Sunday, June 06, 2010

South of Fes - Not much to do and too hot to do it!

We have not seen many computers and there has been no wifi for the last few days, and we have not searched it out either, so it is a multi day post. Check back later for pictures...  

June 2nd, 

The day we left Fes was another expensive day, much of which we will see later on the Visa bill which is the first time we could use it at all. We won't likely ever come back and so bought some things for ourselves and gifts for others while here in Fes, mostly leather goods. Except for Marrakesh we won't get near the selection or price range of crafts items we like. We will have a rental car for the next week or so, but we don't want to carry souvenirs around with us for the later part of the trip either, so we decided to send some stuff back by mail, and toss in a couple of extraneous clothing articles. Our hard bargaining (“for you, best price, $450 dirham!”, “Are you crazy? Best price, $150 dirham!”…and finally settling on 250), turned out to cost quite a bit more as the box we packaged up at the Post Office to be sent to Canada cost around 650 to ship, or around $80!

I hope we like the stuff when we get home, and I hope the giftees are happy!

After the Post Office we trucked back uphill to the Pension one last time, paid Zak our 600 dirham (2 nights, with breakfast) and headed out of the Medina to grab a taxi to the Ville Nouvelle and our car rental pickup. We did advance our pickup and rental term for one day, to give us more freedom to move around. The rental is going to set us back over $500 for the 8 days, but we did take out all the insurance we could too. As expected, we had to wait while they did all the particulars but we at least got a car, as another guy arrived from the UK (with an Egyptian sounding name like Anwar) appeared to have been scammed by the online booking agency he had used. They had no record of his reservation, though he had been charged at least a deposit in Euros. We had looked at various rental sites, but I had settled on working through a recognized agency, National, and a Canadian based site. Whew!!

I do say “whew” deliberately though. I had ordered an air conditioned car, but that is not what I got. It has some other mod cons, but the air would have been nice. A Dacia Logan 1.4 sedan, apparently a Peugeot made in Romania. With luck we will get some kind of rebate at Marrakesh when we turn it in, but I'm not counting on it.  A rebate in sweat.

Driving here is not that challenging so far. There are not always quite enough signs in English (or French for that matter), but they are frequent enough that we did not go very far astray today.

The drivers themselves are usually not that fast or aggressive, but it does help to be assertive at least. There are random numbers of cars per lane at times, tailgating is normal and passing is frequent on the highways we have been on so far but we are going to keep to the speed limit as much as possible, as I hear the fines for foreigners can be steep. The hills are also sometimes steep too, and the roads narrow, so that means hanging out behind trucks sometimes but that's alright. We are not in a hurry and when we have asked for directions it has usually been easy to find someone to help willingly.

We are now in Azrou, speaking of hills. The road to here, 100 km or so Southwest of Fes, took us through the beginning of the Middle Atlas mountain range, and up to about 1600 meters elevation. That helped bring the temperature down a bit and also increased the shade options as it is significantly more wooded, and allowed us the opportunity to take some back roads around some lakes and through forests and quiet farmland. Some of those detour routes we were on for about 60km on our map are listed as not Tertiary, not Quaternary, but “other”. They were paved at least but narrow and broken up at times, and with almost no other cars.

After our detour we stopped for lunch in Ifrane, an odd little French Alps type resort. Well maybe not that odd, as they do get snow and the town was built by the French in the 1920’s as a getaway from the hot busy cities below. It is well manicured and on the border of a National Park, the site of a University and near 2 ski slopes.

Tonight in Azrou, we are at the Hotel des Cèdres. Funny that, I just realized that the lunch place back in Ifrane was called Café des Cèdres. Lots of cedar trees around too coincidentally.

The hotel is the cheapest we have stayed at so far and pretty basic but all we need. We could have gone as cheap as 60 dirham across the street at the Hotel Baloney (actual name Hotel Salame), but are not that desperate so are paying 159 dirham here. The room is pretty basic, but has a bathroom with shower and not all of them do. It also has one of the fanciest restaurants we have seen yet, white table clothes and vested waiter included. While it still seems to serve the same food as everywhere else at about the same prices at least they have some delusions of grandeur.

It is noisy here though as we appear to be on a major route through town and the trucks and other vehicles  labour up this hill, plus there are a number of other open air coffee shops below in the plaza, and we even had street cleaning machines early this morning!

We bought some bon-bons for the kids that sometimes will ask, but of course after we did that we did not have any more ask. We also did our good deed for the day, and helped an old man in Berber dress with 2 canes trying to climb the tall curb with no success, while several young locals looked on. He practically flooded us with thanks.

I think this sign means that Goats, Chickens and Cows are required to turn right in 30 meters. You can call the phone # provided if you don't believe me.   

There is a great bouldering opportunity here right at the edge of town below the main mosque, a big jumble of rock that the town is named after (Azrou means Great Rock), and other than that it is a pretty sleepy town, and we will be moving on after breakfast.

June 3rd, 

I also experienced a bit of the Moroccan medical system today, and it went off quite well. I've been prone to ear canal blockage the last few years and started to get another bout of it in my right ear just after arriving in Morocco. As it appeared to be getting worse I looked for a doctor, clinic or hospital and eventually found the later here to see if I could get flushed out, a simple procedure. The staff at the small hospital in Azrou was very accommodating and I was out in an hour after waiting for several other outpatient types, including a little girl who offered me some of her yogurt drink. Not flushed out, as the doctor thought I should use some drops for a few days first than have it washed out, a few towns down the road. I also think he lacked the little squirt gun thing that every facility in Canada probably has for this task. With Linda’s medical connections in Vancouver, we could probably send him a case of them. 
I was examined and prescribed at no charge whatsoever. It was an easy task admittedly, but he alluded to some common ground in language and seemed quite happy to help someone from Canada. We chatted a bit about Quebec and the French Connection (not the Gene Hackman movie) with Morocco. After I left the drops cost 29 dirham or about $3 at the pharmacy across the street. Cheap, cheap.

On the road again, we ascended through lush green forests, which eventually thinned out and became a high plateau with mixed trees and grassland, sub alpine meadows with purple lupines and red wild poppies. The elevation maxed out around 2100 meters which, being a sea level guy most of the time, I noticed when I went for a bit of a scramble up a slope to get some views of the terrain. It was a very pleasant drive and a comfortable temperature due to the elevation and the slightly overcast conditions. Traffic? What traffic?

Now in Midelt, about 250km from Fes and about the same from Khamlia where we will be going tomorrow and doing that camel thing, we have a delightful little hotel almost to ourselves (only 4 other guests). The gentle old man who runs it is from Morocco but lived and worked in France for much of his life and with his small pension and savings bought the land and built this place, the Hotel Massira. Lonely Planet describes it as a “great new place” but they must mean by Moroccan standards, as he built it from 1973 to 1979 when he opened for business. It is decorated in Moroccan tacky, but is very homey. Last year when the King came to town the place was the fullest ever with 57 total, though not the royal entourage but police and paparazzi in residence.   

When we arrived he made us Moroccan Whiskey (tea) but as he had no fresh mint left he kept  apologizing for it being too strong of regular tea leaves, as he sat with us a and chatted for an hour. Linda of course loved it, though our proprietor said he would get mint later.

After that, I had my first opportunity to run off a faux guide. As we had driven through town we stopped to ask a traffic cop how to find this hotel and a young guy appeared from nowhere, saying he worked for the hotel and that he could show us the way, so jumped in and directed us here. Though he was not overly pushy otherwise and did make some reasonable conversation, he would not leave the premises despite the hotel owner telling him we did not need his services, and telling us that he had no connection with the hotel. We had offered him a few dirham for showing us there but again he insisted he worked there, but what he really wanted was to take us on some tour of “his shop” to buy more stuff we did not need. I had to get pretty pushy to make him get lost, telling him we knew he was a liar, so it is probably a good thing that our rental car is in a locked garage tonight.   

We skipped lunch today, aside from a few dates, which is probably a good thing. Everything has been really tasty, but one can only eat so many lamb brochettes, olives, bread, tajines, and all the rest of it. We will have a bit of a walk to find supper tonight but we expect it to be cheap and we expect a great breakfast here tomorrow. Oh yeah the price for brekkie here is 20 dirham each. The room is 120 dirham with private bath, so is the cheapest and cheeriest yet at about $15 Canadian. We could have a room with a shared squat bathroom for less…nahhh!

In Midelt we allowed ourselves to be sucked into a carpet shop. The owner was probably right about his prices being better than that of Fes or Marrakesh for his selection of Berber rugs. They were beautiful, but we told him right up front we were not buying and did not succumb. At the outset we had promised ourselves “no rugs” as they were heavy and hard to carry home. The prices did not seem unreasonable either, starting as low as 100 dirham, even without dickering. Materials were largely sheep wool, camel hair, and Moroccan silk which is not from worms but from cactus plants.   

One we got free from his clutches, we found our restaurant, in which we were the only clients. We were served by 2 women, one of whom I think said she was Jewish (my French, and sometimes theirs, fails us at times). The food was again delicious and one of the best meals so far. Tajine of the Day was with beef, and we had a delicious salad platter, which was actually made up of at least 6 different varieties of cool vegetable dishes. Beets, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber were just some of the cold offerings, with a small dish of orange and shredded carrot, and another of sweetened cucumber as a sort of chutney on the side. 

Tajine refers to not only the distinctive clay cooking vessel with the odd shaped lid, but in fact to the style of food and preparation. Traditionally the food would be cooked in the vessel over a wood or charcoal fire, but now much of the time a pressure cooker or gas stove is used. Serving it in a Tajine pot is sometimes the main common denominator, other than the flavouring determined by the most common used spices (as far as we can determine) of cumin, saffron, perhaps cinnamon, and some others we have not quite figured out. The dish can be quite complex, with lemons olives and large varieties of vegetables and can have meat or not, or can be all meat with eggs on top. The Restaurant de Fes in Midelt served a delicious one, and we heard the pressure cooker steaming away in the kitchen. They did not even bother with the affectation of the special pot, but just served a huge array of separate stacks of vegetables (10 or 12 types we think) around the meat, on a plate. Yummy…    
June 4th, 

Linda drove the next morning from Midelt to Errachidda. It was up and down a fair bit until there, through narrow winding passes and gorges, with the Ziz river below us much of the time. The greenery along was in stark contast to the largely reddish earth and rocky cliffs above. We passed but did not stop at a number of sleepy towns, including that of Rich. It did not appear to be any richer than anywhere else.  

Once at Errachiddia, a richer looking garrison and mining town, we filled up, switched drivers and headed due south towards Merzouga. From before Midelt until here we have had views of the High Atlas in the distance, including patches of snow. No snow down there though, as we have been pushing 40 degrees all day, and in Erfoud, the last major town before Merzouga we saw a thermometer outside a bank that read 46! My watch maxed out at 42, obviously cooled by my body core temperature. Uh-huh.

The guys at a café we stopped at to get a drink said it should be about 50 to 55 by July and August, which we considered to some consolation at least.

Some distance before Merzouga we crested a rise and off in the distance we caught our first glimpses of the orangey sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Even from a distance we could tell they were tall, and it was quite some time before we really approached them. The road does not pass them by very closely, and is perhaps 3 km distance away. Of course sand dunes don't stay still and there is some drifting sand, and signs warning of it, right up to the road in places. There is a lattice of numerous rustic fences, looking a bit like animal pens, which appear to have been built to help minimize the drifting of the sand over the road, but it still has the appearance of oddly coloured snow banks for some sections of the road. 

We drove into Merzouga, got harassed by a faux guide, and drove out. When someone tells you that there is no such place as the one you have booked you know that he has not your best interest at heart. It looks like a shithole little town anyway.

7 km further south we turned off at the appropriate spot in the tiny village of Khamlia. 43 families live here, and there is one place to stay, and it has just 2 bedrooms. Dar El Khamlia is essentially a home stay type of place in the form of a low rammed earth or cob construction (mud and straw) home. The place is about as relaxing as they come which is good as we have no energy to do much in this heat. It comes with 3 adorable kids, in the form of the nieces and nephew of the 2 brothers that own and run the place. Mum hangs around too, dressed in Berber black but she stays out of the picture mostly, leaving the work to the boys.

The kids actually live in the brother's house a few meters away, and one of them, 3 year old Fatima is already in a love at first sight relationship with Linda. The 7 year old girl, Ikram, is terribly cute too and her older brother Eunice (age 10) constantly tries to impress me with his bike tricks, on the brakeless beater he rides everywhere. We took a while to figure out the older kids names but they don’t speak French (or English) very well and the names seemed at first unpronounceable to us and therefore unspellable.

Despite the heat there are ways to keep cool (ish). Drinking lots of water of course is one of them, and I think I have consumed about 2 litres already today and there is lots of day left, and Linda who claims to never want water has been doing the same. We use a wet towel once in a while to wipe faces and necks, search out breezes and shade, and have spent time in front of a fan. This type of building construction does a great job of insulating but also of holding heat, so our bedroom dropped only to the low 30s last night even with the fan on.

We also decided to stay here only 2 nights, instead of the 3 we originally intended. It's just too darn hot.  

June 5th,

This morning we traveled back to Merzouga and turned off on a piste to go find a nearby lake to check out the water fowl. In the vernacular of Morocco “piste” stands for any route that is not paved, so it could be a great dirt road that regular cars have no trouble with, or it could be single track and so rugged a hard core mountain biker or rugged old local mountain man would think twice about. This particular one was more like the former though washboarded and only about 2 or 3 km long and across virtually flat hard packed dirt. 

The lake is probably much smaller than it once was, as evidenced by the spongy reeds embedded in the shorelines. Morocco suffers from Global Warming as much as anywhere else and desertification is ongoing here. The lake does still stretch a kilometer or more long and maybe half as wide I would guess, though on maps it appears much larger, maybe a seasonal thing. Unfortunately most of the birds on the lake where well off shore or on the far side, but appeared to be snow geese or something similar. There were other duck like birds bobbing about, and way off on the other side I think I saw pink flashes as some large birds strafed the geese before landing. I can't be completely certain they were flamingoes but I believe they were, as they are known to appear here. 
After bird watching and camel watching (there were about 20 nearby) we got back on the road and drove to the end of it. The village of Tadouz literally is the end of the road, without anything after it but Algeria.  After pointing in all the directions we could travel to collect minerals, dinosaur teeth or other fossils,  another guide offered to take us sur piste about 250 km all the way to Zagora. We agreed we would go with him next time we are visiting the end of the road in Morocco.

Yesterday and today we have skipped lunch altogether, other than a date or a few peanuts. With the size of the breakfasts everyone gives us and the suppers late at night we don't or can't eat much anyway. Water out of the tap here is hot, and gets hotter, so for drinking is kind of like tea without the leaves. As I mentioned earlier during the preparation for this trip, we are trying to reduce the waste we create by trying not to always buy bottled water. It's unavoidable in the heat though we are trying to minimize it. 

I think, but am not sure, the water here is chlorinated but it is not as obviously so as Casa, so I have been using the Steripen the last several days to treat a few litres at a time and refill the bottles we have, just in case. We also have a nearly full 4 litre MSR dromedary pack in the trunk of the car, but if the water from the taps and in our bottles inside the house is hot, the water in the car must be steam.

In a short time we are going on our camel trek, late in the afternoon. I'm not sure how far or how long we will be on the beasts, but I expect it is to a prearranged tent site and the dunes being so close I expect an hour or 2 at most if we don't fall off from heat prostration.

A night in the desert here should be quiet and give us some great views, and may be a touristy thing to do but what the heck. We are tourists.   

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