Morocco: a month of cats and... quakes.

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Africa » Morocco
February 19th 2024
Published: February 20th 2024
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Having returned yet again to Laos and Tad Lo it took twelve days for Lola to find her way back to me; Lulu, having recently pupped nearby and having ambushed me on the street, was making frequent visits within three; whilst Pak Dam had been embraced and looked after by Sipasert's long-term resident Mr. Bounchan for the entirety of my (our) five month absence. I had no Ali, but I did have my pack.

Late Summer back in England and things - medical things - seemed to have stabilised... Ali's mum's heart complaint was being medicated, the collapsing attacks had ceased, she was now linked by a wrist bracelet to an emergency responder facility and further aids were in place. And so there was a brief hiatus before further, unrelated, test results would be received. After three months of stasis we had a window for a trip: somewhere interesting and cheap that we could explore in a month... Thus we stuck our available dates into Skyscanner and hit the "anywhere" destination option.

Morocco ticked all the boxes and yet... Cheap-as tickets were all, not surprisingly, through budget airlines, notably Ryanair. Closer inspection revealed the "carry on" limitations. Even our
usual day packs failed to meet the rigorously enforced 35x20x20 cm size restrictions. Obviously there would be no "checked luggage", a crazy luxury that would have more than trebled the basic economy fare. Cue Lidl suddenly flogging flimsy (almost disposable) rucksacks with the tag: "suitable for Ryanair carry-on". Foolishly we'd already procured our outward flights through a Skyscanner third party vendor. Experienced Ryanairers shook their heads: it is just as cheap to book directly and then you do not have to jump the "identification confirmation" hoops that require all manner of information to be forwarded through a mobile phone App. The last hurdle is checking-in and actually obtaining physical boarding passes (a QR code suffices for most destinations, but not, apparently, Morocco). This may only be performed 24 hours prior to the flight's departure (unless you book chosen seats... for a fee) which, although a niggling worry... there's bound to be some foul-up thought we, isn't too problematic for the outward journey and yet might prove to be more troublesome at our arrival/departure destination of rural Ouarazazate. Still, return flights for just over forty pounds a person cannot be sniffed at.

The late night National Express bus from Norwich
to Stanstead went without a hitch, and it should be noted that their drivers (we'd been on a few in recent months) are the jolliest, most amiable of souls. And a further note here for potential future users: we usually leave a fair amount of wiggle-room time between connections, just in case of a delay, but, if per chance you roll up for your bus and there's an earlier one waiting do not go to the official desk and request to switch buses (there's a charge), instead just ask the driver. If the bus isn't fully booked they have no qualms in slipping you onto the earlier departure.

Indeed Stanstead, crazily busy even at 2.30 a.m., was organised and pain-free. There were no issues with our boarding passes and through to our departure gate we were ushered. This was deserted, there could only be twenty of us on the entire flight and consequently the expected rabid vigilance regarding compliance with Ryanair's luggage rules was absent; Christ, Ali could have brought four pairs of knickers, and a second bra.

Across the river, Ouarazazate old town, is your mind's eye of mystical medieval Morocco: crumbling, low-rise, orange/brown adobe buildings that
are flat roofed but with stepped castellated corners. Windows are typically tiny, misshapen, and guarded by ornate grills; whilst the houses are fronted by beautiful doors of weighty, aged, studded wood. Dusty sandy conduits of alleys are enclosed by perforated stone and mud walls, littered with roaming goats and lethargic dogs lounging in any shade they can find. It was super hot, well into the forties. On our first wander my loose cotton shirt began to chaff and it wasn't until our return that I realised why: it was encrusted in salt; seriously, my shirt was stiff. Fortunately Ali was still, culturally unnecessarily, in Pakistan mode and had her head protectively scarfed; equally I'm glad that my bald noggings had been similarly shielded.

And it is true that we have visited a number of predominantly Muslim countries in recent years, yet here the mosques are somewhat unique, with their single minarets being uniformly shaped like balsamic vinegar bottles: tall slender oblong bodies with a short stubby neck (typically bearing a light). The mosques are also notable, and this we later found to be countrywide, for the brevity of their Muezzin's call to prayers; a shame as many were obviously
live and not recorded, and there's something so evocatively serene about the overlaid unintentional harmonising when half a dozen such Adhans greet the hastening dusk. Hell, we've been known to stagger up onto roof terraces pre-dawn to better appreciate really fine practitioners. For the best examples head to Sumatra, "Hello Mister".... "or something like that"....).

Cinema Riad is a charming little place full of cinemabilia run by the ever helpful Felix; but just slightly further afield is Afgo Hostel that has one excellent double room amidst the dorms, just below the wonderful, partially shaded roof terrace, that is actually cheaper. Spoiler alert: the staff here happily printed off our return boarding passes for a very nominal fee. Both do excellent breakfasts included in the $15-20 they charge for a double with shared bathroom.

And here's a recurring thing, also observed in Pakistan: the price requested when turning up unannounced at a guesthouse is frequently more than booking through an intermediary. Why? The host has to pay commission on such a booking. There again, re-bookings are more expensive through as there's typically a discount initially. Regardless, when the host is not prepared to match the price offered on screen you then feel a
bit of a fool (or at least hope they do) booking it on-line whilst facing them.

Meanwhile, back in Laos (yes, we're nowhere near there yet), has its claws into even their most rural and fledgling of operations. Our friend Somphone has turned the family home in the Katu village of Ban Kok Phoung Tai into a Homestay and some well intentioned guest set him up on said agency. Somphone, bless him, didn't/doesn't have a scooby how to operate the platform, much less (without a bank account.. or a mentality for savings: there's never been the possibility until now) how to pay back the monies he now owes them. People don't always turn up, but are they notifying of their failure to do so? He certainly isn't; whilst he inadvertently manages to double book rooms that should be reserved for particular guests. It's a mess and not one phone-illiterate I know how to solve. Still, will they come track him down in the middle of nowhere? I doubt it. Sooner or later they will merely tire of requesting their remittance and strike him from their roster. Anyway, he has no need of their service as word-of-mouth sees
him continually full, a marked contrast to most of the guesthouses in our village of Tad Lo. It really does appear that many people "performing the Bolaven loop" these days are shunning traditional guesthouses in favour of homestays, especially when they are as magnificently warm and welcoming, and ethnically authentic, as Somphone and Dak's.

In Morocco the majority of guesthouses, so we were to learn, have notices either stating no alcohol on the premises or that it must be consumed within your room, not in public areas. However, on arrival, it was a moot point as we had no idea where to actually procure any. Of course this inconvenience was soon rectified (in larger towns and cities) thanks to France's Carrefour supermarkets that all house a discrete anteroom labelled "The Cave". This is typically the busiest area of the supermarket, and is far from solely patronised by foreigners. Moroccan beer is quite good (particularly the Casablanca), although expensive; by contrast, the local - yes, they do ferment their own - wines are extremely cheap and... well... certainly more palatable than my father's historic efforts not so fondly remembered from my youth. Indeed I'm sure the Moroccans actually utilise grapes,
whilst my father would use a miscellany of free-gatherings that ranged from elderberries and blackberries (both tolerable) to, and here I cringe at the memory, crab apple and quince (both more akin to battery acid).

Here people get up late; very few shops or businesses open until at least 10 a.m. This is in stark contrast to many (most) hot countries (of course I'm reminded of Laos) where people rise before dawn in order to make hay whilst the sun doesn't shine. Here, early in morning, the streets are deserted. When/do the children go to school? And yet with the coming of dark out everyone comes. Any ground bearing a patch of grass, astoundingly this includes the central reservations of busy roads and even roundabouts, is mobbed with families and groups of friends sitting, eating and socialising. Meanwhile, in several towns the squares are transformed into dodgem parks as the children scuttle around in illuminated electric vehicles.

Anyway, having wandered Ouarazazate's outskirts over several days, including it's crumbling old Kasbah Taourirt, sampled several excellent tagines and some equally disappointing couscous (maybe that was our fault as traditionally it is only eaten on a Friday... Islam's most holy day),
we headed to the iconic Marrakesh.

The bus journey takes you up and over the pastel-shaded cupric green, ferrous orange, purple and pink, parched Atlas mountains. At this time of year most river beds are dry and yet there are isolated oases of apple orchards, quince (thankfully not for wine..) and date. But, predominantly, the mountainsides are barren rock, there are no cacti or succulents, with just a smattering of hardy shrubs and the odd gnarled, stunted tree.

Although only fourth in size, to many the city of Marrakesh is Morocco. Indeed, in the western world, Morocco itself was known as "The Land of Marrakesh" until the early 20th century, a title that still persists in both Persian and Urdu.

The old fortified city, a maze of souks (bazaars), food markets, residential housing and tottering courtyarded riads, squares, gardens and mosques, is enclosed by 10km of imposing 30ft high adobe wall, punctuated by numerous entry gates, although only the grandest of these are actually gated. Finding your riad may well prove problematic and any aid offered by children will result in a finders fee demanded, often of greater magnitude than you might think appropriate.

The medina
quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and much of Marrakesh's sprawl still retains old world charm. That said, whilst the vendors are far less pushy than anticipated, the mass touristic appeal and their heavy presence has seen its once edgy underbelly vanish; it doesn't retain much in the way of frisson..

Jemaa el-Fnaa, the busiest square on the African continent, is a rather sad expanse of touristic kitsch with rip-off juice sellers (the free taster bears no resemblance to that subsequently purchased), snake charmers, dancers, tat sellers and less than authentic restaurants, all clamoring for the visitors' dollar. Nevertheless, there are still some highly atmospheric tortuous little alleys radiating from it to be discovered and eatery gems if you can find them.

To our minds the tangia (tanjia) trumps the quintessentially Moroccan tagine. The latter is traditionally cooked over charcoal, the shallow terracotta dish covered by its conical (chimneyed) lid that acts to recycle condensation and slowly cook the meat, vegetables and/or fruit (dates work wonderfully); whereas the tangia is an urn-shaped earthen pot into which gelatinous/fatty cuts of bone-in meat are cooked in the ashes for an even slower, more unctuous, confit-like, melt-in-your-mouth preparation. Onions may
accompany the meat, but rarely anything else other than the most glorious subtly-spiced combination of saffron, cumin and preserved lemons. These really were the Moroccan food we'd fantasized about.

Obviously Marrakesh sees many more tourists than Ouarazazate and this is reflected in its more liberal attitudes: the alcohol scene is far less clandestine, local dress is typically less conservative, whilst beards (for men) are far rarer, and yet... I have little sympathy for the (mostly Spanish) young female tourists who, strolling braless in cropped tops, may attract unwanted stares and laments in their wake of "I love you" from the local lads.

This is a land of cats. In Asia the dog, only rarely loved or cared for, dominates, but here cats are everywhere and healthy nurtured beasts they are. Most seem to be feral, but often they are provisioned with padded boxes or baskets and very few appear in desperate need of a meal.

Marrakesh has its share of beggars, but those individuals wandering the squares shaking tins of coins are not: these are cigarette sellers who are cheaper than most shops and are prepared to bargain on price if you're in the market for a
few packs. Morocco, seemingly, also has a sizeable number of individuals with mental health issues and these people (because we encountered several in different towns) often demonstrate a common trait, namely marching up and down in front of street-side coffee houses whilst ranting to themselves, pausing occasionally to berate some random coffee drinker who was minding their own business. Finally they'll stride off, only to turn sharply as if they've forgotten something, return and repeat the dance once again. Sad, but mildly entertaining, as long as you're not in the firing line.

For those not on motorbikes or bicycles, nor travelling in hire cars or touring in a campervan (and Morocco is extremely well equipped for the latter, there being a bounty of free or cheap park-ups, some of which - particularly on the coast - have the best views in town) then movement between destinations requires a bus. Almost all visitors we met swore by either CMT or Supratours, private companies. And yet... These operators' depots are almost always several kilometres outside of town, necessitating a sizeable walk or taxi to get to where you want to be. The local bus stations are invariably central (in or very
close to the medina), a mere stroll to your target location. Plus, the private companies are markedly more expensive (eg. Marrakesh to Fes: 150 dinar, local bus vs. 220 dinar, CMT). Yes, but... I hear you say... Surely the drawbacks to the private options are tempered by their buses superior quality? Not so on those rare occasions when timing/logistics forced us to take a CMT bus ourselves. We were also treated to some monumental confrontational arguments on local buses (all instigated by local women, typically targeted at local men) and I'm not sure if such entertainment comes as standard on the pricier alternatives.

Wikipedia says that, in 2012, 98 percent of the population spoke (could speak) Moroccan Arabic and 26 percent Berber (the two national languages), whilst 63 percent still spoke some (colonial-hungover) French and a far smaller 14 percent, English. I'm sure the figure for English is far higher now, which is fortunate as French has dropped to a lowly 5th in our personal language ability ranks.

Fes - its medina - is another ancient maze; indeed it is the oldest continuously inhabited walled-city on earth. We arrived early, too early to seek accommodation and, seemingly, to
get breakfast. The only place open we happened upon had a single bubbling vat of khaki-coloured soup and a stack of flatbreads, but we were hungry. Actually the soup turned out to be olive, with a slightly grainy texture somewhat akin to thin humous that was served with a generous slug of olive oil atop. It and the still steaming bread were rather delicious.

And, whilst on the subject of olives... If you are a lover of such fruit then Morocco will not disappoint; they are omnipresent, varied in species, colour, texture and preparation, and all are simply divine.

Actually, Fes's medina was easier to navigate than expected; two loosely parallel lanes lead into its depths and terminate at the beautifully-fronted mosque/university, with a capillary bed of alleys linking the two "thoroughfares". Of course Fes is also home to tanneries, its must-snap sights. Getting a good view of these is not so straightforward and inevitably some baksheesh is necessary for a climb up to the higher floors of various leather goods sellers whose premises overlook the action. Agree on a price before you view.

Ali (a Tommy Cooper fan) was more keen to photo some fes hats,
but they are little worn these days.

Fes also presented us with several foodie firsts: Briouats (briwats), a very more-ish triangular samosa-like pastry containing mildly-spiced meat and noodles; although these may also be sweet, filled with almond or peanut paste that post-frying are dipped in warm honey flavoured with orange blossom water. Another savoury variant, griddled rather than deep fried, and peculiarly typically referred to as a taco, has the unexpected added ingredient of pre-cooked French fries. All were great.

Continuing north we headed to the rather special Chefchouen, a delightful splash of pale blues and lilac plastered across its elevated bowl in the Rif mountains, somewhat akin to the Brahmin colours of India's Jodhpur or Bundi, or any number of idyllic Grecian villages. Somehow we managed to find its lay-out more confusing than those of either Fes or Marrakesh, yet that is no hardship because lost wandering throws up one photo opportunity after another. It really is a gentle, dreamy, endearing place and the late afternoon light is magical.

If we thought we'd already encountered countless cats then here we had to recalculate, they were everywhere. Those, far rarer, dogs you do encounter are often ear-tagged,
that at least demonstrates some degree of monitoring, control (neutering?) and, judging by their good condition, care.

Meanwhile, in the Rif, kif (the revered local weed, mostly processed to hashish) is ubiquitous; not only were we constantly offered it to buy, but there were a myriad of individuals who wanted to take you on a tour of their family's plantation.

And then on Friday the 8th of September at 11.11 p.m. there was an earthquake; measuring some 6.8 on the Richter scale, the most powerful to shake the African continent in twenty years. We, almost 800km to the north of the epicentre, felt nothing; but, particularly in many remote villages in the High Atlas mountains, the devastation to the South was extreme. Forty five minutes later an aftershock (100-fold less violent at 4.9) was still powerful enough to raze further buildings damaged by the initial quake. The scale of the loss of life and destruction of dwellings would remain largely unknown to us for several days.

We had decided to head to the coast, but where? Time was already an issue and we did have to ultimately return to Ouarazazate so the west coast won out, with
the little town of Sidi Ifni, near the disputed Western Sahara (Morocco claim the territory as their own), the target. Our preferred route would have seen us amble alongside the Atlantic passing through Rabat, Casablanca, Safi, Essouira, Agadir and Tiznit, but that simply wasn't feasible. Thus we took the quickest route which necessitated backtracking to Marrakesh.

Twenty four hours later, Marrakesh at 6 a.m., as per usual, was like a ghost town, although walking the deserted streets and lanes now strewn with scattered rubble and the stark appearance of collapsed buildings abutting others untouched, was unnerving. Crossing Jeema el-Fnaa, the old mosque on the corner was sliced open, surrounding it a mass of rock and security tape. It transpired that, maybe, the city's death toll was currently, mercifully, as low as twenty. And yet only ten kilometres away, in the mountains, a small community of 600 had almost been eliminated.

Arriving at our previous residence of Hotel Medina we loitered outside, waiting for signs of activity from within. It appeared unscathed, although next door now had an almighty crack in its front wall. Would it still be habitable? This was affirmative and yet as we downed a beer
on the roof terrace later that afternoon suddenly we were joined by the management who rapidly gathered all the other guests present. There'd been another aftershock that morning (really?) and further were feared; thus, apparently, all guesthouses, riads and hotels within the medina were to close. It was recommended that we sleep within a square, away from potentially falling debris, either that or in one of the nearby parks. And indeed, with little other option, we intended to do just that. That was until Ali had an inspired idea: "why don't we simply catch a night bus towards Sidni"?

Morocco does a nice line in tea preparation etiquette and the resultant product is excellent. The pot arrives with green tea leaves already in the boiling water and to the side sits a pile of mint leaves and blocks of sugar. Add your required amounts of each (bruise the mint a bit first), let them stew a while and then pour a glass. This is immediately returned to the pot for a further blending before the actual serving that should be performed from on high - reminding us majorly of chai mixing in India.

Just beyond Marrakesh's limiting walls,
the side closest to the bus station, there are a line of stalls all selling fried, battered, fish and squid that is accompanied by a spicy citrusy dip. Marrakesh is not exactly on the coast, but the squid is delicately excellent and a bargain to boot. Time your visitation (choose your outlet) for when a piping hot batch has just emerged from the wok.

A series of buses were required to get to Sidni, but all links went without incident. As we paused in nearby Tiznit to switch buses for a final time, and about which we'd heard reasonable reviews, our hearts dropped: it looked grim; surely Sidni would offer a more welcoming front? And, fortunately, it did.

Down town is actually situated atop a hill with a pleasant little market that includes a line of almost identical, open-plan, seafood restaurants who battle, banter and bargain for your custom. Around the corner there is a diamond little eatery/coffee shop whose shakshouka-like take on eggs always got our morning custom, whilst another shack nearby produces amazing crispy yet fluffy doughnuts from its fronting wok. Clustered near the old church there are some impressive dwellings with stunning flowering shrubs projecting
a kaleidoscope of colour beyond their high, privacy-maintaining, walls. Here we chatted with a local artist painting rather good, and historically informative, murals. And, to the west, town looks down on a rugged coastline, a mix of rock formations, rock pavement and sand fronting the gun metal ocean. Several parallel roads, one coast-side, descend the hill until almost at sea level and at the bottom of one of these sits quaint Hotel Suerte Loca, run for two generations by French ex-pats. It's restaurant was a little pricey and sadly that didn't get our business, but our charming room (communal bathrooms opposite) had patio doors that open out onto an expansive balcony - shared with three other similar rooms - that looks out to a couple of lower-set hotel/bars and to the breakers beyond.

In fact many visitors are here purely for those breakers and there is quite a surf scene, with several surf shops offering rentals and tuition.

Having abstained from alcohol on an uncommonly regular basis we were delighted that those beach-side bars, with breezy shaded verandas just beyond the sea spray, sold bottles of (local) wine at prices not painfully elevated compared to supermarkets. Consequently, there
were some drawn-out sundowners enjoyed after lengthy walks along the beautifully deserted coast.

Then, in the blinking of a month's eye, we were back in Blighty. We planned on spending several weeks, further aiding and enjoying our parents, before returning to Laos. Yet, at our stage in life, you can take little for granted, and so it proved. Those other, waited on, test results had returned and Ali's mum required further attention. The only decision to be made was whether we'd both remain to oversee her care or if Ali would stay on alone whilst I returned to, and progressed our plans in, Tad Lo.

With the return of the pack, evidently, the latter option was decided upon and thus began our longest estrangement in 37 years.

Additional photos below
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21st February 2024

Had to check our blogs
We went to Morocco in 2013. When reading your blog I had to have a look in our blogs to read what we did in Ouarzazate. All of a sudden it all came back to me. It was where we saw the film sets. Thanks for bringing back memories from our trip. And also thanks for this wonderful picture. Where did you take it? /Ake
21st February 2024

Hi Ake, I'm pretty sure that the photo is of the Kasbah at Ouarazazate. We didn't actually make it to the film sets there... Next time?
24th February 2024

Deeeear Friends <3
Hey my dear friends! I'm so happy to read some news from you. I would be happy to call you. I'm also planning for the next months to travel a bit in North Africa with my new home on wheels. I'm also still dealing with my studies schedule, so let see where it leads me! Hope maybe to cross your travel roads, as we dit in India, Nepal and Laos. Big kisses from south of France (Saint Gaudens) <3
25th February 2024

Happy travels
Hi, great to hear from you Enora. A home on wheels is probably the very best way to travel around north Africa, you'll have a blast. We have to return to the UK in May, maybe for quite a long time. But we hope we can meet up again, somewhere, some time in the not so distant future. Love from us xx.

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