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Morocco, March-April 2007

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Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Looking out on the red Moroccan desert landscape, on a train taking me south from Casablanca to Marrakech.

I’ve experienced far more train travel this year than ever before in my life; several long and adventurous rides in China, many shorter and efficient trips in Europe, and now here, as part of my first experience of Africa. Train travel to me is quintessentially the most romantic form of transportation for a real traveler; transient, slow, with periodic stops, and facilitating observation away from the normal routes of roads and highways, cutting through city slums, forgotten towns, idyllic countryside.

My boyfriend and I landed in Casablanca late in the evening on Monday and we descended from the plane onto the tarmac to wait for a bus that eventually showed up and took a meandering route to the airport. I felt excited, and not quite ready for Africa. And, as I’ve been told multiple times, North Africa isn’t really ‘real’ Africa. I was finally here, ready to begin the travel that would lead me to the final placement that I’d been building up to, my first experience of the continent and all of the uncertainty that came with it.

The rainy drive from the airport in Casablanca to the city center near the train station was an adventurous and thrilling ride, with the driver’s arbitrary back-seat door-locking that had me convinced we were being kidnapped, and many miscommunications about our actual destination. The driver wanted to take us to either Rabat or Marrakech; not the closer and less touristy Casablanca.

Arriving in Casablanca in the dark I couldn’t see the city, but the next day discovered what I had been told; that far from resembling the romantic picture of the same-named movie set, it is sadly mostly run-down and dirty white buildings. On the way to the Hassan II Mosque, I did pass a mock-up of the famous café in the movie, though.

The Hassan II mosque is as incredible as one would imagine for the third largest in the world and for something that cost an estimated $800 million to build. It has heated marble floors, a retractable multi-ton roof, and space for 100,000 people to worship. We got an English tour to learn all this and more, and marveled at the expanse and the beauty of its design.

The rest of the day involved an apt snapshot of true traveler’s logistical fiascos; asking several train station loiterers for help with directions, approaching a police officer, and finally ambling through alleys to find an Air Malta office so that the portion of our plane tickets that had been (unbeknownst to us) cancelled could be signed over to Royal Air Maroc. No one involved in the process was quite sure of what to do or how to ensure that when my boyfriend and I presented ourselves at the airport we would be able to board a plane, but trying our best and hoping for some goodwill, we left the ticket office and made it back to the train station to get here, en route to Marrakech.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

Marrakech is a great sensory experience of Moroccan colors, sounds and smells. Known as the red city, yesterday I arrived to meet that perfect description in the afternoon light, and we made our way into the medina. That evening we explored the spectacle of the Djemma el-Fna square in the center of the medina, surrounded by fresh orange juice vendors, endless food hawkers with competing sales pitches, on top of the scents of roasting meat, moussaka, tahine, and a million kinds of olives. Compared to Casablanca, I was surprised by the amount of tourists, but Marrakech’s attractions sell themselves, and we shared long dinner benches with other foreigners who were exhilarated with the same new surroundings of the square by night. After dinner we headed away from the aisles of food vendors and into the dimly lit spectacle parts of the square; varieties of storytellers, fortune tellers, henna artists and musicians had gathered small crowds around them and we wandered through the maze of them for awhile.

Today we came back to see Djemma el-Fna and the surrounding souks by day. The snake charmers were out in the heat of the morning, and in spite of my extreme fear of snakes I was so intrigued by this traditional form of entertainment. We saw dancers in trances from the music, surrounded by six or seven big cobras. I pushed myself to watch them without totally panicking, which lasted for about 10 minutes or so. Though it has the slight feeling of being a touristic catch, it also added another level to the exotic experience of being there. The souks off of Djemma el-Fna expand into a labyrinth of vendors selling colorful spices, bushels of mint, a rainbow of olives and beautiful silks, jewelry, metallic Moroccan tea sets, and so many other stalls full of goods. It would take days to get through the whole thing. Adding another unique variety of the market to my list of the year, I was happy to wander through them all day long.

After two days of being in this country, the haunting calls to prayer over the sounds of the medina still catch me by surprise, and this evening as I listened to them at dusk from a rooftop off the main square, I challenged myself to think of some of the cultural perspectives that I’ve developed about the Arab world and Islam. There is much left for me to understand about it. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll make a lot of headway while only briefly passing through on this trip. One thing that I hadn’t prepared myself for (though in retrospect, should have anticipated) is how invisible women are here. Having gotten re-accustomed to normal, familiar signs of gender equality after China while living in The Hague, I once again am stunned and uncomfortable only seeing local men out and about on the streets. This feeling would be even more pronounced if I were still traveling alone as a woman, and I’m glad to have my boyfriend here as a companion.

Friday, 30 March 2007

Today I woke up to an idyllic morning looking out at the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Tunis in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia.

The calmness of this morning was a welcome change after yesterday’s travel fiascos. After a brief morning in the souks again, we headed to the Marrakech airport which was a frenzy of tourist traffic. I was a little apprehensive about the situation with my plane tickets getting re-endorsed to a different airline, the flight cancellation that we had tried to circumvent, and if everything would go smoothly when I checked in. Though it at first appeared like everything was going to be fine, the airline woman’s face denoting a glitch made my heart sink after our bags had already left the belt. She told us that though my boyfriend Nick was cleared from Marrakech through our stop in Casablanca and on to Tunis, my ticket from Casablanca to Tunis had mysteriously been cancelled. She said the flight was full and when I asked her how we could best solve this, she said they were powerless to do anything here and that we would have to wait until Casablanca to deal with it. Our flight being delayed an hour waiting on the tarmac didn’t help my mood of disappointment and apprehension. Though I’m somewhat used to the unpredictability of travel by now and tried to remind myself to be flexible and acknowledge that this situation was out of my control, I had really been looking forward to getting to Tunisia and was thinking that this realistically meant losing at least a night and a day there.

When we eventually arrived in Casablanca I ran to the Royal Air Maroc help desk and tried to address the situation with them but was met mostly with indifference and told to just wait. They had no other flights left to Tunis that day, and didn’t seem very optimistic about my situation. Miraculously though, and with no explanation about what had changed or how it was now possible, they printed me out a boarding pass and said I better hurry to get through customs, since I had been unable to do that in Marrakech without an onward ticket from Casablanca. Every seat on the plane was full and I was so happy that I had gotten on the plane and that we hadn’t had to develop a plan b and lost time on the trip. It makes relaxing in, and exploring, tranquil Sidi Bou Said today that much sweeter.

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Tunisia is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, and one of my new favorite destinations. The white and blue décor of all the buildings, windows and doors in Sidi Bou Said is reflected in the atmosphere; it is quiet and peaceful, with just a subtle breeze from the gulf and unhurried sunsets over the water.

The past two days I’ve leisurely wandered around Sidi Bou Said and Carthage on the northeast coast. I saw the Roman ruins of the walled city and Brysa Hill in Carthage, enjoyed quite a bit of mint tea with floating pine nuts in it, and wandered through the medina and the Bardo Museum in Tunis. The Bardo has an incredible collection of well-preserved mosaics chronicling the ancient history of Roman and Punic Tunisia, and a bunch of statuary that was found shipwrecked en route from Athens to Italy within one large mansion.

This morning we made our way to the louage (long-distance shared taxi) station to go to a town further south down the coast, Hammamet. We waited about half an hour for enough passengers to show up and then departed. The plan was to find somewhere that had horses so that we could ride through the mountains in Hammamet, where the Berber population still lives in villages. Though it was an adventure in finding a guy who knows a guy to find a place to actually do this, we managed to succeed and were soon riding through hills and valleys of olive farms, meeting Berber shepherds and the occasional donkey on our path.

It was a great day, and we returned to Tunis in the late afternoon to kill some time before our flight this evening. We arrive in Cairo in a few hours. We have fitted in a lot in three days, and there’s still so much more to see in this country – desert sand dunes, great scuba diving…it is high on my list of places to return.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Egypt. So far it has been a whirlwind; I arrived at 3 am on Monday to find Cairo still buzzing and filled with traffic, got up very early still on Monday and drove all around to see the first model construction of a pyramid, the Step pyramid, and the iconic two great pyramids and Sphinx in Giza.

Seeing these wonders that I’ve seen depicted in so many ways before had the surreal effect of finally reconciling the image with reality. It all looked just like it does in pictures, and yet I expected the pyramids to be in a world all their own, not closely adjacent to the massive, sprawling, dirty city of Cairo. The area around the pyramids was a sea of tourist buses (and the accompanying hustlers trying to sell anything, or get you to ride a camel) and I came across one that made me smile:

Monday night we boarded an overnight train south to the city of Aswan, to embark on a trip north up the Nile to Luxor for the next few days. The overnight train experience was quite similar to the one I had in China, equally as rustic, though a little more spacious. We stopped several times throughout the night, sometimes for quite some time, to hear men board the train and shout in Arabic. I was once again glad that I wasn’t alone, as female friends of mine who have traveled solo in Egypt all have unpleasant stories about harassment.

Arriving on Tuesday morning, I rested a little in Aswan, seeing the Nile for the first time and the graceful feluccas gliding on it.

Beginning the jam-packed sight seeing tour in the Nile Valley, Tuesday afternoon I then went to see the unfinished obelisk, the Temple of Philae, and the High Dam – the famous, massive structure that controls the previously destructive flooding of the Nile. If the dam was destroyed for any reason it would be devastating for the whole country and beyond, and therefore the dam is closely guarded. Due to the past targeting of tourists, there have actually been a lot of tourist police everywhere I’ve gone so far. Sometimes doing nothing and looking fairly unintimidating, but nonetheless there.

Today was another very early morning, with a 6 am flight for 40 minutes to Abu Simbel to see the Great Temple built by Ramses II. It was just as stunning as I had heard it was, and phenomenal to imagine that the whole great thing was moved in the 60s to avoid getting completely submerged by the rising waters of Lake Nasser. It cost UNESCO $40 million to move it whole. The massive statues of the gods and pharaoh, meant to look dominant to scare southern tribes from invading, are arresting. The second structure at Abu Simbel, the Temple of Hathor, was also very impressive, with six massive statues for Ramses and Nefertari guarding the front. By midday we were back on a plane to Aswan, just another round in the tourist shuttle that daily sees a mass of people come in early to beat the extreme heat and return to Aswan, Luxor, or Cairo having taken in one more of Egypt’s incredible ancient sights.

Tonight we started sailing along the lush, biblical-looking banks of the Nile, up towards Komombo.

Saturday, 7 April 2007

The past few days my brain has been filled with Egyptian history, the names of gods and pharaohs, imagining what life was like millennia ago in ancient Egypt, and marveling over the hieroglyphics and structures that have survived since that time. I saw the Temples of Edfu and Esna, and the Temple of Karnak and Valley of the Kings in Luxor.  It was some of the hottest climate I’ve ever been in, and it’s not even the hottest season of the year. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live in the desert. Seeing this all by boat has been a great way to do it and made the somewhat hectic sightseeing schedule more relaxing, in spite of the other hundreds of tourist boats on the Nile.   

I’m now back in Cairo, through one transition of finishing this great stint of a travel break and sharing time with my boyfriend Nick, and now I’m re-grouping before heading south to my final placement. First, I get to meet co-Fellow Jared for a few days here in Cairo, as he leaves Uganda and heads to Jordan!