So I guess I should preface this little tale by saying that this trip was probably the most fun I've had traveling, ever. Morocco is beautiful, the people are amazingly friendly and helpful, and I'd have a hard time finding a more ridiculously fun and relaxed group of people to travel with.
We kicked off our trip in true Peace Corps fashion by spending the night of St. Patty's in Nouakchott. We had a few celebratory drinks that night (including the infamous 3,500 UM carbomb at Shenkers...we thought it was a good idea at the time), saw a full moon, ripped some pants, had a heated discussion about religion, and left the next morning to make our way up to Nouadibouh. We managed to snag ourselves an awesome driver in Nouakchott who we used for the rest of the trip. Nouadibouh is on the coast about a 6 hour car ride directly north of Nouakchott on the border of Mauritania and Western Sahara (more on that later).
We got into Nouadibouh in the evening. It has a big fishing industry and is the port from which iron ore mined from the north of Mauritania is shipped out to the rest of the world. Since fishing and mining are two of the country's only real sources of income, Nouadibouh is central to the Mauritanian economy and is relatively international (I use that term extremely loosely).
So the seven of us met up with some of the PCVs in Nouadibouh and hung out for two nights. We went out to the ocean one day to play on the beach and explore the ship wrecks just off the coast. Apparently someone decided that Nouadibouh would make an excellent ship graveyard and people started running ships into the shallows near the port. It really does look like a graveyard with all those hulking iron carcasses rusting out in the waves.
We left Nouadibouh on the 21st to make a flight out of a city called Dakhla in Western Sahara. Western Sahara is a huge chunk of territory in between Mauritania and Morocco that the two countries went to war over around 1989. The dispute was never settled, and to this day, the land is simply considered occupied territory. Morocco essentially governs the territory, but it's sovereignty isn't formally recognized. When you cross the Mauritanian border, there's a 5 kilometer "no man's land" before you actually enter Western Sahara. This strip is essentially a buffer between Mauritania and the occupied territory that Morocco claims for itself. It's mined, and the road is unpaved, so drivers have to take extra care to keep to the car tracks that wind through this desolate piece of desert. Even worse, there's actually a population that's trapped there. Citizens of neither Mauritania nor Morocco nor any other country, these people can't ever leave that little strip. They're like people stuck in an international airport or something. It's sad.
We obviously made it to the entrace to Western Sahara (Morocco, for all intents and purposes) in one piece, and crossed the border without any problems. The drive up to Dakhla was beautiful, right along the beach, and we got into the city that evening. The difference between Mauritania and Morocco was noticeable as soon as we crossed the border. Almost immediately we found delicious food and bathrooms with real toilets. And it only got better!
After a quick flight from Dakhla to Casablanca, we crashed at the airport to wait for Steph to arrive from the States. We got in at 2 AM, so we just curled up in our sleeping bags (well, those of us who had them) on the floor and passed out until about 7, when she got in. I was so happy to have her there, and she got along with everyone soooo well. She put up with all of our Mauritania talk and handled the turkish toilet thing like a champ!
So to move this story along (cause I could probably go on forever about all this), we hopped a train to Tangiers after we met up with Steph. Lonely Planet described Tangiers as a seedy port town, but we thought it was gorgeous. Maybe our judgement is slightly impaired, coming from a place like Mauritania, but we really did have a great time there. Our hostel could have used some work, but the city itself was beautiful. Each city or town we visited had a "medina" or marketplace. Usually the oldest parts of the town, they're primarily only open to pedestrians, and the tight, winding little streets are lined with street food, crafts, and some of the cutest clothes ever! We mostly just wandered around the medina in Tangiers. Chels and I got haircuts at a genuine Moroccan women's hair salon, which was an awesome way to get a taste of real Moroccan life. We went out once, but there weren't a whole lot of bars and clubs were generally super expensive. We tended to wander around, drink coffee or Moroccan mint tea, eat street food, hit up a supermarket for wine or something, and then just hang out in our hotel rooms. We were very good at entertaining ourselves.
Our next stop was Fes, which was my favorite of the trip. The medina there is the largest urban pedestrian zone in the world. It has something like 9,000 streets, and it's pretty much impossible to navigate the thing without a guide. The first place our guide took us was the tanneries, which are apparently pretty famous. Also, possible the nastiest things I've ever smelled, but it was cool seeing how they dye all the hides and all the beautiful leather goods they make from them. Our guide took us around to a bunch of other little workshops: weavers and smiths and perfumeries. It was so hard not to wander off cause there were just so many interesting things to check out!
The new part of Fes was also beautiful, but in a totally different way. It was like a modern European city. We stumbled across a real live movie theater one night (granted, we were the only people there, but still!), and went to McDonald's multiple times (I even ate fries...I know, who am I?). I could totally see myself living in that city. It has the perfect combination of old world history and new world conveniences.
After Fes, we had a day-long trek by train and then bus to Essouiera, which is a small town on the coast a couple of hours northwest of Marrakesh. Essouiera is a cute little beachy town that supposedly attracks windsurfers and hippies, but most of the people we saw seemed pretty normal. We rented out a cute little apartment for all 8 of us, and had so much fun. We found a bona fide Moroccan bar (basically a cafe serving beer to a bunch of heavily smoking men) and had some of the best seafood I've ever eaten. Essouiera is a big fishing town and you can buy fish at auction at the docks. There's a strip of shacks right by the port with fish straight off the boats on display, and you just point to what you want or give them whatever you've already bought and they'll grill it up and serve it to you right there. The boys bought some barracuda and crabs at auction, and we all went down to the shacks and had that cooked up with calamari, sardines, eel (I think) and some other fish I didn't recognize. Delicious!!
Our last stop was Marrakesh, which was cool but a little overwhemling at first. It's definitely more of a big city than any of the other stops we made, and the main attraction is this huge square in the middle of the medina. A little touristy (complete with snake charmers, acrobats, and men covered from head to toe posing as belly dancers - I think they really thought they were fooling people), but cool to see, especially at night. Twinkle lights light up the whole square, and throngs of people crowd shoulder to shoulder, wandering through the maze of food stands and performers.
We also spent a day bike riding around the city. Considering that many of us hadn't been on bikes in years, that might not have been the best idea. The streets of Marrakesh are crowded with cars, mopeds and bikers, and lanes are apparently only suggestions. Right after we all got on the road, we were crossing over and these two women on a moped totally wiped out. Rob bit it trying to get up on the curb in the chaos that ensued, and Eric fell cause he was laughing so hard at the whole situation! Ridiculous, haha. After a little while, though, we all got used to the craziness and just went with it. It was a great way to get to know the city, get some exercise and enjoy the sun.
Steph left a night before we did, and being as amazing as she is, put herself and I up in a really nice hotel near the airport her last night. It was 3:30 in the morning when she left, but I was sad to see her go. Still, our last night in Marrakesh was probably my favorite of the trip. The seven of us took over this really cool lounge room on the roof of our hostel and sang and danced and just engaged in all sorts of hooliganry. We were doing impressions of each other and acrobatics and having intense political discussions for no reason in french. Which pretty much sums up the entire trip. As amazing as Morocco is, I think we had such a good time because we were just such an amazing group! As PCVs, we've gotten extremely good at entertaining ourselves and each other with very little to work with. Putting us in a country where even the most boring people could have a good time was like giving someone who can cook fillet mignon on a Foreman a state of the art kitchen. In fact, we are so good at kicking back, rolling with the punches and having fun no matter what, the train to Fes stopped at some station, and we all sat there for 45 minutes before we realized that we had actually arrived in Fes. We read, we chatted, people got off the train to smoke, got back on the train, hung out for a while. Mashallah, the train sat in the station for so long, or we would have been on our way to Tunisia or something in no time.
So we left Marrakesh by plane and arrived in Dakhla in the evening. Spent the night in a hotel, then left the next morning for the border. The drive was fine (though a lot less upbeat than it had been in the opposite direction) until we had to cross into Mauritania. The guards there were holding everyone up trying to extort money from silly foreigners. Luckily it wasn't a problem for us (in that we didn't have to pay, but we still had to wait like 4 hours to get through), but some Portuguese suckers in front of us spent 100 euro and made in through in about as much time we did.
Once we got across the border, Chelsea, Eric and I caught the sole train in Mauritania. It runs from Nouadibouh to Zourat, north of Atar, which is where the iron ore is mined. The train really only exists to ship the ore from Zourat to the port in Nouadibouh, and most people ride for free by jumping in the freight cars. On the way inland, though, the freight cars are empty so you sit in the bottom of what is essentially a huge iron bath tub, can't see anything, and freeze your butt of once the sun goes down. And it's on overnight trip. So we opted to ride in the moldy, rotted out passneger car. It wasn't as bad as we'd been preparing ourselves for, but I think the only reason we managed to sleep as well as we did was because we were so exhausted.
We got off the train around 7 the next morning, and after 3 hours of off roading in the back of an overpacked pick up truck, we finally arrived back in Atar. So, door to door, it took us 3 days of pretty puch constant travel. Kind of intense. I spent a day or two in Atar, then came back to site four or five days ago. I'm still adjusting to the slower, more solitary way of life back in Ain. Once I start teaching again this weekend, I think it'll be easier.
Well, I hope that wasn't unbearably long. I tried to condense things, but it was a pretty eventful trip, and I had fun reminiscing. I'll post pictures as soon as I can!