Previous entry Next entry

BandA’s Travel Diary

Monday, 26 Nov 2007

Location: Morocco

MapChapter 5-Morocco

Monday November 26, 2007
The flight from Oran to Casablanca was uneventful except perhaps for the fact that we left Oran at 0810 and arrived 5 minutes earlier at Casablanca at 0805!! The plane was 80% full but interestingly male and female passengers were segregated, including B & A!! After takeoff the flight was, at first, above the clouds and we could see nothing of the countryside below but later we seemed to be flying over very barren mountains until we approached Casablanca. There, although the countryside was very dry except for isolated patches of irrigation, we could see fairly intensive cultivation. We subsequently learnt that they had received useful rain in the preceding week.
Casablanca airport was modern and attractive though we found the woman at the Information desk had very limited English when we enquired about transport into Casablanca, phone cards, money exchange, etc. Fortunately the lady at the Avis office had much better English and sorted out our problems. As at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, it was very convenient that the rail station was immediately adjacent to the airport. While waiting for the train our fellow passengers spoke to us and were very helpful, especially by making sure we caught the correct train. We also found the conductor on the train very helpful because, as he checked our tickets, he told us our station, Gare de Voyageur, was the sixth one along the line so we carefully counted each station as we came to it. As we were preparing to leave the train a fellow lady passenger reassured us that it was indeed Gare de Voyageur and then, once we had alighted, told us where to find a taxi to take us to our destination, Casa Port Station, and how much we should pay, viz $0.25. Actually the taxi driver wanted $0.30 and explained that the extra $0.05 was for our bags. We could hardly argue at that price.
Before leaving Australia we had been offered a warm welcome from a lady in Casablanca, Fatiha. As she was working during the day she could not meet us till 1630 in the afternoon. At her suggestion we were to leave our packs, etc., at the Casa Port Station where she said there were baggage storage facilities and then fill in our time sightseeing. The trouble was that when we arrived there we found that there were no storage facilities. Someone suggested we could leave baggage at a storage point some blocks away so, although we did not like the prospect of carting our packs that distance, it was better than carting them around with us all day.
As we left the station we saw the five star Hotel Novatel close by so decided to try our luck there. As we were entering the forecourt of the building we were met by one of the senior Hotel staff to whom we explained our problem. He was very encouraging and said: “Just go to reception and they will help you”. At Reception it was a different story. Apparently there were no senior staff there and there were no regulations governing storing backpackers’ packs while they went round the town sightseeing. Despite all the cajoling and smiles we could muster we made no progress and reluctantly started to go on our way again. Fortunately we again ran across the same staff member out in front of the hotel. He was surprised to see us still carrying our baggage and asked what went wrong. When we explained our dilemma he said: “Don’t worry! I’ll take your bags and sort it all out.” Which he did by summoning a porter with a luggage trolley and making sure we had a collection ticket. We were now unencumbered and free to go sightseeing. Once again our guardian angel had come to our rescue.
We knew we were close to the sea because that is why the station was called Casa Port so decided to wander along the waterfront in the direction of the Hassan II Mosque, one of the major attractions of Casablanca. This could have been a rather interesting scenic walk but, unfortunately, any view of the waterfront was hidden by huge billboards along the road, behind which we believe they were developing the waterfront as at “Docklands” and “Darling Harbour” in Melbourne and Sydney.
A was feeling a bit light-headed and we were pleased when we came across a pleasant little park beside ancient stone walls with a number of park benches where we anticipated a quiet rest. Unfortunately we found all the benches taken up by sleeping homeless men. So we struggled on a bit further and fortunately found another “uninhabited” garden where we had a pleasant rest and a light lunch of our usual bananas, together with biscuits, yoghurt and fruit juice.
After this we carried on about a kilometre further to our destination, the King Hassan II Mosque— the third biggest Mosque in the world, after Mecca and Medina. Its setting is wonderful, as it rises from a rocky outcrop beside the huge crashing waves of the Atlantic, and this adds to its overall beauty. The only way to describe it is in superlatives: the minaret, 210 m high and the highest in the world, is visible day and night from a long way off. The huge forecourt is capable of accommodating 80,000 worshippers while inside the mosque there is space for 20,000 male and 5,000 female worshippers. It is earthquake proof, has electric doors, a retractable roof as well as a heated floor, and has lasers on the minaret that shine at night towards Mecca. It took only 6 years to complete thanks to the inputs of 10,000 craftsmen and 3,000 workers working day and night shifts. The total cost was in the vicinity of $5-800,000,000 largely provided by public subscription. Moroccans are justly proud of this monument but there is some disquiet over the cost and the fact that those who were displaced from the area received no compensation.

Naturally we could not rest content with seeing only the outside so we paid our $20.00 entry fee and joined the large group of tourists waiting for a guide. In reality, there were a number of guides catering for six language groups but the English speaking group was the largest as it included Indians, Poles, Dutch, etc., as well as Australians, Americans and British. We quickly learned to stay close to our guide as the large group, the size and soaring heights of the interior, and her weak voice made it hard to hear her. Unfortunately she had been on sick leave with a nose and throat infection and called back into service because of the large number of tourists.
As we prepared to enter the mosque we were each handed a plastic bag. To our surprise we were asked to carry our shoes with us in the bag. The reason quickly became evident. With such a large mosque and 20,000 worshippers the old game of “hunt the slipper” would take on a new complexity if shoes were left, as is customary, at the entrance. Inside the mosque, between the prayer rows, were long sausage like lengths of material which contained pockets for the shoes of those at prayer.
We quickly discovered that the interior was equally, if not more spectacular than the exterior with its sculpted plaster mouldings, and carved and painted wood ceilings. Everything gleamed—shining, multicoloured, stone and marble floors and columns, mosaics, sunshine filtered by wooden fretwork panels over the windows, spectacular glass chandeliers—and a feeling of soaring space. Sections of the floor at the side had glass floor panels that allowed one to look to the male and female ablutions areas below. These contained large, mushroom-shaped water fonts for ritual washing and beautiful bathing areas that were not yet in use.
After all this quiet beauty we emerged once again into the noisy world and with some difficulty found a taxi to take us back to Casa Port Station where we successfully retrieved our bags at the Hotel and waited to meet Fatiha at 1630 as arranged. She arrived a little late, walked through the crowds of people, identified us immediately as her guests, and then apologized for keeping us waiting.
We quickly moved out to her car and headed to her 18-month-old upmarket apartment through very hectic peak hour traffic. Our room was at the back of the unit and opened onto a balcony. Once again we slept on the floor but a thick mattress and plenty of bedclothes ensured maximum comfort. This was probably the most modern private home we stayed in—the blinds and windows were electrically operated, there was more than adequate hot water for the bath or shower, the toilet was western style and the kitchen was equally well equipped.
As we sat and talked over a cup of coffee and cakes/biscuits we had bought on the way home we discovered that Fatiha’s elderly, widowed Mother was not well and causing some concern. It was clear that Fatiha was torn between her duties as host and her concern for her Mother so B suggested that we all go to see her. Fatiha happily collected the casserole she had prepared for us and we set off to all share the meal together. Fatiha was delighted with this as she liked to visit her mother each evening and we were very happy to give the old lady a change in routine as she was confined to her apartment all the time. When we reached the apartment we quickly discovered why she did not go out, as we had to climb a long flight of very steep stairs. Her Mother gave us a very warm welcome and even though she had no French or English we got on famously. She especially enjoyed our family and home photos that were part of the personalised calendar we were leaving with Fatiha.
The apartment was very large. Apart from the large sitting room where we sat there were two more, equally large, although these may have doubled as bedrooms as was the case in some of the homes we visited. As we were eating, a young housemaid/companion arrived. She apparently lived in and cared for the old lady. After we had been there for some time the mother excused herself and went off to pray. We really admire the dedication of the Muslims to their faith and the life of prayer.

Tuesday November 27
Fatiha went off early to work so we had a relaxing morning till 1100 when we ventured out for more sightseeing. As we prepared to leave the building we faced a problem. The only way in was by special key or, failing that, to use the phone system at the door to alert the person inside that we needed the door opened. We had a key to the apartment but not to the front door! Fortunately a helpful resident from another apartment told us to ring her on our return and she would let us in.

First we had to change some American dollars. Nearby we found a bank with several staff who looked as if they had nothing to do. We, as usual, were the only customers. So often we saw this indication of over-employment—more staff than needed for the work available.

Our next challenge was to make a phone call. We had previously bought a “phone card” but now we had great problems getting a public phone to accept it until a kindly “guardian angel” passing by explained that we were not pushing the card into the slot far enough. All was well then and we were able to make a couple of organising phone calls. Earlier we had arranged by email to stay with a Servas family in Errachidia, later in our visit to Morocco. On ringing this host we learnt that, although his family lived in Errachidia, he actually worked in Casablanca and Rabat and so it would not be practical to meet him in Errachidia. He wanted to meet us however in Casablanca but due to poor communication we never caught up with him. We did however contact our Host for the following day near Essaouira.

On Fatiha’s advice we had decided to visit “Le Quartier Habous”, a 1930’s French version of a traditional medina. As usual A spoke his usual unique version of French—a mixture of French, Spanish and English— and, as a result, discovered to his delight that our taxi driver spoke Spanish. This gave him an opportunity to brush off some of the cobwebs that had been developing over the 30 years since he was last in Spain.

After an enjoyable ride he dropped us at one of the entrance gates first pointing out landmarks we could return to at the end of our visit. Once inside we found ourselves in a quiet, narrow, street lined with “tourist traps”—shops selling spices, carpets, jewellery, brassware, shawls, exotic clothes, wooden carvings, etc. Not a buyer in sight! The only thing we bought was a large bag, of walnuts for our hostess.

As it was now lunchtime B began to make “I want to eat” noises so we started to look for a restaurant. The ones we saw took away all desire to eat but then, in a central square area, we found some fruit shops and a baker so we sat in a small park and ate our usual fruit and bread. The setting was almost as bad as the eating-places. (We couldn’t grace them by the name of restaurants or cafés!) People were emptying rubbish and slops onto the pavement around the little park and grubby old men were draped on benches and on the ground in the park itself. Needless to say we ate quickly then headed for a nearby bank to change some money as we had no small change. The door was open, the staff were in there, but would not serve us—it was lunchtime!

We had seen enough and headed for our entry point but, on the way, detoured into the residential area. We saw only one person here. Everything was as quiet as a graveyard. The dwellings were rather like those you would see in a Hollywood set—white walls with curved arches and decorated doors—the streets were narrow, paved with hexagonal stones, and painfully clean. Eventually we found our way out of this labyrinth but, once through the gate, could not see any of our landmarks. Rather than return inside the walls again we decided to work our way back to our original entry from the outside. As we wandered along we saw an attractive raised park on our right but, as we started to climb the steps, we were met by armed soldiers who quickly turned us away. In our innocence/ignorance we had been trespassing on the Royal Palace grounds.

As we still needed some small change we called in at a bookstore. It had quite a large display of book including several on “Barbie” as well as one of “Robin du Forêt”. Although there were three staff present, there were no customers and when we asked for some change they had none to offer us and we spent the last of our small change on a couple of postcards. Further along the road we came to a large building, the Mahakma du Pasha—once the place where the pasha dispensed justice, now it houses the prefecture of one of the seven Casablanca districts. According to the Lonely Planet, it was open for inspection free of charge. After our reception at the Royal Palace we entered the Mahakma with a certain amount of trepidation especially when we realized that it was now the Prefecture. Again the place was empty except for a couple of men in uniform who passed us and disappeared through a door. The courts we visited were really beautiful—intricate white plaster “lace” patterns on walls and arches, bright colourful mosaics, stone paved floors and well kept pot-plants.

We had quite a wait before a taxi came along but that was the easy part. Fatiha had written down her address for us to show a taxi driver but it seemed the driver had never heard of it. If there is the equivalent of a “Melways” (Melbourne Street Directory) for Casablanca, our driver certainly didn’t have one. In fact he didn’t even have a mobile phone with which he could have rung Fatiha for directions. As on an earlier occasion in Constantine, he stopped to ask directions from locals six times and we gradually moved closer to our destination until it B recognised where we were and guided him to our apartment.

Now came the tricky bit of gaining entry to the building but first we went off to a patisserie to buy some goodies for our hostess. As in all these ex-French colonies the pastries and bread are delicious. Laden with our purchases we headed back to the apartment and pressed the bell of the helpful lady we met that morning. Would she be home? Would she understand who we were? Had we remembered the number correctly? All was well; we heard the door click and we were safely in the building.

Fatiha arrived home at 1630 and helped us sort out bus timetables for our trip the following morning from Casablanca to our next destination, Essaouira some 351 km south of Casablanca along the Atlantic coastline. She kindly offered to take us that evening to the bus station so that we could buy our tickets and book the front seats. We then called in at her place of work. Although Fatiha had been a teacher, she had recently retired and taken up the position of Director of an Institution which cared for newborn babies (premature or suffering some ailment) of poor families who could not afford normal hospital fees. It was called “Gout du lait”. (Drop of milk!)

We were immediately impressed with what we saw. The nurseries all contained “state of the art” equipment and were well staffed. There were 25 babies in humidicribs and also others in open cots. We were not permitted to enter the nurseries but could look through the glass walls which gave an unobscured view of each nursery.

The Institution was serviced by a series of volunteer doctors with one “On call” at any time. In addition there were eight “untrained” nurses (or at least trained only on the job) caring for the simpler needs of the babies. We were more than happy to make a donation and Fatiha said this would be directed to the care of one of the babies who was an orphan and had no family to support him. His name was Yussuf!

The nurses were paid about $330 per month in contrast to a junior teacher’s salary of $600 and many had two jobs, combining private nursing with this job. Many people have two jobs to help make ends meet but even more are unemployed with no Western style social security to support therm. The unemployed must rely on support from other family members. Another problem that was now facing workers, we were told, was that the traditional siesta break had been abolished. Of course, we as Australians saw no problem with this as we are used to working straight through the day with time off for lunch. However, the changed working conditions had, apparently, not included a lunch break for all workers except teachers. The teachers escaped this ruling because it quickly became apparent that children had to be given time for lunch. Lucky teachers!
Fatiha had intended to stop on the way home and buy a pizza but forgot. On arriving home she ordered one by phone to be delivered to her apartment. We waited over an hour for it to arrive as the delivery boy had the wrong address or perhaps like our taxi driver couldn’t find it. We were very sorry for her, as she had had such a busy day that she had had no time for lunch. This was to be her first meal since breakfast.

Wednesday November 28
Fatiha had kindly offered to drive us to the bus station to catch a 0730 bus, even though that meant her starting work an hour or so early. The bus was some 20 minutes late leaving but it was a pleasant drive down the coast as it was a very modern bus with large clean windows and we had the two front seats. The first section of the road as far as El Jadida was a first class highway. As we travelled A kept trying to photograph a signpost to El Jadida as the name brought back memories of his visit there with the family at Christmas 1974 when he was working in Spain. As we headed further south towards Essaouira we passed though intensive agricultural land with frequent irrigation. In contrast to Algeria there were no high-rise apartments in the rural towns and we were impressed with towns such as Safi which residents and authorities had made an effort to beautify with attractive parks and gardens.

We arrived safely at our destination of Essaouira just after lunch and rang our Host, Diane Ellison but the first phone wouldn’t work. The second one did but although we rang four times and we could get hear anything. As usual A was worried that we would not be able to find Diane and all his planning would have gone to waste. It was a great relief therefore when some minutes later a smiling lady appeared and we were once again in safe hands. She told us she had been able to hear us quite well each time we rang even though we couldn’t hear her.

Diane was very solicitous for us and hired a man with a little trolley to carry our packs (which we had had no trouble carting across North Africa over the past three weeks), to a parking area where we found a taxi to take us to the village where she was working. Diane was a mature age American Peace Corps worker involved in teaching Health Care in the local schools and to the community in general. She had received three months initiation training in Morocco, learning Arabic and being introduced to local culture and had now been two years working in two remote villages.

Guided by Diane we found a shared taxi to take us to her village, Lekhmees Takat, Takat for short. The taxi was a standard sedan designed to normally carry one passenger in the front and three passengers in the back. We started off however with two passengers in the front and four in the rear. A short distance along the way we collected yet another passenger who somehow squeezed into the front. Fortunately we all arrived safely at Takat.

As we travelled Diane pointed out a number of Co-operatives that villagers had set up to help improve their financial position. These were mainly for olive or Argon oil (see picture) and we learned that she was living on top of an olive press powered by a camel. That night we heard the press being turned and next day saw the huge grindstones the poor beast had to pull round.

Eventually we reached the village and trudged along the dirt road to her front door. Once this was opened we were confronted by a steep flight of stone steps that led to her front door proper. The house was extremely simple with bare concrete floors. As we stepped in the door we entered a fairly empty room that had four other doors. The first immediately on the left led to the toilet which also served as the bathroom; the second led into the kitchen whose windows looked down on to the main street; the third opened into the lounge which also had windows onto the main street; and the fourth, opposite the front door led into Diane’s bedroom which had only one internal window opening into the entry room.

Diane, despite having to live on the poor pay of a Peace Worker, had made great efforts to make the house pleasant and liveable. She had managed to have water piped to the kitchen (when it was flowing), the few pieces of crockery in the kitchen were bright and there were charts to brighten up the walls, and the lounge, which became our bedroom, was furnished in traditional Moroccan style with colourful blue divans and cushions around the edge of three walls.

After settling into our new home we were taken to visit one of Diane’s very friendly neighbours who, we were told, had been eagerly awaiting our arrival. Fortunately they had some English so we could communicate a little. With typical Arab hospitality we were plied with bread, olive oil and tea. Abdelah took great delight in holding the teapot high above the cup, pouring the tea in, emptying the cup back into the pot and starting the process again. His happy smile as he did this lit up the room. Eventually we took our leave, after promising to dine there the next day, and then went for a pleasant walk through the village in the dusk.

As usual we slept very soundly on the divans only occasionally being disturbed by the groaning sound of the olive press in the space below us.

Thursday November 29
Next morning we enjoyed a breakfast of hot porridge sprinkled with a crunchy grain, followed by bread and delicious cactus jam or amalou. Then, before setting off on our tour of exploration we did our washing and hung it out on a small concrete area at the top of the stairs. As you will appreciate, conditions were very primitive so our washing was done in cold water but it was a lovely sunny day for them to dry.

Today, Thursday, was souk (Market) day so traffic in the village was very heavy and the parking lots were full. Of course the traffic solely consisted of donkeys and camels and one of the parking lots was just outside our window where all the camels and donkeys were resting. Apparently each day of the week (except Friday) one of the surrounding villages holds a souk day. It was a great opportunity for us to get a taste of rural Moroccan life, so Diane offered to escort us around the market square. Before we set out there was a knock on the downstairs door by the local friendly Gendarme who had come to check our passport. It was probably the first time there had ever been foreign tourists in Takat, so it really made his day. At the souk there would have been a hundred stalls of every shape and kind—butchers where the animals were selected then killed and cut up on the spot, tailors, blacksmiths, fruit and vegetable stalls, etc., etc., with great crowds of shoppers, though apart from Diane and B we saw only four very old women among the shoppers or stallholders.

In the course of our wanderings we learnt that the local Sheik (Mayor) wished to meet us. When we went to the local Government Office there were crowds of people wanting to do one sort of business or another with him but we were immediately ushered into the inner sanctum of the Sheik’s Office. With typical Arab hospitality we were offered tea (which neither of us like, but courtesy dictated that we should accept graciously) and then we chatted away for 20 minutes or so, frequently being interrupted by his underling entering to get his authorising signature on various documents or bowing locals would come in to present petitions or seek advice. In the course of our “conversation”, again in typical Arab hospitality, he invited us to come to his home in Essaouira for a meal on Saturday. We were not sure how genuine the offer was but as we were leaving for Marrakesh on Friday we politely declined the invitation. From there we called in at the local pharmacy which was serviced by a Sudanese Doctor.

We had been invited to lunch with Abdullah and Naima and Family so this was our next port of call.

Once again we sat on the divan in front of a low table on which Naima placed the salad and Tajine, best described for those who have not met it as a delicious stew. As you can see from the pictures there was plenty to eat. In the picture with the two children the Tajine is hiding under the conical earthenware hat which is keeping it hot. The next picture concentrates on the meal itself and you can see how beautifully the meal has been prepared. We all ate from the common dish and, as it is impolite to reach across the plate to someone else’s section, our host kept moving pieces of meat to our section so we would not miss out.

After lunch we went for a short walk, just out of the village, to a douar —the home of Naima’s parents. where we were greeted by the Kaloulis, a typical Moroccan extended family. The farm buildings were enclosed by a high wall. In the stable were the camel and donkey; in the yard were goats that kept jumping out of their enclosure, chooks running everywhere and a squirrel in a cage. In a room next to the stable we found one of the women sitting on the floor and grinding Argon seeds to obtain the oil. As she does this most of the day we are sure she really appreciated our visit.

Finally we moved into a room with all the women who chattered to us in Arabic, one had a little English, and plied us with tea, peanuts and biscuits. Gradually a few of the male members of the family sidled in and sat uncomfortably at the far end of the room. During our chatter we discovered that we were to be given Arabic names as our names were too hard for Moroccans to pronounce. A became Hanufe and B became Nijma, a star. At some stage during the visit we became aware that it was a rare treat for Naima who, as a woman, was not free to visit her family unless escorted by a responsible male. Apparently A fitted into this category.

The family were farmers but conditions were very harsh. We could not learn how much average annual rainfall was but it would have been very low and the soil was very stony. They tried to grow barley between the stunted olives, figs and argon. Water had to be carted up the hill from the community well, 20 m deep, as their own well was dry. In Takat itself there was reticulated water but the supply was very limited. There were no water meters and people tended to waste the water so it was rationed to only a couple of hours in the morning and evening. We learned next day that the quality of the water was very poor. Naturally, Diane boiled all the water she used.

When we were ready to leave the douar and return to the village, the father and son from the family considered it their duty as hosts to escort us on our way—the son rode the family donkey!

On returning to the village Diane took us to see the primary school. It presented a very pathetic picture. In one classroom the windows and light fittings had been vandalised and the school no longer had any phone access as the wires had been stolen. There were four half built toilet cubicles but as there was no money for a water supply they were not functioning so there were no toilet facilities for either students or teachers. The boys were prepared to relieve themselves in the adjoining paddock but the girls and female teachers had no such luxury. This situation was reflected in the contrasting numbers of boys and girls in the school: 420 boys and only 120 girls. Since returning home we have received some good news (see photo) as money has been provided to complete the toilets. Hopefully the girls of Takat will now receive at least a primary education.

While at the school (there were no classes at the time) we met a teacher from a school in an outlying village. It was a two-teacher school with 45 students. He was very keen for Diane to visit his school and give some instructions on basic hygiene.

On our return walk we called in at the local health clinic. They had there a resident male nurse and a visiting female doctor. As expected the clinic was very basic but at least some service was being provided.

Back at our home we inspected the camel powered olive press which we had had heard the previous night, as our room was directly above the press. There was also a more modern press powered by an electric motor–when power was available!

In the evening we had been invited with Diane to the home of Housine and Khadija for a meal. Housine had been to university and had quite good English so we had a pleasant chat as well as being served a huge meal including couscous, lamb and prunes. Delicious!

Friday November 30
Having spent two nights with Diane at Takat we planned today to go on to Marrakesh, which was a 4-5 hours drive to the South East. To our surprise Diane suddenly asked us if we would be happy for her to come too as she would like to have a couple of days break from village life. Of course we were more than happy for her to do so, especially as she had a colleague in the health area, Abderrazak (Abdo) Khaloir whom she wanted to visit on the way. One of his responsibilities was to monitor the quality of the water supply to the various villages in the area so he was a useful contact for her in her work.

With Diane's local know-how we found a shared taxi going from Takat to Had Dra, the nearest village on the main road to Marrakesh. It was quite a squash in the taxi as there were four passengers in the front, five in the back, and a further two in the boot!!! We called in at the local Health Centre to meet Abdo whose family lived in Marrakesh and suddenly our numbers went from 3 to 4 as he decided to come too and visit his family in Marrakesh. Somewhere along the way we realized that we too would be visiting and staying with them.

From Had Dra we found another taxi heading for Essaouira, where Diane had met us originally. This time there were only three passengers in the front and four in the back! We arranged to meet Abdo later in the day near the Sofotel Hotel on the beachfront. We also had another appointment as Housine in Takat had asked us to visit his Mother in Essaouira so, on arriving there, we walked to her home and left our packs while we went for a wander round the town. Essaouira is a very popular tourist resort, particularly with surfers. We saw more tourists here than we had seen anywhere so far in North Africa. The cup of coffee at a pleasant beachfront café was at typical tourist prices! From there we could see, not only the attractive seafront but also the ramparts of the Medina walls which figured prominently in Orson Wells’ version of Othello. Eventually we wandered along these walls and entered the Medina through one of its large entrance gates. Inside all was clean, pleasant and peaceful with people, mainly locals, leisurely going about their business.

On returning to the home of Hussein’s Mother we were typically fed a lunch of local bread and Tajine from a big earthenware pot. Then we took a taxi to the Sofotel Hotel where we were to meet Abdo and waited for about half an hour in the pleasant sunshine overlooking a beautiful beach. From Essaouira the four of us were to catch a bus to Marrakesh so, once he arrived, we looked for a taxi to take us to the bus station. After some unsuccessful attempts a taxi stopped and we discovered that in contrast to the rural taxis we had used earlier in the day, the Essaouira taxis were permitted to carry only three passengers. So, while the three of us, and our luggage, went by taxi, the gallant Abdo had to walk.

Once at the bus station we found a bus due to leave shortly for Marrakesh, a 3½-hour trip. When B realized this she wisely decided to visit the toilet. As usual there were dozens of buses at the depot and when B emerged and saw what she thought was her bus about to leave she jumped on board only to discover A was not on it as she had chosen the wrong bus. Fortunately it was still travelling slowly so she was able to jump off without any mishaps.

The 3½-hour trip to Marrakesh was by a rather “crummy” bus with a very narrow aisle, broken armrests, and a restricted view. We could hardly complain as it cost us only $8! Most of the country through which we passed was very stony but mostly cultivated. Because there were so many stones there were frequent very well constructed stone fences, though we could not see what purpose they served, as there were usually substantial incomplete sections through which stock could wander at will. Some areas consisted of extensive bare rock bereft of any vegetation.

It was dark when we arrived at Marrakesh and as taxis could take only three passengers Abdo suggested we walk to the home of his parents. “It’s only a five-minute walk”, he urged. As we walked quickly along outside the walls of the Medina we soon discovered that it was an African “five minutes”. It was then we realised that the home of his parents was inside the walls of the Medina. He could probably have completed the walk in 10-15 minutes by himself but a couple of times we had to ask for a slower pace as we were carrying our packs and the pathway was far from smooth.

Eventually we entered the walls and wound our way through narrow, labyrinthine alleys where the only thing that broke the tall blank walls was a series of wooden doors. Eventually we turned into a side alley where children were playing and some doors were open. Peering in we discovered that the ground floor level of the house was well below street level. Finally we reached “our” door which was small and required some agility to enter wearing a backpack and at the same time dropping to the floor below. No steps!

We found we had jumped back into the past. Abdo’s family home was in the traditional courtyard style—no outside windows—so all sunlight came from the central courtyard and all rooms “opened” on to the courtyard. As we walked down some steps from the entrance we passed the “toilet” (similar to the one at Takat) , the kitchen (so tiny it was amazing that any meals could come out of it) and entered the paved courtyard open to the sky. Three entrances and a staircase opened onto this area. The entrance on the left had two wooden doors that were apparently never closed as the divan stood in front of one of them. Privacy was maintained by a yellow curtain across the doorway. However, as we had already discovered, privacy is not something greatly prized in this culture and people wandered in and out of our room at will. It made dressing and undressing tricky at times! The room was long and narrow, the length of the courtyard, and very colourful. Orange patterned divans complete with loose cushions ran round every wall. As the three of us were in one room Diane established a base at one end and we settled in the other end. We were also pleased to discover that, although the weather was cold and the courtyard very cold, our room temperature was quite comfortable. We decided that the thick walls and only one curtained opening made it like a cave with even temperature all year.

Over time we were shown the rest of the house. The second wall of the courtyard had a similar room adjoining ours but with different colours. Here we were introduced to Abdo’s father who was reputed to be 104 but we doubted this. He spent all his time in bed. Directly opposite our room was Milouda’s room. This was the exception because it was always kept closed and she even locked it with a padlock when she went out. Upstairs were the rooms used by the sons of the house. Leading from the upstairs floor were some broken down steps that led to the roof but were, unfortunately, too dangerous to climb.

Shortly after we arrived we were invited to sit at a small table in the corner of the courtyard and offered some typically tasty bread and cheese. This posed a dilemma for us. We did not know if this was just an aperitive and a major meal was to follow or whether this was it. Especially as A has a chronically small capacity he decided to restrict his intake so that he could do justice to the main meal that was hopefully to follow. As it turned out there was no main meal to follow, though later in the evening we were offered a plate of rice and milk together with the ubiquitous banana.

After a long and exhausting day we were pleased to unroll our sleeping bags onto the narrow divan in our “bedroom”. At one stage during the night A unwisely decide to roll over only to find himself landing on the floor!! He was a bit more careful next time he needed to roll over!

Saturday December 1
Sleep in till 0815 then a breakfast of semolina, bread and cheese.

After breakfast Abdo took us for a walk through the Medina. This was a real adventure into the past. We wandered through tortuous alleyways (We would rapidly have got lost without Abdo guiding us!), past various leather and dyeing workshops and other craft shops, past the magnificent entrance to a hidden mosque and further on coming into a more commercial area catering for local and tourist shoppers. The alleys were usually very narrow but that did not stop the young bucks riding their mopeds and motorbikes at full speed through the crowds of shoppers. At other times it would be donkeys pulling or carrying their loads of goods, always assuming that they had right of way and that we pedestrians had no right to be there. Occasionally there were cars competing for space and we even saw the strange sight of female cyclists. As we walked we passed a local primary schools where children had two session per day, with a break at lunch time, but there were two sittings in each school, so that one group went from 0800 to 1000 and then, after lunch, from 1300 to1500 while the second group went from 1000 to 1200 and then, after lunch, from 1500-1700.

A was interested in buying a pair of sandals. Initially the storekeeper was asking $28 but as A was not too desperate for the purchase he declined the offer. The trader came down to $20 and then $18 but he would not accept A’s offer of $17 so we continued on our way. About ten minutes later the little man caught up to us running and begged A to buy the sandals, he was prepared to accept $14. A agreed and the salesman was really thrilled. It was, he said, his first sale for the day! We also bought a few other presents for the grandchildren but did not bargain much for these.

Finally we emerged into the very large crowded square, Djemaa el-Fna, where there were the famous water-sellers, snake charmers, dancers, musicians, monkey handlers, etc., etc. We did not see at this time the famous storytellers who were one of the few highlights that A remembered from his trip to Marrakesh in 1974. Although there were lots of tourists, most appeared to be locals and very few were English speaking. We were in continuous danger of getting separated and so lost, as there was no way we would be able to find our way home by ourselves, although one of us did have Abdo’s address written on a slip of paper. Abdo, as the very considerate guide that he was, understood that Diane was getting tired and needed a rest. Accordingly he led us to a very pleasant park only to learn that Diane had no desire for a rest and just wanted to continue with our sightseeing, so we returned to the square. It was surrounded by numerous shops where we grabbed the opportunity to download onto a CD some 600 photos which we had stored on our digital camera memory card.

After leaving Marrakesh we planned to head back North and our first stopover would be Errachidia. With Abdo’s help we tried to phone the hotel recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but apparently the number had changed.

After lots of fruitless efforts making enquiries at local travel agents, etc., we pressured him into phoning “Directory Assistance” which he did and learnt the new prefix for Errachidia numbers. However, instead of booking us into the hotel we wanted, he booked us into a different hotel (Hotel Kenzi Rissani), which he told us, was more conveniently located and a better hotel. More about this anon! One more task before heading back home was to see about a bus to Errachidia the following morning. Once again Abdo was a very considerate guide and wanted to book us on the up-market bus but we managed to convince him we just wanted the ordinary local bus. He was very helpful in making a reservation for the two front seats for the 0700 bus the next day.

It was now time to head home for lunch. As there were four of us and the petit taxi was only permitted to take three passengers, Abdo had to come in a separate taxi, though in typical Arab hospitality he insisted on paying for both taxis. Back at Abdo’s home we shared a meal of lamb Tajine with the extended family Abdo’s Mother, two sisters (one was Milouda ) and three brothers. The family had a problem getting their tongues around our names, Bernadette & Anthony, so we told them the new Arabic names, we had been given in Takat: Njima and Hanafe. At some stage Abdo’s brother and brother-in-law appeared and, of course, there were the children. As they all were to stay the night we decided that the many divans provided elasticity in accommodating people.

Abdo suggested we have an hour’s rest after lunch and then venture forth again to see more of the town. We (Abdo, Milouda, Diane and ourselves) set out at about 1630 walking round the outside of the Medina , but not before Abdo and Milouda had taken out their prayer mats and said their habitual prayers.

It was a long but interesting walk bringing us past the cemetery where the Prophet’s descendants are buried, back to the Djema el-Fna. By now it was quite dark and, as it was quite crowded with tourists, was very easy to become separated. In the middle of the square, under canvas awnings, were numerous food stalls surrounded by tables and chairs and all doing a roaring trade. Abdo selected one where we had a meal of soup, dates and typical Moroccan bread.

It was a long walk back to the house and we were all very tired on eventually arriving home. Before retiring to bed at 2030 we partook of some creamed rice and took the opportunity to show the family the photos of Australia included in the souvenir calendar which we left with them together with a few small gifts. We were enormously privileged to have had this experience of living with Abdo’s family.

Sunday December 2
The bus to Errachidia was scheduled to leave at 0700 and we had to be at the depot by 0645, hence an early rise at 0500. As usual Abdo had offered to take us by taxi to the depot but this depended on his waking in time. Fortunately he was very reliable and we set off on schedule at about 0545, though somehow breakfast was not on the agenda, to look for a taxi at that early hour. Despite A being worried that we would not find a taxi and miss our bus Abdo found not one but two taxis as the three of us could not fit into the “petit taxi” together with our packs. At the depot Abdo was again very helpful. We were directed to Bay 10 but there was no sign of a bus there and only one other person apparently waiting for the bus. Actually he was stretched out on the bench, well rugged up and fast asleep. Was he a homeless person or a bus traveller? Without Abdo A would have been worried we were in the wrong place, but of course all was well. The bus arrived at 0715 and left five minutes later, but then drove round the town picking up passengers at several stops before actually returning to the depot where we had initially embarked. Before heading off a man at the front of the bus chanted for about five minutes from the Qu’ran and then passed through the bus collecting money for the prayers he had sung on our behalf. We received a very warm farewell from Abdo at the bus depot. He had been an excellent host and guide especially as our contact with him had only been a chance one though his official connection with Diane.

The first part of the journey was through very dry country with the only vegetation being date palms and stunted juniper-like bushes except where there were irrigated crops. After an hour or so we started to climb up into the Atlas Mountains eventually reaching an altitude of 2,200 m with snow all round us, though not actually on the road. The route we chose to take on our return north involved considerable extra mileage but it was well worth it. Although the road was very steep and windy it gave us magnificent views of the mountains. As we were in the front seat and on the downhill side of the road, and the front wheels were well back from the front of the bus, at every sharp turn it seemed that we were poised right over the edge of the road with a very long drop to the valley below. Fortunately we experienced no mishaps. Once over the top of the Atlas range we came to the Dades Valley with the High Atlas Range to the West and Jebel Sarhro to the East. The first major town we encountered was Ouarzaate, the centre of the Morocco Movie Industry. We were impressed with how conscientious the bus driver was in following speed restrictions, but then we understood as we saw a number of police with radar detection and several vehicles stopped for speeding.

At our mid morning, or breakfast, stop we were talking to two Spanish girls from the bus. We mentioned that we were going to visit Spain after we left Morocco. When they asked us where we would be visiting we mentioned Badajoz among other places. Their immediate comment was: “Why go to Badajoz?” This is a typical response for a Spaniard as Badahoz has a very poor reputation. If you mention Badajoz to a foreigner, they say: “Where?” whereas a Spaniard will say: “There!!”

It was a long drive down the Dades Valley scheduled to take nine hours but actually ten. Despite being in a rain shadow therefore in a very dry area, we were surprised to see so many large towns, as there was only limited irrigated agriculture. These towns were generally attractively laid out with buildings painted and cared for and in contrast with many other places, not contaminated with plastic bags and rubbish heaps. We were by no means bored by the trip as it had a special beauty of its own. We would regularly pass shepherds, miles from nowhere, watching their flocks of sheep, goats or camels. It seemed they were feeding on stones and sand, as there was next to no edible vegetation. Despite this, it was clear that we were in the 21st century as there were regular mobile phone towers and TV relay masts. We were mystified by the presence of regular, isolated, windowless, concrete buildings on the roadside, whose function we could not imagine.

We arrived at Errachidia just on dark and we were about to head off in the direction of the Hotel Kenzi Rissani, the hotel where Abdo had made a reservation for us which was some distance from the bus depot, when B saw a hotel, The Hotel Errachidia, right next to the bus depot. In fact it was the one that The Lonely Planet had recommended and which we had originally asked Abdo to contact. So we were very pleased to find they had a comfortable room with hot water, air conditioning, marble floors, two double beds, a helpful Manager, etc. All this at only half the price of the Hotel Kenzi Rissani! This was the first hot shower we had had since the day we arrived in Morocco.

The Hotel Manager directed us to The Imilchil Restaurant where we had a simple but welcome meal, apart from the devoted attention of a cat who seemed to consider that B was her long lost friend and kept pestering her. The other pest was a tourist tout who insisted on joining us with a view to our going on an expedition the following day to some popular sand dunes some 50 km out of town. We had already enjoyed dunes in Libya and were planning to continue on our way the following morning, but we had a big job convincing our man that we were not interested. At the same time we felt some compassion for him as he ad a living to earn.

On most of our holidays we make a point of staying for two nights at a Cistercian Monastery for a little peace and recollection. There is only one Cistercian monastery in North Africa at a place called Midelt, less than 100 km North of Errachidia and earlier in the year we had arranged to stay there in their monastic Guesthouse for two nights. Unfortunately, at the last moment we learnt that the Guesthouse was closed over the winter, as from December 1, so we wouldn’t be able to stay there. However we were invited to visit the Monastery and intended to do this at our next stop—Midelt. We were not sure just where the monastery was in relation to the town but our friendly Hotel Manager kindly phoned through for us and gave us the necessary directions.

Monday December 3
Although the tariff included breakfast there was no dining room at the hotel and we were directed nearby to Sinbad’s café where we had a good breakfast. The only downside was that the same objectionable tout from the previous night was there ready to pounce on unsuspecting tourists again. Fortunately we had adequately discouraged him the previous night and he did not bother us again.

We caught the 1000 bus for the three-hour trip to Midelt. The route passed over high mountain passes with snow on the peaks and even occasionally on the road itself. Then we followed a gushing mountain stream with many villages alongside, relying on the river to irrigate their small plots. In between the mountain sections we travelled over extensive flat desert plains with occasional flocks of sheep, goats or camels. Every now and then in the middle of the desert we would pass a bare gravel soccer field or old deserted ruins of stone houses. The only town of any size was named Rich.

On arriving at Midelt we found our way to a little pension called Hotel Atlas, run by a friendly Berber family. We were given the choice of room and selected the one on the roof so we had a magnificent view of the town, the countryside and, beyond that, the snow covered mountains of the High Atlas. The room was tiny but very clean and quite adequate, except that A had to duck in order not to hit his head on the ceiling.

After our usual lunch of fresh bread and bananas, we decided to walk the two kilometres to the Monastery, Notre Dame de l’Atlas. Adjacent to the Monastery there is a “workshop” run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary to train the local girls and women in various needlecrafts, weaving, etc. This way they can earn money and help their families. Although it is nominally run by the Franciscan Nuns there are now only three very elderly nuns and it seemed to be managed by a third generation French-Moroccan lady. As usual we had great fun trying to converse in French as she had no English.

n all, we saw three rooms in the workshop. The first was large, had some woven handicrafts on display, and also had a few seated older women working on their exquisite embroidery. Opening off that room to the left was a long narrow room with about 20 young women seated along the walls, heads bent, and concentrating on their embroidery while their teacher stood near the ironing table to make sure all was well. These were the beginners learning their craft. After we duly admired their workmanship we explained we would like to buy some of their work so we were taken to the storeroom. Here, again, we marvelled at the beauty of the embroidery. Lonely Planet commented that their wares were expensive but we did not think so. They were certainly more expensive than machine made embroidered objects but the quality of the base material and the embroidery was excellent.

We then attempted to visit the Monastery next door but discovered that it was enclosed by a very substantial security fence and a locked gate. This was not really surprising in view of what had happened to the community when in Algeria. Our kind lady from the workshop was able to contact the doorkeeper who then opened the gate for us. This monastery now has only six monks, all French, three of whom were originally at the Monastery of Notre Dame de l'Atlas in Tibhirine in Algeria. That was the monastery where, 13 years earlier, Islamic terrorists kidnapped seven monks who were in residence there and subsequently massacred them by cutting their throats. There are also three monks who have temporally come from a monastery in France. We had a very friendly halting conversation with Père Jean Pierre who had been expecting us. We visited the attractive monastery chapel and were moved when visiting the special shrine and the seven burning candles dedicated to the seven martyred monks from Tibhirine.

In the evening we had a good solid meal prepared by our Berber host family, although B’s tummy was not feeling very happy at this stage. Although it was a very cold and frosty night we slept well kept warm by some very warm and heavy blankets.

Tuesday December 4
B was not feeling too well so A went alone out into the cold frosty morning to the monastery for 0700 Lauds and Mass with the community, together with three nuns and three lay people. Then breakfast back at the Hotel Atlas before going to the bus station to catch the 1000 bus to Fez. A bus came into the station right on 1000 so naturally we boarded it, but fortunately our Moroccan guardian angel came after us and told us it was not the Fez bus so we waited until that bus came along some 20 minutes later.

Initially the route passed through fairly flat desert terrain adjacent to a large dam, then, as in the two previous days we climbed the High Atlas Mountains up to 2180 m with snow all around us. Here we marvelled at the steep bare craggy mountains and deep gorges before returning to an extensive dry plateau. We were impressed with the way the local farmers were trying to make the most of the excessively inhospitable land, sometimes with irrigation but more often without. The shepherds watching their flocks were often a very long way from any source of habitation for themselves or water for their animals.

As we started to descend on the Western side of the Atlas Range the vegetation changed dramatically. In place of desert shrubs we entered dense oak and cedar forests. We came across the town of Ifrane in the middle of this lush vegetation at 1500 m altitude. This was a fairytale town consisting of luxurious homes, gardens and attractive parks. It was a town designed and built by the French in the 1930’s as a summer resort for the well to do. Shortly after passing through Ifrane we saw on the side of the road at the edge of the forest a rare sight—one of the famous Barberry apes

As we approached Fez, agriculture became more intense with better soils and higher rainfall.

We arrived at the large Fez bus depot about 1645 where we had arranged to phone a Hospitality Club Host, Said Chrifi. We had a phone card for such occasions but of course there were no card phones at the bus depot, only coin phones. Eventually we were able to contact Said who said he would be at the depot in 10 minutes (He didn’t say whether it was “African Time” or “International Time”!). Unfortunately we did not say just where at the bus depot we would meet and it was a very big depot with hundreds of people milling around. We waited at what we thought was a good spot near the entrance but after 30 minutes still no Said. We were about to phone again when he found us. He had indeed been looking for us for some time. Before leaving the depot we booked front seats on the bus to Tangier for two days later then drove, by taxi, to his home which was quite a long way from the depot. Said told us they had only recently moved from their former home in the Medina which would have been much closer.

They lived in a third floor apartment in a row of identical new apartment blocks. In fact, as we later discovered, all the streets in this area had similar blocks. The lounge-dining area was large with the low table set in the middle of divans arranged around it. Once again we saw the flexibility of this arrangement as, when she became tired, the younger girl just curled up on the divan and went to sleep while we continued talking and/or eating. There were two bedrooms. In addition there was a kitchen and two toilets—one in a western style bathroom (bath not shower) and the other in the traditional style.

On arrival, we met, his wife, Khadija who was very kind and friendly but had little English. Said’s was much better. As at other places our family calendar was a big help when language was a barrier. Said and Khadija had two young little girls, Zineb (2) and Riheb (6), who forsook their room for us. This room had only one bed so this time A graciously slept on the floor and gave B the bed in view of her indisposition. We had a welcome tea of Tajine and salad at about 2000. Dec 4 was B’s birthday but, as we had not been able to buy a cake, we postponed its celebration till the following day.

Wednesday December 5
After a breakfast of bread, honey and milk coffee we went with Said by taxi to the Medina where we wandered with Said for about half an hour before he left us and arranged to meet us at 1230 at the gate named Bab Boujloud.

This Medina seemed smaller than the one at Marrakesh, its streets were straighter, and it even had signposts to save you getting lost. However, it was much less exciting apart from the constant cries of “Attention!” as the overburdened donkeys were urged to trot faster along the streets. It was not a good idea to ignore the warnings as the donkeys stopped for no one.

When we reached the place where we had agreed to meet Said, “Surprise! Surprise!” He wasn’t there! We finally rang him and he soon appeared. B was not feeling very well so we decided to return home for a restful afternoon rather than stay and have lunch with him. He then found a taxi for us and gave the driver instructions as to where to go, but when we reached our apartment we went to the wrong entrance. Fortunately the lady in the flat we went to knew the Chrifis and took us there. When we finally found the right apartment and knocked at the door there was no response. What were we going to do? Just sit on the doorstep till someone came? Fortunately Khalija had just gone up onto the rooftop to hang out the washing and returned within a couple of minutes.

While B spent the rest of the afternoon resting, A ventured out to buy a birthday cake for a delayed celebration of B’s birthday from the previous day. In the evening after Said came home we celebrated the birthday with a single candle, and by singing “Happy Birthday” in English, French and Arabic! Our host family also gave B an embroidered pair of slippers and a large round mirror.

On the following day we were planning to go by bus to Tangier. This was to be our last stopover in North Africa before crossing over to Spain so Said kindly phoned through to Tangier and booked us into the Hotel Andalusia for the following night.

Thursday December 6
Up early this morning as Said was going with us to the bus depot (not the one where we arrived two days earlier but one in the centre of the town). He insisted on going out into the main thoroughfare to bring a taxi to our apartment and insisted on carrying all our bags down the stairs to the taxi. As a final act of hospitality, Khalija presented us with a box of cookies for sustenance on our trip.

We had a couple of hours wait for the bus which was scheduled to depart at 1100, but actually was 20 minutes late. The bus was only half full, about 20 passengers, and, unlike most other buses we had experienced, had no conductor, but it did have the regular cracked windscreen!

The countryside we passed through on our way to Tangier was largely treeless but with intensive cereal cropping. We saw pairs of donkeys pulling ploughs but very few tractors, much irrigation and occasional olives. Although the land was agriculturally much richer than in the desert we were surprised that we passed through fewer towns, though there were the big towns of Ouezzane, Chefchaouen and Tetuan. We had a frustratingly long stop at Tetuan, which was only about an hour from our destination at Tangier. What was worse was that, after leaving Tetuan, there had apparently been an accident on the road as traffic was banked up for several kilometres and we were consequently delayed for a least an hour, eventually arriving at Tangier at 2030.

Normally there are a host of taxis swarming round bus depots, but not at Tangier. On this occasion there were no petit taxis so we had to resort to the more expensive grand taxi. Hotel Andalusia was a plain hotel but the room was quite clean and comfortable. We ventured out to find a meal and, after quite a search, found a Chinese café and a welcome meal of soup, chicken, rice and chips. We appreciated the rare opportunity of a lovely hot shower before turning in at 2130.

Friday December 7
For breakfast we enjoyed a lovely fresh Moroccan baguette and readily found a petit taxi to take us to the ferry to Spain. There is a fast ferry and a slow ferry across the Straits of Gibraltar but strangely the fast ferry is cheaper than the slow ferry. The fast ferry actually goes to Tarifa and from there all passengers are transported by bus to Algeciras. There were comparatively few passengers on the ferry but even so one man almost pushed B over in his haste to go on board.

And so we waved goodbye to Tangier, Morocco after having had a very pleasant 5 weeks in Arab North Africa, having learnt so much, and having made so many new friends.