When Blake Knight, David Joiner, and I first booked this trip the only question people could think to ask was simply "Why Morocco?" I have to say that even after talking amongst ourselves and with the other people in our tour group, the only logical response anyone had was, "Why not?" Truth of the matter is that we found a great package through Gate 1 Travel (http://www.gate1travel.com/) and figured that if it's good enough for Humphrey Bogart, it's good enough for me.
David Joiner had the great idea to take an extra day in Europe to get acclimated to GMT, so we flew from DFW to Brussels on Friday the 13th. As if on cue, O'hare airport delayed us 2 hours which I think it requires from all inbound flights. Luckily though, we didn’t miss our next flight. After 8+ hours of snake free flying time, only 2 of which I managed to sleep through… thank you American Airlines for showing "Akeelah and the Bee", we arrived in what I've bestowed the honor of "Most delicious country." Belgium smells of waffles and chocolate (with a hint of BO), and is a country where the surprising lack of museums and churches (a rarity in Europe) is offset by the sheer quantity of local breweries. By noon we were two Duvels down and wiped out, so we headed for bed. Sunday we caught the 7am flight to Casablanca.
What met us when we got off the plane in Morocco was a country that seemed to have a bit of an identity problem. It possesses an interesting fusion of Islamic traditionalism, with 5 daily Adhans (or calls to prayer), a minaret dotted skyline, and hijab / jilaba adorned locals, combined with western progressivism (bars, bathing suits, and women's rights). All Moroccans speak at least Arabic and French, with 95% speaking English as well. And all of them want your money.
Once we arrived in Casablanca, the first thing you notice is that the city is in color (shocking since our only research was the movie), and that all buildings are indeed in white. It occurred to me that in all cities near the Mediterranean, buildings are primarily white. However it seems that this city called "shotgun" before anyone else. Once in the city, we met up with the tour group, and began our guided adventure at the Hassan II Mosque. This is the 3rd largest Mosque in the world (tallest minaret however), even though it can still hold over 100,000 worshipers during peak Ramadan services. It was built in the 1980's by the King of Morocco, and it took over 2,000 workers a decade to complete it. Those may not be Great Pyramid numbers, but they are staggering by today's standards. The tour continued with a trip down Franklin Roosevelt Street and then to the Bourgeois arrondisement (again its French) with its sprawling mansions, the King's palace, and the Atlantic coast. We then headed back to the hotel, when Blake, David, and I decided to head to the market to start buying souvenirs (which didn’t stop for 6 days).
The next morning we packed our stuff up and began the day's trek to Fez. We stopped in Rabat first to tour the country's capital, and to the see the royal residence, which was a miniscule 20 hectares (Luke that one is for you). Blake rocked the Kasbah (refer to picture on Flickr), and we headed for the Roman ruins outside Meknes. After a tour of the ruins we continued onto Fez, or as I called it "Funny red hat". "Fez" in Arabic means axe and as the story goes, when the Muslims came and took control of the country they apparently found a golden axe in the city, and therefore named the city after it. I think they're just trying to make it sound better than, "in the 7th century the country was dominated by the Shriners, and to show the power of the Muslim world, they conquered the Shriners and removed the tassle off the hat to claim it as their own… Allah u Akbar!"
Fez is a city that still looks as if it might have in the 12th century, and in fact the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site (google it). We were promptly handed off to another guide (also named Mohammed), who took us on a tour of the Jewish quarter (apparently Jews have inhabited the country for over a millennia), another Royal Palace, and then the medina. The medina of Fez has over 10,000 streets all intertwined and with no discernable order (similar to Paris except smaller, not as smelly, and the people are nicer… well maybe not that similar). We were given 3 additional guides to keep us together and safe, and we wondered the narrow passageways and visited several artisans for which the city is known. We managed to see a guy who carves all of his own items out of Bronze (bought a couple of those), a place where they makes head wraps/blankets/and silk sheets (bought a couple of those), the oldest active tannery in the world (Blake and Dave bought an ottoman), and the famous Berber/Moroccan rugs (didn’t have $10K).
Our second night in Fez we were treated to a traditional Moroccan dinner of pigeon pie, curried cauliflower, and couscous, complete with Arabian music, belly dancers, and a magician (I was confused on that one too). We also learned from a fellow Gate 1 traveler that a "massage" costs $20US and requires you to be al naturale & sans towel (that’s the extent of my French). Apparently inappropriate massages were left out of the Koran, but I digress…onto Marrakesh!
After a full 8 hour travel day, where I got to know another gate oner by the name of Ed (wife and daughter also on the trip). Ed was an intriguing guy who nformed me that in his mind, the most beautiful word in any language is Mariposa, the Spanish word for butterfly. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Mariposa is the root word for the construction crew favorite curse word "maricon".
We arrived in the surprisingly touristy and beautiful city of Marrakesh. Day one involved a tour of the usual sites, followed by a guided trek through the medina. It's hard to fully put into words the feeling of walking through the streets of a place where there is no commerce other than locally owned shops and beggars, the economy is kept alive via donkey, and where everyone greets you with "Welcome my friend… For you I'll give you best price!"
It occurred to me that there is a scale of what "best price" means and it goes something like this:
a) local Arab $5
b) Arabic speaker $6
c) European $10
d) American $20.
Everything starts at 500 or 1000 dirhams, and it takes about 2 seconds to realize you're getting completely screwed by your self proclaimed new Moroccan "friends." If they start at 500, you should respond "2 for 100." By the time you're done, you'll have had mint tea, a new story to tell, and 3 of whatever you bought for 1/3 of the original price of 1 (again prices may vary). It’s a great lesson in economics though, b/c inevitably as your desire for a souvenir goes down (demand) so does the price. The best way to haggle is to laugh at whatever price they start at, walk away, and then make them chase you down. After a week of this we all longed for a trip to Starbucks where they really do give you the "best price" but without the middle man.
It was also in Marrakesh where we learned just how progressive Moroccan Muslims really were. The largest discotheque in Africa is there (Pasha), and another Europeanesque establishment (Comptoir) plays house music to a mixed crowd of scantily clad Muslim women and American/European men eager to meet them.
There are many other stories I could tell, like for example how our new friend Darrell kept getting taken to back rooms every time we turned around, "nose-candy", the true meaning of "Comptoir", and why its not advised to sleep in the same room as Blake Knight, but I'll leave that for another time. Congrats if you made it to the end, b/c here are the links to both the Morocco pictures (more will be added once Blake and Dave get on the ball)
And as an added bonus, here are some pictures from my adventures in Paris and other assorted European cities from last summer… at least the ones I want people to see.