“the top ten” by guest blogger Luke Ramseth

June 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

It’s an honor to be the first (to my knowledge) guest blogger on biladalmaghreb.wordpress.com. I’ve written some articles for student papers and the like, but this might be my biggest audience yet. In all seriousness, Hayley’s got a good thing going here. Reading her vocabulary and metaphorical creativeness motivates me to be a better writer. And she’s got like 4000 hits or something.

To the point. I just got back from a three week trip to Morocco via Spain. If you follow this blog regularly (hi mom, hi Toni), you know we did a whirlwind tour of northern Morocco, spent a few days in Hayley’s adopted home of Rabat to recoup, then continued to the Sahara, foothills of the Atlas mountains, the windy southern coast, and finished up in Marrakesh. I didn’t want to write a gigantic recap, so instead I created a top-10. There’s no overarching theme here, just 10 various trends and moments that especially struck me during my short stay. Here goes:

10. Aggressiveness

This is a direct theme that I think plays out across Moroccan culture, and in some situations could be conveyed as being direct, or as “very strong encouragement”. But the aggressiveness that I’m talking about, and that struck me most, was on the street level. Whether it’s due to Hayley’s not-quite-Moroccan looks, or my definitely-white-guy-tourist looks, we certainly draw attention to ourselves. A typical interaction might have gone something like this: “Hello, bonjour, hola.” (this is to see which language you speak, and engage. Side note: I’m incredibly impressed with how many of these guys, whether they were ticket-sellers at the bus station or false guides, spoke passable English.)


“Where are you going?”

“We don’t need help.”

“Need a hotel? (Blank) is very cheap, hot showers,” or, grabbing your arm forcefully, “come inside my cafe, good food, look at the menu, very cheap,” or “follow me, follow me.” (when we don’t follow, he then follows us for five blocks.)

“No, we have one, thank you.”

“This one is very good, follow me, hot showers.”

You get the idea. Hayley is quick to point out it is almost without fail a “he” who is being aggressive, obnoxious, or otherwise. She’s a pro at telling them off with a Derija insult, or just plain ignoring them. Although this occasionally only provokes and motivates them more. Sometimes aggressiveness is in the form of catcalls or under-the-breath insults. Good or bad, likely somewhat brought on by an influx of tourists, it seems to remain a major theme especially in all the major cities we visited.

9. Basketball in Essouira

Essouira was our last major stop before Hayley and I headed back to Marrakesh and went our separate ways. The first of two nights, we found our hotel in the thick of the medina, and picked the less dirty of two rooms. I went downstairs to find the hotel manager so we could check in, but he was nowhere in sight. I glanced outside in the medina street, and there he was, 50 year old hotel manager, practicing his ball-handling skills and shooting at the “hoop”, a wooden vent about 10 feet up on the outer-medina wall. He dropped me a bounce pass, and I “swished” my first jumper.

We practiced for a bit, until Hayley poked her head out, wondering where we both were, and if we could check in now.

“Not now. Maybe 10 minutes,” he said. Soon a lanky, euro looking dude came out of the hotel too, and joined in the practice session. We needed just one more for some two-on-two. A shopkeeper down the street looked interested–he ditched his shop and smokes and jumped on my team. Overweight shopkeeper and I struck first, then scored again, communicating surprisingly well considering he didn’t speak any English and I no Arabic. But I underestimated euro guy, who carried he and hotel manager back into the game and repeatedly put me to shame. At which point Hayley came out again, looking slightly impatient. “Check in and pay tomorrow,” hotel manager says. And we continue on. My teammate is the first to crack, retreating to his shop for a cigarette, trailed by insults and trash-talking from our two opponents. We slap hands and head our separate ways. I like that basketball–even hoopless basketball–trancends any sort of language or cultural barrier. A picture of our court: 

8. The Cascades

Before leaving the mountains for good, we took a detour to the Cascades d ‘Ouzoud (a big waterfall that emanates from a spring). It seemed a good chance to get in some nature time, and a long-ish hike that didn’t include crossing clogged streets and evading faux guides.

I couldn’t help but compare the Cascade to any similar national park in the U.S., where things are well marked and preserved. In Morocco, however, vendors capitalize on a tourist attraction like this. All down the paved trail that dropped into the canyon were various open-air souvenir shops, cafes, and full-blown restaurants, some poised precipitously on the cliff sides.

For some reason, two mangy looking mutts were attracted to us, and tailed us down the trail as we escaped the touristy area and got into nature. Whenever we stopped, they did too and played around. We got well beyond the crowds eventually, and found where the Cascade drained into a much larger river. There, we did some rock scrambling and ran into a grizzled, spanish-speaking Berber mountain man, who offered us some of his Berber whiskey and a smoke (of which we accepted only the smoke–you didn’t see this moms).

Some photos. Unfortunately we forgot to take one with Berber guy.

7. Sahara

We went on a camel trek. Got talked into it in Zagora by Moussine, a friendly kid who couldn’t have been over 18, but already seemed to run the show at his camel trekking company. He made us “very good price” that we couldn’t resist.

We took off the next day, mid-afternoon, from the town of M’Hamid, the last major outpost before you’re in the dunes of the Sahara. Mohammed was our guide, and quietly led us and our two camels out of town. (Despite camel-riding having some sort of romantic, novel aura about it, let me tell you, it sucks. I would’ve much rather walked.)

We arrived in the tent village where we would spend the night, and were greeted by I think about 10 more guides. That’s a guide-client ratio of 10-2. I can’t imagine they were all getting paid. Hayley and I checked out the dunes surrounding our campsite, but when a sandstorm whipped up, we hunkered down in our tent to wait for dinner. A few guides came in to chat with us. One of them took an especially keen interest in Hayley and they chatted in Derija for awhile. So interested, in fact, he apparently didn’t realize the two of us were dating. Or maybe he did. But either way by the end of their conversation he had proposed. Like proposed to marry her.

After a suprisingly tasty tajine for dinner (especially for being cooked in the Sahara), we hit the sack under the stars.

6. Hayley’s Kasbah Place

Maybe you’ve seen the video tour or pictures from her terrace but let me just reinforce after spending a couple days there, her place is spectacular! What’s student housing in Morocco would most certainly be pricey vacation home anywhere else based on location alone.

We spent every morning and evening eating or chatting with her roommate Lisa on the rooftop terrace. If you stand on the terrace and look out, on one side is the mouth of the river as it drains into the Atlantic, on one side is the big kasbah wall, and the other a nice view looking up at the rest of the kasbah neighborhood. While we were in town, an enormous music festival called Mawazine was going off every night. Guess who had a view of two of the stages? Talk about prime real estate. While listening to live music on the terrace wasn’t bad, we also went and checked out a Malian artist one night.

5. Foothills of the Atlas

After our Sahara excursion, it was up to me to determine where we would go in the mountains. We settled on going back to Marrakesh for a night, where Hayley’s friend Ahmed graciously hosted us, then catching a bus to the town of Denmate, which sits at the base of the Atlas.

After a quick snack, a 6 km grand taxi ride took us to the village of Imi-n-ifri. There we found a beautiful hotel to stay in that sat alone in the countryside, dropped our packs, and explored a massive natural bridge with a creek running through it. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of birds make their home under the bridge as we soon found out. By that time it was 8:00, and all three of the village’s restaraunts were closed. We settled on bread dipped in yogurt.

The next morning, we hiked to “dinasour prints” and although marked by a sign, the prints were less than discernible. But the hike there, along a narrow road where we saw at least as many mule-drawn trailers packed to the hilt with wheat as we did cars, was the real highlight. The valley was lush, flowers were in bloom, and the locals utilized every bit of space for agriculture, to the point of terraced farming on the hillsides. It was also a place where much of the population is obviously scraping by day to day.

Back down to Denmate then, where I had maybe my tastiest tajine of the whole trip. A quick and glorious side trip.

4. Public Transportation

Why haven’t I seen more car accidents? Will I survive this taxi ride? Why don’t we have Grand Taxis in the U.S.? Will I throw up? Can I stand one more tour bus?

All questions I asked myself as I grew accustomed to a very alternative method of public transportation.

Of course there were the normal transportation methods during my trip: eight airplanes and the subway in Madrid. But Moroccan transportation has a unique flair to it, if only because the roads are narrower, people drive faster and more aggressively, the larger vehicle has more right of way, and there’s a million scooters and bikes riding on the road, sometimes against traffic.

Below is an overview of methods we used throughout our trip.

Tour bus: I can’t count how many we took. There are nice ones, disgusting ones, and ones that break down. Each major city has a bus station, and they are places of chaos. Inside are windows where tickets are supposedly sold, but we were always intercepted before reaching the window by a guy, or many guys, selling tickets out of their pocket, or pointing to the guy that could sell one to us. It is a strange, sometimes frustrating system of buying tickets, where sometimes you get overcharged, as Hayley and I found out.

We travelled narrow roads by bus; the drivers will take up both lanes (or in some cases, the only lane) and only move over when the vehicle approaching is close to the same size as the bus.

They stop seemingly at random. If the bus is packed, and one person wants to be let out before the next station, the driver stops. If someone on the side of the road wants a quick lift to the next big town, the driver stops. Quite frustrating if you’re the one trying to go a couple hundred miles over the Atlas Mountains, but it’s all part of the deal.

Grand Taxi: I think this is a brilliant idea. It’s a cheap version of transportation that falls in the grey area between when you need a bus or train and a regular “petit” taxi. There is a grand taxi “station” in nearly every town. They are almost all 80s or early 90s, stick-shift, white, Mercedes 280 or 300 DLs. Most of the drivers think they are Michael Shumacher.

The best part is you pay a fraction of the price you’d pay for a regular taxi. The catch? You have to wait for them to fill up. And when I say fill up, I’m talking about two people smashed into the passenger seat and four across the back. So you wait there, until enough people come that want to go to the same general area you want to go, and the driver gets you and your five friends to the destination.

Petit Taxi: Little red Geo Metro type cars that are like a normal taxi. You pay a lot, and they take you right where you want to go.

Things we didn’t use but are common in Morocco: Donkeys, which are virtually everywhere, whether the middle of the mountains or downtown Rabat. They usually are pulling a small cart, filled with some sort of agricultural product. Bikes are common, usually old and dinged up. I got a kick out of a lot of the bike shops I saw. Scooters are everywhere. And their riders will ride them anywhere, whether through the narrow streets of the medina, offroad, the sidewalk. Anywhere that is wide enough to fit handlebars, you will see scooters.

3. Medina Chaos.

I didn’t truly know what the medina was until I came to Morocco. It’s the old city, where the central marketplace is located, and is always surrounded by a big castle wall. Fresh out of the gate, Hayley threw me right into the Fes medina, the largest in Morocco. We promptly got lost, in windy and crumbling “roads” that are sometimes only five feet wide, and tailed by many a false guide. Needless to say I knew the definition of medina after Fes. It’s something I couldn’t have fathomed without firsthand experience. I think the pictures we took speak for themselves:

2. Food

Hayley: “Really Luke, you’re hungry again?”

Me: “I’m always hungry.”

Especially when the food is as good as it is in Morocco. I loved the tajines, the pastries, the fruit smoothies, the avacado juice, the tea, the tiny portions of coffee (OK, I didn’t love that), the dates, olives, olive oil, jams, fresh-squeezed orange juice, chicken, and the beef. I even loved the massive amount of bread that comes with every meal. Although I wouldn’t never imagined everyone in a culture eats more bread than I usually do in a single day. It was all good, and even better that I never once got sick. Because I certainly never held back. No regrets! The pics Hayley took in the blog post below show the variety of meals we had.

1. Moroccan Hospitality Hospitality is something I believe we lack here in the U.S. We’re just not as warm to the average guest, the customer, the person on the street. In Morocco, if your neighbor in a grand taxi has some bread or a snack, chances are they’ll offer some to you. Then maybe they’ll invite you over for tea when you get out. If you go into a shop or a place of business, oftentimes the owner or employee will offer you tea. And you’re fairly obligated to have some. Obviously this is sometimes a ploy to make you feel obligated to buy something, but it’s still cool.

The best example, and my most rich cultural experience of the trip, was when we got to stay in a family’s home in the town of Azilal. Hayley’s friend Ahmed called up his buddy Issam there, and he met up with us and brought us to his family’s home.

The house was beautiful and spotless inside, and the mother immediately shepherded us into her living room, where we were just in time for some conversation and tea. And bread. And tea and honey. It’s Moroccan custom as the host to continuously encourage your guest to keep eating, and push more and more food and tea in front of them. I found, through following Hayley’s lead, that you literally have to say “no more” or I’m stuffed, for her to stop.

Issam then cancelled any prior arrangements he might’ve had, and took us on an evening walking tour of his small hometown. It was a nice town, and the vibe kind of reminded me of my hometown of Auburn. It was a Friday, and we stopped in on a comedy act at the community center. It was packed, kids and elderly were all there. And despite not knowing Arabic, it was still some funny stuff.

We then headed back for dinner at around 10:30. The young 7-yr old, Ayoob, brough a pitcher and ornate bucket out to the living room to wash each of our hands before eating. Then we dug into the huge tajine, which had lots of beef and potatoes. It was delicious, but I was a little nervous that I’d do something rude. Everyone ate directly out of the same dish, and all the family members, especially the mom, kept moving more and more of the food over to our side.

We were up early the next morning to take our trip to the Cascade, but the mom was up too, and made sure we got lots of bread and tea in us before we took off. When we came back in the late afternoon to collect our backpacks and get out of town, we absolutely couldn’t leave before we had some more tea and bread. And then Issam again walked us to the bus station to see us off. What treatment!

After around 15 hours of plane time yesterday, I’m back in Salt Lake City, and will go back to Durango tomorrow to collect my things. I’m glad to be back in my well-known territory, language, and comfort level of the States, but I already miss these and other aspects of Maroc. Thanks for reading.


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