How to travel


You can be a tourist and get on a bus or van and go where the guide tells you to go, or you can travel and experience the people and the culture of a place. Either way, you make plans, but being a traveler, you let your day unfold as it will. As a traveler, you’re happy with however it happens. You’re willing to get lost.

I have the luxury of being a traveler because I’ve already been to Morocco and have already done the stuff the book recommends. (And because I have a Moroccan travel companion who’s in the business!) But I think it’s important to always add a bit of serendipity to a trip; to let things happen as they will. For example, it’s good to have a day in which you can sleep in, if you choose, or to run typical errands like you might at home. Meet the people with whom tourists never see! Be normal in a place. Talk to the people. Possibly get lost and make yourself have to rely on others to find your way!

I don’t think everyone is cut-out to travel for sure. It takes a lot of work to allow yourself to be free and to not worry: about how you look or how stupid you feel not knowing the language, or worrying about finding your way. But what I’ve learned is that someone will always help you. Always! So I say, get lost sometimes!

When in Chefchaouen, Morocco a few days ago, I became confused on the blue streets and alleyways; all of them looked alike! I have an excellent sense of direction but with all these blue doors and streets, it’s no wonder I couldn’t find the Hotel Parador. Or at least that’s what I thought the name of the hotel was where I was to meet Mokhtar after 2 hours of taking pictures. So after walking for what I knew was too long, I stopped and asked someone. He didn’t know English so I tried some French. It worked. He knew where I was to go. So off I went, following him past all the men waiting to get in to Mosque. He explained to each one he was taking me somewhere to show me my way, as if he needed to explain to these traditional men why he was walking with a woman, even though I tried to maintain a 3-step distance behind him.

He walked like he was in a race and I was exhausted within seconds! My god these people who are accustomed to walking in the desert or in hilly villages can walk! We proceeded into the market, me following trustingly behind. I looked to my right and thought, ‘That’s the way I’m supposed to go!’ but instead I followed, partly for the adventure of it and partly because I wasn’t sure of myself at the moment.

We got inside the market and he passed me off to another shop owner, wishing me good luck as I went on my way, blindly trusting man number 2. We walked, and walked, and walked inside that market, up steep hills like goats. Are you kidding me?! I kept thinking. But now I knew there was nothing more I could do except trust him. So when we got outside the market to another steep hill with a sign, ‘Hotel Parador’ at the top, I was devastated! This was not the hotel I was expecting to see. It looked like a rinky-dink hotel when the one I was looking for was palatial, with a big fancy pool and lots of public parking outside. I sat down on the steps and nearly started to cry. So disappointed and now getting a little scared because I had purposely left my phone, but now I had no way to contact Mokhtar to tell him I was lost. So I was feeling in a real pickle. “Maybe I told you the wrong hotel. Maybe I’m wrong,” I said to him. “Parking public?” I said to him. ‘Piscine et terrasse?’ I added desperately! “Oui, oui!” he emphatically assured, with the most beautiful smile! “C’est Hotel Parador! Oui!” So I sucked it up and took a deep breath and tackled the hill. We got to the top of it and my man, my savior, made a sweeping gesture to the parking lot and I hugged him and he said, “You said Hotel Parador and that’s where I brought you! To Hotel Parador!” I gave him some dirhams, probably a zillion too many, and we hugged and waved and said good-bye over and over and I calmly walked to Mokhtar as though nothing strange had happened. But he knew by my crazy sweaty hair and face that something was up!

It’s a good feeling to be out of control, to be at the mercy of strangers, to trust. To be free! It’s the adventure of travel! I see the good in others and I see the fact that we are all the same in the world. We are all the same. The same. Each and every one of us. It is really profound to me. And out of all the things in life so far, travel is the thing I think I value the very most. It is the singular thing that has taught me the most about others and about myself. If I someday have nothing, I have my memories and my experiences and I know that I have touched the lives of others as much as they have touched mine. It is very good. Tres bien.

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When in Volubilis

Volubilis is the site of ancient Roman ruins from like the 1st century. Without going into all the details (those which I have not retained), I’ll list a few high points: The ruins remained substantially intact until they were devastated by an earthquake in the mid-18th century and by Moroccan rulers subsequently looting the site for stone to reuse in building Meknes. It was not until the latter part of the 19th century that the site was definitively identified as that of the ancient city of Volubilis. During and after the period of French rule over Morocco, about half of the site was excavated, revealing many fine mosaics, and some of the more prominent public buildings and high-status houses were restored or reconstructed. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed for being “an exceptionally well preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the Empire”.

So here’s my experience. Driving through verdant and green, olive tree-filled rolling hills with grazing cows, sheep, and donkeys, you see a small sign pointing in the direction of Volubilis. But be careful or you’ll miss it (my experience) and will have to turn around and hunt for it again. And suddenly, you see it in the distance. And it takes your breath away. Because here in the middle of literally nowhere is an ancient Roman ruin from the first century. Are you even kidding me right now? And no one was practically even around! Spending an entire day here would not be out of the question if you were really into this kind of thing. Even for me I think I left too soon. But I was so taken by the wildflowers it was hard to decide what to focus on: ancient Roman ruins or these beautiful purple and pink flowers growing up through the ancient columns! Amazing all the way around.

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A tour of Fes, Morocco

It’s always good to hire a tour guide. Two main reasons I can think of now. 1. He can show you details about a place you might’ve otherwise missed, and 2. He keeps people from driving you crazy in the souq. My guide was Aziz. And a very sweet man at that. We picked him up at a cafe and he presented wearing a sports jacket, nice polo shirt, and slacks. Spiffy. I liked him instantly. And he didn’t skip a beat. Immediately upon being sat in the car he began describing to me Fes and how it has the largest medina in the whole of Africa. And how it is more tranquil than Marrakech. But I already knew that part! What a laid-back, calm place this is. So different from the hustle of Marrakech.

Of course there’s the requisite visit to the handicraft center to see the pottery being made from start to finish, and then being sat in front of a book of mosaic examples to choose the perfect piece to be made specifically for you and then shipped home. For $1200 for a table about 15″ diameter. But other than that, it’s a wonderful experience to see Fes with a guide.

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50 shades of blue: Chefchouan, Morocco

I still don’t know why the city of Chefchaouen is blue. But in the 1930’s, Jewish people painted it such. But why!? No clue. (I think it was to rebel against Hitler) But really, who cares. I was too busy taking photos and gawking and oohing and ahhing to care. At every turn there is more beauty! So much so that after a few hours it almost got tiresome. Take a look. And imagine seeing all of this in person!

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The Moroccan seaside

Essaouira has been my seaside town of choice. But after taking a trip to a remote town of Imasouan, near Agadir, I have changed my mind. Imasouan is enchanting, peaceful, and natural. No tourism; just Moroccan tourists. It’s all about fishing. And it’s all men. Very few women. Men in threesomes stand and untwist and unknot their nets to make them ready for the next trip out. Whole parking lots are used to spread out larger nets and straighten them. Beautiful blue wooden boats fill the parking lots (apparently the lots are for them) waiting for the next voyage. Fresh fish abounds and it’s not uncommon to see someone walking along the street carrying a huge red crab. Or to see someone sitting in the middle of the walkway chopping the heads off fish. It’s all fascinating and beautiful, and tranquil.

The tranquility of it all is more than I can describe. It swept over me like a wave and I felt my already-relaxed self sink even deeper into it. There is no souq, no medina. Just people living their fishing lives, laughing with each other, cutting up fish to sell, and grilling it to eat. Time stops here. From now on when someone asks me to think about the place I was happiest, or most relaxed, or most joyful, this is where I’ll be thinking about.

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Roads less traveled – – and goats in trees!

With my friend and co-traveler, Mokhtar, a native-born Moroccan and a tour operator, I am able to see things not every tourist gets to see. “Off-, off-road” we call it. He knows every nook and cranny of this country. And likely knows at least one or two people at every place we visit! Not an exaggeration. We were flagged through by a policeman the other day (I always give a breath of relief because you never know with the police over here) but suddenly an excited Mokhtar veered onto the shoulder where we were met at the car by the very policeman. Mokhtar jumped happily out of the car and the two embraced and kissed the four time-cheek kiss: the kiss indicating the two have not seen each other for a very long time (otherwise, a two time-cheek kiss would suffice). An old friend from his village, the two haven’t seen each other for at least 10 years. Another time we were in the middle of seeming nowhere and there’s Mokhtar sitting with his friend from his village. So we all sat for a fresh-squeezed orange juice. It happens every day. Even in these remote areas. It’s a small world, but it’s even smaller here in Morocco.

But that’s a digression. The point of this post is that we take the less-traveled roads on this trip. We discover areas that are new to both of us and that makes it all the more fun! The other day we took a day trip from Essaouira down the coast a bit so Mokhtar could show me some areas he had lived many years ago. We were on a narrow strip of tarred road barely big enough for one car. It went through some of the most spectacular countryside with the ocean visible at the tops of the trees and hills. Amazing beauty and unspoiled coastline! Miles and miles of it. Breathtaking.

And all of a sudden, we came upon herds of goats milling through the argan trees – – and climbing them! And what noise they make! They practically inhale the argan nut from the tree and are able to climb to the very tops of the trees in order to do so! It’s amazing! The sound was really quite something. And all of sudden, there’s a camel! It seemed more like a giraffe, though, the way it reached up into the tree and compared to the goats at its feet, it was a giant. We squealed to a stop and both grabbed our cameras and took video and photos for the next 30 minutes. Prior to this I’ve only seen the staged-for-tourist goats in trees, not these honest to goodness climbers.

Rarely do tourists see this kind of thing on a run-of-the-mill tour. It takes a special guide and unique circumstances to find yourself in these spots!

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