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North African Road Trip

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

I definitely had a vision in my head of what I thought Morocco was going to be like before landing there. Having spent some significant time in middle eastern countries, and assuming the culture somewhat homogeneous, I had set my expectations before stepping foot off the plane in Casablanca. To my chagrin, and pleasant surprise, what I had thought I would step into was completely divorced from reality.

This is a good lesson to remember whenever possible - don't project your expectations on people and places you know nothing about. I have to keep relearning this one for some reason.

Morocco is an absolutely incredible, beautiful, and evolving nation with a rich history, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to spend a couple of weeks traveling across the country.

The western edge of the Sahara desert near Ain Bni Mathar in northeastern Morocco. The dunes here can range from small to over 500 ft. high.

We started out in Casablanca, and I was immediately taken with the history and beauty of the city. From the cafe's tucked away in old colonial forts, to the Hassan II Mosque, to the sunsets and beaches throughout the city, it was easy to get swept up in the culture and activity of what is a very vibrant city. Casablanca was interesting to me it was a clash of so many things - modern day technology, Moroccan culture, heavy French influence from colonial times and some American influence with a lot of American businesses having offices and a presence in the coastal region.

Beach at sunset in Casablanca.

We stayed predominately at Riads (small family owned hotels) throughout the trip. They tend to be located deep in the alleyways of the medinas, and have an indoor open courtyard with the rooms surrounding them. I wish I had taken a few photos of the ones we got to stay in, but I was honestly too busy enjoying the uniqueness of them and my wife's good company that I forgot. That was a first for me in many ways - putting the camera down and just enjoying the moment, environment, and company. I have made a mental note to try and do this more in the future. Travel blogging is fun - but cumbersome at the same time as you are attempting to document every facet of a journey. It turns out my attention span is far too short for this, hence the scattered nature of so many of my posts.

Google Map view of the basic route we took through our time in Morocco.

We spent a good amount of time traveling everyday, but just observing the countryside as we moved along was more than interesting enough to keep your attention focused. For example, I did not know that Morocco is the world's largest producer and exporter of olives, as olive tree groves were all over the western side of the country. Once you crossed the Atlas Mountains, this turned into date tree groves in the oases on the eastern side of the mountains moving out towards the Sahara desert.

Panoramic view of Fes as we arrived in the evening.

After traveling up from Casablanca, through Rabat, and stopping to see ruins from the Roman Empire that were in excess of a thousand years old, we managed to make it to Fes. Fes was unlike any city I had ever visited before - the medina, markets, and the absolute sprawl and activity level was almost a sensory overload. It is a city that has been around for over a thousand years and the variety of historical sites sitting right next to modern day buildings is very strange to experience for your average American such as myself.

Camel meat is a commodity across Morocco - as is imitation stuff I came to find out. Hanging a head outside your shop in the Medina is one way to communicate authenticity.

The Medina Market in Fes has been around since the city was first founded in 789 AD and has a variety of shops and services that is just mind boggling. Turning a corner and finding a camel's head hanging from an awning of one of the shops certainly did wonders in bringing me out of my early morning stupor.

The markets tend to come alive all at once around sunrise, and it is an incredible thing to witness. In talking to some of the shop owners, these small businesses buried deep in the maze of the Medina have been run by the same families for generations - some going back a couple of hundred years or more. At one juncture moving through the markets I met a couple of children around the age of 15 that had never set foot outside of the Medina itself - which is only 1/4 of the total area of Fes. They had lived their entire lives within 25 square blocks and never ventured any further - and when asked, saw no need to do so. I struggled to understand this mindset, but in reflecting back on the conversation, I remember that what you see as the "World" is really completely dependant on the perspective you are born into, and that perspective has far reaching effects in your life.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca right on the Atlantic Coast, photographed at sunrise. The largest Mosque in the world outside of Saudi Arabia and capable of accomodating 25,000 worshippers at a time.

Moving on from Fes and into the Atlas Mountains, we ran into all kinds of things that I would have never even dreamed being here of before arriving in Morocco. Jewish settlements on the outside of Fes that have been present since its founding and on to other oddities such as a

BBQ in the Middle Atlas Mountains on our way west towards the Sahara desert. Goat, Lamb, and other varieties, and quite possible the best lentils I have ever tasted.

Bavarian Village (you read that right) in the mountains that looked like it had been pulled straight out of Austria and dropped there complete with architecture, food, and dress. It was a major stop for the bus tours that were almost completely filled with Chinese tourists, and made me feel like I had been transported north and dropped into a European tourist trap without being told what was happening.

We finally stopped to grab something to eat on our way eastward, and ended up at a small mountain town BBQ/cafe. The people that ran the cafe were more than friendly, and through conversation found that some of their close family had emigrated to Houston TX several years earlier. That conversation reminded me just how small the world can be at times. The food consisted of lamb, goat, and some beef, and what I am definitely calling the best lentils I have ever had in my life. It was delicious, the company was fantastic, and in what felt too short a period of time, we were back on our way.

After a few more hours we made it to the edge of the Sahara and all the associated tourist infrastructure. We got a good night's sleep, and then proceeded to do all of the standard tourist things the next day. Camel riding, going to a camp out in the desert, enjoying a traditional Touareg meal, and sitting around a campfire listening to the stories that the locals love tell about living on the edge of the Sahara for countless generations.

Snake charming is a thing in the Marrakesh markets, although it troubles me that the snakes are defanged and appear to be drugged/sedated in most cases. I understand that people have to make a living, and that tourism drives these practices, but it breaks my heart to see regardless.