While the plane ride to Morocco was uneventful, our time in the country would be anything but!
We are eternally grateful to fellow travelers we meet on our journeys. On the flight to Morocco, we visited with a Canadian couple who had abundant tips for maximizing our time in Morocco but more importantly they gave us some pointers for getting through airport customs. We decided to team up with them to make the process easier and more efficient. As soon as our flight landed and our bus dropped us off at the terminal, we followed their lead and booked it to customs. We made a barrier with our bodies as to ward off locals trying to squeeze ahead of us. Those locals were surprised and none too pleased when we didn’t part for them to move ahead of us with ease. It wasn’t foolproof, however. Some Moroccan women slipped through fence rails to go around us. One woman around my age verbally berated me in Arabic as I stood my ground. Accompanied by an older woman (presumably her mother) and two young children, she managed to go around us. We watched as other mothers performed marvelous acrobatic feats of deception to slink their way to the front of the line. Another woman wedged herself between fence rails and then directed her two young children to get on the floor and squeeze below the lowest bar of the fence. The young boy cried as she shoved him below the lowest rung, smacking him repeatedly to hurry him along. We weren’t successful at preventing everyone from taking advantage of us, but with the solidarity of the Canadians and our group of 4, we thwarted many attempts to overtake us!
Next up was the Budget rental car station. The agent was a shifty codger! He charged Adam $1400 ($580 for the actual car and $820 for the deposit) though we’d paid the full amount months in advance. That’s how we travel – book early, pay in full in advance, and get the best deals. When Adam was unable to correct the issue, he cancelled the Budget rental, walked to the next station, and rented a car for $280 plus $214 deposit! This issue isn’t unique to Morocco and happens in many countries. If a company’s agent thinks they can get one over on an unsuspecting tourist, they they will try it. Read reviews in advance. Be informed. Stand your ground.
Side note: At the prayer space at the airport in Casablanca, I glimpsed a fellow who was laying on the tiled floor with his prayer mat pulled over him shielding his eyes. I suspect he wasn’t praying.
Adam thoroughly inspected our rental car before we scurried on our way. That’s another key tip. Document every little thing – every little scratch – with the agent before leaving. Stand your ground. Yep, be firm again. Take your own photos and videos and be sure the agent makes good notes. Heck, even snap a pic of the agent!
Once we had our set of wheels, we headed into Casablanca, and holy moly! The drivers were worse than any other country we've visited together (Morocco made country number 20.)! For what it’s worth, Adam believes the drivers in Afghanistan to be the worst. Until this point, I believed it to be drivers in Peru.
In Casablanca, the traffic laws aren't so much laws but rather traffic suggestions. Cars were wrinkled and scratched. Extra lanes were squeezed into every roadway. Car horns blared incessantly. Roadways were shared with motorized vehicles such as cars, scooters, bikes, pickup trucks stacked two-high with livestock. And donkeys and donkey carts.
Watching pedestrians attempt to cross roadways was reminiscent a game of Frogger. The shoulders of the roads were blanketed with vendors of all types and beggars. As is common in undeveloped countries, time spent at a stop light is punctuated by beggars of all sorts, vendors of anything that can be sold, and swindlers. We quickly became fluent in the “shooing” gesture so as not to waste their time or our patience.
We made it to our hotel, Atlas Almohades, with no dings or scratches! We entered our crowded hotel lobby but were clearly second-fiddle to a Mauritania soccer team. The registration and check-in process was painfully slow. Our friends who were meeting back up with us in Morocco at our hotel arrived a little later than their check-in time, but were told their reservation was cancelled and no space was available. Missie presented the confirmation and was firm in her resolve to secure a room. She’d even contacted the hotel to advise them they’d be arriving slightly later than planned. I’m not sure how it happened but a room became available at that very moment! Imagine that! We realized early on that this particular 4-star hotel wasn’t quite what we’d expect for a property with such a rating. It was old and neglected. Curtains were velcroed together where normally seams would be stitched together. The formerly white towels were greyed and tattered.
We settled in nonetheless happy to have a place and be out of the mayhem of traffic.
Once settled and refreshed, we left on foot to explore. We found ourselves in the local medina (market). It took a while to become cognizant when greetings “hola” and “bonjour” were intended for us. When we noticed we greeted them back, but Spanish and French are not our first languages so sometimes we didn’t notice until it was too late. Oops! Shopping for necessities usually isn’t a challenge unless its clothes for me! But this time Missie and Jason needed diapers for Ethan. They were successful at locating diapers with the help of some locals in spite of the language barriers.
We walked through a park busy with playing children. Streets were often impromptu soccer fields. We bought fresh, roasted corn from street vendors and cheered on the teams. It smelled so good! The locals enjoyed seeing us getting one of their favorites! But we didn’t eat it. Nope, we realized after we purchased it that it was dipped in local water to cool it down. We didn’t want to risk picking up any waterborne illnesses so we engaged in a charade with our corn as if we were still waiting on it too cool. Nobody was any the wiser!
We strolled toward Hassan II Mosque, the largest mosque in Morocco and the fifth largest in the world. It is situated on the ocean's shore and was a lovely site as the golden sun set to the west directly behind the dome. The ocean offered entertainment as well with people climbing on rocks, swimming, dining, and socializing.
The famed Rick's Cafe from the 1942 movie Casablanca was next on the agenda. Who doesn’t visit Rick’s when in Casablanca for the first time?! As we approached the entrance, we were blocked by security as flipflops weren’t allowed. Jason was not in proper footwear! We just stood there exhausted and disappointed, contemplating what to do next. The security took pity on us and let us dine anyway. It was scrumptious and the experience and ambience was perfect. Although our waiter had a mishap juggling dishes, and food fell on my lap, we just shrugged it off. I wasn’t damaged! We were at Rick’s, after all. I smiled and giggled at the waiter. Here’s looking at you, kid!
After a white-knuckle taxi ride in a cab with no seatbelts, we were delivered to our hotel for much needed sleep.
A three-hour drive to Marrakech was first on the agenda the following morning. The road, dotted with Arabic signs and Berber symbols, meandered through the dry countryside. The Berber symbols are the writings of the Berber people who trace their roots to prehistoric times and who have remained autonomous. We enjoyed glimpsing farmers doing what farmers do, tending their cattle, sheep and donkeys.
As we pulled into Marrakech, our first order of business was to locate our hotel, the Riad Al Jazira. Our relationship with Google Maps reached an all-time low as we realized it was completely useless! At Google’s insistence, Adam turned on a particular road and was eking our way down the narrow passageway when a man on an old bicycle knocked on our window. The local explained the street was closed for the local market and that we could follow him and he’d show us to our hotel. We were literally experiencing real time “maze” activity trying to get from our starting point at the city’s entrance to an exit on the other side of a piece of paper. The roads turned and turned back, narrowed to barely a vehicle’s width and widened enough for street vendors. It was orange, and brown, and tan, repeat color scheme. And the traffic on these roads was heavy.
When we’d just about determined we’d been hoodwinked, we arrived at our hotel. The hotel parking lot was under construction. Our escort located an alternate parking lot for us which required us to walk back to the hotel with our luggage in tow. As we strode up to the hotel, we remarked that there was no way we could have driven to the hotel itself as the passageway and allies (aka roads) were too narrow for vehicles and lacked signage. We were very surely lost without our guide!
Although we struggled to find the hotel and its sign was hard to decipher, we were pleasantly surprised once inside the compound at its understated beauty. It was small in size with petite courtyards that had no roof. Tall trees grew to the top of the building while couches, pillows lamps, and curtains made the courtyards cozy and relaxing. A pool was the center piece in the main courtyard. It looked like a scene straight out of a classic movie (The Man Who Knew Too Much). I’d have been content to spend the day soaking in the relaxing environs while sipping Moroccan tea.
Our room was equipped with a heavy duty fan that did a marvelous job of cooling our room. We were tired but had no time to rest. We completed our check in, refueled on mint tea, and headed back out to the chaos of Marrakesh. We ambled towards what we thought were main roads to get a taxi. At this point, all systems were failing us! Google Translate wasn’t able to discern the nuances of the dialect. The cab drivers with whom we spoke weren’t able to discern our requests. After a few minutes of bewildered jabbering, we were exasperated. Just when we were about to surrender, a fellow who spoke English with a thick Moroccan accent came to our aid. He walked with us a few blocks until we successfully hailed a taxi. He and the taxi driver engaged in a conversation with us and soon we were on our way. At this point, we were 2 for 2 with locals being our heroes. But that wasn't the case for long.
Our taxi driver dropped us off as close as he could maneuver to our friends' hotel and we walked the remainder of the way. As we were walking, a local approached us to say the street ahead was closed. It was impossible to read the signs, and the narrow and frequently turning roads made it impossible to view and confirm. The fellow swiftly walked with us and guided us to a different path. We were intercepted by another fellow who was friendly enough. Until the shakedown began. He needed money from us for his “help.” Adam told him ok (as we had no other choice). Adam handed him some money but the man said it wasn’t enough. He claimed he had helped us out of the goodness of his heart and deserved more. Adam gave him a little more. The verbal exchange continued. Adam gave him a little more. And with that, the hustler disappeared. In all fairness, we did need help.
We continued walking on our own when we came upon a dead end. Out of the blue (or orange as would be the case in Marrakech), we were approached by a couple offering help. They were staying at the riad we were headed to. It was perfect timing. The couple was Muslim and the woman wore a burka. Both spoke to Adam and me and were very friendly. We later learned that Jason had encountered this couple when he was having breakfast one morning. Her burka was no longer covering her mouth. Jason observed that she covered her mouth when eating if someone sat across from her so he made sure to sit along the same side. When another family joined them at the table, rather than covering her mouth, her husband sent her up to the room. It is hard to comprehend a culture so very different from ours.
Side note: A few hours later we ran into our Canadian friends who told us they had been scammed. A local warned them the road ahead was closed and that he needed money from them if they were to be helped in detouring. The hustle was lucrative. We heard that line more times than we could count during our short stay, but never again fell for it.
We met Missie and Jason downstairs along with the riad’s pet – a turtle! He had quite a personality and bonded with me quickly. I hand-fed him and rubbed his neck and head. You know how I am about critters – especially frogs and turtles!
We had a glass of wine as we waited on our host. Our host was a local fellow whose brother was a friend of the Hills (Missie and Jason). He was a terrific guide and helped us explore the medina (market) with ease. Fresh fruit was abundant as were fruit smoothies. Also abundant were python and cobra shows. The cobras (venomous) were more frightening to me than pythons (constrictors). The cobra shows were simple enough: a charmer played a flute while a cobra rose into the candlestick pose with its hood raised – perfect for positing tourists willing to shell out some money. We tourists really stood out and attracted vendors of all sorts. Vendors shoved toys into Ethan’s face hoping to entice him to cry wanting something they had for sale. Women used their Vanna White hand motions to show us how henna tattoos on our arms might look. We had to be vigilant to not fall victim to their charms.
We had lunch at L'Adresse before continuing our exploration, and it was just what we needed. Our bellies were happily full, our feet rested, and our bodies cooled before continuing our exploration.
We were delighted to find a shop that was dyeing bundles of yarn. It was fascinating to see the color combinations and reminded me of watching a similar process high in the Andes in 2012. We found metal smiths and each bought a tea kettle for our homes. We bartered hard for local art and souvenirs. We visited the Marrakech Museum, an old palace turned art museum. The tile work was literally one-of-a-kind. Zellige, an Islamic mosaic tilework, is made from individually chiseled geometric tiles used to decorate walls, ceilings, floors, etc. Absolutely exquisite tile! To date, my favorite tile location had been Lisbon. This is different and every bit as beautiful in its own way.
It was hot and we needed a short break. Nearby was Cafe Arabe. It was very nice! My feet would've preferred we stay for dinner, but instead we hailed (a tough feat once again!) a taxi to Sky 5. It was early by Moroccan standards so few diners were present. It was also a club which meant an abundance of big screens featuring futbol matches, loud music, and a glistening pool. It was pretty random to see such a party spot in a public area of an Islamic country. Side note: Cameras are not allowed at Sky 5 and customers have to check them in with the front desk.
Once we’d eaten, it was time for us to retire for the night. Our new friend accompanied us to our hotels and dropped us off as close as he could get us along the narrow roads. We walked the remainder of the way in the dark. We overshot our location; it was a little easy to become disoriented by day light, let along by moonlight! Adam is pretty skilled at navigating while I am an expert at observation and detail. Together we got us home in no time.
Sleep hit us both quickly. I was awakened by my first bout of tummy trouble. I somehow managed not to wake Adam or anyone else in the strange, open-aired accommodations. And by morning, I had recovered.
When checking out the next morning, we knew we'd need help finding our car. It's crazy when parking lots aren't adjacent to properties and there are no valet people to help navigate the area. The worker who helped us park and knew where our rental was located was not at work. A coworker thought he knew the locale though he wasn't around when we parked. We set out to find our car with our luggage under arm. We went one way and then another. Back and forth. Around one bend after another. At one point the worker tried to convince us to take a taxi. Ha, we had a car somewhere and the rental company sort of expected us to return it! Eventually we stumbled across the lot that had our car.
As if that wasn't hair-raising enough, we now had to navigate the unmarked roads to find our friends' hotel. We passed the same landmarks on more than one occasion! And locals continued to walk up to our car, knock on the windows, and tell us roads were closed ahead. Truth be told -- some roads became so narrow that we could no longer drive down it. Adam drove down one said road until he learned the hard way that he couldn't go any further. There wasn't even enough room for a person to walk by. Adam had to back out and any wrong movement meant a scratched-up rental car. There was zero room for error. Thankfully with the precise aid of a local who needed past us himself, Adam extricated us from the predicament freeing the car and us from the narrow passage.
We had no luck finding our friends' hotel. Adam devised a brilliant plan to hire a taxi to lead the way and the plan worked. We found a parking lot only to be told by a teen-aged boy we weren't to park there. Some negotiating and charming worked after I assured the fellow we'd be gone in less than 10 minutes. We sat tight about five minutes when our friends found our car and we were on our way. Yet there was still time for one last hustle: the boy who told us we couldn't park in the lot. He and a friend expected to be paid to allow us to leave. This was especially perplexing as they had nothing to do with the lot nor did they help us in any way. Adam relented and handed them some money but as we'd experienced before, the hustle wasn't over until the hustler got his desired pay off. Adam was firm with the single offer. The boys noticed the cell phone in Adam's lap and for some reason suspected they were being filmed. "No recording. No recording" the boys retorted. Adam rolled up the window and drove off. As for this trip, we were never so glad to be leaving a place as we were the medina.
We headed to BELDI Country Club for a farewell stroll with our new friend. Nothing could have been more necessary than this! Good company of friends, the club's beautiful and serene environment with lush gardens of flowers, trees, ponds full of lily pads, fresh bread baking in the old, stone oven, and frogs serenading anyone who cared to listen. What a perfect morning!
We concluded our time in Marrakech at our new friend's home for lunch. His family shared an array of side dishes but the star of the meal was the most delicious lamb. The lamb was braised in a clay pot for 15 hours so it was so full of flavor. I went back for seconds and still wanted more!
On the return trip to Casablanca we stopped to refuel and I encountered a strange restroom. For starters, the toilet seat wasn't attached and presented the challenge of balancing yet the hand-washing station was adorned with fresh rose petals. It was a quite juxtaposed. After packing for the return home, we had a sliver of time remaining. Adam signed me up for a massage though the language and local massage customs complicated his purchase.
Left to my own devices, I disrobed and then struggled to figure out how I was supposed to lay on the table. There was a single sheet and no head rest. Hoping to be at least partially covered, I swiftly laid down and pulled the sheet over me. The massage therapist walked in and said in her best broken English that I did it wrong. She remained paused while I clumsily slithered out of the sheet's protective cover. And under her set of eyes, I assumed the prone position. I haven't dwelled much on modesty but at that moment I realized I do prefer a little decorum in life.
She was super generous with oils and rubbed my back. She must have used nearly a whole body of oil! I like a rigorous massage with stretching and bending (think Thai) and waited for the good stuff to begin. About 45 minutes later, she stopped massaging me, turned on the lights, and told me to shower. I did so though perplexed about removing the lovely lubricant before the massage got physical. And I sat and waited. And waited. Nobody was around. I finally texted Adam for details. He did some checking and messaged me back that it was finished. Daddgumit! I was disappointed but left smiling with approval. Adam's turn was next; he ordered a body scrub and reported it to be just perfect. That's always how it goes! I wondered if the delivery was different based on gender. It reminded me of our massage experience in Peru.
We were exhausted from our 16-day adventure and ready to be home. We opted for a no-fuss dinner at the hotel.
Adam's meal was bland and the hotel had mustard (which they called mayo) for his fries. I wanted something straight-forward so I ordered spaghetti. Silly me! The entrée amounted to single scoop of spaghetti sauce. The scoop tasted more like taco-flavoring. While not what either expected, we were grateful it didn't involve travel to get it. While we consumed the lackluster grub, our attention was drawn to noise from outside the window—an argument between the hotel valet and someone inquiring about parking. The exchange grew in pitch and excitement. As I've shared previously, parking is complicated here. The hotel's lot was along those narrowed streets, and provided perhaps a half-dozen spots to park. The two men were willing to fight to the death -- at least until punches were to be thrown. There fists were balled and drawn back prepared to clobber the opponent. The non-hotel person stormed into the lobby of our hotel and ranted. It was time for us to leave so we weren't sure how it ended but we understood the man's frustration.
Along the way to the airport, Adam spied a McDonald's inside a large club store similar to a Sam's or Costco. It was apparent by all the stares and double-takes we received that tourists seldom make it to this location. The meal was as one would expect from McDonald’s, but there were a few differences. We chose to try the croquettes filled with cheesy goodness.
Our rental return was uneventful -- thank goodness! Clearing security from this side was also easy. We were 2 for 2! And for the trifecta, we encountered two engaging tourists with whom to share our stories. First a local woman on her way to study in California. Sharing life stories with her was fascinating! And we also visited with a fellow from Germany who was concluding a business trip. This people part -- it's the best part of travel! It makes me giddy!
After such an epic and lengthy journey, both of us slept nearly the duration of our flights home. We scheduled long layovers in both Germany and Chicago which were necessary to ensure we had time to get through security. In Germany they were very strict and checked our passports and flight tickets numerous times and asked a multitude of questions which felt more like an interrogation! The airport had strict rules about seats in the terminal being used only by those on the current flight and they made us all get in line for the flight rather than sit comfortably while the line slowly decreased in size. Oddly, there was a sort of comfort to be greeted upon a plane by American attendants and also a sense of comfort when we touched down in the U.S. Regardless of where a person travels, there's never any place as comfy as home.
I can’t even begin to put into words how lucky I am to travel the world nor just how much I learn. I am truly grateful to see the world, meet people for various countries, and share my experiences. One thing is for certain: I am a better human and a better social studies teacher for it. Ok, that's two things. I never claimed to teach math.