With all of the recent protests and uprisings spreading across the Middle East and North Africa, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my trip to Morocco. In 2005 I studied abroad in Strasbourg, France and for my spring break I headed to Morocco!
Just getting to Morocco was an adventure in and of itself. For almost all of our vacations, we would use RyanAir – a discount airline that serves much of Europe. To get to the nearest RyanAir airport, Karlsruhe-Baden in Germany, we would take a tiny shuttle bus that usually left at ungodly early wee hours.
From Baden, we would almost always connect through London-Stanstead. This time was no different and was complete with an overnight in the airport…
Luckily for me, my host family was freaking awesome and packed me a sack full of goodies: two sandwiches on baguettes, oranges, pretzels, a wheel of cheese and a bag of dark chocolates! My snack bag made me a very popular travel buddy…well, maybe not the cheese part of it – delicious, but not exactly fresh smelling. From London it was on to Malaga, Spain where we bused to Jerez to catch our ferry. Of course there are more direct ways of going about getting to Morocco, but when you are a student cheap beats convenient every time. Plus, the ferry part was really fun. I love boats.
After landing in Tangier, we jumped in the taxi to our first destination – Chefchaouen, a coastal town in the North of Morocco that looked like what I would imagine Greece to look like. The majority of the buildings were white with portions painted baby blue.
Chefchaouen is a beautiful town, but we were only there for a day or so, during which time one of our other friends was supposed to meet up with us. He never showed and eventually we had to move on. At the very end of our trip when we were sitting in the airport in Malaga, we finally met up with him…if he were anyone else, we may have been more worried, but this guy was just like that. Great guy, but definitely beats to his own drum. He alternated his time in Morooco between sleeping on benches and crashing at people’s houses that he met along the way. I do NOT recommend this for most people.
Anyways, from Chefchaouen, we took a taxi to Fez. Taxis in Morocco are very inexpensive but can sometimes be a handful to deal with, especially with language barriers.
Once in Fez, and on the recommendations of many other travelers, we hired a young guide to show us around. This cut down on the amount of people trying to sell us their services – considerably. Plus, he knew how to get around the city and instead of navigating we could just enjoy Fez. Plus, Fez doesn’t necessarily seem like the easiest place to get around…
Once we got to Riad Louna, we were very excited – it was incredible. The inside had an open-air courtyard in the center with plants, trees and fountains and was filed with blue and white tiling. Our rooms were small, but clean and colorful.
And the best part was the rooftop terrace, where we sat at night drinking mint tea (of course) and talking with fellow travelers.
While in Fez we were given a tour by our young guide, Ali. He was very knowledgeable about Fez and had remarkable English. He was even making jokes in English. For anyone who has studied a foreign language, you know that this requires a pretty substantial command of the language. I was having a hard enough time speaking French without a Minnesotan accent and I had studied French for 4 years. But here was this kid in his early teens that was remarkably fluent – amazing really. Like many of the people we met along the way in Morocco, he learned the bulk of his English from interacting with tourists. Still, every once in awhile Ali would get confused. Like during our walking tour when one of us asked if something was close he said, “no, it’s still open.”
Most of the walking tour was without mishap other than the sporadic calls of “how many camels?!” and directed at me, “konichiwa!” Apparently a decent number of Japanese visit Morocco and everyone seemed to assume I was Japanese as well. However, during one part of our roaming, we encountered an unhappy man that shouted something in Arabic at us. We just kept walking along not knowing what he said anyways, but the guy kept walking behind us and yelling. Finally at one point, Ali looked at us very seriously and told us to start running. Which we did, all the while the man giving chase and Ali trying to distract him. Somehow we ended up running through a serious of small streets like this one…
Finally we lost the man or he gave up chasing us. Ali would not tell us what he was yelling about and to this day we have no clue what happened really. The next day, we decided to fill our day with activities unrelated to running through the streets of Fez being chased by an angry man. First we went to look at rugs. We met one of the weavers who taught us how it was done.
The woman was very nice and patiently helped each of us weave in some of the yarn. Afterward she said I was well-suited for it because I have such small hands. Definitely beautiful work she is doing. As we were the only ones in the place, the owner showed us rug after rug of varying colors, sizes and designs. And of course, we had tea. Anywhere you go in Morocco you will be offered mint tea – which is the most delicious, sugary tea you will ever have. Eventually one of the rugs caught my eye and I bought a fantastic rug in shades of blue (the color of Fez). It’s in my bedroom to this day.
After rugs, we visited a tannery to watch them work on the hides and to peruse the stalls of purses, wallets, belts, etc. Not sure why this never occurred to me, but a tannery does not smell good, at all.
It definitely seemed like a hard, messy job; and, although it was not hot while we were there, I’m sure that in the warm months it would be scorching to be out there.
Then we were on to scarves! Here the man at the stall showed us different ways to wrap the scarves, which was fun because we all were just kind of tossing ours around our head like a little babushka. We all wore headscarves when we were outside of our rooms in an attempt to blend in better and not attract as much attention. Plus, later when we were in the desert, everyone wore them for protection from the sun, wind and sand.
I bought the yellow scarf for my sister, who LOVES yellow. We also saw some of the weavers, but their looms were a little more complicated than the one for the rug, so we didn’t want to mess them up.
Then our final stop of the day was henna!
After the henna dries, it flakes and peels off and reveals a “tattoo” of sorts.
The next day we packed up early and had a quick bite before we transferred our stuff to another hotel where we met up with more people in our travel party.
From here we took another taxi to Merzouga, a village in the Sahara. This taxi ride was among our most uncomfortable transportation situations yet. We decided to pile 6 of us in one taxi and as the smallest, I sat middle front. Despite my selection as the lucky worst-seat in the car holder, none of us were comfortable regardless of which seat we had, and it was a long, long drive through the mountains. One of us in the car spoke Arabic so that helped things a little.
We met our guide, another Ali, at a pre-determined gas station. Sounds a little sketchy I know, but it worked out perfectly actually. Ali is the owner of the Nomad Palace and was going to be our guide on our camel trek. Looking at his website now, I see he must be doing well! It looks as though he has expanded and added a swimming pool since I was there – good for him, because you will not meet a nicer guide.
We were treated to a fantastic Moroccan dinner which was very private because we were the only ones at the Nomad Palace that night! Ali ate with us and talked with us about growing up in the desert and starting his business. Again, through the tourists he guided, he had learned “a little” Spanish, German, English and Japanese. In addition he spoke Berber, Moroccan Arabic and French. I say “a little” because like most people outside of the US, Ali said he could only speak a little of these languages when really he seemed quite fluent to me (at least his English did).
The next morning we were assigned our camels and were off for the Erg Chebbi, the largest sand dunes in Morocco.
After a few hours “in the saddle” we arrived at camp.
While we waited for dinner, a few of us decided to climb one of the sand dunes.
Definitely was quite the haul, but totally worth it to sit up on top and look out across the desert. By the time we made it back down, we were starving and made quick work of our tasty supper.
With our bellies full and our legs sore from camels and climbing sand dunes, we listened to some music in our tent…
The next morning Ali woke us up, at our request, incredibly early so that we could see the sunrise.
The trek out was definitely not as pleasant as the way in. All of us woke up very sore from the camel ride in. Adding to the unpleasantness of hopping back onto the camels was that we had just spent the night climbing dunes and sleeping in the desert, which meant, sand was EVERYWHERE. Seriously everywhere. So, when we were on the camels, it was not just muscle ache, but also sand rubbing against your skin. For those with sensitive skin beware – I definitely came away with a rash down the inside of both of my legs. Luckily, I know my skin likes to blow up and I had packed my Cortizone10.
We returned our trusty steeds to their homes and continued by Land Rover with Ali to visit a Berber family. They were very welcoming and of course, we had tea and chatted.
Finally it was time to leave Ali. He set us on our way with a dependable cab driver who took us to the train station, where we jumped on a train and headed to Marrakesh. We spent our day there walking around and shopping in the souqs. Marrakesh is full of interesting things to see in the markets, complete with snake charmers, monkeys (which was actually a little sad), spices, pottery, woodcrafts, jewelry, clothing, anything you want really. There was even a photo shoot going on in one of the sections. It’s also a great place to try your hand at bartering, a skill that I’m sure I will never master. I’m horrible at it. I know that they can see it in my face that I really want whatever it is and I’m just going to buy it regardless. It doesn’t bother me too much though, since the prices are good anyways, but my friends all found my lack of bargaining prowess to be funny.
The best way to top off a day at the souq? Dinner on a rooftop! Then the sad day came when we had to leave Morocco. Our parting gift from Marrakesh was a bizarre stray cat fight that went on in the alley where our hostel was. These cats were nuts and were making sounds that I thought only cartoon kitties made. Eventually we meandered back to Tangier and it was back on the ferry for us. Au revoir Morocco. See you soon, inshallah.
To the people of Morocco, whom I found nothing but welcoming and warm, I hope that things become stable and peaceful and that meaningful changes follow.
***Photos are mainly from my friend Katie, with some contributed from others on the trip. I unfortunately was too dumb to take photos during this trip.