Category Archives: solo travel

Moroccan Mountains

Morocco’s Unseen Mountains and Rivers

Morocco towns and riversSometimes the most rewarding trips are close to home. Lately, I’ve been feeling the itch to travel but have been a bit stuck at home because of family responsibilities, work and the weather. Yesterday, though I decided that I needed to take some time to go on a short jaunt from the town I live in, Sefrou, Morocco – a medium sized city in the Middle Atlas Mountains of North Africa.

My wife hates to travel this way, which is perhaps why neither of us have a truly satisfying time when we travel together – I don’t like to make plans. Instead, I walked down to the grand taxi plaza in the center of Sefrou (there are two others that serve other destinations but I’d never taken a taxi from this one) and I stood around for a while seeing if I could figure out where they were going. A taxi plaza is a nice place to loiter as everyone assumes you are waiting for a taxi to fill up and so you can just sit and people watch to your hearts content.

Morocco townsI heard that one destination was Ribat El Kheir, a berber town I’d heard of but not been to and the other seemed to be Asouta – more people were going there it seemed so I called my wife and asked her. Her response (about what I expected) “No, don’t go there, there’s nothing there, it’s too far, you won’t find a taxi back in the afternoon, the people there like to stare.” Oops – I probably shouldn’t have called. Once I promised her I wouldn’t go to this mysterious destination (this time) I jumped in the wait for the Ribat el Kheir taxi to fill up (since I hadn’t said anything about that destination and so hadn’t had to make any promises about it.)

I didn’t know how far or how long, but it was easy to find out it was 20 dirham which probably meant it was about twice the distance to Fes (10 dirham). After about 20 minutes, the taxi was filled with me and six other men. I wondered if I would be able to find a taxi back but knew that even if I didn’t I would be able to find a hotel, if they had hotels, but even if they didn’t I would be able to find a Moroccan family that would accept a donation in return for letting me sleep on a couch in their salon – I hoped.

Moroccan MountainsI had no idea what to expect. I knew a Peace Corps Volunteer last year who worked with a group of women in Ribat el Kheir but aside from that, I knew nothing. The taxi ride took a little over an hour and let me tell you – it blew my mind. The ride to the village of Azzabba was fairly typical of the scenery around Sefrou high desert foothills, cactus, rocky soil, olive trees and not much else – but then the Middle Atlas came into view.

A bit of research when I got home means that you get to hear more detail than I knew as I saw things. Jebel Bou Iblane is the second highest mountain in Morocco and sits 3174 meters high and covered with snow. Like a small white lion, she crouched over the scenery.

Moroccan RiversBut there was more. Soon we came to an astoundingly large river. The Sebou River begins in this region and then winds more than 600 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the largest rivers in Morocco. Not only that, but it has carved out a sort of mini Grand Canyon that completely astounded me with massive red cliffs, rugged valleys, and more. Sadly, the Sebou is one of the most polluted rivers in the region due to open sewage and industrial waste pouring into it along its entire length. A beautiful river and a huge tragedy all in one. The stretch of the river I saw looked perfect for kayaking, rafting, fishing and more – but not a soul was doing anything but washing clothes along the banks.An historical note, the Sebou River was actually chronicled by the Roman Pliny the Elder.

A short distance further we passed through the city of El Menzel – which I visited later in the day – briefly.

Jebel Bou Inana MountainAbout forty more minutes and we reached the surprisingly busy Taxi plaza of Ribat el Kheir. Both Ribat el Kheir and El Menzel had what looked like bright shiny new banks with bright shiny ATM machines – just a few years ago, finding an ATM machine in cities this size was impossible in Morocco, but it just goes to show how quickly this country is changing – though sometimes it’s hard to tell when you are living in it.

Ribat El Kheir is a name that was given to the town as punishment when the Berber residents rebelled against the former king Hassan II in July of 1971 – obviously, their coup failed. Prior to that it was called (and still is called by the residents) Ahermoumou or small white lion in Tamazight. The views of Jebel Bou Iblane and the Zloul Valley were nothing less than astounding. I’m not sure how to reach the mountain, but perhaps a later expedition will clear that up.

Women's Artisanal in MoroccoA shopkeeper I met told me that the city had once been an important stopping point for the railroad, but I saw no signs of it. Later research showed that a narrow gauge railway had run from 1925 until an unknown time when it was destroyed. Not sure if that was in a Berber uprising or perhaps World War II or even later.

A bit of hiking around and searching led me to the women’s artisanal and retail outlet that my friend the Peace Corps Volunteer had helped to organize and set up. A woman named Foudia gave me a tour, showed me how the rugs and textiles are made and told me the prices. Sadly, I hadn’t brought enough money with me but the absolutuely gorgeous rugs ranged from 300-1000 dirham ($45-$130) and were well worth the price. Peace Corps volunteers have done incredible work in Morocco but I’ve heard that this kind of economic training has been discontinued and instead the Peace Corps is focusing on youth development, which pretty much means English classes. I find that very sad.

dream house in Ribat el KheirI found my dream house in Ribat el Kheir, which is most likely owned by the richest person in the town. I wandered the many small streets, hiked a bit on the rough slopes and enjoyed the awesome views before climbing into a van heading to El Menzel. Designed to hold 12-15 people, it was soon filled with about 25 and we kept stopping along the way. Just 6 dirham, but tight, uncomfortable, and very slow since we stopped often for new passengers. A real life experience, that’s for sure.

El Menzel looked interesting but with daylight fading, I wasn’t sure how much longer the taxis would run to Sefrou and I didn’t want to upset my wife by telling her I’d be staying in this village for the night, though I wouldn’t have minded if I had gotten stuck there. I found a small town of nice parks and unlike Sefrou, there were plenty of spaces to sit on benches surrounded by plants and flowers. I don’t really know what is wrong with Sefrou – I suppose it is a victim of too rapid growth but every bench is quickly torn apart and the huge amount of garbage makes the plants not as enjoyable as in other places.

Moroccan sunset from Grand TaxiI found a very comfortable cafe (again, why can’t I find one like this in Sefrou?) enjoyed a coffee for five dirham and then wandered the streets where I found one of my favorite food carts, Baboush – African Snails in herbal broth! Mmmmm.
I think that snails would be considered haram by other Muslims, but North Africans love them and I have to admit – so do I, but since I have no religious prohibitions- it’s all about the taste. Finally, I grabbed a bag of popcorn from another street vendor and bought the two front seats of a taxi. Once four guys had filled the back seat, the driver got in and we drove off – the cost for my luxurious occupation of the entire front seat 26 dirham or about $3 versus $1.50 to have some other guy crammed in next to me. Well worth it as I snapped pictures of the canyons, the Sebou River, and the sunset on the way home.

Getting back home, my wife was just coming back from her mom’s house with the baby “Did you hitchhike? Where did you go?” She asked me.

“Oh, I just took a little drive.” I told her.

ibn battuta

Ibn Battuta – Moroccan Vagabond

The greatest adventurer of all time for me is the Moroccan vagabond, Ibn Battuta. He not only traveled everywhere in his known world, but he wrote about it in ways that no one before him had. Ibn Battuta’s journey lasted 29 years, so by Moroccan standards, my wife should be understanding of this current journey I’m on.

Ibn Battuta was the only world traveler in Middle Ages and he achieved fame because of he visited every Muslim ruler’s land of his time. He also traveled in China, Sri Lanka, Byzantium (which included huge amounts of Europe, Turkey, and Central Asia) and Russia. He traveled over 75,000 miles in his lifetime. And keep in mind most of this was by foot, camel, or horse. There were no frequent flyer programs then. He traveled like a nomad throughout the world and in the process, he introduced (and is still introducing) the cultures of the world to one another.
ibn battuta
Ibn Battuta was a well known traveler who lived according to the slogan ‘never, if possible, cover any road a second time’. He traveled on camel, horse, by boat and on foot. He went as far as he could through every means of land transport. He also traveled to West Africa and visited Timbuktu, Niger, and Mali. He distinctly described the existing political, social and economic conditions, religious matters, and position of women in the nations and regions he visited.

Ibn Battuta Resources
The Adventures of Ibn Battuta
The Travels of Ibn Battuta in the Near East, Asia, and Africa
Traveling Man: The Journeys of Ibn Battuta

He was elected Chief judge of Delhi, and he spent his life as Qadi (chief judge) of Morocco in the city of Fes for twenty three years, meanwhile he also wrote of his travels which at the time included almost everything that was known about the world.

At the age of 21, Ibn Battuta started his travels from Morocco. The main reason for his journey was to go on the Hajj, the long journey to Mecca, like all other Muslims who are required to do the same during their lives if possible. travels of ibn battuta

He traveled for 29 years and covered almost 75,000 miles where he visited 44 modern countries. He faced many dangers and adventures on his way. Bandits attacked him and he nearly drowned in a sinking ship during his travels.

ibn battuta on camelIbn Battuta was born in Morocco in a Muslim family in 1304. He studied Muslim law and in 1325 he left the place to make the journey to Mecca. He was very interested in adventure and world travel. Traveling to Mecca through land and by sea was dangerous. He traveled on land with a donkey at first. Later he joined a caravan with other travelers.

Ibn Battuta was asked to dictate the story of his travels to a scholar by the Sultan of Morocco. Today we are able to read that story in English and the story is called “Rihla-My Travels”.

ladies fancy hats in Istanbul

What Am I doing here? Istanbul, Cairo, Greece and Going Home

Vago Damitio. What am I doing here?

Cairo, Egypt
29 AUG 2012

As I begin to write this I am still sitting in a beautiful little konak (wooden house) just a stone’s throw from the Blue Mosque, Arasta Bazaar, and the Grand Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul.  Erten Konak is a remarkable little guest house filled with unique oddities and treasures.

ladies fancy hats in Istanbul I’m still not certain about the ladies hats displayed like flowers, but the gorgeous mosaics in the courtyard and the glass covered basement access to a cistern that leads from the Basilica Cistern to the sea is something extraordinary.

In any event, I’m comfortable here and getting the work done which I came to Istanbul to do. I’ll write a review of Erten Konak in a few days when I have a bit more time. As you read this, I am hopefully back at home with my beautiful wife and daughter in Morocco. (editors note – due to some booking issues with awful booking service Tripsta, I am delayed a few days in Cairo – not the worst place to be stranded, but I really wanted to see my girls :( )

It’s been a very nice and productive month in terms of getting business done, sailing, and enjoying the good life in Greece, Turkey, Italy, and Egypt – but the truth is, it’s time to go home. This particular trip, I couldn’t bring my family with me and I’ve missed them dearly while I’ve been away.

So, as I write I’m sitting in a cute little Istanbul konak, as you read, I’m hopefully back in Morocco with my family – but the in between is what I really want to write about. After all, I truly believe that it is the in between spaces of any journey which make it fulfilling and interesting. The things of the unknown.

Without at least a bit of uncertainty, I find that life and travel don’t hold much interest.

For those of you who have been following, the uncertainty that has been hovering over my head during this trip was how to get home. For those who aren’t familiar, let me catch you up.  In August, I had the chance to go sailing on a friend’s yacht in the Greek islands for a few weeks – since the best yacht is a friend’s yacht – I jumped at the chance. Especially when I found a 30 Euro budget flight to Italy and then another 30 Euro flight to Greece. Part of the reason the trip worked was because I had some things to take care of in Turkey anyway.

After the sailing was done I stayed a few days in Thessaloniki, Greece as a guest at The Excelsior Hotel (which, by the way, was perhaps the nicest hotel I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying).

14th floor view from IzmirFrom Thessaloniki, I caught the ferry to Chios where even though fires were raging, I had a wonderful time exploring the island by motorbike before catching a ferry into Cesme, Turkey – renting a house in Alicate for the night and then heading to Izmir where I stayed (and never wanted to leave) at the Ege Palas in a 14th floor executive suite where my desk looked out over the Bay of Izmir.

There must be something to having an office with a view because I got more productive work done there than anywhere else in an amazingly short time – it might of been that I just didn’t want to get up or move from the view.

From Izmir a flight to Istanbul where I met with some colleagues about the nascent International Association of Professional Online Travel Journalists and also discussed the formation of a foundation based in Cappadocia which will focus on sustainable tourism and travel as well as create a permanent travel writers residency in Cappadocia. Very exciting projects!

Istanbul cooking classWhile here, I’ve visited the Mosaic Museum, caught up with old friends, took a Turkish cooking class (don’t worry, I’ll tell you about it later) and have been enjoying this queen of all the cities once again. My home away from home.

But finally, I had to figure out how to get home. To be honest – I’m sick of budget airlines. Ryan Air is cheap generally but they don’t fly to Turkey, the service is crap, and the baggage restrictions are draconian. I’m tired of counting my ounces and not being able to check a bag without paying a fee that equals more than the cost of a regular ticket.  There are some cheap options from Turkey to Ryan Air hubs – but I scrapped that idea as soon as I thought of it.

As for Air Arabia, the worst airline in the world – at least flying to or from Morocco, they still have my credit card on a banned list (which, by the way was their mistake to begin with and that I’ve never been able to get them to fix) and when I went to check the prices – I found them to be about double what I would be willing to pay for a terrible flight at inconvenient times anyway.

I considered (seriously considered) doing a reverse Orient Express and taking the train from Sirkeci Station in Istanbul to Sofia, Bulgaria then to Romania, Hungary, Austria, Germany and then into Spain to once again take the ferry into Morocco – but the truth is, if I do a trip like that, I want to spend at least a few weeks on it and at the moment, I want to get back to my family so I wouldn’t feel right doing that. Maybe another time.

I looked into jumping on a cruise ship – cabins are cheap these days and there is a twelve day cruise from Istanbul to Portugal which would give me the chance to jump ship in Spain and take the ferry – but again, twelve days is too long.

So, I looked at other airlines. Turkish Airlines, which by the way, is one of the world’s great airlines – had flights to Morocco starting at about 900 Euro one way! That’s more than a ticket to San Francisco and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Royal Air Maroc had flights starting at around 700 Euro and they are a crappy airline, so I didn’t want to do that either.

Finally, I turned to the Vagobond flight planning tool  which is absolutely awesome and I (of all people) should have gone to first (and yet the company it directed me to, Tripsta, has the worst customer service on Earth – so the tool is good, but skp Tripsta and go to the airline directly for better service).  I found a Turkish air flight for $600, a  Royal Air Maroc Flight for $500 and flights that had layovers in Madrid, Tunis, or Jeddah for $400.

Best of all, I found a flight that had a 21 hour layover in Cairo for $350. I’ve never been to Egypt and on my list of things I wanted to do this year (which I generally make on New Years Eve of the proceeding year) go to Egypt was on the list.  Ideally, I had hoped to go for longer than 21 hours, to have my wife and daughter with me, and to explore a bit – but that’s what I get for not being more specific.  So, I booked the flight.  I leave for Cairo tomorrow.

I’m going to try to do a night tour before catching my flight to Casablanca the next morning. I have no idea what is actually possible on a 21 hour overnight layover in Cairo – but I’ll be sure to let you know.