Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Tifoultout - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 4)

Mohammed came back at 4pm to pick us up. He had an old tan Mercedes, a car from a previous era. Scrambling into the car, we found some religious knick-knacks around the car and a covering that looked like a faded carpet on the dashboard. We had a full evening of exploring to do since Mohammed was going to take us to a few different sites in the area.

Our first stop was at the kasbah in Tifoultout, one of the residences of the famous Glaoui family, the head of the Glaoua tribe. Their power peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were involved in the overthrow of at least two different Sultans of Morocco. Walking through the front gate, a man sitting on the side took 10 dirhams for admission in exchange for a ticket which says "tea included." It turns out that the Glaoui family had not held onto their power over the past few decades, and the occupants of this particular kasbah had been reduced to charging 10dh for tourists to wander through their home and to serve them tea.

The kasbah was painted pink as with all of the other buildings in the area. Many of the walls were worn and collapsing, while other walls had brand-new sections and decorative elements which seemed like they were already crumbling. We eventually found that all throughout southern Morocco, there are crumbling kasbahs like this one. Almost all of the buildings in the area are built using mud with straw. With each rain, the buildings get washed away a bit. As soon as a building is worn too much to maintain, the families just build a new house to live in. Luckily for them, it rains only about twice a year in the area so a house can last quite a long time with proper maintenance.

As the kasbah was built on a hill, the view from the roof terrace was spectacular. One can see the hills of the Atlas in the distance, and the town below, a cluster of mud buildings ranging from brown to pink. There were a few minarets of mosques breaking up away from the rest of the single and double storied buildings to form dramatic peaks in seemingly random parts of town. The town surrounded an oasis of lush green fields and full, healthy date palms in an otherwise dusty and barren landscape. From the top of the hill, we saw a few people going around town, and a caravan of donkeys carrying bales of hay passed below us. The top of the kasbah was home to many storks, each family with a giant nest of many sticks weaved together. As we walked up to them to observe them, they seemed just as curious of us as we were of them.

To commemorate our first main stop of the trip, we took a combined self portrait. We stood by each other and held our cameras out, taking our photos together at the same time. I'll have one version, and Felix will have the other. After that, we ducked indoors to their main lobby to have some tea. It was much cooler and darker inside. The floor and walls were covered with a patchwork of ornate cloths and rugs, many of them quite faded and worn. We sat on a couch in front of a table covered in what seems to be many layers of cloth. A man started making us some tea in an ornate silver pot. As we waited, Mohammed introduced to us the owner of the property, a member of the Glaoui family. We noticed that Mohammed appeared to know the man. We wondered if this was a tourist attraction at all, or if he was just trying to get our money somehow by showing us his friends home. Eventually, we found out that since Mohammed takes a lot of tourists around, he has gotten very familiar with many of the people these sites and had deals with them.

This would be our first taste of Moroccan mint tea, which would become the beverage of choice for every single meal we would have in Morocco. Morning, midday, and night, we, along with everyone around us, would drink mint tea. The connection between mint tea and Morocco became so strong in my mind that long after leaving Morocco, the taste of mint tea would immediately conjure up visions of sitting at small restaurants in the dusty streets in Moroccan towns, watching as people and donkeys walk past. Our driver told us that mint tea was known as "Berber whiskey" since the Berbers make it so strong that it packs the punch of whiskey in terms of taste. It also looks surprisingly like a shot of strong whiskey when sitting in the small glasses. Moroccan mint tea is made by boiling green gunpowder tea for a while and then adding mint and sugar near the end of the process to flavour the tea. The tea is then poured from a large distance above the glass to create a small foam head, although this isn't done as often in the cheaper restaurants we ate in. The tea is dense and strong in all flavours including sugar. I liked this very much as I usually enjoy my tea extra strong.

After tea, we set off in the direction of Aït Benhaddou. After a short drive, we made a quick stop at the Atlas Film Studios, the most famous of the numerous studios in the area. Films that have been filmed there include major Hollywood blockbusters such as Kundun and Gladiator. Seeing that the admission price was 60 dirhams, we decided not to take the tour and continued on our way. Once again, we noticed that Mohammed seemed to know the people at that tourist stop quite well.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Ouarzazate - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 3)

The ride in the old rickety turboprop was very different than the jet ride. As we travelled south, the terrain became drier, and the sky contained only a few scattered clouds. We could see dried riverbeds and shallow lakes below supporting clusters of small towns and fields in what was otherwise a flat expanse of dusty, yellow earth. After about an hour into the flight, the earth grew suddenly hilly and the High Atlas range loomed ahead. It was amazing to see a line of clouds in an otherwise clear sky against the northern edge of the Atlas Mountains. There were swirls and tendrils of clouds reaching into the range, but quickly trailed off and the sky because cloudless again. The haze that was visible since our take off from Madrid was still around, enshrouding the Atlas, obscuring the view into the valleys between the peaks.

As we crossed the mountains, we noticed that we were losing altitude and getting closer to the jagged peaks below with each passing minute. As we descended, we got a close view of the magnificent sweeping red cliffs and hills speckled with patches of snow and a few small, blue glacial lakes that stood in striking contrast with the dusty red terrain. After a few dramatic bumpy turns and close brushes with the cliffs below, a vast, flat landscape was revealed before us. The parched landscape was criss-crossed with dried river beds and patches of small, greenish brown plants. Immediately after the final cliffs, we passed over the Atlas Film Studios, which at first I thought was some kind of historical kasbah. Immediately after, we touched down in the small desert town of Ouarzazate. From the plane, the town looked empty and dusty, with many similar mud and concrete buildings, painted and otherwise, clustered together.

Jumping down from the plane, we were greeted by a blast of scorching dry air in a cloudless sky. I noted that the sun we almost directly overhead, so that I cast a very small shadow. I immediately took photos of me at the airport with the Moroccan flag and the signs in Arabic and French. As we walked in the door, we came across a small desk where most people were walking past. Seeing that the desk was marked "Customs," we decided to get stop there. It seems that we were the only people on the flight that are entering customs through Ouarzazate and not some other Moroccan city. The process was strict but relatively smooth except for one issue. Apparently the Moroccan customs needed a contact address of where we were staying before allowing us to pass. Luckily, Felix had a tour book with him which he had been flipping through, we so pointed to one of the listed accommodations we were planning on checking out. After some paperwork and receiving two stamps in our passport, we were finally let into the country.

Entering into the airport and picking up our bags, we found the airport deserted other than a floor sweeper and a security officer. I had counted on finding a tourist stall with maps at the airport from my previous backpacking trip experiences, but I suppose this isn't Europe, so a quick search through the airport yielded nothing. We also found what looked like a few stores and a currency exchange or bank, but they were all closed. Walking outside, we were greeted with the midday sun of an extremely hot and dry day, a few signs in Arabic and another officer talking with someone with a bicycle. At this time, we were at a loss for what to do. The airport was deserted, we didn't have any Moroccan money, and we couldn't understand anything around us. At this time, Felix and I discovered that we had very different travel preferences. Whereas I am most stimulated when I get into difficult situations and find creative ways to work myself out of them, Felix liked it when things are straightforward and all planned out. Felix was visibly distraught, and I was at a loss of ideas. After about ten minutes of wandering around, sitting around, and staring at each other, one of the police officers approached us, and in a combination of motioning and simple French, he told us he would call a cab for us. Although I am always a bit suspicious of strangers in unknown places, especially if they offer us a car which I'm sure we would not be able to identify as a taxi or not, we really didn't have an idea of what else we could do, so we agreed. We waited outside in the heat with the company of some Arabic elevator music until the car came for us.

The car that arrived was a bit beat up... well, nearly all cars in Morocco were pretty beat up compared to the cars in North America. We piled into the car, and after a few words between the driver and the officer in Arabic, pointing at the hotel listing we told the customs officer we were going to, and handing the driver on an agreed-upon ten Euro bill, we were off. Whatever relief we felt was soon gone however, as our driver suddenly pulled over on the side of the road after a few minutes of driving. We saw a beat-up red car, obviously not a cab, pull up right behind us, and our driver told us to get out. As we were removing our stuff from the car, the driver of our car and the driver of the other mysterious car exchanged greetings.

We were told to get into the other red car, and seeing no good alternatives, we decided to play along. After we got in, we discovered that this was a sales pitch. The new driver, who introduced himself as Mohammed, spoke English reasonably well and offered to drive us around. It turns out this is quite common in Morocco. If a foreigner gets in a taxi, at some point in the trip a salesman would appear. By the time we reached our hotel, we agreed to be picked up in a few hours for an evening tour of Aït Benhaddou that would cost us 300 dirhams. We couldn't resist, since Aït Benhaddou was the reason that I decided to extend my trip as south as Ouarzazate.

Our hotel was pretty good, with the exception of a tiny bathroom and shower. We were a bit sketched out by the driver walking us in, chatting with the receptionist, and telling us that we get a discount because he had taken us there. We eventually found out that it was very common in Morocco for people to receive commissions if they brought customers, although we were a bit worried about it at the beginning. In the hotel room, Felix discovered that he had lost his tour book. This was the most stressful moment of the trip for both of us, as we were in a strange land using an unfamiliar language without a guide of any form, not knowing how to get money and where to get food. Although we did get into similar situations in the future, we became more accustomed to it as the trip went on, and I became better at appearing confident in uncertain situations to comfort my travel mates. After a quick break, and getting some money exchanged from the hotel at a cost, we decided to head into town to get some lunch and to exchange some more money.

Standing on the street, we waved a cab down. When we went to enter, we were surprised to find two men already in the cab. After some looks of confusion and some motioning, we realized that we were supposed to get in with them, so we did. We just hoped that the driver wasn't lying when he nodded when we said "Ouarzazate centre-ville." After a short drive, we stopped, and surprisingly, two girls entered the car! There was a man and a girl in the front seat, and the other man and the girl in the back, with us squeezed in the middle. After starting up again, the girls said something in Arabic that sounded like they were dismayed and suggesting something obvious, which caused up to stop again. After some jostling, the two girls ended up in front, with us squeezed between the two other men in the back. We all exchanged awkward smiles as they spoke Arabic and we spoke English.

After crossing a mostly dried river and making a few drop-offs for the other passengers, we were dropped off in a wide, dusty street. The street was deserted and all the stores appeared to be closed. All the buildings were painted pink, which appeared to be the norm in southern Morocco. In town, we exchanged some money at the bank, bought some bottled water, and had our first meal in Morocco which consisted of some Berber and kofta tagine. We discovered that all meals in Morocco are served with this delicious flatbread which had the texture of a very dense loaf of bread. We also tried to rent a car to visit the desert to the south. However, the only cars we can find were stick-shifts. We made a mental note to learn how to drive stick-shifts when we return from the trip, and decided to shell out the money for a cab to take us to the desert. After all, if we were so close, we cannot skip an opportunity to visit a section of the world famous and very mystical sounding Sahara Desert.

After lunch, we returned to Ouarzazate to await Mohammed to take us to Aït Benhaddou. It took us quite a while to figure out how to return to our hotel, but we discovered that the Moroccans have the most ingenious system of mass transit. It turns out that for all travel within a town or city, you hail a petite taxi, which is extremely cheap. A ride in town will cost you only a few dirhams. To travel between towns, you go the grand taxi stop of the town, where taxis are awaiting departure for the surrounding towns as well as some farther cities. The only catch is that you pay for a seat out of a cramped five or six in the car. Departure times are completely unpredictable since the taxi waits until it is filled before leaving. Since we were in a hurry, we agreed to pay a bit extra and be driven back to our hotel in our own private grand taxi. On our way back, we made a stop at a street corner, where we were told we were picking up a "friend." The friend, after gathering that I was from Canada, showed us a Canada pin on his hat and told me he had friends in Canada. What followed was a sales pitch of a tour to the desert that lasted all the way back to the hotel.

Back at the hotel, the receptionist gave Felix his book back. He said that Mohammed had came back while we were out to return the book we had left in the first cab from the airport. Seeing that not everyone was there to take advantage of us, having just been fed, finally having some local currency we can spend, and feeling that we are starting to get a bearing on the area we are in, we started feeling better and finally started enjoying the trip again.