Thursday, August 14, 2008

Morocco: Epilogue

Now that our Morocco trip is over, and we're back home, I thought it was a good time to tie up some loose ends, and maybe talk about some stuff that's been on my mind, but didn't really fit within the narrative of a travel journal. I'm going to talk about our experience in Morocco and say some things about traveling in general.

When we first announced we were going to Morocco, we got the question, "Why Morocco?" The answer to this question was, and always is "Why not?" We (mostly) hadn't been there, we knew people there, and we had places to stay. Any one of these reasons would've been good enough. The fact that they speak French in Morocco didn't hurt either, but not speaking the language hasn't stopped us before (Greece, Italy, Korea, etc.).

The best way to see any foreign land, in your own country or out, is to stay with locals. Every time we've done this, without exception, our hosts have been extremely generous, gracious, and very eager to show off their culture and their country. Our Moroccan friends, even ones we had never met before we got there, went to a lot of effort to make our stay comfortable and enjoyable. They invested a lot of time and effort into preparing tremendous meals for us. They shared their homes, and really went out of their way to make sure we got where we needed to go on all the planes, trains, automobiles, buses and petit taxis on our journey. They included us in one of the biggest events of their lives, a wedding, and made us feel like we were part of their family. We were never treated like tourists, we were close friends, or maybe even cousins from The States.

Once we've arranged to visit some place where the people are generous and hospitable, we have to make sure that we're prepared on our end. And so long as we're flexible, and able to keep open minds, we're able to make the most of our travels. They do things different over there (wherever "over there" is), and you have to remember that just because it isn't your way doesn't mean it's wrong. If you find yourself getting upset at how people do things differently from you, remember, it's probably more your hang-up than anything.

For example, the chaotic traffic scene in Marrakesh. After two days, I was ready to kick over the next moped that careened within centimeters of my elbow, but looking around, I noticed that I was the only one with an issue. No one else was getting bent out of shape. Maybe my white-people adherence to arbitrary rules tendencies were getting the better of me, so I decided to relax and do as the Romans do.

Another example were the beggars. There were tons of beggars in Marrakesh. In Islamic culture it is not shameful to beg, plus their religion says you should give money to beggars. The beggars were annoying the crap out of us, but that was something we just had to let go. While their morality tolerated begging, ours did not, so we just ignored them, but refused to get upset about it, or try to force our beliefs on them.

Along those lines, the best way to make the most of your travels is to try to be as little like a tourist as possible. Granted, in certain places you're just going to stand out, but you still want to minimize that as much as you can. It was hot in Marrakesh, but I didn't wear shorts because Moroccan men (generally) don't wear shorts. Interestingly, as pale white people (Moroccans also consider themselves white) in Morocco, we were generally assumed to be French. In fact, we hardly saw any other Americans the whole time. Now there's nothing wrong with being American, and we're very proud of our nationality, but it's pretty cool to present an ambiguous appearance, and maybe avoid some of the negative stereotypes associated with your country of origin. Stereotypes are an evil thing, especially ones about people from other countries. (As an aside, it seems to me that most of the negative stereotypes about other countries and the people in them are perpetuated by people who usually a) don't personally know anyone of that nationality, and b) have never been to that county) I don't want to be assumed to be loud, rich, and have a cultural superiority complex because I'm American. Granted, the French stereotypes aren't any better (rude, smelly, bad tippers) but at least they're different, and since they don't apply to us at all (we smell very nice), we're not offended by the assumption. Do what the locals do: awake when they do, eat and drink as they do, dress like them (as practical), greet people like they do, and try to learn at least a few words of their language. That last tip will go a long way to ingratiate yourself with the locals, and they'll really appreciate the effort, and gracefully forgive your missteps.

One of the best things you can do for yourself as a traveler is to travel light. I saw a great quote somewhere that said "There are two kinds of traveler; those that pack light and those that wish they did." I couldn't agree more. Having too much stuff and luggage is an easy way to overburden yourself, tire yourself out, and put you in a foul mood. You're much better off with less, more versatile stuff that gives you more freedom. Not checking luggage is the only way to go for many reasons. Having clothing components that you can mix and match allows you to have more distinct outfits with less clothing. Buying good quality travel gear and clothing that you can hand-wash in a sink and air dry will lighten your bags tremendously, and give you a lot more flexibility when you don't need to find a laundromat, or run out of clean clothes. Good travel gear is usually more comfortable, stain-resistant, packs smaller, dries faster, and has more pockets. It shouldn't need to be said, but shoes take up a huge amount of space in your luggage. Try to get one pair of shoes to meet all your needs if possible, and if you're visiting a culture where they remove their shoes upon entering a room, get slip-ons.

If you're reading this, it's because I think documenting your travel is pretty important. Buy a good quality journal (the TravelingRoths use Moleskine journals exclusively), take it with you everywhere so you can write when you get a free moment, and never get more than 24 hours behind on your writing (you'll start to forget important details if you do.) Get a decent camera, and learn how to use it. Read some websites on photography (here's a good one) to learn how to take interesting, good-quality pictures under a variety of situations. Definitely learn how to turn off your flash so you can take pictures where photography isn't strictly permitted. Have extra memory cards and batteries (and a way to charge them) and be very liberal with the shutter release button. I recommend at least 100 pictures a day, regardless of your skill level. You'll never regret having too many pictures, only not having enough.

Travel is important, and necessary, in my opinion. And with a little forethought, preparation, and an open mind, you can really make the most of your time away. You'll be a better person for it.

(Next post: Some travel gear specifics)
Thursday, August 07, 2008

Morocco: Day Ten: Gone to Look For America


Awoke at 5:45 am, (12:45 am back home), bathed, dressed, and stowed the rest of our unpacked gear. Everyone else was still asleep, and we'd said our goodbyes before going to bed, so we were able to sneak out of the house around 6:30.

Hicham had arranged a cab for us the day before, but since the streets don't really have names or house numbers, the cab went to Fatima F. and Hicham's house, picked up Fatima who guided the cab to our house, and then stayed there. We rode in the grand taxi, a fairly old and beat-up Mercedes sedan, as opposed to a petit taxi, which are white in El Jadida. We made the 90-minute drive from El Jadida to the Casablanca airport for the very reasonable price of 500 dirham ($68).

We were to early to check in, so we got some breakfast at the airport, using up most of our remaining Moroccan cash. When we checked in, we weren't able to pull the same switcheroo we did at JFK with the baggage weight and number, so we just checked a few bags of mostly dirty clothes. Mostly, that is, except for Jennifer's cell phone, which was in her bag. . . for the time being. We spent a few more dirham at the duty free shops in the international departure lounge, and eventually were able to board the bus to the plane, around 10:45.

The flight was unremarkable. We sat on the left, and were in daylight the entire 7 hours, 25 minutes, sleeping off and on somewhere over the North Atlantic, and landing at JFK around 2:45 pm Eastern Daylight Time.

The first thing to do at JFK was immigration. There's no cell phone usage nor photography permitted in Immigration for reasons that completely escape me. It's a bunch of guys sitting in cubicles, with a bunch of tired tourists waiting to talk to them. What's the big secret? Since I couldn't take a picture (legally), I've made this artist's rendition of the scene.

The very nice immigration guy, who sounded like he was an immigrant himself, joked with the kids, stamped our passports, and sent us to our next stop: baggage claim. Here we were reminded of one of the major reasons that we don't check baggage. We waited at least half an hour for our bags to show up on the carousel. Time that we could've been on our way. What was taking them so long? Maybe all that additional time was needed for the JFK baggage handlers to rummage through our stuff and steal Jennifer's cell phone. We didn't find this out until later though.

We retrieved our bags, and since we had nothing to declare, sailed through customs and into the arrival hall. A quick walk to the AirTrain, a short ride to the Howard Beach Station, and we were on the A train into Manhattan. The train got very crowded, and despite the fact that they don't announce the stops, and you often can't see the station's name signs on the platforms, we managed to disembark at the Port Authority Bus Terminal/42nd Street Station. We got some snacks, and soon boarded the Bieber Bus, pissing off some chick who alledged there was a line to board in the process.

Less than two hours later we were back at the Charcoal Drive in, and Opa arrived shortly. He brought some delicious hoagies with him from the Ice House in Pottstown, but failing to find a decent place to stop and eat them, they waited 'til we got back to the house. The food in Morocco was excellent, without exception, but those hoagies and Wawa iced tea were very much welcomed. We were back at Opa's house by 9 pm, but since it felt like 2 am to us, we didn't stay up long.

Next Post: A summary.
Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Morocco: Day Nine: Winding Down


Woke up around 11. Ate again. Hicham and Fatima F. drove us out to the house they're building on the outskirts of town. It's on the first floor while Hicham's brother Salah owns the house on the second floor. They're both really nice two bedroom, one bath houses with A/C and beautiful tile work. Hicham's planning on a nice outdoor grill and a wood-fired pizza oven too! I think this house is for Hicham and Fatima F. when they move back to Morocco in a few years when Rania is out of school. Salah's house is for when he and his family visit from Belgium. The complex has an excellent pool, and most of the kids were making good use of it. T&Z were pissed because they didn't bring their swimming costumes.

We got dropped off in El Jadida and walked to the Portugese City (El Jadida, previously known as Mazagan (Portuguese: Mazagão), was seized in 1502 by the Portuguese, and they controlled this city until 1769, when they abandoned Mazagão. Its inhabitants were evacuated to Brazil, where they founded new settlement Nova Mazagão) It was good to get outside and walk along the ocean on the boardwalk. The walled city was impressive. Most impressive were the boys jumping off the walls and into the waters of the port. It had to be at least 50 feet, maybe more. T & Z were fascinated by this activity that would certainly be prohibited at home, but here no one cared.

We walked back to the Choukailis' and ate some leftover pastilla and lamb, then promptly slept it off. After we woke up, Fatima C. returned and opened presents. The gifts were very similar to those at an American wedding. They got a lot of stuff for formal entertaining, including at least four tea sets. Apparently, they don't do bridal registry here either as they don't have many chain stores. I was informed that the duplicates would be "re-gifted" for future events. I wonder if there's an Arabic word for that.

We said goodbye to most of our Moroccan friends, and returned to Shakir and Jalila's house. We packed up our bags, which didn't take long, then went outside to hang out by the pool. We sat under the, I don't know, tiki hut(?) by the pool, and enjoyed some beer, Moroccan wine, and scotch and friendly conversation with Shakir, Hicham, Salah, and Geraldine. This went on until the wee hours. Tristan and Ghita came out to swim, while I comprehended maybe half the French-language conversation, and lamented the lack of a backyard grill and a decent cheeseburger. A cheeseburger really would have made that scene.

We camped out in the salon, as Abla's room was being used by some older woman, maybe Shakir's mother, I'm not sure. Sleep came easily.

(repost time 7/20)
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