This past weekend I had one of the most unforgettable experiences, for many reasons. I will remember this trip because of the uncertainty and the stress, and the experiences I was given, the people I traveled with and the people I met long the way, but most importantly the uniquely eye opening Moroccan culture. Over the past 4 days, a group of 5 friends and I traveled by car, bus, and boat to fulfill our dream of visiting Morocco, Africa. Fulfilled, being the most important word….
We arrived at the airport to pick up our pre-rented and pre-paid for rental car, to drive cross country to Sevilla (about a 7 hour drive) in order to meet the group that we would be traveling to Morocco with. As you might imagine due to the title of this blog, it didn’t all work out how we had imagined it. We weren’t able to receive our car because none of us had our international driver’s license…even though the website we booked through stated that this was not a necessity, we were told no car. So, you can imagine how we are feeling at 6pm, standing helpless in the airport with all our luggage knowing that we had to somehow get to Sevilla by 9 am the next morning. But of course that didn’t stop us, I am typing this after all! After wasting about an hour re-configuring our plan to find out that the busses to Sevilla were full, there were no direct trains, and absolutely no flights, we decided to try our only other option which was another car company. Somehow by the grace of God (still somewhat unsure of the legality) we got a car! Everything is great, were all ready to split the 7 hour drive, listen to some good music and have some good conversation. We are feeling hopeful. Until…we find the car. Imagine our surprise when we discover that it is a manual car! So after discussing with the lady who rented us the car and remembering that we are in Europe (where almost every car is manual) and being told that there was absolutely no automatic cars, we only took about 5 minutes to stare at each other with blank faces and then decide that if we didn’t chose this, we weren’t going. Important note, out of the 5 of us who were planning on splitting the driving, one of us knew how to drive stick (kind of). Huge shout out to our friend Kelsey who dominated the drive. So off we went, chugging along…
…And then 9 hours later, after a couple detours, one dead bunny, a some necessary pushes and a very very low gas tank, we made it to Sevilla!!! We then got 2 hours of sleep before we had to be up and on our way to meet the group. Fortunately, all we had to do was park our car and meet a bus where for us it would be worry free transportation for 3 days, which never sounded so good. The way we were getting to Morocco was through a travel group called WeloveSpain, (highly recommended!!!) this not only was a much safer way to travel through Morocco but easier because everything from transportation to meals and activities was planned for us. We met our awesome tour guide Jorge who would take us around for the next three days and we left Sevilla for Algeciras, which is the final tip of Spain.
After two hours of driving our first stop before we got to Africa was a visit in Gibraltar. Technically Gibraltar is connected (land wise) to Spain, but is considered a different country and is actually a territory of England. We were able to walk across the border (yes I did have flashbacks to Canada) into a beautiful English speaking land!! We spent only about 4 hours here, but they were incredible and refreshing. We first saw the point where the Mediterranean Sea meets up with the Atlantic Ocean, on our trek up a huge mountain of tropical greenery and construction on historical buildings where our tour guide informed us of the incredibly dynamic historic control of the province. Many of the monuments we saw on the way up were related to wars, because most of Gibraltar’s history revolves round being conquered and re-conquered by many including by the Spanish, The Moors, The French and the British who now remain in control. When we arrived at the top of the massive mountain we overlooked the whole city (very small) and then the real fun began. We entered into the Caves of Hercules, which were covered with stalagmites and stalactites going in all different directions, and were accentuated with colored lights which kind of made it feel like the club version of a cave. After touring through, we came out on top and were greeted by the monkeys who reside on the mountain and keep watch over the city. It isn’t known why the monkeys came originally, but they remain here now as a tourist attraction but also as protection, they are fed by the government and maintained because if they are not, they proceed to enter down and impede on the city. So, we played with the not so shy monkeys for about a half hour, feeding them some fruit, acting as a perch, taking pictures and observing them in their habitat. It was all fun and games until we quickly realized how comfortable they were with people, and they started jumping on our heads!! That made it even more fun. Yes, my head acted as a chair for a monkey. The experience was kind of a hilarious chaos.
After visiting Gibraltar we boarded a ferry (my first time) which would take us to AFRICA. Now, we all are saying Africa 1, because it sounds cool. 2, because geographically speaking that’s where Morocco is. But it’s important to point out that Morocco is usually associated as a part of the Middle East because of its culture and tradition. After a 45 minute boat ride we boarded another bus and then had to go through customs. I’ll start out describing the Moroccan border with the fact that Jorge began singing “Welcome to the Jungle” as we pulled up. Some of the things we saw during our about 50 minute wait included 3 physical fights between citizens and the Moroccan police, and about 8 trucks that pulled up behind our bus and proceeded to throw what seemed like 500 boxes of what looked like laundry detergent over the fence illegally. The best part was that Jorge created a hilarious commentary of the whole thing for us, and also let us know that it was quite normal. As a bus full mostly Americans, a group of Mexicans and some other members of the European union, you can imagine how far our mouths were hanging open to see behavior like this at the border. As someone who frequents the Canadian border where I believe it is quite tense even when they’re asking questions I couldn’t believe the lack of professionalism shown by the police compared to the US. We were sure to be very careful to only watch, because although the government isn’t so strict with their own citizens, they are stricter when it comes to visitors. We were told before that it is considered rude to take pictures of people specifically while we were here, but that at the border it was prohibited and if they saw you with a phone, their most common reaction would be to smash it on the ground in front of you. Now although this is different, I felt way more adrenaline (as someone who loves action) from these events than I ever did scared. We also all felt an incredible sense of pride in the fact that we now had a new and exotic stamp on our passports. After arriving while the sun was up and leaving after dark and making it through the most exciting border crossing I’ve ever seen, we drove through the city of Tangier to our hotel. This was our only exposer to the country so far and the best words I could use to describe it would be hectic. Due to the border scene, and streets of the city that were more crowded than I have ever seen with people who just seemed to be around. This isn’t a crowded like you would see on the streets of New York, because there everyone is constantly moving. Here, there seemed to be just as many people but not necessarily of sense of movement, just being. When we arrived at our hotel we were all very presently surprised at not only the quality but the size. It was placed in the middle of the city, but our room was huge with nice beds, a hallway, a tv and even a bathroom that’s bigger than mine at home. We had our first meal (which I will discuss along with the rest of the food later) and were all extremely ready for bed.
We woke up bright and early to take a tour of the city in the day light and to make our way to one of the main events, camels on the beach! This was another experience topper, and one of the things we were all looking forward to most. Since there was less camels than all of us (84 students, 5 camels), it took many turns. Our group precisely planned out who would go when for the maximum picture taking opportunities for everyone. Riding the camel was kind of like what I remember riding horse to be like, but way cooler. The going up and down part was slightly unnerving because you leaned forward to an almost vertical point before you popped up all the way to the point where the camel was standing. Then it was smooth sailing even to the point where we could ride with no hands. The camels themselves were pretty well behaved, and not as mean as I could have imagined. In our group we all made it out without even being spit on! (One guy wasn’t so lucky)
Next we spent about another two hours in what seemed like our traveling hotel for the weekend, our bus. Between driving from Sevilla to the port, and in-between all the different cities in Morocco we probably spent about 3 hours on the bus each day at the least. But this was by no means a waste of time. Besides the recuperation that we needed, we were able to see ton of the Moroccan country side which was actually a lot different than I expected. Most of the time what we saw was lush as green, instead of what you would picture being desert like. There were many small towns along the way which brought me back to my time in Central America. One of the best parts about the bus was that we had a Moroccan tour guide (apart from Jorge who was more like a trip leader) Who would fill our ears with information about every aspect of the Moroccan culture from politics to agriculture, religion, history to family life and education to women’s roles while we were driving along. Some of the information I found most interesting was about education and women’s life. Some small facts that stand out were how the schooling system continues through Saturdays, so we saw students walking to school on one of our journeys. This is for elementary age students, the older students have a very different system. The system has more or less two tracks, public or private. Our guide Mohamed explained how his daughter began in a private school and had around 14 students in her class where as his son attended a public school where there was up to 50 students in one class! He also explained to us how contrary to popular belief about their culture, the women have the freedom to choose how they present themselves in the culture and in public in most areas. This means the common dress where everything has to be covered up isn’t always required, but from what I noticed it is almost always respected. He did say that in the more rural areas the rules tend to be more traditional. Something else important to mention about our time here was language. Although this was a trip sponsored by Spain there were many more international students along. Besides the U.S. Mexico and Germany seemed to be the most popular. Almost everything was spoken to us two times, once in English and once in Spanish because there were many people who couldn’t understand both. This was actually really nice for me because it reinforced all the ideas twice. In Morocco, the primary language is Arabic, which was the most common to see on most signs in public and on store fronts and even the labels on our water bottles. I was surprised however at the amount of Spanish that was still infused into the society. Most people at restaurants spoke some Spanish and the shop owners that we bartered with in the streets switched between some lose English and Spanish.
Our next stop was the city of Chefchauen, or more popularly known as the blue city, and what I am now calling my homeland due to my love of all things blue. This small village is known for all of its buildings being covered in blue paint about four times a year, the main reason being to detract some of the heat that they contract during the hottest summer months. Almost every ally and every wall you looked at was bright blue, with tons of unique doors to all the houses and shops, also in blue. You could say I was in my element…here we had a tour of the city and then after were given free time in the markets to explore and practice our bartering skills. Well, we might have practiced a little too much. By the time we left Morocco we probably had about double the stuff we came with (which actually was applauding sparse for me, only a backpack!) Unlike America where it’s almost always not even an option, bartering for goods in market is the norm and not at all considered rude or disrespectful. I walked away with a small painting, two new scarfs, some jewelry and natural products I will discuss later on.
Our next big event when we arrived in the city of Tetuan on the second night was an authentic dinner experience. It all began as we walked through winding streets and into a palace like building where we walked down hallways as we were welcomed with live music on horns and drums. We sat down to a 5 course meal and were treated to more music as well as dancing and fire performers all in traditional dress as we ate. There was even a woman walking around doing henna which I obviously took advantage of. At the end, was the grand finale where two students from our group were chosen to dress up in traditional ensemble and join the show on a big thrown in the center of the room. Then at the end we were all invited to the carpet in the middle for a giant Moroccan dance party! From the moment we walked in it never ceased. I was always turning my head to look at something whether it be the man spinning in the fastest circles I’ve ever seen, or the intricate work on the ceiling or the new plate of food that was being placed in front of me. So, when it comes to food in Morocco, I was very impressed. Although am not a very picky person, I was slightly worried due to my lack of exposure to really any Middle Eastern culture. The first night for dinner we had a type of fish with rice and vegetables which was pretty standard, and for the following breakfast we had a choice of many different breads (Moroccan bread is quite fantastic, usually having a nice think and hearty crust of some sort of seeds) eggs, Moroccan pancakes (eaten with honey and best described as a mix of a pancake and a crepe) along with pellet like disks made of chickpeas and spices that tasted somewhat like falafel. For another one of our lunches we were served a traditional chicken dish which was all legs, that was cooked in a red sauce which seemed to be a mix of tomatoes, lemons with peels included and olives. The chicken in this dish was probably the most tender and delicious chicken I’ve ever had, served with more bread of course. Before most meals we also got salad, which I have now learned is not a universal term if you are thinking of American salads. In Spain, they are quite different (lacking a lot of ranch), but in Morocco it is like something else. Each time we were served this, the parts which included a tiny amount of lettuce, chopped cucumber, beet root, tomato, corn, and cold potato which were all separated in sections on the plate, as dressing we could us oil and curry powder. One meal which I don’t remember when, had tomatoes cooked in some sort of way (it must have been with magic) that was so delicious I was shocked that I was eating them, since I don’t usually like tomatoes at all (hint: mom start buying Moroccan tomatoes). During the fantasy dinners 5 courses, we first had a vegetable soup with a salad afterwards, and then continued with a meat ball dish in a red sauce, and then mounds of couscous with more vegetables and chicken. We then finished with a pastry for dessert and tea. Oh my goodness the tea. Morocco is famous for their herbal mint tea, and I now understand why. It is minty and sweet at the same time, and served with all the herbs directly in the glass, without a bag or anything to steep it. I don’t think I could get enough of it even if I had it coming to me in an IV. We were not allowed to drink the water here for safety reasons, so we had to purchase bottles at all times, but the tea was fine. Something interesting about the food was that it was almost always served to us family style, coming in big dishes for the whole table. This was nice because you could take as much as you wanted to just try, and then more if you liked it. Another funny thing our guide told us is that Moroccans do not use silverware, ever. He says that they’re not needed even for soup. Every food has a way to be eaten according to hm. Since we were a foreign group we were given silverware just in case, but we all definitely had to try a little eating with our hands, to get in the culture right?
Our final day we spent in the city of Tetuan walking through the streets and by the royal palace to get to a couple places where we would get to see some Moroccan goods being made by the citizens who used this as their livelihood. We stopped into a home where bread was being made, as well as a rug shop where a man made almost a whole rug on the loom in the short time we were there, I’ve never seen someone move their hands so fast. My favorite location we visited though was by far the pharmacy. We got a presentation and a test of all their products before we had the option to buy. This included fragrances, oils lotions, lip color, crèmes and more that’s uses ranged from shiny hair to hangover cures to soap that were all natural. I ended up purchasing Argon oil (apparently very expensive at home, but cheap here) for my hair, and a “magic” lip color that comes in all bright colors such as neon blues and purples and greens but is actually clear and all made from the same exact materials (so there’s no shades) and the changes when put on each person’s lips to a different color according to the PH level, so basically like a personalized lip stick, or magic. Whatever you prefer.
After this, we began the long journey home. Long doesn’t cover it, and I don’t think there’s a word that will. We went back across the border, back across the sea on the ferry, 2 hours back to Sevilla in the bus which arrived at about 8:30pm, and then began our all night journey back to Alicante. Since it was a Sunday where nothing is ever open here in Spain, we purchased our dinner and our caffeinated drinks at a gas station before heading out. Due to our own stupidity, we did not bring directions back home and there is no such option as GPS or help from our phones. But to our pleasant surprise, those ancient things called street signs actually work and we were able to make it back to the airport (at 3:00am) without one wrong turn using only our memories and highway signs. After conquering this in a foreign country, I feel more than a little bit bad about not understanding the highway system in my own home town. Oh, and about the whole manual situation, I’m thinking I need to learn that too. After returning our car we all had a mutual feeling of thousands of pounds flying off our shoulders and I don’t think it needed to be said that if we had another option, we probably wouldn’t have chosen this one again.
All in all, this weekend is definitely one that none of us will ever forget. No matter the feelings or the stress on the way there or on the way back, we all would say “Vale la pena” (which means it was worth it) 100%. Not only did I learn more about a culture that I had never been exposed to before, check a new continent off my list, but I learned much more about my friends, and myself and what we can conquer. As much as we might have doubted it (many times) WE MADE IT! Africa, Check.