Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 3)

As we drove on, the terrain became sandier. From time to time, we would drive past small piles of sand on the side of the road and some sand blowing across the road. We passed fields of fences built in patterns of connected squares, which Mohammed directed our attention to and explained they were built to slow the expansion of the desert. We noticed that in many places, these cubes were filled with sand and seemed to do a good job of stopping the sand from blowing across the road. We also saw a lot of interesting desert plants. I saw some plants that appeared to have clusters of fruit much too large for its size. I asked Mohammed if those fruit contained water. He told me "Never touch one, they are filled with acid!" It turns out that these plants are of a species called Calotropis Procera, and that the fruit were just leaves folded in a peculiar way. I had hoped that what we were seeing was evolution creating a desert plant that, like cacti, stored extra water, but just to protect it from animals, also make the water unusable to anyone else. I was disappointed to find that that this was not the case. However, Mohammed was right in that the plant was filled with acid. Calotropis Procera contains a toxic and an acidic resin, likely used as a defence mechanism.

As the terrain became sandier, we started seeing large piles of sand on the surrounding hills. I was so excited the first time I saw the steep slopes of a distant mesa covered in sand. The sand was crawling up about two thirds of the mesa, forming ripples. One can also see the sand being blown over the top of the mesa in thin wisps dancing in the wind.

We decided that it would be a good idea to buy a headscarf before going into the desert. Mohammed decided to take us to a trading post called Maison Touareg, named after the Tuareg people of North Africa. Little did we know that Mohammed seemed very buddy-buddy with the owner of the shop. We suspect this was another of his standard stops for tourists, unless people in Morocco are just always very friendly with each other.

Upon arriving at the trading post, we were led in some gates to a relatively large compound of mud buildings. Upon entering, we were immediately served mint tea and the owner and his aides unrolled a variety of different carpets for us to see. Apparently Morocco is known for its carpets. Two interesting things that I learnt was that many of their carpets were made of cactus fibre, which I found fascinating. Cactus fibre made a very smooth, thin, and cool-feeling carpet in contrast to the thick wool carpets. The second interesting fact is that the Berbers in the area are divided into a number of tribes. These include the Glaoui tribe along with some other tribes with exotic sounding names, one of which I think was named the Sahara tribe. All of the tribes except for one follow the Islamic faith, except for one, whose members are Jewish. Since Islamic beliefs forbid depicting God's creations such as humans and animals, all of the carpets made by the Islamic tribes are decorated only with patterns. This makes the carpets from the Jewish tribe easy to identify, as theirs are the only carpets that are also decorated with stylized animals and human figures. We were shown a gorgeous example of such a rug, which had pictures of birds on a red background.

After being shown the carpets, we were ushered into different rooms accompanied by different aides. This was done quite subtly, and when I found myself separated from Felix, I tried to re-join Felix, but was blocked on my attempts. Although I was a little bit worried about being separated, I realized that this was a very clever negotiating tactic. They were separating us so that each of us would have to deal with multiple opponents during negotiations. Having no desire to purchase a rug that day, I was not worried about ending up with a overpriced carpet, but only mildly annoyed at this delay is us getting to the desert.

The owner moved between me and Felix, and while he was gone, his aides stayed with me. I kept telling him that I was not interested in buying a carpet and that I probably won't have enough money to buy one anyway. He kept badgering me and eventually I agreed to write an offer on a sheet of paper. I wrote 600 dirhams for a large cactus fibre carpet, in which he responded by offering me a smaller cactus fibre carpet. After a series of refusals, he got the message that I was not willing to pay a price that was acceptable with him, so he took me back to the headscarves that we picked out earlier, upon entering. He told me that it was 150 dirhams for the headscarf, which I knew was overpriced but not wanting to negotiate with him any longer, I accepted. I was then led to a room filled with interesting antiques in which I would have to wait while they finished dealing with Felix. After a while, we were reunited. Felix had his headscarf with him, which I found out he paid a different price for. I can't remember exactly now, but I think he paid 200 dirhams for it. On the way out, the owner picked up a fossil and gave it to Felix. If I remember correctly that Felix paid 200 dirhams for the headscarf, this was probably to prevent us from finding out we were dealt with unequally later on. However, I may have been willing to pay 50 dirhams for a fossil, as Mohammed told us that this area was famous for producing fossils, which the many shops and signs along the highway would attest to.

As we were just about to enter the car, the owner ran up to me and tried to make me a new offer. He wrote a number, which I think was between 1100 and 1300 dirhams on a sheet of paper and pointed at my pants that I was wearing. He told me that the offer was for the cactus fibre carpet I had liked and that he would take credit card and the price included shipping. It didn't surprise me that my pants became part of the negotiation as I had been aware that it was common to use articles of clothing in negotiations in Morocco. I had been told that if you wear a baseball cap in Fes, people will offer to exchange a fez cap for your baseball cap. I don't know what I was thinking, but I thought he was going to give me that much money and the carpet for my pants. Since I hadn't seen any pants like the ones I was wearing (pants that had zippers to convert to shorts when needed), I had thought perhaps these kind of pants were very valuable here. In return, I wrote a higher number, which he stared at in a confused manner and said okay. The whole time Felix was trying to tell me not to buy the carpet as he had also had enough of this negotiating and felt we were being ripped off, but was silenced by the owner. It was only after we shook hands on the deal that I realized I was to pay him the money along with my pants in exchange for the carpet. I felt so bad and was very embarrassed about the misunderstanding. He didn't seem very happy with me but accepted the mistake. I took his business card advertisement to make him feel better.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 2)

After a another short drive, we passed through the Draâ Valley and the town of Agdz. I had contacted a Couchsurfer in Agdz before our voyage, but didn't think I would be in the area. The Draâ River, flowing from the Atlas Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, cutting across Southern Morocco, is Morocco's longest river. The valley it carved now contains important population centres in South Morocco. Along the river there were lush fields of green, accompanied by a wide swath of a dense, dark green palm jungle maintained by the residents of the valley for the production of dates. It was an amazing sight to see the thick canopy of the palm trees against a barren and dusty background. The villages and old, abandoned kasbahs were located behind the palm trees, climbing up the shallower walls of the valley below tall, rocky cliffs.

After leaving the Valley, there was not much to see, as there were no significant water sources for a long while. At one point, Mohammed pointed to a house in a tiny village we passed and told us he was born there. Mohammed got into a long discussion of Islam, as well as Iraq and the US invasion with Felix as he was from the US. He explained to Felix that Iraq actually had a good quality of life, health care and education before the invasion, but American propaganda made it look like a horrible place. He told us that other countries the US did not invade are just as bad, if not worse than Iraq. As an example, he told us that in Morocco, anyone, especially Berbers, who speak against the King would be flown to a prison and had his tongue cut off. He even pointed us to the supposed site of the prison later that day as we passed it. At first Felix believed some of it, but as his opinion of Mohammed became more negative, he started believing less and less of what Mohammed said. In my opinion, the American media did make Iraq look like a much worse place that it actually is. Coming from Canada, I saw many scenes in our media that were not shown in the American media. I had even seen a documentary comparing the American media's coverage of the Iraq war with media coverage from other countries. I had been very surprised to learn that even iconic moments, such as the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue, had been staged and strictly controlled by the American military. However, I did not believe everything that Mohammed said, as I am sure the media in Morocco is also very biased and painted Iraq in a more positive manner than it actually is.

Throughout the long drive down the dusty road, we saw many hills, mesas and the deep scars of water erosion from torrential floods that occur once in a while in the area due to the lack of vegetation to catch the water from the rare rainstorm. We stopped once for a flock of sheep that a shepherd was herding off the road as he saw our car approaching. This scene, viewed from inside Mohammed's car, reminded me of scenes from movies such as Babel and Syriana. We stopped in Tazzarine for lunch. I ordered brochette served with fries, as brochette was of the three main things to eat in Morocco, the other two being tagine and couscous. As we ate on the balcony on the second floor, we heard the calls to prayers. Under the scorching midday sun, the town was nearly deserted, only to become even more desolate after the calls to prayers. Even the restaurant staff dissappeared. I felt bad that we were eating during the calls to prayers when everyone else was praying. After enjoying the view of the oasis town from the comfortable couches and pillows, we paid and went downstairs to wait for Mohammed. I realized that Mohammed probably stopped at this town specifically to make it in time to pray, even though he claimed that he was napping.

We passed a few more oasis towns on the way. It was amazing to see a field of green pop up in an otherwise barren landscape, surrounded by a town that would begin and end very abruptly. Leaving such an oasis town, I felt as if we were leaving behind civilization, and I would watch the swatch of green palm trees in the rear window disappear into the distance until we were once again surrounded by an empty rag desert. To pass the time, we made a hobby out of searching for dust devils. Most dust devils, being relatively weak, left only light traces of dust streaming dozens of meters up into the air. It took a certain skill to identify them. However, we did see a few powerful ones, including one that was a few metres wide that sent thick plumes of spinning dust high up into the air. This one passed in front of our car, which prompted Mohammed to roll up the windows. I imagined how much fun it would be to jump into once of those, but then realized I would probably just end up curled up into a ball on the ground as soon as I was inside as I would get sand all over me, in places that I probably didn't even know existed.

Shortly after, we reached a road sign written in Arabic and English. The sign indicated the fork in the road would lead us to Erfoud and Errachidia to the left, and Er-Rissani and Merzouga to the right. The large Arabic letters on the sign, the dusty road and terrain around us, and the palm trees of yet another oasis town in the background really made me feel like I was someplace very exotic. We took the right fork, and stopped at a gas station to refuel. We also bought a few bottles of water to drink and to use for the night in the desert. While Mohammed was fuelling, I took a look around at the landscape. It was exactly like something out of a movie. It was blindingly bright as the landscape had turned much lighter in colour. There was some sand drifting in the breeze, and the mud buildings stood in the midst of numerous palm trees feeding off of the water from the oasis.

We passed through a town with a pretty gate, which we were told is a very famous town as it was the birthplace of one of the famous rulers in Morocco. Throughout the trip, Mohammed had been telling us interesting facts about Morocco. One of the interesting things I learnt is that Morocco has a unique style of minarets. All of the minarets in Morocco were square shaped. They were pink in colour, decorated with painted green and white sections, and had a balcony at he top covered by a small domed pavilion. After learning this, I noticed that every single minaret in Morocco followed this basic style and had a very distinct architectural shape and style to it.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Merzouga - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 5 (Part 1)

We woke up in time for a quick walk to the pâtisserie we saw last night on our stroll. The shop was very simple, with concrete walls, a scale to weigh the pastries, and a simple counter with a few trays of food, some with flies crawling on them. We picked up a few interesting looking breads and pastries for a very cheap price and ate them back at the hotel. At 8am, Mohammed showed up. After loading our gear into his car, we were off for a two day trip to the Sahara Desert. We agreed to take a southern route to Merzouga and a northern route back to see some different sights along the way. Although we had the choice of visiting Zagora for a lower price, we decided to visit Merzouga as it came highly recommended from nearly everyone we met. From what we had heard, Zagora was a town on the southern edge of the Draâ Valley, past which is the rocky rag desert which had only a few small dunes. Merzouga, on the other hand, had some enormous sand dunes which were supposed to be like the ones in the movies.

Our first stop was on a mountain road close to Ouarzazate. Mohammed stopped the car by a curve in the road where he told us we can get a very nice view. As we stepped out of the car and closed the doors, we noticed the car started up again and slowly drove off! We were scared that this was the plan all along, that Mohammed would steal our stuff and dump us in the middle of a desert to give him enough time to escape! After exchanging some nervous glances with each other, we decided to just enjoy the view and hope he doesn't drive away. However, Felix and I were interrupted by the sight of two men, dressed in the traditional robes and headscarfs were sprinting toward from a small mud brick building on the hill above the road. "Are they running toward us?" I asked uncomfortably. Felix responded "... I .... think so..." As you can imagine, we were quite confused and uncomfortable again, as we were standing on a deserted mountain road in the rocky desert of Southern Morocco, with our driver driving off with our gear in his car, and two men running at us full force from a small mud shack on a hill.

We just stood there as the men approached. As they did, we noticed that they were carrying lizards. It turns out that the the men displayed lizards that they catch in the deserts to passing tourists in hopes of getting a few dirhams out of the process. They were quite nice and showed us a chameleon and some spiny-tailed lizards, which had fat bodies and wide, segmented spiny tails. One of the lizards was obviously dead, which they did not realize until after showing it to us. The man looked stunned for a few seconds, then reassured us that is was sleeping and tried to explain that the lizard was a baby who needed his sleep, even though it was the same size as the others. He even petted the dead lizard to try to complete the illusion. The dead body just bounced a bit in response.

After taking some photos with us and putting lizards on us, they asked for a tip. When we asked how much, they said 50 dirhams. I knew this was too much, and luckily, I remembered that I didn't have much money left in my wallet as I carry most of my spending money in a hidden money pouch. I opened my wallet to show them it was empty, but to my dismay, there was a 50 dirham bill sitting right there. We stared each other for a few speechless seconds, then he pointed and nodded his head, saying "... yeah, 50 dirham." I quickly withdrew my wallet, and Felix and I both handed them 10 dirham and started walking toward Mohammed's car, which we were relieved to find parked a bit up the road. Although they followed us to ask for more money, Mohammed intercepted them and seemed to have a friendly chat. He claims that he parked the car up a bit to move it out of the way of the traffic. We are pretty sure that these were his friends and that they had an agreement for him to stop there with tourists. Felix was visibly angry at Mohammed and told him never to do that again.

Before heading off again, we enjoyed the view of the valley and took some more photos. One can see hills all around the area, rising into rocky cliffs. The terrain was dry and rocky, and had a dusty reddish brown tinge to it. There were some small but scattered plants on the hills. In the valley, one can see a few small towns and villages surrounding patches of green fields and palm trees. These were oasis towns. Although I was very excited to see my first oasis town, these turned out to be extremely common in Morocco, and other than towns surrounding three small rivers and streams, these were the only significantly inhabited places there.

A bit further into the drive, we stopped for another view of the gorges in the area. We saw a deep gash in the earth forming steep cliffs. We did not see any water, but can imagine that any rains in the area must form torrential flows as there were no plants or other obstacles to slow the flow of water. Mohammed mentioned that this was the "Grand Canyon of Morocco." We also noticed interesting rock formations as we drove. In this particular area, any hills or changes in elevation was composed of distinct layers of rocks. The rocks of the different layers all looked the same, but it was stunning to see not a single smooth hill. The layers were so distinct that the edge of each layer looked as if someone had built a rock wall there that had just begun to crumble. The entire landscape were made of slightly slanting horizontal lines, as if some cartographer had drawn close-together lines on the terrain to mark the altitude.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Ouarzazate - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 6)

Arriving back at Mohammed's car, we noticed that he was nowhere to be found. After about five or ten minutes, Mohammed appeared and we were on our way back. I hope that we did not interrupt him if he was praying, as Southern Morocco is quite strict in its Islamic culture, with most of the people heeding the five calls to prayers each day.

On the way back, we stopped on a hill to watch the sunset in the barren rag desert. It was a beautiful sight. Below us were some scattered villages and green fields in a vast, brown rocky expanse. There were hills and mesas casting spectacular shadows across the landscape.

On the way back, Mohammed suddenly pulled over in a town and told us he will be back. After he left, the radio that he had on was suddenly interrupted, and the chanting of the calls to players were broadcast over the radio. All around us, we can hear the calls to prayers being broadcast through loudspeakers from the scattered minarets in the town. Hearing the calls to prayers for the first time is a powerful experience. It feels that all of society is united in the power of prayer, which is omnipresent in the towns and media outlets when the appropriate time comes. Soon after the calls to prayers ended, Mohammed returned, and we were on our way back again.

Passing through the main part of Ouarzazate, we had to take a bridge to the section of town our hotel is in. This bridge crossed a wide, but mostly dry riverbed. It was built as a raised dike, with stubby painted concrete pilings marking the road. A car could easily drive between them and off the bridge. We drove across it slowly, as this bridge was shared by many townspeople strolling around town. For some reason this bridge reminded me of some places in China I had been in, adding to the feel that we were very far away from home.

After being dropped off, we told Mohammed that we accept his offer of taking us to Merzouga for 2000 dirhams, and paid an additional 600 dirhams each for a one night trek and camping trip into the desert. Although we realize this price was probably a bit high, we didn't really feel like negotiating as we did not know what the fair price was, and we thought they needed the money more than we do anyway. We gave Mohammed a 50 dirham tip along with the payment, which he didn't look at and just stuffed into his pockets. Later on, Felix and I were talking about Mohammed. I wondered if Mohammed even know we tipped him, but Felix was sure he did, and that "he'll look at it tonight and smile a bit." I am always cautious and suspicious, so I thought Mohammed was definitely ripping us off. Felix had a much more positive view of Mohammed. Well, that was going to change drastically in the next few days.

That night, we had dinner at the hotel as it was already quite late and we just wanted to eat as soon as possible. We paid 100 dirham each for a full meal with tagine as the main dish. Although it was a reasonably priced compared to Europe, it was still overpriced, as can be expected in any hotel. During dinner in the courtyard, under palm fruit trees, I took the time to enjoy the stars in the cloudless sky above. There was little light pollution in Ouarzazate, and I had not see this many stars in the sky for a while now. I enjoyed seeing the Milky Way so visible, draped across the sky like silk. After dinner, we took a quick stroll in the streets. We were surprised to find that everyone in town seemed to be out. The streets were filled with people and activity. It turns out that in Morocco, most people come out after sunset because it is much too hot during the day. We had arrived at the airport at exactly the wrong time, during their long noon siesta when all the stores are closed because everyone is asleep at home.

The streets were dusty and the weather was still quite hot, but it had cooled to a bearable temperature. Southern Morocco is still surprisingly traditional. Nearly everyone was wearing the same outfit. The women had covered heads and wore long robes. The men wore flowing grey or light blue robes, sandals, and many of them sported long beards and the traditional Muslim caps. Walking down the street, I made a mental note of a bakery which I would stop at tomorrow morning for breakfast before heading off to Merzouga. I also bought a cheap nail clipper off a street vendor selling wares from a tarp for 3 dirhams. This was a horrible purchase as the nail clippers, which I would use for the rest of the trip, pinched my nails more often than clipping them.

After a cramped shower, we went to bed. From our window, we can still see people walking up and down the main street in this section of town. A Exxon Mobil gas station was also visible from our window. What I found amusing about this is that in English, the 'o' in Mobil is red with the rest of the word blue. Similarly, in Arabic, we noticed one connected letter was painted in red while the rest of the word was blue. I found it amusing they forced the same colour scheme into the Arabic version of their name and didn't spend the extra effort to come up with a more suitable logo.

Aït Benhaddou - Mediterranean Backpacking Trip - Day 4 (Part 5)

On our first drive through the South Moroccan countryside, we got a glimpse of the barren rocky desert. Mohamed informed us that there were two words for desert in Arabic, "rag," which is the rocky desert we are travelling through, and "erg," which is the sandy desert we plan on visiting. Along the way, we see small streams surrounded by green fields, trees, and small villages in an otherwise barren landscape. The terrain was a dull reddish brown colour, scattered with rocks. In the distance, one can see cliffs, hills, and mountains. Every so often, there would be a road marker that looked like a white tombstone on the side of the road with a coloured top below which is painted in black the number indicating the distance, and the Arabic and English names of the place it was indicating. These appeared regularly and seemed to alternate among the next few destinations on the highway.

We stopped once to look at a rock hill with three colours, which Mohamed explained to us was very rare and caused by the presence of three different minerals and metals. We passed many small villages and saw many mud buildings, some crumbled and abandoned, and some well maintained and new. At least a few times we passed small villages on hills which we thought might have been Aït Benhaddou.

Finally, we stopped in a small village, which we were told is the new village of Aït Benhaddou. Mohammed gave us directions on how to get to the old village, and said he was going to go spend the time at a friend's house. We told him that we would watch the sunset from the hill and agreed to meet later.

Walking through town and passing a few gift shops, we reached the banks of a dried up river. I had read that if there is water in the river, one must be very careful not to step in the water due to parasites that will burrow in you skin. Luckily for us, the river was completely dry, and to get to the old site of Aït Benhaddou, all we had to do was walk across the dried riverbed. The view from this side was breathtaking. Following the banks of the river, there were green fields, bushes, and date palms. Rising above it was a collection of majestic kasbahs forming a magnificent ksar that covers a quarter of a steep hill rising out of the rag desert. Near the top, there is a cliff and a crumbled wall following the upper lip of the rock face. At the very top of the hill was a badly crumbled tower which used to function as a granary.

After walking across the dried river, we entered the gates into old Aït Benhaddou. There are currently still ten families that call old Aït Benhaddou home. We spent our time exploring the village, climbing ups and down stairs, going from roof to roof via connected passageways, and exploring small nooks and crannies. We found a few donkey stables, a few family homes charging admission for a tour, and found that most of the families that still live there now also own small gift stores. We chose not to visit anyone's home since we were afraid that it would be too touristy, but in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see anyway. In any case, we were able to explore some abandoned kasbahs which used to serve as family homes. As forewarned, there were many childern acting as touts. We ignored them and decided not to have them show us around, but again, in retrospect, for a measly 10 dirhams, perhaps they would have show us some secrets of the ksar. However, that was not guaranteed, as we have had very varying experiences with official and unofficial guides in Morocco.

Following a path leading out of the upper side of the village, we came to the top of the cliff we saw from below. There were two boys drumming on tin cans, and as they were making quite a catchy beat, we were tempted to give them some money, but we were out of change. The view from the top was amazing. At this time, the sun was low in the sky, bathing everything in a reddish orange glow. It seemed very appropriate on the reddish brown earth and the similar coloured buildings that seemed to grow out of the earth full of life before ending its life cycle and crumbling back to dust. From the top of this hill, we can see that we were surrounded by vast stretches of rocky hills and plains, well weathered into repeating patters due to millenia of erosion, untouched by humans. We also climbed around to take a look into the collapsed granary, which by now is hardly recognizable. We noted that there were different compartments in the structure which was probably used to store different foodstuff or used by different families.

After sitting there for a while watching the colours change with the setting sun, we decided we should not keep Mohamed for too long, so we decided to head back. On our way down, I noticed clear water damage on the buildings, especially around the gutters. In some places the external mud covering was washed away to reveal the compacted straw and the mud bricks, which were also showing clear damage. I wonder how much longer Aït Benhaddou is going to last, seeing that no new residents are moving in to the old village, and the ksar will be slowly ground into mud and dust with each passing wind and rainstorm.