The Fez Medina

As I was sitting at lunch today, I realized that I will never tire of people watching in the Fez Medina. With over 9800 streets, the Medina in Fez is by far the largest Medina in Morocco. It’s almost impossible not to get lost, and it’s inevitable that you’ll have some great entertainment along the way.
I decided to eat lunch in a small, covered side street of the Medina. In an otherwise torn up alleyway, a man and his wife set out plastic chairs around a small table and covered it in a regal purple velvet for a “classy” effect.
“Please!” Announced the man “my wife makes all the food! Come have a salad”
Even though I’d just turned down the touts at about 100 restaurants along the way, this mans enthusiasm drew me to have a snack. He reminded me of a plump version of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful. His excitement over his wife’s food, the way he smiled and yelled “beautiful!!” after I told him everything tasted great, and the way he jumped around trying to make it all perfect: adjusting napkins, running to the corner store for cold water, checking salt and pepper levels. But he was right, his wife’s cooking was sensational!
It amazes me how many things can happen all at once in a medina. While I ate at the velvet covered patio table, a man across the alley sold dates in front of an old public fountain. Next to him, a rooster perched on the edge of a parked motorcycle, crowed away incessantly. Beside the rooster was an iron worker, sending sparks flying into the sky towards me while he welded together a cast iron chair, sans protective gear.
All of a sudden a man yelled “balak!” Meaning “get out of the way” as he dragged a huge horse through the medina, carrying close to 14 propane tanks on it’s back. This is all such a normal spectacle, no one bats an eye at the absurdity of it all.
The medina has some of the worlds most unusual combination of sights, and yet the only thing people notice that’s amiss from their everyday life is me…
“Shakira! You’re back!” Announces a man as I pass by him for a third time today, wandering around in a circle, trying to find my bearings in the labyrinth. The problem with getting lost here is, everyone notices. A thousand people must have passed by him since I’d wandered by, yet I’m the one he remembers.
“Come try my dates now, Shakira!”
“La, Shukran” I answer.
“La Shukran! La Shukran! Always no thank you! You kill me Shakira”
Everyone calls me Shakira here in Morocco. Whether it’s the only blonde woman they have ever seen before, or it once got a positive reaction and the word spread nation wide I’m not sure. But, c’est la vie, it’s my newest nickname and I hear it everywhere I go.
As I come upon a familiar street, all I hear are whispers of “chameau, chameau!”. “Chameau” is the French word for “camel”. Camels are given to women as dowry gifts when a wedding is arranged. A beautiful woman in Morocco will usually get between 200 and 300 camels for a dowry, an ugly one, just 3.
“I will give you 3000 camels” yells a young guy as I pass by in the street.
“I will give you all the camels in Morocco” shouts the man across from him. I roll my eyes… There’s no way he can follow through on that promise!
In front of me a young guy sees me walking, he turns around to his clothing store, takes a mannequin and immediately rips it’s hand away from it’s body. I stood, shocked as he turned around to face me with it.
“Madam!” He announces, “I give you my hand… in marriage” and passes me the amputated plastic hand. I had to laugh. I respect his pun, but reject his proposal.
Apparently the medina is a good place to find husbands! On top of that it’s a fabulous place for some retail therapy, and it’s also a workplace for thousands and thousands of Moroccans. Restaurateurs, metal workers, weavers, salesmen, and most notably in Fez, leather workers.
The tanneries are one of Fez’s most popular sites. The city is known for it’s supple leather: jackets, bags, wallets and more. There are three tanneries in Fez, the largest of which I managed to visit.
You can tell you’re close to a tannery because of the utterly nauseating stench that emanates through the nearby streets… The hides of sheep and cow and camel, sitting in the heat of the day; the mix of pigeon poo, cow urine and limestone; and the chemical smell of the dyes used to colour each pelt. It’s horrific to say the least. Tourists are given mint sprigs to hold in front of their noses to freshen the air, but no amount of mint can hold back the reek of the tanneries.
Tannery work is important work. People are born into the profession, and work at their jobs with a certain sense of pride: fez leather is the best leather. But with all the prestige of the final result, the work is terrible. It’s ancient methods come along with ancient safety procedures. Men work in temperatures reaching up to 47 degrees, with no skin protection, wading in chemicals that reach thigh high. They are paid per hide, instead of per hour, so speed is a more important factor than safety. But the process is fascinating: hides are dried, washed and stripped of hair. They are then soaked in a mix of limestone, pigeon excrement and cow urine. From there they are moved to pits filled with natural dyes: indigo, saffron or poppy. Then finally, they are laid in the sun to dry again. The process is insane to watch. Looking down from the terraces of neighboring shops give you the best view of the chaos below.
It’s true, I will never get tired of people watching in the Fez Medina. It is a world of unusual sights and smells and sounds, and you’re bound to find something new around each corner. Unfortunately, my time in Morocco has come to a close, and Barcelona awaits as my next adventure!

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The Hammam

Let me tell you about the time I found myself in the center of Fez, sitting on cardboard, on the wet floor of a dilapidated old building, naked, while a plump old Moroccan woman scrubbed me vigorously with sandpaper…
There are varying degrees of luxury when it comes to Moroccan Hammams. The Turkish Bath style spa can be anything from a 5-star pampering to a 10 dirham scrub. Regardless of the comfort level, however, the basics are all the same, and you are guaranteed to come out at the end feeling fresh and clean!
I opted for the public Hammam: one that I’m pretty sure no tourist has ever stepped foot in: because that’s how I roll.
Hammam’s are all separated for men and women. Sometimes they have two different rooms: one for men, and one for women. But often it is one area with separate entry times: the morning for women and the afternoon for men. Once inside there are all sorts of steps and etiquettes to follow. Even after reading the process extensively online, I forgot all of the rules upon walking into the building. How many buckets do I need? Where do I fill them? What do I do with this black soap? Which room am I supposed to do each step?! I was definitely a tourist.
I never would have guessed from the outside that the building held a Hammam. The man from the convenience store where I purchased my black soap pointed to a doorway in a back alley, said “Hammam,” and that was that. The building was old and looked as if it could crumble at anytime. I walked through the front entrance and was greeted by two smiling old women.
“As-salamu Alaykum”
And that was the last word I understood. From there it was all charades. The two ladies ushered me inside to what must have been the dressing room. Flickering fluorescent blue lights; a rough, concrete floor; tiles falling off the wall; a thin bench and an alcove with a mop and bucket in it. One lady motioned for my to take off my clothes while she did the same, and then she unceremoniously dragged me into an equally aesthetically pleasing second room. This was the cold room. A beginning and ending point to fill your buckets and cool off from the heat. She grabbed four empty plastic buckets from the corner. The buckets were much larger than I had imagined, each able to hold around 20L or so. They were dust covered and old, but clearly they did the trick. When the buckets were sorted I was motioned into the second room. This was the hot room.
It was not quite as hot as a sauna, but definitely warm enough to start sweating. Two other women were in the room with children, lathering themselves in a thick black soap. They both smiled, probably a little shocked to see me in there, but then excited as they started talking to me in rapid French. With the sound of rushing water and the echo of the room I couldn’t make out a single word they said to me. While I smiled and nodded to the ladies, my little, old, plump bucket lady organized the water. From what I read, at least one bucket needs to be cold water and one hot. The buckets need to be filled from a larger, communal wash tub, and wasting water is frowned upon. But all four of my buckets were mixed to be a warm, but not particularly hot, water. Bucket lady poured water from one bucket to another, clearly in some sort of order, until all was set. When that was organized, she found a piece of cardboard, threw it on the ground and motioned for me to sit.
First was water.
Bucket lady used a small pail to scoop water out of the water buckets and pour it over my head. After about 8 or 9 small pails, the large bucket was picked up and dumped over me… About 16 liters of warm water rushed over me and my little cardboard seat on the floor. By the time I had wiped the water from my eyes the woman had the soap ready. The black soap I had bought from the convenience store was like an oily jelly. She passed it to me and said something in Arabic, while she motioned for me to start rubbing it on myself. The other ladies were still chatting away to me in French. They didn’t seem to care that I didn’t understand them. They talked away and showed me how to rub the soap in the way they did. Just as I was getting the hang of it, I was doused with more water. Splash! Another 20 liters of water was poured over my head!
Next, Bucket Lady sat down next to me and put on a sandpaper-like glove. With the soap washed off, it was time for my hardy noticeable tan to go as well. It started with my back. She scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed until all the dead skin was gone, and then arms and hands and all the way down to my feet. It was painful, but also relaxing. Kind of like getting a Thai massage, where you’re not sure if this is the worst experience of your life or the most relaxing one. The scrubbing went on for quite a while. All the dead skin needed to be removed. And when bucket lady was satisfied, another 20L of water was splashed down over my head.
With my freshly pink skin, it was time for more black soap, and a shampooing for my hair! Then more water and then more soap again. I must have gone through 16 tubs of water by the time the process was over! My eyes were stinging lightly from the amount of water in my eyes, and my bum was getting sore, despite the cardboard cushioning between me and the cracked tiled flooring. When it was all done I was moved back into the cool room and then back to the dressing room, where the first woman toweled me off and gave me back my clothes.
It wasn’t a luxurious spa experience by any means, but I wasn’t looking for one. The women were so nice and I felt refreshed as ever as I walked out from the dark building and into the bright world outside. I had survived a Moroccan Hammam and it was great!
But all the scrubbing pain was worthwhile, when later that night I hugged a friend goodbye.
“Your skin is soooo soft!” She exclaimed afterwards.
“Well thanks! An old, naked lady scrubbed me down with sandpaper today!” Looks like it worked!

Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech

When I first arrived at Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech’s main square, it was during the call of prayer. There are at least four mosques within earshot of the square, and the whole place lit up with the praising of Allah over the microphone. It was like dueling mosques: the sounds from one, repeated seconds later on the other side of the square from another. It was an exhilarating way to enter into one of Morocco’s craziest cities. The square was bustling with anticipation: people setting up food stands, selling trinkets and playing music. Snake charmers sat on the ground with baskets and played their enchanting music on flutes. It was early in the evening, and the place had not yet “taken off”. I found my hostel without any problem, and was so proud of myself for being able to locate my way through the winding streets. After getting settled in, I wandered back to the square to find food.
I’ve spend three non-consecutive nights in Marrakech, and no matter what I’ve intended to see or do during the city, I’ve always been drawn back to Djemaa el-Fna. The place has a certain gravitational pull, that is alluring and exciting. It’s crazy, and it’s chaotic and it arouses all the senses at once. At night, the place is filled with over 100 food stalls. The cooks yell over their smoke filled grills to entice you eat from their stall. The busy staff speak a little bit of a million languages, yelling at you in English, Spanish, German, French, you name it. They all have their own lines to get you in. “25, feel alive!”, “I’m number 1, literally!” One guy came up to me and spoke in a perfect cockney accent. I was so shocked I stood around just to hear what he had to say. It was such an unusual accent on a Moroccan man. Next to the food stalls are men with carts full of sweets. 15 sweets for 30 dirham! Then the juice stands… Row upon row upon row of orange juice stands. All selling freshly squeezed orange juice for 4 dirham. Interspersed between the juice stands were men selling nuts: peanuts, candy coated almonds, pistachios, dates, dried figs. How all these stalls compete against one another is beyond me.
Beyond the food and drinks is the entertainment. Snake charmers, magicians, beggars, men with monkeys climbing on their shoulders: there are dancers and drummers and musicians of all kinds. People sit in circles around the musicians, listening to sounds blend from all over the square into a cacophony of noise. The square is unlike anything I’ve experienced before. It is madness at it’s greatest.
After three evenings of this, and wandering around the maze of souks, looking at all the things I shouldn’t buy, but desperately wanted, I decided it was enough. Time to move on from the Marrakech craze. My final stop in Morocco would be Fez, the oldest and arguably the most revered city in the country.

(No pictures can do this place justice, and all the entertainers charge you to take photos, so I’m sorry I don’t have any to include here)

The Sahara Desert

It was a grueling, 2-day journey to the Sahara Desert; cramped up in the back seat of a 15 passenger van, crunched over the wheel-well, I never thought I’d feel my legs ever again. Our tourist stops involved all 15 of us being dragged out of the car, usually in the freezing cold and wind to take photos of whatever was in front of us. Our driver spoke no English, but smiled and pointed and kept repeating “Photo! Photo!” It could have been the most famous sight in Morocco, or it could have been a donkey stall: none of us had a clue. We started each morning at least an hour after schedule. The first day we drove around Marrakech for over two hours picking people up, switching cars, realizing we were with the wrong driver, and switching again. The second day we waited 45 minutes for two Moroccan girls from Rabat to put on lipstick and fake eyelashes: only the finest for the desert! Then we piled in the van and hit the road. After our lunch stop, it was a race against the sun to make it to the desert for our sunset camel ride. Every stop seemed to take longer than expected. The 4 minute allotted time at the scarf shop, and 20 minutes at the Berber carpet factory turned into 15 minutes and 45 respectively. I felt like we were sheep being herded around, not knowing quite where to look and what to do. But at least I was a happy sheep.
It took all our skills to keep our driver awake for the final leg of the trip. He kept nodding off as we sped through the Atlas Mountains. We clapped and played music and kept talking to him, even though he didn’t understand us. We were determined to make it there: alive! When we did arrive, there were no camels. The other tour group had made it mere seconds before us, and even though we checked in and were ready before them, they took the camels and left us behind.
“Where are our camels?” We asked various people that looked like they were in charge.
“Yes. It’s no problem! No problem!” They smiled at us. But it was a problem. We were sitting at the edge of the desert with no camels, and the sun was going to set in a half hour.
It turns out, the company had overbooked. They sent us out on the tour, knowing there were limited camels, but figure it could be first come first serve.
“We thought there were 12 of you, not 15” one man said “so three more camels are coming, Inshallah”
Inshallah means “god willing” in Arabic. It is such a common phrase here in Morocco, and one I’ve even picked up saying over the past ten days. “I will come back to Morocco, Inshallah” or “the sun will be out tomorrow, Inshallah” but not “the camels are coming, Inshallah” this left me to believe that maybe the camels weren’t actually coming…
As the rest of the group got upset I stood up and walked over to the man who told us the camels were coming.
“Bonjour Monsieur. Can you please tell me when the last three camels are coming?”
“5 minutes”
“Okay, then shall we get the other twelve people on the camels while we’re waiting. Then we won’t miss the sunset?” After seeing how long it took us to do everything, this seemed like the most logical plan of action.
“It’s no problem, Fatima. The camels will come. You can sit down”
“I’d rather go see the camels thanks. Can we go see the camels?”
“Sure. No problem. That way.” He pointed towards a doorway leading out of the courtyard.
I walked outside with three of the girls I’d become close with during the two day drive. As we walked out, we found that there were not 12 camels, but only 5.
“Come come!” One man urged us over to him. “Get on, we must go” he pulled one of the girls over and dragged her on to the camel.
“But I’m not with this group” she said. The camels were in a line of 8. The first three already had people from the first group on them, the last five were empty.
“It’s ok. Everyone together. Get on” confused, she got on. Then the three of us, and finally one more girl that came along with the rest of our group got on the remaining four.
“Ok. We go now” and our camels stood up (with squeals from the girls as we nearly tumbled off) and started forward.
“But the rest of us…” We stammered.
“It’s okay. They are coming. We are all coming”
So that was that. We started off on the camels and into the desert. It wasn’t minutes later that all was forgotten. The car ride, the waiting, the sore bums, the forgotten group members: we were in the Sahara Desert!
It was truly magical riding on camelback through the desert as the sun set behind us. I’ve always wanted to visit the Sahara. I remember watching a movie as a child called “A Far Off Place” about two kids that were forced to brave crossing the Sahara by foot (upon fact checking, it was actually the Kalahari desert, but I’ve always thought it was the Sahara, and you get the point). Even though I haven’t seen the film in close to 2 decades, it still sticks in my mind as being otherworldly, a place of danger and excitement.
We rode bumpily over the dunes, taking photos and laughing about how uncomfortable downhill camel riding is. About an hour in our bums were as sore as they were in the car, and we remembered our forgotten group members back at Merzouga.
“Do you think they made it on the camels?” We wondered.
Just then, from away in the distance we saw black shapes moving towards us.
“That must be the other camels!” We were delighted that they’d made it, since we felt a little guilty being the ones that made it on. But the black shape moved much faster than any camels we’d seen. Soon we realized that it was a 4×4 driving towards us. We heard screams and yelling as it drove closer.
When it came around a closer dune we saw that it was all our group members, half on top of the 4×4, holding on to the roof rack, plummeting up and down sand dunes towards us. With each dip, they screamed in whoops of half fear and half excitement.
Turns out the camels never arrived. But the alternative was to get a wild ride through the desert to camp. Tomorrow the camels would come, Inshallah.
We arrived at camp, after dark, two hours after we left. The air was still surprisingly warm, and we were beginning to get skeptical about everyone telling us how cold the desert was at night. We were shown to our tent, which was a wooden frame, covered in Berber blankets, with four thin mattresses on the ground. It was sweltering hot inside, so we dropped our things and went for dinner.
The dinner tent was huge. It felt like a wedding or circus tent, with one giant curtain, as the ceiling and walls. It was simply set up with some folding chairs and tables for food. The food they served was some of the best I’d had in Morocco, and by far the best we’d had on our trip. Fresh bread, rice, and a huge Tagine with vegetables and chicken. One massive platter of each was placed in the middle of each table, and it was a free for all, no plates kind of a meal. The food was perfectly seasoned and cooked, I was so impressed that this all came from the desert!
When we’d sufficiently stuffed ourselves, we decided to hike the big sand dune next to camp to watch the stars. This was a bigger task than anticipated, as we climbed one step up and slid two steps back through the sand. It was dark, and windy, and our calves were burning just a quarter of the way up. At three quarters of the way up, it was getting so windy we figured we were better off lower down. So we sat at the midway mark, looking down at the ant-like lights buzzing around below us in the camp. We chatted and watched for shooting stars as we tried to pick out the constellations that we knew. It’s much more difficult to see the patterns when there are a billion stars in the sky! Then out if nowhere a young man came strolling down out of the darkness from the top of the hill to sit with us. He was from Costa Rica, and just happened to study Astrology in school. He showed us all the constellations, and how to properly see stars…
“Don’t look AT the star,” he explained “if you look next to it you will see it. It is our peripheral vision that detects light”
When we’d seen enough shooting stars, and the temperature began to drop, we left the random Costa Rican man and headed for the fire below. We realized afterwards, that in the darkness we had never even seen the guy’s face, and we’d never gotten his name. We didn’t see him again, so we referred to him as our “star angel” who may or may not have been a mirage in the desert.
Downhill was much easier, as we cruised down the sand dune to the campfire that had been lit below. The local guides were playing the drums and singing, so we all got up to dance around the fire. After a little while, however, the guides were right and it did get cold. With a six am start time, we figured it was bed time. So we curled up in our probably bed bug infested mattresses and went to sleep.
At 6am we were woken up and herded towards to camels again. Our guide had said all the camels arrived in the night, so everyone could take a camel back. So we hopped on and started our two-hour journey back to Mergouza. The way back was even more painful. We hadn’t quite recovered from yesterday’s ride, and on top of that our calves were still sore from our dune hike. But the sunrise was worth it! The light coming over the dunes and spreading over the sea of sand that lay in front of us was worth every moment of pain on the journey. But two more hours on the camels was enough time, and our stomachs were growling as we reached camp for breakfast.
When we arrived however, we learned that the camels had not shown up at the camp. Two of the people who had been left behind before were left behind again. They had to take the jeep back to Merzouga and they were not impressed. Nor would I be.
Luckily, they were sent sand boarding while we trekked back, and when our camels arrived, they set out for an hour trek on their own.
The Sahara Desert trek, although sometimes disorganized, was worth every penny. At only $100 for the three days, it was a steal in terms of price. This was definitely a bucket list item crossed off.
To finish our three day journey we spent another 12 hours driving back to Marrakech. It was painful from the get-go. But we made it back in one piece, and I’d do it all over again on a heartbeat!

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Fifteen Minutes of Fame… And Then Some: Ait Ben Haddou

It’s a sad truth that many places I visit in the world are disappointing. Well disappointing isn’t quite the word for it, more that, my ignorant, Hollywood skewed, image of things isn’t exactly what I had envisioned. For example, not everyone in Namibia lives in the bush and speaks in a clicking dialect. Similarly, the pyramids of Egypt, sit right on the edge of a bustling city, instead of standing alone, deep within the Egyptian desert. Hollywood films have often distorted our reality of how places on the other side of the world look, which is fair enough, it’s their job to make the world magical…
The tiny village of Ait Ben Haddou in central Morocco is the opposite of that. It’s actually how I envisioned all of Morocco to look more or less. Why is that? Probably because this little town is also the set of many, many Hollywood films.
In 1960, Ben Haddou was the setting for Lawrence of Arabia, and since then has been featured in over 27 major films. Classics like Ali Baba and the 40 Theives, and the Young Indiana Jones, and more recent films such as Gladiator, Prince of Persia, Babel and Game of Thrones have all been shot there. It is the quintessential “North Africa”. Originally built in the 1500’s, Ben Haddou is still an inhabited village. I’m not sure exactly how the locals feel about the constant stream of filmmakers in the area, but it sure has become a tourist destination due to them. And I can see why; staring at the town from across the river is one of those rare movie moments, where the place matches the ideal.

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Essaouira

The little beach town of Essaouira felt like the coastal equivalent of Chefchauoen’s mountain retreat. After spending an evening in Marrakech’s crazy medina, the cozy port town was a welcoming calm. Essaouira’s medina sits directly on the water’s edge. So close in fact, that while walking along it’s outer corridors, you can feel the ocean spray coming in over the massive walls. There aren’t many tourist sites in the little town, but you could easily get accustomed to the relaxing lifestyle the city offers. Strolling through the medina, a leisurely late morning coffee, a casual walk along Essaouira’s long stretch of beach, and a fresh seafood dinner at the port. It’s hard not to feel at ease in the little town.
I spend my one full day in Essa doing just that. It took all my strength not to buy half the medina as I wandered through spice stores and pottery shops. So I opted for a cafe au lait and some people watching instead. In the late afternoon I walked along the beach until I could hardly see the city walls anymore. I must have been lucky, because there was barely any wind that day. I’ve heard more than a few people complain about their beach walk due to the wind. Essaouira is known for it’s windy weather, and what’s normally a leisurely beach stroll can easily become a sandstorm, giving you an unwanted sandpaper scrub.
When I arrived back in the city, it was dinner time. I opted for the cheap, food stalls at the port; a “must” according to my guidebook.
I was feeling a little indulgent, and so figured I’d spend twice as much on dinner as I normally do. I walked up to one food stall that had a huge display of seafood, caught fresh that day.
“I would like 80 dirhams ($10) of food please. I’ll eat pretty much anything, so feel free to mix and match whatever you think is the best” the guy at the stall was so excited, since I was his first customer of the evening. He started grabbing this and that and putting it on a platter for me. Then he sat me down with a fresh salad and some bread rolls.
I think I may have underestimated how much food 80 dirhams was, because when my food started arriving I was overwhelmed. First, prawns. About 20 prawns on a plate were placed in front of me. Then came the fish: two massive sardines, and two other whole fish, splayed out and grilled up, were set down. Just when I thought that was everything, a bowl of calamari was given to me as well. How in the world was I going to eat all this?!
But I did, slowly but surely, one at a time. I read my book, and picked away at the tasty fish. The owner of the stall kept coming out and yelling at his staff, who were supposed to be coercing more people to have dinner, but who preferred instead to sit down at my table and ask about where I was from and how I liked the food. They would all jump up and rush around, yelling at people to come eat. Then the owner smiled at me and gave an exasperated sigh. I had to laugh.
When dinner was over I wandered through the medina again, trying to walk off the crazy amounts of food I’d just eaten. Before long I heard someone yelling.
“Hey, Canada!” I turned around to see Matt, an American guy from my hostel waving at me from across the street. He and an Australian girl were headed to a local restaurant to watch Omar, a local Moroccan they had befriended, play music. I figured I had nothing better to do than to join them.
The restaurant we went to was tiny. It only held about 15 people. The place was dark, and candle lit, and had a bench with Moroccan cushions all around the edge of the restaurant. The Aussie girl, Matt, Omar and I sat down for some tea and coffee and met up with Omar’s friend who would be playing with him. Then the show started. Omar played the guitar, while his friend kept beat on a drum and the two of them sang. The music was almost Latin sounding, with an African beat that was wonderful to listen to! They played for around 45 minutes, then sat back down to join us at the table. We chatted and played music into the evening, until I realized I was falling asleep and had to head back to the hostel.
I’m a little upset I had such little time in Essaouira. I could easily have lounged around the city for days. But there’s so much to see in the country, and my time is limited, so it was back to Marrakech the next afternoon!

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Rabat

It makes me a little sad that so many travellers decide to skip out on visiting Rabat. The capital city of Morocco, although perhaps lacking in nightlife and major tourist hotspots, is a wonderfully photogenic city. It’s a modern city, with nearly all the amenities of western culture, interspersed with ancient ruins and stunning Arab architecture.
Perhaps it was because I have family friends in Rabat, who were kind enough to show me the sites and hidden gems of the area, or perhaps it’s the very lack of tourists that makes it so appealing.
For a capital city, Rabat is fairly laid back. The crazy Medina’s of Fez and Marrakech are completely opposite from Rabat’s set prices and “I don’t care if I make a sale” attitudes. Rabat’s souks are hassle free, and yet still carry everything you could ever want to buy. Antiques, scarves, pottery, shoes, leather bags, or a full Addidas jumpsuit: the Medina carries tourist trinkets and household necessities in plentiful supply. Food venders sell bowls of steamed snails (not bad), grilled meat sandwiches and freshly squeezed fruit juices. We tried pomegranate juice that was selling for less than a dollar a glass. I could hardly see the profit in selling it for so cheap. The vendor must have gone through at least 5 pomegranates, banging the backs of them with a wooden stick to loosen the seeds, just to make one cup of juice. But it sure was delicious!
On my first day in Rabat, Tamara and I walked around the sites of the city while the girls were in school and Rick was at work. Apparently you can see all the sites of Rabat in two hours, but we managed to keep ourselves busy for two days of sightseeing. We visited Le Tour Hassan, a mosque, that was originally supposed to be the second largest in the world, at 60m high. Unfortunately, the building was left unfinished, and an earthquake destroyed parts of what was constructed. What remains, however, is a beautiful, red-brick mosque, a courtyard of half standing rows of pillars and a gorgeous, intricately designed mausoleum on the other side. There were some tourists milling about, but mostly the place was empty, apart from some ornately dressed guards on horseback at the entrance gates, and others standing at the mausoleum entrance.
From the mosque we walked along the city outskirts to the Chellah. Of all the sites in Rabat, I believe this was my favourite. Originally built by the Romans in 40AD, the ancient city of Sala Colonia was abandoned in 1154. The Chellah was later reconstructed by the Arabs in the 14th century: towers and defensive walls were constructed around the roman site. What results is a wonderful mix of cross-cultured ruins: old stones with Greek letters etched into it sit next to a dilapidated mosque, partially decorated with fragments of colored tiles. The Chellah was completely devoid of tourists. It was a little garden oasis at the edge of Rabat, just out of earshot from the bustling traffic outside. We wandered the Chellah until it was time to pick the girls up from school. Then, it was surf time.
We drove South of the city about a half hour until we made it to this beautiful stretch of sandy beach. There we met up with Bob, who owns a surf school that the girls have been taking lessons at casually for the past month or two. On the day we went, it was overcast, and being the end of the summer season, we were the only ones on the beach!
Now, my experience with surfing is limited solely to my failed attempts in Southern India. Myles and I rented terrible surf boards, and threw ourselves into 6ft waves on the beaches of Kovalam. We lasted 20 minutes, then sat on the beach to eat a chocolate bar… I was hoping this time was going to be better than the last!
The second we arrived, it was already easier. We had great surfboards, wetsuits, and an instructor: already a winning start. Even though I put my wetsuit on backwards, and didn’t understand a word our French instructor was saying, I was still having fun.
We were out in the waves for an hour. Paris and Danika were amazing: I spent most of my time being dragged across the ocean by our guide. My upper body strength is weak at the best of times, throw a current into the mix and I’m right out! I like to think of my day more as “I was AMAZING at body boarding on a really long board” rather than “I am a terrible surfer”. Regardless, the water was warm, the waves were good, and we all seemed to have fun!
When we had recovered from the waves and made ourselves presentable, we all went out to a wonderful dinner down at the river. Just outside the medina there is a big sailing ship that has been transformed into one of the coolest restaurants I’ve come across. The bow has comfy cushions and low tables, perfect for drinks, the stern is a fancy dining room and downstairs there’s a cozy lounge bar that smells like old cigar smoke. The whole thing is beautiful, and the food is delicious! It’s such a rare event to visit fancy restaurants like this one when you’re a backpacker on a budget, so I really appreciated getting spoiled! We had fresh, warm bread rolls, a wonderful salmon, and Moroccan wine. I didn’t even know Moroccans MADE wine! But it was surprisingly tasty!
Overall I had an amazing time in Rabat. I only wish I’d had more time to get to know the city!

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Chefchauoen

I can see why travellers get stuck in Chefchauoen. It’s a small haven of tranquility in an otherwise chaotic country. Chefchauoen is a tiny blue oasis, nestled in the Rif mountain range, and after only two days there, I already felt at ease in the city.
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to in Morocco has raved about Chef.
“I meant to only stay for one night, but I’ve been here for a week”: a phrase I heard more often than not as I met backpackers in the windy alleys of the Medina.
Almost all the streets and buildings in Chefchauoen are painted blue. The Jewish people that settled here wanted to reflect the blue colour of the sky, believing it would bring them closer to God. However, I’ve heard many wild theories as to why the town was blue, among them, “to keep the mosquitoes away” and “so they could film the Smurf movie”. But whatever the reason, it sure makes for a photogenic hill town.
Although picturesque, I’d be kidding myself if I said that was the main draw for backpackers. Chefchauoen, apart from being beautiful, also happens to have a massive quantity of easily available Kif (marijuana). It is equal parts beauty, relaxation and accessible marijuana that causes backpackers to venture into the Rif mountains.
I spent my time in Chefchauoen getting lost in the Medina, hiking the surrounding hills for some great panoramic views, and eating as much Tagine as possible.
The locals in Chefchauoen were lovely. Everyone was willing to point you in the right direction, offer shelter from the rain, and suggest the best things to taste in a restaurant. On my last evening I stopped in at a recommended restaurant called Bab Ssour. A Moroccan woman from Rabat invited me to sit with her. I had told her I was new in Morocco but so far had loved everything about it, primarily the food. She was so excited to hear about my trip, and my love of the local cuisine, that she asked if she could choose my dinner for the evening. Excited to try something new, I eagerly accepted.
Before I knew it I had the most delicious plates in front of me. The waiter said she had made the perfect choices! I was served some warm bread, a blended bean soup and a grilled meat with salsa for a main course. It was all incredible!
It took me ages to eat everything. I even shared my meal with a woman from the Netherlands who stared enviously at my bean soup.
When the meal was over the waiter said he wanted to bring me some special tea from Chefchauoen.
“It is a very special tea in my city, please, can I bring you some?”
The mint tea here is out of this world. Apart from being a little too sweet at some places, I’ve usually had some with every meal here. Trying a special Chefchauoen tea sounded perfect. Also, it would have been rude for me to refuse the tea from him.
So my waiter brought out the tea, along with the owner of the restaurant Saeed.
Saeed was so proud of his restaurant and so happy to hear I was enjoying my time in Morocco. He poured the tea for me, talked about my plans in Morocco, and then he carried on meeting the rest of the guests in the restaurant.
The tea was amazing. Slightly minty, but with a hint of eucalyptus as well.
“What tea is this?” I asked my waiter.
“Oh very very special. From the plants that grow in the hills here. Very relaxing tea! Very very good!”
And he was right, I was completely relaxed and ready for bed by the time I left the place…
Only retrospectively did I stop and consider what kind of local plant might be found in a very, very special tea in the marijuana capital of Morocco. Could have been eucalyptus, but then again, maybe not. Either way, it tasted incredible! If I’d had the time, I would have joined the others and stayed in Chefchauoen for weeks, but it was time for me to move onward… Next stop: the capital city of Rabat.

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The Long Road to Africa

I woke up Friday morning with a bang. Literally. A thunderstorm had rolled into Seville and the crash of thunder at 7am shook the hostel walls, waking everyone up. Rain was bucketing down and the wind pushed the window shutters wide open. After a late night chatting with new friends in the common room the night before, it took all my strength to drag my butt out of bed to close the window. Turns out rain had been pouring into the room for some time, and completely soaked all our bags that were lying under the window sill. Yup, it was going to be a long day.
I opted for paying the extra 4€ to take a taxi to the bus station, instead of fighting public transportation in the storm. I prayed there were still seats open on the bus to Algeciras. The online sites for bus bookings in Spain for some reason don’t accept Canadian credit cards. Which means all my onwards bus trips have involved crossing my fingers for free space. So far I’ve been fairly lucky, and only had to wait 4 hours for one bus onward to Granada. Luckily again, there was still space on this one too!
It was a treacherous 3 and a half hours drive South in the middle of the storm. Fork lightning crashed down a couple hundred meters from the bus, people were screaming from the thunder bangs, and I was fairly certain I was going to see a wind turbine explode as we drove through a field full of giant metal windmills in an electrical storm.
All I could think was, “there’s no way the ferries will be running to Morocco today. Not in this storm”. Then surprisingly enough, just north of the coastline, we popped out into the sunshine again!
The coast was gorgeous! It was surreal to be able to look across the straight of Gibraltar to see the coast of Africa on the other side.
I had decided to cross the straight from Algeciras to Tangier. Not only did my hostel recommend it, but my guidebook had said it was both the cheapest and most popular route across the straight… Not exactly so.
Had I read the fine print, there’s no way I would have gone the route I did. Sure it was cheap. That’s the only thing this route had going for it. 20€ and I could safely cross to Africa… But not exactly Tangier.
When our bus to Algeciras made a pitstop in Tarifa, and 90% of the bus got off, I should have known. The ferry from Tarifa, although 15€ more expensive, takes 35 minutes, and takes you to the edge of the Tangier Medina. Algeciras, which is a further 30 minutes on the bus from Tarifa, has a ferry that takes between 1.5 and 2.5 hours, and it takes you to Tangier-Med, which is a port in the middle of nowhere, 45 minutes from Tangier city. By the time I had realized this, it was too late. Looks like this journey just got significantly longer…
I managed to dodge the Algeciras touts that told me, not only did they not sell tickets at the port, but the ferry would cost 40€ and leave at 4:00 pm. My instincts told me he was crazy, and when I arrived at the port I was pleased to learn it would be 20€ and was leaving right away!
Well it was scheduled to leave right away. Our 2:00 ferry didn’t actually leave port until 3:15, but at least I was onboard. And the views of the coastline and the town of Gibraltar were enough to keep me occupied.
The route definitely wasn’t popular either. The ferry was large enough to hold hundreds upon hundreds of people… There were 6 of us that walked on the ferry. A few more drove cars on, but the ship was pretty much empty.
We arrived after nearly 2 hours into the deserted Tangier-med port. I was completely without a plan as we landed on the coast of North Africa. Originally, I wanted to head straight to Chefchauoen, but the hostel was fully booked and the last bus left at 12:30 in the afternoon. I had no money, no place to stay, no idea where to go. And yet I had the most amazing first impression of Morocco…
A local man informed us that exchange rates were much better in Tangier, and that we would only be ripped off getting money from Tangier-med. Since I and another couple I met on the ferry only had euros on us, the man paid for us all to take the 45 minute bus to Tangier. He refused to accept any money, and when we arrived, he pointed us in the right direction to a proper bank.
My card wouldn’t work at the atm, and since Friday is a holy day, the bank was closed. Luckily the couple from the UK switched me $20 worth of cash before we went our separate ways.
With $20 in my pocket and no plans, I almost felt a little anxious about what to do before the sun set. But I saw an Internet cafe across the street and looked up a hostel in the area I could book. The man that ran the VERY local Internet cafe was amazingly sweet. Arabic keyboards are more than just a little confusing, and yet he patiently walked me through how to make symbols like “@” or “.” as I needed them. When I was leaving he asked me “Your first time in Morocco?”
“Yes,” I replied
“Okay, let me tell you something…” He started. I thought he was going to warn me of the dangers, or tell me not to travel alone in the Medinas. Instead he said “you know Argan?”
I thought for a second…
“The oil?”
“Yes!” He said with a smile, “make sure you buy some before you leave Morocco. Put it in your hair and it will make it beautiful! It is the best for all the ladies in Morocco!”
I laughed and promised that I would. He then told me to make sure I didn’t pay more than 10 dirham to get to the medina where my hostel was and sent me on my way.
I was so thankful for a kind face after the unease of not knowing where I was. People in Europe were constantly asking me if I was nervous about travelling Morocco on my own as a woman. I wasn’t really, until everyone kept suggesting I should be. So far, everything seemed fine!
I paid only 10 dirham to get to the center of the medina, where many travellers were charged up to 100 dirham to go the same distance.
When I arrived at the medina I tried to translate the directions to the hostel. Medinas are confusing at best. Tiny side streets, very few signs, a chaos of people and vendors and animals all around. Some men encouraging people to eat at their restaurant gladly helped point me in the right direction, but even then I was all turned around.
Exhausted from the day and totally lost, I sat down in a park to take another look at the directions. As I sat down on the edge of a wall, three little girls that were playing nearby came and sat down near me. They whispered to each other and giggled, then inched their bums closer to me. Before I knew it they were practically sitting on my lap.
“Bonjour!” Said one little girl. They were about five or six years old, one of them younger than the other two.
“Oh, bonjour!” I said back.
They laughed, then broke into fluent French, talking rapidly at me.
I stared blankly.
“Espanol?” They asked me.
“Si, hablo Espanol” I said back.
More excited giggling from their side. As they asked me what my name was.
We did the intros, and chatted for a few minutes. Two of them were sisters and the other one their neighborhood friend. They said they wanted to talk to me because I was “muy guapa”. I laughed and thanked them. After we had run out of things I could talk about in basic Spanish I thought I might as well ask them if they had heard of the street Battouta.
At the sound of the word their eyes went wide.
“Battouta!!!! Battouta!!” They looked at each other and screamed in giddy excitement. I told them I needed to go to Al Andalusi hostel.
More screams.
They were pointing all over, jumping up and down. From what I understood in their excited shouting was that they lived nearby. They ran off to their mother, who was on the phone nearby and pointed wildly. Their mother smiled and waved them off. They ran back to me, grabbed my arm and dragged me off the wall yelling “Battouta! Battouta!”
Two of them held my hand and dragged me through the medina corridors. They paused to talk to their friends, and was slightly distracted by a vendor selling chocolate, but within a few minutes, down a side street I never would have found on my own, they pointed at a door that read. “Al Andalusi Hostal”. I had made it! I couldn’t believe they’d found it for me. I offered them a couple dirhams and said “go buy yourself a chocolate bar on me! You three are my first friends in Morocco and I want to thank you for helping me.” They smiled but refused the money. So I left them to finally check in to my hostel, finishing a long, 12 hour journey from Seville.
The hostel was beautiful, right in the middle of the medina with beautiful rooftop views of the city and the Straight of Gibraltar. The staff at the hostel were wonderful, and were so happy to hear about the little girls helping me. Thomas, one of the guys that ran the place, said he would buy them something special one day soon from me, since he saw them almost every morning in the street.
I quickly met some fellow Travellers from Australia and we all went out for a delicious meatball Tagine dinner and some mint tea. I was in heaven!
I could not have asked for a more pleasant welcome to a country. I have a feeling it’s going to be a wonderful couple weeks here…

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Changing Continents

We had two flights and 17 hours before we got to New Delhi. When I first booked the flight I thought to myself, “Why does it take so long?!” Oh, because South Africa and India are on TWO SEPARATE CONTINENTS! That’s why! Okay, maybe fitting in two continents in one trip was a silly idea. But I have no regrets! I couldn’t decide between the two places, might as well do both!
Our first flight was about 10 hours from Cape Town to Dubai. As we loaded the plane, Kelsi was told to go to the right, while I walked down the farther lane on the other side of the aircraft.
“Race you!” She said, and took off down the aisle.
My line moved at a glacial pace. One man couldn’t decide where he wanted to put his luggage and was trying to fight his way back the other direction. A family was trying to gather their children and pack all their toys, books and bags into one overhead compartment.
When I travel I usually have pretty good luck… Until the airports. Airports are where all my luck goes out the window and I’m left in utter agony for the majority of the time. I’ve been in the screaming children’s section of a 9 hour flight from London. The parents decided to leave all their wailing youngsters next to me while they quietly conversed at the back of the plane: I called it the “ball pit section” and the screeching went great with my hangover. I had an old drunk man pass out on my shoulder during my flight to Greece: a wonderful 10 hours of my life. I missed my connecting flight in Houston because of my terrible choice of security lines: much to Adam’s amusement. And we all remember the chaos of my flight to Argentina when the airport had no power: why do I travel…
Standing in the longer line in this plane was peanuts compared to the airport disasters I’ve had before. It was at least 5 minutes later than Kelsi when I stuck my head into our plane compartment and saw her sitting in her seat laughing at me. I gave her my best Adrienne impression of “I’m stuck behind a bunch if people on the stairs” look and she laughed even harder. I was still slowly working my way towards her in line when I realized she couldn’t stop laughing at me.
Okay, it was funny that I was stuck in line, but not THAT funny. Then she looked to her right, then back at me and then laughed again. I peeked my head around the line to see what she was looking at.
Kelsi and I were in the middle two seats in the middle section of the plane. On the far right was a man on his own, then Kelsi, then me, then the LARGEST man I’ve ever seen on an airplane!
I don’t want to make fun of him, he was a lovely man, but he DID take up all of his seat, and half of mine. The flight attendant ACTUALLY had to give him an extra seatbelt to clip on to the first one so that he could be strapped in. Of course I would get that seat.
Then, about five minutes into the flight, the seat in front of me flew back, crushing me in even further. Kelsi found this hilarious. If I’d had room to move my arms, I would have slapped her.
This flight is where I realized that I have difficulty doing normal things in cramped spaces. Taking off a sweater? Not a chance! I wriggled and squirmed for about five minutes before I squeezed myself out of it. I dropped every one of my utensils on the ground, but couldn’t contort my body enough to pick it up again. So I sat, straight as an arrow in the left half of my little airplane seat, and watched a movie… For 10 hours.
During the flight Kelsi watched Twilight 4 times. Yup, that’s right, FOUR times. Apparently she still doesn’t know what it’s about (and I thought MY flight experience was bad).
Well it was excruciating, but we did land in the Dubai airport. We had a couple hours layover and were total zombies the entire time. All I wanted to do was go to sleep! Kelsi Skyped her parents on the wifi while I struggled to hold myself together. It was one of those “I’ve never been so tired and haggard in my life” moments. I couldn’t wait to get on ANOTHER flight.
Our second flight was much quicker, but I can’t exactly tell you what happened. I was in a state of limbo: half awake and half asleep. I don’t remember watching a movie, but I didn’t sleep either. I just stared off into oblivion like the undead and waited for the plane to land.
Eventually it did land. Thank goodness. And we stumbled our way into India…