Journey to Morocco

Our musical tour of Morroco with the Yuval Ron Ensemble
  • .: Welcome to our “Journey to Morocco” blog :.

    The Yuval Ron Ensemble has been invited by the King of Morocco to the Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco where they will be one of the featured performers. Yuval and the entire Ensemble have invited us to travel with them, to meet the tribal musicians and dancers of Morocco, and to share in this extraordinary musical experience. Together we will explore the wonders of this ancient civilization and its many mystical music and dance traditions. And, through this web-site, you can join us in this amazing journey as well.
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    A day to day look at our Morocco tour

    Posted By andy on June 11, 2009

    Hi all,

    I made it home safely, and have mostly recovered from our fast-paced, feature-packed, sleep-depriving tour of Morocco. It’s great to be back home, where I can now share some of the amazing stories, videos, and pictures with my family and friends.

    Here are links to each individual daily diary of my Morocco tour blog:

    Day 1: We’ve arrived in Morocco

    Day 2: Volubilis / Moulay Idriss

    Day 11: More shopping in Fes, staying up all night, and flying home early in the morning

    Posted By andy on June 11, 2009

    Dror and Andy, on the last day of the tour

    Dror and Andy, on the last day of the tour

    Hi all. On day 11 of our tour of Morocco, many of the tour members had left us, but some of us stayed for one additional day. I spent the day shopping in Fes some more, once again with only a small group, and no guide. I managed to purchase a few more items (though I still never found great gifts for the kids).

    For lunch, Dror had befriended one of the shopkeepers, who happened to own a bed-and-breakfast in the medina (a beautifully renovated riad). He invited us to come to his bed-and-breakfast for lunch. We took him up on the offer, and had a great lunch in the garden of the riad, where we were the only people there. He joined us for lunch, and we enjoyed the food, and his company very much.

    We went back to the hotel for one last dinner. During this dinner, Yuval, Smadar, Maya, Dror, and Jaime played music and sang. Also, one tour member accompanied on her flute, and another on her violin. We had the entire hotel staff there as well, joining in for the music and festivities.

    The rest of the evening was spent enjoying each others company, as well as packing for leaving early the next morning. Since we were expecting to leave the hotel at 4am, I decided to just stay awake, rather than sleeping.

    When 4am came around, we all boarded the bus one last time, and it took us to the Fes airport where we caught a quick early flight to Casablanca, and, from there another flight to JFK.

    We arrived back in New York City Thursday evening.

    Goodbye Morocco. We all had a great time, and now have memories that will last a lifetime.

    Thanks for reading my travel blog. I’ll be uploading some of the great video I shot in the next week or so.

    Hope to hear from you all soon.

    Love,

    Andy

    Day 10: Shopping in Fes, and the End-of-Tour Party

    Posted By andy on June 9, 2009

    On day 10 of our tour to Morocco, we were touring Fes in smaller groups. My group started the day touring a ceramics factory. We got to see the entire process, from the manufacturing of the clay, the spinning of plates and bowls on foot-powered pottery-wheels, the cutting of stones for mosaics, the detailed hand-painting of the various pieces, and the wood-fired kilns. Of course, the tour ended with the opportunity to pay inflated prices for some of the beautiful factory-direct pieces they had created. I passed on the opportunity, but actually found some nice hand-painted plates later that day when shopping in Fes (and for more reasonable prices as well).

    Workers at the ceramics factory we visited in Fes

    Workers at the ceramics factory we visited in Fes

    Hand painting at the ceramics factory in Fes

    Hand painting at the ceramics factory in Fes

    Some of the nice mosaic table tops they make in Fes

    Some of the nice mosaic table tops they make in Fes

    Dror and Andy with our great guide, Jowad

    Dror and Andy with our great guide, Jowad

    Next, we went to the “Mellah”, the old jewish section of Fes. Here we toured the old Jewish cemetery, and an old synagogue. These were all interesting to see.

    Andy at the Jewish cemetery in Fes

    Andy at the Jewish cemetery in Fes

    Dror chanting at the old Jewish Synagogue in Fes

    Dror chanting at the old Jewish Synagogue in Fes

    For lunch, we went back to the same place we had gone on day 9, and it was as delicious as the previous day.

    After lunch a few of us separated from the group, and spent the afternoon shopping in the medina, for the first time without a guide. It was very liberating not having a guide tell us where to go and when. We all purchased a few items, doing the usual haggling about price that is the norm in Morocco. One of the places we went to was a drum factory, where I purchased a hand-painted Bandir (Moroccan frame-drum). I also bought some traditional Moroccan clothing (which I ended up wearing to the end-of-tour party). We all managed to find our way out of the medina, even without a guide.

    Dror visiting a drum store in Fes

    Dror visiting a drum store in Fes

    Lots of hand-painted drums at a drum store in Fes

    Lots of hand-painted drums at a drum store in Fes

    Day 10 was the official last day of the tour, as some of the tour members were leaving the next morning (though others, such as myself, had paid for an extra day). Since this was the last meal we were all going to be together in Morocco, we all met up at a restaurant in Fes for an “end-of-tour” party. We had live music, couscous, and a chance to say our goodbyes to each other, and to thank our guides and support staff. This dinner was also the last time I saw Hamid, and I had a chance to thank him for the great tour experience he had provided for us.

    Andy in his Moroccan garb at the final tour party

    Andy in his Moroccan garb at the final tour party

    Music at the final tour party

    Music at the final tour party

    More music at the final tour party

    More music at the final tour party

    After dinner, we returned to the hotel, where we hung out, looking at the pictures, and reminiscing about all the fun we had had over the last couple weeks. We also said our final goodbyes to about a third of the tour members.

    All in all, a relaxing day, as our tour wound down.

    Day 9: Touring Fes, and the Yuval Ron Ensemble Performance

    Posted By andy on June 5, 2009

    Day nine had finally arrived. The big day where we would get to see the Yuval Ron Ensemble perform at the Sacred Music Festival. We started the day, as usual with breakfast at the hotel. Then we boarded our buses and headed to the medina in Fes (the old portion of the city). The first thing I noticed was that Fes is a huge city (over 1.3 million people), and seems to sprawl for miles around you.

    The beautiful city of Fes

    The beautiful city of Fes

    Another view of Fes

    Another view of Fes

    When we got to the medina, we got off the bus, and entered the walled portion of the city. The labyrinth of narrow streets and alleyways in Fes dwarfs what we saw in Marrakesh. Without a guide, it would be so easy to get lost in this city. There are no large landmarks to get your bearing, and only a small portion of the sky is visible from the ground as well.

    Walking the streets of the medina in Fes

    Walking the streets of the medina in Fes

    Another view of the streets of the medina in Fes

    Another view of the streets of the medina in Fes

    The medina in Fes

    The medina in Fes

    Shopping in the medina in Fes

    Shopping in the medina in Fes

    Donkeys working in the medina in Fes

    Donkeys working in the medina in Fes

    Some kids playing video games in Fes

    Some kids playing video games in Fes

    Our guide first took us to a large rug dealer, where we got a nice presentation about the different styles and manufacturing techniques of Moroccan rugs. Of course that led up to them trying to sell us all rugs. Some of the tour members did buy some very nice rugs, but, I wasn’t interested, so I walked around the building (an old converted riad, or traditional Moroccan-style house with an interior garden) , and went up to the roof where I took some nice pictures of the surroundings.

    The rug dealer we visited in Fes

    The rug dealer we visited in Fes

    Moroccan rugs in Fes

    Moroccan rugs in Fes

    Buying rugs in Fes

    Buying rugs in Fes

    Another picture of Fes

    Another picture of Fes

    View of Fes from the roof of the rug dealer we visited

    View of Fes from the roof of the rug dealer we visited

    After the rug-dealer, we walked around the city some more, looking at dozens (if not hundreds) of craftsmen in small shops, working on everything from metal, to wood, to fabrics. Fes is clearly a city where many Moroccan artisans perform their craft. We stopped along the way at the various shops, and got to experience more of the high-pressure price-haggling that is standard when buying things in the medina.

    A craftsman in Fes

    A craftsman in Fes

    Another craftsman in Fes

    Another craftsman in Fes

    A metal worker in Fes

    A metal worker in Fes

    More crafts work in Fes

    More crafts work in Fes

    Fabric weaving in Fes

    Fabric weaving in Fes

    Next, we got to go take a look at the tannery. This is a colorful (and smelly) place to visit, with large colorful pools of dye, where Moroccan workers labor hard dying leathers and fabrics. Here are some pictures we took of the tannery.

    A tannery in Fes

    A tannery in Fes

    A closer look at the vats at the tannery in Fes

    A closer look at the vats at the tannery in Fes

    Hard work at the tannery in Fes

    Hard work at the tannery in Fes

    Working in the tannery in Fes

    Working in the tannery in Fes

    We ate lunch at another converted riad. The food at this place was delicious, probably the best we’d had since arriving in Morocco). The salad they brought consisted of almost twenty small plates, laid out nicely in the center of the table, each containing a different, yummy item. I ordered a chicken and almond tagine, and enjoyed it very much.

    Lunch in Fes

    Lunch in Fes

    After lunch, we headed to the museum to see the Yuval Ron Ensemble perform. The concert was being held outside in the garden area of the museum. The space was much smaller than the Bab Makina where we had seen the whirling dervishes performance the night before, but it was still a beautiful setting. The stage was setup below a large tree. There was a large carpeted area directly in front of the stage for people to sit on, and surrounding that, chairs for people who preferred not sitting on the ground.

    Ilan watching the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Ilan watching the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    I setup my tripod and camera in the back, by the sound board, in the press section. Nobody seemed to notice or care that I did not have a press credentials card around my neck.

    There's me in the back shooting video at the performance

    There's me in the back shooting video at the performance

    The concert itself was magical. Yuval and his band members (and dancer, Maya), were all at their best, and the audience enjoyed the performance immensely. Here are some pictures and a sample video of the concert.

    The Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Fes

    The Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Fes

    Smadar singing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble

    Smadar singing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble

    Yuval performing in Fes

    Yuval performing in Fes

    Dror performing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Dror performing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Another picture of Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Another picture of Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Smadar singing at the performance of the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    Smadar singing at the performance of the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Fes

    After the concert, we were all on a high as we walked around the museum garden area for awhile, discussed the highlights with each other, and eventually headed back to the bus to return to the hotel.

    At the hotel, we rested for a while, some of us swam in the pool, or explored the hotel grounds some more. We sat for dinner together (more tagines). Dinner was followed by the arrival of a Sufi drumming ensemble that Hamid had arranged for us out on the hotel patio. They were loud and energetic, they brought extra drums for some of the tour members to play along with. The music went on late into the night.

    The Sufi drummers at our hotel in Fes

    The Sufi drummers at our hotel in Fes

    Hamid drumming with the Sufis

    Hamid drumming with the Sufis

    Dror and Adi

    Dror and Adi

    Another long, but exciting day, the pinnacle of our tour.

    Day 8: On to Fes

    Posted By andy on June 4, 2009

    More pictures of day 8 coming soon!

    Day eight of our tour of Morocco was our long drive day, traveling from Marrakesh to Fes. We took the highway instead of the scenic route that was initially planned, so that we could arrive with enough time to make it to the evening performance at the Sacred Music Festival. We got a early start out of Marrakesh, and we were all still tired from our exciting party the night before. Many of us slept on the bus, too tired after a intensive week of sight seeing to pay much attention to the passing scenery. I did notice that much of the journey looked similar to the Highway 101 drive between Los Angles and the bay-area, as far as landscape goes, though I was so exhausted perhaps I imagined that. We did a few stops a long the way for bathroom, water breaks, and lunch. One stop took us to a Shell station / mini-mart that was so Americanized in the items for sale, it hardly seemed like we were in Morocco anymore. We all loaded up on familiar munchies at that stop. 

    American junk food in a Morocco gas station

    American junk food in a Morocco gas station

    Dean stretching during a break from our long bus ride

    Dean stretching during a break from our long bus ride

    On our bus, Dror led many of us in the back of the bus in drumming, and singing, including some of the stuff he usually does at his “Idiot of the Village” workshops. This was great fun, and helped us forget that we were spending more than 8 hours in the bus this day.

    More drumming and singing on the bus on the way to Fes

    More drumming and singing on the bus on the way to Fes

    Eventually we got to Fes, and to our hotel, the “Sidi Harazem”. This hotel is an amazing sight. It is old, and it certainly is showing it’s age. But, it has such exquisite architecture, and design features, that you can tell that, when it was new, it was definitely a majestic place. It is built on a hot-springs, and the pool is still filed with the spring water, a softer water than what you’d usually find in a swimming pool. It feels really nice to the touch. It also has wi-fi access, but only in the lobby, not in the restaurant, the bar, or the rooms. The internet connection was the fastest we had seen in Morocco, and I was even able to have a long video chat with the whole family back in Ben Lomond, without hardly any latency.

    I really didn’t like the hotel when we first got here, but, I need to say that, after a few days, it did grow on me, and I got over the fact that it was old and warn, and I started seeing that it contained such beautiful features such as the tile and stone work and wood carvings. This hotel has serious character, and you can feel it as you walk through it and around the hotel property. The only real downside to the hotel is the distance from the hotel to the Fes Medina, where the music festival is being held, and there is not much of interest near the hotel that can be accessed without bus or taxi.

    We ate dinner in the hotel, then re-boarded the bus to go to our first concert of the Sacred Music Festival, in the “Bab Makina” performance space. As we got near to the venue, it was dark out, and we got our first close-up look at the old section of Fes. Fes is an awesomely complex city, with beautiful walls of white surrounding the old part of the city. In fact, almost all buildings that you see in Fes are white or off-white, and it takes on a kind of spiritual look to it, perfect for the Sacred Music Festival. 

    We got to the Bab Makina, purchased or tickets, and entered the venue. Oh man, what a cool place to see a concert. As you can see in the pictures, it is a large outdoor performance space, with towering castle-like walls of white surrounding the large courtyard where the performances take place. Being in the Bab Makina, you can feel the history around you.

    Concert at the Bab Makina

    Concert at the Bab Makina

    The concert we saw was in two parts. The first part were the traditional Sufi “Whirling Dervishes” from Turkey. A very traditional band opened with some beautiful music. Then the band provided music for the male dancers as they did their spinning routine. The music was haunting, and spiritual, and, partly due to the fact that I was so tired, and partly because of the style of music, I could not keep my eyes open, so I missed most of the dancer’s performance. The low-frequency chanting by the musicians however, definitely put me in a trance, and before I knew  it, the first half was over. The second half of the performance was another take on the “Whirling Dervishes” concept and style, but with a seriously modern approach. This was Ziya Azazi and Serge Adam from Turkey and France. Serge Adam is a solo musician, on stage with just his trumpet, and a laptop computer (with a few MIDI controllers on the side as well). As soon as the music started, with Serge Adam playing his trumpet, and I heard what he was up to, I was instantly fully awake, and digging on the whole thing. As he was playing the trumpet he was recording into his computer, and instantly looping and manipulating the sound into incredible new directions, combining that live trumpet sound with some recorded drum sounds, and other strange sounds as well. He was manipulating the rhythm, and pitches of the music in real-time. My college major is Computer Music, and I spend many hours in my studio doing things similar to what Serge Adam was doing, and I found it incredibly inspiring and beautiful. There were two dancers along with the music, and their spinning movements were a interesting juxtaposition to the traditional “Whirling Dervishes” we had seen in the first half of the show. This was a perfect opening to our Sacred Music Festival experience, and I enjoyed it so much.

    The Whirling Dervishes at the Fes Festival

    The Whirling Dervishes at the Fes Festival

    The second half of the "Whirling Dervishes" concert

    The second half of the "Whirling Dervishes" concert

    After the concert, we found the bus, and went back to our hotel to catch up on some sleep.

    Tomorrow, day nine is the day we’ve been waiting for, the performance of the Yuval Ron Ensemble at the Sacred Music Festival

    Goodbye.

    Day 7: Touring Marrakesh, and the Night of the Ten Thousand Candles

    Posted By andy on June 1, 2009

    Hello everybody. Here’s what happened on our tour through Morocco on day 7.

    We met for breakfast in the hotel (as usual), and Hamid and Yuval led a discussion about the concert they were going to play that evening, including how it came about, where it was being held, who our hosts were, and who would be attending the concert. We were told that the concert was being held in the private home of a wealthy Marrakesh property developer. The concert was to be dedicated to the memory of the host’s father. The venue was an upscale home on the edge of Marrakesh. Attending would include about three hundred dignitaries from foreign embassies in Morocco, and other well-connected people. Surprisingly, our group of weary, but eager travelers was invited as well, both to the concert, and the following dinner (and I’d be doing a video shoot). After hearing about how the plans for the concert came about, we were all really excited for a great night of music, food, and fun.

    At breakfast, with Hamid telling us about tonight's concert

    At breakfast, with Hamid telling us about tonight's concert

    After breakfast, the ensemble members (including Dror), left us mere tourists for their concert rehearsal, setup, and sound-check, while the remainder of the tour member separated into smaller groups for more touring of Marrakesh, and shopping. We started our morning tour at the El Badi Palace, and spent a while taking pictures inside the palace. Next up was “Jemaa el Fna” and the souks, where we separated into even smaller groups and traversed the labyrinth of shops in the medina. We’ve heard about how easy it is to get lost in the marketplace, but, until you experience it those winding, narrow alleyways for yourself, you cannot truly appreciate it. Some of the more interesting stores we visited included the pharmacy, and a antique store.

    Touring in Marrakesh

    Touring in Marrakesh

    A spice dealer in Marrakesh

    A spice dealer in Marrakesh

    An olive dealer in Marrakesh

    An olive dealer in Marrakesh

    The souks in Marrakesh

    The souks in Marrakesh

    A pharmacy in Marrakesh

    A pharmacy in Marrakesh

    Another view of the pharmacy

    Another view of the pharmacy

    We headed back to the hotel around 3pm for a late lunch (in anticipation of a late dinner). I wasn’t hungry, and was really interested in finding a wi-fi connection. So, I put my computer and camera-bag on my back, and headed up the road one of the fancier hotel’s in Marrakesh, the “Sufitel”. I walked through the huge lobby, and out to the bar by the pool, pretending to be one of the many guests staying at the hotel. Nobody paid any attention to me, and I quickly verified that they did indeed have an open wi-fi. I ordered a beer and sat by the pool for almost two hours, uploading day five blog text and pictures, and resolving a credit-card issue that had come up.

    I paid cash for the beer (which cost as much as a beer in an upscale American hotel), then waked back to our much less grand hotel, showered and prepared for the night’s concert and dinner.

    We all met up outside the hotel at 7pm for a bus-ride to the concert. We were told to dress as nicely as we could, and it was great to see that many of the tour member were wearing traditional Moroccan garb that they had purchased in the souks earlier in the day. We had a big picture taking fest, and we managed to get a hotel porter to take a group photo for us (though some poeple on the edges got cut off). The group looked so sharp, well dressed, to be respectful for our gracious hosts.

    Our group photo (partial)

    Our group photo (partial)

    Glen, dressed for a Moroccan party

    Glen, dressed for a Moroccan party

    Some of the men on the tour

    Some of the men on the tour

    We got to the venue, and this was no mere house. It was a beautiful palace. All around the house ten thousand candles had been lit, and set up almost everywhere, including a sea of candles setup on the grass in in the back yard between the home and a patio covered with a roof held up by towering pillars. There were four ponds surrounded by walkway, where the deep sound of frogs was everywhere. There was a stage setup, well lit, where the Yuval Ron Ensemble was still doing sound check. Set in front of the stage were rugs and pillows, and surrounding that chairs for us to sit on. The members of our tour had arrived before the remainder of the guests. I grabbed a spot in the front-middle, and began to setup for recording the concert video.  

    The venue for the first Yuval Ron Ensemble performance in Morocco

    The venue for the first Yuval Ron Ensemble performance in Morocco

    Another view of the house

    Another view of the house

    Candles everywhere

    Candles everywhere

    The patio behind the frog ponds at the Marrakesh party

    The patio behind the frog ponds at the Marrakesh party

    We were graciously welcomed by our hosts, and they seemed to be genuinely nice, friendly people. 

    The plan was for the ensemble to perform before the dinner. But, there were problems with the sound system, and the concert got delayed so long that eventually it was decided to have the ensemble play inside the house, after dinner. More and more of the guests arrived, and there was a massive amount of alcohol flowing, including wine, beer, and hard alcohol as well. The buffet was huge with a combination of Moroccan and European dishes, including vegetables, tajines, fish, chicken, pasta (first time I’d had that in Morocco), breads, and fruit. It was all delicious. 

    Eating and drinking before the first Yuval Ron performance in Morocco

    Eating and drinking before the first Yuval Ron performance in Morocco

    When it was finally time for the Yuval Ron Ensemble to start their performance, everybody was pretty loose, and instead of the performance being a deep, spiritual event as we had originally expected, it was an upbeat, lively performance with many of the guests dancing along with Maya, the dancer touring with the ensemble. Though it was different, it was great, and we all had a blast. After the performance, a DJ was blasting pop music and the partying continued late into the night. 

    The Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Marrakesh

    The Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Marrakesh

    Dror and the Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Marrakesh

    Dror and the Yuval Ron Ensemble performing in Marrakesh

    Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Marrakesh

    Maya dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Marrakesh

    Dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Morocco

    Dancing with the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Morocco

    We finally all boarded the bus, and headed back to the hotel, after a really enjoyable evening.

    Day 6: Riding on the Marrakesh Express

    Posted By andy on June 1, 2009

    Hi all. Day six already? This tour is going by so fast. There is almost no down-time (and almost no sleep time), unless you count the many hours we spend in the bus. But, even in the bus, with all the conversations, the tour-guide presentations by Hamid, Yuval, Jawad and others, the drumming and singing, and the interesting sites of the Moroccan landscape, towns and villages we pass through on our way from one hotel to another make it so that we don’t sleep much on the bus either. But, most of the tour people I talk to are fine with the lack-of-sleep, and prefer to utilize our limited time in Morocco to the fullest. Sleeping is overrated anyway.

    We were only in Ouarzazate for less than ten hours, so I can’t tell you much about it, except that it’s the “Hollywood” of Morocco, with a number of film studios that have sprung up in the recent past. The Hotel we stayed in was nice enough (which is more than I can say about the hotel restaurant staff), and they did have sporadic wi-fi. I managed a three minute video iChat to my in-laws, and another one or two minute one to my folks. But, the long latency made it tough to hold a conversation, and even uploading a few pictures to this blog took longer than it should have.

    Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco

    Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco

    We left Ouarzazate right after breakfast for our four to five hour ride to Marrakesh. The road between Ouarzazate to Marrakesh takes you up to the highest peak in North Africa. The views from the Tizi-n-Tichka pass are breathtaking, on one side the desert, the other side, the valley full of fields of green. It’s your typical winding mountain rode, similar to what you’d expect in the Rocky Mountain range in the USA. I know a number of people on the tour got a little car sick with all twisting and turning, but since I go over Highway 17 twice every workday (and even work on my computer during the ride if I’m not driving the carpool), I was used to it. Check out these amazing pictures we took either from the bus, or from the one or two rest-stops along the way.

    On the road to Marrakesh

    On the road to Marrakesh

    A rest stop on the way to Marrakesh

    A rest stop on the way to Marrakesh

    The Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, high in the Atlas Mountains

    The Tizi-n-Tichka Pass, high in the Atlas Mountains

    Driving through the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass

    Driving through the Tizi-n-Tichka Pass

    Finally we arrived in Marrakesh! What can I say about Marrakesh? Well, it’s definitely one of the international tourist destinations that’s not to be missed. With the craziness of the “Jemaa el Fna” square, the endless labyrinth of shopping in the “medina”, the great opportunity for people watching, sites to see, etc. I would recommend any brave tourist looking for something unique in the world to come to Marrakesh at least once in their travels. But hold on to your belongings. One tour member had her purse snatched right off her back while at an ATM.

    When we first entered the city, and before we went to our hotel, we went to a gas-station/cafe (open 24/7) for lunch. Yes, a gas station. But, I must say the food was great, especially the bread, which was the best bread I’ve had in Morocco yet. We then went to the hotel to check in, and drop off our bags. The hotel was ok, but lack of wi-fi was a huge disappointment for me, as many of the tour people had by now sent the URL to this blog to their friends and family, which made me even more determined to get regular updates posted (I did manage to “borrow” wi-fi from the next door hotel to check my iPhone email).

    Our hotel in Marrakesh

    Our hotel in Marrakesh

    The lobby of our hotel in Marrakesh

    The lobby of our hotel in Marrakesh

    We started our introduction to Marrakesh with a tour consisting of three areas, a 100+ acre park of old-growth olive trees, surrounding a large cement-lined reservoir (used to water the thousands of olive trees), followed by the main Mosque containing the tallest building in the city, followed by a quick pass through “Jemaa el Fna” to take in some of the insanity of the snake-charmers, monkey trainers, fortune tellers, dancers, drummers, story-tellers and food-stalls, and anybody else who has a interesting way to get money out of the tourists wallets. I wish I had my video camera during my time in the square, but I was hesitant, due to the high security problems, and the amount of money I would have had to shell out for the privilege of pointing my video camera at anybody. The sounds of the square were deafening at times, and I think Glen had his audio-recorder with him, so perhaps I’ll get a chance to include some of that in the tour video.

    The reservoir in the olive grove in Marrakesh

    The reservoir in the olive-tree grove in Marrakesh

    The large mosque in the center of Marrakesh

    The large mosque in the center of Marrakesh

    The sea of humanity in "Jemaa el Fna"

    The sea of humanity in "Jemaa el Fna"

    A snake charmer in "Jemaa el Fna"

    A snake charmer in "Jemaa el Fna"

    A fortune teller in "Jemaa el Fna"

    A fortune teller in "Jemaa el Fna"

    One of the many musicians in "Jemaa el Fna"

    One of the many musicians in "Jemaa el Fna"

    Interesting food in "Jemaa el Fna"

    Interesting food in "Jemaa el Fna"

    More music in "Jemaa el Fna"

    More music in "Jemaa el Fna"

    One thing that I found interesting was the juxtaposition of people in traditional Islamic clothing (including full head veils), along side many young couples holding hands, and flirting with one another around the reservoir, dressed in the skimpy western-sytle clothing warn by similarly aged people in the USA. As an American who is led to believe that Islamic countries are full of nothing but traditionalists, and that public displays of affection between unmarried males and females are seriously frowned upon, this was something I didn’t expect to see. But Morocco is an extremely tolerant country (in so many ways), and this was just another clear example of that wonderful Moroccan attitude of life.

    We got back to the hotel, and cleaned up for Shabbat dinner in the restaurant. After shooting video and photos almost constantly during the previous week, I decided that this Friday evening would be my night off. Good thing there were others in the group that did bring their cameras, and took pictures at Shabbat, and later that night, and they have all be so gracious to share their photos and video with me. This has really become a group effort, and hopefully, when we get back, we can expand on the whole “tour-blog” concept, and make a lasting record of our wonderful time together in Morocco.

    Prior to the Shabbat dinner, we had the traditional jewish lighting of the candles, blessings over the candles, wine, and bread. There were also a few musical numbers by Dror, and Yuval. Hamid gave traditional Sufi blessings as well. It was fun to have Shabbat dinner together in Morocco with all the new friends we’ve made on this trip.

    Shabbat dinner in our hotel in Marrakesh

    Shabbat dinner in our hotel in Marrakesh

    Singing at our Shabbat dinner in Marrakesh

    Singing at our Shabbat dinner in Marrakesh

    After dinner, we headed to a restaurant in an old Jewish home in Marrakesh. As you see in the pictures there was elaborate tile and carved stone from floor to ceiling. It was a great site for our evening entertainment which was belly dancers, and three local musicians, skilled in the traditional Andalusian style, which happens to be the style of music the Yuval Ron Ensemble will be playing at the Fes Festival in a few days. Before long, Dror, Yuval, and Smadar (one of the beautiful, talented singers in the ensemble) had joined in, and I must say, for me personally, this was the best musical entertainment of the entire tour (so far). I was now seriously regretting not having my cameras with me. But, there were plenty of cameras taking pictures, and here are a few. 

    Dancer during the Andalusian music at the Jewish resturant

    Dancer during the Andalusian music at the Jewish resturant

     

    Yuval playing with the Andalusian musicians

    Yuval playing with the Andalusian musicians

    Smadar and Dror performing at the Andalusian music evening

    Smadar and Dror performing at the Andalusian music evening

    Andalusian music night

    Andalusian music night

    At the end Smadar sung a moving song about mothers, dedicated to Jawad (one of our tour guides), who had recently lost his mother. Smadar’s singing and body-movements have such deep expression, it was a special experience for all of us there.

    Smadar singing a song for Jawad

    Smadar singing a song for Jawad

    We got back to the hotel after 2pm (again), and eventually we went to bed.

    Tomorrow, more in Marrakesh, and the first concert of the Yuval Ron Ensemble in Morroco.

    Goodbye.

    Day 5: Todra and Tinghir, on the way to Ouarzazate

    Posted By andy on May 30, 2009

    Hi everybody, hope you’ve enjoyed the blog so far. I’ve been having a wonderful time here in Morocco, and I’m happy to be able to share it with you all. I can’t believe it’s already day six as I’m sitting here on the bus preparing this post about our day five experience. On day five of our journey thorough Morocco, I was still recovering from stomach problems that developed shortly after our desert camping trip. So, I avoided eating anything until we arrived in Ouarzazate after 10pm for a late night dinner at the hotel. But, more about that later.

    Day five was mostly a driving day, with two important stops. The first one was in Todra, high up in the Atlas mountains, in a Berber region of Morocco. The town of Todra is located in a narrow mountain pass with towering rock walls on each side of the pass. A mountain river flows along side the road. Here in Todra, we have yet another example of the beauty and diversity of the Moroccan landscape, unlike anything we’d seen so far. Our bus stopped near the base of the mountain pass, and we all left the bus, and continued walking up the road to where the group was going to have lunch, taking in the sheer enormity of the rock cliffs on either side of us. The sounds of birds were everywhere, and we could see hundreds of birds flying in and out of nests high in the rock walls. Along the road, Moroccan merchants were peddling jewelry and scarves to the tourists. 

    A deep well in the desert

    A deep well in the desert

    Andy, on the way to Todra

    Andy, on the way to Todra

    On the way to Todra

    Some of my new friends who are helping with the blog photos

    The incredible rock cliffs of Todra

    The incredible rock cliffs of Todra

    Dror and Jaime walking in Todra

    Dror and Jaime walking in Todra

    Hamid leading the way up through Todra

    Hamid leading the way up through Todra

    We all assembled for lunch in one of the restaurants in Todra, and most of the tour people sat and ate, while I wandered around outside (unwilling to eat), soaking my feet in the river from one of the small wooden bridges, and taking pictures and video of the surroundings. After lunch, Yuval, Jaime, Dror, and Hamid pulled out their instruments (oud, and drums) and performed a song in the restaurant, which is one of the songs Yuval performs regularly, and is written about Todra. This was the first time Yuval had been there, and he he was very moved to be able to play that particular song in the setting where it is written about. We all enjoyed the short performance, then re-boarded the buses and continued our journey. When I get back, I’ll upload the video of the song from the restaurant.

    Where we ate in Todra

    Where we ate in Todra

    Music at lunch in Todra

    Music at lunch in Todra

    The next stop was in the town of Tinghir. We got off the bus, and walked about a mile or so through fields of wheat and other agriculture, as we headed to the old jewish quarter of the town. Along the way, about a dozen or so kids converged on us, trying to use their charm and cuteness to get money from us. Some gathered flowers for us, others made little crafts out of palm leaves or other vegetation along the way. Dror attempted to teach some of the kids one of the “songs” he does at the end of some of his drumming workshops, and it was really funny for me to here these kids singing the nonsensical lyrics I am so familiar with from my experiences in his drum classes.

    On our walk to Tinghir

    On our walk to Tinghir

    The wheat fields around Tinghir

    The wheat fields around Tinghir

    Arriving on the edge of town in Tinghir

    Arriving on the edge of town in Tinghir

    Part of the old Jewish section of Tinghir

    Part of the old Jewish section of Tinghir

    Tinghir

    Tinghir

    We finally arrived at the edge of town, and walked through the narrow alleyways of the old jewish quarter, and then through the more populated town center area where there are many shops, people and traffic. The bus was waiting for us there, and we got back on for the final stage of the day’s drive to Ouarzazate. I was excited to find an open wi-fi connection, and managed a short text chat with my wife back home while waiting to depart.

    We were on the bus, and it was about sunset time. Drums came out, and there was spirited drumming and singing for a while. I played along on the Dumbek that Dror had purchased from one of the musicians at the Hotel Belere, which he needs for his part in the performance at the Sacred Music Festival. These spontaneous drumming and singing opportunities, which I knew were inevitable, were one of the things that drew me to this tour in the first place, and they certainly make the time in the bus more enjoyable, and pass more quickly.

    Drumming in the bus

    Drumming in the bus

    After the drumming and singing, the bus quieted down a bit, and I fell asleep. I was woken up by another tour member, and was happy to see we had arrived at our destination hotel for the night, in the city of Ouarzazate. At the hotel, we immediately sat down for dinner (it was after 10pm), and I did manage to eat some chicken kabobs, and white rice, and I could tell I was feeling better. We got our room keys, and after a bit of quiet music by the pool with Dror and Yuval, we headed to our rooms, and quickly went to bed.

    Tomorrow, we continue on to Marrakesh, the tourism capital of Morocco, and the first big-city experience of our tour.

    Talk to you all later.

    Day 4: Return from the desert, Hotel Belere, and the Gnawa

    Posted By andy on May 29, 2009

    Dror watching the sunrise over the Sahara

    Dror watching the sunrise over the Sahara

    We awoke prior to sunrise, to the sound of Djembe drumming, about three hours after we had entered our nomadic tent for our short, but well needed sleep. What we found when we exited our tent was that we were in a vast pinkish-orange desert, at the bottom of a huge sand dune, surrounded by many other, shorter dunes. The palm trees in the oasis where our camp was assembled, were the only vegetation you could see for miles around us. Most of our tour members scattered across the dunes, many of them climbing to the top of another large dune next to the dune behind our camp. Many people (such as myself) were taking pictures of everything around us, but some were just taking in the surroundings, obviously enjoying a personal, spiritual experience. A song emanated from the top of the dunes (this is a very musical group of people assembled for this tour). What I noticed was the beauty of the wind-blown sand, the patterns that are formed, both the small details that are only evident when you are very close, and the larger details, such as how the sand banks form sharp edges as the sand is pushed up by the wind. Words cannot adequately describe the beauty of the Sahara desert, and I’m not sure these accompanying pictures really do it justice either.

    Tour members climbing the dunes to watch the sunrise

    Tour members climbing the dunes to watch the sunrise

    Glen having a personal experience on the dunes

    Glen having a personal experience on the dunes

    As I walked around the camp, I was surprised to find skis and snowboards leaning against the back of one of the tents. I guess it makes sense, since the Sahara sand is so fine-grained, that it does almost feel like warm powered snow to the touch (nothing like the rocky sand you find on California beaches, both in texture and color). Nobody was using the skiing equipment, but I would have loved to try it myself, or at least seen one of the Moroccan youth hosting our camping trip using them.

    Skiing in the Sahara?

    Skiing in the Sahara?

    We came across a dung beetle, pushing an animal dropping across the desert (larger than the beetle itself). We didn’t stick around to see where it was taking it’s newly acquired prize, but it just goes to show that one creatures waste can be another creatures most cherished possession.

    A beetle, hard at work in the Sahara

    A beetle, hard at work in the Sahara

    As we were packing our belongings, Dror sat and played Djembe along with the Moroccans, kind of giving an impromptu drum lesson.

    Dror drumming with the Moroccans at camp

    Dror drumming with the Moroccans at camp

    We remounted our camels, and headed out into the dunes for our caravan back to civilization. This time the camel ride was about twice as long as the night before, and when we finally arrived to our destination, I was feeling sore in the legs, and my hands were also sore from banging on the handlebar repeatedly during the ride.

    Our camels waiting to take us back to civilization

    Our camels waiting to take us back to civilization

    Leaving camp on our camels

    Leaving camp on our camels

    Our camel caravan

    Our camel caravan

    Jaime riding his camel

    Jaime riding his camel

    We entered the restaurant at the camel ride ending point (which was still about an hour from our hotel by bus), and there was a large buffet breakfast set out for our enjoyment. I had fruit, some pastry, and lots of fresh squeezed orange juice, which tasted great (though later in the evening I came down with a stomach ache, perhaps because of the breakfast, perhaps because of the dinner on the desert the night before, perhaps unrelated to either).

    Where our camel ride ended

    Where our camel ride ended

    As we waited for the bus, we were all collapsed on the pillows in the restaurant lobby, and Hamid and Yuval laid out the plans for the remainder of the day. He told us about the evening plans which included a ride to a private home about an hour from the hotel, where we would see an authentic Gnawa trance music ceremony.

    After breakfast, waiting to go back to the hotel

    After breakfast, waiting to go back to the hotel

    The bus finally arrived, we boarded and eventually we ended up back at the Hotel Belere in the town of Erfound where we had departed from the night before for our Sahara desert camping trip. This hotel is beautiful, consisting of many bungalows covered in an exterior of clay and straw bricks. The pool area (as you can see in the pictures) looks incredibly inviting, and as soon as we got to our rooms, I unpacked my bathing suit, returned to the pool, and took a cleansing plunge into the cold, but refreshing pool. I headed back to my room, where Dror immediately went to sleep, but, finding an wi-fi connection for the first time since we arrived in Morocco, I immediately went to work uploading the first three days of details and pictures to the blog you are now reading. After completing the blogging, I returned to my room and crashed for about three hours, until about 7:30pm.

    The Hotel Belere

    The Hotel Belere

    The pool at the hotel Belere

    The pool at the hotel Belere

    As we were heading to the hotel dining hall, we found a group of musicians setup near the pool area for some evening entertainment. This ensemble consisted of oud, violin, electronic keyboard, vocals, and multiple drummers. These guys were top notch performers, and, as Hamid later told us, this was no ordinary hotel bar band, but the lead singer was one of the more respected, nationally known performers for his particular style of Moroccan music. Hamid gave a moving tribute to this singer, and we stuck around for a few more beautifully sung songs, while eating a bit from the hotel’s buffet.

    Then we were given the choice to stay and listen to the music at the hotel, or to go and see the Gnawa. Most, including myself didn’t hesitate to board the bus once again and go to the Gnawa.

    We arrived a the home of the Gnawa performers late at night, and were led into a small room where we all sat on the floor on rugs and pillows set out around the edge of the room. The Gnawa group consisted of a group of male performers dressed all in white, playing drums and “Karakab” clicking metal percussion instruments, and also three female trance singers dressed from head to toe in black robes and veils. There was also a bass-like instrument, with three strings, a skinned body, and a carved broom-stick like neck. which had a mellow, smooth tone to it. The music was indeed haunting and beautiful, and it was clear that these were all very talented musicians, well trained in the style of music they play. Before long, many of the tour members were up on their feet, moving to the steady beat of the music. I’ve got some amazing video of this performance as well, but you’ll have to wait for that until I get back.

    The Gnawa

    The Gnawa

    The Gnawa women

    The Gnawa women

    When the Gnawa performance was done, we re-boarded the bus, headed back to the hotel, and finally got in bed around 2am, exhausted from another long day.

    Tomorrow we go high in the Atlas mountains, and then onto Ouarzazate.

    Day 3: A long bus ride, and an amazing night

    Posted By andy on May 27, 2009

    Traveling to the desert. We woke at 7am, packed up our bags, had breakfast at the hotel, and boarded the bus for the long trek to the desert. We headed into the middle Atlas Mountains, up through a pass about 6000 feet high. We saw large pastures of sheep, where nomadic people live in very meager homes and tents. As we passed over the mid Atlas Mountains, we passed forests of oaks, miles of red poppies interspersed with yellow mustard and purple flowers. We could see snow on the distant peaks, and we even passed a small lodge marked “skiing center”. I guess it must get cold here in the winder, but today it was very comfortable with a perfect light breeze. We stopped for lunch in the town of Midelt, at a beautiful Moroccan castle looking hotel, where I ate a beef and vegetable tajine, carrot soup, and some couscous. I stopped at a rock and crystal store across the road from where we had lunch, and did some haggling for a couple of polished quartz massage crystals.

    On the tour bus

    On the tour bus

    On the bus - through Meknes

    On the bus - through Meknes

    Another Moroccan village

    Another Moroccan village

    Interesting crown on the mountain

    Interesting crown on the mountain

    Climbing into the mid Atlas Mountains

    Climbing into the mid Atlas Mountains

    Another Moroccan village

    Another Moroccan village

    Moroccan lunch

    Moroccan lunch

    Moroccan coke, with real sugar!

    Moroccan coke, with real sugar!

    The long drive continued, and continued. What we were originally told would be an 8 hour drive turned into 11 long hours. We did have a great time on the bus thought, as Dror and Jaime played some percussion, Hamid and Yuval alternated giving us details about the places we were passing through, details on Moroccan life, politics, philosophy, etc. There was also lots of laughing and some singing as we all got to know each other better. There were actually two buses this time, so we had extra space to spread out, get comfortable, and at some points nap a bit.

    The details on what was going to happen this night were still kept secret from us until near dark, when we approached the town of Erfoud. What we hadn’t been told was that the camp we were going to be staying in for the night was long past where the buses could go. We arrived at the Hotel Belear in Erfoud after dark, and we were given a brief chance to access our luggage (while in the parking lot), and select only the minimum items we would need for the night. We all separated into groups of six, and boarded a fleet of Land Cruisers. We then had a 45 minute off-roading experience that rivaled some rides at Disneyland. Seeing the many Land Cruisers passing through the dirt area leading to the dunes in the dark of night all taking different paths and changing lead over and over, I almost felt we were part of the Amazing Race. It was an extremely bumpy ride, but, for me at least, quite enjoyable. The moon was small, and there were more stars than I had ever seen in the sky. 

    Eventually we came to the end of our off-road journey, and ended up in an area with fifty or more camels all saddled and ready to take us the last part of our journey. They were tied in groups of four, and each group was led by some Moroccan youths, dressed in blue robes and turbans There was almost no lights, very few flashlights, so we could barely make out where we were, and had no idea where we were going. I hopped up on a nearby camel, and eventually all of us were boarded, and ready for our trek. We spent the next hour or so being carried by the camels, led by the young Moroccans through the sands of the desert. We could not see where we were going, and we could not see the ups and downs of the dunes we were traveling over. It was at the same time extremely exhilarating, and somewhat terrifying as we bumped up and down on the camel saddles holding on to small metal handle bars. The temperature was perfect, with a warm breeze (though it was past midnight by this time, and we still hadn’t eaten dinner). Did I mention that the stars were amazing (and we saw many shooting stars as well). The walk was somewhat chaotic as the camel caravan seemed to get lost for a bit, but eventually we came to an oasis in the desert, dotted with palm trees, light by candle lanterns. 

    Our camel ride under the stars to our desert camp

    Our camel ride under the stars to our desert camp

    My rent-a-camel

    Camel follow-the-leader. Mine is in back.

    We dismounted or camels and said goodnight to them, hoping that they would still be there for our return journey in the morning. We walked down a candle lit path, still hardly able to see where we were, or our surroundings, and we came to a clearing where dinner tables were set up with candle lanterns on each. Surrounding the dining area were small, low nomadic style tents in a circle around the camp, each with mattresses, and blankets. We sat down, and the Moroccan (Berber) youth served us a dinner under the stars. There were sand fleas everywhere, but after such a long journey, we were all starving, and the food was basic, but well received. 

    After dinner, most of the tour members took a chance to claim their sleeping quarters. Some of us waited until much later, which probably wasn’t the best idea. Dinner was followed by drumming, and dancing. Yuval played his Oud, Dror, Jamie, myself, and other tour members all played drums and percussion. It was a lot of fun, but much shorter than I had hoped (I didn’t want to sleep at all, I wanted to jam all night). Eventually we had to stop playing, and the tour members all moved to their selected tents (did I mention that some of us still hadn’t determined where we were going to sleep?). It was so dark, that as those of us without tents moved from tent to tent trying to find a place to sleep. Eventually Dror, Nilli, and myself found a tent with one of the two beds free, and the three of us decided to share it. It was cramped, but we were so tired that it didn’t matter. I didn’t think I slept that night, but actually, I just dreamed that I was unable to sleep. This night was definitely one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in a long time. And, we still had the sunrise awaiting us in just a few hours, where we’d finally see our surroundings.

    More about that tomorrow.

    Our hotel on the dunes

    Our hotel on the dunes

    After dinner festivities at camp

    After dinner festivities at camp

    Dancing and music at camp

    Dancing and music at camp