À la Capitale: my move to Rabat

It’s just after 9am, and here is a list of some of the things I’ve already done this morning:

  • Watched the moon set and the sun rise – somehow I fell asleep at 8:30 last night, so I was up crazy early!

Continue reading

Back in the Kingdom: Returning to Maroc

So after some mishaps in transportation to the airport, I managed to make it out of France and back to Morocco (oddly, no questions asked about my new passport!)

My unintended yet remarkably comfortable sleeping spot in the Aix-en-Provence train station (normally closed at night, so I had the place to myself!)

My unintended yet remarkably comfortable sleeping spot in the Aix-en-Provence train station (normally closed at night, so I had the place to myself!)

So far, I’m not nearly as anxious as I thought I might have been. Though, I’ve yet to make the transition to Rabat, where I’ll actually be living and working. Continue reading

Moving on: breaking up with the hammam (and thinking about France!)

Bssaha. To your health. Or, more accurately, thank god you bathed. 

It’s a common expression, used not only to “cheers” you and your renewed sense of self-worth, but largely to acknowledge all things new; clothes, meals, haircuts, baths…

Which is to say that it’s about time I talk again about the hammam. Continue reading

On the way: getting to Morocco

I started writing something on the plane, trying to capture all the whirlwind that was landing this job and landing in this country. But I kind of abandoned it and didn’t pick it back up when I got reconnected, and now I’m having trouble finding its flow.

So I’m offering this: it was mayhem. I didn’t know up from down by the time I was finally heading out. And it really didn’t finally sink in until I boarded my flight to Casablanca: an hour delayed boarding, with no explanation; a mad shuffle to board at that time, regardless of what rows were actually being called; and the sounds of crying children heard over the blaring Arabic music on board. Announcements made in Arabic, French, and then (thankfully) English.

(click a photo to view gallery)

So then I arrived (only 2 hours late). “The Man” (who turned out to be just a hired driver, I later found out) was holding a piece of paper with my name on it. The other new teacher, who was also to be my roommate, had arrive before I did, and was waiting with him. We drove to our school only to pick up the keys, and then were dropped off somewhat abruptly at our new apartment. It’s a nice place, but despite the warm colour scheme (our living room and hallways are orange), it’s a lot cooler than I was hoping; it’s all tile and the walls are this glazed stucco kind of stuff, so everything feels very cold and modern. Again, very nice, but a different style than the gypsy-Arabia-mosaic-Bohemian style of most hostels I’m used to; it’ll take some work to warm it up.

There’s a decent sized kitchen with a fridge and stovetop, but it’s not yet hooked up. I’m wondering if I should try to connect the propane bottle myself, but decided against it; I’ll probably blow myself up. There’s a hot water tank, which we plug in, because we both certainly could use a shower. There is a nice living room, and two bedrooms. I am chagrined to find out that there are sheets on the bed; the only thing I had been told explicitly to bring with me (which caused a hurried trip to Ikea the night before I left, and took up a substantial amount of space in my bag!). At least these ones I brought with me are nicer, and luckily match my blue room quite nicely.

There’s food in the fridge, and pasta on the shelves, but again, we have no way to cook them. So we head out. I’ve never been to this town before, let alone this neighbourhood, but thankfully the main road is around the corner, and we easily locate the lunch spots. However, it’s an awkward time of day to be eating, around 3 pm, so most real food is already gone. There’s no wifi at the house yet, and I definitely want to get connected, so we decide to brave the city centre and wave down a cab.

My french is surprisingly good; I mean, not good good. But totally functional. I’m impressed; I didn’t think I was getting by that well. So, off we go. We still don’t really find a solid lunch, but I’m happy because I did manage to get my hands on some red mzemen; a flakey flatbread kind of thing, with cooked onions and peppers inside. Soooo good. We have some tea, and my roommate (first time in Morocco) orders some cow’s bone with chickpeas (obviously not what she was expecting, but I thought she would get the drift when I said that I didn’t want it, and she should look at it again to make sure she was on board). She picked, I ate. We left.

I got my phone hooked up at INWI with a Zen International plan, but we held off on getting a modem until we found out how the reception is at our place (turns out, it’s great. However, our boss suggests we go with Maroc Telecom for wifi, but as that process is going to take a while, I’m using my phone as a hotspot for now).

We headed home, and ended up skipping dinner since we ate so late for lunch. But when we get there, we are surprised to find that our place was freezing. I mean, there was snow on the ground when I left, and I’m complaining about the +10 in Morocco, but seriously, life without central heating is not a life worth living. I don’t know how people do this. It took us two days to get space heaters, and let me tell you, those were a long two days.

 

photo by: Khonsali (wikicommons)
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At the table: Couscous Fridays

Yesterday was a sad day. Not because I was crammed onto a minibus to drive for 8 hours across the desert, still exhausted from the epic border-crossing journey the day before. Not because I was flying solo on the cursed Valentine’s day (in fact I had very little reminder of this, despite there being elaborate celebrations in its honour here). But no, yesterday was a sad day because I was missing out on Couscous Friday.

If there’s one thing I will miss about Maroc, it’s Couscous Fridays.

That, and the legacy of French colonization, left in the form of beautiful pastries..

But, back to Couscous Fridays. You see, it’s a lengthy process, the making of the couscous. Over here, it’s not a 20 minutes in a pot kind of deal. It’s a rinsed, soaked, and steamed in a special kind of pot, over the course of a couple of hours, kind of deal. And my god, the results can be incredible.

So while you can get couscous in say, marrakech, on any given day, it’s not the real deal. The real deal is made once, on Fridays. And as such, it had become my favourite day of the week. In Merzouga, the lady next door would bring us a dish of her couscous every Friday afternoon, bless her heart.

When I’m on my own, I could usually find some back-alley hole in the wall, where couscous was made for the working class. Yes ma’am, I will give you $2 for your magnificent couscous. Don’t mind if I do.

But now, I’m in the land of… pizza and chicken? I’m really not sure what the deal is with all the pizza joints in southern Maroc and Mauritania, but it’s a huge thing. And I can’t say I’m really a fan.

I miss Couscous Fridays.

On the border: Dakhla to Nouadhibou

Well, I made it. After 12+ hours on the road, I landed in Nouadibhou, Mauritania. For such a place and after such an adventure, I had really hoped to be in touch ASAP, so I was disappointed when my Moroccan SIM no longer worked in Mauri! Come on guys, let me roam! So this post is slightly delayed, but my writing can now benefit from the aid of a little bit of sleep 😉

I had arranged through my hotel in Dakhla to have a driver take me across the border. I thought it was a bit pricey (350DH, about $50CAD), for being 1 of 4 passengers. But, it turns out that it was just me and the driver. Which is ok for that price, but I would have preferred to share the cost! We met at 8, but we spent a good couple hours running various errands for him (vegetables are very expensive in Mauritania, so we were stocking up for his family) before officially departing around 10am.

Within 20 minutes, this middle aged guy had decided that a) he was going to call me Mariam, because Megan was too hard, and b) that I should be his wife. He didn’t seem to think much of my “husband” Kyle, though I’ve got that story so well-rehearsed now that I know he didn’t doubt the validity of my claim; he simply didn’t care.

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The highway out of Dakhla, Western Sahara

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Attention: camels crossing!

Eventually, off we went. The drive was actually quite spectacular. Lots of brief, yet beautiful views of the ocean, set against vast expanses of white sand (why it’s white here and orange farther north, I’ve no idea). Gorgeously weathered rocks. Great white dunes appearing out of seemingly nowhere, shrouded by a whirlwind of dust. There was even a man in a tractor who looked to be employed solely to manage a particular dune’s tendency to spill across the road; I wish I got that photo. As well, set a personal record for biggest camel herd seen; there were so many! A few times we had to shoo some off the road – something that’s followed by a chorus of that peculiar sound camels make, which is something akin to a broken foghorn.

After tea here, and tea there, lounging about the floor with random strangers (or the drivers brothers), we arrived at the border. And, man. I thought there were a lot of roadblocks on the way, but I hadn’t seen nothin yet.

The border is a bizarre and slightly terrifying place. It’s not meant to be, I’m sure, yet it is. It’s so very typically African (on the Moroccan side), in that within the span of less than 100m, I had to check/register my passport at least 7 different times. My driver had by this time decided that it was somehow easier to tell the officers that we were married. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but to me, a poor, unattractive saharawi man who does not speak English, claiming to be married to a young Canadian woman, does not define the way to make anything easier. He said it was to keep the guards from hitting on me, but I can say that it didn’t make an ounce of difference. Especially when they found condoms in my bag; I’m sure it was the highlight of their day.

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No man’s land between Morocco and Mauritania

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More abandoned cars and electronics in No Man’s Land

Finally we make it out of Maroc, and we enter no man’s land. Immediately, you know it belongs to no one; it is a wasteland of trash, abandoned cars, televisions, and various other electronics, all stripped bare. There are a million tracks in the sand, and I’m instantly enormously grateful that this new “husband” of mine knows where he is going: I know that the earth here is peppered with landmines.

My god this is sounding quite dramatic, isn’t it? All I can say is that it was an incredibly fascinating and bizarre place to witness, but not somewhere I’d ever want to spend a lot of time.

I think my driver can tell that I’m grateful for his navigation through that place, because he spent the remainder of the drive asking me if I would sleep with him (referencing the “protection” I have in my bag), communicated through a combination of crude hand gestures.
“Por favor! Por favor! Por favor! Mariam!!”
“La! La! La! Shuuuukran.” (No! No! No! Thaaank you.)

Upon arrival in Mauritania, it was pretty standard.. register the passport here, buy the visa there, re-register the passport here again, check it at the gate with the police, and another 500m down the road with the military, and another 5+ times in the 20km to town… Standard.

What I hear is that Mauritania had recently had some terrorist activity (as well as ongoing threats from the Polisario thing happening in the north, and also spillover from Mali’s conflict). The impact this has had on Mauri’s economy is so great that the government wants to do everything it can to keep visitors safe. So what this means for me is that no matter how I’m travelling, I will always be the one passenger that gets out at least every half hour, to confirm who I am.

I’ve also heard that preparing a printed document summarizing all your passport info will help with this process, but so far it’s hit and miss. More than once have I seen an officer simply pocket the info…

Anyways, it’s definitely Africa here. I said before that I was worried about not being able to handle it down here, but in some strange way, it’s almost like I’m more comfortable here, even though it’s way less accommodating. Morocco and it’s stable, tourism-based economy raised my standards, but it seems I’ve been able to apply them to Morocco only. And it’s a good thing, too, because I suddenly have a lack of sheets and blankets, and an influx of cockroaches, but I don’t really mind.

Welcome to Nouadhibou!

Aside

In the street: my two golden rules.

Okay, one thing I can start with are the two rules I live by these days.

The backstory: my first night in Morocco involved a hugely overpriced taxi ride, an extremely persistant tout, and a good, yet also terribly overpriced meal. Welcome to Tangier.

The next day, I tried to put my game face on, and show that medina who was boss. Obviously, it still won. I got lost countless times, wound up eating at that same overpriced restaurant (this time with about 6 other travellers in tow), and let myself get dragged into my first carpet-shop, to have tea, and try to politely weasel my way back out. Oh, and did I mention warding off just about every breathing male in the city?

Enter, my golden rules.

Rule  #1: don’t make eye contact.

Rule #2: if you happen to make eye contact, don’t you dare do it again!

Failing rules 1 and 2, you have two options: first, you can just say no, and second, you can play along. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve begun to consider the latter as an option. I’m not sure if it’s from being in the South (I find people a lot more genuinely friendly here than most other parts of Morocco) or if it’s because I’ve finally just grown some thicker skin, adapted to my surroundings, and fallen into place with the way things work.

My Arabic and French have also slowly picked up to where I can at least win the respect of most shopkeepers, etc., and with the guys on the street, I can keep it in good spirits by making a bit of a joke of it. Sure, they’re sometimes really rude, but I don’t have to let it bother me! Easier to say in the day than at night though, that’s still for sure.

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On the web: hello, world!

I’m struggling to compile my thoughts on nearly 11 weeks in Morocco, all into a handful of posts. How to condense such an experience into a few little notes?

I’m in Dakhla now, the last stop before crossing the border into Mauritania. I have heard that it’s something to be prepared for: more basic than I can maybe imagine. The food, the accommodation (sleeping on the floor isn’t my favourite thing to do – these hips have feelings, too!)… the poverty.

I think some of my past travel experience has partially prepared me for this, but a part of me is worried that maybe not, and maybe I will not be able to hack it. So, the thought of “oh, I can just stay in Dakhla a little longer, so I can set up my blog” was so convenient. Now I’m feeling like I should stop with the self doubt and just get on with it!

I think, too, that the results of a google search for “how to start a travel blog” gave me the idea that it could maybe, you know, be something, but in reality, that’s probably never gonna happen. So for now, those of you that read this will just have to bear with me and the random order that my thoughts will spill out 🙂

Oh, and also, I think I have grown more accustomed to using my phone than a computer! I sat in that Internet cafe all damn day and barely accomplished a thing! Now, 5 minutes with the trusty iphone and I’m rolling. I love it.

And finally, a few pictures of Dakhla! It’s a peninsula in the far south of Western Sahara (a disputed territory of Morocco, but which is still Moroccan controlled). It’s a famous spot for wind and kite surfing, which means, as you can guess, that it is more than a little breezy here! Temps are high enough to keep me warm enough though – a welcome change from many other parts of Morocco right now!

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Sunset from the western coast of Dakhla

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The port in Dakhla (but, shh, I wasn’t supposed to take pictures!)

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Sunset from the Eastern coast and city centre

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Suburban streets