Marrakesh to Ait Ouffi

My first attempt at creating a weekly blog post has quickly failed. Sorry. But in all fairness the last 10 days have been a wild ride – from arriving in Marrakesh which is so different from what we expected it to be, to getting lost in the Medina, to getting sick to taking an adventure up and over the Atlas Mountains and somehow landing ourselves in the most beautiful chateau-like house by the good grace of a new friend, it’s been a long week! On the way to Marrakesh

Marrakesh = Maz’ll catch ‘ya

We arrived in Marrakesh on a Monday night (I guess that was Feb 25), expecting to land in the middle of a crazy large, crowded city with tall buildings that felt super urban. Instead, we drove into an area that appeared out of a rural agricultural land, with buildings not more than 4-5 stories high, palm and olive trees everywhere. The snowpeaked Atlas Mountains rise sharply in the background, reminiscent of Denver, although the mountains are much closer, and the call to prayer ringing out from the mosques is a stark difference.


The Grand Koutoubia Minaret in Marrakesh

For Morocco’s main urban draw, Marrakesh is a puzzling place. It’s urban and the traffic stinks, but it’s incredibly green and lush. The Medina, with its 7km of walls, separates the Nouvelle Ville (the new city) that was built by the French.

Our single day wondering in the Medina left us with a frequent, “Aannnd, we’re lost” refrain. Winding-unnamed streets lead one to easily lose any sense of direction. And this is just a warm up to Meknes and Fez! Oy. But the Djemma el Fna is exciting – an open air circus, and we certainly didn’t shy away from being tourists. There are snake charmers (see exhibit A), monkeys, dancers, storytellers and anyone and everyone trying to sell you something (or rip you off, depends on how you look at it). Marrekesh is fun, but we had our sites on the High Atlas, and the oases towns on the southern side of them. A fever and bad bout of digestive troubles for me threatened to ground us again, but I’m working on being the winner in that battle.


The High Atlas

Up and over the mountains

It takes no time at all before you’re out of the city and into the country. It took us only 2 hours on a big bus to climb high up (on the most windy, tiny roads you could imagine a big coach fitting, but they do) and reach the pass through the mountains. Squarely in Berber country, the people look weathered, but are so incredibly friendly.

Berber Music

Coming from the cafes and grillades (places where you get grilled meat – whatever’s cooking is hanging outside) I’m serenaded with Berber music – the boutique owners are kind to give me the musicians name and album so I can find it. Love.

Mountain Cafe

$50 for Independence

This excursion to the mountains was our ‘splurge’ trip. We decided to rent a car and stay 2 nights in a nice hotel for some pampering. It’s amazing what a different feeling it is to have your own means of transportation. For $50/day we had our own little car that can take us wherever we please. So nice. With no understanding of how many litres of gas to put in the car, we filled it up (gas is REALLY expensive here) so we had a mandate to drive as much as possible. FREEDOM.



Our little car!

Budget Traveling 

We suck at it. Not only do we suck at finding good deals, but we suck at being ok with it. Since St. Louis Senegal, every place we’ve stayed has had some plumbing problem, or something essential that hasn’t worked. Thus the pamper trip. Oh well. But it seems that just a little more $$ gives you a lot more value more. It doesn’t always happen that way (hello everything Mauritania), but in our High Atlas adventure it worked.

Dadès Gorge

Is truly Gorgeous (yes pun intended). Our bus from Marrakesh took us to the town of Ouarzazate, and from there we drove through the Valley of the 1000 Kasbahs into a canyon. I can’t get over the contrast of the deep terra cotta red earth and the vibrant green gardens that are tiered along the river and up the sides of the canyon. Ancient crumbling castles are perched on every high places, tucked into villages and built right into the rock. The valley of 1000 kasbahs is also home to the Valley of the Roses – thousands and thousands of Damascus rose bushes make this area a pink carpet in May and rose products are sold everywhere. Throw in some happy goats meandering the hill sides, plus the almond and peach trees that are blossoming and it’s a perfect high desert paradise.

We rocked the Kasbah

Our wonderful friend Ismail

Upon arrival at our fancy hotel (Auberge Chez Pierre, you must stay here if you go), we exclaimed, “oh we’re so tired” and had a nice tea and chat with the owner, Ismail. I was still recovering from fever-meets-digestive-problem and we must have looked really pathetic because when we showed us our room he said, “You stay here tonight and then tomorrow I take you to the riad, it’s quiet, and there will be families and children here, so you must relax.” We kinda saw this as an inconvenience, until we saw the “riad,” which we’ve now named our own Kasbah. “It’s for making the babies!” exclaimed Ismail and pretty much the entire staff at the hotel. Um… (that’s all I have no response).” How on earth we were blessed with such fortune I have no idea. We planned to stay 2 nights and stayed 4, and I’m still bummed we left. I'm campaigning for our return in June.

We got rocked by the Kasbah

We went exploring through the nearby villages and walked into an ancient Kasbah. All was well, minus the animal stench, until we were climbing the stairs and noticed the gaping holes in them. Time to turn back! I don’t want to die in a crumbling mud structure. Apparently in the old days the way to conquer a Kasbah was to divert the water from the river and just wait until the Kasbah dissolved. You’d think for citadels they’d come up with a better protective solution…?

Desert Rain

Makes everything crazy beautiful. One of the reasons we stayed an extra day was because it rained (apparently for the first time in 4 months). There’s so much silt and clay that when it rains it seems like the mountains come down on themselves and the roads get blocked. On the plus side, the reds become more red, and the greens become more green. It’s beautiful. I don’t know if the Moroccan flag is green on red because of the colors of the land here, but it would make sense. The red of the earth is SO red and the green is SO green. I’ve never seen anything like it. Even the water running off the mountains is deep red.

We almost died – no really.

We’ve taken a lot of bus rides in Morocco. I mean, I don’t know how many kilometers we’ve traversed but it’s well over 2500 since crossing the Mauritanian border. The buses here go REALLY fast, and feel like a rocking freight train hell bent on getting to its destination as fast as possible. Hairpin turns on crazy mountain roads that plummet hundreds of feet into nothingness don’t stop bus drivers from taking blind corners quickly – while passing – all while the driver is happily singing along to the music. Yeah, we almost died while rounding one of those corners when a truck came around the bend. We actually hit the side of the mountain, swung out towards the pathetic excuse for a guard rail and stopped. I realized my final thought would have been, “Really??!!” Jon’s was, “You’ve gotta be f#$^in kidding me.”

I am so grateful that we were able to spend four days in the Dades Gorge. Our friend, Ismail, made us feel so at home in such an incredibly beautiful place. I almost don’t need to go anywhere else. I’d be happy hunkering down right there the mountains, surrounded by lush green wheat gardens, snowy-capped mountains, red, wind-swept earth and people with the kindest faces. Tanamirit Morocco (that’s Berber for thanks, Morocco).

Comme ci, Comme ca


When I first started taking French in the 4th grade, this is one of the first phrases we learned. It’s a greeting, like when you say, “bonjour, comment allez-vous” (hello, how are you?). You can answer, “Tres bien, merci” (very well thank you) or “comme ci, comme ca” (so, so), or casually, and what everyone really says is “ca va” (it’s going). But, honestly, when do you ever say, oh it’s going just so so. I mean, even if things aren’t going well, you always say, oh yes things are fine, thank you. It’s a double standard. I’ve come to realize that we hardly share our full presence, but rather manufacture what we think might be socially acceptable. And so, since for most of you my only presence these days is of an online nature, I refuse to give you just a perfect, rosy picture; rather I choose the honest one. And really, things are comme ci, comme ca, a little this, a little that. So so. Not bad, not great. Mangi fi (That’s wolof for I’m here).


Jess in a Fromager forest, Diembereng, Casamance

It’s a double-standard that mirrors perfectly to the Senegalese experience. One that, after such a long time, I forgot about. I mean, when you get back from a 4 month study abroad experience people want to know, “so? How was it?!” and really, what are you supposed to say? “It was fine, it was great!” And after saying that for 10 years you forget all the ups and downs.

I keep saying you, but really I mean me, and really, I mean to say that as per my last post, Senegal really hasn’t changed at all, I just forgot a lot of what it was like here. I’m so truly thankful that we have been invited into the home of friends – friends who have made us family, who have shown us the true meaning of Senegalese taranga (hospitality). Friends who want nothing more than to share our company and be together. There are many Senegalese who exude this cultural quality – who truly just want to be open and talk with us, and chat a bit. But they are too often mixed in with those who abuse the notion of taranga and slyly invite you to a seemingly jovial conversation only to really want something from you – primarily something monetary. It makes us skeptical, more closed off, and so well, it’s just so so.

During our last few hours in the Casamance, Jon and I sat and had a cup of coffee (Nescafe thank you) in a little local restaurant. The owner was so kind and welcoming. We had a lovely little chat and were getting ready to leave when a very kind woman came up to us and like so many Senegalese wanted to know about us, know our names and chat. But she quickly devolved into desperately trying to sell us something, which after much persistence simply became her asking us for money so she could buy rice, and she then became angry when we wouldn’t dole it out. Ugh.

Our new friend Penda at Lac Rose

It’s a similar picture as today when we journeyed to Lac Rose (see Jon’s post), and were essentially followed by a guy who wanted to sell us a tour (any kind of tour!!) juxtaposed with two women, who originally came out on the road to sell us something but instantly changed their minds when I started speaking wolof with them. They kept saying (in French), “wow, you are so open, the tourists never speak to us, they just ignore us, wow.” I have thoughts about that, but what could have been another frustrating please-just-stop-looking-at-me-like-a-dollar-sign moment turned into a spontaneous natural science lesson on the lake, and the economics involved in harvesting salt. Penda and Fatou were so kind, and as we got to talking, were not at all interested in selling me anything, just happy to be connecting. Comme ci, comme ca – like this, like that.

Senegal is a mixed bag, I guess is the point. It will always be a special place for me, one that was a true place of learning and growth during some pretty formative years of my life. One where I will always have friends, incha’allah, and incredible stories to recount. But life is hard here. When we arrived I thought I was just used to being in West Africa, but no, really, things are tough. People live leanly, and I know I have it good. I don’t know if it’s a product of globalization, of the Senegalese being too easily influenced by French and American pop culture (they know more about Kim Kardashian than I ever care to), or being stuck somewhere between a developed country and a very underdeveloped country that brings out these stark contrasts in people’s cultural behaviors. Maybe it’s all three.

Fishing pirogues in from a day of fishing

When it comes down to it, I’m happy that we came here. If anything for me it was an incredible opportunity to share this place with Jon, and to relive some great memories. I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to being a tourist in St. Louis for a couple days and then getting on the road for our epic overland journey across Mauritania and Western Sahara. The good with the so so right?

Farmers working the fields in the Casamance

I’m going to follow up with some travel reporting – some how-to’s of where we’ve been, as a future resource. We’ve noticed that in the process of trying to find travel information on other people’s travel blogs there is often a lot of rambling (ho ho just like mine!!), but little in the way of practical information – as in go fetch the bush taxi here to save you 3 hours kinda thing. Until then, I hope each of you is well, and allowing yourself the full spectrum of your experiences and presence, the good and the not so good. I think it’s good to take time to feel what we feel and not shy from it when it’s not perfect.

What do you think?

Ciao ciao.

A perfect picture.


I’ve found the perfect picture to represent my initial travels to Africa. I have no idea what this plant is; it is quite beautiful, but those thorns are pretty nasty looking. In Mali I have felt so amazingly welcome by everyone I meet. People are jovial, animated, and so open that it takes a while to get used to just genuine people. Everyone laughs and is comfortable with who they are. The weather is warm, the nights perfect, and I’ve never felt so in touch with the moment. Even in these tough times, people remain hopeful and revel in their profound sense of community.

Then there are the thorns in my experience…in addition the rather scary political unrest which kept us confined to Bamako and spending hours at a time not understanding what everyone is saying, today I had to go to a clinic because the sores on my feet. I have for the past week been nursing ever reddening wounds caused by popped heat blisters. Every day it got a little worse until I could barely walk without great discomfort. I’m also really tired, but I don’t know if that is due to infection or if it is just that more tiring to have to walk gingerly and still have it be painful. This the third day in a row I wake up and don’t wan to get out of bed because I know that first step will make me gasp, so we went to get some antibiotics and painkillers. The doctor took no time at all in telling me that I obviously had an infection, and he was surprised that we did not just have antibiotics on hand (I have Cipiro, but that is a total reset for serious sickness). The nice thing is that the visit, antibiotics and painkillers came out to 20,000 CFA ($40) total! However, being constantly tired and in pain every step I take is certainly not the way I wanted to spend my last few days in Mali.


Sore feet aside, it makes me so sad that Malians have to go through this problem which is not their own. Jess told me earlier that due to the threat to large gatherings, the tradition of colorful and dance filled weddings which usually happen throughout Mali on Sundays will be subdued, small, and intimate affairs…very un-Malian.

I have no reason to stay, but I do not want to leave this place yet. I do not speak the language, have infected feet, am covered in red dust and flies constantly during the day and buzzed by mosquitoes at night; I have to boil water to drink it, can’t eat a lot of the food, pay too much for most things by local standards, and am constantly at a loss for why things are happening around me, but the people is where it is at. Mali is awesome because it is full of Malians. If you can’t get past the little things that annoy, you’ll never get to the real things that matter.

Sewn Together

“We may not have much, but we are sewn together by the fabric of each other,” said Mouktard Kone, the esteemed griot (oral historian) Jon and I had the pleasure of being introduced to our first night in Bamako. It’s statements like these that will always keep the Malian people close to my heart. While I thoroughly enjoyed Belgium, there was something in the back of my mind that whole week that really just wanted to be here. I couldn’t help but seek the warmth. Not just in terms of weather, let’s face it, Belgium was cold, Mali is hot; but in terms of being surrounded by people who at their core are kind, generous and radiant.

So what is it about this place that is so special? Hmm, complicated. Yes, Mali is a very impoverished nation, but here money isn’t where happiness lies. To give you an example of what very impoverished means – garbage service comes once a month – maybe, and it doesn’t come to everyone’s home, it comes to a drop off spot in each neighborhood. Where that spot is, I have no idea, because trash is dumped all over the place. There isn’t infrastructure to support garbage service, trucks, fuel, people, a place to process it all – it just isn’t there. If you stop and think about your weekly garbage service, you begin to realize all that goes into it. Imagine that going away. How would you improvise?

It’s easy for westerners to spot the economic poverty – to tie it to money – but Mali reflects a different way of life, where everything isn’t based entirely on your net worth. It’s based on its people – people whose lives are stitched together, a real community of people relying on each other.

Take for example Abdou Karine. Abdou is a well-digger by trade. Wague tells me he’s dug over 370 wells in his lifetime – by hand. No machines, no fancy equipment, just Abdou. Um, what?? But Abdou is poor, he has nothing in the ways of material goods and even though he is highly respected and skilled at what he does, he remains poor, with no means for improvement. But Abdou has the best smile I think I’ve seen in a long time. He came to the Center yesterday to receive a gift from Wague – who sold his pottery in the States to give $200 worth of cash and food to 15 families in the neighborhood. I came out to see them and Abdou was smiling and raising his hands and laughing, throwing his head back with that smile – like a big Stevie Wonder smile when the music is particularly at its peak. I sat down with Abdou and just watched him talk with Wague, mesmerized by how sincerely happy this man is, it’s a kind of being at ease, of truly being happy without attachments that I only hope I can have a taste of in my life.

Of course it’s not all roses and ponies. Jon, Wague and I were planning to go downtown to the grand marche (main market) to pick up some things today or tomorrow, when we received word that we are not to go downtown for a few days. Spontaneous protests against the government and military quickly remind me that beloved Mali is unstable. While things seem as normal as ever in the neighborhood (we’re about a 30-40 minute drive from downtown), we are still in a country deeply wounded by religious fundamentalists that have taken the North, and a dysfunctional and extremely underfunded government that can’t really do much about it without international help.

Over the course of a day the situation has changed. All schools are cancelled for at least a week. Apparently in a town just north of Mopti (2000 miles from where we are in Bamako, yep that's like the distance from Portland to Chicago, it's not close to us) a group of islamists went to a school yesterday (totally independent of the protests that were going on downtown) and the soldiers had to tell them that unless they dropped their weapons they would be forced to shoot – which could have resulted in hundreds of children being injured or killed. Fortunately the islamists were disarmed, but the government is now worried that some may be trying to instigate similar events in Bamako, and so gatherings, especially school, are cancelled.

This brings the heartache I feel about this situation full force to the front of my mind. Mali. Benign, kind, poor and happy. A country infiltrated by foreign extremists with no care for that sewn cultural fabric they are pulling to threads. I still feel safe here, almost protected by our neighbors, although the prospect that nightly jaunts to the music clubs, and days wandering the Artisinal (artisans market) is long gone. It’s a stark reminder that Mali is already changed from the place it was 3 years ago, even 1 year ago. This makes me sad.

Wague must have sensed it because after our morning tea he suggested going for a walk around the neighborhood with the lovely Batoma, a kind teenager who lives across the creek. Wague says that Batoma and her family actually used to just live under the banana tree because they had no home, and they gardened mangos and beans to get by. Through the kindness of visitors, Wague and neighbors they’ve moved into a home and Batoma became one of the sponsored students through Ko-Falen. Just a few years ago, Batoma wasn’t in school and now she’s at the top of her class in high school, and by hanging out at the Center, has a good working knowledge of English. She inspires me.

On our walk we explored the neighborhood and the creek banks, which are home to mango trees, papayas, pomegranates, bananas, and the crops, which are harvesting beans, mint, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter eggplant and others. Since no one is in school there are kids everywhere, and we quickly make friends through the use of the camera. It should be noted that when children see a white person, they call out “Toubab!!” which just means “white person”. But when they see us interacting, just being people, not confined to fancy cars and hotels, an older kid says, “no, call her tanti” (aunti) and just like that, I’m transformed from some anonymous white lady to their aunti, and friend, not a stranger. All I can do is respond with thanks, photos (which they never get to see) and smiles. It’s not much, but it’s what we can do to be part of the fabric, to respond with the same kindness that has been bestowed upon us. My spirits are lifted, and I can't think of any other place I'd rather be than in sweet Mali.

*side note* school is cancelled, including the afterschool tutoring held at the Center, but depsite this, the 24 kids came anyway, ready to study, and not willing to miss a day of the extra practice that will change their entire education. I will never complain about any kind of study again.

ps: click on the photos for a larger image