Africa

Travel Essentials: Morocco

Feeling Safe

Sankes in the street were the scariest thing.

Before I even booked my ticket to Morocco, people were suggesting I don’t go as a solo female traveller. People who had been to Morocco and people who hadn’t. As it turned out, I went with a white female friend and I think I speak for both of us when I say I felt safe the whole time. Of course, in Marrakesh there are some hard sellers who will follow you down the street but a ‘laa shukran’ and a smile seems to shake them off without any trouble. There was the odd one or two who replied with “’laa shukran’, this is all I hear all day!” but ignoring the pleas after until they gave up and walked away didn’t cause us any problems. Personally, I found the worst sellers to be veiled women selling henna tattoos, who hold no fear in grabbing your hand to give you a “free” flower tattoo and telling you that you have beautiful eyes – one time we both had our sunglasses on!!

The only time I felt slightly at risk was when I stole a lone Chinese man from a tout. I was not having him rip off an elderly traveller who was clearly different and could speak no English, French or Arabic. This ended up in an argument between me and the French speaking tout, with me giving constant reassurance in Chinese to the tourist. Was it worth it? YES. Amazing language story!

Indulging

Ramadan breakfast at the Riad.

The food and drink is Morocco is undoubtedly one of the highlights. As soon as we entered our riad, we were offered mint tea – which is completely different to any mint tea you could buy in Tesco! It’s made from pure mint leaves, which are a delight for your nostrils if you see them being sold by the bunch in the market. I didn’t dare to ask how much sugar was added!

Our visit coincided with Ramadan. Despite all of the travel warnings of things being closed, not being able to find food easily etc, we didn’t encounter any problems. In fact, I would say that it made our trip even better! Every day we were offered at least a date (the food, not a romantic evening!) from peoples’ Ramadan breakfast. On our second day in Marrakesh, just as we were about to head out to find dinner, the riad owners and their friends invited us to sit down and join them for their full Ramadan breakfast! It was a brilliant experience. Even just a simple “Bon appetit” as we passed people having their breakfasts in their doorways on the streets of Casablanca got us a conversation and offerings of food. The generosity of Moroccans during Ramadan is a beautiful thing.

Sleeping

And the prize for the most impressive dorm door goes to...

We got lucky with our accommodation in Morocco. We stayed at three excellent places in Marrakesh, Essaouira and Casablanca. Cost wasn’t a problem – and we always travel cheap! Our first riad in Marrakesh was probably my favourite place we stayed.

“What’s a riad?!” I head you cry. A riad is an old style house or palace in Morocco with all floors focused around a central square on ground level. Some are like a courtyard but the majority now have roofs, often made of beautifully coloured glass. Many riads have now become hotels or hostels. The walls and floor of our riad in Marrakesh were covered in tiny tiles and the furniture was really cozy yet almost glamourous with big sofas along one end of half of the room and a dining table at the other end.

Apart from our riad hotel in Essaouira paid for by our new found friend Shounian, we stayed in dorms. This was never a problem, and both dorms had their own bathroom and air conditioning. Obviously, this would vary from place to place.

Shopping

A surprisingly quiet souk.

As soon as I got back to the UK, I said to my boyfriend (who didn’t come to Marrakesh), “We’re going back there when we get a house!” Marrakesh is a shopper’s paradise. Especially for artistic people with a keen eye for a unique bargain that you won’t find at home. Specialities include leather shoes, bags, wallets and belts; kebab skewers; metal lanterns; and pretty floaty clothes.

Travelling

A common view on our bus journies!

Getting around Morocco was a worry beforehand, purely for the fact that we had very limited time here in order to get into Spain in time for what we wanted to see there. This meant that we wanted to book all onward travel in advance to make sure we wouldn’t get held up anywhere. Thankfully, it was pretty easy to book long distance buses in Morocco using Moroccan based CTM. The website isn’t the best but we managed after a few attempts – I think we had to pay by Paypal if I remember because it wouldn’t accept our foreign debit cards. We used Spanish company ALSA to book a bus from Casablanca straight to Granada – ferry fee included!

The only issue we had with transport in the country was that it was Ramadan. And each bus we took (all of which were early morning buses – 8am ish) was delayed by 1-4 hours. In other words, there were no early buses because of Ramadan! This wasn’t really a problem, but it was annoying that we’d been able to book tickets on the website for the early times when there was no bus until later. It also meant that we missed a day in Casablanca and our experience of the place consists of walking up and down the main street once as it got dark. Hence why there’ll be no post on Casablanca.

Overall Impression

Morocco is fun, relatively safe and would make a great destination for a first peek outside of Europe. I also felt that it would be a great place for young gap year students who fancied a bit of hiking, beaching and cous-cousing without mum and dad but with adventure. That said, don’t be put off by that if you’re a well-trodden traveller as Morocco is very much a unique place with its own quirks and wonders and well worth a visit by everyone.

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Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: | 5 Comments

Essaouira a.k.a The Best Language Day Ever!

I’m pretty sure if you know me and we’ve seen each other within the last six months you will have heard this story. It’s one of my all time favourite travel stories. And one of my all time favourite days. It goes a little like this…

We were settling down nicely on the bus from Marrakesh to Essaouira when I noticed an Asian man on the seat opposite and in front of us. He was alone, and swiping his finger across the screen of his phone at lightening speed. After a few seconds of watching him I realised he was writing Chinese characters with his finger, which were then being registered into the phone and put into a text message. Incredible.  If you’re reading this and do this on a daily basis you’re probably slightly stumped by my awe. I apologise. Small things, small things. 🙂

I pointed out my amazement to Hannah (who was pretty amazed too, I’d like to add!) and we thought nothing more of it. The journey was simple and hassle free. Until we reached Essaouira and were met by a gaggle of touts. Armed with our well practised “laa, shukran” (no, thank you in Arabic) that came in very handy with Marrakesh ladies taking our hands to give us Henna tattoos, we Laa-Shukran-ed our way through the crowds and headed with a small group of English tourists towards what their map said should be the city.

The Chinese man followed loosely with his troop of touts snapping at his heels and clearly exploiting the fact that he spoke no Arabic, French or English.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said to Hannah.

I headed towards the Chinese man, mentally dusting off my Chinese knowledge.

“Thank you but he’s with us.” I explained in French to the tout, indicating to the Chinese man to follow us. “He has a reservation with us.”

“I speak a little Chinese.” I said to the Chinese man. His eyes lit up. That gave me the strength to stay strong against the tout.

“No, he doesn’t! He doesn’t even speak English! Now you come over here speaking Chinese! This is my life! I have a family to feed!” I clearly wasn’t going to make it onto the tout’s Christmas card list any time soon.

“Thank you, but no thank you.” I replied in French. I walked the Chinese man away with me and back into the group of English tourists, “Let’s go, quick!”

“What’s your name? I’m Lindsay. She is Hannah.” I asked him on our way into the city.

“I’m Shounian. Thank you.” he replied.

Fortunately the tout didn’t follow us. Unfortunately, the hostel we had reserved wasn’t easy to find. After about an hour and a half of dragging Shounian around, we stood almost defeated in the hustle and bustle of market day. He pointed to a couple stood with a map.

“Ahh! Very good!” I smiled at him and we headed over to the tourists.

“English?” They shook their head. “¿Español?” Another shake of the head. “Français?” Shake number three. “Italiano?”

“Sì!” They replied gleefully.

I opened the Italian box in my brain, “Perfect! I speak a little Italian! We are lost. Can we borrow your map for a moment?”

The Italian couple were wonderful and even offered to help to take us there. When we got there, there was nothing. A local boy even came and showed the Italian man exactly where it was. But there was nothing. Just a door. We knocked. We waited.

“What do we do?” Hannah asked.

“Well, how much is it?” I asked.

“8 pounds. We’re paid about 80p deposit so they have our card details.”

“I’m happy to pay £8 not to stay here. And we’ve dragged poor Yang around for hours now.”

We headed to the main street from our dark side alley and straight into the first hotel we saw. I switched my language brain back to French and asked if they had a room for 3 before realising that after all of this, Shounian might want nothing more than to get away from us! I flicked back to Chinese and asked him if he wanted his own room. He was happy to share so I asked the receptionist in French for the price and if we could see the room. When I told Shounian the price, he instantly pulled his wallet out. Me and Hannah burst into a chorus of ‘no’ insisting we see the room first. He took some convincing but eventually agreed to wait downstairs while we took a peek. He also took some convincing to let us pay and as it turned out, the best we could offer was to pay for dinner that night.

Walking around with him for the rest of the day, we learnt Shounian is a travel writer and photographer and has been to a grand total of 42 countries in his 68 years of life – all with no other language skills whatsoever!

Essaouira itself is a really nice place and definitely worth visiting if you’re in Morocco for any length of time. It is a complete contrast to Marrakesh!

That day in Essaouira was a real highlight to me of the importance of language learning (if you don’t know, I teach languages when I’m not speaking them to Chinese men and touts in Morocco!). Having some knowledge of foreign languages had helped me save a man from paying over the odds for a room, got us to our “hostel” and given us a free night in a nice hotel. On the other hand, there was Shounian. Making his way around with his camera paying far too much for accommodation and transport by throwing his money at someone if they give him a figure. I hope as he travels on, he doesn’t get exploited like he nearly did that day, but it saddens me to think that he probably will.

Moral of Essaouira? Keep learning languages.

Have you ever ended up speaking any unexpected languages on holiday? I’d love to read about it in the comments below! 🙂

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Marrakesh: Foot lathes, friendship levels and feasts.

From the start of my degree, I knew I’d be heading to Spain for a week in the summer of 2013 for a summer school. I also knew I wanted to make the most of it and see some more of Europe in the process. A trip I’d wanted to do for some time gradually began to click into place.

For a number of years, I’d wanted to take the ferry between Spain and Morocco – this was the perfect chance! As things began to work out, we realized we could also hit Portugal on our travels. So this July, my friend Hannah and I set off on our Iberian (and African-ish!) adventure!

When we landed in Marrakesh, the first thing I noticed was how much French is spoken here. I had spent many a car journey listening to Arabic stuff to give me a grounding just in case French wasn’t as widely spoken as I’d hoped but it turned out you don’t always need the language of the country you’re in to survive, as we discovered in Essaouira.

We stayed at a Riad where Hannah had been before but they had moved buildings (sounds strange, I know!) so we’d agreed to meet someone in the main square to take us there. However, it was Ramadan and so by the time we arrived in the city and eventually got through to them on the phone, they were having their Ramadan breakfast. Not having eaten ourselves, we headed over to the food stalls in the square that was now buzzing with life. We found ourselves being called to various stalls, and eventually chose one with lots of locals and what we (wrongly) assumed to be free bread on the tables. I love Moroccan food and the food here was good. However, we were lucky enough to be invited to eat Ramadan breakfast almost everywhere we went every day in Morocco! So that tagine was the only real meal we had to buy in Marrakesh.

We headed out early the next morning with very little direction other than the loose idea of visiting souks, buying a little something and maybe chilling in a hammam As it turned out, a hammam was the first thing we found and not really having a great idea of exchange rates or normal prices of a hammam, we went for it. My God. I didn’t know I was that grubby. Or that it was possible to get that much grub off of someone’s skin. I’d bought a very modest swimming costume back home for moments like this, and felt very proud and respectful when I stripped down to it for the lady to scrub me.

She motioned her hands from her shoulders downwards. It looked like she was telling me to pull down my swimming costume! I repeated the movement and tentatively lifted the strap from my shoulder. She nodded. I pulled down my swimming costume to my waist. There’s no way I was taking it all off! I paid good money for that costume for this exact moment. I was going to get my money’s worth. A few minutes later, after a good scrub down and being covered in mud soap, I was ushered into the sauna where Hannah was already sat sweating it out.

“New friendship level.” I shrugged. Hannah had worn a bikini and so was still ‘fully’ clothed.

After various scrubs and washes, we were shown into a shower cubicle. Although we were washing ourselves at this point, the ladies stood and watched ready to indicate to me to pull the whole costume down when I turned to face them. I didn’t.

We were then given a gown along with our scrub mitt to keep as we were told to relax on the beds in the first room. Finally we were sent upstairs where we were told to relax yet again on individual beds. This bit was weird. I think there’d been some miscommunication as to which package we paid for. We didn’t pay for a massage but we kept quiet just in case they were feeling generous. After about 5 minutes, we entered the final room and were given a pot of mint tea.

We soon headed out into the heat of the day, both secretly knowing but neither wanting to admit that we’d be filling up our sparklingly clean sweat glands very soon. This is where the souks came in. Undercover window shopping with compliments of our French proved to be a very relaxing way to spend the rest of the day. Especially when one man carving skewers with a one foot lathe offered a free demonstration and made me a personal necklace before our eyes after I asked him a few questions in French.

Once filling our scrubbed pores with fresh sweat and sun cream, we decided to head back to the Riad before dinner. Best. Timing. Ever. Just as we were preparing to leave again in hunt of food, the Riad owners were preparing to start their Ramadan breakfast as dusk was approaching, and they were very adamant we join them. Wow. What a feast! It was really lovely to be involved with a personal example of the breaking of the fast up close.

Overall, Marrakesh proved to be just as beautiful, orange and sensory as I imagined, but also a lot safer and friendlier than I’d imagined before arriving. Definitely a place I’d like to go back to and would recommend.

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

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