Back into the third world. Morocco is like visiting India, only not on steroids -- sort of "India Lite". We are back to garbage strewn streets, overpowering smells, and "we'll send somebody to fix that" (but no one shows up) at the hotels. Third world travel is, nonetheless, always fascinating, enlightening and educational as well as humbling as you find yourself frequently counting your blessings for the sheer dumb luck of being born in the USA (or living in the US for those on this list that were born somewhere else). There are some fine sights to see in this exotic country so very close to Spain geographically but a world away culturally and economically. The country is over 99% Muslim by the way and they seem open-minded and quite tolerant of the many foreign tourists.
Going back to traveling by tour group has made us rethink future trips. You certainly get to see a lot more and don't have to think about logistics but the freedom we had in Spain and Portugal is sorely missed and the 7 am wake up calls suck! Even this relatively small group of 15 (including us) is hard to adjust to after enjoying complete autonomy.
Casablanca has but one tourist attraction--a huge mosque that we were unable to enter. It is said to have cost billions to build, but not so sure that is something to brag about since, IMHO, the money could have been better spent on health care, education, environmental consciousness-raising or humane animal control...take your pick. The other attraction in this ugly city seemed to be a huge line of discos along the waterfront that appeared to go on forever. The capitol city of Rabat turns out to be equally unimpressive to us with some very meager, ho-hum sights to see (as Hannah Masius would say, "meh").
Not until we get to Fez (aka Fes) does it start looking like the Morocco of Disney cartoons. Here, in the souk (old market) the passageways become so narrow in places that you need to suck it in and turn sideways just to squeeze through. You'll be body to body strolling down jammed alleys when all of a sudden you'll hear someone in back of you yelling, "Balak!" (Arabic for "watch out" or "get out of my way"), and then you'll be pushed aside by some guy and his donkey loaded with 200 lbs. of synthetic furniture batting. We enter into a small side door and climb through a leather goods shop five flights up and then another flight puts us on an outside terrace where we overlook the curing and dying of cow, sheep, goat and camel skins. There we can look down six stories into what looks like (and smells like) seven rings of hell. These are the large pools of pigeon poop (valued for its high ammonia content) and natural dyes in which they cure and separate the skins of the disemboweled animals for their Italian-designed coats and handbags. What is really amazing is that all of this is somewhere behind a totally nondescript door in the middle of the souk.
The real emphasis of any OAT (Overseas Adventure Travel) trip is what they consider to be connecting with the people. And we have been doing plenty of that. From merchants to nomads, from a cooking demonstration to a dinner at a used car salesman's home, we have met plenty of local people.
The Magical Mystery Bus continues over the Atlas Mountains and we arrive at a valley of date palm groves: over 800,000 of them each bearing huge clumps do gooey, sugary, delicious dates. In the markets they are divided into about a dozen sections for all the different sizes and varieties. No matter, they are all wonderful!
We board 4x4's and venture into the desert after a stay in an oasis hotel at the edge of the Sahara. Fortunately, the driver seems to know where he is going as there are no real roads--just endless miles of desert with tire tracks going in every direction. Every 15 minutes or so we come across a clump of handmade signposts, huddled together as if to command a certain amount of authority. But our drivers ignore them and speed us off to our camp out in the middle of the dunes.