Wednesday 20 September 2017


I visited Morocco long ago, Interailing by myself. This time I was on a guided tour. We visited Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis (Roman remains), Fez (tanneries!), Merzouga (near the patch of sand bottom-right of this map), Todra Gorge, Quarzazate (abandoned), Kasbah Ait Benhaddou (it appears in "Gladiators" and many other films), Tijzha (a village in the High Atlas), over the Tizi'n'Tichka (2,260m above the sea level, the highest major mountain pass of North Africa), Essaouira (a fishing/sea-side town, once Portuguese - a back alley is below), and Marrakech with its Djemma el Fna. Motorways to mule-tracks, palaces to hovels, deserts to seasides. And we took in the French, Arab, Bedouin, Berber and Jewish influences. The New Town (French) / Old Town division was obvious in the big cities. The Jewish areas are still known as such, though most of the Jews left in a hurry. Some of the areas they abandoned are still no-go areas at night.

Lifestyles are changing. The semi-nomadic people want to settle down for the sake of their children's education. They like their high walls, the Moroccans. They surround factories, palaces and farms, with towers at the gates. Some are made of clay and straw. Rain and wind easily damages them. I couldn't tell whether ruins were years or centuries old. Warring tribes in previous centuries meant that battles were small-scale, involving fortified houses and villages rather than huge castles. People in some places are gradually building themselves new homes, abandoning the old ones. Some towns are empty. Even populated villages can seem abandoned in the heat of the days. Clues are satellite dishes, washing on the line, dates drying on the roof, and goalposts on wasteland.

We stayed in a mountain village, walking for an hour to get there, our luggage carried by mules. It hadn't long had mains electricity. Once it arrived, people got fridges and they didn't need to harvest food daily. They saw what other people had and wanted it too. But people still use mules to collect crops and provisions.

Life can be very seasonal. Up in the mountains we saw a subsistence group of 10 people - 3 generations, semi-nomadic. Near the sandy Sahara we saw how labour-intensive farming and irrigation can coax food out of sand - date palms (easy to manage, low on water use) providing cover for cabbage, maize, alfalfa to grow, watered by a series of narrow channels whose tributaries could be blocked by mud to share the water around. There were some similarities with how we looked after our allotment.

We were driven for hours through landscapes that could have been in Westerns, and through mountain passes that reminded me of Italy (Morocco has skiing resorts). Photos don't do justice to the spectacular views. The deep red soil in places looked like Crete's. The exteriors of houses, especially in the medinas, can belie the wealth within. We stayed in some smart hotels (once we had a four-poster bed), and some quirky hotels. Other times there was neither TV or air-conditioning. Wifi was only sometimes available. Alcohol wasn't in all hotels and was difficult to get it at all in some places. Bigger towns had bottle shops - our first stopping place. There was a Jewish tradition of distilling which continues in places, allegedly. Sometimes the accommodation blended into its surroundings. This hotel on the side of the gorge had good views - a ribbon of green in the valley.

We stopped off at a weekly market which looked like a car-boot sale. We bought 2 packets of seeds, though we could have bought much more stuff - domestic ware especially.

In Essaouira we had a meal in a steamy back-street cafe where you took the fish that you'd brought earlier. I wouldn't have gone near the place normally, let alone eat there. And we ate street foot in the square at Marrakech. One breakfast up in the mountains included a kettle of water, a jar of Nescafe and a pot of porridge with honey.

And of course, we saw life in the Medinas - Fes with its confusing 9,400 alleys, Marrakech where you stay on the right to have a better chance of avoiding the mopeds and motorbikes that are let in. I'm still rather nervous about such places with their dark, narrow alleys, and I can't haggle. In some towns there are collectives where items are labelled. Going there first to check prices before haggling is a good idea.

I wasn't sure what to expect of the Sahara part of the visit, but as you can see, it's like you see in films. We went for an hour or so by camel until in a hollow we saw where we'd be spending the night. I slept under canvas. Others slept rough until the wind rose. The milky way was very clear.

In the morning I climbed a dune to catch sunrise. Then it was back on the camels for breakfast.

Yes, this is a tree of goats. Goats will climb Argan trees to eat the fruit whose nuts are used to make oil, but this particular scene is a stunt. Elsewhere we saw Barbary apes in more natural surroundings.

Near Volubilis is Moulay Idriss Zerhoun where non-Muslims were not permitted to stay overnight until 2005. Here for a change, colours were on the outside of the houses.

I knew I'd have lot of time to read so I took the story collections "Whoever you choose to love" by Colette Paul, "The New Uncanny" edited by Sarah Eyre and Ra Page, and "Tell her you love her" by Bridget O'Connor. I took poetry too - "Ticker-tape" by Rishi Dastidar, and the latest issue of "Orbis". I took some ideas for poems and stories with me, returning with a poem a piece of Flash and a page of travel notes.