With some new travel partners I was excited to get on with my first real day of enjoying Morocco.
The hostel put on a small breakfast consisting of pastries and cafe au lait. The pastries were very tasty but it’s always difficult for me to transition from the typical hearty American breakfast I eat at home.
Dominique, Rob, Lauren and Lizzie and I decided to explore Fes el Jedid, the new medina of Fes. While it is called the “new” medina, it is anything from new. Built about 900 years ago, the medina is a walled medieval area where most people live, shop, and eat.
It wasn’t a very far walk so we passed on taking a cab. Before arriving at the entrance to the medina, we passed the king’s palace with it’s beautiful tiled walls and towering carved doors.
Entering the medina is like stepping into another world. The walkways are thin and often difficult to navigate with the crowds. You had better be prepared to hug a wall when a donkey cart comes rolling through!
You’re presented with an abundance of sights, sounds and smells. Fresh foods are being cooked in a stall next to a shop specializing in rugs or finely woven silk. The goods are amazingly beautiful with the exception of freshly butchered legs of lamb and the occasional head as well. That was certainly a surprise.
The new medina was less threatening than expected. The guide books warn of unofficial guides looking to hustle you or rude shop keepers whistling at passing girls. We had a few people try very hard to get us into their shops, but we didn’t have any problems.
After exploring the winding streets of the new medina we headed to the Jewish cemetery and paid 10dh to enter. Fes once had a very large Jewish population and nearly every one of them who died there were buried at this cemetery. Bleached white headstones mark the above ground graves and a few small mausoleums have lit candles that look like they had been burning for weeks. At the far end was a wall which offered us a great view of kids playing football down below.
After the cemetery we headed back to the hostel and had Abdullah help book us an official guide to tour the old medina in the afternoon.
The girls decided to buy some snacks for lunch at a small shop but Rob and I opted for a bigger meal. We found a street front cafe and took a seat on the patio. For about $4 or $5 I had a salad with a plate of chicken kabobs, fries and hummus. It was quite tasty and the price was certainly fair.
Back at the hostel we met up with three people from Scotland who had also hitch hiked all the way to Morocco. They asked about joining in with us on the tour. Dominique decided to go at it alone so we had a group of seven. The tour guide didn’t seem to mind. It was much cheaper being split seven ways so at the end we gave him a pretty decent tip.
Fes el Bali, the old medina, was fascinating. It was much larger than the new medina yet the walkways were much thinner. It is built on a hill and there is no method to the layout of the hundreds of streets. I would have been extremely lost without a guide.
He took is to a mosque/madressa which I was surprised to be able to enter. It was small, but so unbelievably detailed that I was in awe.
There were so many sights to stop and look at but eventually we made our way up to where the leather tanneries are located. We visited a shop where we were shown some leather goods (the story of any tour in Morocco will likely involve being taken to a shop). After a short sales pitch we were walked to the back of the shop where there was a wonderful view of the tanneries below. Unfortunately the work had already ceased for the day but the smells coming out of the pits was powerful and unique.
Through out the tour we taken to several shops. While none of us young back packers were planning on purchasing anything we enjoyed the short demonstrations we were shown. It was interesting to see their techniques up close and in person. The mint tea at the rug shop was quite tasty as well.
Despite not planning on purchasing anything, several of us bought some scarves from a silk shop. Not only did they show us how they wove them, but they then proceeded to dress me up in one and show how a desert crossing Berber man would cover his face from a sand storm. I didn’t think the look was very fashionable for me, but I found a couple that my sisters would like so I bought them each a nice silk scarf.
One thing I was looking forward to was picking up some spices for my tagine recipes back home. We visited a big spice shop and I picked up a bunch of Ras al-Hanout to smuggle back in. The girls all got some henna done on their hands as well.
Before the tour came to an end we samples some fresh almond filled pastries. They were amazing!
When we finally returned to the hostel for the evening we were all starving. We found a restaurant that was recommended to us not only by our guidebook, but a random stranger on our way. I’m pretty sure he wanted a tip but I don’t think any of us gave him one for reaffirming our choice in dining.
As every other meal I had so far, the food was wonderful. Chicken, golden raisins and some vegetables cooked in a tagine, served over fresh couscous. So juicy and full of flavor.
The food took a little longer than expected though so I went back with two of the other guys to make sure the hostel would keep the doors open past the 10pm curfew to allow the rest of our group to pay the bill.
Unfortunately they got lost on the way back and the security guard went to sleep. We had to wake them up when they arrived around 11pm and he wasn’t very happy!
Several of us stayed up and hung out on the patio again and met some other people who were also staying there. Long night of chatting with people from all over the world. It’s always interesting who you can meet halfway across the world.
I awoke early to the street traffic outside my hotel window. The plan for the day was to head to Hassan II Mosque and take a tour. That’s right, a non-Muslim entering a mosque. It’s rare, but Hassan II Mosque allows visitors at certain times to take a tour of the unbelievably large and beautiful structure. It’s truly a marvel to see and is one of the most impressive religious sites I have ever seen. As a matter of fact, it is the second largest mosque outside of Mecca.
I’ll leave all the interesting facts up to you read at its wikipedia page. You can also watch this video I shot in HD (you’ll have to click the link to go to the vimeo page to watch the HD version. It will only play in SD embedded in my blog).
I decided to walk to the mosque since it was early and I got lost in the medina. What a site it was though. The walkways are very narrow and cramped with vendors bringing their produce through to get ready for the day. Plenty of live animals waiting to be sold and butchered, eggs, potatoes, and more were making their way to the market.
After about 45 minutes of walking north through the medina, I ended up right back where I started. Apparently I wasn’t going north the entire time. I opted for one of the plentiful and affordable taxis. I believe it only cost 10dh which is less than $2.
After my short tour of the mosque, I headed back to pick up my things at the hotel and made my way to the train station. I managed to find my train just as it was about to leave the station. I boarded and took my assigned seat in the correct compartment thanks to one of the attendants. I probably wouldn’t have been able to decipher my ticket without him.
The compartment had six seats and I was the fifth and final passenger to sit there. There was a Moroccan man dressed in western attire and a couple wearing traditional djellabas. I said “bonjour” and sat down excpecitng a quiet six-hour train ride. I was surprised to hear the couple start speaking to each other in English with British accents. After talking to them for a while I learned they were British-born Pakistani and purchased the djellabas during their holiday in Marrakesh.
We talked a lot during the train ride and the Moroccan man chimed in with some information on Fes as he was from there. Soon enough, he offered to set me up with his friend who was a guide (considered a requirement for navigating the medina). I had heard the warnings of unofficial guides and was reluctant to trust him. He assured me he was official and would show me his id card that they are required to show. Eventually I agreed so he called him on his cell and asked him to meet us at the train station.
He was waiting for me when we arrived and was very friendly. He showed me his id, tucked it in his pocket and we got in his car along with his driver. He offered to drop me off at a hotel and then pick me up the next morning for our tour. The only problem was that he refused to take me to any of the hotels I asked to go to based on my guide book. He had an excuse for every one whether it was dirty or used by prostitutes. I began to realize he was hustling me and asked to be dropped off at the hostel. He reluctantly agreed.
When we arrived it was closed. I assumed he only agreed because he knew they would be closed at that moment. I knew I needed to ditch this guy and luckily for me a tall backpacker came walking up. The guide was talking to his driver over by the car and I mustered up enough French to tell the guy that I needed to get away from this guide and to pretend to be my friend. He told me that the book said the hostel opened at 6:30 so we had an hour to spare.
I went over to the guide and told him I was going to get food with my friend and that I wouldn’t need him anymore. He insisted on meeting me back at the hostel to make sure I found somewhere to stay. I didn’t have any way to change his mind and left, hoping he would be gone when I returned.
I learned the backpacker’s name was Dominique and he was from Germany. He spoke a French a bit better than me but his English was very good so we opted to use it. We walked to a cafe and did as all Moroccan men do in the afternoon. Sit on a cafe patio and drink mint tea for an hour or so.
The hostel was open when we returned and sure enough, the guide was sitting there drinking tea with the owner. He got up, and told me the place was all full and he would take me some where else. I asked the owner if this was true and he said yes, but gave me an odd look. The guide started speaking Arabic to him and even though I didn’t understand most of what they were saying, I could tell he was pressuring him to turn me away.
I went up to the guide, gave him 100dh and thanked him for his help but that I was going to go on my own. He gladly took the money and agreed to leave but not before he gave me his phone number so I could call him tomorrow if I needed the tour after all.
Once he left, Abdullah, the owner, came to me and apologized. He said that the guide is official, but he works off the clock to make more money and basically was threatening him to turn me away. He was glad I understood his hint and stayed. His bed situation was pretty unorganized and he had a difficult time finding beds for Dominique and I but eventually he put us in a private room that we split.
After hanging around the hostel for a while I heard three English travelers being turned away by Abdullah because he didn’t think he had enough beds for the lone male (the rooms are not co-ed). As they were about to leave I told them to stay for a few minutes and I spoke to Abdullah. I reminded him that there was an open bed in one of the male dorms because Dominique opted to share my room instead of taking the last bed. The three of them were glad we figured out a solution because it was dark at this point and it would be difficult finding someplace to stay.
I chatted with them for a while and asked about heading out to dinner. They agreed and so did Dominique so we headed out to a restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended. It was definitely marketed to tourists as everybody there was American, but the food was wonderful and the price wasn’t too bad.
Once back at the hostel we sat outside on the patio for a few hours chatting. The weather was wonderful and it was nice to have conversation that wasn’t challenging due to language barriers.
I learned that Lauren, Lizzie, and Rob had hitchhiked all the way from England. Coming from America, this was one of the craziest ideas I had ever heard. Apparently though, it is a fairly common thing to do in Europe. They weren’t homeless travelers or anything. They were all university students and did it for charity. They had people sponsor them financially and then the money went to charities of their choosing. I thought it was not only brave and adventurous, but very respectable that somebody would do that to help others.
We headed to bed after a while and decided to tour the new medina on our own the following morning and then take an official tour of the old medina in the afternoon.
It was an extremely long day that had its ups and downs but when it was all over, I was quite pleased I was safe and made some new friends along the way.
Four flights and 18 hours after departing Los Angeles, I finally arrived in Morocco. I landed at Casablanca airport and immediately walked out of the terminal to get a taxi into town.
The first thing I noticed is how green the area is. There were lots of trees and vegetation. It was much more beautiful than the barren desert I had imagined.
This would be my first experience utilizing my French here in Morocco. I’ve been to Paris and Quebec, but both times I was not very fluent (I’m still not fluent, but I can get around well and carry on a basic conversation).
“Combien aller au terminal de CTM s’il vous plaît?” I asked.
“Deux cent cinquante (250dh),” he said.
The sign said 230dh but I didn’t care to argue. The difference was less than $3 and it’s a long drive. The guy I spoke to grabbed my bag and then took me to another man. It turns out that the second gentleman was actually the taxi driver and the first guy just wanted to help with my bag to get a tip. I gave him a whopping 10dh (about $1.50). I could already tell that everybody here will try to nickel and dime you to death. The thing is that they are literally getting nothing more than nickels and dimes from you. It hardly seems worth the hassle they go through just to get some pocket change but, c’est la vie… en Maroc!
I was astonished how beautiful the countryside is. So many fields, trees, hills, etc. My favorite sight was all the kids playing football (soccer to us Americans). It seemed that every mile down the road you’d see at least one group of kids playing in a random overgrown field, behind a building, or even in the street.
When we got closer to town I started to notice the beautiful French architecture. It really was impressive. But soon enough we entered the city and were caught up the traffic that seems to come second nature to all large cities. Actually, the traffic probably wouldn’t be so bad in Casablanca if the drivers just followed the rules of the road. I guess in Morocco they’re really just guidelines. Every taxi I took centered their car over the lines that divided the lanes. They would also pass other cars in the middle of intersections and while going around traffic circles. Everybody loves to honk his horn as well. The funny thing is that they wave and smile when they do it, unlike here in the ‘States where we tend to point a special finger in the air and yell obscenities.
After about thirty minutes we arrived at the CTM station. He assumed I was departing on a bus and dropped me off near the departures. This confused me though because I wasn’t sure exactly where on my map I was. I began walking in the direction of the hotel I chose form my guidebook but it was difficult to pinpoint my exact location. They are slowly changing the streets from their French names to Arabic ones. So even though my map was made only a few months earlier, some streets weren’t correctly labeled on it. For example, the king recently renamed two of the biggest squares in Casablanca. He changed Place Mohamed V to Place des Nations Unies and the old Place des Nations Unies to Place Mohamed V. Yet some people still refer to the new Place des Nations Unies as Place Mohamed V so things can really get confusing. Can you tell?
Eventually I landed on Rue Abdallah and found the hotel I chose, Hotel Touring. The owner was very friendly and put up with my French. The best part was that the room was cheaper than listed in my book. I paid only 125dh (about $17) for a room with a shower. The owner told me, “Votre chambre est sur la premiere étage.” Well I forgot that in France (and apparently Morocco) the first floor is what we consider the second floor in the States. They say “ground floor” for the lowest level. So I said, “c’est sur la premiere étage? Merci!” and then proceeded to pass the stairs and walk down the hall. He quickly came out and said, “non! Premiere! Premiere! Vous comprendrez?” So I embarrassingly walked back to the staircase and thanked him. This small hotel even has a small prayer room facing Mecca for the employees and guests to pray in. My guidebook called it a mosque but it isn’t much more, to me at least, than a small room large enough for three or four people to say their prayers in. Pretty neat though.
I dropped off my things and decided to explore the area. I was extremely thirsty so I set out to find a bottle of water. I stepped into a cafe and one quick glance at a can of Coke Zero made my mouth water so I purchased it.
Out on the street I heard somebody yell, “pas sucre!” which means “no sugar!” in French. A man with some missing teeth came up to me and kept exclaiming, “pas sucre! Pas sucre!” while pointing to my can. I don’t believe that diet sodas have been very popular in Morocco until recently. Looking at most people’s teeth can reaffirm this.
“Où vous êtes de?” he asked.
“Je suis d’Aux Etas Unis,” I answered.
He exclaimed, “Oh you speak English! I am learning. Can we talk?”
In America we certainly don’t stop people on the side of the street very often just for conversation but he didn’t give me a choice. A bit odd, I thought, but what the heck.
Eventually I realized that he just wanted to practice his English. He started out with the basic formalities: “How are you? Do you like Morocco? Where do you live? How old are you?” The conversation quickly died when he ran out of things to say in English. I watched as he searched his brain for something to say. Eventually he came up with, “I like horses.” I decided we didn’t have much else to talk about and told him I had to leave.
A few minutes later another man stopped me, also commenting on my Coke Zero. His English was much better and he gave me his address to come visit him and his family if I had time.
While these encounters were very friendly, I realized I would never get anywhere if kept getting stopped every block. I threw the can of soda away and oddly enough, nobody else stopped me to chat.
I found pay phone (they’re located in small shops with several private booths for customers) and called two friends who I had made on CouchSurfing.com, a social-networking website for world travelers. They had offered to meet up and have some dinner with me while I was in Casablanca so I called to see where and when we should meet. The place they chose was easy enough to find on my map but it was quite far, so I opted to take a taxi. The fare was 10dh (about $1.50) and took me across the entire city. What a steal. In New York City you can’t even get into a taxi without immediately paying $2 or $3!
I arrived at the Twin Centre in the heart of the city and waited around for my friends. The Twin Centre is two skyscrapers and looks huge in the Casablanca skyline but pale in comparison to even the smallest towers in large American cities. At the bottom is a three-story mall that connects the two buildings. It is a popular place for young people despite having very few interesting stores.
I waited for over an hour because my clock was set incorrectly. It turns out that the entire world doesn’t observe day light savings time on the same date. Whoops.
Eventually I met up with the three guys I chatted with online, Abdel, Hichem and Mostafa. They brought two other friends so we had quite the group. I felt very flattered and welcomed by them. How many people arrive in a city on the other side of the world and have five people waiting to spend time with them?
We introduced ourselves and we began to walk down the road. I didn’t ask where we were going but instead enjoyed the conversation. Hichem was quite versed in English and I later found out he works for Reuters News Agency and has traveled quite a bit. After walking for quite a while I noticed the minaret for the Hassan II Mosque. I had planned on coming back the following morning to see it during the day but I was pleased to be introduced to it by my new friends.
Built overlooking the ocean, the Hassan II Mosque is truly magnificent. It is the second largest mosque in the world (some say third, I can’t figure out the truth), behind only Mecca, and holds 25,000 worshipers. It is also the only mosque in Morocco, and one of the few in the world, that allows non-Muslims inside.
While we were enjoying the view, the final call to prayer began. It was loud, but beautiful. I asked my friends if they wanted to pray and told them that I didn’t mind waiting somewhere for them.
“No, but thank you for asking. We pray and attend mosque often, but in Casablanca, we aren’t very traditional.”
It was dark by this point and the light at the top of the minaret, which shines towards Mecca, was glowing brightly.
We continued on our walk and eventually ended up at a small cafe that they frequent. We sat down and they ordered me some mint tea. I had heard about it but was afraid it would be too sweet for me. Boy, was I wrong. It was amazing! My mouth is watering right now just thinking about it!
We must have sat there for at least two hours talking about our travels, language differences, what we do for work, and our educations. The thing that struck me the most about them, with the exception of the well-traveled Hichem, was how curious they were about America and the rest of the world. They told me that they don’t get to travel often because it is very difficult to get a visa to most places. I think that is something Americans take for granted. We can go nearly anywhere without a visa yet much of the world does not have the same luxury.
It was quite late by this point and I was starving for food. I was enjoying the company very much, but I had expected to eat dinner much earlier and I was beginning to feel sick. They decided to finally get up and we continued to walk around the town. Soon we came upon another small café and sat down at a table outside. They asked what I wanted to eat. I had no idea so I said I would have whatever they are having but that the only meat I like to eat is chicken. They all ordered some chawarma. I had no clue what was in it but it was pretty tasty.
After eating we decided it was time to part ways. The only problem was that I had no idea where we were. I figured I would just grab a taxi but Mostaffa told me he lives near the area I am staying and would walk back with me. I thought that was incredibly nice of him and of course I accepted. Mostaffa’s English was not the best compared to the rest of the bunch, but he was very eager to talk and practice. I found out he was a huge fan of rock and roll. Mostly the classics like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and even Johnny Cash. He told me that he plays guitar and can play a lot of Dylan songs. It was one of those moments where I realized that even though we can live on opposite sides of the planet, practice different religions, and have cultures that are vastly different, we still have many things in common. It’s funny how music can bring so many people together.
Along the way we walked through part of the medina where many of the locals live. I was surprised to see quite a few young people out playing football in a cement park. It reminded me of the basketball courts in New York City. Even though I don’t play, I found myself wanting to just go run around with them and kick the ball a bit. Immediately the ball came flying at me due to an errant kick. I kicked it back towards them but it hit a telephone pole and came bouncing right back to me. I guess I’m not the most talented soccer player!
Eventually we arrived at the street for my hotel and I realized where I was. I thanked him for his generosity and told him I hoped to see him again.
Even though there wasn’t much in Casablanca for me to see as a tourist, I found myself overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers who welcomed me to their city. I was certain that had it not been for them I would have had a disappointing night in Casablanca. While it is likely one of the only Moroccan cities most Americans can name, there aren’t many reasons to visit. I was glad my new friends gave me a reason to be there, if only for a day.