Day 271 – 27 Nov, 2015
“Excuse me? I would like to check in.” I presented my passport to the desk clerk. In return, I’m greeted with an icy stare now that I have interrupted what must have been a very important phone conversation. The hotel lobby was dim and tired and smelled of incense. The girl behind the desk said nothing, but just pushed a key back to me, gestured to the stairs, and went back to her phone call.
Whoosh! Just like that. Culture shock. From the vibrant lively enticing streets of Sevilla to the dusty dirty aggressive avenues of Casablanca, where everyone speaks French, yet this place is definitely not France.
I was apprehensive about going to Morocco, especially alone. Morocco has a certain reputation in the western world. Beautiful and wild, yes, but also it’s not a comfortable place for single women. Women are not respected. Men are aggressive – they harass, they touch, they follow. Giving this prospect a lot of consideration, I decided the only way I would go is if I joined an organized tour so I wouldn’t be alone. I had a short list of budget-friendly companies I would consider but ultimately, it came down to the itinerary and the dates. Would it fit within my timeframe? I booked an 18 day country-wide venture with Intrepid at twice the cost I had budgeted to travel there independently. Nevertheless, it was with peace of mind that I knew I would be with like-minded travelers.
My group of 11 included Julia, a doctor from Germany living in Switzerland, Liz from Toronto and Kirk from Australia, both also on a round the world trip, Derek from Minnesota, Carla from Portugal, Tanya and Nadia, mother/daughter from Australia, Heather from New Zealand, and Alex and Michelle from Texas and UAE, respectively, a long-distance couple that only sees each other a few times a year. Our guide, Abdou, was funny and helpful and generally a likable kind of guy. All but 3 of us, Carla, Kirk and I, would be going home after only the first week.
The first morning when we departed Casablanca we took a local train to Rabat. We had second class seats, meaning unassigned and first come first serve. Abdou kept his composure but I could tell this was somewhat stressful for him as our group leader, to make sure we all got on and that we all knew when to get off given that we were spread out over 3 train cars scavenging for a place to sit or stand.
In Rabat, a few of us stayed together. We had about 4 hours to wander around the medina, kasbah, and a quick visit to the mausoleum of Mohammed V, the late King of Morocco. Being our first city on the tour, the “stick together” method seemed to work well. Most people left us alone, if not for a few stares.
In the afternoon, we continued by train to Meknes and immediately were loaded into taxis to Moulay Idriss, an important Muslim pilgrimage city. And it was about now that I realized what this pace of travel feels like. Don’t get me wrong. I knew what I signed up for. I just didn’t know what this fast pace would actually feel like. I took comfort in the fact that someone else was organizing it all behind the scenes. Our accommodation in Moulay Idriss was a homestay, but was really more like a guest house. Our hosts were very kind, offering mint tea and sugar cookies when we arrived. By now, we were in the Mid Atlas Mountains with cold temperatures at night. The showers followed suit. Ice. Cold.
The next day we toured the Roman ruins, Volubilis, with a local guide. Oh those Romans with their wine and orgys….
Back to Meknes in the afternoon for some free time exploring the local markets and our first real encounter with aggressive Moroccan vendors. Little did we know until much later, but we had a police detail for the day that was following us around to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. Our lunch in Meknes was a camel burger while we huddled in a small booth filled with smoke from the grill.
No time for rest before we are on a train to Fes for the next 2 nights. Fes’s old medina is a tangled web of nearly 10,000 streets and alleys. Getting lost in here would be an alarming prospect. Fortunately, we were with a guide for the entire day. The good news is that our guide served as a protector and most of the locals left us alone. The bad news is that we spent the majority of the day visiting factories where we were expected to buy something – a tannery (leather factory), mosaic factory, dress factory, and bronze factory. On my meager budget, I had no plans for shopping but a tactic I have adopted that seems to satisfy my souvenir appetite is that I take photos of the items I like instead of buying.
Fes is also known as the city with the best pastilla, a chicken or seafood pie topped with cinnamon and sugar. Of course, I had to try it. In general, the food in Morocco was delicious – the tagines, the couscous, the salads with assorted accoutrements. Every meal was accompanied by fresh bread and finished with ripe mandarins. We ate like royalty, although it didn’t do any favors for my waistline!
Chefchaouen was next, the blue city. The medina in Chefchaouen was small and manageable so our guide set us free for a few hours to wander. A great place to capture photos of blue doors and stunning backdrops, I was inadvertently separated from the other group members as I strolled around with my camera. Uneventful at first, I barely realized I was alone. Soon, a few men were seemingly popping out of nowhere with propositions as tour guides or husbands. Time to head back to the hotel, but not before a 10-year-old boy asked me for money and then told me “nice tits” (with the gesture to go with it) when I politely declined to give him a handout.
With a full day to explore Chefchaouen on our own, I was keen to stay with the group this time. Tanya, Julia, and I walked up to a couple of viewpoints to look down over the city. It seems so tame from up high.
In the afternoon, Julia, Carla, and I went to the local hammam for a bit of pampering. The Moroccan hammam is not unlike the Turkish hammam where you can hire a woman to aggressively scrub you with an olive seed soap, leaving your skin as soft as a baby when you emerge. A few years ago, I had a Turkish hammam in Bodrum at a fancy-ish spa and it felt like a luxurious treat. This time felt like something different. All 3 of us ladies were assigned to the same woman responsible for scrubbing us down. We were wearing nothing but a pair of underwear and we each had to sit patiently while the other 2 were tended to. A mat was laid on the floor where we were to lie down and try to relax while our bodies were manipulated into strange positions. Meanwhile, we washed our own hair using a cup and a bucket. The voices and laughter of the other local women echoed from the adjacent room while they bathed and participated in daily gossip. When all 3 of us were complete, we dried off and stepped outside of the thin curtain to get dressed. The owner of the hammam seemed surprised that we were done so soon. Suspiciously, she asked if we received our massage. None of us had expected a massage so we shrugged, a bit confused. She angrily ordered us back inside where she berated the woman responsible for not giving us massages. Uncomfortable as it was, we sat again and waited for each other to get half-hearted massages before we were permitted to leave. A true local experience.
Onward to Tangier by bus, known for its population of hippies. Given a few hours on our own, a group of 8 of us set off to the kasbah through the old medina. Perhaps it was the size of our group, or perhaps it was because we were 7 women and one man, or perhaps it was Tangier itself, but nevertheless, I found Tangier to be incredibly vile. We were followed, grabbed, cursed at, harassed, intimidated, threatened, etc, etc, etc. All of us agreed to go back to our meeting point about 2 hours earlier than planned. Sitting in the relative “safety” of the restaurant, I thought what a shame it must be for the good-hearted Moroccans to have such a poor reputation when we, as tourists, are only exposed to the seedy characters.
That night we boarded an overnight train to Marrakech, 4 to a cabin. Quarters were extremely tight with no room for luggage except at the foot of the bed, but I know we were all happy to be rid of Tangier.
To the other extreme, Marrakech was a pleasant surprise. Julia, Liz, Derek, and I ventured out to see the snake charmers and do some shopping. I didn’t find Marrakech to be any more dirty or aggressive than anywhere else I have been. It was almost charming. As chance would have it, the Marrakech film festival was to begin that same day so feeling brave, a couple of us wanted to check it out. Bill Murray, who has oftentimes proclaimed his love for Morocco, was to be the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies. Only moments before the red carpet arrivals were to begin, we were permitted to enter the viewing area. The best real estate was already taken, but we managed to squeeze into position with cameras held high. I never would have guessed that Bill Murray would be such a big draw in Morocco. Funny enough, there were a boatload of Moroccan celebrities that elicited squeals from the crowd. After an hour of being pushed and shoved in a fluid audience, Derek and Julia and I agreed to go. A bit like a parallel universe, it was hard to be excited when we didn’t know who any of the stars were. We never did see Bill Murray.
Sadly, most of my group had to depart and the rest of us were rematched with a new group. So far, my feelings were mixed on my exact impression of Morocco, but I remained hopeful that the second half, which would take us out of the cities and into the desert, would be well worth the wait.