Let me start by saying this trip is the best one I’ve ever taken.
It somehow was exactly what I was looking for, despite having no idea what I was looking for. In the first few days of Madrid orientation, a representative from Morocco Exchange gave a presentation on the trip. I knew from my semester in France that I wanted to go, and this trip with a guide would be perfect.
It was a total of four days in Morocco, not including travel time. We left Wednesday night to take an overnight bus to Algeciras, near Gibraltar, so we could take a ferry across in the morning. Unfortunately I can’t sleep on buses, so eight hours of straight sitting is not pleasant. Nevertheless, I survived (barely, it was a close call), and we were ready to cross the Strait…when we heard that the ferry across was cancelled. The weather was very rough, so only the big cruise ships were heading out. Our guide was amazing, though, and exchanged the tickets. We were off to Africa.
Our first stop was in Tangier, where we walked around the old town, the market, and the center plaza. Somehow the weather had cleared up for us, and it was absolutely beautiful for a walk. Around lunchtime, we had a tour of a women’s center. We ate lunch in a classroom with 3 students and chatted about everything from dating to politics. I was amazed at how well they knew what was going on in American politics – I hadn’t realized how much the foreign policies affected them. We get so caught up in domestic issues and the passing of individual laws that I think we forget about how the president and country are seen internationally. On a side note – I lost count of how many times we were stopped on the street by locals and, using the only two words they knew in English, asked: American? Obama! I wonder how the trip would have been different if Romney had won.
After a delicious lunch and not enough Moroccan mint tea, we got on our bus to drive to Rabat. To show you how awesome our tour guide was: she spotted camels on the side of the road, asked if we wanted to ride, and stopped the bus. I had really wanted to ride them before going on the trip, but I hadn’t seen it on the itinerary and had accepted that it wouldn’t work out this time. When I saw that we would be able to, I may have been a little excited. Just a little bit.
They stand very oddly, with their hind legs first. Essentially it feels like it’s trying to throw you off, over its head. With our group, it ended up working out at the end that only one girl was left to ride, so I got to go again. You know, so she wouldn’t feel alone. It was a selfless act.
After our camel adventures, we continued to Rabat. There, we stayed with host families for two nights. I was the only guy in our group (not complaining) so I stayed in the same house as two other girls but in a different room. Our host family was amazing – it was a mother, father, and 3 boys. The father spoke English, but the mother and two youngest did not, so I ended up speaking French a lot and translating. It was refreshing to hear French again.
Moroccan hospitality is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s on an entirely different level. Never have I eaten so much. We had chicken and potatoes the first night, with local spices of course, and it was zuin – delicious. We tried to learn Arabic. I’m pretty sure zuin is close to what they were saying. Anyway, I’d eaten 3 platefuls, already unbuttoned my pants, and the father just put another spoonful on my plate. I thought I’d roll away from the table. Then, of course, came the fresh local fruit – pomegranate, oranges, dates…
The following day, after an equally wonderful and filling breakfast, we drove across the river to Sale, Rabat’s poorer sister city. We met up with 3 more students and had a very political discussion with underlying religious aspects. It was mind-opening to see the three argue between each other; one was extremely religious, another had traveled a lot and was a bit more liberal, and the third was very quiet and reserved, but served as a good mediator. It was a bit like a three way tennis match. We asked questions and watched the answers bounce between the students. Some topics like homosexuality and punishments for crimes made for some uncomfortable moments, but we learn the most by leaving our comfort zone.
Later, we went to Roman ruins just outside the city. They were preserved well, despite our climbing all over them. After running around for a bit, we went back to our host families for lunch – couscous with countless vegetables and chicken. Too good.
We met up with more students after lunch, and they took us on a walk through the city, to the beach, and through the market. We sat down for tea and chatted. It’s amazing how good the students’ English is; at times I forgot it isn’t their native language.
That evening, before dinner, we had the opportunity to go to the hammam, the Arabic baths. Que guay. How cool. I’ve never been so clean. There are three rooms, one very hot, another warm, and a one cold. You start off in the hot sauna with very hot water. After sitting for a bit and sweating out everything in your system, you scrub down and rinse off with the hot water. Then repeat in the next two rooms, but with cold water. I was in a trance after leaving.
The baths are separated for men and women, but it still surprised me is that it is acceptable for women to go completely naked. In a culture where some women cover themselves to their eyes, they have no qualms about stripping down to nothing in certain situations.
To add to my blissful state, we had traditional Moroccan soup with the family, and I was one happy guy. After, we played Uno and cards with the host brothers until 1 a.m., probably a bit longer than intended considering we had to be up to leave the next morning.
Day three: goodbye to host families, hello to Moroccan mountains. It was this trip that made me glad I can’t sleep on buses: the country side is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We drove straight up one of the mountains to a rural village, and I mean rural. There was not much of a path, let alone a road. We applauded the bus driver.
In the village, we met and ate with a family who graciously invited us into their home. After more couscous, vegetables, and I don’t know what fruits, we had another discussion. A translator came with us, as the family only spoke their dialect of Arabic. We saw a very traditional and familial view of rural Morocco that I know we couldn’t have without the program.
We then drove to Chefchaouen, which I heard called several times “the shangri la of the Rif mountains.” The whole city is painted in blues and whites, and there are many tales as to why: the white represents the soul, while the blue represents the heavens; another story related to beliefs in evil eye; and my personal favorite is that flies don’t like the color blue, so they stay away from the buildings that are painted that color. In any case, it made the city very pretty.
We had free time to wander around through the market. The vendors spoke English, Spanish, and French, and used every language to try to sell us things. I bought a few things, including a scorpion! Okay, it’s a henna tattoo on my hand, but still.
The “hostel” we stayed at was better than some hotels I’ve stayed in. I didn’t sleep too much, though, because we got up early on our last day to walk through the old town at sunrise and hike up a mountain to get a view of the city. After breakfast and another hour or so of wandering, we had to pack up and leave.
We didn’t leave through Tangiers, but rather through Ceuta, a Spanish territory on the coast of Morocco. The difference between the two sides of the border is astounding. The north of Africa is very agricultural, plain, and without many buildings. Ceuta, on the other hand, is bright, built up, and rich. We didn’t have much time before the ferry (actually, it was just enough time to enjoy a beer), and just like that we were leaving Africa. A wonderful whirl of culture, learning, exploration, and experience.
Back to the real world: I got back into Madrid at 5:30 Monday morning, and had class all day. It didn’t bother me, though, I’m still on a Moroccan high (and not from the hashish they kept trying to sell me.)
Thursday I leave for London for 4 days, then the following week Michelle, Leah, Johan, and Izzi are coming to Madrid to visit. I live a tough life.
Hasta la proxima vez!