morocco & barcelona: the good, the bad and the ugly

My spring break trip was legitimately the trip of a lifetime. My best friend, Ali, and I spent a little less than a week in Morocco and a few days in Barcelona. We flew into Marrakech and stayed in a cute little hostel in the center of the city. Marrakech is one of the most insane places I have ever been- completely different from any other city I’ve ever visited, but just as crazy in a completely different way. The Souk, which is the giant marketplace in the city, puts you in sensory overload, in both good ways and bad.

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It’s full of colorful scarves, strong-smelling spices, shiny silver teapots and hundreds of annoying men (and a few women) shouting at you and basically begging you to buy their goods.

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The best part about shopping in Morocco is that you can bargain for EVERYTHING- the rule of thumb is to try to get whatever you’re buying for half the price you’re offered. Most things are incredibly cheap, and so unique and beautiful. Marrakech is an exhausting place, though. We spent two days there total, and by the end of each day I was completely worn out from all the overwhelming shop owners.

Whenever I told people that I was going to Morocco, their first question usually was, “is it safe, though?” Ali and I had absolutely no problems feeling unsafe there- Marrakech especially was full of European tourists and lots of families. We only had a few encounters with gross men making rude gestures or comments to us, but as sad as it is to say, that can happen anywhere. A very kind waiter at a restaurant we visited warned us not to walk around alone at night (which we wouldn’t have done anyways), and almost everyone we met in Morocco was extremely hospitable and polite. Tourism is huge in Morocco, and without it the country would probably be doing a lot worse, so people are typically pretty nice to tourists there.

The worst part about Morocco was the blatant abuse of animals- I saw a monkey on a leash get yanked up by its owner roughly pulling the chain around its neck, and there are malnourished-looking horses, donkeys and mules pulling carriages all around the city. There are also more stray dogs there than I’ve ever seen in my life. Especially while driving through the mountains we would see tons of them running alongside the highways, many looking sick, scared and/or injured. At one point, while stopping to eat at a restaurant in some small village, Ali and I tried to feed some bread to two very thin stray puppies, only to have them savagely fight over all the scraps, even though there was plenty for both of them. It was all quite depressing, and absolutely broke my heart.

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(Disclaimer: this cat was not abused, it was at a local restaurant and was very well-fed)

One of the coolest things that we experienced was listening to the call to prayer, called “adhan,” that would happen a few times a day. There is a mosque in every town, all with very similar architecture, and they blast the sung prayer from speakers at the top of the towers. It was all very surreal, and I have never experienced anything like that. Something to also note if you ever travel to Morocco is that there is barely any WiFi throughout the entire country. Even in the very nice hotel we stayed in on our last night in Marrakech, it only worked in the lobby. This was a bit frustrating, especially when I couldn’t even contact my parents for about three days to tell them that I had arrived safely.

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There was also an American guy working at the hostel we stayed in, who was one of the rudest and most unhelpful people I have ever met. Ali and I joked about how he seemed to have a bit of an “Indiana Jones complex,” meaning he basically thought he was extremely cool for being an “adventurous,” “worldly,” “handsome” American living in Morocco. I’ve had a huge crush on Indiana Jones since I was pretty young, but meeting someone with that sort of ego in real life was actually a huge turn-off. When we asked him about how to get the WiFi to work, he smugly answered, “How would I know? I don’t have a phone.” Like, why are you working there then??

After our first night in Marrakech, Ali and I got picked up by our tour guide, Larby. He gave us a private tour by driving us all around the country, which was absolutely amazing. I had no idea that Morocco’s landscape is so diverse- from giant snow-topped Atlas mountains to the gorgeous coast and the bustling city of Marrakech to the tiny villages surrounded by rose valleys, it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I definitely want to go back one day to visit the coast and to attend the famous Rose Festival.

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Larby was very nice to us, and our tour was fantastic overall. The only real issue I had with it was how we would stop in small villages and visit little shops where the locals worked and basically be forced to buy things we didn’t really want. It was very awkward and uncomfortable at times, but it was nice to be able to help out the people in small villages who needed money more than those living in Marrakech.

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(Please enjoy this awkward photograph of us with Larby in the middle of the desert, taken by a random villager who then tried to sell us the outfits we were wearing)

We did get to buy homemade argan oil and rose products (I bought some amazing-smelling rose oil to use as perfume), though which I was very excited about. It’s crazy how many different products they can make out of these products. There were also a few language barriers, but Larby’s English was very good overall. Since tourism is so big there, most people working in the industry speak multiple languages, French and Spanish being very common. It was also very interesting when we asked Larby about Morocco’s government, and he expressed his utter satisfaction for the king. “He’s very good, has done very good things for the country,” he told us. Whenever we went into the small villages, it was very uncommon to see any women walking around; Larby explained to us how it is embarrassing for a man to have his wife leave the house during the day, because it is the “man’s job” to do things like the working and shopping. Values are incredibly traditional there, which I expected, but it was weird to see and experience it in real life. In most villages the women even wash their families’ clothes in the rivers and leave them out to dry on the rocks all day.

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During our road trip, we visited “the door of the desert,” Ouarzazete, which is also a notable movie-filming location. We visited a really weird movie museum, which really had no descriptions about the things inside of it and was pretty confusing. Ali and I even got separated from each other and lost at one point, so we were running around replicas of Egyptian tombs frantically searching for each other, which must have been pretty funny for other tourists to watch. Some movies that were shot here included Lawrence of Arabia, Kingdom of Heaven, Sahara and The Mummy, as well as bits of the TV shows Prison Break and Game of Thrones.

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We also visited a famous old kasbah here, where the movie Hanna was filmed. This was really funny because I forced my friends in high school to go see this movie with me, and they all absolutely hated it and we still joke about how it was the worst movie we have ever seen. I couldn’t stop singing “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash during all of this, as well.

We stayed in a beautiful little family-run hotel in a small town called Skoura on the first night of our tour. The mother and daughter who lived there cooked us a bunch of delicious homemade food, and we drank copious amounts of Berber whiskey as well. The Berber people are an ethnic group indigenous to North Africa (Larby grew up as one), and “Berber whiskey” is actually mint tea, which Moroccans drink almost constantly- usually a minimum of 5 times a day, we were told. I really don’t like mint, but I have to say that mint tea is truly delicious. It is served with giant shards of sugar, and it is impolite not to offer it to a guest. We drank it with every single meal.

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Other traditional Moroccan meals include tagine (named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked), couscous and Berber omelets (with which you use bread in place of utensils). While in Skoura we also walked around the village a bit in the evening, and it was a strange sort of serenity getting to see how these people live. It all kind of felt like a movie, and I had to pinch myself many times to remember that this is actually the way that many people’s daily lives are.

The next day, after more long hours of driving through Morocco’s beautiful small towns, we arrived in Merzouga, which is a village in the Sahara Desert. Seeing the great dunes for the first time was absolutely breathtaking, and I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie (my favorites).

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We rode camels for about an hour into the vast emptiness of the Sahara, which was an amazing (but rather uncomfortable) experience. I have no idea how people can ride camels for days on end- I was so sore after about 30 minutes!

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The campground we stayed at was gorgeous- I really expected tiny little tents that weren’t nice at all, but they were actually huge and beautiful.

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Ali and I were the only people on our side of the campground other than two Brazilian men who were probably in their 40’s. On the other side there was a big group of very loud, fun (and drunk) Mexican women, and we could hear them screaming and laughing for hours. We made friends with the men working at the camp, who were probably around our age and cooked us tagine and taught us how to (very badly) play the drums. Talking to people my age in Morocco was definitely one of the most eye-opening experiences during my trip. These guys barely ever watch TV, only one of them had a phone and they had never been outside of Morocco. They used to be nomads, and they all said that they dreamed of going to America one day. It made me really sad to hear this, because if we’re being quite honest, that is probably never going to happen. Our friends passed their time in the Sahara by making up jokes and riddles and studying the constellations. It was mind-blowing to think that these men who were around my age living continents away had such completely different lives from my own. I couldn’t imagine what they would even think if they visited Mizzou for a single day.

Goodbyes are weird. After our tour was over and we returned to Marrakech, we had said goodbye to everyone we met on the trip thus far, knowing in all honesty that we would never see them ever again. I wasn’t sad about it, it was just a really strange thing to think. On our last two nights in Marrakech, we stayed in a beautiful hotel called Les Jardins de la Koutoubia. Much to our surprise, Ali’s and my room was adorned with rose petals and couple’s robes, which we found to be hilarious.

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It was a really nice change to be able to stay in a kind of fancy hotel after not showering for a few days and walking around with shoes full of sand, and I feel very blessed that we got to stay in such a wonderful place. On our last day in Marrakech, we spent the day shopping, bargaining and eating until sundown, which exhausted us to the core.

The next day, we left for Barcelona, where we spent the weekend. In all honesty, Barcelona was probably one of the biggest fiascos of my life. I can’t complain at all, because Spain is incredible, but a lot of things really did go wrong when we were there. Upon arrival, neither of us had service or any way to contact anyone, and we tried to get into the apartment that we had rented with three of our other friends, only to realize that we were the first ones there and we had no idea how to get in. We tried everything we could think of to get in, of no avail, so we went to eat in a restaurant next to our apartment until our friends arrived. It ended up being one of the most expensive restaurants in Barceloneta Beach, where we were staying. Finally, our friend and my roommate, Mica, came running into the restaurant, looking completely flustered, as she had had the same experience as us. We somehow got in contact with our other two friends who had set up the whole apartment deal, and we were able to meet with the guy who rented out the apartments, only to find out that we were at the wrong door all along and that he had waited for us for two hours.

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When he let us into the apartment, he made us sign a bunch of things and then asked us how many of us would be staying there. We told him that there were going to be five of us, which was true, making him absolutely freak out. Apparently it was illegal in that apartment complex to have more than four people living in one flat, and he told us that they had security guards and cameras watching at all times, and that if they found that there were more than five people there they would kick us out and arrest the extra person for squatting. Naturally, this completely freaked us out, so we made up some fast white lies and continued on with the process, only to discover that the man told us that we each owed 300$ more, even though we had apparently paid the full amount before.

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We had absolutely no idea what was going on, and we were thinking of trying to escape and stay with our friends who were living there through another Mizzou study abroad program, but lived about 40 minutes away from where we were. We couldn’t contact our other friends, and all our luggage was still in the apartment, so we just decided to sit on the beach and drink champagne and admire the view. We drank some sangria and ate patatas bravas, but I ended up getting insanely sick. Like, a near-death experience that lasted almost 20 hours. We went to dinner and ended up getting everything sorted with the apartment man and our friends, but I spent the entire night getting sicker than I ever have in my life. My roommates had gone out that night and eaten paella, as well, and as a vegan, the overwhelming stench of seafood in the apartment (mixed with the eyes of the crawfish carcasses staring into my soul) made everything even worse. I legitimately have never felt so bad in my life, and I genuinely thought I was going to die. Here’s a lovely picture of some wonderful veg paella I got as my last meal in Barca:

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I somehow managed to crawl out of bed the next day to walk around a bit with my friends and go to Park Güell, because I knew I would regret it forever if I didn’t. We only stayed in Barcelona for two nights, and I could not have been happier to go back to London than I was at the end of spring break. From what I’ve heard, good spring break experience or bad, everyone missed London and was completely ready to go back by the end of their weeks. Ali and I got back to London before everyone, and I nearly cried when I walked back into my flat and was able to just relax and decompress from the week.

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Spring break was an absolutely wild time, and not in the way that college kids typically consider to be wild. Morocco was by far the most amazing and unique place I have ever been, and I definitely need to go back to Barcelona to redeem myself at some point in my life. I know that all the crazy things I saw and experienced during my spring break were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I will remember for the rest of my life.

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