Countries Visited

Svalbard Spain United States of America Antarctica South Georgia Falkland Islands Bolivia Peru Ecuador Colombia Venezuela Guyana Suriname French Guiana Brazil Paraguay Uruguay Argentina Chile Greenland Canada United States of America United States of America Israel Jordan Cyprus Qatar United Arab Emirates Oman Yemen Saudia Arabia Iraq Afghanistan Turkmenistan Iran Syria Singapore China Mongolia Papua New Guinea Brunei Indonesia Malaysia Malaysia Tiawan Philippines Vietnam Cambodia Laos Thailand Myanmar Bangladesh Sri Lanka India Bhutan Nepal Pakistan Afghanistan Turkmenistan Tajikistan Kyrgyzstan Uzbekistan Japan North Korea South Korea Russia Kazakhstan Russia Montenegro Portugal Azerbaijan Armenia Georgia Ukraine Moldova Belarus Romania Bulgaria Macedonia Serbia Bosonia & Herzegovina Turkey Greece Albania Croatia Hungary Slovakia Slovenia Malta Spain Portugal Spain France Italy Italy Austria Switzerland Belgium France Ireland United Kingdom Norway Sweden Finland Estonia Latvia Lithuania Russia Poland Czech Republic Germany Denmark The Netherlands Iceland El Salvador Guatemala Panama Costa Rica Nicaragua Honduras Belize Mexico Trinidad & Tobago Puerto Rico Dominican Republic Haiti Jamaica The Bahamas Cuba Vanuatu Australia Solomon Islands Fiji New Caledonia New Zealand Eritrea Ethiopia Djibouti Somalia Kenya Uganda Tanzania Rwanda Burundi Madagascar Namibia Botswana South Africa Lesotho Swaziland Zimbabwe Mozambique Malawi Zambia Angola Democratic Repbulic of Congo Republic of Congo Gabon Equatorial Guinea Central African Republic Cameroon Nigeria Togo Ghana Burkina Fasso Cote d'Ivoire Liberia Sierra Leone Guinea Guinea Bissau The Gambia Senegal Mali Mauritania Niger Western Sahara Sudan Chad Egypt Libya Tunisia Morocco Algeria
Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Friday, February 26, 2010

Rock the Kasbah

How can I even start to write about Morocco? It is so different from any place I've ever been before...and so far, it's shaping up to be one of my favorites.

I guess I'll start with the journey over. We broached Africa by sea, on a ferry boat (much as we entered South America eight months ago, for those keeping track of strange parallels). The boat was big, but the ride was surprisingly choppy, and our fellow passengers were throwing up all around us. Also, the ride took two hours rather than the advertised one, so there was a bonus 60 minutes of barfing for a lot of people. Amazingly, I was not among the vomiters this time around!

We arrived in Tangiers, the large port city on Morocco's northern coast, and luckily were befriended by a very nice Moroccan woman who currently lives in Europe on our way off the boat. She guided us through the clutch of hustlers offering hotels, taxi rides, etc. and walked across town with us to the bus/shared taxi station. She then negotiated our fares in a shared taxi and saw us off to our first destination, Tetouan.

I'll pause here and mention that all of this negotiating was done in Arabic. I had read and heard that French and Spanish are widely spoken in Morocco, so for some reason, I guess I hadn't thought about exactly how much Arabic we would encounter there. Well, we quickly learned that while many signs are in Arabic and French, and in the north a lot of people speak some Spanish, daily life is definitely conducted in Arabic here. (Luckily we have some podcasts, and Andy has done a great job of teaching himself the Arabic alphabet, so we are slowly progressing in our ability to communicate...or at least say please and thank you in Arabic.)

So we took this "sept-place," or "seven-seater" shared taxi (three in the front, four in the back) a couple of hours to Tetouan. Turns out our guidebook has no map for Tetouan, so when the taxi dropped us off, we had no idea where we were. We wandered for a while, and I talked to some ladies in French, and finally we found the main drag.
That was Mohammad V street. Mohammad V is a former king of Morocco--Mohammad VI is the current king. Yes, Morocco is a straight-up kingdom. And just our luck, the king happened to be in residence in his vacation palace in Tetouan when we visited! This meant that the main square in front of his palace was cordoned off, and that a lot of hotels were full. We finally found a room not far from the center, but it had no sheets, no hot water, and a hole in the ground to do your business in. $12 a night for this luxury.

Still, Tetouan was a cool place to start our journey because it's not the most touristed city. It has a famous medina, or old city, which dates back to medeival times and is full of narrow alleys, tiny shops, and mosques. That night, we were able to peek into one of the big mosques for a quick picture after evening prayers.
We had our first couscous dinner that night, and it was delicious, but I'll leave those details for the food post. The next morning, I was woken up bright and early by the Muslim alarm clock--the 5:30AM call to prayer.

We explored the medina more that morning, got totally lost, then found our way again, and finally took off for our next destination, a small village in the Rif mountains called Chefchouen. We stayed there for two days that were pretty much perfect...except that just about everyone we met there offered to sell us pot. It's a huge marijuana-growing area (the word "reefer" comes from the "Rif" mountains), and I guess that a fair number of tourists partake. We did not, of course, but if that's your thing, Chefchouen may be paradise on earth for you, because we found pretty much every other aspect of it perfect.
Dominating the main square of the medina is the Kasbah, which is kind of like a castle or fort. As soon as you lay eyes on it, that 80s song "Rock the Kasbah" gets stuck in your head for days.
I should mention here that in both Tetouan and Chefchouan, Andy and I found ourselves being led around by local guys who first started by helping us find a hotel, then wanted to give us tours of the medina, which invariably ended up with us being deposited inside a "Berber artisan collective," aka a carpet showroom where persistent salesmen try to get you to buy a carpet. We thought we were savvy enough to avoid this kind of thing, but apparently not. Now that we are in Fez, we seem to have finally gotten the hang of avoiding getting sucked into "tours" by these hustlers.

Anyway, in Chefchouen, the cool thing about the carpet emporium was that they had a guy doing weaving right there, so we could kind of see how a carpet is made. Still didn't buy any, though.
Anyway, in Chefchouan we also paid $12 for a hotel room, but our bed had sheets, and right next door, real toilets with seats and a shower (well, a faucet halfway up the wall) with hot (well, warm enough) water! I tell you, it felt like absolute luxury. We stayed two nights.

On our first night, we explored the medina, tried tasty snacks, and enjoyed cheap cous cous and tagine at a cafe on the square. And on our second day, it was time for...drumroll...our first hike in Africa!

I know I don't usually get too psyched about hikes, but this one was pretty awesome. Mostly because of the amazing views of the Rif mountains, the surrounding hills that are as green as Ireland, the gorgeous blue sky, and the lovely views of Chefchouan's famous blue-painted houses.

Check out that scenery. Seriously one of the most beautiful places I've been in my life.

The hike was fun for other reasons, too. We started off on a signposted trail in a national park, but somehow lost the trail after an hour or so and ended up climbing through random fields of grass and flowers, waving hello and occasionally being directed (and, um, offered pot) by Berber shepherds.

It had rained a lot recently, so there were waterfalls flowing at full force and some rivers and streams where they usually are not. At one point,we jumped across a river on stones and saw two young women coming from the opposite direction with enormous bales of hay on their backs. One girl made it across the river but the other one didn't seem sure she could make it. Andy offered a hand, but she shook her finger at him to say no--we aren't sure if this was because Andy was a strange man, or because he offered her his left hand, which is traditionally unclean in Islam and some other cultures (it's the butt-wiping hand). But anyway, a lot of laughing ensued on all sides and she finally made it across the river, and we all waved goodbye. Not a word of a common language was exchanged, but it was a very friendly encounter, as were all of our encounters that day.

So, we eventually found the marked path again, and after hiking for about three hours we found ourselves in a village. We ate our sandwiches there, then were directed by some local teens in Spanish that we should take the main road back to Cheefchouen, because the mountain road was "bad" thanks to the recent rain. Oops, no one told us before we came that way! So we walked back on the main road, where we saw many horses and goats and sheep and even a couple of cars.

On our final morning in Chefchouen, we visited the inside of the Kasbah. It had a very nice courtyard garden filled with calla lillies and orange trees.

And the Kasbah tower had nice views of Chefchouen and the surrounding hills, too.

One last shot from Chefchouan--here is a man in traditional attire (not sure if this is a Berber thing or a Muslim thing--we've seen it in other cities, but not as often as in Chefchouan). Andy is fascinated by the unfortunate resemblence the peaked hood has to Klan fashions...
More soon from Fes and further! Must hurry back to my hotel now to eat the dates I bought in the market today.