Wednesday, November 28, 2012

First night in the desert

Click here to see our entire First night in the desert album (67 pictures)

Our first night in the Sahara was spent at a nomad camp located about 15 minutes out of M'Hamid.  It was much more luxurious than I was expecting, considering that it's in the middle of the desert - it was quite large and composed of colorful tents made out of Moroccan carpets.  There was a large tent for eating (and later on for music) as well as toilets and showers (although we did run out of water).  I guess it gets a lot busier during the other times of the year, but while we were there, there were only about 10 guests (but the camp could probably easily accommodate 50).

When we arrived, the sand was really blowing - the scarves we wore were really necessary to keep the sand out of our faces (although it didn't help our eyes too much). We managed to explore some of the dunes around the camp before  it started to rain - with lots of thunder and lightning!  I really loved exploring the dunes and I thought the sandstorm added to the experience.

We had dinner and, later on, our guides performed traditional Tuareg music (on the electric guitar and drums).  We were looking forward to seeing the stars from the desert - but because of the rain we didn't get to see anything.

The route we took on the camel

The next day we departed from the nomad camp and traveled back towards M'Hamid on camel.  Laura MyTracks'd the whole trip - you can see the map here.  If you zoom in at the start, you can even see our camp! It was pretty neat (and a bit scary) how camels rise from the sitting position - you definitely feel like you're going to fall off.  Laura also took a few video from her camel.  If you receive our blog by email, I'm not sure how the videos work - you may have to visit the website to view the videos.

Laura's perspective of the camel ride

Entering the oasis - one of our guides is singing!

In M'Hamid we were cooked a meal by one of the locals - chicken skewers, bread and a salad of tomatoes, cucumber, peppers and olives -- and of course tea!  Down in the south, there's no mint in the tea (mint isn't exactly abundant in the desert), but it I think it's even sweeter - it's sweetened with pieces of sugar that are broken off from a conical sugarloaf.

From the M'Hamid we took our 4x4 deeper into the Sahara to Erg Chigaga. Erg Chigaga has some of the largest sand dunes in Morocco.  We took some great pictures - but you'll have to wait for our next post!

Click here to see our entire First night in the desert album (67 pictures)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Road to M'Hamid

Click here to see our entire Road to M'Hamid album (58 pictures)

One of the things that I really wanted to do in Morocco was spend a night in the desert.  Lucky for us, one of Sabine's friend, Mohamed, owns M'Hamid travel, a travel agency that specializes in desert excursions.  She arranged a trip for us that included two nights in the desert and a camel ride!

We were lucky enough to bump into Mohamed while we were in Marrakech, and he offered to drive us to Ouarzazate (through the High Atlas mountain range).  The scenery during the drive was really nice and we were travelling late in the day so we go to see sunset over the mountain range.

In Ouarzazate we stayed at Mohamed's riad Hotel Riad Ouarzazate.  It was beautifully decorated, definitely one of the nicest places we stayed on our entire trip.  On arrival, they had soup and a chicken, lemon and olive tagine ready for us - it was very tasty (perhaps when we get back to food blogging we'll have to give it a try).

The next day, Mohamed arranged for one of his drivers (also named Mohamed) to take us to all the way down to the southeastern corner of Morocco (and the end of the highway), M'Hamid. On the way to M'Hamid we visited the ancient kasbah in Tamnougalt (it's unclear how old it is, it may date back to the 14th or 15th century). I found it pretty interesting to find out that the kasbah had a jewish quarter.  Morocco had 250,000 to 350,000 before the founding of Israel, but fewer than 7000 now remain!

We drove through the Drâa valley. The Drâa is Morocco's longest river and the valley is filled with palm trees and is very lush, in sharp contrast to the extremely arid areas just beyond the valley.  We did a bit of offroading along a dirt road and Laura and I hiked to an old watch tower in the valley. We thought it was pretty interesting  but unfortunately we don't know anything about it.

As we arrived in M'Hamid, the desert dust started blowing (so much so that it visibility was limited) and it started to rain!  Locals told us that this was the first time it had rained in 6 years!

The next post is going to include pictures from our first night in the desert, as well as pictures from our camel excursion!

Click here to see our entire Road to M'Hamid album (58 pictures)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

We're Home! (and Marrakech)

We're Home!

We arrived home safe and sound two weeks ago. We both went straight back to work - it's a bit of an adjustment from our trip, but we're both happy to be back!

Now that we have a real computers and access to all of our pictures (all 13751 of them!), posting to the blog should be a lot easier.  We're going to continue on posting from where we left off and we'll probably post additional pictures for some of the previous blog posts.

One thing we're going to be doing differently from now on:  we'll include just one picture in each post along with a link to our album on Google+. Google+ makes looking through the pictures a lot nicer, and allows us to upload more pictures.  If you have trouble seeing the albums, please let us know.


After an early morning departure from Bologna, we arrived in Casablanca and headed directly to Marrakech by train.  In Marrakech we met up with my cousin Sabine (featured in our Lausanne post). Sabine's fiancé, Redouan, is Moroccan and she's visited a few times before. Sabine did all of the planning for the Morocco section of our trip and they both helped us learn about local food and culture.  We were really happy to have them with us.

We spent most of our time in Marrakesh in Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main square of the Medina (old city) and in the Souk (market).  The Souk is unlike anything I've ever seen before.  It's a huge (the largest traditional Berber market in Morocco), but there's no obvious order to how things are laid out.  It's full of twisting alleyways and dead ends. It didn't take very long to get lost (although after enough wandering around we were able to find our way out).  The merchants in the souk were selling all sorts of stuff:  herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables, leather bags and babouches (a moroccan style slipper), scarves, carpets, ironware and lanterns, clothes.  Along with the merchants, we also saw many leatherworkers making bags and pouffes, wood workers, and the wool dyers (which you'll see in the pictures).  We ended up buying a pretty cool looking wooden chess set.  It's made in a neat way so that twisting the top of the board reveals the pieces stored beneath it.

One of the lowlights of Morocco was that Laura and I got gypped at the leather tanneries.  We were exploring the souk and a one of the merchants suggested that we check out the berber leather tanneries.  He pointed out someone that "works" there and told us to follow him.  We were under the impression that the tanneries would be fairly close by, but they ended up being fairly far away.  This is the first tannery I'd ever seen, so it was pretty interesting (although smelly and pretty gross). They put the raw animal pelts in several foul smelling pits in order to remove the hair and other residue and to soften leather.  The first pit is filled with lime, the second with pigeon excrement (used for the ammonia), other pits are later used to clean and dye the leather. They gave us "berber gasmasks" (a bunch of mint) to help fend off the smell. As expected, at the end of the tour we were brought to a store.  Although they tried pretty hard, we made it out of the store without buying anything.  At this point a couple of the guys that took us around the tannery, as well as the guide that brought us there and asked to be paid. They asked that we pay them 200 dirhams (approximately $23 USD).  They said this money would be split by the tannery workers.  While this seemed like a lot by Moroccan standards, I figured this amount was ok, given how bad their work.  At this point they insisted that that we need to double the amount - they claimed that the 200 dirhams was for the berber workers and we need to add another 200 for the arab workers.  In the end, I ended up relenting and giving them 100 more.  At this point, the guide that brought us to the tanneries demanded that we pay him as well - we assumed that he was part tannery workers and therefore would have been paid from the 300, but he insisted that he wasn't and that he'd done more work than the tannery guys, so should be paid more.  In the end we paid him 200 as well - which is way more more than he should have gotten.  When we later looked up the tanneries in tripadvisor, it seems like a lot of other people had similar experiences.  Next time we'll have to be a lot more careful to make sure we don't get into these kind of situations.  Oh well, you leave and you learn...