After listening to the lyrics of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “Marrakesh Express” and The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” over the years, Marrakesh and Morocco, in Northern Africa, were places that stuck in my head. I was curious to check them out. Since my vacations are few and far between, I like them to include both a decent hike or climb as well as discovering somewhere new. So after letting my fingers search the web, I signed up for a Southern Moroccan trek through the Jebel Sarhro Mountains.To get to Jebel, which means foothill in Arabic, I flew into the city of Marrakesh, or Marrakech, as its known in the French language. Since Morocco was a French protectorate for many years, Arabic and French are the two languages most commonly spoken. French travelers vacation in Morocco the way Americans go to Florida, as a warm and sunny place to visit in the winter. So even though English is spoken in most of the tourist areas, my rusty French worked just as well. Marrakesh is in the middle of the country, so to get to the south, we took a Jeep ride across the Atlas Mountains, through the town of Ouarzazate. The town is best known for its kazbahs (castles) and for Atlas Studios, one of the largest movie studios in the world, where Ben Hur and many American Westerns were filmed.KE Expeditions, a British trekking company, hosted the trek. The four men of the camp crew were all Berbers, members of one of the main tribes of Northern Africa. Each crew member wore a long, tan tunic and had his head wrapped in cloth. Looking out at the Jebel Sarhro, I was reminded of the buttes and needles of Utah and the rest of the American Southwest. The Jebel’s rolling, sandy, rocky terrain included the large towers of red rock known as Bab n’Ali, or Ali Baba’s Gate, historically considered the keyhole to the Sahara.Don’t use the movie Babel as a guide to the country. Morocco is one of the biggest US allies in this region, and the country has completely embraced capitalism and its love of Americans. There is even a McDonalds on one of the main roads of Marrakesh, although it more accurately resembles the red rock of the desert than a modern fast food joint.The best part of the trip for me was the food: the tastes, the smells, and the freshness. As I wandered through the souqs (market stalls) in the ancient medina of Marrakesh, I was enticed by the foods and spices available for sale. My nose had a field day smelling the delectable combination of cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Walking among the market stalls, I felt as if at any second Indiana Jones would come rushing out of a doorway at me. There were also numerous apothecary shops selling all-natural potions for just about every known illness. Each apothecary salesman was armed with a tale that your next-door neighbor had just been there and had bought his potion. While walking through the narrow, winding streets, I took the opportunity to view the beautiful flowers and tiling beyond the entrances of the riads (traditional homes with center courtyard gardens). I left Marrakesh with my knapsack filled with packets of saffron and cumin—gifts for my friends back home.While hiking up one of the craggy, red rock hills on the trek, the delicious aroma of mint wafted through the air. I looked around to realize that I was surrounded by wild mint growing along the side of the trail. Sweet mint tea is kind of like the “Coca Cola of Southern Morocco,” everyone drinks it. Passing the mint and climbing to the top of one of the peaks, I saw Jebel Amal n Mansour (2712m approx. 8895ft) to the north, the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains, and to the southeast, the sands of the Sahara. Lunch on the trail consisted of a picnic of bread, many varieties of hummus, olives, tomatoes, chicken, oranges, and of course, mint tea. Every night at dinner we sat on the floor of the dining tent with bread and various hummus pastes, followed by bowls of couscous, chicken tagine (stew), more bread hot off the rocks, and plenty of fruit for dessert. Tagines, served everywhere in Morroco, are a dinner staple and can be made with different meats and spices. Initially, the focus of my trip was to visit Marrakesh and go hiking. Little did I know what a bountiful country Morocco is—it truly is a culinary mecca! I discovered with great delight that Morocco is the divine crossroads between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine. Now I want to go back!
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