November 17, 2012

Taroudant to Merzouga Trip-Part 2

I had been warned to watch out for aggressive touts at Er Rachidia, Erfoud, Rissani (beware: The Fat Man of Rissani!) and especially at Merzouga. We found nothing of the kind. Maybe it was because I was well rested, but I found the entire trip from Er Rachidia down to Merzouga to be easy, quick and cheap. Er R. to Erfoud 25dh each, Erfoud to Rissani 8dh ea., Rissani to Merzouga 12dh ea. Everyone we came in contact with was pleasant and helpful. I have no doubt that Mubarak's very presence helped a lot.

The final taxi came to a stop in the village of Merzouga, and I had no idea where our hotel, Auberge Les Pyramides, was located. In fact it was only about a 15 minutes walk, but at the time I didn't know that. The driver mumbled something about 15 dirhams, he took us there, whereupon he demanded 20, which was a ripoff, but I was just glad to be at the hotel. The owner Ali was there to greet us, showed us to our rooms, and I took a nap.

Quite a primitive place, some might say, but considering the location with the Erg Chebbi Dunes as the back yard, I'd have to say it was amazing. Western toilet, warm shower. 200dh per day, breakfast and dinner included. Nicely decorated dining room.

I had reservations for November 8th, 9th, and 10th there, and I had plans to leave on the 11th and go from there to Todra Gorge and stay at Auberge Les Festival for two nights, located about 5km inside the gorge from Tinerhir.

Perhaps I should get to the reason we went to Merzouga.

I had heard about The Merzouga International Music Festival from Khamlia, on the Thorn Tree Morocco forum. Unusual for me, I immediately decided I would go and take Mubarak who loves music, and who plays with a group in his village. He has been a life-long epileptic, and music helps his condition. A case of now or never for both of us.

So, here we were, around sundown on the 8th, and I'm hearing sounds coming from the site of the festival, sound testing for the concert that was due to start the next day. Ali, the cook, in his limited English, told us that we could just walk there directly, over the dunes. In the dark. Which we did! Great fun. Coming back, we could not see the hotel lights, so followed the road instead. It got easier after that.

Early morning the following day was sunny and, after my cup of Lipton tea which Ali miraculously managed to make for me after detailed instructions, I set off for a quite tentative walk over the dunes in my bare feet. Great feeling. It was impossible to get lost as there were a few good landmarks.

In the afternoon, after Mubarak was awake and feeling ok, we went to the site of the festival only to have rain start, just lightly but persistent. The sound system and lights were working well and the music tried to start, but soon it just pissed down and we had to make a run for it. 
It was over for me, but it was not over for Mubarak. Much later in the day after dinner, Mubarak went down to the festival alone, watched 2 groups perform and took some pictures by himself. I'm glad of that.

The next day, which was the 10th, was warm and sunny, the air smelled so clean and fresh, and we watched several groups entertain. There was a heavy Amazigh (Berber) influence, and Amazigh flags were waving amidst the quite large crowd of mostly Moroccans. The few tourists in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves, and mixed freely with the locals.

I was really not paying much attention to my friend until I happened to look over and there was Mubarak clapping enthusiastically, and before long he was dancing wildly along with many of the young men and tourists, and only had one seizure, which some in the crowd found interesting. While the groups that performed were wonderful, I have to say that I did not witness anything international about this festival, but maybe I missed something. We stayed late that night.

It was there and then that I decided to trash my other plans. I did give it a good deal of thought before I phoned Auberge Le Festival at Todra and canceled my reservation for the 11th. I extended our stay at Merzouga for another day, making it 4 nights there.

On the morning of the 11th it was sunny but the sand was still moist and packed. After my tea and breakfast, wearing my runners I took off over the dunes and went much further than before, to the base of the highest sand pyramid. I had thoughts of climbing to the peak, and having a look at the Algerian border, but my legs did not get the message. I saw groups of camels, and a few athletic young men herding them. One of the beasts came right up to me, almost uncomfortably close, giving me the once over, chewing his cud, possibly wondering just what I was, before he ambled past. The Erg Chebbi Dunes are awesome, and I don't care if I sound like a tourist when I say that.

Later, while I was sitting in the dining room, not sure of the time, a howling wind came up. Not a major sandstorm but it did change the landscape significantly. We really could not go out.

The next morning I went out to have a look, and found a young Berber man sitting atop one of the dunes and we exchanged greetings. Just a lovely morning and I was feeling fine. The guy, maybe because of my obvious good mood, decided to show me the contents of his tiny backpack. He laid out jewelery, carvings etc. which he said his dad had made. Whatever. My automatic reaction is to say "la shukran". But this time, I was ready to buy, as we needed gifts for Mubarak's wife, mother and sisters. I bought eight items, for which he was happy to take 300dh. It was a very nice exchange, and I'm glad it happened the way it did.

I have not yet told you about Sara Breeze and her husband Ali!

I first encountered Sara on Thorn Tree Morocco forum during the time I was making my trip plans. She was a very good source of practical advice. Sara spends much of her time in Merzouga with Ali, where together they operate Ali & Sara's Desert Palace. An extremely well spoken English woman (she puts my enunciation to shame), Sara also is the owner of a company in England, so she is back and forth frequently. I had a couple of good conversations with Sara, and I only wish I could have spent more time with her. Here you will see a picture of Ali, a Berber, who is a former nomad. I like them, and I think Ali and Sara make a great couple, in more ways than one. 

On the morning of the 12th, as luck would have it, Sara showed up at about the same time I was checking out, and the owner of Les Pyramides was about to phone a taxi that would take us from there to Erfoud. As it turned out, Sara and Ali drove us to Erfoud, but after we had stopped in Rissani and done some shopping, with Ali doing the haggling for us.

Mubarak on a Camel in Erfoud
They dropped us at the Erfoud bus station, which is just a tiny place with buses showing up on the street. I got the tickets, Erfoud to Ouarzazate, 70dh each. Supposed to leave at 3, we were still waiting at 4, with rumours that the bus had broken down and was not coming at all. Some touts tried to take advantage of this. However, at around 4:20 or so, the bus pulled in, we had to load our own luggage, but we were on our way. 

It's a long ride, Erfoud to Ouarzazate. No heat on the bus and it was cold, Mubarak was not properly dressed, so he had a couple of seizures. Quite a miserable time, but we got to O very late. Checked into the Royal and immediately went out to eat.

Next morning, competent traveler that I am, I went directly to the CTM station to buy tickets for the next day, having planned to spend two nights in Ouarzazate. Sorry sir, that bus is full. Ok, so I would like to buy two tickets Ouarzazate to Taroudant for the 15th. Done. And hey, the price had reduced from 105 to 100dh per seat!

It was there that we bought beautiful colourful scarves for all the ladies in Mubarak's family, including Asmaa his daughter, aged 8. We ate well at a little place not frequented by tourists, but once I did take my friend to quite a posh place near the hotel to eat Lasagna! We were the only customers, and I'm quite sure we were overcharged, but what the heck.

I should mention that the new Ouarzazate CTM bus station is nearing completion, but I don't think it will be operational for another month. I was told 10 days, but...well you know, it's Morocco. It is modern and beautiful, with an attached restaurant. But on the 15th, when we were on our way to Taroudant, we had to go to the old one.

This is where it gets embarrassing but nonetheless interesting.

We had already paid at the hotel and said our goodbyes, with plenty of time to reach the old CTM bus station by noon, the bus departure scheduled for 12:30pm. Having arrived a bit early, bags checked in, we sat ourselves down in the cafe next door, ordered a pot of tea, Mubarak plugged into his radio, and me fully expecting the bus to be late as usual. I was dreadfully mistaken. 

From time to time I glanced over and saw a bus to Marrakech sitting there, and then another to Agadir. Still waiting for ours, when the one to Agadir was the one we wanted! That bus honked loudly, then pulled away, and very soon after that, there was I standing in the empty street feeling embarrassed. To make matters worse Mubarak tried to share the blame. At the time, this one event seemed to nullify all my previous intelligent choices, and I was no longer a man of the world.

As it happened, a petite taxi did come along, which took us to grande taxis, and one particularly amazing driver. I'm crammed into the back seat beside a man and two quite ample women, Mubarak occupying half of the passenger seat, very close to the driver, and it was not long before he had a seizure, thankfully a small one. And this is a really  sluggish old taxi.

The man beside me, God bless his heart, spoke a little English, but sometimes a little is all you need. I managed to communicate to him our situation, that the bus had left without us. I did not mention how much I hated myself at that very moment.

He informed the old man driving, who suddenly sprung to life, stepped up the pace, even though we had to stop at one point to add water to the rad as the car had overheated. We were definitely speeding, and at one point the driver was on his cell phone speaking to I don't know who. True, we were careening around curves, crossing solid white lines, passing nearly everything, but there wasn't much on the road. Yes, it was dangerous driving, and I don't think he should have done that on our account. 

I can't remember the name of the place, but we pulled into a parking lot, where low and behold there was a CTM bus parked, THE BUS, the one we had missed (!), which had stopped midway to allow passengers to use the amenities. I thanked the taxi driver profusely, stopping short of kissing him, and slipped him 20dh.

There, also, was a CTM man holding a clip board ready to meet us. He checked our tickets and we were allowed to board the bus. I could see that he was none too happy with me, and neither was I. I have since forgiven myself, a lesson well learned.

On arrival in Taroudant, Mubarak was nearly ecstatic, suddenly energized, very glad to be home, with his many friends, amid familiar surroundings. Knowing him as I do, he will be talking about this trip for a very long time, bringing up details that I may not have even noticed, remembering every thing we ate and everyone we encountered. 

I'm sure he will not forget Sara Breeze, her facial expressions and remarkable linguistic abilities, but most of all he will not forget her enormous breasts.


What I have taken away from this trip is the knowledge that it is all well and good to make detailed plans, and we should all do that. But we should also be ready to change or trash those plans depending on many factors, such as weather, who we  are traveling with, who we happen to meet, our money supply, our health etc, learning as we go along.

Thanks for reading. I'll probably remember something else not long after I publish this, but I think you get the gist of it.

David/Daoud in Morocco

November 16, 2012

Taroudant to Merzouga Trip-Part 1

This is me and my daughter Margaret at the home of my friend Mubarak in the village of El Boura, which is located about 7km from Taroudant.

This initial posting will be about my recently completed 10-day trip from my home town of Taroudant to Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. From atop the highest sand dunes of Merzouga, the border with Algeria is within sight.

Enlarge the following map and move east so that you can see Taroudant, Ouarzazate, Er Rachidia, Erfoud, Rissani, and Merzouga.,Morocco&ei=JxCmULe8OciRhQeupIGQDQ&sqi=2&ved=0CC0Q8gEwAA  

I had purchased in advance bus tickets from Taroudant to Ouarzazate, and from Ouarzazate to Er Rachidia on CTM, one of the two major bus services in Morocco, reputed to be more comfortable, punctual, and well serviced than some of the others. Most of the time, maybe.

On the morning of November 6th, myself and my Moroccan friend Mubarak got ourselves down to the CTM station at Bab Zorgane by 11:00am, a half hour before our bus was due to leave Taroudant. Bags checked in, and we waited. And waited. Well over an hour late, the bus finally showed up, our bags stowed, and we set off. I enjoyed seeing the countryside very much and was thinking of so many people that I wanted to recommend this part of Morocco to, especially my children. It was all very pleasant and comfortable until the sky darkened and heavy rain ensued, windows fogged up, just as we were traveling along the winding twisting roads up through the mountains, and I had to remember the last fatal bus accident that we had all heard about. This obviously older bus also leaked, and after some time there was a tiny stream of water running down the aisle between the seats.  The sky eventually cleared, and we made it to Ouarzazate and our hotel safely but late.

I took an early morning walk next day and found a little place that serves Besaara, green pea soup flavoured with cumin, a little lake of olive oil floating on top and a half round of bread, my favourite breakfast. It was after that that I found the new CTM bus station nearing completion, which will make for a much easier walk to my favourite cheapie, Hotel Royal, in the future.

Later that morning we made our way to the old CTM station and did find the bus to Er Rachidia, late of course. Some amazing countryside again between Ouarzazate and E. We arrived after dark in a completely strange place, much larger and busier than I had imagined, with no hotel reservation, and I'm getting tired. I saw a few hotels nearby but I was determined to find Hotel Renaissance, about which my guidebook had the following to say:

Cheap, simple rooms, some with showers, and a decent restaurant, close to the bus station. A dependable budget choice.

Not bad, eh?

I decided that the best thing to do would be to relax, have a cup of tea at the closest cafe, pull myself together and maybe ask someone. Well, nobody I asked had heard of it, that is until I decided to ask a taxi driver, who pointed it out just up the street, with a rather strange little smile on his face. We found it, and I should have known by the condition of the sign. Up a huge flight of stairs, with all the baggage, only to find a flophouse. A glance around revealed open doors, filthy sheets, drugged out hookers and patrons staring at me, and I can only imagine the expression they must have seen on my face. A very quick about turn and out of there.

Poor Mubarak could see that I was upset, but I reassured him that it was not with him, but with myself for not having made better plans. We hit the next closest place, which for some reason had too many beds crammed into small garishly decorated rooms. I gave my Carte de Sejour to a young man who obviously had never seen one before, who suggested that we could share the same room for a price, and who wanted immediate payment. With some difficulty I managed to wrench the card out of his grip and we bid our goodbyes. After that, strangely, I found myself calm and in a good mood, experienced traveler, man of the world.

Hotel Fekri, nice bright sign, was a welcome relief, and I would recommend it. Beautiful rooms, and if it were any closer it would be in the bus parking lot. The window of my room looked down upon the hubbub of all these buses and shouting men, but I did not care; in fact I found it interesting. Mubarak had a room across the hall which he was delighted to have, and we agreed that 150dh was a good price. He enjoyed his tiny TV, and slept like a baby, probably glad to be alone for a change.

Early next morning I checked to see if any of those buses went to Erfoud, our next stop. No, but after a little treck and directions from one very helpful stranger, I managed to find where all the grande taxis congregated and, rather surprisingly for me, I even found my way back to the  hotel. It was with some confidence that, later in the morning, I was able to lead the way to our shared taxi to Erfoud. 25dh each. By the way, there was a Date Festival going on in Erfoudin  at the time.

Astonishingly, taxis from Erfoud to Rissani were right there, and it was only a matter of minutes before we were packed into one of them. 8dh each. Places and people...all of it tremendously interesting.

To be continued...