A night under the stars in the Sahara Desert

“You should always smile and be happy because you never know what tomorrow’s going to be like.”

That’s what our camel driver said when someone asked him why he’s so happy. His name was Said (Sigh-eed), a word meaning “happy” in Arabic. Most of us thought he was crazy, even drunk; shrieking, cackling and snorting while he laughed seemed to be his favorite forms of expression. Maybe he was crazy. But for someone to say something so profound as to change the way I reflect on life because it’s so true and so real, then there has to be some grain of sanity in his wild noggin. I’ve been thinking about what he said ever since.

The drive to the desert took nearly 10 hours. We left Fes at 7 a.m. and hit to road, driving south towards the Moroccan-Algerian border. We saw different types of Moroccan terrain as we drove through the various regions; first was the green region, called the Switzerland of Morocco. Palm trees and other green leafy plants stretched for miles in-between big, cascading mountains. The tree population started to fiddle out as we made our way higher up the Atlas Mountains.

We drove on some long, winding roads carved out of the sides of the mountains, and l’ll admit it was a little terrifying. But the views were breathtaking. Looking out of the window of the van, it seemed as though we could see all of Morocco beneath us.

We continued climbing until we reached the peak of the mountain range and then began our descent. Downwards we saw the mountains take on a different form. Our surroundings began to resemble the Grand Canyon, with stretches of roads between the canyons that reminded me of Arizona. We stopped a few times along the way to take pictures, and I’m so happy we did. Looking at views like those make me realize the world to me gets more and more beautiful every day.

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As we approached the edge of the Sahara, the land flattened out and the sun became excruciatingly hot. Thankfully, our van has air conditioning, but there only so much AC can do to compete with 45 degree heat (Celsius) and cool off 17 people. We drove along until we reached a dirt road that seemed to lead to no where but was labeled with an arrow on a sign that said “Kasbah Hotel.”

Our driver pulled on the road and headed into Nowhereland. Flat sand a stretched in front of us as far as our eyes could see. Though packed down, the sand we drove on was bumpy enough for us the be shaking and shifting in our seats for the ride, which seemed like it would take eons.

And then we saw them. Little hills in the distance. As we drove towards them, be they grew into bigger hills until finally we could see the distinct outline and height of the sand dunes. We were in the Sahara Desert.

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We pulled up to the hotel, which was little more than a motel with sand walls and no electricity. We dropped off our big luggage in a storage room and packed small bags to take with us overnight. We had arrived late, so we needed to hurry to see the sunset on camelback. Once ready, our tour guide rushed us to the posterior of the hotel where we saw two lines of camels and a camel driver and his apprentice waiting for us.

From the first moment Said introduced himself and threw his head back to cackle, we knew he was crazy. He had wild eyes and a goofy grin that permanently plastered on his face.

One by one, we mounted the camels’ backs then held on for dear life as the camels lifted their hind legs first, then their front ones, throwing us back and forth on their bodies. My camel’s back was at least eight to 10 feet tall and was the second from the front in the line. When I asked Said what my camel’s name was, he laughed and said, “Just call him, uh, Jimmy Hendrix,” and then he shrieked with laughter some more. Fine, Jimmy it was.

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Jimmy and I became hit it off as we started our trek through the dunes. Leading the rest of the pack save for the one camel in front, we bounced up and down walking up the mounds of sand. Said walked at the very front, leading the camels in the best spots so they wouldn’t have to carry us up any hills that were too steep. We were on our way to the desert camp.

Our caravan stopped at a peak to take pictures of the sunset. The sun was small, poking out just above the hilly outlines. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe how that moment felt. We were watching the sun setting behind the dunes of the Sahara Desert. Meanwhile, my friends were at home trudging through the first week of senior year. Just surreal.

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Our ride lasted a little more than an hour. We approached our desert camp and saw a bunch of tattered tents arranged in a circle. In the middle lay several blankets, creating a big mat. On the mat were few small tables wrapped tightly with waterproof table clothes. We rode up to the camp and one-by-one dismounted the camels. Most of us had already decided we’d be sleeping outside that night, so we just threw our bags in random tents but met out in the center of the camp.

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As we sat, talked and gazed at the wondrous view, Said went to work with his apprentice to prepare dinner for us. There was a small tent that served as a kitchen, where he stored and cooked the food. He told us dinner would take about an hour, so we had some time to kill.

Three others and I decided to go for a walk. Our camp was at the bottom of one of the largest dunes in the area and we reckoned we could get an amazing view from the top. We were not disappointed. The sand was very difficult to walk in; each step sank us lower and lower into the light brown terrain. Our guide had instructed us to keep our shoes on as protection against scorpions and other creatures that may be dwelling in the sand, making the hike up even more strenuous.

The others walked far in front of me and I was struggling to keep up. I hadn’t been in the best shape lately, and the lack of fresh veggies and healthy meats on the trip hadn’t helped.

My breaths were getting heavier and faster. I was thinking about just stopping where I was and looking out over a smaller dune. It would be easier and more comfortable.

But I couldn’t. I had to keep going. I had to reach the top.

It was the first and maybe only time I’d be in the Sahara, and I needed to do it the right way. So the others waited as I powered through to catch up to them. Only a few meters separated up from the peak. The thought of the view kept me going. Slowly, we reached the top and finally sat down.

The view was unreal.

Rows of intertwining dunes stretched out as far as we could see. The sky, now a deep blue color, sat like a blanket over the sand, sprinkling the view with stars. If I thought the sunset was unreal, this view was simply transcendent. I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually sitting on top of that edge.

I didn’t bring my camera — and I’m glad I didn’t. Otherwise I would have been too busy looking through a lens to drink in the moment.

The four of us sat there for a while an talked about the view. Gradually our conversation evolved into stories about life. Our group was me, a 20-year-old student from Washington, D.C., a 24-year-old Australian doctor, a 30-year-old Filipino Canadian nurse and a 45-year-old midwife from Toronto. We all came from different backgrounds and experiences, but connected in that moment under the stars.

We talked about our broken pasts, shaky lives and uncertain futures. Looking out over the vast Sahara Desert, we felt small, humbled. We were all humans, all doing what we can to get by in life. And that was enough.

It was almost dinner time so we started our decent down the hill. The smell of good food met us when we approached our camp. Said made beef tajine, a dish with meat, potatoes and carrots cooked in a tajine pot. We happily ate at the small tables, filling up on the meal.

After dinner, Said and his apprentice treated us to some Moroccan music. Both men played drums and Said sang in Arabic. Being musical myself and seeing that there was a spare drum set, I asked if I could try playing along. A minute later, I there I was, beating on a drum with two Arab men in a desert camp.

I didn’t know the songs, of course, but I made up my own rhythm to complement theirs. We played for everyone for about 30 minutes and our guide rallied everyone to get up and dance. Soon though, we all felt fatigued from the day’s adventure (clinging to a camel for an hour is hard work!) and decided it was time to settle down for the night.

And then I felt a drop. Then another. I looked around to see in anyone else had felt anything. Sure enough, people were touching their skin and looking up at the sky. It was raining! Even Said showed suprise, informing us that it only rains about five times a year in the desert. How cool is that? It was a light rain, not bothersome, but enough to make us retreat into out tents.

We clambered into our tents, but then we heard a shout. Everyone ran to the tent where noise came from and saw two girls in a tizzy. One had gone to lay down and found a scorpion under her pillow. Said rushed into the tent, laughing, and captured the scorpion in a bottle — but not before he found another scorpion scurrying around his feet. There were two! He trapped both and got rid of them.

The scene caused a fuss among the campers and many felt unsettled after that. The rain had stopped, so we decided to move our bags out of the tents have a slumber party in the middle, thinking we’d be safer from desert creatures that way.

It took a while to settle back down with the thoughts of scorpion stings infiltrating our minds. It was nearly midnight then, but a few of us still couldn’t sleep. So instead we laid back and looked up at the stars. It was cloudy, hence the rain, but every once in a while, the clouds would part and we’d see the stars shine down to us. It was like every star in the galaxy wanted to be seen.

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Looking at the stars was like looking out over the dunes. It made me think again about how small I was in the scheme of the world. My problems, my insecurities, are nothing compared to the big picture. All that matters is living the best life I can. I thought again about what Said had said, making the most of the present because you don’t know what could change tomorrow.

That night I fell asleep with a smile on my face, not thinking, not caring, about what the next day would bring.

A day in Fes, Morocco’s happiest city

I knew from yesterday’s introduction to Fes that I would like city, but I realized today that it will probably be my favorite cities in Morocco. It’s a beautiful city, for one thing, and it’s filled with some of the happiest people in Morocco.

Today we had another local guide take us around his hometown. He was extremely friendly, with a bubblier personality than mine (which I thought was impossible!), and a noticeably deep love for Fes. I don’t think there was a single moment on the 8-hour tour that he didn’t have a smile stretching from ear to ear as he talked about the history of Fes and its people. Oh he was so contagious.

Our first stop was at the gates of the central palace in Fes. Eight gates provide access through the huge walls that surround the palace, but we were only allowed to take pictures of one because the ruler does not want any photos of the other gates or the guards standing in front of them.

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After a brief history lesson, we strolled through the Jewish quarter, which has dark, almost gothic, architecture and is very different than any of the other Moroccan streets we’ve seen so far. Jews no longer inhabit the area, but it has since been converted into a shopping area for weddings. Around 11, we hopped back on the bus and headed up a hill on the outskirts of Fes to visit an overlook of the city. The view was phenomenal, are more than I can describe in words. So here are some photos! #beautiful

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We continued on to see a mosque which is one of the oldest and biggest in a North Africa. Along the way, we even stopped at a school, which was a tiny room with two rows of desks for young children. There, the children learn and sometimes learn to sing passages of the Koran. In fact, the guide told us that the Koran was the only thing taught in school, and children went to school for years until they had the entire script memorized. I know how religious Morocco is and how important the Koran is a the sole guiding doctrine in Islam, but I’ll admit I was fascinated to hear that’s all they children learn.

We continued walking though town and made a few stops at artisan shops where we learned how some Moroccan crafts are made. The first stop was at an open-air pottery factory.

We observed men soaking raw clay in water to soften it and then putting it on a pottery wheel (operated by a foot-pedal) and forming it into plates, vases and jars. A guide explained to us how afterward, the men paint the pottery with different minerals that change colors when heated in the kiln. We got to watch a few workers designing elaborate flowery patterns on the jars which were absolutely beautiful. I have a new level of appreciation for the work that goes into making pottery.

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At the end of the tour, we of course got dropped off at the factory outlet store. Yes, I bought something, but it was the cheapest piece of pottery I could find in the store: an egg holder. But I found the most colorful one and I love it to pieces, probably my second most favorite souvenir of the tour.

What’s my first favorite, you ask? (Okay I know you did ask and probably don’t care but humor me). It’s a scarf I bought at a small shop where we learned how scarves are made. We walked into the shop toward the end of the tour and were immediately overwhelmed by the colorful lines of thread strewn everywhere where about the dingy, dimly-lit workshop.

On three walls, we saw local men weaving great amount of raw silk from eucalyptus plants, cotton and wool into string. Form there, they weaved the string into beautiful blankets and scarves. I was pulled into a demonstration where a young man about my age showed the group how to tie a scarf like Moroccan women do, to hide the hair an face. Then the rest of the group joined in and after a few minutes, he had tied scarves around all of us in two different ways for women and turban-styled way for me.

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After pictures and a few good laughs, we got a chance to buy some scarves (at a very cheap price compared to how much work went into making them) and then headed on our way. If you’re still wondering about the scarf I bought (you’re humoring me, remember), it’s an electric blue one with subtle teal stripes and to me looks like the perfect ocean. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

We spent the largest portion of the day journeying through the medina. It’s one of the largest in Morocco and is comprised of more than 9,400 alleyways. I wouldn’t recommend that any tourist walk through it alone without a map or an extremely heightened sense of direction.

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The streets of the medina are lined with rows and rows of shops. Our first lap through was in the meat shop, where we were presented with lamb’s heads and soon-to-be-chopped-up chickens in cages. Honestly, I wanted to vomit after that walk — the smell alone was enough to make me gag — but I had to tell myself that this is how many people in present and share food in other countries. It’s just a cultural difference.

As we walked through other parts of the medina we saw plenty of shoes, scarves, gowns, jewelry, wallets, perfumes, nuts and future, tiny cafes, and even homes because many people actually live in the medina.

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The spaces we walked through were barely wide enough for two people to walk side-to-side. Three of our group members even got lost because they got stuck behind other people walking through the medina and were separated from the rest. Luckily we launched a few successful manhunts and eventually got those people back to safety, though we all had a few heart attacks along the way.

Another craft Fes is known for is leather-making, and we were lucky to visit another workshop in the medina where we learned how leather was made. To be frank, I didn’t listen much because I was so overwhelmed by the smell in the workshop that I had to stick my head out of a window for fresh air. I did at least pay attention to the shop, where every inch of every wall, even the ceilings, were covered in leather products from purses, wallets and jackets, to shoes, pillowcases and bean bag chairs.

Nikon - Summer 2014 and Morocco 318I didn’t buy anything there because I’m not huge on leather, especially after seeing the dead animals’ skin soaking in large pots to wash out the blood, but I do know how important leather is for many villages as a vital material for warmth and durability. Again, it’s a cultural difference.

After several hours and a quick lunch break, we left the medina and headed back to the hotel. It was only 6 p.m., but it had been a long, hot, exhausting day of walking and absorbing information and all fourteen of us were pooped. There was no group dinner that night, but a group of eight or so of us went to the hotel bar for snacks, drinks and shisha. As usual, I’ll spare any incriminating details, but it was a very fun night and a marvelous way for us to get to really know each other. Wink.

That was Fes. From the palace to the Jewish quarter, to the city by night and the medina adventure, I feel like we saw so many sides of the city in such a short amount of time. Though crowded, Fes is full of friendly people who constantly smile and are willing to help. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have a chance to come back here, but It will always have the fondest memories of my time. And I’ll always remember what our guide told us: “You don’t need a visa to get into Fes, you just need a smile.”

Exploring Meknes, Volubilis and Fes

It feels like we’ve been in Morocco for weeks now because we have done and seen so much, though we’re only on the third day of the tour. Yesterday morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and set out for Meknes. Our bus is a small but comfortable white van with just enough seats for our tour guide, driver and us. We stuffed our luggage in the back and grabbed our seats in the cabin.

After my second day wandering around Casablanca, I grew to really like the city, but I was excited to leave and head off to new parts of the country. I quickly learned that even the drives are a memorable part of the trip. As we drove through the Moroccan countryside, we were exposed to a 360-degree view of rolling hills with peasant farms.

The terrain in this region is very dry with sparse foliage, but the farmers seem to make do with that resources they have. The sheep and cows on the farms looked under-nourished since they don’t have much to eat, but there were still hoards of them scattered through the farms. All together, the farms and hills made for rustic yet ethereal scenery.

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Admiring the houses sitting on the siting on the hilltops, a man sitting next to me said, “Imagine waking up to this view every day. You’d feel like anything is possible.” I pondered that a while and though about how much I agreed. Open air and nothing but the world around you. What a powerful feeling.

We rolled along for four hours until we hit our first stop — Meknes. I learned that it was a city built by a medieval sultan who wanted to create a palace and surrounding town that would be the Versailles of Morocco. He succeeded.

We drove into the city and stopped at the gates of the palace. Huge rows of arches stood above a body of water. We took pictures then walked inside the palace. Our guide took us first to a series of rooms that looked like dungeons, but apparently were where the sultan’s horses were fed. In a rush, we then zoomed the rest of the outside of the palace. The architecture very clearly resembled that of Andalusia, Spain, which made sense because the Spanish had invaded Morocco several times and brought along major aspects of their culture. We saw that the Spanish architectural features persisted throughout Meknes as we walked across town to a beautiful mosque. Mosaic tiles covered the walls and the ceilings were detailed with intricate carvings. I had fun taking pictures there 🙂

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Our last stop before lunch was in a shop where the workers showed us how Moroccan table clothes are woven. As early as in school, children are taught to weave designs into cloth to make sure the same design was visible on both sides. They had several designs in many colors, depending on table size and shape. I never knew how much went into crafting table cloths! We all bought of and rushed to lunch because we were starving.

There are three main dishes here: couscous, skewers and tajines. Tajines are pots that look like the tin man’s hat from the Wizard of Oz and act like crockpots or small kettles to cook mixes of vegetables and meat. I’ve had one tajine dish so far, chicken with lemon and olives, and it was out of this world! In Meknes, however, I had an omelette (also popular here but not served in as many restaurants) because I filled up on free bread before the meal. Hehe whoops.

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After lunch, we hit the road again and strolled along to Volubilis, a small town characterized by ancient Roman ruins — Volubilis itself being the Italian word for a type of flower. We got out of the van and were greeted by a tour guide who showed us around the grounds. The area was vast and barren, with dry ground and stones everywhere and atop a hill that overlooked stretches of farmland.

The guide showed us the remains of a Roman house that’s ruins outlined the structure’s foundation. He explained what each of the rooms were, even where the Romans kept and fed their pet lions — which were rooms only slightly larger than my dog’s cage. Ha, just kidding, they were huge!

We saw a few more features of the house, like where the baths once were and a set of stairs leading up to the entrance of some nonexistent room gated by tall columns. Again, this stop was an amazing opportunity for photos, so we took plenty, but soon became wary from the blazing sun and headed back to the van.

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For the last leg of the day’s long road trip, we rolled along the countryside once more on our way to Fes. We arrived in the city about two hours later and drove straight to our hotel. Even from our arrival, I could tell I was going to like Fes. The city was as developed as Casablanca, meaning various modern buildings spattered with a few decrepit and vacant ones, but unlike Casablanca has cleaner roads,greener foliage and many fountains situated in the center of traffic circles.

I learned that Fes is known to have the cleanest and one of the most plentiful supplies of water in Morocco. The city’s colors are even green and blue; green for the color of Islam and blue to symbolize fresh water.

A few members of the hotel greeted us and helped carry luggage to our rooms (for a fee of course). The rooms were clean and simple, and small but comfortable for two people. We were going to a group dinner that night, so we had to quickly change and head back down to the lobby to meet our guide.

Once everyone was ready, we hopped on the bus and drove to an authentic Moroccan restaurant (and when I say authentic, I mean overly authentic and very clearly a place that caters only to tourists). Upon arrival, our ears were greeted with the sounds of loud singing and instruments.

The restaurant was arranged like a courtyard, with tables lining the walls and an open space in the middle. While waiters served us several rounds of small dishes, we happily watched a series of performers dance, sing and plays songs. I was a fabulous night full of merriment, and got a few of us excited enough that when we went back to the hotel after dinner, we weren’t ready to sleep yet.

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Six of us decided to go for a nighttime jaunt though Fes to see how the city looked in the absence of sun. Our path took a figure-eight form with our hotel at the center, since we didn’t want to stray far away from our safe spot. Fes as night was busier than we expected. Lots of locals were out on the streets, talking, laughing and, in two cases, cleaning cars. The six of us relieved a few honks from locals who drove past and could tell we were foreign, but we embraced it and even smiled back at a few strangers.

But soon our adventure came to an end as we got tired and we settled back into our hotel rooms. It had been a long day full of lots of sights and information, so we were all ready for a good night’s sleep.

My first thoughts of Casablanca!

Today has been a crazy but wonderfully eye-opening day. My flight to Casablanca from D.C was blissful. Discouraged by my flights to and from London with Kuwait Airways, which were both horribly late and caused me to miss connections, I prepared myself to have an equally as crappy time flying to Casablanca. But Air France surprised me by being perfectly on time, even arriving early to Paris so I had more time to get to my connecting flight from Paris to Morocco. The food was fabulous, the attendants were friendly and helpful and the in-flight entertainment was spot on. I watched Casablanca, of course, and American Hustle, along with a few episodes of Modern Family. it was so hard to choose what to watch though because I there were so many options!

The only problem with the flight, which is no fault of Air France, was that I didn’t sleep at all during it; and when I arrived in Casablanca, it felt like 2:00 a.m. because that’s what time it was at home, but it was mid-morning in Casablanca, and I had whole day ahead of me! So, sleeping apparently wasn’t on the agenda.

Consequently, I arrived in Casablanca rather delirious and not prepared for the adventure in store. My first dose of cultureshock came when I went to the bathroom at the airport. My word, the stench reeked to the high heavens, though the cleaning crew had been in there right before I walked in. As soon as I finished up and opened the door of the stall to walk out, another girl walked in the stall while I was still trying to exit. I was taken aback, but continued on my way. But I couldn’t reach the sink because the girl’s friend had opened up her suitcase right in front of the sink and was rummaging through looking for something to change into. I patiently waited for her to finish up, but when I saw her begin to strip naked and change into the new clothes, completely ignoring the fact that I was waiting to get to the sink, I gently reached over her suitcase and stretched my arms to the sink and washed my hands. As I walked out of the restroom, a bathroom attendant handed me toilet paper to dry my hands with, which of course left paper residue all over my freshly washed skin.

Welcome to Casablanca.

Leaving the airport took some time, too, because I honestly could not tell which cars were taxis! None of the cars in the designated taxi area had the word “taxi” on them, but I watched as people got into them just the same. So I followed suit, but of course it was difficult to communicate with a driver who spoke only French and Arabic while I know only English and Spanish. I ended up showing him the address of my hotel which printed on tour documents, and he understood.

Fourty minutes and 350 Durham later, I arrived at the Moroccan House Hotel. My heart started to race when I went to check in and the receptionist said she did not have my reservation. WHAT THE WHAT! I showed her my confirmation email and explained now I had booked through Expedia and had already paid, but she said they had no record of my reservation. So I sat down in the lobby while she contacted her supervisor to get my room worked out.

Luckily, the interior of the hotel was so enchanting I was distracted from the room situation for a while. I looked around and gazed at the traditional Moroccan décor, including mosaic tiles covering every surface with elaborate designs and lavish furniture with beautiful, bright embroideries. A second receptionist brought me a tray of tea and cookies while I waited, which further distracted me from the situation, and I immediately set me at ease. I mean, c’mon, how can you feel anxious when you have a try of cookies in front of you?

After a few minutes, I was told that they had an available room for me and a bellhop helped my bring my bags tog my room. Things were looking up! The hotel staff was very pleasant afterward and made me feel very welcome. I settled in, took a quick nap, then freshened up and got ready to head out into town and walk around.

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My first thoughts walking around were “Damn, it’s hot!” I wore a long, loose dress over a pair of leggings out of respect for the modest dress code. But even those clothes made me feel like I was burning up in the desert sun!

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Despite the heat, Casablanca glistens. It’s the most metropolitan city in Morocco so not surprisingly there were people everywhere, including in the streets, as if traffic wasn’t anything to worry about. The city has a general foul odor to it, but as I walked closer to the ocean, the breeze helped whisk some of the stench away. I walked along a long, main road which ran along the coast of the shore. I couldn’t see the water though, because buildings and sand walls blocked the view.

I continued on until I arrived at the Hasan II Mosque. I don’t know much about its history, so please forgive me for my ignorance, but I did know that it was an extraordinary architectural feat and is the main attraction of Casablanca. It’s hard to describe how grandiose the structure is, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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I spent about an hour at the mosque, taking pictures and soaking in the sun as I stood at the water’s edge to watch wave crash against the mosque’s foundation. I was surprised by the number of people swimming in the water; there was no beach, so people (as in young men and boys only) were eagerly jumping over huge rocks to dive into the crashing waves. I was surprised no one got hurt, but I figure they do this so often they know how to protect themselves.

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After leaving the mosque, I wandered the streets for a while. I was starving, but I couldn’t find a restaurant that looked inviting. I have this thing about always eating outside at restaurants when it’s warm out, and luckily almost all restaurants here have outdoor seating, but very few had seats that weren’t full of men watching me as I walked by and making cat calls. I knew they were probably harmless, but I didn’t much fancy the idea of sitting down alone next to a table of me watching me while I ate. So I continued to walk around for about two more hours, looking for a place to eat.

Along the way, I got to see more of the busy streets and North African architecture. Casablanca is unlike any city I’ve ever visited. The buildings have modern, geometric designs, but most are run down and decrepit. Sand plays a huge role in the colors of building and walls here, as most are shades of tan and white.

I enjoyed wandering around and taking pictures, but hunger got the best of me, and I ended up at McDonalds. It’s the last place I ever want to eat when I’m traveling because I’d rather enjoy authentic local food, but I needed someplace reliable and fast, and where I knew how to pronounce the items on the menu. So, McDonalds it was.

I ate quickly and resumed my place wandering the streets. This time, I found myself in a bustling area, apparently the city center, which was full of shops, cafés and street vendors trying to bargain with every person who walked by. I walked a few laps around the streets, just soaking in the views and observing how Moroccans behave and interact. They’re much less bothered by personal space here, a lot more honk-happy when it comes to driving, and everyone seems to know everyone. I was learning a lot, but by then the sky was getting dark and I decided it was in my best interest to head back to the hotel.

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I’m now in my hotel room, writing this post on my iPhone (so please excuse any typos!) and getting ready for bed. It’s been a long but exciting day, and I can’t wait to connect with my G Adventure tour group tomorrow. I like Casablanca, and it’s been a joy to explore alone, but I think having some traveling companions and a tour guide to help give context to everything I’m seeing will make the rest of this adventure even better.

 

I won a trip to Morocco — and I’m leaving in 2 days!

Image from moviepilot.com
Image from moviepilot.com

I haven’t posted anything to the blog about this yet, because it seemed too surreal, but in two days, I’m leaving for a 10-day trip to Morocco.

Yes, Morocco. Totally random, right? I mean everything else on this blog is about Europe – how I’ve been saving up for it, planning itineraries, sharing tales of my adventures and so on.

And now I’m going to Africa.

Here’s how it happened:

The Contest

In March, I got a promo email from StudentUniverse, my ride-or-die site for booking flights, about a contest the company was hosting. Entrants were to create boards on Pinterest tagged #NeverHaveIEver and pin a bunch of travel-related things that they’ve always wanted to do, like skydiving, going snorkeling in Sydney, riding a gondola through Venice, etc. The grand prize was a trip to Morocco and $500 towards a flight.

Morocco had never crossed my mind as a destination to but on my bucket list, but I thought Y-O-HACTVMFF-O (you-only-have-a-chance-to-visit-Morocco-for-free-once), so I entered the contest.

Already a devoted pinner, I had no problem getting the board going. For the entire month of April I poured all pinning efforts into my Never Have I Ever board. Any free time I had before and during classes, I’d take to the board and pin pictures of all the beautiful cities I want to visit and crazy escapades I wanted to embark on.

neverhaveiever

For a month this went on, and along the way I shared some of my pins with StudentUniverse on Pinterest and Twitter, grasping their attention and promoting their contest. And then, about a week after the contest ended, I saw this tweet:

StudentUniverse Tweet

OHHHHH EMMMMM GEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!1!!1!!!!!1!!!!!!!

I couldn’t believe it. I won. I won a trip to Morocco. I was going to Morocco. Morocco. MOROCCO!

The Dilemma

I sent an email to the address provided and waited, and waited, and waited. I finally heard back and got the details of the contest. The tour dates are all pre-set, so I had to choose any from the list provided that worked for me.The only conditions were that the tour had to depart before the end of August and already have at least four people signed up.

That’s where I hit a brick wall. My internship was already letting me take off a month for my trip to Europe, so I definitely couldn’t take off another week to go to Morocco.

Frick.

The other option would be to go the last week before school starts, but then I’d be missing crucial preparation time.

Frickety.

Decision time. I sat on it for a while, evaluating pros and cons, but then had to smack myself upside the head (in Homer Simpson style) when I realized traveling to a new country was way more important than missing preparation time for my last year of college.

I sent StudentUniverse my dates and mentally prepared myself for the adventure that Morocco would bring. But then I got a response. The tour group I chose did have enough people signed up, so I couldn’t go on that one. I had to choose another tour date that departed the week after or the week prior. My only options, then, were to have my internship boss kill me (figuratively…kinda) or miss the first week of school.

FRACK.

I was forced to make an ultimate decision. I definitely couldn’t take off from my internship because I desperately needed the money to afford going on the trip (Young, Broke Traveler). That left me with option #2. (Keep in mind that I’m an honors student who’s had perfect attendance since kindergarten, graduated high school with a 4.0, and has been on the dean’s list every semester of college — and I’m not bragging, I’m just trying to convey how important school is to me!) It killed me to think of missing my first week  of class, but I also thought “When will I ever get another chance to experience northern Africa and spend a week learning about a culture completely different from what I’m used to, meeting people who will teach me a different way of life, and appreciating the natural beauty of the world?”

A trip to Morocco would teach me more than I could ever learn sitting in a class that first week of school. Plus, Y-O-HACTVMFF-O, right? I responded to the agents at StudentUniverse that I’ll take the tour to that goes from Aug. 30 – Sept. 6. And that was that.

I completely pushed Morocco out of my mind to return my focus to my Eurotrip. Over the next few months, Europe was all I thought about, wrote about and talked about. But now it’s Aug. 26, and I’ve got some preppin’ to do.

The Details

The tour, a G Adventures tour called Morocco Kasbahs & Desert, begins in Casablanca and heads through Meknes, Fes, Merzouga, Todra Gorge, Aït Ben Haddou and Marrakech. The 14 of us on the guided tour will be traveling in a quaint van from town to town, staying in hotels, walking through medinas and meeting locals. Midweek, we’ll even be hopping on camel-back (I’ll do my best to refrain from making Hump Day jokes) and riding out to the desert where we’ll camp out overnight.

Morocco Tour Map

Yeah, sounds better than sitting in a classroom taking notes on data analytics, doesn’t it?

I’m flying into Casablanca early to have an extra day to explore the city. I leave Thursday the 28th and will arrive early Friday morning, spending the day alone until my tourmates arrive the next day. Saying I’m nervous doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m realizing how sheltered I’ve been traveling to touristy places where most people speak English or Spanish and I’ve been comfortable on my own. Morocco, while generally safe, is not the safest place for a young woman to travel alone due to the forwardness of most Moroccan men. And the primary languages spoken are Arabic and French, of which I know nothing. So I better not get lost.

I’m aware that I am freaking out for no reason and I’ll be fine — especially in a city as metropolitan as Casablanca. But for now I’m just doing my best to prepare and make sure everything can go as smoothly as possible. And trying to get the phrase “Here’s looking at you, kid” out of my head. 🙂

Have you been to Morocco? Casablanca? What did you think? Any advice to offer me?