A little less than a month ago I caught a ferry from Tarifa, Spain to Tangier, Morocco. Not long before I would not have been able to locate Morocco on a map. So why was I going?
In Budapest, my plans for the future were in limbo and I needed to decide where my next destination was going to be. Abba informed me of an opportunity in Rabat, Morocco to participate in a journalism class being offered by Fair Observer and the United Nations. I applied, and when I was accepted a couple of weeks later it was official. I didn’t know how I would be getting there (I ended up hitchhiking for part of the journey), but I knew I would be in Morocco a few weeks later.
As the date approached, I became nervous. Morocco represented a culture unlike any I had experienced up to that point. I worried about language barriers, and markets that I had no experience with. I wondered if it would be safe, and how badly I would stick out. I was anxious enough that I delayed crossing the border, and chose to stay in Algeciras, Spain for an extra night. When I finally did arrive, my anxieties were heightened by the unfamiliar environment I found myself in. I had not made any connections before I arrived, and I was unprepared for the excitement of that first day. The next day, I spent most of the five-hour train ride to Rabat on edge. Even though I made a friend on the train, it was hard to relax.
Although my first couple days were rocky, the experience was invaluable. I learned a great deal about myself, and I gained a lot of confidence in the face of uncertainty. Since then, my anxieties have melted away. Experience after experience has revealed the beauty of Morocco, which is mostly found in the warm hospitality and infallible friendly nature of her locals. The more time I spend here, the more I realize there is much to see, and if I were to spend a lifetime in Morocco I would never run out of exciting opportunities.
The main street in Central Rabat, Avenue Mohammed V during the day. Parliament is on the right side of the road, and demonstrations and protests are common here.
The Same street at night, from my perch atop Hotel Terminus.
The anxiety I came to Tangier with persisted the first few days I spent in Rabat, the country’s capital. I felt out of place and overwhelmed on the streets. Everything was new and foreign. The Arabic language is everywhere and totally unrecognizable to me. The bustling street markets were intimidating. I was not used to so many people vying for my attention, whether it was an ambitious salesman, a victim of poverty requesting assistance, or a shady man in a sports coat offering to exchange money (forex) for me on a street corner. I am used to cultures with more direct and explicit rules, but in Morocco things are not always clear. Many street addresses for instance are more of a suggestion than a specific location, and google maps won’t help you most of the time. Crossing the street is another good example. Often, if there are many cars on the road, it is necessary to cross half of the street when there is a break in the traffic on one side, and then stand in the middle of the street as you wait for a break in the other half. Or you can just venture out into oncoming traffic, timing your advances between cars and motorbikes as they speed around you. All of these factors combined is overwhelming at first. Fortunately, the mind is quick to adapt. I’ve come to appreciate the more relaxed (less rigid), free-for-all nature of life in Morocco.
My first two weeks in Rabat, I was fortunate to stay in an apartment with a great couple. Nicole, who grew up in New Jersey, studied Arabic and has been teaching in Morocco for three years. She took me to the markets and showed me how to interact with the locals, buying vegetables and meat from the butcher. I don’t think I would have left the apartment if she had not been there to show me how. She and her husband were also able to recommend some great places to eat, and without her I would have been hopelessly lost trying to find the location of my class.
My second week in Morocco was a bit miserable as I contracted a stomach flu. I’m not used to getting sick, and this one was particularly demoralizing for its severity, and the fact that I had just fought a major cold the month before in Budapest and Prague. One evening during my flu, I went to sleep at 1am and did not wake up until 7pm. It was one of the most bizarre experiences. I stared at the clock, trying to understand what day it was. I had slept for 17 hours and missed class.
Incidentally, Nicole and her husband had to move back to the United States, so for my third week I rented a room in an apartment from an older French couple. They really made me feel welcome and at home. I had a beautiful room with a balcony, a shower, and my own couch. On a table beside my bed Veronique and Jean-Francois had provided tea, coffee, and an electric kettle. When I woke up early, I could immediately boil water, make a cup of coffee, and sit down to read. Jean-Francois also left breakfast for me in the kitchen every morning. It was luxury.
One of the rooms I stayed in.
Giving a presentation with my partner Youssef during class one evening.
I came to this beach during my first week in Rabat. After watching the surfers for an hour, I walked further down the pier and slipped on mud. I fell on my ass and when I tried getting back up I fell on my face. Covered in mud, I tried laughing it off in front of the group now staring at me. As I walked back towards the shore, a massive wave crashed into the rocks below, came over the pier and drenched me from head to toe. I decided to go back home.
The Medina is the old city. The Medinas are full of life, history, and plenty of wares.
Getting involved in the community and building relationships has made a huge difference in my experience of Morocco. Ever since a close encounter in Amsterdam renewed my interest in self-defense, I've been looking for an opportunity to take Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes. I found a great school in Rabat, and it's been an amazing experience. I plan to continue the education when I return to the States.
A talented group performed some amazing stunts on the main street one evening, and it really enhanced my otherwise uneventful stroll to McDonald's.
My journalism class is taught once a week in an innovative co-working space, and I was able to attend a couple other presentations during the week. One day while hanging around after listening to a Moroccan filmmaker, I met Soundouss. The topic of the conversation was food, since I was hungry and looking for a place to eat. She told me that I had to try authentic Moroccan food, specifically couscous, and she invited me to her grandmother’s house the following weekend for lunch.
That Sunday I met Soundouss and her sister, and after a small tour of Rabat’s commercial district, we arrived at their grandmother Amina’s for lunch. It was a wonderful and unforgettable experience for me. Soundouss’ family welcomed me and taught me so many things about Moroccan culture. Amina, so full of youth and energy, visited the Sahara Desert two years ago. When she learned that I had plans to go myself, she showed me pictures of her trip, and described by way of body language how to hang on to a camel so I don’t fall off.
Afterwards, we visited a local juice shop. Fruit is abundant in Morocco, and they have some of the best smoothies I have ever tasted. So many flavors to choose from. My favorite is avocado with almonds and dried fruit. It’s so thick you have to “drink” it with a spoon.
Soundouss is among the most generous and kind people I’ve met, and we’ve become friends since then. She helped arrange my Sahara Desert trip, calling the agency to arrange the details, and accompanying me to a local bank branch so I could make my deposit. Considering the trip is advertised in Arabic, I don’t think I could have figured all that out on my own. One morning we went jogging through the local park, and as we were leaving we ran into her grandmother unexpectedly. They made me feel part of the family.
Nothing beats a home-cooked meal, and nothing beats Moroccan hospitality.
Soundouss and her sister Camellia.
Aunt Mimouna demonstrating the proper way to pour tea.
If I can't figure out how to replicate these back home I may just cry. Seriously good.
Jogging through the "Hilton" forest.
I made plans to visit the Sahara, but I had about a week before departure, so I decided to visit the famous city of Casablanca. Casablanca is an hour away from Rabat by train, and I figured it would be a good way to kill some time, relax in a new city and do some reading. That didn’t happen.
One of the exciting things about travel is that you never know what you’re going to experience. The only thing you can really expect is the unexpected. It’s the main reason I choose to plan as little as possible, to take advantage of serendipity.
So my plan to relax and mostly read was more exciting than that. First, my hosts in Casablanca were true to Moroccan hospitality and took me out to see the city as soon as I got there. We drove down to the coast, found a table on the third floor patio of a local restaurant, and enjoyed the breeze as we watched the waves crash on the beach below.
Back at the apartment, I had a couple hours of relaxation before journeying out on my own to meet a friend at a rooftop bar. I got home late with plans for later.
The next day I found myself in the car with an entrepreneur from Norway. Although his parents are Moroccan, he was born in Norway when his father emigrated for work. After years in a steady job, he pursued his own ventures, including real estate investments in Norway, Morocco, and Vietnam. Now, he’s marrying my friend’s roommate. We explored the city, and I got to see the Hassan II Mosque, one of the largest in the world.
We Americans don’t know what we’re missing driving our automatic cars in an organized fashion. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of the quick acceleration of a car in first gear, temporarily interrupted by the shift to second, and the subsequent jerk as you’re thrown back into your seat. This experience is significantly heightened on the streets of Casablanca’s free-for-all environment, in which deference is granted to the one with the most confidence. Needless to say, I enjoyed riding shotgun as we whipped around traffic and pedestrians on streets that would eat me – and my conditioning for discernible road rules – alive. After exploring, we picked the girls up from work and shared drinks on top of Casablanca’s luxury hotel, the tallest building in the city.
Not pictured: steak, fries, and my friends Saad and Charline who hosted me in Casablanca. I really enjoyed getting to know these two, and wish that I could have stayed longer to get to know them better.
My friend Chaimaa invited me to her apartment one afternoon for lunch. Fatiha cooked, and the chicken fell off the bone.
No Moroccan lunch is complete without tea.
One of the largest Mosques in the world.
At Sky Bar enjoying the 360 degree view.
Bar hopping with Saad and Charline one evening. Yes that's a lollipop tree.
Enjoying the best breakfast in Casablanca. I can now say I've had camel meat (in the eggs).
Tomorrow I’ll wake up in Casablanca and take a train back to Rabat. After I finish class, I’ll meet a friend and together we’ll hop on a bus at 10:30pm. Five hours later we’ll be in the Sahara Desert, riding camels and racing jeeps.
Maybe I’ll finally be able to get that reading done.