Many years ago, we were walking on the Corniche along the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt. It had been a scorching summer day at Abu Simbel and the breeze from the river felt wonderful. The sky was crystal blue as the sun made its way toward the horizon on the far side of the river. Watching the bustling activity along the waterfront was fascinating. Ferries carried people and cargo back and forth across the quick moving river. Boxes, animals and people were loaded and unloaded as workers took advantage of the coolness of the early evening to complete their heavy workload. Band music could be heard from a passing river cruise ship in the distance.
Most interesting to me were the feluccas, Egypt’s classic form of river transport. The beautiful sailboats with white canvas sails tacked to and fro utilizing the prevailing winds as gracefully as sea birds catching thermals on a summer afternoon. The scene could have been from any era, perhaps even biblical times.
A man dressed in a traditional jellaba approached us very formally and asked us if we would like to sail on one of the feluccas around nearby Elephantine Island for sunset. I could not think of anything that would be more exciting. The breeze was perfect, the sun was setting, the water was calm and we were certainly up for an unforgettable, unplanned adventure. Conscious that nothing is free, I of course asked how much we would be charged. We were not very worried about money as we had an ample tourist budget but knew that many shady vendors often took advantage of naïve tourist’s failure to set a price before using a service. The well-spoken man smiled and told us that, of course, we would only pay what we thought the ride was worth after we were finished.
The excitement of the opportunity overwhelmed better judgement and we boarded the boat. The men on the boat, one appearing to be the captain and one the mate, cast off the lines, set the sails and negotiated their way into the busy channels that surround the island. The wind caught the sails and the boat picked up speed. The mate nimbly climbed the single mast above our heads to adjust the sails to pick up even more speed. We were off and it was everything we could have hoped for.
After we settled down and found our course, I asked again how much we would be expected to pay. A wide smile from the captain was all that greeted my question. A shrug of his shoulders and a noticeable move to avoid eye contact followed. A few minutes later I asked again and he just moved away in the boat.
I began to have a terrible feeling that I had made an awful rookie traveler error. I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the hour long ride even though the sunset was incredible, the waves were minimal and the breeze cooled our sunburns to the point we actually wished we had brought a sweater. I dreaded the impending controversy we were going to have when we reached the pier and I was given the final bill. I was sure an argument would ensue when I was told the price would be hundreds of dollars that I had no intention of giving up easily. When our cruise was over everyone got off the boat. I clinched my camera and wallet tightly. Everyone was smiling but me. An incredible experience was ruined for me because I knew what was coming next.
I asked the man in the Jellaba how much our cruise would be. He asked me what I thought it was worth. I said I would have no idea how to price such an adventure and told him he should tell me his best price. My body tensed as I prepared for the inevitable bad news. It seemed he took forever to get the words out. I felt adrenaline pulsing and my fight or flight reflex kicking in. Why was I such a fool to let this snake take advantage of me.
I don’t remember the price he quoted in Egyptian Pounds, but it worked out to be about 20 US dollars. For 3 people to take an hour long cruise on the Nile at sunset with a crew of two expert seamen. I would have gladly paid twice the price, if not more. It was one of the most memorable things we did during our entire Egyptian holiday and it cost less than a meal at McDonalds.
I guess the point of the story is that I had let my sense of dread ruin an incredible adventure. I was so sure I was going to be ripped off that I couldn’t relax and enjoy the fun. I realized that dread was a horrible thing for travelers. I think that fear of being taken advantage of is one the things that ruins far more vacations than actually being ripped off. It dominates many travelers’ tales and seems to be a major topic of conversation wherever tourists gather. Of course it’s true you can be ripped off. You need to watch your money and be aware of your surroundings. It is difficult when you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the local customs. We want to be friendly and trusting to others and some people do take advantage of this to do wrong things. But you can’t have dread. It takes the fun out of travel and makes you distrust even the nicest of people.
Nevertheless, I suffer from the curse of dread. I admit it. I think the worst. I am not a trusting person. Almost any kind gesture I receive is met with suspicion. I purposely avoid situations where I feel I may be taken advantage of. I don’t like merchants in marketplaces. I hate bargaining. Bartering is not my friend. I prefer set price mass transit to dealing with shady cab drivers and tuk tuk’s. I avoid places that don’t have prices listed on menus. I don’t eat things that are put on the table that I didn’t order. I suffer dread.
It’s why I never went to Morocco before….
Bogey and Bergman never came here. Churchill and Roosevelt visited during World War II to plan Hitler’s demise. The French definitely came here. They left a language and a lot of stylish buildings. I really didn’t have much of an idea of what we might find when we arrived after our 30 hour flight from Montenegro. We were so glad we had found a room at the Madrid airport for a few hours of restful sleep.
Casa, as the locals call it, reminded me of Mexico for some reason. The farms and rural building on the main freeway from the airport looked like so many we passed through in Central Mexico. Lots of sheep, but no camels. I don’t know why I thought I might see one.
We stayed in a fairly modern apartment in an office building just outside of downtown. It had a Starbucks downstairs. People dressed very Western. Traffic was busy and the roads were not well taken care of. The weather was warm enough and we were glad to get out of the big jackets we needed in Europe.
We tempted fate and tried our luck with the so-called Petite Taxis that run continuously along the roads everywhere in Casa. The tiny red cars are everywhere and are the easiest way to get anywhere. You put your hand out, they stop and you tell them where you are going. If it fits their planned route, you get in and you are off on a wild ride to your destination. They may or may not pick up others along the way and you may make a few stops before you get where you are going. We possess little French and no Arabic so communication was difficult. To get home we said “Starbucks” and they all seemed to know where it was. We never stopped in Starbucks but we were glad it was there
Despite warnings of evil taxi drivers shamelessly preying on helpless tourists, we found the taxis to be fun, cheap and kind of exciting. We could go virtually anywhere and when we gave the driver 20 dirhams (about 2 dollars) they usually smiled and saluted. Many gave change! We looked forward to the drivers picking up other passengers. Spirited conversations always ensued and although we couldn’t understand, it gave us a local connection that we enjoyed.
We visited the Hassan II mosque on the seashore a couple of times. It is absolutely stunning. And huge. The minaret stands 690 feet high. It towers over the area and is even topped by a laser at night. Amazing.
We visited the Medina and the old French downtown area. The medina was small and crowded and the vendors were a little aggressive. Probably necessary as a warm up for other cities we would visit in the future. We had our first of many mint teas in the scenic “Café de France” on one the main boulevards the French laid out in downtown. It made for great people watching and provided a shady seat to rest weary legs.
We are not much for theme restaurants and had misgivings about visiting “Rick’s Café”, a tribute to the famous café from the 1942 Bogart movie. Rather than being touristy, we found it to be beautiful and very reminiscent of what anyone who has ever seen the movie would want it to be. We chose the bar to sit at since we weren’t eating and enjoyed a nice strong drink that would have made Bogey proud. It was strong and cold and absolutely perfect.
Our week went quickly and we were soon off to our second stop of our trip to Morocco.
Riding the train from Casablanca to Marrakech it seemed difficult to get the song out of our head. I hesitate to write about it because it might start going again.
We arrived and found our apartment. Located just outside of the Medina, it was quite disappointing. The internet didn’t work and the water leaked from the bathroom ceiling. We decided we would stay for 10 days as Marrakech seemed like the place that most represented our idea of what Morocco would be like before we arrived. Hmmm. Look before you leap.
We stayed outside the medina, as we thought it would be easier to find things we needed. We wanted to prepare most meals at home to save money and life in the Medina would be fun but more expensive. Many people elect to stay in a restored Riad, which is one of the huge old houses in the Medina. We visited several and they were beautiful and even stunning and when we thought of our leaky bathroom, we often wished we had of stayed in the walled area.
It was a short walk or an easy Petite Taxi ride when we did want to visit the walled part of the city. The medina is huge and at first overwhelming. Thousands of shops selling every kind of item imaginable are spread throughout the many souks that fill the medina. The vendors can seem aggressive at first, but after a few days of visits we got accustomed to the pace and the people actually began to seem friendly and helpful. At first we found we couldn’t stop without being asked what we were looking for. We found if we said we were just enjoying a little shade and rest, they smiled and said “Welcome to Morocco”.
We enjoyed many breaks for tea on any of the many terraces in the small cafes that are found down every alley. The spice markets and metal workers were our favorite places to visit. A few ancient palaces were visited. The tilework and carved plaster facades were wonderful and we enjoyed the opportunity to rest without spending money.
We did have one unfortunate incidence with an attempted pickpocket. It did ruin our day and make us feel suspicious of everyone for a while, but also served as a reminder to not relax too much.
Of course we made several visits to the famous Jemma el Fna square in the center of the medina. Snake charmers, musicians, dancers, drummers, juice and food vendors and monkeys are everywhere. The noise is insane at first. A giant nightly carnival that has been put on every night for 1000 years. Best described as live action channel surfing. The time just around sunset is the best. The food booths reach full production as hungry customers flood in from the direction of Koutoubia Mosque. The scene is best viewed with a mint tea from one of the balconies of the restaurants that surround the area.
10 days proved to be too long as we didn’t find a lot to do outside of the medina. We did enjoy our first Tajine and it was delicious. We did visit Jardin Majorelle, a garden that was owned by Yves Saint Laurent when he lived here. Also the modern area of town called Gueliz was nice and provided a glimpse of the modern Morocco of the future.
We anxiously boarded our bus for our 3 hour ride to the beach town of Essaouira. We were excited to leave the big city and get back to the ocean. The ride was nice and we saw our first camel just before arriving. We also saw goats in trees. We didn’t stop to see them but it was an odd looking sight.
Essaouira gained fame in the 1960’s as a hippie hangout and continues to have that vibe today. The white walls of the old city rise directly from the sea and were built by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates in ancient days.
A large beach runs south of town and a busy fishing port operates just outside the walls. Inside the walls, narrow streets wind through the tightly packed buildings. Plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants greet the visitor but you get the sense that this is an actual town instead of just a tourist destination. We rented a Dar, which is a smaller version of a Riad right in the center of town. It had several rooms on 4 floors with a beautiful terrace above that. We loved it from the moment we got there and despite hundreds of trips up and down flights of stairs during our week long stay, we were very glad we stayed there.
The location of our Dar made access to the town simple and we took many strolls around town during our stay. The citizens were either very friendly or indifferent to our presence. We loved walking along the docks at sunset when the traditional blue wooden boats returned with the catch of the day.
Essaouira proved to be the favorite part of the first half of our trip to Morocco. We were able to let our guard down a little. The weight of dread was slightly lifted as we strolled the wide beach in the afternoon. It was a welcome respite from the constant aggressiveness of the medinas we had visited. Watching sunsets from our terrace was relaxing and it was nice to take a quiet break at the midpoint of our trip. We are heading north now and I’m sure the apprehension will return. Hopefully a nice week in Essaouira gave us a chance to reflect on our visit so far and realize that most of our worries are imagined. Dread is something that will definitely ruin a traveler’s adventure and I hope we can keep it at bay for a few more weeks.