Climes warmer than Boston's in December, snake charmers and crammed markets lured me to Morocco and my first visit to the African continent. With Lonely Planet's Morocco I headed off. Some, including myself at times prior to the trip, thought I was certifiably insane to visit an Arab nation as an American considering the current engagement the Middle East. However, the people I met along the way were terrific and made me feel extremely welcome. For those a bit older than myself, this may remind you of the hippy trail in the 1970's.
I flew into Casablanca from Paris and immediately boarded the train to Rabat, the capital city, and an hour train-ride away. With 3.2 million inhabitants Casablanca seems to be just another metropolis and was not beckoning. The airport though, like most outside the United States, was beautiful. Marble covered the walls and impeccably clean floors.
Tales of young boys relentlessly crawling over tourists begging for money to be their guide while pilfering pockets lead me to this less touristy city as my first sojourn. Most tourists head straight for Marrakesh, F�z or Mekn�s; though, French influence and a relaxed lifestyle allowed me wanted to acquaint myself with Morocco a bit more gently.
Ancient walled cities, known as medinas, are densely packed with earthen homes and the famous Souqs. I had heard about the maze-like streets, the colors, smells and crowds in the Souqs and was anxious to see the bustle. It was incredible watching everybody crowd on mud streets about 10 feet wide with lined with a never-ending sea of booths selling anything one can imagine. Kabobs roasting over charcoal fires created wafting odors and smoke hazed pathways. I was amazed that mopeds frequently careened down these streets with apparently no regard for the shoppers. Perhaps our insanely litigious nation has some influence to keep pedestrians safe.
From 1912-1956 Morocco was a French protectorate infusing the area with a relaxed lifestyle, cafes, food and a language that I make an attempt at speaking. I am infatuated with the outdoor cafes and the excellent coffee served. A day of sightseeing is significantly more tolerable when you have a chance to rest your feet and rejuvenate with some caffeine. If you don't like coffee, the mint tea in Morocco is world renowned and excellent as well.
The trains in Morocco run frequently at most hours of the day and night and are inexpensive and quite extensive. Combined with a petite-taxi from the train station, you can get to anywhere you might want to go for very little money. The roads were not crowded, save for in the Souqs, and most Moroccans I met use trains and cabs as their sole means of transportation. Perhaps we have something yet to learn in the United States. Amtrak places its stations out of the way and charges expensive fares. Furthermore, it does not easily connect with any other mode of transportation such as a city subway system.
On the 3-hour train ride from Rabat to Marrakesh, I met an agricultural engineer who attended university in the US; ergo, his English was perfect. Also, Halima, a secretary for an insurance firm in Rabat joined our discussion. After only a brief dialogue with the engineer he extended an invitation for me to have dinner at his home. This is the custom in Morocco and demonstrates how warm the people are.
I had picked a hotel to stay at in Marrakesh, but once in the taxi my plans were rapidly changed. Another man also got into the cab with me and immediately started speaking near-perfect English. He assured me that my choice of hotels was bad and he had better suggestions. I had read about this type of hustling with tourists ending up drastically out of the city and perhaps out of money too. With the New-Year's celebration nearing, the hotels seemed packed, so I accepted his offer with hesitation.
Following a short car ride, my self appointed guide rapidly led me down narrow winding alleys stopping at numerous tiny hotels. I was sure I would never find my way out. After nearly 10 stops and tales of full rooms, he found a place for me the Hotel Eddakhla, but it only had two beds in one room and I would have to pay for both. I accepted the $10 nightly fee and found my way up a darkened steep and slender stairway to my room. It was tiny with a small basin and a Turkish toilet down the hall. Hot showers were an extra dollar and in a communal bathroom on the ground level. I came to like this place better than the previous night's digs. For my remaining nights there I was moved to a room with a single bed for a fair $5 per night.
Marrakesh was crowded and insanely busy. I was glad to meet up with Halima for coffee and a buzz through the central market on my first night. The Souqs in Marrakesh are significantly more crowed and labyrinthine than those in Rabat. It was intense to see three times more people and still the mopeds were zipping by on the same 10-foot wide streets. The streets are so maze-like I got lost in the Souq for 2 � hours. When I did pop out of the Medina walls I just hailed a petite-taxi back to the hotel area.
The Ali ben Youssef Medersa, a theological college built in 1565, displays this countries rich architecture. The central courtyard was extremely relaxing and gave me a much-needed break from the crowds in the rest of the Medina. Supposedly the most beautiful place in the world when it was built in 1602, the Palais el-Badi was enormous; though, unfortunately, mostly in ruins now. The Sultan in 1696 plundered it for materials for his new capital building. I was excited to tour the Mosques, but they are still in use and non-Muslims are not permitted inside.
After an hour of trying to locate the leather tanneries on my own with the help of a map and instructions from museum guides, I gave up and enlisted the service of one of the many guides lining the streets. I would have never found the entrance, as it was nothing more than a door in a wall that opened to a huge open-air tannery. Here, another guide gave me a personal tour in well-spoken English. Pits were filled with hides soaking in solutions of cow urine, pigeon excrement, brains and other terrible smelling things. With a sprig of fresh mint to help cover the odors and my camera, I tried not to fall in as we teetered along a slippery path. True to Moroccan style, we negotiated the price at the end. I ended up paying less than 25% of his initial charge and probably still paid too much, but it was excellent visit.
Morocco has sights that are most likely seen nowhere else in the world. The people are helpful and very friendly regardless if you speak Arabic, French or English. The prices and exchange rate are unbelievably reasonable. Two days each in Rabat and Marrakesh is perfect and more might become bothersome. Fez and the other cities get a bit repitious as one can handle only so many souqs. A few more days would have been much appreciated to visit the Sahara Desert or the Atlas Mountains.
A friend of mine encouraged me to consider that the perfect travel kit may be the 24mm 50mm and 105mm lenses I own. It was a difficult decision, but I left the gargantuan 80-200mm zoom lens at home as well as the tripod. In retrospect this was a good decision as the enormous lens would have attracted more attention that I would have liked and there were absolutely no chances to use the tripod in either city. If I had more time and made a visit to the Atlas Mountains or Sahara Desert, perhaps the tripod would have been handy.
Most of the time I was using Fuji Provia 100F with a couple rolls of Fuji Velvia, 50 ASA, mixed. I typically shoot Velvia, but thought that I might be capturing lots of people on this trip and didn't want the standard sunburned look offered by Velvia. 100 ASA was more than fast enough especially with the 1.8 maximum aperture of my 50mm lens; though it was overcast most days and I have a definite bluish cast to many of the images. I suspect that an 81A filter would have fixed this.