The Hollywood City in the Desert



Dear Diary

In a side valley of the mountains from which we have just come, you will find the clay fortress Aït-Benhaddou, in which films such as “Gladiator” or “Lawrance of Arabia” were shot. Many sceneries here are used as film sets, which is why a large film studio has established itself in Ouarzazate, which is also the main source of income for the town. The last major film shot here was “Babel“, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.

We just arrived from our journey through the High Atlas. As we leave the poor bus station, we see Ouarzazate for the first time. And it quickly becomes apparent that the cityscape is not worth mentioning. The place is a ghost town as long as no big film is made and only small local productions are currently taking place, as I later learn.

The first building in Ouarzazate that we see is directly the film studio, which looks extremely tacky. Not much of the film site can be seen, but at the entrance, visitors are greeted by two huge gold-painted Egyptian statues.

We don’t sleep in a celebrity’s suite, but we do go to one of their nightclubs in the evening.

The streets are wide and the houses are tall, but it’s hot and there’s a little sandstorm blowing through the city, so there’s always sand in your eyes and around your mouth. Su, the two Americans and I walk around the blocks looking for hotels.

Unfortunately, my travel guide only lists expensive hotels and we can’t find the hotel from Chad’s Lonely Planet. So we try the first hotel down the road, but we’re disappointed. An unmotivated fat guy shows us around, the rooms are small and there is only one bathroom on the floor without warm water. The Americans and we agree to reject it.

Lonely Planet advises against the next hotel, but next to it we find the hotel that the young man on the bus had already offered us and who is now, beaming with joy, leading us to the reception. The man there greeted us warmly and showed us around. Hotel Baba’s rooms are large, spacious and have bathrooms with warm water. And to top it off, a whole room costs us only €10 per night! We accepted and immediately used our bathroom. I rush out of the comfortable shower when I suddenly hear Su screaming. I hurry back into the room and follow Susanne’s index finger to the big black thing that’s just disappearing under the bed at high speed. Our first cockroaches! A slipper, a loud crack, and then we’re alone again.



Tedious negotiations

When I am at the reception to fill out the registration form, the porter asks me if we already have plans and if we want to hear what a friend of his has to offer us. There are great opportunities here and he has an off-road vehicle for interesting tours. I am ready to listen to his “friend’s” offer and we use the waiting time to have lunch at a small restaurant next door.

Erfrischt kommen wir wieder in die „Lobby“, wo Chad schon mit einem gut angezogenen und wohl genährten Marokkaner spricht. Wir setzen uns dazu und hören, dass Ali eine kleine Agentur und Geländewagen besitzt.

After a little foretaste, Ali offers to take us to his agency and give us detailed suggestions there. Since we have nothing else to do and the man seemed likeable to us, we say yes.

Chad is a funny bird and does a wonderful job of throwing his opponent off balance. In conversation, he always asks funny or crazy questions, for example whether Ali had already done business with Brad Pitt, where Brad would have slept and eaten. So Ali has to start all over again with his suggestions. He suggests different routes for one, two and three days, through the gorges, huge gorges, or into the desert to Mhamid or Merzouga. We would like to do something longer and actually my plan was to rent a car here in Ouarzazate and take it along the Drâa valley for a long loop to Zagora, then through the desert past Tazzarine, Alnif and Rissani into the dunes to the oasis of Merzouga to drive, from where you can come by camel into the desert. You would come back to Ouarzazate via Erfoud, Tinghir, past the Gorges du Thodra and Dades. That would have been the plan for a week, the Americans would also be interested – if they had had enough time. Unfortunately, they have to fly from Casablanca to Cairo three days later. And for Su and me it was too expensive to rent such a car. Car rental prices are higher here than in Spain!

Ali also offers the tour I have in mind for three days, but even after some negotiation it is still for 300€ per person, which unfortunately I no longer have available, despite all my goodwill. Another suggestion is a day trip to Zagora and further into the desert at Mhamid, which suits the Americans and their plans more. Of course, if we could find a common denominator, it would be cheaper for everyone. But we deliberately hesitate to come to an agreement so that Ali can make his offers even more attractive with further discounts. When we see that his pain threshold has been reached, we agree on a Among the Berbers of the Sahara tour to Mhamid, where the four of us are to stay overnight with Berbers and make a camel trek into the dunes, through the Drâa Valley to Zagora, return the next day via a different route and Su and I will do the third day alone a tour in the mountains through the Valley of the Roses and to the Gorges.

After long negotiations, the price is now only 150€ per person for Su and I, which is not to be scoffed at for a three-day jeep tour including all meals and overnight stays. Also, Ali invites us for a beer.

First, however, he takes us to a bank where we get the money for him. Then Ali writes down the signed route for us as a receipt. Then he drops us off at a bar so we can eat something and to collect us later with the beer for his promise.

We are with an Italian. The culinary diversity of the city is of course also geared towards the cultural diversity of the film crews and we enjoy not only having to choose between tajine, couscous and bruchettes for once. Chad and Becky suddenly don’t feel like going out anymore and excuse themselves to the hotel. So Su and I drive alone with Ali and one of his friends to a nightclub that has a decent oriental flair and oriental prices. There is also a big screen showing a Champions League match. Otherwise the shop is set up like a small palace with seating and shishas on the floor. However, the deadpan waitresses could have come from any European or American bar.

Everyone seems to know Ali. The likeable fat man laughs a lot. He presumably also pays many of those present. There is even beer from Moroccan breweries here. I ask him how it is compatible with the Koran or the country’s Islamic laws to drink alcohol, which is forbidden. His interpretation is that alcohol is actually allowed as long as you don’t overdo it. In Morocco, the rules are not quite as strict.

Then I change the subject to the new king. Young Mohammed replaced his dictatorial father ten years ago and went in a completely different political direction. He likes to show himself casually in public with an open leather jacket, sunglasses and cigar, and he also takes his wife, who is not aristocratic but a middle-class computer science student, with him to official occasions. This man was a revolution and did a lot in the social sector, especially in the equality of women at work and in public life. I read all of this in the travel guide and Ali is impressed by my knowledge and interest in the country’s politics. You can see his pride in the young king.

With beer and nuts we talk until late in English and also Spanish, which Ali speaks a little, then we excuse ourselves because we want to leave at 8 o’clock tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 21st

Tuareg business

Our three days with the off-road vehicle are over and we have to think about how to continue. First of all we decide to explore Ouarzazate further; After all, we have seen next to nothing of the place and according to the travel guide there are still two Kasbahs that are worth visiting. Today the weather is beautiful again, which makes me angry again with the thought of the past day.

We march onto the main street and into town until we get to the area where all the bazaar shops are that the owners want to usher us back into. A young boy speaks to Su, asks about her origins and the usual, and we’re back in an “antiques” shop between carpets, old Berber jewelery and terribly sweet peppermint tea. First, our young host starts to pull out a drum to play on. He proudly tells us that he is in a band. He then jumps up, briefly apologises, and shortly after comes back with an older friend next door who bears a strange resemblance to Omar Sharif.

They start together and drum and sing. Then a box with Tuareg jewelery and of course a large number of carpets are presented.

Susanne’s brain has already been washed to the point that she’s starting to have real ambitions to buy one. But strangely enough, these people are not very interested in bargaining and soon break off the bargaining.

I have my eye on the Tuareg necklaces, made of black beads and a silver star compass. But people don’t want to go below 150 dirhams for this.

In another shop, however, I manage to bargain down a dealer for 70 dirhams and an old RP Radio pen that I find in my pocket. Su buys a pair of beautiful earrings.

A little later we are ushered back into a small shop whose owner really is dressed like a Tuareg. He also shrouds himself in mystery, showed us a bunch of junk and then pulls out his little treasure chest. Su has to try all the necklaces and earrings again and of course you expect the usual surprise from the tourists who have never seen anything like it. We smile politely and ask about the prices out of politeness. Here the costs are thirty percent higher than in the stores before.




The ancient Ouarzazate

We move on again and slowly come close to the kasbahs and the medina, but also to the area of the tourist buses and catchers. A group of young people approached us and offered to show us around and show us the kasbahs and the old town. Alone you would only get lost. One even invites us to his house, but the boys are so pushy that I unfortunately have to be very harsh until they finally leave us satisfied. But now we don’t feel like venturing into the medina anymore, where they will surely follow us.

But shop assistants also yell at us rudely and ask us to look at their assortment. We move on quickly and since it is noon we first pass the Kasbah to have something to eat in a small shop. We then enter the adobe fortress, politely dismissing the guides who intercept us, and explore the ancient building on our own. It is a small labyrinth and resembles a termite burrow with all its intricate passages, small spaces and air holes.

Afterwards we go through a few of the nearby shops, where we are again proudly associated with headscarves. We don’t show that we can already do this ourselves. When Su announces that she is interested in blankets, the excited merchant moves us up a store. Apparently the man there hasn’t been fully informed about what we’re looking for and wants to impress us with turbans again. But we don’t want to do that anymore and wave it off.

Impressed by this more demanding clientele, he immediately pulls out his treasure chest and finally awaits the desired reaction. But we’re still reticent, which soon drives the poor man to despair. Su picks out a chain and starts haggling over it, because she has hardly bought any souvenirs and today is probably one of the last opportunities.

She haggles it down well, but at one point he doesn’t want to go any further. After I also put a long turban of the better quality on top, the man still struggles to lower the price, since he is undoubtedly used to customers from the coaches who don’t even bother asking about the price. At some point it gets too colorful for me, I say goodbye and pull Su out of the store, where the next dealer welcomes us with open arms. Then I hear the man from just now calling for us. He asks us to come back and gives us the jewelry and the headscarf for the price we want.

Now Su and I sit down together, as the sun slowly sets towards the horizon, and discuss what we can do now. There are still options to go to Rabat, which was previously planned, or Agadir or Asilah. After the off-road tour, however, my budget is slowly being exhausted. After some time we decide that it’s best to go home really slowly. We will drive back to Marrakech tomorrow and take the night train to Tangier.




February 21-22 THE RETURN

The bus doesn’t leave until 12 noon the following day. This leaves enough time to sleep longer, have a leisurely breakfast and go to a nearby internet café. When I come back, Su is sitting in the lobby with the porter and his family eating with them. I too am warmly invited and I am amazed at how familiar we are suddenly welcomed.

The bus ride back is torture. So many people want to ride the bus that people crowd into the vehicle and there is no chance for Su and me to sit next to each other. Only during the journey do I try my luck and ask Su’s seat neighbor to swap places with me in a pantomime, which he understands.

In the bus it stinks horribly of unwashed bodies and the smell doesn’t get any better when a few old women bend over paper bags with clearly audible smacking on the first bends.

But you can only open the roof hatch for a short time, otherwise it would get too cold for the mother mentioned. In the bus itself, it’s a stinking 40 degrees.

A floor hatch is broken, exposing a hole into the engine compartment; my seat is so crooked that I sit half in the hallway and have to struggle with my back and balance whenever I hit the ground.

At the beginning of the mountains, a long train of military vehicles comes towards us. Above 1000 meters there is already thick snow; in contrast to the outward journey, all the mountains are now white. But the weather is good and there are no problems crossing the pass.


Zurück nach Europa

Finally, after delay and five hours of agony, we arrive in Marrakech and thank the universe for the cool, carbon-laden city air.

We walk along the streets to the train station, interrupted by a short stop to strengthen the body.

On the train we get hold of a compartment in which we stretch out on the seats with relish and fall asleep. Then we are suddenly startled by a small Moroccan family consisting of a father, mother, two daughters and a whining boy, who have made themselves at home in our compartment and do not take the slightest notice or consideration of us.

The next day we finally arrive in Tangier, where we treat a taxi driver who wants to cheat us just like the taxi driver did when we arrived.

Here we don’t give in, but negotiate a price beforehand, which the driver suddenly wants to charge each of us with after the ride. But nothing will come of it.

At the port, people showered us with ferry offers, but we don’t listen to any of the people, we choose one of the offices ourselves. But the prices back to Spain are more expensive than here.

On the trip we are particularly lucky to see dolphins that accompany the ship for a while and jump happily behind us. Su is overjoyed because she has never seen dolphins.

Being back in Spain is better than ever. Suddenly people are driving “normally” again, there are clean bars with bullfighting pictures and fixed prices. You don’t have to haggle about everything anymore. The trip to the Orient was undoubtedly unforgettable; unlike Morocco, every country in Europe is at home!

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