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Morocco 1 (Senegal 13) - October 15, 2004

Assalam alaykum,

Well, it’s been a little while since I’ve updated you all on my life, so just thought I’d drop you all a little line, before I get into something new. I’m back in Senegal now, after an incredible and much-needed four-week vacation in Morocco. After 18 months in Senegal, I had a definite need to get out for awhile, to get a new perspective on the world. Morocco gave me everything I was looking for, as well as a few things I didn’t so much want. It’s a beautiful, extremely varied country, and I traveled over a good part of it, from the cosmopolitan coastal cities of Casablanca and Rabat, to the vibrant, chaotic, still-medieval hill towns of Fes and Meknes, ancient Roman ruins at Volubulis, breathing in cool cedar forests in Azrou in the Middle Atlas mountains, camping in Berber tents lost in the sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara, hiking in palm-filled valleys hidden between steep mountain gorges, walking in the footsteps of Russell Crowe in Gladiator sets, watching the sunset from 16th century Portuguese ramparts on the coast in Essouira, catching my breath on the summit of Mt. Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, and finally dodging cobras near distracted snake charmers on lunch break in Marrakesh. Run-on sentences aside, Morocco was an amazing country, and a refreshing, invigorating vacation – just what the doctor ordered.

I’ve been debating as to how detailed of a résumé I want to make of the trip. In the end I think I’ll not bother trying to give all the minute details, just a few of them, along with the more general info. For most of the vacation, I was traveling with Scott, an old friend of mine from high school, who flew out to meet me from San Diego. Scott came equipped with a much larger memory card for his digital camera, so he took about 10 times as many pictures as I did. He’s in the process of setting up a web page with some of these pictures and his own detailed internet journal of the trip, so I’ll just send out that URL once the site’s up (note - the site's up now, please take a look!  http://ste.scottellis.net/gallery/morocco1 ). I’m mailing him my pictures from the trip, so they’ll all be included together on the page. That said, feel free to read as much of the following account as you like, and be sure to ask me more about it all in the future; I’m sure I’ll be happy to discuss it for quite a long time.

It all started in Casablanca on Saturday, September 4th, at 6:30 am, after a short but tiring 3-hour night flight from Dakar. I’d flown in with three other PCV’s from Senegal, who happened to be traveling to the same place at the same time. Scott had gotten in the night before, and had a room at the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, acquired at significant discount over the internet. So the four of us made our way to the hotel by trains and cab, marveling constantly about how clean and developed and modern everything was, how even the shantytowns (especially the shantytowns) had a satellite dish on every shack. Upon arrival, after a few minutes of getting reacquainted and resting up, we set off to deal with our first pressing issue, McDonald’s. I know what you’ll say, and I swear it wasn’t my doing, but I must admit I didn’t protest much. One good thing about McDonald’s is that it’s much better quality anywhere outside of the U.S., and a little more expensive – for a more upscale crowd. My hamburger did taste pretty good, first semi-western burger in 18 months.

After lunch, the other three PCV’s set off on their own, and Scott and I set about exploring Casa. Every city in Morocco is made up of two main parts, the Medina, or old town, and the Ville Nouvelle, or new town. The medina of Casa was our first example, the first of many, and as we found out later, the least interesting. The ville nouvelle was more interesting, although not too much. It reminded me of many cities in Europe, particularly in the south or east, or Russia. But a Russia with the climate of San Diego, warm but with a fresh, cool ocean breeze. In Casa we had our first cups of mint tea, to which I soon became addicted, and our first tajines, a sort of meat and/or vegetable stew that, together with couscous, forms the centerpiece of Moroccan cuisine. After dinner we got briefly lost walking back to the hotel, and for the first time witnessed a scene that would be repeated in every other city – the mass gathering of everyone who’s anyone in the main café part of town, to participate in the national sport of walking up and down the street checking out everyone else. It was beautiful to see, since it was something that I’ve witnessed in cities throughout southern and eastern Europe, and that Northern Europeans hearken back to as a tradition lost some decades ago.

After sleeping a solid 12 hours at the hotel (a much cheaper one this time) we headed out to see the brand-new Hassan II mosque, the largest in Morocco, maybe the world? Who knows. It was big, and new, and modern, and very photogenic – I’m sure there’ll be plenty of shots of it up on the website. After the mosque we hopped on the train to Rabat.

As with all the cities in Morocco, the train station in Rabat spits you out right into the middle of the ville nouvelle. Whereas Casa is a huge city, the economic capital, Rabat is the small, quiet, clean, orderly political capital. The main boulevard is practically extravagant – a row of grass lawns lined with palm trees, spotted with (working!) fountains. In Rabat we stayed in the Medina, which is generally where the budget hotels are located in Moroccan cities. After a huge $3 lunch in a little café, we settled down in the hotel to rest. Then it hit me. The familiar gurgling in the stomach, followed by the run to the bathroom down the hall. I don’t know what did it to me, probably just a recurrence of whatever it was that’d knocked me down for a few days back in Senegal three weeks before, then disappeared mysteriously. Maybe something I ate in Morocco. Maybe McDonald’s? I resolved to splurge and buy bottled water for the rest of the trip.

That evening, feeling a little better, I agreed to head out to explore the city a little, and we headed to the fortress of the Oudayas, which overlooks the mouth of whatever river cuts through Rabat and empties into the sea. It was a beautiful sunset over into the water, easy to forget that I wasn’t in San Diego, since I was hanging out with my old friend, having drinks, watching the surfers catching the day’s last waves. Rabat struck me as a beautiful city, very Southern California, but with a character all its own. I loved the medina, seeing the streets filled with people from the afternoon until not too late in the night, dodging among the stalls and venders selling just about everything, from escargo and barbary figs to grilled sausages (beef, I’m sure) to CD’s and DVD’s. I stopped and bought Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Bourne Supremacy for a dollar each, and a egg and potato sandwich, then headed back to the hotel.

The next morning we discovered one of the reasons why hotels in the medina are budget – the medina is filled with mosques, which at 4am all do their best to wake up the faithful for their morning prayers. I’ve lived with this in Senegal for a year and a half, but with the exception of the first three months in Thies, it’s not loud or near enough to wake me up. The call to prayer in Morocco is really quite beautiful, and very well enunciated – after all, unlike Senegal, they actually know what they’re saying, being Arabic speakers. Not that this is something you really notice at 4 in the morning.

That day, Monday, I stayed in. Scott went out and explored the ville nouvelle a bit; I recovered and slept. Tuesday I felt a little better, so we checked out and visited the Peace Corps office in Rabat. The staff was very friendly, and many people there knew people in PC administration in Dakar – a small world, apparently. They gave us some advice and information about PC-recommended hotels in country, and a great little pocket phrasebook of Moroccan Arabic. We hopped on the train for Meknes.

Meknes is located about 2 hours inland from Rabat, in an area of low hills at the base of the Middle Atlas. Here ended the clean ocean breezes of the coast – and here they deposited all the smog from the coastal cities. But aside from the dusty air, Meknes was not a bad city, reminiscent of hill towns in central Italy. The ville nouvelle was on one hill, the medina on another. We first went over to the medina, a roundabout affair as it turned out, since the king was set to visit that day, and half of the roads were closed down. We checked out a hotel there, listed in both Lonely Planet and Peace Corps – cheap and filled with character, but old, dusty, and dirty all the same. We decided to head to the ville nouvelle. Finally we found a slightly more expensive hotel, but still old and with more character and with a bathroom and shower – useful since my bugs decided that they weren’t finished with me yet. After a lazy afternoon, we wandered around the ville nouvelle, did internet, sat down at a restaurant for couscous, and then at a café for mint tea and to watch the town life go by.

The next morning we set off for Volubulis, the roman ruins located on yet another hill in the area. We had to rent a grand taxi to get there, $20 there and back. Grand taxi in Morocco means an old Mercedes used for medium distance travel, usually to smaller towns in the surrounding countryside of a city. You generally pay for one of six seats – two in front, plus driver, and four squeezed in the back. Luckily, most Moroccans are thin. In this case we didn’t have to worry about this, since we had to rent the cab out completely. Now fear not, I’m not going to describe every single ride in public transport that I took in Morocco, but I think this trip deserves the attention to detail. First off, the driver didn’t speak any French, or English, or anything besides Arabic. Somehow, with the aid of my Peace Corps Moroccan Arabic phrasebook, I was able to learn his name, and that the reason we were soon negotiating steep dirt hillside roads was because of the king’s visit holding up traffic. And this led to my first Moroccan near-death experience, as the Mercedes very nearly rolled over as we descended a particularly steep part of the trail. Coming up the other side of the hill, we met the main road, and Scott and I and the crazy driver all laughed hysterically together as he careened down the road through the olive groves. We arrived at the ruins, and spent the next two hours walking in the footsteps of history, marveling at the similarities between all the Roman ruins that I’ve seen from Morocco to Germany to Macedonia to Rome. These were unique due to the fact that the mosaics had been left in place – a great chance to see how the wealthy houses were decorated – and since the site belonged only to the ruins – there are no modern villages built on top. Like Pompeii, you can see the ruins as a complete whole – an entire self-contained city. They aren’t in quite as good condition or protection (partly since people are walking all over the mosaics), but fascinating all the same.

Upon our return to Meknes, we spent the afternoon exploring the medina and visiting a rug museum, notable primarily for the site, located as it was in an old palace, with rooms highly decorated with wood carvings and zellig, stone tile work, surrounding a garden courtyard.

The next morning I was still feeling a little sick, so I finally broke down and took some meds – fasogyn, to treat Ghiardia, a.k.a. Montezuma’s Revenge. After a few painful hours, I felt better, and within a day felt completely recovered. That day we hopped on the train to Fes, 1 hour further inland.

Fes is an incredible city, one that I’ve got to go back to sometime. According to the Lonely Planet, it’s got the third-largest intact medina in the Arab world. The medina reminded me of Venice, with its narrow alleyways and tunnels – only here the houses were built up much higher, up to five stories, and the whole of it crawled up and down steep hillsides. Plus, whereas Venice has modernized to a great extent, Fes seems to have remained exactly the same in many respects for the last 500 years or so. There are elements of modernity - cell phones, smart shoes and clothes, mopeds – but these are foreign elements artificially placed on a medieval backdrop of mules, overflowing shops, dusty winds, thick, shoving crowds, and competing odors - some pleasant, some foul, but all very much real.

Scott and I found a hotel and spent the afternoon losing and finally finding our way through the labyrinth, taking respite in the occasional clothes or spice shop. That night we got some street food and enjoyed it from the comfortably voyeuristic distance afforded by the hotel’s terrace roof.

The next morning we decided that, although Fes could easily warrant a week of exploration, we were a little tired of medinas. So we hopped on a bus and headed two hours due south, to the town of Azrou, nestled in the forested foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains.

In Azrou we found exactly what we needed – a cool rain greeted our arrival in this small, manageable town. After an afternoon of rest and leisurely shopping, we set off early the next morning for the hills. What was most striking about the landscape here is that everything, from the shape of the hills to the climate to the kinds of trees (although rarely the exact species) was just the same as in Cuyamaca, the mountains 70km east of San Diego. We hiked up the first hill, decided to continue up the next hill, and so on, until somehow stumbling to the very top of the ridge, worn out and completely out of water. But the view was incredible – check out the photos – and well worth it, in retrospect.

Having recharged our batteries in the familiar nature, we boarded another bus for the 8 hour trip out to the desert. We were headed for a town, Merzouga, that the Lonely Planet says is the best place in Morocco to see typical Saharan sand dunes, and where The Mummy was filmed. Unfortunately, the LP was a bit vague on how to travel the final 14 km out to Merzouga, after getting off the bus in Rissani, the end of the line. So we figured that it would all make sense once we were there. Thus the stage was set for one of the more stressful parts of our trip. Upon arrival in Er Rachiddia, a good hour and a half before Rissani, the bus was boarded by a series of official-sounding folk who asked to check our tickets, asked if we were headed to the dunes, and went on to explain that there was no transport from Rissani, but that they would take us in their grand taxi for $4 each, plus reimbursing $2 from our tickets. They were very persistent, and we were nearly convinced, but in the end decided to stick to what we knew, and ride the bus to the end of the line.

Further down the road, at the town of Erfoud, a kind but persistent hustler boarded the bus. For the next half hour on the bus, and a half hour off of it, in Rissani, he followed us and talked to us continuously, trying to get us to come to a great hotel that he knew (his brother’s, by pure chance). Eventually we shook him, which turned out to be a mixed blessing, as it left us open to all other sorts of harassment from everyone else. We jumped into a café, took a table and a couple of warm Fantas, and studied the Lonely Planet and gathered our senses. Inspired by a pair of beautiful European women we saw walking by, we decided to try asking other tourists for advice. Back out in the street, I walked up to two such individuals. Français? I asked. Españoles, came the response. They told us about their hotel, and spoke very highly of it – a little too highly, we thought. After a week and a very intensive day of regarding everyone with suspicion, this sounded too good to be true. Eventually we decided to hand ourselves over to fate and go with them, in their hotel’s van.

The hotel, La Suerte Loca, apparently catered to Spanish tourists. It was located a few kilometers outside of Merzouga, in a long line of similar mud-brick kasbah style hotels stretched out along the edge of the Erg Chebbi, the area of sand dunes. The Spaniards actually turned out to not be Spaniards at all. Javier, from Argentina, was married to Maite, a Catalan, and they lived in Barcelona, in Catalunia. Still, I’ll just refer to them as Spaniards. They had planned their overnight camel trip for that evening, and in the end we decided to go with them. And so, 10 minutes after arriving at the hotel, Scott and I found ourselves on camels, heading East over ever-larger sand dunes into the heart of the Sahara, with the setting sun at our backs and a beautiful lighting storm to the north.

We walked (the camels, and our two Berber guides) for three hours under the star-filled sky, the deafening silence of the desert broken only occasionally by Maite saying "Que chulo!" (how cool!) or us discussing what soundtrack seemed most appropriate, Lawrence of Arabia, Galdiator, Sting’s Desert Rose. By the time we finally discovered that sitting side-saddle was the only good way to take the pain away from our sore rears, we had arrived at the camp. We spent the evening sitting outside on a mat, chatting, sipping tea, drumming, dancing, and finally eating a simple chicken, potato, tomato and onion tajine whipped up by the Berber kids (the guides).

The next morning Scott and I woke up early to climb a high dune and watch the sunrise. A quarter of the way up and panting for breath, we decided to go back down and try a not-so-high dune. And so from there we sat in the silence and watched as the Sahara woke up and revealed its true form to us. It was truly spectacular, especially as it shifted colors in the made-to-order spectacular orange sunrise. As with all myths, the reality of the Sahara proved to be both disappointing and better than I’d imagined. The latter, because pictures and writing can never truly give you the full impact that reality can, when all your senses are present in a place. Disappointing, because as the sun rose we saw that the erg, the sand dunes, only continued on for a few more kilometers before giving way to the flat, hard rock of the hammadi. I’d always liked to think of the Sahara as an endless expanse of dunes stretching from Morocco to Egypt, but apparently it is not so. Still, it was intriguing to know that we were looking at Algeria, a country still more exotic and mysterious than Morocco. After a quick tea back at camp, we hopped gingerly back on the camels for the ride back to civilization.

The Spaniards, it turned out, had a rental car, a little white Fiat Palio. And they were headed in the same direction as we were. So after spending the day relaxing and doing laundry under a palm tree (it dried in about a half an hour) we set out early the next morning, with me behind the wheel. Javier couldn’t drive, Scott can’t drive stick shift, and Maite was tired, so I accepted the task. I don’t remember if I’d mentioned that I hadn’t been behind the wheel for a year and a half, but in any case, it all came back quickly to me. We drove for three hours, skirting the eastern side of the Atlas mountains. The landscape was pure Nevada, only with scattered oasis towns, filled with cars, children, bikes, and donkey carts. At the town to Tinehir, we turned and entered the Todra gorge.

The Todra gorge winds up into the High Atlas, a thin stretch of green palm trees and gardens wedged between steep rock walls.  We drove about 10 km up the valley until we found the perfect hotel.  The Spaniards had wanted to find something with a swimming pool, and Scott and I didn't argue.  After a wonderfully theatrical negotiating act on the part of Maite, that filled all the windows on the street with spectators, we got rooms with full board for $15 each at a great castle-shaped hotel on the other side of the stream from the road.  We lazed away the afternoon swimming in the pool, playing with the hotel's adorable kitten, Moosh, and eating tajine and grapes.

Later in the day we drove down the valley to Tinehir to do some shopping.  On the ride down we stopped to see one of the most beautiful sights that I've ever seen - take a look at the pictures, the rainbow and sun shining through the clouds.  In the town below we failed to find the silver that Maite was looking for, and started heading back after dark.  What we saw next made us reconsider our choice of hotel.  At the bottom of the valley, the road was closed.  Rather, the road was gone.  Apparently, the small sprinkles that we had felt earlier that day had been the leftovers from some great storm in the mountains, that had at that moment let loose a torrent of water that cut a 50 ft wide swath across the road.  Luckily a guide from the hotel, the owner's son, was with us, and led us up an improbable steep dirt path that eventually spit us out further up on the road.

Still, we had to find a way to cross the "stream" if we wanted to sleep that night.  We assumed correctly that the three logs on which we had crossed the river earlier were long gone.  So we accepted the owner's invitation into his house, where we met the family, sat and had dates and almonds, and then shared couscous with the family (we were the only clients at the hotel).  After that we trekked upriver a kilometer or so, crossed the river on some old, broken concrete bridge, and slid our way through muddy gardens by flashlight back to the hotel.

The next morning Maite was sick, so Scott and I walked and hitchhiked our way up the valley to see the proper Todra Gorge, a thin section where the cliffs form a narrow canyon with 300ft-high walls.  The river was still swollen, and ran over the road.  I had sandals on, so I continued by foot.  About a half a kilometer further up, the road was actually destroyed, and lay in pieces in the river valley below.  Later, the hotel owner said that he had never seen such a large flood in his life.  Probably an exagerration, but to take out the road, this was not a normal flood.

Around noon we headed out.  Maite was still miserable, so I drove the three hours south to Ouerzazate.  They dropped us off at a budget hotel, and then continued to somewhere nicer.  The next morning they picked us up around 11, and we drove out to a picturesque nearby village.  On the way we stopped at the Atlas Studios, a movie studio created to make the movie "Jewel of the Nile".  We had lunch and then took the tour, visiting some sets from past films, such as Kundun, Asterisk et Obelisk, a french film, Gladiator, and The Mummy Returns.  In the distance was a huge European-style castle, where Ridley Scott had just finished his soon-to-be-released "Kingdom of Heaven".

We continued on to the village, Aït Benhaddou, where many films had been made, including Jesus of Nazareth and Gladiator.  The best part of the village was all the restored multi-story mud brick buildings, and the high mud ramparts.  If only my villagers back in Senegal could build like that (they later told me their mud is different).  That night we said goodbye to Javier and Maite, who were leaving early the next morning.

In the morning we crossed the Atlas mountains once more, ending up in Marrakesh, from where we boarded another bus for Essouira. After 9 hours of travel, we were able to appreciate the cool breeze off the ocean, as we watched the sunset from the old Portuguese ramparts which surround the medina. The next morning, Saturday, we’d planned to return to Marrakesh, to have a full day there before Scott left early Monday morning. Instead, we were too tired from the desert, and liked Essouira too much, so we decided to stay another night.

Essouira is an old port city, with the usual maze-like medina, only this time it was filled with shops selling products made of thuya, a fragrant, dark hardwood found in the area. The town was touristy but small, with a laid-back beach feel. Plus, the climate and sea-air reminded us fondly of San Diego.

Finally, on Sunday morning we took the early bus back to Marrakesh, where we checked in to the Sheraton hotel, once again acquired by Scott at a significant discount over the internet. After a few hours of relaxing in style, we went into the medina for lunch, museums, and some last-minute shopping. That night we treated ourselves to a nice dinner in a fancy, character-filled restaurant overlooking jemaa el-fna, the main square in Marrakesh. Back at the hotel, we sat by and swam in the palatial pool and reflected on the past two weeks.

Scott left early the next morning, Monday the 17th. I slept in, took advantage of the hot shower, and watched some Arabic music videos and CNN before checking out. I dropped off one bag at the left-luggage stall at the main bus station, then headed out to the grand taxi station, and headed up to the mountains, where I intended to take on Mt. Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. Like I said before, grand taxis are old Mercedes cars used for city-to-town travel, which hold six people. This is fine if they are thin; unfortunately, this was not my luck. I was the last person to join the car, meaning I got a window seat, which I ended up practically hanging out of for the hour-long trip, since one gentleman took up half the back seat. This left the other three normal-sized people to divide the remaining half. At the foothills town of Asni I boarded a second grand taxi for the final 17 km up the valley. This one started out better, since there were three kids in the back seat with me, and a husband and wife and child in the front seat. But the winding mountain road and the experienced driver had more surprises in store. By the end of the trip, half of the passengers in the car were throwing up, into plastic bags or out the window, and I was regretting the fact that my window wouldn’t open, for air circulation. I generally don’t get sick in cars, but the overwhelming odor of vomit in the hot car, combined with the winding mountain roads, was making me wonder if I shouldn’t be sick after all.

Eventually, and healthily, I arrived at the town of Imlil, end of the line for the main road. It’s located at 2,700 m altitude, nestled in the convergence of three valleys. I haven’t seen the movie to confirm this, but apparently it doubled as the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan hometown in Martin Scorcese’s film Kundun. I scrounged up some lunch and headed up one of the pine-filled valleys for a short hike to get myself acclimated to the elevation. Unfortunately, my excitement at finding myself hiking in the mountains once again got the better of me, and I ended up wearing myself out on a five-hour hike, ending up back at the hotel after dark. The hike took me to a pass over the mountains, where I turned around after having a cup of hot tea at the stone shack at the top.

To digress a little, let me add that I’d asked at the Peace Corps office in Rabat about volunteers located in the Toubkal area. After contacting the three PCV’s in the area, they called me back and gave me some phone numbers. I’d been trying to call these people for a few days, with no luck. Finally, while in Imlil that afternoon, I talked with one girl in a village outside Asni. She mentioned another guy closer to Imlil, but there was no one around the Toubkal area itself. Anyway, I was still a little surprised when a truck pulled up at the pass, and I spotted a blond kid on top. Peace Corps? I asked. He was indeed the other PCV in the area, and we talked for about 10 minutes before the truck pulled out again, agreeing that I would meet him and the girl in Asni on Thursday for breakfast.

Tuesday morning I set out from the hotel at around 7am, with two French girls, Caroline and Sonia, whom I’d met briefly the night before. We soon came across Donny, a talkative French guy I’d met at dinner the night before, and Gabriel, a young English professor from Edinburgh. The five of us hiked up the valley, an easy but constantly uphill climb, stopping often to let fast-moving mule caravans pass by, laden with the supplies and sometimes members of lazier (or perhaps smarter) British and Japanese tour groups. Around 1pm we arrived at the Toubkal Refuge, a large French-style mountain refuge, a place where hikers can spend the night and get a warm meal before continuing their journeys. We lazed away the afternoon and tried to get a good sleep for the coming morning.

Early Wednesday I set off with Nick, a 19-year old English kid who we’d met the day before. Gabriel was sick in bed, and the French were taking their time eating breakfast, so Nick and I set off on our own at around 6:30. The Lonely Planet says that you should allow 3-5 hours for the final 700 m ascent, from the refuge to the summit of Mt. Toubkal, at 4,380 m. I don’t know if I’ve ever hiked at this altitude before, and I hadn’t seen any altitude about 100 ft for the last 18 months, so I was resolved to take it slow. But nevertheless, I could hardly let Nick bound his way up the mountain alone. And so, at 26 feeling my age for the first time, I struggled up behind. At 8:30 we were at the top.

The view was incredible, and it was exhilarating to find myself standing taller than Atlas himself, holding up the heavens, as it were. The Atlas range essentially consists of a single ridge, which separates the coastal plains of Morocco from the Sahara desert in the interior. From the top you can see the ridge stretching out to the north and south, and on a clear day I would imagine also the Saharan dunes to the east and the Atlantic ocean to the west. Unfortunately Wednesday was not a clear day. But the view was impressive nonetheless.

Nick and I waited for an hour for the French, feeling guilty for not having waited for them at the refuge. Finally at 9:30 we headed down, and met them 15 minutes later on the path. We agreed to wait for them at the refuge after lunch. And so we got down, had lunch (me regretting the curiosity that had inspired me to try the tin of "sardine balls"), packed our bags, and waited. Two hours later the French arrived, and an hour or so after that we were on our way down the mountain. The weather had been good on the top, clear and a little cool, with no wind. In the afternoon the wind picked up, and with it hail and a slow, steady cold rain. According to Nick, good English weather. Further down the valley it was warm and dry, with no sign of recent rains. We made it down to Imlil, took showers, had dinner, and passed out early.

Thursday morning I got up feeling refreshed but very sore. After bandaging my blistered feet (not too advisable to climb high peaks in 4-year-old jogging shoes) I breathed in the cool mountain morning air as I waited for the grand taxi to fill up. I got to Asni right on time, at 8am, but had to wait around until the PCV, Kat, showed up on proper village time, an hour late. Meanwhile Nick stopped by, looking much better than the night before, when he got sick and ended up running to the bathroom to throw up a few times. He then caught a car down to Marrakesh, and then on to Casablanca.

Kat showed up, and we had a Berber breakfast, tea, bread, fried eggs and a tomato-onion sauce, and shared tales about life in the Peace Corps. She’d been there for only six months so far, that is, three months of training in Ouerzazate and three months in the village. But basically, the PC life sounded pretty much the same. Regardless of whether you live in a Pulaar village in the Sahel or a Berber one in an idyllic mountain valley in Morocco, the challenges are always the same – loneliness, finding people to relate to, figuring out what your job really is, and dealing with constantly being the outsider. Still, I envied her the mountains, forests, and Morocco, for that matter. The other PCVs that I’d met a few days before, blond Jonathan and his visiting friend Nate, stopped in for five minutes before running off to catch the train for Rabat in Marrakesh. After a few hours, I got into my last grand taxi and headed back to the city.

With my last five days, I decided to stay in Marrakesh, to relax and explore, to try to get a good feel for the city.  And that I did.  Marrakesh is crazy- aside from Fes, it's got the largest medina in Morocco.  The heart of the city is the central plaza, the Jemaa el-fna.  It's an enormous square, surrounded by shops and cafés with rooftop terraces offering a view of the action from a safe distance.  In the daytime, it's filled with fresh orange juice stands, dried fruit and nut salesmen, monkey trainers, snake charmers, magic potion sellers, and Berber acrobats.  At night it changes, as more than a hundred stalls open up selling all sorts of food - soup stands, sheep stands, lined with dried heads and piles of brains, sweets stands, and the generic moroccan buffet.  In what open space is left work the night shift - fortune tellers, story tellers, musicians, all surrounded by thick crowds of primarily locals.  They say that at one time, all Moroccan cities had a similarly medieval pageantry in their plazas; now only Marrakesh is left.  Whatever it is, it's magical.

I spent the first day seeing museums and palaces, and even watching a movie in the theatre - first time I've done that in 18 months.  We've got theatres in Dakar, I've just never gotten around to going.  That night, I ran into the French guy, Donny, and sat down to eat with him at the generic moroccan food stall, until the French girls, Caroline and Sonia, happened to walk by.  We ate together, then shared a tea on a terrace overlooking the plaza.  The next couple of days I spent exploring the rest of the city with the girls, until they left on Monday morning.  I ran around buying some last minute gifts and mailing off some carpets to the States, then hopped on the train to Casa, then another to the airport, and showed up just in time for my flight.

And now I'm back in Senegal.  It's been a little difficult readjusting to life here.  It's good, because it's familiar, and I speak the languages.  But it's nowhere near as beautiful or exotic as Morocco, and doesn't feel adventurous, at least not any more.  But I've only got eight months left, so not I feel refreshed and ready to focus on getting some things done in my village before I leave, and also on hosting some guests, and travelling.  I've still got 24 vacation days to spend, after all!

Hope you all enjoyed this, what of it you were able to read, and that you were able to see the pictures.  I feel like I've been working for the Morocco tourism board - but as you can tell I had a great time, and would highly recommed Morocco as a destination.  As for being American in an arab country - I always said I was american, and never ran into any trouble.

Hope all is well, and to see you all someday, sooner or later!



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