After a week and a half of touring almost all of central Morocco, Sam and I were ready for a break. We wanted a calm place where we could spend a few days relaxing and soaking in the culture so we decided on Jimmy Hendrix's favorite African seaside town, Essaouira. From the Cascades d'Ouzoud, we wanted to try hitchhiking part of the way there. Just a few yards after leaving our hotel we got picked up by a van full of Moroccans heading to their work at a construction site. We rode bouncing around in the back of the van for about an hour as the Arabs in the front seat had a lively discussion playfully yelling at and teasing each other.
After parting ways, or roads, we were left alongside a street lined with a dozen or so Moroccan teenagers anxiously awaiting a ride in the same direction. The competition was fierce, they spoke Arabic and were willing to pay for a ride; two traits we were lacking. I guess somehow we were able to play the "legitimate looking westerner card" because we quickly got picked up by a businessman in a VW Jetta. We got in the car and were amazed at how luxurious and comfortable it was. I guess when traveling in the back of vans and on local buses you lose sight of how nice western cars are!
The man spoke no English and we spoke no French, so for the hour car ride we communicated through hand gestures and charades. We actually learned a lot from him, like the Berber people are the calm nice Moroccans and the Arabs are the ones who always try to rip you off. Also, it is apparently easy to bribe the police if you get pulled over.
Once we arrived back in Marrakech the man asked something about money. As we were trying to piece together what he was saying he reached behind his seat, pulled out a stack of 100 durham bills and offered us some! We politely declined, we were happy enough to just have a ride. We caught the bus from Marrakech and arrived in Essaouira just as the sun was setting. Essaouira sunsets fall into the same category as Key West and Santorini...a red firey ball burning up the horizon, breathtakingly stunning! The setting of the sun also happens to be perfectly timed to when the local fishermen arrive back at the port, so there are thousands of birds flying into the sunset trying to get the fish.
During our three days in Essaouira we enjoyed doing absolutely nothing! Our daily routine consisted of eating delicious pancakes drizzled in honey and banana at the local bakery, walking to the beach or around town and spending the afternoon lounging on a terrace drinking coffee, reading and watching the waves crash against the city walls. Not too bad of a life, if you ask me. A perfect way to end two adventurous weeks in Morocco.
The walls of the Essaouira medina, separating the city from the ocean
Essaouira-view from our favorite terrace to lounge around in the afternoon
Another amazing sunset from Essaouira
City of birds...need I say more?
After the Todra Gorge and the Sahara trek, Sam and I were really into the Morocco nature scene. We loved getting off the main tourist paths and exploring local villages and parks, especially in such a diverse country. The Cascades d'Ouzoud seemed like the perfect place to visit. They are the second highest waterfall in Africa measuring 110 meters (360 feet), and were also listed as a "must see" in numerous travel guides.
Thinking it would be fun to get a taste of true Moroccan culture and meet some locals, we decided to take the local bus to the falls. Big mistake. When we purchased the tickets (which we had to bargain for...this should have been red flag number one) the attendant told us the bus would leave around noon, despite the listed 11:30 A.M. departure on the ticket. The bus didn't actually leave until 1 P.M. and then it took 45 minutes to get out of the station because it kept stopping every 30 feet or so for some random person along the street flagging it down.
After four hours of this nonsense and a very grumpy Ember later, we finally covered the 90 mile journey to the falls. We found a cute riad to stay at and spent two days wandering around the village, hiking through the canyons along the river and scrambling up rock cliffs. Here are some pictures of our adventure:
The eternal rainbow from the mist of the falls
Sam and me waving hello from the top of a cliff
Boat ride under the falls
Full view of the falls
From 40 cent bowls of lentil soup to fresh bread filled with smoking meat, Morocco had some of the best cusine I have experienced during my travels. Actually, the Moroccan food scene isn't that diverse. I think the main attraction is that everything is cooked fresh and deliciously cheap! Sam and I have invented a daily routine scheduled around meals. Finding the greatest local dive cafe in each city we visit has become our hobby.
I have arrived at the conclusion that there are only six foods in Morocco:
1. Soup-either lentil or pea
3. Tagine (a mix of vegetables and meat cooked in a cone shaped pot on the stove)
6. Mint tea with heaps of sugar
We eat a crepe drenched in honey nearly every morning followed by a mid morning cookie, then find a suitable hole-in-the-wall soup kitchen or tagine shop for lunch and maybe couscous for dinner, while always drinking mint tea throughout the day. Life isn't half bad considering our daily food budget runs about $4 USD with all this scrumptious food, it's easy to go a little crazy!
One night we set out on a food safari. We decided to walk along the street and sample new foods that we hadn't yet tried, or that seemed really strange! Each sample cost about $1 USD so Sam, Andrew and me took turns buying the food for the three of us to share. We tried everything from cactus fruit to fried anchovies, snail soup and an assortment of Moroccan cookies. Here are some of the food highlights from our trip:
Bread filled with chicken, mystery meat, noodles and tomato sauce!
Experiments in tagine cooking
Yummy yummy snail soup
When planning our Morocco trip, Sam and I were feeling a bit lazy, so we opened a Lonely Planet book, turned to the "top ten natural wonders of Morocco" page and picked out wonders number one and two to visit. We figured that Lonely Planet never disappoints, and getting out of the big cities and traveling through small towns would surely guarantee interesting adventures and good stories. Luckily wonder number two, the Todra Gorge was halfway between Merzouga and Marrakech, allowing us to conveniently break up a twelve hour bus journey.
When the bus pulled into Tingier (the town near the gorge) we new we had made the right decision. The town lay in a palm tree oasis lined valley just below an expanse of red desert with snow capped peaks as a backdrop. I never thought it was possible for one landscape to have all three palm trees, desert and snowy mountains. Incredible!
Upon arrival, we were instantly greeted by Abdul who offered his tour guide services. We chatted for a bit and he eventually led us to a local market where we got a delicious lamb and vegetable lunch for $3 USD total. When we broke the news to him that we weren't in the market for a guide, he suddenly abandoned our friendship. At least we got a delicious local meal out of it.
A few minutes later, Mohammed befriended us. We insisted on "no help" but he persistently followed us meandering through the city streets saying he didn't want money, he just wanted to be our friend. Finally accepting that we were fighting a losing battle, we gave in and figured we might as well take advantage of the situation. He took us to a vegetable market and a bread shop so we could get groceries, then waited with us for the taxi to the gorge.
Sam and I had not planned ahead for any part of this trip, so when the taxi dropped us off alongside a river at the beginning of the gorge with no hotels in sight, we were a little apprehensive. There was no one insight minus a few people trying to sell teapots and cookies on the side of the road. If we were in any other country, it would be unfortunate, but what is my motto about Morocco? There is always someone to help!
One of the men selling snacks immediately approached us to ask what we were doing. We told him of our dilemma, he said a few words in Arabic to the taxi driver and instructed us to get the in the car and the driver would drop us at his friends hotel. Perfection! And such effortless service right at our fingertips, every time! We ended up at a newly finished riad with quaint rooms and bright Moroccan decorations everywhere! And the rooms were only $12 USD a night...that is with a little bartering!
I think a "westerner alert" must have gone out to all the people in that town because by the end of the night the hotel was full of Moroccans wanting to befriend us. Sam and I were actually interested in this prospect as we had spent many evenings discussing the Moroccan culture and trying to pinpoint exactly what Moroccans do. We knew 90% of the population was a tour guide, but apart from that everything seemed a bit blurry.
I would have normally dismissed this sudden influx of Moroccans as coincidence, but we were the only people staying at the hotel and it was evident there was an underlying motive. The cookie seller was there, the taxi driver, some random guy we met in the oasis drinking beer, the owner of the hotel next door and Mohammed a local who invited us to his carpet shop. He was so insistent and we figured there was nothing to lose so we agreed.
Mohammed made us thyme tea as he displayed his carpets and told us of the local nomads and Berber people. The nomads live in caves in the mountains and make carpets and other goods to trade with the Arabics for food and clothing. When the cold comes they gather their children, animals and possessions and move to Western Sahara until summer returns to the mountains. Even if we weren't in the market for a carpet, we got some nice tea (thyme in tea is surprisingly delicious!) and an education in Berber and nomad lifestyles.
The next day Sam and I took a hike through the gorge. We heard there was a loop that took you through the gorge and to the top then down the backside of the mountain returning into town. Well, that´s what Sam heard...I knew nothing of this supposed loop, I was just counting on a day hiking to the top of the gorge and back down.
The weather that day was overcast and sprinkling on and off, so we threw our raincoats and a few sandwiches in the backpack and were off. By the time we made it to the top of the gorge the wind was blowing cold rain and there was no path to be seen. I asked Sam how sure he was about the loop and he replied with, "one percent."
I´m sure we could have made our own loop back into town, but I was reluctant to risk our chances in the mountains with the weather situation and not enough water or food for a bush waking adventure sure to lead past dusk. Before descending, Sam decided to hike to the highest rim of the gorge to take a look.
Sure enough, there was a small path leading around the mountain and through a valley back into town. It appeared to be shorter than the trek we had taken, so we gave it a try. Half a mile behind the mountain we came upon a small settlement of caves. There were about three caves in all with several stone built corrals and goats and chickens running wild. While quietly sneaking through the village and trying to discreetly take pictures, I noticed a family huddled around a fire in their cave. I pointed this out to Sam just as the family turned to notice us. They waved and motioned for us to come into their cave. I would have normally said no, but I was so curious to see the cave that I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
The cave was about ten feet deep with a seven foot ceiling. The back was piled with blankets and clothes and the entrance contained a small fire where they prepared meals. The walls of the cave were caked in dark soot from the fire inside. The husband spread a blanket at the end of the cave for us to sit on. Through a charades act and the two words we knew in Berber, “saha”-thank you and “besaha”-cheers, we introduced ourselves and thanked the family for inviting us in.
They poured us two glasses of thyme tea and handed us bread heaping with roasted vegetables. We ate our food wide eyed while watching the family chat and the children playing on the dirt floor. We were amazed with our luck and the opportunity to experience life with the nomads. We eventually thanked the family and continued on our way. The wife was even kind enough to walk us to the top of the hill near the caves and point us in the right direction. The rest of the hike was comparatively uneventful. The weather was decent and the scenery stunning.
We returned to the hotel that night amazed at our adventurous day and with Abdul, Mohammed, Rashid and the whole gang ready to greet us. After telling them of our adventures with the nomads we decided to make some coffee to warm up. Mohammed took a sudden interest in Sam's tin of instant coffee. He asked to look at it, and after inspecting the label and contents inside he offered to trade Sam some jewelery in his shop for the can of coffee. He insisted that his wife (me) would appreciate a nice Berber bracelet. Unfortunately, Sam is apparently not very appreciative of his wife and no deal was made.
Just ten minutes later, Abdul approached me and asked to see my iPod. He asked how much I paid for it and offered to make a deal with me--the iPod for a carpet. In all of my wildest dreams I never expected to be involved in the business of expensive goods trading, let alone exchanging my iPod--the single most important item I currently possessed--for a carpet to put in my nonexistent home. I looked at the iPod and looked at Abdul and responded, "I can't get Wi-Fi on a carpet, so no thank you." That will be my last dabble in any form of goods trading.
The next morning Sam and I packed up the backpacks and were off on a Thanksgiving Day adventure hitchhiking to Marrakech! I'm sure you know the rest of the story from there. Here are some pictures from the Todra Gorge:
The small town where we stayed and the beginning of the gorge in the background
Me and Sam hiking through the Todra Gorge
View from the top of the Todra Gorge and a small town beyond
I made it!
The entrance to a nomad cave home
Tea and lunch from the inside of a nomad cave
Gorge, town, oasis
After a short visit in Fes, Sam and I were pretty anxious to get down to the Sahara and do what all great tourists must do in the desert...ride a camel! A few months ago I somehow got the idea of riding a camel in Morocco locked in my brain. I knew that at some point I had to make it happen or my trip would not be complete. Luckily, camels are Sam's favorite animal, so it didn't take much convincing to get him on board with the plan.
We took an 11 hour overnight bus from Fes to Merzouga. Half way through the ride we were pleasantly greeted by our Czech friend Raddik who we met at the hostel in Fes. He had been spending a few days in another city and coincidentally ended up catching the same bus as us! We chatted for a bit before falling into a deep bus slumber.
At six in the morning, the lights in the bus flashed on and we came to a halt. The bus driver yelled, "Merzouga, everyone off." Being abruptly awoken from my sleep I was a bit disoriented, but I became even more so when I realized that it was 6 A.M., completely dark outside and we were parked in the middle of a dirt road lined with about five restaurants in the middle of vast desert nowhereness. The bus was not scheduled to arrive until 7 A.M. and I was convinced that this dirt pullout could not possibly be the Merzouga bus station.
I tried to stay on the bus and go back to sleep, but the driver was persistent and eventually kicked us off. I hesitantly left the bus in complete shock with no idea of what to do next. Luckily, Sam was a bit more functional than me. We had arranged to CouchSurf with a local, but didn't think he would appreciate being called at 6 A.M., and Raddik had already gotten a taxi to meet his CouchSurfing host, so we did what any intelligent two people traveling in Morocco at the wee hours of the morning would do. We wandered a few hundred yards into the desert, got out our sleeping bags and went to sleep on the sand.
We were surrounded by giant red dunes towering over small houses scattered along the horizon, and watched the first hints of sun poke through the darkness from behind a mud and straw style hut. This would be the first of many Moroccan sunrises we would witness. It wasn´t long before we were approached at our “campsite” in the desert by a toothless Moroccan riding his bike through the sand. Of course he had to stop and introduce himself and offered his tour guide services to take us on a camel trek. Either we stick out like a sore thumb or there are just Moroccans hiding out in all crevices of the earth, but to be found in the desert in the first few minutes of daylight is pretty impressive. I am under the impression that there are always a pair of eyes on us, no matter where we are!
After dismissing Abdul, Sam and I began to formulate a plan. We had not heard from our CS host and were getting worried about what we would do for the day/where we would stay. Things ended up falling through with out host, but luckily Raddik´s host invited us to stay with him. We were told to get a taxi and tell him to take us to Jonas´s house. The driver seemed to know exactly what we meant and we were soon on our way! We drove for about ten minutes down a vacated highway, then drove off shoulder and zoomed across the open desert making our own road toward a town in the distance.
The driver dropped us in front of what appeared to be a large mud and straw made villa with chickens, goats and camels freely roaming outside… Jonas´s house. We were promptly greeted by Jonas and Raddik and led to our own private room alongside the house. Jonas brought us mint tea, cookies and a delicious breakfast. We spent the rest of the morning seeing Jonas´s town and walking along the canals in the oasis. Jonas had three family camels and offered to take us into the desert for the night, my dream was coming true!
We spent two hours traversing across the dunes to a camp. Riding atop a huge camel through endless red sand was incredible. Not to mention, I also got to wear a turban…true Arabian style! We watched the sun set over the Algerian border then descended into a valley where the camp was set up consisting of five tents and a small kitchen. There we were met by two other guides and two Spanish girls also on a camel trek. We had a delicious dinner and spent much of the evening gazing at the gorgeous starry night and milky way…by far the best star display I have ever seen!
We woke up early and traversed a hundred yards up a steep dune to see the sunrise, then made the journey back into town. The Sahara trip was an amazing experience…definitely one of the highlights of my trip thus far!
Sunrise in the desert
Sam and me ready to face the extreme desert elements
The beginning of our camel safari! Me, Sam and Raddick
Is the turban a good look for me?
Checking out the sunrise from the top of a dune. Me, Sam and Raddik.
Hello, gorgeous sand dune!
Eating a delicious Berber omelet breakfast at camp
Fun shadows...us plus three other Spaniards who we met at the camp
The house where we stayed...literally mud and straw made
Growing up in the United States in the 90s was an easy life. Scratch that, let me rewind. Growing up anytime in the 20th century in the United States was easy. We have created and perfected a system that saves us time and allows for a lifestyle of convenience. We go to Wal-Mart, Sears, Safeway, or whatever other respective store to buy everything we need in one easy stop, then if that wasn't enough we have online shopping, drive through banks and DVR so we have even more time to cram important things into each day. This structure saves us time on menial tasks, so we can focus our time and energy on education and careers which in tern benefits a productive culture.
Now, imagine a society that has not reached the convenience store stage and is so wrapped up in fulfilling its physiological needs, no one can get to the seemingly "more important" tasks. That's Morocco. I'm not trying to spin this in a positive or negative light, but rather writing how I see things as an objective outside viewer.
If you were to take Wal-Mart and explode it into 75 little stores and scatter them along a narrow street lined with donkeys and wheelbarrows you would have a makeshift Morocco. Each store has a specialty ranging from egg stores to oil markets and carpet shops. If you were to bake a cake for example, you would have to go to the egg, flour/sugar and spice shops before obtaining all the necessary ingredients.
The average Moroccan makes $4,800 USD a year, so it is important for them to spend their money wisely and make the most of what they have. Things that would be thrown away in the U.S. such as plastic containers, ripped jeans, a pot with a hole and newspaper are saved, repaired and recycled to be used over and over in many different forms. In addition, many products that would normally be machine or factory made are made by hand in Morocco.
I was shocked to see the amount of work that goes into handmade products here, and the sense of pride that the Moroccans have for their exquisite goods. From carpets to scarves to tiles and wooden goods, you can always count on a little shop with Moroccans hard at work to produce the finest items.
During one of our days in Fes we toured a ceramics factory. The factory employed somewhere around 500 workers, and I was stunned to see the complex process to create ceramics pieces. For example, here are the steps involved in creating a fountain:
1. The clay must be shaped into a tile.
2. The clay is fired.
3. The tile is glazed and hand painted with an elaborate design or glazed one color.
4. The tile is re-fired.
5. The tile is hand cut and chiseled into smaller square tiles, or the face of the tile is chipped off to create a design such as a flower or leaf.
6. The smaller mosaic tiles along with the chiseled flower designs re hand glued into a specific pattern and shape for the fountain.
7. Occasionally, silver is welded onto the face of the fountain to add an additional design element.
All of this by hand! It takes weeks upon end and many workers to produce a single fountain.
It took me awhile to wrap my head around this huge cultural difference of handmade goods. I was mostly shocked because:
a. In my mind, handmade items are counterproductive. The time it takes to produce them and the labor costs associated seem like they could not compete with the benefits of factory produced goods.
b. I felt really bad for the little people sitting at a loom tying knots in a carpet day in and day out or the poor man spending his life chipping away at tiles to create the perfect design. This type of lifestyle seemed horrible to me.
The more I thought about it, the more I began to realize the benefits of the system and accept the realities. The bottom line is that it is a way to employ a lot of people in an country that is not yet developed enough to mass produce factory goods and with a highly uneducated population with high poverty and unemployment rates. At least these people had jobs they could return to day after day. Although not glamorous, they were in much better shape than the beggars and "guides" wandering around the street willing to do anything for work or money.
While I appreciate all the beautiful handmade goods, I still don't feel great about the lifestyles many of these workers live, and continue to ask myself time after time why I was the fortunate one who got to be born in the United States. I think there is a lot we can learn from the thriftiness of the Moroccan culture, and a lot that we can be thankful for coming from the easy lifestyles we have.
Daily work in the tannery
View of the tannery
Making carpets...can you imagine doing this for eight hours a day for your whole life? Wow.
Piecing together a mosaic bowl
A chicken and egg store. You pick out the chicken you want, they weigh it and kill it.
I think it would be safe to say that most every American has a similar idea of what they imagine Africa to be like. We learn about it in school and see pictures on the news, yet not many Americans have actually been to Africa to confirm or revise these images we conjure up. To many of us, it is a far away and mysterious land.
I pictured Africa to be full of dirt roads, crazy drivers with beat up cars, small villages rich with culture and vast expanses of desolate desert. I could go on about the socioeconomic status of the people and overall safety of the continent, but I'll let you fill in the blanks.
Even with this image in mind, nothing could have prepared for what I saw on my first day in Fes. Somehow I didnt actually believe that this fairytale land that I had learned about through such a narrow American lens would be anything like I imagined.
My hostel was located within the medina, or walled area of the city. The Fes medina is one of the largest in the world and consists of 9,400 intertwined alleyways filled with street shops, riad houses, bustling street markets and lots of mud.
My first morning in Fes I went on a tour of the medina with eight other travelers from the hostel. Walking through the streets for the first time was complete sensory overload. I was exhilirated and fascinated by this far away culture and spent at least an hour snapping a constant stream of photos.
The tour guide took us to a pharmacy, tannery, carpet shop, clothing store and mosque school so we could learn about the different aspects of the culture and see how the perspective items were made. This of course included a 30 to 60 minute sales pitch by the store owner at the end of each session. At first I found the speeches highly entertaining, but by the time we reached the carpet shop and sat staring blankly at the man unrolling carpet after carpet, thinking that this was really the last thing I would ever consider stuffing in my backpack and carrying around for two months, I had had enough.
Ninety percent of the time I feel like I must be wearing a clown suit with a giant sign, "come talk to me!" Walking through the streets of Fes is like a parade. You are the leader and are followed by lonely Moroccans shouting, "hello, bonjor, how are you? Where you going? You need guide?" Sometimes three or four will congregate around you bartering with eachother to give you a good price on a service you didnt even want in the first place. The people are overly eager to help, as long as you are willing to pay.
Even, if you were smack dab in the middle of the Sahara with no civilization for miles, I'm sure it wouldn't take more than ten minutes to run across a friendly Moroccan who will take you to his uncle's restaurant then offer you a great deal at his hotel with a camel to go along with it.
In addition to these amiable offers, you must also take into account that you are getting ripped off 90% of the time. Morocco is not for the faint of heart. You must always be on top of your game, and be able to drive a tough bargin.
After a few hours of playing the game, my new travel friends and I began to get the hang of how things worked and came up with a few ground rules for navigating the Moroccan maze:
1. Before ordering in a restaurant always ask how much the food costs (of course there are no menus in Morocco, and the prices change depending on what you look like. They will tell you the price, then after eating they try to bump it up, forget that they already told you the original price)
2. If someone wants to help you get somewhere start of by saying, "no money." They may or may not stick around, but at least you won't be obliged to pay.
3. Pretend like you don't speak English, French, Arabic, Spanish, German or Russian. This is a great deterrent, and excellent way to practice your non-native English accent.
3. When in doubt, run from the Moroccans.
I have found myself in several situations where I need directions, but don't want to pay for a Moroccan to guide me all the way to the destination. The running technique is perfect here. I let the helper point me in the correct direction or lead me down an alleyway, then, when they're not looking book it in the opposite direction. The medina is confusing enough that it takes virtually no effort to lose someone.
This is also an excellent strategy if you get sucked into a bartering match with a shop owner. I made the mistake of asking the price of a small teapot just out of curiosity. The clerk responded with, "120 Durham"-an outrageous price in my mind ($15 USD). He asked how much I would pay, and since I didn't actually want the teapot, I thought I would be safe going with a ridiculously low price and walking away when he said no. I offered 40 Durham ($5 USD). He came down in his initial asking price, and when I showed no interest and began to leave the shop he wrapped the teapot in a plastic bag and chased after me coming down by ten Durham for every ten feet I continued to walk. He eventually hit 40 Durham, my offer and I had no other choice than to run from the man! Luckily, they are not too enthusiastic about pursuing you, so it is always easy to escape.
I guess the thing the Moroccans have going for them is their extreme persistence! It has been a good learning experience for me, seeing how they conduct business and picking up on their bartering "tricks." I've surprised myself with my skills and made myself a few good deals!
Good afternoon friends, family and fellow travel enthusiasts. I would like you all to meet a new character in my travel saga,, my Morocco travel buddy Sam! As many of you knew, I was originally planning on spending a month in Grenada then heading to Israel. However, as I traveled further and further south in Spain, the idea of Morocco became more and more alluring. I had always wanted to go there, and the idea of being in Africa seemed so exotic. There were two things in the way, however. I did not want to travel Morocco alone and if I did visit Morocco, I wanted to do it right and spend a substantial amount of time there.
I had no idea how to go about finding a travel buddy, so I turned to my default website, CouchSurfing, for advice. In the Morocco group I noticed that an Australian had posted a note looking for a travel partner for two weeks in Morocco. He seemed pretty normal, so I responded on a whim...and the rest is history.
Sam and I emailed back and forth for about a week talking about traveling and creating a tentative Morocco plan. Just like me, Sam is a fellow nomad and has been traveling through China, Mongolia, Russia and Northeastern Europe for the past three months. This is the first time I've had a travel buddy (other than mom) and I was pretty excited to bum around with a fellow nomad for two weeks!
Some important facts about Sam:
Camels are his favorite animals (he got bit on the head by one in Mongolia)
He likes to eat kangaroos (apparently you can but them at the grocery stores in Australia)
He is excellent in both befriending the local Moroccans and kindly warding off scammers.
He wears purple leather size nine shoes (just in case anybody wants to send some)
He makes excellent play on word jokes such as, "there are more rocks in Mo-rocco than anywhere else." I'm sure I'll be loving these by the end of week two...
Considering we're both into CouchSurfing, hitchhiking, eating at the sketchiest food joints we can find and getting into completely strange and awkward travel situations, I'm sure we will get along just fine.
Update: Sam and I have now been traveling together for a week now, and everything has been working out perfectly! We seem to compliment eachother really well. I get worked up and frustrated about certain situations-getting ripped off by cab drivers or too many Moroccans trying to pester us-and he calms me down, and he gets bothered by other things such as being charged too much for bread or leaving our backpacks at the bus station for the day, and I calm him down. We have also worked out a great system for bartering...we'll go on about how we're students and have no money, then I say we need to talk privately so we leave and when we return the price is magically lower! We barter everything from bus tickets to hotel rooms to vegetables at the market, it's becoming a hobby of ours.
We also went from complete strangers to a married couple within a few hours of arriving in Morocco. Because were traveling together (and in Morocco), everyone assumes we must be married. Street vendors try to convince Sam to buy nice bracelets or carpets for his wife. We like telling people that we met online and making jokes about our "romantic Moroccan vacation." Needless to say, we have been getting a lot of mileage out of the married couple act.
I must admit, I never thought I'd meet my husband online, let alone so soon, but Morocco really has a way of bringing people together!
Sam and me in Marrakech
_As I write this, I am imagining all of you enjoying your turkey feasts and relaxing to a nice game of American football, a little jealous but I must say this has been a most surprising, unexpected and memorable Thanksgiving.
This morning Sam (my travel buddy) and I decided we would try to hitchhike the six hour journey from the small mountain town we were staying in to Marrakech.
We waited in the pouring rain for about an hour with high thumbs and high spirits. The Moroccans seemed to be getting a kick out of us and our soaking "Marrakech" sigh. Tomorrow is election day and the town was bustling with a parade of cars covered in photos of their favorite candidate driving through town throwing election flyers out the window and honking in unison.
We had several cars stop, but they all wanted money to give us a ride part of the way to Marrakech. When we were about to put the sign away and grab some lunch and dry off, a 15-passenger tour van pulled over. We initially ignored the van, assuming they were stopping for a photo opp, but when the driver got out and shouted, "Marrakech" we were caught off guard. We asked, "no money?" and he nonchalantly agreed. This was too good to be true...riding in a comfortable tour van with English speaking tourists all the way to Marrakech for free. Wow!
As we continued down the road, the rain began to pick up. Parts of the road were completely flooded or washed out, but the driver persisted passing stopped cars and hydroplaning through river-like troughs in the road. The driver seemed to be having fun with this, and it turned into a sort of game. As we speeded toward each "river crossing" I closed my eyes and shuttered thinking, "that's it, this is the last one. The van is going to roll and we're going for a swim down the river." Somehow, we actually made it through...I guess I underestimated the abilities of a 15-passenger van.
Two hours into the trip, we got word that the highway ahead was closed due to snow. The van pulled over at a restaurant to eat lunch and wait out the road closure.
As all the tourists ate in the dinningroom upstairs, Sam and I hung out in the cafe below drinking mint tea and trying desperately to warm up. The driver and tour guides eventually joined us downstairs and immediately invited us to join them and their feast. Trying to be polite, we denied the invitation but our efforts were futile. We sat down and our van driver gave us all the food he had ordered and shared a meal with one of the guides.
At this point, all of the guides joined in the festivities passing us bread, chicken kebab, salad, tagime, fresh fruit and coke to drink. We were overwhelmed bothe with the amount of food and the kindness of people we had never met who didn't even speak our language. As we continued to feast a clip came on the news about Obama pardoning two turkeys for Thanksgiving and I knew there was nowhere else I would rather be than sharing a Thanksgiving meal with a strangers who probably didn't even know what Thanksgiving is.
Sam and I got back in the van with big smiles, full tummies and grateful hearts for the people who were so kind. The rest of the drive was sheer bliss. We trekked through snow-capped mountain passes and along quaint mud and brick houses nestled within the valleys.
I couldn't stop thinking about the inspiring people I've met during my trip, the compassion I've experienced from strangers and all of my marvelous family and friends at home who have supported me along the way.
Over the past two and a half months the beginnings of a trip to see the world have snowballed into a wonderful wander through three continents filled with gorgeous people and cultures, with each day getting better than the previous. It completely blows me away, I may just be the most thankfully happiest American this holiday.
My Thanksgiving feast!
Washed out roads
Trying to get a picture of the Atlas Mountains through the wet van window
My journey to Morocco was about as eventful as any first time trip to Africa can get. It started with me running through the streets of Algeciras in the pouring rain to make my 10 A.M. ferry. Once aboard the ship, with soaked clothes and a drenched backpack, I claimed a couch and settled down for the two hour ride. I put my earphones in, spread my soaking clothes out to dry and started a blog post. An hour into the ride I was approached by a frazzled boat attendant yelling in Spanish that I needed to pack up everything and get off the boat immediately! Shocked and confused, I began to gather my belongings, and she asked if I had my passport stamped by the Moroccan police during the boat ride. I replied no, I did not know this was necessary. In a complete tizzy, she snatched my (soaking wet) passport from my hands and ran to the upper level of the ship before I had a chance to protest or ask what was happening. Once again, I had visions of my passport disappearing and me being stranded somewhere between Spain and Morocco until the U.S. government could send me a new one.
As I nervously waited for some kind of a response, I looked around only to notice I was the last passenger left on the ship. Evidently, I had miscalculated the time difference which lead to our hour early arrival, and I had completely missed the loudspeaker announcements requesting passengers to get their passports stamped. I was batting a thousand.
In my anxious state, I looked out the deck window and saw that the port was nothing but a huge pile of rocks with concrete barracks and a line of semi trucks. Welcome to Africa.
The attendant finally arrived with my passport and I was soon on my adventure. From the pile of rocks port (if you can even call that a port) everyone boarded a single bus waiting past the customs booth. I knew I had to get a taxi to the train station in Tangier, but had no idea how to go about doing that, or even where Tangier was, as I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I started asking around and the general consensus seemed to be that I needed to deboard the current bus, and get on a new bus headed to the train station that would come in an hour...or maybe two hours, to a bus stop no one could really give me directions to. Not convincing. Alone in Africa, I was not about to wait at the sketchy pile of rocks port for some phantom bus that may or may not come. I stayed on my current bus, and eventually ended up at the official port building where I caught a bus to the Tangier center. During the bus ride, I stared out the window at the green landscape and painted concrete houses, completly enamored with Morocco. When I was finally dropped off in Tangier, a nice Moroccan/French man accompanied me to the bus station and helped me find the bus to Fes. At that moment, I got a huge whiff of Moroccan culture. The bus station was a complete zoo with street vendors following me, travelers carrying heaping bags of goods, busses pulling in and out, and drivers and pedestrians alike shouting their city of destination to sell tickets. I felt like I was surrounded by the Do-Do Birds in the movie, Ice Age screaming "Fes, Fes, Fes."I had been warned about the Moroccan bus system by both travelers and guide books. Apparently there are direct busses and local busses. Both go to the same place but one stops for every person, donkey, camel, etc. along the road and can take up to three times as long as the direct bus. The advice I received was to avoid the possiblitly of ending up on a local bus, and just take the train. Now I was in a tight spot with my new Moroccan/French friend on one side, and a bus driver shoving a ticket into my hand on the other side. There was no turning back now. I asked how long the bus would take and the driver responded, "seven hours." I must have looked dissatisfied because he instantly correct himself with an optimistic, "uh, I mean five hours!" I accepted the ticket, boarded the bus and hoped for the best. As the bus pulled away I noticed a Moroccan woman in her fourties staring at me. I smiled. She continued to stare, so I waved at her, and she gestured for me to come sit next to her. Considering I was the only white person on the bus and everyone had had their fair share of staring at me by this point, I decided to take her up on the offer. Maybe it would deter attention from me, and it would be a good chance to learn about the culture. I scooted into the vacant seat and she quickly struck up a conversation in Arabic with me. When I proved unrespondant, the man sitting across the isle started a French conversation with me. Feeling like a complete idiot for not understanding either language, I nodded and pretended to somewhat comprehend what he was saying. Probably not a good idea, as this encouraged him to continue talking to me throughout the six hour bus ride. I eventually gave up and made the "I don't know" gesture to everything he said. By the end of the bus ride I had my new Moroccan friends email and phone number, and he insisted that I call him the next day so we could meet up and he could show me around. Considering I don't speak French and he doesn't speak English and we could barely communicate face to face, I decided against the phone call (although I'm sure it would have been really interesting). Disembarking from the bus was my moment of truth. After making several stops and passing some pretty dodgy cities, I was almost positive that my luggage was stolen. I imagined that a bright blue backpack with a United Kingdom flag would be a prime target. Before the trip, I had fully prepared myself for the possibility of getting robbed in Morocco, and was now accepting of the chance, except for the fact that I had left my airline tickets in my backpack. I realized this half way through the journey and replayed scenario after scenario in my mind of what I would do if my backpack was indeed missing. Lucky for me, my bright blue travel buddy was right where I had left him. I was ecstatic, and definitely learned my lesson about what to leave in the backpack. After a full day of traveling, foreign conversations, getting yelled at, stared at and almost robbed, I arrived in Fes exhausted and speechless. I booked it to the hostle, and once inside the doors, a wave of relief came over me. I had no idea what to expect from Morocco or Africa, and so far it had been exhilirating, shocking and tiring. This would later on prove to be a daily cycle. Hello, Africa.