Hungry for Morocco

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Arriving into Marrakesh, the capital of Morocco, we quickly found a Pension down a side alley near the center of town on the terrace-level, the cheapest rooms available.  Immediately, I was thrown into Spanish 101 as this would be the only way we could communicate unless we were lucky enough to stumble across someone that spoke English, a real treat.  French is the language of preference in Morocco due to colonialization around the 19th century, but most speak a bit of Spanish as the Spaniards occupied the southern part of the country and of course, it was necessary for business.  The streets were crowded with locals, mostly men, some dressed in traditional garb, long one-piece linen shirts that extend almost to their ankles.  The women were covered including a burka and some wore the full face cover.  We walked around looking for a cafe and quickly realized this wasn’t going to be easy.  It was Ramadan, a celebration that lasts for an entire month where basically anyone over 18, and sometimes younger if they choose, doesn’t consume a thing when the sun is up.  No food, no water, no smoking, no anything, including brushing your teeth should you decide to sleep in or having sex.  The “rules” state you’re not even supposed to look at the opposite sex more than two glances, although this rule is probably the least followed.  Most rise early in the morning, pre-sunrise, for the first of their five daily prayers.  During this time, they will eat some food, have tea or coffee and brush their teeth.  So, from roughly 6:30 in the morning to 7:30 at night, those that follow Islam throughout the entire world make this ultimate sacrifice.  Asking a local, they explained it is a sacrifice that they make so that no matter if your are rich or poor, during Ramadan, you are all on the same level.  Needless to say, any cafes that were actually open were filled with tourists only and most cafes didn’t serve food.  Fortunately we found one near our pension and sat down for a big breakfast.  We hadn’t eaten ourselves in almost 12 hours but in reality only 2 of those hours we were doing anything besides sleeping.  Maybe it was just feeling guilty but as I drank my fresh-squeezed OJ and sipped on my coffee, ate my eggs and slathered butter and jam on the fresh croissants, I couldn’t help but feel eyes watching.  Within seconds a motorbike whizzed by and we heard a commotion in the street.  He had hit a pedestrian and this would be the first of roughly two altercations we would see per day while in Morocco.  I can’t really say I am surprised because if I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for several hours, I’d be the first to jump down somebody’s throat for the slightest transgression. 

We were warned that Morocco just wouldn’t be the same visiting during Ramadan and while that’s probably true, I’m really happy we visited during this time.  Seeing a Ramadan celebration first hand is something I will never forget.  As the sun sets, the vibe in the air borders the night before Christmas as a young child.  You can sense the anticipation and as people around you sip their first fresh mint tea or light up their first cigarette, have their first tasty morsel or give their wives a kiss and a pat on the ass, you feel the mood change.  Several times during this moment at night as we would walk down the street, locals would offer us some of their food, even though the amount was small and they knew we had eaten throughout the day.  Of course, we would refuse and say thank you but couldn’t help being completely amazed at these gestures.

In Marrakesh, after a gorgeous sunset, things really picked up because the Central Market opened and mobile restaurants set up shop.  The lights, the smells, the music and drums beating.  The buzz of talking everywhere arround you and smoke rising from the numerous tagine clay pots cooking lamb and chicken.  Carts with fresh seafood on ice and assortments of meat surrounded by tables and behind them chefs busily preparing the orders being called back. As you walk by, the purveyors would come up to you and in perfect English ask where you were from.  For some reason, they never guessed America for us but we think they were just having some fun.  The first gentleman that approached us was quite funny but we wanted to see the rest of the market before deciding.  Looking around, all of the restaurants are exactly the same so we promised him if we ate at one, we’d come and see him and he made us remember his number.  142 my friend, say it, 142.  We did and ultimately we returned for a fantastic budget-travelers dream meal.  Surrounding the restaurants are other carts, these filled with dried fruits such as dates, apricots and bananas, assortments of nuts and spices, not to mention ten different types of olives, each specially marinated with different spices and herbs.  Stores with colorful carpets and shoes are at the edge of the souks, the markets for goods, that connect to the central market.  Returning to 142, our new friend was happy we gave our word and stuck to it, something we’re not so sure occurs often.  The menu was extensive and dirt cheap.  We split a chicken tagine over couscous that was cooked with golden raisins, fresh dates and root vegetables.  On the side we had two types of salads and a moroccan soup and the entire bill came to $7, including drinks.  Afterwards, we played some local carnival-style games, winning a liter bottle of coca-cola and then snuck into the corner bar which had a spectacular view over the market below.  Here, we booked our trip to Zagora, for an overnight camel trek in the desert, which left early the next morning. 

Zagora Camel Trek

What they don’t tell you when booking this trip is that it’s a 8-9 hour drive to get to the camels and they stop every hour or so at their buddies tourist shack to try and push overpriced goods.  Fortunately, the drive was through the stunning Atlas Mountain range, otherwise it would have been completely unbearable.  Arriving at our destination, the camels were ready to go and after being instructed to buy two waters each we were introduced to our transportation and off we went into the sunset.  My original plan was to do a 4-5 day camel trek through the Sahara but after riding for an hour, I’m glad we decided on our two and a half hour round trip.  Our asses were killing us and I felt like I had been forced to do a split for an hour, stretching my upper-inners a bit farther then they’re meant to be.  The sand kicked swiftly into our faces and most of us were forced to wear bandanas or traditional head wraps.  Our group was fantastic, with a German and Spanish couple, two Swiss gals and a group of Japanese travelers to make the journey that much more enjoyable.  Arriving at our camp, an encircled group of large tents with a large tent at the point meant for group meals, we unpacked and were served dinner.  Surprisingly, everyone was completely exhausted and we all turned in early.  Before going to bed though, Erin and I sat out under the moon and enjoyed the tranquil solitude that surrounded us.  The next morning, we hopped back on our camels and head home.  Halfway, we dropped off our German riders, as they were planning on some hiking in the vicinity and picked up two Kiwis who had been campervanning around Europe for a few months.  I learned an awesome card game from Hide and the Japanese crew, whose highlight is the winner gets to “flick” the loser in the forehead.  Yet another game, I wish I had learned earlier growing up with my brothers!  After the hellishly long ride was over, we quickly rushed to the train station to board an overnight train to Fez. 


Fez is busy and the medina, the center, is built on what seems to be the side of a hill.  I say seems to be because when in Fez, even with a good map, you spend half of your time lost.  Being lost is one of my pet peeves but in Fez, I just had to let it go and it turned out to be a good decision.  We just roamed around the medina for two days with no real direction and only hoped that at some point we would spot a landmark that would help us home.  Small stalls that sold freshly baked pancake-style breads and others with fresh-squeezed orange juice would get us through the day.  At night, finding an open restaurant was always a challenge but proved to be no match for our rumbling tummies.  This time, we would opt for Morocco’s famous cous-cous with lamb, perfectly seasoned with some cumin and topped with raisins and dates.  After a day and a half of Fez, we were just kind of sick of it and opted to leave that afternoon.  In Jordan, we were instructed by our friend Regina that we had to go to Chefchaouen in the north while in Morocco, so we asked directions and hopped a train.  At 5:30 in the evening, we were instructed to get off the train and catch a bus the last 100 km into the mountains.  As it was Ramadan and the sun was on it’s way down, all buses had stopped and the trains were finished as well.  Having another traveler’s bug, we quickly found a hotel for the night and made sure the bathroom was near.  I could only say estoy enfermo while rubbing my stomach to the ladies that ran the place and they asked for 2 dirhams, about 15 cents, and ran out to get me the “local fix,” about 15 packages of apple tea.  The tea was no match for this illness though and I was in for a long couple of days, including an unintended Ramadan-esque day of non-consumption.  The next morning, after what seemed to be an eternity, we caught the early bus to Chefchaouen.  We had finally found the type of city we were looking for in Morocco. 


The blue city as it’s called, is like most cities, split into the old and new.  It seems as though the old is usually for tourists so we quickly made our way there and with the help of a friendly local, found our hostel suggested by Regina, Hotel Mauritania.  At $7 each a night for a room and meals being as cheap as they are, we felt like we were back in Egypt and excitedly hatched plans for all we could afford.  Oh wait, we were sick though so first we had to struggle through that, mostly bed-ridden.  On the second day I was in bad shape and refused food and drink for the entire day.  At about 3:00 in the afternoon, sitting at an internet cafe, I was so weak I began to fall asleep in the chair.  Erin woke me and said I should go home and rest so I struggled back up the hill towards the hotel.  I hadn’t eaten or drank anything for nearly 8 hours and wouldn’t have anything for 4 more.  I will never understand how people celebrating Ramadan can work regular jobs, some as laborers or even harder, as restaurant workers, without eating or drinking.  It is truly the ultimate sacrifice. 

Finally, the sickness lessened and like a new spring day we entered the city with a fresh start.  The tight alleys and little shops and locals selling odds and ends carried us through the city.  Just about everything is painted some shade of blue and after perusing the streets we decided to hike up the adjacent mountain for some fresh air and exercise.  After about an hours climb, we ran into a local on his way home and after some pleasantries, he invited us back to his house for “some tea, and to see my family’s business, making hash.”  Never ones to miss a unique experience we agreed.  For the next 45 minutes we followed him up the mountain and he would stop and show us how to spot the difference between fresh and dangerous cactus-fruit and also picked one for us to eat.  Arriving at his house, we noticed it was under construction and he was in the process of drying figs in the sun.  Soon, he came out with a table set, some tea and an English-Arabic dictionary from 1985.  With the dictionary he looked up the Arabic word for “Easter,” and then pointed and laughed to the tied-up goat we had passed along the way.  Apparently, that would be their celebratory feast at the end of Ramadan.  Then he brought out his tools-of-the-trade for making hash and proceeded to make it. Offering us what he made, we passed but thanked him for the unique experience anyway.  We asked him if his hash is sent all over the world and he just smiled an nodded his head but mentioned it wasn’t him that was doing the smuggling.  Wanting to finish our hike but not sure of the route since we were led to his house, he led us to the trailhead and we climbed up the mountain for a picturesque view of the city and valley below.  Rewarding ourselves that night which would also be our last, we went out for a nice dinner in the town square and bid the quaint little city goodbye.  The next day we traveled by bus to Tangiers and then took the ferry across to Tarifa in Spain and thus began our adventure towards Barcelona.

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