Jardin de Skoura is as nice for breakfast as it was for dinner. Over the standard Moroccan breakfast of fried dough, jams, coffee and fresh orange juice, we talk about staying for the day. But we also want to get back to Marrakesh and wrap up Morocco. The bags go in the vehicle and we return through the back roads to the Skoura highway.
The view out the car window is mostly brown, and it can seem repetitive. But I particularly like the gorgeous dry river beds and melted kasbahs. The river beds cut through the desert surface every which way, evidence of the mythical rainy season that we’ve missed by six months. I can’t imagine what it looks like wet but I bet it’s beautiful. Messy though.
Although mud brick is strong and cheap, a hard rainstorm can be as devastating as an earthquake. Every few miles, we pass a collapsed Kasbah, most small, but many as big as a village. They look like ancient ruins, even though some were only destroyed a few years earlier. The combination of dry river bed and abandoned Kasbah makes the desert look like a post-apocalyptic landscape.
One thing that does catch us by surprise is a green golf course. Golf in the desert?! Golf is already a symbol of entitlement and privilege, but here in the desert it seems exorbitant to waste so much water keeping turf green. People go to excruciating lengths to optimize small amounts of water. But who am I to judge? There is waste everywhere on this planet.
Our five hour drive is broken up by a stop at Ait Benhaddou, a Ksar, or fortified Kasbah that dates back to the 12th century. It’s a major tourist spot for the area, with gift shops set up outside and hotels across the dry riverbed. But there aren’t many here today and it’s very hot at noon. Even the hawking vendors don’t try very hard in this heat. We are out of sunscreen, so we make our visit quick.
When one describes an adobe Kasbah as being ‘from the 12th century’, it’s not the same as saying the same of a stone cathedral or castle. The entire Kasbah has been replaced, changed, patched and repaired so many times that it only resembles the original structure in spirit and location.
While we explore the Kasbah, we see workers making the mud clay for the first time. They use their feet to mix water, straw and the local clay in a small dark room. They trowel into cracks that need repairs and build new walls as needed. The Kasbah’s walls always match the local clay color exactly and they look like they just erupted from the ground.
Ait BenHaddou, like all Kasbahs, is a series of interconnected houses with shared common buildings like a grainery and Mosque. But as a Ksar, it also served the function of defense — more like a castle. Our visit consists of climbing steps up the hill on which it was built. There are no guides or exhibits. The panoramic view from the top is worth the hot hike. Lily tires out three-quarters of the way up. She’s coming down with a cold and it’s making her cranky.
The return trip to Marrakesh is quiet. Trish and I are contemplative, and the views are beautiful over the mountain passes of the High Atlas. Our non sequitur soundtrack for the drive is ‘Hairspray’, watched by Lily and Emma on the video player for the tenth or more time this trip. Our driver Ibrahim, still wearing his desert turban, taps along to the show-tunes.
Ibrahim is a very good driver and takes extra safety precautions in Morocco, which doesn’t even have the reckless driving we saw in Egypt. He also seems to know everyone on the road. For the past four days I’ve seen him waving to all the taxi drivers. I know he’s been a taxi driver for years in these parts, so I’ve figured he’s just a popular guy. I finally ask him about it, and he laughs. No, he tells me in broken English, it’s just a communication system for signaling when police are up ahead making speed stops. Well, it works! We make good time and are in the city by 4:00 p.m.
We sadly say good bye to Ibrahim. We’ve spent more time with him on this trip than any person outside the family. But there isn’t time for a long good-bye. We give him a good tip, shake hands and he’s off. Our bags are already in a luggage cart being wheeled down the alleys toward Riad Karmela.
The Riad gives us a new room and it’s as nice as the first one but completely different. We shower and wait a few hours till it cools down to go to the souk. A guest says he saw a bank thermometer that read 136F! That has to be an error, but it’s still really hot.
Trish wants some little things from the souk and she buys a few magnets. Emma decides she wants some leather shoes and picks out a style and color but they don’t have in her size. We search up and down the market in at least 10 shoe vendor stalls, but that style isn’t anywhere else among the thousands of similar shoes.
We go back and ask for different colors but again nothing turns up in her size. The owner offers to search the warehouse, but I want to negotiate the price before he goes searching because I know I’m going to pay for the ‘good service’.
His first offer is $25 and I get annoyed. We payed $8 for similar shoes for Lily the day before. I pissily counter with $5 and the shopkeeper gets insulted. It quickly turns into an argument and ends with him grabbing my arm aggressively, or at least that’s the way I interpret it. Maybe it wasn’t, but we leave trading insults and I’m very aggravated.
I think I’ve had enough haggling for a lifetime. It’s freaking exhausting. When I cool down and realize that I overreacted about a $25 dollar pair of cheap souvenir shoes, and I’m a little embarrassed. My nine-year-old really wanted those and she looks sad. I explain to her why I did that and she agrees with my logic, and is supportive.
I’m so appreciative of the way she maturely deals with her disappointment, that I can’t bear to leave the souk without her shoes. Fortunately, we happen on another leather shop that has a pair she likes. This sales guy is atypically passive. It’s almost hard to get him to help us. We pay $15 and Emma says she likes these shoes better, because they have little shells glued on. Emma always finds the good in situations. Phew.
We look for the snake charmers in Jamala el Fna and find several. One comes at us with an armful of snakes and we back away quickly. The last thing we want is a snake around Lily’s neck — she might die of fright. We see a few cobras from a distance but take no pictures because they will demand money.
The snake charming thing isn’t as interesting as I expected. The snake doesn’t really move in time to the music or even extend itself very much. They sort of look drugged, almost dead. It’s more of a snake-encounter that you pay for, not really a performance. And you will pay! The snake guys are the most aggressive in the square. From above the square in a rooftop cafe over warm sodas, we watch the snake-teams at work on the tourists.
The square is making the transition to nighttime, rolling out food stalls of gastro-intestinal misery. We’ve been exceptionally careful about eating, and it’s paid off. I’m sure some luck is involved, but our only sickness has been the girl’s head colds. In our planning, we anticipated two likely risks that would make the trip difficult: sickness and lost luggage. We struggled only trivially with both, considering how difficult it could have been.
I piggyback the girls to the Riad, stopping to buy a few last items and waving goodbye to the streets of Marrakesh. For the second night in a row, dinner is cloyingly sweet chicken tagine with tons of dried fruit — not my favorite but Trish loves it.
At reception, we arrange the airport taxi for 4:30 am pick-up and settle our bill. The hotel manager takes less money than we owe him because he doesn’t want to deal with credit cards and I have insufficient cash. I’ve never been in a place that had such an aversion to credit cards. You can’t use them anywhere — an inconvenient truth we would discover again the next morning at the airport.
This trip is over. My family of girls are sleeping and I’m in bed writing, with tears running down my cheeks. This trip has brought the family so much closer. For the past month, the family shared a big goal and achieved it together. Emma talks with pride about ‘the Creekmores’ like we are a team. It’s very sweet.
Lily and Emma have grown a ton. At home, the kids are sheilded from the problem solving of everyday life. Things just work out. On the trip, they are present with us as we tackle difficult situations. They see our fear and frustration, but they also see us work through it to a satisfactory result.
As a result, they appear much more confident to me now. In fact, Lily has become a little too confidently assertive. At the Marrakesh airport she says loudly, “Why can’t this lady just give us our tickets and let us go get something to eat?” It is, of course, exactly what we are all thinking.
But really I’m emotional because I’m in touch with the sad memories of spring, 2004, when Trish was going through chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. Her prognosis was decent, but far from certain. The prospect of losing a wife and mother prematurely to cancer was not inconceivable.
Toward the end of the treatment, Trisha wasn’t very lucid, but in a clear patch between poisonous injections, we discovered that we each had been thinking about what was really important in life. Separately, we had come to the same conclusion: if we got through the cancer, we wanted to take a year off and travel the globe with our kids.
I’m not sure why travel is so important to us both. Obviously we enjoy seeing other cultures, environments and sights. But it’s also about putting ourselves into uncomfortable situations and dealing with it. I bought some books and worked out rough numbers. It became a plan, a hope to help us through. And it did help. But it was just a dream.
Over time, as she recovered, we realized that a full year off was impractical. We decided instead to try a series of month-long trips. As a test drive, we spent a month in Europe and Ukraine in 2007 to see if we could make it work. It was definitely fun, but it was too easy.
This month has been the kind of trip we dreamed of five years ago – full of adventure and challenge. We are beating death in the only way we know how, to live life more fully. And it has worked. I feel more fulfilled than ever before. I’m pretty sure Trish does too.
This fall marks five cancer-free years for Trish, an important statistical milestone. The medical treatment seems to have worked. We are living that dream. We can’t ask for more.
[Photos by Trisha Creekmore]