Our Locations in France

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Neophytes in Morocco

Bronwyn, Rick and Joan in the Sahara
Rather than go skiing during Joan's winter school break, at the last minute, we decided to visit Morocco ... and we are glad that we did. Morocco is a fascinating country with a lot to offer visitors. It is also still a good value for the money. Plus, the airfare from Nantes to Fes was ridiculously inexpensive, However, there were a lot of surprises ... most of them good.

Donkeys are the most common way to
transport heavy loads in the medina
Morocco was a completely different experience from than anything that we have encountered in other countries that we have visited including other Muslim countries, third-world countries and developing countries. I don't even know how to correctly characterize Morocco. In some respects it appears to be a modern nearly first-world nation. In other respects I felt that I was witnessing a way of life that had changed little in the past 2000 years. Other than the satellite dishes on the roof of every house, life in the medina of Fes in the 21st century probably is very similar to life in the 8th century when the city was founded.

I spent much of the time wondering how much of what I was seeing I really didn't understand. The customs and norms of dealing are very different than in the U.S. Whenever we engaged in a transaction, I was unsure whether I had been cheated or drastically underpaid. I found myself suspicious that everybody, from our driver to the guy on the street who gave us directions, was trying to steer us to a place where they would get a kickback. We consoled ourselves that virtually everything was inexpensive by our standards even through we probably were frequently overcharged by Moroccan standards.

The maze of dark passageways (more like alleyways and tunnels than what we think of as streets) in the ancient medina, with people constantly popping out of the shadows to sell you something or offer their services, adds to the feeling that you are in a strange place. It can be stressful at times, particularly when you find yourself at a dead end followed by a bunch of shady-looking characters. We sometimes found it hard to distinguish who was trying to help us with genuine Moroccan hospitality and who just wanted to get as much money out of us as possible. However, on the whole, the people of Morocco seemed to be a genuinely kind and friendly people who wanted us to leave with a good impression of their country.

Background Information About Morocco

Morocco is located at the northwest corner of Africa. Its neighbors include Algeria (to the east), Mauritania (to the south), and Spain (to the north). The topography ranges from the Sahara Desert in the east to mountains in the middle of the country (where there was snow) to fertile farmland near the Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines.

During the 12th through 15th centuries A.D., Morocco was a world power. Moroccan dynasties conquered and controlled most of the Iberian peninsula (today's Spain and Portugal), but they often had more difficulty conquering and controlling the Berber tribes in the mountains of Morocco. All of present day Morocco was not united under one ruler until the late 1600s, but it proved difficult to maintain control of the Berbers during subsequent periods.

The country has a rich mix of cultures due to its location at the intersection of many trade routes, its acceptance of refugees from many different places and religions, and its various colonial rulers. At various times, parts of Morocco were colonized or occupied by the Phoenicians (1100 B.C.), Carthaginians (4th century B.C.), Romans (44 A.D.), Vandals (429 A.D.), Byzantines (533 A.D.), Arabs (680 A.D.), Portuguese (1415 A.D.), British (1661 A.D.), Spanish (1859 A.D.), and French (1907 A.D.), All of these cultures helped shape the unique culture of Morocco. Today, the most obvious influences are Arab, Berber (generally in the countryside) and French, which are the three official languages.

The central courtyard of the first university - the Medersa es Seffarine in Fes (founded in 859 A.D.)
In the middle ages Moroccan rulers were famous for their tolerance of different religions and ideas, but that tolerance is less evident in modern times. Tolerance of different ideas helped Morocco become one of the centers of learning in the world and the home of the first true university during the Dark Ages in Europe. Even today, tuition is free as state-operated universities although most citizens drop out of school before high school to support their families. During the Inquisition in Spain, Morocco was a safe haven for Jews and Christians with different beliefs. Today, the state sponsored religion is Sunni Muslim and proselytization by other religious groups is essentially illegal. As in Turkey, the government pays and controls the key positions in the mosques so the message preached in the mosques is tightly controlled.

Since 1956, Morocco has been an independent nation ruled by a strong king (with most of the power) and a weak parliament (with little power). Morocco's closest ally is Saudi Arabia, but it also has close relations with France and the United States. In general, Moroccans seem to regard Iran, Daesh (ISIS), and other Shi'te groups as dangerous enemies, Morocco also has a long-standing dispute with Algeria over control of the western Sahara Desert, which means that the borders between Algeria and Morocco are closed.

Our Moroccan Experience

Narrow "street" leading to our riad in Fes
Our itinerary took us southeast from Fez through the Atlas Mountains to Todra Gorge and the Sahara Desert, then north through the Rif Mountains to Chefchaouen, before returning to Fez. We did not have time to visit Marrakesh, Tangier or Rabat. Initially, we had planned to rent a car and drive ourselves around Morocco, but eventually we decided to hire a driver/guide for the duration of our visit.
A feast on our first night in Fes

We are glad that we hired a driver. The cost of a driver was only slightly more expensive than renting a car, and we did not have the stress of navigating, figuring out the unwritten rules of driving in Morocco, dealing with the numerous police checkpoints, or figuring out a safe place to park the car in ancient cities where the streets only sometimes were wide enough for one car. The guide also handled things such as tipping the men who guarded the car at night. Surprisingly, the guide was probably least helpful in providing us with historical information about the places we visited. Even though we had an "official" guide, it was necessary (or at least customary) to also hire a local guide in almost every place we visited. Although our driver/guide either handled the arrangements with the local guide or advised us what we should pay local guides (if we were visiting a place not included in the agreed upon itinerary), our guide/driver seemed to be much more of a driver than a guide.

A friendly greeting at the door of
Riad Dar Essaaoude
We developed our own itinerary and made some of the hotel arrangements before deciding to hire a guide, but we had the impression that it is normal for the guide to make all of the hotel and dining arrangements. Although it was an accident that we made some of our own arrangements, we felt that making our own lodging arrangements worked out better than leaving it up to the guide because most of the places suggested by the guide were large hotels patronized only by foreign tourists and were significantly more expensive and less authentic than the places we found on our own.

All of the places that we found on our own were nicer than the one hotel arranged by the guide. In general, we arranged to stay at riads in the ancient medina of each city where we spent the night. These places are the Moroccan equivalent of a bed and breakfast. These lodgings also offered dinner and seemed to provide the most genuine hospitality. Although the homes were generally located at the very end of a maze of "streets" so narrow that we had to walk sideways in places, once we entered the homes we usually found a beautifully restored mini-palace with rooms arranged around a central courtyard.

The interior of Riad Dar Essoaaoude
One drawback to staying in a home in the ancient medina is that it is almost impossible to be very far away from a mosque which means that we were awakened each morning at first light (5:35 a.m. in February) by the local muezzin blaring out the call to prayer from loudspeakers. While the sound of the call to prayer can be beautiful, we concluded that the muezzin was not always chosen for his melodious voice.

One additional unexpected downside of making our own arrangements was that on some nights our guide did not appear to have a prearranged place to stay. If the guide made the arrangements, it seemed that the hotel provided the guide with a free room, free food, and possibly a kickback in return for steering us to an overpriced hotel. On the nights where we made our own arrangements the guide chose to sleep in the car, with a friend, or in a small unheated room that was provided for drivers.

Things we liked ... and didn't like quite so much

Dinner at Dar Essoaaoude
Moroccan food was excellent. We never had a bad meal in Morocco. The food we were served at the riads was particularly good and plentiful. However, we did tire of the two primary food options: tagines and skewers. 
Rick and Joan with owner of Beldi Bab Ssour,
our favorite restaurant in Morocco
Some of our favorite meals were at less traditional restaurants frequented by an eclectic mix of locals and tourists. In particular, we are big fans of The Clock in Fes (which offers henna tatoo classes and yoga classes as well as food) and Beldi Bab Ssour in Chefchaouen. In general, it seemed that the places that we were directed to by guides turned out to be twice as expensive and not as good as the places we found on our own.
Trout in the Atlas Mountains
Guides and porters waiting at the Blue
Gate in Fes for customers
Hiring a Guide - We had mixed feelings about our guides in Morocco. We chose to hire an "official" guide/driver for the week assuming that this would help us make the best use of our limited time and eliminate the need to find local guides in each city. Although it was probably a good decision to hire a guide/driver for the week, the guide services we received were less than we expected.

Our guide/driver was much more of a driver than a guide. He was unable or unwilling to guide us around the places we visited and did not seem particularly well informed about the places we passed along the route. He was willing to answer our questions (sometimes giving answers that were completely inconsistent with the information in our guidebook), but he rarely volunteered information. On the other hand, he connected us with reputable "official" guides in the places we visited, and the costs of all of the local guides for places on the agreed upon itinerary were included in the cost of weekly guide/driver. The owners of the places we stayed also seemed able to connect us with reputable guides. All of the guides invariably tried to steer us to a rug merchant, overpriced restaurant, and/or other shop, which became tiresome, and it took a concerted effort to avoid being steered to a series of overpriced shops.

Nonetheless, we were glad that we hired an "official" guide in each place we visited. It is difficult to understand the historical sights in Morocco without a guide because the areas where most of the sights are located tend to be a maze with few directional or explanatory signs. When we were on our own, it was difficult to find places and difficult to understand what we were seeing. Furthermore, the various people selling their wares and services tended to be much less bothersome when we were accompanied by a guide.

On some evenings we elected to wander around on our own. Although it is fun to try to wander around the cities on your own, when you do not have a guide with you it is difficult to walk more than a few meters without somebody offering to serve as your guide or sell you something. At times, all of the people trying to sell you wares or services become annoying. Some of them can be very persistent following your around the city bombarding you with offers for long periods of time. We had one gentlemen follow us around for an entire evening.

Barbary Ape tugging at Rick's
pants
The Barbary Apes - We derived a guilty pleasure feeding the Barbary Apes that lined the highway in the Atlas Mountains seeking handouts of food. While it probably isn't great for the animals to become dependent on humans for handouts, the apes were very persistent, friendly and entertaining. It was hard to resist their charm. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the apes were mimicking us.
Who is imitating whom?
While the apes were very friendly towards us, we heard that they sometimes grab a hat or other personal items from tourists... so beware.


Dromedary Trek and Camping in the Desert - We elected to spend one night "camping" in the Sahara Desert at a "nomad camp." Access to the camp is via a dromedary trek across sand dunes on the edge of the Sahara. You eat dinner in the desert, get to see brilliant stars, and are entertained by the staff, who all claim to be real Berber nomads. 
While the camp was very deluxe (with king-sized mattresses and flush toilets in a faux Berber tent), and certainly not authentic, it was fun to ride a dromedary, and the staff made the camp experience a lot of fun. We had the good fortune of being the only guests in the camp so we probably received more personal attention than most guests. 

It should be noted that riding a dromedary is one of the least comfortable forms of transportation known to man. We were told that many tourists elect to walk back to civilization rather than get back on a dromedary on the second day.

Other things that you ought to know about Morocco


Our driver having a discussion with the police (and perhaps
leaving a tip) at one of many police checkpoints
Police checkpoints are everywhere.  We estimate that on an average day of driving that we encountered at least 10 police or army checkpoints. I think that we went through more police checkpoints during a week in Morocco than the rest of my life combined. Although most of the time the police seem to wave vehicles carrying foreign tourists through the checkpoints, driving through the checkpoints on our own would have been stressful and on at least one occasion it appears that the police required a "tip" from our Moroccan driver.

The multitude of police checkpoints combined with poor roads and a lot of slow moving vehicles also meant that it took a lot longer to travel between cities than we had estimated. In general, we were lucky if we averaged 75 kph (about 46 mph) in our travels.

Bad drivers - Morocco lived up to its reputation for dangerous roads and crazy drivers. You might think that all of the police checkpoints would deter bad driving, but it does not seem to have any effect. Although the checkpoints are usually visible for miles, our driver passed a vehicle in a no-passing zone within sight of a checkpoint. On one day, we came upon the immediate aftermath of five separate head-on collisions and one car that appeared to have skidded off the road into the mountain. Admittedly, it was raining (for the first time in months) on the day that we saw so many accidents, but we had plenty of close calls even on days where it was dry and sunny.

Moroccan drivers seem to take pride in passing on blind curves, ignoring lines on the roads, proceeding straight through red lights without slowing, and going the wrong way on one-way streets. The local "petite taxis" are the worst offenders and we saw accidents involving the petite taxis on multiple occasions. Although our driver frequently made us nervous, hit a stray dog, and nearly skidded off the road, we were glad that he was driving and not us. For example, if we had hit one of the many stray dogs or other animals that wander onto the roads, we suspect that numerous people would have emerged to demand payment. Driving in Morocco seems to be a game of Russian Roulette.

Language - The two primary languages in Morocco are Arabic and Berber although most people understand French and many shop owners and guides can converse in basic English. As in any country, it helps to learn at least a little of the local language. We learned a few words and phrases, but were never able to read the signs, which are often only in Arabic and Berber (which each have their own unique alphabet). Fortunately, a basic knowledge of French was sufficient to conduct most transactions.

Other than "As-salamu alaykum" (which is used as a greeting and goodbye), the Arabic phrase that we probably heard the most was "inshallah" (God willing). Whenever somebody talked about doing something, it was generally followed by "inshallah," which always left us with the feeling that it might or might not happen, but the speaker was not going to make any particular effort to see that it happened.

Drugs - Morocco has a reputation for the availability of drugs and I received multiple offers of drugs as we walked around on our own (as well as offers for other ancient professions). In the old cities, the smell of drugs was often in the air and sometimes visible. As we drove through the mountains we saw lots of people standing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere who did not appear to be seeking a ride or asking for water. Our driver indicated that many of them were probably selling drugs (but who could know). After that, I looked at everybody suspiciously. However, the people selling or using drugs were never bothersome, and certainly not as persistent as all of the people trying to sell us rugs, pottery, leather goods and trinkets.

Rain and Snow - While we were in Morocco it rained, sleeted and snowed. On the day after we drove through the Atlas Mountains, they closed the highway through the mountains due to snow. While these events are unusual, if you are traveling to Morocco in the winter you should keep in mind that it does snow in Morocco, but Moroccan drivers do not know how to drive on slick roads Also be aware that it is possible to become trapped in one part of the country due to road closures. If we had been on the wrong side of the mountains when it snowed we could have easily missed our flight home.

Concluding Thoughts

We enjoyed our week in Morocco, and a week was certainly not enough time to see the entire country. It is a beautiful country with a fascinating history. Many people went out of there way to be friendly to us. We met Europeans who were planning to purchase a vacation home in Morocco and eventually retire in Morocco because of its good climate and low cost of living. However, Morocco does not really suit my personality. I can't imagine having a home in Morocco and dealing with all of the complications of maintaining a home in a culture where everybody seems determined to extract as much cash from you as possible and you are always a little bit uncertain about whether people will do what they said they will do. I have to confess that all of the police checkpoints, the power concentrated in the king, and the intolerance of other religions also bother me.

I am glad that we visited, but I feel no real need to return to Morocco. There are a lot of places in the world that I have not visited and there are many places I would rather visit before returning to Morocco. Visiting Morocco makes me even more appreciative of the freedom and tolerance that we have in the United States and more determined to oppose people who promote intolerance.

Links to More Pictures of Our Trip to Morocco



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