Monday, March 7, 2011

Waka Waka Hey Hey, Dis Is North Africa

This past weekend I left the European Union for a transcontinental trip. That’s right, I went to Africa! Well, North Africa that is, to Morocco. Nick, Emily, her Italian friend Vale, and I all boarded the plane to this unknown territory on Thursday, and were we in for a surprise.

The trip started off in typical Nick Ramage style. The rest of us were at the gate, no Nick in sight, waiting to board our plane. We were just about to get on, having not received any word from him, and lo and behold, guess who comes around the corner, Sir Ramage. Apparently, Mr. Assertive couldn’t tell his host mom to hurry up while she was making his bocadillos for lunch so he almost missed his flight to Morocco. This would have been 100 times easier had he not lied and told me he had no cellphone, because then I could have contacted him. Telling me he had no cellphone, in addition to lying about his study abroad location, were necessary precautions to take with me, the crazy obsessive stalker ex-girlfriend.

Moving onnnn, after a short two hours on once again, a lovely RyanAir flight, we landed in the desert of Morocco. Yea, it wasn’t really the desert, it was about 10 minutes outside the huge city of Marrakech, but it definitely wasn’t Europe anymore.

Marrakech: The City of Amazing Pick Up Lines...and Couscous

Upon arriving in the main square, I experienced what some may call culture shock. This sensation of feeling like you are in a place where you absolutely don’t belong was brought on by the thousands of people in the huge central square that night; people everywhere, food stands accompanied by men screaming at you to eat there, orange juice stands, markets selling everything from scarves to soccer jerseys to iPhones (of the best quality I’m sure), snake charmers, homeless people galore, children selling Kleenex packs, and of course, the abundance of lovely harassment remarks. I knew it was going to be like that; I read my tour books, did my research, had my travel folder with all my important information, but I was not prepared for all that was Marrakech. I probably said Oh My God about a million times because I was just in pure amazement of what was going on around me.

That night we started the tradition that would last throughout the entire trip: getting lost finding our hostel. It took us about a half hour, until we finally let this nice little boy take us there. This nice little boy was fluent in five languages, (yes, we should all feel stupid now) and knew exactly where our hostel was. Apparently though, its tradition for these children to then demand you pay them for their services. Obviously, being stupid tourists we had no small change and attempted to give him Euros, trying to explain that 2 Euros equals 24 dirham. This boy may have known five languages but his currency conversion skills were subpar as he had no idea how good of a deal this was! After a brief argument with said child, we entered our hostel.

Our hostel was a very nice riad, which I have no idea what that means, but I’m assuming it is something like a small Moroccan bed and breakfast. There was a really nice rooftop lounge with couches and trees and a fountain in the middle of the lobby. Emily and I’s room was upstairs on the roof, not only making it freezing but also within perfect distance of the nearby mosque. At approximately 5am the mosque with its loud speakers chants for the people pray. It’s a great system to notify everyone in the vicinity that it’s time to pray but for those that are tourists sleeping at the nearby hostel, it’s an absurdly early, loud, long, and confusing wake up call. The first couple of minutes were cool, because it was a “cultural experience” but then we just wanted to go back to sleep.

That first night, we went back out to the main square for dinner. There were about 64 little restaurants that probably all sold the same things but the trick is the salesperson whose job it is to pretty much harass anyone who walks by. We walked by one that screamed “free mint tea” at us, the neighbor restaurant screamed “free water and bread”, and the next yelled, “free bread, water for the table and mint tea!” SOLD! We ate a delicious dinner there, consisting of round bread for each of us (which we later saw they kept in a very used-looking cardboard box on the ground) which you dipped in this weird lemony spicy sauce, and ate with the most delicious olives in the entire world. I got chicken couscous for dinner, and let me tell you, it beats the couscous from a box by a million (sorry Mom). The most flavorful food I’ve had in my life, topped off with some mint tea for 25 dirham each, rounding out to a whopping 2 euros.

Then we spent some time walking around the square, i.e. getting approached by random men who had some great one-liners. Top favorites were “I’ll trade 50 camels for her, or 100 Ferraris”, “Come to my house and I give you 5 hour Moroccan massage”, “SPICE GIRL!”, “Number 1 ass!”, “Come over and my mom will cook you dinner”, and “MILEY CYRUS!”. I wonder what the success rate is of these lines, but I’m pretty sure they yell these things to put on a show for tourists. Or maybe they really do think all of those things. I’m just being Miley.

Essaouira: Camels, beaches and happy cakes

Next morning, after our 5am “cultural” wakeup call, we got in a baby taxis and went to the bus station to buy our tickets to Essaouira, the beach and port town 3 hours west of Marrakech. The bus ride was 3 hours long and cost us each about 5 euro (if you haven’t noticed, converting the dirham back to the euro is my favorite thing, get used to it), amazing. We stopped right outside of Essaouira on an overlook where apparently we overlooked too long and found ourselves sprinting for the bus that was driving away without us. Have no fear, because we are all sooo skinny and in such fab shape we made the bus.

To keep with tradition, upon arriving in Essaouira, I made sure it took us at least a half hour to find our hostel, even though I had both a map and directions. Why the best hostels always are on the roads that are unmarked, I have no idea. In typical Vale fashion, he made sure of it to talk to everyone that approached us. And believe me, it was everyone that approached us. Vale, being the nice Italian that he is, was convinced everyone was just trying to be helpful and be his friend, whereas the Americans were convinced everyone was out to get us. Needless to say, the one man that Vale chatted it up with for too long helped us find the hostel. Once in the hostel, the owners couldn’t have cared less about anything and were the most laid back people I’ve ever met. We literally didn’t pay for our room until about 4 hours after we checked in (hostel: 6 euro), after we rode the camels of course!

Anything for the Prof Pic

Camel riding in Morocco is an absolute must. I’m not exactly sure why. Its like someone travelling all the way to the US to ride a horse, which just seems absolutely bizarre, but in Morocco it seems valid. After wandering around the ranch for a bit, and letting Emily make friends with all the horses, we were assigned our camels. Luckily, I got a nice one, but unfortunately Nick was riding behind me. He for some reason thought he was a camel whisperer and did everything possible to make his camel irritable, who would then attempt to bite my foot. For about half the ride, I was in some sort of weird yoga position to avoid losing a foot.

The weather was perfect and it was sunny and we rode from the desert ranch on to the beach. I even tied my hair in a scarf because it seemed camel-appropriate, which is completely useless information for all of you. But the camels, even though they smelled bad, tried to bite my foot, and gave me some lower back pain from being jerked around for an hour, were fantastic, and soooo Moroccan.

Beach time was next and Nick decided he was a surfer. Having never surfed in his life, obviously the beaches of Morocco seemed fitting enough, and the hostel had free boards so why not. The rest of us lounged on the beach, periodically getting harassed by men with baked goods trying to sell us their “happy cakes”---“because they make you happy”, they would say. Then a man with long dreads came and asked us if we could watch his stuff for a bit while he swam. Vale, being the friendly Italian he is, gladly agreed to do this deed, while Emily and I, being the paranoid Americans tried to refuse. It was too late though, dreads man stuff was now our responsibility. Right after this, happy cakes man comes back and Vale decides he is hungry, only for cookies, sans “happy”. The man claimed these cookies really were just cookies, and at that moment I realize I can’t find surfer Nick in the water. In the 5 most uncomfortable minutes of my life, I could have potentially let Nick drown, while Vale was inadvertently part of a drug deal, and sitting next to a dreaded strangers’ bag that could have contained a bomb or absurd amount of illegal substances. Fortunately, I am highly paranoid: Nick was alive, Vale bought normal cookies, and dreads man came right back for his bags. Although this strange dreads man circled his bags for about 20 minutes just kinda talking to himself and smiling, confused why his bags were with us. I think he had too many “happy cakes”.

On the way back to the hostel, don’t worry, we got super lost again. But this time was a challenge. You have 30 minutes to find your hostel. The people of Essaouira are out and about in all the markets, and the streets are super crowded. One of you has a huge surfboard. Ready, go. Yea, it was pretty much like that, chaotic.

Back out to dinner, and decided we’d be fancy. We each splurged 85 dirham for our three course meal (7 euro), including bread, sauce, olives, Moroccan salad, tangine (chicken and veggies in lemony sauce, THE BEST), and dessert, and obv mint tea. It was perfect and delish and did I mention so cheap? The mystery of the meal was the meat on Nick’s plate. It literally looked like a hoof…of a camel. Or perhaps, a cameltoe? Hmmmm.

Next morning, we were up to check out the port. This is where we took some amazinggg pictures of the fort, the blue boats, and seagulls. I don’t know why but I feel like if there are seagulls flying in your picture you are much more legit, so I took way too many pictures here. It was beautiful, so beautiful that we got separated from each other for about a half hour, only to meet up just in time to all catch our bus back to Marrakech.

Back to the Crazy

Marrakech was just as crazy as we had left it the day before. This day we spent at the souks, the groups of markets that Marrakech is known for, especially for their scarves, shoes, fabric, spices, and everything in between. One particular spices store we went into was very interesting. We were looking at the spices and the owner decided Emily and I were just not pretty enough to go back out in public without some of his help. He took it upon himself to apply some Moroccan eyeliner under our eyes and then proceeds to draw what resembled a strange flower or hand on our forehead, completed by the line of dots from our eyes to our temples. He then named us Fatima and Ayesha and insisted on a picture with us. Then he told the boys they needed to smell this spice to clear their nostrils. The reaction from both the boys was priceless, and I’m still questioning exactly what it was he made them sniff.

Haggling was a lot of fun mostly because they start at such ridiculously high prices, its fun being able to win. All I wanted was a pashmina scarf, and every store was trying to sell them for about 300 dirham. I was not having it and finally got one man down to 100 dirham (8 euros), using my limited French skills to try to convince him I wasn’t a stupid American. I don’t think my bright pink sunglasses or J. Crew outfit gave me away at all. After that shopping extravaganza, we all had just enough for one last dinner in the square. Bread from a box, couscous, and mint tea one last time, and of course one last freshly squeezed orange juice. There are all these impoverished children in Morocco trying to sell you Kleenex wherever you go, I’m sure because it’s the cheapest thing they can buy to sell. On our last night we bought some of these Kleenex kids orange juice and they all just downed it. If I could have bought orange juice and couscous for every Kleenex kid in the square I would have.

Morocco was absolutely amazing and such an experience. Even though it was only two hours on a plane away from Madrid, it really is just a totally different world. While sitting at a restaurant in France, America, or Spain, it would never be appropriate to have the waiter come up behind you and start giving you a message, asking your friend if he would trade you for 100 camels, but in Marrakech, that’s how they do.