MARRUECOS (yet another Spanish word with rolling r’s that I can’t pronounce properly)
Where are you if you travel two and a half hours east from Salamanca and then about twenty-four hours south? Do you know what a twenty-six hour bus-ride feels like? The answer to the first question is Fez, Morocco and the answer to the second is absolutely not pleasant. Over the course of six days last week, I spent about seventy hours on a bus, but it was completely worth it.
We left Salamanca on Thursday evening to go to Madrid where we met the students of ISA Madrid and their director, Carlos, for our six-day adventure in Morocco. As a note to all future travelers – don’t forget that when you buy a bus ticket in Europe it will be in military time (there’s a story to this, but it’s not fun to think about and I made it to Madrid in the end, which is all that matters). We continued south from Madrid, stopping briefly in Malaga to pick up some more students before arriving at Algeciras to take the 8 AM ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to the autonomous Spanish city of Ceuta, where we passed through the border into Morocco after getting our entrance passport stamps.
Officially in Northern Africa, we continued about ten hours south to Fez, where, thankfully, a four star hotel awaited us (this can’t be all about roughing it). Now that I’ve gotten us to Fez, I’ll give you some background.
Morocco is officially called the Kingdom of Morocco and has a surface area roughly equivalent to California and a population of 31, 167, 783 people – 55% Arab, 44% Berber, and 0.7% other. Its official language is Arabic, but Berber, French, Spanish and English are widely spoken (personally, I think more people spoke English in Morocco than in Spain). The people of Morocco are 98% Muslim, 1% Christian, and 1% Jewish and the major economic sectors are agriculture, manufacturing, fishing, and tourism.
I’ve found Morocco fascinating for years, having discussed it during Model UN committees and represented the country during debates – in fact, my first ever Model UN experience was as a Hylton delegate at the William and Mary High School Model United Nations conference representing the Netherlands on the Committee for Special, Political, and Decolonization Affairs which was discussing the conflict over the Western Sahara (interesting how that ties together so many thing, in retrospect…) – but without actually visiting, I doubt I would have had a realistic image of the country. Politically and socially, Morocco is one of the most Western nations in Northern Africa. Its government is increasingly secular, based on an extremely stable constitutional monarchy and, compared to other African nations, it has no conflict – even debates over the issue of the sovereignty of the Western Sahara have ceased to be a topic of high importance since my time discussing it in committee six years ago.
The reality, however, is startling. The people are extremely poor. The water quality is dismal and the climate is very arid. As we left Ceuta and drove to Fez, it seemed everything was in the midst of a giant public works project in the more developed areas – trees and shrubbery being planted, construction taking place, etc. – but the farther we went away from the coast, the more it seemed that people had to do whatever it took to survive. In many places we drove through there appeared to large groups of men with nothing to do – simply passing time in the cafes along the street. Saying that “tourism” is a major industry is probably true, but that concise description leaves out that “tourism” also appears to support a large number of children, who rather than being in school, were following us as we visited Fez and other places, trying to persuade us to buy bracelets or Fatima hands or other small trinkets.
Despite the ugliness of poverty, Morocco is a beautiful country – far greener than one would suspect of a country that marks part of the northern border of the Sahara – where the blending of cultures, if not quite seamless, has achieved a kind of raucous harmony. Fez, nestled between and around mountains, is an example of this, something no more obvious than during our trip to the Medina. The Medina, Fez’s old city and great market, is a warren of streets and alleyways, vendors, small shops, and religious and residential architecture. People press together, moving quickly through the streets, and the every smell conceivable, pleasant and not so pleasant, wafts throughout the close quarters. Every few minutes, someone calls out “Balak,” meaning “Watch Out,” to warn pedestrians to press into the wall as men push donkeys through the narrow corridors, being unable to bring their goods in any other way. A small amount of light filters down to the streets through the balconies and clotheslines above and in some places streets become more like tunnels and you must simply try to watch your feet and follow the person in front of you.
Following our guides through the labyrinth, we visited a number of shops in the Medina – a traditional apothecary, a carpet cooperative, a tannery, a fabric store, and a ceramics factory – as well as stopping for a lunch that single-handedly has changed my mind about couscous, which I had heretofore detested. The Medina was also fascinating in another regard – in the pamphlet ISA provided us, a former student had written an essay about the trip to Fez saying “I was actually more comfortable there than in Spain because at least in Morocco they limit themselves to ogling and don’t say crude things or touch you. Thank you, conservative Islamic religion.” Having read this, I anticipated as much but found things to be very different.
The author was wrong on a number of points – I didn’t meet a single truly conservative Muslim during the trip and the men in the Medina did not limit themselves to simply ogling – being catcalled despite being covered neck to toe made me so uncomfortable that at one point I realized I was nearly jogging to get away. On the other hand, I’ve never had anyone say anything crude or touch me inappropriately in Spain. Nonetheless, the Medina was truly amazing and I’d love to visit again someday (sadly, mainly because I didn’t do nearly as much shopping as I had the opportunity to). Earlier in the day, we’d visited the Royal Palace and Borj Sud (the southern fortress that overlooks the city), but as these were mainly about taking some of the most beautiful pictures I think I’ve ever taken, I decided to skip straight to the Medina.
That evening, after dinner, we attended a belly-dancing show with the ISA group before heading to bed to get some sleep before climbing back on the bus for another twelve hour ride.
After that twelve hour ride, though, we were in Erfoud on the edge of the Sahara, where we met our Berber guides and went by four-by-four Jeep to the campsite in the desert. There was mint tea to welcome us – everyone we met kept referring to it as Moroccan whisky (they seem to think that Americans drink whiskey quite a bit, if the number of times I was given a glass of mint tea with this maxim attached is any indication) – and we picked out our tent quickly. 150 American students camping in the Saharan desert is a rather interesting sight, but as soon as we’d finished our tea we scrambled over the nearest sand dune into the desert for some proper star-watching until dinner.
The following morning, we awoke before dawn and walked out into the desert to watch the sunrise – possibly one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen. As I sat there on the sand, freezing from the intrusion of the cold despite my four layers of clothing, it occurred to me that I wasn’t watching the sun rise, but rather that I was seeing the earth turn, carrying me closer to the sun. How I love moments like that.
Later, now sweating despite only wearing shorts and a tank-top, we mounted camels to ride to a nearby village, with a stop at “The Great Dune” first. Climbing this mountain of sand would have been a challenge without the heat and by the time I reached the top I was wondering why we had done so. Turns out, you can see Algeria from the top – that’s why we climbed.
After continuing by camel to the village, we visited a small store there for drinks while the village’s children came out to see who had brought candy and money, which some of the students had brought to pass out. After visiting another store where we were shown traditional carpets produced by local women, we walked back to our campsite where we took shelter in the tents and tried to avoid passing out from the heat.
That afternoon, once it no longer felt as though we were standing directly on the sun, several local women visited to do henna – which was pretty neat, though mine has already faded since I was too preoccupied with recovering from traveling to take proper care of it. In the evening, several of us climbed back to the sand dunes to fill bottles with sand and found ourselves having an impromptu party with a group of the teenage Berber guides. Dancing under the stars in the Sahara desert. Sorry, I just really like saying that. We also played a couple games before we went in for dinner and watched people dancing to the band that had come to perform.
Feeling exhausted, I went to bed right after that and was glad of it when we woke up early the next morning to get back on the bus for another ten hour bus-ride to Meknes. During this ride, we made several stops in remote places while the ISA directors delivered clothing to people (usually women with their children) who seemed to simply appear from nowhere – the directors explained that they lived nearby and survived on next to nothing. Having spent way too much time in Model UN, I could only think how difficult it is to keep track of people like that – forget a country even being able to afford the construction of infrastructure or the provision of services and welfare, how do you get it to the people who need it most? We spent the night in Meknes, where the majority of international students studying in Morocco live, before getting back on the bus to return to Ceuta and the ferry back to Spain.
GRANADA (Where it turns out you can buy everything that they produce in Morocco…)
After a twenty-four hour turn-around, I found myself on yet another bus traveling south. However, being immune to buses at this point, an eight hour ride was nothing and before I knew it, we were in Granada. Granada is officially my favorite tourist destination in Spain. We arrived Friday night and after showering and changing in the best hotel I’ve stayed in yet (seriously, water pressure is something I will never again take for granted) and having a quick dinner of kebabs, we re-grouped to walk to a Flamenco show. Flamenco’s still moments seem to require the dancer to exert more effort than the actual movements and combined, music, dancing, and rhythmic clapping and stamping to produce a visual and audio effect comparable only to Bhangra (Indian dance) performances I’ve seen – and bhangra doesn’t have any of those incredible still moments where the dancer seems to be silently conveying some inexpressible emotion.
The following morning after breakfast, we left for La Alhambra. Construction of the Alhambra began in 1234 and resulted in the creation of a kind of “forbidden city” – the Alhambra being more than a palace, but a collection of palaces, a fortress, a small city and the agricultural estate of the Generalife. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it was home to the Nasrid sultans and their courts. Once Granada was re-conquered by the Catholic Kings in the 15th century, it became a royal property and is now also home to the Renaissance style Palace of Charles V. The Alhambra was one of the most impressive things I think I’ve seen in Spain, the blending of Islamic art and architectural forms with later Renaissance style additions producing a cohesive structure that flows from one space to another, merging patios and palace rooms, official rooms of court and fountains, and extensive flower gardens to produce a paradise.
In the afternoon, a small group of us visited La Capilla Real, which houses the tombs of the Catholic Kings, Juana the Mad, and Philip the Handsome. La Capilla Real played no small part in boosting Granada to the top of my list of favorite places, as it’s possible to walk around the marble tombs to a small set of stairs that leads down to the vault below, allowing you to see the unadorned black caskets in which the remains of Isabella, Ferdinand, Juana, and Philip repose. In a side chamber, a small museum houses artifacts of the Catholic Kings – Isabella’s crown and scepter, Ferdinand’s sword, robes, etc. – and a collection of artwork from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Leaving the Capilla Real, we walked into the Arab market – a warren of streets less terrifying than those of the Medina de Fez, but nonetheless confusing as shops opened into one another and spilled out onto the streets. We spent hours here without realizing how much time had passed and I ended up nearly finishing my gift-shopping. We returned with our purchases to the hotel and cleaned up before going out for tapas – happening upon the best sangria I’ve ever tasted in one bar and having Chinese tapas in another.
The following morning we were to meet the bus at 11 to depart, so several of us woke up early for breakfast and headed back to explore the Arab market again. After an hour of shopping we returned, but we decided to return as a friend had not brought her wallet the first time and had decided to make a couple of purchases. Impressively, we still made it back in time to collect our things and catch the bus for the eight hour bus ride back to Salamanca.
The last week I have been catching up on sleep and taking midterms, willing my body to recover properly from Morocco. As much as I am loving Salamanca, part of me is looking forward to coming home – five weeks from today I’ll have spent a night in my own bed and will probably be waking up to go exercise with my mom before spending the day with friends returning for semester break. I’ll get to drive a car again and I’ll know where I can find my favorite lipgloss…I’ll also have more pairs of shoes at my disposal than I could possibly need instead of alternating between boots, sneakers, and a sturdy pair of heels. It’s amazing how it’s the little things that make you miss home the most – (I love you, Mom and Dad) I can go months without seeing my parents and be fine, but not watching Bones every Thursday night with either my mom or my roommate (my roommate is in Beijing this semester, which means she’s worse off than me since the Chinese internet is absolutely horrible) and not going for walks in Colonial Williamsburg or wandering into the history building at W&M when I can’t sleep in the middle of the night makes me miss home desperately.
Questions to Consider: (I know I covered a lot of territory with less reflection this week so I’ll keep it short)
1.) How does the West define “developed”? Until a few decades ago, countries were classified as first, second, and third world, but that’s not politically correct so now nations are developed and developing. What does this really mean?
2.) How many conflicts are ongoing in Africa?
3.) Do a little research about the Reconquest of Granada by the Catholic Kings – how is Granada different from the rest of Spain?
4.) While shopping in the Arab market, we found all the same products we saw in Morocco – some of the leather probably even came from the tannery we visited there – and it made me curious. How strong is trade between Northern Africa and Europe?
5.) During the 19th century, the Alhambra was home to numerous Americans and Europeans, notably Lord Byron and Washington Irving, author of Tales of the Alhambra. What drew these people to that place?
6.) Isabella I of Castile, the better half of the Catholic Kings, is the newest addition to my list of favorite historical figures. In terms of influence, wealth and territory she was more powerful than her husband, Ferdinand, king (in his own right) of Aragon. How was it possible for a woman to accomplish what she did as queen during the 15th century? What sacrifices did she have to make? (For anyone really interested, I recently read an article by Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt, “Ruling Sexuality: The Political Legitimacy of Isabel of Castile” that gives a nice summary of Isabella’s rise to the throne of Castile and I can give Mrs. Shakley a copy)