couple hours’ drive on decent roads, we veered off onto the caravan road that led to all the kasbahs, rest stops for travelers. Again, many were in ruins. Some were still occupied by the original families, and others were being restored or had already been renovated for tourists to stay in.
Who could resist the chance to stay in a kasbah? Not us! Kasbah Tebi had been in the family for centuries, before being inherited by the current owners, two brothers. They began its restoration in 2008, when their parents finally had had enough of the damage constantly inflicted by the rains. The two brothers worked on the kasbah for three years, and then opened as a guest house.
Kasbah Tebi is absolutely charming, and we were transported to another time entirely. There is quite modern indoor plumbing in all the rooms, and the building is wired for electricity. However, electricity has not yet reached the area. It was incredibly romantic to dine by candlelight. All the walls had niches for candles, and the stairs were lined with them as well. The steps themselves were very irregular, and some of them were knee high. That was a bit of a challenge.
Our gracious hosts lugged our bags up the long flights of stairs, and then served us mint tea in our room while we rested a bit before dinner. After an hour or so, the smell of the beef tagine drew us to the dining room. Delicious. Before going to sleep, we climbed up to the roof to admire the stars. Because there is no light pollution, the display was dazzling. The cold soon drove us back inside, however – it was zero degrees C.
Our large room was heated with a propane heater, but we were cautioned against sleeping with it on all night. So, after the place was toasty, we piled on the blankets, popped into our long johns, switched off the heater, and hunkered down for the night.
In the morning, neither one of us was brave enough to shower in an unheated bathroom. We piled on the layers and found our way to the kitchen for some wonderful piping hot coffee, freshly made crepes, and delicious bread. It is not possible to remain gluten free in Morocco!
Before leaving town, Omar led us up up up for beautiful views. The best discovery, though, was the sighting of the stork, which just today returned to its nest from its southern migration. We felt honored.







Starbucks pales by comparison

After pulling ourselves together, we strolled downstairs for breakfast in the dining area. Our gracious host Yusuf served us crepes, chocolatines, and good strong coffee, as well as fresh squeezed orange juice. Suitably fortified, it was off to the ramparts and the fishing wharf.
The boats had only just come in, and the fishermen were busy selling the catch of the day: eels, stingrays, huge crabs, even a shark. Little silver sardines were immediately salted to help preserve them. Blue is the color for fishing boats, apparently. Many of them were being dragged to dry dock for repairs.
There were lots of women in the market area, alone or in pairs, but only female tourists in the area of the fishing boats, with the exception of one or two crones selling their catch. As a female who clearly wasn’t local, I didn’t feel particularly welcome. I wasn’t miserably uncomfortable, but I wasn’t at ease, either. By process of elimination, I discovered that it’s okay to smile at babies and their mothers, little children (but then they might try to talk you out of a few dirhams,) and shopkeepers of any age or gender. But the older guys are a tough crowd to warm up.
The medina, the market area, is surrounded by high walls for protection, as invasion by sea was commonplace in the old days. You can get some great views of the harbor from the top of the walls. For an authentic feel for things, you can shimmy into a guard towers and peer through the narrow little slits.

After a couple hours of walking, we stopped for lunch at an outdoor cafe. The weather has been quite lovely – we were pleasantly surprised by the warm temperatures and sunshine. As we ate, we were entertained By strolling musicians, gymnasts, and beggars, all of whom politely requested a few dirhams (10 dirhams = $1.) We enjoyed shrimp salad with avocado, pizza fruit di mare, and 2 bottles of water for $12 at La Mouette D’Essaouira.
More strolling, and a little shopping: hand carved boxes of Thuya wood, paintings by Ezba the young literature graduate, and a painting of the symbol of Fatima plus Berber folk symbols, done on cow skin, by a young man in a San Francisco 49er’s hat.
Up five flights to have mint tea on a terrace overlooking the water. These tall, narrow buildings are great for developing your thigh muscles! The view from the top was certainly worth the exertion.
The younger generation is very open to conversation. A young artist in a cooperative gallery explained that his fellow painters have only recently begun painting humans and animals, a practice that is forbidden by Muslim law. According to this young man, the rigidity of the former regime is easing under the rule of the new king. Still, he acknowledged, locals probably wouldn’t buy his work.
After a rather mediocre dinner, we bought some delicious little pastries, and strolled back to Les Matins Bleus for coffee. That’s when things went horribly wrong. As a hardcore coffee drinker, I am virtually immune to caffeine. This stuff, however, packed such a wallop that both Craig and I were awake well past 1 am. I have no idea what was in that cup, but it was not a species of coffee I’d ever met before. From now on, it’s mint tea at bedtime.





Marrakech to Essaouria

We left Gatwick bright and early, on a very comfortable flight with room to spread out. We had a smooth landing in Marrakech at 1 pm – these folks from British Airways are good!
No jetways in Morocco. They roll the stairs across the tarmac, and you step out of the plane to be greeted by blue skies, sunshine, and roses blooming. This was much nicer than we had expected for January! Everywhere around the spotless airport were handsome uniformed personnel toting sidearms. Discipline was tight, things were orderly, and border control and customs ran very smoothly.
Our taxi driver was waiting just past customs with a Les Matins Bleus sign, and off we went in his battered powder blue Mercedes.
The view from the back seat on our two hour drive:
Lots of new construction in terra cotta. Scooters, trucks, horse drawn wagons with tires instead of wheels. Lots and lots of donkeys.
A lot of men simply standing around. (I’m thinking the unemployment rate is pretty high in the small towns.)
Palm trees, olive trees, orange groves.
Flocks of sheep grazing in dry, rocky fields.
Women in burqas or head scarves or djellabas. Men wear a combination of western style clothing or Moroccan, but women’s dress is pretty traditional.

We checked in at our hotel in Essaouria. Old but lovely, and all so foreign and exotic. Our room is on the roof!
We caught our breath for a moment, and then headed out for a walk around the medina. First stop – the old walls, ramparts equipped with cannons to protect the city from invaders. We climbed into a niche to watch the waves crash on the rocks below as the sun set. Then along came a police officer chasing us all down, saying closed, closed.
The medina is fascinating. Very uneven roads, so that you must constantly watch your step while also trying to take in the sights. There are all kinds of shops selling wood carvings, musical instruments, ceramics, leather, jewelry. So far, we didn’t buy a thing! That will change tomorrow. Heh heh.
We were trying to find a seafood restaurant that the hotel recommended, and we are not sure if that’s where we actually ended up. Our evening stroll had the potential to turn into one of Craig’s infamous death marches: we backtracked, stumbled through the slaughter district, traipsed around for what seemed like hours, and finally spotted a little place with a menu outside. I made an executive decision and entered.
We were the only ones there for the first 30 minutes. We gobbled down the olive appetizers and bread while listening to the background music. Jingle Bell Rock and a little Marvin Gaye. Where the Motown soundtrack came from, I have no idea. Maybe they played it in our honor. My tagine was boiling hot and delicious. Craig’s shrimp were so tender he could eat the shells. A little banana crepe and lots of mint tea, and the whole tab was about 16 bucks.
Since we were slipping into a food coma, we headed back home early. The walls of our room are too thick for the wifi (say wee fee) to penetrate, so we’re sitting outside connecting with the rest of the world. Tomorrow I’m going to figure out how to pop in a few pictures, so you can see what I’m talking about.






Sleeping in the airport

We had arranged our flights so that we connected in London and went on to Marrakech all on the same day. But British Airways had other plans, and shifted our times around so that the connection we had carefully plotted months ago would no longer work. So, we bend like the willow and flex our plans accordingly.
We arrived in Heathrow very early on Tuesday morning- we crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a little more than six hours! There was one heck of a tailwind helping us on our way. In fact, we were so ahead of schedule that we had to circle London for a while, because noise ordinances prohibit jets from landing earlier than 6 am.
The next adventure was getting to Gatwick Airport, about an hour away. We had done our homework online, and purchased tickets for the National Express bus. It was very easy to locate, with the help from the purple-jacketed airport info folks. “Cheerio!” Really, he actually said that after giving us directions.
We hopped on the bus with only a handful of others, and arrived in no time at all. I guess that means I slept through most of the ride. Gatwick is small and easy to navigate, so we made our way to the South Terminal, and found Bloc Hotel on level three. After giving us a discount coupon for the cafe across the terminal, the receptionist invited us to come back for a complimentary early check in at noon. By that time we could hardly keep our eyes open, and we staggered off to our cubicle for a nap.
Room 552 is a study in economy of space. It must be less than 150 square feet: big enough for a double bed, a night table, and floor space to open 2 suitcases. The bathroom is compact to the point of hilarity. Suffice to say one can shower and use the commode simultaneously.
But the beauty of this little nook is its location inside the airport, and its complete and utter soundproofing. Plus everything is controlled by a tablet mounted above the night table. So please excuse me. I must reach over and play with the window shades now. I’ll be back at 5 am for the next leg of our journey. Cue the music: “Don’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express. They’re taking me to Marrakech. All on board the plane…”

Killing time at EWR

I love airports. Admittedly, standing in line to check my bag makes me cranky, but such is life. Did I say checked bag? Yes, in fact I did. Oh, I managed to cram all three weeks’ worth of stuff into my little rolly bag, but it was seriously distressed, and I was unhappy. Not to mention that my backpack weighted a ton! Then I had an epiphany: we usually travel toward warm weather, which doesn’t require such heavy clothing. The elements were working against me this trip, so I knuckled under and dragged out the Big Red Bag. Now the sleeping bag liner (yes, you heard me) fit with ease.

We survived the painfully slow checkin process, as well as the near strip-search at security, and found our way to the relative tranquility of the British Airways gate. A comfortable seat, a cold drink, and a wi-fi connection, and I’m a happy traveler once again. The next time we touch ground we will be in London for an overnight, and then on to Morocco on Wednesday.

Zero minus two days till Marrakesh

After nearly a year of planning our 2015 adventure, our departure day is almost here.  On Monday, January 12th, we head for Newark International Airport to fly first to London, then to Marrakesh.  We are beyond excited!

Now, how to cram everything we need for a three week trip into carry-on luggage.  Oh yes, it can be done.  Exorbitant baggage check fees aside, when you carry your own bags you always know exactly where they are.  In the immortal words of my first born, “There’s only two kinds of luggage: carry-on and lost.”