“Why (and how did you) go to Morocco in December?” Well, when Annette and I found out we were getting research releases for the fall term, we knew we wanted to take a trip someplace in early December because that tends to be an inexpensive time to travel. A friend of ours had gone on a tour to Morocco and said good things, and then we found a tour through Gate 1 (the “how”) with a great price and that fit our schedule. Plus going to Morocco would mean that (counting home) we would have been to four continents this year. So off we went.
A slight tangent: while we went when we did because we didn’t have any teaching or things to worry about, I do think we could have gotten away with this trip during a regular semester if we didn’t keep blabbing about it on social media. This trip would have taken some planning while teaching, but we had regular and robust wifi and we both easily handled minor work email and similar work things. So maybe next year….
Here’s a link to a while bunch of pictures; here are some thoughts and memories:
- Once again, Gate 1 was great. Here’s a link to the trip we took to Morocco. Once again, it was a very diverse group in terms of age (but no kids on this trip), race, careers, etc., etc., though this group wasn’t as “tightly knit” as the group for our trip to China. I think that’s because it was a big group– 41 people– and also because this tour didn’t include as many group meals and activities. But again, a great deal. It’s not luxury travel, but the hotels we stayed at were solid (sort of the equivalent of Hampton Inn kinds of places), the optional things (we signed up for all of them) were all great and worth it, and the tour manager and guides were excellent– especially the tour manager and the local guide in Fes.
- We went to Rabat (the capital of the country), Fes, Marrakesh, and Casablanca. Rabat had some cool stuff, but the heart of the tour was Fes and Marrakesh (Casablanca is mostly a business center with an international airport). The tour was technically eight days but the first and last days were flying, so really six days, plus one of those days was mostly a bus ride between Fes and Marrakesh (not ideal, but it was kind of an interesting way to see the countryside).
- I was expecting more desert and camels and stuff like that, but that’s a different tour. This was more the central and Atlantic coastal region of the country, and the geography felt to me a lot like rural places in Northern California/Southern Oregon or Italy. Marrakesh is on the north side of part of the Atlas Mountains range (snow-capped peaks in the distance, and apparently ski resorts opened for a few months in the winter), and on the other side of the mountains is the Sahara. That’s where we would probably have ridden a camel. There’s a region in the southwest on the coast (we heard about because our guide lived there) that’s popular with Europeans in the winter, and there’s a northern region with Tangier and right across the straits to Gibraltar. But again, different trips.
- Oh, and Morocco is a much more touristy place than China, especially Marrakesh. Heck, we even went to a casino there! It was easy to find people who spoke English, and almost everyone speaks French as well as Arabic. If we went on vacation in Spain, I’d want to include a trip to Gibraltar, Tangier, and probably the “blue city” of Chefcaouen, and depending on the options, I’d be comfortable doing those arrangements without a tour company. In contrast, there’s no way I’d go back to China without a company or some other kind of local “fixer.”
- I don’t know if I’d call Morocco “second world” or “developing world” or what, but it’s a study in contrasts for sure. It’s a Muslim country, but it’s also an extremely moderate and tolerant country, and it had a large Jewish population at one point. Morocco didn’t give anyone up to the Nazis in World War II, though after the war, most Moroccan Jews migrated to the new state of Israel. It’s a post-colonial country that seems to maintain good relations with its colonizers. There were lots of French and Spanish influences in the food and language, not to mention a lot of French and Spanish people. It’s a “constitutional monarchy,” but I got the impression that the king of Morocco is a lot more involved in the day-to-day running of the government than say the Queen of England. It’s a country with lots of the same modern features of countries in Europe (and, unlike China, the Internet wasn’t blocked or slow), but also one where a lot of the people still live simple lives. On our drive from Fes to Marrakesh, we went by lots of big and presumably corporate farms, and we also saw lots of shepherds tending to small flocks (inevitably while on their cell phone) and farmers planting fields by tossing seeds from a bag. There was a large shopping mall near our hotel in Fes, and we went in there a couple of times to look around and to buy hotel room snacks and wine– oh, and while Morocco is an Islamic country, it does grow grapes for wine, most of the restaurants we went to served beer and wine, the hotels we stayed in had bars, and there was a liquor store in this mall. Anyway, it was a big and modern and busy shopping mall, but at least twice, I saw locals getting on the escalator in front of me in a way that suggested that this person did not go on escalators often– for all I know, ever. I mean, I don’t want to get all clichéd and suggest “the highs and lows,” “the best of times, the worst of times,” and all that, but there were a lot of things I expected and didn’t.
- Two things I learned about Islamic (or at least Arab/North African) culture I didn’t know before. First, we saw several “blind houses,” which means they look like pretty much nothing at all on the outside (they usually have no or only a few small windows) but are quite lavishly tiled on the inside, usually with a big courtyard in the middle. This was certainly the case with the “fancy meal” we had in Marrakech at place called Lotus Privilege. Our tour guides lead the group down what looked like an alley perfect for getting mugged and we entered into an opulent courtyard with a pool and lemon trees. Second (and I guess I should have known this before), you don’t wear shoes in a Mosque, which kind of explains to me why slippers are extremely popular footwear.
- On the last day, our guide/tour manager asked the group “what was your favorite part,” and pretty much everyone said Fes. The sites and sounds and smells of the Medina were intense, navigating down “streets” not much wider than a hallway with guys leading loaded down mules going the other direction. In the food market, the way you bought chicken was you picked out one of the live ones in the crate in the back and the guy killed and dressed it for you. And then there was the Chouara Tannery, which has been in operation for about 1,000 years, the process still about the same. The smell of the vats of pigeon shit they used to treat the leather, that was intense.
- And then there was the haggling for stuff. I don’t particularly enjoy this kind of shopping, but I kind of got into it by the end of the trip and I did have a pretty memorable moment in a shop on the last night in Casablanca. I was looking over a box for sale for 450 Dirhams, which is about $45. I knew that was too much, so I said “200.” The sales guy fakes outrage, and says “for you my friend, 350.” “Hmm, that’s still too much,” I said, “How about 325?” “Okay, 300!” And all the other sales guys in the shop looking on to this crack up laughing. “Wait, wait! He said 300!” But I ended up giving him 325– no point in cheating the dude out of $2.50.
- Oh, and New York: we went a day early to go see Moulin Rouge The Musical, which was great and as a bonus, Hillary Clinton was in the crowd. On the way back, our flight from Morocco got into JFK too late to get a flight home, so we decided to splurge a little bit and got a room at the TWA Hotel. That was a hoot.