Travel Update : Summer 2015

Hello, Dear Readers!


It’s been almost four months since my last update. The TL;DR version is that I spent the summer finishing out my workaway in Granada, volunteering at a language school in Morocco, and developing my Fiverr store. I’ll return to Europe again soon!


Read on for the full story…


Last time I wrote I had just arrived at the hostel in Granada. I worked there for about six weeks, changing beds, making dinner and sangria for guests, relaxing very hard with good friends, and just beginning work on my Fiverr store. I miss the friends I made at the hostel, cheap wine and tapas in the cafes, the views of the beautiful Alhambra towering over the city, and the evenings I spent climbing the hill above the city where the hippies live in caves, up to the church where you could watch the sun set over the whole plain.
The Alhamba

the Alhambra monument on the hill overlooking Granada

hostel courtyard

view of the hostel interior


After Granada, I made my way back to Paris for another brief visit that involved more time spent working, celebrating the Fourth of July drinking wine on the bank of the Seine, and keeping Joanna company as she spent the evenings in marathon paper-writing sessions. I was only in Paris for a week before I caught my flight to Morocco.


I should pause a bit to explain why I left Europe – as an American passport holder, I’m only allowed three months at a time in the Schengen zone (a group of counties in Western Europe free from border controls), and I’m obliged to spend another three months outside Schengen once my three months inside are up. Three months in, three months out – that’s how it works, unless you’ve arranged for some kind of working or studying visa or residence permit. By the time I left Granada I hadn’t worked out a way to secure a visa that would allow me to stay in Europe – plus I was broke – so I decided I would wait out my three months somewhere outside of Schengen – preferably somewhere cheap. I picked morocco after having heard nice things from friends who traveled there, and out of a sense of curiosity and excitement to explore a new continent.


I arrived in Morocco at the beginning of July, excited and awed to be on a new continent and on my first visit to a country that doesn’t use a Latin alphabet – most of the signs are in French, which I can only sort of read, or Arabic, which I can’t read at all. The newness of the culture hit me hard enough that I’m still processing my own impressions, so it’s difficult to write about how I felt then. Some things I remember are taking photos of signs in the airport written in Arabic, eating street food – bowls of snails cooked in a rich broth- hearing the call to prayer echoing around the city all through the night, and noticing how Moroccan women dress and act and their role in society.


Koutoubia mosque

the Alhambra monument on the hill overlooking Granada

A small bowl of snails costs 50 cents and comes in a broth that reminds me of beef-flavored ramen

A small bowl of snails costs 50 cents and comes in a broth that reminds me of beef-flavored ramen

I arrived in the middle of Ramadan, which meant that most people were fasting all day (no food, water, sex, or cigarettes from sunrise to sunset). At night they break their fast with a simple meal followed by a larger one. Most people stay up almost all night and rest almost all day. Marrakesh was already a busy, hot city during the day, and at night when things cooled off and everyone could go out and eat again it really exploded into life, from sunset up until around 3:30am when they ate the last meal of the night before the fast began again at sunrise. There were hordes of people packing the square called Janaa el Fna, full of its 30 identical restaurants with their aggressive maitre’d’s, snake charmers, musicians, people selling toys. I think the best place to enjoy Janaa el Fna is above it, on the top terrace of the Cafe de France, where you can get tea and coffee and fancy ice cream and stay for hours. If you’re lucky you can snag a table next to the terrace railing for the best view.

Janaa El-Fnaa square at night

Janaa El-Fnaa square at night


While in Morocco I took a tour to the Sahara desert, which sounds dangerous and exotic but is actually fairly tame, and pretty easily accomplished with the help of one of the hundreds of tour agencies in Marrakesh that arrange such trips. The edge of the Sahara (all that I saw of it) is beautiful, but I was disappointed that the “trip to the Sahara” really was that – a trip TO the edge of the Sahara, not through it like I imagined. We rode in on camels (which was uncomfortable but cool) about a kilometer, just far enough that we couldn’t see the nearby towns. No deep desert exploration. Still, it was beautiful, sleeping out under the stars and hearing the little desert noises.


Donkeys at a pass over the Atlas Mountains

Donkeys at a pass over the Atlas Mountains

the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a Berber settlement which gets used as a filming location for all kinds of stuff (game of thrones and Gladiator, to name a couple)

the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a Berber settlement which gets used as a filming location for all kinds of stuff (game of thrones and Gladiator, to name a couple)


Camels in the desert... standing on a field of camel poop

Camels in the desert… standing on a field of camel poop


After Marrakesh I visited Taghazout, a fishing village on the coast, before coming to Casablanca. There’s not much to write about Taghazout but it was really pretty and relaxing and I had a great time.
view from the terrace of the hostel in Taghazout

view from the terrace of the hostel in Taghazout


Casablanca – yes, THAT Casablanca, the one from the movie. It’s the financial capital of Morocco, and there are some very ritzy financial districts with large, modern buildings, a tramway system run by the same company as the tram in Paris, flashy cars, and one of the largest malls in Africa. There’s not much for tourists there apart from a gigantic mosque built by the previous king. I came to volunteer at the somewhat mysteriously named British Language Academy (as far as we could tell, no one working there is British and there’s no affiliation with any part of the UK..). In exchange for a couple of hours of conversation practice per day, I had a free place to sleep, shower, cook, and use the Internet. I used the school as a place to stay while I started developing up my freelancing skills.  In the end I stayed there two months.
the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, by the sea. Supposedly the second largest mosque in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world

the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, by the sea. Supposedly the second largest mosque in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world



I don’t want to write too much about this workaway yet – there were some major negatives and I have some pretty serious concerns about the conduct of the school’s director. But there were also lots of positives. I met interesting, unusual, smart people from all over the world who came and went as volunteers in the school. I learned lots about Moroccan culture from the students, fascinating insights that I never would have gained otherwise. I went shopping for fruits and vegetables in the old market and even made friends with some of the vendors. I saved a lot of money – food and entertainment in Morocco are really cheap. I loved learning more about Islam, and it was particularly interesting and exotic to hear the chanted call to prayer echoing from the minarets at all hours of the day and night.


The school itself was fairly basic, dirty, and generally falling apart – worlds away from the hostel in Granada. We held things together as well as we could and enjoyed what we could, ducking under the dangling remains of destroyed venetian blinds to sit on the windowsills that overlooked a little square where there was a taxi stand. During Ramadan the square never slept, and sometimes neither did we, since the streets were packed with people shopping and shouting and arguing and laughing and playing music until dawn. Once Ramadan ended the throngs of people thinned out, but not enough that we didn’t still have some entertainment in the form of surreptitious drug sales, arguments over taxi prices, loud drunks dodging traffic, and street merchants shouting “solde” (sale) over and over in front of their blankets full of illegal t-shirts and scarves and belts and shoes.


Casablanca has a beach, but as a woman I never felt comfortable going alone with the sexual harassment being what it is in Morocco, so I only took the trip once, when I was accompanied by male volunteers. I know they say you’re not supposed to let harassment get to you, or let it dictate where you go, but I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the harassment in Morocco, or how little regard was paid to my polite, firm “no thank you” that the guidebooks say is supposed to deter “admirers”. My experience was more that saying “no thank you” was apparently code for “yes, I’m interested, please keep following/talking to/grabbing me”. It wore me down and sometimes limited where I considered going in Casa.


One of my favorite experiences in Casablanca was going to the fruit and vegetable markets in the Medina (“old city”, the part with all the really narrow, winding streets and alleys and historic buildings). I enjoy buying produce at markets so much more than soulless supermarkets, where the fruit has all been carefully selected for its beauty and washed and waxed to within an inch of its life. In the market you might have to pick through a pile of tomatoes to find a few that aren’t already rotting, but at least the guy who grew them is the one helping you hunt down the best ones. I would go with Sam, one of the other volunteers, and we’d visit a few stands searching for the best dates and olives, and picking out lots of fresh vegetables and spices for our backpacker’s version of a Moroccan tagine. One of the best discoveries was the green figs. At first I avoided buying them, thinking they were underripe purple figs, but no – they’re a different variety and they’re WAY BETTER, READERS. They taste like candy. We’d eat most of them and try to restrain ourselves enough to save a few to throw in the blender with some bananas and orange juice and make fantastic smoothies for breakfast.


Spices in the medina market

Spices in the medina market


About a week ago I finally left Casablanca for good, feeling okay with the idea of never seeing the place again. It’s not a city you really fall in love with, I think, and it didn’t help that the streets where we lived were particularly filthy and seedy. I’ve moved locations now and set up shop in a hostel in Chefchaouen, the blue-painted city in the Rif mountains. The climate is perfect and the terrace of my hostel faces the cliffs of the mountains. At night it’s quiet and sleepy, and the people are relaxed here.
the cats here are pretty relaxed too

the cats here are also relaxed

I’ll stay in Chefchaouen working, hiking, and relaxing, until mid-October, when I’ll return to Europe.

4 thoughts on “Travel Update : Summer 2015

  1. Eirik pedersen says:

    Great blog Mary. Hope you got to Paris safe. Would be Nice to Get your e Mail adress. from Eirik, norwegian guy from Alina hostel.

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