Day 89 August 11 Casabermeja to Casablanca Day 90 August 12 Casablanca to Marrakesh Day 91 August 13 and Day 92 August 14 Marrakesh
11.08.2016 - 14.08.2016 35 °C
In the famous lyrics of Crosby, Stills and Nash, "Would you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express ... all on board that train!"
In a dramatic change of scenery and culture, we head to Morocco.
All we had planned before we left is: fly to Casablanca and fly out of Tangier 14 days later. Morocco was on Jen's Bucket List, and perfectly fitted into the Tommy Trip Planning Extravaganza. We had some tips from my great friend, Fly, a true Hitchhiker of the Galaxy (but when in mere mortal form, goes by the name, Pete Miers) and a colleague of Jen's who gave us some town names and that's about it.
We are about to be taken well outside our comfort zone.
But first, we have to leave España, we farewell our host Luis in Casabermeja, and head into Malaga for one last expedition to try to buy a Spanish Cycling Shirt - Jen has patiently endured me searching every bike shop could find in Spain for a souvenir cycling shirt...but we're out of luck. So its on to the airport. Missed our exit by 1 second, have flashbacks of Zagreb as we end up on gravel roads trying to get back to the freeway. Thirty minutes later than we expected, we dropped our buzz box off with no scratches and checked in. We gave ourselves plenty of time as we've found Spain's infrastructure and services are "variable". ¡Nos vemos España!
It was cool to see Gibraltar from the air, with the clouds materialising above. The Pilot's directions seemed to be, follow Costa del Sol and make a hard left at Gibraltar, 'cause that's exactly what he did and we press our faces to the window to catch our first glimpses of Africa.
We are relieved to touch down in Casablanca Airport following our 13th flight of the trip. We navigate the chaos of Immigration where there is little organisation and a sea of nationalities merging and pushing their way through the queue. We haggle a vintage Mercedes Über style taxi and had quite a respectable taxi ride through peak hour traffic to our hotel getting our first glimpses of Morocco. I fully expected it to be mad dash. Russians still have our vote as being the craziest and most dangerous drivers on the road. Sadly, we did see Scooter vs Car en route. But help and emergency services were quickly in attendance.
Our plan is to only spend one night in Casablanca then the train to Marrakesh as the song goes. First priority was buy the train tickets which was a breeze. Now, for dinner.
We had seen a local market near our hotel so why not plunge in, immerse in the culture, live like locals. Talk about being immersed!
This market was as big and confusing as I have ever seen. Narrow lanes, full of stalls selling clothing, shoes, home wares, food, butchers, fishmongers, souvenirs, glasses, handbags, leather etc and thousands of people squeezed into the crowded area.
We are instantly amazed, our eyes were not wide enough to absorb what we were seeing. Within 10 minutes we are utterly bewildered and we were lost (although we didn't know it yet). After 20 minutes it dawns on us we are well and truly lost. I'm a person who needs to know where he is at all times and I'm usually very good at directions. I thought I had kept a heading that would bring us out of the maze roughly where we went in. Somewhere in the sensory overload, I had lost all sense of direction. Trying not to panic, with Jen nervously joking that we best be careful we don't miss our train tomorrow morning, with the aid of Maps.Me, we emerge onto a main road about 30 minutes later. Once we get our bearings again, I realise we are 180 degrees in the opposite direction where I thought and 2 kms up the road. I am even now still trying to figure out how on earth we got there!
First time on this whole trip that I had a little nervous twitch of what I might have gotten ourselves into. Saying that, we never felt in danger or threatened and, as we have found throughout, Morocco is a quite safe place for travellers.
After escaping the market we eventually found a place for dinner. We are welcomed into a traditional restaurant, furnished with Berber couches and low tables, by a charming young man with a degree in American Culture / Literature and Masters in Cinematography. We slump into the cushions and were quickly drinking sweet mint tea to calm our frazzled nerves. Our new friend with impeccable English is keen to welcome us to his country, telling about his hopes to join the movie industry, but for now he works in this restaurant. As its getting late, we are the only diners and he takes great care of us (apologising profusely that there is only one menu item left). Within moments, two sizzling steaming tagines of chicken, raisins and almonds are presented before us. Delicious! With our tea finished and our bellies full, our friend loved to chat. He was so glad to have westerners in the restaurant and wanting to travel in Morocco. He also wants to learn as much as he can so he can follow his dreams. He emphasised how safe Morocco is and it is nothing like the rest of Africa or Middle East - keen to distance themselves from the terror and fear hurting the World.
We didn't know it yet, but this wonderful hospitality would not be a one off occasion and we are about to be amazed by the finest Moroccan Hospitality.
The next morning, after haggling over a $3 or $4 Petit Taxi - a tiny car with nearly 600,000 kms on the Odometer - and even though the price changed somewhere between embarkation and disembarkation - it took us 4 km to the train station for our trip to Marrakesh.
We happily pass the time on the platform, people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.
Today's Quiz - how many Safety Hazards can you spot?? [Construction side immediately opposite the rail platforms]
Then, as a local businessman with a warm smile and kind eyes nearby explains, our train is delayed by 45 minutes. He introduces himself and we strike up a conversation with our new friend, Jamal. He is friendly and worldly and keen to talk to us. He proudly shows us photos of his Japanese wife and 4-year old daughter who speaks 4 languages. We will later discover that it is not unusual for Moroccans 6-8 languages or more: Arabic, Berber, French (a legacy from French control), Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese and German. Everywhere we go, waiters, guides, merchants, and spruckers speak every language - switching from one to the other with ease, depending on what nationality they think the potential "target" is. Jen delights in being mistaken for a Spanish Senorita. It makes sense though. For centuries, Morocco has been a trading route for caravans and travellers passing between Africa, Middle East and Europe. Being able to communicate and sell their wares to any and all travellers has been a necessity for generations. Languages are in their DNA.
Jamal is keen to share great tips for a successful trip in Morocco and made us feel so welcome. He gave us his phone number, encouraging us to contact him if we needed any help during our stay and eager to meet again in Marrakesh. Unfortunately we weren't able to coordinate a time with him but will keep in touch.
The train arrived (over an hour late) and we were on our way. Following the chaos on the platform, we scramble aboard. We establish that we are in the correct carriage as the train trundles out of the station, but our seats are occupied. It seems that even though tickets have seat allocations, this is only a guide. As we were unlikely to supplant a large family who wished to sit together, we set off in search of seats for the 4 hour trip. Again, this is a happy disposition as it turns out the seats we find are opposite a Moroccan born man who lives in Florida, travelling with his Moroccan Fiancé. We have a great chat. He is charming and expresses gratitude for our tourism and for visiting his nation. We have giant grins on our faces at the series of lovely interactions, and it fells like we've chatted with more locals in the last 24 hours than almost our whole trip.
Right - now for our greatest challenge to date - getting to our Riad through the Medina. We are met at the Marrakesh train station by a driver (who patiently waited for our very late train). He takes us to the edge the Main Square of the Medina, Jemaa El Fna.
Fortunately, a host from the Riad comes to greet us and guides us through the Square and through a myriad of tiny laneways and alleys we would have no hope of navigating to Raid Ilayka.
It's as if we've entered a portal to an alternate universe as we step through the tiny door into a cool courtyard filled with trees, cool tiles, water fountains and roses everywhere.
The warmest of welcomes from the friendly smiles of the staff and a pot of Moroccan Tea - aka Moroccan Whiskey. A fiercely hot tea of dried mint, ginseng and other ingredients (which are probably a Moroccan secret) poured over fresh mint and super sweetened with about 3 teaspoons of sugar. We develop a liking for the tea and it is surprisingly refreshing on a stiflingly hot day.
We can't quite believe we get to stay here for the next 3 nights!
The view from the top is also spectacular with its view of all the roof tops, mosques, minarets and thousands of satellite dishes.
As there is know way we'd be able to find our way out again, one of the staff escorts us back to the Square, giving us bearing points as we go. We wander getting a feel for the place, the sights, sounds and smells assaulting every sense. The Medina has both a large outdoor square as well as catacombs of stalls and residences.
The large square features hundreds of raucous food stalls in an outdoor BBQ that pops up every night all selling something different.
Each stall has a couple of guys shouting for your attention, - "Hello, Hello, Hello, where you from?" "Australia?" "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi" "I love Australia" "You from Sydney?" "Ah Brisbane, beautiful City!" - all trying to entice you to eat at their restaurant. It is pot luck regardless. With salesmanship in their DNA, they are sharp as a tack. They aren't easily fobbed of with a platitude like, "Not right now, maybe later" or "Next time" because for sure, they remember every face and will call you on why you did not honour your promise when they see you again. We were hooked by a funny fellow, "Okay, see you later Alligator", causing us to chuckle and pause for long enough to get a menu in our hands. Okay, why not, this place is as good as any. The wonderful part though is that the transaction doesn't end there. It isn't just about getting you to sit down - its a whole interaction. As we were leaving, after enjoying a a lovely meal in the crazy chaos, he sought us out of the crowd, to thank us and chat some more. "Hamish & Andy...do you know them? I love Hamish & Andy, they are funny guys. In a while, crocodile!" We left with full bellies and smiles on our dials!
We are quickly discovering Moroccans are hugely social and amazing communicators. They talk to each other genuinely and intently, often with an arm around a shoulder or a hand placed gently on a forearm, with eye contact, communication is real and from the heart.
We also experience, the call for prayer. It happens 5 times a day and devotees can go to the mosque, but don't have to, but ideally, if you can, you do. Otherwise, pray at home or wherever you are. We learn much about Islam during the next two weeks. About being a practical Muslim and discover that it is not imperative to pray five times every day - although you should aspire. You pray if you can, but if have commitments then pray as often as you can. The five times also equates the to the Five Pillars of Islam to be a good Muslim:
The Five Pillars consist of:
- Shahadah: sincerely reciting the Muslim profession of faith, ie believing in God.
- Salat: performing ritual prayers in the proper way five times each day.
- Zakat: paying an alms (or charity) tax to benefit the poor and the needy.
- Sawm: fasting during the month of Ramadan.
- Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca.
We learn that Moroccans are moderates, and their hearts are pained by the extremes in other parts of the world. They recognise other religions - Christian and Jewish especially, acknowledging that all recognise a God, however, each learns of that God through a different Prophet. Their religion also specially forbids the killing of children, woman and old people - again, we feel their genuine pain at what they see happening in the World masquerading in the name of Islam. Morocco doesn't have a great social welfare system so Zakat is taken seriously, with a coin or food often given to a disabled or poor person on the street.
Medina is a walled city and contains the old part of the town. In centuries past, towns needed to build protection from invaders and maintain borders.
Riad is a guest house. Formerly it would have been the home of an entire family. Upon marriage a son and his wife live with his parents. Parents become grandparents, and the circle of life repeats in one house for generations. The distinguishing architecture is to have the balcony on the inside and a court yard in the middle.
Kasbah is a small castle that housed and protected a collective / cooperative of Families, living together. A mini-Medina of sorts to keep the families secure from marauding tribes and nomads. Given that everyone knows that Kasbahs rock, everything is called a kasbah - restaurants, hotels, buildings, cafes and so on.
Hamman is a traditional Arab bathhouse involving a sauna, lathering with black soap (an oil based thick paste), scrubbed like there's no tomorrow then covered in a coating of oil to protect from the harsh outdoors. Hammams are hugely popular. Each medina is full of them and now have all the usual day spa treatments like massage, pedicure, manicures.
Berber one of three historical Arab tribes. Berber means "desert dwellers" in the Arabic language and said to be how the term Barbarian was coined by the Romans when the Empire sought to conquer them but, being semi nomadic, were unsuccessful. Hence, the original meaning didn't suggest they were barbaric as we understand the term but more akin to a foreigner, outsider or uncivilised in the sense of being outside the Roman Empire.
insha'Allah an Arabic term meaning "if God wills". Moroccans are genuine and spiritual people. They have faith in the good in people and the world. We have many wonderful interactions and in saying farewell, there is a heartfelt "insha'Allah", wish that our travels continue well, that our paths cross again and we stay safe.
The next day, we seek out a Hamman for a little pampering. TripAdvisor lists hundreds of places and thousands of reviews. The "Excellent" ones over the top and the "Poor" to "Terrible" are frightening (one which involved the police, and another with CCTV privacy breaches as well as mention of cockroaches). Armed with a recommendation from Jamal, we thought it best to book in person to check out a place first.
Three months on the road and sleeping in a lot of crappy beds with lumpy pillows has taken its toll and we are in need of some body work!
Walking the streets we are transfixed absorbing the scenes we encounter.
We come across the taxi rank - a place, it seems, where old Mercedes come to die
Its stepping into another era.
We go into the Saadian Tombs for a quiet wander. Sultan Ahmed el Mansour constructed the Saadian Tombs in Marrakech during his rule of Morocco in the sixteenth century as a burial ground for himself and his descendants. This led to approximately two hundred members of the Saadian dynasty being buried here, including Sultan Ahmed el Mansour who was laid to rest in 1603.
We learned that this is what a pomegranate tree looks like.
We then continued our stroll around the Medina and got dragged into a spice/perfume/tea shop. Again, consummate salesmanship The shop assistant saw us coming and knew he had some prime tourists ready for the easy picking! These shops are scattered throughout the Medina and the colours plus smells of the spices and natural perfumes are very enticing to sample.
They start with an offer of directions, then ask you where you want to go, where are you from, okay, then come over, let me show you some things. The problem is once you have stopped to talk and entered the shop then you are well and truly in their clutches but in super friendly way. It is a well oiled machine, suddenly there is a tray with some hot sweet mint tea. A silent team of assistants support the main salesman as he performs his magic. "Please, have some tea, it is our hospitality". As each potion, tea, perfume is brought out, we feel more obligated to buy something. Moroccans also communicate with all senses, especially touch - gentle and kind. Quickly our hands and arms are massaged with oils and perfumes. A clay mask is applied to Jen's hand and after a few minutes, wiped clean with rosewater. Now compare, see how smooth and soft and clear! Jen keeps whispering to me, "you know we are gonna have to buy something". This something turns out to be $60 of tea, block of cedar wood and the clay for face masks. The shop assistant basically cleaned out my wallet. I naively opened it, to check how much currency I actually had and whether we had enough I was about 20 dirhams short, but, before I had a chance to suggest putting something back, happily he took it all. Our mistake was that, whilst items were priced it was not each but per gram! We walked out with a smile on our faces, a great experience, some nice products we like, chatted with really friendly locals and that feeling of "I think I paid too much, but I'm not sure". As we left, the shop team were already going to work on a bunch of Chinese tourists they'd snagged. We're sure they would have slugged them big time - the poor suckers already had the clay masks all over their faces, had accepted tea and were now making a rookie error of sitting on a row of stools which magically appeared....big mistake!
We love wandering around. Stalls selling bounties of dried fruits and nuts are everywhere. We bought some amazing almonds and dried figs that we happily munched our way through.
Orange Juice stalls are everywhere and their attendants yell at you to entice you over. A fresh glass of 100% orange juice is 7 dirhams - about $1 and a nice treat.
Some can be a bit sneaky with the change if you don't have your wits about you.
We returned to the square for dinner and take in the atmosphere. During the day the square is relatively quiet but as night time falls the number of people treble and the square comes alive. At any time you have people selling balloons, watches, mobile phones, oils, paintings, cigarettes, perfumes and drinks. At the same time there are bikes, cars, donkeys, motor bikes all weaving between the people.
[The smoke you can see are the BBQs getting set up for dinner]
Bands are playing, monkeys doing tricks and snake charmers playing with Cobras. On principle, we did not photograph or give any attention or money to snake charmers, monkey tamers or ride the horse carriages. We are not fans of animal tourism for entertainment.
We visit Medesa Ben Yousef which is a school for the Islam studies - like a monastery. It is very simple but the tiles, colour and building architecture is very unique. We get a sense of Islam which is very different from what is presented in the media and what we see in Australia.
Unfortunately on the way back we got lost, again. My phone lost connection but quickly a local grabs us and shows us out of the maze of streets. It does cost a few dollars but this is a usual occurrence with travellers. Locals are always eager to help a traveller to their destination and then there is a request for money. Usually a few coins does the trick.
After a hectic morning, its time for our Hammam - Les Bains de L'Alhambra. We have no idea what to expect but know that we will need to leave dignity at the door. We are ushered through the process by quietly spoken women. The first part in a sauna/steam room where the ladies wash us, lather us in black soap, leave us to cook a little on the benches in the steam room then we're scrubbed from head to toe with an exfoliating mitt - 3 months of travel is sloughed off. More steaming, then wash down. What follows is a wonderful parade of foot rubs, eye masks, orange and rose petal baths in candlelit grotto, head massages and then an hour full body massage with Argan oil. Definitely what the Travel Doctor ordered. Our skin shines!
Dinner again was in the square and again we sit in amazement and watch all the going on of the Medina.
[The smoke you can see amongst the crowd on the left are the BBQs we saw earlier being set up for dinner]
A dust storm was rolling in. It was amazing to watch.
This little fellow was using all his best skills trying to negotiate a cookie from the vendor, but she wouldn't budge.
The Henna Ladies are positioned around the Square, encouraging you to get a tattoo done. We were warned against this as they use chemicals which are bad for skin.
Call for evening prayers.
And of course, when you drive a Ferrari you think you can park anywhere, including in the Square.
The Band got the whole place pumping
With locals going about their evening
It is truly an amazing place.
Well our time has finished in Marrakesh and we have had a fantastic time.
The food was delicious, the Riad with its Moroccan architecture was beautiful and we were treated like royalty - especially at breakfast.
The people are friendly and the whole place full of excitement.
We pack and prepare for our next 4 days of something we never expected to do and probably once in life opportunity.
Morocco - a country full of surprises.