Got on a bus at 3:30 am to the Barcelona airport to catch my flight to Casablanca. No matter how many times I double check everything, in the back of my mind I'm always thinking-is this the right bus, right terminal, right ticket for the right day, where’s my passport?… but so far, so good. There’s a lot of planning involved and sometimes it’s bit of a pain, especially with such limited internet and no phone. The Morocco leg was a small group tour, so a lot of the logistics were taken care of by someone else, which was a nice break for me.
Flying into the country was really beautiful, green rectangular farm plots with red brick walled farmhouses- surrounded by barren ochre land, all covered by a thin layer of milky morning fog. On the ground though, Casablanca is not particularly pretty. Walking around the streets alone was a bit unnerving, there were hardly any women, and none with uncovered heads. I was going to stop for a coffee at a sidewalk café, then noticed that all the tables were occupied by men, so decided to pass. I later asked my guide about it and he said in some cafés there is a separate area inside for women, but that if I had sat down with the men it wouldn’t have been a huge deal, just a bit culturally inappropriate. Morocco is a tolerant country and practices Muslim traditions, but is accepting of other religions and western customs. A big date night out here is to go to MacDonald’s. There are liquor stores, but they wrap the purchases up in newspaper to disguise the contents. While the hotels have bars for the tourists, most local restaurants don’t serve liquor, beer or wine. We did pass a couple of bars for locals- men only of course. They are private clubs with bars in the blacked out, barred windows, the doors are always locked and the bartenders are women, which is, I guess, a bit scandalous.
Less than a quarter of the men dress in the djellaba, (a loose long garment)) but about three quarters of the women covered their heads and/or wear the djellaba gown. Only saw a very few in the full veiled burqua though. While Morocco passed a law a few years ago granting a lot of rights to women, men are still allowed extra wives, but the first wife has to approve, then the husband has to document that he can afford it. The same law gave women the right to divorce her husband and protections against physical abuse.
I traveled with 11 Australians and 2 Americans, all very nice and friendly, though the American lady was a bit brash (why is it always the American!?) In Casablanca, we visited one of the largest mosques in the world, then headed to Rabat where I dropped my camera and broke it. So while the rest of the group was visiting one of the King’s 47 palaces, I went to the local marketplace with our guide to buy a new camera. Walking around there was amazing, loud, vibrant, messy, and completely fascinating. We’d been told that eating the street food is pretty dangerous so we stuck to places recommended by the guide and for the most part were not disappointed-veggie tagines, couscous, different salads and amazing fresh fruit including figs we picked right off the trees.
The medina in Fez was the most incredible place, really narrow streets, quite claustrophobic, no cars, only donkeys packed with goods- the donkey’s man would shout "balak, balak!"or “attencione!” and you had to jump out of the way to avoid getting trampled. The food sections were the best -spices, hanging meat, live chickens, cookies with bees all over them, herbs, fruit and veggies galore. Tons of hungry cats and tiny little kittens running all around, I wanted to take them all home with me. The residential dwellings are mixed in with everything else, and people who lived there bring their raw dough to the communal bakers scattered around the area, cave- like giant pizza ovens. There are over 9000 streets in about a one square mile area and it would have taken me half a lifetime to find my way out again if I hadn’t had a guide. This was easily one of the most exotic places I’ve ever been, I loved every crazy second.
Of course we visited the obligatory carpet market where the guy pulled down almost every carpet in the shop to show us- a riot of color and pattern. I was happy that one of our group bought a carpet, I would have hated for them to go through all that for nothing. We also went to the famous tanneries, luckily later in the day, so it wasn’t quite so smelly (pigeon poop is used in one of the early stages of the process). The goods made out of camel hide were incredibly light and flexible and were I in the habit of using dead animals to carry my stuff, I would have totally bought a camel bag.
We traveled to several small towns on our way to the desert, stopping at fascinating local markets along the way. I got a nice offer from a farmer near Midelt to go back home with him, but I declined. When we were near the Algerian border we got saddled up our camels and headed out into the Sahara. It was every bit as beautiful as I had imagined, red sand dunes, a few scattered palm trees and a whole lot of empty space. The camel ride through a small sandstorm was not the most comfortable, so I was happy to arrive the camp, which was really nice, big nomad style tents in a circle with carpets in the center covering the sand. We ate tagine, drank some wine, listened to live music and slept outside under the stars. Awesome!! Plus one of the nomad cooks was devastatingly handsome, except for his teeth. In fact there were some good looking guys in Morocco, but since everyone constantly drinks mint tea with 6 teaspoons of sugar, they all have really bad teeth. Really makes you appreciate good dental hygiene!
Leaving the Sahara we passed so much gorgeous landscape, especially the date palms oases and mud brick houses set against the red mountains. Did some great hikes – through the Todra Gorge, amid farms, along rivers and stopping to drink sweet mint tea with some Berber families. Unfortunately people do not want to have their picture taken, which was a shame because there were some great photo ops everywhere.
Marrakech was pretty crazy as well. In the daytime the main square is pretty empty, just a few snake charmers (pretty cool!) and guys with monkeys and some ladies doing henna tattoos. But at night the place is packed full of musicians, belly dancers, acrobats, food carts, fortune tellers and people galore. Quite the spectacle. We spent a lot of time poking around the souks (shops) in the medina. I had heard the vendors were really aggressive, to the point of being kind of scary, but I didn’t think they were bad at all. Of course you have to bargain for everything, which I don’t really care for. In fact prices in Morocco for everything seemed to be flexible, they just charge whatever they think they can get away with. A taxi to the hotel in Marrakech from the medina started at 100 dirhams, but you could actually get one for 20 if you were persistent. I bought a beer at my hotel in Fez one night for 25 dirham, the next night they wanted to charge me 30. It’s not a lot of money, but it makes any purchase a bit of a hassle in my opinion.
I had to experience a traditional hammam while I was there- the required weekly bathing for Muslims. I was ready for a good bath as the showers we had been encountering along our way were sadly lacking in hot water and sometimes the water itself was just a trickle. The lady who did my hammam spoke no English and my French vocabulary was too limited to be useful, so there was a lot of sign language going on, but it all worked out. First I stripped to my underwear and laid on a table where I got hosed down. Next she lathered me up with black argan soap and left me there to soak it up for about 5 minutes. Then she came back with an abrasive scrubbing mitt and exfoliated me almost to the point of drawing blood. Ouch! Then she washed and conditioned my hair, hosed me down again and sent me to a shower. After that, she wrapped me in a fluffy bathrobe, arranged pillows on a couch where I relaxed (and checked myself for abrasions) for 20 minutes. It was an interesting experience- I felt super clean and soft afterwards, but it’s a good thing I’m not Muslim because I don’t think I could face that scrub every week. You can set yourself up for your own do it yourself hammam with a quick trip to Home Depot. All you need is a hose, extra coarse sandpaper and some soap and you’re all set. Scrub until you’ve lost at least 3 layers of skin. Enjoy!
One of my favorite cities was Essaouria, a really laid back artsy beach town. They have the best working harbor I have ever been to, with all the fisherman sitting on the docks with their fresh catches of eel, sea bass, skate, sardines, monkfish, etc. We saw a guy walking out of the harbor holding a 4 foot shark by the gills, its blood dripping along the street as he walked.
On our last afternoon some of us had tea at La Mamounia Hotel, a very exclusive place owned by the King. The Sex and the City cast stayed here when they were filming the movie. It’s right near the medina in Marrakech, but surrounded by walls so you feel like you’ve entered another world- quiet, clean, green, and peaceful. If you’re not staying there, you can only go in between 3 and 5 and we had to pass a dress code-I was kind of worried because the only shoes I have are flip flops, but I wore my most sparkly pair and made the cut. If you’re going to Marrakech, you should definitely stay there- only $500 a night.
Morocco was very interesting, and while some part were really beautiful, others were really dirty. The people aren’t especially friendly and it was a definitely a male dominated society. I’m glad I went, but after 2 and half weeks I was ready to move on.
Next port of call -Croatia!