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Beating the winter blues - Morocco



 After having spent just over two months in England, with short trips to America’s east coast on work and Paris for Diwali, I was itching to travel somewhere new – somewhere I hadn’t been before.  I found myself in one of the study rooms at university, unable to focus on my readings. Winter was setting in. The days were getting shorter, London was getting greyer, and the sun had gone into hibernation. An important question was running in my mind – one that would determine how I would overcome the impending winter blues – what will I do during the Christmas break? A typical international student’s response would be simple – book a return ticket to your home country. However, as a seasoned international student, my response had to be different, right? With a not-so-powerful passport in hand, I grappled with my options. Limited by choices of visa-regime friendly choices, I first laid out a bunch of criteria for an anti-winter blues holiday of choice. I wanted three things - the sun, warm(er) climate, and a budget friendly destination. As I zoomed out on Google Maps, one country, Morocco, called out to me. Affordable flight tickets, a simplified visa regime, and a geographically diverse country – what more could I ask for? A quick call to the exchequer of the family later, tickets were booked, an e-visa form had been filled out, and plans were being made. 

 

Dinner - Christmas Eve
As the curtains closed on the first term, my friends departed for their winter sojourns. Equipped with a big kitchen, a gracious Christmas gift of fine French wines and champagne, and an innate ability to cook, Christmas eve was spent at mine - with the few brave souls who decided to stay back in London, away from their near and dear. While the rest of the country unwinded with family, I braced the impending doom of deadlines and finishing my essays before leaving for my trip to Morocco. Thankfully, all was managed. A day before New Year’s Eve, I was on a flight to Marrakesh – to spend the next two weeks in utter bliss. 

Flying Wizz Air, a Hungarian low-cost carrier, I was shocked at the number of passengers crying at the check-in desk – for not having printed their boarding passes, baggage exceeding the stipulated regulations and much more – all chargeable at prices that often exceed the cost of the ticket. Rookie mistake. 
After an agonisingly long wait at the check-in desk, one that was marked ‘priority’ nonetheless, I made my way to my gate, boarded my flight, and landed in Marrakesh. 

 

In a bid to travel on a budget, instead of taking a taxi, I boarded a non-touristy bus to the city centre. In my rusty French, I confirmed that the bus was going in my direction of travel and asked how much it cost for a ticket. I was clearly an outlier – my fellow passengers stared me down in amusement. I stayed the night at a shady hostel, before catching an early train to Casablanca the next day. Casablanca was alright – cosmopolitan and liberal, antithetic to what one would expect from the Islamic Kingdom of Morocco. The real part of my trip was just about to start. After three wonderful days spent wandering through ancienne medina, rooftop bars, the only Jewish Museum in the Arab world, and the Hassan II Mosque, what my guide claimed is the largest mosque after the ones in Mecca and Medina, I boarded a seven-hour long bus to Chefchaouen, a small town situated amidst the Rif Mountains. Checking into my Airbnb, I was mistaken for a local – grâce à my £4 Moroccan haircut in Casablanca, coupled with my ‘Moroccan attributes’ and the spatter of French I spoke. 

 

The Rif Mountains

Chefchaouen was hands down the highlight of my trip. Located in the Rif Mountains in northern Morocco, with a strong Spanish influence, I found my French to be of no use. Filled with Spanish tourists and brave Moroccans who were looking for cooler climates, this part of Morocco was distinct from the central and southern parts of Morocco. I went on two hikes – one to a viewpoint that overlooked the town and another, longer one, the base of which was a 45-minute drive away. Post-hikes, experiencing a traditional hammam, a detoxifying bath, was a must. After three blissful days in the blue-city, I made my way to Fes, the cultural capital of Morocco. My riad, a traditional Moroccan house, was in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage medina. I was welcomed with mint-tea and handmade biscuits – delicious. I spent the next few days visiting the world-renowned tanneries, bought a bronze tray made by someone whose family was commissioned to design the Fes Royal Palace’s doors, and worked on an online exam – work always beckons!

Heading back to Marrakesh on a 6.5-hour long train journey, in first class, a splurge during a budget trip, I dwelled on my learnings from the trip.


Chefchaouen


My Riad in Fes

 


A tannery in Fes
Morocco, a former French colony, and a developing nation had striking similarities with two countries I have lived in – France and India. The French connection was more visible in terms of the constant “Bonjours”, a pleasantry ubiquitous in La France, the utilisation of the French language, tacit acceptance of the consumption of hash/weed, wide acceptance of the euro, and tramways in Casablanca (France has 27). The developing country connection was more striking – very similar to India. Haggling, negotiating, and fleecing was the norm, not the exception. Traffic rules were not obligatory – they were suggestions. Cars did not yield for pedestrians at crossings. Lane discipline was non-existent. Buses stopped midway between official stops to pick-up and drop-off passengers. Groceries and food could be ordered through an app, affordably. Shared taxis were how most people commuted. Labour was clearly cheap – under employment was visible – almost every tram station in Casablanca had inspectors standing next to a turnstile, instead of building turnstiles in a manner that would prevent fare evasion. Police checks while crossing administrative boundaries was rampant. On a 200km bus journey from Chefchaouen to Fes, there were no less than eight police checks. Seated in the first row of my bus, I witnessed my bus driver signal to all incoming traffic of each upcoming police check/mobile speed-trap – a lot of them were saved of a stiff fine that day! Further, in Casablanca, I witnessed one policeman, clearly soliciting, and receiving, a bribe. 


 

Enroute the Atlas Mountains

A friend from university joined me in Marrakesh and we spent our time visiting the Agafay desert, riding camels, having a traditional Berber lunch, hiking in the Atlas Mountains, walking the fascinating streets of Marrakesh, and visiting the Yves Saint-Laurent Museum. 
The trip was brought to an end by boarding a Wizz Air flight back to London, thankfully sans crying passengers at the airport. I met a Pakistani traveller at the lounge who told me an unfortunate story about how he was asked for a bribe at immigration while entering Morocco. He suitably conned the immigration authorities by giving them 3,000 Pakistani Rupees (roughly £9), which, according to his accounts, is virtually unconvertible in Morocco. I landed in 2
°C London, a 25°C drop from Marrakesh, tanned and grateful for the two weeks I’d had, in warmer climate, basking in the sun, and gorging delicious food. 

 

Morocco was a fascinating country. It is a blend of a cosmopolitan and ‘western’ country and a strongly religious one. Its geography is diverse – it’s not all desert, contrary to popular opinion. The northern, erstwhile Spanish territory is mountainous, cold and very Spanish! No hablas español? You will find it somewhat difficult. But the people, all over, are friendly, go out of their way to make you feel at home and the country has some amazing spots to visit. Do consider visiting – you will not regret it!


At a brilliant coffee shop on Rue Yves Saint Laurent






Camel riding in the Agafay

 

 

 

 


Comments

  1. Aroona Bhat Bhullar21 January 2024 at 19:23

    Loved it, funny, informative, crisp!

    ReplyDelete

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