Travel Stories: Morocco, Africa

For some time Jean and I had wanted to go to Africa, but something always seemed to come up. This opportunity (July 2000), we looked at the possibility of going to South Africa; but with only two weeks available to plan the logistics of the trip, the airfares as well as the hot weather worked against us. So we decided on coastal Morocco.

We discovered a resort chain called Valtur, an Italian-based company that is represented in the U.S. by Central Holidays. For slightly more than the cost of airfare alone, we arranged round-trip travel from New York and six nights at a very nice beachside resort in Agadir, Morocco. Then, we added four more nights in Marrakech for not too much more (inland and much warmer but still lots of fun).

Our first setback came when we tried to make reservations to New York with less than a week before departure--quotes of $1600 to $2200 for round trip tickets. However, we made a quick Internet contact to Cheap Tickets ( and we were on our way at less than $400 round trip.

We left San Jose at 1 p.m. on a non-stop flight that put us in New York at 9:45 p.m.. There are a number of hotels near JFK that provide shuttle service, so we got a good nights sleep before the mid-afternoon flight to Morocco the next day. Our Valtur booking included travel on Royal Air Moroc. The plane was a fairly new 747-400. Both equipment and pilots seemed standard for any major airline. The food was actually quite a bit better. My only complaint was that it was difficult to get water from the attendants. Maybe they were trying to acclimate us for our next 10 days in the desert.

We had a short layover in Casablanca before flying on a smaller plane to Agadir. While waiting, we spent the hour trying to imagine where Rick (Humphrey Bogart) stood on the tarmac in the final scenes of Casablanca. Not sure we found it but it was fun imagining.

As we took off again, we could see a few farms; but soon there was only desert and, a little later, a few mountains. There were a few villages but not much population. The flight to Agadir took about an hour; and when we landed, we were the only commercial plane at the airport, so no delays getting our luggage and going through customs. I even had a feeling that they hoped you were bringing something in just to liven up their day. Seriously, we noticed immediately that everyone was very friendly.

Morocco, under the control of the French for many years, uses French as the main language for legal and business activities. Arabic is the primary spoken language, along with dialects of the Berber language, especially for many people living outside the major cities. So our first hurdle was coming up with a way to communicate. We quickly discovered that Spanish (the only other language with which we have any capability) is not at all a good substitute. Luckily, some people speak a little English and many have developed pretty good sign language.

We were met at the airport and taken to the resort. We were the only ones coming in that day and soon found out that we are what they call “mid-weekers,” people arriving between the major groups. We were given a room key and someone to show us the way. Our luggage left the registration area at the same time we did, and we walked directly to the room. Imagine our surprise when we found our luggage already waiting for us. It was fun getting used to service like that!

Buffet-style meals were served three times daily. There was a wide variety of good food. Our biggest job was to decide where to start and, harder yet, where to stop. Fresh orange juice was served along with coffee and tea at breakfast, and wine was served at lunch and dinner.

We had planned on taking a couple of tours while there and spending some time walking around town. However, everyone we talked to about the tours told us the same thing: They were very expensive and too “canned.” The main complaints centered around the fact that all the tour groups went to the same places, and all you got a chance to do was take a quick look and a few pictures. We met a woman who was leaving the next day and who told us that she had good luck with taxi tours and was going that afternoon with a driver someone had recommended to her. She invited us along. It was to be a city tour with a stop for shopping. We spent four hours on the tour, and the driver charged us each only $15.00. We made a number of stops and shopped in places he took us where we never saw another tourist. He spoke very good English and was able to explain everything. Needless to say, we dropped the tour group idea and signed him up for the rest of the time we were there.

Mohamed (the taxi driver) was a thoroughly delightful person. He had attended the University of Morocco and graduated with a degree in French Literature. Unfortunately, in a country where many people start their mornings not knowing where that night’s meal will come from, there is not a great demand for expertise in French Literature. Mohamed speaks six languages--Arabic, Berber, French, German, Italian and English--and was very knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. He was raised in the Agadir area and is the son of a fisherman.

We took several trips with him from Agadir, some ranging more than 100 miles into the back country and south along the coast. We seldom encountered other tourists and saw the country life with a person who was able to explain what we were seeing. On one of the drives, we went south along the coast and watched the fishermen bringing in their catch. They fish basically the way they have fished for a thousand years. They use rough wooden boats that are quite heavy. They go out early and fish a long day. They bring in their catch not knowing for sure if someone will purchase it or, if so, for how much. They use an auction system and sell to the highest bidder. It is somewhat of a nomadic type of life as they leave their families and move up and down the coast following the fish. They fish alone but when they come into shore there are people available to help carry their boat up above the high tide line. They pay these people with fish; and at the end of the day, the boat haulers have fish to sell along with the fishermen. On this same trip we stopped at a large dam and reservoir which sends its water to the Sahara Desert. We met a nice gentleman who keeps the roadside stop clean and provides tea. It is the way he makes his living but, unfortunately, it’s not a busy stop.

We drove several miles east of a town called Tiznit and came to the edge of the Sahara Desert. While it did not look quite as foreboding as it does in the movies, it is certainly very much like what is pictured. Sand dunes extend as far as you can see, and the wind keeps moving them along. We stayed there almost an hour. I marked the edge of the sand when we arrived; and when we left, it had covered up the marker. Also when we stopped, there was not a single person in sight. By the time we left, a number of children had appeared and we spotted a few people sleeping in the shade of very small trees. The natives are smart enough to get out of the sun any way they can during the middle of the day.

Another day we drove up what is a long but very narrow valley. Since it has water available all year, it is an intensive agricultural area. It was market day, so we had an interesting experience. We were the only tourists and people didn’t know whether to try to sell us watermelons, corn, pigs and camels or not. I bought a lock from an elderly gentleman who makes them by hand. It is fairly large and is intended for a large door or gate. We saw similar locks on some very old buildings so I guess, “if it works, why change the model.” I was told that he would take less, but since he only asked $8.00, I paid full price.

After our week in Agadir, we were able to get Mohamed to drive us to Marrakech. The hotel was planning on sending us by taxi anyway, so it was simply a matter of telling the hotel staff that we wanted to use Mohamed. They knew him so it was no problem. With that, instead of going directly to Marrakech, we arranged with Mohamed to add a tour of some other towns. We made a whole day of it.

The Valtur resort in Marrakech is about five miles from the center of town and out in the desert. They had a shuttle into town which we used several times. The market, while probably not exactly what it was like a hundred years ago, still exhibited remnants of bygone times. Snake charmers, belly dancers, religious people and animal acts vie for your attention in the plaza. Meanwhile, the huge market operates in the background selling, I am sure, many things we wouldn’t want to know about!

We took one other taxi tour into the back country and saw many Berber villages and smaller markets. We almost needed to rent a second taxi to get the things we purchased back to the hotel. The taxi driver also obtained permission from his cousin for us to tour his house. Besides the living area, it contained an area to keep his animals and a place where they worked and produced many of the things they needed to live. Everyone seemed to have a job, including a very small child that was cleaning the table and washing dishes in a very small stream that meandered through the kitchen.

The whole Morocco trip was very interesting and enjoyable; and while I am sure travelers could encounter problems there as you might in any area, we never felt in danger and the people were very friendly and helpful. It was a really great introduction to Africa.