Ouarzazate, or “Ouallywood”, as they say. April 20-May 1, 2019. (That is pronounced Warzatate and Wallywood). I traveled to Ouarzazate to attend a week of language training with Peace Corps. This was an optional program, covering popular local dialects of our regions, in my case, Tamazight. I will talk about the training, the sights and experiences of travel, Easter with fellow volunteers, and the incredibly generous and kind people of this city.
It takes 15 hours to get from my village to Ouarzazate by public transportation. I doubt you would be any faster by private car. The small bus to Fes leaves at 5:30 in the morning, petite taxi to the train station, train to Marrakesh leaves Fes at 7:30 and arrives at 2:15 pm, then the big bus to Ouarzazate, 3:00 to 8:00 pm, followed by a grand taxi to my friend’s neighborhood.
I’ve discussed the sights from the train to Marrakesh in a previous post, so I will just add that it was beautiful to see all the wildflowers along the way, the ripened wheat beginning harvest, and fruit beginning to form. On approaching Marrakesh, the vast wasteland that I observed previously was transformed into an unrecognizable carpet of green by the late rains. Marrakesh was lush with flowers. The roses, plentiful along the roads and other public spaces, were at full bloom. There are bougainvillea, in every color, also, everywhere you look. There were many flowering trees, some of which I have never seen before.
Between Marrakesh and Ouarzazate there is a big mountain range, and the Tizi n’Tichka pass. This was a beautiful and fascinating, yet frightful and nauseating experience. The bus driver arrived in Marrakesh late, and was clearly determined to make up the lost time on our trip despite rain, construction and hairpin turns. As we left Marrakesh the rain began. There were pine forests, and one could see the progression of planting and harvesting trees across the mountains. It is also interesting to note that bamboo is an important crop here and harvested for building materials. As we head into and over the mountain pass, there are many small terraced farms and some small villages and tourist outposts. The river runs fast and red below, smaller and clearer up high. Same as we see near home, people harvesting all sorts of roadside greenery, I suspect mainly for animal food by the looks of it. These are carried in bundles, by people or donkeys. I have frequently seen sheep on top of small buses, but this was the first time I saw Holstein cows on top of a truck.
The trip over the mountain was one giant game of chicken. This was made especially interesting by the fact the entire mountain is under a huge construction project. At first, I thought I was seeing repairs from washouts due to rains. Soon, I realized that these many, single lane, huge new supporting culvert-structures, were joined by huge new mountain cuts to straighten the road, river diversions, mountainsides being pushed over the edge and groupings of large construction equipment, working and not. Clearly this mountain pass is being widened and improved. Great, except that our driver was passing everything, buses, cars, cattle trucks, like a madman. We were frequently off the edge other side of the road, with only a steep canyon to catch our imminent fall. And, he was frequently talking on the phone. I had a front row view from behind the driver. It was irrelevant if he could see around the constant succession of hairpin turns at what was coming. I was doing a lot of swearing and praying under my breath. I even brought the Peace Corps Duty phone up on speed dial, coming close to calling them, in hopes they would send a helicopter to evacuate my remains. We had a short pit stop near the top. Then, the snow started! Yes, playing chicken in a blizzard, with a full-sized bus. At least, in the area where it was snowing, at the top of the pass, the construction was mostly finished. Clearly, I did not roll off the mountain, so my fears were in vain. A week later, the same trip on a clear day was at a reasonable pace, and painless.
Approaching the town, one sees a couple of the movie studios, with large sets visible from the road. While I visited one briefly, looking for a gift shop, I did not have time to go through the tours. Many movies featuring desert scenes, including Game of Thrones, are filmed here.
From the bus station, I found a Grand Taxi to take me all the way to my fellow PCV’s neighborhood, helping a Canadian to do the same. On exiting the taxi, I realized that I had left my laptop computer in the back seat. In most cities, you would just say “bye-bye laptop”, but this is Morocco. My friend, a fellow PCV from my training days, met me at the street. I explained that I need to wait there to see if the driver would come back this way. She helped me explain my dilemma to some guys on the street, and another cab driver offered to help me. He said that if the guy had not returned by now, he went a different way. She took my suitcase home with her, and I got in his cab. From my description he thought he knew who the driver was. After talking with people at two taxi stands, we were on our way to the guy’s house, when we saw him going the other way and chased him down. Yep, long story short, my laptop was still in the backseat. The driver who helped me did not want anything for his time and effort, just happy to help a new friend, a visitor to Morocco. Naturally, I did my best to reward him regardless.
There were many other acts of kindness and help during my visit. People on the streets, on the buses, at shops, at more. I ate dinner two nights at the same restaurant, and they did not even want to charge me the second night. I was trying to find a photo book of Ouarzazate (spent many hours, looking many places) for my host sister, as she had requested a souvenir. I wanted something nice that the family could share. A man at the museum let me in after hours, and insisted on giving me his personal photo book, and would not take money. Finally, I asked the right people and found what I wanted at the local tourist office. Little boys knocking mulberries from a tree offered me some of their treasure when I asked what they were doing. Yes, there was a little hustling by the desert excursion tourist businesses, (mostly wanting to take me to Merzouga! Clearly they do not read my blog), but not from the normal people. Also, I must comment that the city was very clean, not a bit of trash to be seen.
I had arrived a day before the meeting, because my friend had invited me to have an Easter Brunch with her, and a few others from our group. One girl was there before me, and one other, with two of the young men, arrived in the morning. After our brunch of lentils, eggs and bread, we went for a long walk, including climbing a high rock formation for a great view. I enjoyed a little time with fellow Americans. Holidays are the most difficult time for me, being away from family and friends. Easter is one of the holidays that is in direct conflict with the Qu’ran, so not the easiest time to share culture, with limited language skills. I would not want to be seen as trying to convert anyone. The Muslims believe that God brought Jesus to heaven, yes, but not that he was killed. That afternoon, we moved to our hotel.
Our hotel, the Bab Sahara, was more of a hostel, with nearly all rooms sharing common toilets at showers on each floor. Because we took the room with 4 beds, however, we had the corner suite with our own bathroom, and even a small balcony overlooking the square. The place was charming in many ways, and very conveniently located on the main square. I also visited a couple of other hotels, including the exquisite Berber Palace. As always, Morocco has every range of accommodations, but Peace Corps budget does not normally exceed $15/day. The staff were nice, the food good. A continental breakfast and lunch were provided, with dinners on our own.
Our week was filled with language classes and cultural events. In groups of 6-7, we studied the languages of the pre-Islamic tribes. These have been greatly modified over the years, and include a lot of Arabic and Darija now. They were forbidden for many years, but currently these old cultures and languages, call them Berber or Amazigh, are experiencing a real renaissance. I took a lot of notes, but did not advance much. Some of the exercises include going out into the community with questions to practice, and I enjoy those. Still, it is a base to work from. In addition to the musical performance provided for us the last night, I encountered another musical group in one of my many walks around town, after classes. It was part of a tourist event where Ouarzazate was hosting the National Fish Cooking Competition. For our last night, all the PCVs joined the locals for dancing to their music on our hotel rooftop.
The trip home was uneventful, but this time I was able to enjoy the mountain and the scenery. Public transportation makes it impossible to get all the way home in one day, so I spent the night in Fes. I got the wrong hotel, as there were two by the same name. A lady I met on the train gave me a ride, saying it was near her home. By the time the mistake was discovered, it was late at night and I just got a room at the new place. There are always sights that make you wish you were faster with a camera; boys swimming in a creek, a Dad driving a motorcycle with his little boy on the back and a live chicken in each hand, carpets of red poppies, farmers out cutting Fava beans by hand and laying those cut plants in rows, ripe loquats on trees, and long conical baskets of mulberries on carts in the streets. There are always nice encounters with people, too many to mention. I got home Sunday mid-day.
Then, on Wednesday, I accompanied my host sister to Fes. She just wanted to get out of town. It was May Day, so the Youth Center was closed. We also went to a small village, popular with Moroccans, Sidi Harazum, where people picnic and drink the spring waters. To further cut the week short, on Friday morning I got a call from my first host family, saying “come now”. With the help of my Director, I determined that I was being summoned to my host brother’s wedding, that night, in my old village. More on that in my next post.