Our abroad program in Germany gave us a week off for Easter. And what better way to celebrate Christendom's highest holiday than by visiting an overwhelmingly Islamic country? Alison, Matt, Francis and I traveled to Morocco to visit two former Grinnellians, Nabila and Mounir, and to see a little of this fascinating country. On our way there, we spent a day in Paris which was coincidentally also my 21st birthday, and also my first time in Paris. I spent it hauling my luggage through the Paris metro craving a dose of Benadryl. Needless to say, the city's romantic reputation passed me by - though I'm willing to give it a second chance.
The Paris metro is the second lamest subway I've ever had the pleasure to ride. The cars don't even run on rail all of the time; if you look closely you will see that some of the cars actually have bus tires. You have to validate your ticket when you exit, and if you don't have one, the machine will not let you leave the tunnel. I'm not sure how this jives with the emergency evacuation plan. They have doors installed on the turnstiles to keep you from jumping them, but really all they do is trap you in the middle when you turn around to grab your luggage. This did occur, and if not for Matt Scharr's sly trilingualality I would still be trapped in there now.
Our trusty trans-mediterranean carrier, Jet4you.com, flew us to Casablanca aboard a giant green airplane. We proceeded north to Rabat, a 2-hour train ride which cost 65 Dirham (6 Euro). Rabat is the capital city of Morocco, and home to both Nabila and Mounir. Alison and Matt stayed with Nabila in the evenings, while Francis and I stayed with Mounir.
Upon arriving in Rabat we were instantly, overwhelmingly, and repeatedly fed. Food is wonderful in Morocco, and Mounir's mother liked nothing better than to provide Francis and me with more of it than we could eat. Matt and Alison had a similar experience at Nabila's, where the neighbors got wind of the guests and brought over some more. Moroccan couscous is incredible, but mint tea is their highest triumph. I usually have no particular love for mint, or tea, but I found myself drinking glasses of this stuff all the time.
One of the first learning curves we encountered was crossing the street. Never had I seen such chaos on the road. My pedestrian day in Paris seriously pales in comparison. Crosswalks exist, but the walk/don't walk signal is nowhere to be seen, and because city planners prefer roundabouts to stoplights, you're often faced with a stream of merging traffic that simply does not end. Nabila taught us that cars will not stop unless they will certainly hit you otherwise, so we would wait for a small break and step out, even if the coming car still seemed to be accelerating. Strolling out into moving traffic got to be habit by the end of the week. It was very important to break this habit upon returning to Germany.
Here's another thing about Moroccans: They love, love, their TV. Wandering through the cities, there was hardly a house or apartment balcony without a satellite dish. I looked out the train window and saw vast shanty towns kludged together with planks and corrugated steel, crowded in on one another. No one could possibly live in those, I thought- and then I noticed that every shack had a dish on the roof. Mounir's TV was quietly playing more or less constantly during our stay, showing anything from Jamie Lee Curtis to the German Bundesliga. Mounir's father, a French teacher, told us once that French films bore him: "I like American movies. Action!" he said, raising his fist above his head. We nod in understanding, and continue watching Eddie Murphy's "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" with Arabic subtitles.
We met up during the day to see the city. We visited the current king's palace and the previous king's tomb, both of which were very elaborate and neither of which lets you very far inside. Rabat is also home to the impressive Chellah ruin, a beautiful blue-and-white Kasbah, and a very manageably-sized souq. On Easter, Mounir borrowed his father's Volkswagen for two days so that we - all six of us - could pile in and head north. We stopped in Assilah, where we enjoyed bean soup and another blue-painted Kasbah, before overnighting in Tangier. There, we had our beach day on the Mediterranean and visited the Grotto of Hercules.
The second half of our week was spent in Marrakesh, to which we traveled on the fantastically-crowded, head-scratchingly-affordable Moroccan train system. Morocco's French-built rail line has more comfortable seats than I've ever had in Europe (though I would not trade the toilets). Through the window we caught a beautiful sunset glimpse of the red hills and bluffs of interior Morocco. At points it seemed almost like a desert - adorned only by the occasional shack or goat herd, and small piles of red rocks marking the borders of empty rocky fields. I did not drag out the camera while on the train, but I should have, because we didn't see it again: Once in Marrakesh, without a car, we didn't leave the city.
Shopping was our game in Marrakesh, and an exhausting process it was. I have paid fixed prices my entire life, and was completely unprepared for the business of haggling my own price. Vendors in the souq will count on the fact that you, the tourist, have no feel for the market, and frankly you will be ripped off. On our first night, someone tried to sell me a small lamp shade for three times the price I had paid for a similar object in friendly, honest Rabat. And that set the tone: To resist, one must simply have the gusto to counter the asking price boldly (by, for instance, dividing it by ten). I am absolutely no good at this. By the end of our stay, we developed a process in which we would browse, feign disinterest, and surreptitiously send Mounir in later to buy it for us. Once, after spending the better part of an hour haggling a stubbon-but-good-humored scarf seller from 200 down to 35 or 40, we sent Mounir into a nearby scarf shop, where it took him two minutes to buy a couple more scarves at 20Dh apeice.
Marrakesh is Morocco's main tourist attraction. Walking the streets, this is impossible to ignore: There are snake charmers, dudes with monkeys, colorfully-dressed water sellers, and hordes of European tourists roaming the streets. It's easy to see the attraction, though. Its souq is much more massive than Rabat's, and Djemaa el Fna sports a large fleet of carts vending orange juice which is alone worth the visit.
At one point we wound up in a store with a smiling carpet seller named El Mendili Hadj Mohamed, who showed us rug after rug while buttering us up with two rounds of mint tea. I lost a game of tug of war to him, watched with great interest as he set several tassles afire, and was awed by his knack for languages: Arabic, French, English; he had achieved fluency in the carpet-related sector of each language. Our secret code for discussing prices among ourselves, German, was cracked, and Matt and I each became the unexpected owner of a Berber carpet.
Some of Morocco's more devout Muslims are very averse to cameras, and will turn away or wave their arms at you if they see you framing a shot anywhere in their general direction. This made a lot of problems for me, since I was trying to balance cultural sensitivity (I sat on my left hand at the dinner table) with my desire to take pictures of everything in sight. Early on, I was more daring, but by the end of the week, cognitive dissonance had taken full control. The death knell to my photography aspirations was an encounter with an angry butcher who caught me photographing his carcasses. He wasn't the first person I angered with my camera, but he was the scariest, so I didn't wind up taking as many photos in Marrakesh as I would have liked.
Morocco is by far the most interesting country I've been to, and I had a wonderful time during my short stay there. Besides the experience, I came away with some colorful lamp shades and a rather stylish rug. My only regret is not seeing more of Morocco's inner landscape than we did from the train window: I have yet to see the Atlas, and we never made it to the Sahara. There's a lot more to Morocco than can be seen in a week, so it won't be my last trip.