A Not-so-Rough Guide to Morocco

It had been my dream to visit Africa. Any place would do as long it was classified within the continent. So much mystery and reactionary opinions surrounding a region. Add to it the socio-political connections between India and several African nations, a shared history of trade, immigration, decolonization and freedom struggle. I wanted to go to South Africa because of its connection with Mahatma Gandhi, Kenya to see the annual migrations, Botswana because of Precious Ramotswe, Namibia because Mad Max: Fury Road was shot there, Egypt because of the pyramids, Mali because of Timbuktu, the list is endless. Despite the increasing emphasis on India-Africa relations, it is not easy to fly into the region. Air connectivity is so unsatisfactory, it almost seems like a conspiracy to prevent tourists. Not that hordes are lining up to go. Many in India, a developing country aspiring to first-world status, believe that no country outside western Europe is worth visiting. Tell someone that you are travelling to Africa for fun, out of your own volition, and you will get looks of pure bewilderment. Fortunately for me, my family is game for all my unconventional suggestions and the three of us (my mum, brother and me) soon planned an 11 day trip to Morocco.

Why Morocco? Three reasons sealed the deal for me:

  • Fascinating mix of Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish influences
  • Good weather for travelling in October
  • It was in Africa

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Our flights landed and took off from Casablanca which is why our itinerary was a circuit starting and ending with Casa. Our first night was spent in Rabat, the capital of Morocco, which is 1.5 hour train ride from Casa. From Rabat we travelled to Tangier and onwards to Fes, via Chefchouen. From Fes we went on to Marrakech and then back to Casa. We didn’t plan a trip to the desert due to paucity of time. Travel itineraries of Morocco are usually divided into a northern circuit and a southern circuit, and it was a conscious decision on our part to combine elements of both.

For accommodation we primarily relied on Couchsurfing. We found unbelievably generous and welcoming hosts for four of the five cities we stayed in. In Marrakech we booked a room in a riad near Djemma el-Fnaa via airbnb. We actually had a CS host in Marrakech too but she, unfortunately, suffered an injury in a paragliding accident. Ouch!

Public transportation is a really good way to get around in Morocco. It is extensive, easy to use and really convenient. Most people take and recommend the trains run by ONCF. The other option are buses run by private companies. Most will recommend the buses run by CTM or Supratours. We sampled all but travelled predominantly by buses run by local companies. There is a steep price difference between the local company buses and the CTM bus/ONCF train, and not much of a difference in comfort. My mum found the local buses way more comfortable than both the train or CTM bus. I feel the advantage that local bus companies enjoy over CTM is that they usually take the interior roads so you get to see the Moroccan countryside that is not accessible from the highways. Also, CTM buses are filled only with tourists and I prefer to travel the local way. The advantage that travelling by bus offers over taking the train is that you are assured a seat and some form of air-conditioning. The disadvantage is that buses usually take two hours longer to cover the same distance and you have to pay extra for luggage. The downside of taking the local buses is that they are harder to figure out, primarily due to lack of information. Their service is less frequent and the bus stations are not always located in central spots.

For travel prep I read the Lonely Planet and lots of travel blogs. The Sheltering Sky and The Man Who Knew Too Much were the movies watched while my book choice was Tahir Shah’s In Arabian Nights, an account of the author’s travels in Morocco collecting stories. I didn’t get a chance to visit Dar Khalifa while in Casablanca though.

Should you visit Morocco? Absolutely! The people are amazing, food is delicious, it’s a wonderful, enchanting mixture of Africa and Europe. Long after you are back home, your heart will be wandering in a medina in Morocco.

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Stray thoughts:
1. The Moroccan embassy in New Delhi is not located in Sarvapriya Vihar, the address listed on its website. We found out the hard way after turning up at the aforementioned address, only to be told by the guard to go to Vasant Vihar.
2. In case of any doubts while filing in the visa application, feel free to email the embassy officials. They almost always reply.
3. Be prepared to have a lot of people shout Namaste at you as you wander about. This is the power of Bollywood. Also be prepared to have aforesaid persons sing really old Hindi songs for you. Example: Ram Jaane.
4. Communicating with people will be a problem if you are not fluent in Arabic or French. Not everyone speaks English. However, you will always find friendly people using a combination of English-French-sign language to help you find your way.
5. I read Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage during this trip.
6. Unlike in India, fellow passengers will freely share and accept food during journeys.
7. Haggling and bargaining should be a breeze for anyone used to the Indian system.
8. Tap water is potable.
9. Vegetarian options are available at almost all eating joints.
10. I was apprehensive after having read a lot of blog posts about female travellers being harassed but fortunately, we had only positive experiences.
11. Agent Vinod and Jagga Jasoos are the only two Indian movies to have been filmed in Morocco.

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It was a White Night—Part I

I was standing in ankle deep snow, trying to gain some semblance of understanding. The moon was hanging overhead, a luminous orb streaming light in my direction. The straps of my backpack were cutting through my shoulders but I was too cold to feel any pain. There were no streetlights because there were no streets. Just snow covered pathways leading into darkness. Not a single soul in sight. But I was not alone in this nightmare. My friend was a few paces behind me; same backpack on her shoulders, same confusion in her mind.

Self-recriminatory thoughts formed a line in my head and marched in a loop. Why did I choose to come to the Grand Canyon in end-December? Why did I not reach before sunset? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s trailer-couch? What if s/he turned out to be a psychotic mass murderer? What if s/he was not at home? What if s/he did not have place for us? Why didn’t I have a plan B? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Which idiot chooses the Grand Canyon, in winter, for the first couchsurfing experience? Why couldn’t I be normal and book a hotel room instead of a random stranger’s couch? Why was I doing this to myself?

Pushing aside the voice in my head, I tried to concentrate on the task ahead. Baby steps. Find the trailer village. Find the street. Find the trailer. Knock. Wait for the door to open. Let’s hope not to rinse and repeat.

It was cold, I was hungry, my friend was very nervous, I had the contact number on my phone but the battery was dead. Staying rooted to the spot was not helping. So we decided to move. Chose a random direction and started walking. In the dim moonlight we could make out the silhouettes of RVs and trailers. The wooden sign boards, half buried in snow, displayed an alphabet. This couldn’t be right. I was looking for street numbers. Maybe we were in the wrong trailer village. How many trailer villages were there? Will the shuttle still be running at this time? It then struck me, clear as the night sky we were standing under—what I had assumed to be a Roman numeral was actually a Latin alphabet. Armed with this knowledge and the hope that I wouldn’t end up sleeping in the snow tonight, I started walking. Though the snow, in the dark night, shivering with cold and fear of the unknown. Reached the end of the lane, made a turn, found the wrong street. Cut through the space between the trailers, frantically counting all the boxes, looking for the wooden sign boards. Finally reached the trailer we thought was The One, white and silent. Jumped the fence, managed not to fall flat on my face. Still silence. It seemed like no one was home. All I could hear was my heart hammering in my head. I took in a deep breath and knocked.

 

Written in response to the Daily Post Weekly Writing Challenge-

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/