A Travellerspoint blog

Entries about morocco

The Last Colony – Travelling West Sahara

It was just past four a.m. as I walked out of the bus station. The police car slowly followed. It kept shadowing me as I walked down the road, maintaining a distance of 400 metres or so. I, purposefully, made it easy for it to follow me.

sunny 28 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Western Sahara on the map

Western Sahara on the map

You might have seen it on the news. On one of those world maps where countries are marked in different colours according to their performance in something. If you’d noticed that weird gray ‘no-data-available’ area in the upper left corner of Africa, you’ve noticed Western Sahara.
The “disputed territory” has had this ‘gray status’ since 1975 when the Spanish left their last colony in Africa. They left so completely that they even duck up the bodies from their cemeteries to re-buried them in Spain. The term ‘disputed’ is diplomatic lingo for “someone is not following international law” - in this case, that ‘someone’ is Morocco. For non-diplomats, most of Western Sahara is occupied by Morocco. The long story short is that the Spanish let Morocco and Mauritania “have” the territory when they left. This against the direct will of the local population, the Sahrawis, who according to the United Nation’s Charter had a right to self-determination as a colonised people. They still have this right, now just under Moroccan rule, not Spanish. Hence, Western Sahara has been named the Last Colony of Africa.

The so-called border post

The so-called border post

Spectacularly, back in 1975 Morocco had 500.000 unarmed civilians march into the territory in what is known as ‘the Green March,' claiming it in a glamorous way as Moroccan. The army had moved in six days earlier. Mauritania eventually had enough of the local population’s resistance and left. Morocco swiftly moved into that territory too. And the reason for all is? Natural resources. (What else?). Western Sahara is home to the world’s biggest reserve of phosphate, and the waters off the coast a rich – making the fishing rights here big business. A ceasefire eventually put an end to the fighting in 1991. Since then, Morocco has occupied around 80 per cent of the territory. The 20 percent left to the local population is eventually nothing but sand, with no natural resources. Hence, about half of the Sahrawi population currently live in exile in refugee camps in Algeria.

Plenty of road blocks

Plenty of road blocks

This conflict is largely unknown to the wider world. Primarily because no powerful state cares about this easily forgettable corner of Africa.

Travelling here is distinctly different from travelling in Morocco. I’ve had both civilians and police instruct me not to take photos. At all. Of anything. One local Sahrawi, who befriended me, wanted his picture taken and we had to drive out of town for no one to see us. Both police and military presence are massive, and there are at least a couple of military bases in each of the towns I’ve visited.

Let's call him Riad

Let's call him Riad

Entering and exiting any town the buses stop at a police checkpoint and everybody will have their ID’s checked. As a foreigner, the Moroccan occupational force fear that I’m a journalists or human rights activist, who’s only mission is to expose all the violations happening towards the Sahrawis (more on that here and here). My details were vigorously noted at each checkpoint, and at my final destination for the day are the local police warned about my arrival. When I arrived from Morocco to Smara very early in the morning, the local police was waiting for me at the bus station. Just sitting, casually in their car. After leaving the bus station, the police car slowly followed around 400 metres behind me. The last thing I wanted was any trouble, so I made it easy for them. Not turning too many corners in a row while looking for a hotel. The first two I tried were full. After this, the officers clearly got tiered of following me around at 4:30 in the morning. They drove up to me, asked if I was looking for a hotel and the took me to “the best” (at 3€ per night it clearly wasn’t). Being under surveillance has its benefits too.

Local football boys

Local football boys

Smara isn’t visited as often by foreigners as it is inland. It’s also closer to the front line between the Moroccan army and the local rebels. So besides an alert police force, there’s also plenty of secret agents making sure that none of the locals I spoke with would tell me anything about the occupation or any mistreatment going on. This explains why my new friend was so weary of having his picture taken. Luckily, the agents are rather easy to spot with their sunglasses and leather jackets. I stayed out of too much trouble, and they stayed out of my way, though one was spectating me playing football with some local kids in Smara. Those kids would probably have gotten a visit from the police one of these days...

Posted by askgudmundsen 12:46 Archived in Western Sahara Tagged travel security morocco west_africa conflict western_sahara polisario sahrawis smara dakhla Comments (0)

Paying for a Trip to the Prison Shower

Violated, but clean... A proper, local hammam experience is not for the fainthearted or for those who insist strongly on their personal space and comfort zone as inviolable.

sunny 19 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Someone more bashful than me would have felt violated. I had apparently walked into a prison shower, not a hammam. Something I will get back to in a moment.

Hammam

Hammam

A hammam – or a Turkish Bath as they are known as in the West - is basically a public bathhouse. They come in all shapes and sizes and are widespread outside the Western world. In the Russian-speaking world, for example, they are known as ‘banya’. They range from what is essentially a locker room shower to luxurious spas. Hammams are also a hugely important part of daily life, as most people in the world do not have access to hot running water. However, it is the Arab world that has made them famous.
Not only a place of relaxation and personal hygiene, hammams are also places of social, religious and spiritual importance. It is a place where both women and men can relax with their peers, outside of public surveillance. In a sexually repressed society, where public affection is taboo, the hammams offer a sort of time-out, where men and women, in their almost nakedness, can relax together. So, it is not uncommon for the men to joke around, throw cold water at each other and, in general, have a good laugh about life. I obviously do not have any experience with the women’s hammams but I am told that they use it to conversate freely, outside listening range of any (abusive) men.

My Malian orderly in the Hammam

My Malian orderly in the Hammam

Religiously, a Muslim must be clenched and purified before attending prayers at a mosque. This is done by washing hands, lower arms, nose, mouth, ears, feet and ankles. Have he or she had sexual intercourse that day, a full body wash is expected. As usually with the three big religions, there have weirdly enough always been a repulsive interest in human reproduction and what goes on in peoples’ bedrooms. Likewise, a preference to somehow dictate what is allowed comes with most organised religions. The hammam is, therefore, an important place to show off one's clenching before going to the mosque.

The hammam experience is not new to me. Siberian banyas where the best places to reheat my frozen body during the Russian winter and to clear off the dirt after climbing central Asia's mountains. In Syria the price of a wash, scrub and quick massage was less than five euros, providing a little luxury to our shoestring budget, and when visiting Turkey, going to a ‘Turkish Bath’ is a must-do. Here in Morocco, the hammam is necessary because my host family does not have hot water. The required installations are simply not installed in their house. Hence, most morning washes are done in the sink. Face, armpits and privates are washed, then it is off to school. So, once a week a proper bath is needed. There are a couple of hammams nearby. The cheapest sets me back about a euro and a half. It resembles a standard locker room, with the addition of a small sauna. There are no showers. Instead, a number of taps are placed along the walls, about 30 cm above the floor. These are for filling the colourful plastic tubs that are available. Once you have filled a tub, you have to use a large plastic bowl to pour water on yourself. Most locals, therefore, bring a little stool to sit on. They also bring a harsh glove/wash clout to scrub themselves. Once you have washed, scrubbed and saunaed, you are done.

The hammam's main room

The hammam's main room

The other hammam is one of the fancier kinds – by local standards - and cost a heavy (again, by local standards) ten euros. Meaning that those fancy hammams in tourist areas tend to resemble luxurious spas that are all about the relaxing experiences of a wash and massage. Contrary to that a fine local hammam is all about getting clean. Real clean. The fancy part is that you do not have to wash yourself. At my local hammam, an athletic and smiling guy from Mali is during the washing for you. Real thoroughly.
Once I had stripped down to my boxers, which you wear throughout the whole experience, I was brought into the standard hammam-room with a row of hot-water sinks along the walls, which were decorated with dark green tiles. I was sat on a stool while my Malian orderly washed me. First, with shampoo, giving me a rough head massage, then with a thick brown lotion/soap. This greasing of me included my face, arms, back, chest, stomach, outer- and inner thighs, legs and feet. Then another wash-down, with the hot water from the sinks, before I was placed in the sauna for a good fifteen minutes. Once cooked, I was splashed with more hot water, this time with a boiling temperature. Only half way through and I had been massaged, marinated, cooked and scalded. To be honest, I did feel a little like a beef brisket.

The scrubbing/tortue table

The scrubbing/tortue table

Once washed, it was time for my scrubbing. With a rough glove – imagine something between sandpaper and field turf – the outermost layer of dead skin is simply scrubbed off your body. While lying on a stone table, more and more skin was scrubbed off and in the end, I was lying in hundreds of small rolls of my own dead skin. This was the beginning of the violating part. As is was not bad enough to lie around in my own dead skin, the scrubbing goes everywhere. Everywhere. Having my face scrubbed, including my eyelids and throat, is bad enough. But it would be worse. My crutch apparently needed a scrubbing as well, and while lying on my stomach, my Malian friend decided to scrub the inside bits of my butt-cheeks too. Everything except my reproductive organs got a scrub. I am still considering whether the only proper thing to do is to ask him to marry me…

The changing room

The changing room

Thus spotless, I was yet again splashed with something that felt like boiling water, and slightly more embarrassed than when I arrived, I was washed for the third time. This time with a notably nicer smelling soap. Thus cleaned in places I did not know needed cleaning, I was left in the dressing room in a rope by myself. Thus, giving me some time to contemplate what had happened over the past hour. This is apparently the standard way of doing a washing in a fancy hammam outside the tourist areas, and I have to admit that I have never felt that clean. So I probably won’t press charges. Though I might keep to the cheap hammam, where I do the washing and scrubbing myself, for the future.

Posted by askgudmundsen 04:31 Archived in Morocco Tagged spa morocco rabat experience hammam home_stay Comments (0)

Back to School

It is less than two months ago I handed in my master’s thesis. Now I am back in the classroom. This time with something far less complicated, but and I am almost struggling more now than I was two months ago.

rain 16 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Homework - yay!

Homework - yay!

Having spent ten days enjoying Morocco, I have arrived in the country’s capital, Rabat, for four weeks of French lessons. Since homework (especially grammar) is not the most exciting topic, I will have to dig deep to entertain you until my course finishes on April 15. Luckily, I have never been particular gifted with languishes, so my struggles with French could potentially be very entertaining. So far I am doing fairly well – at least in the classroom. My ability to do anything outside, on the streets of Rabat is quite another story.

My New Room

My New Room

While here, I will be lodging with a local Moroccan family of three; Houcai, Aicha and their three-year-old son, Riad, who has way more energy than should be allowed for any living organism. They speak French and Arabic only, so give me a couple of weeks to learn enough of the languish to actually get to know them. Then I will be happy to introduce them more thoroughly. As for daily life in Rabat, I am mostly spending my time studying and getting to know the city.

Riad stole my phone and hat

Riad stole my phone and hat

‘Studying’ actually means spending time with the relevant books – unlike my university time where most of my days were spent doing everything else than actual studying. Getting to know the city is still mostly a matter of wandering aimlessly between different familiar points. So far the most satisfying finds have been the national library and a bookshop selling English-languish books. I am still looking for a café I can use as my daily hang-out spot. Otherwise, Rabat has a relatively modern feel to it, so I do not think life here will be much different than any expatriate’s life in any southern European city.

The weekends will still be spent exploring Morocco, so the blog’s travel focus will not be abandoned altogether. I especially look forward to visiting Casablanca. Not because of the iconic 1942-film of the same name, but exactly because real world Casablanca is nothing like the film (which was not filmed in Morocco anyway). One of the most famous romantic locations on the screen, the modern city is Morocco’s financial and industrial capital. The largest city in the country, it is a modern and a rather bleak place. Therefore, is it almost always placed near the top of various lists of the world’s ‘most disappointing travel destinations’ (often together with Las Vegas and Hollywood). That is exactly why I am looking forward to it; my expectations are so low that Casablanca can almost only be a positive surprise.

Studying at the National Library

Studying at the National Library

With those words, I will have to get back to my past-tense adjectives and to fail the pronunciations of fairly basic French words.

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:54 Archived in Morocco Tagged french morocco rabat casablanca study_abroad disappointing_destinations Comments (0)

Hashish Mountains of Morocco

Experiencing the grass capital of Morocco

sunny 16 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Sitting on the top of the southern bit of Europe, looking at Africa, I find myself without any real expectations going forward.

The Blue Town, Chefchaouen

The Blue Town, Chefchaouen

Walking just behind the waterfalls near the blue facades and winding alleyways of the town Chefchouen, we passed fields upon fields of marijuana plantages. The Rif Mountains is one of the prime location for Morocco’s big production of weed and hashish, and this is clearly visible when visiting the region. So while all the guidebooks praise the town for it’s old blue Medina (old town), the relaxing atmosphere and beautiful walks in the area, they tend to forget to mention that any visitor will be smack in the middle of the Marijuana-land.
While it is not necessarily to any discomfort to visitors, the marijuana trade is huge and you cannot avoid it. It is simply something you have to accept to a certain level. Both young guy and old men on the street is inevitable going to ‘psst’ at you offering in drugs – multiple times a day. This might not be any more hassle than the touristy restaurant staffers that tries to drag you into their establishment of the central street of any European tourist destination. A firm “La, shukran” (no, tanks) or three should do the trick. More ignoring is the hassle from guys who want to show you their marijuana farm.

Colours of the Medina

Colours of the Medina

They tend to be way more persistent. Mostly because those offers work in the same way that “would you like to come to see my shop” comments on market works; you will be pressed hard to buy their products, except in this case that product is marijuana. Whether you buy something might determine whether they suddenly want to take admission for showing you around. Having a bunch of marijuana farmers circling you, insisting that you own the something for having showed you their farm might not be the least intimidation experience so changes that any marijuana farm visit is going to be expensive are good. If you are keen to buy anything, you should seek advice at your hostel or fellow travellers who know a decent dealer.
Which brings us to the third annoyance. It is not necessarily an annoyance to everyone, but hostels will inevitably be full of hippies and other smokers who will be lounging around on the roof terrace for most of the day, enjoining life. This crowd might not be for anybody, and the sweet smell of burnt grass coming from the table next to yours might not be everybody’s favourite idea of breakfast. Though I particularly appreciated their relaxed attitude to… well, everything.

Alternative River-Crossing

Alternative River-Crossing

That said, the “Blue Town” is absolutely a lovely place to wander and get yourself lost in, which will eventually happen when you make your way into the Medina. The further into the Medina you get, the small, winding street the alleyways was full of daily life developing. Once in a while, you will pass a bunch of kids who stare at you in wonder or a couple of old men laughing silently at you. In both cases because they know you are walking into a dead end to corners ahead and have to walk a confused walk-of-shame for getting lost when you walk passed them a second time when you backtrack your way back out of the dead end. Further away from the city and the marijuana fields both the hikes and the waterfalls grow more impressive. A day’s outing is worth the effort, as many of the hikes add some adventure to the beautiful surroundings with slippery slopes, some alternative means of river crossings and some rather confusing and unmarked paths.

Take care, wherever you are.
Cascades d'Akchour

Cascades d'Akchour

Posted by askgudmundsen 10:40 Archived in Morocco Tagged travel morocco weed blue_city chefchaouen marok hashish rif_mountains Comments (0)

The Surprising Lack of Expectations

Sitting on the top of the southern bit of Europe, looking at Africa, I find myself without any real expectations going forward.

sunny 18 °C
View Kurdistan Summer & West Africa on askgudmundsen's travel map.

Do not get me wrong; I am incredibly excited about the prospect of heading out on a new adventure. Like a bear waking from hibernation, remembering the taste of its first kill of the spring, I too have not forgotten the fantastic feeling of arriving in new places, meeting new people and having new experiences, learning more about the world we are living in. But as I am sitting here on the Rock of Gibraltar, or simply the Rock, I have a curious lack of any real expectations for this trip. Wherever my brain would usually put expectations is instead just a fuzzy void.

View of Africa from the Rock

View of Africa from the Rock

It might be because I have done it all before. I am setting out on my fourth longer-than-three-months journey (I will return to why three months is the relevant time frame in a later blog entry), so the routine of it all might be setting in. It just does not feel like the exciting, “life changing” new beginning anymore – though I kinda feel it should be. I mean, a year of anything is quite a long time, especially living out of a backpack.

Entry to Gibraltar by crossing the runway

Entry to Gibraltar by crossing the runway

Maybe it is because the cliché of “expect the unexpected” actually holds true very often on such journeys. If this is true, it is simply easier to go in with as few expectations as possible and then just roll with whatever is thrown at you, good or bad. Or, it could just be because West Africa is simply unchartered territory, even for me. I simply do not know what to expect. Unlike “regular” travels, this is quite frankly a little different. Normally, you would have the comfort and safety of a guide book. But no guidebook really covers West Africa, the one I have is from 2008, so most accommodations mentioned will be closed down, transportation options will have changed, numerous sights will have opened and closed since, and all of the prices quoted in the book will be outdated. So I am to a larger degree than normally travelling in the dark.
Further, most other places have a decent amount of other travellers, English-speaking locals and tourist infrastructure. Even places like the Middle East (increased media attention means for curious travellers going there, where it is safe) and Central Asia (a very traditional route for overlanders and bicyclists travelling between Europe and South-east Asia or Australia) have a rather large crowd visiting. West Africa does not.

Off across the sea

Off across the sea

The only way I know to deal with these situations is pretty much to embrace the uncertainty. The fact that I rarely know where I will be two days from now or where I am going to spend the night will just have to be welcomed as part of the fun. The adventure of travelling in distant lands have always been that the simplest of everyday decisions, such as where to go to bed and how to get something to eat become challenges that define much of your day. Only when that is settled can you begin to wonder about the sights, history or peoples of wherever you happen to be. With those thoughts written down, I sail for Africa. Wish me luck!

Take care, wherever you are.

Posted by askgudmundsen 07:00 Archived in Gibraltar Tagged africa morocco travels gibraltar west_africa Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 5) Page [1]