Road Trip to Marrakesh
In 2008, while still married to my Moroccan husband, the plan for The Great Moroccan Family Roadtrip was developed. My determined sister-in-law was
raising five children on a very modest, not to say poverty-level, income after having lost both a daughter and then a hard-working husband. Her children had rarely traveled further than from their home in Casablanca to the grandfather’s home in Settat50 miles southwest. Two older girls were in college and unavailable, though, given a choice, they, too, would have jumped at the chance to see a broader view of their own country.
At home in California, my husband and I could almost feel the excitement of the three younger children radiating across the Atlantic and the lower 48. As we began to conjure what was possible, the maps came out, the budget was juggled, and plans spiraled across the internet until at last an itinerary was unveiled: Casablanca (Dar Beidha in Arabic), Settat, Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, Safi, and return. The best laid plans changed when hubby’s work schedule intruded and he couldn’t travel, so it was a solo, middle-aged American lady who arrived in Casablanca, rented a Renault big enough for five and then headed to the Camera area of Casa. Packed and ready, two nieces and a nephew from Hakima’s brood waited politely until all was packed away, and then piled into the back seat. I managed to exit the city without incident and took the new, smoothly-paved highway to Settat, where we picked up two brothers-in-law, Jouad, a teen, and Bachir, 23. Six people in a car designed for five, plus luggage. The four younger, Jouad (15), Khadija (14), Husna (7), and Ibrahim (5), slender as rails, fit perfectly in the back, enabling all to sleep sitting up.
Four kids who don’t speak my language and a male adult who kind of wanted to do things
his way, made for a couple of tense moments, but we made it through Day One. It was lovely to be holding a child’s hand again. Husna, age seven, wasn’t shy about reaching up and clasping a non-mommy hand. Even better was having Husna or Ibrahim (age 5) come up unexpectedly from behind and matter-of-factly slip theirs into mine.
Day One was the red city, Marrakesh. I took everyone to lunch at the Argana Cafe, from which terrace you can see the J’ma Al Fna domain, an ancient expanse of plaza populated at the moment with snake charmers, barbary monkey trainers, musicians, kiosks selling crafts or Chinese imports, orange juice sellers, (Watch out for the ice!) and thousands of tourists. Once settled at the Argana, I chose an omelet as a lighter option given the heat. Several of my companions followed suit, even though the menu was wide open. Perhaps they were
concerned about making too much of a dent in the group funds.
Wandering J’ma Al Fna requires concentration when trying to keep track of five other bodies, several of which were too short to spot in a crowd. Two boys were “lost” for about 10 minutes but apparently they knew where they were. Tripping down the rabbit warren of pathways beneath the variously rooved sections of the market, we began buying hats, first for the girls and then, after much searching for the man and boys. Soon, everyone was hatted, except Jouad who wanted a name brand, likely a knock off, that was far too expensive. So, he suffered later from the incessant, scorching sun as we went from J’ma El Fna to La Menara.
You are thinking that Moroccans must be used to the sun. What they are used to is seeking shade. You will not ever find a Moroccan intentionally standing in the sun. It is a marvel to watch how they scope out the landscape and place themselves in whatever slice of shade darkens the ground. At bus stops, shelter from the rays might be only in thin strip of blackness left by a telephone pole. Awnings, trees, and tall building shield the Maghrebiin from the blazing orb that follows all else everywhere. In the Peace Corps, my baseball hat, not chic but sheltering, was a source of instant shade.
We six took a carriage to La Menara after dickering. All six of us rode to and from for $13.00. I had told Bachir, our bartering master, that I didn’t want to ride in a carriage which had ill-cared-for horses. Some were bony, others had scars and even open sores. It seemed like a propitious time to “tilt at windmills” and let the drivers know that some tourists had qualms around animal abuse. Our pair of steeds would not have won any beauty contests, but they would certainly have passed muster at the ASPCA. Little Ibrahim rode up top with the driver, taking in everything we passed. I suggested his sister, Husna, take that seat on the way back, but she was both shy and scared. Beneath the awning of the carriage, the rest of us were safe from the sun and could enjoy both the clop, clop of the horses’ progress but also passing sites, expensive hotels, all in red stucco, green gardens dotted with flowers despite the parched state of the surrounding land. I told Bachir and company that a room in one of those hotels would cost 2100 dh ($300) per night. His eyebrows went up!
It wasn’t long before we turned off the main road onto the entrance to La Menara. Frankly,
La Menara is a huge shallow pool, perhaps 2 to 3 meters deep, filled with remarkably dirty water, set in stone and spanning a couple of acres. “This garden was created by the Almohades, in the XII century. The lake was excavated to water the olive trees cultivated in the 100 hectares that surround it,” says the guide book. http://www.trekearth.com/gallery/photo185575.htm While there, my “you are dying of thirst” alarm went off and I drank a warm soda from the kiosk, which was the third that day, not counting tea, coffee, and another soda in J’ma Al Fna. I was completely out of steam but apparently still able to evaporate whatever liquids I consumed.
Within the dank and soupy waters of La Menara exist hundreds of huge, menacing carb. Bread was purchased to feed these hungry hordes and while the children were thrilled with the fishes’ avaricious appetite, I worried they might actually jump from the pond and begin to gnaw on my familial charges. They didn’t, of course, though that didn’t diminish their potential for carnage.
Back at J’ma Al Fna, we caught two cabs (there is a limit of three people per cab throughout Morocco) and returned to the hotel where we collapsed enmasse, if not from expended energy in the case of the young ones, then from an excess of heat. Having braved the heat of the high planes during the day, several of my fellow travelers were reluctant to go out again in the evening for dinner because of “shems bezuf”, “too much sun still”. I mentioned that we were in Morocco and “shems” was going to be a continuing issue. So was dinner. These kids are used to eating dinner at 10pm, while this old lady cannot digest anything substantive after 9pm, so we compromised. At 8:30pm, they split a couple of beef tajines and I had a lighter spaghetti bolognaise. As a preface to each meal, I am advocating for a thorough hand washing, just like any good Dutch Aunt. It must be said that one of our number, one very young boy occasionally forgets the niceties in terms of basic hygiene. Dinner over, I grabbed the chance for few moments to myself and an opportunity to write. Bachir willingly took charge of the herd as they were finally ready to explore the moon-beamed streets, though I warned of dire consequences should he lose anybody. Not sure I have ever been more tired.