Merry Christmas from Morocco!

Jewish Cemetery in the old part of the town.

While I still need to write a catch up post about the last few weeks in Spain, I thought I’d better get ahead and write about where we are currently.

As I write this, it’s Christmas day in Morocco. It doesn’t feel much like Christmas since it’s sunny and warm and there aren’t any Christmas decorations to be seen.

But we’ve had a great family Christmas. The kids woke up to three small presents each, none of them wrapped.

We ran a few errands, rode in the back of a tuk-tuk (our Moroccan one-horse open sleigh), ate a Christmas lunch at McDonald’s, and played in the park.

We followed that with a tour around the city in a horse-drawn carriage and a fresh-squeezed strawberry lemon-ade.

Despite the small haul, and the general lack of most things that remind them of Christmas, my kids say they’ve had a great day. Maybe it’s because we’ve taken a break from homeschooling this week, but they sure seem pleasant all the time despite being so long away from friends, extended family, and familiar food at home.

We arrived in Morocco a week ago. We booked an Airbnb in a riad in the Medina–a traditional Moroccan home in the old part of the city.

A traditional riad is a multi-level home with a central parlor to which all the floors open.

The alleys that lead to the riads are a labarynth of streets paved with brick that are much too narrow for a car.

What we didn’t realize is that our host lives on the upper floors of this home. We can call up to him or he can call down, so it feels more like being a guest in someone’s home than having a place to our own. He has been very helpful though in showing us around the city and helping arrange taxis and an excursion.

Another thing we hadn’t planned on was having no heat in the house. So even though the days may be sunny and in the 70’s, the nights are cool and the house stays around 55-60 degrees. But there are plenty of blankets so we sleep warm and wear warm clothes in the house.

Out for a stroll with our host’s wife and grandson.

Morocco has been a step back in time. While the horse-drawn carriages that circle the streets are for the benefit of tourists, there are plenty of donkey carts and horse-drawn carts legitimately used for hauling goods piled high with sacks filled with who-knows-what that fight their way through the streets full of cars, taxis, scooters, mo-peds, and bicycles.

Food stands sell everything from hot and fresh donuts and bowls of bean soup to roasted sheepshead and a boiled snails in broth.

That’s a pile of cooked snails each vendor is selling. I have tried a few free samples. Not bad, but I make a face after I eat it so the vendor won’t try to sell me a whole bowl.
Tajine–a typical morrocan dish cooked in a clay pot.
Now that’s what’s left when you eat a sheepshead the proper way!
Hot donuts–delicious!

The market is massive and filled with spice vendors hawking sandalwood, jasmine, royal tea, and secret mixes containing 32 different spices to stores filled with leather bags and slippers.

It’s the most photogenic place I’ve ever been. There are 80-year-old men wearing jilabas peddling rusted bicycles that have to be nearly as old. And women wearing full burkas with just their eyes visible.

The scenic countryside

And if you drive out of the city into the country you’ll see the steep hillsides terraced into haphazard 1/4 acre plots of land being worked with teams of donkeys in harness. And donkeys piled high with branches walking ahead of their owners (apparently the donkeys know the way and don’t need to be guided, just urged on with a stick). And kids on donkeys galloping down the road (if you can call it a gallop when it’s done by a donkey). And donkeys in harness standing perfectly still in town with their front legs hobbled, waiting for their owners. And women in burkas with massive bundles of weeds gathered from the mountain sides strapped to their backs to carry home to feed their donkeys. And women washing clothes in the river with the surrounding trees holding up the family’s brightly colored laundry while it dries in the sun. And herds of goats and herds of sheep with their shepherd boys following behind.

My biggest disappointment is that I haven’t been able to get very good photos of all these goings on as they have been viewed from the window of a moving car. But it’s been fun to see them.

Ashley, the organized one (well at least when it comes to planning an itenarary), got us set up on a camel excursion into the desert. The excursion was super touristy but super cool.

Ksar Ait Ben Haddou

Our host helped us arrange for a private driver to take us to a city called Zagoura where we were set to meet up with the camel caravan. Before the six hour ride was over, I think everyone, driver included, was thinking the trip was an error in judgement. The road was rough and wound through snowy mountain passes. Before we were halfway there, each member of our party except me and the driver had stopped to vomit twice. To their credit, as well as to the driver’s, everyone except Margaret managed to direct the business out of the stopped car.

Poor, sick Jane in the car

When we FINALLY arrived, we met our guide, Mohammed, and our three camels.

Margaret and Mohammed
Mohammed watching the sunrise with us.

We rode for about an hour and a half, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes longer than the time it takes to learn that riding a camel is going to leave you a little seasick and a little bruised in the groin. But it was awesome nonetheless.

That night we ate a tanjine dinner, listened to traditional songs by a campfire, climbed the surrounding sand dunes to gaze at the stars on a perfectly clear and moonless night, and slept comfortably in a tent on a bed under a pile of blankets.

Night sky. The bright cluster just right of center is the seven sisters.

The next morning after a quick breakfast, we climbed the highest nearby hill and watched the sunrise over the desert.

Sliding down the dunes at sunrise.

Then it was rush rush to get back on the camels and ride back to the car for another 6 hour car ride (sans vomiting this time and with only moderate nausea) back to Marrakesh.

I certainly could have stood to spend another night in the desert.

Our family at the Bahia Palace in Marrakech

The economy in Marrakesh is highly dependant on tourism. And it shows. Every year the total number of people visiting Marrakesh exceeds the city’s inhabitants. One result is that nearly everyone who sits in a shop or stands outside a restaurant hustling people to eat there speaks Arabic (first language for most Moroccans), French (second language for most Moroccans), English, and Spanish, at least well enough to exchange pleasantries and discuss what they offer.

Another result of the highly tourist-dependent economy is that people are pushy.

The women offering henna tattoos on the main square can be bold enough to grab your hand and start a design and then demand a large sum (happened to Jane).

The men who drag the monkeys around by a leash on their neck will set the monkey on the backs of tourists who look too long and then demand payment to remove the monkey (my kids understood that they weren’t allowed to look directly at any monkeys).

If a hawker hands you something as “a gift”, you know there’s going to be some demands later about it or something else (the kids learned to just shake their heads “no” when someone tried to give them a balloon or toy).

If you have Google maps out on your phone you can be sure someone will welcome you to Morocco and help you find what you’re looking for and then demand payment.

And there are no set prices. Everything is negotiable from handicrafts to groceries (at least in the small shops) to taxis. This gets tiring after a while when you never know if you’re getting ripped off. The price starts at 600 Dirham and when you get out down to 150 you think you’re getting a decent deal when in fact you may still be paying double what a good negotiator would pay.

But the weather in December is nice. The city is hard not to like, filled with a combination of crumbing facades and bright tile work. The people are overall kind and helpful even when it seems disingenuous much of the time. And we never felt unsafe (at least not very unsafe). So it’s a great place to visit although 8 days was plenty for us.