Saturday, March 24, 2007

best trip ever

Yep. I'm back, and I had a fantastic trip. Apologies to Maia and my family, whose Japan trip and ultimate US road-trip previously shared the top position. Those trips kicked ass, but Morocco is awesome. You should go there.

Granted, if you're the type who likes resorts, classy hotels, shopping, or the like, then stay far far away. You shouldn't be talking to me anyway. I like my trips to be cheap, dirty, and authentic. Resorts and touristy places seriously bother me.

So what made the trip so great?
  • Tons of interesting stuff to see
    Medieval city centers (medinas), complete with life and real people. Kids run around the narrow streets. Vendors sell everything from food, shampoo, clothes, to the fantastic "fob-bags." Venice is a medieval city, but it's dead. No one lives there. Sienna is a medieval city that still has life, but only because of all the hot chicks that go to school at the university there. If you want to get a feel of how people really live in such places, Morocco is the place to be.

  • Good food
    Sure, the tajines get old after a while, but overall the food was decent and plentiful. Plenty of lamb, chicken, and fruit (especially oranges). Plus, all of it's fresh. Sure, it might not be the cleanest of places to get food, but they do a decent job preparing it. Ever try eating in Venice? It sucks. Plus, if you stay away from the touristy areas and are willing to take a gamble with diarrhea, there's plenty of interesting things to try (though admittedly, after about a week, it gets tough trying to find something new).

  • Great people
    The people there are the friendliest people that I've met. Sure, they're trying to make a few bucks off of you, but they generally won't outright try to take advantage of you. If you ask a guy to give you a lift to a museum that's literally around the corner, he'll tell you. People will go out of their way to help you out. Granted, you can't just lay there and assume that good things will happen. They'll overcharge you like crazy if you don't bargain, but that's because they know you can afford it. And it's true. You can... which leads to the next point...

  • It's cheap!
    Unless you get sent to a tourist restaurant, you can get a decent sit-down meal for less than $10. Want to step down even further (my style), you can get really really cheap. Yugita and Swadeep got some nice sandwiches in Fes by some auto shops for about $1 each. In Marrakech, Swadeep, Fay and I decided to go to the stall where only locals sat (perhaps it had something to do with the lamb heads lined up at the front, or the fact that no one there spoke English). We had two orders of lamb and a order of fresh lamb brains. $6.50 total for the three of us. Three cinnamon teas? $0.50. Mmm... Cinnamon tea...

  • People don't speak English, but I can communicate with them
    The biggest challenge of communicating with people is figuring out which language people know. Everyone knows Arabic and French. A few people here and there know English, and the same with Spanish. But even so, most people know a little of some other language (like a Moroccan Salad, they would joke... a little of everything). Eventually, with a combination of English, Spanish, gestures, smiles, and perhaps a couple random French words, you can get what you need. It was also great to be able to practice my Spanish again.
Some other interesting considerations... For example, what race am I?
I'm becoming more and more ambiguous as the years go by it seems. It can be a bit annoying that Chinese people don't know that I'm Chinese, but at the same time, I can pretend to be whatever I want to be. In Morocco many people thought I was Japanese (maybe it's my camera, or maybe it's how Japanese people love to travel), one person guessed that I was Indian (like three of my travel partners), then guessed that I was Latin American. Another guessed Malaysian (the joke). It's amusing. So why does this all matter? In certain places (meaning food markets like in Marrakech or Essaouira), people will harass you (in a nice way) to try to get your business. It's cool at first, but gets tiring, especially since there are usually over 10 stalls. So one thing for next time is to pick a race with some language that they won't know. Like Thai or something, and then pretend not to know any other languages. We'll see how that works.

Anyway, after that aside, some things you shouldn't expect from a trip to Morocco:
  • Wild nights partying
    Bars are basically for men and hookers. Either that or hang out at a western hotel. If you're planning on doing that, then you should just stay home you creep.

  • Perfect health
    We all managed to get a little bit sick during the trip, and we're a pretty hardy bunch. Yugita gets the top prize for being least sick. Let's just say that they have different standards for cleanliness when it comes to food preparation. My solution was looking at the food situation as another dimension for "adventure" and seeing how far I could reasonable push it without getting the runs. I won. (-: I still have my cipro for another day.

  • A perfectly packaged experience
    If you can't tolerate people who don't speak English, or you can't tolerate some mild inconveniences or filth, then stay at home or go somewhere else. Go to Costa Rica where you can use your US dollars at English speaking establishments and look over the beautiful beach from the safety of your chlorinated pool. Yes, I'm bitching.
So maybe I should cover some of the practicalities. Like where we went. You should really just be looking at the photos which I'm uploading right now. There are over 500 of them. We were there for about 12 days. Arrived in Casablanca where we spent a day. That was already too much time. The city has one site, the Mosque Hassan II, and a railway station that you can use to get to your next destination. We took the train from Casa to Fes. Train travel is fairly cheap (around 100dH per ticket) and efficient. Only problem was that we were there at a time when the busses were on strike, so the train was a bit crowded.

Fes is awesome. We were only there for a day and we got a guide to show us through the medina. Definitely worth it. It has a massive medina that would be cool to explore on your own. Another day or two there would have been fine if you want to make a 3+ week trip.

Chefchaouen was our next destination, which is north of Fes in the mountains. We got a grand taxi (grand in latin languages means big. it's no limo) to take us there and back for about 1500dH. We dropped by Volubilis (Roman ruins) and Moulay-Idriss on the way. Chefchaouen is neat town. All the walls in the medina are painted blue, which is neat. It's also a neat medina to wander in (aren't they all?).
After Chefchaouen, we returned to Fes and took a train to Marrakech. We had a day train. A night train would have been a better use of our time, but we already made other bookings so the night train didn't make any sense for us anymore. Marrakech is another really neat city. Another nice medina, but this time with a huge square with lots of cheap food. The square also has a lot of entertainers, but also a lot of creeps who like to grab people's asses. Also people who shake your hand so they can hold on to it when they whip out their snake. We stayed away from there, although it is one of the main attractions.
From Marrakech, we took a four day road trip out east, crossing the Atlas mountains to visit the Dades and Todra Gorges, and eventually arriving at Merzouga to visit the sand dunes. The sand dunes were probably the neatest part of the trip, even though I love wandering the medinas. The photos speak for themselves.

After the excursion into the wilderness, we wrapped up our trip by going to Essaouira, a "small fishing town" that allegedly is a "secret." Secret's out. They're building resorts there, which is damn annoying. The good part is that it looks like the ignorant tourists going there are doing that they do best, being ignorant tourists. That means that I suspect that they're staying in the safe resort environment, maybe going to the beach, but not bothering to visit the medina. Essaouira has a really interesting medina. Unlike the other ones, this one actually has a grid layout. How Progressive. The other highlight? The seafood. Swadeep, Fay and I gorged ourselves on shrimp, prawns (or crayfish... whatever), fish, and 2kg of crab. Good stuff. Good final destination. Chill town, good views, good food, and good souvenir shopping.

After Essaouira, we took the ghetto-fabulous bus back to Casablanca for our return flight. CTM is the national bus line that's a bit pricier, a bit nicer, and a bit more reliable. We took a private bus, which featured a luggage guy who climbed the side of the bus while moving to get to/from the luggage rack on top, doubled as a bouncer, and also helped keep the bus clean. We also got to see the magic of irregular stops. People would get dropped off in front of their houses, get picked up at random places, and the like. Some guy even got a shipment of vegetables (he walked emptyhanded to the bus as it stopped, and as we pulled away he walked back to his house with a bag of stuff and a bundle of greens). We also got to see how beggars and salesmen make rounds on busses whenever it makes a longer stop. Good times. (-:

So practicalities... what to bring...
  • Someone who's good with languages
  • A good bargainer
  • Clothes for all conditions
Somehow I wore the same outfit for virtually the entire trip. I need to give it a nice wash. No need to worry about ATMs. They are everywhere. Morocco has some amazing infrastructure. Mobiles work virtually anywhere. Our driver kept getting calls out in the middle of nowhere. There are also cybercafes in all but the smallest towns (same with ATMs). Credit cards are occassionally accepted. They may even take AMEX if you're lucky (or unlucky... since you're probably in some mad tourist trap). If you want to use your Discover card, stay at home, or go to Costa Rica (the only foreign country where I have seen places take Discover regularly).

Sigh... The upload for the photos is only half done. It's been 3 hours. I'm going to sleep. With any luck it will be done in the morning when I wake up.

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