9 of the 10 people who joined me on this trip also join me for the podcast to share the good and bad of the trip. This trip was the South Morocco Discovery trip from Intrepid Travel. You can also read my review of the Intrepid trip to Morocco.
From the crowds of Marrakesh to a gite (family-run accommodation) in the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains. From the walled city of Ait-Ben-Haddu to the dunes of the Sahara desert, this tour showed many different facets of Morocco.
We visited 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites, rode 9 camels, got caught in 1 thunderstorm (on camels), stormed across the desert in 3 4x4s, bought 0 carpets (but lots of other things), saw one herd of “flying goats”, had one great official guide and a number of volunteer ones, visited at least 4 walled cities and numerous markets, drank one batch of bad tea, visited one family of nomads, and generally had a great time.
We learn about courtship and death. We laughed at haggling techniques and questionable sugar cane vendors. We got to places where they couldn’t even imagine our lives, nor I suspect we theirs. We hiked, we biked, we rode, we squatted, we climbed and we shopped.
We missed you on this trip but hope you can join us on the next.
DK Eyewitness Travel Guides – One of my favorite guidebook series
My Review Intrepid Travel Morocco
Photos of Southern Morocco
South Morocco Discovery Overview Tour
Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou
The Tree-Climbing Goats of Morocco
38 amazing Game of Thrones locations: in pictures
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Book: May 23-June 23, 2015
Travel: May 23, 2015 – May 31, 2016
Discount: 10% off all Morocco trips, NO 3rd party sell-ins, NO agent sales, includes private tours
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Chris: Amateur Traveler episode 468. Today the Amateur Traveler talks about UNESCO World Heritage sites, gites, riads, kasbahs and camels as we go to Southern Morocco.
Chris: This episode of Amateur Traveler is sponsored by DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. These colorful guidebooks are filled with great information and are one of my favorite guidebooks. I have 25 of them right here on my bookshelf. Learn more at DK.com.
Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. Today’s episode is going to be a little different because we’re going to be talking about the second Amateur Traveler trip, which is a trip to Southern Morocco. And I won’t be doing it by myself. I’ll be sharing the opinions of nine of the other people who went me on that trip, including a rare appearance by my wife Joan. So stay tuned and let’s talk Morocco.
Today we’re going to talk about Southern Morocco and in particular, this Amateur Traveler trip. And this trip started planning a year before. We did this trip in April of 2015, just recently as we’re recording this. And nine other people joined my wife and I on this trip including some friends, her brother and his wife, and then some of the listeners of the show. And it was a great experience and we’ll talk in more detail. But just a quick understanding of our itinerary is we started in Marrakesh, a very thriving and a little chaotic city. And then went up into the High Atlas Mountains to stay at a gite. And then went down to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Aït Benhaddou. And then down to Zagora and then down into the Sahara. And then back up towards the coast to the City of Taroudant. Spend a couple nights at the UNESCO City of Essaouira, and then back to Marrakesh. It was a 10 day trip total, and probably one of the big themes was variety. And here’s my wife Joan explaining that.
Chris: So what was the biggest surprise?
Joan: I think one of the biggest surprises was just the variety in the terrain that we found. I was expecting Morocco to be fairly flat and barren, but we found snowcapped mountains an hour outside of Marrakesh, and forests and a lot of vegetation in the Sahara. All of those were surprises to me.
Chris: Including trees, which was a surprise.
Joan: Including Acacia trees in the Sahara. And then it was also a surprise that just, I think the variety of how different groups of people are living in villages in the mountains. Or in nomadic tents in the desert, and of course in large cities as well.
Chris: And I should say that this isn’t a tour that we put together special, but instead we were working with Intrepid Travels. And we were doing their South Moroccan Discovery Overview tour. And if you are interested in that, you can certainly book that. Let them know you came through Amateur Traveler. That will help me in the future. But we started in Marrakesh as we said, and the tour actually doesn’t spend any time in Marrakesh. But some of the people on the tour had a chance to come in a day early and spend some time, especially shopping in the Medina, the old part of town. And Rob and Erin had this to say about shopping in the Medina.
Rob: Another thing that I was surprised by was that . . . as Westerners, typically we have our personal space. People typically aren’t overly aggressive from a sales standpoint or from interpersonal interactions. And people kind of have this bubble around them and we all get used to that. And when we were in the Medina, the very first day before the tour started, we were walking around for hours in the Medina. Besides the fact that we were dodging the mopeds and people on bikes that were speeding through this tiny alleyways that were packed with people, the salespeople were super aggressive. Right up to the point of following us for five, 10 minutes. It went relentless.
Erin: They were just like, on our backs the whole time. This one guy in particular, just followed us everywhere we went.
Rob: And the more we ignored them, it seem like they didn’t get the hint until . . . A few days into the trip, I started just engaging them and just joking with them. The phrases they were using weren’t necessarily the right phrase to use. And I say, “Hey, here’s what you need to say. If you’re trying to say the slang term, here’s what you say instead.” And I would joke with them.
Chris: And what were they saying and what to do correct them to say? I’m curious.
Rob: They would constantly say, “You’re welcome.” Instead of saying, “Please, look at this,” they would be saying, “You’re welcome,” like in other languages where that that word is the appropriate word. So I taught him, and then they use some slang terms like they would say, “Hey, friend.” We taught him how to say, “Hey buddy, come look at this.” We were just joking with them about what they should be saying to try to engage Westerners or at least the native English speakers. And it was fun and it was funny. We’d joke around. And it made it more pleasant for us. And they really laid off at that point and we can continue to walk by without them following us along the alleyway.
Chris: At least at the weekly market when they followed you, they played tour guide almost. One was following with Joan and he would pull up, “Here’s some mint,” and, “Smell the mint.” It was a little aggressive, but it was somewhat helpful.
Rob: Yeah. And I’m not quite sure if they were hoping to get a tip. It was not bad. It was kind of interesting. The guy that was our tour, for part of that time . . .
Chris: He was barefoot, wasn’t he?
Rob: I don’t even know if he was wearing shoes.
Erin: He was super aggressive though. He was really in your face. And I think the other vendors were annoyed with him because they were trying to shoo him away.
Chris: We mentioned the weekly market there. And the weekly market was one of our first stops as we left Marrakesh and we headed in into the High Atlas Mountains, the snowcapped High Atlas Mountains, which came as a surprise to all of us. And it’s quite a difference between Marrakesh and this little village where we found ourselves. And Hugh, who spent a year in Pakistan recently, put it this way.
Chris: And what was the biggest surprise?
Hugh: Probably the biggest surprise is how much reminded me . . . Morocco reminded of kind of a blend of like say, the Italian version of a European city and South Asia. It has a very much of a European feel to it, particularly Marrakesh. The city is pretty modern. The traffic is relatively civilized. A lot of stuff you see in the West. And of course, a lot of tourists and things like that. That’s like, pretty Western and pretty European. But then as we got into the smaller villages and things like that, just all the little shops and people would have just the little stands on the side of the road selling stuff.
Chris: But that is behind the curtain.
Hugh: Yeah, right. And people hauling around stuff on donkey carts and that kind of thing. It really reminded me of Pakistan, particularly Northern Pakistan, and getting up towards the Afghani and Iranian borders. Then even ethnically the people were similar in how they appeared and that sort of thing. I was surprised how often Ruth and I would look at each other and say, “Man, this just looks like Pakistan right now.” I’m surprised that it looked more Asian and European than it did African.
Chris: After the weekly market, we went to end of the road and then some of us got on mules, which also took a lot of our daypacks. We were packing for one night. And we hiked up into this mountain village and stayed in a gite, which is a homestead. And both Jim and Erin said that this was their favorite part of the trip.
What was the highlight of the trip?
Jim: The community and the mountains. I liked that a lot. I liked it up there, pretty much the people and all that.
Chris: And Erin, did you have a highlight?
Erin: Mine was actually similar to Rob’s, because I really loved just seeing the local people and seeing how people lived and learning about their culture. I loved when we stayed up in the mountains at the gite. I really loved that. I loved when we hiked up to the . . .
Rob: To the shrine.
Erin: To the shrine. Actually what it was funny, that we noticed at that time, is that there are all these European trekkers who are going up on this trail. And it was a real trail. It was rocky. And they have like their big hiking boots and they have their walking sticks.
Rob: Their Patagonia gear. Their really expensive gear. And they’re huffing and puffing the walk.
Erin: Yeah. It was like a real hike. And these women are wearing their headscarves and their long dresses. And they’re hiking up it like no big deal on their plastic sandals.
Rob: The plastic sandals. And they got huge loads that they’re carrying along. And they’re moving along a lot better than some of these other hikers.
Chris: Well, as one of the ones who is huffing and puffing, I will say there is an advantage having lived at the altitude.
Erin: They’re used to it. They lived in such a steep area. I also liked seeing the village there and how they lived. And I thought it was so interesting to see how they would all bake their bread.
Erin: They have to schedule a time where they come and they bake their bread all together.
Erin: Yeah, everyday. It was so crazy.
Rob: I also loved how when would travel around, you would just see people randomly riding the donkey as their mode of transportation. I love that. Just seeing somebody cruising along on a donkey.
Erin: Just so different from how we live.
Chris: Some of the group did a hike up to an Islamic Shrine with a local guide. The rest of us did a tour of the village with Khalid who is our guide. As you listen to the call to prayer, which serenaded us on our walk, let me see if I can paint a picture for you. The buildings of the village were either made out of stone or concrete, some of the newer ones. All densely packed together covering the top of this hill, leaving room below for beautiful orchards of apple trees. We walked past a funeral area. I have no pictures of that for what I hope are obvious reasons. As they prepare to bury a woman from the village who had died just hours before, as is their tradition. There were a few shops and even an internet cafe. The local hammam or steam bath also shared wood fire with the bakery, where the women could come and bake their bread daily as we talked about.
Before we continue on our journey, let’s hear from our sponsor, DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. I’m holding the Eyewitness Travel Guide, The Top 10 Marrakesh. Now, I didn’t get to spend as much time in Marrakesh as I wanted. But this is definitely the guide that I would have wanted with me if I haven’t forgotten and left at home. I’m looking at the entry for the Top 10 things to do in Jemaa el-Fnaa , the central square of the Medina where we had dinner the first night, which I did not know until I read this, means assembly of the dead. It refers to a time when heads of executed criminals would be displayed here on pikes. It says although nothing as gruesome is on view today, the square is still populated with some extraordinary sites such as snake charmers, acrobats, and colorfully costumed water sellers.
And then goes on to talk about the Top 10 features the orange juice stalls, the snake charmers, the Café de France, the calèches or the horse throne carriages, the water sellers, the porters, the tooth pullers, the acrobats, the herbalists and the fortune tellers, with a little paragraph about each and of course, because this is an Eyewitness Guide, with pictures that give you some idea of what to expect. If you want your own Eyewitness Guide go to . . . if you want your own DK Eyewitness Guide, go to DK.com.
The next day, we hiked back down. Got in the van and headed to Aït Benhaddou through, as Drake mentions, a surprisingly green countryside.
And what was your biggest surprise?
Drake: That was how green the country was. That it’s an integral thing and depends highly on the rain. It’s not easily replicable for a lot of visitors. But it was amazingly green. There was life everywhere, even in the Sahara.
Chris: Our next stop was one of my favorites, as well as Rachel’s. And it’s the UNESCO World Heritage site of Aït Benhaddou.
One spot that you thought was the prettiest?
Rachel: It’s not a medieval town, but that sort of what I reminded of. I think it’s called Ait . . .
Chris: Aït Benhaddou?
Rachel: Yeah, Aït Benhaddou. That was definitely the most beautiful spot. It reminded me of, again, like a medieval town in Europe. It’s just like a walled in city, but Morrocan style with the red walls. And I think it was at the granary at top, right?
Rachel: Yeah. That was the most beautiful thing. I mean you could tell why movies are filmed there and TV shows are filmed there. It’s just absolutely beautiful and surprisingly well-preserved for this town that doesn’t seem like it gets a ton of tourists and it doesn’t a ton of money. It’s surprisingly well-preserved. And it doesn’t look like it’s changed that much at all.
My favorite moment was when we got invited into that women’s home for tea. And just to listen to her tell a little bit of her story, and hear out her history, and just to see the picture of Gladiator up on the wall, where normally pictures of the prince and king are. That was really amazing to get that experience. And I think that if you are traveling on your own, you would have really never gotten that experience to be invited into her home and see what it was like to actually live in that city, live in that walled city. That was my favorite experience. Was just sitting there on the floor in her living room, her guest room. And just chatting with her and having tea.
Chris: It seems very surreal to me that we were in the middle of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This old town that looks like something out of the movies, as you said. And yet people were living there. And this is normal for them.
Rachel: The fact that like, tourists come through all the time and she just wasn’t even phased by it anymore.
Chris: As Rachel mentioned, this is a site that has been used in movies including Gladiator, which is why there was this poster of Russell Crowe up on this woman’s guest room. As well as, for those of you who are fans of Game of Thrones, you’ll see Aït Benhaddou as the cities Yunkai and Pentos, in that particular drama. One of the surprises from me as we visited Aït Benhaddou is Kasar, K-A-S-A-R, which is a walled town. And it has six different kasbahs in it, which is sort of a castle or a walled mansion for someone who is rich. And this looks like this amazing location. But as we headed south from here towards the Sahara and into the Draa Valley for instance, half of the buildings that we saw were made of this, what I would call adobe, basically mud or brick, which is the construction of Aït Benhaddou. This is still today where a lot of people live in buildings like these. This is just probably the best preserved and the best example of them.
But we visited both historic kasbahs as we went further south, as well as we went to one pottery studio for instance. We cut through the local Kasar, where people were still living today. They had brought in electric lights and water. But it really looked the same as it did 200 years ago. And the pottery studio we visited was still using the techniques that could have been used hundreds and hundreds of years ago. This part of Morocco has changed less than, for instance, Marrakesh. In addition to the pottery studio we also bought headscarves and learned how to wrap turbans to block out the sandstorms that we expected as it was getting windy as we headed down towards the Sahara.
We stopped at a rug merchant. None of us bought any rugs. Erin had a strategy that she used at the rug merchant. And to understand the story, understand that the difference when we were there between a dollar and a Moroccan dirham was roughly 10 to one.
One thing that we found when we were looking at the rugs, on the day that we went to the open vendor, was if you’re not serious about buying anything, you lowball them to the point to where they just are not interested in you. And when they were fairly persistent, Erin lowballed those two guys to the point where they gave up on it pretty much immediately.
Erin: Well, they asked me would I be willing to pay for the rug. And it was way less than what they . . .
Chris: They’re asking for a hundred dollars and she offers them . . .
Erin: I offered them $20.
Chris: And they just figured . . .
Erin: They’re like, “How much would you be willing to pay?” And I’d be willing to pay 200.” And they’re like, “No.” That’s really honestly what I’m willing to pay.
Chris: Joan managed to actually offend a vendor in Essaouira when she was trying to buy pillow covers. He said 20 and she said 10, and he said, “Now they’re 30,” or something. The price went away. And it was funny because she was a little offended by it and I said, “You realize you were debating whether you’re going to pay $2 for them or $3 for them.” Yeah, that’s true.
We spent the next night in Zagora, which is the center for the Moroccan film industry. We did see one small film museum. It was okay. We saw the famous sign that’s “52 days journey to Timbuktu.” This is where the caravans would head across the desert down to Timbuktu. Now if you do it by 4X4, you can get there in six days. But I understand there’s still a fair amount of monotony on the way in between. We also visited Project Handicapped Horizon, which is a local organization that Intrepid sponsors. And Intrepid always tries to work with local groups to make the situation on the ground better. And this particular organization was doing a lot of occupational therapy and teaching people how to make some handicrafts, so that they could make a living.
But our next stop was what a lot of people had been looking forward to. We’re going to do a camel ride for an hour and then we were going to head out into the Sahara on 4X4s. But as with all travels, sometimes travel has surprises.
What was your highlight?
Drake: I think my highlight was a thunderstorm in the Sahara. It’s going to be a difficult thing to replicate for a lot of people who went. But as far as experiences go, that one will stick with me for a very long time.
Chris: Yeah. I was disappointed that it cut the camel ride short. But on the other hand, I was not disappointed that they cut the camel ride short, as we’re standing up there on tall camels in a thunderstorm.
Joan: And wet camel after not being able to shower for the next two days, and spending it all in 4x4s and close confines. I think some people may have been glad that the wet camel ride got cut short.
Chris: We found ourselves huddling in a mud roofed building, which apparently dissolves in a strong rain, as it was making puddles of mud on the carpets in this building, and waiting to see if the rain would let up. It never let up enough for us to get out on the camels. And this hadn’t been a planned stop. Our camel drivers were not prepared to host us, but they made some tea for us. And we think perhaps they didn’t boil the water enough, because some people did get sick after this part of the trip. But while the rain was unexpected, it was also for some people the highlight. Here’s what Lib [SP] had to say. What was the highlight of the trip?
Lib: Honestly it was being out in the desert and the rain. That was so amazing and unexpected. And the lushness of the plants was really magical.
Chris: Of course, there were some downsides of the rain as Rob explains. Biggest surprise?
Rob: One of the surprises for me was that those tents in the Sahara could be so stinky.
Chris: Smell of wet sheep?
Rob: Yeah. I mean growing up camping and being able to rough it. And experiencing the outdoors is fine, but the smell of . . . I don’t know if that was . . . there was camel hair or the canvas. But the rain in the Sahara was a surprise which cut short our camel ride and it also made the tent that we slept in, for me, somewhat difficult to sleep just from the odor. That was interesting and surprise.
Chris: I talked to somebody who went the following week when they didn’t have the wet weather and I said something, and I saw pictures of their tent and they looked the same, and I said, “Did they stink?” They were like, “No.” It seems to be some combination of wet wool material and tents.
Joan: It’s like the wool rugs that are wet or something. I don’t know.
Rob: I think that they really missed out . . . those people missed out on a lot of the experience because they didn’t smell that.
Chris: But even with stinky tents and cloud cover that kept us from seeing the stars that night, climbing dunes that went on for 10 kilometers still was a memorable experience. Rachel had this to say.
What was the most memorable part for you? What was the highlight?
Rachel: The highlight was definitely the Sahara. I think, beforehand, it’s sort of the thing that you can imagine the most. I mean, yeah, you think that Marrakesh might be like this. This is what like a coastal town might be like in Morocco. But you really have a good idea of what sand dunes looks like. But to see them in person and just to see endless sand dunes forever, and to also see how similar the Sahara was to like, the desert here in America. There are parts of it that look like Monument Valley. And parts of it, it looked like Death Valley. Sahara was just absolutely beautiful. And just fun to walk around and climb the sand dunes. You could do that. It look like you could do that forever. Just keep walking and walking.
Chris: And Hugh added this. What was the highlight of the trip for you?
Hugh: I think it’s probably the touring around in the Sahara. I kind of like natural, nature settings and of course it’s something very different than we typically come across here. We have sand dunes in North America, but nothing like with people living in them and camels and stuff like that. It’s just a very cool natural setting that felt very African-like. So that was kind of fun. You’re climbing around the dunes and seeing the camels, even though they’re tourist camels, and just bombing across the wilderness there in the four wheel drive trucks and stuff. That was kind of fun.
Chris: And Hugh mentioned bombing across the desert in 4X4s. We spent several hours in the 4X4s both driving out to the Sahara camp, as well as then getting back to the road. As the drivers played their local music, we would drive across all sorts of different terrain. We’d drive, as Rachel said, through portions that look like Monument Valley, some places that looked like the surface of Mars. Some places that looked like African Savanna with Acacia trees and some other places with great, big tall sand dunes. That’s actually the most rare of the types of deserts that are in Morocco. And then at one point, while we were near some Acacia trees and goats, we ran across a family of nomads who were living out of the tent. And Khalid stopped and asked permission for us to visit them and go inside their tent.
Khalid himself had grown up in a tent like this, except in a high mountain area of Northern Morocco. We haven’t talked much about Khalid, but this is a good time to hear Rob and Erin talking about the experience that a really good guide makes for trip like this.
Chris: What was your highlight?
Rob: My highlight was really the interactions with the local guides and with Khalid. To hear about their life and their backgrounds and where they came from, and hearing about their tribal culture. Hearing about how they did weddings. And the protocols for interactions between teenage boys and girls and . . .
Chris: Which is none, no interaction.
Rob: This is not for limited or just being secretive.
Erin: When we talk about how they would sing songs back-and-forth to each other.
Rob: I don’t know if you were involved in that conversation. But he said in those mountain villages, if there was girl that you were interested in, that you would kind of be walking by and you would sing a song. It was symbolic. They’d sing some kind of song that represented that he was interested in her. And if she sang back, the tune that had meaning, then he knew that she was interested. They couldn’t talk. They couldn’t have interactions. They couldn’t touch. But they would hit on each other via a song, while they were doing their work. The boys were out with the sheep and the girls were working in the fields or doing something else.
When we did the hike up the mountain as well, we went with a local guide. And he was about 21 years-old. And he was very outgoing, personable, smiley, good looking kid. And we visited with him and he told us a lot about mountain life and how they really enjoy the interactions with the tourists. And that’s where the most of the economy came from. And it was really cool just to hear about their daily lives, about their families and their tribes. Also related to the nomads that we were able to go to come in their tent and talk to them. It’s very, very similar. I mean the fact that those nomads had never heard of America.
Chris: Had never heard of America? I missed that.
Rob: Yeah. They had never heard of America. Khalid, when he was talking to them and we were talking back-and-forth through him, he said, “Yeah, they’re from America.” And it was the woman, she kind of had a blank look on her face. And he had told us about this the night prior about how his father didn’t know where Turkey was. Because he was telling his father he was traveling to Turkey. His dad had no idea where it was, and he said, “It’s kind of the direction of Mecca.” And his dad was so disappointed that he was not going to Mecca and he was going to Turkey instead. Khalid, obviously, he knew how to deal with it. And he had said to the lady, “It’s across the ocean.” And she said, “Well, I know the ocean.” And that was the end of the conversation. She had never heard of America.
Erin: Yeah. He was talking about that with his dad too, that he had no concept of another place besides where they live.
Rob: And other cultures they couldn’t even wrap their brains around. It’s interesting that these people lived so remotely, a lot of the discussions with him and with other people were centered around the fact that they were illiterate, the lack of education. The global perspective was very minimal. But it was interesting for us to see, as outsiders, to see that they kind of lived these kind of happy lives surrounded by their local community, and their tribe, and their family. They did their thing and they just lived life.
Chris: And one thing that Rob and Erin didn’t mention is that when Khalid is home with his home village, in between tours for instance, he will sometimes head up there if he has time. He will volunteer to help, especially some of the older women or older men learn to read. It would be classic Arabic and the main reason would be so they could read the Koran. But these are the sort of things you talk about as you’re on long drives. And this is a trip that did involve getting from place to place. And we really couldn’t figure out how you could see all that we saw without some long drives in between. But we had days that we would be in a van for six hours. But Joan had an interesting perspective on that.
And what was your highlight?
Joan: There were many highlights just in the way that Intrepid runs their tours. We had really long days. Some days where we had a lot of driving to do, but we didn’t just sit in the van all day. And we would make stops. And our guide did such a great job of finding interesting things for us to do along the way. It might be stopping to visit with someone who grows saffron and found out how it’s grown, and get a demonstration of how he harvests the crop. And then go into his store while he made us some saffron tea. And we had the opportunity to buy some saffron, or whether when to stop and see the goats climbing the trees and eating the nuts. They really did such an excellent job of having a lot going on every day. Even though on the itinerary it may have just looked like four hours of driving. It didn’t turned out to be that way.
Chris: Two of Chandra’s highlights actually were those little stops that Joan referenced there.
And Chandra, what was your highlight?
Chandra: The library at [inaudible 00:28:09].
Chris: Okay, the library of Ancient Islamic texts.
Chandra: Yeah. That were so close that you could . . . I mean I’ve never been that close to books that old. I mean you literally could just look the cover and touch them. That was, on the one hand, terrifying. Yeah, having the British Library just down the road and having seen some similar objects and what the kind of conservation that they do to be able to put those on display and then to see those. I think that that made my little heart weak a little bit. But at the same time to be that close, to that kind of history was absolutely incredible.
Chris: And certainly among the stops that were some of my favorites were seeing the City Wall of Taroudant or visiting the two different markets there, which are more traditional markets, much less touristy. They’re not a touristy city at all. Or as Joan said, visiting the Argan trees, which was new to me and seeing the “flying goats” of Morocco that climb the trees in search of nuts. But I was surprised how many people did mention the little saffron shop that we stopped at.
Rob: The saffron.
Chris: The saffron, exactly.
Erin: Yeah, the saffron. Oh my gosh, that smell. I think that smell maybe my highlight actually.
Rob: Just because it has the strongest memory?
Erin: Yeah. But then again, the smell was a very strong sense for me anyway.
Chris: And then I was surprised that no one else mentioned the City of Essaouira as their highlight, because that probably was my favorite stop on the whole trip. It was two nights there. And partially, one of the reasons, we had at least three people, Joan, Jim and Lib, all sick by that point. And then Rob got sick in the city as you will hear later on. And so that took some of the joy out of that city for them. But it was a city with a little more variety in food, where really good shopping. We managed to pick up quite a few things there, leather goods, wooden products, textiles, a number of different things in the shopping. And then it’s this beautiful walled city, this historic city that goes back to the Romans, and the Phoenicians, and the Portuguese, and then obviously the Moroccans.
And it is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. And it has also been used in movies and TV, including also Game of Thrones where it plays the part of the City of Astapor. And one of my surprising moments there was I went down to the port. There’s a fishing village there out and all sorts of little fishing boats that go out for sometimes days at a time to do fishing along the coast there of Morocco. The weather had been rough the night before, and so some of long line boats had not gone out. And one of the fisherman just started giving me a tour of the port in both English and French. We managed to get by. And I had a half hour personalized tour of the port, for which he did expect a tip, but that was entirely in order. And I now know much more about Moroccan fishing than I ever thought I would know. And I’ll try and put that on a blog post someday. But I thoroughly enjoyed the City of Essaouira.
As you heard some things did go wrong. And I wanted to give everybody on the trip a chance to talk about one warning they would give or what they wish they had known before they went. And we use the sort of things that we would tell you before you go to Morocco.
What do you wish you had known?
Joan: I think I wish I had known that there’s as much English spoken as there is, especially in the tourist areas of course. And that if you know a bit of French, you can actually get by quite well.
Chris: Same to me, even more so French than English in some of the places where we were.
Joan: Well, definitely French is the second language after Arabic. There’s quite a lot of French and the signs are all in Arabic and French. If you knew some French, you could do pretty well.
Chris: One warning you would give?
Erin: Personal space is a relative concept. Even when we were like in the market . . .
Chris: The weekly market?
Erin: Yeah, the weekly market or even just walking around.
Chris: Did you not appreciate your personal travel guide that was guiding you through the weekly market?
Erin: I didn’t have so much of that. I mean I didn’t feel bothered. I think some other people on the trip that I never felt accosted like I have in some other places I’ve been. And I never feared for my personal safety, but I mean people stand very close to you and the people would brush past you. And I think that if you live in a Western country it’s, we’re used to much personal space. I mean unless it’s the Northern Line during rush hour. You’re used to much more personal space than what they exist with on a day-to-day basis. I think the other warning I might get is that you won’t get to speak to very many women. And I think that that’s one of things that as I reflect back on the trip, the dominant story we were being told was almost, almost entirely from a man’s perspective. And that’s fine. That’s a valid story, but I wish I could have interacted with more women without the native going through a translator. And to be able to interact with them directly at one-on-one, maybe in an all female setting if that would have been working. But I missed hearing their side of the story a little bit.
Chris: One warning you would give?
Lib: Go ahead and be prepared for five dishes and five dishes only to be presented to you for every lunch and every dinner the whole time you’re there. Three kinds of canteen and two kinds of skewers.
Chris: Lib’s statement of five dishes and five dishes only was only a little bit of an exaggeration. And Chandra expands on it here.
What was your biggest surprise?
Chandra: I think my biggest surprise is that we didn’t eat that many different kinds of food. I was expecting Moroccan cuisine. And I loved it. I mean I absolutely loved everything that we ate. But it really is . . . and I didn’t know how much of that was eating in restaurants. And the restaurant cuisine being a little bit repetitive no matter where you go, but it did surprise me that we didn’t come across more variation in the cuisine then we did.
Chris: I enjoyed every tajine I had, but I was ready for a pizza by seven days. Okay, I’ve had a tajine. I know what they are.
Chandra: Yeah, or the kebabs, which were great. I enjoyed every kebab I had. But there are so many variations on kebab.
Chris: You should say that just because there was always a lemon, chicken tajine on the menu it doesn’t mean that it was always the same every place. But there was still almost always it seemed, especially when we were in the south. Almost always the same dishes on the menu. I think that was one of the reasons why it worked for me to have Esssaouira at the end, which is a touristy area. And there was more seafood. There were more pizzas. There were just more variety of food available in that area.
Chris: One thing you wish you had known before you went?
Rachel: I mean I think this is specific to me as a female traveler alone. It wasn’t so much in the smaller cities, but in Marrakesh there were definitely a lot of men who were aggressive and would come up to me. And try and talk to me and ask me to come with them or go home with them. And I wasn’t prepared for that as much.
Chris: Oh my.
Rachel: Yeah. And so I had to put my mean face on. It definitely it wasn’t like a ton of people. It didn’t ruin the experience for me. I absolutely love Morocco and would go back in a heartbeat. But I would say I experienced that more than I did, say when I went to like Europe or South America. I mean a little bit similar to like when we went to Mexico City, but the men were just definitely very aggressive and in your face. And I think it was, again, just because I was a female traveling by myself and I definitely look like a Westerner. I would say that is something, you just be prepared for, just to know that that’s going to happen and not to worry about it. They’re not going to hurt you. No one is going to really be super physically aggressive or anything like that. You just need to be a little bit on your guard.
Chris: What’s one warning you would give?
Rob: Well, mine was put a damper on the end of the trip. Don’t drink sugarcane juice from the street vendors. It left to me with a little discomfort for the last couple of days. And to fly home, I was a little nervous about, but I ended being okay. But street food often is okay. I would say that, probably on the bottom of the list of things I should I had tried.
Chris: As I recall that story, it was . . . I tasted the sugarcane juice. And it tasted off, so I kept drinking it. Wasn’t that the way the story would go?
Rob: Well, the back story was we had rented bikes. And that day was relatively warm and we’d already bikeed for awhile. Erin had gone back to the riad and I kept riding around. And I was getting thirsty and I’m like, “I just need a small drink because I don’t necessarily want to buy a water bottle and have to tote it around with me. I don’t want to carry it.” So I stopped at a street vendor. And he pulls out the grinded sugarcane and runs it through the press. And I remember thinking at that time, “Man, that doesn’t look very clean.” So he puts it in the cup. And this is where the whole sense of skewed value. I thought it was going to be 10 and he charges me 20, which is two dollars. And I’m like, “Man, he charged me double what I thought.” I took a sip and I’m like, “That’s kind of funky.” And I kept riding along. I hadn’t thrown it away and I stopped and drank about half of it before I did shift. But yeah, you’re right. There is some substantial bad judgment at that point.
Erin: It is funny because we walked by the sugarcane vendor earlier and I remember thinking, “That didn’t look good.” That looks really sketchy. His fingers nails are really dirty and you can see the dirt on the sugarcane and everything about it. That just looks bad.
Chris: One warning you would give?
Drake: Be prepared for an African travel experience. Whatever that means for you, being careful with the food or bringing along your sitpro. Or knowing how you operate a squat toilet. All of those things, if you are prepared for them, will make it much, much easier to enjoy Morocco. And if you’re not, will make it very difficult to enjoy Morocco, I think.
Chris: And one warning you would give one thing that people should know before they go?
Hugh: Well, in summer specs, none. It seems it’s a pretty easy place to travel. There’s a lot of English. The food was easy to order and buy. The transportation works. It’s not a place I would really worry about going. And of course, the classic thing about going to the developing area, don’t drink the water. But that’s true for what, maybe two thirds of the world or something. We were really comfortable there. I didn’t come back, so you’ll really watch out for this. I don’t really have any warnings to pass along. That was a lot fun. I wanted to see Africa and granted, this is one corner of Africa. It’s quite different than you know what you see in National Geographic shows about Africa. But it was kind of cool to see another part of the world.
And one thing that really struck me is how much the Moroccans there that we interacted with emphasize that they do Islam different than the more militant areas. They were really, really trying to get that message across, “We’re a safe Muslim country and not like those other ones.” And I definitely felt that it didn’t have the oppressive feel of some other places I’ve been. That struck me as another thing that’s sort of surprising.
Chris: And then because Rachel was the first one I talked to, Rachel, can you answer the question of how do you summarize Morocco in just three words?
Rachel: Definitely beautiful, very welcoming and diverse. Each city was a totally different experience. Even though it was all sort of like, a few hours away from each other, each city was totally different from the previous city we visited, so definitely diverse.
Chris: And I’m going to give Rob and Erin the penultimate word on this show.
Rob: I would wholeheartedly endorse, if anybody’s interested in a similar trip, I would say that was a great value for the experience. We travel quite a bit and to spend that much money to get a 10 day tour, to get so much included, so much hands-on and direct-interactions with locals, and a really good education. We thought that was really a great value and we really enjoyed it.
Erin: Yeah. And looking back, I was trying to think of one specific highlight, but there wasn’t. I mean every day, it is something new and I was learning so much.
Rob: And very different from the prior days.
Erin: Yeah, everything was different. Every day was really . . . I thought it was a really good experience. I really enjoyed it.
Rob: And the group was nice as well. Sometimes you could get a group that could be difficult. And this group was very laid back. And we really thought that the group was great. The trip was great. We’d be interested in some of the other trips that are going to be coordinated by the Amateur Traveler.
Chris: Cool. Well I didn’t even pay them to say that.
The two things that I want to really agree with Rob and Erin on there are one, that the group was really one of the things that made this so fun for me. Thanks to Rob and Erin, and Hugh and Ruth, and Rachel, and Jim, and Lib, and Joan, and Drake, and Chandra. It was a fun trip. But we’re sorry that the rest of you missed it. But we are planning on doing trips in the future. And if you go to the Amateur Traveler Trips private Facebook group, ask for permission, we’ll let you in. That’s where we’re going to be discussing where we go in the next for Amateur Traveler.
If you’re interested in doing this particular trip, I actually have a discount code that is good for one month after the show comes out. This discount code is good until June 23rd of 2015. And the discount code will save you 10% off of this particular tour. And the code is 11991. If you happen to be listening to this later than one month, send me an email and maybe I get you another discount code. It depends on how much interest we get. And if you didn’t listen to this show in time, but you were a subscriber at the time that this came out, then it’s time to subscribe to the email newsletter, because I’m going to put this information in the newsletter and would have gotten it if you subscribe to the newsletter. You could do both of those at the website, AmateurTraveler.com.
With that, we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. This has been a little more work to put this one together. But I hope you check out some of the photos that we have from Morocco, some of the pictures of the group and some of the pictures of the wonderful, wonderful landscapes that we saw. If you have questions, send an email to host at amateurtraveler.com, or better yet, leave a comment on this episode at AmateurTraveler.com. You can also follow me on Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram @chris2x. The transcript for this show will go up in about a month, and it’s sponsored by Jayway Travel, experts in Eastern European travel. I do also want to say congratulations to my son and his co-host Jay, who just finished their first year with their podcast, Because Comics. If you’re looking for good comics podcast, it’s my favorite. And as always, thanks so much for listening.
Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.