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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 12 -- Ouarzazate & the Marrakech Express

Switchbacks in the High Atlas Mountains on the road to Marrakech

It was a clear, sunny, and warm enough day—good for traveling. We left at 8:35 a.m., our usual time and stopped at a Berber village in the countryside where we saw embroidery. This was gorgeous stuff and a lot more reasonable in price compared to the Berber carpet shop of the other day. Yet, I resisted the temptation to buy because I am likely to get better bargains for the same stuff in Marrakech. This shop was another cooperative and they do all hand-made things: table cloths, napkins, bed spreads, blankets, scarfs, carpets, table runners, furniture covers. The materials are wool, cotton, silk, linen, velvet, and various combinations of these. The colors were vibrant because the cloth was made from natural dyes: red from poppies, blue from indigo, green from mint, and yellow from saffron. The white table cloths were washable and bleachable. The colored fabrics were machine washable and presumably didn't stain. Some items were reversible.

The prices were dependent on the number of days it took to make. The work is hard and the women there work only 2 hours a day. They have other jobs to help make ends meet. They make their own designs and do not work from a pattern. It's all imagination. The loom technology there goes back to the ninth century. I guess it's a case of if it works, don't fix it. A man runs it with his hands and feet. Industrial cloth is made with computers and the design is perfect. These textiles were pretty near perfect. A table cloth can take between 1 month and a year to make while a much larger and more complicated one took 2.5 years. The prices were all fixed, but, of course, everything is negotiable. For instance, I was eyeballing a round indigo table cloth and a comparable red one for $180 each. If I bought 2 of them, the man would give them to me for $170 each. When I left the store, he came after me and wanted me to come back inside for another deal. I really had to resist—and I did. Marrakech, here I come. Actually, what I want to buy are some colorful wall hangings for my guest room—the sunrise and sunset theme. I've noticed that Moroccan homes decorate their walls this way. Maybe it's a paint substitute. I'm also really into table runners these days and may get a small one.

We moved on our journey between the High Atlas Mountains and the older Anti-Atlas Mountains to the “promised land” of Marrakech on an old caravan road built by the French Foreign Legion in the 1940s. There are dry rivers along this route whose flash floods feed the dam lakes nearby.

These lands are also part of the Souss Valley, one of the highest agricultural production centers of the country. Citrus fruits are mostly grown here. It is notable that the Anti-Atlas (that goes south) and the High Atlas (that goes toward the Atlantic Ocean) meet.

The land is pretty barren all around and the telephone poles and towers are deliberately missing. These are lands that the film industry has used for many films like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, and Gladiator. The TV series, Game of Thrones was also made here. The area has good light and beautiful scenery. However, filmmakers today have gone elsewhere because Morocco still charges them for use of the land while other governments offer its use for free. They figure a movie shot on site can employ 3,000 to 4,000 people not only for the films but in the hospitality industry. Some Moroccans contend their country should follow suit.

One of the main attractions on this road is the Ait Benhaddou, a 17th century kasbah (military fort) built by King Ismail (1672-1727), the founder of the current monarchy. It was one of 300 forts he commissioned to unite the country. It was built by the Glaoua family (see explanation in Day 11 in Tineghir). The kasbah is made of mud and “melting down,” but since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is being restored courtesy of the Moroccan Ministry of Culture and the film industry. People lived in the kasbah until the 1970s when they built a new town across the river. Flash floods would prevent them from crossing the river. Today, only 10 families live there out of the town of 450.

Ait Benhaddou was a caravan town and the people here provided housing for the men who moved with the caravans. Today, some people have shops for “tourist caravans” like ours.

Shops for tourists

One of the residents of Ourazazate was a soldier extra in Gladiator (2008), and he has made a career out of his brief moment of fame by giving tours of his cave (troglodyte) and adjoining house, which has a little stable on the top floor.

It is extremely hot in the summer here and the cave provides some cool relief. The cave is not natural; it was dug out of the rock. As we entered the cave, he lighted candles he had placed around the space—and then offered us tea and some delicious almonds. He showed off his sword and shield and pictures of himself on the set. More recently, he has appeared in Game of Thrones.

Our host lights candles in his cave.

So many people have been sick on this trip. The coughing inside our bus sounds like a TB ward. We have been in close quarters for a long time and are probably sharing each other's germs. I'm on either an extended cold/cough or a second round. But we all soldier on because the sights of Morocco and the experiences we are having are too good to miss.

Actually, I feel especially jubilant today. I had a good night's sleep, finished my blog, and find the trip to be exhilarating. I, and most of my fellow travelers, have been very satisfied with the trip that OAT has planned and Yemani has led. Every day is different and all of the activities have been fun and interesting.

Morocco is a very good place to visit and my instincts to do so were right. What I have found is that the Moroccans have been very welcoming, very pleasant, very open to us as they share their lives, homes, and hospitality. The buying and selling is a bit of a hassle, but it takes some time to get used to the bargaining culture here. One thing to remember is that you don't engage the vendor unless you are interested in buying. I find myself curious about prices first and then consider buying. This is one reason the vendor chase after me when I talk with them. Just looking is not the way it's done here. On the other hand, Morocco is not a place where women have to be careful about being hassled by the men as they are in Italy or Latin America. Also, the scenery here—both cities and countryside—are so different from our American experience. As a result, I am moved to find out more about the Sahara Desert, the caravans, and the traditions of the desert peoples.

One of the women and I were on a comfort stop break, and we talked about different words we'd use to describe Morocco. Here is what I came up with in answer to her very important question:
  • dazzling and enchanting (her idea)
  • kind people (her idea)
  • civilized
  • blending of cultures; tolerant to differences
  • adaptability, buoyancy
  • resourcefulness
  • maintenance of the past while looking toward the future
  • construction everywhere
  • industriousness
  • enterprising, entrepreneurial
  • constantly striving
  • democratic prices”
  • a people who yearn for good things for their families
  • endurance for the hard lives they lead
  • life (at least in the countryside) is not about entertainment
  • life isn't even all about religion

Another thing that has fascinated me is all of the difficult (or extreme) places people live in this country. And yet, they make due. The cliché is “bloom where you are planted.” We usually refer to this in the USA as a self-development slogan. However, here, people are born in the desert or on the side of a mountain, and they learn to live with it. How can this be? Why don't they go someplace easier to live? I am once again led to this question of sense of place. People meld with their surroundings. They identify with them. They learn to live in them. Maybe I can understand this through a recent experience I had with a chance to move away from Kalamazoo. It would have meant full time work, which I have been seeking for 7 years, and yet, I decided against it. I am tied to the city. It is a part of me. I am a part of it. Maybe that's why the nomad woman stays in the desert even though she admits it's a hard place to live.

A cafe au lait toast to Morocco!!

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