Sunday, June 25, 2006

I was not aware that our last travelogue, which we sent when we got back to California, had not been added to this blog, so I just did that and you can find it below this message.
Currently we are in Woodland, CA where we have a vacant rental house which is badly in need of some TLC, so we are providing that. Just imagine our surprise when we finally got over jet-lag enough to check our accounts and learned that this tenant had not been paying the rent, and when we called him, he had moved! So we packed up our RV in quite a hurry and drove here to assess the situation. The place was in better shape than we thought it might be. But since he was in here for 15 years, it needs paint inside and out and there is a massive amount of yardwork to do, mainly cutting back trees and shrubs. Thursday we went out and bought 55 gallons of paint, and almost everyday we hit WalMart or Home Depot or Orchard Supply for parts and supplies. Our usual routine is to do yardwork in the mornings, while it is still cool, and then work in the air conditioned house after that. It has been over 100 degrees every day that we have been here, with 108 predicted for tomorrow. Our goal is to have this place re-rented by August 1. This is somewhat of a bummer because we had been planning to visit Mickey & Karen Bennett and Pat & Linda Jenkins up in Williams Lake, BC this summer, including visits with friends and family on the way.
If you are going to be in the Sacramento/Woodland area, give us a call on our cell phone so we can get together: 928-581-3624.
Last Travelogue From California

Dear Friends and Family, 6/14/06
Hello from sunny California where we are trying to get over jet-lag as we also endeavor to get our RV set up again for our next trip. It took us approximately 38 hours to travel from Casablanca to our RV at Park Sierra. Since we were awake most of this time, we were exhausted upon our arrival on Monday afternoon, and have been dragging around ever since.
Our previous travelogue was from Marrakech, which turned out to be the hottest place we visited in Morocco. Two land cruisers picked up our group and took us to Essaouira, which is a delightful smaller town right on the Atlantic where it was thankfully quite a lot cooler than Marrakech. The drive there was uneventful and the topography was standard Morocco – many grain fields, corn fields, olive groves, and other assorted crops. The most unusual one was argane. In order to harvest the seeds of the fruit for oil, they must pass through the digestive tract of goats, so we stopped to take pictures of some goats up in these trees, eating this fruit. Collecting the seeds from the goat poop and processing them to get the oil sounded like a heck of a job to us! Jesse, our leader, said she has some skin cream made with this oil and it is awesome, but pricey.
We stayed in a Riad, which is an old Moorish home centered around a courtyard, and which has been modified into a hotel. From our room we had a nice view of the beach and also the minaret of the mosque which was right next door. This meant that we got to hear every call to prayer quite clearly, an event that takes place 5 times a day and one of those times was at 3:45 AM! The really unusual event that happened was that our Australian friends, Gordon and Shirley, whom we had run into in the Todra Gorge, were also staying at the same Riad. So we had a very enjoyable evening with them, sharing Gordon’s Jamison’s whiskey, as we used to do in Vietnam together, and then going out for a delicious pizza at a nearby restaurant.
The village was a nice mixture of tourists and locals, all enjoying the beach amenities and nice temperatures, as well as some good seafood. We ate at one of the small seafood tent restaurants and then walked the beach for some exercise. The water was pretty cold but it felt good on our feet. Shopping in this town was much easier than the other places because there was a more laid-back attitude and less pushy salespeople. It is also the center for wood carvings using a unique wood called thuija, which is really beautiful, especially the products made from the root. So we purchased a few of these items to bring home because they are perfect for gifts: lightweight, unbreakable, beautiful, and inexpensive, yet unique to Morocco.
After 2 enjoyable days in Essaouira, we took a local bus back to Marrakech and then caught the train back to Casablanca. Once again we stayed at the Hotel Suisse, which is a 4 star hotel right near the beach and we had another nice beach view from our balcony.
This was the last night that our group would be together, so we all dressed up and caught taxis to Rick’s Café for a farewell dinner. Of course, Rick’s Café was in the movie “Casablanca”. This one is a relatively new one which was started by an American woman who was a diplomat here for quite a while and who wanted a career change after the events of 9/11/01. It is quite an elegant place and we had a delicious dinner with excellent wine. We gave Jesse a token of our appreciation and everyone said fond farewells to each other. The next day, everyone left except Elaine and I and Sheridan and Nicole. We spent a little time poking around the downtown part of Casablanca: the Medina and the French part nearby with a few art deco buildings. Then we walked most of the way back to the hotel – about 6 miles. On the way we stopped at McDonald’s because we were tired, thirsty and hungry and it was convenient. It was filled with Moroccan people who clearly enjoy fast food as much as Americans.
The next day we started our odyssey back to California. Looking back on our trip and what I have told you in these travelogues, there are only a few things more I would like to mention. We were surprised that there was cell phone service everywhere including out on the Sahara desert, and many Moroccans have cell phones. This is because they have installed towers all over. The other technological thing we noticed was the profusion of satellite dishes even on buildings that looked like slums to us. Both of these things were surprising because we had heard that the average daily pay for most people is rather low – perhaps $5 a day. The roads were good and this was due to the French. When they took over in 1912, there were only about 150 km of paved roads and when they left in 1956, there were thousands of kms of paved roads. Many of the innovations in Morocco are due to the new king, Mohammad VI. In 2004 he established a lot of new reforms, including reforms in the status of women, divorce laws and child care provisions. For the most part, we were made to feel very welcome in Morocco by all the people we talked to, even when they knew that we were Americans. This was a pleasant surprise because ever since the Iraqi war, we have not been very popular in other countries.
Our journey has come to an end and with it, these travelogues. We were glad to have you traveling with us. Please send us a personal e-mail sometime soon and let us know how you are doing. You are caught up on our news and we want to hear about yours.
Sending big hugs.
Love, Mary and Elaine

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Travelogue 11 From Marrakech
Dear Friends and family,
We are still in a place where there are many internet places with decent prices (about 75 cents an hour), so here is another report.

The area of the Todra Gorge is on everyone’s itinerary and we were very happy to arrive at our hotel near there in a small town called Tinghir. We all needed a shower and some clothes washing after our time at the Sahara. Our hotel was on a small river, with a swimming pool even, and was in a beautifully green valley full of date palms and other crops. The situation with the local Berber population was also interesting because they had all relocated to the side of the river where the road and electricity were installed . This left their old family compounds, called kasbahs to deteriorate on the other side of the river, up in the hills. The next day we had a local guide who walked with us for 8 kms through the palmery and up to see the old kasbahs. We used the small walking paths that the locals used to get to their small plots to tend and harvest the crops. We were able to see them harvesting the wheat by hand , using small curved knives, and either carrying it along the paths back to their family compounds themselves, or loading it on their donkeys for transport. There were many other crops as well, such as veggies for their table. The women working in the fields were very friendly but wary of us when they saw our cameras. We all were careful not to photograph them. Generally the men did the harder work of plowing or turning over the soil by hand. The old ruined kasbahs were made of packed earth, straw, and lime and were usually designed so that the quarters for the animals were on the ground floor, then the family quarters, then the cooking area on the top on a terrace. The inside parts were sometimes whitewashed with some simple decorations.

After the hike, we drove to a restaurant that Jesse knew down near the gorge itself and we ordered lunch. While waiting for it out on the verandah, it started to rain. Then another van drove up with another small tour group and when the people got out of it, we realized that two of them were Gordon and Shirley Reyer, some friends of ours from Australia that were in our tour group in Vietnam in 2003 . What
a coincidence to run into them here. We had a happy reunion and caught up on their news, although we have also been in touch with them by e-mail. There was a break in the rain and we walked up to the gorge area to see what all the rainfall had done there. Many, perhaps 100, 4 wheel drive vehicles full of tourists had been coming out of the gorge and now they had to plow through all the water and mud that was pouring down the road. It was like a flash flood. Then more vehicles came up to enter the gorge and there was a big traffic jam with everyone honking . It was so
stupid. Finally some of them backed up and let the others through. By the time we were done with lunch, it had rained so much that there were several large waterfalls coming off the steep cliffs near the gorge. We gave up on the plan to see the gorge in the afternoon and went to town for a tour of the old quarter and a trip to the internet.

The next day, June 4, we drove directly to the gorge and not only was it a beautiful sunny day, but there were hardly any tourists around. The gorge is not really that long, just a few kms, but it has tall cliffs only about 300 feet wide and is a very
beautiful and dramatic place.

We left Tinghir and drove through another beautiful valley with palms and crops called the Dades Valley. This is part of the route they call the road of 1000 kasbahs. There was also dramatic mountain scenery with unique rock formations. Then we would drive for long stretches through very arid areas which looked a lot like Nevada. Towards the end of our drive we went through a town called Oazazate, which is where lots of movies have been filmed, such as Gladiator, and where there are several movie studios now. Finally we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou where we
stayed at an elegant old hotel looking across at the huge old Ksor (which is a collection of old kasbahs) across the river. After walking around the village a
bit, we had a very nice group dinner on the terrace overlooking the pool. The next morning, we met at 6 AM and hiked across the river and up the hill through all the kasbahs to the very top of the hill where there was the agadir, or grainery. A hot air balloon was being inflated to take a load of tourists floating over this whole magical scene.

Then we drove over the High Atlas mountains, passing many more lush river valleys where there were small villages, and up into the barren high mountains. The highest pass was 2260 meters, and it was really windy up there. By 1 PM we were in Marrakech, and it was blisteringly hot when we arrived. Luckily our hotel here is air conditioned and has a pool. Jesse took us by taxi to the main square near the Medina and showed us around. Then she left us to eat lunch, shop and explore on our own. The lunch was delicious because we finally had a break from Moroccan food and
had pizza. The souks, or stalls where all the goods are sold, are in the Medina and when we walked there, it was annoying because of the hassle to buy. We didn’t want anything anyway, so we went back to the main square. Here there were snake charmers, guys with captive monkeys wanting you to pay for a picture, women fortune tellers, men who pull teeth for people, about a zillion carts of orange juice sellers, etc. It is a real zoo, which completely changes starting at about 5 PM when people start showing up with carts and an entire night market of food stalls and seating areas is set up. Our group met and went to a local hotel for a drink, then went to the night market for dinner. First Jesse took us to the area where about 10 carts sell snails. You get them in a small bowl and eat them with a toothpick. At first I was not eager to try them but after tasting them, I ate the
whole bowl. They are cooked in a spicy broth and are delicious and cheap. Then we went to another area where we tried the local soup, which is served with dates and a type of honey sweetened doughnutty thing. This was OK. Then we went to another area where we sat at picnic tables and ordered from a menu and had salads, brochetes, calamari, and french fries.

Of course, after eating there has to be entertainment, so we went to the part of the square where there were groups singing, dancing, drumming, male belly dancers, a guy singing with a dancing chicken on his head, and a game where we tried to put a round weight over the neck of a coke bottle using a long bamboo fishing pole. Much more was happening but we were all tired so we went back to the hotel.

Today we got up early and took a taxi down to the old palace area where we toured a mausoleum, an old palace that had been stripped for parts when a new ruler built another palace in Meknes, and an elegant palace formerly used by the Grand Vizer. One bad thing that happened was that Joann went into a shop and knocked over a stack of decorated bowls, breaking one. So, of course, the price for that one was quite
high and she only got out of it by purchasing 2 necklaces at an elevated price.

I know this is long so I will close for now and put the rest of our thoughts and observations in a future communication. Tomorrow we leave for a small town on the Atlantic coast so there should be relief from the heat. Sending the usual big hugs.

Love, Mary and Elaine

Monday, June 05, 2006

Travelogue 10 From Marrakesh
Dear Friends and Family,
We are now in Marrakesh, and it is well over 100 degrees here. This is the first time on this trip that we have experienced extreme heat, so we do not dare complain. This has been a very wet year here, after 8 years of drought, and we have had very comfortable weather due to the cloud cover. This is our first chance to have an internet in a few days, so now we are even further behind in our travel

I last mentioned Fez, a place we stayed three nights because we did some day trips from there. One of them was to the Roman ruins at Volubilis. This was quite interesting to us because we had visited some Roman ruins in Portugal. These were a bit different, of course, but there were still some great mosaic floors similar to the ones we had seen in Portugal. The difference was that they are being protected in Portugal and here they are deteriorating rapidly due to no covering, even though this is a UNESCO world heritage site now. There is a very nice triumphal arch here and also a temple that was later changed into a basilica. The huge storks that were nesting all over Portugal and Spain are here too, and have nests on these ruins, so we got more good pictures. Later we went to Moulay Idriss, which is an important
pilgrimage city because his mausoleum is here. As we were walking through the town with our local guide, Elaine looked through the door of an internet place and saw some teenage boys on a porn site. When they saw her looking at them, she gave them the “shame on you” signal and they quickly exited the site. It was hilarious.

Leaving Fez, we drove south over the Atlas mountains and into Berber country. Morocco is mainly settled by Berber tribes and Arabs, with most of them also speaking French because of the French occupation between 1912 and 1956. This day was a long and hard travel day and it was also raining. As we drove through the various different areas the terrain changed rapidly, and we noticed that there was lots of agriculture, with a lot of wheat, corn and olives. They do a lot of the harvesting, such as wheat, by hand using scythes and piling the loads very high on
their donkeys. There were fields of colourful flowers, and also herders with sheep and goats, and sometimes cows. The area became more barren, with red dirt, and in the Ziz Valley area, there were green fields running the whole length of the river on both sides. These are called palmeries because the people plant date palms here where they can get enough water for them, and then plant other crops between the trees so as not to waste any space.

We finally drove out of the rain as we got closer to Erg Chebi, which was where we were going to be staying for our desert camp experience. The terrain was now very dry and looked like desert, but without dunes. Our driver turned off the main road right onto the desert and we were somewhat concerned because there really was not a road and the wind was strong enough that were were having a mild sand storm. The
desert is surprisingly firm there and within a short time we came to a place where there were signs for many auberges, which is French for small basis hotels. Imagine our surprise when we arrived at our auberge and it was almost completely surrounded by a lake. There had been a stupendous rainstorm the Friday before and all the water that was dumped on the desert had collected there, and also three or four rivers that are usually dry had filled up and run through there. About 20 of the auberges were heavily damaged and we were lucky ours was on a small hill. The
reason they sustain such damage is that most of the structures are made of mud mixed with straw and lime. Heavy rain like that causes them to collapse. In Mergouza, the next town, many people were living in tents because of all the collapsed houses, and several people had drowned.

When we arrived at our auberge, we had to walk across a makeshift bridge which was not much wider than a plank, carrying our bags. There was another group of tourists there, waiting to see whether the weather would ease up enough for them to take their
camel trip into the dunes to the Berber camp where they were supposed to spend the night. We were supposed to sleep in Berber tents near the auberge but they were now under the lake water, so we scattered all over the couches in the main salon. We had a group dinner there that we thought was good, but this is where Elaine got her food poisoning. The other group eventually left, even though it was still windy.

The next day we visited the village and went to the next village for a drumming and dancing demonstration by some Nubians, one of the minority groups who live in this area. Luckily, it was a sunny, quiet, and beautiful day. Then, at about 5PM, after the heat of the afternoon had abated, we were loaded onto camels for our night out in the Berber camp in the dunes. It was quite the experience just even being in the Sahara, let alone on a camel. The ride to the camp took about an hour, which was
certainly long enough for all of us, especially Elaine who was not feeling well. Once there, we climbed a dune, then sat around and drank beer and wine which we had brought along, while the Berber guys fixed our dinner. It was a beef tagine, one of the dishes we have been eating a lot, because you eat it using bread instead of silverware, and you all share a big dish of it. It is like roasted meat and veggies in a casserole and is pretty good. However, in the night two more of our people started getting sick. We slept on thin mattresses in the tents, with some of our
group outside until it started to rain again. One of the highlights is supposed to be having sunrise out there, but it was overcast the next day when we loaded up the camels and rode back. After cleaning up a bit, we packed up and left the auberge, only to have our van get stuck in the sand on our way out to the paved road. Luckily, we all pushed and it came out easily.

We drove to our hotel in a little town near the Todra Gorge and everyone was happy to have a shower or a swim and a rest because we now had regular hotel rooms with our own bathrooms. Hooray.
Of course, there were more adventures after that but they will have to wait for the next travelogue. Our friends will be waiting for us in the Medina for a cold drink on the terrace where we will all watch the setting up of the night market. Sending big hugs to you all.

Love, Mary and Elaine
Travelog 9 From Morocco
Dear Friends and Family,
We are now quite a few days behind in these travel tales, and once again we don’t have much time.
Last time we left off in Casablanca, having just met our group. The next day we started our group sightseeing by taking taxis to the very large Hassan II mosque. This is the only mosque in Morocco which allows non-Muslims to enter. It is a beautiful building on a very large plot, which is situated so part of the mosque could be built over the Atlantic. It is made of all Morrocan materials, such as cedar, marble, titanium, and other beautiful materials and is said to have cost more than 800 million dollars. We learned a lot about Islam and were glad they offered
tours in English, because the two major languages here are Arabic and French. Then we again took taxis to the train station to go to Fez.

This train ride was similar to our first one except there seemed to be quite a turnover of people in our compartment and all were interesting. One of them was an Arabic lady from Oujida, near the Algerian border. She now lives in Paris but was going back to handle some rental issues on her various properties. She said that there were many more women dressing in traditional dress now than when she was growing up and she is now 60.

In Fez, we stayed in the newer part of town in a modern hotel but spent a lot of our time there in the old town, called the medina. Here there are about 300,000 people living within the walls which were built in 808. Of course, they have been expanding
them and maintaining them over all these years. There are 9400 streets, like a maze, and we had to have a guide to see everything and not get lost. It was fascinating, especially the dyers souk and the tanners souk. Souk means the area where they live and work. We will post some pictures on the blog when we get back and you will see how great it was, although a bit stinky. While we were in there, we had to be on the alert because the streets are too narrow for vehicles so all is moved around by mule and donkey, or people carrying things on their heads. Our group also visited an area outside the medina where a ceramics workshop was and we saw every part of the process. There used to be a fairly large Jewish population in
Morocco, most of whom left for Israel after that nation was create in 1948 but the place they lived was quite different than the other areas so we visited that too. Of course, the people dress differently in this country, and that has added to the interest. It is hard to get pictures of women because they think that if their picture is seen by anyone it ruins their reputation and their chances for a good marriage.

This is getting long, so I will send it now and try to get off another one in a short time. We are both doing well, although Elaine and some other group members have had a short bout with food poisoning. The food is generally good and they serve large amounts. We are sending big hugs to you all.
Love, Mary and Elaine