Morocco: Mo-Rockin’ Birthday

Disclaimer: totally stole this title from the birthday message my brother sent me. I’m not so punny. It kinda makes it sound like I’ll be sporting a moustache today but I mean…whatever.

It’s my birthday!

Today, I’m 25, and I’m spending it in the best possible way – travelling. I’m visiting my 25th country and 5th continent. It’s been a year full of adventure! I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently.

I get the vibe most people think I’m weird, and perhaps I am, but I don’t mind spending my birthday alone. I spent 21 totally solo, but was living near Cairns Australia and spent my entire day at the beach (which is actually what I was doing every day, at the time) so I had absolutely nothing to complain about. This year will be much of the same. Most of the friends I’ve made in Morocco have gone home so I’m spending the morning alone. Tonight I’ll meet up with the friends I’ve made in Marrakech though, so don’t worry everyone, I’m okay!

To make the day a little “special” I hop on a bus out of Marrakech to a nearby beach town called Essaouira. Well. 3 hours nearby. I was going to hit this or the Ozoud Falls, but transport-wise this was much more straight forward so I’ll have to leave Ozoud for next time.

I take it easy, walking around the small fish market along the pier, and through the little town which is full of shops and cafes. It’s a very touristy area but I think that’s a given. I see sea urchins for sale in the market and realize I’ve never eaten one before. A good way to start 25 – with something new! It tastes alright, but you don’t get very much bang for your buck. It’s only 4mdh (free, and you could probably get it cheaper, I didn’t even bargain) but once he cut it open with scissors and shelled out the bad parts, I was only left with 4 small little bites. Still, it tasted better than expected!

I spend some time down on the beach, just people watching. There’s an odd mix here of both women in bikinis, and women swimming in t-shirts and pants. Some even in jeans! I can’t imagine that’s too comfortable. I didn’t bother to bring my bathing suit with me, just came to soak up some rays. I’ve given up on being covered up at all times. Marrakech is HOT and no one seems to follow the shoulders and knees rule, so now I don’t either. I usually wear a sleeveless top that covers me right up to the neck, but exposes my shoulders, and then carry a scarf with me just in case. In case of what? I don’t know. I just feel better about it.

I’m going to have the most awkward tan when I get back to barcelona. My face and arms have gotten a fair bit of sun, but the rest of my body is going to be snow white. Great look.

For lunch I visit a fresh fish stall-like restaurant where I can point and choose what I’d like them to cook. I go for squid, which I think might be one of my favourite foods. What a strange favourite food to have, but I seriously just don’t think there’s much I enjoy more than well cooked, fresh squid. It’s a perfect birthday meal. Like treatin’ yo’self, but still staying on budget at just 30mdh (3€, $4cad) for tons of grilled squid, moroccan salad, and a soda. My server sits down and chats with me while I eat because there’s no one else around, so don’t worry!! I’m not alone!!

The latest bus from Essaouira to Marrakech leaves at 18:00 so I don’t have a ton of time. As a last little birthday treat I get a rad henna tattoo on the beach for 60mdh (6€, $8cad). Kind of a mistake because now I have to be all careful and weird when I’m getting on the bus, but it survives, dries, and I get to peel it off over the 3 hour ride as well.

I go to meet everyone at the nice bar/lounge we went to the other night. I ring in 25 and conclude my trip to Morocco with wine and good people on a patio under the stars in Marrakech.

It’s going to be a good year.

Tomorrow I’ll have to rush off to the airport and return to the daily grind in Barcelona. My life is just the worst.

It’s been real, Morocco.

All I can say, is if you ever get the chance to go, DO. Ignore all the haterz.

Morocco: Dead Chickens and Hammams

I try to go for lunch on my own but get VERY lost in the medina. I’m trapped inside the market. I keep trying to walk straight in one direction, hoping it’ll take me to an exit, any exit, but of course there is no such thing as straight in this labyrinth. I find my way out of the fabrics section, but now I’m lost in shoes. When I escape shoes I’m surrounded by plates and tagines. Then rugs. I round a corner and am suffocated by the smell of raw meat and fish. Now I’m in a hallway lined with thousands of metal lamps. Did I die? Is this hell?

I’m getting hangry, and the constant “excuse me! Hello! Come inside!” calls aren’t helping. I can’t say it gets any easier to deal with that. It makes me so awkward. I can’t take the time to stop and say no thanks to every human who calls after me, but I feel like an asshole when I keep my head down and ignore them. When you’re walking with another person you’re often in conversation and it’s easier to ignore. Alone, you’re nothing but a damn target. Doesn’t help when you’re aware of how lost you are, either.

By some miracle I escape. I’ve lost about an hour of my life in there that I’ll never get back. Which city official should I contact to suggest they acquire some emergency exit signs?

I’m now starving and having trouble finding an affordable restaurant. I make a rookie mistake and sit on the very edge of an available patio along a busy street. Never ever do this. The entire time I’m eating I have people trying to sell me things, kids begging (one even slowly reached to take my shawarma out of my hands guys, this is real life) and most unfortunately and life scarring-ly, a man carrying a handful of dead chickens grazes my leg as he walks past. Like, WITH the dead chickens. It’s not my day.

Lesson learned, no more patios. Ever.

I meet up with Nordine again (the guy who let me chill at his Riad all day yesterday) and we go to meet up with more of his friends. I now have more Moroccan friends in Morocco, than Spanish friends in Spain, and maybe even Canadian friends in Canada.

We go his friends new house in the medina. They’re a young married couple, so I’m picturing like a standard European/American/whatever apartment…but am very wrong. They live in a 3 story Riad. All open concept with tons of sunlight and fresh air, a guest room, two bathrooms, and a rooftop terrace where we spend the afternoon building a little bamboo sun shelter. Okay, so by “building” I mean “watching as they build”. I don’t do a lot to help, though I swear I offer!

I later learn how much they pay for rent, and I won’t be tacky by listing it here, but all I can say is that I’m probably moving to Morocco now.

Down in the street below we hear screaming, and look out over the edge to investigate. There’s a group of kids laughing while this other kid is on the ground absolutely moaning about whatever they’d just done to him. At first I’m concerned but it becomes pretty clear the kid is fine and just being dramatic as hell. Some of them notice us on the roof and start waving. The kid that’s crying looks up, starts yelling something at us in Arabic, sees me, and immediately changes it to “fuck you!!!” We all die of laughter. Except for this poor, angry little guy, but I swear he’s just fine.

We leave their place, Nordine goes back to work, and I decide it’s time to hit a hammam. This was something recommended to me by absolutely everyone who has already visited Morocco, and I’ve read a couple articles about it. The articles made it somewhat more confusing, though. For example, one article underlines the need to wear a bathing suit. They say some hammams will allow you to go topless, but no where in Morocco is it acceptable to be totally naked. Okay noted. But then the next article talks about the nudity everywhere and how it’s normal. You are not allowed to wear clothes inside. Which is it??!?!

I bring a bathing suit just in case. There are also two choices: traditional hammams and spa hammams. The spa ones are obviously more geared towards tourists, but wealthy locals use them too. These can cost upwards of 150Mdh (14€, $20cad), while the public hammams are only 10mdh (1€, $1) for entry. I clearly opt for the traditional public hammam, and not just because I’m poor, but because that’s a reaaaaal hammam. It’s actually a Turkish thing originally, but embraced full force here in Morocco.

There are separate entrances for men and women, but as far as I can see, they’re unmarked. I luck out big time when I over hear a man giving a tour and identifying which door is which just as I walk by. I had my money on the wrong door and was heading for the men’s so that guide saved me a lot of embarrassment.

Once inside I approach a woman sitting next to a small pile of different shower goods. I explain it’s my first time, with the hope that she’ll offer me a little guidance. I’m not sure if it’s my crappy French or what, but she doesn’t help. Instead, she is inconvenienced by my existence and tries to rip me off. I buy this special olive shampoo that I read about, a little rhassoul (exfoliant) and an exfoliating glove. She quotes me 40mdh. Nordine had literally just told me all bath products should be 1mdh each and entry more than 10. So that makes 13. Not 40. I count it out with her and we get to 15, because apparently soap and rhassoul are 2. Whatever, fine.

Then it’s 5 for them to keep my bag. That I don’t try to argue at all. Please like me and take care of my things.

She points me across the room and tells me to get naked. No dividers or curtains, just out in the open; literally in the  entrance. If I almost walked into the men’s side who’s to say the reverse couldn’t happen? I do as I’m told but confirm that I am supposed to get TOTALLY naked, right? The girl from the internet said that’s frowned upon. No bathing suit? Okay lady. Here I am. Naked. While you stand next to me and collect my things, covered from head to toe in your hijab and dress. She gives me some plastic buckets (two large and one small) and points me further inside to the actual steam room.

I’ve been told hammams are similar to onsens in Japan, where they are used as a way to relax and get clean, but also to socialize. I head inside and say “bonjour” to a bunch of other naked women, and no one responds. Okay cool sweet I guess I’m not supposed to talk, now I don’t know. The internet didn’t prepare me for this!

I walk to the very back where I find my own little shower corner. Already sweating to death, I fill one bucket with hot water and the other with cold. I use the smallest plastic bucket to take a bit from each of the big ones to achieve a bearable temperature, and pour it over my head. I open the special olive shampoo, called beldi, which looks like thick black jello, and is wrapped in newspaper. It’s suuuuper sudsy, which I wasn’t expecting. Next I get out my exfoliating glove and the rhassoul. This is also sold to me inside a piece of newspaper, but looks like little pieces of sand rock or something.

The internet told me that when I started exfoliating, someone would come offer to scrub my back, and that this is normal, and to accept, then reciprocate the offer.

Well guess what? No one in this friendly hammam offers, and im not about to ask. Part of me is okay with this because I don’t really want strangers touching my naked body, but part of me is sad because now it’s like my hammam experience isn’t complete. Did it even really happen if a naked stranger didn’t scrub my back?

This special shampoo doesn’t seem to be doing any wonders for my hair. It feels hella dry when I wash it out, but I guess we’ll see.

My towel is pretty damp from sitting in the steam room with me. Maybe I was supposed to leave it outside? I’ve given up on trying to do the proper hammam things and am now just focused on surviving. Is there a shower where I can rinse off? Where do I dry my hair? Is there a mirror so I can wipe off my melting mascara?

Doesn’t look like it.

I get dressed slowly in the hopes that my hair will do some drying in the process. I’m still sweating to death and it doesn’t feel fair to my new clothes to put them on when I’m still basically wet. Luckily all my clothes are pretty gross at this stage of my trip, so it doesn’t matter.
There is one woman sitting next to me, wearing a full black dress and niquab, chillin, as I’m naked and changing. I don’t think she was in the steam room when I was, and it doesn’t look like she has plans to get naked so I’m not really sure what she’s doing here. Maybe she’s come for the warm and welcoming environment.

I walk out slowly, making sure to leave 5dhm for reception as a tip (the Internet told me to), while kinda hoping they’ll stop me if I’m doing something wrong… like leaving the hammam with wet hair. I haven’t noticed anyone walking around with wet hair since I’ve arrived, and apparently some people go to the hammam like 3 times a week. Where do they dry their hair???? I feel like I’ll probably attract more unwanted attention walking around like this than I do with my normal, dry blonde hair.

I’m half right. As soon as I walk out the door, a boy who’s probably 15 starts asking me if I liked the hammam, if I like Morocco, where I’m from etc etc. He’s just left the hammam too, is adorable, and is just a friendly, chatty kid. He walks me almost all the way back to my hostel, and almost no one asks me to enter their shop our shouts anything after me. Bonus.

I have no photos of the hammam. Clearly couldn’t walk around with a camera photographing naked people, so I just turned to Google to find something I could use as an example. The results are LAUGHABLE. Seriously, go google hammam, and then forget what you’ve seen, because what I did was nothing like that. Just a big tiled room with plastic buckets. Not a spa. The internet makes it seem so glamorous. Or maybe I went somewhere totally sketchy. Who knows.

Back at the hostel I take another shower. I already feel “clean” but am absolutely over heating so I take a follow up cold shower just to cool off. I only used half the olive shampoo at the hammam and kept the other half to bring home, but I think I hate it. My hair looks so dry!!!

I head over to the Riad to meet the squad for dinner. I’m starving. When asked about my hammam experience I talk about the pros and cons, but when I bring up the olive shampoo they crack up. Now they’re touching my hair. What is happening. Oh. Turns out that it’s a special Moroccan BODY SOAP. Not shampoo. Ugh. I did the hammam all wrong. I want a do-over!

I assumed we were all going out for dinner together but I am pleasantly surprised with a home made tagine. It’s a chill night and we don’t go out anywhere because we must rest up for tomorrow; mon anniversaire! They drive me home because it’s dark. While I feel safe here, and stand by the fact that everyone over exaggerates the dangers of Morocco, I didn’t love walking over to the Riad alone earlier tonight. What I just can’t wrap my head around is why people get a kick out of making me/other women feel uncomfortable. Like they can’t possibly think I’m actually going to stop and chat. I can’t imagine they believe I’m going to take it as a nice compliment when they cat call, or tell me to smile. I just don’t see what the aim is. Would genuinely love the opportunity to ask someone one time, but then I’d be stopping to talk and that’s a hard no.

Morocco: Riad 

I wake up at 7am to say bye to Cesc. He’s getting on an early train to Tangier and making his way back to Madrid before work on Monday. I’ve still got a couple more days but Madré Mia what will I do without him? Will I ever make another friend? If I do, will they also be Spanish? The answer is most likely yes.
I wander around the medina which is absurdly large. Lots of fun things to see though!! Mostly just shops filled with things I can’t buy, but still a fun adventure. I get some quick street food breakfast (Moroccan crepe with fromage is my new go-to) and head back to my hostel. Here, the front desk guys invite me to eat breakfast with them in the kitchen and even though I explain I’ve just eaten, no one cares. So I eat again. So good, but so full. Declining food here isn’t really a thing.

I met a local last night who manages a Riad (hotel) in the medina. He calls to invite me out for a coffee which is great because I have absolutely no plans for the day. After grabbing a drink on a patio in the main square he has to go back to work, but invites me to come check out the Riad. Cools. The place is suuuuuper nice. Very small, clean and calm. This is where real adults stay when they travel, I suppose. No Arabic beats blaring like at my hostel.

His “job” is hilarious because he basically just hangs out in the lobby until a guest checks in, which is gruelling as you can imagine, especially at a Riad with 6 rooms. I also meet the other staff members and we just chill, drinking mint tea in the cool shade. Riads are super interesting. They’re defined by their central courtyard which usually has a little garden or sometimes a swimming pool. It’s all very open air and fresh feeling. Birds singing, still shaded but not enclosed. They’re cool.

This is “inside”

I meet the rest of the staff and get to practice some French because not everyone speaks English. More importantly, I learn more fun things about Morocco! These guys are all Berber, which I first learned a little bit about when I visited the desert and the gorge. They were always referred to as the “berber Nomad tribe”, and I assumed that was that. But no! Not really. The Berber people are the indigenous group of Morocco; pre Arabs, pre Europeans. Some of them still live the nomadic lifestyle and move around in small tribes but, what I learned, is that tons of them don’t. I could be way off base on this, but I think the whole Nomad tribe thing is played up specifically for tourists. Obviously the tribes exist but I find it curious that no one else bothered to mention lots of Berber people roll in the mainstream society as well. The tourism industry probably does the same for the indigenous people in Canada…something I’d never considered until today. Anyway, now I’m woke and I know stuff.

My day gets even BETTER, when they invite me to have dinner with them. They’re having a typical Marrakechi dish, which is just meat, garlic, saffron and a few other spices, thrown into a clay pot, topped with some water, and slow roasted over fire embers for 6 hours. Don’t have your own fire pit? No problem. Bring your clay pot to the nearest hammam (traditional public steam bath-more on this to come. I’ll visit one soon) and they’ll toss your dinner on the embers they use to heat the baths. I literally don’t think it could get cooler.

There is a small rush for check-ins, so I end up sitting and chatting with guests in the lobby. I basically work here now. The Riad is called Riad Menzeh, and I genuinely recommend that you stay here. Look at me, putting my marketing education to use.

We have wine with dinner on the upstairs patio, where I learn that not only does Morocco brew it’s on beer, it also has wine regions. I’ve come a long way from when I thought alcohol was entirely outlawed.

So I had straight meat and bread for dinner tonight

After dinner we head over to meet some of their friends at a bar. Again, I get to go to a cool local bar, not a tourist bar. We drive out of the medina and into the new town, where there are lots of neon lights, malls, a Louis Vuitton, a Starbucks, and other things that wouldn’t pop into your head when I say “Morocco”.

We get to the bar and it’s super chic. Everyone is dressed up. Women are in heels and full make up. I’m wearing the same pants I’ve worn for the last 3 days. I’m genuinely surprised that I’m even allowed inside. This spot is way way cooler than where I went last night. More like a cool lounge, much less like a hectic club, though people are still smoking inside which I don’t think I could ever get used to. I enjoy all the people watching and Moroccan rosé.

Morocco: Sandwich and Fries 

This included hostel breakfast is just as big and epic as dinner. They keep bringing me more and more mint tea. Big fan. Best 100mdh (9€, $13cad) I ever spent.

We end up being in the town way too early for this bus, and sit in the shade waiting for what feels a little like forever. Sitting and waiting for a bus only to board, then sit and wait for 8 hours. Wonderful.

We’re the only backpackers around and draw a lot of attention. Some people ask for my Facebook name or want to take a picture with me. I am asked many questions about Canada and my marital status. My fake engagement ring has been pretty useless. It’s no longer silver, and has turned my finger green. Not very convincing. Again, no one seems at all bothered by the fact that I’m single and traveling alone with a man.

I manage to get a ticket when the bus arrives and our long boring journey begins. At least the landscapes through the Atlas Mountains are beautiful to look at! I even see some snow capped mountains. Maybe you knew, but I certainly didn’t, that it shows in Morocco! Real snow. Enough snow to go skiing kinda snow. Crazy!
We get a quick rest stop to grab some food and stretch our legs. Cesc orders a sandwich with fries. This is what happens.

After 8 hours of sleeping on and off with my mouth open, we arrive in Marrakesh. Every damn kind of accommodation is a Riad, not a hostel, and significantly more expensive. I mean like 250mdh vs the 90 I’m willing to pay. We walk and walk and walk until we finally find a little hostel called Waka Waka playing cool French rap when we enter. A dorm bed is only 60mdh. Success! They show us a map of the city and we realize we’ve walked from the bus station, through the new town, and then into the old town. So basically across the city. I need a shower and some food asap.

We meet some Spanish girls and an Australian guy in our hostel, who invite us out for dinner and drinks. Cesc and the two Spanish girls can’t understand a word the Aussie guy says and decide not to come out. I joke that I’ve been hanging around Spanish people and not understanding a word over the last whole week, and decide to spend some time with English speakers. He lives and works here with a bunch of his other mates, who we meet on a rooftop patio in the new town. When the restaurant closes we all go next door to a “bar” which is actually 100% a club. Arabic beats are blaring, lights are flashing, and people are smoking inside. Luckily there’s a small patio out front where I spend most of my time to avoid getting second hand lung cancer. Similar to this morning, we draw a lot of attention and I am asked for my Facebook name a lot. I don’t know what it is but I always love that question. Finding weird little spots like this is always a good time! I know it’s not very… culturally immersive or whatever but at least it’s a locals spot!