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Journey to Morocco: 30 Minutes from Europe and a World Away

While planning my trip to Spain, I had the brilliant idea that I wanted to go to Morocco. It was only a 30 min boat ride to Tangier from Tarifa, Spain, and it would just be a nice detour from the “church and fort tour” that makes up a lot of Spain. The night before we were supposed to be heading for Morocco, however, I was beginning to feel a bit more trepidatious about my decision. My parents (being parents) had expressed their concerns in no uncertain terms over my plans to visit Africa, even just for the day, and even my husband, my constant travel companion who usually accepts my research and assessment of a situation without question, was asking me if I really thought this detour was a good idea. Was I making a mistake? Was I just letting fear of the unknown get the better of me? I really had my heart set on going, and I had arranged for a guide to meet us at the boat upon our arrival. So, I decided that you only live once, and I was going to take advantage of this once in a lifetime experience even if it killed me and I was sure everything would be fine.

The next morning, as the skyline of Tangier came into view from our ferry, I felt nothing but excitement. However as we disembarked, my elation turned back into trepidation. We were immediately swarmed by men trying to solicit themselves to us as guides (word of advice, book a reputable one ahead of time), but after fighting our way through them—more verbally than literally (they’re very persistent)—we found our guide, and everything from then on out was amazing.

Tangier Skyline

I found a guide to be imperative in Morocco in order to have the most enjoyable visit possible. There were several reasons, first and foremost being the language barrier. English is only the 4th most common language coming after Arabic, French, and Spanish (and Berber in more rural areas). You won’t find signs in English or even many people (besides some haggling shopkeepers in the markets) who speak it. In addition to the language issue, the twisting old town of Tangier is nearly impossible to navigate without repeatedly getting lost. Also, children will constantly beg you for money, shopkeepers will hassle you nonstop to buy things from them, and people will attempt to overcharge you for anything and everything. With all of that being said, with our guide, we didn’t have to deal with any of these issues, but I definitely saw other people on their own going through it. I also saw organized tour groups being herded around like cattle and was glad that wasn’t a choice we had made, either. Having a guide allowed us to relax and enjoy the experience at our own pace and in our own way. We were joined by two other American couples who only added to the fun of exploring something new together (see camel photo of us all above).

Morocco was like no country I’d ever encountered in my travels. The sights, sounds, and smells immediately put you into sensory overload. Minarets pierced the skyline, there were camels being led around, and what many people were wearing looked like costumes off of the set of a movie rather than real life. Some women wore black from head to toe (burqas), while others wore more modern clothing, but with their arms and legs covered and always their head. I had read that women wore everything from burqas to miniskirts—there’s no regulations on what they can and can’t wear—but I didn’t see any locals in even so much as capris. Men had nearly as much of a variety in conservative vs. modern dress as the women did wearing everything from thobes to jeans. You could smell freshly baking bread, roasting nuts, and pungent fish (among other things). The Muslim call to prayer periodically sounded across the city. It was like another world.

Photos: Left: Tangier Skyline; Center: Caves of Hercules (Backwards Africa); Right: Cap Spartel Lighthouse

Our guide first took us around in a car, stopping to show us colorful views over the city, Cap Spartel Lighthouse (the point where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea), the Caves of Hercules (a bit cheesy, but the opening out to the ocean makes a great picture—it’s shaped like Africa backwards), the compounds of Moroccan rulers and foreign dignitaries (apparently Morocco is the Las Vegas of the Arab world—‘what happens in Morocco stays in Morocco’), and to the camels lined up to give tourists rides along the beach. The camel rides were the highlight of my trip. I know it was probably the least “authentic” thing we did, but it was just plain fun. And really, how many times in your life do you get to ride a camel on a beach in Africa? We had way too much fun with that photo op—another plus of having a guide—getting some great pictures together.

After our tour of the outskirts of the city, we moved onto the city center on foot to explore the everyday life of the Moroccan people. First, our guide took us to see the community bread ovens. Most people don’t have an oven of their own at home, so they bring their bread dough, nuts, fish, or anything else they wish to have baked to their community oven. For a small fee, all of their prepared food is cooked for them. He also showed us the fountains where those who do not have running water in their homes get their water supply from. We saw several people there with their buckets waiting their turn to replenish their supply. It is definitely a far cry from the standard of living most of us in the United States are used to. The average monthly income for a family in Morocco is only about $650 (and that’s with a small portion of the upper class—particularly in the cities—significantly skewing the number). In addition, our guide got us into an authentic home that was being restored and pointed out several traditional features found in Moroccan homes. The house was bigger than I thought it would be, but he explained that multiple generations and relations in a family would occupy this one home and that this one was also for a richer family. Then, he took us up to the roof for a view over the medina and the other surrounding homes that stretched all the way to the ocean. This home was definitely in a prime spot.

Left: Community Bread Ovens; Center: Community Fountain; Right: View from Roof

Photos: Left: Community Bread Ovens; Center: Community Fountain; Right: View from Roof

Next, we toured the markets. Yes, we did the tourist thing and had a blast haggling with the locals for a few souvenirs. My husband—very in his element—haggled with a carpet maker for quite a while and was a little too close for my liking to buying one when I dragged him away. However, we went to the real work-a-day markets, as well. We saw Berber women wrapping goat cheese in palm leaves, men carrying different pieces of freshly butchered meat to market, piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, beautiful flowers on display, and every type of fish you could imagine, freshly plucked from the sea.

Photos: Left: Berber Women Wrapping Goat Cheese in Palm Leaves; Right: Fish Market Stalls

Finally, no trip to a foreign country would be complete without an authentic meal. I was rather leery of eating anything in Morocco. In the markets, their meat hygiene standards didn’t seem to quite meet up to what I’m used to, and I had been warned ahead of time to avoid fresh produce because it is typically washed in their tap water which has been known to make travelers ill. Our guide insisted that the restaurant he was taking us to would be fine, though. I still opted for vegetarian (I do that often even back in the US, though), but I did eat some fresh produce. The other two American couples touring Morocco along with us, however, had the chicken dish that was served. They never had any issues with it and said it was delicious (it looked it—I started regretting my decision when I saw their lunches), but mine was delicious, too. I was served a beautiful salad plate of all different vegetables, a dumpling-like appetizer, a baked dish of couscous and fresh vegetables, Moroccan mint tea, and fresh fruit and cookies for dessert. It was all wonderful.

Photos: Left: Snake Charmer; Center: Tile Bench Photo Stop; Right: American Legation

During our trip, we couldn’t avoid all of the “tourist” stops, and frankly I didn’t want to—they made for some amazing stories. In addition to the camel rides, we watched the snake charmers charm their cobras and then posed with non-poisonous ones around our necks, stopped off at a beautiful mosaic wall with a bench in front for photos, and went to the site of the American Legation building. Little history lesson, Morocco was the first foreign nation to recognize the United States after we declared independence from Britain, and the land they gave to George Washington was the first property our country was able to acquire abroad. Today, it is a museum, and it is the only US National Historic Landmark located outside of the United States. I was surprised to find out how good our relationship was (and still is) with Morocco. However, I’ve found that you learn a lot of things traveling abroad that you probably never would in History 101 in school--even about your own country!

Photos: Left: Shoe Stall in the Market Place (My Favorite Photo); Right: King of Morocco Billboard

By the end of our trip, all of my fears and preconceived notions had been replaced by respect for a country and a people seemingly so different from us on the surface, and yet not so very different deep down. Everyone we encountered appeared to be hard-working and focused on their families and yet also friendly and fun loving. The “colorful” aspects of Morocco that I had feared turned out to be my favorite parts. As we watched the skyline of Morocco slip away across the horizon from our ferry back to Spain (and another cathedral and fort waiting for us in Sevilla next), my husband turned to me and asked me when we could go back. He still really wants that carpet.

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