Friday, March 19, 2010

Guest Blog

I wrote a guest blog describing my life in France as an au pair. Check it out :) Sorry I can't get the link to work, so just copy and paste the address...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Arabian Nights: My trip to Morocco

So, as many of you know, I went to Morocco a few weeks ago. I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed being in a culture so different from that to which I have grown so accustomed. However, after a few days, the excitement began to wear off, and I was definitely ready to return to the western world. It was a great experience and I enjoyed being surrounded by an atmosphere full of new, exotic things. Hearing the call to prayer throughout the day was definitely an experience, as was being a minority among women, as we were not wearing burqas or headscarves of any kind. From night one, we felt like we were in the movie Aladdin. I went with Crystal and another au pair friend Sarah. Sarah's classmate Gabby came along too.

Well, we arrived on time and right away, the warm air put smiles on our faces. The writing on the airport was also exciting because it was in Arabic. That night, after an interesting taxi ride, we were led through small, winding streets by all kinds of people wanting a tip. We were definitely uneasy, but luckily we spoke French and could talk to other people, in order to make sure we were going the right way. Sure enough, after many turns and stops to ask for advice, we arrived at our hostel. Honestly, it is a good thing that locals helped us, because I'm pretty sure we wouldn't have been able to find it ourselves. After a knock on the door, our minds were set at ease as we trudged into our little sanctuary (voted #1 hostel in Morocco in 2008 on Hostel world!). We loved the place right away. It felt very safe, the people were very kind and helpful, and it had an authentic Arabian feel to it. The random cats everywhere also gave it a little character. I guess replacing Parisian pigeons for Moroccan cats isn't a bad trade-off for a few days. Our room that slept 8 was huge! I felt like it had once housed a small harem.

We decided to take a stroll that night to take advantage of our first night in Marrakech. Amazingly enough, we easily found the main square and realized our hostel was in the perfect location. It was in the Souks, a famous area of Marrakech known for it's sellers and bargaining. One could by anything from little leather camels to prayer carpets to saffron to fake Gucci here (no, I did not buy any fake goods)!

In the main square, called Place Jemma el Fna, there were several performers (like gay arabian dancers haha), games, henna artists, and mini restaurants under tents. Being that were were starving and excited to try something new, we dove right in, finding the first tent that looked good, also known as "#81" (since the tents are numbered). It ended up being our favorite. Here are are "homies" and our dinners. They knew us for the rest of the week and called us their "homies" whenever we walked by.

We ended the night early because we wanted to be ready-to-go early the next morning. It is funny how we were all so motivated early-on, and then determined to sleep in the last few days. Lucky for us, the breakfast at our hostel was delicious. First of all, we were served fresh orange juice, which was probably the best OJ I have ever tasted, and then we were brought several goodies. Of these breakfast things, we loved the Moroccan version of the crepe and some fried airy things (a little like beignets), that I quickly named "pockets of love." We documented the making of the pockets of love. The staff got a kick out of our intrigue.

Just for reference, here is our street in the daylight. You can imagine how we were a little worried when we arrived at night.... Also, here are some pictures of our walk through the Souks, on our way to the main square.

Once in the square, we saw our first snake charmers and monkeys of the day, as well as the endless dried fruit stands.

We headed toward the main mosque to start a little sightseeing tour. We quickly realized that everyone willing to help us wanted to be paid, and that road signs, especially those not in French (French is an official language), were almost non-existent. So, we opted for the open-tour bus, a sure-thing in almost any major city, in order to get our bearings. It took us all over the city, and was a very good idea. Oh and by the way, I have grown to thoroughly love McDonalds. I used to hate it, really, but now that I am abroad, McDonalds has come to be some sort of safe-haven where I can always find a Diet Coke (or Coca Light) and a toilet. Crystal and I even went to the Arabian McDonalds to relax and catch some sun one afternoon after we decided we had done all the touristy stuff already. We never regretted it one bit, but we did consider ourselves a bit pathetic, and very American. I was honestly a little sick of couscous when that day came.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking in a famous garden, trying to figure out how we were going to get to Tangier later that week, visiting a palace, and making our way back to the main square for dinner. We had fun bartering with the Souks for a few hours, even though we did not buy much. Most of them were really fun, but there were a few here and there who got annoyed when we didn't buy anything. It is amazing how much they were willing to lower their prices. Usually we could get them down to about a fifth of their original offer. I must say that as the week wore on and in the heat of the day, these sellers could get pretty irritating, as well as the women always trying to henna us.

The next day was another day of touristy stuff, as well as still trying to figure out bus or train tickets (luckily we got it all figured it out that day). We visited a famous school for studying the Koran called the Medersa Ben Youssef, the Museum of Marrakech, and the Saadiens Tombs. The Tombs were actually hidden for centuries by a very narrow passageway, making it an especially hard-to-find tourist attraction. Luckily we are good at being tourists and can figure this stuff out. Hint: follow other tourists with guidebooks that look like they know what they are doing.

For the next few days we took it easy, having already seen the main attractions. We hung out at McDonalds where we sun-bathed and had a nice view of the Atlas Mountains, as I mentioned earlier, rested in a park, strolled in the newer area of the city, did some more haggling in the Souks, and went to a Hammam. The Hammam was the very best idea ever. A Hammam is basically the Muslim version of a spa. And it is amazing. Crystal and I bought the package that included a 30-minute massage, while Sarah joined us until our massage started. I will do my best to describe it. My advice is to go if you ever have the chance. It is soooo worth it. Us and three other tourist women were led into a room where we put all of our belongings, except for our underwear, into a basket, which was locked into a cabinet. We were then led into a shower-type room where two women started dumping buckets of warm water on us, and then washing us down with some type of soap. Then we spent several minutes in a sauna, which towards the end, was almost unbearable. In fact, it was kind of cool because leaving the sauna felt so refreshing. The women poured tepid water on us and then we laid down on tables where they scrubbed us with soap and these gloves that removed our dead skin (luckily we kept the gloves, which made me feel better about the sanitation of the place). Back to the sauna for another melt-down. I couldn't take the heat for very long, so I laid back down on the table, all the while thinking to myself how great this all was. The ladies then led us to another room where they washed our hair and bodies and rinsed us thoroughly with buckets of water. Then we were given big, comfy robes and led to a dim, mesmerizing room where laid down and drank tea while listening to soft, Arabian music. After awhile, we were taken to our massages. This was the first real massage of my life. It was incredible. So perfect. After that we relaxed in a room and drank more tea before leaving. The whole experience lasted around two hours. Imagine doing this, maybe once a week (not with the massage), in the name of religion...

After four full days in Marrakech, we took a night bus to Tangier. We thought this was a good idea. After all, we could sleep on the bus and save money on a hostel, as well as save daylight hours for touring around. We were wrong. This night was very bad. Out of Crystal, Sarah, and I, I was the only one that slept on the bus to Tangier. We first took a bus to Casablanca, we waited there for a few hours, and then took another bus to Tangier, where we arrived around 4:30 am. We found a cafe where we sipped tea and waited for daylight to come, surrounded by baby cockroaches, and then we took naps in the bus station once it opened. We saw the beach, ate some food, wandered a bit, and then finally took a cab to the airport. We were ready to leave Morocco by that time. When we booked our trip, we thought it would be fun to visit Tangier for a few days, so that we were not always in one place. We should have just stayed in Marrakech. Tangier was not too exciting, although I'm sure it would have been nicer if we had more sleep and more time to spend there. The sea was beautiful, luckily, and it was a nice day to wander. One of my Tangier highlights was that there were hundreds of boys playing soccer on the beach and I joined in for a few minutes. I really wanted to play, but quickly realized that I fell down more often than normal in the sand. Ah well...

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. I was able to experience a very different culture and have fun. I even have a great new "worst travel experience" story (I'm talking about the bus trip and early morning in Tangier, of course).

Monday, March 1, 2010

I'm back

FYI, I just wanted to let you know that I am back from Africa. I don't have time right now, or the energy, for a long post, but I didn't want anyone to worry (I know some of you do). I had a wonderful time and experienced a lot. I will blog later with lots of pictures.