Note that I consider Ait Ben Haddou to be the Leesport of Morocco.
Morocco kind of strikes me as the California of the Muslim world - Maghreb literally means the West - in the sense that, out there on the western edge, they've kind of always culturally done their own thing (example: how many Muslim countries have their own wine-making tradition?), although this is also likely because the people and culture are an interesting mix of Arab, Berber, and even West African and European. Viewing the map above, you can see that as in many other other parts of the world, the earlier inhabitants (Berbers) got pushed into the mountains and deserts by the more aggressive latecomers. Morocco is an "associate" of the EU (not sure what that means), a member of the Arab League, but not OPEC - because they don't have any oil. And, trivia point, Morocco was the first country to recognize the independent United States.
I'd be lying if I said we enjoyed Morocco. I hate to say that because their economy is growing and their government seems to be making a lot of changes that are moving the country in the right direction. The highlights for me were seeing the Atlas up close, but even that is tempered by developing-world frustrations, and if you're interested you can read about that more at the bottom of the post. Visiting a Muslim country, visiting Africa, and running in the "Sahara" are all bucket-list points but in their concrete instantiation, at times not much fun. At least I was able to read the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin while I was there. And acknowledgement to Rebecca M. for helping with suggestions for Marrakech!
PRACTICAL TIPS: If you stay in Marrakech I recommend the area south of the Tomb of the Saads, around Rue de la Kasbah. More locals, less intense harrassment by merchants, and generally less dirty and seedy than much of the rest of the city. People really do try to rip you off constantly, including (in one case) taxi drivers taking you to the hospital. We almost always got a reasonable price for physical goods by walking away (sometimes repeatedly) and then restarting negotiations with the merchant based on the much lower price he shouted in desperation when trying to get us to come back.
If you haven't been to an old Middle Eastern city, you're imagining a maze-like assemblage of gradually narrowing alleys, with merchants hawking exotic spices and carpets, in places opening onto great squares where you can sit out of the sun, drinking your mint tea, to watch the snake charmers and citrus sellers while the criers call you to prayer - and Marrakech definitely is that. I'd never seen pure indigo, and they now produce hash-bricks of menthol from eucalpytus trees (one whiff of that will wake you up). These were the moments that reminded us we really had arrived somewhere different.
Evening call to prayer:
Below: a furry merchant.
The old city is surrounded by a thousand-year-old wall with multiple gates (bab). In the bad old days, shortly before the last call to prayer at nine o' clock, the gates would close, and if you were out in the desert you would have to take your chances until morning with the bandits and other unsavory fellows those walls were built to keep out. Now the gates are used for traffic (amazingly, as they don't seem physically wide enough for cars.) Our riad was right on the city wall, and we could look down on the nearby gate (Bab Ksiba) or back over the sea of roofs behind us, watching the many roof cats in the moonlight, who often treated us to their screeching battles at three a.m. I wonder if the roof cats of Marrakech will speciate from from the alley cats due to reproductive isolation. You can submit your ideas on the adaptations of roof cats.
Funny stories: my wife is a tough bargainer. This appeared to bother some of the shop merchants, one of whom informed me, "She very strong. Very strong." Also when walking by myself, it was between 3 and 10 minutes before I was approached about buying hash. I started responding by pretending to be a dumb tourist and saying loudly and slowly, "YOU? *YOU* want to sell hash?" Then he gets shifty and says "No, I just-" (but now I'm pointing at him) "That's great! You, YOU are selling hash! You sell hash!" Other endearments to the locals included talking to them in Japanese to confuse them, which I did cheerfully and often. Another approach: at one point someone was following my wife cycling through greetings in every language and she ignored him; when he finally said in frustration "What language you speak?" she said "I speak the language of go the fuck away and leave me alone." He did. So what I'm saying is we made a lot of friends.
Above: a medina alley at night, with mystery! and peril! Below, observing commoners in the spice market.
One thing that did interest me is the broad range of appearances of Moroccan people. It really is at the boundary between "white" and "black", with every skin tone and facial feature in between. I'm always fascinated with these boundary zones, with humans (the gradual shift from South Asian to East Asian as you ascend the Himalayan foothills in Nepal) or with nature (the abrupt Pacific northwest forest to Western prairie transition south of Liberty, Washington). There's been a lot of movement around Morocco so I observed no obvious geographic pattern. The other striking thing was that people don't seem to react differently to each other based on these features either.
Below, a typical morning at Bab Ksiba.
I found the construction of the buildings interesting. Years ago I think most buildings would have been made from adobe covered with stucco. The newer buildings are made of very thick concrete (1-2 feet) with stucco on the outside. This means that instead of furniture for holding books, candles, etc., you can just use the deep recesses built into the walls. More importantly, this thick concrete doesn't heat up very much during the day, and the interiors (2-3 stories) are open with a roll-back roof that is usually kept open, so the interior is passively cooled by 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit. In April it maybe got to 90 F one day and it still stayed reasonably cool inside, but in July, this probably wouldn't be enough.
One problem: in Marrakech you will often find that your riad is an M.C. Escher drawing, as you can see below. The difficulty of obtaining alcohol is perhaps a benefit in this regard, as I'm not sure I could navigate the fourth dimension to get to my room when intoxicated. The next five pictures are from the interior of the riads where we stayed; the first picture is from inside the riad (although from the openness, it looks like this might have been taken from outside.)
You want some more call to prayer? Neither did we, but here it is anyway.
Above: somehow when you see signs directing you to nearby cities, that always makes your location seem...more real, by reinforcing your context in a network. Below: the tomb of the Saads, the last royal lineage before the current royal family, which took over in the 1600s. Most of the time their grounds would have been razed by the new kings, but this was hidden and only rediscovered in the 20th century. There are differently marked tombs inside for Christians and Jews.
Below: cool robots at an art gallery near the tomb.
Next three pictures below: I noticed a lot of figures in wood in stone in Morocco with six-sided symmetry. These were old doors and window shutters from our second riad. These really remind me of hex signs on barns in Pennsylvania Dutch country. I have a pet theory about these symbols. When Spain unified they got very serious about converting or kicking out Muslims and Jews. Of course, even after the Spanish Jews converted (the conversos), Spaniards decided that wasn't good enough and got angry with them for trying to hide. (!) So people said enough of this, and went to Morocco, which until very recently had a big Jewish community (for a Muslim country). There were also converso families who left Spain for Mexico, and whose only links to the old religion are traditional first names like Rebecca or Abraham. Similarly, I've often wondered if Amish and Mennonites are really German conversos, late converts to Christianity under the guise of these odd new Protestant sects, and preserved some semblance of the old traditions by carving six-sided symbols. A project for another time!
As for the food: We got tired of tagine after about two days. I like tagine. It's fine. But I've had my fill for about the next century. Whether tagine really does showcase all of Moroccan cuisine, it was all the Moroccan cuisine you could get in restaurants in Marrakech. I had camel meat for the first time and pigeon bstila - yes, it does taste different with pigeon. I also had Moroccan wine, a red, which was fine, like a pinot noir without the unctuousness.
Obligatory food pictures. Above, mint tea, which I actually like. Below: I forget, but at least it wasn't tagine. You get served a lot of bread, which isn't bad, but between that and the sweet mint tea Moroccan food becomes surprisingly carb-heavy.
THE HIGH ATLAS
Geology nerd alert: I was previously shocked to learn that there was igneous rock in southeast Pennsylvania, left over from the volcanic activity at the Triassic-Jurassic boundary that immediately preceded the opening of the Atlantic. That is to say, the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. was right up against North Africa at that time, and then the Atlantic started spreading apart. That means the land which is now New Jersey didn't have coastline, but rather was between Pennsylvania and Morocco - and that Morocco hosted the same volcanoes, the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. The High Atlas are much newer as you can guess by their steepness, but still have plenty of igneous rock, which I collected. And now after two hundred million years I've reunited these long-lost cousins, who may have faced each other on opposite slopes just a few miles apart.
Western Atlas. I knew they would still be snowy but didn't expect them to be this lushly green, even more so than the mountains of coastal Southern California. The first hour or so of the drive from Marrakech continued the impression that we were in an Arabic-speaking Baja. The transition from greenery to desert is more dramatic even than Southern California, and it reminded me of the drier parts of the Mojave. Our trip was quite limited by illness, so we didn't want to go very far from medical care. The roads were often very bumpy though the High Atlas are steep, and building a road over them requires some real engineering.
Below: the High Atlas are steep and the road through them was quite ridiculous at times. There is a famous curvy road in Dades Gorge deeper into the Sahara that until this point I was actually a little disappointed I wasn't going to get to see. This soon changed to disappointment that I would have to come back on this road to Marrakech.
On the other side of the Atlas, where the Sahara begins, are several towns apparently named by sneezing people. (It's very dusty in the desert.) Of note, we had a turkey dish in Ait Ben Haddou, so I am glad this wonder-meat (the salmon of the poultry world) is being adopted by cuisines elsewhere.
Ait Ben Haddou: You thought it was only legend, my friend, but the Leesport of Morocco is very real. This very photogenic Berber castle town was built in a thousand years ago by a Berber warlord. It's interesting to compare to the southwest Puebloan mesa-top or cliff-side villages like Bandolier, or Mesa Verde, or Chaco Canyon. While it wouldn't be as difficult to enter with an army, it would be difficult to ascend through the village and the internal defenses would be more formidable. The guide hadn't heard of coded steps. Much to our chagrin, we were not the first intrepid outsiders to discover this place, as it has been used by movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great, and the Gladiator. There's an ongoing film industry presence there and in nearby Ouarzazate. Consequently, after traveling from California to the Sahara and finding yet another movie set, one begins to feel a sense of derealization, that nothing in the world is ever more than a backdrop. Even most of the local people giving the tours were aspiring actors. In Hong Kong, with its mile-long outdoor escalators and your financial status as your point tally, everything feels like you're inside a video game. In Ait Ben Haddou, an ancient desert city that has become even more itself to be an ancient desert city for movies, the world begins to feel like Umberto Eco's hyper-reality has eaten everything.
Above: view from the observation tower at the top. It might be difficult to approach in stealth by day. Below: view of the town, and more sands.
Above: another awesome ceiling. Below: Libya's gas station chain, which doesn't have Hohos or Diet Mountain Dew, so why bother. Price works out to about US$4/gallon, which is actually a bit more than it had been in Spain.
I had my chance to go running "in the Sahara". There were many more European than American tourists in Morocco, and the desert fascinates them much more. When they want "desert", they mean ergs, but I was fine with this. It struck me that the Sahara is so huge as to be almost abstract. In the U.S. or even Australia we would call it by multiple different names. I ran to the edge of town just to be in it, even though there was still evidence of habitation. I did not take thumpers with me.
Above and below: the very edge of the human world. Next time someone tells you about the anthropic principle, remind them of the huge uninhabitable areas even on the one planet where we know we can survive at all. There was a small creek that was keeping that stretch green. You might imagine (as I did) that where water is such a precious resource, people would treat it as sacred, but there was quite a bit of trash and broken beer bottles on the side closer to town.
During my run out to the desert, I saw a few cars sitting along the road that looked like they'd made the off-road run across the Sahara, a desperate, dangerous and unpleasant trip if ever there was one, and didn't feel that I had missed anything. It did become apparent that a very un-Sahara thing to do was just march out a mile into the ergs, sleep there overnight and then come back. (Like going to a beach in the Northeast after Labor Day, but dumber.) The Sahara is a worthless place, and if you live in or near it, the best approach is to avoid exposure to it as much as a possible.
A Ourzazate story illustrating something of the Moroccan character (and my wife's):
We were waiting for the bus that would take us from Ouarzazate back across the Atlas to Marrakech. My wife went to a restaurant across the street and told a waiter that she needed food to go in less than 20 minutes, because her bus was leaving. They assured her it would be ready. (Rookie mistake in developing world travel. She should know better. I wasn't there when she ordered or I could have told her the promise meant nothing.) Of course it wasn't ready then and I started shouting across the street that the bus was leaving. The restaurant informed her that they still had to put the cheese on and couldn't understand that she considered missing her bus and having to live in Ouarzazate as a bigger problem than taking her order without cheese. She ended up physically forcing her way into the kitchen, shoving the cook out of the way, taking the food out of the frying pan and throwing money over her shoulder as she left. She's a peacemaker.
Ourika is a Berber town in a valley of the western High Atlas, not quite an hour drive from Marrakech. The written language (seen in a photo above) is based on Tuareg; these are the people that Frank Herbert based the Fremen on (Tuareg actually means "free men".) There doesn't seem to be a sharp ethnic line between Berber and not Berber, and it seems to come down to some combination of whether you speak Berber, are rural, and want to be defined as Berber. Probably some good trail running in Ourika; I didn't get the chance to (if you want to read some grade-A kvetching about this, read to the end.) There are also macaque monkeys there like the ones we saw in China (scroll down here for the photos, you can't miss them) but none were present that day. Overall, imagine "hiking" through a mall selling Third-World goods that happens to be located on a wooded hillside. Many of the trees look like quaking aspens but I think they're actually poplars. Cactus is a New World plant but you may already have noticed how widespread it's become in Morocco.
Best of all, I finally rode a camel. Even if it wasn't in the Sahara.
Above: snowy Atlas in back. People wait tables by carrying trays of food across those bridges. Below, ovens like the ones used in the American Southwest.
Above: hard times have befallen the Jedi Academy if Obi Wan begging is any indication. Below: lunch by the river. Had a very nice time talking to a Danish furniture designer. I had kefta, basically meatballs and rice, which was the most un-tagine-like thing you could get.
Why did we hate Morocco so much?
We were quite happy to leave when the time came. Below is your handsome blogger, celebrating with a pre-9am beer. (Pennsylvanians - I couldn't even do that in PA! Creeping Shari'ah law!) Somehow Allah didn't stop me. Maybe he likes beer. (Wait, is that offensive? I guess this seeming paradox could also be solved by Allah not existing. ZING! HEY-O!) The Ryanair flight to Stansted was not as nightmarish is the one I reported previously. We then had another day in London, with pitchers you can see here.
Morocco is certainly not the worst developing country you'll ever visit - certainly not nearly the worst I've visited - and is even pretty laid back as Muslim countries go. It also has a pretty reasonable king who's shown that he's serious about extending women's rights (reformed divorce laws), and incorporating minorities into greater Morocco (making Berber a co-official language), and developing clean energy.
I've had my share of annoyances with developing world travel before, although never to an extent where it ouweighed the positives of the trip, and I think the reason for that is not about Morocco, it's about changes in me. First, when you get old and established professionally and otherwise, you get used to things. For example, I expect a working shower and you don't gain any life wisdom from enduring poor pressure or unpredictable temperature. I expect public safety. I expect things to be ready when people say they will be. (Of course this whole list could be summarized as "don't go to the developing world".) Second, it's very different traveling with my (sick) wife than alone or with male friends, in the sense that "roughing it" isn't fun. I want my wife to be happy and she's by no means a delicate flower, but when your wife complains about something, you want to fix it. In the past when I traveled with male friends, when they complained about something, you insult them for being weak, punch them, and carry on as before (or, he does it to you). Third, you get jaded. My wife and I have both seen a lot. She's been to every continent, and as of this trip, so have I except Antarctica. This does have an effect. For instance, we were really underwhelmed by the Sahara, because "we've seen deserts before". This is true, we have, and this wasn't the best. We tried not to be too cool for school because we were just robbing ourselves of a positive experience, but in the end we couldn't help it.
Finally, I have some very first-world hobbies, especially trail-running, and the spontaneity I'm used to in that and other pursuits is only allowed by the extensive First World infrastructure to which I'm accustomed (and thankful for.) Consider: I can suddenly decide I want to check out a new trail. I live in a country with clearly defined, well-maintained conserved public spaces. After less than an hour of reading (in my own language, on a good internet connection) I can not only find descriptions of trails (length, elevation, views) I can find directions on how to get there. I might even see discussions from local outdoorsy types about recent conditions; there might even be trail cameras for weather at higher elevations. I drive to the trailhead, on clearly marked roads with safe drivers. The trailhead too is clearly marked as being part of public land. Lastly, while I might worry about dangerous wildlife, the behavior of local people is nowhere among my concerns when I embark on my run.
Contrast with the developing world. First, it is possible that there are no parks or public trails; or, if there are, the people who live near them either don't even know that this area is supposed to be open to the public; or they do, but the boundaries are very fuzzy, and/or the locals consider it their family or tribe's traditional land, and they don't much like the government, so they don't care and they still consider you a trespasser; or even if they bear no ill will toward you, they still think it's stupid to waste all these trees and game animals as a "park" in a country where people need to eat, so they might be out rifle hunting when you're running through. If there is a park, good luck finding a trail map! And forget any description of trails and directions to trailheads online (even if you find those, if you don't speak the local language, you're still out of luck). So maybe you go to a local guide, which is now costing you extra money and starting to feel not fun or spontaneous. Trail runners and hikers are notorious for spending no money so local guides don't often waste their time with us - or, they tell you "yes yes of course I take you a trail" when really they mean "I take you to my brother-in-law's restaurant which has some trees around it and you can walk up the hill a hundred yards before dinner". Assuming you actually get to a trail, roads might be blocked due to a rock slide from three years ago, and the trail network may be very poorly marked. And of course in addition to people living inside the park who consider you to be trespassing anyway, there may be bandits waiting for idiots like you to come along so they can relieve you of your passport, etc. If you're female, you may have even scarier concerns. (For example, the forested volcanoes around San Salvador look awesome and do indeed have lots of trails, but I was warned repeatedly that if I ran on them I would 100% be robbed.) And if you do manage to get to a trail, you likely have to schedule out a day or two, with extensive preparation ahead of time, reserving guides who you hope actually show up, etc.
The one "hike" I went on in the Atlas was basically a very slow 60 minute walk through a hundred stores up on the hill, selling the same crap you can buy in markets in Marrakech. I'm sure there are better hikes to take, but as a non-Arabic speaking tourist I had absolutely no reliable way to figure out which is which or get there. On my vacation, I was literally fantasizing about running on the deserted Sierra trails near my house after I got home. (Having now done this and refreshed my memory, I can confirm they are better.) I guess the best vacation is the one you're glad to return from.