Perhaps because school days in France are so long (8:45am to 4:45pm) they give 2 week long holidays every six weeks. Only 144 school days per year, compared to 190 (avg) in Canada. Leaving aside how effective their system is, that is a lot of holidays. The parents often have 9 weeks of holidays. It’s very jammy, if not without problems.
But for us, it meant adventure. And the epitome of it all was the trip in February to Morocco. The main goal was for Tris’s real estate program, but all of us had adventure in mind. It turned out to be the highlight of the year, one in the family lore, to tell each other about the time in the Sahara and the oasis, about tea getting poured from graceful samovars into tiny cups from great height, to treasure the geodes from the Atlas Mountains, and remember sleeping in tents in the desert right out of Lawrence of Arabia. For the kids, their favorite experience was the days in the dunes, sliding down the sand hills of Erg Chigaga near M’Hamid.
Henna hands for Kat in the main square in Marrakech, Jamaa el-Fnaa. Add in the souks and snake charmers and calls to prayer, with gorgeously tiled riads to stay in, and it was exotic, a bit dreamy, like a movie set. The children were wide-eyed, sometimes alarmed, goggling over the piles of spices and jewelry. Chester became a pro at finding his way and proudly leading us through the tiny alleys and many turnoffs back to our riad, a precursor of his chess skills. We had bare bones rooms in the heart of old Marrakesh, and would go a couple streets away for breakfast in a gracious riad where yogurt and pancakes were served on low tables while we sat at benches covered in colourful Berber cushions.
A tiny white rental car took us on the alarming drive across the Atlas Mountains, up through the snow and long dizzy turns to the Tizi ‘n Tichka pass where clever salesmen dyed incredible geodes into gorgeous, almost believable colours, selling them beside implausible fossils. And then shards of quartz 1.5 feet long, like from the making of the world. We stood on a mighty shoulder of the planet.
And then on to the Vallee du Draa, an eye-popping oasis following the Draa River out of the High Atlas Mountains, productive date palm groves set amid rocky barren hills. Not completely barren though: sediment of a burgess shale-type deposit preserves fossils of fauna from 400 million or more years before. Kasbahs were the other main attraction from the road: old citadels of mud brick, imposing even as they crumbled.
Finally, the desert. After hours of donkey-counting, and kasbah or people watching as we drove south, we arrived at M’hamid on the edge of the Sahara. We halted uncertainly in town, with no further directions to go on, and fortunately our guide appeared on a motorbike saying our names. Soon we were driving out over hard hard sand to the first camp, which was located in the shelter of some mysteriously unmoving sand dunes.
The next couple days were sheer romance. Tenting – but in permanent structures with beds, very comfortably, the sands at our doorstep. Berber meals of tajines, couscous, and cut oranges with cinnamon, in the main tent, followed by a real treat, Berber music, drums, pipes, tambourines, song. Stopping in an oasis near a tiny stream, which popped out of the rock for a brief run, to have a beautiful meal of roast chicken and many sides, while the children tried sketching a nearby goat who was working his way through the compost scraps. And then camel rides on the dunes, and climbing to the very top with wind whipping sand into the slits exposed in the scarves wrapped around our heads.
It was, essentially, perfect. Though Chester remembers wistfully that a very special blanket to him was left under the covers of one of the tents, and he hopes it is bringing someone pleasure.