Crossing the Strait of Gibraltar (Morocco, part 1)

June 15 – July 1

After a relaxing and indulgent five days in the South of France, we headed back to the Marseille airport to catch a flight to Fes, Morocco. We stayed in Morocco for almost two and a half weeks; we spent the first part traveling all over the country with a guide and a driver, and then ended the trip with a week in the beach town of Essaouira.

We decided once we had already begun our travels that we would spend a few weeks in Morocco. Our plan is to be in the general Western-Europe / Mediterranean part of the world for about five months, but we can only stay in the Schengen zone without visas for 90 out of 180 days, which is not enough for us to stay there the whole time. (The Schengen zone is a consortium of 26 European countries, not correlated with the EU, which have gotten rid of border control at their mutual borders; so you get your passport stamped when entering and leaving the Schengen zone, but not when traveling within it.) We were already planning to go to Croatia and Montenegro, in addition to already having visited Ireland (countries which are not in the Schengen zone and do not count against our 90 days), but we needed another few weeks somewhere outside of the zone in order to not overstay our visas. So we decided on Morocco.

A few words about our super-fun experience getting from Marseille to Fès: We opted to fly with RyanAir because their schedule worked for us and their prices were in our budget. If we had known what was in store for us, I think we would have gladly shelled out a little bit more to not have to use the budget airline terminal at Marseille. Hindsight is 20/20…

At the Marseille airport the budget airlines (RyanAir, EasyJet, etc.) have their own terminal separate from the rest of the airport. It is pretty clear that the airlines are not using your ticket money for amenities in the terminal: The check-in area is just a big, open warehouse with one terrible cafe, several check-in desks, cattle lanes for the lines of people, and a few places to sit. They only check in one flight at a time, and you can’t check your bag more than two hours before departure; we got there early so had to wait a while. Did I also mention that you have to print out your own boarding passes or they charge you 70€ to do it at the airport? Yeah. Luckily we knew this ahead of time!

Once we got our luggage tagged we had to carry it through a first round of security where an airport employee instructed us to put the bags on the conveyor belt one at a time. We had a “you first,” “no, you first” moment and accidentally put our bags on at the same time which apparently broke the machine because a metal door came down and the airport employee yelled at us in French and we had to wait while everything restarted. Then we went through real security which was a mess; apparently no one in front of us in line had ever gone through airport security before.

We got through to the waiting area of the terminal, before the gates, which has a few duty-free shops, even fewer places to eat, and some neon-colored plastic waiting chairs. I went to find the bathroom and discovered that one of RyanAir’s cost-cutting measures is to not have toilet seats in the terminal bathrooms. Thankfully, I noticed that and caught myself before falling right in.

The information boards say that the “gate closes” about half an hour before take-off but they don’t post the gate number until about 15 minutes before that; you can’t go through to the gate area until your flight’s gate number is posted and your flight is called to start going through more security. We waited through two more lines and security checkpoints before we even arrived at the gate, at which point we had to show our boarding passes again in order to be let into the gate area which is essentially just a large, hollowed-out shipping container with a few chairs.

We had “priority boarding” and there was a separate line, but this clearly didn’t mean anything and everyone was jostling to be first to board the plane. There was lots of yelling and some people were turned away from the gate, perhaps for somehow getting all that way without the proper boarding pass? Unclear… When they started boarding (and scanned our boarding passes, again), we had to walk outside in the blazing heat of Provence to climb the stairs up to the plane which took forever despite using both the front and back doors of the plane.

Our seats were occupied by a mother and her young son. When we asked for our assigned seats (a window and middle), she asked us to switch her for her aisle and middle seats across the way. We declined, she got huffy, and her son threw a tantrum as she dragged him out by the arm.

The plane ended up sitting at the gate—in the broiling Mediterranean sun, no air conditioning, a completely full plane with more crying children and babies than I have ever experienced on a flight, people yelling in French and Arabic, a woman screaming at a flight attendant about inhumane conditions—for an hour before they finally closed the doors and we took off. The flight was uneventful: We tried to surreptitiously eat our airport ham and cheese sandwiches since almost everyone else on the plane was fasting for Ramadan; I took a nap despite the constant din of people and children; Martin got to look out the window.

We touched down at the Fès airport and finally figured out why we had been delayed so long: The private plane of the Moroccan royal family was parked right next to us and we guessed that the airspace and the airport had been shut down to the public.

Going through customs in Fès was also tedious and bureaucratic, but after almost seven hours of airport nonsense for a two-hour flight, we finally made it and our Moroccan adventure began.

I had been to Morocco before, in 2008 with a group of students and some guides/chaperones from our study abroad program in Paris, and had liked it but felt a bit of trepidation about navigating the country and the culture totally on our own. We decided to hire a guide company for the first part of our stay, and then hang out by the beach for the last part.

There were some ups and downs about traveling with a guide and driver; it was definitely a learning experience for us.

Pro — They booked and planned all of our accommodations, transfers, and a lot of our activities for us which was nice because it took out a lot of the guess-work.

Con — The whole time we were with our guides it was Ramadan, and it was kind of awkward to be coping with the heat by chugging water in the back seat while they couldn’t have anything. And mealtimes were hard because all of the good places that they usually took their tourists to were closed for Ramadan.

Pro — We didn’t have to drive and navigate!

Con — There wasn’t a ton of communication and we expected that they already had every stop and visit planned, while I think they expected us to make requests and ask questions.

Pro — We did learn a lot and got to see some things that we wouldn’t have done on our own.

Con — There was some pressure to purchase stuff at most of the places we visited, even though the tour company says that’s not how they operate…

Pro — We got to see a lot of different parts of the country in a short amount of time.

Con — Six days was a lot of time to spend with a guide, especially since it was just Martin and I on the tour and we didn’t mesh super well with our guide and driver, and by the afternoons they were tired and a bit cranky from fasting. We know this last part is on us for visiting during Ramadan.

I’m also not sure that traveling with guides afforded us the most unbiased view and history of the country… We were informed that the Moroccans invented pretty much everything; that Morocco is home to the biggest and best of all types of sights, art, and architecture.

I was able to take most of it with a grain of salt and appreciate the perspective. We nodded in agreement about all the marvelous and brilliant things the ancient people of Morocco accomplished; we laughed along when our guide Mohammed extolled the virtues of polygamy and asked Martin if he would like to move to Morocco to have more wives. Morocco is absolutely an interesting country with a rich and fascinating history (the oldest university in the world is in Fès and is still going to this day), don’t get me wrong! But Martin and I both had to bite our tongues when Mohammed told us that the highest mountain peak in all of Africa is in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. (Spoiler alert: Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest peak in Africa, which is not in Morocco; the highest point in the Atlas Mountains barely makes the top 25.)

Morocco definitely had some not-so-great moments for us, but there were also a lot of cool things to see, yummy things to eat, and interesting experiences to have.

More stories from Morocco coming soon!

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