Monday 7th June, Azrou, Morocco.
I got away from the hostel in Meknes just before nine yesterady morning, perectly in time for the nearby internet cafe, which opens at nine. After I'd waited outside for half an hour, I asked a ladt at the nearby teleboutique if she knew when the internet cafe would open. She said five or ten minutes more, but I got the impression that she would have said that regardless of when I asked. I'm learning that there's two different opening times here, the posted opening time, and the actual opening time. The internet cafe opened at ten thirty.
The bus ride to Azrou was unspectacular. It was mid afternoon by the time I got here, and I took a room at the first hotel I looked at, the Hotel Des Cedres (The Cedars). It had been recommended to me by John, the English guy I met in Meknes, and the rooms here are certainly very comfortable, with a big double bed, clean starched linen, washbasin, and my own private balcony. I could have saved two or three dollars a night by staying somewhere a little grittier, but I liked the location of this place, right in the centre of town. At about eight US dollars a night, it's not the most expensive room I've had in Morocco, but it's equal second. For the next few days I think I'll be sleeping in Berber tents or on a mattress on a rooftop, so I justified a little luxury.
There aren't many tourists in town. I was hoping to meet some other travellers to share a grand taxi to see the monkeys in the Cedar Forest, thirteen kilometres out of town. To hire a grand taxi alone would've cost me a hundred dirham. Instead I ended up taking a place in a shared taxi, and walking three kilometres from where it dropped me off. A couple in a passing car stopped and offered me a ride, but the walk through the cedar forest was beautiful, and I declined. It was cool today, almost cool enough to need a sweatshirt, and there was a heavy mist in the forest. I could feel it hitting the brim of my straw hat. This is so unlike what I expected to see in Morocco. The more I read, and the more I plan the rest of my time here (yes, I do have a plan now, as of last night!) the more I discover what a varied country this is. Over the next few weeks, I will pass gigantic sand dunes, travel through lush gorges, past huge cascading waterfalls, palm fringed oases, bustling cities, and quiet fishing villages. And today I hiked through pristine cedar forests. And fed monkeys!
Out at the cedar forest there were a few guys with stalls selling a variety of souvenirs and jewellery. I got chatting to one guy, who then insisted I join his friends for a cup of tea in their tiny cabin nearby. They had an American guy staying with them, and one of the Moroccans spoke perfect English as well, so I stayed there and sipped tea with them for an hour or more. The guy who spoke English was fascinating, he's travelled around the world, worked in Manchester for several years, and has just finished a four year walking tour of Morocco. I'd have loved to get a photo of the six or seven of us in the tiny hut, but I'd been invited as a friend and didn't want to seem like a gawking tourist. When I left, I offered them twenty dirham as a thankyou for the tea, but they refused absoultely. Then after my long hike, I hitchhiked back into town, and the two guys who gave me a ride also refused to accept the ten dirham I offered them. In fact the driver almost seemed offended. Azrou has been very kind to me, that's for sure. I've only been here forty-eight hours and already I can't walk down the street without receiving hearty greetings and handshakes from half a dozen people who know me, even one very sexy young lady. *yes, Sanae that's you*
Actually today was a very special milestone in my Morocco experience. It was the first day that the natural warmth and friendliness of the Moroccan people hasn't been tainted by some asshole trying to rip me off. And don't worry, the Moroccans hate these hustlers and faux guides as much as I do, maybe even more because the problems caused by this tiny percentage of the population brings shame on them all. Even the shopkeepers, souvenir sellers and shoeshine boys here are friendly, quite unperturbed when they're unable to make a sale. This evening I was invited to dinner at the house of Soulaimane, a guy who I met when I first arrived in town yesterday. He arranged to meet me outside my hotel at 9:30 and walked me to his house, where he prepared a delicious tajine, a traditional Moroccan stew that I'd been meaning to try. He made sure I watched every stage of the preparation, in case I should want to replicate it one day. It was chicken, onions, garlic, tomatoes, parsley, potatoes, oil, ginger, pepper, paprika and a red spice that I wasn't familiar with, along with a couple of hot peppers tossed in whole. It was my first tajine and was without doubt the best food I've eaten since I arrived in Morocco. I ate until I could barely move. Soulaimane is an interesting character. He is thirty-eight years old and was married to a much younger woman, but they divorced four years ago. When I asked if they had any children, he said "Thanks God, no. I don't think you can divorce if you have children. It's not good." Soulaimane studied for several years in Belgium, beginning with medicine, but changing later to a business degree. He's used his degree in several marketing type positions, but now operates a small export business, shipping Moroccan handcrafts to his partner in America. He flies to the US every year, in order to keep his Green Card. Soulaimane gave me a Moroccan robe when I left, but he had to modify it so it would fit over my fat head!
This afternoon, I spent a whopping 240 dirham posting a book to the US, and a book and an unwanted Tshirt home to Australia. That's five night's accommodation in most of the places I've stayed, and I reckon it'll be the last time I send anything home. From now on, unwanted clothes get given away. The postage was more than the shirt was worth. Hell, the books cost more to send than they did to buy! I've been kicking myself all afternoon. It does remind me though, about the Dear John book that I had offered to lend to anyone who wants it. Rachel in Florida was the only person who responded, but if you'd like to be next, just email me and I'll get Rachel to forward it to you when she's done.
Tomorrow I'm continuing east to Rissani, which is the end of the road, and the start of the desert. After Rissani, I'll have to catch a four wheel drive minibus the last ten or fifteen kilometres to Merzouga, a tiny village that is built at the edge of the sand dunes. From there I hope to be able to organize a camel trek into the desert, so if I'm offline for four or five days, don't be concerned. There may be an internet cafe in Merzouga, but there sure won't be one where I'm going from there. When I return, there should be some wicked photos!