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Morocco

Country:
Morocco
Dates:
Wednesday February 17th, 1999 to Thursday February 25th, 1999
Author:
noah
Bab Agnaou, Marrakech, Morocco

We arrived in Tanger, Morocco, around 9pm; we had heard plenty of horror stories about people being accosted to take on a "guide" upon stepping off the boat, but we fortunately had little problem avoiding the touts. We walked a few 100m to the train station, bought tickets on the overnight train to Marrakech, and grabbed bite to eat. Hannah let her guard down briefly when the train arrived and we ended up giving a guy some money for finding us a seat on the train (there were lots of seats available on the train), but otherwise we escaped Tanger without falling prey to any of the scams for which the city is renowned among travellers. The train was not terribly comfortable, but we spent a not-unpleasant night on the real Marrakech Express (in the loosest sense of the word "express;" the train stopped about every 15min).

The train was full of older women who looked like they had wrapped mattresses around themselves before they put on their (huge) dresses; we were a little confused, but figured that they were just trying to stay warm, or perhaps that they had some religious reason for concealing the shapes of their bodies. One of the women was sitting immediately across from us, and in the middle of the night, semi-asleep, I thought I heard her opening a bag of chips (it would have had to have been a very large bag of chips, since the noise continued for a good 10min); Hannah later informed me that she was, in fact, untaping from herself a huge pile of clothing and jewellery that had been concealed beneath her dress. We later learned that there is some kind of tariff for transporting goods by train, which the women avoid by simply wearing everything; even though it is obvious that they are actually transporting goods, they're unlikely to be searched (Morocco being a Muslim country and all), so they get away with it.

A doorway to Koutoubia, Marrakech, Morocco

We arrived in Marrakech fairly early in the morning and headed for a hotel near the train station in the Ville Nouvelle, the part of the city constructed by the French during the early 20th century, when Morocco was under French influence. After a bite to eat in the hotel's courtyard, we headed toward the medina(?), where the markets and most of the interesting sites are located. We passed a few tourists on our way through the city, and were struck by the complete cultural stupidity of some people. Moroccans, as a rule, cover their entire bodies (many wear long cloaks not unlike Obi Wan Kenobi's), and it's fairly common knowledge that one should dress modestly in Muslim countries. How the idiot tourists in shorts and tank tops could avoid realising how inappropriately they were dressed is beyond me (and it wasn't even that warm).

The Koutoubia, Marrakech, Morocco

We had a look at Marrakech's most famous landmark, the Koutoubia, and then spent some time wandering the souq(?), resisting the advances of the vendors, before stopping at a small café on the square for our first taste of "whisky Berber," very sweet peppermint tea. As the sun began to set, vendors and performers of all kinds started arriving in the huge central square (Djemaa el-Fna), and by the time it was dark the square was full of snake charmers, dancers, acrobats, and other performers, and a huge network of food stalls had been set up. We mastered the art of watching performers without looking like we were watching them (if they caught you looking, you had to pay), and then ate some couscous and vegetables from on of the stalls. Before returning to the hotel we stopped at one of the many orange-juice vendors, who squeeze the oranges right in front of you and then sell you the juice for a few cents.

The following day we checked out of the hotel and tried to figure out where we had to go in order to take a bus to the town of Asni. Marrakech is located in the foothills High Atlas mountains, and we had decided to go and have a look at the mountains, and perhaps try to climb the tallest, Jbel Toubkal. We eventually figured out where to catch the bus (despite the best attempts of a police officer, who, when we asked him where we had to go to catch the bus, informed us that the town did not exist), and made our way to Asni with a number of locals who were clearly intrigued by our presence.

Tagadirt, below Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

From Asni we had to catch a truck on to Imlil, at the foot of Toubkal, but we were waylaid by a guy who whisked us off to his house, gave us some whisky Berber, and offered to guide us through the mountains for 3 days for US$300. We eventually prevailed upon him that our refusal was not the result of our not wanting to spend money, but rather our simply not having very much. At this point he changed his tactic, and began trying to sell us some 200 year old jewellery made by Berber tribesmen. We didn't have money for that either, so finally he just asked for Hannah's earring, the only remaining one of a pair she had bought for about $2 from a street vendor in Bangkok. We decided it was a small price to pay to get out of an awkward situation and gave it to him, whereupon he took us to the Imlil-bound van. I'm sure that some poor sucker is walking around with that earring from Bangkok thinking that it's 200yrs old and was made by Berber tribesmen.

The trip from Asni to Imlil was an interesting one. There were about 8 people in the van, and there was a goat sitting in the front seat beside the driver. There were also some baby goats in a box near the back; we didn't realize just how young these goats were until Hannah put her hand in the box and it came out covered in placenta. The road from Asni to Imlil is very winding and very rough and there was much stopping, loading, unloading, and exchanging of money along the way, but we eventually made it, arriving shortly before sundown.

Aroumd, at the foot of Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

We booked a room in the hostel, and asked around about climbing Toubkal. Several people offered to guide us, but further inquiry revealed that our absolute lack of equipment and preparation made it virtually impossible for us to climb the mountain in the dead of winter. Disappointed, we decided to do some low-altitude trekking instead. Our regret only increased when we started talking to a couple of British guys and a Frenchman, Joe, who were also staying at the hostel and who were looking forward to starting their climb the following day. Joe, in fact, seemed to be almost as disappointed as we were that we wouldn't be climbing.

On the slopes of Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

After a cold night, we woke the next morning, bade good luck to the Joe and the British guys, and set out to walk to another village about 20km away. We had walked about 1km when we decided that we couldn't take it anymore — if we were going to spend 2 days walking, why not at least spend them walking up the mountain as far as we could go? We headed back to the hostel and asked the guys in charge about renting crampons(?). They did indeed have some to rent, and, though they were more than a little sceptical when Hannah stuck out her running shoe to get the crampon fitted (they're meant for boots), we talked them into letting us go. We locked my pack (full of unnecessary stuff) in the hostel, bought some food, and set out toward the bottom of the mountain with a bunch of kids on their way home from school for lunch. For 15min, we had a very entertaining walk with these kids, who were all between the ages of about 6 and 10; at one point one kid asked Hannah to come to his house and be his wife, and later when she asked if she could take their picture, the eldest started pointing at each of his friends saying "dirham, dirham, dirham . . .," meaning that we'd have to pay them about 15 cents each to take their pictures; we declined.

Sidi Chamharouch, on the slopes of Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

The kids eventually left the path and headed to their village; shortly thereafter, the route started to take on a noticeable upward slope. We passed through a couple of small villages, and then came out into a valley, from which the path led steeply up. It took us a total of about 6hrs to climb to the mountain refuge where we would be spending the night before heading for the summit the following day. The terrain varied, but it was mostly fairly dry; we needed our crampons for one short stretch, and there were a few muddy spots, but we didn't encounter any problems. About 3hrs into the climb, shortly after we'd paid an exorbitant amount for some water and a chocolate bar at the last settlement on the way up, we passed the two British guys we had met the previous night; they had brought far too much stuff, and were moving fairly slowly. It was almost dusk when we arrived at the refuge to find a lot of people there, including Joe, whose face lit up when he saw that we had decided to climb after all.

Ascending Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

The rest of the people in the refuge were part of some sort of organized group that was there to do some backcountry skiing. They didn't seem to pleased to see us, and in fact treated us quite rudely the whole time we were there; if anything, their Moroccan guides were even less pleasant. I suspect that we were defying the skiers' élitist image of themselves by showing up in rain gear and running shoes (they all had $1000s worth of equipment), but we didn't really care. The guides were a different story, however, and their disdain for us ended up having lasting consequences when we both got very ill shortly thereafter, quite possibly from water that we were boiling in order to drink but that one of the guides removed from the stove prematurely. Anyway, the snobby French people were paying big bucks, so we were basically forced waited around for them to finish eating and move up the ladder to their comfortable, dry beds before we got a chance to eat and then head out back to our cold, damp beds.

With Joe at the summit of Jbel Toubkal

After a miserable night, we set out early the next morning for the summit; we had no idea how to get there, so we had asked Joe if we could follow him. We were adamant that he did not have to wait for us, that we just wanted to be able to see where he was going, but he not only insisted that we climb with him, he lent us some equipment to help us out. We climbed most of the way with the 2 British guys, who had arrived at the refuge shortly after us the previous evening, and Joe led us straight to the top, 4167m. The climbing was a little tougher than the previous day, and we made extensive use of our crampons, but after about 4hrs we couldn't go up any more, because there wasn't any more up. Joe insisted that I call home on his satellite phone, and we spent a few minutes having a look around: we thought we could see the Mediterranean to the north, the Atlantic to the west, and the Sahara desert to the south.

Looking eastward from the summit of Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

Joe was planning to descend all the way to the Imlil and then drive back to Marrakech that night, and he offered us a ride if we could keep up with him on the descent. We decided to give it a shot, and started literally running down the mountain. We made it to the refuge in 1.5hrs (Joe was pretty proud when the guides congratulated him on how quickly we'd gotten down), and then continued on to the bottom. We made it to Imlil before sundown, and were back in Marrakech by 9pm, where we got some couscous in the square and then headed back to the same hotel we had stayed at when we arrived in Marrakech the first time (we said goodbye to Joe, who was staying at the La Mamounia, said to be the best hotel in Morocco). The hotel had turned off the hot water at 6pm, but we hadn't showered in days, so we braved the icy water for the sake of our self respect.

4167m: the summit of Jbel Toubkal, Morocco

The following day we checked out of the hotel (at the last possible moment, having slept as late as we could get away with) and bought an overnight coach ticket to Fès. We were pretty beat from our climb, and we were both feeling a little under the weather, so we didn't do a whole lot, just wandered around Marrakech bit and then hung out for a few hours at a café waiting for the coach.

The trip to Fès was uneventful except for some slimy little guy bugging Hannah while I slept; she woke me up and he left her alone, but I didn't get any more sleep. In Fès we hung around the coach station for an hour or so waiting for the sun to come up, then set out to walk to a hotel beside the medina. The walk took us a couple hours, but we got to have a look at the Ville Nouvelle on the way, and by the time we arrived it was late enough in the morning that we didn't feel too much guilt about checking in. We slept for a few of hours and then headed out to check out the medina, reportedly the largest and most intricate in Morocco. We wandered the souq, then grabbed some dinner and hung out at a café for a while before heading back to the hotel.

We were both feeling pretty rough when we awoke the following morning, so we decided to take it fairly easy. We walked through the medina, but mostly just hung out in various parks and cafés. We ran into a little trouble with a tout among the souqs that day: a young guy started bugging us to take him on as our guide, and though we told him no (repeatedly) and tried to walk away, he insisted on walking behind us and talking as though he were guiding us. We finally confronted him and told him to leave us alone, at which point he kind of flipped out, demanded money for the "tour" he'd given us, and started calling us racist. We managed to extract ourselves from the situation with the help of an older guide who explained to the guy bugging us that he had to be a little more subtle if he wanted to scam tourists effectively

That night we got took an overnight coach back to Tanger. We caught an early morning ferry back to Algeciras, and then hung around until the evening, when we caught another overnight bus to Madrid. The second bus ride was not completely uneventful, as Hannah was in the throes of some sort of stomach ailment and was forced to use several of our possessions (including a sleeping bag) as temporary vomit receptacles.

You might wish to look at the Morocco photos in the photo album.

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