Sailing the Ships of the Desert—Camel Trekking in the Sahara

When we planned our Morocco trip, my wife wanted very much to have the experience of riding camels in the Sahara. I liked the idea a lot, too. After all, how often does one get to ride the ships of the desert in their native habitat? On top of that, we chose to stay overnight in a tent. For us, it would be a chance of a lifetime.

Was it everything we had imagined it would be? Definitely, yes. We never thought we’d set foot on the Sahara, for one thing. And I learned a little something about the Berbers, the nomadic peoples that have made the desert (and all southern Morocco) their home.

There were a few things about camel trekking that I didn’t foresee. Intellectually I might have. Riding a camel is not easy. It’s like learning to ride a horse for the first time.

Camels need to be kneeling on all fours before you can mount.

They first lift their hind legs, which means you pitch forward. If it weren’t for the handlebars on the tourist-modified saddle, I’d be on the ground face down. Really, anyone can hang on. Then, when they straighten their front legs, you pitch backward. The whole thing caught me off guard.

The saddle is wide, contoured to fit over the camel’s hump. There are no stirrups. My legs dangled to the side the whole hour or so it took to get to camp. I could feel the stretching of my inner thigh muscles. When I got uncomfortable, I tried to place my legs forward but that got tiring. My thighs ached well after dismounting, even into the following day. My wife had no such problem. Her years of yoga served her well. I felt like a wimp. Getting off the camel was a lot easier: lift one leg over the handlebars and slide off.

Once the caravan got going, I figured I could just relax (except those aching thighs) and enjoy the magnificent scenery. But going down a slope (which happened several times) proved challenging, too. I had to push back on the handlebars to keep myself upright. So did everyone else.

I had the luck to be assigned to a rambunctious camel. Maybe he didn’t like my Indiana Jones style hat or the camera holster I was wearing or the permethrin-treated pants. Or maybe it was just me. He complained and stood up before I could get on him the first time. Mohammed, our camel guide, had to wrap a rope restraint around one folded leg before attempt #2. I made it this time. My camel stood up and snorted. For the ladies, Mohammed offered the top of his stooped leg like a mounting block. The other male rider had longer legs. The third time I got on the camel, he probably didn’t like how I ungracefully plonked myself down on his back.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed myself immensely. When I was mindful of where I was and the opportunity I was fulfilling, the experience became more than the discomfort and awkwardness of camel riding, which I would soon forget anyway. I began to look out at the majestic reddish-gold dunes, watch dessert beetles leaving their interesting tracks, wonder how plants can exist in this arid environment, realize I was in Africa for the first time. I was in the Sahara, the biggest hot desert in the world, and I was one of the few lucky non-Berber people who could claim that.

Getting Serious About Restaurant Dar Hatim’s Pastilla (Fes, Morocco)

“It’s jam.”

So said Fouad when I asked him if the reddish chile seed-laden paste was harissa. He chuckled. A little dab on my tongue told me it was ground up fresh chiles and preserved lemon, salty, intense, definitely spicy.

Later, as the pastilla was served, he pointed at the plate of powdered sugar.

“This is cocaine.”

Another big grin.

What’s with all the clowning around? He definitely had a refreshing sense of humor.

Fouad was confident that I would thank him when he picked my wife and me up from our riad to have dinner at his restaurant. He said it was a two-hour drive when it was only 15 minutes. We walked into Fes’ old medina near the tanneries (our noses told us) and up into a dark, narrow alley, which we’d never have found on our own. Once we walked through the front door, it was another world, a beautifully decorated dar and restaurant with linens and silverware.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla (Restaurant Dar Hatim) was a tour de force, head and shoulders above the pastilla I had the day before, also in the medina.

Karima Bouaa’s pastilla

The filling for pastilla of shredded chicken, almonds, egg, cinnamon, sugar and herbs was moist, savory, just a touch sweet and the phyllo dough casing was shatteringly crispy and oil-free. Unlike most pastillas, ours were not dusted with sugar or cinnamon. But we did have ‘coke.’ If I ever have this dish again, it will be compared to hers.

“You’re a lucky man,” we beamed after we polished off every last morsel.

“No, no, she’s lucky to have me,” he chuckled only a few feet away from where she stood. “I make her laugh all the time.” Karima just smiled. Seriously.

The Roman Ruins at Volubilis, Morocco

The ancient ruins of Volubilis near Meknes, Morocco, are one of the best preserved of the ancient Roman Empire. Only partially excavated and surrounded by wheat fields, the Romans established a colony on this southeastern edge of the empire before finally being abandoned in the third century.

Basilica (also above)

Triumphal Arch

Chefchaouen, The City of Blue

It’s hard to describe what I felt when I first saw Chefchaouen. It’s like no other town I’ve ever seen, a city awash in blue. Some say it’s the color of the sky or the Mediterranean, but the hue is neither.

My first view was from a highway overlook outside the city. From there, one could have the impression that only the roofs are blue. In another half hour, I was in the medina where all travelers who’ve put Chefchaouen on their bucket list know that blue is everywhere—the walls, roofs, stairs, pathways. Mind you, not everything is blue but enough to think that it is. And some of the blue is a different shade.

Is this some kind of touristy gimmick? Actually it’s been this way since the 15th century. Several theories try to explain the color’s historical origin. One says that it’s to ward off mosquitoes that avoid clear water. None makes more sense to me than this. When Jews and Muslims came here after being expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, the blue color was a combination of their preferred colors, blue and white. To this day, white and blue paints are mixed. When I looked closely, it was easy to see that the paint was not uniform.

Chefchaoen blue is a mixture of blue and white paints

The residents apply the paint twice a year. We came across ladies who were hard at work, tourists gathered around them to watch.

Painting the town blue

If they don’t make the effort, in a climate of fog, rain or snow, nature will take its toll. The paint will flake off, algae and mildew will take over.

Algae growing on part of the old medina wall

Located on the foothills of the Rif Mountains, it’s not unexpected that walkways and alleys of Chefchaouen are sloped. The steepest grades are traversed by stairs. Surfaces of rocks filled in with cement were made by captured Portuguese sailors who were attacking the seacoasts of Morocco.

Stone steps built by captured Portuguese sailors

Because the pathways are not in a grid pattern, it’s hard to make any sense of their arrangement. Even wandering through the medina close to our riad got us briefly lost until we stumbled on the main road.

This is the outer Chefchaouen. To get a better understanding of its soul, we took two personalized guided tours.

The first one, led by Mohammed, took us into the hillsides that surround the city. Here I could better see the topography, rocky and surrounded by mountain, better able to defend itself against foreign invasion. As we climbed the trails, a fog was lifting, a common weather phenomenon.

Soon, we arrived at the Spanish Mosque that was built by the Spanish colonialists in the 1920s for the benefit of the locals. But the people wanted nothing to do with this carrot and never used it. Today, the site is popular for its spectacular view of the town.

Chefchaouen from the Spanish Mosque

All over, the hills were covered with agave and prickly pear cactus, to me an odd juxtaposition with olive trees. All these are used by the local people. It was surprising to me that all kinds of cured olives are served at virtually every meal, including breakfast, and it’s not uncommon to see bottles of oil at restaurant tables to be used as condiment. We even passed an old, still-used stone mill composed of a bowl-like basin and a giant round millstone that is pulled via axle by donkeys in a circle.

Olive trees

Traditional olive crusher

Sharing the trail with us today were women who were carrying down bottles of goat milk on their backs to sell in town and marathon runners who somehow managed not to fall down on the rocky surfaces made wet by fog.

The second tour was historical in content. Abdul Salaam seemed like an unlikely guide, wearing a soft white djellabah, white fez and saffron-colored babooshes and looking to be at least in his late seventies with a stentorian voice that could easily be heard by a hundred people. He described architectural elements in the medina and educated us in another form of Islam, Sufism, which is more mystical and loathed by extremists.

Eight-sided minaret

Esoteric Sufi symbols

There are 14 zaouias (religious schools) in Chefchaouen. Abdul also took us to a structure with a communal oven where women can bring their unbaked items which the baker will slide into a wood-fired oven on trays. Most households in the medina don’t have an oven.

Regardless of how it got its blue paint job, Chefchaouen is drawing more tourists than ever before. Like struggling communities everywhere, tourism is a boon to the economy, which will likely change its quaint character forever. Foreigners on motorcycles now roar down the narrow streets where only feet trod before and younger Moroccans from out-of-town beat drums and sing and dance loudly, annoying the locals. This is a shame because Chefchaouen is the most beautiful of towns, possibly the most beautiful in all of Morocco.

The Great Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca

Play it again, Sam.

Is there a more enduring image of Casablanca than the landmark Warner Brothers movie of the same name? Romantic in a noirish sort of way yet memorable. It was a cultural phenomenon in the U.S. America had just entered the second World War; the film tackled the subjects of resistance to the Nazis and personal sacrifice for a greater cause.

But, would you believe there really is a Rick’s Cafe? It was built in 2004. The interior looks just like the one in the classic 1942 movie. What is it but a way to attract tourists?

Otherwise, Casablanca, the largest city in the kingdom of Morocco, is cars, motor bikes, industrial buildings, urban sprawl. We got stuck in commuter traffic when our tour driver Mustapha (who’ll be with us the whole time) drove both from the airport to the hotel and out of town the next morning. All guide books seem to agree, there’s not much to interest tourists in Casablanca.

Except one: the Hassan II Mosque.

Like the café, it’s a modern construction, completed in 1993. This is not a classic medieval mosque like the ones in Fez, but a super-duper, modernized place of worship, holding thousands of worshippers under a retractable roof, laser beam atop its minaret pointing directly to Mecca at night. It took thousands of workers six years to complete its construction.

It’s also the only mosque in the country that can be entered by non-Muslims (except during times of prayer). There are only two requirements: visitors must dress modestly (however, women do not have to wear scarves) and shoes removed on entering.

The approach to the mosque is impressive. From the entrance gate to the mosque doors is easily a quarter mile, if not more. The expanse serves two purposes, it seems. The first is to accommodate up to 80,000 worshippers on the outside grounds (25,000 inside); the other is to fully appreciate the size of the building, especially its 210m (670ft) minaret, as you approach it.

The inside is not unlike the feeling one gets from entering a great cathedral, its soaring spaces meant to convey the ineffable. The interior space is larger than St. Paul’s in the Vatican.

I took one of the guided tours but found it chaotic, mostly because tours in different languages were being led simultaneously, and my wife and I had a hard time trying to follow the English-speaking guide among a mass of people. But, I did appreciate the architectural masterpiece that the mosque represents. If it weren’t for this visit, we would’ve hightailed it out of Casablanca directly for Rabat.

It’s Off to Morocco

I lately have gotten fascinated with Morocco. A presentation on travel to Morocco at a local travel store convinced my wife and me that we should make it our next international destination. As a kid, I remember hearing about cities with exotic names like Casablanca, Tangier, Marrakesh and Fez, having no idea where they were. Because of the internet and travel publications, we now know more about what makes Morocco unique: the bustling, rambling medinastajines cooked in earthenware, cone-shaped namesake vessels, tile mosaics of great intricacy and pattern, argan tree-climbing goats, tanneries of Fez, Berber villages, camel treks in the Sahara Desert. How could we not experience all this?

We came across a tour company that specializes in Morocco tours. Experience It Tours is headquartered in the U.S. and has an office in Fez. They presented us with an itinerary to fit our budget. We would be met by a personal driver in Casablanca who would take us around the country over a span of 17 days. There would be stops in Rabat, Chefchaouen, ancient Roman ruins of Volubilis, Meknes, Fez (Fes), Erfoud, the Sahara, Todra and Dades gorges, Skoura, Ouarzazate, Taroudant, Essaouira, Marrakesh (Marrakech), El Jadida and back to Casablanca. Talk about sampling Morocco in all its splendid variety.

Cooking with tajines

Join me as I write in the coming weeks about the sights, sounds and smells of this North African kingdom. Those of you who’ve read my posts before know that I’ll be looking forward to the food, too.

(The images above are borrowed from wikipedia.)

Kona Kitchen: Ono Grinds in Seattle

Loco moco is not the first thing I’d normally order when breakfasting in Hawaii. Steamed white rice topped with a fried egg and brown gravy sound tasty enough, not so different in concept from an egg benedict really. It’s the ground beef patty that gives me pause, the potential always there for lean and rubbery meat like many a burger. Even the celebrated loco moco from Rainbow Drive-In (Honolulu) failed to impress. It’s not that I don’t like beef patties (I do); it’s just in combination with rice that doesn’t do it for me. Go figgah.

I had lunch at Kona Kitchen recently, which many consider the best Hawaiian restaurant in Seattle. On the menu was the classic loco moco. For lunch, there’s also katsu loco. Instead of ground beef, rice is topped with battered and fried chicken thighs. More than that, you have the option to substitute fried rice for white. Yowza! To me, this sounded much more appealing.

The serving size is hefty. The waiter hinted it would be a challenge to finish. Was he right. Crispy chicken katsu and an over-easy egg sat on a bed of Hawaiian-style fried rice. We’re talking an enormous quantity, an umami bomb of soy sauce-laced rice mixed with little cubes of Spam, barbecued pork and green onions. And that divine gravy! Though the rice is softer than I like, this dish alone should put Kona Kitchen on the culinary map. This couldn’t be better made on the islands.

Mochiko chicken is marinated and sweetened with sugar, batter and fried. Kona Kitchen’s is good, with hints of ginger, served with two scoops of white rice and a very good mac salad. A few nuggets were a bit dry.

Mochiko chicken

The menu also has saimin, that favorite of Hawaiian noodle soups. It also has wonton min that adds housemade wonton dumplings with the noodles, and includes a hard-cooked egg and barbecued pork. The noodles are cooked to the soft stage as Hawaiians like it.

Wonton min

On the menu are lots of Hawaiian faves, including pork lau laukalua pigHawaiian-style beef stew, Spam and Portuguese sausage as ingredients for a number of dishes, Hawaiian sweet bread. It will be tough for me to stay away from the katsu loco though. Fortunately, my daughter lives close by so sampling these other dishes is but a short drive away.

Kona Kitchen
8501 Fifth Ave NE
Seattle, WA

Related posts