April 26, 2014 – It is 9 o’clock in the morning and the hills of Morocco are rolling by outside the window. It seems at every new turn, this country offers up a different breath-taking vista for the hungry, wide eye to feast on. The picture most typically painted of Morocco to the unsuspecting foreigner – that of rolling dunes and endless sandy desert lands – is beautiful enough, but utterly incomplete.
Add in an angry sea crashing against tenacious boulders – strides away from protected coves of tranquil swimming beaches. Add in a constant backdrop of towering mountains on the skyline, add in steep slopes of fertile green land teeming with precisely aligned columns of trees and bushes which will yield olives and wine and other sustenance for the region, add in the twists and turns of the climbing and descending mazes that are the old medinas of the city, and one can just begin to see an outline of the whole complex picture that is Morocco.
So how does one experience Morocco? The more real Morocco – the diverse, beautiful, hospitality-centric, authentic country of Morocco? Well, here are a few tips to keep in mind.
Ahem: Guide to getting Morocco underneath your nails and in between your toes, Part I.
1) Find a friend (if you need help with this part, see “guide to being a nice human, part II”).
2) Hope you are lucky enough that said friend has Moroccan friends.
3) Make your way to said friend through any means necessary – planes, trains, buses, ferries, canoe, ice skates, etc.
4) To help accomplish step 3, regularly ask strangers around you where you are in whatever combination of broken Arabic, French, and English is available to you.
5) If you’re lucky, step 4 will culminate in you jumping off a train approximately 3.5 seconds before it pulls away from the station you need to get off at, avoiding by instants ending up in a city in which you have no such friend, as mentioned in step 1.
6) Don’t bother bringing a functional phone, because who needs that?
7) Use Vodafone cell service if possible, as this will ensure step 6 is completed more thoroughly, and life will be more interesting.
8) Leave yourself only 4 minutes for an 8 minute walk to catch your next train, ensuring an invigorating morning jog leading up to a flying leap onto one of the train cars just before they start moving.
9) Bring a tissue to wipe the sweat from your light jog off your face, once you’re securely in your train compartment, surrounded by staring Moroccans who ponder your predicament with raised eyebrows.
10) Recycle said tissue in the train bathroom when you remember that free toilet paper is not a given.
11) Pat yourself on the back for recycling, even though the hygiene in the previous step is questionable.
12) Take away that pat when you realize you are not recycling but littering once you look down and see that the hole you threw the tissue into leads to none other but the tracks and the earth itself. Now you’re not only unhygienic, you’re a litterer. Congratulations. At least it will disintegrate someday, unlike all those plastics water bottles you’re putting in the trash because your stomach can’t handle the tap water and recycling, as you know it, doesn’t exist here. Ah well. Leave the bathroom now, you’ve been thinking about this too long and at this point your friend probably thinks you did drink the tap water and are suffering the consequences.
13) Get off the train (Fes is as good a place to start as any) without knowing where you’ll go from there.
14) Call a friend who your friend befriended that one time in the leather shop in the old markets.
15) Hope said friend of friend will come as you wait in the station, and dodge would-be guides who want to show you around the city at “a very good price.”
16) Find said friend of friend but fail to find any taxi because Morocco shuts down on Friday afternoons – family couscous lunch.
17) Happen across cousins of friend of friend who happen to have a car and want to go to friend of friend’s house anyways for said couscous lunch.
18) Arrive at friend of friends house where you are now the friend of a friend of a friend but are treated like old family with four kisses on either cheek from mom, dad, sister, brother, kind-of-like sister-of-friend of friend, and more friends, before your name is even asked of you.
19) Feast on a five-course meal. Try to save what room you can, as each successive course will be more delicious than the last.
20) Ponder your luck for a moment in stumbling into such a feast, before the mountains of food overtake you and you become locked into a feeding frenzy as though you didn’t eat half a trolley’s worth of food on the train this morning. Hey, you ran, right?
21) Pick your pizza slice worth of couscous on the communal plate (giant saucer?) and 1,2,3…go!
22) Count your blessings that the meat is placed on the bottom of the saucer underneath the mounds of vegetables and grain so you can pick around it and maintain vegetarianism without having to disengage from the frenzy.
23) Throughout the five courses of couscous, salads, tagine, fruit and dessert, maintain a fine balance between ravenously wanting to devour everything in site, not wanting your pant buttons to burst flying off, and trying every dish to please your host, though the hotel rooms in your stomach long ago reached full capacity and are now woefully overbooked.
24) Acknowledge that friends of friend are now your friends as you spend hours sitting on their couch recovering from said enormous meal (that was lunch?) while being told you should treat the house as your own, take off your shoes, and even take a nap if you like.
25) Politely decline tempting offers to nap because you must see as much as humanely possible in one day.
26) Profusely attempt to thank your host and convey the deliciousness of the food in whatever combination of French and Arabic you can manage.
27) Knowing you’ll fall utterly short of expressing the gratitude you feel with your broken Arabic, try to convey your sentiments in the million and one hugs and kisses on cheeks as you say goodbye, knowing this form of communication is much more effective than anything you could say.
28) Look out the car window as you drive away to see the entire family hanging out the balcony to wave goodbye, knowing you’re leaving with more family than you came with.
29) Go explore the famed waters of Sidi Harazem outside the city with your new friends, aka the beach of landlocked Fes.
30) Realize that every landlocked city has it’s own version of a park-beach, with fun-goers sprawled out on towels across sloping green hills, drinking (in this case famed healing water) and soaking up the sun.
31) Politely wash your hands and face in the water but avoid actually drinking it if possible, as access to bathrooms may be sporadic, and as discussed in step 10, toilet paper is not found in abundance here.
32) Return to the city to finally make it to the old medina (old city) and navigate though the winding streets with even more appreciation for your new friends – you could never find your way in this maze without them.
33) Take spur of the moment private tours of a leather shop, a tannery, and a Berber rug shop, with just you and your four friends – off-peak hours mean you have the city to yourself.
34) Enjoy delicious street food at an asking price of $.30 per bowl of soup, homemade by the vendor’s mother.
35) Sigh in contentment as your stomach and your mind hum with happiness, again.
36) Explore the childhood home of the friend, now uninhabited but used by friend and cousins for sporadic dance parties.
37) Climb stairs of abandoned house with help of phone flashlights to arrive on the roof – gasp your breaths in when you can as you take in the incredible view of the lit up old city at night.
38) Say goodnight to your new friends (correction, say goodnight to the friends who didn’t jump out of a car at an intersection to “take care of some business”).
39) Meet a few new friends who come from all over the world and stay at their house tonight – don’t be surprised that you are one of four couch surfers crashing here – weren’t you told about the hospitality??
40) Travel the next day on a crack of dawn bus to a new city – you have to see everything! How about Chefchaouen, the blue city?
41) Eat lunch on a rooftop, overlooking the city.
42) Definitely don’t make any reservations at hostels before you go – you can figure it out when you get there.
43) Wander the city, up the nearby mountain, into an artist’s studio for tea, through the shops and the street vendors, into a massive beauty products shop, past a smoothie place, backtracking to smoothie place, and finally to the spur-of-the-moment-discovered hostel.
44) Sip your smoothie on the rooftop of this hostel (rooftops are fun) and watch the Chefchaouen nightlife unfold.
45) Don’t think too hard about the timetables and punctuality of unpredictable trains and buses that will be required the next day in order to get you halfway across the country and back on a plane.
46) Manage the ensuing 8 hours of travel with a light heart, good book, and an open mind to naps.
47) After a combination of buses and trains, arrive at the airport to find that your flight out of Morocco is overbooked by about 20 people.
48) Don’t be that person who pushes and screams your way to the front of the line to convince your way onto an overbooked plane – you’re still on vacation, come on now.
49) Enjoy an extra day in Morocco, squeezed into a hotel with a horde of similarly stranded travelers – apparently this is normal? – but still manage to enjoy yourself.
50) Wave goodbye to Morocco out of the plane window as you finally take off, more than a little relieved that the plane is moving when you thought for a second you would never leave, but mostly, look forward to planning your next trip back to this wonderful country.