I arrived late in the afternoon in Casablanca on Sunday, September 09, 2007. My plan was to stay for couple nights then head towards the Riff Mountains, northern Morocco. I was excited to be in Morocco. I have enjoyed my western world city tour that I just completed (LA-Seattle-Vancouver-NY-London-Cologne-Essen-Berlin-Barcelona). Now, I am ready for an adventure. Something foreign and exotic… Morocco! I hopped on a train heading towards the city. I met a guy name Hassan from Casa. I didn’t know where my stop was. Everything was either said or written in Arabic or in French. Thanks to my friend, he showed me how to get to my hostel. He was heading towards an orphanage where he volunteers his free time which was located near the hostel that I was checking into. He even gave me his phone number in case I run into trouble while I am in Casa.
The hostel is pretty basic; bring your own toilette paper kinda thing. There, I met two Canadians and two Japanese that I grabbed beers and dinner with. We found a bar that serves cold Moroccan beers. We chat and drink beers as they played classic American tunes. It was four days before Ramadan begins. A friendly Moroccan bought us all a round of Flag Especiale. I may say this country is very hospitable to foreigners.
The following day, I wanted to get lost into Casa’s old Medina. In there, touts tried to get my attention “just to see” his shop and “not buy”… just to see! It’s funny how they know where the Philippines is. Normally, I am labelled as Japanese (and I normally agree just to finish the conversation and get out as fast as I can). Apparently there are many Filipino seamen that stop in Casa’s busy ship dock. I walked and walked, from corner to corner, alley to alley. There I found newly caught baby sharks being marketed for food. As I walked and found my way out of the walled part of the city, I strolled along the harbour and found Hassan II Mosque. The mosque is designed by Michel Pinseau and was built in short 6-year period. King Hassan II commissioned the building of the 3rd largest Mosque in the world to be built on the Atlantic. It follows the Qur’an that states “the throne of God was built on the water” The mosque is impressive. It can house 25,000 worshipers at one time. The detail on this mosque was quite lavish – heated tiled floor, parts of the floor where Muslim men kneels and prays overlook the Atlantic ocean underneath, the highest minaret which directs a laser towards Mecca at night, sliding roof, and chandeliers that cost hundreds of thousands. The whole project cost half a billion dollars. To see the facility inside, the only option provided was through a tour. There I met Jed, Martin and Sarah who were in the English speaking tour. After, we walked for hours trying to find a place to have dinner. We found a restaurant at the harbour serving fresh fish. I ordered swordfish with legumes. It was delicious! At night, we sat for hours outside at a café in one of the busiest intersection in Casa for some mint tea. It was interesting to watch as locals, cats, dogs, tourists, beggars passed by us as we sip and enjoy our tea. We all called in a night a little before midnight since my hostel has a midnight curfew, and we were all taking an early morning bus going to different directions.
It was a lovely morning. The sun was out and there was a breeze coming from the Atlantic. I walked along the harbour to the central bus station. I am heading to Chefchaouen located at the Riff Mountains. At the bus station, I met Aart and Maryke from Holland. The bus ride took 6-hours in total. I had seat number 2, front row, with a great view… and the sun just shines directly towards me. And to top that, the aircon that was above my seat started to spit water all over me. Perfect, not only was I was getting wet, but everyone in the bus can see me freaking out and pissed off! We arrived in Chefchaouen late in the afternoon. From the bus station, we hiked up to the medina. We checked in to what used to be a family home that was recently converted into a pension. The pension has a terrace overlooking the city and the gorgeous Riff mountains. Chefchaouen is one of the prettiest places that I have ever been too.
Inside the medina, mostly everything is painted in variation of soft light blue and the roof is painted in white. Waking through the medina is peaceful – not much touts and the color blue just gives a heavenly feel. There is a small square with restaurants and cafes in the center. It is easy to appreciate a place called Chefchaouen – small, quiet, and pretty town – especially coming from a big city like Casa… the difference is profound. The following day, I just explored the medina, had a huge watermelon on the terrace for lunch, and just hung out. Chefchaouen is what I have been looking for the last month.. a charming and quiet place to relax my soul. On the third day, Aart and Maryke and I did an 8-hr trek around the Riff. I always like hiking but I wish I had my hiking shoes. My sore feet felt each and every rock that I walked on. Even with the pain, the view from the top was spectacular. We can see the whole valley through the low travelling fog, a lake, and two other villages. On the hike down, Chefchaouen looks different. It was white, not blue. That night, after dinner we sat on the terrace for some tea. There we met two friends from Berlin, Anna and Alex.
Friday, the holy day in Islam, and the start of Ramadan in Morocco. I was excited to be in a Muslim country during Ramadan. I didn’t know what to expect. Would I be scolded from drinking water on the streets during the day? How am I going to eat? Having a catholic upbringing, Ramadan is very foreign. But I am ready to witness it first hand. Since I wasn’t sure what to expect during the month long religious observance, I bought some bread, cheese, some fruits, and water as reserves. In the privacy of my hotel room, I had my first discreet breakfast….Since Aart and Maryke left for Fes, Anna, Alex and I walked up the ruined mosque up a hill. On the walk up, we passed through a river where women were washing clothes. There is barely anything left of the mosque, but it provides a tower which we climbed and enjoyed the view of the town. It also provided a venue for us, the smokers, to smoke in discretion… we tried not to smoke in public.. there.. no one can see! After we had lunch, hung out for a bit and a little nap, we walked around town. Just before the sunset, everyone seem as if they were all rushing to be somewhere.. walking faster and some even running. At 630PM, after the fourth siren of prayers of the day was played, we noticed locals were not on the road. Everyone was eating at home! Enjoying their second meal of the day… We too found a sandwich place and participated in what seem to be the common theme… eating..
The day after the start of Ramadan, Alex and Anna went to the Mediterranean coast and I took a bus to Fes. On the way to Fes, three English ladies (Emilia, Thea and Lilly) were in the same bus as me. We all stayed in the same pension in Chef. We arrived after a short 4-hours bus ride and decided to share a 4-bed room. I am a lucky man! Fes’ medina is quite extraordinary. We were told, after a faux guide whom we ignored started calling us racist, with black heart, rude, paranoid that there are over 9,000 streets inside the walled part of the city. The following day, I am supposed to meet my friend Jed whom I met in Casa. Seriously, I have no clue how we are suppose to meet since neither of us has mobile phone. But with our luck, as I was having breakfast, there he was, walking with his backpack trying to avoid the touts as he enter one of the main gates in to the medina. That day, Jed and I walked hours after hours, and finally a faux guide attached himself to us and led us to leather tannery. It was interesting and gross how they process leather. Apparently, they used cow urine to complete the whole process. For dinner, we met up with the girls. We decided to go to a restaurant where Jed wanted to eat. All six of us (including the two Spanish couple we met along the way) followed our leader. The restaurant was located at other side of the medina. An hour of walking, we found the restaurant being close. Apparently, the people who run the restaurant were having a feast at their home with their family…. and again we realized it was Ramadan. We then waited for a guy to call the owner to open the restaurant for us. For all I know, we could have eaten somewhere closer to our hotel.. They all serve the same.. Moroccan food! We then proceeded back to the center and wanted some sheesha. I run into a Carlos and Gloria from Barcelona. We stayed in the same pension in Chef, and we met as we discreetly smoke at the ruined mosque. We all smoked apple flavor sheesha and chatted. To end the night, Emilia, Lilly and I went to the roof terrace of our hotel and laughed all night. I love laughing. I’m always laughing.
I didn’t do much the following day. I waited for the sun to come down a bit. While the sun was setting, I met up with Carlos and Gloria to hike up a hill where there is a ruined something. We didn’t know what the ruin was. We just made up our own story about the ruined edifice. But the view from the top of the hill was awesome. We were able to see all 9,000 streets inside the medina and the adjacent Ville Nouvelle. After dinner, I met up with the three Brits in our hotel and walked to the bus station. They were heading to Merzouga and I was heading to Quarzazate.
I can definitely feel the desert in Quarzazate. And that is exactly my intention – to spend a night in the Sahara. Once I arrived, a man solicited me to go into the travel agency that he gets commissions from. There I went. And we decided the details of the excursion and the fare. All I wanted to see is the impressive sand dunes of Erg Chigaga. Once I left, I keep thinking.. did I just got ripped off? All night, I kept thinking – WTf, I just got ripped off.. but then I have to let it go.. In this part of the world, you just don’t know when you are getting ripped off. What I learned – never haggle after coming out of a 16-hour long bus journey. Rest and then bargain!
The next morning I was ready to be picked up in front of my hotel to go to the desert. An hour later, they were no show. I then walked towards their office and found the group (a French couple) whom I was scheduled to go with. I was advised to go back to my hotel. Okay…. Another hour later, the man from the tour company came and said.. “The French didn’t want to take you… they want to go just them two…” WTF… I don’t even speak French. For all I know, they can talk dirty all they want inside the 4×4 and I wouldn’t understand a thing! Oh well, I was getting ripped off anyways. The French was even getting more ripped off. I was advised not to tell them how much I paid since they paid twice as much as I did. That’s what they get for being rude! Oh well. Inch’allah! I was not meant to be ripped off. Now, I was stuck in a place where not much to do besides going to the desert. I then went on with my day and explored Quarzazate by foot. On my way to see the Palace and the Kasbah, I met Sami. Sami runs an artisan store where I bought a turban. Without any formal education, Sami speaks perfect English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic. He invited me to eat dinner after sunset. I was delighted by his invitation. I then proceeded to walk inside the Kasbah where there was a Jewish Museum. They say that there was a big Jewish community in Quarzazate before they all migrated to Israel. Late in the afternoon, as I was walking the main square, I checked out another tour company. I am still wishing for my Sahara Desert night. Luckily, there was a couple from Belgium who was also booking their Sahara adventure. At first, they were going to Erg Chebi, but I will only join if we go to the bigger dunes of Erg Chigaga. The tour company presented the couple the pictures of Erg Chigaga and they changed their mind. And yes, I got a better price this time around; I was fully rested before I started bargaining. Just before the sun fully sets, I was rushing to get back to Sami’s store. I hate breaking promises. Once I got there, the dinner was served, but untouched. Sami, couple of his friends, 3 French kids, and I waited for the prayer coming from a loud speaker. Few minutes later, a loud speaker echoes the fourth prayer of the day around town which allows everyone to eat their second meal of the day. Bon appetit!
It was a beautiful sunny day to go to the Sahara. At the tour company office, as I was waiting outside, I saw the girl from Belgium coming towards me. Where is her husband I wonder? It appears that, after we left each other from the day before, they had dinner and he got ill. Hence, they were a no-go to the Sahara. He was checked in to a hospital. Thankfully, Stefan and Sonia from Germany are booked to go with us… and my Saharan adventure is going to come true. I have no clue what have happened, but I just lost my camera before heading to the desert. Oh well, it could be worse. Thanks to my newly found German friends and they will send me photos of the desert. The drive to the desert was scenic. At one point, as the sand surrounds the air, it looks like we were driving directly to a wall. We stop and take photos, or may I say, they take photos since I just lost my camera. It must be nice to have a camera. We also stopped into one Kasbah and the sign that says 54-days to Timbukto. For lunch, we stopped into a really nice hotel restaurant with a pool in a town called Zagora. We were all ready to jump in the water until we were told the swimming pool is for hotel guests only. Whatever! Then we drove some more and got to M’hamid until we hit the end of the road in the most literal sense. And there it was, the Sahara… no paved roads, just rocks and sands – it was a sight to remember (only if I have a camera). Everyone was quiet as we drove off the road. The road changes from rocks to sands, then dirt, and through and out of small sand dunes. Everyone is in awe of the landscape. It is a place where you can easily forget your name. It was truly stunning. We arrived into our destination – Erg Chigaga. The biggest sand dune is over 60 meters high. It was massive. The sight is located just 40 kilometres from Algeria and 56 kilometres where the road ended in M’hamid. There is something tranquil being in the Sahara. Just you and the desert. Stefan, Sonia and I decided to hike up the dunes to watch the sunset. It was a work of art – miles and miles of red brown sand dunes and the red bright sun. After, we headed back to our campsite and had some mint tea. There we met two Americans from NY in their adventure honeymoon. I guess that’s their thing. I can’t imagine doing my honeymoon in a tent somewhere in the Sahara where it was over 100 degrees ferenheight. That night, it was a bit cloudy, and we waited for the stars to show up. For some reason I just passed out and missed out on the stars. However, I did have a peep of the stars when I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night for a few seconds. And that was the story of my Arabian night. The next morning, our camel arrived. There were only two camels, but there were three of us. Sonia and I rode on the camel around the dunes. Yay! I can now say I have been in a camel. After breakfast, we got into our car and drove back to Quarzazate. On our way back we drove through Inki Lake which has been dried the last 40 years. We also stopped by the Kasbah where Passion of the Christ and Gladiator were filmed. Right when we got back to Quarzazate, I went to the bus station to change my ticket since the Germans will bring me back to civilizations in their rented car (out of the desert). The ride back from Quarzazate was through the mountains. We stopped at the peak over 2,000 meters and enjoyed the scenery.
We arrived in Marrakech while everyone was eating dinner. The road was completely empty. We went to the bus station since Sonia and Stefan were purchasing their bus tickets for Agadir. The bus station was closed as the employees were eating dinner. And once again, we were reminded that we are in a Muslin country during Ramadan. Everything is put on a halt once the fourth prayer is played around town. Once they re-opened, they were able to buy their bus tickets and we headed back to the central medina to look for a place. We ended up staying right off Djemaa el-Fna (central square) where they have stayed previously. Ahh.. its nice to finally shower after two days being in the desert. Although I didn’t feel like paying 15dirhams for hot water, cold shower was refreshing enough. After we were all cleaned up, and they have returned the rental car, we heading to the main square for dinner and tea. They were kind enough to introduce me to the wild and vibrant city of Marrakech. On the way, they told me how not to get ripped off in this city… or they were saying not to do the mistake what they have done. To end the night, we all headed up to the roof terrace of our hotel and just listened to the sounds and the craziness happening below us.
Five days in Marrakech… didn’t do much. I didn’t want to do much. I didn’t even see one museum. Well, I did made an attempt to see the Musee de Marrakech, but along the way, I got lost and wasn’t able to navigate myself to the museum. Oh well, but I was able to see into the deep of the old medina. I also walked to Ville Novelle (new area of the city). On the way, i strolled along Place de Faoucald, two gardens one being a Cyber Park, and tombstones. The only reason why I went to Ville Novelle was because I know there is a McDonalds there. Yes, I know, shame on me, but I was craving a #1! And it indeed hit the spot! Marrakech is a beautiful city. Although I didn’t try to see much, I was able to absorb the atmosphere this city offers. Everyday, at around 5PM, I will sit and read at the roof terrace. At around half past six siren of prayers will echo throughout the whole city. And then, silence. All of Islam can eat again. At night, we will eat dinner at a stands in Dejemaa-el-Fna. During dinner, it is hard to ignore touts trying to get another tourist into their shops or stands. Being harassed is definitely part of the fun being here. After, I will walk and see what is going on in the square. One time, I was walking with Dean from NY and another guy from Slovenia then all the sudden, a man rushed towards us and handed Dean a monkey on a leash as he repeatedly said NO! There were storytellers narrating the most mystical, and a woman trying to draw henna on the hands of a woman from England, and a snake charmer running for the guy from San Francisco asking for dirhams for taking photos. Its truly comical. It is just too funny for me as I watch people pay money to get a ring onto a coke bottle, or getting a soccer ball through two bottles seperated less than the diameter of the ball. It almost seems impossible, yet, people still pays. There is definitely chaos in Marrakech main square. Yet with all that chaos I was able to find Aart and Maryke as they sip their mint tea.
Morocco… there is so much diversity here. Mountains, oceans, deserts and many oasis… name it they have it. There are genuinely nice people in this country.. however, there are the others who will find the opportunity to make a few dirham from you! There is a place such as Chefchaouen where you can relax your soul. And the Sahara where you can wish upon a star all night. There is Fes where you can see the real Moroccan city. And Marrakech where to experience all the craziness. And travelling in a Muslim country during Ramadan is a different experience. I am happy to see it first hand. Morocco, for us who lives in the west may find it inefficient and chaotic. However, there is an organize chaos here. It’s an efficient chaos. It works. And the food. I never had one bad meal here in this country. Everything is done fresh. Although I didn’t get to the coast (except for Casablanca), there is always a next time. Not on this trip at least.
I fly to Madrid tonight. I can’t wait to party it up a bit until I hit up Egypt, Jordan and Israel. I met a lady from Pennsylvania who works at an art gallery in Rabat. She told me that I can get a visa to Syria at the border. Hmm.. from Jordan, I may try to cross over to Syria to see Damascus, then back to Jordan for Israel. It’s all up in the air. Just you stay tune. I will post some photos of Morocco once I receive them from the people that I have met along the way. I finally bought a fanny pack so when I purchase my new camera, I will not lose it. I know, I look like a tourist, but I think it’s cool!
I know it’s long. I stopped writing long journals. This is my story.