A Long Bus Ride Through Morocco and Other Short Stories

When Austin and I first arrived in Spain he expressed his eagerness to visit Morocco, which seemed doable since it’s literally a ferry ride away from the border of Spain. Having had a friend study abroad in Morocco I was also interested in visiting, plus, having been to the Middle East, I was interested in visiting any of the countries in North Africa to compare and contrast and hear the call to prayer again. When we actually got around to planning the trip over our Easter vacation, my friends found a tour group that would take us over to Morocco, everything included and show us around for five days. They were concerned about trying to plan a trip in a country where we didn’t speak the language and I was exhausted and too busy to sit down and properly plan the trip so I agreed to go along with it. In general I have misgivings about these types of tour companies because the money doesn’t generally make it into the host country’s economy (this company was based in Spain) and I often feel like I become a spectator at a zoo rather than someone actually visiting the country and learning about its culture and customs. Nonetheless, I had never done a tour group before that wasn’t connected to my university so I went along with it hoping I’d be proved wrong.

Our first day was utterly exhausting and almost entirely spent in transit. We stopped for lunch in Rabat right along the ocean. All of us were hot and exhausted and would have loved nothing more than to jump in right then but we had to go on a short, uninformative tour of the city instead. So to all who were wondering, here’s a view of the Atlantic ocean from this side of the pond.

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We were then taken on a quick bus tour of Rabat stopping first by a couple of monuments built by the last couple of kings. The columns were the beginning of a roof that was never finished and because they didn’t finish it before their deaths, it never will be finished.

We also stopped by this old neighborhood in the kasbah (which they never told us what that meant but it means fortress/citadel/medina). The walls were all painted this beautiful blue color halfway up giving the entire neighborhood a really unique feel. Supposedly it’s similar to the city of Chefchouene which was on the itinerary to visit but we didn’t actually end up going (much to the consternation of literally everyone on the bus). Our guide told us that the blue color was supposedly to ward off bugs.

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We ended our tour at the top of the kasbah which had a beautiful panoramic view over the city and the ocean.

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And then we kept on driving to our hotel in Meknes where we stopped for the night, ate diner, and everyone went to sleep hoping there would be less driving the next day. Unfortunately, Sunday was another 6 hours of driving with a few stops in between. One of those stops was up in the mountains where a bunch of monkeys hang out. The Moroccans have taken advantage of this by selling peanuts and bananas to the tourists who can then feed those to the monkeys who all looked rather obese because of it.

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Driving through Morocco for so many hours did offer a good view of its ever changing landscape. From the fertile regions in the north to the Sahara desert in the south it was fun to watch the countryside change as we drove through the Atlas mountains right after driving through endless miles of semi-arid desert.

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As we came out of the Atlas mountains we passed this huge lake but the more interesting part for me was the pattern on the mountains. I have no idea what it is, and our unhelpful tour guides didn’t explain, nor did they tell us the name of the lake.

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When we finally made it to our final destination, we all got off the bus and loaded ourselves instead into 4×4 jeeps for a high speed drive across the desert to the hotel we’d be staying in that night. We had a blast speeding across the desert and I had fun chatting with our driver who was from the area. Morocco is an interesting country linguistically because so many languages are spoken in so many different parts of the country. Because the remote parts of the country don’t have good access to schools, they don’t all necessarily learn the same languages. In the northern part we found mostly everyone spoke Arabic and French fluently, whereas in the South they mostly spoke Arabic and Berber. Our driver spoke Arabic and Berber and a little bit of english. Luckily, after teaching english in Spain for six months, I have mastered the art of speaking slowly and clearly so folks still learning English can understand my accent. American accents tend to be harder to understand over here because the majority of folks learn British english (which means I’ve been teaching British english and that’s highly amusing) and because folks with British accents tend to pronounce their words more clearly than Americans do. Anyways, so in chatting with my driver I learned that he had two years of schooling and that he didn’t feel like he had any opportunities in Morocco. He wanted to leave and go pretty much anywhere else to be able to live better, but if he were ever to be able to go somewhere for a vacation he’d want to go to California. I had fun chatting with him and he taught me how to say a few things in Berber so I now know how to say I’m pretty in seven different languages (an important life skill, I know). He painted a very bleak picture for me about the opportunities available for Moroccans growing up outside the cities.

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Hanging out with the berbers in the south was also an opportunity for me to learn how to wrap my scarf in a turban around my head like they do. Unlike with a hijab, this wrap is not religious, wikipedia says it’s called a tagelmust and is worn to protect their face/neck from sand/sunburn and is super useful for keeping hair from flying around in the desert winds. After watching them wrap it on some of the other tourists a few times I picked up how to do it on myself and spent most of our time in the desert with my hair wrapped up. It was far more effective than a hair tie and successfully kept my neck and face from getting sunburned while we were in the desert.

We started off the next day with a tour of the local village we were staying in. This was probably one of the hardest parts of the trip for me. With a group as large as ours it was almost impossible to hear the guide if you weren’t immediately next to him, so about half of the tour was more of just a walk through the village for me. We made two stops where the guide explained some local customs, one of which was near the well where women get water (pictured below) and the other was at someone’s house where they were grinding wheat by hand and using a house sized oven of sorts to bake bread.

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At the well we found two women pulling water out and filling their buckets. The guide pointed out the above structures and explained that these were access pipes of sorts to get down to the underground aqueduct which brings water to all of the nearby towns from the Atlas mountains. Once a year, a few guys run up and down the aqueduct on the inside to clean it out. The women pulling water out were obviously uncomfortable with our presence and I really didn’t want to bother them, but our guide pulled us all over to the well and asked if we could have a moment while he jumped in and everyone took pictures and he splashed them with water. I have never wished more that I spoke Arabic so that I could apologize to those women for interrupting them and making light of their daily chore which didn’t look particularly easy. As it was, all I could do was thank them for sharing the well with us and that was not nearly enough.

Our second stop to see the women grinding bread brought back the terrible feeling of being at a zoo but instead of animals, the entire village was the exhibit. We were asked not to take pictures of the women but we were free to go inside and see the oven and watch the women working. I waited by the edge of the group, I can’t imagine how it feels to be accosted by forty tourists gawking at you while you grind grain, completely unable to communicate with any of them with words. I felt a little ashamed and was glad when we moved on.

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Most of the town was paved with dirt roads and all the houses were made similarly to the adobe houses in New Mexico that I grew up seeing. Austin and I split from the group during our free time to walk around the town a little (I wanted to hear the call to prayer and we only had to wait half an hour). Along the way we stopped by the town center (pictured below) where I found a cute pair of harem pants that I fell in love with and bought in one of the shops. Austin also found some men’s harem pants that he tried on the next day and was totally sold on how amazing they are.

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After eating lunch we had a few free hours before we had to head out on camelback to our campsite for the evening and most of the group elected to hang out by the pool and cool off. Austin and I joined them for awhile before I tugged him out into the dunes behind the hotel for our own little photoshoot. Sand makes and excellent backdrop and walking around the dunes was a pretty amazing experience. To me it felt like we were walking around in a painting, it was very surreal. At times, when we could only see sand on all sides, it felt like we were in an ocean of sand but instead of water currents the wind currents were constantly blowing and changing the look of the dunes. The only sign of life we saw were the beetles frantically running across the dunes leaving tiny footprints in their wake.

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After returning from the dunes it was time to get on the camels and begin our two hour trek across the dunes to our campground. As a general rule I’m against this kind of tourist activity because the camels tend to be abused and that was certainly how I approached this particular part of our journey. After having viewed the rest of the town and spoken with the few locals I was able to communicate with, I realized that I didn’t really have any right to judge the people of this town for taking advantage of the only thing they could do to get money from outside of the economy. On our tour, I had caught up with the tour guide to ask him about life in the town. He explained to me that anyone could go to university in Morocco and after a little more direct questioning he admitted that it was only truly possible for those whose fathers allowed them to pursue further education and whose families had money and could afford not only school, but also the transportation to get folks to school. In addition I asked him about the crops in the region since we had walked through a family farm and made the assumption that they were able to export some of the crops. But they don’t. It was a somewhat disjointed conversation until I realized that there was no main crop that they all grew because they all were growing what they needed to survive. We also witnessed how strongly ingrained gender roles were in that town. The women were hardly seen on the streets and from the shopkeepers we learned that it was the woman’s job to take care of the kids and home and in their spare time, a couple hours a day maybe, they would work on rugs or clothing which would be sold by the men in the stores. The men would work out in the fields or would create the metalwork that was sold in the little bazaar we visited.

The difference between the lifestyle in this tiny town compared to that of in the cities was staggering and I realized that I could not look at the camel rides and hold them up to any sort of standard that I might hold them up to in Spain or in the United States or even in Israel. The camels all had rope halters and uncomfortable saddles with exposed rusty metal pieces and I suspect a large part of that is because that’s all that’s available. I’m not convinced that the camel folks have the resources necessary to properly equip their camels whether or not they want to, so who am I to judge them when this is one of the few options for their survival?

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Now let’s talk about the actual camel riding because, I gotta say, this was not the most comfortable part of the trip. You’d think sitting on a bus for six hours was the least comfortable part of the trip, but the camel rides take the cake. Camel rides are good for about half an hour, but if you’re going to ride for longer than half an hour, I’d suggest taking that on only if you have really good muscle awareness and are able to understand how to flow with the camel to keep yourself comfortable. Our camels didn’t have stirrups so it took all of my strength to keep myself positioned properly on the camel the first day (the second day my friend had the genius idea of using our scarves as stirrups so I enjoyed the ride far more the second day). The saddles all had huge metal T’s sticking out of the saddle for us to hold onto and I recommend, dear reader, if you ever ride a camel, only hold onto it when the camel stands up, sits down, or starts shying away from something. I spent the majority of both camel rides not holding on with my hands because that forces you to move with the camel and makes the ride far more comfortable.

I also had the exciting experience of having my camel shy away from something while I was taking a picture. One second I’m sitting on my camel, the next I’m bouncing up and down scrambling for a hand hold, dearly hoping I don’t fall off (it’s a long way down). Luckily I stayed on but somehow ended up with a huge cut in my leg that, almost a week later, has hardly healed. It’s a little infected so I went to the pharmacy where they gave me an antibiotic so hopefully that makes a difference (I ❤ spanish medical care). Anyways, two hours later we arrived at our camp and I sought medical care from the berbers who were taking care of us that evening. Interestingly, almost all of them spoke Spanish fluently. It was kind of fun to walk around the camp hearing Spanish, Arabic, Berber, and English all being spoken by different people in different conversations and for me to be constantly switching the languages as well. I asked the folks tending to my leg how they all spoke Spanish so well and they told me they all learned it from the tourists who visited the region since there are so many Spanish tourists. I was a little surprised that they never learned in classes and asked if that was difficult and he told me “Not for us.”

After an evening in the desert we were woken up bright and early the next morning for an optional sunrise hike up the gigantic dune that we were camped next to. I eagerly set off up the dune and boy was it the hardest climb I’ve ever done. The first half was straight up the dune and, because of the incline, had to be done on hands and feet. I stopped every ten steps or so to regain my breath and pray that my rapidly beating heart wasn’t about to give up because it certainly sounded like it was going to. At the end of that first part, I reached the ridge of the dune and was able to stand and walk normally to the top, that part was so easy it made me forget about how difficult the first half hour had been. I would estimate that it was about a 500+ foot climb straight up. But the sunrise was worth it.

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Also worth it was running down that dune at the end, taking giant leaps, and feeling as though I was flying down the dune.

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So then we hopped back onto our camels (you can see my feet are propped up in their handmade stirrups) and headed back across the desert. The two hour ride was much more comfortable to me due to my stirrups and my understanding of when to use which muscles to best support myself from my trial and error the day before but for my companions it was two hours of misery and torture as the bruises and sores from yesterday were pummeled by the camels’ humps with every step.

After returning from the campsite we re-crossed the desert in the 4×4 jeeps. Our driver told me in berber that I was very pretty, which I was able to understand from my brief berber lesson the previous day, and we re-boarded the bus for a six hour drive back up to Meknes.

In Meknes we went to the main square where our tour guide led us through the medina (outdoor/indoor market) to a madrassa (old religious university) that was in the center. They explained that Moroccans used to study here and gave us a tour of the center, including showing us the rooms where the students lived upstairs, which were just wide enough to fit a bed.

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After that, we were given an hour of free time to meander through the market ourselves and practice our bartering skills. I was particularly interested in picking up a few more pairs of harem pants for myself as my camel had torn mine when it had shied (and I’d gotten blood all over them and I wasn’t sure it would come out, it seemed like a good idea to get some back up pants). So Austin came with me as we strolled through the twisting streets of the medina, me stopping to ask for prices in english and spanish whenever we saw harem pants so I could get a good idea of what to bargain down to.

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Eventually our wandering led us far from where we had started. To a part of the medina where the signs were no longer in French, just Arabic, to the part where every single man we passed leered at me because of my exposed shoulders and calves (I was wearing a long halter top dress that went to the knees). I cannot express how glad I was to have Austin by my side at that moment as I would guess he was the main thing preventing anyone from doing more than just stare at me. Eventually we got lost. Which I had expected. I had asked the name of the plaza before we left and remembered how to ask directions in French for this exact situation.

We got our directions and started making our way back to the main plaza and got lost again, eventually a nice man guided us back to his store in the medina which was near the main plaza. It was a real trip speaking with him as Austin and I speak English, Spanish and a tiny bit of French and a couple words of Arabic and he spoke Arabic, French, a tiny bit of Spanish and a couple words of English. As we introduced ourselves and explained who we were and he introduced himself we alternated quite constantly between the four languages trying to search for the words that we needed. It was really fun talking with him and he was super nice. He took us back to his store and we listened as they explained how Moroccans made metalwork etched with silver and tried to sell us everything in the shop. Eventually we had to leave because we were running out of time and I needed my harem pants. We got lost twice more before finally making it back to the start and diving back into the market on a route we knew to get my pants.

After some quick bartering I bought my pants for 6 euro rather than 8 euro and Austin and I went back to meet up with our group in the main square so we could head to the ferry port and begin our journey back to Spain.

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On the way back we were able to look out across the straight and see Spain because the weather was so clear. I snapped a quick photo so you can see both countries in one picture.


While our tour guides didn’t go out of there way to educate us on the areas we visited, I did my best to ask them and use wikipedia to learn more about the cities we were in and the people who lived there. We spent time in such different parts of Morocco over such a brief period of time that the difference in wealth between the areas was astonishing. We visited one town that had been developed by wealthy folks who had moved in and designed the whole place to look like a Swiss ski village because in the winter it was, in fact, a ski resort. That compared to the poor towns in the desert was quite a shock. It was a level of inequality that gets talked about often, but I haven’t ever seen laid out so starkly contrasted.

Traveling in a group with mostly American tourists meant that occasionally I’d overhear conversations that made me wish we had tour guides who understood the educational gaps that Americans have about other cultures so they would know what to explain to them as I had had with my professors on my first trips abroad. Two of them got into an argument about the trash that we saw littering the side of the road, one saying it was an environmental disaster and they should take care of it, while the other arguing that it was someone’s job to pick all of that up so it was okay because jobs are so scarce in Morocco. I saw similar situations when traveling around the West Bank and my professors had explained that that was often the case in countries where there wasn’t a good centralized waste system, which I mentioned to the two.

I also had a lot of trouble with Discovery Excursion’s (our tour group) hashtag for the trip. “#itstimeforAfrica” From what I know about Africans and African identity, it is not superseded by their national identity and it has always seemed problematic that Africa as a continent is often referred to as a whole, not giving the individual countries the treatment we would give to other continents. For example, I wouldn’t say that I’m going to South America if I were only going to Argentina, I’d more likely say I’m going to Argentina. It seems misleading to say it’s time for Africa when I’m only going to Morocco, especially when I know how different Morocco is from other countries in Africa, even just looking at North Africa vs. subSaharan Africa there’s a huge difference between the cultures and ecosystems and all of that is erased when tour companies say things like “It’s time for Africa” or constantly refer to the land as Mama Africa. I heard Mama Africa a lot while on the trip, even from some of the locals and I wondered if that was for our sake or not. When we came to one of our hotels we were greeted by locals dressed in traditional dress, playing instruments and singing and looking absolutely miserable; as if they were just trying to show off for the tourists. That was not what I went to Morocco to see.

One thing that Austin and I noticed right away as we walked through the tourist sites in Rabat and admired the architecture in Meknes was the similarities between Spain and Morocco and as one of our better tour guides explained, their histories are incredibly intertwined. And for me it was interesting to see many of the cultural similarities to Jordan and the West Bank. It was interesting for Austin and I to have been given so many warnings about going to Morocco (the spaniards where we live are a little bit prejudiced against Moroccans) and then to go there and find such a large Spanish tourism industry.

Being in Morocco sparked a lot of discussions among the other participants about privilege and the struggles the Moroccans face in trying to make a good living for themselves and for many they became far more thankful that they had grown up in the United States where opportunities tend to be a little easier to come by. They did this to the point that they all seemed to push aside the struggles that are faced by Americans on a daily basis as unimportant. While thinking about the subject myself it reminded me of many of the discussions I had participated in in Israel among my Palestinian and Israeli friends about the suffering faced by their people. Those discussions had all come to a quick standstill as each tried to prove that they were suffering more until we all realized that suffering shouldn’t be compared. That one person’s suffering doesn’t discredit another person’s suffering, that both could coexist and both should be addressed. In a similar fashion, it seemed the same thing was playing out between the hardships the Moroccans on the fringe faced versus the hardships faced by so many Americans at home. Comparing them was unproductive. Both needed to be acknowledged and dealt with, the difficulties the Moroccans face is hard, it’s an uphill climb for them. There was a note of despair in the voice of the young Moroccan who drove us through the desert when I asked him how he liked Morocco. He knows that getting out of Morocco and building a better life is incredibly hard. He is correct. And, and this is important, and the struggles that the Americans face should be dealt with. We shouldn’t have people dying from gun violence on a daily basis, we shouldn’t have people drowning in debt to get necessary medical treatment, we shouldn’t be ignoring the mental health crisis that our nation is facing. Americans cannot ignore the problems we face in our country in the face of the difficulties of other countries. Both need to be acknowledged and solutions must be found for both that reflect and are adjusted for the situations that each country is faced with.

 

 

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