Morocco: The Epilogue

morocco-march-2009-522I can’t believe I’ve been back home for OVER A MONTH.

It’s truly mind-boggling how quickly time evaporates after you’ve done a trip. It’s as if¬†time slowed down just enough for me to take things in … and then boing! out of the wormhole I was flung.

(And, in what’s quickly¬†becoming¬†a routine in my travels,¬†my backpack – lost in the fray – was spat out a day later.)

Now¬†Morocco¬†seems to be all but¬†gone from my immediate memory, save for my photos. (It’s¬†the only reason it’s taken me so long to churn out the last few entries. Apologies.)

I remember within days of being back, friends were¬†already asking me questions, like, “What was the highlight of your trip?” and “Where’s your next trip going to be?”

Highlight?¬†I didn’t have a single highlight.¬†I had a bunch of them.

Like the madness of crossing the streets in Meknes and Marrakech. 

The tour through Fez. 

The trek through the desert and peering up at the night sky, sitting on the sand.

The crispness of the mountain air.

The colours. The sounds. The smells.

I like having all the little memories. It’s as if, deep in the recesses in my mind, I have this¬†tiny compartment with my memories pieced together like mosaic tiles, and safely tucked away, covered in cerebral bubble wrap.¬†¬†

And where am I planning to go to next, you ask?

As much as I’d like to start researching¬†that five-week trip to Southeast Asia, I can’t really think about that right now.¬† For starters,¬†I’ve barely finished paying off for this trip.

And if I were to, say, acquire some real estate this year, there’s no way I’d be able to travel. Unless I suddenly fell into money.¬†Or on top of a rich boyfriend.

Besides,¬†I’d still like to have a little more time to lovingly gaze at¬†my pictures.

But it was so nice to have the chance to travel somewhere, and plan it in advance. And I’d gladly recommend this country¬†to anyone who asks. It’s truly¬†a place to visit at least once.

Okay, enough. Onward with life, yes?

A Two-Town Kind of Day

Monday, March 16.

I sleep somewhat soundly until about 4:30 in the morning, when I’m awakened by noisy water and toilet pipes, and other things that go bump early in the morning.

For about the next hour, I’m irrationally convinced¬†someone’s trying to break into our room, and I’m¬†constantly¬†checking my belongings in the dark.¬†

Morning brings a return to reason and a light continental breakfast –¬†which includes yogurt. (I’m secretly happy for this – before leaving, a¬†friend advised¬†me¬†to eat yogurt every day to help my stomach adjust to the food.)

I also get a chance to talk with some of my tour-mates, including Alex, our late arrival from London. As it turns out, she’s also a big adherent of breakfast, and we bond over this.

After breakfast, we pack up our bags and store them behind the reception desk. We have just enough time to pay a visit to the Hassan II Mosque Рone of only two mosques non-Muslims are allowed to visit, in the entire country.

morocco-march-2009-004It’s a good thing I got such a spectactular view of the minaret¬†as the plane approached the airport¬†the day before. The “mist” that rolled in the previous evening has completely obscured the top of it.

As we make our way around towards the entrance, one of the boys sitting around nearby makes eye contact with Nikki, the lone New Zealander on our trip, and smiles, trying¬†to chat her up in Moroccan Arabic. It’s already begun, I think to myself.

I think one of us notes this to her, and she rolls her eyes in recognition of what we mean. It’s all forgotten when we get to the front entrance, though.

The night before, our tour leader had instructed us to find the pregnant female tour guide, because she was apparently very good. No such luck Рwe get a man instead, and are hurriedly pushed towards the ticket office to purchase our tickets for the tour.

Inside, we’re told to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags, which we carry with us through the huge worship hall.

The craftmanship is ridiculous. Every¬†corner, wall,¬†and ceiling panel¬†is intricately designed. While the guide rattles off facts, numbers¬†and measurements, I’m just trying to capture as much of the architectural beauty with my camera – if not to truly do it justice, then just to prove I was a witness to its greatness.

We move from one end of it to the other, and then out and downstairs into the area where worshippers perform their ablutions beforehand, and then a brief¬†peek into the hammams. (I can’t remember off-hand whether or not they’re actually still used.) I love the shapes, the colour and design of the tiles – everything.

We return to the hotel, reconvene with our group and then head to the train station, where we take a (relatively) short trip¬†to our next destination – the nation’s capital, Rabat.

Rabat’s sun and cloudless blue skies are a stark contrast tomorocco-march-2009-045 the gloominess we’ve just left. We store our bags at a local hotel just off the main strip. Our trip leader – named Will – starts to direct us towards the neatly maincured promenade in the middle of the street, but is told not to go there – the king’s in town.

So we’re forced to cross the street and stick to the sidewalk – and get our¬†introduction to Moroccan traffic.

We hit¬†a nearby pastry shop to pick up some things for the lunch we’re going to have later on. The shop – whose name I think is actually called Le Comedie – has some of the prettiest pastries, desserts¬†and breads I think I’ve ever seen or smelled. I settle some sort of flaky pastry with meat, a piece of fresh bread and an irrestible chocolate sweet called a Montecristo.

One of my tour-mates – an American named Sally – buys¬†a pastilla – a lovely pastry filled with chicken (or sometimes pigeon), almonds, and cinnamon, along with other things I can’t remember – and dusted with what I’m pretty sure is icing sugar. She lets me have a bite – and I’m in heaven.

We also stop at a small market nearby. While some people purchase some fruit, Alex and I agree to buy some olives – red and two types of green ones.

Will then takes the group down a series of quaint little sidestreets; I’m vaguely reminded¬†of¬† Granada.

We arrive at this place that kind of looks like an old fort … we enter and walk until we arrive at this patio-styled, restaurant-y sort of place where we sit down to eat our purchases. A waiter arrives and offers us drinks and sweets. Some people opt not to because they don’t want to spend the money. I, however, cannot resist.

Poor Nikki is again targeted, this time by a very persistent young woman offering her a henna tattoo. Even when she says no, the henna girl continues badgering her, until our trip leader shoos her away in Arabic.

Following lunch, we’re free to look around the¬†old fortress grounds¬† – part of which has a really pretty view overlooking¬†the water. Following this, we¬†split up to explore the city until it’s time to meet back at the hotel at 4:45 that afternoon.

morocco-march-2009-061A group of us – Liz, myself, Colin (the lone man on the tour), Nikki, two Aussies, Grace and Amelia and Alex – head over to the souks. The group eventually breaks down further when the younger members of the group stop to look at camel leather bracelets and the slightly older members wander along further.

Liz, Colin and I eventually keep walking, turning corner after corner and momentarily stalling at the odd stand, until we wander out of the souk and around what appears to be the newer part of the town.

We end up going to a nearby park and chilling out on a park bench for a while. We just sit in the shade and talk. Colin occasionally consults his guide book for information about things.

At about four o’clock, I hear the call to prayer for the first time on my trip. A¬†friend of mine who went to Morocco about 10 years ago described the sound as “sexy”. I think it’s both beautiful and haunting.

But I don’t hear just one.¬†Two more calls to prayer start up within about 30 seconds of one another –¬†so for about¬†two or three minutes, it sounds¬†like the muezzins are either on an audio delay – or competing with each other.

After about 40 minutes, the three of us decide to start making our way back. But we get lost, walking street after street, trying to find the main drag and not finding anything remotely resembling it.

Colin consults the map in his guidebook a couple of times. The street we’re on isn’t even on the map. We¬†ask someone for directions and get a not-so-distinct answer. Time is ticking away, and Colin suggests – in a slightly panicked voice – that we should maybe try¬†getting a taxi.

We don’t, and keep walking. We come across a policeman and¬†ask for directions. I try and translate what he says (thank goodness I know my numbers!), and then keep onward. I don’t know how or when, but about¬†two minutes before we’re supposed to be at the hotel, we finally hit Mohammed V – and eventually the hotel.

We board the train to Meknes at about 5:30 p.m. It is PACKED.¬†Some people find seats in cars almost right away;¬†a bunch of us have to¬†stand in the small open area – practically on top of our luggage (or maybe that’s just me) for a couple of stops.

I’m nervous. Besides the dude I saw in one car¬†giving people the finger as we we were boarding,¬†the thought of trying to talk to Moroccans – given my¬†nonexistent Arabic and mediocre French skills – worries me. I’m bracing for hostility.

Nonnie, one of my older tour-mates from Australia, and I get¬†couple spaces in¬†a nearby car, about two¬†stops into our trip.¬†For a few moments, no one in our says anything – we’re looking at each other, at the other people and then briefly¬†away.

But then this one young guy sporting a suit starts talking to us in English, asking where we’re from, etc. It turns out he’s from Malaysia.¬†He’s really nice.

Then this really pretty Moroccan girl (wearing a headscarf) sitting next to him chimes in, albeit in a combination of broken English¬†(and my poor¬†French). I also try acting as translator for Nonnie,¬†who owns a French phrasebook but¬†doesn’t know a lick of¬†French, so that she’s included in the “conversation”.

We find out the pretty girl lives near Meknes, but she – and another woman sitting next to me – are originally from Agadir, a coastal town¬†just¬†south of Essaouira (where we’ll go later on in our trip). She speaks of how it’s the same size as Essaouira, but very pretty and known¬†for¬†argan oil and (thuya) wood sculptures. She add that we should¬†that we should try and¬†stop there on our travels.

My fear of conversation¬†dissolves just in time for her¬†to leave¬†the train at a town called Kenitra. There are two other girls sitting in our train car, but my French isn’t good enough to carry on a full conversation with them. So other than the odd question from one of the girls, they keep to themselves, talking about shopping and whatnot (from what little I could decipher).

When¬†the train pulls into Meknes, it’s twilight. The light¬†in our car is broken, so we sit in darkness.

Our hotel is, thankfully, less than five minutes by foot. After checking in and dropping off our things, we head to dinner at this place¬†our tour leader Will found accidentally on a previous¬†occasion (he’d been looking for a restaurant he’d been to before, but¬†it had closed down).

We sit outside on the patio in our jackets, sweaters and fleeces, shivering. At one point during dinner, Will is sitting at one end of the table while he’s left his cigarettes at the other.¬†I absently turn to look in time to¬†see this kid (probably no older than 11), make his way up to the table, snatch the pack of smokes and take off down the street with his buddies. (The staff find out and¬†buy Will¬†a new pack of Marlboros.)

Following dinner (and the theft), a few of us stop in at a local bar for some drinks. The clientele are all men, except for the female bartender smoking behind the bar. Nikki goes upstairs to save some seats for us while we order our beers.

When we make our way upstairs with our drinks, poor Nikki’s been cornered by¬†a lone¬†Moroccan dude who won’t leave her alone and – despite her vocal protests – insists on buying her¬†a drink, pulling out a huge wad of dirhams as if to prove he can afford it.

Even when the rest of us form a circle with our chairs and effectively block him out, he refuses to leave – ¬†pretending to talk on his cell phone and surrepitiously taking pictures and then pretending he isn’t when¬†we call him on it. I’m really annoyed and am ready to bust some heads. (Okay, maybe not, but I’m ready to take my own camera and start snapping unwanted pictures of him to get him to piss off.)

He eventually leaves, but only because closing time is called only a couple of minutes later.

Ah, Meknes. What an introduction.

Where It All Began

Okay.¬†I think I’m finally ready.


Sunday, March 15.

What began as a travel idea percolating in my head in¬†late fall/early winter becomes reality, as my flight¬†touches down at Casablanca’s Mohammed V Airport.

It’s been a¬†16-hour trek across the Atlantic,¬†with¬†blurry-eyed stopovers in Amsterdam and Paris.¬†

I feel myself grow warmer, and the sweat beginning to form, as I¬†wait in the line to¬†get through Customs. ¬†I look around, trying to see if I can tell who’s English-speaking¬†… and who might be on the tour I’m joining up with.

I manage to clear Customs¬†(which I do with my Grade Six¬†French and the officer’s equally poor English), and – in record time – immediately¬†grab my backpack upon reaching¬†the baggage carousel,¬†and find the driver who’s taking me to my hotel in the arrivals hall.¬†¬†

I’m not alone.¬†The middle-aged couple who was¬†ahead of¬†me in the Customs lineup¬†is getting a lift¬†as well.¬†Jay and Cindy are from just outside Sacramento, and they try to travel to a different country every year.¬†They’re not on my tour, though.

Amid all this, I’m trying to absorb everything – the warmth on my skin, the palm trees, and the scenery from the minivan¬†as it changes from slums to suburbs to city.

Jay and Cindy are dropped off at their hotel first. Then it’s a little further on for me. I have a brief conversation with Ismail (the driver) before reaching Hotel Guynemer, where I’m staying for the night.

And that’s where I finally meet one of my tourmates – my roommate Liz from¬†Chicago. She¬†works in the travel industry, booking people on tours¬†– like the one we’re on – for a living.

After trading pleasantries, Liz resumes reading her book while I spread out for a bit and try to nap before the tour group meets downstairs.

Our group, as it turns out at the meeting, is comprised of eight women and one guy Рnot counting our tour leader. This I did not expect Рand it puts me at ease.  The ages range from new university grads in their early 20s to women in their 50s.

As everyone makes their introductions, I’m not sure what to make of them. Of course, it’s way too early to be making assessments and judgements, but I’m always interested in people’s personalities. And at least they don’t seem crazy.

A bit later we all head out for our first group dinner. As we step out in the lit street, the various odors in the air dance around my nostrils – the dampness of a possible oncoming rain shower, mingling with incense from (what I later find out is) a nearby shisha cafe.

Dinner is at a restaurant¬†just down the way. While the mist rolls in outside,¬†we start with a very tasty salad (washed with bottled water our trip leader has provided the kitchen staff) with probably THE best, saltiest¬†black olives I’ve ever had.

The main course is two enormous servings of chicken and vegetarian tajine. (Tajine is s type of slow-cooked stew, named for the clay dish it comes in.) The chicken is so good, and the spices compliment the accompanying vegetables. The lemon is stewed beyond recognition; only when I bite into it do I recognize the acidic tartness.

Stuffed, we cap off our meal with a little “Berber whiskey” – or mint tea.

We return to the hotel, where some of us hang out – and greet the 10th member of our group, newly-arrived from London – until about 11 p.m.

I’m partially happy for the early night.¬†Tomorrow will¬†be a¬†busy day involving¬†brief stops in two cities before reaching our next destination – Meknes.