Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Into the heart of Morocco. Erfoud, Todra Gorge, and Tinerhir.

Tinerhir, Morocco
After hearing the sound of clapping hands outside my tent, I acknowledged I was awake by saying “yes”.  I was so comfortable in my bed/blanket combo that I lingered a bit longer. I could hear Soon rustling about on the other side of the partition. He too had heard the wake up call and was already preparing for the day.

Today, we had a long travel day in front of us and as always, I was excited to get going!

I eventually clamored out of my über comfortable bed and headed to use the bathroom. I had no idea what time it was but it was light outside though the sun had yet to rise. Last night, we had agreed, as a group, to get up before sunrise and ride the camels to a high point in the desert and watch the sunrise from there. Just as I am not a sunset person, I’m not a sunrise person either but I’m always willing to go with the flow.



"Good morning Erg Chebbi " Since we had arrived into the camp after dark, I really did not get a good look at it until this morning. I had to capture a few shots for the memories.

As everyone in the camp came to life, one of the young men was prepping the camels for our ride back to the kasbah. The Singaporeans left separately in a three camel caravan with the last camel carrying cargo.

It was time for the remaining six of us to mount up and ride out but we were missing two people.
One of the guys stood outside their tent and repeatedly clapped his hands. No response from the other side of the tent. From where we were standing, we noticed two people standing on a sand ridge in the distance. We thought that perhaps those were the two of them; they must have gotten up early to see the sunrise. Yes, that’s what it must be.


We had to get going so we mounted up. Me first and then Soon. But before we could get Aaron up, the man emerged from the tent and came over to where we were with the camels. He asked if we could go ahead because he could not wake up the woman but unfortunately, that was not going to be possible since all six camels had to return to the kasbah. So, he had to go back and wake up the woman. She eventually emerged and got up on the camel.

Into the desert we rode.  Though I had exactly the same clothing on as I had the previous night, I felt a bit of a chill. Not cold enough to cause me to shiver but it was on the chilly side.

The color of the dunes takes on a lighter shade of terracotta in the light of early morning. Since we had ridden at night, we didn’t really get a chance to see the dunes so it was cool to be able to see the undulating shapes of the dunes that the winds have created over time.

As the sun started to peek out from over the horizon, we dismounted from the camels and walked up a sand ridge so we could better appreciate the sun rising over the horizon.  The color of the sand had taken on a more intense shade of orange.  It was so beautiful.


Soon's footprints



As we made our footprints in the sand, we noticed the others that had come before us including very small ones that we thought had been made by lizards but that our guide said belong to desert mice. I didn’t notice any of the critters but Aaron saw a few scurrying back to the safety of their holes.




My trusty camel. Backpack hanging off the handle bar.





Back atop our camels, except for the Israeli woman who wanted to walk alongside the guide instead, we slowly made our way back to the kasbah. By now, I had built up enough body heat under all my layers of clothing that I was warm….even my toes and fingers.





Except for the plodding of camels as they walked along, it was a quite ride. Perfect time to take in the serenity of the Erg Chebbi.


Lo and behold, as we came over one set of dunes, I spotted the Singaporean couple ahead of us.  It's a small world in the Erg Chebbi.  We saw the terrace of the kasbah well before we even came close to it. Distances are certainly deceptive in the desert where there is little to gauge perspective with.



Back at the kasbah, we dismounted from our camels, thanked our guide for leading us safely back and headed inside into the dining room where a simple Moroccan breakfast buffet was awaiting us. With a full day’s ride ahead of us, Soon and I took advantage of the power outlets in the room to charge up my equipment. It was a leisurely breakfast. While Soon and I stayed inside, Aaron and Mildred ventured out on to the terrace and enjoyed the warm rays of the rising sun and to take in the view of the sand dunes.



Though there were shower facilities, the Singaporeans reported back that the water was freezing cold so that pretty much deterred the rest of us from showering. I was more than willing to wait until getting to a hotel where I could luxuriate (hopefully) in a nice warm shower.

It had been a short visit to the desert but I enjoyed it – camel, camp and all.


"Erfoud, land of fossils " By mid morning, we were back on our journeying, offroading it back to paved road. Our first destination was the town of Erfoud which sits in the Anti Atlas Mountains. The region is known for its fossils and minerals. The Anti Atlas range is the oldest of the Atlas mountains. Millenia ago, the mountains were the ocean floor. Geologic upheaval created the mountains and the living creatures that inhabited the ocean floor now live on as fossils embedded in the mountains. Local residents mine the area for the fossilized stones to create trinkets, objet d’arts and items for everyday use.

Salah asked if we were interested in visiting a factory that produces items using the fossilized rocks. I love rocks and fossils so I voted yes. Not sure if the other three wanted to go or not but there were no loud, vocal objections so to the factory went.  Yay!

We got out of our van and waiting for us was a guide to take us on our factory tour.

As with so many factory tours I’ve been on, this began with the obligatory explanation. In this case, how the rock is mined, cut, shaped into design and polished to best display the fossils.





In one area, the guide pointed out large pieces of crystallized sand to us. I had never seen crystallized sand before. I was absolutely beautiful; looking like clusters of sugared flower petals. 



Later on I learned that the clusters of crystallized sand are what is commonly known a "Desert Rose" .  The *rose* is actually a crystal formation of gypsum or barite with sand.  The reference to the *desert* is because these crystals form in arid sandy conditions.  After having seen pieces of gypsum inside the factory store, I'm guessing the pieces we saw were the gypsum roses which are said to have
 better defined, sharper edges than barite roses.

After our short intro, we walked through the factory floor where large pieces were housed. As I oohed and ahhed at the beautiful rocks, our guide pointed out several pieces that he said were pieces commissioned by a new hotel in Malaysia. Of course, Soon wanted to have his picture taken next to one piece that was designed to be a fountain.  I had my eyes on the sinks.  They were so unique.  Really wanted one but without a solid idea of what to do with it....(though I am planning to renovate my master bathroom), I walked on by.  Someday.

Next, it was into the factory shop. Oh….I should not have walked inside. Better not to be tempted but one foot in and it’s too late. There were soap dishes and ash trays and bowls and trinket things…..all made of the fossilized rock. In all the pieces, you could see the fossils embedded in the polished rock. Fast forward, I bought a small Desert Rose – could not resist getting one, and a small dish made of fossilized rock for my mom who shares my obsession with such things.

Soon walked out with a couple of trinkets and a large fossilized ammonite. The ammonite had been cut into two pieces and the cut faces had been polished so you see the outline of the animal.  He asked me to help him pick out a nice piece and I think we went through every one in the store before he settled on a very nice piece - the outline of the ammonite is very clear and distinct.  Soon was not relishing having to lug a rock back home, in his backpack, but it really was too nice to pass up.  I know how that goes :-)

"Ancient water system " Back in the car we went.  We drove through the town of Erfoud.  Nothing memorable.  I felt like I had barely settled into my seat and were out of the car again.  What a weird landscape we were in.  Giant lumps of dirt everywhere.  Looked like giant ant hills everywhere.  I couldn't catch what Salah was saying at first but he explained that what we were looking at was an irrigation system.   Looking at the lumps, I couldn't figure out how it worked.  In fact, I had to look it up online later on.

The lumps are known by different names, depending on which part of the world you are in.  In Morocco, they are known as *khettaras*.  Very strange looking.








The guys followed Salah to take a closer look.  The lumps were actually mounds of dirt surrounding a hole.  At the bottom of the hole, I saw something that looked like a trough filled with water and the reflection of the sky in the water.  


A Berber woman, on her donkey, rode by me.
The availability of water gave explanation to the surrounding greenery; pretty much the only greenery we had seen since we entered into the Atlas Mountain region.
 

My guess was that were looking at a series of interconnected wells I had seen something very similar with the Cantelloc Aqueducts in  Nazca, Peru though I still had no idea how they worked together to form an irrigation system. 

As I was writing up this blog posting, I Googled to try and figure out how the khettaras work. 




Cross section of a khettara.
Khettaras are a very ancient solution to creating a reliable water supply in the desert that was developed in Iran, where they are known as qanats, more than 3,000 years ago. Basically, they are  man-made subterranean tunnels that lead groundwater to the surface for irrigation.  The functioning of the khettara relies on gravity. A series of vertical shafts is built, often starting under the foothills of mountains. These shafts are connected by gently sloping tunnels.  The underground tunnels can deliver large quantities of subterranean water without the need for pumping.  Because the khettara system is underground, water can be transported over long distance in hot dry climates without significant loss due to seepage and evaporation.





Back in the car, back on the road, passing one small village after another, and the Atlas Mountains providing the perfect backdrop.  I really feel like I'm in the heart of Morocco now.









By now it was mid morning. Salah needed to fill up on gas and so we made a pit stop to stretch our legs.  After filling up on gas, Salah decided to quickly wash off the car and cleaning up.  Not a bad idea to get rid of some of the sand and dirt.  The rest of us just took in the fresh mountain air.  It was another beautiful, cloud free day!





Car cleaned and some drinks in hand, we were back on the road, roaring towards I don't know where.  I was stuck in the middle back seat.  Aaron had his headphones on and was gently to whatever tunes were playing on his iPhone.  Soon, as always, had nodded off into slumberland.  The car was silent of conversation, the only sound was the music playing from Salah's iPod.   I was enjoying his playlist of songs which was comprised of a lot of African music and surprisingly, a selection of tunes from Yanni.  It was nice compilation.

"First views of Tinerhir " Salah pulled off the road and we all got out.  Before us was a panoramic view of the town of Tinerhir which was where we would be spending the night.  As I took in the view, all I could think of was that I was truly in the heart of Morocco.   What a breathtaking vista!!


Salah explained that the buildings in the Atlas Mountain region are predominantly plastered with mud from the surrounding mountains and as a result, they blended into the landscape.  The only structure, in Tinerhir, that really stood out was the white minaret of the town's mosque.  It's amazing how Western architects often try to design buildings that blend into the surroundings and rarely succeed because man made materials just don't meld well with what Mother Nature creates.  Perhaps, they can take a lesson from the Moroccans :-)

The buildings of this part of Morocco reminded me of the mud brick buildings I saw when I was in Mali - especially the ancient Tellem cave dwellings.








Of course, time for some photos :-)









"Todra Gorge " Back to the car, back on the road....lunch next.

We continued on our drive, soon leaving the valley behind and winding our way up through the mountains.  We passed a couple of small villages and then Salah pulled off the road and parked the car next to a roadside restaurant.  In front of us were the sheer rock walls of the Todra Gorge.

The restaurant had patio that sat alongside the road.  As we entered, there was a large group of Americans, looked like big extended family, already seated and waiting for their food to arrive.  We took a spot in the sun and started to look at the menu.  More tajines and brochettes.    Soon and I decided to order Berber style tajines, a specialty of the region.  After we placed our order, Salah went off in search of meat....another visit to another butcher.   He said he wanted to make sure we got fresh meat.


It was mid afternoon by the time we sat down for lunch and since it's winter time, the day is short.  No sooner had we sat down to soak in the rays of sun then the sun disappeared behind the tall rock walls of the gorge.   We decided to abandon the patio and headed inside.

Our restaurant alongside a small stream.  Two women were tending to their garden.  One of them released a small dam to let water irrigate into the field.  For some odd reason, I was fascinated by what they were doing.


As we waited for our food to arrive, Soon and I decided to take a short walk. We headed towards the gorge and at one point, found a way to get to the edge of the water.  Lo and behold, we stumbled upon the Singaporean couple that we had spent the night with in the desert camp!  Morocco is a small world :-)

With the sun shining on the other side of the gorge walls, it was getting chilly.  I decided to head back to restaurant for warmth.








Our food came soon enough.  It was getting chilly even sitting inside the restaurant and having hot food to warm up with was welcomed relief for me.









After lunch, Salah took us on a short drive through the gorge.  It's a nice place but I've seen more spectacular canyons on my travels....oh, for example, the Grand Canyon.

We did pass by a kasbah style hotel.  Salah had mentioned we would be staying in one tonight and for a split second, I wondered if that was it.  It looked nice.  Hopes were quickly dashed when we drove on by :-(




"Onward to Tinerhir "Back on the road, we were headed to Tinerhir; a very short ride away.  As we drove through town, it looked relatively modern.  For some reason, I was expecting to look like a village, filled with mud brick buildings.  It didn't match what my brain had imagined the place would be like when were standing and seeing the panoramic view of it earlier in the day.

Salah pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, which was indeed a kasbah style hotel.   As we checked in, Salah asked if we would be interested in seeing a Jewish castle or at least that's what we all heard.  It sounded interesting so we all agreed to go.  Salah gave us a few minutes to get to our rooms and settle in before meeting back up with him in the lobby.

"Lost in the accent " As we drove off, Salah told us that he would not be joining us on our tour to the castle.  Instead, we would have a local guide.  Fine with me.

We arrived into a very commercial part of the Tinerhir.  Salah dropped us off in the presence of our local guide.  I never got the guide's name, probably Mohammed, but he seemed like a nice guy.  

We followed through what looked through a market area.  He said we would be going through a section where there would be a lot of Berber women and to not take photos of them because they don't want to end up on a postcard.  Okay.

We walked through one alleyway after another, flanked with shops.   No souvenir shops here but I did see the largest butternut squash, at least that's what they looked like.  We also stopped at shop that sold household products made from recycled car tires.  Very resourceful.


More shops.  Then, we found ourselves walking through a section of the market that sold clothing and other items for women.  This was the women's section that the guide was talking about.  I put my camera away but there really was no need to.  I didn't see a Berber woman if my life depended on it.  I think they were *safely* in place inside the shops.

"No carpet " Still no castle but there was a carpet shop in our immediate future. Could I buy a Berber rug?  Yes.  Would I buy a Berber rug?  No.  Could I be convinced to buy a Berber rug?  Maybe.

Our guide led inside a house and instructed us to take off our shoes.  He waved us to enter the room.   There, an older woman was sitting behind a large loom.   Seated nearby was a younger woman with a baby in hand, her daughter I presumed.

We sat on beautifully woven Berber tapestries and pillows.  More tapestries hung on the wall.  

An older man soon entered into the room and got about the task of making mint tea for us.  As we sipped on our teas, he had the woman show us how she cards the wool, spins it into thread and then weaves with it.  The whole demonstration probably took all of five minutes.

The older man then asked us if we would be interested in seeing some Berber rugs.  Apparently, several families had gotten together to create a cooperative and what we would be seeing were the products of their labor.  I like the idea that the money from the sale goes right back to the families.  I was torn about going to see the rugs but the rest of gang decided to go so I tagged along.

We to an upstairs showroom where the older man proceed to bring out different styles of Berber rugs to show us.  There were even Tuareg style rugs.  Though the rugs were beautiful, the prices were exorbitant, in my opinion.   I did like one particular rug and the older man kept trying to pressure me into negotiating with him.   I quickly did the math in my head and I came to the conclusion that even if I paid half his asking price, I would be paying more than double of what I was willing to pay.  So, the more persistent he got, the firmer I stood my ground.  I had decided I was not going to be walking out with a rug in hand so there was no swaying me.

He tried his best to convince Aaron buy a rug but I think Aaron also felt the price was high.   We all left the shop empty handed.

Back downstairs, we put our shoes on, bid our hosts goodbye and left.  Outside, it was dark as the sun had long set. I figured we would be heading to the Jewish castle next though it seemed really odd to me that we would be visiting a castle at night.  Very odd.

We followed our guide and ended up standing outside some shops waiting for our car to arrive.  Guess we're driving to the castle?

We patiently waited and a car turned up.  It was another driver with Morocco Explored; Salah had asked him to come and pick us up.

We headed down the road.  The driver was taking us back to the hotel.  Huh?  Where's the Jewish castle?  As I pondered what just happened, it finally dawned on me that Salah was not asking whether or not we wanted to go to see the Jewish castle but to see the Jewish quarters, the mellah!  Sheesh....something really got horribly lost because of Salah's Moroccan accent.  Too funny.  Unfortunately, the Jewish quarter we saw was nothing interesting or maybe we had a bad guide.  Well, in the end, it was all a waste of time and all I want to do now is get back to the hotel and unwind.

Our driver had some challenge finding our hotel, even stopping at one point to get directions from Salah.  In the end, we showed him where it was. 

"Dinner, a movie and bed " Back at the hotel, we went to our rooms and kicked back for a bit before meeting back up for dinner.  The hotel's restaurant was definitely set up to cater to tourists.  The menu was simple. Two choices of appetizers, two choices of entrees and two choices of dessert.  Soon and I decided to order one of everything and share.

Dinner was okay but I was ready for a shower and bed.  Back in the room, I cleaned up, tucked myself into bed and worked on this posting.  There was a TV in the room and it didn't take long for my focus to shift from blog to some grade B movie about aliens invading a US city.  Okay, there was nothing else on TV in English.  The next movie wasn't half bad - it was the story of Romulus who eventually grew up to be the father of King Arthur.   A movie and change over and I was ready to call it a day.  I have no idea what we're up to tomorrow but I'm looking forward to whatever the day holds for me.

Goodnight Tinerhir!