Sunday, July 18, 2010

Morocco In Pictures

Here's a small sample of the hundreds of pictures I took in Morocco. They're in chronological order and should form a fairly continuous photojournal of the trip.


Sunrise from a plane is way cool

Beach at Essaouira


the room in Nalika's house where we stayed

probably my favorite thing I ate in Morocco: tajine kefta. G beef, eggs, and vegetables in a simmering hot clay pot. mmmmm.

The Djemma el-Fna, main square of Marrakech

Koutoubia mosque at dusk

The medina of Marrakech...

...where they sell pretty much anything...

...and I mean ANYTHING.

Spices for sale in the souqs

Just a fraction of the chaos of the Djemma-el-Fna at night

at the base of Toubkal: Imlil

The beginning of the climb

Crossing through the floodplain before Aroumd

Taking a few minutes off and jumping into this awesome waterfall

a great break for sore toes

interesting cooling method

The Refuge. Not of the Newsies variety, sadly.

whatchoo lookin at foo

Sunrise between the peaks

Light and shadow on the mountainside
Yeah, we climbed that. It's pretty much vertical.

Finally at the summit

Looking out over the Atlas

4,167m isn't enough for Ryan... he has to grab that extra five

Smug at the summit

Higher! Higher!

One does not simply walk into Mordor.

I think that might be the Sahara, way off in the distance

A casualty of the descent. Note the makeshift tourniquet/bandage, carefully constructed from tissues and a hair tie.

Delicious delicious breakfast. Every day.

Avocado milkshake... who DOES that

Our room in our Fez guesthouse

Hassan's carpet shop

Walls of Fez. That guy there is actually Aladdin.

The evil salad. Little did we know.

From left: Róisín, Elionora, Ryan, Caoilfhionn

The blue walls of Chefchaouen

Last view of Morocco... hello Spain!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Morocco Part V: Chefchaouen and Tangier

On our last morning in Fez, we set off for the bus station, determined this time to take a CTM bus to our next destination (these are air conditioned, more spacious, and more likely to be on time). However, our efforts were once again stymied; the bus was full. Though we were forced to accede to one of the many touts competing for our business, we had still upgraded from our last bus journey: this one had air conditioning and a bit more leg and head room. For the first time on a Moroccan bus or train journey, we were able to muster up the energy to do more than talk, sleep, or sit miserably-- we even played cards as we watched the scenery piddle by at a snail's pace.

Four hours later we arrived in Chefchaouen, a small town in the Rif mountains. Its higher altitude meant a cooler climate and some key differences in architecture: most notably, almost all of the buildings were made of the same smooth plaster and washed in the same dusty sky blue. The lighter color of the buildings, when added to the relatively small number of people wandering the streets, completely eliminated the slight claustrophobia I'd occasionally felt in other medinas. However, the tourist industry pervaded the town. Though Chefchaouen is reputed to be an artisan center, one couldn't help but feel like most of the shops were selling mass-produced junk (indeed, several times while browsing I came across items that looked like Moroccan treasures but were stamped with ''India'' or ''China''). Chefchaouen is also famous for the easy availability of kif, or marijuana-- I kept count, and we were offered hash or some variant nine times in less than 24 hours. I can't blame the dealers for assuming we were there to buy drugs, considering the average travelers we met; almost all of them had come to the little town for that reason. The non-Moroccan composition of the town, given its reputation, is like something you'd see out of California in the 70s: think dreadlocks, long skirts, and vacant eyes.

Though we weren't there to smoke, we managed to meet some interesting travelers anyway. We rode into town crammed into a taxi with three girls on holiday from Granada, Spain: Elionora from Italy, Róisín from England (pronounced ro-SHEEN), and Caoilfhionn from Ireland (pronounced KWEE-lin. yeah, I know. I have no idea what all those letters are doing in there either). The five of us searched out a cheap hotel, which was relatively easy as things are MUCH cheaper in Chefchaouen-- we secured places at the fairly neat and clean Hotel Andaluz for 50Dh per night per person (about $6 each). Side note: Chefchaouen was also distinct from our previous travels in that we were far enough to the north for Spanish to become useful. This provoked from me a sigh of relief as Ryan, Elionora, Róisín, and Caoilfhionn (yeah, I just wanted to type that name again) were more than able to converse with everyone, leaving me with English or blessed silence.

Next task: food. Lonely Planet helped us out once again, pointing the way to a place that had a great set menu for 40Dh each, including salad, a tajine or couscous, and the most delicious watermelon I'd ever eaten. At the time, the salad aroused no suspicion at all. Ha.

Ryan and I, determined to secure a place at last on the next day's CTM bus to Tangier, trudged down to the bus station to buy tickets. Though it was less than a mile from the medina, the steep streets made it a bit of a hike... and to make matters worse, it was threatening to storm. Climbing the seemingly vertical hills on the way back, we were caught in a veritable tornado of dust and small rocks, blowing up from the streets around us into our clothes, hair, eyes, and mouths. Squinting so narrowly we could barely see, we tried to make our way to the main town. At one point there was so much dust in my eyes that I could no longer keep them open, trusting blindly that Ryan's hand was guiding me in the right direction until the welcoming blue walls of the medina closed out the swirling dirt and debris.

At this point, the girls (being typical Chefchaouen backpackers) had gone off to smoke, while we searched out a good vantage point for the World Cup semifinal between the Netherlands and Uruguay. Soccer has become more and more interesting to me over the course of the World Cup-- I'd love to learn to play, or even just watch a few more games. Afterward, we went for a bit of a walk through the medina, wandering through shops crammed with the aforementioned junk and occasionally coming across an unidentifiable but unquestionably authentic antique. At this point, Ryan began to feel a bit sick, so we returned to the hotel for the night.

He would spend most of the night feeling nauseous and throwing up; Caoilfhionn would wake with a frighteningly painful headache, which would soon be shared by the other two girls. We had all eaten the same thing the preceding day, and the likely culprit was the salad of tomatoes and cucumbers (which we had eaten against all common sense and traveller's advice). That morning, Ryan made a good-faith effort to walk around the medina, but spent most of the time sitting with his back against a wall, sapped of energy by the heat and by sickness. We managed to make it down to the bus station on time to leave Chefchaouen, and finally boarded the CTM bus (which was indeed nicer, more spacious, and air conditioned). This was key as I don't think Ryan would have fared too well on the typical crowded and overheated bus; he remained ill for the entire 3+ hour trip. I somewhat apprehensively waited to suffer the same fate, since I'd eaten exactly the same thing. However, either I have a stomach of steel, or it wasn't the food: I never felt anything.

At this point, very little remains to tell of the epic Morocco story. We got to Tangier in the early evening, checked into a large, fairly industrial budget hotel, and stayed there until late that night as Ryan slept and sweated his way through a high fever and I listened to the city roar in response to various plays of the Spain-Germany semifinal. After a few mishaps being led astray by some Moroccan guy, we found a pizza place (both of us were sick to death of tajine) and collapsed in bed-- me from exhaustion and worry, and Ryan from continuing illness. The next morning, we halfheartedly toured the medina for about twenty minutes before packing up our things. I packed a grumpy and still-slightly-delirious Ryan into a taxi bound for the airport, where he would fly to Madrid and then Miami and then San Francisco to begin his life as a Real Person with a Real Job. I, on the other hand, killed time in overpriced shops and internet cafes for a few hours before hopping on the ferry to Tarifa to begin the next adventure: three weeks as a live-in English coach for a Spanish/German family I'd found on the internet.

Though the end of the Grand Moroccan Tour was slightly anticlimactic, the experience as a whole was unlike any I'd ever had. I wished for an adventure, and got far more than I had bargained for (pun intended). I wanted to be outside my comfort zone, and that's where I went. Travelling from the beaches of Essaouira to the mazelike medinas of Marrakech and Fez to the breathtaking grandeur of Toubkal; meeting and interacting with people as varied as the feisty and adorable 8-year-old Fatim-Selah, the protective and eager Mustafa, and the fiery and independent Róisín; and above all experiencing, fighting through, and thoroughly enjoying these travels with one of my very best friends. I'm profoundly grateful for him and for the incredible memories I'll carry with me from this particular voyage.

HOWEVER... my summer's not over yet! Stay tuned for tales from sunny southern Spain, where I've been for the past week and will remain for two more.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Morocco Part IV: Fez

The next stop on our Grand Tour of Morocco was the Imperial City of Fez, reputed to be the most intact piece of medieval Arabia in the world. Someone also mentioned that it was the largest carless urban environment in the world (which, after seeing it, I can readily believe). Having learned our lesson about buses, we decided to take a train from Marrakech to Fez; this seemed to be a good idea, as we purchased two hassle-free tickets from an orderly queue inside a clean, spacious, modern-looking train station. Our tickets were second class, so we set off for the appropriately marked cars . . . but there seemed to be two different types of second class. The first, which was fairly full already even with twenty minutes till the train's departure, had compartment seating; the second looked like bench-style train seating, similar to amtrak, with tons of legroom. The latter was almost empty, and had a bit more space, so we took a couple of seats there rather than fight for a compartment.

Turns out the difference was air conditioning (that is, its presence or its absence). We sweated the whole way to Fez, which actually ended up taking us THROUGH Casablanca again. The train was half an hour late getting into the station, so the entire journey took us through almost 8 hours of hellish heat.

After starting a fight at the Fez train station, with taxi drivers angrily vying with each other for our fare, we crept away unnoticed to a nearby gas station, where we caught a relatively hassle-free cab to the medina. I unloaded my bag from the cab's rooftop rack while gaping at the towering, undulating, crenellated white walls before walking into a scene straight out of Aladdin. Gone were the touristy trinkets of Marrakech, replaced by artisans working their magic before your eyes: a cobbler stitching leather shoes, a stonecarver chipping away at a Quranic tablet, a weaver at a loom in a back room just barely visible from a narrow wooden doorway in a mosaic-tiled wall. Produce, spices, and nuts were displayed everywhere, signs advertising them at a pittance. Tiny awnings draped with dozens of beautiful carpets concealed surprisingly spacious shops crammed full of incredible handiwork from the Middle and High Atlas, with persuasive sellers ready to lure you in with a glass of hot mint tea and the ubiquitous promise of a good price. Children ran by with loaves of unbaked bread dough balanced on trays on their heads, presumably to the communal oven that no neighborhood is without (each of over a hundred districts has its own of the five essentials: an oven, a mosque, a koranic school, a public fountain, and a hammam (bathhouse)). The city seemed like it hadn't changed in hundreds of years.

However, some changes became obvious very quickly-- namely, the adjustment to the very profitable tourist trade. Within seconds of our entrance into the medina, we were fending off the usual crowd of young boys and men who wanted to show us their father or brother or cousin's hotel. However, this was the first city we'd visited without any idea at all of where to stay, save for a few names culled from the ever-dependable Lonely Planet. Two young boys peppered us with questions about where we were going and what we were trying to find, undeterred by our attempts to brush them off. They ''took us'' to the hotel we were trying to find, which we could have found perfectly well on our own, but it looked so grim that we turned right back around to find our unwanted escorts still waiting. They insisted they knew of a cheaper and better guesthouse not far away, and herded us onwards, turning us off the main street into a narrow derb. A right turn, a left turn, a right turn, and we found ourselves outside a simple door with an engraved plaque with the name Abari Youssef. The boys ran inside, and we suspiciously followed up a steep mosaic-tiled staircase into a beautiful house. The proprietor bustled down to greet us and showed us a few of the sumptuous rooms, quoting prices that were comparable to or lower than the gloomy hostel we'd just left.

So everyone was happy: we had a great place to stay, the proprietor had guests, and the enterprising boys presumably got their commission. We dropped our bags and set off in search of dinner and perhaps American company-- though we'd forgotten until an English man pointed it out to us, it was in fact the Fourth of July. We found a place that seemed like an expat restaurant, and indeed it was packed full of Europeans (mostly Brits). We isolated the few Americans by eavesdropping on accents, and went over to introduce ourselves and wish a happy Independence Day. No fireworks, flags, or other patriotic trappings, but at least we met some countrymen (which happened very seldom over the course of the trip).

The following day, we struck out with a vague idea of following the listed walking tour, but quickly lost ourselves in a maze worse than any we'd previously encountered. It wasn't an unpleasant sort of lost, though-- Fez has enough to keep anyone's eyes occupied. The sensory overload was more than adequate entertainment for a morning stroll, and distractions (like an avacado milkshake or glass of peach juice) were delicious. It was at one of these stops that we overheard someone speaking English (!) and introduced ourselves to Geoff, from Oklahoma, and Zoë and Lachlan, from-- you guessed it-- Melbourne. I was happy to spend the next few hours wandering around with them, reminiscing about my all-time favorite city. We finally parted ways some time later--them to nap, and us to find lunch/supper.

One of my goals for this trip was to come back bearing a beautiful Arabian carpet as a wedding gift for my sister and new brother-in-law. Fez is famous for its carpets, but also for its carpet sellers: the long, involved process of buying a carpet was so imposing in its reputation that I almost chickened out. However, I set my jaw and went to talk with Hassan, the carpet seller we had passed several times on our way to and from the guesthouse. He seemed very nice and eager to share a piece of his culture with us, although it was clear that a shrewd businessman lurked beneath the hospitable facade. Ryan came along for the ride, and both of us were seated with great formality inside the carpet shop and given glasses of steaming mint tea as Hassan began to explain the intricacies of carpet craftsmanship. He showed us qilim, flat woven rugs with bright geometric patterns; carpets embroidered and knotted and tightly woven in a kind of triple technique; and the iconic lush carpets with rich natural colors and intricate designs, looking ready to take off at a moment's notice. This last category, though it clearly would be the most expensive, was my favorite. After describing the sort of shape and color that I wanted, the parade began: an endless sucession of incredibly beautiful works of art. We narrowed it down to a single carpet, which I had loved from the moment he showed it to me-- and the games began.

Rambling on about my fine taste, artistry, and authenticity, Hassan made a show of looking up the carpet's price via a numbered tag in one corner. He announced that it was 2600Dh (about three hundred dollars). Laughing a bit and trying to sound incredulous, I told him that I was poor and maybe could not afford this carpet, mentioning that I could perhaps afford 800Dh. He of course laughed in return, as is customary, before knocking down to 2400. I complimented the fine craftsmanship and, with the air of someone making a supreme sacrifice, upped my offer to 950. He smiled and said that since I he liked me and thought I was honest, he could come down to 2200. This process continued for some time; at around 1300 we had a small shouting match in which he ranted about quality and value and I insisted that since it was a wedding gift for my sister he could surely make a better price. He exasperatedly turned to Ryan and stated that surely my name was actually Fatima and I had been doing this since birth. As a last price, I offered 1550; he grasped my hand and we solemnly agreed on 1600Dh (about $180). In a flash, he and an assistant (yet another teenage boy... where do they all COME from) were wrapping up the carpet, and we were escorted to his brother's shop to pay by credit card. Though I'm proud that I bargained the price down so much, I have a nagging feeling that I could have gotten the carpet for much less (general rule is 40-50% of the asking price). Nevertheless, I am very excited to have such a unique and memorable wedding gift for my sister and new brother.

Exhausted and exhilerated, we searched out a Lonely Planet Pick for dinner-- a charming place called Thami's, a tiny streetside cafe with an energetic and charismatic owner. We ate by candlelight under a tree beside a large square, where the people-watching was excellent. Even Ryan, sick of couscous, agreed that the food and atmosphere were among the best we'd had on our trip. I was sad to bid Fez goodbye the following day, but excited to once again leave the sweltering cities for the mountain village of Chefchaouen-- the last installment of this particular voyage.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Morocco Part III: The Summit

When planning my trip to Morocco, I thought it might be nice to get out of the cities for a while; though the medinas and souqs of the country are reputed to be among its most interesting attributes, I had a hunch that after a while they would all begin to look the same. I also knew that my appetite for adventure and Ryan's somewhat reckless nature wouldn't allow us to remain on the tourist track for too long. At the encouragement of a friend who had already spent some time in Morocco, we decided to go on a hiking trip outside of Marrakech: to the summit of Jbel Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak. The best information I could find on the internet said that it was a relatively straightforward hike, clearly marked and well-travelled. At this time of year, it was very popular and could be done in two days if the weather was good (given the absence of snow at higher altitudes). I did find a few websites that cautioned beginning hikers against attempting the trek in two days, warning of extreme temperature, altitude sickness, and steep, slippery slopes. However, these were so outnumbered by the good-natured, encouraging accounts that I dismissed them out of hand.

In retrospect, this may have been a poor decision.

We began the day bright and early with breakfast at the Hotel Belleville, where I was again thankful for finally having received my bag; it contained my hiking boots, mountain-appropriate clothing, and some other handy things without which a trek into the Atlas would have been inadvisable at best. We packed only our backpacks, trying to travel as lightly as possible. By 10am we had taken a petit taxi to the edge of Marrakech, where minibuses and grands taxis regularly departed for Imlil (the traditional starting point for the climb up Toubkal). 10:30 saw us sharing a car with a witty, bantering driver and what looked like a police officer, who traveled part of the way with us to Imlil. As we drove further from the city, the landscape started to change: flat plains and dusty roads to winding narrow mountain lanes; a virtual absence of vegetation to a generous (if not terribly plentiful) serving of scrub trees and bushes; the heat and dryness of the city to the more temperate setting of rocky streams. Here it was much cooler, as we had already ascended about 1000m above sea level. Imlil was a fairly peaceful town, although clearly it had profited greatly from its popularity with the backpacking crowd-- rather than hawkers offering trinkets or hotels, we encountered purveyors of maps, mules, wide-brimmed berber hats, and of course many young men offering their guidance up the mountain. Declining all of this aid, we purchased a good deal of bread, cheese, water, and fruit and struck out on the first part of the hike.

Day 1 was supposed to be a generally easy 4-6 hour hike, a picturesque journey through another village (called Aroumd) and some nice valleys. Our guidebook mentioned that the main difficulty lay first in the fact that there was no shade after the first hour, and second in the fact that it was constantly uphill. I felt this second part immediately, panting a bit with the combination of scorching sun and Ryan's steady pace (which seemed, no matter what its speed, always to be just slightly too fast for me). The trail was rocky and steep, and it was difficult for me to talk and hike at the same time. However, we didn't have too much trouble with the first part of the track, save the occasional mule traffic jam as heavily laden pack animals picked their way around boulders and backpackers.

The trail got a bit harder after Aroumd, climbing along the edge of the valley wall. We stopped every so often to refuel from our mountaineer's stock of bread and cheese, but it was still a long hard slog towards an imposing and seemingly insurmountable peak. Highlights of day 1's hike included:

-Fresh squeezed orange juice at one or two waypoints on the way up (outrageously priced, of course)
-A small settlement at Sidi Chamrouch, a saint's mausoleum that is the target of many Muslim pilgrimages
-Sitting by and swimming in a nice pool with a small waterfall
-Views of the broad valleys of the High Atlas

The '4 to 6 hour hike' took us six hours on the dot. We arrived at the Refuge du Toubkal, a dorm-style mountain refuge, at about 6 or 6:30pm. At 70Dh per person per night, it was a pretty good bargain, and it also offered hot food and a pretty well-stocked supply shop. We ate dinner with a wide variety of people: a bunch of Moroccans, a young guy from France, and three couples from Europe (Spain, Czech Republic, and Austria). After a long day of hiking essentially alone, it was good to laugh and talk with others, even if nobody's English was perfect. We ended up sleeping in a room with a bunch of British people, so having English there was pretty refreshing. At this altitude (about 3000m) it was very cold at night, and we were thankful for the heavy blankets we found.

The next day we rose at 5:30am, hoping to strike out for the summit (another 1000m and 3 hours away) by 6am. This way, we would avoid the cloud cover that descends on the valley at midmorning. We were one of the first pairs of hikers out the door, scrambling up the boulders with unmatched gusto. This did not last for long, as our bodies were still somewhat annoyed with us for the abuse they'd taken the previous day. We found a fairly scenic overlook on which to breakfast and watch the sun rise between the mountain peaks. From here, the going got tough (I suppose the tough also got going, but not being one of them I had to content myself with quietly and determinedly plodding along). The slopes were very steep and the trails were more often than not composed entirely of loose rock, or scree. This made climbing very difficult and dangerous, since if you didn't choose your path carefully you would slide and maybe fall, and there would be nothing to break your fall for a hundred meters.

This may be a good time to mention that I've never climbed a mountain before.

We struggled on up the slopes (and by we, I mean I; though Ryan insists the climb was hard for him, I never saw any sign of it), stopping frequently for water and shelter from the bitingly cold wind. It was no longer possible to hike without a warm fleece, though the workout was intense. At times we seemed to be walking up a cliff face, almost vertically extending above us, with only a few holds for hands and feet and the rest covered with treacherous scree. A seemingly close-by ridge above us, which other hikers had sworn was only 200m from the peak, remained tantalizingly distant. I could no longer really talk or have positive thoughts-- everything was replaced by a mindless determination to make it to the top.

And make it we did. I can proudly say that I, beginniner status not withstanding, have climbed the tallest peak in North Africa. At 4,167m, they say that you can see both the Atlantic and the Sahara from the top. The view was indeed incredible: a 360 degree panorama of all of Morocco, most notably the magnificent Atlas mountains. The wind was fierce, threatening to blow us off of the summit. However, our triumph made us giddy and we stayed, taking pictures and drinking in the view, for about half an hour. Hiding in the shelter of some large rocks, we bolted down some bread, cheese, fruit, and chocolate before beginning the descent.

As impossible as the ascent had been, this part was even harder. The steep scree slopes were intimidating to climb, but deadly dangerous to descend, as gravity was always waiting for you to make a wrong move. Close calls peppered our barely controlled slide down the cliff faces; I scraped up a leg and damaged a couple of toes, and Ryan sliced off the top of his thumb on a sharp rock. The latter, we bound with a makeshift bandage/tourniquet of tissues and a hair tie, hoping to find some proper antiseptic when we reached the refuge. This took us 2.5 hours--almost the length of time it had taken us to climb to the summit in the first place. However, the Austrian couple we had met the preceding night happened to be equipped with a full first aid kit, as the woman (Christa) was a nurse. We bound up Ryan's thumb until it resembled a mummy's, though it was still bleeding.

After replenishing our supplies and taking a brief rest at the refuge, we struck out for Imlil. Although the journey took less breath than the uphill climb, the payment came in the form of blisters on my poor abused and swollen feet. My hiking boots didn't quite fit properly, and the scree slopes had already taken a heavy toll. I stuffed my feet back into my boots and winced with every step, sighing with relief when we reached the pool we'd swum in the previous day (I think I saw steam rise from my feet as I lowered them into the water). This hike took us slightly longer than we'd anticipated, and we didn't make it back until after 6pm. However, the same Austrian couple was waiting at the bottom of the slope, figuring the four of us could share a taxi back to Marrakech. Their timing was perfect-- as we climbed into the taxi, now half the cost as before, the skies opened up in a respectable downpour.

The journey back to the city was uneventful, and as we strode into the Hotel Belleville one last time we were greeted by the friendly staff; our bags were already waiting for us in our room. We heaved our exhausted and abused bodies into the shower, managed to rustle up just enough energy to stumble to the nearest restaurant for dinner, and then collapsed into bed. High Atlas: consider yourself conquered.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Morocco Part II: Marrakech

Days 3 and 4 of my trip to Morocco. This is not as interesting as the first bit since all we did was sleep and yell at people to retrieve lost luggage. Feel free to skip to the pictures at the end... I didn't take them, I found them on the internet.

Since we'd missed the air-conditioned, government-run bus from Essaouira to Marrakech, we crammed ourselves into the very last seats on a crowded, dirty, overheated bus to the country's biggest tourist destination. Like the bus to Essaouira, it made frequent stops to pick up and drop off, with children jumping on to sell chocolate or pastries and old women shambling up and down the aisles to beg for coins. The majority of the roads were dirt and gravel, so coarse that the bus was constantly shaking violently. It was impossible to sleep or write or even think, with the potent combination of the sweltering heat and the bumpy ride.

The bus station in Marrakech was outside the main city, it seemed... we walked for a long time trying to find an internet cafe to check the status of my bag, which had apparently arrived at the Marrakech airport that day. Upon happily finding out that it was to be delivered to my hotel laer, I immediately remembered an important detail... the address I had given for delivery in Marakech didn't know I was coming. I didn't even know if they had rooms available. At this point we were hurrying to get to the hotel before my bag, to avoid confusion... we walked all the way from the ville-nouvelle to the Djemma-el-Fna, the central square of the medina (a distance of about a mile). There we were confronted with the outrageous spectacle that is the essence and heart of Marrakech: snake charmers, monkeys on chains, backflipping acrobats, ragged beggars, strutting businessmen, grinning musicians, gaping tourists, hawkers, fakirs, magicians, characters all.

With Moroccans of all ages aggressively asking what we wanted-- from hotels to hash cakes-- we made our way to the Hotel Belleville. A hole-in-the-wall riad listed in the "budget" section of my Lonely Planet, I had given the address for my baggage claim because it was one of the only addresses I had on hand in Madrid. It wasn't clearly marked-- just a sign on the wall next to a wooden door in an alley I could nearly block off entirely if I spread my arms. We entered and, in broken French and English, tried to explain the bag situation. Eventually, we figured out that no, the bag hadn't been delivered; yes, there were rooms available for that night; and they would be more than happy to keep an eye out for it. Too tired to walk anymore, we trooped upstairs to a very small double; the bed took up most of the room. However, it had its own toilet and hot shower, which was incredibly welcome news to me as I'd been without truly clean clothes for three and a half days at this point. I jumped gratefully into the shower and (hopefully for the last time) borrowed some clothes from Ryan, since mine were filthy and sweaty almost beyond recognition. We ventured out to dinner at a place overlooking the Djmma-el-Fna, reputed to have good vegetarian couscous (as per Ryan's request, as it was his birthday). As a word of warning to future travelers... Morocco is not a great place to be a vegetarian. You pretty much eat couscous.

By 11:30pm, the bag still hadn't arrived--5 hours after it had supposedly landed in Marrakech, and 60 after it was supposed to have landed in Madrid. Annoyed and frustrated, I sent a nasty email and returned to the hotel for hopefully just one more night without clean clothes. So grateful were we for a real bed and a real bathroom that we slept in shamefully late... the hotel staff knocked tentatively at around eleven, informing us gently that they'd love to serve us breakfast but that we'd have to leave the room. We climbed sleepily to the top of the stairs to find a rooftop terrace shimmering in the hot midday sun. We sat at a table in the shade and were promptly served cafe au lait, fresh squeezed orange juice, and different sorts of bread and pastry with butter and a thin sweet spread. By the time we finished, it was after noon... and my bag had not arrived. The time had come for drastic action. We hailed a cab for the airport, marched inside and demanded to know where to find the lost luggage counter. After some confusing French exchanges, we managed to find a small office with two sleepy-looking officials, who unlocked another room. Just inside the door, sitting there innocently, as it had probably been sitting for days, was my green duffel. Feelings of annoyance and exasperation were overwhelmed by utter relief. Witthin five minutes, we were walking out of the airport with the bag.

After joyfully changing into my own clean clothes (rather than Ryan's athletic shorts and T-shirts), we took an afternoon siesta to avoid the worst of the day's heat, then ambled out again into the Djemma for a late lunch/early dinner. On our way, Ryan spotted an American-looking guy clad in a shirt and tie and laden with a duffel bag, strode up to him and said "You look familiar. Do you go to Princeton?" Completely taken aback, he stuttered "yeah . . . do you?" Turns out he was class of 2011, was in Tower with Ryan, and was a Woody Woo major studying in Rabat to improve his Arabic. Small world, hey?

Since it was nearly the end of our second day in Marrakech, and we'd done almost no sightseeing, a vague sense of guilt propelled us to try to find the medersa, or old theological university. However, doing so necessitated a dive into the souqs-- a labyrinth even more confusing than Essaouira's medina, with three times the hawkers. We didn't make it to the medersa until after it had long closed, and without Ryan's handy compass I don't think we would have made it back to the Djemma.

We took a light supper at the Marrakech branch of the Earth Cafe, where we got a call from Mustafa, who had made his way to Marrakech! A few minutes later, he strode into the cafe where we caught up a bit and took advice from him and another American traveler we met about the peak we were attempting to climb the next day (more on this later). Since we had to begin very early the following morning, we made our apologies and headed to bed, resting for the long day of hiking ahead.

The iconic Djemma el-Fna. Photo credit:

The Djemma at night, when it fills with dozens of food stalls and shops. Photo credit:

Snake charmer in the Djemma. Photo credit:

Souqs. Photo credit:

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Morocco Part I: Casa/Essaouira

Note: all entries from my recent trip to Morocco will be published after the fact, as copied from the journal entries I wrote offline. The following is a record of the first few days of travel.

I'm normally not one to tend towards paranoia, but I swear the universe was conspiring against me. The journey started off well enough; although I was still exhausted from my sister's wedding, it was pleasant to drive to the airport with friends-- wedding guests who happened to be leaving from New York that day. Even waiting alone for my flight for five hours wasn't too bad; the solitude was refreshing after the immense team effort necessary to plan a wedding. The trouble began subtly, with a slight delay out of JFK. I didn't think much of it; I was enjoying talking to my seatmate, a twelve-year-old choirboy from Dublin who had just finished a tour of the northeastern U.S.

It wasn't until our arrival in Dublin that I realized our initial delay might jeopardize my already-tight connection. With seven minutes to go, I sprinted through passport control, baggage claim, again through security, across the tarmac, and jumped on a plane to Madrid with seconds to spare. However, my sigh of relief was premature. After an agonizing half an hour at the baggage carousel, my suspicions were confirmed: my bag had not been as agile as I, and was still in Dublin. Together with several other disgruntled passengers, I trudged to the lost luggage counter. Filing a claim was a nightmare-- I had no address or telephone number at which I could be contacted, and I spoke no Spanish (and thus could barely communicate with the incredibly rude and unsympathetic woman behind the desk). In the end, I decided to continue on as planned to Casablanca and hope against hope that I would be able to communicate well enough by email and pay phone to retrieve my bag.

The problems didn't end there, however. My flight from Madrid to Casablanca was delayed by an hour and a half. No one spoke English. I was hot and sweaty and tired and hadn't slept in two days. I was terrified that the problems and delays would make it more difficult to meet up with my friend/travel buddy Ryan, who was flying into Casablanca from Cairo the same day.

As soon as the plane touched down in Casa, I sprinted to passport control... I had twenty minutes to make the hourly train into the city. Again, there were just enough delays to make me miss the train by about 6 minutes. What could I do? I waited for the 5pm train and took the 35-minute ride into the city. Resigning myself to the seemingly inevitable, I strolled onto the platform and into the station, expecting no one.

My relief was almost palpable when I saw Ryan, one of my favorite people in the world, waiting patiently, exactly where he said he would be. It's truly amazing how much a familiar face can lift a dejected spirit. After explaining the situation to him, we agreed that we should go on as planned to Essaouira that night. At this point, it was about 6pm. Essaouira is 6 hours from Casa, so it would be pushing it to arrive at midnight, especially as we weren't sure our hostel would hold our beds for us. However, we went ahead and boarded a somewhat sketchy-looking bus that was supposed to depart at 6pm.

It didn't depart at 6pm. It left at about 7, and made frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers. It was closer to 2am when we arrived in Essaouira, and getting off of the bus was one of the scariest things I've ever done. The bus station was filled with 20-something men whose eyes followed me everywhere, without a single other female face in sight. We had no idea where we were with respect to our hostel. The surrounding streets, however, were almost completely deserted save some stray cats and menacing-looking youths. We nervously walked to the taxi rank to ask for directions; our hostel was only 400m away, according to the guidebook. After receiving conflicting directions from multiple drivers in garbled French, I turned to Ryan to find him deep in conversation with an older man who apparently spoke Spanish. He warned us that the streets were dangerous at night, and offered to lead us to our destination. He assured us that he was only interested in our safety-- he didn't want money. Warily, we followed him through the dark streets and imposing archways into the medina (old city): a labyrinthine collection of streets and alleyways that taxis couldn't enter.

We had barely gone thirty yards when our erstwhile guide abrubtly turned around and walked quickly back the way we had come, speaking low and in Spanish. Ryan quietly explained that it was better not to go this way because one of the men up there had a knife.

This turning back and circling around continued for about an hour as our guide carefully picked out the safest ways through the dark alleys and narrow streets, frequently looking at the map in our guidebook. We found out that Mustafa-- that was his name-- wasn't actually from Essaouira, but actually was a taxi driver from Casablanca, on vacation. He explained that he was staying with a local family who lived in the medina; it was much cheaper and nicer than staying in a hotel, he said.

Finally, we ducked into the tiny derb (alley) that contained our hostel. By this time, it was 2:30am and every door in the city was shut and locked. We rang the bell and banged on the door for what seemed like five solid minutes... to no avail. A man poked his head out of a third-story window and sleepily informed us that they were full for the night. At this point, we had no idea what to do: we were tired and hungry and scared and lost with a stranger in a strange city. Our mysterious guide, however, beckoned us to follow him again through the medina; he said that the family with whom he was staying might have room for us. We twisted and turned through the maze until we arrived at a door marked simply "48". Mustafa quietly entered and we found ourselves in a small open-air courtyad, with more twisting passages and narrow staircases leading to about a dozen doorways. We waited nervously a few meters back from the door on which Mustafa knocked. A tired-looking middle-aged woman opened the door as Mustafa explained our situation in rapid Arabic. As he spoke, two little girls peeked out from around their mother's skirt and gaped at the two travel-worn Americans before them. She let us in almost immediately into a small but beautiful apartment-- a living room with a few couches and a small television, a compact kitchen, a bathroom barely big enough to stand in (with a non-western squat toilet and no shower), two bedrooms and a sort of sitting room, with intricate mosaic walls and cushioned benches. It was to this room that the woman showed us, followed closely by the two small girls bearing pillows and blankets. The girls seemed especially struck by me, in all my unwashed Western glory; they took my hands and showed me the entire apartment (perhaps 650 square feet) before pushing me into a chair in the living room along with Ryan, where they brought us a plate of something that looked like fish. I had no idea what to do with this; I tentatively picked one up and bit its head off, prompting an alarmed squeal from the two little ones, who worried aloud that I would choke. They showed me how to peel the fish in half so that I could remove its spine. They were delighted with even my little bit of French, and chattered away despite the lateness of the hour. I finally convinced them to let us go to sleep, marveling at how lucky we were.

We rose reluctantly the next day, unsure of the Moroccan protocol in this situation. Nalika and the girls (Fatim-Selah and Selma) were nowhere to be found, nor was Mustafa. Could we leave our things there and go out into the city? Did we need to pay right then? Where would we go? What would we eat? Right on cue, Mustafa entered the room and asked if we wanted breakfast. We followed him outside, through the maze of doors that was number 48-- and finally out into streets that had been completely transformed. Instead of the deserted, threatening, claustrophobic alleys of the preceding night, we found: aisles of brightly colored clothing, awnings with shopkeepers shouting to one another and hawking their wares to passersby, heavily laden horses and donkeys carrying goods from place to place. We ducked into a small side street and entered a tiny open-air shop that contained a stove, a table, and some benches in an area no larger than 100 square feet. Two stout women unceremoniously presented us with a pot of mint tea and plates of bread, doused in honey and oil. It tasted strange and foreign but delicious nonetheless. Mustafa poured the tea in typical Moroccan style-- the greater the height of the pour without splashing, the more respect you command from those around you.

Breakfast for the three of us was a mere 20 dirham, about $2.25; Mustafa informed us that it was much too expensive because we were foreign. He led us through the labyrinth to the area near the beach, where seagulls and tourists flocked in droves. In a combination of French and Spanish, he described the sights we passed: the kasbah, a walled fortress reminiscent of medieval times; the ramparts, or skala, where you could walk for 10Dh; the fish souq, where you could take your pick from the catch of the day and have it grilled for you before your eyes; the fishing boats in the harbor; the plethora of windsurfers and sailboats by the beach. It was unlike anything I'd seen before. We sat on a stone wall above the beach as Mustafa ducked out to buy something... he returned with a bag of sardines, bragging about how little they cost compared to what we might pay in the U.S. He threw a few to the endless parade of gulls and stray cats before ushering us back to 48, asking us where we thought we were and making us lead the way to ensure that we would be able to return alone. On the way, I browsed shops for some additional clothing, since my luggage had yet to be found (at this point, we'd purchased a moroccan SIM card and attempted to call the baggage claim office in Madrid several times ... no luck). Mustafa dropped us off at 48, and after dropping off a few things we ventured into the city alone. I purchased a few essentials and we wandered through the medina in search of a good place to eat lunch. An intricate archway led us into an open courtyard of restaurants and shops, relatively bare of people. Confronted with signs touting organic and vegan fare, we assumed we'd found a backpacker's haven and settled down to eat at the Earth Cafe, an all-vegetarian restaurant clearly aimed at expats and tourists. The friendly English-speaking proprietor, Ben, encouraged us to return often and review his place on he also gave us directions to another branch of the cafe in Marrakech, our next destination. The meal was delicious and filling and vegetarian (which Ryan appreciated), and the square was quiet and peaceful; we lingered until almost sunset. I spotted a shop selling some clothes I liked and bargained a shopkeeper from 180Dh for a pair of pants down to 125Dh-- not a great job haggling on my part, but still only about $13 for a nice comfy pair of pants. We wandered over to the beach until the sun set, then back to the streets to search out a place to have a light supper. We eventually settled on a small place called Cafe des Arts, which looked relatively cheap and nice. The food-- a vegetarian couscous and tajine-- was more than passable, and as we ate the waiters would take turns playing traditional Gnaoua music on strange-looking instruments in the corner of the tiny room. As the evening progressed, the place took on the air of an American coffeehouse-- the room filled with young Moroccans who sipped mint tea and clapped and sang along with the 5-6 waiters, who had formed a jam band of guitars, keyboards, percussion, and strange Gnaoua instruments.

After dinner and entertainment, we contentedly began to walk back to 48. The shops were closing, which made it difficult to navigate, but with some effort and a map we returned at about 10pm. When we walked in, the small TV was playing a French-dubbed version of the American movie "Dreamgirls" to a rapt Mustafa, Fatim-Selah, and Selma. The girls leapt up and offered us plates full of fresh watermelon, fish, bread, and mint tea. Another woman was there, who as far as I could understand was a neighbor from one of the many other doors in 48. This woman, Latika, was much more talkative than Nalika; she also knew a bit of English. However, the bulk of the conversation was carried out in French. Ryan, tired and uncomprehending, went to bed, leaving me at the mercy of Latika and Mustafa's endless questions. They asked me about my life and family in the U.S., whether or not university was expensive there, even whether or not Ryan and I were engaged/married (during the day, we'd gotten some cheap rings to wear to deter harassment, on the advice of several stateside friends who'd previously traveled in Morocco). The dialogue flew by at times too fast for me to understand it, as French was translated to Arabic to English and back again.

I then hesitatingly proffered that I was attempting to learn Arabic, which spurred an excited burst of chatter. I had printed out some lessons from a teach-yourself website, and showed them. Latika became very excited and began to read sentences in Arabic, had me repeat them, and then translated them to English. Fatim-Selah grabbed my hand and sat me in a chair, writing out characters and instructing me on how to pronounce them. Selma sat patiently, copying out sentences in both Arabic and English-- when making English letters, her pen moved from right to left even as her hand moved from left to right. Fatim-Selah made me repeat the numbers 1-10 until I could say them perfectly. The lesson lasted until late that night, and ended with an exchange of addresses and promises to write-- me, someday, in Arabic. I bid goodnight to the man who had virtually saved our lives, the woman who'd taken us in, her enthusiastic neighbor, and the two little girls who'd stolen my heart.

The next morning we packed our things and breakfasted again with Mustafa. We wanted to catch a bus to Marrakech but were unsure of the correct station; as before, Mustafa guided us through the medina and out to the station. On the way, he stopped in a small shop and purchased a CD of what he said was the best musician from Essaouira's recent Gnaoua festiva, an event famed throughout Morocco. He gave us the CD as a parting gift, and showed us to the station. After a few snafus with a different bus station and a bus that was full already, we packed into a bus to Marrakech, saying farewell to our friend and guardian. All in all, our trip to Essaouira was a suitable beginning to our Moroccan adventures.