August 15, 2013
“Why would you want to go there?”
“You’re going by yourself?!”
“That isn’t safe.”
These were all comments I was immediately hit with when I first informed my friends and family that I was planning a trip to Morocco alone.
After unsuccessfully trying to make plans with some friends who were studying abroad in other countries, I knew that if I continued to wait until I found a companion to travel with me, I would be waiting forever. And I knew that, similar to my decision to go to Europe in the first place, missing the opportunity to go because I was waiting until it was “convenient” to go was a risk I could not take. I’d be damned if I let this chance pass me by. So I sucked it up and made the decision to go solo.
A day in the life.
Now, I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t treat this country the same as others…I was apprehensive, and so instead of going off the beaten path alone, I booked the trip with a tour group (I know, I know- something most self-proclaimed travelers are completely against) but maybe the comments eventually got into my head, or I had a fear of the unknown. Either way, because I knew NOTHING about this country or the continent it was on, I wanted to ensure I was safe, and there’s safety in numbers, right? Plus, these people knew where to go and could guide me.
So I booked it. I traveled from Blanes –> Barcelona –> Sevilla, where I would stay for a night, then leave for Morocco the next day.
Thursday, August 15– I got off at Sants station. It was hectic and I peed three times (maybe from nerves) but just stayed in the station and ate the two Nutella sandwiches I brought. I was terrified about getting on the wrong train so I arrived extra early. Typical Kara.
Let me tell you- I have never seen anything quite like southern Spain. Even at 300 km/hr.
The train shook something fierce and I couldn’t help but think just two weeks ago over 80 people lost their lives on a train like this that derailed in the northwestern part of Spain. But I couldn’t think like that. Many people die in car accidents every day, but that can’t hold you back from getting in a car…as long as I can somehow remember NOT to drink the water in Morocco I will be okay, I tell myself.
There was another single woman that signed up for the tour, I was told, so we would be put together. I was excited to meet her, and wondered if she spoke English or was near my age…
I slept in bits and pieces on the train, in series of about 20 minutes that completely shook my sense of time. We arrived in Sevilla and I had the hardest time locating the hostel…nobody knew, or everyone was also tourists, so I got no answer until finally a waiter pointed out that I was “very far, maybe an hour away” which I knew had to be a joke because I was at least SOMEWHERE in the vicinity…I saw a beautiful cathedral and horse drawn carriages and again, more tourist shops. And then, I rounded the corner and stumbled upon the hostel. *Sigh of relief.* That night, the hostel had sangria on the rooftop patio and I was able to meet some people from Germany and Turkey. I climbed into bed exhausted, but so excited to wake up early to explore this adorable city.
Friday August 16– I woke up, rushed to breakfast, skipped showering, Skyped with JJ, ate like four Nutella sandwiches, and then checked out. Left my bag and walked to see Plaza de España***, which brought me to tears. I literally wanted to sit down and kiss the architecture, so beautiful and blessed. Saw Torre del Oro and got lost on the way back. Bought tampons, said bye to my new friend Fabian, and met up with tour, where I was introduced to the single woman that would be paired with me. Wouldn’t you know- she could speak English, and she was close to my age! Her name was Kayla Andrews, from Boston and 17. Thank the Lord for her. We took a bus two hours to meet up to take the ferry. The ferry was huge! I bought a quick sandwich and fries, then fell asleep because I was so beat. We got off the ferry and were so confused because we didn’t have to go through customs… there was no border control. After some discovery, we found out we were still in Spain! The city, Ceuta, is a Spanish city in northern Africa, and shares a border with Morocco. We laughed so hard! We felt like such idiots.
Kayla & I.
After getting through the border and arriving in Tetuan, we went to our hotels. They didn’t have enough room for us in the one hotel, Dreams Hotel, and ended up having to split the group in half between the two hotels. Kayla and I were put in the other one- Hotel Golden Beach- so upon checking in, we ate dinner after a long wait. Bread and soup (can’t recall if it was harira or lentil soup) and then chicken with lemon rinds and olives, and for dessert, we thought some sort of custard…NOPE. Surprise! I later discovered it’s name: Kalinti, a chickpea flour and egg tart. We drank our own bottled water.
From our hotel window, we could see the ocean and really wanted to go down to the water’s edge. However, it was dark, and upon asking a worker at the hotel where the path was that led down to the shore, we ended up getting a private escort to the ocean just so we could put our feet in. I couldn’t explain how it felt… we received stares because although we tried to cover up with scarves, our legs still showed. We were dressed properly for the weather, but not for where we were. Puts things into perspective when you have to understand another’s culture, and I am grateful for the experience.
Views from the balcony:
Halfrica/Spafrica– Rejoicing too soon when we weren’t even across the border yet. These were the new names we came up with.
Freaking out I would be split from Kayla when were getting room assignments.
M’Diq was the name of the coastal town where we staying. So naturally, with our immature/raunchy sense of humor, we yelled, “There’s not enough room in M’Diq!” when we were told the group had to be split into two hotels.
Guy trying to take my soup at the restaurant when I wasn’t done.
Eating ALL of the bread. Because carbs are delicious in every country.
“You’re from Africa? But you’re white.” (Mean Girls, anyone?)
Kayla trying to unlock the wrong hotel door and getting pissed.
We actually ended up staying up late into the night because we were laughing so hard and talking about everything under the sun.
Saturday, August 17– In the morning, we had yogurt and pastries and coffee and OJ for breakfast. Then to our horror- looked up to see our tour bus loading without us! Hurried to get on, so didn’t exchange any money at the hotel, we just got on the road. Driving through the countryside on the way there I saw a lot of trash covered fields and women selling fruits by the road, or pottery, and children walking donkeys.
Garbage covering part of the countryside.
But Chefchaouen, ohmygosh, was a gorgeous bright blue and white colored place. Chefchaouen served as a Moorish fortress for Spanish exiles, and later welcomed both Jews and Christians alike. Blue represented sky and heaven, and today and still stands for peace and love of their city now. It is said that they paint everything the color blue to keep it cooler and ward off mosquitoes, but also as a reminder of God’s power. The color is everywhere, from walls to clothing. Tekhelel (an ancient natural dye) is often used for these.
Beautiful colored dyes on display for sale.
We met our tiny guide, Ahmed Achtot, who proudly told us he was on Lonely Planet and that he was friends with our “American President, Obama.” We instantly loved him. He was such an excellent guide- a short, old man, with kind light blue eyes and so so sweet. He loved talking with all of us and would take pictures both with us and for us, and pointed out some fascinating parts of the city. He was also funny. He could speak five languages and said he learned them just by listening.
Our guide, Ahmed Achtot.
Ahmed taught us to enter a house with the right foot first, as well as exiting, typical manners in some Islamic countries. There were also small kittens and cats everywhere around the city. Literally- a gazillion.
The tiniest kittens in the universe could be found on every street.
In Chefchaouen, if I recall correctly, the houses were able to fit five to ten families and it’s true- they were cool to the touch! I was awestruck by how beautiful it was.
We were taken to “the best weaving shop in the city”- no doubt a tourist trap, encouraging you to buy rugs and scarves but I didn’t get anything. Kayla got two for 25 Euro but because I’m going to be overseas for several more months, I have to make my money last. But the weaver made us both bracelets 🙂 I really wanted to find a dress or long shirt like they traditionally wear, but again, had doubts about buying- because did I need it? Would I still wear it months later?
Left: The weaver putting on my bracelet. Right: Trying on a hijab.
In the medina (city section), they had the most interesting shoes and exquisite leather purses. Jewelry, silver plates, and painted pictures- you name it. Yet nobody was overly pushy.
Traditional shoes in Morocco- “babouche”
We had lunch at la Casa Hassan, and it was AWESOME. Salad to start, with tons of olive oil and vinegar, then tagine for main course. Then for dessert was a cup of cut fresh fruit. All in all, a delicious meal.
After we left, I took a nap on the bus.
We went to the Grottes d’Hercule (Cave of Hercules), which was filled with entirely too many people, and I just couldn’t handle it. It was dark and I felt claustrophobic. However, it was still a cool attraction. There are two entrances, one facing land (the one we entered) and one facing sea. The incredible part of the cave is what you can see in the picture below: the part that looks to the ocean is the shape of Africa. There was a lot of history inside the cave as well. We didn’t spend too much time there. The driving and parking was madness, as were the many people trying to sell stuff, which is to be expected.
Cave of Hercules.
Next, we stopped to ride camels! NUTS. We were supposed to do it on Sunday, but obviously the tour group doesn’t stick to schedule, if you’ve figured that out. So because I was wearing a dress, I had to sidesaddle that thing like it was my job. You know, since I couldn’t straddle it normally. It was so much fun! But really scary. You get on the camel when it is sitting/lying down, and when it got up I swear I almost shit myself. It felt like I was back and forth on a roller coaster- the ride was a little bumpy. Again, tourist trap, but come on. It’s a camel! I’m sold.
(I’m actually terrified here.)
The bus stopped for a break at the overlook, at Cape Spartel. It was quite the view. I bought my mom a silver spoon for her collection, which I am certain I got ripped off on, and also a small camel, to give to Adrià. My friend, Matt, (see The Day I Quit My Job) had lent me his backpack on the one condition that I get sew-on flags of each country I visit. So I bought some of the patches for him, but still want to pick up souvenirs for the rest of my family.
Drove to Tangier, which I wasn’t as fond of, it is crowded and touristy, there isn’t much to see. Also, stopped at another rest stop where the bathrooms had squat toilets (just holes that look like sinks in the ground). Kayla thought it was a shower so she came right back out, but I had to explain they were, in fact, toilets. I had used them before in Italy. Don’t care- if you gotta go, you gotta go! I just think it is much easier for a man to use. Speaking of which, an older man came up to us while we were speaking with our guide to ask if he could have a photo with us because of our blue eyes and how “handsome” we were…weird.
I wonder a lot about the culture here and how the women feel and are treated. I feel privileged but also inappropriate, less modest and holy than them, somehow. I know the culture is changing…but I wonder how it is received. The taxis here fit SO many people and pictures of their king- Mohamed VI- are everywhere. We saw the outside of his palace and it is insane. If you go to Morocco, you will see his face plastered nearly every place you go. But in case you don’t, here it is:
After we checked into our hotel, Hotel Tanjah Flandria, we got dinner which was salad and then fish, rice. And French fries. The dessert was the best part, different types of fancy cake. I think mine was cherry vanilla. I missed the paints and colors of Chefchaouen. Our hotel had a rooftop pool. It looked so inviting, so we dipped our feet in before dinner and then returned to swim after, but it was so cold and I was tired and just felt a little disconnected from the rest of the world somehow. Kayla swam and I sat by the side of the pool and we had a deep conversation about traveling and friendships and relationships, which was great. There were other people up on the roof and guys across the way in another hotel carrying on and looking over, which made us uncomfortable.
That night, the music and voices in the street were very loud, I had trouble sleeping. I showered late and wished JJ good luck on his show. Kayla and I have sort of befriended two Spanish couples that are younger, I think they’re beautiful! They thought Kayla and I were longtime friends, and were surprised to learn that we just met one another! Between the six of us, we usually take pictures for one another and stick together at dinners.
I also think the culture is neat because its like- when do you know where to draw the line at exposing your body and embracing it? Modesty is an interesting concept here…
I was told by our tour guide that the new king says it is okay if the man wants to have more than one wife, but the wife has to come to the court and say it is okay also. And he said for the Islam banks- they don’t let you buy a house. You say, okay I want that house, and they buy it for you all furnished and all, although you spend your life paying it off probably.
He also said women used to get dressed up if they left their house to visit their friends or go shopping, putting makeup on, etc, but now people say that you have to do that only for your husband, when he comes home you have to meet them at the door with something sexy on. It also used to be that women could only meet at each other’s houses, not in a cafe or out and about, but that is also changing. *****
Sunday August 18– Today is my mother’s birthday and I miss her a lot. After little sleep, we woke and had breakfast: coffee, OJ and poor baguettes. Hopping on the bus to head to Tetuan for a panoramic view. I have a lot of travel time in front of me for today and tomorrow.
We ended up having a 3 hour delay on our trip because one older couple lost/had their cell phone taken…so they insisted on going to the police. The police said they couldn’t help…so they insisted on going to the other inner city police. We got gelato in the meantime because we had to wait for them. It was a bit of a pain in the ass to do because we had to pay in dirhams- which felt like just a million coins, simply because we were still understanding the currency. Then we noticed that same man from earlier taking pictures of us from afar while we were eating…and pretended not to when we caught him! It was sooo creepy and uncomfortable. Then he came up and asked for another photo with us, and said its because he wanted to remember the trip. Um, no. He also showed us a picture that the guides had taken where he is walking behind us. HE BOUGHT IT. Officially freaked out and over this part of the trip.
Back on the bus, we arrived to Tetuan some time later and were shuffled through some of the dirtiest fish markets I have ever seen, they were selling vegetables and fruit and chickens that I will never be able to look at the same. Kayla and I were both in flip flops (a huge mistake) and our feet were so dirty. We were exhausted too, and hungry. We shuffled through and looked at a hotel, and then through a castle in the square, saw how traditional the women dress, and hit the markets. I didn’t buy anything although, again, there was jewelry, leather sandals and purses, and silver tea sets everywhere!
Markets in Tetuan.
Bargaining is a huge thing here. It’s half the fun- you never buy anything for full price. We went to a pharmacy/spice shop…it was interesting, but nobody bought anything. A man who had been trying to get me to buy a blue dress kept following me around. We went to lunch next, and it was nice, in this huge old palace, we had soup and bread and salad of course, then tagine. After there was the hospitality mint tea served and a cookie.
Dinner at the Arabic Palace with new friends.
After lunch, as we were getting back on the bus, we turned to the window and there that same man was, waving the blue dress at me and running my way. Never have I been more creeped out. Things went from bad to worse fast. We took forever to leave the border and get the ferry. Got through and once back in Spain, took the bus- which thank goodness wasn’t the shuttle because it was larger- but there were so many loud elderly foreign people…they just were walking about the bus or hollering at one another when they could’ve easily sat next to each other. Next, we dropped some of them off at a different town, which was about an hour and a half away. When we got closer to Sevilla, half the people wanted off at Torre del Oro and the other half wanted their hotel which was far away. The bickering was a nightmare. Kayla was livid and was going to get out and take a taxi because the cab driver didn’t really know his way but luckily one of the Spanish passengers helped. Kayla and I said our goodbyes in a rush, not really processing that it might be the last time we see each other. She hopped out closer to where her apartment was. I got off at Torre del Oro feeling like the different world I had just come from was still spinning around me, and how it made me feel grateful and sad and curious all at once.
Those feelings were quickly replaced with exhaustion and annoyance, because I knew the checkout for my hostel was going to come so fast. As I was walking near the main street, I heard a fantastic band playing Jack Johnson and fell in love so as much as it killed me to know I was losing precious minutes of sleep by the minute, I followed the sound.***
***See previous posts: The Night Five Strangers Fell In Love and Speechless in Sevilla
***** Because I have not done research on the culture in Morocco, I cannot say much on the subject, nor confirm what the guides have said. I am, however, always interested and open to learn. Feel free to comment below- I would love to hear from you and learn more about your travels or experience!
Shukraan- “Thank you”
For reading, for new friendships, for the gift of adventure.