Friday, February 13, 2009

Morocco ? ?give you good price, good price!?

      Wow, documenting this voyage is like a full-time job. I feel like I spend every waking minute either writing this blog, or at least thinking about it. Morocco started off with a bang. When we left Spain, we headed down the coast to Gibraltar to refuel. After a few hours of staring at the Rock of Gibraltar, a tanker scooted up next to our ship to refuel it…or so we thought. Mind you, the tanker arrived in the early afternoon around noon or 1:00pm. It wasn’t until 9:00pm that night that we were informed that our ship didn’t get refueled because the waters were too rough and the tanker couldn’t connect its gas line to our ship. And because there was an impending storm, no one could say for certain when we would be able to get fuel and leave. So we just chilled in Gibraltar for the day and then we headed out the next morning, which was when we were supposed to arrive in Casablanca, so we missed a day in Morocco. Unfortunately, when we crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, the winds were very strong and we hit the roughest water of our voyage thus far. I ended up getting really seasick, which surprised me because I didn’t get seasick at all when we crossed the Atlantic. I’ll spare you the unnecessary details, but I didn’t feel so hot for some reason when I woke up. When I went to lunch, I could barely eat anything. I had to force a couple bites down, but only a short while later, it all came rushing back up. I bolted out of the cafeteria and made it to the bathroom just in the knick of time; I was pretty proud of myself. Let’s just say it felt really good to get it out of my system. I came back into the cafeteria to rejoin my friends and thrust my arms in the air as I shouted “VICTORY!!”as if I had just conquered the Roman Empire. It was like a Tony the Tiger moment; “It felt GRRRRRREEAAT!!”

       For Morocco, I joined an independent group trip through a travel company called “Authentic Morocco”. I was in a group of 24 students, and we came to the consensus that in order to have an authentic Moroccan experience, you must have at least 10 near-death experiences, which I think we did. We arrived in Casablanca and after scouring the port, we finally met up with our driver Younnis. From Casablanca, we drove about 3-4 hours to Marrakech, one of the biggest cities in Morocco that draws tourists to its history, tradition, and culture. We checked into our hotel, Hotel La Gazelle, before heading out to lunch. Our hotel room was on the third floor, so we had a great balcony view of the minaret located just off the main plaza. The minaret was beautiful, minus the fact that we got woken up at 5:30am by the muezzin who calls Muslims to prayer in the morning and throughout the day. Our hotel was located just down the street from the main square, Djemaa el Fna, one of the busiest squares in Africa and the world. The square hosts acrobats, storytellers, dancers, musicians, and snake charmers by day; by night, the square turns into food stalls, becoming a huge, busy open-air restaurant.

      After we got settled, Younnis took us to a beautiful restaurant that was above a store that sold rugs and carpets. The layout was really cool. It was open air and there was a big, raised platform in the middle that resembled a lounge. On the second floor, around the periphery, were multiple tables and couches for us to sit down. The chair I sat in was so low to the ground that I had to bend my legs inward so they’d fit under the table. We started our meal with traditional Moroccan bread. The best way to describe it is that it’s round, flat, and thick. After the bread, they brought a huge vegetable platter followed by a five-course meal including chicken, couscous, cooked vegetables, meatballs, chickpeas, and beans. It was delicious. We were all drooling from the mouth. To finish off the meal, they brought out sliced oranges sprinkled with cinnamon, nutmeg, and powdered sugar as well as hot tea. Moroccan tea is very sweet. We couldn’t get enough. After the meal, a tour guide met us at the restaurant and led us on a walking tour of Marrakech. On our tour, we went to the Bahia Palace, which was built in the late 19th century and was intended to be the greatest palace of its time by capturing the essence of the Islamic and Moroccan style. It was built for the grand vizier’s (a high Muslim official) personal use. It includes a vast court decorated with a central basin surrounded by rooms intended for his concubines. The palace also serves as a burial ground for members of the high family. You can figure out how important the buried person was by seeing how many layers/how high the grave is. Additionally, all of the graves point east toward Mecca, the Islamic holy city. After the Palace, we went to a spice shop in the souk and learned all about different Moroccan spices, ointments, herbs, and creams. We were able to get a few samplings and afterward, my hands smelt like that store called “The Body Shop”. We also sniffed some spices, and the guy assured us that it was Moroccan, not Colombian.

       That night, we spent the majority of our time bartering in the souk, which is the largest traditional market in Morocco, and it encompasses the main square. The souk was filled with vendors selling scarves, handbags, backpacks, jewelry, watches, tea glasses, desserts, soccer jerseys, t-shirts, music, shoes, and other souvenirs. It was a neat experience because bartering plays such a pivotal role in their culture and society. Socially, it’s a fascinating way of forming relationships and bonds between yourself and the people you’re interacting with. The Moroccan people were all very friendly and energetic. They loved talking about the United States and especially about Obama. I even tried to ask one shopkeeper for an Obama discount; it didn’t go so hot, but we both got a kick out of it. My proudest bargain was getting a Moroccan flag down from 250 dirham to 60 dirham. You do all of your business when you slowly walk away, and I executed it perfectly. At the end of the night, we walked away with some pretty cool stuff. After our shopping, we ate dinner in the Djemaa el Fna (main square). The food stalls were very lively. There were rows of them and every time we walked by one, there were multiple people nagging us to come to their stall. They basically all served the same thing, so we just chose one. I had bread, chicken kabobs, fries, and tea. Pretty standard. A little while later, we went back to our hotel for the night. Realize that Morocco is basically a dry country, so alcohol is difficult to come by. Not that we were looking for it, but it was just interesting being in a country where alcohol doesn’t play a role in the culture because that’s in stark opposition to American culture, especially college life.

       The next morning, we had an early wakeup to go ride camels. I think these camels woke up on the wrong side of the bed because some of them were not happy at all. They were grunting and being disobedient. Our driver, Younnis, and the camel trekker got into a huge fight because we had 24 people but they only had 14 camels. Some people ended up doubling up and it all worked out. It was quite a different experience than the one I had in Israel when I rode camels there. We trekked through an area that was filled with green vegetation and palm trees…not quite what I expected in Morocco. During the trek, it started raining, which only added to our “authentic”experience. At one point, one of the camels tried to eat me, literally. My camel, which we named Carol because she was really chill and mellow, led a group of other camels. There were two camels whose reigns were tied to either side of Carol, so I had camels on my left and camels on my right. It’s like that “Ignition”song; “I’ve got fellas (camels) on my left, honies (camels) on my right”…Anyways, the camel on my right was really hungry. It leaned over and nibbled on my arm, so part of my jacket was filled with slobber and nastiness. Yum. By the end, we were all drenched and our jeans had at least a little dirt and poop on them. And we were freezing cold.

       After the camels, we took a 3-hour drive high up into the Atlas Mountains to visit a Berber village and see the castle where the last Berber Prince lived. The Atlas Mountains were spectacular, absolutely magnificent and unforgettable. Words can’t even describe how beautiful they were. We stopped in a small restaurant on our way up the passage to drink some hot tea and warm up our frigid bodies. From there, we had a sensational view of the snow-capped mountains and the valleys down below. Continuing up, it felt like we were in the Rocky Mountains. The two-lane road was pretty windy and there were multiple occasions where we passed a large vehicle or truck and a car coming the opposite direction almost hit us. These instances accounted for about 95% of the near-death experiences in Morocco. They happened the whole way up AND down. The other 5% occurred in the side streets of Marrakech, but they weren’t near death for us, only the people walking in the street we almost hit. After a long drive up, we arrived at the Berber village. First, we took a tour of the castle. There were actually 3: one castle was built in the 17th century, another in the 18th century, and the most recent in the 19th century. It’s hard to describe a castle really. There’s a lot of stone, many rooms, and it has a great view of the mountains. I guess you’ll just have to see the pictures. After the castle tour, we ate a traditional Moroccan lunch, which was similar to the lunch we had the previous day. After our visit, we trekked another 3-4 hours back down the mountains and into Marrakech. That night followed a similar routine as the first night. We did more shopping in the souk, enjoyed some entertainment in the square, ate dinner at the food stalls, and then called it a night.

       The next morning we had another early wakeup call. Before we hopped in the van, we grabbed a small bite to eat on the street. We ate these delicious little crepes that contained honey and sugar in the middle. Morocco really gave me some good ideas for food when I get home. We got in the van and took another 3-4 hour drive back to Casablanca. On our way, we must’ve hit 3 different rainstorms. The weather changed faster than almost anywhere I’ve seen. Once we got to Casablanca, we ate lunch at a little restaurant. I had schwarma, which I hadn’t eaten since Israel over the summer, so I was due for some good stuff. After lunch, we went to the Hassan II Mosque, named after King Hassan II, who was King of Morocco from 1961 until his death in 1999. It is the second largest mosque in the world after the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. It can accommodate over 100,000 worshippers and its minaret is the tallest in the world, standing at 689 feet. It is only one of two mosques that are open to non-Muslims. Almost half of the surface of the mosque lies over the Atlantic Ocean, and part of the floor is glass so worshippers can kneel directly over the sea. The mosque displays strong Moorish influence and the architecture of the building is similar to that of the Alhambra and Mezquita in Spain. Unfortunately, tourists are only allowed in twice per day for hour-long guided tours and we weren’t there at that time. However, my friend Sahare, who is Muslim, was able to go inside to “pray”and she snapped some pictures for me, which are incredible. The mosque was a short distance from the port, so we headed back to meet the ship and embark for Namibia. It was pretty funny when we entered the port because the guards thought Sahare was Moroccan and that we were trying to smuggle her out of the country.

       Leaving Morocco was ridiculous. The MV Explorer has a stabilizer system to minimize the amount of rocking the ship does when the water is rough. The stabilizers look like airplane wings that extend out from the ship beneath the water, and they work very much like the elevator flaps do on the tails of airplanes. Sometimes when going in and out of certain ports, the stabilizer system has to be discontinued either because it’s too shallow or the port is too narrow and they’ll get damaged. Leaving Casablanca, such was the case. Realize that when the stabilizers are in place, the ship rocks. When they’re not in place, it ROCKS. So a whole bunch of people went to various parts of the ship where they could do some sliding on the floors. My roommate and I went into the Union, which is our main lecture hall. The floor was part wood, part carpet and there were a ton of chairs. I figured we’d be sliding across the wooden part of the floor in the middle of the room. When we started going, we literally tumbled from one side of the ship to the other. Not only were we sliding, but all of the chairs went flying across the room too. Some rolls were worse than others, but on the big ones, we’d go sliding across the room, pound into the chairs on that side, and then the other chairs would go sliding and pound into us. I have to say, it was crazy, but it was a lot of fun. To give you a better idea, a lot of the books in the library fell of the racks and onto the floor, as did the books in the bookstore. A huge floor-to-ceiling mirror shattered in the campus store. Furthermore, a whole bunch of merchandise fell off the racks and shelves and onto the floor. In my room, everything on our tabletop and nightstand ended up on the floor. Our beds went sliding across the room. My door was hard to open because it was being impeded by so much stuff that had slid all over. It was probably a preview for how it’s going to be around the tip of South Africa. Hopefully not, though. Now we have another 8 days at sea before we arrive in Walvis Bay, Namibia, though we will be stopping in Dakar, Senegal to refuel (again). More soon.

“The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning”–Ivy Baker Priest

1 comment:

  1. So when you come home are you going to cook for me?? MISS AND LOVE YOU