May 23, 2015: First Day in Morocco

There was almost no sleep for us last night.  I got maybe two hours, but more likely only one.  Dominica was the first to get out of bed.  Shawn and I had showered just before leaving Cáñar last night, knowing ahead of time that logistically it would not be feasible to shower this morning.  Dominica and Rachel had to be there so long before us that they planned to shower in Tarifa before leaving the hostel.  So Dominica was up around seven and I was up at seven thirty.

Dominica was not all pleased to find that there was no hot, nor even warm, water for showers at the hostel.  It is bad enough having to share just a few bathrooms but no hot water at all?  Not thrilled.

It was nearly eight when we left the hostel.  Dominica had no idea where the port was and, of course, was planning to rely on a GPS that was not working and never looked at a map so almost sent us out onto the highway to go to a port that was two blocks away and nearly visible.  I was driving and very confused but pulled over and looked at a map to confirm that I was not crazy and drove us right to the port.  We spent more time going the wrong way that it would have likely have taken to have walked to the port from the hostel!

We had been led to believe that there was free parking for the fast ferry from Tarifa to Tanger.  There was not.  In fact, the only parking in the area was eighteen Euros per day!  We were not happy about that.  We have two cars.  So our free parking suddenly shut up to well over a hundred Euros!  We might have planned quite differently had we had this fact when making our “let’s just rent another car” decision.  So now, between this and the rental problems, the car rental decision has been more than three hundred Euros more expensive than planned and it was far from free for the planned about (the base rental and gas to drive across Spain.)  This just keeps getting better and better.

Getting booked and onto the ferry itself was very easy and straightforward.  There was a surprising amount of security but it is easy to forget that this isn’t just a ferry crossing nor just a change between two European countries or even a move between the UK and the Schengen, this is moving between the EU and a non-allied (but very friendly) African Arabic Kingdom.  This is, we realized as we went to make the trip, the most dramatic international and intercontinental crossing that we have ever done.  This is a true “moving between countries” in a way that is unlike anything we have ever done. Unlike going between the US and Canada which are tight allies and were sister colonies, or between the US and the UK or the US and Spain which are both colony, imperial relationships or between EU nations, which is roughly like moving between US states, this is moving between two old world, unaligned powers.  And two old world powers with about fifteen hundred years of hostility, traditionally.  While they are good “friends” today and ever since the establishments of both current governments, it is still a move between foreign powers that really have no direct association other than the physical distance between them being small.  They even have ongoing, though minor, territorial disputes.

On top of all of that, it was just last week that someone was caught at a nearby crossing point for the other ferry (one town to the east) attempting human trafficking of a child in a suitcase (smuggling a child from the Morocco side to the Spain side) and was caught by the xray scanners at the crossing point.  So security is on their toes too.  (It was not a scary case of humans intended for slavery or anything like that, it was someone attempting to get a child to their father in the Canary Islands, we are told, so the smuggling was for a “good reason.”)

We were among the first to board the ferry and found a nice little spot on the right hand side with some tables and space so that we could plop down all of our luggage and relax in an open area with just the six of us.  That was very easy.

Dominica has been very worried about this ferry trip, even though it is only thirty five minutes on the fast catamaran, because both she and Luciana get motion sickness so easily, something that they inherited from Dominica’s father.

Once the ship got underway, Dominica and Luciana were, indeed, in rough shape even with having taken a bit of medicine and sitting still in the seats.  It was all that Dominica could do the make the trip.  The water was pretty rough as we cross right at the point where the Mediterranean Sea meets the open Atlantic Ocean.  The Straights of Gibraltar are quite windy as there is a spot where there is nothing obstructing the wind from something like Virginia to Italy.  There is a reason why this region of Spain is one of the world’s hotspots for wind turbines.

I tried to get Dominica to go out on deck but she did not want to.  I went out on the right hand deck and enjoyed the crossing very much.  It was cool and plenty of wind.  The inside was rather warm.  To me being inside made me a little bit woozy but being outside was completely comfortable.  I ended up making friends with Mike, a Florida restauranteur who lives in the British West Indies now and is taking some time to tour Spain and was just spending the day in Tanger to see it.  We had a nice time chatting on the deck.

The trip was quick and nice.  Dominica survived but was not too happy.

Once we were off of the ferry it was pretty easy dealing with Tanger.  I was impressed as we came down the ramp that I noticed Moroccan security notice Liesl walking without being carried and casually looked at her, looked at the traffic control people and immediately stopped all traffic coming from the ferry as she was only six and they could not be sure that she would not dart into traffic.  It was actually a little hard to notice the traffic coming from the ferry.  As soon as she was behind a protective barrier security allowed the cars to continue again.  I thought it was pretty awesome that they were so conscientious of the kids coming off of the ferry.  Luciana was being carried so they were not worried about her.  It was a nice introduction to Morocco.  They had not said anything and I was the only one that noticed security see her and signal the traffic to stop.

Once into the ferry terminal on the Moroccan side we were harassed a bit by tour guides trying to get us to hire them, as we had been warned.  We did our best to ignore everyone and get to a money exchange to turn our Euros into Moroccan Dirham.  We almost forgot that the time zone changed too.  Morocco and Spain are so close and Morocco is directly south of Spain that you would never expect the time zone to change, but this is confusing mostly because Spain, wanting to be more closely tied with its European counterparts, uses European time even though they are in line with the UK and Morocco.  So time in Spain and Portugal is shifted by an hour (which is why the days go so late here) from what it “should be.”  Morocco and the UK are on “real time” for where they are.  So the daylight here feels a lot more normal than in Spain where the afternoon still feels like morning and the sun does not set until crazy late at night.

We exchanged our cash at a little place by the port and on the way back grabbed a Grand Taxi to take us to the train station for one hundred dirham (about ten dollars.)  You have to know that the main train station in Tanger is closed and only the small, secondary train station is currently operational.  This is because Morocco is involved in a massive infrastructure upgrade and the big Tanger train station is the first terminal in the new Moroccan high speed train network that is being built.  So they need it completely upgraded before they can open the terminal again.  This is very excited for Morocco and for guests of Morocco as getting around the country is going to be so much faster and comfortable and modern.  I think that this is really great for Morocco and for train travel in general.  And especially as Morocco is a long, narrow nation having a high speed spine will make a huge difference for them.  Now if only they can get a tunnel under the straights and connect to Spain’s massive high speed rail network they could become an extension of Europe’s train network and really boost transportation!

Getting to the station was pretty easy and we got to see a bit of Tanger as the secondary station is not very close to the ferry terminal.  (The secondary station is truly a station, not a terminal, except for right at the moment as the main terminal is closed.)  The station was much smaller than we had anticipated but once we learned that it was actually a station and not a second terminal it made more sense.  We had about forty minutes before our train so after we got our tickets we went to the little cafe and got coffee and a light breakfast.  Breakfast here was very close to Spanish or French and you could not tell that you were not eating in Europe at all.  And so many people speaking French (the second language of Morocco) that it felt like a small French city inside the cafe.  Outside of the care there is little denying that you are in Morocco, the look of everything is dramatically different than in Europe.

We had decided to opt for first class seats on this train rather than the normal second class seats.  I had guessed correctly that the cost difference was going to be trivial and I was right.  For the six of us, a first class cabin (which seats six) was only 808 dirham which was just under $80 USD.  Sure we could have saved money going to second class, but not that much and we would not have had a dedicated cabin to ourselves and assigned seats.  This was way, way better.  It made us feel a lot more comfortable doing train travel for the first time in Morocco and, honestly, for the price different and since we were exactly six travelers, I would have done this in the US or Europe too.  It was just perfect.

Figuring out which train to get on to go to Fes was a little confusing as two different trains, neither of which was labeled as going to Fes, were departing at the exact same time.  Fes is in the middle of the country and while a major station, it is just a station and not a terminal and you have to know that the terminal that will be listed for you when going to Fes is actually Oujda which is a city very far away out near the Algerian border (which is closed and has been for decades.)  Fes is less than halfway along the trip that this particular train makes.

The first class cabin turned out to be absolutely perfect.  There was only one first class car so finding our space was super easy and the police who patrol the trains knew instantly that we were tourists and they specifically watch out for tourists and try to make sure that con men, fake tour guides and other scammers are not harassing us.  Morocco has passed some new laws recently to stop this scamming and harassment problem which they had become so well known for and there are hefty fines (like equal to two months average income in Morocco!) for getting caught doing this to tourists.  Morocco has lost so much revenue from tourism because of these people that the government takes this incredibly seriously as Morocco has the potential to be a top travel destination from Europe due to its proximity and great weather and massive ocean front potential – hence why the new, high speed trains are being installed.  The first class cabin was refurbished and comfortable with working air conditioning and a closing door so that we could “lock” ourselves in so that it was just us in our cabin.  Very comfortable and easy.  We could open our window and get up to look at the window or do whatever we wanted as it was all ours.  For six people it could not be more ideal.

The ONCF train also had a refreshments cart that would come by from time to time.  So we were able to get Magdalenas, water, some soft drinks (I managed to score a Pom which is a Coke-made apple drink that is awesome and very hard to find even in Europe and impossible to find in the US, it is basically soda water and apple juice and very tasty) and whatnot.  Have some cash ready and it is not expensive.  Great for a long journey.

The train from Tanger to Fes was about four and a half hours and we really appreciated the chance to relax.   This was perfect.  Shawn and Rachel managed to sleep for nearly the entire journey, which they needed.  They are young and easily need twice as much sleep as Dominica and me.  As we were alone in the cabin the girls were able to take out their toys and set up and play which made them very happy.

It was very exciting getting to see Morocco from the train.  We had gotten a little look at Tanger from the taxi which was interesting but nothing that we did not already know from pictures and from looking across the Straight.  Tanger is a semi-modern city with lots of tall buildings, a nice waterfront, tons of people trying to make a quick buck off of the tourists coming from Europe and mostly smells pretty badly.  This is a lot of why the big train terminal needs to be completed soon because it allows Morocco to funnel tourists away from the rough parts of Tanger and keep them in the nice, modern and touristy parts of it and get them off to other cities quickly.  Going to the second station, the one for the locals, gave us a very different view of the city.  It was not bad, but it was a lot more poor than you would normally see and you have to take a less than polished taxi through traffic and industrial areas that you normally would keep tourists away from.

The view from the train was so interesting.  Morocco shares much of its look with Spain and the portion along this route is heavily agricultural with nearly everything that we saw from the windows being rolling farmland and small villages.  Moroccan architecture is what really makes it look different than Europe.  The way that villages and houses are built is very different and you cannot mistake where you are because of that.  But the farmland could be Spain, for sure, and it was mostly very picturesque.  One thing that is very interesting is that anywhere in Europe or North America these little towns would have church spires in the middle and instead there are the minarets of mosques here.  A somewhat subtle but interesting change in the look.

One key thing that, I believe, is a cultural difference between Europe and the Arab world, including Morocco, is that Europe strives very hard to make the outside of buildings and of villages attractive with the focus being the common, shared spaces and letting the inside spaces be more of a mess and getting less attention.  In the Arab world the opposite is true.   The outside is of less concern and is totally utilitarian and the focus is on making the inside beautiful.  So all of the houses tend to look like unadorned blocks and often look unfinished to the European eye.  You see some of this in Spain because so much of southern Spain was built under Moorish rule.  But in Spain the European influence is there and there are things like house painting standards (entire villages have to be uniformly white) and big efforts put into tree placement, the decorations of plazas, etc.  While in Morocco the streets are mostly just dust and the houses are not painted at all.  Often with rebar poking out of the top in case they want to build on more floors some year down the road when the family increases in size.

Another major difference was the amount of “life” out in the fields.  The Moroccan countryside was not just alive with wheat and corn but the fields all had people and donkeys in them.  People everywhere.  People on little remote paths and out in fields.  So many more than I have ever seen before.  My explanation for this is because there were essentially no tractors or other forms of agricultural automation of any kind that it took, many, many more people to do the same work that in the US or Spain would be done by a single tractor and, in many cases today, a computer driven tractor.  So ten people might be working a field that in Spain would require no one.  And instead of one tractor, there were several donkeys pulling wagons or plows.  It was so interesting and makes for the most beautiful countryside full of life and activity.  But, obviously, makes for a necessarily non-mobile agrarian society that struggles to increase the economy as the number of people required to work the fields is so high.

We arrived in Fes and stepped out into an attractive, modern train station in the middle of the new part of the city.  Modern and nice.  Today was a great day to arrive in Morocco, the weather is excellent.  It is cool, even by Moroccan standards, which is very cool compared to most of the United States.  Fes is one of the warmer cities in Morocco, but mostly in the middle.  It tends to be warm, as it is far in the interior, but it is located in the Middle Atlas Mountains so the altitude helps to keep it cooler than it would be at sea level.  We have now seen both the Rif and the Atlas Mountains.  So awesome.

We had a bit of an adventure trying to call the riad at which we are staying this weekend in order for them to send a taxi to get us because we have no working phone service here in Morocco.  Our TMobile free international plan does not cover Morocco so we have been without communications since arriving.  Once in Fes we decided to turn on the calling plan but the phone number for the riad was not working.  Dominica, thankfully being a Booking Genius, gets concierge support from who called the riad for us and arranged the car to come and get us at the train station.

While we were waiting we want to a gelatoria in the Gare Fes (train station) and got some awesome ice cream.  They had someone who spoke a little English come out to explain the flavours to us as they were not just not labeled in French or Arabic but not labeled whatsoever!  What was funny was when he explained one of the flavours, the one that I wanted, and said, “You know, a flavour for kids.”  Dominica laughed and I asked if it was okay if I got it because that is my favourite flavour.  The Moroccans thought that I was pretty funny.

We did not have time to even begin to eat our ice cream before our taxi driver found us.  He led us out to his SUV, a high end Sssngyong.  This is the first that I have gotten to ride in one of these new Korean SUVs.  I have seen a handful of them around Europe and while not something that I would ever likely buy myself (although Dominica has mentioned that she would like to get one) I have been very interested to see how they are and from what we saw, they drive really well.  This was, of course, a manual transmission SUV so very different from what you would see in the States.  Ssangyong (meaning Double Dragon) is the fourth largest car maker in South Korea.  The SUV was very, very nice and slick.  It seemed nicer than any BMW SUV that I have been in.  Maybe we will consider one.

The ride to the riad was fast.  We zipped out of the new town and onto a ring road that took us around to the medina on the far side.  Fes has the largest medina (old town) in all of North Africa and it is truly enormous.  Hundreds of thousands of people, I believe, still live and work in this very, very ancient city center which was primarily built by refugees of Cordoba when the Spanish siege of the ancient capital began eight hundred years ago.  The Andalusian Square is a key portion of the city, so named as it is where the Cordobians settled when arriving in what was, at the time, a very small city but quickly swelled to replace Cordoba as the capital of the western Arab world.  The great library at Cordoba was relocated to Fes to protect it and Fes took Cordoba’s place as the religious center of western Islam.  For the first few hundred years Granada continued to reign in the north as a great imperial center as well, but after 1492, Fes essentially stood alone.

It was interesting to get a good look around Fes, a city of roughly one million people deep in the interior of Morocco.  This is the first large city we have seen other than Tanger and Tanger’s focus on the coast and traffic from Spain makes it not very indicative of Moroccan culture.  Driving into the medina was crazy.  The streets are tiny, unmarked and ancient and, at least to use, every building looks the same.  And nearly everything appears to be abandoned.  We could not tell where we were at all.

When we pulled into a tiny little alley where the SUV barely fit and parked in front of another vehicle that was blocking the alley we were pretty confused but we were shuffled in to a little, unassuming door and into an unexpected riad.  Now this is not what we were expecting at all.  We really did not know what to expect and we were a little more in the dark that Dominica as she had done all of the booking and we were just trusting that she had done a good job as she is the travel master and we knew that she had found a classic riad, which we understood to be a classic Moroccan elegant “mansion” home, but that we would be deep in the medina and on a dark, unassuming back street and going into what was basically an unmarked side door was all quite a surprise.  And then what it was like inside was even more surprising.

We were instantly brought into the middle of the Riad Khouloud, into what used to be an outdoor courtyard but what is now skylight lit indoor “living room” space covered in gorgeous tiles where we were served Moroccan tea as if we were family and the riad dealt with our check in off in another area while we enjoyed the tea and relaxed after our long journey.  Our reception host, Nabile Nizar, sat with us and told us about the riad and Fes and told us about the tour guide that would be taking us around the city tomorrow.

Once we were done with our tea, Nourdine the manager came out and made sure that we were all set and made a grand presentation of showing us our rooms.  This was very impressive.  The “courtyard” that we were in, we never learned the appropriate name for that type of a room in the middle of a riad, had been simply amazing and we were sitting there probably for close to an hour marveling at the ancient tile work, old wood inlaid doors and everything – it was all just so beautiful.  When it was time to show us our rooms, for Dominica and I they unlocked a set of two hundred year old wooden doors that opened right on the courtyard and opened it up to reveal this amazing room that had these two huge doors and two more windows that opened right onto the courtyard as if it was an outside space, which indeed, it used to be.  The room was incredible.   Then they took Rachel and Shawn upstairs to show them their room, which I did not get to see until the next day as I was busy dealing with logistics, but which was right above our room and had windows on the second floor that opened to look down on the courtyard space as well!

When Nourdine returned he also showed us the room across the courtyard through the other set of doors and asked which we would prefer as we were the first guests there and they wanted us to have the best room for us.  Liesl decided that she liked the second room better, and I agreed that I felt that the layout was slightly better for the girls to be able to sleep well in it so we moved to that room which, from its door, could see up to the windows of Rachel and Shawn’s room when they opened them which was handy as we could talk to each other when needed.

We ordered dinner to eat in the riad around six and took two hours to relax.  Nearly everyone took showers and attempted to nap.  Dominica set the girls up with some television in our room which ended up being some American movie subtitled in Arabic that the girls really enjoyed but now I have no idea what it was as I never knew the name at the time and have no idea how we would ever find again.

At eight we were all gathered together and led up the stairs up very, very high, above the ceiling of the courtyard, which we had no idea was not the top of the building and up to a terrace which was not only at the level of the courtyard roof but an entire floor above that, above the kitchen which was at the same level as the courtyard.  The terrace was enclosed but very high and offered views out over the entire city.  It was amazing.  We could see the mountains, and out over the medina.

We were barely in the terrace before the call to prayer was called which was really amazing.  We all went to the windows as this was our first time hearing the call in an Islamic country and it was so cool to hear.  There was a mosque just three blocks or so away from our riad and we could see it very clearly and there was no doubt that that was where the call was coming from.  But you could also hear the call echoing from other mosques all over the city at the same time.  So neat.  Shawn and Rachel had no idea what was happening so I explained what it was to them, which was funny, because moments later Nabile appeared and asked them if they knew what it was and they were able to answer immediately, as if they had always know.  They got pretty lucky on that one.

Dinner on the terrace was really, really amazing and Liesl declared it one of her favourite meals of all time.  We started with a huge selection of cold salads and vegetables.  Liesl just loved it and ate and ate.  Luciana was over tired and throwing a tempter tantrum and had to be placed on a couch in another part of the terrace and she skipped her dinner.  Nabile kept trying to cheer her up but it did not help.  It is just part of being four.  We were very thankful that there were no other guests eating up in the terrace tonight or it would not have been okay for Luciana to have been up there at all.

For the main meal we had a vegetable tagine dish that was amazing and Liesl could not get over how much she loved that too.  And all of the food was fresh and very healthy.  It was great.  We were very happy that we had decided to spend the entire day in the riad.  This was a great experience.

After dinner we did not stay up late.  We were all very tired after getting very little sleep last night and traveling all day today and we have to be up in the morning for breakfast up here in the terrace again at nine thirty and from breakfast we will be being taken by a tour guide at ten to tour around the medina.  So we have a very busy day tomorrow and want to have enough sleep so that all of us can actually enjoy it.

I would guess that it was about eleven when we finally got into bed.  We put the same movie, it was playing again on television, back on for the girls who were sleeping in L shaped couches made into beds by the riad when it was bedtime.  The girls liked that a lot and it was very comfortable for them.  The room was very large and Dominica and I had a large, comfortable bed at the other end of it.  The room was very, very awesome and comfortable.  We love the whole layout of the place.  Very classic and inviting and unique.  Totally unlike anyplace we have every stayed in before.  Dominica definitely picked the right place for us.

Really looking forward to tomorrow.  We have very little idea what to expect.