Thursday 12 March 2009

Finding our way into Moroccan desert (Day 10)

Compared to the night before it was a beautiful day. The sky was crystal clear once again. Muddy streets with surprisingly deep puddles were the only reminder of yesterday's storms. We were just hoping a storm like that doesn't happen again when we are in the desert. I just can't imagine what you can do when it starts pouring down like that and you have nowhere to hide...

Even with the morning sun, Rissani didn't look any better then the night before. We agreed to try our best not to spend another night here. To do that we had to find a ride to Erg Chebbi desert, where we wanted to spend at least a couple of nights.
We were staying in Hotel Merzouga, for 150 dirhams per double room a night. I guess it was OK, but definitely nothing more then that. When we woke up we found a 15 centimeter patch of chipped paint on a pillow next to the one we were using. It simply fell off the ceiling during the night.

When we were walking across town towards a much nicer and a bit more expensive hotel Dar Lamrani (if you can afford it I really recommend it), to our surprise we weren't approached by anyone offering us some kind of a deal. The hotel manager offered us breakfast and told us that we can pay as much as we think it's worth. Since this seemed really suspicious we insisted on a price. He just smiled, wished us “bon appetite” and walked away.

When enjoying fresh breakfast a couple of European girls came out of the hotel. We tried to start a conversation but they didn't seem too interested.
We thought it would be smart to team up with more people in order to be able to negotiate a better price for a desert trip.

When the two girls returned we tried a bit more direct approach and it worked. They seemed really nice and as they told us, they were traveling together with another friend and also had a rented car.
This was just too perfect to be true.

They surprisingly agreed to take us with them and were leaving in ten minutes. We were really happy with the outcome - It just doesn't get much better then that. I quickly payed the guy 50 Dirhams for the breakfast and thanked him for kindness. It seemed he was pleased with that.

We fetched our bags from the hotel we were staying in and left for the desert. At some point we left the main road and tried to follow a rocky-desert piste.

While driving into the desert we found out we were traveling with three Swiss girls, who knew exactly which hotel by the desert to go to. One of their friends from back home was there a couple of times before and even had a romance with the owner of the Auberge LaBaraka (to locate it on Google maps click here).

There we met Hassan, who was happy to meet friends of a girl he was still in contact with. We didn't have to bargain for the price of the desert experience. He came forward with a reasonable price and he didn't want to go lower (supposedly it was the price he charged the Swiss girl he knew).

This suited us just fine and we agreed to leave for the desert that same afternoon.

The Auberge LaBaraka is a quite simple but well kept place and staff is really nice. We enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere and I took the time to take a first bunch of many sandy photos.

It was a relaxed afternoon on the edge of sand dunes, followed by a lovely sunset in the desert where we found a camping place. After dinner some Berber drumming carried us back in time. It went on long into the night until we all fell asleep.

There were tents available but we chose to sleep in our sleeping-bags under the countless stars. I can't remember the last time I saw so many.


Wednesday 25 February 2009

Crossing Atlas Mountains (Day 9)

Our plan for this day was a trip from Fes to Meknes. Those two are both referred to as Imperial cities and as such offer many sights worth visiting.

We left the hotel and headed for the bus station. There we were informed that the bus for Meknes is not leaving until 6 PM. It was a long wait so we started looking for alternatives.

After a couple of minutes we were approached by a local and after a short conversation he offered to arrange a ride for Azrou for the same price we expected to pay for the bus. Azrou is a crossroad on the way south. From there the road continues across Atlas Mountains and into the sand dunes of Merzouga.

We didn't trust the guy, but we were very curious what he was up to. "Curiosity killed the cat" says an old proverb, but we decided to play along nevertheless.

He promised us a cheap ride with a Grand taxi to Azrou, where we could catch a fancy bus to Rissani. We liked that idea, because that meant skipping the town of Er Rachidia, against which we were warned a couple of times.
Different touts are supposedly especially pushy and persistent in that town. They know almost everyone getting off the bus in Er Rachidia is on the way to the desert. When trying to sell you a guided tour into the desert they just won't take no for an answer.

Even though we still didn't think the guy was telling the truth, we took his offer.
An old Mercedes was already waiting for us and all we had to do was pay the driver and hit the road. With us in the cab, the car was full. This meant six (yes, that's 6!) people plus the driver.

I guess we were lucky that all four of us sitting in the back seat were quite skinny. Two local guys sharing the back seat with M. and me were obviously amused with the two unusual passengers but unfortunately didn't speak any English to share their reasons with us. It was the same with the driver and other two passengers.

I guess this seems like a pretty uncomfortable event but it wasn't. Besides an occasional not very safe overtaking manoeuvre (on some occasions M. didn't feel very comfortable watching the road, so she tried to focus on something else), the two hours to Azrou passed pretty quickly.

From there on we boarded a bus to Rissani, which was just leaving when we got to the station. Unfortunately it wasn't a new, comfortable one we got used to until this point. CTM buses don't cover this destination, so we were stuck with a less comfortable option.

It is funny really... we always opted for CTM buses, almost the only exception was the longest destination over Atlas mountains.

We didn't have any problems with the winding road. Unfortunately this can't be said for quite a few of other passengers. Some of them were throwing up most of the way.

Despite all of those things we enjoyed the beautiful Atlas scenery. The most annoying thing were a couple of breaks during which we were pestered with locals trying to sell us something.
Some had various fossils to offer at supposedly very affordable prices, others were selling the best desert experience ever. We didn't give any of them a chance.When I was speaking with them and tried not to look too irritated and turned them down politely. M. on the other hand got annoyed by them quite quickly and was soon "a bit" more direct.

As we were nearing the desert, thunderstorms and heavy rain were picking up. In some places the road was totally flooded. On a few occasions I would feel much better if we were on a boat instead of a bus.

When we got to Rissani it was already late and we were pretty exhausted. To top it all we found out that our backpacks stored in the luggage compartment of the bus were soaking wet and covered in dirt.
Besides all that we still had a hotel to find. It wasn't easy but we succeeded after a couple of tries. It was just for one night so this time we weren't too picky.

After a quick shower we fell into the bed and slept like dead till next morning.


Monday 2 February 2009

(A)mazing Medina of Fes (Day 8)

We had a peaceful night at the Hotel Royal and when we woke up we were ready to explore the old part of the city of Fes.

Fes is one of the four imperial cities and has been the capital of Morocco several times in the past. It is believed that Fes was the largest city in the world from 1170 to 1180 and today has a population of around one million. Fes el Bali, the largest of the two medinas of Fes, is not only the largest Medina in Morocco, but it is also believed to be the largest contiguous car-free urban area in the world.

Since we even felt lost for a short moment in the tiny Medina of Chefchaouen we were pretty sure we will succeed in doing the same in Fes.

After a quick breakfast (it was finally the end of Ramadan and food was a bit easier to find) we were set for the Medina.

We entered the maze of medieval streets through the eastern gate. Pretty soon we found ourselves in the middle of a river of people, rushing through the narrow streets. Some of the streets were partly covered to protect people from the hot sun. Since it was quite hot various strong smells were hard to ignore. Some were even pleasant, but mostly they were strong and unpleasant. Most of the pleasant ones were coming out of little shops. I didn't dare to wonder about the origin of other ones...

Every now and then we had to give way to a donkey carrying some kind of a heavy load.
I couldn't really decide if there were more donkeys or donkey droppings to worry about.

We walked by various shops crammed mostly with junk. One can find lots of leather shops in Fes. There are loads of bags, jackets (not really latest Italian fashion), belts and babouches (traditional Moroccan slippers). Owner of such a shop will usually take you to some kind of a terrace overviewing tanneries.

Since we didn't plan on buying a leather jacket or some other leather product, we didn't give in to never ending invitations for entering shops.
However we did buy a tea pot. A typical trashy-shiny-Moroccan-type. This is pretty untypical for us but M. insisted on having one of those.

Before the deal was made we had to negotiate for at least 15 minutes. During this time we kind of insulted the shop owner for at least three times. We also left the shop two times just to be called back in with a more affordable offer. It was all a game.

We ended up with a quite nice teapot of reasonable quality (at least when compared to others) for a price of 90 MAD. The negotiation started at 200 for a lower quality and half the size of teapot we got in the end.

Before the negotiation game started, we agreed not to pay more then 100 MAD, so we were quite pleased with the outcome. The shop owner on the other hand didn't seem too happy but we were sure this was also just a part of the game.

Later in the afternoon we bought some nuts, a bunch of postcards with stamps and visited a suspiciously dark little room with Internet access (they had a surprisingly fast connection).

It was quite late when we finally decided to head back to our hotel and find something to eat. We really didn't have a hard time finding our way out of the Medina (we found one of the exits on the south-western part) and before we knew we were standing on a city bus headed in the direction of our hotel. Once again we were the only tourists on a crowded bus. We didn't mind it but some locals were obviously quite amused with our presence.

At he end of the day we were quite pleased with ourselves. We survived the largest maze Morocco has to offer and didn't have to ask for directions once. That doesn't mean we knew where we were at all times, but we surely didn't feel lost.

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