Here’s yet another installment of “holy cow I can’t believe I’m here.”
That’s right, I needed a little break from Europe so I decided to check out Africa.
I’ve wanted to visit Morocco since I was 13 years old. I remember planning a whole two week trip for my family: transportation, hotels, sightseeing and all, desperate to see the Sahara from the back of a camel. Nearly 8 years later, that dream finally came true.
This is a long post, so I’ll start with a few bullet points for those of you who don’t feel like reading:
- Several of my parents’ friends expressed concerns that they were going to an Islamic country, but as of right now the US considers Morocco to be safer than many places in Europe, especially my adopted home in Belgium. A week in Morocco showed why: despite having a wide range of faiths and skin tones, there isn’t really any segregation. Additionally, there is minimal political unrest as the king is widely supported and the government takes good care of the people. Any preconceptions that you have about Morocco being unsafe are likely groundless.
- There are cats EVERYWHERE. Apparently the Moroccan people believe that dogs are dirty but cats chase the demons away. Maybe because said demons are scared of cats, I don’t know. But yeah, many cats = happy Megan.
- When speaking about the future, you say “Insha’Allah,” meaning “God willing.” We used is mainly in a context of coming back to Morocco someday.
After four months of traveling with 20-year-olds, it was interesting to make the switch to parental companionship. On the one hand it was a little more stressful because my parents had a much less “let’s just see what happens” attitude than my previous travel buddies (besides Sam, traveling with her often felt like being with my mom).
On the other hand, I was relieved to be eating three full meals a day, not staying in hostels, and spending more than €4 on souvenirs. And I admit they’re pretty good company.
We arrived in Rabat on Saturday afternoon and were met by our driver for the week, Abdul. This man is a saint, but more on that later.
After taking in a few local landmarks, we began the 4-hour drive to Marrakech. While it sounded long at first, the time passed quickly as gazed out the window at the Moroccan landscape.
We reached our Riad in Marrakech around 9pm and immediately went exploring with our guide, Abdou. He won me over quickly by turning on his Wi-Fi hotspot so I could reconnect with the world while we walked.
After rounding the medina and having a quick conversation with a monkey we filled up on mountains of traditional Moroccan food like tomato soup, lamb with prunes, saffron couscous, and lemon chicken. I’m fairly certain it was the biggest meal I’ve had since Christmas, excluding the Budapest buffet and all-you-can-eat tapas in Barcelona.
We spend Sunday exploring the medina and the surrounding area. We stopped into various stores to look at caftans and djellabas, leather shoes, antiques, and most importantly, carpets.
We walked away from this store with not one, not two, but three Moroccan carpets. That afternoon as I was taking a photo with one monkey, another monkey-handler came up and put his monkey on my other shoulder. These noodle arms are not built for two 20 lb monkeys, let me tell ya.
The hand in the photo is Abdou’s as he scolds the second monkey handler for trying to scam me with his second monkey. Yes I realize how weird that sentence sounds.
Easier to hold were the snakes, which my dad was too afraid to touch but my mom and I thoroughly enjoyed.
One day in Marrakech definitely wasn’t enough, but on Monday morning we were on the move again, headed up into the Atlas mountains. We broke the 5-hour drive up into segments with short stops at panoramic views and one long stop for lunch in Ait Benhaddou, the location of movies like Prince of Persia and Gladiator and of course, Game of Thrones.
We arrived in Boumalne Dades as the sun was setting over the mountain range. The serenity was dampened a little bit by the mass of tourist bikers staying in our hotel but they were still better company than the rowdy hostel crew I’m used to.
One of the biggest culture shocks for me was the lack of alcohol in Morocco. When you walk down the street in Brussels at 11 a.m. you can already see people sipping beer, and by 4:30 it seems like every outdoor bar is filled. In Marrakech, I didn’t see a single alcoholic beverage during the day or at night. Given that it was geared toward tourists, the hotel in Boumalne had a modest wine list with four options, along with two beers.
Being the family that we are, we got tried both beers and got a bottle of wine to share.* At the end of the night, the waiter took a million years to get us the check, and my mom is convinced it’s because he was punishing us for drinking. Not likely, but perhaps.
Tuesday brought another hefty drive to southern Morocco and perhaps the most highly anticipated part of our trip: camels.
We reached the camel riad in Merzouga a couple hours before we were set to mount up, giving me time to say good bye to my Wi-Fi world and prepare for a night in the Sahara (sounds like a prom theme, huh?)
I’ve ridden horses since I was a baby, so I wasn’t really nervous about riding a camel. The only thing about the experience that surprised me is that I felt none of my typical animal feelings toward this beast that I named Carl.
As you may know, I am obsessed with animals. When we saw a group of five spaniels in Paris I literally started crying. After this many months away from my pets, I would probably coo at a rabid hamster if I met it on the street. But this camel? Nothin. It was mangey and weird and the dessert was covered in its poop.
Our Sahara-saunter took about 45 minutes, but out there in the dunes it felt like time didn’t exist. After dismounting, we climbed (nay, struggled) up a large dune with old snowboards and slid down 150 feet. Needless to say I got a lot of sand in my pants.
We shared the campsite with an Arabic couple and a family of four from Rabat. The couple didn’t speak any English or French, but the family spoke Arabic, French, and some English, so we were all able to communicate pretty well as we sat around a short dinner table eating family-style.
The two girls from Rabat were around 7 and 9 years old and admittedly made me feel very inadequate as they could speak several different languages and managed to stay up later than I did (I’ll blame it on the altitude sickness).
The next morning, slow from the fever that I’d been fighting all week and sore from the previous day’s camel ride, I can’t say I much enjoyed the commute home on my buddy Carl. It was nice to finally shower off when we got back to the hotel.
Wednesday was our longest car-commute, around 7 hours from Merzouga to Fes.
Unfortunately, Wednesday was also the day that our relationship with Abdul got rocky. In the middle of the drive we got stopped at a police checkpoint where a power-hungry officer noticed that yours truly was not wearing her seatbelt (oops). He attempted to get a bribe from Abdul, who refused and took a ticket instead.
Not one hour after that we stopped at a panorama and my dad accidentally slammed the car door into a median not once but twice, making poor Abdul’s day worse. It was a brand new car. *wince*
The Riad in Fes was an incredible three stories of carved plaster, stained cedar, and authentic furniture. As we waited for dinner to be prepared, my dad decided to ignore the advice that we had gotten from LITERALLY everyone and went exploring in the medina. He got lost, just like everyone said he would.
The next morning we went out with our guide, Rasheed, and it became very clear why everyone told us not to go out in the Medina alone: the streets aren’t marked and they all look the same.
Thankfully Rasheed was able to navigate us to a very important locale: the tannery.
I am bit of a leather jacket fiend. I’m also the luckiest chick in the world, because I walked away from the tannery with a custom burgundy leather jacket.
That night we went out for dinner and ended up getting lost on the way home. That place is really a maze.
On Friday we took our final car journey with Abdul up to Tangier in the coast. Before dinner we went up to the Kasbah, known for housing famous people like Jack Kerouac, Yves Saint Laurent, and Keith Richards (whom our tour guide called “Kief” because of all the stuff he smoked).
Saturday we woke up, ate our final Moroccan breakfast and took in our last few breaths of Moroccan air before heading to the airport.
It was a beautiful week, Morocco. Insha’Allah.
*My family members would just like to note that we are not a family of drunks, we were merely curious to try what the region had to offer.