Friday, January 9, 2015


Yesterday was primarily a travel day. I took very few photos, all from the train. I love looking out at the landscape, because it really is beautiful here. Shepherds tend their flocks everywhere and it's fun to watch them. One of the employees of the train saw me taking photos through the window and opened the train door for me to take photos through. HE OPENED THE DOOR. That is a terrifying experience. I just kept picturing myself tripping and getting flung out the open door. But I was safe and it was really awesome he did that. Everyone has been so nice here.

After we got to the hotel I was beat. I grabbed a hot sandwich from the restaurant, brought it to my room, scarfed it down, and promptly went to bed. Today we visited a few beautiful places in Casablanca. The first was Le Sacre Ceour (Sacred Heart) Cathedral. I did not take any photos inside because it is a silent place of prayer, but the stained glass was really beautiful. It was hard to get photos of the exterior because of the angles, but this adorable kitten followed us around and was so friendly, so I took photos of her. I also lit a candle for my grandfather. 

Next we went to Hassan II Mosque. It is the third largest mosque in the world. Believe me when I say it is breathtaking. It took 10,000 men six years to build and it rests over the ocean. We returned after the mid-day prayer and took a tour, but I don't have photos of the inside. Photos are permitted, but I opted to buy postcards instead of take any because it feels weird to continually snap photos inside a house of worship. It is massive and intricately detailed. If you CLICK HERE you'll be taken to a link in Google images of photos of the inside. I was in complete awe. Here's a photo of a woman studying outside the mosque and one taken later when we drove down the coast a bit and captured some photos across the water. That water is the other side of the Atlantic, y'all! 

Our taxi drivers took us to a strip of beach with clubs and coffee shops. I had the most delicious strawberry ice cream and then we took a walk on the beach and looked at the limestone uplift (because half of us are rock nerds.) 

The program coordinators/instructors took us out to dinner to end the program tonight. We had our final language tests and debriefs. I ended the night by purchasing myself a rose from a flower stand outside the restaurant and indulging in the best flan I've ever had. 

I have one more day and night in Casablanca and then I will journey home. This will not be my last post, as I have a lot of details I want to address in this blog. Expect more photos and posts in the coming week or two as I organize my thoughts! 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Journey through the Atlas

Our full day in Taza was spent driving and strolling through part of the Atlas Mountains right outside of the city. The weather couldn't have been more perfect with clear skies and mild temperatures. We took several stops to get a better look at the landscape. The mountains here were once part of the same mountain chain as the Appalachians in the United States. They are made of the same limestone and the formations are incredible. We walked through a small village, saw more cats (of course, even in the mountains!) and walked through part of a cork forest (so cool!) One city left. We leave on the train shortly for Casablanca and will arrive late tonight. It's bittersweet knowing this is coming to a close soon, but I will be glad to see my family and reflect on all that I've seen.

Sunset in the Sahara

We arrived in Taza by train in the afternoon and, after getting settled, piled into a van to drive out to the Kasbah at Msoun about 30km east of Taza. It is inhabited by a tribe of about 100 members called the Daouri. The kasbah is still complete on three of its sides and many of its original features are still present, dating back to the late 1600's. We were at Msoun for sunset, and let me tell you that you have not really seen a sunset until you've seen it over the Sahara. The colors were incredible: purple, pink, orange, yellow, red, green, blue, and colors I can't even describe. For me it was an emotional experience and I was sad to leave it so soon. I grabbed a few stones and a shell to keep as a token of the time I stood and witnessed the sun setting over Sahara Proper with mountains all around me. I love experiences that make me feel small and, for lack of a better term, inconsequential. The world is a big, beautiful place and we are simply a blip on its timeline. I have been thinking about The Little Prince ever since. It will be a very long time before I have an experience that rivals this one. I can't wait to find a way to show this to my daughter.

Tour of Fes medina

On our full day in Fes, we had a hired tour guide take us throughout the medina. In case I haven't mentioned yet, the medina is the old part of a city, usually enclosed by a high wall. This is where souks and many historical sites are found.

The first stop on our guided tour was the Medersa al-Attarine, a school founded in 1325. The plaster is intricately carved and every detail of the school is gorgeous. It is currently a school only for girls. It is open to non-Muslims for tours for roughly $1/each (10 Moroccan dirham.)

We wound through the souk stalls and peered into a mosque where men were readying for prayer by washing. As I've said before, non-Muslims cannot enter, but we were permitted to stand outside and look in to observe the men preparing for prayer. We were also told we could take photos. Once we get to Casablanca we will be able to enter a large mosque there as they welcome tourists in. 

Next we visited the leather souks, and one shop in particular that is run by several artisans. We climbed tot he roof to get a view of the tannery. This was what I had been waiting months for! I have been so excited to see the tannery, and when I climbed those steps and peered over the railing....I was disappointed. I thought we'd get to see the largest tannery in Fes. Instead we saw a much smaller tannery. It was still really interesting to learn about the tanning process and the dyes that are used, I just had completely different expectations. It was still a really great experience. All the leather is dyed using natural substances (saffron for yellow, indigo for blue, mint for green, poppy flower for pink and red...) It smells really bad in the tannery, and that is because one of the steps in the process involves soaking the leather in pigeon excrement. It is highly acidic and works to soften the leather before being scraped and dyed. I purchased a huge duffel bag made from pink camel leather and a hand-woven kilim (Berber style rug) for a fraction of what I would pay in the states for it. I needed a duffel to get all my stuff home that I've picked up along the way. I thought I'd buy a cheap knock-off adidas bag, but now I have something beautiful with a story. 

At this point in our tour it was clear that our guide was bringing us on a shopping excursion, more or less. I was okay with this because we were still getting some great information about the processes and history of these products that Morocco is known for. Some of us felt a little pressure to buy, but it wasn't overwhelming and I felt comfortable saying no. We were next taken to watch fabric be hand-woven. The silk threads used in this shop are made from the silk of agave plants! I wish I had thought to purchase a spool. I will look for some in Casablanca. It's so shiny and vibrant. The gentlemen teaching us about the fabric and techniques taught a few of the ladies how to tie their scarves in traditional Moroccan ways (turbans.) 

A huge rug shop run from the interior of a very large former home was our next visit and these guys were trying very hard to sell us on their rugs! They were beautiful, but very expensive. I saw a rug in Meknes that I wish I would have purchased now. I would have paid only $70 for a hand embroidered decorative "baby kilim" that would set me back much more than that at the shop in Fes. The rugs in Fes were beautiful, but were nothing compared to the kilims I saw at the shop in Meknes. 

Our last two shops were a health and beauty type shop that sold fragrances and argan oil, and a clothing shop. We learned about how argan seeds are harvested and then processed by hand for the oil. A woman was actually sitting on the floor making oil as we learned about it. And, of course, a cat joined us for the discussion. 

In the clothing shop our professor and a couple of the students were dressed in some really beautiful clothes. I bartered for a Fez and completed my goal of buying a Fez hat in Fes (note: the proper term is "tarboosh!") 

To finish out the day, we had a family dinner at our riad, cooked and served to us by the family that owns the riad. It was my first really big meal since being sick, so I ate A LOT. I wish I had photos to post of it, but we ate it too fast for me to snap any. I really enjoyed my time in Fes. If I return to Morocco, I think I'll definitely spend more time there. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fes: Day 1

I have to stress again how many cats there are in Morocco. There are thousands of strays in every city. I haven't stopped being surprised by the number yet. Not only are they everywhere, but they have become integrated into everyday life here. After arriving in Fes in the afternoon and settling into our riad, a group of us went out to lunch. We found a place with a rooftop patio so we could get some fresh air and a view of the city. A very pregnant cat made herself at home begging for food while our waiter expertly stepped over or around her each trip to and from our table. When the couple behind us left, the cat happily checked the top of their table for scraps of food left behind.

In the evening our instructors piled us into two vans and we went to a cemetery overlooking Fes just before sunset. Had they told me that Fes was home to nearly 370 mosques, I would have believed them....but being on a hilltop over the city and actually hearing all of those mosques call worshipers to prayer at sunset gave me chills of the best kind. There is nothing like it. It is truly beautiful. 

The rest of the day was rather uneventful. I went to bed early to be well-rested for the next day, when we would be having a 4-5 hour tour of the medina in Fes. That gentleman in the photo above is my professor/advisor/program coordinator extraordinaire! He's pretty swell. 

Day 2 in Meknes: Moulay Idriss and Volubilis

On day two of Meknes I was not feeling well. I spent the previous night shivering instead of sleeping and just felt overall pretty crummy for the entire day. I couldn't bring myself to eat anything. I think I was just exhausted and my stomach had had it with the mass amounts of spices in all the food here. I had every intention of getting up early and visiting the mausoleum of Moulay Ismail, but I felt so awful that I stayed in bed.

Around noon the entire group filed into three taxis and journeyed to Moulay Idriss, a city at the base of Mount Zerhoun where Moulay Idriss I arrived in 789 bringing the religion of Islam to Northern Africa. The city is a holy place to Muslims in this region of the world, and non-Muslims were prohibited from entering the city until just a few years ago. Non-Muslims may now stay the night, but are still prohibited from visiting the mosque or the mausoleum of Idriss. Unfortunately I was feeling ill and didn't snap more than a couple of photos of an alley. I then sat at a cafe in the public square and bundled up in the sun to stay warm. Out of respect, I wore a scarf to cover my hair while in the city. I did see a few foreigners not covering up, but it seemed more appropriate to remain covered. Besides, I look super cute in a scarf!

After Moulay Idriss, we rode not far away to Volubilis, an ancient Roman city. Its ruins are partially excavated and located just down the hill from Moulay Idriss. It was built beginning in the 3rd century BC and covers about 100 acres. These were my first Roman ruins. I was feeling so poorly I really thought I was going to nap under a tree, but decided to trek to the ruins and was SO SO glad that I did. They were awesome. Anything that makes me feel like a tiny speck on the planet or on a timeline gets seared into my memory and makes me feel awed and inspired. Volubilis was one of those places. You could picture the streets as they were in the city's prime. The shapes of homes were still clear, and the huge arc was an incredible site. I would have never thought I'd see Roman ruins on this trip to Morocco. To see them in such a gorgeous setting at sunset? Incredible.