A Facebook message from a handsome stranger spurs Shamsydar Ani to set off alone for this intriguing North African kingdom
It all started with a Facebook message from a Moroccan guy. Such an exotic character; tall, a face full of stubble and eyes so captivating… who could resist such charm coupled with charisma fitting of the face?
I was wary, but photos of his travels in Asia and knowledge of the region got me interested. I figured it would only be fair to him if I started reading up on North Africa.
A month later, I decided to travel Europe alone, but I was determined to fit Morocco into my itinerary. Everything I read was full of high praise for Morocco – the beautiful sand and sea, the mysterious deserts, the ancient cities and the famed Atlas Mountains. The appeal of the country had already surpassed the appeal of the young gentleman who intrigued me in the first place.
I couldn’t stop marveling at the beauty of the country. The clear blue skies, the ancient architecture and the city’s people who were never short of compliments
The next thing I knew, I was on a flight to Casablanca. A whole entourage of family and friends had sent me off, knowing I’d be gone for a month. They were used to me traveling, but this was the first time I would be away for such a long time and, on top of that, traveling solo.
While my mother worried about me bringing home a boy, my best friend worried about me not coming home at all. After all, I had just left my job. With no commitments at home, I could have easily gone on a traveling spree for longer… but I had to see if I liked the life of a nomad first.
About 16 hours later, with a two-hour layover in Doha, I arrived in Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco. As I stepped a foot on to the gravel of the airport, I took a deep breath and registered the smell of Morocco. A gust of wind sent chills through my spine and rain fell upon my face. I took out my coat from my backpack. I was ready for my adventure to begin.
Morocco’s lingua franca is Arabic despite being situated in between two major continents – Africa and Europe. The dialect of Arabic, however, was infused with French and it made learning Moroccan Arabic even more difficult than standard Arabic. One semester’s worth of studying basic Arabic just wasn’t enough. Thankfully, a local man saw me having difficulty at the airport train ticket counter and came to my rescue.
Ahmed became my train companion to the city. He was visiting his mother in his home city of Tetouan. Having spent the last 20 years of his life in The Netherlands, Ahmed had plenty of stories to share during our brief encounter. He warned me of sly young Moroccan men (I’d already looked into this since making friends with the earlier-mentioned Moroccan guy), boasted about Moroccans’ ability to speak multiple languages and reminded me to visit his home city.
Upon reaching Casa Voyageur, the main train station in Casablanca, my dear friend Jannah greeted me with open arms. Jannah is an SMU undergraduate who was on exchange in Casablanca. I was blessed with friends scattered all over Europe at the time of my travels. Who could resist free accommodation and a glimpse of life as a local while traveling?
The first thing I looked forward to in Morocco was the street food. Years of dining at the so-called Arabic and Moroccan restaurants of Bussorah Street only brought shame to real Moroccan food. The infusion of sweet and savory in authentic Moroccan cuisine is divine. The flavor of spices like cumin, paprika and cinnamon bursts in your mouth as you bite into juicy chunks of meat and tomatoes. Bread and olives come together with tagines as a set, and a Moroccan meal is never complete without a glass of fresh Moroccan mint tea.
Jannah took me on a walking tour of the city. Casablanca was bustling with life, more specifically, nightlife. The streets of Ain Diab are filled with pubs and clubs. In a country where Islam is so imprinted in culture and tradition, Casablanca is surprisingly modern.
By contrast, the Hassan II Mosque provides respite from the chaos of the city. The minaret is 210 metres tall and it has a capacity of 105,000 people – I heard that during the month of Ramadhan, up to half a million people can flood the mosque grounds. I stepped into the praying area and marvelled at the intricate architecture. It became clear why it took seven years and more than $500 million to build.
After spending two days in Casablanca, I took a four-hour train ride to Fez, a city best known for its leather industry. I stayed in a cozy little hostel near the old medina and made a few friends. I even met a fellow Singaporean who shared my name. It was great to be able to chat in colloquial Malay.
My first meal in Fez was a huge camel meat kofta kebab. The tenderness of the meatballs was cleverly mixed with a rich blend of spices, among which were cumin and paprika. Topped with a dollop of yoghurt mint sauce and filled with garden vegetables, the kebab pretty much filled me up for the rest of the day. I headed back to the hostel to wash and rest. I was desperate for some sleep.
After a good night’s rest, I filled my stomach as much as I could with the free hostel breakfast. It wasn’t much, but being a traveler on a budget I had to make the best of it.
I made friends with a fellow solo traveler, Ariel from Argentina, who arrived in Fez about the same time as me. Standing at well over six feet tall, I would have easily fallen in love with him if I were back home. But since I was traveling, I couldn’t care less.
We explored the old medina of Fez, and climbed to the castle ruins. The view of Fez from up there was simply breathtaking. I couldn’t stop marveling at the beauty of the country. The clear blue skies, the ancient architecture and the city’s people who were never short of compliments; Fez was charming.
I spent my last night in Fez in the comforts of the hostel, smoking shisha with Ariel, and making small talk with other guests. As much as I would have loved to be part of the party on the hostel rooftop, I was gathering my strength for the next city on my itinerary.
Just a three-hour bus ride away from Fez is Chefchaouen, the blue city. It sits among the Rif Mountains, and is just inland from Tangiers and Tetouan. Chefchaouen used to be administered by Spain, but was returned to Morocco in 1956; hence Spanish is a more common language in this city.
I fell in love with Chefchaouen at first sight. I stumbled upon images of the city online and was delighted when I discovered it was in Morocco. It felt like being inside some sort of snow globe. The chilly winter with a hint of sunshine was perfect for me. Pastry shops lined the quiet streets and the main souq was filled with old men and women selling fruits, vegetables and knick-knacks.
I reunited with Jannah in Chefchaouen. The main mosque in Chefchaouen stood among restaurants and coffee shops. We sat down in one of these and watched the men arriving for Friday prayers. It was a remarkable sight.
We spent two days in Chefchaouen eating, hiking, relaxing, eating, talking… did I mention eating? Despite the lack of activities for tourists, the city still attracts many visitors just because of its beauty.
We took a bus to Tangiers where Jannah was due to meet a fellow Singaporean, Aida, who had married a Moroccan and moved to the city. My plan was to bid farewell to Jannah so I could catch a sleeper train to Marrakesh. It was the weekend of the Marrakesh International Film Festival and I wanted to be part of the action. But hearing so much about Aida and her husband Karim, I ended up spending the weekend in Tangiers.
Our hosts were welcoming and they made us feel at home. The newlyweds were excited to have us over at their place, as we were their first guests. Tangiers was like another Casablanca to me, except that Tangiers offered more than just malls and a mosque.
Hercules Cave, where the supposed son of Zeus separated Spain and Morocco, is one of the more popular tourist attractions. The sea provided a clear view of the Straits of Gibraltar, which must be accompanied with a tagine of fresh fish and vegetables. The winds and sounds of the sea remind you of the beach, and for a while, you forget that you are in Morocco.
After a 14-hour train ride from Tangiers, I was tired and famished when I arrived at Marrakesh, the final stop of my tour. I did not prepare myself well for the journey, and was dying for a place to rest. Thankfully, the hostel, which I had earlier cancelled my reservation at, welcomed me with open arms although I was not checking in for the night. I was served tea by the front desk personnel, Muhammad, and was even given a free breakfast. The hospitality of Moroccans never failed to amaze me.
After walking around the city’s famed central square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, for half a day, my feet were begging for rest. I finished my souvenir shopping and made my way back to the hostel – a very long way after getting lost in the maze of the medina for two hours. I then had just a few hours to rest before catching a flight to Seville.
Maassalamah Ya Maroc
On the way to the airport by motorcycle taxi, I soaked in my last Moroccan sunset. The orange hues in the sea of blue sent chills down my spine, and somehow, it brought tears to my eyes. I had to bid farewell to Morocco, but I didn’t feel ready to leave. I hadn’t seen the Sahara Desert, skied in Ifrane, or climbed the Atlas Mountains – but I know deep in my heart that I’ll be back someday, somehow, to this marvellous land called Morocco.
I left pieces of my heart in all the cities I visited. A little in Casablanca and Fez, a piece in Chefchaouen, and a little bit more in Tangiers and Marrakesh. As much as I was tempted to drop the rest of my European trip and stay in Morocco, I decided not to. I soaked up the last air of Morocco I could while I was at the Marrakesh airport, and told myself I will be back – and hopefully the next time I am in Morocco, I have a lifelong travel partner by my side.