At peace in Morocco

A fortified wall of an old fort in Essouria.

In March 2012, my daughter Kate and her husband, Arie Kroeger, left for thePeaceCorps.

After about two years of screening and preparation, they left on a planefilled with 110 new Peace Corps trainees for two months of cultural, language andsafety training in Morocco, their assigned country. After two months of a successfultraining period, Kate and Arie were sworn in as official Peace Corps volunteersand began their two-year service commitment.

Kate and Arie were assigned to Akka, a small oasis town in southeastern Morocco near the Sahara Desert. It is a matter of opinion whether you are in theSahara Dessert or on the edge of it. However, the summer temperatures can soarabove 120 degrees. In our conversations with Moroccans, many of them did notknow where Akka is. The Sahara is not a big destination for most Moroccans.Kate and Arie are youth development volunteers working in the local youth center.

Bustling Marrakech

My wife and I decided to visit on our youngest daughter Karin's winterbreak from college, so she could come, too. On Dec. 30, we flew in to Marrakechto meet Kate and Arie, our guides and interpreters. We rented a riad (a Moroccanhouse with courtyard) for four days. We spent our time on the streets of the oldmedina ("city" in Arabic). The medina is enclosed by thick defensivewalls, housing a dense maze of tiny alleyways. Within the medina are distinctareas for housing, craft work shops and food vendor stalls.


To say the streets of Marrakech are bustling is an understatement. Traffic laws really are a suggestion. Scooters are permitted anywhere. Cars,buses, horse-drawn carriages, donkey carts, small trucks and many scooters allshare the street. Crossing the street is an adventure. Watch your step, becausesidewalk impediments are everywhere — sidewalk cafes, construction, voids inpavers, holes in concrete and metal poles can pop up at any time.

We planned our New Year's Eve meal at our riad, but we went out for a walk at about 10 p.m. The streets were absolutely packed, wall-to-wall people. Wehung on to each other until we spilled out into the Djemaa El Fna, the mainsquare of Marrakech.

National Geographic describes this square as "the densestconcentration of Moroccan cultural expression in the country." Kate described itas "the Times Square of Africa," and it was in its glory on New Year's Eve. Thecrowds are entertained by a mix of street performers and a giant food hall full of smokers,grills, a wide variety of foods, goat heads, goat brains and amazingsmells. We took one lap through the celebration and headed for our riad toSkype back home for New Year's arrival (6 p.m. central). We heard live musicplaying until the wee hours. However, the next morning's pre-dawn call to prayer went on for a strong half-hour.

By train to the desert

We boarded the train at about 9 a.m. Jan. 2 for Fes — first class seats for $40 each.I highly recommend this mode of travel. Eight quiet hours on an electric train withlarge, comfortable seats and spacious leg room. We slept, read books and lookedout the window as we went by Casablanca, Rabat and Meknes and arrived in Fes lateafternoon. We took a taxi to the Hotel Bab Boujloud.

On Jan. 3, we headed in to Fes el Bali, the largest medinain the world. Fes traces its heritage back to the eighth century. The shoppingand photographic opportunities are endless. We recommend Cafe Clock for food (they have camel burgers), and we hired a guide to take us to a tannery, whereleather has been tanned the same way for centuries. What can I say? With threewomen on this trip, the shopping was intense. Most prices are negotiable,bargaining is expected, and Moroccans charge tourists more for the same reasonrobbers rob banks, "That's where the money is."

On the road again, we took two petite cabs to the grand taxi stand, to hire a grand cab (a 30-year-old Mercedes) for a two-hour drive up into the mountains to thetown of Azrou. We were going to visit the family that hosted Kate and Arie when theyarrived for their two months of training.

There are genuine bonds of affectionbetween this family and Kate and Arie. Hassan is the head accountant for thelocal hospital, and Fatima is a housewife, sells a line of cosmetics and operates a small clothing shop that caters to her circle of friends andfamily. We share a large meal of the traditional couscous with them in the earlyafternoon. We are drowsy, and they insist we take naps there, which we did, andthis pleased them greatly. This trip means a lot to Kate and Arie. By coming backand maintaining these ties, they are pleasing and honoring Hassan and Fatima.Bringing their parents adds even more to it.



We woke up and went for a walk to see a little bit of Azrou. We attempted touse a cash machine to obtain some of the local currency. Very few places takecards, so we needed to get cash frequently. The machine ate my card, so we banged on the door of the bank (which already was closed for the day) and luckily someoneanswered the door and retrieved my card. Since our arrival and up until that pointin time, about one half of the machines we tried to use don't work. The nextmachine worked, but these brushes with normal Moroccan standards were stressful.

We returned to Hassan's for the evening meal, but first we had snacks andwatched TV (a live variety show filmed in Agidir, featuring young Moroccan singersand French stars). Joining us were Hassan's mother, two sons, ages 16 and 15, a cousin (college student) and his wife, Fatima. They have a small wood-burningstove and we all warmed up. Most houses in Morocco have no central heat, so theyrely on space heaters and small stoves burning wood or charcoal. We stuffed ourselves again on a beef and prune tanjine and retired for the night at our hotel.Once again, the bonds between these people are evident (especially between Hassan's two soccer-playing sons and Arie).

On the road again, we hired a van and driver to drive down from Fesand take us to Essouria. Our driver, Muhammed, spoke French, Arabic andEnglish. He and Arie exchanged language lessons. This is a 10-hour drive, and we stopped in some small town for lunch. I had not intended to eat any of the meat I sawhanging out in front of these shops or restaurants, but we did. Knock onwood. This mode of transportation is more expensive than the train, but wewould have had to backtrack and spend way more time on the road. Kate said,"this is the first time I've had a seat belt on in Morocco." We all agreed (includingMuhammed) when it came to the driving, "best not to watch."

Peace on the coast

Essouria is our favorite city, hands-down. Located on theAtlantic Ocean, the city has beaches, beachfront hotels and restaurants, cameland horseback riding, surfing, wind and kite surfing, sight-seeing, a greatmedina with an ancient fortification on the ocean wall, a fishing industry and agreat riad to stay in. We feel completely at ease, we settle in more quickly and wedon't want to leave. It is more laid-back and less hectic than Marrakech, withmany more European visitors and inhabitants (we meet some French people atour riad, but that is another adventure), and we found some of our best food,shopping and art.

Our schedule called for us to return to Marrakech for our last night beforewe flew out, but we changed our plans and spent our last night in Essouria. Werented a couple of hotel rooms on the beach for our final night. We enjoyed thesunset, the location, the food and the unlimited hot water.

The next day, we took a bus from Essouria to thetrain station in Marrakech, where we ate at McDonald's. After a tearful good-byeat the airport, we flew to Amsterdam and said goodbye to amazing Morocco.


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