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A Southern Excursion 10/14/05

Hi Everyone,

Last Friday, I got back from an action-packed week away. Let me share some of it with you. We left on Friday morning, September 30th, and headed to the cedar forests of Azrou which are located in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains. It was nice to be in a forest and have the cooler air.

We had a picnic in the forest, and were visited by some Barbary Apes, which are actually monkeys and not apes. They were really cute, especially the babies, but they became less cute when they started surrounding us and trying to steal food. It didn't help that people were feeding them right from their hands.

The next day, we crossed the Middle Atlas and headed for the Sahara. We visited several palm groves to check out their irrigation systems and visited an NGO that is helping women produce handicrafts so that they can have their own source of income. We stayed the night in a beautiful hotel that overlooked the Sahara, and getting to the hotel was quite the experience. In the afternoon, we got out of our bus and piled into six white landrovers. We drove along a paved road for about half an hour, caravan style, and then we pulled off onto a dirt road. Well, in a landrover, what's the fun of staying on the road when you can do some off-roading? Our driver pretty much floored the gas, turned off the dirt road and soon we were racing across the desert, chasing down the other vehicles. It was absolutely crazy and so much fun.

After throwing our stuff into our rooms, we took a camel ride into the dunes to watch the sun set. It was incredibly beautiful; it was so vast, and the dunes turned a beautiful orange color. After dinner, we were treated to a performance, some of the men who worked at the hotel brought out their drums and for an hour or so there was music and dancing under the stars. The only other place that I've seen stars as bright as that night was on outdoor orientation at Colby.

The next morning, 10 or 15 of us woke before five to hike into the dunes to watch the sun rise. We could barely see on our way out there (don't worry, we had a guide). It was rather cold, but soon the climbing up dunes and running down them warmed us up. The quality of the light was so beautiful, as were the patterns and shadows on the dunes.

We drove for most of the day and arrived in Ouarzazate in the late afternoon. Check out photo four for a view from along the way. Ouarzazate just happens to be the movie making capital of Morocco. Movies such as The Sheltering Sky, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Gladiator were all filmed there. We didn't have a chance to tour any of the studios, but we did drive by them.

On the road to Ouarzazate.

The next day, we made our way through the High Atlas mountains to Marrakech. The tizi (mountain pass) that we went through is renowned to be the curviest in all of Morocco. There were spectacular views and hairpin turns galore. I was very thankful that I am not prone to car sickness. Once in Marrakech, we headed out to the Jamaa El Fnaa which is a large public square that leads to the medina. Some of the best shopping in Morocco is in Marrakech, but it is also where the prices are inflated the most. We looked at scarves, jewelry, shoes, make-up, herbs, rugs, leather goods and more. I broke off from the larger group with my friend Georgette, and we got mildly lost wandering into the more residential section. After dinner in the hotel, we went back to the square, and it had been completely transformed; there were vendors selling fresh orange juice, dried fruits, kebabs, fresh snails, and a specialty soup made of goats heads boiled in water. There were drum circles, story tellers, dancers and snake charmers.

The next day was also spent in Marrakech. In the morning, some friends and I went to the Majorelle Gardens, built by a French painter in the 1940s. There are cacti, a bamboo forest and a pond full of water lilies. The house was royal blue with orange accents. Even though I was in the middle of a roll of black and white, I couldn't pass up the colors, so I switched rolls. In the afternoon, I visited the Bahia Palace, which at one point housed the grand vizier of Morocco, his 4 wives and 24 concubines. There were incredible painted ceilings, many fountains, three courtyards, intricately carved doors. It was very different from the European palaces that I've seen, but no less grand. After that, we wandered through the mellah (Jewish section) on our way back to the square, and I bought a few pieces of jewelry.

I really wasn't too pleased with my bargaining skills, and my friend Allie told me that I was too concerned about offending by offering a low price, and therefore ended up paying too much. Her advice: time to do some "hard-ass" bargaining. After dinner, I found a necklace that I liked, and was able to bargain in down from 280dh to 120dh, and a t-shirt from 150dh to 80dh, so that made me feel a lot better and more confident in my bargaining skills. It's funny, because if you go with another person, you have a person to play off of; they can admire it, say it's too much, pull you out of the store, the shopkeeper will then call you back into the store. At one place, I left and was called back three times. I find bargaining to be stressful and tiring, but it's becoming more fun as I actually master my numbers and get used to the system.

Fishing Boat in Essaouira.

Wednesday morning we headed to Essaouira, which is an old port town, and now popular with the tourists for its beautiful beaches. Check out photo five for a view of the fishing boats (this one's for you, Dad). I loved the medina there; it had wider streets than Marrakech, nearly as much to be found in terms of shopping and at much better prices. We went out to dinner at a restaurant on the wharf. Inside, there was dark wood, round windows, and all sorts of wall decorations. It felt like I could be in a restaurant in Portland or Boston. The food was good, but we couldn't order our own (the program always decides) so we ended up eating three courses of fish, which was a little much.

On Thursday, we were given the option of heading back to Rabat with the group, or striking out on our own. I chose the latter. Some friends and I found a couple of rooms in the cheapest hotel available, and then spent the afternoon walking along the beach. We spent some more time in the medina and went out to dinner. In the morning, Georgette and I went out for breakfast at this funky restaurant she had found. It's walls were covered in Jackson Pollock-esque type paintings and sharpie marker portraits. From there, we walked through the mellah, and I took so many pictures. Most of the Jews who lived in Essaouira have left, and the houses are crumbling. We saw the old synagogue, the walls of which were standing, but all of the floors had collapsed. It was beautiful and sad, I wondered about the people who lived there, their joys and sorrows and history.

At noon, my friend Caroline and I caught a bus back to Rabat. It was sort of dirty, no AC and no leg room. It was certainly a contrast to the plush bus we'd been traveling in as a group. But in a way, it was good to see how Moroccans travel. I arrived home around 8:30, and had some harira (traditional Moroccan soup) for dinner. Ramadan started here last Wednesday. I've decided to try fasting for a couple of days with my family. That means I get up at 4 in the morning to have a something to eat, and then go back to bed for a couple of hours. During the day, there is no eating or drinking, and then we break the fast around 6:30 and have a snack around 10. I find I get more thirsty than I do hungry. I've been able to keep it up for 6 days so far, but I think I'll stop after tomorrow. I've enjoyed the experience; it's so nice to break the fast with my family.

Other than Ramadan, this last week has been pretty uneventful in comparison to the previous, but I do want to share a few things. Tuesday was my day for little things making me really ridiculously happy. When I got up at 4 to eat before dawn, I found that my family had made French toast. Of course, they don't call it that, but that's what it was. And I got to eat it with the leftover maple syrup. So even though it was way too early in the morning, it made me really happy. The other thing was that after dinner, my mother came in wearing a new fall djellaba. She asked me if I liked it, and pointed out how it was in the newest style: a certain detailing to the buttons, bell sleeves, a little tighter in the torso. It's sort of funny, because to me, djellabas all look the same (rather sack-like) except for the color.

The other exciting thing that happened is that yesterday I witnessed a rally downtown by people who have degrees but no jobs, or at least that's what we were told at the time. I found out today that it was a protest by a human rights group on behalf of the refugees who go through Morocco on their way to Spain. Anyway, it began peacefully, with people sitting and chanting, but then the police, only about 10 of them, showed up and started using their sticks to beat at the crowd. Don't worry, I was a good distance away, but it was still sort of scary to witness. So the protesters started to run away, but then ran back towards them, as if playing chicken. Then more police showed up. At one point, the protesters began running from the police towards where I was standing, so my friend Caroline and I decided we'd better leave. In this case, I was happy to stick out as a foreigner, as I felt a little safer that way. Sorry to leave off with a grim story. I just thought it was an eye-opening experience, and something that I hadn't seen before.

I hope this e-mail finds you all well. I miss you all.

Much love, Kelly

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