Saturday, March 7, 2009

Off on the road to Morocco, part 1

We didn't see the Morocco that everyone usually thinks of. We were miles away from the desert. We didn't see Casablanca or Fez or Marrakesh. It rained most of the time, and the landscape was very green. We stayed up north, in the cities of Tetouan, Tangier, and Chef Chauoen near the Rif mountains, right against the northern coast. It's not what you would expect to see on a tour of Morocco, but it was amazing.
We took our tour with a company called StudyTravel, and, from what I could gather, the tour was mainly designed for English-speaking international students studying in Spain. Chad and I were the only people on the tour who were not living in Spain at the time. We were also the only ones who did not speak at least a little Spanish. This wasn't too much of a problem, since most everything was said in English. Our guides did switch to Spanish occasionally, but my French kicked in and I was actually able to understand about half of what was being said. And since French is one of the more common languages in Morocco, I was able to serve as Chad's translator all weekend.
We had some interesting people on our tour. There was an elderly British couple who had relocated to Malaga and were taking Spanish classes at one of the many language schools. There were two older German men, one with a really nice camera who kept taking pictures of everyone. There were two younger German students who mainly kept to themselves or talked to the older German men. There was a Japanese girl and an American guy from South Carolina who was teaching English in Malaga. Both of them kept to themselves and were pretty quiet. Then there were Chad's and my hotel suitemates: Angelika, an Austrian, and Jessika, a German. They mostly stayed together, but would eat meals with us and talk. They were both very nice. Our guide, Vito, was a fun Malaga native who had lived in Indiana for several years before returning to Spain. He was funny, sarcastic, and liked to pick on some of the more annoying Americans on the trip. And there were PLENTY of annoying Americans. I had never realized just how bad the stereotype of the "ugly American abroad" can be until I went on this trip. They were loud, inconsiderate, crude, and mostly concerned with shopping. Well, obviously not all of them, and I'm sure if I had gotten to know them, they would all have been lovely people.
There were three main groups of them who were studying at different schools around Spain. There were about ten people in each group, and they remained pretty insular throughout the trip. I can't think of many specific examples of what they did, but many of them continued to rub me the wrong way. When Vito suggested that we not drink the tap water, one girl asked in a stereotypically air-headed accent, "Oh my God. Can we eat the food? Will it, like, kill us?" And when we were leaving dinner at the hotel on the first night, one girl stopped Vito and said, "I don't have a face towel in my bathroom. Ya know...Like a small one for my face." The bathrooms came with two towels for each person, one body towel and one slightly smaller one. It was perfectly sufficient. Vito sort of laughed and said, "No, man. This is Morocco. You've got enough." She walked away looking disappointed and confused.
I guess these little things weren't all so bad on their own, and I'm not going to pretend that I've never had an "ugly American" moment. I know I have. The worst part was the way some of the Europeans regarded Chad and I, as if they expected us to be just as loud and obnoxious. Particularly the elderly British couple, who were very snobby. On the second day, Chad and I sat with them at lunch. I tried to make polite conversation, and the old man just kept trying to expose how stupid I was. I mentioned I was studying at UEA, and he asked me if how I found it compared to Dickinson. I think he expected me to say that it was much harder than an American university, and seemed genuinely shocked when I said that the expectations and UEA were much lower. Then he asked me what I "read," which I assumed to mean what books I was reading...I am an English major, after all. So I started listing some of the things I'd been reading in class, and he laughed and said in his pretentious posh accent, "No. In England, when someone askes what you 'read,' they mean, 'what are you studying?'" Actually, dude, "reading" only applies to Oxford or Cambridge. Maybe some of the other Red Bricks (British equivalent of the Ivy League). You would never "read" at UEA.
They seemed to like us by the end of the trip, though, once they realized that Chad and I weren't as obnoxious as the other Americans.
So we left Malaga around 3:30 on Friday and drove two hours to Algeciras, a port town even further south, right near Gibraltar. The drive was beautiful. We waited at the port in Algeciras for about half an hour, and then borded the ferry to Ceuta, a Spanish town in Africa on the border of Morocco. It was a little unsettling, because Vito had to collect everyone's passport in order to speed up the border control process. I've always been told never to relinquish my passport...and it was especially unnerving when Vito kept joking that he was going to sell our passports at the border. But I figured if the company was still in business, then they probably weren't criminals. It all turned out fine, and now I have cool Moroccan stamps in my passport.
I stood on the back deck of the ferry to take pictures of Gibraltar as we left, but the sea was very choppy, so mostly I attempted to sleep. It took an hour and a half to cross the Mediterranean, and the sky was dark by the time we landed in Ceuta. At Ceuta we got on another bus and drove to the border. We waited in line at the border for over half an hour, waiting for Vito to get all our passports stamped. It was a little sketchy, probably because it was dark. Leaving Ceuta (and, hence, Spain) we had to change our watches. For some reason Morocco is an hour behind Spain, back on GMT. I have no idea why. Then we drove for another hour down to Tetouan, although I couldn't see too much on the ride. We checked into our hotel, the 4-star Dream's Hotel, which was wonderful. Chad and I were given a suite with Angelika and Jessika. Two bedrooms, to bathrooms, a living room and a dining area. The view of the mountains was wondeful in the morning. Certainly more than I had expected for the price we paid. It was around 10pm when the four of us met up with everyone else in the hotel restaurant for dinner. The food was good, but nothing special. By this point I think we were all just starving. The bread, however, was consistantly good in Morocco. Vito sat with us and entertained us with stories from previous tours he'd taken. After dinner we went back to our room, showered, and went to bed. If I have one complaint about the hotel, it's that the walls are a bit thin, so we could hear all the road noise outside and, in particular, the loud Americans from our group who were upstairs having an impromptu party.
Our wake-up call came at 8 the next morning. We dressed and went to breakfast with Angelika and Jessika. It was buffet-style, and pretty good. I even managed to snag some Moroccan mint tea, which I don't think was officially part of the buffet but the teapot had been left on the table for just a second. How was I supposed to know? At 9 we borded the bus and met our local tourguide, a Moroccan man named Abdul who said his friends told him he looked like Michael Douglas, and that we could call him Michael if we couldn't say Abdul. The bus took us to the main square of the formerly Spanish portion of Tetouan. We exchanged euros for dirham (1 euro = 10 dirham) and then walked up to the medina, or "old city," of Tetouan, followed by several undercover cops. Abdul took us on a wonderful tour of the medina. It reminded me at first of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It's a maze of alleyways lined with shops. But this medina was much narrower, uncovered, and pretty dirty. We entered through the gate nearest to the fish and poultry section. There were women sitting on the ground selling vegetables, men with cartons full of fish, and plenty of shops with dead and soon-to-be-dead chickens. Lots of stray cats. The smell was just lovely. And it was drizzling, so the mud just added to the whole atmosphere. Actually, I really enjoyed it. Like I said, at first it reminded me of the Grand Bazaar, but I soon realized that it is distinctly different. The Grand Bazaar is a tourist attraction, but the Tetouan medina is a living marketplace that has remained virtually unchanged for several hundred years. We spent several hours touring that maze and learning about medina life. Each section of a medina must have five things: a public bathhouse, a public oven, a fountain, a mosque, and a Koranic school. We saw all five at least once. We stopped in the large public square outside the Royal Palace, then walked through the garment district, the flea market, and the residential portion. Around noon we came to a Berber co-op, where we were given a carpet "show" to show us the main types of carpets produced in Morocco: Persian, Berber, other one. Camel-hair, cactus silk, woven, embroidered, etc. They were all beautiful. But, mostly, the guys at the co-op were trying to sell things. And they did. At least one girl bought this beautiful but rather small embroidered piece for 300 euro! She obviously hadn't gotten the hang of haggling. Chad and I walked around the carpets, then downstairs where all the crafts were. We weren't in the mood to buy anything just yet, and had to fend off a couple eager salesmen before we left for lunch.
We ate lunch in the medina, at the Palace Bouhlal restaurant. The food was very good, though possibly a bit bland. Carrot soup, kebabs (which I, obviously, didn't eat), and cous-cous, with fresh clementines and mint tea for dessert. God, do I love Moroccan mint tea. Our company at the table might not have been too great, but we were still entertained by a contortionist who could lie on the floor and crawl underneath his own arm, and then would spin around with a tray of lit candles tilted at an almost vertical angle. Quite impressive.
After lunch we left Tetouan and drove to Tangier, about two hours away. At first we drove through Tangier, driving up a mountain for a lovely panoramic view of the city. We passed palaces belonging to the King of Morocco, the King of Saudia Arabia, and several other important people. The socioeconomic gap in Morocco is ridiculously obvious. We were driving up to Cape Spartel, where the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean meet.
On the way up we stopped to ride a camel at this side-of-the-road pony-ride type place. The camels didn't look very happy being up in the mountains, but I couldn't resist the opportunity to ride one.
We were only at the camel place for about 20 minutes. From there we continued up to Cape Spartel. I can't say we stayed there long, either, but it was a beautiful view over the water. There wasn't much there other than the view: a picturesque old lighthouse, a cafe/bar, and a few vendors there to take advantage of the tourists.
From Cape Spartel we went back down the mountain to Tangier. Tangier is a more modern and cosmopolitan city than Tetouan, at one time an international city divided between several European nations (and the US). Here we were given time to explore the medina, which was actually more like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Although uncovered, it had wider streets and was much cleaner than the one in Tetouan. Mostly clothing and souvenir shops. Chad and I wandered around, but were a bit afraid of getting lost before we were supposed to go back to our meeting point. I took a couple pictures of some cute Moroccan kids, and then we went back to a cafe in one of the squares. Chad and I sat down and ordered mint tea, then Angelika and eventually Jessika came to join us. We sat and talked for a while until everyone had reassembled to go back down to the bus. As we left a couple vendors kept harassing us, trying to sell some cheesy bracelets for any amount they could get. We eventually got away, with the undercover cops there to fend of the harassers. We took the bus back to our hotel in Tetouan, ate dinner, showered, and went to bed.

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