My first visit to Africa came by way of a friend of mine in Washington DC whose father imported Moroccan goods for resale in the US. We flew into Casablanca planning to circumnavigate the Atlas mountains. In preparation for the trip I avidly studied French conversational phrasebooks so that I would be able to express myself in the more remote areas of Morocco where it was unlikely anyone spoke English. My friend John was conversant in French, so this was not necessary by any means. But I knew it would enhance my experience of the country to be able to understand what people were saying around me.
We flew into Casablanca and got our bearings for our travel. The Hassan II mosque is one of the most modern you’ll ever see. It is the largest mosque in Africa, with opulent construction and amazing stone mosaics. And because it was built recently, they even included a sun-roof!
Next we headed south to the coastal town of Essaouira. It was a very rustic town made of stone and clay. It has been a former Portuguese port. (Portuguese didn’t colonize all of Morocco, they established port cities that were important to their trade and shipping routes.) We arrived during a massive music festival dedicated to spiritual traditions.
As I was walking the ramparts of the old Portuguese fort, I heard musical chanting nearby. I went up to the top of the fort to find a dozen musicians rehearsing their performance for an upcoming appearance in the festival. After a few rousing ditties on the roof, someone among them suggested that they go into the tower of the fort, where the acoustics were better. They and a few tourists went up into the stone tower, an enclosed space with a tremendous echo. They then proceeded to sing a few more of their chants with rhythmic counterpoint clapping which was incredibly hypnotic.
The festival was mostly dominated by Gnawa chant. Gnawa music are spiritual/meditational incantations that are accompanied with a metal rattle in place for drums and a bass-guitar styled instrument similar to the west Afrcian kora/bola but often made with a metal can for a resonator.
I found so many instrument makers in Essaouira, that I couldn’t move on without buying some of them. First I found massive drums made of cactus roots,a large array of tethered ceramic bongos, fish-skin darbukas and the famous snare Bendir frame drum of the Berber people. So I bought as many drums as I could and shipped them off to my home country. I had no anticipation of ever seeing these items again. But over a month later they did arrive at my home.
From here we headed to east Marrakesh. For a couple of American kids born in the 1960’s, Marrakesh felt as if it should be familiar. So many thousands of our parents had visited here as part of the pilgrimage of their travels, it should seem ordinary to children of the 1960s. To me, the market of Marrakesh, called Jemaa el-Fnaa, was exactly what I expected: Many vendors of nuts, dates, olives, herbs and pottery.
What wasn’t expected was the art of the square. There were troubadours who told tales with banjo and drum. So gripping were the tales that massive throngs of onlookers would gather to hear their tales. At regular “sponsorship” breaks, they would cease their stories mid-stream, awaiting the till to be filled, before they’d complete their ballad.
After our coastal visit we headed east into the Atlas mountains to Ouarzazate at the foot of the Atlas mountains. Little did we know then that this town was famous for being a movie set for dozens of Hollywood films. Martin Scorsese observed that the terrain looked a lot like Tibet. So he used this as the setting for his film about the Dalai Lama, where the town of Ouarzazattte was transformed into the landscape you see in that film.
It was a quiet town with a mean tajine. This is basically a stew cooked in a ceramic pot. The stew was so good that I was inspired to buy my own tajine pot to bring home. Fortunately, there was someone honest enough to instruct me that US customs would confiscate my tajine if I tried to import it because Moroccan tajines still included lead-based glaze in their production. Unfortunately, I’d already eaten from one of these tajines before learning of their toxicity. My hope is that glazes don’t leech lead into the foods cooked in tajines at the rate feared by the potters in Morocco.
At this point we rented a car to drive further inland. Having a car helped us get to a lot of places that would be inconvenient to reach by bus. The desert has amazingly beautiful rock formations that reminded me of Joshua Tree National Park in my home country. One of the towns, called Tafraoute, decided to create a tourist destination by painting some of the large boulders blue. Morocco has a thing for blue. Gowns of the Berbers are typically sky blue. And some of the towns are painted blue as well. To see the blue boulders on the otherwise tan landscape seemed very peculiar. It’s good to scratch your head every now and then to ponder the question, “What is art?” Mission accomplished.
We came across an amazing town with towering water falls called, Ouzoud. In the desert, it feels rather surreal to come across an oasis like bounty of vegetation and misty breeze in this amazing cascade.
At the town of Zagora a group of Berber guides offered to take us by camel into the desert for an overnight in a traditional cloth tent. Our guides performed songs accompanied by Bendir frame drum in the evening under the stars. Camel riding doesn’t take as much skill as horse riding. (Which I learned to do as a child.) Camels are persnickety. But you don’t have to do much to coax them to go. They’ll follow in a straight line without much prompting, barely noticing that you’re riding atop them! What was amazing to me was that when the sand storms started, I could barely keep my orientation. But the sand whipping along the desert flats didn’t’ seem to phase the camels at all. Just another day in the life for a powerful animal adept at living in these conditions.
At night our Berber hosts rolled out carpets and cooked amazing meals for the tourists, then breaking out into hours of song drumming on water tanks and the bendir frame drum for accompaniment.
Driving further, we reached the Atlas mountain range. One of the most amazing highlights of the trip. A large town with mud castles and broad date-palm forests was found at the lower altitudes near the massive river-carved Tadra Gorge.
The river was nearly dry during our visit, so I decided to drive along the stone and gravel road formed in the river bed as far as I could. The gorge wends all the way up to a high plateau at the top of the Atlas range. The climate shifts over the course of the journey. And the layers of rock, carved through by the river, were a spectacular sight.
We drove north until the desert consumed the highway. Road was literally subsumed by dunes. There we stopped and, after buying a carpet from a local vendor, we headed into the dunes of the Sahara by foot. The Sahara dunes are a unique experience. Probably the most important thing you notice is profound silence. Dunes, being conical, deflect all reverberation away from you. So John and I hiked to different dunes dozens of meters away, and yet when we spoke we could hear each other as there was no other sound around us.
The place where the Sahara consumes tar roads is a surreal experience for westerners. We’re not used to sheer forces of nature subsuming the infrastructure of our modern experience. To see a road swallowed by dunes is a demeaning narrative. Where the road stopped, so did we. We surrendered our car and hiked out into the dunes. On the way, I bought a carpet because I had a really good mint tea and the deal was right. John and I found our way to our own dunes and sat atop them as the sun set. One strange thing about sound and sand pyramids is that they carry sound quite well. Dozens of yards away, I could talk and the sound carried. John was 30-50 meters/yards away, but we could converse as if we were yards/meters apart.
Next stop was Fes, the hilltop city famous for the festival of sacred music and for the leather curing facilities that produce much of the leather that feeds the shoe and decorative industries of the country. We learned from the tour that the reason the leather treatment pools smell so foul is because they use the natural preservatives in pigeon scat to cure the hides and give them lasting elasticity and durability.
From here I headed north to the Rif mountains. Chefchouen was a picturesque town where the residents have painted the alleyways a light sky blue.
In the northern part of the country lie the ruins of a former Roman capital of the Mauretania region of Africa, Volubilis. They’ve been damaged by earthquakes such that only columns and floor mosaic remain. But it’s a nice stop on your journey.
Much of my travels in Morocco felt like I was going back in time. (This is a feeling I like having!) Cities that have a bit of wear and patina are exciting to photograph for me. But the town of Meknes felt like the most modern or contemporary to my senses. The same ancient architecture, but pristinely polished.
My last stop was Tangier, with its meandering hillside streets, much like Fes, scattered with cafes and restaurants perched on an exquisite Mediterranean landscape. I had found this country intensely rewarding and yet somehow intensely tiring, perhaps for all the bustle of my wayward ventures to see so much of its terrain and cultures.
Follow @Leapingaround on Twitter: twitter.com/leapingaround
Follow Christopher on Pocket