Africa!

So I am now able to say I have been to 4 continents. I’m pretty happy with that!

We got back from Morocco on Thursday night after spending 5 full days in the country. I’m not sure I have ever been so happy to see Europe! Now that’s not to say I hated Morocco – because I didn’t, but I am not sure I ever need to go back. Let’s start from the beginning.

We flew into Casablanca from Madrid on Saturday morning. Casablanca’s airport is strangely empty – as is the train station at the airport. We took the train into the city where Anna’s Moroccan friend’s mother was meeting us.

First off, I agreed to go to Morocco several months ago not really even knowing where it was on a map! I also really had very little knowledge of the country. Because of that I really worked myself up – expecting a strict muslim society in the dessert. Ridiculous? Maybe. A little ignorant and slightly racist? Probably. But what was I to base it on? When do I ever hear anything about Morocco? I expected to get off the plane and walk straight into a sequal to Aladdin.

So because of all of this I was incredibly tense and actually quite scared. Finding the people at the train station was a little complicated (and someone stepped on my skirt getting off the train which didn’t help my mood) and I wasn’t sure what I should do or how I should act. As it turns out Casablanca is pretty western. I had heard it described as European but I still expected hijabs and burqas everywhere.

The people we were meeting were actually renting us an apartment for the 2 nights we were in Casablanca – something that appears to be quite common with European ex-pats living there. The apartment was nice – decorated with all the Moroccan style decorations a tourist would want, but still with all the modern comforts of real toilets, showers, and a kitchen. It was a pretty easy way to stay. On the drive there I was really surprised at the appearance of Casablanca as we drove by Zaras and H&M’s. Didn’t I leave Europe for something different?

But back to all my fears. We decided we would walk to the coast and to the big Mosque (biggest in Morocco and 3rd biggest in the world) to check out the times. Walking into the street in Morocco is one of the most hectic and stressful things I have done. The traffic is far worse than Argentina’s with 300% more cars than actually fit on the road, combined with few traffic lights, no stop signs, bikes, scooters and crazy pedestrians. So, the insane traffic: to cross the street you basically join a modern game of Frogger- running, stopping, dodging. I thought I was going to die about 13 times in the first hour. That, combined with my ridiculous expectation that I was going to get grabbed by a mad mob of Muslims and be taken off on a camel led to a little bit of an emotional meltdown. I felt the way a small child does when they get irrationally scared in a new situation and cling to their mother’s leg for support!

Eventually though it got easier – people were wonderfully nice and helpful with directions (even though we were still going entirely the wrong way) and we ended up having a nice Moroccan dinner of Tagine (the dish it is cooked in) in the restaurant accross from the McDonalds on the coast with lovely background music of Bryan Adams and Celine Dion. That was also the only time I had alcohol in Morocco – not because there was anything stopping me but just because compared to europe the price was exhorbitant (not compared to Canadian standards though!).

The next day we went to the big mosque – it has a name but I forget. Outside we were swarmed by a group of village kids with their English class who wanted to be in a picture with us, as well as take pictures of us for souvenirs. The local police drove by – presumably to make sure we weren’t being hassled. The official policies of the country seem to be very pro tourist.

We then took a guided tour of the mosque – sans hijab but arms and shoulders had to be covered. The mosque’s maximum capacity is 25,000 people praying at one time. God better listen to that one. It was very ornate and beautiful inside. It took 6 years to build with crews working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

After taking a taxi that cost $1.50 with tips to the centre we walked around and went to a cafe for some Moroccan style mint tea (like all of you have from Loblaws). I don’t like it – the pump it full of sugar; Ben thought they poisoned him.

In the afternoon we ended up in the Medina – the old walled part of the city that French kept the Arabs in. It is small and hectic – but the place ot buy a knock off of anything you could possibly want. I can’t say it was my favourite place to be but mostly cause I just don’t like people – especially when they touch me.

We then intended to take another cheap Taxi to the Palais royale – except the driver had no idea what we were talking about. I’m still not really sure why – but maybe just because you can’t actually going any closer than the stairs to the courtyard without being stopped by an armed guard. Some guy on the street sent him in the right direction though. Where we ended up was the best part of Casablanca. We couldn’t see much of the palace, it’s true, but we ended up in a tourist-free real Moroccan neighbourhood. The streets weren’t even all that hectic (although partly I had already begun to be desensitized to madness that was the traffic). There Ben bought a gendara (a robe/dress thingy), Anna bought a scarf, and we had a Moroccan dinner in a place where there was no menu, the waiter didn’t speak french and we weren’t 100% sure what we ordered (as it turned out the kebab had a whole lot of liver on it which wasn’t awesome). We also bought some really delicious pastries at a bakery I might have gotten typhoid at but the people were wonderful and gave us free samples (perk of going off the beaten path.

The next morning we left via train for Marrakesh.

Pros of Casablanca: the ocean is beautiful, the people are some of the nicest I have ever met anywhere, the taxi drivers use the counter and don’t try to rip you off, there are cool areas to go where the tourists can’t find you, and most people speak very good French (just in case your Arabic isn’t up to par).

Cons: Nearly dying ain’t cool. I also developed some weird skin affliction on my arm that looks like mosquito bites but still hasn’t fully gone away. Probably the plague.

Phew. Still with me? I have 3 more days of travel to tell you about!

The train the Marrakesh was great. It was neat to see the change in scenery between ocean and sort of desert. Also, trains are sooo much better than planes. I am sick of planes.

Marrakesh itself suprised me (I know, again!). It is a big masive city FULL of tourists. It is attractive – pink stucco buildings and palm trees. Our first impression of the city though was of 5 taxis in a row trying to rip us off. No one uses the counter and we had to settle on the least crappy option because the sun was lazing and we had someone to meet. Not a good introduction to the city though.

We stayed again in an apartment that we rented by the night. It was bigger than the one in Casablanca and more than sufficient. It was great to be able to come back to somewhere to “siesta” and avoid the afternoon heat. Also, it was cheaper than any hotel and in a nice neighbourhood.

First night (and as it turned out, every day after that) we ventured out to the big square which is packed full of tourists (and some Moroccans too) to barter for goods. We walked there along a big street – almost got killed again. We made friends with an orange juice maker who, like many other vendors, sells freshly squeezed orange juice for 30 cents a glass. Highlight of Morocco. I also bought a neat lampshade and ben and anna got some candle holders. The whole system is weird. Luckily Ben is really good at negotiating and sticking to what seems to be a shockingly low price compared to what you were first quoted (ie. “How much is this?” “380 dihrams” – but i only paid 150) until you realized that they really start at a price that is quadruple what the should be selling anything for and hope people are bad at negotiating. I was also attacked by a girl doing henna ho grabbed my hand and started to draw. I didn’t have to pay her but I had to wash it off after 5 minutes because it started to burn.

Next day- we headed for the square – intending to walk through the park to avoid the disgusting petrol fumes (caused by cars and piles of gas-powered bicycles) when we saw some French tourists asking for help with their map. As we didn’t have a map and didn’t know how to get one we stalked them until they decided to be our friends. They led us to some garden. It was nice – had plants from all 4 continents. It wasn’t particularly Moroccan but it was a nice change of pace to have some peace and quiet and less pollution. Then we went out to the Kasbah (that thing you rock) via Taxi. That driver actually used the counter (which got him a big tip on principle) but was one of about 3 the entire time there.

The kasbah is neat. It is what you expect Morocco to look like – traditional style housing, narrow passageways that look very mysterious, street vendors etc. It is also of course dominated by tourists and another place to bargain for souvenirs – but it was cool. After buying a scarf from an old man who set a fair price because he couldn’t bargain (language barriers) we were stopped by two locals who struck up a conversation. They started to give us tips for bartering etc, taught us some Arabic and showed us his store. He also took Anna to a girl who does henna out of her house. They then took us for a tour of the kasbah – through streets we wouldn’t normally have gone on by ourselves, to the herbalist and to buy vegetables for cous cous. At the end of course he wanted a tip and we’re pretty sure he got a cut of any money we spent on our tour. On the one hand this was irritating because it just added to us being pissed off at the fakeness of the people there (only nice if they’re sellign something), on the other hand it was very little money and we did get a good tour for an hour and learned new things; plus, we kind of knew it was coming and brought some of it on ourselves by asking about more and more things. I think it was actually a pretty good use of 1 euro each.

We then went back to the apartment to eat cous cous with the vegetables we made. We were being really tight with money because we went with a limited amount of Dihrams and didn’t want to pay high bank servie charges to change more. We were also considering a tour of the mountains the next day. As it turned out we had left over money when we got to the airport and had to change it back to euros.

The next day, after realizing we couldn’t afford the tour we wanted and didn’t want to pay a company 20 euros a piece just to drop us off in a village in the mountains, we went to the bus station and took public bus to Ourika – only about 40 kms away but an hour bus ride. This was the same destination the tour company wanted to charge us for but the bus only cost 5 dihrams (50 euro cents) each way. Yes, people looked at us funny on the bus and some didn’t seem completely pleased that we were there, but it was neat. It was a great view of the landscape and a neat thing to do. When we got there we realized that the village was very different than the city. The level of french plummeted and the restaurants didn’t look even remotely safe to eat in. Also, there really wasn’t much to see. Unfortunately Anna and I really had to pee. This is where we encountered THE toilet. Duh duh duh.

This was what I feared about Morocco. The squat toilet. It was in a tiny little closet with broken windows in the door. There was certainly poop and urine where it shouldn’t have been and standing over a little hole to pee while holding up a long skirt is hard! I’m sure I stepped in more bacteria than anyone should in a lifetime. It was definitely the grossest thing I’ve had to do and wish to never do that ever again. Thank god for purell!

We did owe them something though for letting us use it so we bought a bottle of Fanta and Ben and Anna ate bread (I refused to touch it) and then i bought a packaged muffin at a store next door. Yes, we saw something different from the city and the bus ride was neat, but man was that village dirty.

Shortly after (about 30 minutes total in the village) we hopped on the next bus back to the city. A bunch of school kids got on after and stared and laughed at us the whole way back.

We got back to the city and had lunch and more orange juice. Then we rode a camel! That’s right, a camel! Ok, it wasn’t out in the Sahara it was in the middle of Marrakesh in a total tourist trap but it was the coolest part of my trip. Some of you may remember that I went with the goal of riding one, so I succeeded.

Sidenote for future travellers: the best time to get a taxi – especially in a country where you get ripped off a lot, is at the hottest point of the day. No one is outside and they don’t have any business and therefore will use the meter

That night, with our piles of leftover Dihrams that had been reserved for the tour, we set out to find a real restaurant. I was especially keen considering our experience in the village earlier that day. We ended up in a restaurant called “Jazz-o” that played American Jazz music and served pizza. Ok, I get that is not really the authentic Moroccan “experience” but I am just about experienced-out at this point! Also, I had a wonderful moroccan salad and was served by Moroccans so I’m just going to insist it was the authentic.

Finally on Thursday morning we left! As Ben said, “I’ve never been so happy to finish a vacation!” The airport was chaotic – easy-jet doesn’t assign seats and there was no order or lines. It ended though. And that ends this very long blog installment.

All in all I think I would reccommed Casablanca as long as you’re not prone to heart attacks – but not Marrakesh.

I am having trouble with photo uploading so check facebook if you can (if you can’t I can send you an email link to a facebook album) or wait until you invite me over for dinner in Toronto and I will show you hard copies.

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