Un Finde en el Extranjero

Trip Start Apr 01, 2008
Trip End May 16, 2008

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Where I stayed
Abdel's flat

Flag of Morocco  ,
Thursday, April 10, 2008

When Diana and I were planning my visit to Spain, we thought it would be fun to leave Madrid for the weekend. We were considering the north of Spain and Portugal, but Morocco was really intriguing to the two of us. We chose to fly to Tangier over Marrakesh or Casablanca because the flight was extremely cheap. There are so many discount airlines in Europe that it's possible to fly out of the country for cheaper than flying from San Francisco to LA. However, the consensus among many travelers is that Tangier is ugly, dirty, and dangerous, so we set our eyes a little further afield and found Asilah. Asilah is an interesting small town set on the Atlantic coast that has been owned by the Berbers, the Moors, the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French, and ultimately what is now Morocco. As such, it's an interesting little cross section, and there are a whole lot of natives who speak really good Spanish. More often than not, I would speak in Spanish when interacting with the locals, and a few times, I was forced to resort to what little tiny bits of French (owing to a century of French occupation, it's the second official language of Morocco) that I picked up last fall.

Before landing, Diana warned me that Arabic countries are quite different. She lived in Tunisia for a summer, so whe was pretty familiar with how the aggressive-ish male culture, the dual economies, how to effectively bargain, etc. The adventure began at the airport. First, we had a rather intense bargaining session with the cabbie who was trying to add 35% to the posted fare, and after he shouted at us about how the signs were out of date (meanwhile quoting the official posted fare to Tangier) and yelling about how we were stealing the food out of his childrens' mouths, we agreed to a rate of 17% over the official rate. Upon arrival in Asilah, the cabbie ultimately dumped us off in the "center" (actually right at the edge of the town) and pretended he didn't have the appropriate change for our money in a not-so-subtle effort to get the rate he originally wanted. We finally paid him in euros and said good riddance. Next we needed to find somewhere to stay. The hotels for tourists are few and far in between, so good rates are very difficult to find. Again armed with knowledge from Diana's experience in Tunisia, we went to a small local cafe to befriend someone who knew his way around town...and to have our first cup of authentic Moroccan mint tea. Yum! We talked to a guy who worked at the cafe, and after a short while, we asked if he knew of anyone with a room to rent. We laid out some basic ground rules for the accomodation and price range, and once we finished our teas, we set off on foot to find a place. He rang at a couple of doors, but met with no luck, but then, he spotted an acquiantance across the street who he knew to have a rental place. Unsurprisingly, both the place and the price were bigger than what he had asked for, but after a lot of shouting between the two men (and us beginning to walk away), he accepted our price and gave us the key. Good to go!

Upon leaving the apartment again, I was really struck by just how different an Islamic country is from back home. I thought I was prepared for the cultural differences after reading books, seeing movies, talking with other travelers, etc., but to finally see firsthand the people wearing traditional clothes, the obvious male-dominant aspect of the culture, the women with their bodies and hair completely covered, and to feel the palpable presence of religion upon first hearing the muezzin--it's practically a shock to someone who grew up with western values. Additionally, Morocco is a developing nation, so it was quite common to see horses or donkeys drawing carts down the main roads.

As for the attractions in Asilah, it's mostly all about the medina (the old walled-in town) and the ocean. Sadly, the beaches were full of litter, so they were better observed from afar. The medina was quite beautiful, though, and most of my pictures are from within its walls. According to wikipedia, the medina was built in early 1500s as a fortified town on the sea. The original walls are still standing, as are some of the towers. Within, it's mostly whitewashed residential buildings along tiny, windy passageways. The colors of the buildings are lovely...the doors and windows are usually painted in blues, greens, and purples, and when combined with the traditional architecture, you can snap photos for hours. There are some artisan shops and boutiques with wares ranging from tacky souvenirs to beautiful antique silver pieces.

Unfortunately, most of the locals we interacted with had agendas. We quickly became accustomed to the call of, "Tagine, cous cous, poullet, poisson," from the restaurant owners. The less shady types usually had something to sell, and the less desirables (including our good friend Abdel who we rented the flat from) tried to sell us hashish (incidentally Morocco is a leading supplier of marijuana to Europe). We did meet a few really nice people, though...and I remember in particular a friendly old man running a telephone shop. Sadly, the dinners were mostly uninspired. We had a hard time finding restaurants where the locals ate dinner because it's much more traditional to eat the evening meal in the home with family. Also, at every dinner, we were joined by up to five stray cats that would beg for food. One of them was really crazy, and it kept jumping up and batting at me! We did find a really nice place to buy sandwiches for lunch, though. The sandwiches consisted of stir-fried meat on a baguette with a home made mayonnaise and regional vegetables (olives being a very dominant flavor). And of course, the Moroccan mint tea was wonderful, and we made sure to have one to two cups a day.

All in all, it was a bit of a relief to come back to Madrid because it was so much more comfortable. I had a great time, though, and it was nice to have a primer to Islamic culture before setting off to the Middle East.
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