Camels resting in the Sahara      

Alhambra courtyard

Granada:Francisco with tapas

Cordoba mosque arches

Seville-Alcazar palace arches

Group at El Vinculo

March 18 to April 2, 2010

Andalucia, Spain

Southern Spain—Andalucia—was the center of the 7 centuries of Moorish (Muslim) occupation of Spain, which ended at the Alhambra, in Granada, in 1492.  The legacy of Moorish culture continues to enrich Spain, with its magnificent architecture, tiles, carved plaster friezes, stonework, gardens, olive culture, old city quarters, and lovely aroma of bitter orange blossoms.

We began our trip with a bus ride through the mountains and olive groves that fill the landscape from Malaga to Granada, arriving at our Parador de Granada, located in a section of the ancient Alhambra, Granada’s huge Moorish fortress.  Our view was across the Alhambra itself to the city of Granada and the mountains beyond.

Early the next morning we walked from our parador to visit the Alhambra, one of the most beautiful building complexes in the world.  The highlight of this tour is the Nasrid Palace, full of gorgeous craftsmanship and splendor.  King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella defeated the Moors here at the end of the Reconquista, the recapture of Spain by Catholic forces.

Our evening was spent visiting the old Moorish section of town, the Albayzin.  We started in the rain at the top of the Albayzin hill and wandered through the narrow alleyways and pretty plazas, enjoying spectacular views of the Alhambra, to the center of Granada, where we enjoyed a homemade tapas dinner in a small wine, cheese, olive, and deli shop.  The owner prepared the tapas and described his local wines.

From Granada, we drove to Seville, stopping for the day in Cordoba to visit the Mesquita, the huge cathedral built inside an even more enormous mosque.  Inspired by the Mosque of Damascus, the Mesquita was begun in 785.  Originally, there were 1293 massive columns of jasper, onyx, marble and granite.  After its transformation into a Christian cathedral, 856 of these columns remain, still an overwhelmingly impressive and beautiful sight.  In Andalucia, the churches are all built on the ruins of mosques.

Cordoba also has the remains of a tiny synagogue.  Jews lived alongside Muslims during the period of Moorish rule, but were expelled after the Reconquest.  The old Jewish quarter is a winding network of alleys and courtyards, full of shops and restaurants—and, of course, tourists.

In Seville, we stayed in the old barrio of Santa Cruz, a short walk from the Alcazar, originally a Moorish fort that was turned into a magnificently appointed palace by the Almohad dynasty.  Today, the king and queen of Spain still use part of the palace as their residence when they visit Seville.  The Alcazar is another Moorish masterpiece with beautiful tiles, carved plaster friezes, gardens and carved and painted ceilings.

Everywhere in Andalucia—and Morocco—we smelled the fragrance of bitter orange blossoms.  The Moors introduced them to counter the urban smells of garbage.  The oranges are too bitter to eat, but are exported to England for marmalade.

On our drive to Ronda, we passed through the Andalucian “white towns”, pretty villages settled on the mountainsides.  We stopped at Arcos de las Fronteras to visit the old part of town and moved on to El Vinculo, a traditional olive mill owned by the gregarious Juan, whose mixture of Spanish and English gave us a mostly clear understanding of the process of making olive oil.

According to Juan, the olive tree was originally a bush that was grafted onto a tree base.  One type of olive tree yields olives to eat, while another produces olives for oil.  Edible olives are harvested in September and October; oil olives, from November to February.  Each of Juan’s trees provides 16 to 18 kilos of olives.  Each 100 kilos of olives yields 20 liters of oil.

The olives are first cleaned with water and wind.  Next they’re vibrated to clean them further.  Juan uses no chemicals.  It is necessary to extract the oil rapidly to avoid fermentation of the olives.  They don’t use a big tank and only use good fruit since one bad olive can destroy the entire batch of oil.  First, he makes a paste.  There is an important amino acid that affects the taste of the oil.  The paste goes into a tank, where it is continually stirred to avoid fermentation.  Outside, water circulates around the tank to keep it cool. 

Next the paste is cold-pressed.  Heat raises the acid level.  Juan told us to always close a bottle of olive oil, keep it at room temperature, and keep it out of the sun.  Olive oil, he said, is fragile.

The olive paste is pressed a number of times and run through filters.  The presses weigh 50 tons.  This produces the first cold press, extra virgin, olive oil.  Pressing makes water, oil, and solid matter, which must be filtered out of the oil.  In modern presses, machines running at 5000 rpm’s separate the water from the oil.  Juan uses gravity instead to separate the oil from the water and solids.  This takes 25 days.  The residue is sold for cosmetics, animal food and fertilizer.  Even the filters he uses are sold for fertilizer.  There is no waste.

We enjoyed an olive oil tasting in Juan’s shop and rewarded him with purchases of oil and tapenade, all of which we enjoyed during our cocktail hours later.

Our final stop in Andalucia was the “white town” of Ronda, with its pretty old section straddling a deep gorge.  Fortunately, several of us had been to Ronda before since our driver had no idea where he was going and, literally, missed every turn, even those that were clearly marked, during our 2 days with him.



Rabat blue door

We took the fast ferry to Tangiers, Morocco, briefly visited the very touristy grotto, the Caves of Hercules, and drove on to Rabat, the capital of Morocco.  This year, Morocco has had heavy rains, so we saw flooding everywhere.  The area between Tangiers and Rabat is full of deep sinks that do not have rivers to drain them, so farmhouses, fields, and even some villages, were underwater.

While we saw the major cultural sites of Rabat, including the old quarter with its whitewashed buildings and bright blue doors, the Atlantic coast, and the ancient Kasbah, our primary purpose in visiting Rabat was to get business and political briefings.

U.S. Embassy

Ambassador Samuel Kaplan:

U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Samuel Kaplan, met us at the Embassy with several of his senior colleagues, including Greg Thome, political officer, Jay Nair, economic officer, Mary Jeffers, public affairs counselor, and Rob Jackson, Deputy Chief of Mission.  Wherever we go in the world and have the opportunity to meet our senior Foreign Service personnel, we are greatly impressed by their knowledge of the country, thoughtfulness about global issues, and commitment to representing the United States effectively.  Our embassy officials in Morocco certainly hold to that high standard.

Ambassador Kaplan is from Minnesota, a lawyer and businessman.  He told us Morocco   is in a struggle between modernity and conservatism.  The relationship between the U.S. and Morocco is sound.  Morocco is a reliable ally.  They engage with us militarily and engage fully in counter-terrorism activities.  We are friends diplomatically

The country is one of contrasts and questions.  The separation of church and state is not even an issue here.  The King is commander of the faithful, head of state, and commander of the military.  All decisions flow through the King.  It is a monarchy with a constitution.  The Minister of Islamic Affairs told Amb. Kaplan that it is more likely that justice will emanate from the King—one person—than in a democracy like the U.S.

In early March, the government expelled 50 Christians plus 50 others.  The law prohibits proselytizing, but these people had no due process and no chance to put their affairs in order before being deported.  This happened just at the time the State Department was issuing its human reports report, which was awkward.

Morocco has big challenges.  Its literacy rate is below 60% and the disparity in literacy between men and women is stunning.

We have good commercial relations with Morocco.  The Free Trade Agreement with Morocco has been good for us, but less so for Morocco.  There are very negative feelings about progress in the Middle East.  People blame the U.S.  The flap with Israel over settlements has been helpful to U.S. diplomats in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, Moroccans love Americans, just not America so much.  There are 2 political (as opposed to career foreign service) ambassadors in the Middle East, Morocco and Saudi Arabia.  This is at the request of those 2 countries.

Greg Thome, Political Officer:

Greg has been in the foreign service for 18 years and is originally from Wisconsin.  He served in the Peace Corps in Guinea Bissau and has served as a Foreign Service officer in Baghdad, Helsinki, and Gabon.  He has been in Morocco for 6 months.

Morocco has been a U.S. ally since 1797 and is the U.S.’ closest non-NATO ally.  There are 4 main areas of political endeavor with Morocco:  counter-terrorism, democracy and human rights, Moroccan foreign policy, and the Western Sahara.

We have a strong security relationship with Morocco.  The government recognizes the terrorist threat and takes steps to mitigate it.  They are doing a good job of this, coordinating with the U.S. and Europe.

Morocco has the trappings of democracy, including free and fair elections and good participation of women.  At least 12% of candidates on the slate must be women.  In local councils, women comprise 13% of the candidates.  Local councils are directly elected.  The rest of the elections are indirect.  But all decisions go through the King, who is slowly moving power to elected officials and to the regions.  Currently government is very centralized.  Moving to a democracy will be a very long-term process.

In the area of human rights, there has been a dramatic change with this king.  The 1990’s were called the “years of lead”.  There were gross violations of human rights and many political prisoners.  During the last 12 years, there has been a big reform away from that.  The King set up something like a truth and reconciliation commission.  Freedom of the press is limited.  The press can’t cross a certain line.

The U.S. is always looking for where the interests of other countries overlap with our own.  In the Middle East, Morocco prides itself on being the voice of reason and being evenhanded.  They talk to the Israelis and speak frankly to the Palestinians.  They are very active on African issues.

The Southern Provinces, the Western Sahara to much of the world, continues to be a sore point.  The U.N. stepped in and brokered a peace settlement, to include a referendum on the future of the region, 30 years ago.  That referendum still has not occurred.  For Morocco, this is a big foreign policy issue and a prism through which it views other countries.  Morocco administers the territory and is very hard on independence activists.  The U.S. supports the U.N. effort to mediate.  Christopher Ross is the U.S. mediator.  This issue takes a lot of time because it is so important to Morocco.  There is no polling allowed, so it’s hard to assess public sentiment.  Moroccans are moving south into the Southern Provinces, but the native people are tribally different from Moroccans.  There are phosphate and fishing resources there, but not a lot else.  Phosphates are a big export for Morocco.  But, it is national pride that is a big issue here.  Algeria actively supports the independence movement, creating very bad relations between the 2 countries.  The entire border is closed.

Mary Jeffers, public affairs counselor:

Mary has been a Foreign Service officer for 25 years, serving mostly in the Middle East and Africa, including Johannesburg, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Algeria, Ivory Coast, and London.

Her area covers public diplomacy, the press, libraries, culture and education.  She has a tool kit of programs to bring Moroccans and Americans closer. We take our system of civil institutions for granted, but that is not typical here.  For example, Morocco has a structure of civil institutions, but not a real system.  Everything needs the official stamp of approval, including organizing a group.

There is a large youth outreach.  More than 50% of the population is under 25 years old.  They are feeling a kind of freedom from the structures of old.  Young Moroccans want to learn English and will help bring change to the country.

There are big urban centers all over.  One of her jobs is to get the ambassador out to speak all over this country of 30 million people. 

Algerians and Moroccans don’t feel culturally different, but they are politically very different.  Algeria is more repressive and has more human rights problems.

Jay Nair, Economic Officer:

Jay graduated from Harvard and the University of Maryland and is a nuclear engineer with 7 years experience in the Foreign Service.  His wife runs the “drugs and thugs” portfolio for the embassy.  They have served in New Delhi and Manila.

Morocco is about the size of California, with varied topography and geography.  The population is about 30 million, with a per capital income of $3000 per year.  Wealth is unevenly distributed.  In the countryside, living is primitive.  Water is often far away and housing is poor.  Donkeys are the primary means of transportation.

The economy grew 5% in 2009, but will be slower in 2010.  Agriculture saw a 25% increase in 2009.  Morocco has survived the economic crisis well, partly because of its restricted currency.  Banks couldn’t invest in “toxic” assets.  The financial system is strong.

Morocco’s largest trading partner is the EU, making up 80% of its exports and imports.  Morocco has been hurt by Europe’s economic problems, seeing remittances, which make up 10% of the economy, decline 15%.  There has also been a slide in tourism, which is another 10% of the economy.  Unemployment is officially at 9%, but is 15% in urban areas and only 1–2% in rural areas.  Among 15 to 25 year old urban youth, unemployment is 45%.

Agriculture and fisheries make up 15% of GDP and 40% of employment.  Morocco is the only country with a Free Trade Agreement with both the U.S. and Europe.  Large numbers of Moroccans emigrate to Europe looking for work.

Mining is very important to the economy.  Morocco is the biggest phosphate exporter in the world and has the world’s largest phosphate reserves.  China is not a big phosphate buyer from Morocco.  India and Pakistan are big investors, particularly in cement, metallurgy, textiles, garments, auto parts, and leather.  Morocco faces lots of competition from other countries with lower costs, such as Egypt.

High end fashion is a solid industry for Morocco.  It has a large services sector, including outsourcing, primarily back office work for France and Europe.  Its banking sector is large, with the biggest banking presence after S. Africa on the continent of Africa.  Some Moroccan banks have opened offices in China to handle banking for Chinese companies doing business in Morocco.

The FTA with the U.S. was signed in 2006.  Trade more than doubled to the U.S., but U.S. exports to Morocco are 3 times bigger, so the FTA hasn’t brought the job growth that was hoped.  The embassy works hard to make the FTA a success for both Morocco and the U.S.

Other areas of interest are export control and border security.  Morocco has anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism laws.  Port security is important.

Morocco imports 97% of its energy, as it is the only N. African country without oil.  It is working hard to reduce its oil dependency and plans to spend $9 billion on solar energy by 2020.  That would provide 14% of its electricity.  By 2020, Morocco hopes to provide 14% of its energy needs by solar and 14% by hydro generation.  They also have the site ready and permitted for a nuclear plant.  They want to have a skilled workforce ready for their new energy economy before they open their nuclear plant.  Moroccans sneer at countries with no trained labor who build power plants.  They want to do this responsibly.

Morocco has a strong commitment to non-proliferation, but doesn’t want non-proliferation to impede its access to nuclear materials.  It has very bad relations with Iran.  Morocco broke off diplomatic relations with Iran primarily over Iran’s proselytizing (Shiite).

President Obama’s outreach to Morocco has been in the areas of entrepreneurship, education, and science and technology.  There are many small businesses.  The biggest problem for business is the judiciary, which is very slow and unpredictable.  Judges are not well-trained.  Law is based on the Napoleonic Code.  There is a lack of independence and transparency.  This is a disincentive for investment.  Corruption is another big problem.

The U.S., France, and Spain are the most important embassies, with Spain’s being the largest.  Other European countries are far less important.  The U.S. consulate in Casablanca handles visas and passports and houses the U.S. Commercial Service.  This is the second largest Peace Corps contingent, behind Ukraine.

Rob Jackson, Deputy Chief of Mission:

Rob has spent 28 years in the Foreign Service, serving in Canada, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Morocco, in addition to Washington.  He was named the outstanding DCM in the Foreign Service. 

He focuses on assistance relationships, including USAID and the Millennium Challenge, which was set up in 2007 with $700 million.  It is investing heavily in agriculture, fisheries, crafts and literacy.

The embassy has a big focus on youth education and enterprise development.  Peace Corps volunteers work in agriculture, health, environment, and small business.

The U.S. is providing $175 million of assistance in 2010.  There is a big military assistance program, including selling F-16’s to Morocco.  The country is modernizing its military.  There is lots of training.  They want to play a bigger role in peace-keeping.

Four thousand Americans live in Morocco (and 200,000 Moroccans live in the U.S.).  There are 110,000 U.S. visitors to Morocco each year and 125 American companies do business here.  The FTA has greatly increased U.S. investment.  We want to focus on economic growth, in part to ensure that Morocco remains stable.  There are moves towards a constitutional democracy to avoid radicalization.

American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham Morocco)

Jane Kitson, U.S. Commercial Counsellor:

Jane is a Russia expert who spent 11 years in Russia, working for businesses such as the Discovery Channel and Lotus before joining the U.S. Commercial Service.  Morocco is her first Foreign Service assignment.

The U.S. Commercial Service is charged with creating U.S. jobs through developing export opportunities for U.S. products.  They help U.S. companies seeking to do business in Morocco.  Most of these are looking for resellers and distributors. 

Morocco’s military hardware is old, but the government is updating its equipment.  The two countries have a very good relationship.  Bringing a U.S. work ethic and respect for the law is very important, as is infusing the rule of law into Moroccan business. 

There is considerable investment in NGO’s to develop capacity throughout the economy.  Coca Cola is a large employer, with 5000 Moroccan employees.  U.S. factories in Morocco are state of the art.  Nemotek has just built Africa’s first clean room in Morocco.  They manufacture camera chips for cell phones and laptops.  They bought a U.S. license and produce chips for export. 

Karl Stanzick, Managing Director, MTDS Morocco:

Karl is from California and has a degree in microbiology from the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin and later worked for USAID there. 

When he moved to Morocco in 1995, there was no internet or cell service.  He realized that the internet broke down all barriers instantly.  Karl owns MTDS, an internet service provider in Morocco that also offers network design, engineering and consulting services.  It provides very good service, so has loyal customers.  The company made an early decision to go after good customers who would buy the next step in technology as it came along, such as messaging and texting. 

The Leland Initiative, named after Senator Mickey Leland, who died in a plane crash, helped to connect 20 African countries, including Morocco, to the internet.  Karl used Leland money to get started.  The French telecom monopoly tried to block them.  In 2000, MTDS won the Y2K contract, a sub-contract from SAIC, a large Pentagon consultant.  Karl knew the only way to re-orient the satellite dish was at 3 a.m. because “any other time you’d cook.”  He had done similar work in African countries before, so he didn’t have to call anyone for help in Africa.  He told us you have to be able to do whatever needs to be done yourself because there’s no one to call for help in Africa.

Technical security and back-ups are MTDS’ niche now.  Morocco has the most broadband connections in Africa, 600,000, as many as Egypt and S. Africa combined.  Morocco is connected to Spain and Portugal by fiber, which is everywhere in Morocco.  Throughout the rest of Africa, there is no fiber.  There is talk of connecting all of Africa with a loop of fiber encircling the continent, financed by African countries.  But, this hasn’t happened, so internet service is mostly satellite-based.  Getting bills for internet access paid is a problem, as is the ability to clog the pipe endlessly.  You can’t just make the pipes bigger, so there is a big need for security and prioritization of data flow.

MTDS doesn’t really need capital as it has no debt and is making money.

American companies have a great reputation with Moroccans.  They see the French as too corrupt and the English as too weird.  They like our pragmatism and the fact that we don’t need to be cool.  The French are too condescending, while Americans seem to care and will listen even if they can’t solve the problem.

Bringing American firms to Morocco has a great effect.  American companies take care of their employees.  It’s often small things that matter.  Moroccan companies are learning to do the same and to follow the law, but there are still big corruption issues to overcome. 

The Moroccan tax agency is very transparent.  They plan to lower the VAT over the next 2 years.  Sixty percent of Moroccan companies’ books show a loss so they don’t need to pay taxes.  All farm proceeds are tax free, so Moroccan companies buy farms.

Karl is very bullish on Morocco.  He believes the country needs Apple, Hewlett Packard, Radio Shack—and Sears hardware.  The quality of the hardware is awful.  People constantly fix everything.  For example, Karl said he has to replace door hinges several times a year.  The market is very price sensitive, so the quality is bad.  The Moroccan consumer is brand new, so doesn’t know how to shop for price and quality.

Morocco has a small middle class.  Twenty percent of the population is poor.  They buy cigarettes one by one because if they buy a pack, they have to share.  Utility companies don’t send out timely bills.  You’ll get a bill for an unpaid balance only after your service gets cut off.  The quality of construction is very bad.

Rabia El Alama, Managing Director, AmCham Morocco:

Rabia came from a small city in Morocco, from a modest background.  Her mother was married at 11 and had her first baby at 12.  Consequently, she had only a few years of education.  She had 10 children and insisted they all get an education.  Her mother’s dream was to finish school and become a judge.  Instead, she told her kids to learn and get the best education that she could not get.

Rabia was accepted to an international management school in Casablanca.  She went to AmCham to get some information and found nothing there.  AmCham happened to be hiring then, so she got the job.  It was a tiny chamber with no structure.  She said, “I grew with the Chamber.”  And she’s still there, but is now the manager.  She has her MA in international business and can now teach international business.

The State Department selected Rabia to participate in its International Visitor Program, which enabled her to tour 13 states for 7 weeks, meet business people and government leaders, and President Clinton.  The experience changed her life.

Most important to Rabia is providing a very good education to Morocco’s children.  It empowers kids to get the best jobs, to succeed, and grow.

AmCham was established in 1966 by Coca Cola, Colgate and Proctor & Gamble.  Most of its business ties are with Europe, since 66% of trade is with Europe.  They would like to see more trade and more investment between Morocco and the U.S.  AmCham provides advocacy, information, networking and business support services.  It has 280 members, 50% of whom are Moroccan companies, 5% multi-national, and 45% U.S.

They provide business briefings using board members, special publications, and an expedited business visa program.

Over the last 20 years, the economy has been liberalized.  Between 1993 and 2000, 50 state-owned enterprises were privatized.  In 2000, Morocco negotiated an FTA with Europe and, in 2006, with the U.S.  The country joined the WTO in 1994.  Today, only the phosphate sector and Royal Air Maroc are still government-owned.

Inflation has been 2% per year for the last decade.  Growth has been 4-6% per year, and was 5.6% in 2009.  Tourism provides $6.6 billion to the economy and remittances, $5.7 billion.  But the economy is fragile.  Agriculture is 20% of GDP.  The government is planning irrigation systems to overcome drought.  The flooding we saw is not as big a problem as it appears.  The country will still have a record harvest.  Government subsidizes agriculture.

Foreign direct investment was $4.5 billion in 2007 and $3.3 billion in 2008.  Moroccans have access to good and varied food, housing, transportation, and the internet.  Today, Casablanca has 2 million cars.  Mortgages are affordable at 5-6%.  Currency controls are designed to keep Moroccan fortunes in the country.  There are about 20 very wealthy families, like the Russian oligarchs.  Moroccans traveling out of the country can only take $1500 and cannot use credit cards.  This makes foreign travel very difficult.  Profits can be transferred out 100%.

The corporate tax rate is 35% now.  It will be dropped to 30% this year and ultimately will be 20%.  Morocco has a non-double taxation agreement with the U.S.  Individuals can only get foreign cash at the central bank.

The education system is getting worse.  Half of the national budget goes to education, but the results are awful.  Teachers don’t show up.  The schools teach in Arabic, when the Moroccan language is a dialect of Arabic.  Higher education is in French.

Moroccan Travel

Driving across Morocco takes one through a varied geography.  There are beautiful farms, growing tomatoes, wheat, fava beans, and tropical fruits.  Hundreds of greenhouses grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the European market.  The folded hills were covered with green grass and wildflowers, thanks to the heavy rains.  Morocco’s Atlas Mountains still had snow.

Between Rabat and Fez lies the Roman city of Volubilis, which we visited.  It is on a hillside, quite alone.  The golden ruins are surrounded by flowers, lush grass, and quiet.  One of the highlights of Volubilis is its beautiful mosaics, still very clear on the floors of the ruined villas.  They are not protected at all, which is very unfortunate.

Fez carved screen

Fez leather dying vats

Fez madrassa

Merzouga girls selling crafts

Merzouga : Group on camels

Sahara : camels returning

Sahara dunes after sunrise

Sahara : Group at sunset

Sahara : Our camp


Fez is one of the great medieval Muslim cities of the world.  Our riad (old palace or villa turned into a small hotel) was on the edge of the medina, the souk or bazaar of Fez.  Walking through the medina is a walk through history.  The alleyways are too narrow for vehicles, so donkeys, people, and hand carts carry all the goods into the innumerable shops and homes in the ancient medina.  The shopping area is comprised of different souks, or bazaars, each dedicated to a different product or activity.  There are souks for metalworking, woodworking, embroidery, food, spices, and tailors. 

Women carry their bread dough, shaped in 12 inch rounds, to a communal bakery for baking.  Men sit outside their tiny shops embroidering kaftans, which they make inside.  Women embroider the linens.  Along the alleyway walls, men and boys twist thread into embroidery yarn.   In the traditional leather souk, men cure hides in huge vats filled with water, pigeon droppings, and colorful dyes.

Like Andalucia, Fez has magnificent Muslim mosques, madrassas (Koranic schools) and villas.  The plaster carving is done on the ground before being lifted into place as a large frieze. 

Our riad was small, only 8 rooms, comprised of 3 old villas put together.  They all open onto beautiful courtyards with trees and flowers.  When you walk along a street or alley, you walk along tall, blank walls, dotted with small doorways.  Open the door, and you’ll usually find a courtyard, with rooms and balconies surrounding it.  Muslim family life focuses inside rather than outside, so all the homes are cloistered and protected by high walls.

Our drive to the Sahara was long and interesting, passing by Morocco’s only ski area, two small, short runs, now green.  The mountains we crossed from Fez to the Sahara are full of meadows and wildflowers, with occasional villages and some Berber camps as you get closer to the desert.  Our destination was Merzouga, a small town on the edge of the Erg Chebbi, Morocco’s only area of significant sand dunes.

The Sahara

Merzouga is an oasis, full of date palms.  Families have small plots of land where they grow the date palms.  The more industrious families also intersperse their trees (palms are actually a grass) with crops of vegetables or grains. 

Mohammed, the owner of our hotel, took us on a walking tour of the dunes and oasis.  He showed us the water system that comes through the dunes, concrete pipes under the sand, with large concrete vents, actually pipes, where sand can be cleaned out of the system.  We could see the grass fences the villagers had constructed to hold back the drifting sand, but the dunes nonetheless move ever closer to the palms, covering the fences and encroaching on the fields and homes. 

Mohammed explained the irrigation system, which runs through the oasis in a concrete ditch with dirt ditches going off to every family’s plot.  Each family is responsible for maintaining its own ditches and each gets an allotment of water, 7 hours every 12 days.  Farmers trade water with other farmers if they need more at a certain time.  As the date palms blend back into the dunes, there is a community water system that provides clean water to families.  Two children were filling large plastic bottles with water to carry home.  Nearby, young girls were selling their handmade souvenirs, and were happy that we bought them.  

On the way back to the hotel, Mohammed took us to his family home to have tea with his mother.  The entire extended family lives in the home, including aunts, uncles, and cousins.  There is a large living room with several low couches and cushions against the walls and a small TV entertaining several children.  Family bedrooms are off a courtyard.  Mohammed also showed us a house under construction.  The men use the adobe soil to make huge bricks, about 4 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 2 feet deep for the walls.  These provide a cool interior for the very hot summers and warmth for cold winter nights.

The highlight of Merzouga was our camel ride into the dunes to spend the night in a Berber camp.  Camels are not the most comfortable transportation, but if you get into the rhythm, they’re better than walking yourself on the soft sand.  The camp is in the midst of dunes, set in a small valley, surrounded by tall and shifting dunes.  We climbed to the top of one dune where tables and chairs allowed us to drink wine and watch the sunset in comfort.  Our trip to the camp began and ended in a sandstorm.  Fortunately, Mohammed had wrapped Berber scarves around our heads, necks and faces to protect us from the stinging sand and wind.  They worked extremely well. 

We watched the sun set in the west as a full moon rose in the east.  What a spectacular evening, sitting on the dunes, eating dinner, and going to sleep under a huge moon that lit up the dunes all night.  Sunrise turned the dunes many shades of yellow, gold, and orange.  We walked away from the camp to watch the sun come up before mounting our camels for the ride back to Merzouga.

Our drive that day took us to the rocky, mountainous desert south of the Atlas Mountains.  We drove many miles up the magnificent Dades Valley for lunch at a French restaurant that may have been our favorite restaurant of the entire trip.  We sat outside under umbrellas overlooking the steep gorge of the Dades. 

We reached Skoura in the late afternoon, to our favorite hotel of the trip, Les Jardins de Skoura.  A French woman, Caroline, found a ruined Moroccan mud compound in the middle of a palmeraie (large palm oasis) and rebuilt it into a charming inn with 8 rooms, a lovely garden, and a superb French chef.  She had just found a puppy hiding in a nearby mud brick wall, so adopted the adorable little creature who enchanted us dog lovers.  The next morning, before departing for Marrakesh, we bought out the tiny shop at the hotel, to the extent that the shop’s owner had to bring a new supply of rugs for us to buy before we left.

eGlobal Education trip, Camelot, Morocco, March 2010


Over the high Atlas Mountains and on to Marrakesh.  The road over the mountains is narrow and very winding, a bit more exciting than some of us like.  Our driver was very skilled, however, and brought us safely to Marrakesh, where we enjoyed another lovely riad.  The main square is huge, featuring dozens of food stalls, thousands of strolling Moroccans, and equally large number of tourists, snake charmers, tattoo artists, fortune tellers, water sellers, and other colorful traders.  Marrakesh has its own large souk, filled with shops large and small.  A fitting end to a fascinating trip.

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