Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mark in Morocco- Part 1

The Morocco series continues! This week it's all about HIS Journey. Let's take a trip to Morocco with our guest contributor Mark.

Morocco is one of the most exotic travel destinations in the world. When it comes to mind, you can't help but dream of winding lanes through sandstone buildings, market stalls piled high with fragrant spices and nuts, the golden dunes of the Sahara, and the haunting lilt of the call to prayer. Morocco surely delivers on all those stereotypes, but what surprised me when I visited was how much more it is - from bustling modern metropolises like Casablanca, to snow-covered French ski village of Ifrane to the verdant, lush mountains and valleys around Chefchaouen to the sparkling beaches of Essaouira - the country certainly has something for everyone.

Working as an English teacher in southern Spain last year, I had the privilege of being able to continent hop to Morocco in less than two hours. After an hour and a half bus ride, all that was left was a half hour ferry between Algeciras, Spain and the Spanish exclave of Ceuta on the African coast. The journey between the two continents was truly memorable - watching Europe fade into the horizon as Africa approaches you, and being able to see both continents at once as you sail through the middle of the Strait of Gibraltar. However, that short journey surely belies the world of difference between the place you have left and the place where you will be arriving.

Although I have traveled all over Morocco, my favorite destination by far remains Marrakesh. Marrakesh is perhaps the most iconic of Morocco's major destinations (and where I hear the Sex and the City girls will be traveling to in the next movie), and definitely delivers on all those Moroccan stereotypes. Surrounded by beautiful and well-kept red/pink clay walls, and studded with beautiful gardens, the city is truly one of the most beautiful in Morocco. A walk around those walls or a visit to one of the many gardens of the city (especially the Majorelle Gardens) will not leave you disappointed. However, the real jewel of Marrakesh is the city's massive central plaza - the Djemaa el Fna. A walk around the plaza at any hour (but especially at night [refer to picture]) will satisfy every dream you've had for Morocco: snake charmers with their pipes, dancing monkeys, Berbers dancing in traditional costume, storytellers captivating enthralled audiences with their animated tales, salesmen loudly hawking their wears - nuts, spices, rugs, orange juice, souvenirs, men begging you to come to eat at their restaurant, trying out a greeting to you in nearly every foreign language. Among all that excitement you just can't help but smile and think "I'm here."

There's perhaps nothing more enchanting than sipping a Moroccan mint tea (sweet and delicious), on the balcony of one of the cafes surrounding the plaza and taking it all in as the sun sets over the city. If you're lucky, the sounds of the bustle of the plaza will be interspersed at sunset with the call to prayer, as you hear it ring out from all the mosques of the city. It’s a truly beautiful sound (however, despite my expectations of a Muslim country, almost no one seemed to stop and pray).

For another taste of stereotypical, but nonetheless beautiful, Morocco, I recommend riding a camel through the Sahara. Not only is it the "green" way of exploring the desert (4x4 or Jeeps tend to kick up sand which leads to dust storms and desertification for Sub-Saharan Africa), but going slowly allows you to truly take in the beauty of the dunes - the patterns the wind leaves in them, the shadows they create. Plus, you begin to feel like an Arab trader going up and down sand dunes on your hump-backed friend. We spent the night at a Berber camp, which allowed us to take in both the sunset and the sunrise, which were spectacular (the first ray of light of the sunrise is green). Just a word from the wise: make sure your camel's saddle is secure! Camels are high, and sand is not as soft as it looks, and you falling off will lead to your camel and all the camels in the train going nuts, carrying your travel companions terrified off into the distance while nearly trampling you. I'm speaking from experience here. :-)

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of Mark's experience to see another side of Morocco!

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