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Destination: Morocco

On The Road Through Morocco, Family Style

October 04, 1998|JENNIFER M. NICHOLS | Nichols is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass

MARRAKECH, Morocco — "Don't worry, madame," whispered the turbaned man next to me, "that snake around your daughter's neck is not poisonous."

It couldn't have been more than 30 seconds since I had taken my eyes off my 12-year-old in Marrakech's throwback medieval square, Djemaa el-Fna. Yet in that time, a snake charmer had succeeded in wrapping the creature around my startled child, who now stood stone-still as the slithering serpent slowly wound its way up around her neck.

"Get that thing off her. Now," I ordered. As the snake's owner complied, my daughter shot me one of those if-looks-could-kill glances. (To Alison, being almost strangled by a snake was preferable to being embarrassed by her mother.) So on this, our first day in Morocco, the stage was set for Alison and her 9-year-old brother, Will. Surprise, intrigue and unrivaled family adventures would continue to mark our 12 days in this exotic North African country.

Friends had warned my husband, Bill, and me about our summer travel plans to Morocco, particularly since we really had no plans other than knowing we would rent a car in Marrakech and, sans guide, drive south through the High Atlas Mountains, ending up in the Sahara.

"You're bound to get lost on your own" . . . "The roads are treacherous" . . . "Your kids will fry in the desert" . . . were all phrases that fell on our unconcerned ears. OK, I'll admit it. We did get lost a few times. But Morocco's well-developed system of roads was perfectly navigable. And neither Alison nor Will suffered heatstroke. While Morocco had the faraway allure of other countries already stamped in their passports--Thailand, Tanzania and Ecuador--it also offered a level of safety that allayed our parental concerns.

Specifically, it has a reputation as a politically stable and socially liberal Moslem country with a major economic stake in tourism. Religious extremism seems to be kept in check by King Hassan II, and violent crime and personally owned weapons of any kind are rare. We figured that some tourists--especially those from big U.S. cities--might be safer here than at home. As for health issues, Morocco gained points when I told the kids that this country requires no immunizations--"Yes!" said Alison (although bottled water is recommended, and malaria pills may be prescribed for coastal areas).

Best of all, as we discovered, seeing the less traveled parts of the country at our own leisure was an experience not to be missed.

Slightly larger than California, this North African country lies within an arm's reach of Spain, across the Strait of Gibraltar. Morocco is blessed with long coastlines bordering the Atlantic on the west and the Mediterranean on the north. The Atlas Mountains rim its eastern border, while the Sahara Desert lies south. Thus geographically shielded from the rest of Africa, Morocco's culture is an amalgam derived from numerous invaders (particularly the Arabs) mixed with its indigenous people, the Berbers. Flavoring this rich cultural soup are remnants of French and Spanish colonization.

*

We began our adventure in Marrakech, a city of 600,000 that resonates with rich Moroccan traditions and is laced with European flair. Since we knew our trip to the south would be extremely economical by U.S. standards, we decided to splurge our first two nights at the five-star Hotel La Mamounia, where two double rooms cost a total of $500.

One of the world's most legendary hotels, the Mamounia earns its elite reputation. Our adjoining rooms featured expansive balconies looking out over 20 acres of lush gardens. And the kids immediately staked out their claim to a palm-island oasis in the middle of the hotel's gigantic swimming pool. (If they noticed the topless French ladies sunning poolside, they didn't show it.)

To lure them out to see the sites of Marrakech, we promised caleches, or horse-drawn carriages. For a hard-bargained price of 40 dirham (about $4), they clip-clopped from the hotel to the heart of Marrakech's main square--the Djemaa el-Fna--where we stepped right into medieval Morocco. With its jostling throngs of people, seductive scents of food and the ceaseless din of horn-honking, instrument-playing and human bantering, Djemaa el-Fna assaults the senses.

Conspicuously absent was the dreaded "pestilence of Marrakech" we recalled from our childless days here in the '70s: the repellent barrage of hustlers or unofficial "guides" who relentlessly hounded us for money in the guise of "just wanting to practice English." Now a Department of Tourism crackdown has addressed the problem but not totally eliminated it. Shopkeepers, grateful for the new "hustler law," told us that offenders are punished with a few nights in jail or whacks on the bottom of the feet with a stick.

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