A Glimpse of Morocco
It was an opportunity to step onto another continent, and while that interested me immensely, winding along Costa del Sol in a tourist bus with 42 students, I couldn’t help but battle a bought of pessimism. Would riding a camel through a parking lot (more on that later) and playing follow-the-leader through the maze-like medina with a group of 50 people be an authentic travel experience?
After an hour on the bus, we arrived to the city of Algeciras where we boarded a ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Ceuta. Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, is one of two Spanish cities located in Africa surrounded by Morocco. We lucked out, enjoying calm waters, waters that during ancient times marked the end of the known world.
Our guide, Mohammed met us when we got off the ferry and there we boarded another bus to take us across the border into Morocco. Congested and chaotic, we sat, eyes glued to the window, watching men pushing tattered cars towards Ceuta. Mohammed gathered our passports and slipped them into a white trash bag, and as we watched him carry them away in this unofficial manner, we couldn’t help but feel a twang of concern. Concern turned to panic in a hot second when he returned to the bus sans trash bag. There, at the border they would stay until we crossed back into Spain. This was the way it was done and we just had to grin and bare it.
From our American passports in a trash bag at the Moroccan border (worth a pretty penny on the black market), our destination city, Tetuán was another 40 minutes by bus. This segment was broken up by a short stop in a parking lot at the side of the highway, where for one euro we had the opportunity to ride a camel for 90 seconds. I was all about the kid’s excitement to have this experience, but I was not at all for it myself. Riding a camel being clearly abused right before our eyes alongside a highway was not on my bucket list. Note that I manage to take a photo that captures the moment from an exotic angle; the camel’s faltering knees and foaming mouth not visible.
Once to Tetuán, we spent some time touring an art school, where young boys and girls practiced crafts such as embroidery, ceramics, and engravings. And then it was into the medina and a seemingly different dimension. We twisted and turned through narrow streets lined with rainbow colored spices, and perfectly designed pyramids of fruit. Single file we followed at too rapid a pace to fully absorb the life led here. The street vendors, weathered by age, turned to avoid our camera’s flashes that meant no disrespect, just yearned to capture the hurried moment. There was beauty in all the minute details.
Our tour continued at a Moroccan pharmacy where us American’s with beginning-of-the-trip wallets were convinced, infomercial style to buy everything this smooth guy was selling. Bags and bags of argan oil, amber, rose petal cream, Moroccan tea and more later, we continued on to the carpet store. We savored the spectacle of the art of selling those impeccably woven Berber rugs. Prices were not clearly defined, but the kids instead learned the art of haggling. Not needing an expensive, extra grande carpet, I tried and failed at haggling down the price of a lovely scarf. Fine by me, I had just spent 50 euro on beauty products.
Our day concluded with a stuffing meal of couscous and mint tea alongside a grinning Moroccan band in a room wrapped in exquisite blue tiles.
The constant stimuli of the day did little to tire our still slightly jet lagged group; the crescendo of their voices rose and fell with the coastal hills as we recovered our ground back to the hotel (and thankfully recovered our passports as well).
So was this an authentic travel experience? I’d say most definitely it was. Was it also a tour? Yes, and as such, we may have been herded into places on a set itinerary, but it was still authentic. For the students I brought to Spain, our day-trip to Morocco provided a much-needed lesson in geography. The kids experienced just how close Spain actually is to Africa. This would tie in nicely during the upcoming days when we traveled to Granada and Seville and reveled in the beauty of the mudéjar style architecture. The Moors’ seven-century presence in the Iberian Peninsula would make sense, so too would the Reconquista when Muslims and Jews were expelled from the peninsula, fleeing to none other than, Morocco.
Did I fully check Morocco off my travel list in this daylong adventure? No, but I see the a happy camel in an infinite dessert awaiting my return.