I found a really cheap flight from Paris to Fes on Ryanair, a very, very low cost European airline. Think along the lines of Spirit Air, but on steroids for cost cutting measures (and thus nickel and diming you). You may have heard the rumors about standing room only seats or having to pay to use the restroom on the flights: yea, its that airline, but no those rumors aren’t true (at least not yet anyway). They offer super-low base fares and charge for all of the extras. So if you play by their rules you can get flights for as cheap as $10 (but don’t worry Mom, their safety record is superb). But because of their very strict restrictions for bag weights (including carry-ons), I spent about 20 minutes in the airport using their scales re-shuffling my bags, and putting on additional sweatshirts in order to make the weights of both my checked and carry-on bags acceptable. But in the end it saved me 50 euros (~$65) in fees.
I got to Fes and the dizzying labyrinth that is the medina. The most interesting part of Fes for me was the tannery. Though it smelled as absolutely horrible as you would expect; it was fun to see how they prepare leather right in the heart of the medina. I was thinking about buying a new leather purse, until the guy explained that they use pigeon poop to make it soft… Not the best sales technique I witnessed. Nor was the guy who yelled at me “if you don’t want a guide, go back to your own country”, when I refused to pay someone to walk next to me in the medina and steer me towards their cousins shop under the pretense of being a “guide”.
The trains in Morocco are surprisingly efficient (and cheap!). So the next stop for me was Rabat, the capital. There isn’t a whole lot to do there, but it is on the Atlantic coast, so seeing the same ocean I had seen in France a couple of days ago was cool, and much warmer this time! Wandering through the winding and narrow streets, I came upon a very pretty area of buildings. The top half was painted white, while the bottom half was blue. The best explanation I have heard for the reasoning behind this unique color scheme is that you have white on the top so that it won’t absorb the sunlight (and thus keep the building cooler), but you have blue on the bottom so that the white isn’t blinding you as you walk down the street. It seems to make sense in a weird kind of way, but I can’t verify that that is really the reasoning. Nevertheless, it was a very pretty site to stumble upon.
Even though Casablanca, as the financial capital of Morocco, doesn’t offer tourists much more than a modern city; I felt compelled to at least stop by for a day because it’s such a famous city (though I haven’t even seen the movie of the same name). The port seems to be operational because I got a finger wagged at me when I tried walking in the general vicinity of the shipping containers. But I’m certainly no expert on port operations, as the only knowledge I have is from the HBO series “The Wire”, season two. Also along the coast line is the Hassan II Mosque. It is the world’s third largest mosque and can hold up to 25,000 Muslims inside (as its only open to non-Muslims on an expensive guided tour), and an additional 80,000 in the courtyards surrounding it. It was built to commemorate the former king’s 60th birthday. This is an undeniably beautiful building with more intricate details than the Taj Mahal contains.
Essaouira is another beach-side city. As a non-“beach person” and a non-seafood eater, it didn’t have much to offer me but more views of the Atlantic, and of course another medina. Seeing the freshly caught seafood proudly displayed, some of which I would swear was still wiggling around on the tables, combined with the atrocious smell of the boat area made me nearly throw up. But apparently that looks appetizing to some people…
The city of Marrakesh has by far the greatest number of tourists in Morocco. This translates into more hassling for the accompanying tourist dollars (or more commonly, euros). Djema al-Fna is the epicenter of Marrakesh. This square has the snake charmers, jugglers, acrobats, and musicians – basically probably what you think of when you think Morocco. The medina that is located to the north is yet another maze of shops selling everything from leather goods, lamps, pottery, and of course the knock-off imports from China. Since it is so hard for me to find shoes that fit in the USA because of my extraordinarily narrow feet, which in Morocco are called “Arabic feet”, not the wider “Berber feet”, I finally gave in and bought some leather shoes because they actually stay on my feet!
Desert Safari to the Sahara
I booked (after intense negotiation of course) a three day safari out into the Sahara Desert. Because you drive basically to the border with Algeria, I got to see a lot of stuff along the (very long) drive. The Atlas Mountains were very pretty to see, even though driving through them was a little nerve-wracking at times with the crazy Moroccan drivers. Then was Ouarzazate, the “Hollywood” of Morocco. Actually some pretty famous movies, including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, and The Mummy were all shot in the area (none of which I have actually seen – apparently I need to stop traveling so much and start watching movies). I went to the Musee de Cinema which could quite possibly take the title of worst museum I have ever been in. There were only a couple movie sets, and those were from some movies I had never even heard of. I think the best part was the posters of the movies I had heard of…
They took us to a Kasbah, which is a traditional Berber (the local, indigenous people) community. The houses are made of a mud-type stucco material mixed with straw (for tensile strength I’m assuming – engineering nerd alert!). They showed (well more like attempted to sell) their Berber carpets. While I’m sure they were good quality and a “good price”, but trying to sell large carpets to a bunch of backpackers headed into the desert on camels isn’t the most logistical idea.
Then finally came the desert! Sleeping in a Berber tent out in the middle of the desert wasn’t roughing it nearly as much as I had expected. We actually had mattresses! Though when I asked where the “bathroom” was (usually when camping you designate a specific area, though there are obviously not actual facilities), and the guy replied “everywhere”. Consequently, people were peeing outside my tent all night, so the morning became a game of jumping around to avoid the “land mines” people so kindly left so close to the camp. Riding a camel for an hour and a half from the van to the camp site was a fun novelty at first, but after about a half hour my legs and butt went numb, which was not quite as pleasant. But still, riding a camel through the Sahara Desert amongst the dunes was a very cool adventure. Rain has seemed to follow me around pretty much everywhere I go, and the desert was no exception – it actually hailed!
Overall Morocco was more challenging to travel than most places I have been. The language barrier was much larger than average for starters. Because the country was under French control for so long, the main languages people speak are Arabic and French – neither of which are very useful to me. I actually had to communicate in my broken Spanish (usually more like Spanglish), because on occasion somehow my Spanish was better than their English (which I would have never ever assumed). And secondly, but a much more annoying feature was the hassling factor. I had been warned that Morocco touts were as bad as or worse than Egypt and I definitely found that to be true. It’s one thing if I enter the souqs (markets) and people harass you to buy stuff, but it’s completely another to not be able to sit in the Cyber Park (which true to its name actually has little internet terminals!) and eat an orange without multiple people pestering me for absolutely no reason.