Morocco - Part I
One of the special “features” of our BT (big trip) journey is that everyone in our family gets to choose a specific country that they would like to visit. Luckily the countries we picked are relatively close to one another and are either in Europe or close to it (which is why we are visiting them all at the end of the BT). The country I chose was Morocco, and with southern Spain being so close to the northern tip of Africa, Morocco naturally became the first of the four countries to visit.
We started our Moroccan journey in Tangier, which is located in the northern part of the country. Tangier is the “gateway” to Africa, and as a result Morocco has endured a lifetime of influence from Britain, France, and Spain (just to name few). These influences are not only found on the pages of history books, but in the architecture, the language, the culture, the food, and it’s religions. Christians, Jews, and Muslims live side by side, in peace and harmony, and their customs and rituals add so much to the culture and the day-to-day. The blend of European, African, Arab, and Berber influences are what make this country so fascinating and interesting (to me). I loved traveling in this Muslim country! And, I absolutely loved that the girls (and John) got to experience and learn so much about the Muslim religion while we traveled through Morocco.
Traveling in Africa was a “first” for everyone in our family. We arrived late at night, so we took a more conservative approach and made arrangements to be picked up at the airport and taken to our hotel. Initially, the drive from the airport seemed pretty straight forward (and I had had the thought we could have managed getting to our hotel on our own), but then we entered the “medina", and my thoughts totally changed! The “medina” is the “old walled city”, and the streets of the medina are often narrow, and bend and turn in a maze-like fluidity, rather then a grid-like system. Although our hotel wasn't deep in the medina, it became quite obvious that finding your way within the walls can be tricky. In the end, I was very pleased with our arrangement, and very happy that our driver knew exactly where he was going!
I really wanted to have an authentic experience in Morocco, so we stayed in riads whenever possible. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses (for wealthy families) that are located primarily in the medina. Many riads have been turned into guest houses and are run more like B&B’s or small boutique-like hotels. The outside of riads are often unassuming, and ours in Tangier was no different, but once you get inside you are transported to a completely different world. Beautiful tile work, handcrafted plaster, Moroccan architecture, and plants, all surrounding an inner courtyard (that may even have a fountain or small pool) are just a few of the things you might find behind the front door of a riad. Each time we arrived at a new riad I wanted to know it’s history and it’s stories. I was so intrigued and interested, I couldn’t help but ask a million questions. Our hosts were always gracious enough to oblige my inquisition, and I gained so much more then just a history lesson from theses conversations. For me, these conversations were so enriching and so fulfilling because they were moments of connection with the local people of Morocco.
There weren’t many guests at breakfast in our hotel on our first morning in Tangier, but we introduced ourselves to a couple from Australia, Gina and Steve, and made friendly conversation with them. They had just arrived in Tangier as well and told us they had plans to head out into the medina with a guide for the morning. We thought this was an interesting idea, and sat with it while we finished our breakfast. When we were finished with our delicious Moroccan breakfast, we practiced saying “thank you” in Arabic (which was one of a few Arabic words we had learned on the plane). Our efforts were well received, and brought smiles to our hosts. Our simple gesture led to a fun conversation, with lots of laughs and smiles, as we were taught several more Arabic words and practiced using them. We had such a fun interaction that we decided we would try to learn three Arabic words a day.
John and I decided it would be a good idea to hire a guide for the medina and we made arrangements after breakfast. We spent about two hours with our guide, Ali, and we were so thankful we did. Medinas are hard to navigate, to say the least! The streets and alleyways are narrow, sometimes only wide enough for one person, and they turn and bend in any direction without rhyme or reason. Ellie didn’t like the feel of the medina, she felt claustrophobic and unsettled, but being with Ali (someone who knew their way around) was somewhat comforting to her. While we were with Ali we got to ask lots of questions about Morocco, the culture, it’s history, and customs. Ali seemed well informed, about a lot of things, and he helped us get a sense of what to expect while traveling in Morocco (and he taught us a few more Arabic words). Ali grew up in the medina, so he knew it like the back of his hand. As a result, we had some great “first time” experiences that I know we wouldn’t have had if we had been bumbling around the medina on our own.
Later that afternoon, when we were back at the riad, Ellie shared that she was having a hard time adjusting to Tangier and felt homesick. This has been a pretty typical emotion for Ellie when we’ve changed our surroundings. She said she really didn’t want to go back into the medina for dinner, and she asked that we eat dinner outside of the medina instead. Her request turned out to be a real treat for all of us because we got a chance to experience the “new city” of Tangier. It had a completely different feel and look to it, and we marveled at how simple it would have been to miss this part of Tangier had we stayed in the medina on our last night.
The next morning we shared a “grand taxi” (grand taxis are used for long distance travel in Morocco) with Gina and Steve (the couple we met in the riad), from Tangier to Chefchaouen. The two hour plus drive took us out of the city and into the hills. As we traveled we made light conversation and got to know each other a little bit. And, as our drive progressed, we became surrounded by rolling hills, lots of olive trees, lush green landscape, and the jagged peaks of the Rif Mountains. The Shaw family loved the countryside and felt at home in the landscape. Up until now, we had spent most of our time in urban areas and the sense of being surrounded by nature, and natural beauty, made us feel light and happy.
Chefchouen is surrounded by rolling hills and mountains, just a few miles off the main highway, but you can see it for quite sometime before you make the turn. As we got closer and closer, I had such a happy feeling because it was one of the places I had REALLY been wanting to visit in Morocco. Chefchouen is often referred to as the blue city because so much of it is painted in various shades of blue. The reason why it was painted blue varies on who you ask and what you read. Some say it was painted blue to ward off mosquitos, while others have said it was painted blue to symbolize heaven. Regardless of the reason, I can honestly say this town is beautiful dressed in blue! All the pictures I had seen prior to arriving really did capture the beauty of this place, but seeing it with my own eyes was truly amazing.
Our taxi dropped us off just outside the medina (most medinas are car free) and Ellie made it clear she was uncomfortable and NOT looking forward to “going into” the medina. It didn’t help that we were hassled by several men wanting to be our “guide” creating a bit of unease and chaos upon our arrival. The four adults knew we wanted to find our way on our own, so we began our walk into the medina with the help of Gina’s GPS, with Ellie reluctantly following behind.
Unlike the medina in Tangier, which felt somewhat heavy to all of us, Chefchouen’s medina feels inviting and safe and urges you to walk around it. Once inside, I couldn’t help but let my eyes drift and wander from one beautiful blue alleyway to another, taking in all the medina’s charm. The the fragrant smells, the pretty fruit stands, the cobblestone streets, the contrast of the colorful textiles against the blue washed walls and the ancient brick was stunning. I think I smiled the entire way to our riad!
Once we were settled, we headed back out into the medina to check out the town by meandering aimlessly. We had so much fun walking around and looking at the shades of blue, the views from the medina, the streets, the people, etc. John and I were drawn in by the colors, the architecture, and the ancient doors. The girls were drawn in by all the cats (Chefchaouen is known for the numerous cats that have taken residence there). It was a very playful and fun outing. We randomly bumped into Gina and Steve and made a plan to meet them later for dinner.
The girls have made connections of their own with people we’ve met on our trip, and it’s been fun for John and I to observe them as they interact with new people. Sometimes these connections are more on the surface, while others are much more heartfelt. During our dinner with Gina and Steve, I found myself having a “proud mama moment” as I watched the girls engage Gina and Steve in conversation. They were curious, inquisitive, and chatty and I felt proud and happy as I watched them in conversation. It was quite clear that the girls were touched by Gina and Steve, and enjoyed their company, and I felt a lot of joy in seeing them so happy and light.
The next morning we met Gina and Steve, and this time we shared a grand taxi to the Cascades d’Akchour to go for a hike. The day was drizzly and grey from the start and we soon realized we were all a bit underdressed for the weather. Nevertheless, we carried on and enjoyed a wonderful hike. Along the way we talked, played games, and stopped to take pictures. During the quieter times on the trail, my mind would wander, forgetting we were in Morocco, let alone Africa! The scenery was so lush and green, it was easy to do! But then I would see a group of Muslim women on the trail, wearing head scarves, with smiles on their faces and laughter in their voices, and it would bring me back to present. Trail side restaurants, with a kettle simmering for mint tea or tangines on the stove, would also remind me of where I was. These were the things that caught my eye and made me smile the most while we were hiking. I just love people and cultures, and l love seeing how things are “done” in other parts of the world. I’m frequently reminded that the “simple life” can often be the most beautiful and the most rewarding.
We finished the hike in the pouring rain, soaked to the bone and cold. Arriving back in Chefchaouen, we said goodbye to Gina and Steve and quickly made our way back to our own riad to change and get warm. We found a cozy restaurant just down the street from our riad, and actually had one of the best meals of the whole trip in Morocco!
Our riad in Chefchaouen was run by women who only spoke Arabic, so our newly acquired words and phrases were being put to the test! At this point, we were still trying to learn three Arabic words a day, but so many words and phrases weren’t “sticking”. We stayed the course, however, and continued to practice what we knew because it was through these “conversations” that we were having some of our best interactions with people.
The ladies at the riad treated us like family and every morning they would have a small table set for us for breakfast. Freshly squeezed orange juice, traditional mint tea, and coffee would be waiting for us. Once we got to the table, we would then be served an assortment of warm Moroccan breads and pastries, along with homemade jams, Moroccan honey, butter, olive oil, olives, and freshly made soft cheese. Eggs are not part of a traditional Moroccan breakfast (or Spain’s for that matter), but here, we were treated to omelettes every morning - and we devoured them!
Our time in Chefchaouen went by quickly and before we knew it, it was time to move on to Fez. As we were getting ready to leave, we met an Italian family with two children of similar ages to the girls. We made a great connection with them, exchanged numbers, and made a tentative plan to meet up with them when they arrived in Fez in the the following days.
Gina and Steve were heading to Fez as well, so once again, we shared a grand taxi with them. The drive from Chefchaouen to Fez is about four hours, and like the last drive, there were a lot of interesting things to see. We drove past hillsides covered in rows of olive trees, farmers on donkeys carrying their heavy loads, olive oil processing plants, markets, villages, men herding sheep, and farmers with their hands deep in the dirt. Morocco continued to impress me and with each day I was falling more and more in love with this place!
Fez is the oldest city in Africa and is considered the “capital of culture” in Morocco. The medina is over 1,000 years old and has over 90,000 winding streets and alleyways. It’s home to the first university in the world, along with many other historical sites and buildings. In the medina, goods and produce are transported only by donkey or cart, making the Fes El Bali (the oldest walled part of Fez) the largest urban car-free zone in the world!
When our taxi arrived in Fez, Gina and Steve offered to take the girls out to dinner so John and I could celebrate our anniversary together. The girls were thrilled by this idea, as were we, so it was a win-win for all! Gina and Steve met us at our hotel later that evening, to pick up the girls and have some drinks, then the four of them were off, into the medina for dinner. John and I decided to stay in and eat at our riad. We enjoyed a delicious three course meal that was prepared especially for us by the owner’s wife. Knowing that is was our anniversary, she made a beautiful pastry desert that could have fed ten people! The generosity and kindness was over the top and our 13th wedding anniversary will be one we won’t soon forget.
The next morning the girls couldn’t stop talking about their night out with Gina and Steve. What they wanted to do more then anything, was take us back out to the same restaurant for dinner that night. On top of that, they wanted to take us there (there being “in” the medina) all on their own, without any help from us in getting there. John and I just loved their excitement, confidence and enthusiasm. So of course, we said yes!
But before that, we had a whole day to explore Fez and the Shaw family was feeling adventurous. We decided to walk into the medina and let ourselves just get lost. Literally! We let faith, good will (and our instincts) guide us, and we ended up having some of the best experiences of the trip. Morocco is a place where you get hassled, and sometimes you get hassled a lot. When traveling there, it doesn’t take long to learn to default to a quick “NO” to keep unwanted “guidance” or pestering at bay. But, on this day, we went into our potential experiences with the default button set at “YES”. And in doing so, we got to experience the medina in a whole new way. By saying “yes”, we met a random woman who led us through various sections of the medina and into her friend’s home where the girls and I got henna tattoos. By saying “yes”, we ended up on a rooftop deck, in the heart of the medina, with a 360 degree view of the surrounding hills. By saying “yes” we explored an amazing rug coop where Isla got to make knots for a rug on a loom. And, by saying “yes” we ended up in a souk, full of beautiful fabrics and textiles, where we were dressed up in headscarves and desert attire (without being hassled), and taught about the fabric making process. The day was absolutely amazing and one we still talk about when we share some of our great experiences in Morocco with family, friends and fellow travelers.
Our great day was followed by a wonderful dinner at the restaurant the girls had gone to the night before. The girls did indeed navigate the streets of the medina, perfectly, on their own, and it was there that we met up with the Italian family we met in Chefchaouen. Ellie and Isla, along with their new friends Giacamo and Julia, had a fun night at their own table while John and I had a great time getting to know Octavia and her husband. It was really fun to connect with this great family and it was hard to say goodbye. We haven’t met a lot of families while we’ve been traveling, and when we do, and we make a connection, it’s sad to have to part ways. But we said goodbye with hopes of either meeting up at the desert in Morocco or when we passed through London at the end of our trip.
We spent the next day exploring the area surrounding Fez. We hired a driver to take us to the Berber ruins of Volubilis, the city of Meknes, and the small town of Moulay Idriss. Along the way we drove past patchworks of color in the countryside. We ate amazing street-side kefta that was grilled over hot coals, and bought (and ate) several kinds of nougat. We even spotted our first camels, which Isla was thrilled about! The day was FULL and FUN and we got back to the riad late. But before heading out for dinner, we were all scrubbed down in a Hammam. For those of you who may not know, a Hammam is essentially a steam room (associated with the Islamic World) where one goes to get clean. Men and women bathe separately. In Morocco, a visit to the hammam is part of weekly life and involves cleansing rituals (literally scrubbing down the skin and scalp) with black soap. It was an amazing experience, and I found myself choked up as I watched my daughters being scrubbed down by beautiful Muslim women and enjoying such an “adult” experience. It was another reminder that Ellie and Isla have grown up and matured so much on this trip, and in a way they simple could not have had they spent the year in Durango.
We wrapped up our time in Fez, and our time with Gina and Steve, by sharing one last meal together. Our initial conversation at our hotel in Tangier led to many wonderful conversations and shared experiences in Morocco. THANK YOU Gina and Steve, for including us in your adventures, for the great conversations, for being so open to our family, for sharing meals (and wine), for taking our girls out to dinner, for treating them like they were your own grandchildren, and for your generosity and friendship. We feel so blessed to have crossed paths with you both and we hope to see you again soon.
Our trip to Morocco started at the end of March and went into April. It’s hard to believe it’s June! We’ve clearly had a bit of blog-silence in the last few months. Since our trip to Morocco we’ve been to seven more countries and have had countless fun adventures, all of which we are going to write about - at some point, hopefully soon.
But right now, we are in Ireland, and our focus is directed more on the present. We have entered into our last week in Europe and our second to last week of the BT! Yes, that’s right, it’s almost over! In one week we will be flying to Arizona to stay with my parents while we begin to make the transition home. We will get Rigdiculous (our camper) out of storage, collect our numerous bags, boxes and packages we’ve sent to my parent’s house, repack the camper, get over jet-lag, and do whatever else we need to do before driving back to Durango. Even now as I write this, my eyes are filled with tears (well, actually, now I’m totally sobbing). It has been such an epic and amazing journey for me as a women, wife, and mother. I feel so unbelievably fortunate to have had this experience with my family, to have a husband that would embark on such an unknown, adventurous, wild, and ever-evolving journey with me, and to have two daughters who trusted us, to keep them safe and have fun! Our girls are truly amazing - robust, willing, adaptable, eager, outgoing, forgiving, friendly, and loving (and so much more). It’s been a a trip of a lifetime, truly!
We are all experiencing a range of emotions as the end draws near and we process this idea of going home. The girls are full of excitement and are eager to get back. John and I, on the other hand, are experiencing mixed emotions (mine usually show up in the form of tears - happy or sad) and have had several conversations about returning home. We truly have no idea what it’s going to be like, but we anticipate that there will be several “stages” as we transition back into life in Durango, some of which will be easier or harder then others.
I would love to sit and write about all of this right now, but we’ve got a beautiful country waiting outside for us to explore, so I will end here for now. It won’t be long before I write again. I want to try and write about this transition as it’s happening.
As always, we send love out to all of you who are reading this and following our journey. Our hearts are always full when we think of our friends and family, and it’s that love that has carried us along the way. I hope this finds all of you happy, healthy, and enjoying each day!
Sending so much love,