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Preface: Silverhair Seeks Silverback

Third Time's The Charm

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View Morocco + Uganda + Rwanda on paulej4's travel map.

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My preferred life is lived atop a perpetually cresting wave, my surfboard a lie-flat seat aboard an international flight with Beryl at my side if the destination boasts five or six stars, alone if four or fewer. If no faraway place lurks on my calendar within a few months, it leaves a hole not only there but in my heart as well.

With a couple of notable exceptions, however, for 18 months I’ve primarily lived below deck under luffing sails, mostly going nowhere. I know I am luckier than 99.9% of humans on this planet—I give thanks for that every day—but I’ve been travel bored since COVID crashed the party of our lives. This ride, twice COVIDelayed, comes after what seemed an interminable wait. But the back of boredom is about to be broken.

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On this day after Thanksgiving, this escape is high on my list of things about which thanks are given. I regret that Beryl is not coming along.

It's a simple, if long, day: a morning car from Vero Beach to Orlando, an early afternoon United flight to Washington, D.C., a five hour layover and, at last, an evening overnight flight on Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca, Morocco. I write this awaiting that flight while enjoying the hospitality of the Turkish Airlines Lounge. If you are thinking of connecting at Washington Dulles International Airport from a United flight to Royal Air Maroc, my advice would be to not do it. Enough said.

On this journey I will set foot in three countries where my feet have not before touched ground: Morocco, Uganda and Rwanda, all now inaugurated to my ‘American Samoa to Zimbabwe’ “been-to” list. This will bring my total number of countries visited to what I think is 127. Different sources count countries in profoundly different ways. One source says there are 248 countries and territories while another source says there are only 194 actual countries. (There are 193 ‘member states’ in the United Nations.)

In some ways, I actually regret adding these most recent three.

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Morocco restricts the right to peaceful expression, association and assembly, legislates prison for same-sex or pre-marital sex and up to 15 years in prison for proselytizing any religion other than Islam. These are things that we Americans tend to reject.

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Uganda was home to mass-murderer-dictator Idi Amin and reportedly still tolerates child labor, forced labor and once passed a law that included imprisonment for people who were HIV-positive. (The law was later held to have been passed without a quorum so it failed to take effect) These are things that we Americans tend to renounce.

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Rwanda was the site of a 1994 horrific genocide when between 500,000 and 1,000,000 were murdered in just under 100 days and where the constitution provides that “only civil monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is recognized.” These are things that we Americans tend to repudiate.

Then why go? Uganda and Rwanda: Because I want to commune with mountain gorillas. Simply put this silverhair wants be experience silverbacks. Morocco: Because it is on the way and I selfishly want to experience at least one night in a tent under the absolute darkness of the Sahara Desert sky. And, of course, these are three countries to which I have never been so... And, these are activities that can today only be experienced in geographically or politically hostile locales.

I humbly accept well deserved criticism from those who wish to place it on offer. Riding the crest of waves is, in the minds of many, indefensibly silly, a waste of resources which could be put to better use, environmentally irresponsible by way of an indefensible carbon footprint and an invitation to sharks who might like a bite. But I go anyway.

But I whimsically ask: Why did it take me this long to seek out gorillas in the wild? I am a 1970 graduate of Pittsburg State University (in Kansas) which is the only institution of higher education that claims the gorilla as its mascot. (The school logo is the red and gold face of “Gus” gorilla.) On the “Oval” (other schools call it a quad but ours was and is oval shaped), there was and is a stylized modern gorilla sculpture.

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Now, years after I am gone and which I have never seen, a beautiful lifelike gorilla sculpture is located in “Gorilla Village” behind the PSU football stadium. Closer to home, upon my desk sits a beautiful abstract statue of a gorilla created by internationally acclaimed sculptor Dale Eldred. (I was lucky to find it for sale in an estate and even luckier to be able to purchase it before someone else snapped it up.) So, after all that adventure and travel and having actually been a "gorilla" in college, you would think I would have gone to see a gorilla in the wild. But no. Until now.

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515b1fd0-4c6f-11ec-a16a-bb3370549fa8.JPGI’ve traveled to all seven continents, all 50 states and three (of five) U.S. territories. I’ve crossed the Equator, the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic Circle, the Tropic of Capricorn, the Tropic of Cancer and the International Date Line. I've flown as high as 60,000 feet (on the Concorde) and as low as 10 feet on an ultralight in Cabo, in New Zealand both leap from an airplane and bunji jumped off a bridge, slept at 11,150 feet above sea level (Cusco, Peru) and dove to 110 feet below the surface of the Caribbean Sea (Cozumel’s Palancar Reef). I’ve an extensive--some would say exhaustive--background of travel and, while I am still able, am not finished.

I’ve had occasion to swim with dolphins, stingrays, whale sharks and blacktip sharks. I’ve seen and photographed--in their natural habitat of jungle, savannah or ice floe--elephant, rhino, hippopotamus, lion, tiger, polar bear, jaguar, cheetah, leopard, giraffe, penguin, walrus, killer whale, grey whale, crocodile, alligator, cayman and more. I’ve a passion for seeing great and sometimes threatening creatures on their home ground—or in their home lake, river or ocean waters. And, via these blogs, I have an opportunity to share these adventures with interested parties who may not be able nor desire to partake personally. I love to write and by writing I am forced to pay better attention to where I am, why it is interesting, who lives there and how history shaped the place.

But as yet, now lamenting, I’ve neither seen nor communed with gorillas outside of the Omaha Zoo (where one once charged B and me scaring the Berkshire Hathaway right out of us). Ten days from now, if luck is on my side, that will no longer be the case. I am off, via Morocco, to Uganda and then Rwanda with plans for five individual treks to visit gorilla families in the wild…where it is estimated that half of the remaining 700 individuals of this majestic and special species of mountain gorilla survive.

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As a bonus, because of a flight cancelation, my return home has been re-routed through Brussels where my son Cianán calls a flat on Rue du Beau home. We will get a chance to meet for lunch in the middle of my eleven hour layover there. He, shown here having recently beaten me to the desert, will pick up the check.

My habit has been to post travel blog entries once daily. That may not be possible due to the remote locations and spotty wifi of some of the camps and lodges (Virunga, Mt. Gahinga, Clouds Mountain and Bwindi) where I will be housed or tented. In the lands of this adventure, cellular service and internet can be iffy. The rainy season will have recently ended; the average temperatures range from 66 to 93 degrees farenheit. I will be eight hours ahead of you on the clock and up to 10,000 feet higher in altitude--and maybe a similar amount of attitude as well.

Daily blog entries for "Gorillas in My Midst" are planned to be posted at https://Paul2Silverbacks.travellerspoint.com. I am honored to share my experience. If a daily interruption via your inbox is cumbersome, please unsubscribe and if that fails, email me at paul@russraff.com and I will delete your address from the subscriber list.

It would also be my great privilege to read your comments about what you see here as we go, answer questions you might care to pose and otherwise enjoy your feedback. You will notice a 'comments' box at the end of each entry where you may facilitate that process.

I am excited about this journey and hope that, by following along, you will both see and experience a part of the world you might otherwise miss. Next stop, Casablanca.

Posted by paulej4 23:29 Archived in USA Comments (7)

Chapter One: Casablanca and Fes

"Of All The Gin Joints In All The Towns In All The World, He Walks Into Mine."

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The Kingdom of Morocco is to Africa what Washington state is to the U.S.: the northwestern most point, much closer to Portugal than to the remainder of the 54 (or thereabouts) African nations. Note: Africa hosts 27% of the globe’s independent states.

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The Mediterranean Sea is to the north, the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Algeria to the east and a disputed region of the Western Sahara Desert to the South. Mostly Islamic, the 37 million souls who live here trace their ancestry to the eighth century under Idris the Elder, a Berber, and grandson of the Islamic prophet, Muhammad.

Since Portugal (along with dear friends Allan and Nancy) is only eight miles north across the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar, the front door to the Mediterranean Sea, the entire world recognized the geographic importance of this place and sought to control it. It wasn’t until 1912 that Morocco was divided into Spanish and French protectorates with the City of Tangier anchoring an “international zone.” Independence finally came in 1956 (I was in the third grade). Even today, there is disputed territory to the south with the incumbent sporadic violence that always accompanies such things.

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King Mohammed VI rules today (even though there is a two chamber Parliament) by decreeing “dahirs,” which are virtual laws. Should he wish to, the King can dissolve Parliament. Watch the movie ‘Casablanca’ and read of both discrimination against Jews (the apex of which was during World War II) and the existence of slavery here (until 1925) and the romance of the place, albeit decades later, is tainted. An interesting aside: most slaves here were white Europeans.
The climate here is what you would find in southern California. There are forests to the north, mountain ranges and deserts to the east and south. Once home to lions (the last shot and killed in 1922), bears and leopards (now extinct) and even crocodiles (also gone), Morocco is home to the cities of Casablanca and Marrakech but I have seen many cities. It is the desert that beckons me.

The other reason—much more practical—is that Casablanca was the easiest one-stop flight path from the U.S. to the Republic of Congo and the silverback gorillas with whom I wish to commune. But then, my Congo stop was canceled when they failed to reopen trekking camps post COVID. The Royal Air Maroc ticket already purchased, a stopover allowing a desert trek made more sense to me than a simple overnight to explore a casbah or marketplace. So here I am for a week.

It is a good thing that B is not with me on this trip. Morocco bans unmarried couples from sharing a hotel room. If caught, under Article 490 of the penal code, both sides on an unmarried couple are subject to jail terms of up to a year. Each week, police check hotel records and, as a result, one requirement at reception is to show verification of marriage certificates. I thought that sounded like “fake news” until I read it in the November 13th edition of The Economist. Rif mountain hotelier Meryem Zniber is quoted as saying, “I could fill my hotel 100% if only they’d lift the law.” By the end of June, tourism revenue here dropped by almost 60% but that’s due to COVID, not cohabitation.

About 37,000,000 people live in Morocco. National Geographic reports that there are 3,000,000 stray dogs here. A TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) program is underway as an alternative to “killing dogs en masse” which, according to Morocco World News, has proven to be ineffective.
The in-country logistics of this trip were as difficult as I have encountered anywhere in the world. No “tour” offered what I needed or wanted. I had to arrange something entirely personal. The internet yielded KimKim, an agency that tolerated my desire to spend as much time as possible on sand with as little time in a vehicle as could be arranged.

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They work through Wanderlust Voyages (www.wanderlustvoyagestravel.com) You can reach my "arranger" Megan Lower, at info@wanderlustvoyagestravel.com. Even so there are drives of seven and eight hours to get me where I want to go: a tented camp in the dunes of the Sahara, a desert which encompasses over 3.5 million square miles of hotness extending across 11 countries, third in size to the cold deserts of the northern Arctic and Antarctica, both of which were destinations I visited just before COVID tied me down. Full disclosure: I have twice visited the eastern end of this desert in Egypt but that was long ago.

Landing in Casablanca around ten in the morning local time, I was not met by Omar, who I was told would be my driver, outside the airport. After a short time of confusion, I called another number I had been given and Ibrahim and I met.

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It was he who swept me off towards Fes, or, if you prefer, Fez. The drive takes me past farmland (wheat, alfalfa, olive groves, date palms, melons, "salad" (Ibrahim's description) and more. In many spots, forests of cedar trees line the road with cattle and goats grazing underneath There are, along the ocean as we drive north, many apartments, some new and shiny and others old and tired, both with gaggles of satellite dishes sprouting from their flat roofs. I ask Ibrahim what everyone watches on television. He answers "movies and politics."

The highway is good, limited access of two or three lanes supported by tolls, cleaned by trash picker-uppers and dotted with hitchhikers. At one point, a man walked the shoulder selling fresh fish (big ones--five pounds at least) he had caught this morning. In other spots, dozens of people sell dried fruit. Remember, this is being done along a "freeway." The day is cool, about 55 degrees, feeling colder with the brisk wind, the sky is cloudy and there was even a spot or two of very light rain along the way.

Ibrahim tells me of the decline in tourists but he had last week a group from Colorado and another of a dozen New Yorkers. He was "shocked" to find that five of them were not vaccinated--he says almost 8 of 10 Moroccans are vaccinated. Being unvaccinated here is difficult for a traveler. Upon showing my CDC vaccination card I was rushed through immigration, having previously completed a passenger locator form I found online that tells the government my whereabouts during my entire stay (along with two telephone numbers where I can be reached). The unvaccinated are required to complete PCR tests before arrival. If they test positive upon arrival, they must quarantine for a week. One would not want to come down with COVID while here. After a couple of hours, we stop for a coffee; I am not hungry after having a big breakfast on the plane after having skipped the dinner offered after takeoff to maximize my sleep. A couple of hours more of driving gets us to Fes.

The phrase "Inshallah" is often spoken as Ibrahim explains to me what we see en route: "If God wills it, it will happen." We stopped at a gas station/cafe combination for a rest room break and a coffee. Two very strong coffees, one pastry and two bottles of water cost 31 moroccan dirham and change; rounded to 40 with tip to the waiter who brought it to us after we had ordered at a counter. The official exchange rate today is 9.24 dirham to the dollar but you can't get that at the airport: it is 8.99 there. So, the stop was quite reasonable at a cost of under $5.00. Credit cards are not accepted for small charges such as this one.

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My guide in Fes is Kamal; Ibrahim has known him for eight years. Kamal guides only is Fes while Ibrahim drives and guides all over the country. Ibrahim, a Berber (more about that later) comes from a family of nomads who moved from the desert when he was 17--a dozen years ago. Since then he has become fluent in English and makes his living with folks such as me. Kamal is a former teacher who boasts great knowledge of all things Fes.

The afternoon was devoted to exploring the Fes El Bali (an ancient medina which is an old walled part of a town located in North Africa) and learning of its history. This enormous 9th-century labyrinthian vehicle-free maze encompasses 9,454 alleyways. There are beautiful entry gates, one more elaborate than

the next with carved wood, ceramics, mosaics and more. If you would care to buy something--anything--you can find a vendor here to sell it to you. Leather goods? Dried fruit? Shoes? Rugs, plumbing fixtures, clothing, cows feet, a gigantic working leather tannery? It's all here but, refreshingly, it is not a high-pressure place--the type from which I normally want to flee. Here there is much smiling and greetings of "As-salaam Alaykum" meaning Peace be with you. In the U.S., we would use the one-word greeting of "Hello." The reply is "Walaykum As-salaam." My impression is that the local men who use this greeting with me find it gratifying that I use the local reply.

There are many mosques and an inordinate amount of history and art and craftsmanship here that may be unmatched in the Arab world. B will want to know this: I got 8,400 steps on my counter while there.

Ibrahim and Kamal then delivered me to my hotel: Riad Maison Bleue And Spa where I was welcomed with dates and milk while the front desk manager took my passport and handled formalities before delivering me to my suite. There, more dried fruit, bottled water, and plush furnishings let me know this was their finest accommodation. I took the three-door lift (an elevator with a door on the front, a door on the back and still another door on one side) to the restaurant around 7:30 for dinner. Upon arrival there, it is just too cold so I returned to my room and ordered room service: Tagine of Chicken. I have been trying to upload more photographs but, for some reason, I cannot. Oh, well.

Ibrahim calls for me tomorrow morning at 9:00 to continue our journey.

Posted by paulej4 20:27 Archived in Morocco Comments (2)

Chapter Two: Driving Fes to Merzouga, Many Surprises EnRoute

An adventure detoured?

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I had a fine breakfast and checked out of my hotel. Photos were not uploading yesterday due to a Travellerspoint site upgrade so I'll share pictures of the hotel now:DF82F4B4-0C29-43E9-B90A-B683BBB3B8C4.jpegCE41DB00-FCA6-45B9-B5BE-5C52B51D89FD.jpeg8C64AA5A-D633-4F80-BFA8-AEC08AAE707B.jpeg038A4CD1-3BDB-4776-AC85-582C3724C7FD.jpegFE8CEC13-1540-466C-A0A5-982086745F8E.jpeg

Today Ibrahim and I drive to Ifrane & Azrou & Zayda and cross the Atlas Mountains and Errachidia Gorge en route to Kasbah Mohavut and Merzouga.

The problem is that the road is blocked. Just beyond Ifrane, the snow has blocked the pass so Ibrahim has opted for a different route: the road to Bolmin. What was to be a long day in the vehicle just got longer. To begin with the road is older and hosts many potholes so the going is slow. Many vehicles are stopped by the side of the road apparently deciding that playing in the snow is preferable to driving in it. The landscape on the alternate route is flanked by recently harvested onions on one side and sheepherders on the other. I stopped to buy a kilo of onions for Ibrahim's family and another as a gift for the chef at tonight's hotel. Why not? The cost: 100 Moroccan dirham for both bags, about $10 U.S. The Russell Luck persists. We would not have been here were it not for a road closed by an unseasonable snowfall.

As I write, I got an email from Qatar Airlines telling me that my flight on Saturday from Doha to Entebbe has been canceled. Fortunately (and unlike what Qatar did to me on my last trip with them to Sri Lanka) there is an alternative albeit much later. My trip is interrupted but not interdicted.

Ibrahim and I are becoming more friends than just guide and client. He is very good at what he does. I am just beginning to understand his many talents as he reveals them in a methodical way as we become more friendly. He has begun to call me "brother" which is an honorific I am proud to claim.

As I ponder these two different impediments to my travel, I cannot, at least early in the drive, get Fes out of my mind. So, on this long drive and since I am in a vehicle with wifi, to help pass the time I will reminisce.

Fes is extraordinarily old. Founded in the 8th century. 500 years later the Mellah—Jewish Quarter—took root. Fes (or Fez if you prefer even though they insist on the "S") became the capital of Morocco in 1912. Now, there are two old medina quarters and a larger modern urban area dating from the French colonial era. The medina of Fes (the historical center and where I spent my afternoon yesterday) is one of the world’s largest urban car-free areas. Nicknames for it abound ranging from the “Mecca of the West” to the “Athens of Africa.”

Trouble happened after it was named the capital. French colonial rule was instituted and riots happened in the city. The uprising included attacks on Europeans and Jews which led to a period of deadly repression. The French resident general promptly moved the capital to Rabat. It remains so today.

Morocco regained its independence in 1956 when the “bourgeois class” moved to Casablanca and Rabat. Jews were “depleted” moving to Casablanca or fleeing to France, Canada and Israel. The reign of King Hassan II, known as the Years of Lead, lasted from 1975 until 1990. Riots commenced, thousands were arrested and five died. Social unrest knows no boundaries.

It is today a major tourist destination and, therefore, served as my first stop in this country. Parts of the yet to be titled Indiana Jones movie—the fifth in the series—is being filmed here (a crew member died in his hotel room early this month and made national news). I saw no sign of them.

The locals speak Arabic and Berber, Darija and French. Younger people are learning English. Islamic shrines contribute to the tourist draw. The Jewish quarter—the Mellah—is home to the 17th century Al-Fasslyin Synagogue and the Ibn Danan Synagogue among others but none of them are functioning today. Only 150 Moroccan Jews remain here. There is one Catholic church. I learned that thousands of Jews were once here, many involved in the gold trade. One of my stops was at Place Sffarine.

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Kamal, shown here from yesterday, tied that word to Sephardic Jews indicating that those who were here came down from the Iberian peninsula.

The tanning industry has continually operated here since the early centuries. Today, it represents a major tourist attraction where visitors like me see round stone wells filled with dye or other liquids to soften hides. I took a photo there but was unable to upload it yesterday so here it is today.

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The resulting leather is sold world wide. Another draw are bathhouses called Hammams. Built next to wells or springs, their design was inherited from Roman bathhouses. Those I was told of but did not visit.

But it is time to move on.

Ifrane is a small city located a mile above sea level established by the French just over 90 years ago. It’s a resort town where local people can escape the heat of the tropical lowland. Today though it is very cold. Onward on our new routing to a barbeque lunch at Zaida, a tiny way station on the way to Merzouga on the edge of the Erg Chebbi dunes—the reason I am here. The French Foreign Legion build a lot of this place between 1916 and 1932.

The Zaida restaurant is a delight where the lentils and barbecue and wheat bread and mint tea are very fine. It is a local place not so much for tourists and that is why I liked it so much. Ibrahim has friends here so, I now have friends here as well.

E5493CBA-6A67-4E35-8897-4D34F1CE713D.jpeg78EA3F08-8BFD-41B9-9F6B-47000FBE7E21.jpegIn case you are wondering why the animals' heads are left on the butchered carcass it is so that the person who demands to buy goat meat can be assured that what they are buying is, indeed, goat meat and not something else.

It is four hours more over the Middle Atlas Mountains to Errachidia and our destination with a stop for strong coffee along the way. I wrongly assumed that the name Middle Atlas Mountains referred to the section between the North and the South Atlas Mountains. Not so; It is the section between the High and the Low Atlas Mountains. Now you know too.

I was to be staying at Kasbah Mohayut, in a rural spot near the edge of the Sahara. There is an outdoor pool, a rooftop terrace and a garden and a chef happy to be receiving the gift of a kilo of onions. I was to be in what is known as a private riad, a guesthouse type accommodation. I say "was to be" because around 4:00pm local time, a bit of mayhem broke loose due to the Omicron Variant of the Coronavirus and the reaction of governments around the world, including the Moroccan government.

Ibrahim suggested I go immediately to the desert camp rather than the hotel. The reason, and he is continuing to look after my interests, is that if travel restrictions are imposed, he can swiftly get me to some evacuation airport without me having missed the reason I came to Morocco in the first place: to spend a night in a tent in the desert. It is too late for me to get to any airport tonight so we go to the tent and save the hotel for tomorrow night rather than go to the hotel and hope for the tent. Did that make sense?

It was a race against the sun. It would be pointless to arrive at the Sahara Desert tent after dark. As B will tell you, an ocean view after dark (if there is no illuminating moon) is no view at all. The same is true for the desert. It is black. Nothing but black.

So we drove the speed limit to say the least. We met the handoff vehicle, a 4x4, at an intersection. I transferred to it and then began an only slightly bumpy ride over packed sand for about ten minutes. At the edge of the dunes, I met Mohammed who led me to my camel. The sun was still high enough in the sky that nothing was to be lost. As I mounted the saddle on the camels back, either I did something the camel didn't like or the saddle slid and the camel bolted while I fell to the ground. Did you know that your Apple Watch knows when you fall and asks you if you're OK? Well, it does. The camel took off but only for about 30 yards or so when Mohammed caught up to it, re-saddled it and I jumped aboard. Off we went. Mohammed led my ride for about a half hour over the dunes which were devoid of all sound save for another couple of tourists far off in the distance.

I have ridden camels before but never so solo. It was quite nice. The light from the low setting sun casts shadows that clearly divide the sides of sand crests, creating beautiful patterns. There were tracks here and there. Dune buggies ply this same space but there were none while I was there thankfully saving me from noise pollution even through they did create dune pollution by leaving tracks in their wake. I recommend a solo camel ride in the Sahara should one ever been offered to you.MohammedLeads.jpgOthersPreceededMe.jpgShadows.jpgPaulAboardCamel.jpgEveningFire.jpgEveningSnack.jpgSunset.jpgPorchView.jpgMyTent.jpg

Upon arrival at my tented camp, Paradis Du Sahara Erg Chebbi Dunes, it was confirmed that I was the only guest. This happened to me on my recent visit to Sri Lanka--being the only guest in camp. It is a mixed blessing at mealtimes because there is no one with whom to converse, to swap travel stories, to ask "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" and all those other questions posed to strangers one meets far from home.

My travel arranger at Wanderlust Voyages, Megan, is married (I learned) to Bill who arrived here to meet me and with whom I shared a glass of local red wine. Bill reiterated the difficulty facing me with the Omicron variant now front page travel news. It seems that tomorrow at 11:59pm, the government of Morocco may be closing its airspace to some--or maybe all--flights both in and out to some--or maybe all--countries. It is a ten hour drive from here to Casablanca. The roads are dark and two lanes wide. The Qatar flight tomorrow to Doha--the one I am booked on in a few days--if it even operates leaves at 3:10pm. International flights require a three hour before takeoff check in.

Do the math. I would have to leave the Erg Chebbi Dunes no later than 1:00am to make it. Then, if I made that flight, I would be in Qatar, wondering if I could make it on to Uganda or face the prospect of attempting to fly back to the U.S. If I cannot get to Uganda, the primary reason for this trip is lost. As of this moment, Qatar assures me that their flight in four days--the one I am scheduled to be on--is confirmed and will operate. Even if it doesn't, maybe there is a flight day after tomorrow which I could more easily and safely make. What to do?

I'm staying. Good decision or mistake? Stay tuned.

Posted by paulej4 19:50 Archived in Morocco Comments (6)

Chapter Three: I wasn't counting on Omicron

The Russell Lucky Streak is broken

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"The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," from "To a mouse" by Robert Burns. That about sums it up.

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The confirmed news finally reached me yesterday as I was about to board a camel on the sands of the Sahara Desert. From the web site MOROCCO WORLD NEWS: Rabat - Earlier today, Moroccan authorities have announced that they are suspending all direct flights to the kingdom for two weeks, starting on Monday the 29th of November, citing fears of the Omicron variant. Who am I to say that Moroccan authorities are wrong if what they have decided to do? I will point out, however, that they are, as I write this, the only country on the planet with restrictions as strict as they are imposing--with Israel a close second. Here's the quote from the New York Times last night: "Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban, Morocco said on Sunday it would deny entry to all travelers, even Moroccan citizens, for two weeks beginning Monday. The country is banning all incoming and outgoing flights over the two-week period." Note the portion: "even Moroccan citizens." Wow. But there is another problem. To board the flight tomorrow night, I must produce a negative Covid PCR test. I get that done and hope the results are returned in time. Ibrahim would say to me about now that it will arrive, "Insha Allah." (He also offered to house me with him and his large extended family for two weeks if need be)

I was scheduled to fly out of Morocco on Friday, December 3 at 3:00pm. If no flights can come into or out of the kingdom for the four days prior to that, there would be no airplane for me to board. Qatar Airways, my carrier on 12/3 keeps saying that my flight is confirmed but that cannot be. So, I ask myself, do I want to stay in Morocco for two weeks and miss the trip of a lifetime to Uganda and Rwanda to commune with my soon to be friends mountain gorillas? I do not. This is a lovely place, but no.

I had to get packing. I found a flight leaving Casablanca at 11:40pm to Lagos, Nigeria, which connects with another flight to Doha, Qatar, which connects with another flight to Entebbe, Uganda. All I have to do is cancel everything I have still planned for Morocco--which is a lot--and make my way on a ten hour drive to Casablanca in time to make that Lagos flight.

My primary goal in coming to Morocco was to spend time on the dunes and that I got done but again, only with the foresight of Ibrahim. Worrying that this might happen, he arranged to get me to my tent a day early so that I could still exit the country having ridden a camel into the desert sands. The man, I hereby attest, is a genius. I have to hand it to Wanderlust Voyages as well as their advice and counsel and flexibility made what Ibrahim suggested possible. Megan and Bill, nice work. If you ever need a recommendation...

Will this plan work. Who knows?

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The day: Asleep by 2:00am, alarm at 6:00. Finished packing just before the power (lights) went out at 6:20. Breakfast and coffee at 6:30, Toyota 4x4 trip to hotel at 7:15, arrive at Riad 7:30...all very cold; it is 37 degrees outside (and not much better inside). They built a fire in the fireplace at the Riad so by 7:40 I am warm for the first time in a bit. Ibrahim arrives and we leave at 8:00.

Oh, the drive: we pass Erhoud, the Zez Valley where a fire three weeks ago scorched the beautiful date palms, Aoufous and the arid landscape after that, many children walking to school on this cold but clear Monday morning. Errachida by 9:30, passing lots and lots of bicycles, motorbikes, tuk tuks, and the occasional man on a donkey or man driving a horse drawn wagon. We pass the very large Errachida Reservoir and move into rocky barren terrain reminiscent of Arizona canyon land. We pass Tassmaalt and Gorges Zez and the Hotel Jurassique in the Zez River Valley with its dinosaurs out front. Through Morocco's only tunnel (the Tunnel Zaabal) at 10:10 and through Karrandou where college students lined up to enter the campus. There is snow atop the Middle Atlas Mountains in the distance but we pass below the snow line, stopping at the Cafe Bonjour for coffee and the WC making, what Ibrahim calls excellent time "Handu Allah" (thanks be to God). I shoot a quick movie passing down from the Middle Atlas crossing and see apples for sale on the roadside at Zibzate before we pass through Midelt at 11:45, Zaida at 12:30 where we turn west on a road not yet traveled by me. And so it goes with six hours ahead to the Casablanca Airport. The scenery, particularly the snow on the mountains to the south, is beautiful even if the disappointment of cutting Morocco short is not. The impending PCR test looms.

Wifi in the van has been spotty. We believe that the cigarette lighter power adapter which supplies juice to the router is faulty--going in and out. For the moment, it is working so I jot down a few details knowing that it will soon be back out but I can pick up the narrative when technology allows.

The afternoon kicks off with me skipping lunch after a large breakfast; I remained in the car while Ibrihim grabbed a bite to eat. Not needing to drive, I treated myself with a nap in the back seat.

In Morocco, one frequently comes across a sort of road block set up by Gendarmerie Royale, the national police. We are most often waved through with only a cursory glance but sometimes must stop and explain ourselves.

The drive points out the geographical variety that is Morocco. It is just like the United States except much smaller. There are deserts and mountains and farmland and forest land but here they all abut one another. In one stretch of road, perhaps five miles or so, thousands of termites swarm, bouncing off our windshield. Outside of that one microclimate, I never saw another one.

By the time 3:00pm rolled around—seven hours after our departure—we were in Zaouiat Cheikh when school was letting out; I saw the kids on the way to school earlier and watched them stream out later. It is twenty degrees warmer and an entire school day later here.

As we drive it occurs to me that nature awarded an inordinate number of rocks to Morocco—there are more rocks here than I have ever seen: big ones, small ones, short ones, tall ones. I see them all today as we drive on almost all two-lane roads with narrow shoulders. In many places they are gathered together to make rock walls similar to those seen in many parts of the U.S. (and Ireland!) freeing up the gleaned land for growing of this or that.

To drive here, one must learn the art of passing—something young American drivers don’t know how to do because they are so infrequently placed on two lane highways. Major intersections of these two-lane roadways are without exception at roundabouts—another thing we are late to adopt in the U.S.

Approaching the City of Tadla (Kasba Tadla), I see still another of the many examples of highly dense urban dwellings abruptly stopping along clear lines of demarcation yielding to agriculture, or, in arid climate zones, barren rocky flatland. I ask Ibrahim if that stems from the history of walled cities to defend against aggressors and he answers in the affirmative. Simply put, there is no urban sprawl here. That changes as we approach Casablanca, however, and the density evaporates in favor of more western style scattered clusters of homes or industrial or agricultural buildings.

As 4:00pm approaches, we enter onto a modern, divided by concrete median, highway. No more passing for Ibrahim to negotiate, we are on the equivalent of an American interstate from here to the edge of Casablanca. Our speed picks up from 80 or 90 kilometers per hour to 120 and the swaying of the Mercedes van stops as our way straightens. The temperature has warmed another ten degrees and I have stopped feeling first cold and then chilled. Both changes are welcome as we make our way through still another micro-climate of barren scrub dotted with dried brush and the occasional olive grove.

The towns and dwellings I’ve seen sport mostly flat roofs, minimal exterior glass and are, as I said, tightly arranged one next to the last. Bright colors do not exist as the buildings keep the earth tones of the materials from which they are created. And there are rocks. More rocks: Morocco.

I receive my COVID PCR test result: Negative. I knew it would be that; what I didn’t know was whether or not it would arrive in time. Ibrahim stops the van at an internet-type shop so we can print out a copy just in case the airline won’t accept my electronic version (I insisted on that). That bit of anxiety passed, the next tense moments will come when I enter the airport and deal with local formalities in this time of COVID. My outbound 3-and-a-half-hour flight to Lagos is on Royal Air Maroc Boeing 737-800 (like what Southwest Airline flies in the U.S.) so I will depart from Terminal 1 but not for several hours: at 11:40pm, just under the shutdown deadline.

Upon arrival at the airport I make my way to the Royal Air Maroc ticket counter to be told that my flight to Lagos is canceled. I ask if I can please have a seat on any other international flight. There are none, says the nice person behind the COVID glass. A supervisor is summoned. I say I will take any seat in any class of service on any airline to any destination. "There is nothing." The airlines shut down early so as to not have aircraft out of position. "There is nothing."

I summon Ibrahim to return to the airport which he does. Megan from Wanderlust says that the last time something like this happened, repatriation flights for Americans left from Marrakech. That is where Ibrahim was going anyway. I have the last room at the Le Meridien Hotel in Marrakech. I may be here for two weeks. I don't know. I have reached out to two travel agents and the U.S. Department of State for help but so far nobody has any ideas. If you have one, please let me know.

The saddest part of this is that I notified David from Natural World Safaris--the arranger for all my gorilla treks--that I am stuck and may not make it.

Happy Hanukkah!

Posted by paulej4 20:45 Archived in Morocco Comments (7)

Chapter Four: Defeat Snatched From the Hands of Victory

If only I were an Israeli

sunny 66 °F
View Morocco + Uganda + Rwanda on paulej4's travel map.

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Watch and listen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0vWagaQ43w

Marrakesh Express
Crosby, Stills & Nash

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes
Travelling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks, and pigs, and chickens call
Animal carpet wall-to-wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind
Had to get away to see what we could find
Hope the days that lie ahead
Bring us back to where they've led
Listen not to what's been said to you
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
They're taking me to Marrakesh
All aboard the train, all aboard the train
I've been saving all my money just to take you there
I smell the garden in your hair
Take the train from Casablanca going south
Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth, my mouth
Colored cottons hang in the air
Charming cobras in the square
Striped djellebas we can wear at home
Well, let me hear ya now
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
They're taking me to Marrakesh
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express
They're taking me to Marrakesh
All on board the train, all on board the train
All on board

Late last night, as Ibrahim and I passed the Marrakech train station, Centre Guéliz Gare, after having driven nearly three hours in the dark, after having spent two of my life’s most frustrating hours at Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport being told by Royal Air Maroc personnel that the ticket I had bought fewer than 24 hours before while in the Sahara was for a flight that would not fly, after reading of the Moroccan government’s snap decision to protect its country and people from the Omicron variant of the Coronavirus and COVID-19, after having not eaten for sixteen hours and after having made frustrating phone call after frustrating web search to find a way out of a country that was closed several hours prior to when it had been ordered closed and while watching the battery indicators on both my phone and computer slowly slide left from comforting green to worrisome yellow to dreaded red, I could not get Crosby, Stills and Nash to remain still as they sang, over and over again: “Take the train from Casablanca going south, All on board the train, All on board the train.”

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It was Megan of Wanderlust Voyages who urged me (not to take the train) to recall Ibrahim and his big black Mercedes van back to the sidewalk in front of Terminal 2 to whisk me to Marrakesh where she predicted the chance of escaping barred borders would be greatest. Working on little sleep the night before, truly “sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind,” I was able to contact Marriott’s Titanium Member Reservation line in the United States and reserve a room at their Le Meridien hotel which sits a short walk from the Marrakech Train Station and a mere seven minute drive from that city’s Menara (RAK) Airport. “Ibrahim was driving on the Marrakesh Express.”

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Room service is offered 24-hours at Le Meridien but the menu is via a scanned QR code which takes me to their Facebook page—I am proudly NOT a Facebook subscriber—they are EVIL—so that doesn’t work for me. Dialing 40 and establishing that this conversation would be possible in English, I settle on a simple club sandwich. Once it is eaten, I set the both the hallway doorknob and my iPhone to Do Not Disturb and fall into bed longing for sleep which eventually, like an honored party guest, arrives late but welcome.

Le Meridien Marrakech is, like me, old and tired and prone to making inexplicable noises when it shifts position in the chilling night. I hear plumbing surges and closing doors but the bed is big and comfortable and even if all but a handful of television channels are French or Arabic or another language indecipherable to my American ears, I am for the first time in 24 hours allowing the stress of potential Moroccan imprisonment to wane.

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Only my daughter Megan and B4 have phone numbers which the iPhone has been trained to ignore when in Do Not Disturb mode. So when I am jolted from REM sleep as it rings at 5:32am and I hear B4’s distinctive ringtone (the song Diamond Girl by Seals and Crofts). A part of that song’s lyrics read “Day or night time, You’re like a shinin’ star, And how could I, Shine without you?”

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It seems that she, B4, has reached out to WGTA (World’s Greatest Travel Agent) Kathy Sudeikis which whom I have a decade(s) long relationship on exotic excursions. You may think of Kathy as Jason Sudeikis’ mom but I think of her as the one who can make impossible travel things happen.

But, as is often the case with these blogs, I digress. B4 says“I know you’re sleeping. But Kathy and I may have found you a way out of Morocco.”

Groggy, I hear all but comprehend only a bit of what she says. I am to be at the Marrakech Menara Airport to board a somehow still flying Israel Airlines flight to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport at 6:00pm tonight (Tuesday, November 30, 2021)—twelve hours from now. In Tel Aviv, I have an almost ten-hour layover before boarding a short Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. There I will wait six more hours before taking another Turkish Airlines flight to—yes—Entebbe International Airport arriving at 4:40am on Thursday, December 2, only about 36 hours after I left Marrakech. It is, dear reader, too good to be true.

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The country of Morocco, exercising its undeniable right to protect everyone here from the new Omicron variant, issued what some would call an excessive and almost immediate shut down of its borders. Royal Air Maroc, exercising its undeniable right to position its aircraft in its home country, issued what some would call a premature cessation of flights, failing to notify passengers who planned to beat the national deadline that they would replace it with a corporate one. I am one of those “some” but, as is the case with COVID and exposure and vaccinations and masks and social distancing and quarantines, “me” needs to be replaced with “we.” I didn’t get vaccinated just to protect myself, I got vaccinated to also help protect everyone else by not becoming a virus host. I didn’t practice social distancing and mask wearing because I wanted to, I did those things to be a part of the team playing defense against the offence that COVID represented. Here, too, I need to recognize that both the country and the airline are trying to beat a foe—not trying to inconvenience “me.” In a sense, I am a part of another team even if drafted unwillingly. If B4 and Kathy’s plan works, I am about to be traded.

What I find amazing is that El Al is flying to Tel Aviv because I had heard that it was closed as well. But there it is, on paper: I am booked on El Al flight 556 to Ben Gurian Airport.

At 12:23pm as I am on the telephone with an Acendas Travel Agent, Dawn in New York, who can not find any of the flights even though she twice checked the Acendas confirmation code, I look out my second floor window to see a beautiful sight accompanied by a roar. It is an aircraft leaving from Marrakech. Maybe this will work.

Dawn offers to rebook all the flights that Kathy had already booked so I can use my credit card to actually pay for them, something that B4 had been unable to do because she could not locate my CC number and codes, etc. Dawn said she would immediately email me the new itinerary. I don’t know why but I asked to confirm the email address to which she would send it. She had been about to send it to a now dead corporate ej4 address (we sold the company almost a year ago) which would not have reached me. Is the Russell Luck returning? Why did I think to check that? She updated the email address to the correct russraff address and I nervously awaited receipt. It didn’t come and it didn’t come until it did.

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I grabbed a quick lunch poolside, the only place lunch is served at Le Meridien. Note the old fashioned pop top on the new fashion Pepsi Max can. I checked out telling the desk clerk that we should cross our fingers (an internationally accepted gesture it appears) that I am not back in an hour due to the flight not actually operating. “We will be here for you,” he said. “I hope not,” I replied. Into a taxi I went for the $10 ride to Marrakech Airport

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Upon arrival at RAK, I strolled over to the El Al business class check-in lane and presented my passport and a smile. A manager came over to me and gestured that I should follow him. He unhooked the retractable belt from one of the stanchions that mark the check in lanes and ushered me away from the area. “You will not be allowed to board the flight,” he said. “Why is that?” I asked. “We are only accepting Israeli citizens. Do you have an Israeli passport?” “No.” “Then I cannot help you.”

Stunned, I stood motionless for nearly a minute as he walked away. The only way I can describe the emotion is this: you know when your team is ahead by 3 points with only seconds to play but the quarterback somehow drops the snap before taking a knee for the win and the opposition snatches up the ball and runs the length of the field to go ahead and win the game as time expires? You know, when the win is in your hand but somehow you lose? That is what I felt.

I walked to a nearby seat and noticed that Air France had a flight to Paris leaving in 90 minutes. I quickly placed a call to Kathy but got voice mail. I called her parent company Acendas but got a computer that put me on hold, reminding me that my call was important to them and that apologized for the wait. And the wait. And the wait. Check-in for the flight would close at precisely one hour before the flight. I had 30 minutes to get ticketed, then 25, then 20. The ticket line across the terminal was hours long.

By the time I got through to an agent it was too late.

The good news is that agent was able to book me for tomorrow. 4:30 to Paris, then to Dubai, then to Entebbe. Now the best I can arrive there is 2:25 on Thursday, 12/2, only ten hours later than the earlier plan.
I took a taxi back to the hotel to reclaim my oversized Marriott Le Meridien suite for another night. I had told them I might be back and now I was.

“A suite is not available,” I was curtly informed. But we have a very nice room for you at an even cheaper rate. “But,” I began. “It is not available,” I was told. This hotel, I was told last night, is 8% full.

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Screw it. I’m in a room that has a tv and that is not that much different than most hotel rooms I’ve stayed in. But, I will say this: My lifetime Titanium Status at Marriott, earned over 31 years of membership in their now named “Bonvoy” honored guest program by staying, get this, 2427 nights in their hotels during those years, my guaranteed upgrade and my suite night awards are of no consequence here. The best I can do is write a nasty Tripadvisor review and let Marriott corporate know that I don’t appreciate not being appreciated.

That is but a fly in my soup, however. The important thing to remember is that I have the bowl of soup in which the fly now swims: a ticket out of Morocco. Will it work tomorrow? I will let you know in the next chapter.

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Posted by paulej4 17:35 Archived in Morocco Comments (5)

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