Last weekend I made it to my third continent, Africa! With my roommate, Alayna, and 100 other students in a Discover Excursions group, I traveled to several cities in Morocco. While in general I prefer to avoid touristy travel groups, I do not speak Arabic and my French is rusty, so I felt this was a safer option. Discover Excursions had guides who spoke English and Spanish (one was British, and no, I am not over his beautiful accent), and we met up with a couple native guides along the way, so this was a great option to see and learn about Morocco.
It was a couple-hour bus ride through the rolling Spanish countryside to get to the coast, then a 50-minute ferry ride across the Mediterranean (note: If marero, seasickness, is a problem for you, be prepared that the water does get rough). We stayed in Tétouan as our home base, a little more than an hour’s drive from each of the cities we actually spent time in. Most importantly, y’all, I got sweet new stamps in my passport! I’m an international travel rookie; bear with me as I get excited about getting my passport stamped.
I know when people look at the development lag and the civil wars that it’s easy to see this continent as a lost cause (aside: Africa is massive and you should never make lump assumptions about it in its entirety). But y’all, Africa is BEAUTIFUL. The landscape is dreamlike, and the people I encountered were so kind. I can’t speak for the entire continent, but what I saw in Morocco was potential for growth and development, and I returned with a new compassion for the people I met. I don’t know how to fully describe the beauty of Morocco, but here are some of the highlights, and I hope my photos can even begin to convey what I experienced here.
Chefchaouen- Without question my favorite city we visited, not even a contest. Known as the “Blue City,” the Medina (“Old City”) of Chefchaouen is a maze of winding narrow roads with buildings of every shade of blue you could imagine. I have more photos of blue doors than I know what to do with. The blue is meant to seal in heat in the winter and keep homes cool in the summer, and it’s also supposed to ward off insects. Chefchaouen is built into the mountains, not all the way to the peak but fairly high up, so exploring the city was a major stairs workout. It was pretty grey when we went, but the contrast of clouds touching the mountaintops and the greenery of the mountains with the bright blue city was absolutely stunning.
Our tour guide told us that the community comes together to paint the buildings three times a year, on certain Muslim holidays. He also showed us the one bakery where all the women go to bake their dough and socialize each morning. In addition to schools for the youngest children, the Old City has language schools for older adult students (grade-school kids go to the New City schools). And he described the Old City as only middle class, because they all take care of each other. It was fascinating to see how much this society emphasizes neighborly, even familial, relations among its people.
Here we had our first go at bargaining, which is the norm in Arab markets. It’s hard at first, but I think I got the hang of it by the end. The most important thing is not to rush; take your time and make a personal connection with the seller. If you know any Arabic, even if it’s a couple words, use it. Everywhere, people appreciate your efforts to speak the local language. At the end of one conversation (in Spanish), a vendor saw our efforts to use the couple Arabic words we knew and taught us how to say “nice to meet you.” One of the most impressive things about Morocco is that almost everyone we met could speak Arabic, French, Spanish, and English—maybe not all fluently, but enough to communicate. In one store, I said, “How are you?” in Spanish, the man answered me in French, and when I left I said “thank you” in Arabic and he answered me in English. So cool. It also helps with bargaining if you aren’t obviously a complete outsider, i.e. if you’re blond you will have a harder time. Many of the Arabs in Morocco are more fair-skinned than in other countries, so my ¼ Egyptian blood came in handy and a couple of people thought I was of Arab descent (thanks, Grandpa!), minus my Western clothing of course.
Tánger- We took a bus tour around the city with a local guide. Tánger is much more modern and urbanized, and at a glance it looks like any other city I’ve seen. A huge residential complex was being built for anticipated labor—here foreign companies can produce tax-free for 5 years to attract investment. (We debated in my economics class whether such policies are fair and really help the developing country or if the giant corporation is getting the better end of that deal, but I’ll save that conversation for later). Here we stopped at a cliff from which you can see the coast of Spain on a clear day…which would have been cool if not for the rain and fog. We also saw a lighthouse outside the city. As we passed several mosques, our guide noted that white and green are sacred colors in Islam. “Blue is also sacred, you know? Like the sky, the heavens…it opens your heart,” he added poetically.
Assilah- This coastal town is known for its art, and murals filled many of the walls, sort of like graffiti but not exactly. Maybe it was just the area we were in, but Assilah felt much less crowded than Chefchaouen or Tánger, almost somewhat deserted. Here we practiced our bargaining skills with some vendors, and one of the guys in our group played soccer with a couple kids, which was super cute.
On our way out of Tánger and into Assilah, we stopped at a beach and rode camels, which is not as easy as it looks. Camels stand up with their back legs first, so I had to hold on for dear life as I fell forward. I tried to move with the camel like you would do when trotting on a horse, and let me tell you, that is no joke of a workout. It was really fun though! And the man leading us was great. He was totally having fun mimicking American tourists: “Oh my God, I love camels!” (I can’t express his tone of voice in writing, so you’ll have to trust me that it was hilarious). While we waited for the rest of our group to ride we walked down a long flight of sandy stairs to the shore. I cannot begin to explain how happy I was to see the beach again after a few years away. It was too cold to get in the water, but we did find some pretty shells, and I could have listened to the waves for hours.
And finally, what kind of young traveler would I be if I didn’t take photos of the delicious foreign foods I tried? Moroccan salad isn’t mixed; all the ingredients—lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, corn, beets, potatoes (yep, good salad for me), rice (apparently that’s a thing in salads?)—were separated on the plate. The couscous was amazing, and we ate a lot of couscous or rice with various types of baked or grilled chicken (something I really, really miss in Spain). The best was cooked with sweet onions and I think apples; I absolutely love the sort of sweet-savory spice of Moroccan food. We also had harira, a soup whose ingredients I’m not quite sure of, and bread that almost tasted sweet. Fruit—apples, oranges, bananas—is a common dessert. And of course, because breakfast is not really a big deal in Spain (which is a totally separate rant), I thoroughly enjoyed my Moroccan breakfast. Pistachio pudding, really good pastries, and, to my surprise, tomatoes and cucumbers, my favorites! Usually the cucumbers I eat are pretty neutral tasting; these had a really strong, fresh flavor. And finally, when we arrived at the hotel we were served the traditional welcome tea, which is a very sweet mint tea. Honestly, and it makes me sad to say, this tea lover didn’t really like it, because I never sweeten my tea at all. Some Texans in our group compared it to southern sweet tea, just mint-flavored…so I guess for them it was a little taste of home.
If I haven’t said so enough already, Morocco was amazing. I already want to go back, both to Morocco and to other countries in Africa. That’ll be another adventure for another time.