Morocco is an interesting country in that it is less than an hour by boat away from Spain, and as such has a heavy European tourist influence. But there is no mistaking the fact that you are in an Islamic country the minute you land at the airport. Most of the women still wear full dress in the form of djellabas when they go out, a loose fitting, hooded gown. The call for prayers will echo through the streets five times a day and there are camels weaving through the traffic of downtown Marrakech. All the larger towns and cites have a walled medina (or old Arab quarter) in the centre built of reddish coloured sandstone. In general, it would be pretty hard to think you were still in Europe.
One thing that you do have to be very careful of, as a woman travelling in Morocco, is your state of dress (or undress as they would think). While they are very used to seeing Western women clad in shorts and tank tops, to do so is to invite harassment and comments from men. Even wearing pants can be provocative, so buying a long skirt, carrying a scarf to cover your shoulders and your hair and walking with a man can help make your visit more enjoyable. In one city I was wearing shorts when I walked to an ATM by myself just after we got off a bus and had some kids throw rocks at me!
Our very first impression of Morocco was that it was bloody hot! July is not the optimum time to visit this country (notice the thermometer reading on the upper part of the watch), with the average tempurature in Marrakech hovering around 38 degrees celsius. Rooms in general were fairly expensive, but if you wanted an air conditioner so you could sleep at night, costs double. We put up with no air conditioner for the first four nights, then realized that we really weren't going to get any sleep unless we splurged, so went all out every 3 or 4 nights after this.
Our first stop was Marrakech. We went out that night to enjoy the live entertainment at Djemaa el Fna, Africa's largest square. During the day there are a few juice stands and some sellers, but not much else. At night the place is jammed packed with a series of open air restaurants that seem to spring up out of no where and a variety of street performers, everything from snake charmers to story tellers and traditional dancers. There are, of course, an awful lot of pickpockets and beggars out as well, so keep a good hold on your wallet. And, if you're Gilles anyways, you will be having to constantly turn down offers of "top quality hashish", or "Vitamin H" as one enterprising young gentleman termed it. Morocco is actually the world's largest exporter of cannabis, most of which is turned into hashish and seems to be readily available everywhere. I would like to point out that I was not offered drugs once on our entire travel (I'm not sure if I should be offended about this or not), though Gilles must look like a real pot head to the dealers, as they didn't seem to believe him even after he turned them down a few times and would trail after him on the streets trying to convince him they had good stuff to sell!
Morocco is, however, a teetoller country and it is very hard to find any alcohol for sale, except in some of the more upscale restaurants that cater to tourists. Instead of bars there are cafes everywhere that are filled with men drinking gallons of "moroccan whiskey" or mint tea flavoured with mounds of sugar. While there are no Moroccan females present, they don't seem to mind a Western woman sitting down for a drink, probably because they don't really consider us proper women anyways. Just as well they don't drink as the younger Moroccan men seem to spend all their time hanging out together at these cafes, from early morning until late into the evening. Women you actually don't see that much of as you will not find them working in any of the shops, restaurants or cafes.
The other cool thing about Marrakech (and most other big Moroccan cities) is their souk, or market place. Marrakech has one of the biggest souks, split up in to a confusing array of alleyways and tiny little nooks. If you're looking for something specific you can ask for directions to the Souk Bradila (pitchers), Souk Smarine (clothing), Souk Kebi (leather) or Souk Zrabia (carpet) to name a few. Just be prepared - if you ask someone for directions, they will usually insist on taking you there themselves, then will demand an outrageous tip for the "help". Sometimes you will even just be walking in the same direction as someone who has come up to you on the street and pointed in a direction with no prompting, but will then claim they "guided" you to a mosque, souk or street corner. Having said this, Morocco is famous for its hospitality. Often this will take the form of being offered mint tea when you go into a shop, though at times this ploy is used to make tourists feel obligated to buy something (and the shop keepers certainly know how to lay on a guilt trip, be ready to just walk away from them, and sometimes even get nasty as the occasional place can be very aggressive about insisting you buy things). We did however have several great encounters with locals, who invited us to lunch with them, showed us around the Kasbah area of Marrakech and didn't pressure us to buy things from them. We usually did out of politeness sake anyways, but felt that even if we were overcharged a bit it was worth it for the opportunity to talk to local people without having to undergo a big sales pitch.
The food here was great, a welcome relief, and is likely our favourite "new" food type with chicken tajines (chicken cooked over charcoal with vegetables, spices, olives and marinated lemons in a conical earthenware pot) eaten with fresh bread coming in at the top. As well, fresh sqeezed orange juice, excellent cappicinos and, of course, mint tea, meant that most meals were a pleasure to enjoy.
After Marrakech we took off to Rabat to go to the Canadian Embassy. I wanted to double check that my passport would be good enough to get through three more countries - Spain, Egypt and London - and possibly get a new one. Unfortunately it takes at least 4 weeks to get a new passport, time we didn't really have, and the embassy seemed to think I would be okay. It was good that we stopped in, though, because Gilles actually saw an old Canadian friend, Jan, who had married a Moroccan woman after converting to Islam. He offered us some advice on places to go and see, plus it was good to see a familiar face.
We caught a train from Rabat to Fez and decided to actually pay for an official guide to take us through the medina in this city. Fez has an impressively ancient and confusing medina which is considered the largest car free urban area in the world. It is a veritable warren of streets and a guide is highly recommended so that you can get your bearing. Official guides in Morocco have to be licenced and the tourist police will check any local taking you around for an identification tag that proves such. This is because of all the problems that tourists had with "unofficial" guides robbing them, and getting them lost in the medina, then demanding outrageous sums to get them back out. The guides are generally quite inexpensive (we paid about $20 for a 5 hour tour) but only because part of the tour involves them taking you into a variety of stores where they get a commission when you buy something. It is always better, if you are really interested in purchasing an expensive item, to go back the next day on your own as guides can get as much as a 40% commission, which is, of course, passed on to the consumer. We were very upfront with our guide saying we had no intention of buying anything, but that we'd be happy to go to a carpet makers, leather workers overlooking the tannery and an antique store just out of curiosity. I don't think he really believed us, as by the end he was kind of upset that we really hadn't even shown interest in buying anything. Still, it is interesting to see how the handmade carpets are produced and learn how to tell a good carpet from a bad one. The tannery was an experience, and a really smelly one at that. It is fascinating to see that they are still using the vats that were built here centuries ago. The stiff, foul smelling skins from goats, cows and camels are soaked in vats of pigeon dung and urine to loosen the hair and soften the leather. Then all the excess flesh and hair is scraped off the skin and they are dyed a variety of colours or dried and softened into a natural shade. The job here is considered one of the lowest on the social ladder and is a hereditary position, passed on from father to son. We also saw the University of Al-Karaouine, the world's oldest institute of higher learning, established in 859 AD. There was also mosques, an ancient water clock and impressive mosaics to visit.
After Fez we proceeded onto one of our main destinations in the country, which was the Sahara desert. In spite of the heat we felt we would be remiss in not taking the opportunity to do a camel trek in the desert (after all, when are you going to get the chance to do so again). We proceeded by bus to the town of Merzouga where we negotiated a deal for a 3 night stay at a really nice hotel right on the edge of the desert, including breakfast and dinner, an overnight camel safari and (thank god) an air conditioned room at night. The hotel luckily had a pool, because we managed to record a high tempurature of 54 degrees celsius one afternoon while hanging around outside. The camel trek itself was fascinating, if incredibly uncomfortable (not recommended for those who think riding a horse is tough, this feels a hundred times worse). I think they call them the ships of the desert because you can get sea sick riding one. The camp we had was set amongst the sand dunes with small tents made out of hand woven carpets. Since we didn't leave until after 5PM the tempurature wasn't too bad, but we did encounter a pretty viscious sand storm, meaning that there was grit everywhere - in the food, your hair, under your clothes. Interesting yes, comfortable no...........
We begged a ride back to the main town of Er Rachida from a couple who had a rental car at the hotel. From here we planned to catch the bus back to Marrakech. Unfortunately we had missed the only bus in the early morning, so were forced to stay overnight. This turned out okay as we met some great guys who, upon seeing Gilles carrying his guitar, insisted we go to a cafe with them. They called a few of their friends out, including one guy who was a fabulous musician. He kept us amused for hours playing everything from traditional Berber songs, to the Cranberries, to little spoof songs that made fun of the people wandering around us. In return Gilles gave him his electronic LED tuner that he had found incredibly fascinating (and he outright asked for, there is no shyness about the Moroccan men).
In Marrakech we caught a bus to Essaouria. We had almost a week left in Morocco and were getting VERY tired of the heat. Essaouria is on the coast and is boasted to be one of the world's best places for wind- and kite-surfing. It also happens to be at least 15 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the country. Without the need for an air conditioned room we managed to get a cheap place to stay and wandered around for several days. I indulged in some shopping, which I had held off doing for most of the trip, too lazy to carry anything, and we hung out at cafes and watched the large local population of stray cats make themselves at home. You tend not to see stray dogs as most Muslims consider them dirty (if a dog touches something you have to wash it 7 times for it to be considered clean again), but have no problems at all with cats, though after one pissed on my backpack while we were at a cafe I tended to disagree. We actually managed to find a small restaurant there that had a satellite dish and would allow Gilles to watch a little of the Tour de France, which is his annual July ritual.
So three weeks in Morocco made us appreciate cooler weather, less aggressive touts and beggars, a glass of wine with dinner and cheap accomodations in Asia. On the other hand, the shopping was fantastic (as long as you know how to bargain), people once they realized you weren't going to buy stuff from them could generally be pretty friendly, and it was like no where else we've ever been. So come on out, just make sure you don't visit in summer unless you really enjoy hot weather, and you may want to bring padded pants for your camel ride.....................