Do Moroccan Goats Fly?

We all know pigs can fly. But goats?

Argan trees only grow in Morocco. Morocco also has lots of goats. Have some goats evolved the ability to fly, as you might wonder when you see a tree filled with them along the road between Essaouira and Marrakech. Seeing this unusual sight was one of the things I had to do in Morocco.

Kidding aside, goats of course don’t fly. The usual story is that they climb into them. Exactly how they do that isn’t clear. In fact, you might become skeptical when you see acres and acres of argan trees in southwestern Morocco, not a single one hosting a goat, except for the lone tree filled with them along the roadside. Why that tree and not another?

There’s no question that it’s a great tourist attraction. So is that it? A busload of tourists were gathered around the tree when I approached. A young man was encouraging them to take photos, pick up a 10-day old kid—in exchange for a few coins. There are stories on the internet that the tree-borne goats consume the nuts of the trees. Whether they excrete or expectorate them is a matter of dispute, but the former definitely has the yuck factor that captivates people, especially if the oil from the argan nut is going to be used on your face or in your cooking.

The goats’ chewing away the fruit pulp supposedly does the hard part of processing the nut, but doing this on a wide scale obviously doesn’t happen. It’s much more common for men to pick the nuts by hand and women, typically in co-ops, to process the nut to make the acclaimed cosmetic and culinary products. Still, tourists love this stuff. Is it a coincidence then that a lone tree that happens to be close to the highway is teeming with goats, none of whom seem to be chewing anything?

Goats can’t take flight but your fancy can.


Here’s a Tip, You Can Never Have Enough Coins in Morocco

Travelers to Morocco, be forewarned.

The tipping culture is pervasive. This is not unique to Morocco, of course, but I never thought the problem was going to be as big as it became. Add to this the fact that most of Morocco operates pretty much as a cash economy. Credit cards are accepted only by bigger businesses that cater to tourists.

Most Moroccans you’ll encounter in your travels will be doing something for you, whether it’s a bus boy, restaurant server/waiter, guide, housekeeping, public toilet employees, and so on. You can, of course, choose not to tip, but that would be a mistake. Tipping is considered an important way to say thank you for a service rendered. Like it or not, many people rely on it to eke out a living. I am not against tipping. However, I wasn’t prepared for the constant demands it made on me and my time.

The usual tip amount is as low as 1 MAD (Moroccan dirham) and goes up to 10 or so MAD, depending on the service. For those of us in industrialized countries, we’re talking peanuts here. For example, 1 MAD is equivalent to a little over 10 cents in U.S. currency.

The problem is this: where to get the small denomination coins for tipping. It’s a bigger issue than you can possibly ever imagine. Here’s why.

Travelers now rely on ATM machines to get cash in local currency. The minimum amount they will dispense in Morocco is often a 100 MAD bill, less often 20. OK, you say, I’ll just get change from somewhere. You’d be wrong. Unless you’re a customer at a local bank, you won’t be able to make change there. Neither can you get it at so-called exchanges/cambios where their business is to swap foreign currencies (for a fee or an ‘adjusted’ exchange rate), not to make change for free. What if you try to buy something at a shop and hope to get small change. Nope. Invariably, they’ll tell you they don’t have the change. I swear this happened every single time. Many items are sold rounded to the nearest 10 MAD at minimum. Try breaking a 100 or 200 MAD at a shop and you’ll see what I mean. Even getting change at a riad or dar is difficult. It may be easier at large hotels.

Every time you use a public toilet, the usual tip to the person sitting outside (for women, this will be the only way to get TP) is 1-2 MAD. These are people who keep the WCs clean. A bellhop might be given 10 MAD. If you want to take pictures of people, they may ask you for 1-2 MAD. Waiters should be given about 10 percent of the total bill. You get the idea; small change is going to want to leave your pocket more often than you think.

The other issue is what exactly should be an appropriate tip for various kinds of services. Make sure you know what is expected. Your tour company should have good guidelines on what to give. Mine issued guidelines but didn’t go far enough on the hows. If yours doesn’t, insist that it does to make your holiday less stressful. And, believe me, getting small change in Morocco is very stressful.

So, traveler, be aware. This shouldn’t in the least discourage you from going to Morocco. It is a beautiful, wonderful country with so much to offer. It will captivate and surprise you in many ways, as it did me. I wouldn’t have traded the opportunity for anything, not even small change.


Monkey’s Hands, Dadès Gorge (Morocco)

On our way to the overlook that looks down on the Dadès Gorge, we went past a wondrous formation called Monkey’s Hands or Monkey’s Fingers. It’s as if the hillsides met a giant scrambler some time in the past. These iron-rich and soft sedimentary layers eroded over time to produce these strange and convoluted rocks.

Dades Gorge from the overlook

Flushing Toilets in the Sahara Desert

We had a choice of sharing a bathroom or having our own. Eh, what? A bathroom in the middle of the Sahara? My wife doesn’t mind a simple tent, dirt floors, sleeping in bags and eating out of tin plates, but she’d much prefer to have her own bathroom. So when there was the option to have one, even if it meant a pit toilet, we went for it.

We learned later that these tents were not REI gear but more comfortable units with beds. And a bathroom.

The trek to the campsite started in Erfoud where our driver Mustapha handed us over to our 4×4 driver (Ibrahim). Including two stops along the way for wonderful views of the desert, it took about 45 minutes before we got to the camel rendezvous. Imagine my surprise to see 4×4 tracks crisscrossing the desert like the veins of an enormous animal when all I expected to see were camel and human prints.

Our guide Mohammed helped us onto the camels (more specifically, dromedaries who have the single hump), which was not without humorous moments, and off we went.

Not far from camp, Mohammed stopped the caravan, had us dismount and climb to the top of a dune so we could watch the sunset. Many another caravan claimed its own dune to do the same over the 2½ hours we were waiting.

Waiting for the sunset on a dune

Just when the sun was getting low, a huge black storm cloud formed to obscure the horizon. We all got back on the camels to resume our way to camp.

We were greeted with the customary Moroccan hospitality of mint tea and cookies. A large wood fire was burning in a circle surrounded by twenty chairs. Luminarias were placed regularly all around.

Fireplace circle

We were then led to our tent. Ours was one of four facing inward toward a large center area covered by Berber rugs.

Inside was a king-sized bed on a rug that covered the entire living area, draped walls surrounding all sides except for a cushioned wall behind the bed that acted like a headboard. An electric lamp hung under the tent’s ridge. These niceties I’m guessing describe all the tents in the complex, not only ours.

But, as I said, ours also was a ‘superior’ tent, an upgrade from tents that shared a bathroom. A sink with hot and cold running water was in the center illuminated by another electric light, a shower with hot water to the right. Ah yes, the toilet. It was a flushable porcelain unit. Flushable! True, it drained into a pit toilet but you’d never know it but for a faint odor.

For all guests, there was a special dining room tent.

The amount of food that was served reached epic proportions, clearly more than any person could comfortably eat.

After dinner, we were entertained with Berber music by the staff.

I was looking forward to a dark-sky night but a bright full moon prevented all of us from seeing the Milky Way. Such a shame.

I could go on with other details.

Let’s just say that the accommodations were not what we expected. It goes without saying that guest services were very good. Is this what they call glamping? I’m guessing that the entrepreneurs who created this wanted to make sleeping under the stars as comfortable, painless and worry-free as possible for the greatest number of guests. We lacked for nothing in comfort; we could’ve settled for much less and still had a wonderful time. The toilet made us flush with excitement.

The following morning, there was a wonderful buffet breakfast. Everyone sat at tables outside in the cool air.

It was time to return to Erfoud on our camels and say goodbye to the Sahara.

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