cerebral museum

The Todra Gorge, Morocco

Posted in Uncategorized by Cassandra on February 26, 2010

After a day of driving and sightseeing, I arrived in Todra. I had just fallen asleep, jolted awake by the van door opening. I grabbed my bag, found my glasses. The sky was incredible. It was pitch black save for the one light on the front of the riad, and the sliver of sky visible through the top of the gorge, which was absolutely full of the most stars I’ve seen since I was in the high desert.

The Todra Gorge, Morocco

In between the riad and us was a rather large river, which we crossed on two 2×4 planks, one for each foot?

bedside lamp

The only electricity at the place was run by a generator which thankfully the didn’t run at night. Had a fantastic lemon potato tagine, some tea, and hit the hay. By far the coldest place I stayed in Morocco… there were 3 camel hair blankets on the bed and I still probably could’ve used another one.

The next day, I walked around a bit and when I got back to have breakfast, met a berber guy who offered to show us around a bit, a walking tour type of thing. We agreed, and he took us to see the local family farm plots, how their irrigation system works, old olive presses, and a berber women’s weaving collective. It was awesome, the guy was really knowledgeable (in both english and spanish) and just wanted some folks to talk to and introduce around.

berber farmland

The coat he’s wearing above is called a djellaba. It’s like a thick long sleeved dress with a pointy hood. Pretty much everyone in Morocco wears them, save the young folks in the cities.

abandoned Jewish neighborhood, now inhabited by berbers

handwoven Berber bags

If I were to buy a Moroccan rug, it’d definitely be from this place. This time around, I don’t have the space nor the 50€ to drop on one of these babies, though that’s a damn steal. Someday..

They’re all handmade on horizontal looms, each rug a unique design that the woman creates with no prior sketching. You can see the henna on her hands in the photo above, the berber women wear it constantly on their palms because the camel and sheep hair dry the skin over time. They had us try out the wool-pulling paddles and when I passed it to the guy next to me, all of the locals yelled at him and wouldn’t let him do it. “It’s a woman’s job,” they say. Even in the hippie-like organic arts collective, strict gender roles are still very much a part of the culture.

Headed back to the gorges after that. Snapped this one below on the road quickly.. never did get a close up of these trucks. All of the industrial trucks I passed on the road were crazily decorated with bright patterns and colors.

A few shots of the gorge itself:

hard to translate the magnitude, but that's a man standing in the bottom there, and the road I drove in on

There are tons of rock climbing routes in and around the gorge. I really want to come back someday and so some climbing here.

berber graffiti. the ‡ looking symbol means 'berber.'

The rock looks crumbly but in fact it’s super tough. The guy I met (never caught his name) is really into climbing, he pointed out tons of routes all over the place.

widened section of stream, partially fed by a natural spring.


So so beautiful. I could have spent weeks here. Someday hopefully I will.

Ciao, man! this guy was so awesome.

After the day in Todra, I continued South to Merzouga and Erg Chebbi. Wound up spending the night in a berber tent made of rugs in the middle of the dunes 50km north of the Algerian border… that’s up next.


Dades Valley, Morocco

Posted in Uncategorized by Cassandra on February 25, 2010

After Marrakech, I decided to go South toward the Sahara to find some dunes and to get away from the cities. I met up with a Basque couple headed in the same direction, and decided to go with them. We took an offroad bus out of Marrakech and over the Atlas mountains. It was pouring rain for hours through the mountains and it didn’t take long to understand why a 4WD was necessary. The strength of the colors seeping out of the mountains was something I’ll never forget.

the aptly named 'red valley'

Many of the homes and buildings are built of the local soil. As we ascended the mountains the terrain became much more grey and rocky– along with the buildings in each village. This use of locally-sourced materials seemed to be in use in almost every city and town I visited in Morocco. An especially beautiful example is in the Dades Valley (above) where the homes are the same vibrant pink-red as the soil.

atlas fog and flora

The driver (a very tiny and stoic berber man) was skilled, but it was still one of the more treacherous rides I’ve experienced.

snowy peaks in the distance

overflowing creek

The rain let up as we descended the Atlas and came into the other side of the Dades Valley, about halfway to Todra. The rock formations were insane. It was all so mind-blowing I forgot to get carsick.

Above (to the right) is a famous kasbah Ait Benhaddou in Ouarzazate. We hiked down to it and walked on rocks and sanbags over a shallow but wide river to get closer. There were a lot of kids hanging around charging to get in, and I read that it’s really only used for movie sets (most famously in Lawrence of Arabia) so I decided to skip going inside. When it came time to cross back over, only about 30 minutes later, the river had grown substantially. I don’t know how this happened or if it’s normal or not, but it was a surprise to us. Started out walking across on the sandbags placed by the kids, but ended up just taking off my shoes and wading.

More of the kasbah:

It’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and was built originally in the 11th century, but a local I talked to excitedly compared it to a movie star that never ages because of ‘too much plastic surgery’.

Passed through a few more villages before making it to Todra, the trip from Marrakech ended up taking a whole day.

(disclaimer: gratuitous landscapes ahead)

this guy is named Rad. he's from Okinawa, and lived up to his name.

That night, finally made it to Todra and stayed at a riad that was actually in a gorge. Had to cross a river on a 2×4 to get to it… really exciting.

Todra post up next, then the DUNES!

Marrakech, Morocco

Posted in Uncategorized by Cassandra on February 10, 2010

Over the holiday, I had a one month break in classes. I had decided a long time ago to drive down to Morocco with a friend. He’s Moroccan (from a town on the northwest coast called Larache) and has a car, plus he was making the trip anyway, so it all fit pretty perfectly. Our plan was to head down together, ferry the car across, and tour around for a couple of weeks. I was super excited for all of this and didn’t really plan too much out beforehand. I’d been wanting to go to Africa for a long time, and this was a perfect opportunity.

Marrakech, Morocco

On the 15th of December (four days before we were supposed to leave) I was in Germany when I got a phone call from Badr. He sounded terrible and told me we’d have to postpone our trip a week or more due to his passport expiring, but still really wanted me to come with him. I thought about it for a few hours and, due to many reasons, I went online and bought a 30€ flight for myself to Marrakech for the 20th. It was an impulsive decision, and I’m so glad I did it. Later on I made plans to meet up with him when he came down, but he never ended up making it, so I’m definitely glad I just decided to go by myself.

first view of Africa

I packed one backpack (mostly full of camera equipment and maps) and took one pair of boots. This was my favorite solo trip to date. Morocco is pure magic.

I landed in Marrakech at 8am in the morning on December 20th. From the plane I could see the Atlas mountain range in the distance and the sun rose as I was crossing the tarmac into the customs building. As soon as I exited the airport, I was immediately accosted by dozens of taxi drivers. They were asking twenty euros for a ride into the city and I haggled my way down to 8 euro. The car broke down halfway into the city and I put all of my water jug’s contents into his radiator to get us the rest of the way. The taxi driver befriended me at this point and invited me to dinner. I politely declined. So, after this bit of excitement, I finally made it to the medina (old walled in part of the city) of Marrakech.

Cafe du France

I had breakfast and relaxed before beginning the search for my riad. Riads are old post-colonial french mansions that were once owned by wealthy families. Many have been converted into bed and breakfast types of places, or hostels. The one I stayed at for my first 4 days in Marrakech was only about 11€ a night (~$15). Morocco is not an expensive place to travel in. I found increasingly cheap accommodations as the time passed, and the food is delicious and equally inexpensive.

I spent the first few days getting my bearings and planning out my route. I went without a return flight and had loose plans to work my way north towards Spain maintaining complete flexibility, which I really enjoyed. I passed the heat of day on cafe terraces, and drank unbelievable amounts of this stuff:

Moroccan mint tea… new favorite drink. It’s made with herbal tea with fresh mint (yerba buena) added in, poured into the cup from an impressive height so as to make it frothy on top. A Berber man told me a few weeks later, “a tea without bubbles is like a moroccan without jelabba.” (jelabbas are the native dress of Moroccans, it’s like a body-length long sleeved dress with a pointy hood that is worn over the clothes of both men and women.)

Most of the medina in Marrakech is a labyrinth full of souks. There are a few main plazas (Djemma al Fna the most famous and home to the Cafe du France). The souks are insanely long winding connected alleyways full of stores and shops of every kind.

junk shop with the most awesome owner. I bought a WWII knife here.

saffron, curry, mint tea, cumin, sage, anything you need..

later I ate them in soup

near my riad

The light was amazing. It was in the 80’s in the middle of winter.

Assault on the senses in so many ways.

Djemma al Fna

Marrakech turned out to be my favorite of the larger cities in Morocco. (Later went to Fez, and it seemed a bit claustrophobic to me.) Marrakech wears its heart on its sleeve. (more on this later) There weren’t too many tourists at this time. Most folks in the city speak at least three or four languages well (both french and arabic are the official languages, but spanish and english are widely used), and bits and pieces of seven or more.

I wanted to rent a motorbike or even a bicycle, but I decided to leave Marrakech after four days and head south toward the sahara. On my second to last night, I met a physicist from Geneva (whose name I couldn’t pronounce.. I just called him ‘joe’) who works on the particle de-celerating part of the CERN Hadron super collider… We nerded out over this and though he was speaking on an entirely different level when he tried to explain it to me, we found common ground over a cheap sausage stand dinner in the plaza. I could have talked with him for days.

The photo above shows the plaza full of stands and markets that sell dried fruit, yerba buena, the most amazing 30 cent hand-squeezed-to-order orange juice and prepared food of every kind. After sundown the stands are all erected, closely followed by the storytellers (interesting NYT article on these guys here) and music men replacing the acrobats and snake charmers that are found during the daytime.

After a lot of reading and talking to different people around, I finally decided on a rough plan for my next 3ish weeks. I found a route that would take me down through the Todra gorges, Dades valley, Ourzazarte and finally to the sahara near Erg Chebbi. The next morning, I jumped on the first van I found headed that way. After that, I headed back to Marrakech then north past Casablanca, and through Rabat, Fez, Meknés, Chefchaouen and finally Tangier.

I’ve got so many stories and even more photographs, probably four or five more posts worth, going to try and get those up within the next week or so.

Ma’ slamaa!

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