Morocco: Day 1 intense arrival

    This is the story about one of my most interesting trips during my stay in Madrid. The one carrying me outside of Europe for the first time. A few months ago, two friends and I took a trip to Morocco. Even though it can be a little intimidating, being so close to Spain, it did seem crazy not to go. Luckily my other friends were game so we planned the trip together. We picked one of the many Rihad hotels/hostels located (we hoped) close to the center. Unlike most of my other trips, I did not have time to do any previous research about the destination. My friend, Connie, found some companies that take you on camel rides in the desert, so that took up a chunk of our to-do list. Other than that, we planned to hit up the usual tourist sites. We knew that going to Africa would be entering into a whole different cultural and societal environment, but I’m not sure we were prepared for our first moments in the city….

    Our first challenge was the language. As we could only put together a few words in French and no one knew Arabic, we had a difficult time explaining where our hostel was located to the taxi driver. Our hostel was in the city center on a small, winding street that doesn’t allow car access. Of course, upon recognizing the street name, the taxi driver tried to explain how to get there on foot. Between his French and the quite awful explanation printed from the hostel website, we had literally no clue how to get there. The taxi driver stopped at a dark street corner, pointed down some sketchy looking alley, and started getting out of the car. As he did, a group of guys noticed the three very obvious female tourists inside the taxi and approached. We were not sure whether to get out or stay in the cab! The group surrounded the car and began aggressively questioning us where we were going. I had actually read about that in the safety section of TripAdvisor; that people want to guide you to your hotel and then demand payment. We were bombarded by their requests and I was quickly starting to rethink this girls-only excursion. (In this moment a male presence would have been greatly appreciated.) Real panic set in when an angry man started screaming at us. He seemed either drunk or crazy. He heard Connie (from Mexico) speaking Spanish and started yelling at her to go back to Spain and get out of Morocco. Apparently tension between these two countries still exists. As we tried to get through the crowd, the man shoved Connie backwards, nearly sending us into a frenzy. It struck me that this was the first time I’d experienced fear for my safety since moving abroad. We quickly ducked inside the restaurant in front of us for refuge. Clearly seeing the panic in our eyes, the proprietor invited us in while the crowd settled down. Obviously used to dealing with tourists, he apologized for the angry man, informing us that people like that are the exception in Morocco, not the norm. Tourism does bring a lot of business to the country. He offered one of his restaurant workers to guide us to our destination. Seeing no other option, we agreed.
We made it….thankfully.

   When our ‘guide’ came down, he stuck in his earphones, put up his hood, and voiced the epic phrase that would become the mantra of our trip, “Don’t be scared, follow me.” With that, we were whisked out the door, happy to see the crowd gone. We followed closely behind the guide, afraid we might fall behind his fast pace without notice as he was jamming out to his ipod. We went down rows of curvy, dimly lit streets, and arrived safe and sound outside the hostel. Thankfully we hadn’t rushed out on our own to find this place, we’d still be there looking now. We did give him some Dirhams for helping us and he went along his merry way. Emotionally exhausted already, we nodded our heads as the receptionist (and everything-else-guy, as he was the only worker) told us all the marvelous places we could see tonight close to our hotel. As it was already 11 something, I was kind of doubting we would have the guts to wander back out. He assured us that the main plaza, Jemaa el-Fnaa, was just minutes away and we couldn’t miss it. We got a good laugh when he described the meal we could eat in the plaza, saying everything was “so, so tasty”. 

Tasty tasty tangine. Don’t worry, I didn’t eat all of this myself

I think this always makes me laugh, not only because it just sounds so cute, but because I’ve heard many other non-English speakers say this phrase. And honestly, you hardly ever hear it said in any real English speaking context. So we made it no problem to Jemaa el-Fnaa and tasted the Harira (lentil and tomato soup), tagine (meat, chicken, or vegetables cooked in a clay pot), and the couscous. Indeed, they were “so, so tasty”.

    What surprised me about this plaza was that it was bursting with people, even late at night. I think I assumed this more conservative  culture would be in bed early, but the city dwellers of Marrakech were alive and well, pushing babies in strollers and eating late night icecream. There was a sense of glorious chaos to it all. Groups of teenagers performing dances to drums, carts pulled by donkeys passing by, people haggling over sales prices, and kiosks doing a great business selling freshly squeezed orange juice and Moroccan spicy herb tea.

Only took this picture because we did buy tea from this man

Another lesson we quickly learned was not to even so much as point a camera in the direction of anyone selling anything. They will literally chase you down for payment. Connie took a few pictures of some boys dancing, and one of them followed us around until she gave him some money. They wouldn’t take no for an answer. After that, I was careful to not take any direct pictures of anyone and would discreetly hide the camera when walking or looking around so I wouldn’t be charged. Locals would sometimes ask us to take pictures with them (which Spanish boys do all the time – the big flirts), but this was so that we would have to pat them. With our memorable first impressions of Marrakech, we headed back to the hostel to get some sleep for our big day in the desert! (Just to give some balance to our arrival story, besides that one incident, the rest of the trip was amazing!) More to come…


Peanut Butter

  Thanks to American media, everyone recognizes peanut butter as the staple “go-to” lunch for Americans. But the funny thing is that everyone who tries it here hates it. Once I brought peanut butter and jelly for lunch for my coworkers. They were hesitant at first about how exactly to eat the peanut butter so I made a few little sandwiches for them to try. Several tasted it but told me they were too sweet to eat for lunch. (??) One even asked if you could put ham on it (!!!). So not a big hit at the school. We tried to get our German roommate to like it, but in a very typical, direct German way, she politely told us that peanut butter was the ‘most disgusting thing ever’. The other day, I was at the apartment of a Venezuelan friend who was cleaning out some of her drawers in preparation to move the next week. She opened a cabinet saying this where she put everything she didn’t like. Inside, among a few other things, was a big jar of peanut butter. She told me she bought it because she always saw it in the movies, but couldn’t eat more than a bite. So she gave it to me. A nice gift because “Capitan Mani” Spanish Peanut Butter is no cheap buy! You will never seen a Spaniard eating this for lunch because sandwiches don’t suffice for a real lunch, or so I’ve been told.