Day 1: Barcelona to Casablanca
Most flights from Buenos Aires, Argentina to anywhere in Morocco required a layover in either Madrid or Barcelona. Jesse and I figured that if we had to connect in Barcelona, we might as well spend the night. We both previously visited the city, but somehow didn’t tour inside the Gaudi designed and inspired Sagrada Familia cathedral. We both blame lines longer than Universal Studios for skipping the site our first go around, so we jumped at the chance for a quick pit stop in Europe on the way to our only African destination. With no desire to wait in the long queues we witnessed years before, we bought our fast track easy access passes which were a guarantee that you didn’t have to wait in lines and could skip right to the front. We felt good about this decision until we arrived to find only 3 people waiting to enter. The cathedral’s perimeter was still bumping with tourists, but it turns out that we didn’t even need the fast track pass.
A stop in Europe for the night was more than worth it. We have both seen some pretty famous churches, The Vatican in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Paul’s in London to name a few, and we weren’t sure if this church would live up to its hype, but it did. It actually surpassed it.
A little back ground: The church is laid out like a cross and has three facades for the three entrances, the nativity (birth), the passion (death), and the glory (veneration) facades. The last side is where the crypt, pulpit, and organ are located. We went up to the towers on the Nativity façade and soaked in views of the city and port. After the towers, we plugged in our self-guided audio tour and were awed by the natural light, geometric shapes and hidden gems everywhere inside the chapel. If you ever get the chance to fly on this side of the world, a stop here is a must. The photos don't even do it the slightest bit of justice.
We woke up the next morning, strolled through various markets to eat tapas, spicy fried beef burritos, and jamon iberico before heading to the airport to continue onward. When we went through security, the woman asked if I had any food in my little green cloth bag.
Nope, it’s just food. She pointed to a jar-looking container on the screen. Oh, you mean my dulce de leche? Yes, I had that jar, but it’s not liquid, its dulce. She laughed and said no it’s a cream. Oops. She told me I wasn’t allowed to bring it through. Maybe we were a little too accustomed to the relaxed security in South America (and the overabundance of dulce) since I flew through Buenos Aires with it just the day before. Just as I resigned myself to throw it away she smiled and passed the bag to me with a nod to keep going when no one else from security was looking. Such happiness to fly forward with my dulce.
The next surprise came once we boarded the plane. After the keep your seat belt fastened and put on your oxygen mask first before helping others video came on, a prayer for Allah entered the video screen above us in Arabic. It asked for Allah to keep us safe on the plane and watch over our families who weren’t with us. Interesting how that's normal here – if an airline was to do that in the United States, they would receive so much back lash for public prayer.
The flight into Morocco was beautiful. The sunset, glistening across the left wing as we began our descent into a haze covered sky. We still aren’t really sure what the haze was from. Was it sand from the desert, salt from the Atlantic, thin clouds or something else? Even as we de-boarded we couldn't figure out the source of the misty fog that loomed around us.
When we walked into the airport, we were a bit scared since this was going to be the first place that we wouldn’t speak the language, but we were excited for a totally new culture. We soon realized that the directions we downloaded from the hostel didn't make much sense so we used broken French and google translate in Arabic to order a train ticket to town. The guy politely let us struggle, then responded in English!
We bought our tickets and sat down to relax for two hours until the next train. For some reason neither of our phones were reading the correct time and we nearly missed our train. It was only when I noticed a swarm of people getting onto the train and a time above the tracks on a digital clock that read an hour later than our phones did we realize this discrepancy in time. We have since learned that Morocco just recently changed their national clock, and not everyone agrees with the government's time. Apparently Samsung's automatic clock reset programming hasn't received the message.
Once we arrived at the train’s last stop, we relied heavily on signage to find our way to the streets. Luckily in Morocco there is French everywhere, and I knew enough basic phrases to read the signs, but the arrows seemed to point us in circles. After bouncing between two floors a few times we found ourselves outside and darting traffic for twenty minutes until we found the hostel. We dropped our bags and headed to find food.
All of the places on our hostel’s square seemed overpriced and empty so we made the block looking for something else. All the cafes were packed with locals watching soccer and nobody eating. We love coffee and tea, but it was late and we were hungry for something more than espresso. After walking the winding blocks 4 or 5 times we were drawn to the sandwich stalls that lined the tiny alleyways. I tell you what – no matter where you travel, you can always count on a cheap sandwich to fill your stomach and not break your budget.
We chose a place that had local customers all four times that we passed by it. Unfortunately though the menu was completely in Arabic and didn’t have photos like some of the other stalls. Jesse prepared for this though and pulled out Google translate. He typed “we want three of what that woman is eating” and gestured to the woman who just ordered in front of us. One sandwich for me, two for him.
The man behind the sandwich stall read the translated phrase in Arabic on Jesse’s phone, but still had no idea what we wanted. Another guy next to us helped us order when he could tell that we were lost puppies in a sea of cats, which by the way is the stray street animal of choice in this part of the world.
We left with happy stomachs, but without a clue as to what we were eating. Now that I think about it, there wasn't a single other tourist out and about that night. Talk about spotted locally.
Day 2: Casablanca to Chefchaouen
We almost woke up too late and missed breakfast but bustled out of our room to try the local bread that was fantastic. It was at this point that we actually had to Google what time it was in Morocco. Our phones still weren’t updating to the local time. Anyways, the loaves in front of us were pancake shaped, with a whole grain look and textured with little white bits of grain covering the top.
After breakfast we headed to the one attraction we wanted to see in Casablanca, the Hassan II Mosque. It was about a 20 minute walk and once along the coast, you couldn't miss it. It has the tallest tower of any mosque in the world, and depending on who you ask it is either the third or fifth largest mosque and set on the Atlantic coast. It also is one of the only mosques in the world that you can enter as a non-Muslim. As soon as you step inside you take off your shoes and step onto soft carpet. I don't know what I was expecting since I knew our shoes had to come off, but the carpet was still a surprise. The whole interior was surprising actually, and not to mention newer than any other site on our must see list. The mosque only took six years to build and was finished in 1993.
Our guide explained that the intricate wood decorations were hand carved, how the center aisle was used exclusively by the king when he visits, and other tid bits of history and culture surrounding the mosque. Men worship on the floor and women pray up in the balconies with wooden screens surrounding them, always remaining separate in the mosque, although from what we've seen everywhere else, women frequently remain separate outside the mosque too. The building had various openings in walls and the roofs to ventilate, with what our guide joked as God's air conditioning.
One of the most interesting parts was where the imam or priest stood. Yes it was front and center in the mosque, but there was just a microphone on a stand on the same floor level that everyone else kneeled on. Such a stark contrast to the huge pulpit in the catholic Sagrada Familia we visited two days previously in Barcelona. I really liked it that the imam was on the same level as everyone else. It's wasn’t about the person leading the worship, or it wasn’t here at least.
Then we went to see the male washing chambers, which were extravagant and large. They would need to be to accommodate the 20,000 visitors that fit inside the mosque. We didn’t see the women’s washing rooms, but this didn’t surprise me. From what we have seen, males seem visibly more important here (however, women are still given respect everywhere.) Even at our hostel, I walked by the men’s bathroom and was floored. It was twice as large as the women’s, sparkly clean, covered everywhere in a myriad of blue hued tiles, and according to Jesse, had endless hot water in the shower. The woman’s bathroom at our hostel was tiny, dirty, without toilet paper or soap, had sinks that didn’t work and was “decorated” with ugly beige colored walls. However, I enjoyed hearing how worship space in the mosque is on a first come first serve basis. Rich or poor, getting a spot inside vs. on the wide outside patio for prayer on Saturdays just depends on how punctual you are.
More about the separation of men and women – it isn’t unique to just the mosque. On the streets you see men everywhere. Sitting cloistered and sipping coffee or tea at front patio cafes. Here the men sit to face the outside, so when you walk by, there are countless men who appear to be staring at you. They aren't… Well, they might be, but really it's their culture to sit in this direction. We haven’t seen much interaction between men and women on the streets, and it is much more frequent to see men out and about during the day.
A first, everyone sounded so angry to me. Again, they aren't... Well some might be, but their language is just so different from English that I'm not use to the sounds and inflections of their letters and language. Really, the people here have been nicer and more welcoming here than in any other country (except maybe the Argentinian side of Patagonia). Everyone wants to say hello and multiple strangers stopped us on the street to simply say welcome to Morocco and enjoy your stay. I wasn't sure how I would feel here and I was nervous at first, but I feel completely safe and ready to go outside of my comfort zone and emerge myself in this North African world.
For lunch, we faced the same food predicament as we had the night before. Jesse wanted to go back to the same sandwich shop from last night, but with even more options open, I chose a street cart with smoke charring away some sort of meat from a tiny charcoal grill on wheels under a red umbrella. It was packed with customers sitting on plastic stools either eating or waiting for their food. We ordered three sandwiches again and immediately a man got up from his stool to say hello, welcome us, and offer me his seat. At first I said no, but he kept insisting and it clicked that I may be considered rude if I refused his polite offer, so I thanked him and sat on the stool. The sandwiches looked and smelled incredible, with a spicier looking sauce than last night. A young man sitting next to us struck up a conversation, offering tips and advice about where to go on our Moroccan road trip and asked if we liked the food. To be honest, we had no idea what we were eating. We all laughed and he explained that the sandwiches were a fish meat and the street chef was the only one around who made it. These sandwiches had last nights’ completely beat (pictured on the left). The two photos on the right are from last nights' dinner.
We headed to Avis to pick up our rental car. Based on everything I've read online, car rental places around Morocco are notorious for ripping off foreigners, so we took video of everything on the car before we left the office. Neither of us has driven in over four months and Jesse hasn’t driven a standard in over a year – it was only during our honeymoon for two weeks. Couple that with the busy city streets overcrowded with pedestrians and other drivers’ relaxed attitudes towards stoplights as optional suggestions, and the initial hour of driving was an adventure: exhilarating, but very tense. Once out of the city, we drove through sharp hills that were set against a hazy sky. These hills were interspersed in little sections of woodlands that had huge trees with widely spread branches, perfectly spaced 30 or 40 yards apart with almost no undergrowth. As we moved north along the coast to Chefchaouen the hills became more gentle and massive farms that looked almost completely empty except for greenhouses full of palm trees.
We made good time along the highway, but we were ready to get into the countryside. We abandoned the well paved road to cut cross country. On these smaller roads there were many pedestrians, motorcycle carts, donkey carts, tractors with farming equipment, buses and at times farm animals. The route was taking us from the coastal region into the Rif Mountains (north of the High Atlas Mountains). The towns we drove through changed quickly from bustling street markets to shantytowns, then beautiful colored Adobe house villages and back again to the middle of nowhere.
And talk about the beauty of a sunset. I took all of these pictures out of the passenger's seat while Jesse drove, so they aren't the best quality, but they give you an idea of the sky's splendor.
MAPS.ME estimated a four hour drive, but the trip actually took six hours. We ended up driving into the dark of the night along hairpin turns through the mountains with few, if any street lights to guide us. We would regularly get caught behind trucks going 30 km/hr and people would pass five cars up on a two lane road around a blind turn in the road! It was a scarier adventure than driving during the day, and although the roads were crazy, at least we had the lights of the vehicles in front of us as a guide.
As a side note: it's been so long since we drove that we forgot to calculate gas into the price of the car when we budgeted for our two week road trip, but we will be able to squeeze on by and I'm so glad to have the car. We had such freedom hitchhiking in Patagonia, staying in one spot until we were content with our time then picking up and moving on to the next that it's nice to have a car and not rely on public transit. Now we won't have this luxury elsewhere in the world, but it's a nice transition out of South America.