Chefchaouen

After a few days of meandering through Morocco, we arrived to a small town of Chefchaouen, tucked away up in a Rif Mountains, not too far from Tangier. I think Chefchaouen is one of my favorite places in Morocco. Between its striking blue medina, laid-back attitude of the locals and gorgeous backdrop of the surrounding mountains it’s very hard not to fall in love. I wish we had a little bit more time, but I felt like everyone was getting tired of Morocco and especially endless tajines, so we made plans to fly out to Thailand.

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On our last morning, I got up a little bit earlier and went out to explore Chefchauen on my own. It was early, so the streets were pretty empty, except for a few little children being taken to school by their mothers and some shopkeepers setting up their shops. And, of course, several groups of ubiquitous Chinese tourists with their giant cameras and rooster-like clothing.

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I walked up and down the streets, taking pictures, enjoying a perfect morning in a perfect little town. Every street, every corner was absolutely picture perfect and I shot hundreds of photos and had a hardest time picking my favorites.

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Main Gate into Medina

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Later I found out that the reason behind Chefchaouen’s blue buildings. According to Lonely Planet, there is a religious reason behind it: Jewish teachings suggest that by dyeing thread with tekhelel (an ancient natural dye) and weaving it into prayer shawls, people would be reminded of God’s power. The memory of this tradition lives on in the regularly repainted blue buildings.

And the cats, of course…

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Stars, Manuscripts and Green Pottery

Exhausted after our Sahara adventures, but utterly satisfied and happy, we left our Caravan-de-Rev crew and drove to meet our long missed ‘little Mr. Sunshine’ Mohammed in M’Hamid to head to our next destination. On the way we hit a bit of a sandstorm, which was kind of cool.

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We stopped at the riad called Sahara Sky, not too far from Tamegrout. Tamegrout is a village not too far from M’Hamid, in the valley of the Draa River. It has a history as an important center of learning and religion through its famous Sufi zawiya, historical center of the Nasiriyya Sufi order, one of the most influential – and at one time one of the largest – Sufi orders. Tamegroute library still contains many ancient manuscripts, some as old as 1063, with most being written between 11-15th century. There is a 14th-century Quran with beautiful calligraphy in Kufic script, writings of Avicenna (Ibn Sina), a translation of Pythagoras, treatises on theology, astronomy, geography and pharmacology. All books are handwritten and some are written on skins of gazelle. The library comes with an ancient man in a wheelchair, who speaks just enough English to explain you what books are all about, that’s about it. It’s such an amazing treasure for such tiny little town in the middle of nowhere… Now they have built a koranic school, adjoined to the library, where kids spent many years studying koran and becoming religious scholars.

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Even a menu in a local restaurant is written on a gazelle skin

Tamegrout is also famous for the type of pottery, particularly its greed glaze, which has infinite variations, thanks to the ancient techniques. The founders of the religious brotherhood Nasiriyya wanted to raise the status of the village of Tamegroute to that of a ‘Medina’, or a city. They assembled the merchants and craftsmen that they had brought from Fes. But even though Tamegrout is a small village again, there are still a lot of potters whose families has been doing pottery for many generations and it’s exported all over Morocco and the world.

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Glazed, ready to be fired

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Finished product

But the main reason we stayed in that particular hotel, is because of the stars. The hotel is built by a quirky German dude, who used to be an entrepreneur in the US and then advised king of Morocco on economic and business development, and now retired. He told us that he was always interested in astronomy and decided to build his own observatory as a hobby. And since he is a born entrepreneur, he also built a riad, so he can share his passion with others. The riad is literally in the middle on nowhere, in order to avoid light pollution. He has few serious telescopes and a professional astrologer on staff to educate those like us, who have never seen a telescope up close before (OK, we did. Once).

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We were worried about not being able to see anything, because the sky was clouded for an entire week which is very unusual for October in this area. Plus the moon was almost full and bright, so if we wanted to see anything, we had to catch it before the moonrise. So, right after dinner we went upstairs to the roof, where the astronomer, who is originally from Belgium, showed us some pretty cool things. We got to see Andromeda, the galaxy closest to ours, couple of nebulas — ring and dumbbell — and Mars, which was pretty far and it appeared as a tiny orange dot. But the coolest thing was the moon. By that time the clouds started to move in and hang pretty low, but there was a small gap between the clouds and the horizon. We could see the moon in that gap, and it was so amazingly clear and beautiful, you could see every crater, every line. And partially hidden by the clouds it even looked even more intriguing and demure. As it was rising it was moving so fast, you could literally see it rolling higher and higher behind the clouds with the speed of a mad roadster. It was magical.

In the morning we got to see the sun through the telescope too, which was pretty cool. Having a professional astronomer was an icing on a cake – it’s always so much fun to talk to someone who is so passionate about their job.

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Dreaming of Sahara…

We are heading to the Sahara Desert today. What a dream…

This morning we headed down to a small town of M’Hamid. M’Hamid is about 1.5 hours from Zagora, but the road is one lane only. Not one lane each way, but one lane literally. Every time a car moving towards us gets close enough, both cars have to go off-road on one side in order for them to pass. Thankfully, most drivers are courteous enough and everybody waves and thanks each other. We were stopped for about 10 minutes before M’Hamid to do a passport control check, apparently it’s a very common thing and they check everyone who comes there, probably because of the past conflict with Angola. We stopped for lunch at the Chez Pasha Kasbah and our driver Mohammed called Ali, our guide for the desert part of the trip. Ali is also the owner of the company Caravan de Reve. He is quite a character with his fedora, dreadlocks and berber blue muslim dress, like some confused berber Rastafarian.

At 4:30, we drove to M’Hamid El Ghizlane, which means “plain of gazelles.” It’s a small oasis town  with about 7500 inhabitants, consisting of a bunch of dusty desert outfitters and tour companies. There are no hotels, restaurants or shops. Most people come, hop into a 4 wheel drive and head off to the dunes.

Well that’s exactly what we did. We piled our gear into Ali’s 4X4, leaving most of our luggage behind with Mohammed and took off. Our first night was at the Erg l’Houdi dunes. The drive to the camp is only 30 minutes, two hours if you go by camel. When I think of desert, or Sahara in particular, I think of sand dunes, of course, but in reality, sand dunes are only a part of it. As per Wikipedia: Regions of sand dunes (erg) occupy only about 15% of the Sahara; “stone deserts,” consisting of plateaus of denuded rock (hammada) or areas of coarse gravel (reg), cover about 70% of the region; mountains, oases, and transition zones account for the remainder. So, most of our drive was through dry flat hammada (the rocks), with an occasional patch of sand or a tree on the way. We were surprised by the abundance of the vegetation in the desert: trees, bushes, cacti, birds. Apparently there are a lot of animals too, but we didn’t see any. The drive was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride, with may bumps on the way, but driving through sand patches was particularly fun! It feels like driving through thick molasses, soft, sticky and somewhat slippery. The driver decided that we enjoyed the thrills and did a few special sand swerves for our entertainment.

 

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We drove by our camels, which were walking all the way there, with the guide. Those guys get a lot of exercise going back and forth. When we got to the camp, we were welcomed again with the mint tea so strong, we thought it would keep us up for at least a camel ride. But we didn’t care for the tea, we saw the dunes and immediately went running up and down them. The dunes there are truly glorious, even if not to huge. Perfect curves and geometric lines, ripples, occasional dry patch of grass, picture perfect, just as expected. But compared to the rest of the desert, the dunes looked like a tiny patch of sand that spilled out of toddler’s pocket.

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Kids of course saw the sandboards and wanted to go riding. They first found a tiny little slope, where they practiced, but then have gotten brave and went all the way up the big dunes. Sandboarding is somewhat like snowboarding, but very different. The idea is the same – you are strapped to the board, you go down the hill, that’s about it. In reality, sandboarding is very different. First, there is not enough friction on the sand, so the slope has to be pretty steep, otherwise the board gets stuck. Second, the board moves pretty slow, so there is no such thing as carving or having to be on the edge, you just go down the hill. The worst part is that for every 5 seconds of riding down, you have to spend 30 minutes climbing the dune, which is not and easy task. But kids didn’t care. They climbed up and down about 300 hundred times and were ready for more, but our camels have finally made it there and we were ready for the sunset ride.

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We’ve done some camel riding in India before, so it wasn’t as new, but kids had never done it, and they were very excited. Getting on a camel and getting off is probably the worst part of the trip. Camel has to sit down for you to mount it, and then it first straightens its front legs, and you feel like you are about to topple over backward, then the back legs, when you are absolutely sure you will eat it head first, and then the first steps feel like you are going to topple off it any second. But after a few minutes you get a hang of it and fall into some sort of rhythm of gentle swaying with the step. That is until you hit the dunes. You would think that camels and dunes go together like milk and cookies. Well, maybe, but not when you are riding one. When they go up or down the dune, they take really big steps, almost jumps, to make sure they can stay steady and not fall, which is like jumping on a trampoline on a 4X4, scary as hell. I thought that I was going to rip that tiny little handle off in a first dune. So we kindly asked our cameleer not to do any extreme cameling, and stay off the steep dunes. Camel guide does not ride the camel, he walks the entire time. Even when he brings camels to the camp. Berbers don’t usually ride camels, they use them to carry goods and gear.

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My camel comes with a bottle holder…

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I would like to say that I really enjoyed the camel ride, but all I remember is gripping the handle with all my might and trying not to fall off. And sore thighs for the next few days.

After the ride we spent some time settling at the camp. The camp seemed pretty permanent for a movable camp. The beds were real, even though covered with a thin layer of desert sand. But I guess it’s a part of the experience, pretty soon we had sand in every crevice and on every surface, including the camera and all the laptops.

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Moving in…

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After the camel ride we had pretty unmemorable dinner and after everything was cleaned up the guides, cook and Ali all whipped out a couple of jambes and other drums and had a little jamming session, drumming and singing. Kids decided it would be fun to play drums too, so they were goofing around with one extra drum they had, making a lot of noise. We were lucky to not have had too many people, the only other campers were the two Swiss brothers, who came to Morocco for a quick vacation and drove 900 miles around the country.

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The sky was quite cloudy so we didn’t see any stars. Unfortunately. But the sunrise the next morning was quite spectacular. I went to see the sunrise twice. Once at 5AM, when it appeared to me that the sun was rising. I went out and sat on a dune for a while. And then, after it not getting any brighter, I had enough smarts to check what time the sunrise really is. It was at 6:45AM, so I went to bed, hoping I would oversleep, but no, I was up bright and early ready for sunset at 6:30.

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After breakfast we did more sandboarding and then got in the car to go to the mighty Erg Chigaga Dunes. Erg Chigaga (or Chegaga) is one of two major dunes of the Sahara in Morocco, the other being the Erg Chebbi of Merzouga. Erg Chigaga is approximately 40 km to 15 km wide, with some dunes around a 360 m tall (170 m more than Erg Chebbi) and because it is relatively difficulty of access – it is only accessible by 4×4, camel or on foot – Erg Chigaga remains relatively untouched. And magnificent, of course.

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Still functioning well on the way to Erg Chigaga

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Being untouched, there are no camps in the Erg Chigaga dunes themselves. Most of the camps are in the driving distance. Short driving distance, but still. So the kids couldn’t just jump out of the car and run up and down the dunes, the whole experience was a lot more subdued. The camp was a lot bigger and much more crowded. The sense of being alone at the end of the world was lost, as well as the sense of camaraderie that seems to appear in small, intimate groups of travelers.

At one point we went out and followed Ali all the way up to the highest dune. I think he said it was over 350m. It was quite a journey, but we all made it! The wind up on the top was abominable and I after having my hat get blown off and having to tie it to my head with a scarf, the whole bedouin get up started to make a total sense.

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Telouet to Skoura

In the morning we woke up to a delicious smell of the freshly backed bread. The El Quazemy women get up at 5:30 in the morning to bake bread for the guests and make sure that the breakfast is ready. We didn’t get up till 9AM and moseyed over downstair for breakfast, which was a typical Moroccan fare: bread with a couple of different jams, mint tea, kids had some yogurt and cheese. The man who came up to the house with our donkey and Ahmed all sat down and ate breakfast with us. Women didn’t join us, we were told they are in the kitchen, working. Berber women generally tend to be shy and not horribly sociable.
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It rained last night and the sky was still covered with the clouds. It was cold and windy, but the view was just as beautiful in the morning, as it was the night before. We were worried about the river getting too high, so we took off as soon as we were done with breakfast.

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Our ride is ready

We packed and were ready for our mule ride down. We thought that we were going to have a cart, but instead we had a donkey fixed with two sidebag for our luggage. Kids wanted to ride him, so the mule man heaved them on top of it, they didn’t even have a chance to vote on it. Moroccans are like that – they just assume that kids want to do something and they just get them to do it. Whether is riding donkeys, holding snakes, petting rabbits or trying clothes on. And sometimes it’s fun, but sometimes it’s very annoying. On the way down we met Andy, who was coming back from his morning walk/run after looking at the source of the water which his charity was going to help fix. They were staying in Kasbah Oliver, which is run by Caroline and her husband Mohammed and is named after their 6 year old son.

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We walked down for about 15 minutes, the wind ripping our hats off and an occasional sprinkle coming down. I wouldn’t say it was a pleasant walk, even with all the gorgeous mountain scenery around, and kids were cold, so they were happy when our driver, Mohammed, showed up about 15 minutes down the road, ready to load up and take us all the way down in our nice, warm car.

After another near-death, hair-raising mountain road nightmare, we finally made it to Animetr and I don’t think I was ever more excited to see a dusty little town anywhere else on Earth. The road from Animetr to Ait Benhaddou is absolutely gorgeous. It goes on the side of the Ourika Valley, the little red casbahs hanging of the cliff, lush green valley on the bottom. The red walls contrasting against green grass carpet collapse against each other not in unappealing way. Sometimes the valley looks like a giant crack in the ground, green life-giving vein in an otherwise dead dry stony mountains.

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It took us over an hour to drive to Ain Benhaddou. When we made it there, we were starving, so we decided to have lunch first. Ait Benhaddou is somewhat of a tourist trap, many people want to see it because of all the movies being made there. Gladiator, Babel, Lawrence Of Arabia, Sodom And Gomorrah, Jesus of Nazareth, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Sheltering Sky, Kundun, The Mummy, Kingdom of Heaven and also some parts of Game of Thrones, just to name a few. Ait Benhaddou Kasbah is a fortified city, or ksar. It is made up of six Kasbahs and nearly fifty ksars which are individual Kasbahs. Even though most people moved across the river to the modern accommodations, there are still few families still living within the walls of the ancient city. The river separating it from the civilization floods every year, so the citizens were cut off from the world for weeks at a time until the small pedestrian bridge was built few years ago. All the dwellings are made out of red clay, dirt and straw, in a traditional Moroccan architectural style.

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The photo of the site where Gladiator was filmed

 

 

 

Quarzazate has couple of big movie studios and it is only about 50 minutes away. The restaurant we went to obviously set up for large groups of tourists, but our meal came out fast and it was pretty decent. There were several busses parked on the street and several different tour groups were wandering in and out of the restaurant.

But even without all the movies it’s still quite charming. It’s built in traditional berber style of mud and straw and even though most citizens now live in more modern dwellings in a nearby village, 4 families are still living in the ancient city, still doing the same things they were doing hundreds years ago. Of course a lot of shops selling various sentiments of berber life, such as berber locks, weapons, jewelry and clothes. Scarfs are very popular and a lot of tourists leave the town with a newly purchased scarf. They built a new bridge across the river 5 years ago and apparently before the bridge, people used to cross the river using the donkey. And when the river flooded, then there was that, you had to wait till the end of a flood to get to the other side.

We hired a guide, who claimed to speak English, but that was a very optimistic of him to claim that. We could have easily have done it without guide – it’s pretty hard to get lost there, but we figured the guy can use some money. We are awful tourists – we don’t buy anything except for lodging and food, so we are not really helping local economies like most tourists do. We went through the ksar, climbed all the way to the top to see the agadir, the fortified agricultural building.

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View of Ait Benhaddou from the outside 

From there we headed to Skoura. We passed Quarzazate on the way, but didn’t stop because Bobby wasn’t feeling well and we decided to do all the excursions next time on the way to Zagora. Skoura historically has been a place, where all the dessert traders brought their goods after grueling two month journey through the Sahara. Skoura’s palm groves are protected by the UNESCO and it also called “Oasis of 1000 palms”. The watering system “khettara,” which is a 15 mile long network of canals, has been in place for hundreds of years and it’s still working just fine. The palms are very important part of the oasis, providing dates, shade and fronds to be used as a roofing materials. We didn’t stop at the small town of Skoura and headed directly to our next place of stay, Sawadi, a 9 hectare organic farm in the palmeraie. Described as “an oasis within an oasis.”

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Sawadi is my dream come true – a peaceful organic garden/orchard/farm, full of fruit and olive trees, vegetable patches throughout, chicken, sheep, donkey, rabbits, pigeons, turkey and a couple of pheasants, all working together as one cycle of nature. They are growing alfalfa to feed the animals and fertilize the fields with the compost made from their poop. Most of the food served in the restaurant is fresh from the garden. Kadir, the manager, took us around the property, helped us pick the right  pomegranates, pears and apples from the tree, perfectly ripe and so sweet, you would think they are injected with an extra dose of sugar, introduced us to donkey, baby lambs, chicken and rabbits. All the bungalows built in the traditional berber style of mud and straw.

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Apparently October is not the best month to come visit. The winds are very high and it’s not awfully warm. It’s a lot less cold than in the mountains, but the winds are very strong.

Kids of course found all the toys they had on the property – children playhouse, swings, batchi ball, shuffleboard, board games and even Moroccan babouches (slippers) and hats they had in the common room. We’ve spent the rest of the day playing Monopoly and reminiscing about all the places we’ve traveled in the last year or two.

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Telouet, Morocco

After the two weeks of Marrakesh fun, we are taking off on our big journey across Morocco. We said long tearful good byes to our sweet Moroccan “family,” Badja and Samad and walked down our last walk through the medina to the taxi stand. It never stops to amaze me how your perception of a place changes just after a few short days. I remember arriving in Marrakesh the first night and seeing nothing but chaos and dust, but now Marrakesh feels so homey and peaceful. We pass by souk owners who say hello not because they want to sell us something, but because they know us by now, the streets look clean and sunlit, even the motorbikes seem mellow and agreeable.

Our driver, Mohammed, a young guy with forever sunny attitude and impeccable professional manners, was waiting for us at the taxi stand. We loaded up and took off to the mountains on Highway 9, towards Quarzazate. The mountains up from Marrakesh to the summit are gorgeous clay red, with specks of trees and bushes and an occasional farm or a nomadic goat herder. I was surprised how green some of the spots were – I always pictured Morocco as a giant desert with nothing but rocks and sand dunes. They have plenty of that too, but there is also no shortage of luscious greenery, orchards, palmearies and plantations. Most of the rains come in the winter and the snow melts, rivers swell up and sometimes get out of control, creating floods and devastation. We drove past several places destroyed by floods, including one as recent as the one this summer. Rains here can be quite severe, especially the torrential rains that come and dump buckets of water in just few minutes, creating violent mountain water run-offs, not unlike the one in the Hollywood studios, except deadly.

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On the way we passed many Berber villages, still built out of mud and rocks, just like in the olden days. One was particularly picturesque, in its own stark, stone-like way.

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After the summit at 2260 meters, the road changes and turns gray and stony through Tizi N’Tichka path. Not too long ago the road was in horrible conditions and it took several hours of heart-stopping driving to get over to the other side, but now government is putting a lot of money in road renovations to improve infrastructure and attract tourism. It is considered a highest major mountain pass of North Africa and November-March it occasionally gets snowed in, but the snow melts quickly.

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Right after Tizi N’Tichka path we took a turn off to the road to Telouet – small dusty village in the Zig river valley. The road to Telouet follows the path of the river, which also sweeps up and destroys everything on its way, including the roads. We’ve spent a couple of hours creeping alongside the river, keeping our fingers crossed that the road ahead is not washed off. That area can get pretty dangerous during the rain and we’ve met a couple in Marrakesh who got stranded few days earlier in a little village in the mountains because of the rain. Thankfully it wasn’t raining that day and they weren’t expecting the rain anytime soon.

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Telouet is located along the former route of the caravans from the Sahara over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech. We stopped at the Telouet Kasbah, a castle for the T’hami El Glaoui or Lord of the Atlas, the Pasha of Marrakech from 1912 to 1956. Kasbah, in a typical Moroccan tradition of building something beautiful and then either destroying it or abandoning it to turn into ruin, is slowly collapsing, but there are few rooms that are still full of old age glory. Thankfully the government is putting an effort into preservation and restoration of old castles and historical buildings, as it attracts tourism and brings in a lot of money.

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After Telouet, the road had gotten a little bit better, but little did we know that the worst part is yet to come. We drove 11 km to Ameter, where we took a turn off to Tighza. Well let me tell you – I probably have a lot more gray hairs after that trip, than even after Stalheimsklevia road in Norway. The road was super steep, unpaved and of course didn’t have any borders whatsoever. We were lucky to have met only 3 or 4 cars on the way and only in the places where we could pass each other, because in most places the road is wide enough to barely squeeze by in one car. What do you do when you meet another car? You just back up for another mile or two until there is enough room to pass. Hopefully you don’t back up off a cliff. When I was making a reservation, the lady asked me if we wanted to take a mule cart, but I figured that I will let the driver decide if he wants to drive up this road or not. On the way back, I’m definitely taking a mule cart for the luggage and walking all the way down!!!

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Tighza is a tiny little village all the way up in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. Literally. It’s at the end of the road, there is nothing past it. But, boy, it’s gorgeous! Beautiful red clay mountains surrounded by lush bright green olive groves and farmlands, red clay kasbahs perched on the cliffs. And giant rocks and quiet…

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We stayed with the family at El Quazemy house. Ahmet, his wife and mother live there, and his brother Mohammed, who is married to Caroline, run Kasbah Oliver next door. At the Ahmet’s house we met a family from the UK: Andy, Jenny and Poppy. Andy runs the Baraka Partnership Charity, which does a lot of good deeds for the village and many other places. We had a long talk about Morocco, charities and travel and general. I have so much admiration and respect for people like that, who just pick up and start doing things to help others: singlehandedly run the entire organization, finding projects he wants to help with, finding volunteers to help with building schools and organizing learning centers, providing medical help and helping with the constructions work.

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Ahmet’s wife and mother cooked a delicious meal of harira (traditional Moroccan soup) and couscous with vegetables and a side of chicken. We had tea and fruit for dessert. Our bedroom was pretty basic and the water wasn’t running that day, but that’s what you would expect in a place like that. We didn’t complain. Well, Bobby did, but he didn’t feel that good that day.

 

Essaouira

Last night we packed up our bathing suits, sunblock and flip-flops to go to the beach in Essaouira. Little did we know that we should have packed warm sweaters, woolen socks and space heaters instead. This is what happens when you don’t do your research before going somewhere and just assume it’s going to be “beach weather,” just because it’s on the coast.

We kept hearing about how peaceful and laid back Essaouira was, so we decided to take a trip to take a break from the chaos of Marrakesh for a couple of days. It’s only two and a half hours from Marrakesh and the multitude of transportation options makes it a pretty easy trip.

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I’m assuming it says ‘Stop’…

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On the way we passed a lot of vineyards and olive orchards, small villages and farm houses. As we were getting closer to the coast, we entered the argan forest. And of course, how can one go to the argan forest and not see the goats, sitting on a tree and stop by the argan oil coop. We made it to Essaouira by lunchtime. The weather was very foggy and damp, and there was a definite chill in the air. Not San Francisco weather just yet, but more of a Santa Barbara on a foggy, cold day.

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Since I didn’t pack any warm clothes, I had to wear my rash guard, because it was the only piece of clothing that had long sleeves. So I just walked around town wearing my rash guard. Just like that, walking around in almost a wetsuit. That’s how I roll… High humidity didn’t make it any more pleasant. The sheets in our riad were so damp that it felt like they weren’t dried properly (they were) and the clothes by the morning time gotten just as damp, so getting dressed was just about as pleasant as taking a bath in a bucket filled with cold slimy frogs. We had long conversations with the riad owners that night and they said that this was a “good weather.” October is a nice month, we were told. The rest of the year the winds blow really hard.

I don’t think we will be moving to Essaouira any time soon.

Cold, dampy weather aside, Essaouira is a charming little town. It has long been popular with hippies, artists, travelers and such.

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Orson Welles filmed his Othello here in 1952 and Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Winston Churchill all came to hang out here at some point. The medina is very old and quite charming, and it’s UNESCO World Heritage site. Fishing is quite big here and well and ‘thuya’ wood-carving. The kitesurfing and windsurfing are also popular (or so we were told).

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And of course, cats are everywhere, looking as photogenic as it gets…

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Argan Oil and Tree Goats

After sunny and chaotic couple of weeks in Marrakesh, we decided to take a road trip to the small coastal town of Essaouira. Of course, no trip to Essaouira is complete without a stop at the argan forest, where the world famous tree goats can be seen sitting on the trees.

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Yes, they are just as adorable and quirky in person as they are on a photo. At the first glance they almost look fake. I suspected that someone maybe have tied them down with a rope to the tree branches. But they seem to be perfectly content to be sitting there, chewing on the thorns. There was a couple of goat herders nearby and they let kids play with the baby goats.

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But the goats are not there to simply entertain tourists, they have work to do. Traditionally, the goats were a part of a production cycle of an argan oil, world’s most valuable edible oil, according to some sources. Argan fruits were eaten by the goats and then pooped out to be cracked open and the oil sqeezed out of the seeds used in cosmetics or food. Now, in most places, the goats have been replaced by the local women, who (thankfully!) instead of eating and pooping them out, just crack the shell and take the seed out by hand.

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Unripe argan fruit

Argan forest is a pretty special place. The argan trees are endemic to the south-west of Morocco and known as “Trees of Life” to the Berbers. Argan oil has been used by the Berbers as a part of the women’s beauty rituals for ages and they pride themselves on their youthful appearance, thanks to the magical oil. The oil is used as a protection from the harsh climatic conditions – burning sun and gushing winds, healing over chicken pox spots, treating eczema and acne, preventing stretch marks and treating arthritis and many other things, including cooking. All the parts of the oil production process are done by hand, exactly the same way it was done for hundreds of years.The process is very labor-intensive and hadn’t been mechanized yet, but it does create a lot of jobs for women in the area, which is great for the economy in general. According to Wikipedia, argan oil production supports 2.2 million people.

Of course we had to stop at one of the cooperatives to see how the oil is made and buy some too. You can buy it in Marrakesh and other places in Morocco, but most of the time it’s diluted with other oils of unknown quality. Edible oil has to be fresh and locals usually recommend buying it at the cooperatives. We pulled over to one of the cooperatives on the way to Essaouria and were welcomed by the nice young lady, who lead us through the whole process, explaining all the details.

The fruit is mainly harvested in July and August, and then dried for several weeks.

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We were lead to the production area, where we got to meet the ladies, seated in a large room, separated into production groups. The first group was cracking the hard outer husks (the ones originally digested by the goats) buy crashing them with a stone. Every woman has her own personal stone, and apparently, they are very particular about those. Nothing is wasted in the production, the husks and the shells are later ground and fed to the animals.

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Kids got to participate in the oil production also. The ladies were very sweet and they quickly rounded kids up and started showing them how to crack the shell.

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Next group was cracking the inner shell and taking out the kernel, which slightly resembles pumpkin seed kernel without a green skin.

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After that some amount of kernels is taken out and roasted to be ground into an edible oil. The unroasted oil is used for cosmetic purposes. All the kernels are hand ground in a stone grinder and after that the water is added to the paste to be squeezed by hand to extract the oil. The leftovers are used in the production of Moroccan black soap, that is used in all the hammams and spas throughout the country.

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Apparently it takes about 100 kg of ripe fruit to become 30 kg of dried fruit to become 3 kg of kernels to be made into 1 liter of oil after cold pressing. The process from fruit to oil takes about 15 hours.

After that we were taken to the tasting room, where we got to taste freshly squeezed edible argan oil. OMG, the oil tastes incredible. It has a very nutty, rich taste, slightly reminding roasted sunflower kernels, making you just want to chug the whole bottle of it. 

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Amlou, argan oil and honey (top)

We also tried an amlou mixture of almond butter with honey and the argan oil, with a little bit of cinnamon, used in cooking many Moroccan dishes, including delicious pastilla, the pigeon pie. We also tried the multitude of cosmetic products they made at the coop. We left loaded with two giant bags of stuff we just absolutely had to have, including 2 jars of amlou. Yum!