Four months later, the part of my Moroccan trip that I remember most vividly is the day and night we spent in the Sahara. We drove east from Tinghir, changed to a four-wheel drive at Rissani, and went south and east into the desert until we left the road behind. There was nothing all around us but horizon and sand.

Erg Chebbi
Erg Chebbi

And then, suddenly: dunes! They were enormous, literal mountains of sand. All around the base stood a ring of camp-hotels, hugging the dirt track. One of these, Kasbah Leila, would be our home for the night. The heat was stifling; it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and there was hardly any of that.

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Morocco, Old and New

In Marrakesh, the closest grocery store to our hotel was in the basement of the Menara Mall. It was pretty much what I expected: a bunch of wannabe-Western stores selling day-glo shirts and overpriced shiny shoes, a food court with mediocre food sweltering under fluorescent lights. There was even a Chili’s in a prime location on Mohammed VI Boulevard. In these surroundings, it was no surprise that our fellow shoppers favored polo shirts, skinny jeans and halter tops.

What was surprising was that no matter how far into the country we got, the skinny-jeans crowd never completely died out. Even in Rissani, 500 kilometers from Marrakesh on the edge of the Sahara, jeans and djellaba mixed freely.

Every day we saw crowds of students trooping to school, dressed western-style in t-shirts and jeans, slacks, or track pants. The girls rarely wore head scarves, but lots of them had on miniature lab coats over their outfits. Watching them go to school was like following a young pharmacists’ convention.

Older people were all over the map; most women wore the hijab, but dress for men and women ranged from shapeless djellabas or caftans to the latest western fashions. Urban or rural, rich or poor, Arab or Berber; I can’t say exactly where the dividing line might be. Maybe it’s down to personal preference.

I was also surprised to learn that alcohol is widely available, although it’s very expensive. A bottle of beer costs $4 or $5, and a mixed drink $7, in a country where a high-end dinner out (or a ripoff tourist meal) costs $15. Our driver Youssef told me that some bartenders might refuse to sell to Muslims (especially Muslim women), but from my observations, it’s a flexible rule.

One last tip about drinking in Morocco: stick to beer. Every bartender we found was hopeless at even simple drinks. I ordered a whiskey sour one night and was given a tall Coke with some whiskey in it. A confused exchange in pidgin French and English ensued, and my server returned a short time later with a glass of, I would guess, two-thirds lime juice, one-third alcohol. At least he got the spirit of it right.

This is Morocco’s flag. It’s rich in symbolism: a green star for Islam, peace, and hope; a red field for the royal Alaouite dynasty, bravery and valor. But there’s a much simpler meaning, and to understand it you only have to hop in a car and drive.

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I’m officially off work until next year, so I had a bit of time this afternoon to visit Middlegrounds Metropark. I’ve been meaning to go for a long time, and it’s only a five-minute drive from the house, but somehow we always ended up somewhere else.

I only stayed for a little while (blame the freezing wind blowing off the river!), but it was nice to watch the seagulls circle and dive while the mallard ducks hunkered down nearby. In the distance, past the graceful arch of the Anthony Wayne Bridge, downtown Toledo was socked in the thick fog. Trails seemed nice, but I didn’t stay long enough to go very far. We’ll definitely be back here with Petey when it warms up a little!

Middlegrounds Metropark
Middlegrounds Metropark
Seagull and Anthony Wayne Bridge
Seagull and Anthony Wayne Bridge
Foggy Downtown Toledo
Foggy Downtown Toledo

Aït Benhaddou, a ruined ksar (fortified town) just north of Ouarzazate, was one of the highlights of our trip. You can see it from far down the road, a cluster of mud-brick houses ringing the tallest hill for miles.

It was overcast, cold and windy as we descended the Atlas Mountains and pulled off the rutted track into a gravel parking lot. We had to traverse a modern settlement with a few houses and a gauntlet of trinket shops before we got to the dry bed of the Oued Ounila.

The road to Aït Benhaddou

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