One Week in Morocco

One Week in Morocco

Marrakech, Morocco

Last year, I hit the road after a long absence.  I had been busy stuck at a job I hated and other excuses.  Luckily, I was jolted from my robotic reverie.

My dear friend, GIS badass, and frequent travel partner, emailed me.  She was working in West Asia and had a week of R & R coming to her in two weeks: can we meet up? Yes. Yes we can. We shot a few location ideas back and forth (Istanbul? Paris? Geneva? Morocco?) and after a quick survey of flight costs and scheduling, we decided on Morocco.  More precisely, Marrakech.

Time & its unfeeling partner, Money, allowed us just six days in Morocco.  At first thought, a week seemed achingly short, but second thought affirmed that one week is better than no week.  No doubt.

Traveling Marrakech Morocco
Marrakech

This was not to be a grand exploration of everything Morocco.  Six days is a good amount of time to become acquainted with one or two places—I did not want to run from kasbah to spire to mosque to square to market to train and repeat.  My needs were simple: quality chill time with my friend, soak up the Moroccan atmosphere, eat tagine, visit a hammam, and be open to impromptu happenings.

What follows are travel tips, reviews, and suggestions based off of my one week in Marrakech, Morocco.

Where to Stay in Marrakech

There are two distinct areas to stay in Marrakech—inside the traditional, high-walled Medina or outside.

Marrakech Medina
Medina Walls

Medina means “old town” and is present in almost every large, North African city.  The Medina of Marrakech is a red-tinted, entangled city section, mostly car-free and full of souks, riads, mosques, palaces, and the best-known square in North Africa (and UNESCO World Heritage Site),  Jemaa el-Fnaa.

Alternatively, you can stay in Guéliz, the modern counterpart to the Medina, full of upmarket shops, restaurants, bars, cafes, and hotels.

We stayed in the Medina, and spent no time in Guéliz, save the hour it took to rent a car, a solidly modern transaction.  If I were to do it again, I would still stay in the Medina. And I would still stay at the Riad Safa. 

Riads

Any reading about where to stay in Morocco will most certainly include the word, Riads. What are they? The shit.  Riads are traditional Moroccan guesthouses with an interior courtyard (usually with a fountain or citrus trees) and all of the rooms open into the central atrium space.  Their design encourages privacy, quiet, and cool escapes from the heat.

Riad Safa Marrakech
Inside Riad Safa

There are hundreds of riads in the Medina and it can be difficult to choose.  There are plenty of quality options, and we happened to stay at the Riad Safa, mostly because of its rhapsodic reviews and decent pricing.  There are 5 guestrooms set around two patios, with a gorgeous roof terrace, and clean, white Arab-Andalusian architecture. The cost ($50-60 a night for a 2-person room) includes an amazing breakfast of fresh squeezed orange juice from its courtyard trees, fruit, yogurt, toast, cheese, flatbread, jam, coffee and tea.  You can eat on the rooftop terrace which is the only way to start one’s day.

Breakfast Riad Safa Marrakech Morocco

The staff at Riad Safa were incredibly kind and readily available to answer questions and give advice.  You can pay for airport pickup and drop-off, which I recommend as it can be hard to find the place in the maze-like medina, though if you are down to try, go for it. As mentioned, the staff were essential in helping us hash out our Atlas Mountain trip (clearly, I now join the ranks of its enthusiastic reviewers).  It was quiet, picturesque, and just far enough away from the activity of Jemaa el-Fnaa, but close enough (15 minute walk) to access easily.

Getting around the Medina

You walk, you get lost, then you walk and get lost some more, but you won’t mind. There’s something interesting around every corner—snacks, mint tea, silver, leather, argon oil, spice, unasked for massages. The middle of the medina is the open space of the Jemaa el-Fnaa, and the main souks (shops selling everything you can imagine) are to the north.  Everything is walkable; a map helps, but many people are kind enough to help you find your way if you’re lost.

Map of Marrakech Medina
Map of Marrakech Medina

We spent three days walking through Marrakech, perusing the souks, drinking tea with shopkeepers, eating everything possible at Jemaa el-Fnaa…and we spent an entire evening in a hammam.

Hammams in Marrakech

A hammam is a Turkish bath—the Middle Eastern rendering of my culture’s steam room. I am a water therapy enthusiast, I love steam rooms and saunas in all countries. I make it a point to try every culture’s variant—Mexico’s temazcals, Laos’ herbal saunas, and now, Morocco’s Hammams.

Like the riads, Marrakech offers a wide variety of hammams for every price point and taste.  The super-traditional hammams cost around $5 and typically consist of shared spaces.  The more expensive hammams offer massage, showers, and usually a large woman to come in and scrub you down.  That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I got.

We chose  Les Bains de Marrakech, a cushy hammam located about 5 minutes south of  Jemaa el-Fnaa.  For the price of $50 each, we each had a session in the steam room, a rest period with tea and cookies(!), and an hour-long massage.

Hammam in Marrakech Morocco
Les Bains de Marrakech

Upon arrival, they directed us to the changing room–comfy showers, toilets, bathrobes, lockers.  After changing into robes we were led to a steam room, which consisted of a small room with two stone beds, some bowls of oil and clay, and shower.   The woman wiped us down with oil and left us to steam for 10 minutes or so.  Then, she re-entered and used a rough glove to scrub us down, and I mean scrub.  The semi-violent sloughing felt amazing, and afterwards we were again covered with some clay and left to sweat. Note: Hammams are not for the shy.  You are naked and the woman scrubs down every part of you…and I mean every part. You kind of feel like a giant baby, and it’s nice.

After the sweat session, you take a shower, put the bathrobe back on and are again led to a quiet, small room within a dimly lit lounge.  Water, mint tea, and cookies(!) are brought to you as you cool down and wait for the next session, which for us, was massage.

If you want to pamper yourself, get rid of some layers of skin, or clean up after some dusty traveling, I cannot recommend a trip to a hammam enough…and did I mention, they give you cookies(!)?

The Atlas Mountains

I knew nothing about the Atlas Mountains before going to Morocco, and now I know a little bit more than nothing.  Here it is: the Atlas Mountains span Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, providing a barrier between the Mediterranean coastline and the Sahara Desert.  The range is 1,600 miles long, dug in by canyons and ravines, and peppered with Berber villages. Berbers are a badass ethnic group that’s been around North Africa for thousands of years.  In the early days they were nomadic herdsman and traders, and now, the majority live in the Atlas Mountains workings as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen. They have their own language, customs, style of dress, and they give me culture envy.

Berbers in Morocco
Chez Lahna and Ali

After talking it over with our host in Marrkech, my travel mate and I decided to rent a car and drive through the Atlas Mountains. The ksar (mud-brick-fortified village) of Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and famous film spot, was only a three hour drive away, and we heard the drive was worth it.

Atlas Mountains Travel Morocco

The Atlas Mountains

We rented a car and took our time driving.  We ate lunch, took photos, got pulled over…twice.  By nightfall we arrived to the tiny village of Aït Benhaddou.   Our hotel of choosing (out of two or three, I think), was the quietly fantastic Bagdad Cafe, run by a warm and welcoming Moroccan-French couple.  They serve traditional Moroccan dinner and breakfast (which is GREAT because the rest of the place was a ghost town).  Our plan for the next day was to explore the ksar and then drive 7 hours north to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following morning.

ait ben haddou morocco
View of Aït Benhaddou from the Ksar

The ksar of Aït Benhaddou is exactly what I imagined when I imagined Moroccan forts:  Dusty, labyrinthine, and magical.

ait-ben-haddou

Aït Benhaddou

We left around noon and drove on, enjoying the scenery along the way, commenting that the Atlas mountain landscape looked a little bit like Utah, but not exactly, because we wanted to affirm we were somewhere other than the United States.  We drove on, and we drove on, and then we were hungry.  cats in moroccoEventually we saw a restaurant sign and pulled over. A Berber man and a small cat came out to greet us and he let us choose where to sit on the empty plateau.

We split a classic Moroccan meal: bell pepper, onion, and tomato salad, chicken tagine, and mint tea.  While we ate, our Berber host—Ali—chatted with us about history, politics, Mexico, Iraq, and how much he hates dogs.  He had studied history at a French university and was now working as  a trained guide in the Atlas Mountains.

We talked about the kasbah of Telouet, which was right across the road.  It didn’t look like much, but the quiet walk was an intimate experience as Ali explained the history of the area, the Berber people, and the construction (and ruin and refurbishment) of the kasbah.

Kasbah of Teloue
Kasbah of Telouet

Parts of the exterior of the castle were either total rubble or close to it.  Once inside, however, everything changed.

Interior Kasbah of Telouet
Interior

The interior and central rooms survived the decades of decay, and they are decorated with elaborate stucco pillars, resplendent mosaics, and Moorish doorways.

inside kasbah of telouet

We left and continued onto to Casablanca, where I would catch my flight the following day.  I left humbled and fascinated by the history, hospitality, and mores of Morocco.

So yes, I say one week is in Morocco is better than none.

No doubt.

 

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An In-Depth History of Morocco

An In-Depth History of Morocco

Morocco is in many ways a country apart. It is one of the westernmost states in the Maghreb region, and is the main refuge for descendants of the original Berber inhabitants of northwest Africa. The Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert separate it from the rest of the continent, and its climate, geography, and history are all more closely related to the Mediterranean than to the rest of Africa. Sunni Islam is the religion of almost all of the population, and while Christianity is present, the population is very small (about .01%), and is generally of French descent from the colonial times, or immigrants. Many Moroccans consider themselves to be Arabs, while ethnically they are Berbers who have adopted Arabic language and culture. Their present makeup of religion, ethnicity, and politics is best understood when their history of colonialism is known.

Early History (2000 BC – AD 700)

Morocco’s history begins with the Berbers, the aboriginal people who have inhabited the country since the end of the second millennium BC. Berber identity currently is linked to the language—many of the North Africans calling themselves Arabs are more Berber in origin than Arab. In many areas (especially Tunisia), Berber identity is regarded as negative, mainly because many Berber societies are less developed than those in urban settings, where almost all inhabitants see themselves as Arab.

Morocco enters recorded history about 1100 BC, when Phoenicians founded two trading posts on the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Morocco. There isn’t much of a glimpse into Morocco until 600 years later, but it is certain that there were a number of other trading posts established in Morocco during that time that operated separately from the communities in the interior of the country (Barbour 34). The interior was largely left to its Berber natives and chiefs (Sloane 18).

By AD 42, the Roman Empire had imposed direct rule over the Moroccan coastal region. It became part of the province called Mauretania Tingitana. There is very little knowledge of this province and there are indications that it was relatively undeveloped. Today there are little or no traces of Roman influence in Morocco, and in AD 253 Roman forces began to withdraw from most Moroccan settlements (Barbour 40). But whatever the extent of Roman remnants in Moroccan culture may have been, it was the arrival of the Arabs and Islam at the end of the seventh century that gave Morocco the character and culture that is still possesses.

Arrival of Islam

The first Arab raiding parties reached Tripolitania about AD 647 , about 25 years after the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (Barbour 43). By AD 670, an Arab governor, Uqba ibn Nafi, had founded the city of Kairawan, and was in control of southern and central Tunisia (Jackson 40). Uqba is believed to have spread Islam to Morocco with a 3000-mile long march around the country, and many Berbers were converted to Islam. Another Arab governor, Musa ibn Nusair, had established Arab rule in northern Morocco and at this point, both Arab culture and Islam started to gain strong positions in Morocco. The converted Berbers played an important part in the Islamic conquest of Spain (Jackson 32). The first Moroccan dynasty was installed with Idriss I who ruled from 686 AD to 917 AD. They installed Morocco’s monarchy in Fez, which is today’s spiritual capital (Gifford 308).

From the 12th century onward the history of northern Africa is concerned with the rise and fall of local dynasties, with constant warfare, religious dissensions and a feudal order comparable to that of Europe. Zirites and Hammadiets, Almohades and Almoravides, the three kingdoms erected on the results of the second Arab invasion, Merinides at Fez, Abd-el-Wadites and Zeiynaites at Tlemcen, Hafsides at Tunis, one and all had some religious beliefs that resulted in civil war and the decline and ruin of the land (Sloan 27). These tumultuous times lasted until the 15th century, when Spain and Portugal saw their opportunity to advance. Although Morocco successfully repulsed these invasions, the tide of European imperialism eventually proved too great, and by the middle of the 19th century Morocco’s strategic importance had become evident to all of the European powers and they engaged in a protracted struggle for possession of the country (Sagay 36).

European Control

The French were able to extract trading concessions from the Sultan (at the time it was Mawlay Abdul-Rahman) and he was used as a weapon in the diplomatic warfare of European powers (Gifford 328). The authority of the Sultan was undermined by the activities of Europeans and ignored by many of the Moroccan chiefs, and between 1860 and 1880 foreign activity in Morocco increased steadily (Sagay 40).

In 1904, France made agreements with Britain and Spain, dividing Morocco into their own spheres of influence. A protest came from the German emperor, Wilhelm II, and he declared his intention of protecting Moroccan independence (Sagay 212). A compromise was reached at the Algeciras Conference the following year when Morocco’s independence was formally recognized by the European powers but Spain and France were allowed to “police” the country in order to restore law and order. The French interpreted this agreement as a license to conquer and began moving troops into their sphere in 1907. Then Spain set out to occupy their sphere in northeastern Morocco. Effective resistance came not from the Sultan but from many of the mountainous tribes, but in 1912 the Treaty of Fez, was signed, and France was given the right to defend Morocco, and a similar treaty was signed with Spain. The European conquest wasn’t complete until 1934 (Gifford 416).

In French Morocco, the Sultan remained the head of state but the real power lay with the French Resident-General. Traditional forms of administration and justice were maintained but all the Sultan’s officials were subject to French control (Sagay 337). Mining rights were all in the hands of French companies and between the two World Wars production of lead, cobalt, phosphates, coal, manganese and oil began (Jackson 78). In the interests of building up an economy based on the output of European farms and industries, Morocco’s roads, railways and harbors were rapidly developed; electricity and irrigation schemes were introduced. These improvements were paid for out of taxation, the burden of which fell heaviest on the Moroccans (Sagay 338).

Spanish Morocco was a much poorer country. The Spanish protectorate was harder to control because of the mountainous country and the fierce independence of the people. It was here that the first effective nationalist resistance emerged. In 1921, Abdul-Karim launched a rebellion against Spanish rule. He quickly increased his territory, and in 1925 he moved into French territory but he was defeated in 1926 (Jackson 79).  His defeat proved to be a triumph for Moroccan nationalism.

Nationalist Movement

In the mid-1920’s a group of Moroccans began to meet in secret to discuss the need for reform. In 1930 some of them formed the National Group. The numbers grew and by 1932 the organization became known as the National Action Bloc (Barbour 57).

The turning point for the nationalist movement came in 1936-7. Poverty and ill treatment led to protest and when the government refused to allow Moroccans to join trade unions, the people realized that the nationalist movement was the only outlet for the expression of their grievances (Sagay 338). The French realized that the membership of the National Action Bloc was expanding, and they banned it in 1937, but its leaders simply organized themselves under a new name—the National Party for Realizing Reforms (NPRR). There was a lull of activity during the Second World War, but in 1943, the NPRR returned to their cause with full force. First of all, they changed the name again to the Independence Party to show that they were not just concerned with reforms, but independence. Secondly, the party emerged as a national party, drawing support from all areas. Thirdly, there was a move to involve Sultan Mohamed VI the nationalist movement (Gifford 428).

Moroccan Independence

In 1947 the growing determination of the Independence Party forced the first important compromise from the French. Moroccans were admitted to the Council of Government, but in 1950 the Resident-General told the Sultan that he must either keep his throne or support the nationalists, and the Sultan decided to retain his throne (Gifford 429). The French threat to the Sultan enraged the Moroccan people and led to increased support for the Independence party. In March 1952 the Sultan demanded total sovereignty over his people, and in 1953, the Resident-General exiled the Sultan to Corsica. This action united all the people against the French. There were attacks all over Morocco, and the French allowed Mohamed V to return in 1955, and upon arrival, he appointed a new government. France and Spain could no longer deny independence to a people united under the leadership of its traditional ruler, and Morocco regained its freedom in March 1956 (Sagay 339). The Sultan formed a government and Moroccans gradually replaced French officials.

In 1961, King Mohammed V was succeeded by Hassan II who presented a new constitution (Barbour 63). The new King worked intensely for his kingdom’s future, and under his reign Morocco’s mentality and demographics changed drastically allowing it to become liberal with a pluralist political system and vast interior developments giving Morocco the status of an emerging country which has attracted large sums of foreign investments (Barbour 68). With his death in 1999, his son, King Mohamed VI, ascended the throne, and his focus has been on the integration of the youth, women, and the rural regions of the Kingdom into politics. Work conditions, administrative transparency, globalization and new technology all share an enormous importance for the young King. And with about 20% of the population living in poverty, economic expansion is a prime goal.

The struggle for independence in Morocco was shorter and less distressing than in neighboring French Algeria, and this was partly because Morocco’s colonial ties were much looser, and partly because Moroccan independence involved no substantial change in the form of government. Morocco has become a magnet for visitors wishing to explore a country that encompasses the best of Arabian and European culture.

Works Cited

Barbour, Nevill. Morocco. New York: Walker and Company, 1965.

Gifford, Prosser and Louis, Roger. France and Britain in Africa. New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1971.

Jackson, James. An Account of the Empire of Morocco. London: Frank Cass and
Company Limited, 1968.

Sagay, J.O. and Wilson, D.A. Africa—A Modern History. New York: Africana
Publishing Company, 1978.

Sloane, William. Greater France in Africa. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1924.

Guatemalan Graveyards

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario

Homo sapiens have been burying their dead for at least 100,000 years.  Every culture has their own way of dealing with death, and the graveyard is key in laying the dead to eternal rest.

El Calvario Xela Guatemala

El Calvario is one of the oldest cemeteries in Guatemala.  Located in Quetzaltenango (or Xela), El Calvario is a lush, green hillside, dotted with colorful slabs, Roman-style tombs, and Gothic, Baroque, Classical, and Neoclassical mausoleums and sculptures. From the graveyard you can see the Santa Maria volcano in the distance, encased by clouds.  It’s beautiful, eerie, and fantastic.

Guatemalan Graveyards

El Calvario Cemetery in Guatemala

Guatemalan cemetery decor

tombstones in central america

colorful graveyard

Vanushka Guatemala Cemetery
Vanushka

Xela graveyard

guatemalan graveyards

cool cemeteries

Have Smartphone, will travel.

Have Smartphone, will travel.

When I traveled before the world of smartphones, I would either a) not use a phone, or b) use an old Nokia with a country-specific SIM card.  Now, I am reveling in the glories that are smartphones: The access! The simulated feeling of safety and knowledge! Google!

If you want to travel but perhaps have some trepidation about maneuvering public transportation in foreign countries, finding decent places to stay, or don’t have a lot of extra cash to blow, this article is for you.  I specifically focus budget travel in Mexico, complete with a review on all the modern-day amenities that come with using a smartphones—connections to Uber, AirBnB, and even 4G data if you want it.

International Cell Service

I am a Verizon customer, and for my short-term trip to Mexico, I utilized Verizon’s International Plan.  For US customers traveling to Mexico or Canada, this plan is great.  For $2/day (in addition to your normal rate), you have access to the same amount of texts, minutes, and data in your destination country as you do at home.  However, if you’re headed to Europe or Asia, the cost jumps up to $10/day, so depending on your needs, you may be better off using your cell phone just as a camera or as a connection to wifi.  For example, when I was in Morocco, I did just that. I kept my cell phone on Airplane Mode and used it just for photos and as a timepiece.  When I was in my hotel or a cafe, I turned on the wifi and used it to check email or browse the internet.  If you must have a cell phone, there are always solutions.

I know AT&T has a pay-per-use and Passport Plan, and T-Mobile offers international travel rates as well.  Check with your cell phone service provider to see what they offer and what works best with your plans.

Uber

Uber and other such ride-sharing companies exist almost everywhere (except where I reside for some reason).  While I was waiting in the Mexico City Airport, I began talking with the people around me, and each person raved about how wonderful Uber was in the city, how easy, how inexpensive! I decided to go with a normal taxi first and download Uber later.

The taxi ride from the airport to my centrally located AirBnb was 200 pesos, which isn’t much considering the 19:1 exchange rate at the time.  However, if I had taken Uber instead, I would’ve  paid less than 100 pesos—half the price I paid using a taxi.  Take a look at the price breakdown below.  All in all, I only used a taxi twice (the second time was because I had no cell service in the TAPO bus station).  All other times I used Uber, the Metro, or walked.

Uber Costs Mexico
Uber vs. Taxi

Besides the monetary savings with the use of Uber, I appreciated the added aspects of safety and convenience.  Years ago, when I was living and traveling  in Mexico, I felt safe the majority of the time, but I did have a few instances where taxi drivers attempted to impose their will onto mine.  I want to stress that in my two years of traveling alone, I took hundreds of taxis and this only happened a few times—it is not the norm.  That being said, with Uber, both the driver’s information and mine is stored in the system.  There’s a record of where I was, when I got picked up, and where I was going. If that doesn’t give you peace of mind, I don’t know what will.

And, as mentioned, the convenience is great.  While metered taxis will charge by distance and time, there are some taxis with which you have to agree upon a price.  If you know where you’re going and how much it typically costs, you should be fine, but if you don’t, you’ll end up paying more than you should.  Uber puts this concern at rest as the cost of the trip is already determined.  You can take it or leave it.

Air Bnb

Yes, yes, we all know about AirBnb.  Love it or hate it, it sure makes budget travel easier.  I love it because I don’t want to stay in shared hostel rooms anymore.  I did that in my twenties, and as I get older I realize that there’s nothing I love more than some goddam privacy.  Plus, I like having a plethora of options when it comes to location, price, and style.

AirBnb In Mexico City

L-R: Studio in Condesa, Rooftop terrace in Escandon

In Mexico City, I stayed in two different colonias (neighborhoods), and a different AirBnb in each one.  One in Colonia Condesa, and one in Colonia Escandon (my old stomping grounds.  Each one was in a great location—walkable, close to food, bars, and parks, and also close to the Metro.  The AirBnb in Colonia Condesa was a terraced building, offering several types of rooms, all with a kitchen, balcony, and private bathroom.  The small, rooftop studio in Colonia Escandon didn’t have a kitchen, but did have a small fridge, hotplate, and a roof terrace to hang out on.  Both were about $27 dollars a night

AirBnb, Uber, and International Data Plans are just a few of the obvious conveniences that come with smartphone travel.  There are thousands of apps designed to make travel easier.  Control is in your hands—use it and go.