Sad that we didn’t get to visit Morocco in October/November while doing our housesit in southern Spain, Morocco was at the top of our list of countries to visit. Since we allotted ourselves an extra week on the final leg of our journey and the price was right, we pulled the trigger and went. Our first African country, Morocco is on the very northern tip of Africa, just an hour and a half ferry ride from southern Spain.
Stepping off the plane, I have to admit I was a little intimidated of Morocco after not hearing the best things about Moroccan pushiness and I really wasn’t sure what to expect – no blog post about a country like Morocco can ever fully encapsulate what it is like being there. We knew we were in for a treat when we started trying to plan the trip and we found that practically nothing in Morocco is run online and you are expected to do everything the day of, including transportation.
We walked into the Tangier bus station after our flight, not knowing what exactly to expect, and we were greeted with semi-organized chaos: the station probably hadn’t seen a mop since it opened, there was trash everywhere, and people were running to and fro asking anyone who looked lost if they needed a ticket as they tried to fill their busses to whatever destination their “company” was traveling to. A guy flagged us down since we were clearly new to the country, which we would learn was how almost all business is conducted in Morocco: your role is not to buy things, but to get sold things. This man had no uniform or any other form of identification visible, but he told us there was a bus leaving for our destination in a couple minutes so we bought some extremely cheap tickets – almost too cheap – as he gestured for us to follow one of his coworkers.
We were handed off by this man that we did not quite trust to another guy we didn’t really trust and led towards a bus that itself was without a company name to be found. We gave the guy 10 dirhams to store our bags in the compartment under the bus and stepped onto our vehicle for the day. Inside, the bus was just as sketchy as the bus station was: everything from the air-conditioning to the seats and armrests either did not work or were broken and like the bus station, probably hadn’t been cleaned in years (or since the “bus company” bought it second hand from some other, more reputable bus company). I honestly had no idea if it was going to make it or if it was actually heading where we wanted to. Luckily, we did our research and were told several times that riding a local bus through Morocco is part of the experience (whatever the hell that means!) and to just trust that everything would work out. So that’s what we did.
Local buses in Morocco are one hell of an experience, they are almost constantly moving, letting people on and off at the most random places along the side of the road. When you want to get off you just stand up and the driver stops, no need for bus stops. One guy drives while the other hops off to help people with their bags and goes through the bus to collect money from the newcomers. Many passengers entered the bus hooded, wearing one of the typical tan colored Djellabas robes with a pointed hood that are the traditional overcoat of men in Morocco but just looked menacing to us. Others brought their wares on the bus to sell in nearby towns, including a man who hopped on the back of the bus with a large bucket of smelly fish.
Either way, we were on our way to a destination we hoped was ours and everything was going more or less smooth enough that we were able to relax and enjoy the surrounding countryside. I was expecting much of Morocco to be sort of dry, dusty, and brown, with stunted vegetation (sort of like southern Spain), but imagine my surprise to find that the countryside in Northern Morroco is full of lush rolling hills covered with grass and large healthy trees! I had never expected to say it about Morocco, but I would definitely say it was a beautiful experience. At one point our rickety bus broke down, but luckily it restarted fairly quickly and before we knew it we were at the first of our three cities in Morocco we were staying in, Chefchaouen.
Chefchaouen is a small town built on the side of a mountain and is often known as “The Blue City.” The city is one of those Instagram famous places due to its uniqueness, as almost all buildings in the city are painted various hues of blue, a tradition started in 1492 after an influx of Jews to the city who were escaping the Spanish Inquisition. The color blue is said to represent the sky and to remind them of God. 500 years later, the tradition is still alive in the city, bringing in tourists who flock to see its beauty and uniqueness.
The first thing we found out about visiting cities in Morocco is that it is almost essential to have a phone that works as every city in Morocco seems to be a labyrinth just waiting for you to get lost in. Again, this is part of the experience, but sometimes you just want to have directions. Not to mention, the WiFi throughout Morocco is sketchy at best so we took the safe route. Luckily, Morocco has insanely cheap sim cards and I had an unlocked phone so we were more or less able to make it where we wanted to fairly easy, fending off all the passersby trying to “help” us to our hotel in return for a tip.
In Chefchaouen, we got our first taste of spending Ramadan in a Muslim country. Ramadan marks the date the prophet Mohammad received from God what would later become the Quran. Ramadan is an extremely important religious practice to Muslims and is marked by fasting throughout the day which means they are only allowed to eat or drink anything, including water, before sunrise and after sunset. They are also not allowed to smoke among a host of other things, meaning visiting Morocco during Ramadan vastly changes the experience of visiting the country. A normal day in Morocco during Ramadan is punctuated by a voice from the loudspeaker every couple of hours reminding them to perform one of their daily prayers. Most importantly for us, while difficult but not impossible to find alcohol on a daily basis due to Muslims not partaking in alcohol, Ramadan cuts the number of supply lines by at least half. Luckily, as borderline alcoholics, we had the foresight to buy a couple bottles of Captain Morgan from duty-free to lug around the country. Later, as the sun sets, a cannon is fired off to let the Muslims in town know it is time to eat! This is followed by prayers yelled out in Arabic through loudspeakers around town. A walk around the medina at this time is funny as every shop you walk past is closed and full of people huddled around a table hurridly breaking their fast.
In Chefchaouen, we also got our first glimpse into Moroccans absolute love of soccer. We tried to find a bar to watch the Champions League Final in town, but due to Ramadan, there was none so we settled for a cafe that was showing the game outside. There were perhaps 50 people at the tiny cafe with more and more people, especially kids, peeking in as the game got later and later, some staying, others going on their way until there were probably about 100 spectators on the edge of their seats. It was like watching the Superbowl. Interestingly, of all people watching the game, Lauren was the only female there the entire time! It was there I realized that 95% of all Muslims we had seen at that point – a number which stayed constant throughout our stay – were male. It is a really big cultural difference between Morocco and the United States: nearly all women stay at home nearly all day, every day.
Chefchaouen really is a beautiful and unique city to wander around in, with every turn opening you up to new and gorgeous picture-worthy locations. We found the people in the small city to be less pushy then we had expected and were excited to find out how cheap everything is, with most entrees at a restaurant costing no more than four, maybe five US dollars. The atmosphere in Chefchauoen was way more relaxed than we had anticipated and though there were some pushy people, the majority of our time in the beautiful city was amazing and all the people we encountered were generally friendly.
We knew our patience would definitely be tested in Fes which is known for being hectic due to its larger size and its status as a more popular tourist destination. See how we faired in Part II of our visit to Morrocco During Ramadan: Fes and Meknes!