Adventure in Africa

This trip to Morocco was a very last minute success! I wanted to go at some point, but I wasn’t sure if it would happen. There are so many ways to get there and ways to travel, cities to visit and places to stay. I was honestly a bit overwhelmed. For this reason, Shannon and I decided to go with a tour. Normally I am NOT a fan of the idea of going somewhere with a tour bus – hopping on and off, having less time at the sights, being restricted to only the touristy stuff, and traveling everywhere with a large group. However, it was the best option because we had places we wanted to go that were far from each other, we didn’t really know that much about Morocco, and we couldn’t get cheap flights so close to our date of departure. While I felt like we did spend way too much time on the bus and it definitely is not my style of travel, I am happy we did it for Morocco, to have all of the details taken care of that Shannon and I wouldn’t have been able to plan last minute.

Our adventure started when we took the ferry from Algeciras, Spain across the strait of Gibraltar to Ceuta, Spain. Little known fact – there is actually an area on the continent of Africa that still belongs to Spain.

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On the Ferry, we met a girl named Claudia de Africa (coolest name ever) who lives in Ceuta but studies in Málaga. She is so very clearly Spanish in her mannerisms, language, appearance, and citizenship, but she lives in Africa. We talked to her the whole time both on the ferry there and on the way back. She is awesome! We’re going to visit her in Málaga in a few months when we go to run the Málaga Half Marathon. What luck to meet one of the few Spaniards living in Africa. When the Ferry arrived, we got on the bus, crossed the border, and went to eat in a small village near the border. Since we hadn’t changed our money yet, the restaurant accepted Euro but gave me change in Moroccan money, the Dirham. This may seem like a trivial detail, but I actually was only planning on changing a leftover $50 into Dirham and this resulted in me changing over more money than I wanted to… oops. We puttered around a little after that – my friend Shannon is from Minnesota and really wanted to go to the beach (she’s seen the beach about as many times as I had seen snow before moving to DC). Next, we went to Asilah but really briefly (like 30 minutes). After, we drove to capital Rabat, ate, and slept.

The next morning we woke up to eat and view the king’s palace (Morocco is a kingdom). There are 500 domestic servants living and working there, but the king doesn’t even live there himself! He lives in a residence somewhere else in the city. Next we went to some mausoleum where some famous dead people were (I wasn’t paying 100% attention) and to the medina after. “Medina”means “city” but usually signifies the old quarter of a city within old city walls.  Here I had my first taste of the famous Moroccan mint tea – yum. I also got to practice French because all of the signs are in Arabic and French! Most people speak French, as French is the official language and the one taught in schools. Being in a Muslim country is definitely interesting. There are some things I think are beautiful about Islam, and some that get to me a little bit (just like any religion). I loved hearing the call to prayer and seeing mosques on every street corner, usually identifiable because they all have towers taller than the surrounding buildings so people can hear the call to prayer. It was interesting seeing women wearing the hijab and in various stages of coveredness. It’s actually fascinating, the idea that I, as a stranger, can see how closely each person identifies with his or her religion just by seeing how they are dressed. Unfortunately, Morocco has the most patriarchal culture of any country I’ve been to. For example, we did not go for coffee once while we were in Morocco. Why? The cafés are only for men. That was really strange to see.

In the afternoon we drove to Marrakesh, which is truly beautiful. It is also clearly driven 100% by tourism. Upon arrival, we went to an oasis where there was an option for a short camel ride. I opted out because the camels looked miserable and horribly treated, and I did not want to support that business. It was really fun to see Shannon ride and to see a camel up close (although apparently “real” camels have two humps).

The next morning we woke up and went to a garden in Marrakesh. There was not much there, but there was an opportunity for a beautiful picture of some building reflected in the water. It’s not often that something is better in a picture than in real life, but that totally was.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After, we went to look at the twin sister of the Giralda, called the Koutubia. On top of the Koutubia, and many mosques/government buildings in Morocco, there are three gold balls representing the three main faiths – Islam (95% of the population), Christianity, and Judaism. There is also an arrow pointing to Mecca. Next, we went to see a palace. There is so much similar between arte mudéjar (a style of art/architecture in Spain) in Seville and art here, but arte mudéjar is different in that it can incorporate things that are forbidden in strict Islam art and architecture, like images. The lions in the Alhambra are a good example. Next we went to a pharmacy where a man explained all the important herbs and oils made in Morocco (like argan oil) and their uses. It was totally gimmicky, but actually really interesting. I bought a spice mix called Ras al Hanout of 24 different spices to cook with!

We had a free afternoon so after lunch we went to the main plaza in Marrakesh. There is no other way to describe it but as a feast for the eyes. There were acrobats, monkeys, snake charmers, rows of beautiful spices, purses, jewelry, clothing, carpets…everything! But…we obviously stick out and people were getting pretty aggressive. Haggling was an experience. I’m sure I still paid more than a Moroccan would, but the prices they start with are so ridiculous I still feel like I got good deals. It was amazing walking around the plaza but a little bothersome after a while. Especially because it was Shannon and I walking around, we got a lot of unwanted attention. Although it was funny hearing people try to guess our nationality. We got French, Spanish, English, and American. They changed the language depending and we ended up speaking a mixture of all three. Most notable “catcalls” and people trying to sell us things:

  • “So sorry to say but…where are you from? I need to know where such beauties come from.”
  • Hearing us speaking Spanish: “España? Maria! Come here!” (This one was actually hilarious because it’s true that like 90% of Spanish women are named Maria something)
  • “I like your junk”..
  • “Hallelujah,” (I suppose this is a compliment?)
  • After refusing to buy food from his street stall – “Sorry to tell you but you two are fashion disasters. That is my gift to you for the new year.”
  • Trying to sell us food: “You look so starving!”
  • Trying to sell us food part three: “We already ate,” “Eat again.!”

Finally we sat down at a stall in the plaza and had some couscous, spinach and bread for 3 euro each. Awesome and as authentic as you can get! It came with free mint tea because everyone working there decided to really like us. (What can I say, we’re charming). Their attention felt a little more authentic because we had already paid them, and therefore was much more appreciated. After, we walked around a little and then decided to be responsible and go home around 9. The weirdest experience was having to haggle for a taxi for the way home. It was here we really felt the disadvantages not only of being foreigners, but of not having a man in our company. Our Moroccan tour guide told us a taxi shouldn’t cost more than 10 dirham, while an American couple we met told us it shouldn’t cost more than 30. We tried hard but couldn’t get the price lower than 40 dirham. Although 4 Euros total is an excellent deal for a 15 minute cab ride, being a woman and a foreigner in Morocco is definitely a double strike. We wanted to walk around more, wanted to be cautious without being paranoid, but it’s a hard balance. Still, we went to bed content, with no regrets and with the smell of market in our hair.

The next morning we woke up and drove to Casablanca. It’s very much a big city. The mosque was breathtaking but that was pretty much the only attraction. We walked around a bit in the plaza and central area. To celebrate the New Year, we went to a hookah bar with around 10 other adults in our group. It was the strangest New Year I’ve had and will probably ever have. First of all, the piano guy was playing the synth and smoking a cigarette at the same time (giving no shits) and so the background music, beats, and singer all clashed horribly. Still, everyone in our group decided to get really excited and dance and be loud, despite the fact that all the Moroccans were silent… so we stuck out a lot. It’s a Spanish tradition to eat a grape with every strike of the clock at midnight, so some of the Spaniards had brought canned grapes. Everyone who hadn’t brought grapes just ate 12 popcorn kernels instead. Also, the time zone is one hour behind and they don’t celebrate the New Year in Morocco, so we all just decided arbitrarily it was time. One good thing about traveling in a group is having people to hang out with, and I do love how after 4 days we were almost like our own little family. I liked everyone in our group a lot.

The last day we woke up and went to Tetuán. The city was really cool, but I was actually a little sick of the markets at this point. However, I did have my last dirham to spend, and I ended up getting stuff ridiculously cheap, like one kilo of oranges for about 30 Euro cents and a box of homemade Moroccan dessert for about 20 Euro cents which was so huge I was trying to pawn off pastries to everyone on the bus. After Tetuán, it was time for the bus ride back to Ceuta, a ferry trip back to Europe, and a bus ride back to Seville. We got home around midnight, exhausted, but satisfied. Overall, it was a pretty incredible trip. I almost can’t believe that I’ve been to three continents!

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One thought on “Adventure in Africa

  1. Zoey, I loved reading your blog entry. I just sent you another package of articles, including a printout of the Travelers Century Club list of countries. You can add Morocco and Ceuta to your list. (Aunt Jan and I were so close to Melilla, but our Moroccan guide and driver would not have been able to cross the border with us). Aunt Jan and I also never made it to Tetuan. But in the Jewish Museum in Casablanca, we found out that there had been a fairly large Jewish community in Tetuan. In 1940 there were 300,000 Jews in all of Morocco. Now there are around 3,000. If you ever go back to Morocco, make sure to visit Fez. The old medina in Fez is just fascinating. The streets are not wide enough for cars. The way the merchants get their goods into town is via donkey. By the way, the 2 humped camel is the Bactrian camel which is found in central Asia. The camel in North Africa and the Middle East is the dromedary.

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