Morocco was so different from anything I was expecting, probably because I have never seen or experienced anything else quite like it before. I will start with the coffee, just for the sake of consistency. I was unable to try much coffee for reasons I will mention later, but I did manage to get my hands on a café noir and a café au lait (French is widely spoken in Morocco, along with Arabic and Spanish. Many Moroccans know some English as well). The café noir (a shot of black espresso) was very bitter and very black! Absolutely no orange tint. I preferred the café au lait (coffee with steamed milk, like the café con leche in Spain). It was more like an American latte. It had foam and tasted heavenly with sugar. However, Morocco is known for its tea, not its coffee. The national drink is a mint green tea. They load it up with sugar and serve it in small 8oz glasses. It is very good!
I didn’t eat much Moroccan food. I like Moroccan food just fine, but Moroccan food did not like me (hence the limited coffee)! But I did try the Moroccan national dish of couscous (tiny beads of rice or grain). Also, I had a tajine. A tajine is a dish named after the pot that it is cooked in. The pot is huge, like a giant shallow bowl, and the lid is conical in shape with a little hole at the top. It is shaped like this so that when the steam rises as the contents cook, some escapes but most is collected on the sides of the lid and drips back down to keep the food moist. Most tajines consist of beef or some kind of meat along with vegetables and sauce, kind of like a stew. Oranges are also grown in Morocco and were served after most meals. My favorite dessert was sliced oranges with cinnamon sprinkled on top. It is very simple, but surprisingly good!
The first day in Morocco I was supposed to go on a city orientation of Casablanca including an interior tour of the Hassan II Mosque. The Hassan II Mosque is a huge mosque on the coast with a retractable roof and a glass floor built over the sea. Unfortunately, I had to miss that. We stopped at Gibraltar to refuel but the seas were too rough so we had to wait an extra day while the seas calmed down before we could take on fuel, making us a day late to Morocco. Instead, when I got to Morocco, I headed directly to Marrakech with a Semester at Sea tour. Our first stop was actually outside of Marrakech in the Palm Groves to ride camels! First we were treated to a traditional tea ceremony complete with live, traditional Moroccan music. We were served mint green tea, of course, and flat bread with honey. Then we mounted the camels. The camels actually sit down to allow you to climb on top of the loose saddle that sits on their back. There is nothing holding you on—no stirrups or reigns, just you and a small handle at the front of the saddle. Then the camel stands up, first the front legs, then the back, so you feel like you are going to slide off the back! After that, it is just kind of like riding a really tall horse—except much bouncier. We got to ride for about 30-45 minutes. You can imagine I was pretty sore when it came time to dismount! We rode through an impoverished neighborhood. Little children smiled and waved and ran alongside us while their parents stood in the doorways of their mud houses and just stared. There were piles of trash alongside the road. It reminded me a lot of Juarez, Mexico except the houses were generally made of red mud rather than scrap wood and metal sheets. This might not sound pleasant, but I was happy to be seeing Morocco, not an artificial Morocco put on for tourists. After the camel riding we were taken to our hotel in Marrakech for dinner and to relax a while. Later that evening a few friends and I went to explore Marrakech and ended up at a restaurant where we ordered some drinks—a bottle of water was 60 dirham, about $7.00!—and soaked up the atmosphere. Usually the place has live music, but not that night. They were playing cheesy ‘80s music over the radio!
The next day we started early on our day-long tour of Marrakech. In the morning we saw the Koutoubia Mosque (just the outside. Non believers are not allowed inside mosques in Morocco, except for the Hassan II in Casablanca), the Bahia Palace, and the Saadian Tombs. The Saadian Tombs were undiscovered for hundreds of years until aerial photography uncovered them in the early 1900s. They are beautiful! It is a collection of chambers or tombs lining a central courtyard speckled with graves and orange trees. The tombs are floor-to-ceiling full of beautiful wood carvings and decorated arches. Morocco is an Arab country and the Arabs are masters of ceramic tile design and wood carving. All three of these sites were magnificent examples of that. After some shopping at the Super Market and eating some lunch, we went to a spice market. This place was the highlight of my time in Morocco (along with riding the camel). To get there, we first had to walk through the Djemaa El-Fna, a huge, central square full of snake charmers, orange juice stands, women offering henna tattoos, and men offering photos with their monkeys (for a few dirham, of course). It was crazy! Well, I thought it was until we entered the souks. The streets are, at times, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side. It’s a labyrinth of make-shift shops selling all kinds of wares and food and, of course, mint green tea. There are different smells with each step—leather, gasoline, olives, the hot metallic smell of welding, and countless unidentifiable smells. You can hear honking, metal pounding metal, talking, singing, fuzzy satellite televisions, and men calling you into their shops. I can’t even describe what you see. It is something different around every corner—children begging for money, sparks flying from a welder, a moped coming right at you, giant heaping bowls of olives… it is a very sensory experience. Anyway, to get to the spice market, our guide led us down some very dark, sinister-looking alleyways and through a door to a stairway reeking of incense. But then we entered a room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves holding jars filled with substances of every color. There were benches and we all sat down while three men in white coats came into the room and explained all of the different spices, oils, creams, and perfumes in the jars. We learned more about saffron and creams to prevent varicose veins, under-eye circles, wrinkles, everything! And everything was made from all natural Moroccan spices and minerals. They also offered henna tattoos and massages, and I got a neck and shoulders massage that felt wonderful after riding that camel. After weaving our way back through the souks and the Djemaa El-Fna we got back on the bus and headed to our hotel for dinner. I fell asleep immediately after dinner. It had been a long day!
The last day we drove back to Casablanca and I spent my last hours in Morocco with a few of my friends, browsing the shops and getting my coffee. For all of you who are wondering, yes, there is a Rick’s Café in Casablanca! I saw it from the bus but didn’t go inside. It was opened after the movie came out, I think in 2004, by an American woman. I did talk to someone who ate there and they said that there was a live piano player. I was happy to hear that Rick’s had a Sam! It just wouldn’t be the same. No Humphrey Bogart, though.
Right now I am somewhere between Senegal and Namibia off the western coast of Africa, south of the equator. We had quite a celebration when we crossed the equator! They call it Neptune Day and it involves some strange rituals including kissing a fish and shaving your head… but I’ll save that for next time!