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Magical Morocco, Part I: Casablanca and the South

Author: soliteyah (More Trip Reviews by soliteyah)
Date of Trip: March 2007

We headed back to our room to chill a bit before dinner. Kasbah Tombouctou was essentially a desert resort -- not the kind of place we'd necessarily have chosen for ourselves (about $105 a night with breakfast and dinner) but pretty cool nonetheless.

It was built in kasbah style right on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes, and our room was right out of Arabian Nights -- with a sweeping blue canopy over the beds, faux-adobe walls, a tombstone-shaped window and brightly colored duvets. In a nod to our location, the sink basin was a limestone slab with fossils embedded in it. The rooms were arranged around an open courtyard that included a nice covered patio.

Dinner, which started around 7:30 or 8:00, was a lavish buffet affair. There was a whole table of hot dishes like tajine (a meat/vegetable stew that's a staple of the Moroccan diet), chicken, beef, spicy meatballs and various root vegetables. The other table had fabulous-looking salads and raw vegetables, which we both really wanted but reluctantly decided to skip. (To avoid the infamous traveler's tummy, we generally only ate cooked foods or fruits that we could peel -- and though I hated feeling like every meal was a ticking time bomb, we actually went the whole week without getting sick at all!)

The next morning we got up bright and very early to catch sunrise over the dunes. We crept gingerly past the area where all the camels were tied, fully expecting to be accosted and roped into a camel tour. But no one was stirring, so we gratefully headed up to one of the lower dunes not far from the hotel. It was about then that the sun crested over the high dunes in front of us; several groups of tourists had clearly arisen earlier than we did and were standing atop the highest dunes, forming black silhouettes against the sunlight.

We didn't have time to get all the way up there, but we did make it to the top of another, fairly tall dune and just hung out for a while, enjoying the breeze and the incredible view. The dunes were worn so smooth by the wind in many places that they reminded me of the curves of a woman's body. In other places they were furrowed or folded, the low angle of light creating long shadows. The colors were amazing too, ranging from tawny to orange-rose. Breathtaking.

We had to meet Youssef at 9 a.m., so we headed back to the hotel for breakfast around 7:30 or so. It was another buffet, and on the menu this time were carbs, carbs and more carbs: various types of bread and sweets, oranges, bananas, etc. There were also some meat, cheese and hardboiled eggs.

We checked out and headed off with Youssef, who drove us through his hometown of Merzouga, a small, somewhat rundown-looking village that apparently was flooded (!) about a year or two ago -- you could see water marks about 6 - 12 inches up the sides of the houses. There was a friendly feeling as we drove through the town, with Youssef greeting many locals through his rolled-down window and children waving to us from the side of the road. It's obviously a pretty poor town, though, and much of its livelihood seems to revolve around the tourists that come here to see the dunes. A little outside of town we saw folks riding on donkeys with big jugs; they were going to fill up on water from the local wells.

The best part of the day (for me) was our first stop at the village of Khamlia, where we were welcomed into a small home and given a private musical performance by a group of six men from Mali. They were dressed all in white and played drums, castanets and a squarish guitar-looking instrument. Their singing was the kind of repetitive chanting that's almost hypnotizing. We were front and center, sitting on mats on the floor and sipping the delicious, sweet mint tea that's a staple in Morocco. The men did some formal choreographed dancing (moving up and back, turning, bending, all while clicking the castanets and singing) and then came forward during the final song and offered their hands to me and SO. We were both a little self-conscious, but it was a real thrill to get to dance with them a little. Afterward we bought a CD/DVD of their music, which pretty much covered the price of admission. It was definitely worth it -- even though I know it's show staged for tourists, I felt like I got at least a little insight to some local life; plus, we got a private concert!

After that we drove over to a mineral quarry where SO got to look for more rocks. The quarry had a huge fault line cutting through the hill that had been pretty much mined dry by the locals, and then left as a deep gash in the earth -- another liability nightmare!

On our way out of the quarry, surprise! Youssef had a "friend" giving away minerals and serving mint tea (for a small tip, of course). We had absolutely no change in dirhams, so we ended up giving him a couple of American dollars. He seemed pleased to see us and eager to share a quick up of tea with us and our driver -- and SO got a few good samples of lead/galena out of the deal.

The off-roading started up again on the other side of the dunes, and I got a little white-knuckled. The scenery was cool -- reddish dunes on the left, distant purple mountains on the right, with camels and nomadic tents in between -- so I tried to focus on that rather than the up/down/up/down. At one point I got a little relief when our Toyota stalled out at the top of a big dune. Oops! The right rear wheel was entirely off the ground, and the front wheels mired in the sand. It took some pushing on our part and some digging on Youssef's before we got going again. We were delayed no longer than 10 minutes or so, but Youssef seemed quite apologetic, and ended up giving us a slightly longer tour that day to make up for it.

Our next stop was Lake Yasmina, a shallow basin of water right at the base of the dunes. Apparently this is a seasonal lake that only appears in the spring. The dunes were reflected in the water, and birds chirped and circled the area above our heads. Youssef wrote our names in Arabic on the sand and then drew an arrow under them to signify reproduction. Under the arrow was the number 8. When I expressed alarm at the very thought of having eight children, he added a 1 to make 18 -- even worse!

Once we'd snapped a picture of this prolific horoscope, we drove onward to another fossil quarry, much to SO's delight. We had about 45 minutes here, and SO was thrilled to be able to break out his rock hammer and pound away.

Ten tons of rock later, we were off to Erfoud, our last stop. We ate lunch at the Hotel Xaluca, another resort-y place that's actually owned by the same folks as the Tombouctou one we'd stayed at the night before. We ate on the pool deck (!); I had an omelet with cheese (snooze), while SO had kalia, a local tajine with some sort of meat, onions, tomatoes, egg and various spices. I couldn't resist trying his, and it was awesome! Those dishes plus a big bottle of water only came to about $11, which impressed me because this was clearly a pretty high-end resort for Morocco. (There's something obscene about a swimming pool in the middle of the desert.)

We had wanted to take a bus from Erfoud back to Errachidia, but the buses were on strike so we ended up in a grand taxi instead. It was about $25 for an hour-long ride -- kind of pricey for here, but there was high demand with the buses on strike so we didn't have much choice. The ride back was pretty; we passed through the Ziz Valley, blanketed with palms, and could see mountains in the distance. As we drove we passed quite a few games of pickup soccer in makeshift fields along the road, as well as women washing clothes in rivers, and men tending their goats on the barren hillsides.

The taxi dropped us off back at the Kenzi Rissani, where we grabbed a quick dinner and then went to bed early in preparation for our flight back to Casablanca and our onward journey to Fes. But that's another trip report...so stay tuned for part two!

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