Monday, February 8, 2010

Travel - A Charming Saharan Land

If you are squeamish about visiting Arab countries, then consider Morocco. The U.S. enjoys its oldest non-broken friendship treaty with this country. It has a peaceful history and is very hospitable to foreigners.(Morocco is not to be confused with the neighboring Algeria, which has a much more speckled history.) It is also a delightful country worthy of a trip.

Geographically, Morocco is divided by the Atlas Mountains which run parallel to the Mediterranean coast. Most of the economic and governmental centers are north of the mountains. The Saharan desert is located to the south.

We flew into Marrakech, which lies on the northern edge of the Atlas Mountains. Marrakech is a popular spot for Europeans but does not get its due from USA. It has great hotels, top restaurants and other accoutements of a modern tourist town and also has authentic old town where story tellers and snake charmers can be found.

We stayed in a small residential hotel that ranks with the best we have seen. Our luxurious room was accompanied by a private rooftop patio. Having breakfast on the roof was an unforgettable experience.

From Marrakesh we hired a driver for the rest of the trip. Using a driver is probably the best means of travel and not prohibitively expensive, although driving a rented car is a perfectly acceptable alternative. We crossed the Atlas Mountains into Ouarzazate, where the best known Kasbahs have been preserved. Kasbahs are adobe buildings associated with Saharan Morocco.

From Ouarzazate we drove to Erfoud on the eastern corner of the desert. The drive was very interesting. We were able to observe life in the desert where camels remain the staple transportation of people and property.

Erfoud has one main attraction, that is a chance to see the desert sun at dawn. I sometimes wondered why we were going so far to see a sunrise, but Erfoud was one of our favorite stops.

The concierge at our hotel informed us that we would be picked up at four o’clock the next morning and taken to a special place to see the sunrise. The next morning we were met by one of the fiercest and most dangerous looking human beings imaginable. Monty was afraid that this man was an imposter who would kidnap us once we left the hotel. No one was awake in the hotel to confirm that he was indeed our guide for the morning. I kept my thoughts to myself, because I was not sure Monty was wrong.

Our fears were not allayed when our driver stopped the car in the loneliest place on the planet, so it seemed. It was a perfect scene for a mugging. He directed us to get out of the car, which we did with apprehensively. Then he pointed up to the sky. What we saw was as beautiful as any sight I can remember. There was the milky way in its full splendor and virtually every star in the heaven. He then broke into a big smile extremely proud of what he was showing us.

He next took us to an area where dunes dotted the landscape. We then embarked on a camel ride in the dark running through the dunes in the darkness. At the conclusion of the ride we were deposited on one of the dunes to wait for the sunrise. The whole event was so thrilling that the sunrise itself was almost an afterthought.

I have ridden on several camels and have not particularly enjoyed it, but the Erfoud ride was something special.

From Erfoud we drove to Fés, supposedly the sight of the beginning of Moroccan history. Its Medina is supposed to be the nearest the modern visitor can get to a medieval town. It is the sight of the palace of the modern day king and one of the great mosques.

I have noted three principal reasons why people who like to travel tend skip Morocco. First, most of us are apprehensive about going to countries where we do not like their politics. I have long since learned that most people are not the same as their politicians, and that concern is often overrated. Moreover, Morocco is much more closely tied to the West than many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. I believe that there is more danger attached to traveling in New York or the District of Columbia than in Morocco.

The second obstacle is that people fear that their accommodations will be inferior in what they believe to be underdeveloped countries. My experience is that the facilities in many places such as Morocco are superior to what we find in this country.

Last, but not least. Many people, often choose to take a cruise and drop off for a day trip Unfortunately, the real Morocco is not found on the Mediterranean beach. You must explore, and the rewards will be great.

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