Monkeys & Taxi Terror

April 03, 2007


Perhaps terror is not a good word for this day and age, but that is what I felt at moments on our eight hour drive from Fez to the Sahara dunes near Merzouga. Indeed, there was a terrorist incident the day before in Morocco while we were there, but it was in Casablanca and I believe only the terrorist were killed. It is certainly something that comes to mind when one is traveling and perhaps even more so in an Arab country with images everywhere that we have been inundated with from the media to fear or be cautious around.

I did get time to ponder images and prejudices as we roamed through Morocco and do some selfexamination as I sorted out what was real and what is illusion (a continuing process!), but my terror in this instance had to do with bad weather and crazy driving and nothing to do with terrorism which I did not worry about much. One can not travel any where today and not realize it is always a possibility, but the odds in Morocco were no worse than any where  else.

The problem with Morocco and a short amount of time (and personally I would not have wanted to a longer period) is it is spread out and there is no quick way to get from Fez in the north or Marrakech in the south to the most beautiful dunes in the Sahara that we did not want to miss. One can take a bus, Grand Taxi, drive, or 4x4. The roads are good enough, altho very twisty as it is through mountains and usually all two way traffic with most drivers going too fast and taking way too many chances passing.

We are glad we started with Fez since we liked it better than Marrakech as it is more authentic and less commercial with no traffic in the medina, but we were ready for our adventure to the desert. When I told Mozart we had an all day drive in the desert, she said “Yipee!”, which made me smile. She did actually enjoy the ride, of course she was not aware of the danger. We decided to go with the Grand Taxi route because DaVinci did not want to drive and we were not up for a bus ride over mountain roads.

We brought along a wonderful little vest that we use for a car seat alternative as it fits easily into her backpack and is very light. Allessandra from Les Nomads (the people we would be using for our time in the desert) sent a Grand Taxi driver that she knew well (at a better price than I was able to get out of Fez through our riad there). He was prompt,cordial and brought along a friend who lives in Fez who speaks good English and Spanish to help with the luggage to the car from our riad.

We did not know that Grand Taxi’s tend to not have any seat belts as they usually drive with four people in the back and two up front with the driver, which is perfectly legal in Morocco. We were traveling quite luxuriously with only two adults as passengers and one little kid who loved to sprawl out using the whole back seat.

We started out quite naively as had lucked out with a seat belt in the front seat, so promptly put the child seat vest there and put Mozart there since it was an old Mercedes (all grand taxi’s in Morocco are old Mercedes) and there were no air bags. Alas, we soon found out that it is against the law for children to sit in the front in Morocco.

To add to this good news of no seat belt over some treacherous roads and high car accident rates in Morocco, the weather suddenly went from glorious sun in Fez to pea soup fog and rain as we started into the worse part. Yikes, nothing to do but pray!

We had a good driver, (in fact all of our drivers were good) but it still seems a miracle that even more people are not killed on these roads. I thought he went too fast (granted I am a little overly cautious in this area) and we asked him to slow down many times. There is every kind of abundantly over loaded truck, tractor, donkey cart, bicycle on the road and roads where one has to risk passing continually are my least favorite.

When I would glance out thru the very dense, opaque fog and school kids on bikes barely missed by zipping trucks and grand taxi’s and such I would panic, but there was really nothing to do but put ourselves in God’s hands and trust. I always think in my panic moments, at least we are all together.

I think there is also something about the Sahara that can bring up primal fears and as usual with my emotional intensity I was ahead of the game. I hugged my baby close to me and faced the thought of losing each other. In this dangerous ride, I felt a need to tell her how much I loved her and that I would always be with her even when I was in heaven.

For some reason I was swamped with thoughts about my Grandmother’s last words which were “I did not get to say goodbye to my babies”. She had been rushed to the hospital with a second heart attack I have been told (as I was only two when she died and may not have this story down perfectly) without the chance to say good bye to her seven and twelve year old daughters.

I wanted Mozart to know that if I ever died without saying goodbye which happens often, that I had said goodbye now for that time and that I would always love her and be with her even if it was just in spirit. She was always a part of me and I was always a part of her.

So we hugged and cried together and I told her the story of my beautiful Grandmother and how also her Dad did not get to say goodbye to his mother when she died suddenly when hit by a car. Strange place for it,but I think it was some how a completion that we needed to have. I do not want to hide death and grief from my child and as older parents I feel we might need to prepare her even more than other children to be content with us in spirit when that time comes.

It was interesting how the danger led to fear which led to communicating deep feelings that we did not want left unsaid to a deep peace and contentment. Not too long after that the whether changed again to sunshine and the road got less windy.

What we saw of the country side was quite beautiful at times and lots of typical Moroccan sites of people in traditional clothes and donkeys which is intriguing since we do not see that often. Ifrane was completely different than other towns in Morocco and has the nickname of “Little Switzerland”. It was developed by the French and since it is in the Middle Atlas region it is a ski resort and looks like it belongs in the Alps. It is part of the Mekines-Tafilalet region and Ifrane means “a cave” in Berber. The Moroccan king has his summer residence there for its coolness and it is the where the lowest temperatures in Africa were ever recorded.

We also requested to see the Barbary Apes or Barbary Macaques, a medium sized monkey only found in Morocco, Algeria and Gibraltar. I had heard they were very friendly and thought Mozart would like to feed them and see close up like many pictures that I have seen. We were excited until our friend who helped us into the taxi mentioned in Spanish that they were VERY dangerous, especially around children. Even I know what that means in Spanish, so it certainly damped those hopes, but we were glad to get the warning.

We still went thru the scenic cedar forest onto a little town called Azrou and found the moneys although we decided to let Mozart just see them from the car and passed on feeding them ourselves,but watched others do it. They did come really close to the car so it was still fun and there were some fossils to look at too.

There are TONS of police checks as one drives in Morocco and cars flash their lights to each other to warn of one coming ahead so the driver can slow down. Mostly we were just flagged through them, but once we were stopped and there was a bit of a wait (but not with this driver). We learned later that the transit strike that happened right before we entered was partly in protest of the new Moroccan law that says that if any tourist is hurt in an accident, the driver automatically gets five years in jail.

We stopped for lunch in a small town where apparently many tourists stop and in fact there was a bus that went into the restaurant that our driver suggested and went into. By the looks of the filth and flies hanging off the lamb carcasses hanging out in the street, we decided we would just wait in the car. Some beggars came near the car, but mostly the town just went on about its business and we watched. Later we found a place to get some packaged cookies and Sprite which may not have been a healthy lunch or tasted as good as the tagines in that restaurant, but it felt like the best choice under our circumstances. Perhaps too cautious, but we preferred to be safe than sorry, especially with a child.

I never thought twice about food and exotic places when I was younger and it seemed silly to me, so I had to learn the hard way. It is funny when I think about how dumb I was as I ate raw clams in Haiti, steak tartar in Mexico (both at very high end places) and a few other dumb choices. I don’t remember what I ate
that got me sick on a French Island in the Caribbean, but I do remember how horrible it felt to be all alone, not speaking the language and sick as a dog with food poisoning and sun poisoning combined from windsurfing all day without sunscreen.

I ended up with hepatitis from the clams in Haiti (which was not too bad for me as I did not even know I was sick until I was bright yellow and it affected a modeling job I was doing at the time, weeks after my return). The good news about that is my breast fed child now has immunity to it, but I hope I have learned from my experiences as that one had life long consequences. I now look at my cavalier (and innocent) attitude of my twenties thru the bifocals of a fifty five year old and smile. Yes, I may be a scaredy-cat adventurer, but I like it that way now with a child in tow.

As we got nearer Merzouga and the small village Hassa Labiad where we were going and we started to see the desert landscape it got exciting. I felt like I knew Allessandra now after all of our emails and was looking forward to meeting her. I spotted her before the driver did, with a big grin on her face and carrying her sleeping baby on her, waving with her endless enthusiasm. It was like seeing an old friend even though we had never met. We really picked the perfect person for the Sahara!













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