Oh crazy Morocco!
13.11.2005 19 °C
Thursday afternoons on long weekends are always a whirlwind. Between the time that class ends, and you get home to eat/finish packing/do any last minute errands you wont be able to do for the rest of the weekend, you find yourself almost always rushing to the bus or train station. As was the case for Cody, Chris, Jessica, Marissa, and I. But, as we are now experienced in matters such as these, we made our bus and at 4pm we were off to Madrid. 4 ½ hours later, we arrived and hopped on the metro (California´s cities really needs to get themselves these systems…BART isn’t enough) and got our hostel where we spent one night before flying out the next morning to MOROCCO!!!!
Our Iberia airlines flight left from Madrid at 11:45am (only a little over an hour late, which makes the signs in the airport advertising for Iberia which say: “Punctuality is our aim” that much more ironic). We arrived in Casablanca, Morocco, and had our first experience with cheap things. Train tickets from Casablanca to Marrakesh (the city we would be spending most of our trip in, located about 1/3 of the way down and about 2 hours from the Atlantic coast) cost 105 Moroccan Dirhams (MAD), which is about $10.00. In Spain a 4 hour train ride like this would cost close to 70Euros, about $85.00. After missing our stop to change trains, we got off at the next one and for a few scary moments didn’t know if we would make it to Marrakesh. But it all worked out and a few hours later we were heading south. The train ride was long and we were ready to be done travelling, but the monotony of the ride was broken up as the sun set…literally.
We had arrived in Morocco during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar and a month that consists of fasting from sun up to sun down, prayer 5 times a day, and extra conservative dress for women. So, when we were on the train and the sun finally set, people ate breakfast (yes, they actually call breakfast the meal when they break the fast). This was our first experience with the generosity of Moroccan people with food. Chris and I were talking with a couple men who worked for the Moroccan government and spoke fairly good English. They were teaching us Arabic and about Ramadan and as soon as they could eat they offered us part of their meal. At first uneasy at taking their food, as we had eaten that day, they wouldn’t let us turn it down and we shared a Ramadan breakfast with them.
We finally arrived in Marrakesh and thanked them for all of their help (and food), and headed into the city towards the main square called Place Jamaa El Fna (you can pronounce it with a French or Arabic accent, as both are spoken there). We walked through the plaza and down some side streets looking for hotels or Riads (hostels) to stay at. In Morocco, people are constantly trying to get you to go to their hostel or hotel, or buy their goods or food, and sometimes they have people out on the streets directing you or leading you to their businesses. This was the case for us, as a younger boy, probably 15 or 16 decided to show us to a hotel just off the main place. We arrived to a fairly clean looking hotel (although it was more like a hostel) and for a grand total of 220MAD per night settled in. There were a few bugs crawling around and the bathrooms were not any place you would want to spend a lot of time in, but then again, we weren’t planning on spending a whole lot of time in our rooms.
We were all starved and headed out to get some grub. In the Place at night there are tons of vendors, all selling the exact same food, that try to get you to eat at their place. They get right up in your face and almost herd you to their kiosk where you can pick what you want to eat and have them cook it right there for you. Every kiosk is numbered, and for dinner that night and every night after we chose #55. We were very weary of the food, having been warned a million times about all the dangers of eating unpeeled, uncooked, or raw foods so we opted for all cooked things that night, including a traditional Moroccan dish called Pastilla. Pastilla is a delicious bird covered in almond and cinnamon paste wrapped with pastry dough and sprinkled with flour or powdered sugar on the outside. It sounds wonderful until I tell you that the meat inside is paloma, which is either pigeon or dove depending on who you talk to, and apparently isn’t all that uncommon. It grosses me out to think that I ate pigeon, but it really was tasty.
After dinner we strolled the main Place, joining a Morccon drum circle for a few minutes (I can now put musician on my résumé), and being constantly approached by all-too-cute children begging to sell you a rose for a few dirhams. After a long couple days of travelling we headed back to the ‘hotel’ and hit the hay, laying down on some uncomfortable beds and the hardest, most lumpy pillows I have ever felt (imagine rolling up shag carpet and stuffing it in a pillowcase…kinda like that). Regardless, it was nice to lay down and go to sleep, rest would be much needed for the days to come.
Saturday: Our first full day in Morocco started off with fresh squeezed orange juice from one of the many identical orange juice vendors in the Place. We headed next to a park where we heard camels could be ridden and where a beautiful lake with a view of the Atlas mountains was…man, where we disappointed. Two piddly looking camels, a dirty pond, and no view of the mountains through the smog left us a little bitter for having to pay for a taxi out there. But, you cant dwell on that, so what do you do when you are a little discouraged, well, if you are with Cody and Chris, you go eat! So, we did. This was our first experience with Moroccan mint tea, and Moroccan bread, both absolutely delicious. The bread is like a thick version of the delicious tortillas they sell on the streets in Old Town San Diego, and the tea is a ridiculously sweet version of mint tea, never had anything like it!
After that, we had more energy and decided to head towards the tombs where (please excuse the blunt and probably politically incorrectness of this statement) the dead arabic dudes where buried. I cant say that they were all famous, or rulers, or special, cause they weren’t, but it is one of the few actual tourist sights IN Marrakech, so I felt a little obligated to check it out. To spice up the place we attempted to spell out Morocco in Arabic body language, but, given our lack of Arabic knowledge, it just turned into a jumble of arms and legs in random directions, resulting in us just looking ridiculous, as usual! We left the tombs and started to walk back towards the place, losing ourselves in ‘the real Marrakech’ among the natives and their shops, off the beaten path of the tourist. As the only white people in the neighbourhood, we got some pretty interesting looks, and us 3 girls, dressed differently than the rest of the women, were especially looked at differently, but that’s the nice thing about having 6’3” and 6´4” guy friends travelling with you, if ever uncomfortable, hide just drop back next to them, and its like this wall pops up. It’s a very different feeling for me to feel like I actually NEEDed someone to be behind me, just in case. It was definitely an added comfort of having the boys with us, and something I was very thankful for a few times in the souks (markets).
After finding our way out of the maze of coral coloured stucco buildings, motorcycle repair shops, and meat shops with live chickens hanging upside down inside, we were back out on the main street. Hunger set in, and we faithfully headed back to #55 for dinner. We tried some new things, vegetable cous-cous made the favourites list, as did aubergine (my personal favourite)! As would be the case ever night after, mint tea flowed non-stop, and we walked away satisfied. As we walked back to our hotel, we ran into Juan Ma, Marissa´s Spanish brother, with his dad and friends who happened to be playing tourist in Morocco as well. After having a ‘copa’ (drink) with them, we headed back to the hostel for some shut-eye.
Sunday morning was warm but slightly overcast, much like most of the other days, and in the search for breakfast food, decided that there was no need for anything nutritional that morning, and decided on ice cream, Moroccan pistachio ice cream is nowhere near as good as David Rico pistachio here in Córdoba, I can tell you that much! But, it satisfied my breakfast craving, and we were ready to go! Now, so far I have made it sound like we have spent hardly any time in the souks, the Moroccan markets where you haggle and they haggle and you bargain and they bargain for anything from shoes to turbans to tea sets to Moroccan rugs, but I have mislead you, sorry. We had done our fair share of shopping but today was THE shopping day. We found yet another new market area and bought spices, clothes, handicrafts and in Chris´s case, a rug making him the winner of the ‘who-can-bring-home-the-most-extra-weight’ contest. The souk experience is like any other market (like in Mexico) where you get herded into shops and have to bargain down absurd prices, BUT the mix of colors, languages, materials, crafts, smells, and a zillion other factors also make the souks of Marrakech entirely different.
We heard some of the funniest things while in the souks. Some of the common hooks to get you in the shops were, “You speak English?” or “Where you from?” (after which we would make them guess where we got every continent of the world except for North America…go figure). My favourite hook line had to be, “For you I make good price,” after which they take down whatever you had slightly glanced at and whip out the pad of paper to start the bargaining receipt where you pass it back and forth writing down your prices. Then they offer you their, “Ultimate last price,” and when you walk away, unwilling to pay they quickly chase after you saying, “No, not my ultimate last price,” and continue to bargain until you go too low and they walk away looking disgusted, and you realize you didn’t want it that bad anyway, or they concede and you now have another piece of Morocco to take back with you. It’s a process, and is fairly tiring as a shopper, I cant imagine how frustrated/tired/bored of the whole bargaining process the shop owners must be at the end of their day.
At the end of our day, we dropped our purchases off at the hotel. We walked in the door about the time of break-fast again and the dueño (hotel operator) offered, in true Moroccan spirit, to share his meal with us. We tasted traditional Moroccan soup, made of vegetables, had some coffee, and hard boiled egg (and a couple other things that were probably on the list of things you are not supposed to eat while in Morocco), which tied us over until dinner. We headed up to our rooms, to change into our traditional Moroccan garb, the boys in all linen and turbans and us girls in our head covers and linen shirts. Dinner at #55 again for some more of our favourite foods and our great evening was only slightly dampened, pun intended.
It had started to rain a bit, but that was manageable. The real drag was the tourist group of Americans that sat down next to us. They managed to find everything in the world to pick at. From the food, to the city, to the fact that “this” experience (in Morocco), is just as “cultural” of an experience as you would get “shopping for a leather jacket at Gucci in Milan.” I was utterly disgusted! Sometimes I don’t understand why people travel, and its that kind of tourists that give other American travellers a bad name…UUGGHH!! After those comments, I just blocked out the rest of their complaints and enjoyed my dinner and tea.
Sunday was our last night in Marrakech and what is there to do in Marrakech…SHOP! Even the guys were into the whole shopping thing, which never happens, and we wandered through the souks adding more to our purchase collection!
Monday (HALLOWEEN!!!!) we weren’t leaving until later that night and decide to do something different. So, we sought out somewhere to ride camels for real! We hopped in a cab and 20 minutes later all 5 of us were on top of camels, being led through this desert/oasis (yes I know those are oxymoronic but what would you call a ton of sand-dirt punctuated with palm trees?). The ride lasted just long enough for my bum to start hurting (I guess that Saharan trek by camel will have need some training beforehand). Upon paying and leaving we encountered some difficulty. We had negotiated 200MAD for everyone, and they ‘camel guy’ wanted 200MAD a piece, saying it was more because they had taken our picture and blah blah bullcrap! After arguing and handing over 400MAD we walked away and hopped in the cab, a little nervous, not entirely sure what to do. Lucky for us the drive took off and we were heading back to town. MAKE SURE YOU ARE CLEAR ABOUT PRICES BEFORE GETTING ON A CAMEL. That is a good message for any purchase in Morocco, make sure you and they know what you want and how much you are paying for it so you don’t have to deal with situations like that later…not fun! Afterward I didn’t know if I should feel bad for walking away, or good for standing my ground about the negotiation. I resolved that the compromise was decent and there was nothing more to do, and besides, I had ridden a camel in Morocco, how often does that happen??!?!!!
The rest of the day we spent wandering around the city. I spent a short time on Cody´s shoulders making us the next tallest thing in Morocco after the Minaret, getting lost for and hour on the way back to the Place and eating for the last time at #55. We gathered out things after dinner and headed to the train station. In honour of Halloween we bought some ‘fun size’ Mars bars for the train ride back to Casablanca and pretended that we didn’t miss Halloween that much (what a lie!). In Casablanca we managed to slyly stuff 5 people into a room for 3 (yes, college students are mischievous/cheap like that) for our last night in Africa!
Tuesday morning we took the short train back to the airport for our (much more on time) flight back to Madrid. Once in Madrid, we had 30 minutes to get off the plane, get our bags, get through customs, and get to the bus station…and we made it! Thank God, because the next bus wouldn’t have gotten us back to Córdoba until 1am and we were all tired of travelling.
Morocco had tons of things to see and try, experience and enjoy! It’s a trip I had wanted to take for a long time, and Im so glad I took the chance to get to Northern Africa, especially when it was so accessible….although, I wasn’t too happy with myself the week following.