Testing the Waters in Africa

Djemaa El-Fna from the Cafe de Paris

Tangier

Having initially decided to skip the continent of Africa due to time and money constraints, I learned that I could easily jump down to Morocco from southern Spain, so I figured I had to at least test the proverbial waters of Africa. I’ll admit, the chance to add a sixth continent on the world adventure played a role in the decision.

It started with a 37-minute ferry ride from Tarifa to Tangier, and upon arrival it was back to the lesser-developed world with touts and tourist traps and relative chaos, at least compared to the comforts of Europe. I spent about nine hours in Tangier walking through the souks (a huge network of markets and street shops) and meeting friendly Africans, including one restaurant owner who has been getting follow-up postcards from happy patrons throughout the world. 

Tangier

I quickly learned that I’d arrived in Morocco during Ramadan, the holy month of Islam during which Muslims fast every day from 04:00 AM until 7:30 PM – this means no eating, drinking water, smoking, sex, or taking anything into the body whatsoever, even breath mints. At first it seemed inconvenient as most restaurants are closed during the day and it can be hard for foreigners and non-Muslims to get food. However, I soon felt fortunate for the coincidence, as I would gain some incredible cultural experiences as a result.

Photo Gallery

Marrakech

After spending the day in Tangier I took a comfortable overnight train (with an entire compartment to myself) to Marrakesh, during which I became friends with my train-neighbors, a couple from Slovakia on holiday. We ended up staying in the same hostel together, where I also met Kosuke and Hiro, a Japanese couple doing year-long a round-the-world trip for their honeymoon.

This was really interesting for me; I’ve met hundreds of travelers this year, but the vastly overwhelming majority of these are doing a very different kind of trip than I. In Australia and New Zealand most people were doing a year-long working holiday; most in Asia and Europe doing a couple of months on the continent; and the majority in India just doing India. In over seven months, I’ve met perhaps three or four people doing a true round-the-world adventure.

I’ve also met a fair bit of Japanese travelers, but usually two-to-eight week travelers in one particular place. But newly married Kosuke and Hiro are doing a full, five continent, year-long adventure around the world. I was totally fascinated by their travels and we spent a great deal of time sharing stories, photos and advice. Good people.

The souks of Marrakech

Marrakesh is a crazy place, perhaps not compared to India for example but certainly to most other places I’ve been. Walking through the souks is like a flea market on methamphetamine; they are generally divided into sectors for particular types of goods, such as leather, woodwork, spices and remedies, baskets, silver, footwear, ceramics, etc. A labyrinth of narrow, intricate lanes and alleys often covered with tin roofing twist and turn in all directions, with shop after shop after shop endlessly stretching in all directions. The shopkeepers are not content to sit and wait for business, but are out in the lane, trying to catch your attention for a moment, calling out in English, French, Italian and Spanish, insisting that you come in and have a look. Not interested? No problem, he’ll take you to his brother’s shop for a purse or his cousin’s for ceramic bowls, or somewhere else for anything you could possibly be looking for. Often aggressive, sometimes annoying but always persistent, these guys are true, true hustlers. At first this was a burden as a “wealthy white man” (of which I’m only half); but soon I would take a different perspective.

I found that if I could convince them that I’m not interested in buying anything, I could actually talk and have a conversation with them, and it was here that I would find the real gems of Morocco.

Pausing for a moment in the heart of the souks I was engaged by a young Moroccan man named Mohammed. Not pressing me to buy anything, he quickly stuck me as genuine, and after chatting for a few minutes he invited me to join him for breakfast later that evening at 7:30 (fasting all day, their first meal is at 7:30 PM, literally break-fast, or breaking the fast). I told him I’d be there.

Some hours later I arrived, a little while past 7:30 unfortunately. I sat down on a crate in Mohamed’s clothing shop, starting with a bowl of harira, a traditional heavy Moroccan soup, and later broiled fishes, bread, dates and lots of little trimmings. I met several of Mohamed’s friends and we talked for a long time. I really got their perspective on working in the souks – long, hot days of constantly talking, hustling, bargaining, wheeling and dealing, making it happen, while often being treated rudely by tourists. Granted they have aggressive tactics; but they have to, it’s their livelihood – one fellow shared his disappointment with how tourists often think “we’re bad people.” Add on to the long days during Ramadan with no food or water all day, and it becomes an exhausting life.

Before I left that night I was talking with one of the guys and commented on how hard it must be to be working in the souks during Ramadan. “Yeah, try it,” he replied coolly.

Hmm. Ok. I will.

I decided to try it out, just to see and feel what a day is like for these guys. So the next morning I woke up at 03:30, ate all the food and drank all the water I had, then went back to sleep. Waking later that morning, Kosuke and Hiro and I spent the day touring around the other areas of Marrakesh, visiting the famous Koutoubia Mosque of Marrakesh, the Saadian Tombs and a few other sights.

Me and my boy Mohamed

Having been a wrestler in high school I’d often gone a day without eating to make weight for an upcoming match, but even then I would drink small amounts of water throughout the day. And so I found that the food was not as difficult, especially having eaten at 03:30. While I was hungry, I could stand it.

But the thirst. The thirst was almost unbearable. Especially with near 100-degree temperatures and walking around for much of the day, all I could think about was water.

I cheated a bit by taking a nap in the afternoon, but waking up I was crushed to find that it was only 4:30 and I still had three more hours before taking any food or water. All I could imagine was slugging huge bottles of water and quenching my burning thirst.

I made it, and believe I arrived back in the souks a good 15 minutes early, ready to go. This time I was joined by Kosuke and Hiro, who were also invited. Mohammed and his friends were surprised, impressed and expressed thanks to me for my fast. They seemed to appreciated that I was willing to give it a try, if just for a day.

That was the best bottle of water I’ve ever had.

Now try doing it for 30 days. Wow. With that in mind, one day was laughable. To a very small degree, fasting for a day helped me to better understand how these people live and what it’s like, and even to think about and empathize with the millions of people around the world who often don’t have drinking water or food.

We have it pretty lucky, and often take things for granted.

I made a lot of friends in Marrakech, and by the last day of walking through the souks, I was literally stopping at half a dozen shops, calling my homeboys by name, asking how business is going today and if they had a nice breakfast last night. It was a very good feeling; for just a moment I felt like I belonged, like I was really there, really in it, living it; like this is what it’s all about.

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Casablanca

Saying goodbye to all my new friends, I took the ~four-hour train to Casablanca, where I found a very small, very basic guest house. I quickly headed out for several hours, walking around the city, seeing the sights and getting a feel. I enjoyed a fabulous mixed grill dinner and even went to the famous Rick’s Casablanca bar, where I had a gin and tonic that cost me more than my night’s accommodation: about six bucks.

On a side-note, all the food in Morocco was fabulous including the harira, couscous, bread, fish, lamb, chicken, and of course mint tea, which they affectionately refer to as Moroccan whiskey.

Me in front of the Mosque Hassan II

The next day I was checked out of my guest house with about eight hours to explore the rest of the city. This was an incredible day of meeting people, walking, smiling, and reflecting. By far the highlight was seeing the famous Mosque Hassan II on the sea, the 3rd largest mosque in the world (according to some sources) and with the highest minaret in the world at 210 meters. The place was spectacular and very impressive.

Here kids were sending it off the 30-40 foot wall into the sea, splashing into the waves below. I talked with many people, including many children, an old retired man who I chatted with for at least 20 minutes, and others. The people in Morocco must be the friendliest I’ve ever met. Everyone smiles and is keen for a chat, and in fact, I experienced an immaculate 100% smile-response rate in Morocco (looking at people and smile-response is another topic I have to write about).

It was time to go. I made my way via train to the airport, en-route meeting a young American gal living in Morocco working for the Peace Corps. She was pretty chatty but very nice, so by the time we got to the airport I brought her with me through the priority check-in line and to the airport lounge, all courtesy of my OneWorld Gold elite status (travel hacking – yet another topic that needs to be covered in more detail).

Planning to have a nice dinner, connect to the internet and enjoy a few cold beers (I drank no alcohol in Morocco except for the cocktail at Rick’s, as during Ramadan it’s almost unavailable), I was disappointed to find the most ill-stocked airport lounge ever. With a negligible food selection and no alcohol whatsoever, my anticipation, long wait and first-ever early arrival at the airport brought only disappointment.

However, two Danish business travelers I’d met in line noticed my dismay, and after some time in the lounge had gone out to the duty-free shop, picked up a bottle of gin, and subtly invited me to join them for a sending-off beverage.

It all comes around.

With some sadness I said goodbye to Morocco, perhaps my favorite country this year, but with a sense of peace, well-being and happiness.

Photo Gallery.

3 Replies to “Testing the Waters in Africa”

  1. Seems like every country becomes your favorite – and I can see why. I love that you don’t act like a tourist and that you are actually interested in the people. I know they appreciate it. You get to understand way more of the real life of the country. Morocco sounds fabulous and, like so many other places you’ve described, I want to go there.

    Like

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