Fun in small doses, take care what you do!
10/15/2008 - 10/18/2008
Morocco Day 1 (Trip day 15)
We were lucky enough to have a native Moroccan on the plane next to us. He had been working in Spain for 8 years, and was traveling home to see his family, so between his and Liz's fluent Spanish, and our choppy Arabic and English, we were able to get some good ideas about seeing things in Morocco. Most importantly, he suggested that instead of taking the train from Casablanca (our flight destination) to Marrakech, we should book cheap flights and save 4 hours of trekking, and arrive Marrakech during the daytime. This sounded like a great idea, and although the train was extremely cheap, arriving in a strange city during the dark is not the wisest of practices.
Getting through customs in Casablanca was an interesting. The female control officer hassled me to no end, despite an obvious appreciation for my Arabic roots. I had to provide no less than all of my ticket stubs for travel from San Francisco all the way into Morocco. Now generally, I tend to throw away such things, but was amazed that I was able to find every single stub, and was finally granted entry. Liz had an easier time after saying that she was with me, despite the control officer making some unapproving gesture about the two of us traveling together.
Finally, we were ready to wander around the airport and look for flights to Marrakech. We were told that the only carrier was the national carrier for Morocco, called Royal Air Maroc. Tickets were $50 US each, on promotion, and we would arrive Marrakech around 6 pm, with plenty of light to spare, so we jumped on these fares.
It turned out to be a nightmare flight! I don't really like flying, and again was relieved that the plane we were about to take, along with all the others I had taken on the trip, were nice new machines. We were to fly on a new Boeing 737-800, on an airline that appeared to have many old planes. We sat on the plane waiting for some late passengers, which delayed us about 40 minutes. Apparently, since we were on a connector flight to a city that had very few flights, the airlines will wait for late passengers, otherwise they are required to rebook those passengers at a high cost to the airline. So, we waited and waited, and finally taxied to the runway, which also took a long time, around 15 minutes. Just as it was our turn to take off, and as we were rolling down the runway, the pilot did a U-turn IN THE MIDDLE of the runway. An impressive technique, but a bad omen. Apparently we had to go back to the yard to make an inspection. Great, and brand new plane that was already broken....
Well, my seat neighbor was a nice Frenchman who traveled a lot, and he settled my worries with many of his own similar experiences. He told me of one flight where they sat in the yard while the speed brake was repaired, and went ahead and took off. Well it was looking like we were going to have an identical experience. We too sat in the yard for about an hour, but were then told that we would have to get off the plane. Unfixable, which truly was a relief to me. We learned that our money would not be refunded, but if they could not get us to Marrakech that night, that they would put us up in a hotel until they could. Frenchie mentioned that the bus trip to Marrakech was only about 2 hours, and that he had heard airlines doing that in the past. Well, not long after returning to the gate via bus, we were told that they "found" a plane, and we were ready to take off. Another bus trip to the middle of the airport, and we were boarding a different 737-800, and all went well with that flight despite finally getting into Marrakech after dark after all, at about 8:30.
The experience of riding the bus into town to our hotel was the start of what might have turned out to be a major glitch in my trip: Constant air pollution everywhere we went from trucks, cars, and motorcycles BILLOWING black smoke. Most of my trip is planned around developing countries, as these are the culturally different, and cheap, places to travel for an extended period. But as an American, I have become well used to clean air everywhere we go. Just the first eve getting to our hotel was a frustrating experience. It seemed like I was forced to breathe smoky air of one sort or another throughout my whole trip, and it was about the only thing that made me noticeably frustrated.
We finally made it to our dodgy hotel, right on a polluted strip, and went out to take a first look at the Medina, which is the word for the old part of the city. I noticed that Liz was suddenly in a very amiable mood, and commented on it. She admitted that she had taken a Valium, and I came to realize a lot about her life, and that she likely was nursing a growing addiction that may have been the reason she was just dumped, and had strained contact with her family.
The Medinas in the cities of Morocco, Casablanca, and Fes are famous for the open air markets called Souks, and the traditional and cheap food that is offered there.
The center of this area was set up with countless tables and chairs around little cooking carts which all offered the same fare; many varieties of meats and seafood to BBQ, along with traditional appetizers and side dishes. We sat for some meat skewers and bits of olives, bell pepper, bread, and salsa, and I was surprised at the nice flavors and high quality of food in this very dingy and dirty open air market. It was also a nice respite from the air pollution, as it was the smoke from countless BBQ carts that filled the air in this area.
We made it back to our hotel after being surrounded by gypsy kids begging for money or food on numerous occasions, and enjoyed a good night's rest. It was a relief to be settled for a day or two as Liz's tendencies were really getting to be a bother, especially around trying to make this trip on a budget, and I started to have the feeling that our friendship may soon become permanently strained. Only time would be able to tell.
Morocco Day 2 (Trip Day 16)
Today was one of the greatest days in Morocco. We wandered around the Medina and the Souks (Marketplaces), saw nice things to buy, and soaked in the culture. We checked into a beautiful Riad at Liz's expense, which I would recommend to anyone despite budget constraints. These typically run from 50 to 300 Euro per night. A Riad is an old traditional home in the old part of the city, which has been converted into a luxury guesthouse. They are generally owned and renovated by foreigners, and provide an intimate and unique experience in accommodation. It was wonderful, and our French Riad owners were extremely hospitable and knowledgeable about experiencing Morocco.
You would never know that down a dirty alleyway would be a beautiful accomodation:
Though possibly only the beautiful door would stand out:
But inside is pure beauty:
So we spent the afternoon wandering, where I saw and tried to bargain for a leather sack that was very cute. I didn't get the price I wanted, despite the difference being just dollars. A tip for those going to places where the money valued differently, keep in mind that though you may be trying to bargain down 200-300 of the nation's currency, that difference may truly be negligible in our own currency. So, for a few US Dollars, I did not get my bag, but promised myself to make one once at home, and charged myself with finding the leather while in Turkey, another leather capital in this part of the world.
We had a hankering for alcohol, as drinking was not much of a pastime we had been engaging in, and we managed to find about the only establishment serving alcohol in the old part of the city. It was a fine French restaurant that was closed before dinner, but they let us in to have drinks. We took some fine photos from the terrace, and continued on after about 6 beers between us.
I had decided that my light alcohol buzz needed reinforcement, and again set out to find drinks. We were told vague directions to a lounge, and every corner we turned, we asked directions again until we finally made it. It was a hotel with a lounge downstairs, and it was packed with both Moroccans and tourists drinking what little alcohol could be found in this part of the city. We were especially surprised at the Moroccans drinking, as Islam strictly forbids this, and that we were in a part of the country that wasn't quite "modernized" with respect to tradition. We were sitting in a corner area, with a number of different couches and people sitting quietly on their own despite the noisy atmosphere, so I started talking to people, since there were three other groups within easy earshot. One was an English gentleman who was on a photography trip, one was a "couple" (??) consisting of a middle aged Frenchman with a young Moroccan guy, and the other was two young Moroccan guys swilling beers at a pace almost as fast as us. Conversation became lively, and Liz commented that I had made some precedent in our little corner of the lounge. One of the two young Moroccan guys started speaking with us in English, then Spanish, and I decided it was worth a closer look, so we joined them on their couch.
This young guy turned out to be a typical type in Morocco. He was lower-class and uneducated (meaning NO school) but he had worked all his life in tourism in Morocco, so like many of this constituency, he spoke at least 4 languages and was intimately familiar with tourism options in Morocco. He spoke Arabic, French (as all Moroccans do) English, Spanish (Spain is very close) Italian, and bits of northern European languages. WOW! I was amazed, but quickly became used to this as we spent more time in other parts of Morocco.
He told us about a timeless excursion in Morocco which I had read about online, and was also told about by our Moroccan neighbor on the plane to Casablanca. It consists of getting to the town of Merzouga, where tourists then take a camel ride into the desert sand dunes, enjoying a timeless sunset, one night's camping in a Berber tent, a beautiful sunrise in the morning, and a camel ride back to the town. Liz was absolutely thrilled by the prospect, but I was hesitant. Camping in a Berber tent in the desert didn't sound like a great time, though seeing vast sand dunes did sound good, especially on an overpowered dirt bike! I decided to go along with it since Liz came out after a long time of dreaming of Morocco, and that she had not had a great experience thus far. So, we inquired more about how to make the trek. We were told that we could do it either in a package tour, or simply rent our own car, travel to Merzouga on our own time, and from there the different camel treks would be literally forced upon us as we arrive into the city. Seeing the guided tours would be comparable to a car rental, we opted for the latter, and slowly made our way back to the Riad to get ready for this journey. We ate and strolled back home, enjoying the communal nature of the medina area, and impressed by the sheer numbers of Moroccans who are out and about enjoying the beautiful night, typical everywhere outside Anglo countries.
Morocco Day 3 (Trip Day 17)
Our wonderful French hosts at the Riad were able to get us a killer deal on a rental car, for only $35 per day, inclusive of everything save gas, and we jumped on it. It would even include delivery to the Riad, and we would be driven to the edge of town so we would not have to contend with the crazy and dangerous inner city driving. We made a final wander around the Medina and Souks, and decided that any souvenirs we wanted could be picked up when we arrive in Fez, after our cross country trek and voyage to the Sand Dunes.
So we jumped in the car, were driven to the edge of Marrakech, told which direction to go, and started on what was supposed to be an exciting and truly improvised adventure into an unknown land, complete without a map!
Well, the adventure started quickly; I was pulled over before we even got out of Marrakech. Somehow I was looking at the wrong stop light, and ran a red light after being stopped at the intersection for a few minutes. The cop flagged me over, and he started in on me in Arabic. I eeked out some choppy Arabic about seeing the light go green, but between my accent, and the fact that Lebanese Arabic is different than Moroccan Arabic, we had a total communication barrier. He squawked on his radio with his comrade, through up his finger, and started walking away. Not sure what was going on, Liz suggested that he was letting me go, and as I watched him continue to walk away and not look back, I got a case of the "fuck-its" and quickly got out of there.
We stopped in to get some road food, and enjoyed an amazing burger. It was touted as 100% beef, but to my delight, I am sure it was mostly lamb meat. Not only that, it came with a fried egg, cheese, and all the fixings! It must have been the culinary highlight of Morocco, sad to say.
We finally got out of town on the highway, and the landscape was beautiful. Every 10 minutes or so, we would wind through a little Moroccan town, complete with beautiful but simple Mosques, and buildings that were mostly made of mud.
We trekked over the Atlas mountain range, which was a breathtaking, desert-mountain pass, and saw very interesting stands on the side of the road which were unattended, but offering all manner of crystals and other archeological bits.
We also saw many men standing on the side of the road selling those nifty mineral rocks that look like a rock on the outside, usually round in shape, but open up to a beautiful and colorful array of crystals inside. Finally, near the top of the pass, I had to stop at a stand and purchase some of the goodies. As I was looking through things at this unattended stand, a Moroccan guy comes running down the road out of nowhere to assist me! It was comical. We bargain hard on some marble goodies, including a camel, and egg, and a plate all in the same color of stone. He was determined to sell me more things, and produced some of the beautiful split rocks with the crystals inside. After more hard bargaining, I walked away with about $24 worth of beautiful rocks which would have easily cost upward of $200 in the US, and was a happy camper. As we were driving away, he comes up to the window and offers Liz and souvenir...another very small marble camel. Obviously I didn't get as good of a deal as I could have! But was still excited about my purchase.
We continued to wind through the mountains, and finally crossed them, leaving us in the Valley between these mountains and the sand dunes we were headed for. We drove through a large town that was a sort of landmark, and finally decided to get a map for good measure. We drove until nightfall, and decided we would have to stop since there were no street lights on the highway, and no reflectors denoting the separation of the two lanes of opposing traffic.
We saw signs for what looked like a luxury hotel a few towns up, and finally made it into that town. We reached the city center, which consisted of an intersection of mostly dirt roads, with many poor local Moroccans hanging out and eating food streetside. I parked and left Liz in the car to checkout what looked like a budget hotel. I was shown the room, which did not have a private bathroom, and determined that for the price, $12 US, we could surely afford the luxury hotel. We made our way to the hotel, which was up a hill; the locals quickly disappeared the higher we got, so Liz was feeling safer. She had made the comment that she had not seen any women out in that busy city center, but I dismissed the comment as coincidence.
We finally happened upon the luxury hotel, and went inside to inquire about rooms. It was very reasonable at $36 per night, an they had a bar, live dancing, and a restaurant to boot. So we checked in, and of course, Liz was very unhappy. It was an older room, not the cleanest, but I was quite happy considering the locale. We wandered down to the restaurant, which was closed, but was opened for our arrival. It bordered the bar, where there was a small Moroccan band, and three female dancers, who were the first females we saw outside of Marrakech to not be wearing head dress. We sat and had a terrible dinner, and I mistakenly ate some fruit. I had forgotten my Anti-Biotics in Madrid, and should have been MUCH more careful of what I was eating as a result, but wasn't. We finished dinner and settled into the bar to watch the entertainment. What ensued was a fascinating experience.
The band and dancers were unremarkable, but it appeared that Moroccan men would make the trek up the hill to this public bar in the hotel, would purchase beers and take them away hiding in plastic bags! We were in a much more traditional setting, and it was obvious that this bar made a killing from men sneaking beer down into town. We also noticed that one of the dancers was drinking, smoking, and flirting with the men, we figured that like us, she would be going to hell one day, and appreciated her style! I managed to get into a conversation of rough Arabic with an extremely drunk Moroccan, and ended it abruptly when he got belligerent. We decided to end the night and retire. I again did not get a wink of sleep. The room contained two single beds, and a cot. It appeared that Liz got a decent bed, but mine had the Grand Canyon right in the middle. So, sometime near morning, I got up and switched to the cot, which was a little less used up, and was able to get a few winks of sleep.
Next: Morocco Part 2