Saturday, November 29, 2008

Recommendations to the Moroccan Traveler

While I was in Morocco only for a short time, I do feel like I came away with some good advice to pass along to anyone thinking of going to Moroco. Here are a few things I would like to share with you:


  • Don't listen to the people who are all worked up about what to wear in Morocco. Yes, it is a predominantly Muslim area, but they understand we are visitors.

  • Ladies, the more skin you show, the more attention it will attract from men. I was very slobbily dressed, and still received an exasperating amount of attention. If you don't mind a continuous stream of suitors, then god's speed.

  • Otherwise, long pants or a long skirt and a blouse is pretty standard. Head wear completely optional.

  • Don't bother trying to blend in. They always know who the tourists are.


  • Beware of wolves in sheep's clothing. There are LOTS of men who will try to get you to come to their sahara tour. They will seek you out at bus stations, restaurants, in shops or even just walking in the street. They know all of the things to say to convince you, they have a book of photos.... If you are lucky, all they will do is charge you an exorbitant comission. The unlucky ones end up stranded in a crappy hotel in the middle of nowhere.

  • Sadly, you can trust no one. No matter how nice they seem. They are good at what they do.

  • If you are booking a trip of some kind, try to use an established company so you know you are getting the real deal.

  • Get everthing in writing--a written agreement of the services that will be rendered and how much it will cost.

  • Be wary of "deposits." This is the money they skim off and keep. I heard of some folks that arrived at their destination only to find that the company was requesting more money, because the agent took such a large portion. If you do pay a deposit, get a receipt.

  • Be sure you ask all the right questions. Make sure your drivers and/or guides speak your language, check on the duration of transport, what sort of accomodation and food you will have, and how you will get to your next destination etc.
  • Again, be sure to get all of this crystal clear up front so there are no surprises to hamper your experience.


  • This for me, is a miserable process. It is a way of life there, everything--even taxi rides--have to be negotiated in advance, otherwise you will have an angry Moroccan demanding payment at the end. I hate this.

  • NEVER TAKE THE FIRST PRICE. Shoot to pay no more than 50% of what they first said, preferrably about 25% of the original price. If they persist and don't lower the price, feign dissinterest and start to leave the shop. Generally they will call you back with a better offer. If they let you go, then they honestly can't go any lower.

  • Every time you begin to look in a shop, they will ask where you are from; I avoid this line of questioning, and divert to some other topic. If they know you are from the US, UK or Germany, their prices will be much higher, while people from France, Spain and Australia get a lower start price.

  • Learn some Arabic (or even French) phrases : Salaam Aleikum--Peace be with you/Hello, Shokram bezef--Thank you very much, Marhaba--Welcome/You are welcome, Ashnu shmitik--what is your name, Shmitik ____--My name is _____, N'Shala--god willing, Mekken fluus--I have no money, Counting to 10: wahed, djoodj, klehta, araba, hamsa, seta, seba, sh'hmenia, t'seha, ashara... All of these things provide a little more cultural currency

  • The longer you stay in a shop, the more invested they become and they are more likely to try to make the sale. I managed to get something for 80 durham that they began at 300 because I was there for so long.

  • Shopkeepers assume that if you ask about the price, that you are really beginning a bargaining process. Browsing or window shopping is a foreign concept. We had some men get angry at us when we just walked away after asking the price of something, so be sure you know what you are getting into.
Random Bits
  • Directions: There is a huge business of leading travelers to thier destination and then upon arrival putting their hand out with a pitiful expression. The nice ones just try to make you feel guilty, but I have heard of others who start shouting at you. Even worse, sometimes they lead you astray. My biggest request, I will consider this a personal favor, do not pay anything! The more people that pay them, the more this exploitation will continue. To avoid this problem, I tried to ask people myself, rather than wait for someone to come up to me.
  • Begging: There is more begging here than anywhere I have been. Not only are there the standard sickly people, but there are also many women with babies attached to their backs, old women, young children and any number of other bedraggled folks. What you must understand is that giving to the poor is one of hte major tenents of Islam, so on more than one occasion I saw a local give them something. Use your own discretion, but just be prepared to be inundated.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Sahara Dessert, A Love Story

(Again I must give photo credits here to Cecilia and Fran. Thanks for hooking me up, girls!)

Given the negative experience we had with the agent we worked with, we arrived to the desert deservedly skeptical. It was already dark when we arrived to find an ouberge (desert hotel) devoid of customers. At this point I was in the throws of "traveler's indigestion" so after 8 long hours in the car, I was just glad to have somewhere to stop. They brought us into the main hall of the ouberge and I was immediately put at ease. It was lovely, decorated with the traditional rugs covering nearly all surfaces (except the ceiling), huge pillows, and a ring of drums ready for a night's celebration.

As we were the only guests that night, we enjoyed the company of the staff who spoke at least some English, talking about life in the Sahara and what was to come in the next few days. We capped off the night with a short walk out into the dunes to see the stars. They were so spectacular. I can't remember ever seeing so many in my life. The relief was even more pronounced when they showed us to our room, which sported a huge canopied bed and a private bathroom and shower. We went to be exhausted, but pleased with our luck.

I could hardly sleep that night, which I credit equally to my stomach problems as well as the anticipation of seeing in the daylight what we saw as mere shadows the night before. Let me say that I was not disappointed. In fact, I dare say that the view was even more spectacular than I had imagined. See for yourself.

Honestly this is where I was living for 4 days. Too bad I was feeling really shitty (oh wow, really, no pun was intended there). The ouberge was right at the base of the sand dunes and this small lake. I was entranced. This is when I started falling in love with the Sahara. I mean, who wouldn't!? Look at it! I spent the entire next day sitting on the roof of the hotel, just watching the light change on the dunes, listening to the quiet, letting my thoughts wander, chatting with the staff, and bonding with Mimi.

The next day I was feeling a bit better, so we decided to endeavor out into the dunes themselves. It was an arduous walk, but we were helped by the fact that it had rained the night before our arrival, so the sand was firm underfoot. It is during this exploration that I began to notice the small details that make the dunes so fascinating.

I loved how the camel blankets looked laying out to dry in the sun.....

how different animals all made their own unique tracks... none of which I could recognize...

how one kind of clay seemed to form small waves that stuck out of the loose sand...

the dry plates formed by drying mud...

and the reflections of sky in sand in the lakes.

It was also then that I decided to try sandboarding.... with hesitation, of course, given my knee's condition. But I was careful and wrapped my knee well. It was much harder than I expected. Snow is faster, and much more fun. I'll try it again some day with real equipment and two healthy knees.

It was on our third day in the Sahara that we ventured out on camel back. Before I recount this part of the tale, I must explain something first. I have always been somewhat of a softie for animals. I always cringe at any mistreatment and am overprotective of their health and well-being. As such, I planned to walk when we did our camel trek. I couldn't stand the thought of some creature baring my weight. But then a day into my trip, I met Jimmi. He changed my mind about everything. He was standing having a snack behind the ouberge when he caught my eye. I made my way over and just stood watching him for a while. He looked at me quizzically, but unperturbed. He was just so cute, I couldn't resist. So I returned and visited Jimmi a few times a day for 20 or 30 minutes. He grew accustomed to me and dare I say, even a bit friendly. Let me introduce you to Jimmi.

Isn't he fantastic? Perhaps it's just one of those things that gets lost in a photo, but he is really special. We spent a lot of time together during my stay in the Sahara. I began to learn his likes and dislikes: don't bother him while he is eating, move slowly with your hands near his face because he is a bit jumpy, he loves to be scratched behind the ears when he trusts you, if he wants to stop and eat you can do nothing to stop him, he makes the sweetest pained noise when they pull his ring, so I did everything in my power to keep him from getting pulled. Later on this even meant getting off and feeding him while we walked--what a crazy white girl--but I digress.

I realize this course of events is illogical. Usually if you bond with an animal, it serves to dissuade you from using them, not make you want to jump on their back. In fact, that is exactly what was happening. The more I hung out with my new friend, the more I felt pain for his circumstances. My sympathy for his pain became unbearable. Until one cold morning, when I came out for our morning visit wrapped in my sleeping bag. Jimmi greeted me with his quiet grunt and allowed me to pet his nose gently (which, by the way is just as soft as a horse's). He was interested in my bag through, and kept pushing his head under it. To my surprise, he seemed to want me to put it on him so we could ride. Call me crazy, and perhaps I am personifying too much, but for the first time in my life I found that I believed that perhaps this captive animal might actually like having a rider! I changed my mind in that moment, and decided to try the camel trek, but only if I could ride Jimmi. Thus it was settled.

The camel trek was divided over two days. The first day was broken in two parts--3 hours each and ending at our tents in the middle of the sand dunes, and the second day just a few hours to return to the ouberge. It was harder than I expected. You lurch back a forth quite a bit, and with all the sand dunes you are constantly inclining and declining. I was saddle sore for a few days afterwards. But the view was spectacular and it left me lots of time for contemplation which was only broken up by my occasional encouraging remarks to Jimmi.

Here is our guide, M'Bareck--a really nice young guy with broken english.

And here are our camels. Jimmi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Chris Brown (honestly, those were their names--only the last one was added by my travel companions).

During our first day, as I mentioned earlier, my belief in Jimmi's enjoyment of carrying my lazy behind wavered. I sensed his exhaustion (real or imagined) and indignation at wanting to eat (definitely real). In fact, he reminded me of me quite a bit--always hungry, pensive, and extremely stubborn. He found a bush of a juniper-like plant that he must really like, because he bent his head and refused to move. So, to relieve my conscience, off I hopped. But even with his burden lifted, Jimmi was insistant. So of course, the only logical thing for me to do is to bribe him. I grabbed as much of this plant as I could rip off, and got him to his feet and following the others. In this way I ran after my caravan, continuously bringing fresh greens to my beloved camel. M'Bareck couldn't help but laugh. It was the first time anyone had ever dismounted, he said. Crazy western white girl.

Having woken up early to see the sun rise, closed up camp and made our way back to the ouberge, our time in the Sahara was coming to a close. With a tearful goodbye to Jimmi, I asked M'Bareck to be sure to watch over him for me, to which he laughingly agreed. As the 4x4 wheeled off, I took one last longful look at the camp, and the sun casting dark shadows on the dunes. I was sad to say goodbye, but I hoped that n'shala, I would be back soon. I shall look back on it very fondly. I miss the quiet, the way the list is so dramatic on the sand, and of course, Jimmi. If you see him, give him a squeeze for me, would you?

Marrakech, Morocco, Day One

It is going to be really challenging to try to summarize my time in Morocco. Especially since I not only lost the photos from my first 5 days, but then the next day I broke my camera, preventing any more pictures to be taken. Most of my photos for Morocco are then attributed to my lovely travel partners, who I will introduce next post.

It was a short visit, only 11 days, but it was full of adventures, laughter, highs and lows, and feels like it was three times as long.

I want to begin by saying that I travel with a free mind. I arrive to a place unpolluted by the recommended itineraries of guidebooks, the biases of other travelers or the prepackaged reactions of the media. I like to experience the place for myself and come away with my own interpretations. As such, I arrived in Marrakech with little more than a fold out tourist map I happened to find in one of the FOUR bookshops I searched in the Madrid airport.

Actually, you know what, that isn't totally true. As I was planning this trip, Morocco was the one destination that people had things to say about. I couldn't escape what became a litany of surprisingly negative reactions. At first I wrote of the complaints as the whinings of high--maintenance travelers-the people who want clean bottled water, nice linen, and everything exactly as it is at home--but as I heard from more and more people, I began to get worried.

Every woman I had spoken with complained of her treatment in Morocco. They felt harrassed, uncomfortable, scared and angry. They said men would call them, follow them, say inappropriate things to them, and children would try to help them when they are lost only to insist on getting money when they arrive safely. Even women who walked hand-in-hand with their husband felt targeted. The worst stories came from a girl that I met the night before I left for Morocco; she said that she was hissed at by old ladies for showing her hair and felt that a man was going to follow her to her hotel... the list of horror stories goes on and on. Needless to say, despite my efforts to arrive unfettered, after 10 separate people told me they hated Morocco, I entered the country a little guarded and wary of what was to come.

Day one:
My first experiences in Marrakech proved to be very reassuring. No drama. No hastle. The only thing that left an impression on me was the sheer chaos of the city. It is the sort of place that you always need to be alert, or you will be flattened by a truck, a bus, a taxi, or one of the horse and carraiges, donkey carts, or motorbikes loaded down with huge bags of items to stock the local shops. There are no real traffic laws in effect there, so it is truly every man for themself, and you must never expect people to make way for you. (Sidenote example: Once we were even nearly flattened by an aggressive group of modern Moroccan woman who apparently needed the taxi we had called more than we did as they rushed to the window, shoving us to the side.) Despite all of the goings-on, thanks to my handy fold out map, and a quick call to my would-be host, I made it to my resting place with relative ease, setting my bags down with a sigh of relief.

The rest of the afternoon I used to explore my new neighborhood. It turned out that I was living in the Medina, which is the old, original part of every Moroccan city which is generaly still enclosed on the original city walls. It is characterised by close houses, modest doorways, and narrow streets. At its earlier times, the narrow streets served to dissuade and confuse any insurgence as well as to limit the amount of sunlight that came in so that the streets were cooler in the heat of summer. 

The modest doorways thing is really interesting because all of these narrow, dark and dirty alleys had the most unassuming of doorways. If you are lucky enough to enter through one, generally you find yourself in the middle of a gorgeous courtyard that opens up to the sky! In this way intruders could never tell the wealth of the family at whose door he stands. The muslims certainly spared no luxury with their architecture; the classic structure includes 5 main characteristics: marble floors, ceramic tiling with intricate patterns and symbolic colors, wood carving, intricate plaster designs and a fountain.

Additionally, every front door is heavy and made of wood, but sports two knockers-one that signaled family, and another, further up for those on donkeyback, signaled comany.

It is the medina (the old town) that most tourist come to see, so this is where the large portion of touristy merchandise can be found--localized to a specific area called the sook. It is in this maze of narrow streets and covered alleyways that I found myself that first afternoon. I found an interesting man with a nice little shop. He invited me in for tea, which he prepared in the traditional metal teapot, pouring high into the traditional painted glass tea cups to create a light froth on the top of each cup.

This was to be the first of many cups of tea. In fact, tea seems to be the tradition before and after every meal and several times throughout the day just to relax. The tea is always made the same: boiled water is poured over either fresh mint leaves, or dried ones and some dried tea leaves called gun powder, and sweetened with a ridiculous amount of sugar. By the end of my time, I got really, really sick of tea. Perhaps I would have had better luck if I were British.

And it was in this way that I passed a greater part of my afternoon--sipping tea, cross-legged in the back of a small shop, chatting about tourism, the merits of Morocco and the production of all of his merchandise. His walls were laden with traditional leatherwork from West Africa, silverwork ad beading from the Sahara, as well as the popular steel lanterns. I enjoyed looking through his baskets of beads, too, as there were so many different ones from all over the Sahara. We even had a visit from his pet squirrel who came out to make sure that the beads were beads, and not nuts.

Upon leaving his shop, to my surprise it had gotten dark, and I had NO IDEA where I was, or where my home was. Nonetheless, I tried to forge my way ahead, continuously searching for something familiar to mark my return. Alas, none to be found. In this way, I received the unsolicited help of three different people. Each led me in a different direction, and onlky one of whom did try to insist I pay him for his help, even though he clearly had brought me the wrong way. It was a bit nerve-wracking, but fortuntely it ended well as a nice young guy, who also works at a riad--guest house--who spoke English very well, ended up giving me a ride on his motorbike. Ordinarly this is a simple thing, right? People ride motorbikes all the time, no? Well, imagine riding this bike through streets that can't be more than 8' wide, and are then lined on each side with small stands, and filled with pedestrians walking in every possible direction, as well as men pulling huge carts heaped with goods, donkey carts coming through and cats and dogs running around at your ankles. Not your average driving. The one advantage, atleast, was that it is pedestia only, so no cars are allowed to pass through. Thusly, I arrived to a familiar point, and continued the walk back to my temporary home.

To finish off the night, I met the three girls with whom I had planned to travel. We chatted away into the night, getting very excited about the possibilities of our time in Morocco. I went to bed looking forward to what was to come, amazed that we were able to pull it off, but relieved to be somewhere safe and quiet.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Marrakech, Morocco.... Part I

I have so much to write about... so much that I want to share with you all... Unfortunately computers are really hard to use here. They keyboard is set up entirely differently... and time runs out quickly.

BUT I am here, safe and sound.

I have met up with a great bunch of other travelers... girls from, Argentina, South Africa, Italy and Florida. I am sure there will be many great stories to come.

For now, suffice it to say that my days are filled with crowded streets, donkey carts, zooming motorbikes and camels. It is unbelievable. I made a new little furry friend. Pictures coming soon.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Mérida, Spain

I know what you're thinking.
I slipped of to see ancient Rome and didn't tell anyone.

Amazingly, no.

These pictures were taken in a small town in western Spain called Mérida.
It's unbelievable. I don't know how it is possible.
Every city that I see seems to somehow be more incredible than the last.
I don't know how it can keep getting better!
This town is FULL of ancient relics in various stages of preservation.

Here you can see images of the theater, amphitheater, Temple of Diana, aqueducts, and various other projects that are still being excavated.

I think, to my shock and amazement, that this Roman theater even tops Plaza España on my list of amazing things to see. I was completely in awe.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sevilla, España

There are lots of amazing things to say about Sevilla. In fact, it is rivaling San Sebastian as the most beautiful city I have ever seen. Because of this, there are too many things to mention here. So I will exercise some reatraint. Here are some of the things I have enjoyed the most about Sevilla.

First of all, I need to give a HUGE thank you to my lovely hosts. They lovingly welcomed me into their home for these several days, sharing laughter, good meals, the highpoint of this city, and their beautiful home with me. Here they are! Aren't they fabulous! Thank you Cristina and Javi!

Secondly, all the images we have of Spain in the US are alive here, and they are proud of it. They love their futbol teams, they celebrate bullfighting and flamenco dancing, and they eat tapas in boisterous cafes. It's very vibrant with culture here. So I did the touristy things, saw the main attractions, and enjoyed them.

the Torre del Oro (the Tower of Gold, where the city's gold supply from the Americas was stored)

One of the last remaining segments of an ancient Roman aqueduct

a flamenco show (of questionable quality, however)

and in true Spanish form, lots and lots of churches, including this tiny one

One of the biggest tourist attractions in Sevilla is the Cathedral and the bell tower. The Cathedral is ENORMOUS, decorated in the same elaborate gothic style reminiscent of the cathedral in Santiago or the Bath Abbey. It is really stunning, though. The tower is called Giralda, referring to the weathervane that sits atop the steeple. It is the oldest surviving weathervane in the world, or so I overheard a tour guide saying.

Other cool things about Sevilla?

Their main streets are lined with orange trees. Given their southern position, the weather here is still pretty nice for fall--t shirt weather, in fact. There were loads of fruit on the trees, many of which were nearly ripe. Cristina and Javi were telling me that the fruit does get collected to make marmalade! Who knew?!

Given their proximity to, and past relationship with, the muslim world, throughout the city you can find decorative elements of islamic origin. Elaborate designs, decorative archways, rounded towers, and circluar or star shaped windows. I can't wait to see more in Morocco! Also of Islamic inspiration are the common open courtyards inside buildings. In fact, Cristina showed me her parents apartment building, which has THREE different courtyards inside, not visible from outside.

My personal favorite thing about Sevilla architecture, though, was one building; a relic from the 1929 World Fair. It is a large, horse shoe-shaped building called Plaza España. There are 5 decorative buildings connected by long corridors with amazing decorative arches. The two ends of the buildings are punctuated with ornate towers. All of the banisters, benches and fances are made of decorative painted ceramic,bringing the space to life with bursts of color--especially blues and yellows. The courtyard is constantly alive with tourists, hourses and carraiges, and the vendors and performers looking for business. I came here on three different days, and I still haven't explored every detail. I think it is my single-most favorite building to date. I really enjoyed it there.

My last favorite thing about Sevilla?

Well, you'll never guess.


Keep guessing

Not even close

Ok. This is it.

Who can guess what it is? Cristina and Javi----no helping!!!