October 1 is the date when the company I've often used for group travel posts their roster of trips for the following calendar year. Although I hadn't traveled with them since 2015, I was eager to check out their 2018 tours just in case one struck my fancy; if nothing else, I might get an idea for a future solo adventure. Despite having no intentions to book, I was immediately drawn to a listing for Senegal and The Gambia, 2 countries in a part of Africa that I hadn't previously visited. I didn't think I even knew anyone who had been to either country which made them even more enticing- I'm all about traveling to crazy exotic places! But I'm not about the anxiety of gambling on roommate assignments so I was still reluctant... until my friend Carolyn (from Vietnam/Cambodia) signed up and asked me to room with her. I don't think anyone was more surprised than me when I sent in a deposit to head to West Africa!
Since the group trip was scheduled to end a week before Memorial Day weekend, it seemed logical to plan a post-trip adventure for that time. My initial idea was to visit Cape Verde, a gorgeous and relatively untouristed group of islands not too far off the coast of Senegal. However, the logistics of getting there seemed surprisingly more cumbersome than I'd expected given the proximity to Dakar. So I shifted my attention to figuring out what adventures I could combine with a layover on the way home from Senegal. In my research, I found that the cheapest flights to Dakar connected in Casablanca. Well, I'd never been to Morocco- or any other place in North Africa- so it was an easy decision to spend some time there on my way home.
The more I read about Morocco, the more I grew assured that it would be an amazing addition to my itinerary. My biggest challenge was to try to come up with a plan for only a week, which I quickly realized would be insufficient for a country so rich in interesting locales. Even after deciding on some priorities, I still had problems figuring out logistics. So I decided to contact a tour company that got excellent reviews on TripAdvisor. They were able to work with me on an itinerary for a private tour that would ensure that I'd be able to see the 2 places that most interested me, although some sacrifices needed to be made in order to get the scheduling to work. After going back and forth on several options (including one that I was sure would lead to Death By Fatigue because it had me flying out of Dakar at 2am, not arriving at my next destination until at least 1am the following day, and then waking up at something like 4-5am for sunrise the day after that), we finally agreed on a plan.
10 days before my trip, I was notified that my inbound flight from Casablanca to Dakar was canceled. To me, that's just part of the adventure. After some time spent on online chat, I was relieved to learn that I was already rebooked on the next flight; unfortunately, that flight was going to land at the ridiculous time of 2am instead of a more reasonable 11pm, but there was nothing that could be done about that. Travel- especially to places like Africa- requires flexibility. On the plus side, the change meant that we would have a little extra breathing room for the city tour I'd booked for our extended layover in Casablanca. I'd thought about exploring the city on our own, but ultimately decided that it made sense to have someone else show us around to better take advantage of our limited time, particularly since we'd be tired and we'd have our carry-on bags with us (there is no storage at the airport).
As my departure date grew closer, I obviously got more and more excited for my upcoming adventure. I couldn't wait to join friends- both old and new- visiting Senegal and Gambia, learning about the culture of West Africa, and paying tribute of the sad period of history when slaves were sent to the Americas. I also looked forward to my solo excursion to Morocco, and discovering the unique architecture and atmosphere of a few different regions of the country- especially the 2 nights I'd be spending in a gorgeous luxury camp in the Sahara desert. Most of all, I was more than ready to get back to exploring the world after a 4+ month winter hiatus from travel.
I would have loved the luxury of taking off from work the day of my 9pm flight, but I was already pushing it by taking an extra day off beyond my official 2 week at a time limit. Leaving a day earlier than I'd originally planned (and taking Friday off) proved to be necessary due to flight schedules to Dakar; fortunately, my manager agreed that it would have been ridiculous to return to work on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. I spent the day of my departure working from home, which gave me a chance to multitask and tackle some last minute laundry. My clothes were mostly clean, but I thought it would be nice not to come home to a stack of dirty towels.
At about 3 pm, my good friend Brian came over to drive me to JFK airport. I'm beyond lucky to have friends who take me to the airport and, even more importantly, take care of my dear Furricanes when I'm gone. Speaking of the cats… before we even got onto the highway I was filling Brian's ears with my usual dramatic lamentations about how I already missed them. Some things never change.
Despite some traffic as we got close to the airport, I arrived at 5:20pm which left me plenty of time to relax and flip my mental switch to Travel Adventure mode. Wheeling my suitcase to the Royal Air Maroc counter, I was perplexed when I thought I saw a passenger wearing a Santa hat; upon closer inspection, I realized that it was actually a red and white Muslim style cap, which certainly made more sense. Glancing around, I noticed that there were probably more travelers donning African or Arab garb than there were Caucasians which made me even more excited for my imminent journey to a few distant, exotic countries where I would be a minority.
The Royal Air Maroc checkin counter was well-staffed and the queue moved quickly. I typically head straight to security after checking in but since I had an abundance of time to spare, I headed up the escalator to the check out the food court. I was thrilled to find a pizza place because I'd been slightly bitter that afternoon when I'd received an email informing me that free pizza was being offered at my office. It wasn't the best pizza ever, but it certainly made up for not having any earlier!
Security was a total breeze even though I wasn't able to utilize the TSA pre-check line because I wasn't flying on a participating airline. I had to take off my shoes but I was surprised when the agents advised everyone not to take items out of their bags, even liquids; they kept rolling their eyes when passengers refused to listen. After walking around a little and purchasing a bottle of water, I settled down at a quiet place by the gate and saved a seat for Carolyn. She'd had to rearrange her plan when she discovered that the shuttle she'd intended to take from Manhattan had been discontinued. After losing a bout with the subway turnstiles, she finally ended up taking a cab… and running into a ton of rush hour traffic. I wasn't worried about her because she's a travel pro, but I was anxious for her to arrive. Frankly, I was a little jealous that she'd had a much more interesting story than my mundane hours of waiting.
Sitting quietly, it began to dawn on me that my trip was real. All these amazing plans of mine always seem so distant when I go through my mundane day-to-day activities… until, suddenly, I joyfully find myself on a path that veers off as far as one can get from my usual routine. Feeling almost zen, I wanted to float through my trip, succumbing to the experiences which I would encounter. No matter how much I see of this amazing world, I still feel an almost childlike sense of wonder when I set out on a voyage; I never want to take my privilege for granted and I vowed to open my heart to gratitude for each opportunity.
My passport holder is usually stuffed with a ton of documents I've printed out, detailing hotel and plane reservations and the like. But this time I carried zero sheets of paper. I very rarely find need to reference the print-outs (the exception being when traveling to Shanghai under a special transit Visa) And besides, I wasn't doing much on my own anyway. The lack of papers helped me feel free to just let experiences happen instead of worrying about each detail.
While still waiting for Carolyn, the man sitting next to me showed me his phone which was displaying an amusing anti-Trump meme. I thought it a little presumptuous that he'd assume I held the same views until I realized that not too many Trump supporters would be flying on an African airline. I still think it's a little bizarre that he wanted to share something political with me, a total stranger, when we hadn't even exchanged a single word.
Carolyn finally joined me a little after 7:30pm. In addition to her transport woes, she had a much more difficult time with security, who were scrutinizing carry-on bags in more detail than when I'd breezed through. I'd been particularly itching for her to arrive because I knew that while she'd been in Manhattan, she'd stopped for Schmackary's cookies. In my mind preparing for the trip, I'd envisioned greeting her at the airport and taking a cute selfie holding our bags of cookies. But when I actually saw her, I was so relieved that she made it on time that I just wanted to catch up with her. Naturally, I noshed on a Peanut Butter Patty cookie (she also brought me a Birthday Party one to save for later) as I chatted.
Boarding the flight was a little more chaotic than usual because Royal Air Maroc has apparently never heard of using a pre-boarding period to assist mobility challenged passengers. So there were wheelchairs trying to negotiate the gangway at the same time as we were lined up. But eventually I arrived at my window seat. On the aisle was a woman wearing a gorgeous bright colored African style dress with matching head wrap. Between us sat a quiet but nice man in the middle seat who offered some (not at all exciting compared to Schmackay's) cookies to us both.
I was eager for the flight to take off and to be on my way across the Atlantic. However, fate had other plans. The plane remained idle at the gate with the doors shut long past when it should have pulled out. 40 minutes after the scheduled takeoff time, the pilot finally came on the PA system with a vague announcement about air traffic. But it would be another hour until we finally were airborne. I don't like bitching about delays because it feels so entitled, especially since travel never goes perfectly. The airline obviously wasn't at fault for the delay, which was most likely due to some inclement weather in the area that had backed everything up. But the crew could absolutely have done a better job at providing information and status updates- and the paucity of communication was rather annoying.
During the delay, I continued to use my cell phone even though we'd been told to turn them off; I'm such a bad little rebel but, really, there wasn't much else to do. I couldn't talk to Carolyn because she was on the opposite side of the aircraft a couple rows back. I actually found out more information about the issues at JFK from the internet than from the crew. I was relieved when finally, at long last, the captain called for the flight attendants to be seated and we were off!
I was drifting off to sleep when I was jolted awake by the dinner service. "Beef or fish?" asked the flight attendant. Umm, that didn't seem enough information for me to make an informed decision so I asked for some further details. "Beef or fish?" was apparently the only description they could offer, as they repeated this query several times with increasing confusion as to why I didn't understand. Realizing that I wasn't hungry and I just wanted to sleep, I tried to politely decline. But they insisted on serving me a tray, which only served as an annoying obstruction that prevented me from reaching my bag on the floor. I didn't eat any of it.
After the food was finally cleared, I estimated that I got somewhere around 3 hours of sleep. Not bad… but not good either. About an hour and a half before landing, we were served breakfast; I think I only picked at it.
For the most part, the flight was uneventful which was good. I'd read some not-very-glowing reviews about Royal Air Maroc but I had an overall decent experience- other than the food, which was kinda bad even by airline food standards. I was flying on a 787 for this leg so the aircraft was relatively new and it was nice enough. I mean, it was no Cathay Pacific (which has my favorite set up)- but it was perfectly fine. I was also impressed that the airline sent me information on flight changes even though I hadn't booked directly with them. (the only reason I used a 3rd party site was because you could not book a multi-stop trip on Royal Air Maroc's online site)
Although I wished the flight was longer so I could have gotten more sleep, I couldn't help but feel excited when the plane began its descent into Casablanca. As usual, I kept my eyes glued to the window as I hoped to see something of interest… or at least some sign that, wow, I'm really in a different part of the world. But I was disappointed as my view consisted mainly of a patchwork of greens below a hazy gray sky. I could have been almost anywhere.
Eager to discover what adventures lay in store, I reunited with Carolyn after disembarking from the aircraft. Together, we made our way through customs. We didn't need to wait at baggage claim since our luggage was checked through to Dakar. I wasn't sure if I'd need cash during our layover but I made a point to stop at the ATM just in case. I figured I'd eventually be able to use the money during the 2nd half of my trip.
I don't think Carolyn withdrew any cash; I figured I could cover for her if she absolutely needed cash for anything.
Referencing the labeled photo that had been included in the layover tour confirmation email, I scanned the few people waiting outside the airport for someone carrying a sign with my name on it. We walked all around, including areas that did not match where the driver should be- but could not find anyone looking for us. I'd done some preliminary research on navigating Casablanca so I had some idea what we could do if no one came- or if they'd already given up on us since the flight was delayed. We hadn't paid a deposit so we wouldn't be out any money. But, fortunately, after I emailed the tour company, the driver somehow materialized and we were off for our city tour!
We followed our driver to a very comfortable car which could seat 6 passengers in the back- 3 facing forward and 3 facing backwards. As there were only 2 of us, we were able to spread out quite comfortably. I think there were bottles of water waiting for us, but I am not positive.
Casablanca airport is located roughly 40 minutes outside of the city center. As we drove, I kept my DSLR handy so I could quickly try to capture any sites of interest- from sculptures and murals to general street views. The palm trees lining many of the roads added an exotic feel to the often European looking architecture. I noticed so many roundabouts that I amusingly concluded that Morocco seems to love their traffic circles even more than NJ.
Our first stop was in the Jewish quarter, at Bet El synagogue. I was eager to go inside but I wasn't sure how Carolyn felt so I said something stupid about how I always visit churches so it could be interesting for her. I needn't have bothered blathering as she was definitely up for exploring any cultural sites. The outside of the edifice felt distinctly Moroccan, particularly due to the mosaic fountains on either side of the entrance. But Jewish touches abounded, including the menorah designs built into the green railings.
Walking inside, I found myself in a small sanctuary that was mostly quaint with some ornate touches. This chapel had the familiarity of a Jewish prayer room anywhere in the world, with an obvious focus on the ark at the far end which contained the sacred torah. The walls on each side were lined with stained glass windows- I don't think I realized it at the time, but these windows corresponded to the 12 tribes of Israel. I tried my best to explain some of it to Carolyn; in particular, I translated some of the Hebrew lettering… which made me feel like my years of Jewish private schools weren't completely wasted
Anyone who knows me is aware that I am not at all religious. I don't attend any services or celebrate any Jewish holidays. Nonetheless, I am fiercely proud of my heritage and I love incorporating Jewish sites in my travels when possible, particularly in non-Western parts of the world where they feel both familiar and exotic. Visiting this little synagogue was a beautiful and meaningful way to start off my trip.
After a short drive, we arrived at the Old Medina where we wandered through small passageways full of vendors selling all manner of colorful merchandise. Neither Carolyn nor I wanted to make any purchases that early in our trip so we spent about 20 minutes exploring and observing.
Another few minutes in the car and we were dropped off at the Corniche, a wide walkway on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. After 7 hours stuffed on a plane, it was great to be able to stretch our legs and bask in the sunshine as we watched waves crash into the shore. The weather was amazing- warm but not too hot; I was quite comfortable in a T-shirt and light pants. We both found it odd that many locals were quite bundled up in sweaters or coats- to us, it felt like a fabulous spring day!
Our walk ended at McDonald's, which had to be one of the most gorgeous locations for a fast food joint that I've ever seen. I mean, you could even sit outside in a classy area of tables covered with umbrellas where you enjoy your McNuggets while gazing out at the ocean. While contemplating the beauty of this McD's, I was amused to hear a muzak version of "I don't know how to love him" playing over the loadspeakers; theatre just follows me everywhere. Strangely enough, there was a Burger King right across the street- I'm not sure why anyone would go there since McDonald's is better and this BK had absolutely no charm or view. (Note: we didn't eat anything; this was just where we met back up with our driver)
Our next stop was super quick- Carolyn wanted to pop into a Starbucks to purchase some mugs that said Morocco; I think these were intended as gifts. I joined her inside more out of curiosity than any actual need. I might go to Starbucks more if the ones around here offered as amazingly yummy looking pastries as the one in Casablanca! One of the cakes was chocolate and looked absolutely decadent.
By now, it was about 2pm and we were getting hungry for some lunch. The tour description suggested that lunch would be at Rick's, an obvious tourist grab restaurant that is themed to the movie "Casablanca". But both Carolyn and I preferred to sample some more traditional Moroccan cuisine so our driver took us to a little restaurant near the Old Medina. Carolyn had eaten at the Epcot Moroccan pavilion, which to me made her an expert on local food so I let her choose. She picked out 2 entrees, Pastilla and Chicken Tagine, and we planned to split them. She added some fries, figuring that if the main courses weren't to our liking, at least we'd eat something.
When the wait staff brought out some rolls, we practically gobbled them down. Food, yay! But then it took forever to get the rest of our meals. We were joking that they didn't want to serve us because Carolyn left her plate with bread. In any event, once we got our food, we were quite happy.
I would later find out that Tagines are a ubiquitous Moroccan offering prepared in a traditional earthenware pots. The Chicken Tagine we tried was quite tasty. But the real star of the meal was the Pastilla, which consisted of lightly spiced meats wrapped in dough which was sprinkled on top with sugar, cinnamon, and toasted almond. It sounds… weird. I'd be skeptical of such a description, to be honest. But the end result was amazing! This is a dish I need to find in the US, and one which I hoped to sample again during the 2nd half of my trip.
I thought our meal took so long that we'd miss the opportunity to tour the inside of the Hassan II Mosque since all the literature I'd read stated that the last tour is at 2 or 3pm. But I've also read that the stated times aren't always reliable- although I'd seen this more in the context of people expecting a tour at a prescribed time only to discover that one was not offered. I don't know how an uber major tourist site can be so unclear about the hours of their tours in the current age of everything on the internet, but there you go. At any rate, at least the particular day of our layover, I was surprised and glad to learn that there was a 4pm tour.
Hassan II Mosque, the only mosque in Morocco that allows non-Muslims to enter (but only on guided tours), is the most famous tourist site in Casablanca. Completed in 1993 and overlooking the ocean, it is one of the largest mosques in the world. After our guide helped us buy tickets for the guided tour, we had some time to wander the grounds a bit. It was quite impressive! I was struck in particular by the elaborate colorful mosaics. Fortunately, there were not a lot of people around so it was easier to photograph than if there'd been mobs of crowds.
At the designated time, we returned to the meeting area and joined a group led by an English speaking guide. When we arrived at the entrance, the guide dispersed small fabric bags that we used to carry our shoes because one cannot walk inside a mosque wearing footwear. Women were not required to cover up with scarves, although I'm assuming that wearing immodest clothing (such as tank tops or shorts) would not be allowed.
The tour lasted 45 minutes, during which time the guide told us a lot about the mosque- half of which I don't remember, and the other half of which I didn't hear because I was too far back when she started talking. (OK, I was probably lingering taking photos…) But I don't really have a mind for minutiae anyway- what interests me more is the feeling of a place. The mosque was incredibly grand and gorgeous, with an enormous chapel that, according to Wikipedia, can hold 25,000 worshippers. For comparison- that's like the size of 15 Broadway theaters. An additional 80,000 people can fill the outdoor courtyards- and apparently they do during Ramadan. Below the main hall was another impressive area with rows of fountains where worshippers perform the ceremonial washing. In all, it was a simply stunning and awe inspiring house of worship.
After the tour, we lingered outside a bit and then walked through the museum near the visitors area before meeting back up with our driver. At some points during the day he'd asked if we wanted to go to a mall or a place selling carpets, but neither of those options had interested us. But when he asked us if we wanted to stop for coffee before returning to the airport, we both thought that sounded great. (I don't drink coffee, but figured I could always get an alternate light refreshment) He asked if we wanted to go back to the Corniche or downtown, and we told him that we were inclined to defer to his recommendation. So we ended up at a branch of Venezia Ice, which worked for me… even if Venice ice cream does not sound like the most Moroccan experience ever.
However, we almost didn't end up there at all because Carolyn was eager to channel her Vietnam Street Crossing Skillz and walked across the street during a red light. I think she thought the number 20 on display meant that the light would be red in 20 seconds, but it meant that it would be red for another 20 seconds. Obviously, we didn't die- and instead (once we figured out how the cafe worked), we sat at a table outside and indulged in ice cream; I chose a Cookies flavor. It was a lovely and relaxing way to end our city tour.
When we were done, our driver took us back to the airport for our 10:30pm flight; we figured it would be better to be early than late. When we arrived at around 7:15pm, we said goodbye to him. He'd done a great job being responsive to our interests and he'd seemed eager to share his country with us. Just as I'd hoped, he helped us sample a taste of a new city/country without having to stress about figuring out where to go on little rest. I've long been an advocate of extended layovers to break up a long trip, and I felt the day worked out great for us.
I'd read a lot of opinions on Casablanca, most of them rather negative. The city may not have a wealth of attractions compared to other cities in Morocco (or beyond), but I found it to be much more pleasant than I'd expected. I'd studied French so I enjoyed seeing that language displayed in equal prominence to Arabic. Similarly, the city had a European charm and vibe that overlaid its exotic flavor. We admittedly only saw a tiny section of the city, but the areas we visited were quite nice and felt safe. I don't feel a great need to return, but I am glad I visited once. In all, the day served as a teaser which made me even more excited for the last half of my trip.
I wasn't surprised to see that there was a long line to enter the airport; I'd seen warnings online that this could be the case. Only ticketed passengers are allowed inside and 2 security station just inside the door scan all baggage. The queue was a little chaotic but manageable. As I presented my boarding pass, it occurred to me that I wasn't sure how I'd be able to enter for my flight back home to NYC since I hadn't printed out my itinerary; I made a mental note to find a business lounge in our last hotel to print it out.
After dealing the the crowds to get inside, I really wanted to sit down for a few minutes. So we stopped at a little cafe just off the side of the check-in counters which had a bunch of intriguingly flavored Moroccan iced teas. I tried the Fresh Mint flavor and found its spearmint taste to be uniquely refreshing. I figured I would try the Cherry flavor sometime when I returned to Morocco but- spoiler alert- I unfortunately was never able to do so.
We stopped to fill out departure cards and went through customs which seemed slower than it needed to me. Or maybe my fatigue was just catching up to me. The airport wasn't too exciting but I probably wouldn't have appreciated it even if it had been the most amazing place ever; I was simply ready to drop. I think I ate the 2nd of my Schmackary's cookies at the airport… I needed the sugar, as well as some adrenaline, for the final push to Dakar.
Finally, it was time to board our flight- and a mass stampede of humanity gathered in some vague semblance of a line. Like much of the world, Casablanca airport didn't believe in any sensible organization of the boarding process. So we waited our turn and then got in a bus to take us to the stairwell to the plane. I really did not feel like walking up stairs… but I forced myself to find the mental strength.
I was so happy to get into my seat for the final leg of my journey! I kept my mind focused on the goal- getting closer to BED!!! In the not-too-distant future, I would finally get to sleep on a comfortable bed. And it would be amazing.
I completely dozed off through the takeoff, waking up only after the plane was climbing through the air. It was soon time for the meal service- and with it with the familiar question "Beef or fish?" This time, I didn't even bother asking for a clarification. Since I hadn't had a proper dinner, it was necessary to eat something and I randomly chose the fish. It was… edible. I think the beef may have looked slightly better. Oh, well.
When we landed in Dakar at around 1am, I gazed out the window, even though I didn't really expect to see anything in the dark. The only thing that stood out was a brightly illuminated billboard. Most of the arrival process is a blur; I was too dead to even bother taking obligatory airport photos. But I distinctly remember watching a bunch of people on the bus to the terminal wrapping their carry-on luggage with tape… which seemed kind of… backwards… to us. I'm not sure what about their upcoming journey made them proceed with such extreme caution; typically, I only see people wrapping their stowed bags in plastic before checking them in at an airport counter.
I was (pleasantly) surprised that someone from our tour company was there to meet us right in the baggage claim area. I was less pleasantly surprised when I realized that there were 3 representatives- and all of us had to cram into a small car for the 45 minute or so drive. Ours was the last flight from the group for the day, so all the representatives were leaving the airport with us. Carolyn and I each had to pay $30 + tip for the (cramped) ride because we'd chosen to fly in the day before the tour officially started; even though our flight was ultimately change so that it arrived in the wee hours of the designated day, it didn't matter. (no one took the money so we gave it to our tour leader later; I'm not sure the guides were briefed on what to expect)
The ride was dark… and further complicated by a driver who needed enough direction that at one point the vehicle had to reverse to change course. But the guides were friendly, and the ride was safe. I was excited when I spotted our hotel- we were getting so close to BED!
Through my fatigue, I enjoyed noticing some obviously African touches in the hotel lobby. The front desk told us that they had to put us in a room with one bed. Carolyn was so tired that she didn't care, but I did. I'd booked a 2 bed room and I didn't want to settle for anything less. I also was loathe to deal with the hassle of changing rooms later. Miraculously, a room with two beds suddenly was somehow conjured up, thereby avoiding a potential crisis.
Even though I was dead tired, I still took a couple obligatory photos of the room before unpacking my toiletries and finally succumbing to the fatigue that had been wanting to usurp my body. The beds were smallish, but oh-so-comfy. My journey to Senegal had been long and busy but now I could finally take some time to relax and revive. And it felt sooooo good.
Carolyn had sworn to me that she never sleeps late. And yet, we both found ourselves in bed until well after noon. OK, so I woke up a couple times in the night but mostly I slept… and slept… and then slept some more. Carolyn attributed sleeping in so long to the fact that I'd suggested shutting the blinds the night before; I just think that our bodies flat out needed all that rest after our long journey to Dakar.
It was a good thing I hadn't booked the breakfast package with our one night pre-trip hotel extension since it would have been wasted money. Even after we awoke, I clung to that bed as long as I could… and then perhaps even a little bit longer. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that we didn't end up leaving the hotel room until around 4pm. That's ridiculously late even for me, especially when I travel. Fortunately we didn't really miss out on anything because we hadn't decided on even the vaguest plan for what to do with our extra day. We'd asked the guides for advice the previous night and they'd suggested taking advantage of the opportunity to relax at the hotel since we'd have a packed itinerary for the next week.
By the time we finally made it out of our hotel room, we were most definitely hungry. We thought about searching for somewhere in the area, but it seemed easier and more expedient to just eat at the hotel. So we sat down at a table in the lobby bar, and I was quite amused when a waiter glided up on inline skates- very fun! To my absolute delight, the restaurant served Coke Zero; I had been trying to limit my soda intake before this trip but I really felt like I needed a jolt of caffeine. My meal consisted of a baguette with ham and cheese which totally hit the spot.
After we ate, we explored the hotel, first venturing out the front entrance since we hadn't been able to take a proper look at the facade when we'd arrived in the dark. After taking a few photos, we re-entered which required placing our bags on a belt to be X-rayed while we waklked through a metal detector. (I neglected mentioning that this screening was also required the previous night) I'm sure the high level of security was in place for our safety but nonetheless it made me more than a little nervous, and it was another reason I hadn't wanted to venture to explore the city on our own.
Our hotel was located on a cliff at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, which allowed for some dramatic views. After taking some photos around the lobby, we walked out the back of the hotel where we found several staircases that led down to the pool and shore areas. At one point, we had to cross a little street; there was a security person stationed there to ensure the guests' safety. The grounds were pleasantly lush with colorful flowers and palm trees. As we traveled down, we passed a little garden where the signs indicated that its greenery included such plants as mint, basil and green onion.
I'm not generally a "sit by the pool" type of person but it was a lovely day and I'm glad we took some time to just relax and enjoy the atmosphere. When I saw a cat walk by, I gleefully stalked it around the pool trying to get a decent photo, though I paused when it started going to the bathroom in the dirt. I needn't have been so excited at the sight of this cat; there were felines literally everywhere in the 3 countries I visited; I saw another one curled up in a chair by the side of the hotel a little later.
Our tour leader, Carol, had posted on Facebook that we were supposed to gather in the lobby at 7:45pm to head to dinner. We decided to arrive early and read on our iPads while we waited. Soon enough, we put the screens down as chatter erupted. Slowly but surely our group of travelers (iirc excluding a late arrival) assembled. Old friends were re-united, and friendly introductions were extended to new faces. I was super excited when I spotted Shannah, who had been my roommate on my 2014 Antarctica cruise. I ran over, and we hugged and chatted like it had only been 4 months since we'd last seen each other instead of 4 years.
Before we left, Carol announced to the group that she just found out that the restaurant was outside, so a bunch of us ran up to our rooms to quickly adjust our attire. I decided to grab my light hoodie so that my arms wouldn't get eaten by mosquitoes.
Our guides seemed to keep a close eye on everyone during the short walk to the restaurant. Once we arrived, we had to go through a similar security screening to get inside as we did at our hotel. I really can't say that I felt comfortable in Dakar, since I felt there must be a reason for the ubiquitous security. Fortunately, once we left the city, we left the constant security checks behind.
Decorated with many colorful touches, the restaurant was in a tent and not exactly outdoors after all. There were 3 long tables reserved for our group. I wanted to sit with Shannah, with whom I'd been chatting on the walk over. But I followed Carolyn to a table which was full of people I hadn't met yet who were a lot of fun. I mean, of course they were interesting; anyone who would choose to travel to such an unusual destination was quite likely an experienced traveler. In particular, James made an immediate positive impression when he placed a napkin over his arm and poured water for everyone with the grace and elegance of a sommelier.
We were given a choice between 2 appetizers and entrees. It took about an hour for our appetizers to arrive so it was convenient that there were trays of nuts on the table to much on. I'd chosen the Avocado and Tomato salad despite my intense dislike for raw tomatoes; I think the other option might have been a soup that didn't interest me. I picked out the avocados and thought they were tasty. For my main course, I'd chosen the fish and I was slightly horrified to see an entire fish on the plate- face, teeth and all! The others who had also ordered it felt similarly and let's just say that a plate carrying a pile of fish heads was soon delivered somewhere where none of us had to see it. Dessert, an apple tart with ice cream, was much less dramatic.
By the time we were done eating, it was almost 11pm already. The local tour liaison had offered our group the chance to see a cultural show but the vast majority of us felt like it was simply too late in the evening, especially since we had to get up early the next day. I felt bad passing up such a unique opportunity, but I knew I'd feel miserable later if I went. Those of us who wanted to go back to the hotel squeezed into a minibus for the short drive back; I guess the local guides deemed it unsafe to walk the streets of Dakar that late even in a group.
In my hotel room, I backed up my photos before going to sleep. This was the first trip where I used my Android phone to store my backups in lieu of a netbook (previously a laptop) and it worked out fabulously! The best part was that I was free from lugging around an additional device of somewhat significant size/weight. In preparation for using my phone for backups, I'd loaded it up with a large extra mini SD card, and bought a small card reader that I could plug into it to read my DSLR camera cards. While preparing for my trip, I'd experimented with various apps at home as sort of a "dress rehearsal" which helped the process go smoothly once I was away. The only slight quirk was that I needed to remember to create a new folder on my camera each night after backing up my previous one to make it easier to know where to start backing up next time. (it's much easier to scroll through 1000's of photos to select the new ones on a netbook than on a phone)
One of my favorite aspects of tours is meeting other likeminded, experienced travelers- and my fellow Senegal travelers seemed to be no exception. I was looking forward to getting to know everyone better as the group tour geared up with activities starting the next day.
The 6:30am alarm and wake up call ensured that we awoke promptly for a full day of activities, rather than linger in our oh-so-comfortable and tempting beds. Our tour leader wasn't going to set wake up calls for us until she realized that some people in our group didn't know how to set an alarm on their phones. It was better to be safe and set up calls to ensure that everyone would be awakened and we wouldn't need to deal with any stragglers.
The sight of nutella on the breakfast buffet filled me with joy. I smothered some on crepes, and also had some eggs and cereal. Carolyn and I sat with some other members of our group and I realized that 3-4 of us had been to Antarctica. I can never emphasize enough how awesome it is to converse with like-minded adventurers.
At around 8 or 8:30, we boarded a couple of mini buses and for a little tour of Dakar, making a brief stop at Dakar Cathedral. Riding around the city, I enjoyed spotted sculptures and murals, as well as the frequent sight of locals in their beautiful brightly colored attire. I may have been leery of walking around the city on my own, but it was interesting to see from the safety of a bus.
We arrived at the ferry terminal at 9am, earlier than planned, and then took a 20 minute ride to Goree Island, a UNESCO World Heritage site just off the coast of the city. When you arrive in Goree, your first impressions include the sight of its quaint beach and a large red heart shaped sculpture that flanks it. It's a gem of an island, full of pathways lined with quaint reddish and yellow buildings. As you meander around, you see many domestic scenes of laundry flapping in the wind as sheep peacefully graze among the omnipresent felines.
The island's surface beauty and serene tableaus belie a dark history; it's mainly noted for being a key hub for the African slave trade. As such, our first stop was the House of Slaves, which we were told was where captives had been housed before being sent to the Americas. It was chilling to witness the bight light emanating from the "Door of No Return", which we were told was the passage through which the captives left Africa- either by being loaded onto a ship or else by being thrown into the sea to perish. In the process of writing this blog, I've come across mentions of scholarly research that suggests that no slaves ever actually boarded a ship through that doorway- which makes sense to me as the area just outside the door didn't seem conducive to docking a ship. However, I feel that regardless of whatever the true facts might be, the mythology of this opening still serves as a powerful symbol of a devastating history that we must never forget. Being told the stories of what happened during in Africa during the era of slave trade room by room brought the history more alive than just reading about it in a book; I can't know whether those tales were 100% true, but the feelings they evoked were crushing even if they might have happened somewhere nearby instead of that exact spot.
Reminders of the island's history were delicately woven into the charming landscape in a couple of artistic works we saw. One of these was the "Cotton Field", a series of sculptures that look like cotton plants, which reminded me of the fate of many of the captives in the Americas after they left the island. Another was a row of empty chairs extending out to the sea entitled "The Return of Lost Sons" which seemed symbolic of all the sons of Africa that were lost to the slave trade. Both of these seem to be recent installations- I have no idea if they are permanent, but hope that they remain as they are poignant reminders of the past.
Goree Island was rich in art, with its colorful pathways often lined with paintings of various sizes. We were privileged to see a demonstration of sand art, which was one of the most unique presentations of craftsmanship I've ever witnessed (and group tours often showcase handmade artisans so I've seen a lot). Even though he crafted a painting right in front of me, I still am in awe at how the artist was able to combine sands of various colors into a depiction of a hut. He made it seem so easy; I think we all gasped as the sands flowed over the canvas to form the image.
We had a short break during which most group members visited the local market. I felt uncomfortable watching the sellers would touch people and lead them to their booths, even though I understood that's just how things were done there. I decided to use my free time to enjoy the island's beauty and take some more photos. I also bonded with another member of our group who was felt similarly uneasy with the market. Later on, I admired my friends' purchases but I have no regrets since I don't really buy a lot when I travel to places other than Japan.
It felt nice to sit down for awhile when we had lunch at a little restaurant just off the ocean. Our meal started with shrimps and continued with a yummy plate of chicken with onions and rice before concluding with a plate of watermelon and bananas. As we ate, we were entertained by a smiling man who played the Kora, a traditional West African instrument which seems to be a bit of a cross between a guitar and a harp. We were quite amused to notice that it had a built in hole in its side which was conveniently useful for collecting tips.
After lunch, we visited the IFAN Historical Museum, a circular building peppered with canons on its top perimeter. Originally a fort, this structure is now the stunning locale for exhibits on the history of Senegal. I particularly enjoyed exploring the upper level and getting a close up view of the canons while gazing out at some panoramic views of the island.
All good things must come to an end and as such we journeyed back to the ferry pier for our return to Dakar. At around 2pm, the port and beach were hubs of activity with a very different feel than the quiet with which we'd been greeted upon our arrival. A few young people were running and laughing on the beach, while others were submerged in the turquoise waters.
As I stood in a small crowd waiting for the ferry and feeling claustrophobic, I probably would have preferred to be swimming in the water. It was getting to be quite warm out, and standing in one place for so long was not conducive to avoiding sunburn. I was relieved when the boat finally arrived and we were able to board. Feeling a little exhausted from standing in the sun for awhile, I succumbed to the urge to take a quick nap during the journey.
Back in Dakar, we continued our tour of the city's highlights. We stopped at the hotel so a few people who weren't feeling up to continuing could take some time to relax. I felt fine and was eager to see as much of the city as I could.
We passed by many local vendors selling clothing draped across the walls. We also saw a market where medicines were being sold on the street; I regretted being on the wrong side of the bus to take any photos of this.
Our first stop of the afternoon was at the IFAN Museum of African Arts which unfortunately seemed disappointing to me after the treasures I'd seen on Goree Island. It was also quite warm in there, and we didn't understand a couple of the more modern exhibits in the second building. I believe they were supposed to be optical illusions or some such thing, but for some inexplicable reason I didn't take any photos so I don't remember.
We made another stop by the African Renaissance Monument, a colossal sculpture that towers over its surroundings. I didn't realize it at the time, but this statue is rooted in controversy which stems partly from fact that the sculpture, which is supposed to be a celebration of African heritage, was designed by a Romanian and built by a North Korean company. It's certainly disappointing to find out that more authentic voices were not involved in its creation. But, on its own merits, the statue is certainly a most impressive site.
There were 198 steps that led up to the base of the statue. Some of our group chose to stay at the ground level but I was determined to get a closer look. When I started to feel a little winded, I recalled my coaches from the gym and continued pushing upwards with increased determination. I'm glad I made the effort because the majesty of the monument's scale was even more impressive from up close. Plus the views of the surrounding city were quite magnificent.
A bunch of us naturally wanted photos of ourselves in front of the statue and Carolyn gamely volunteered to oblige (or was roped into doing so). She lied almost flat on the ground to get a better perspective as cameras were passed to her and she took picture after picture.
After a really quick stop to photograph the Mosque of the Divinity, which sits in a dramatic setting just off the ocean, we returned to the hotel sometime just after 6pm. Our room keys didn't work, so we had to go and get new ones before we could chill out and wash the Goree sand off our feet.
Our guides had recommended eating at the hotel which was fine with me since it had seemed sketchy walking to the restaurant the previous night, so we'd arranged to meet Shannah in the lobby at 7. We were joined by 3 others, 2 of whom I hadn't met on previous trips. I enjoyed meeting them although I was baffled why one of them was complaining so bitterly about our hotel which I felt was quite nice, especially for an urban hotel in a developing country.
I ordered the "Carbonara Penne with Prawns and smoked swordfish" which was heavier than I expected, but fine. Service was slow, and I think they accidentally gave my entree to another table, but it wasn't a big deal for me wait a little longer. Some others wanted to make a bigger deal out of it by suggesting that we get something for free, but I didn't want any alcohol or dessert. I think maybe the waiter brought out a beer for someone else. (I don't think I was the only one who had a problem, but none of the issues were terrible)
During the meal, someone came by to deliver an elephant sand painting to Shannah. She'd asked the artist we visited if he could make one, and he delivered. It was lovely- and she was thrilled to have it. If you judged Dakar (or any other developing city) by Western standards of hotel or restaurant service, you might find it lacking (as that one woman did). But if you look beyond your expectations, you may find that it shines in other ways.
We'd had a photographer traveling among us at Goree Island. I hadn't been sure what that was about (and still am not quite sure) but he turned up at the hotel with the pictures he'd taken, grouped by person. He asked for a very nominal fee, but I gladly paid it as did most group members.
After dinner, we settled our hotel bill so we could save time the following morning. And then I took a shower which felt amazing after such a packed day. Our tour was off to an excellent start, and I was glad I'd had opportunities to meet some amazing new friends already. The sunny day weather had been wonderful- a little warm but not oppressive.
The alarm went off at 6:30am for another busy day. I loathe early days in real life, but I prefer them when I travel because it allows me to accomplish more. Despite wanting to get an early start, I find it difficult to physically get out of bed. It's haaard. Rooming with someone who is more of a natural early bird like Carolyn is perfect because it allows me to steal a little more time in bed while they use the bathroom.
After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel. I tried to find a way to pack the oh-so-comfy beds which we'd particularly enjoyed on the first night, but to no avail. It would actually be super awesome to have beds available during long bus rides, although I guess it would also be counter productive to looking out the windows to watch snapshots of daily life.
After we keft the city of Dakar behind, the first stop of the day was a fishing village; my notes say it was named "Keur" but I can't find any information online to confirm that this is correct. As we drove through the town, the minibuses had to navigate some really small streets. We got out of the bus and walked toward the beach, stopping to see an area with piles of fish that had already been harvested.
As we moved closer to the hub of fishing activity, we saw seemingly endless rows of brightly colored traditional wooden boats. We'd been warned that locals might want money if we took their photos, but I wasn't prepared for an aggravated man who indicated with animated gestures and tone of voice that we needed to give him money after I (and others?) took a picture of a pile of fish next to him. They were his fish and, as such, he expected to be compensated. Our guides talked to him in his language and I think they offered him a tip.
At the center of the action, boats full of men dressed in waterproof garb headed out into the ocean waters. When they returned, workers on the beach- including many colorfully dressed women whose backs were loaded with babies in slings- would carry off buckets full of the catches. The area was quite vibrant and hectic with boats coming and going and it felt a little overwhelming at times to be navigating around the locals with a group as large as ours (33 people + guide). This stop offered a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of Senegalese fishers.
Our second stop was Lake Retba, a lake famous for its pink color. When I first read the description of the tour, I was quite enticed by the prospect of seeing a body of water with such an unusual tint. If I hadn't done some online research and seen pictures showing that the rose color can be quite variable, I would have been extremely disappointed. I'm a little skeptical that the lake is ever as brightly pink as in some of the photos, but I've seen enough photographic evidence to believe that it can definitely have enough of a distinctive tint to make for an interesting site. We must have visited on a particularly unfortunate day because we couldn't even see the faintest tinge of pink to the waters. As a joke, I asked my niece to photoshop one of my photos to colorize the lake so it would appear as I'd wished it would look; many of my fellow travelers were amused when I posted the end result to Facebook.
The shores of the not-pink lake were lined with some wooden boats and many impressive piles of salt. The lake is high in salt content which the locals mine it by hand. We saw a few people in the water gathering salt, as well as workers on the shore packaging up the existing supplies to ship elsewhere.
There were several women walking around in colorful African dress with baskets of souvenir trifles on their heads. They were quite aggressive in their tactics and I was mostly successful in avoiding them. As I recall, they would offer to pose with people (or to have people pose with their baskets) and then try to guilt/hound them into making a purchase. They continued to try to sell their wares even as we re-boarded our mini buses. I can't judge them since that must just be the best way they’ve found to earn a living, but nonetheless I felt uncomfortable.
We had lunch at a lovely nearby resort that was full of rounded yellow thatched huts. Our meal was a salad followed by chicken with rice, which seemed to be the typical offering. Watermelon was served for dessert but for some reason I never was offered a dish; I like watermelon but not enough to complain about it.
After we ate, we had a long drive to our next hotel. Along the way, the guides would share local information. They mentioned mangoes a lot and it always reminded me of some of the lyrics from the musical "Once on this Island" because I am a total musical theatre geek.
I'm not sure if it was discussed during this particular journey, but one of the more interesting facts a guide shared was when he told us quite nonchalantly that he has more than one wife. Many of my fellow group members were probably more shocked than I was since at the time I was in the middle of a reading a book by a Senegalese author which shares a female perspective on polygamy, a common practice in Senegal. It's very easy to sit here as a Western woman and automatically judge polygamy as a ridiculous backwards practice, but actually meeting someone who put a face to this custom challenged me to pause and think. I'll obviously never believe that it's good for women or society for one man to have multiple wives, but I feel more empathy for those who engage in that practice; they aren't people to whom I ought to feel superior, they've just come from a culture with an entirely different tradition.
We stopped twice during the drive that ended up lasting almost twice as long as the 3 hour estimate- once at the side of the road and then a bit later at a more typical rest stop. At the latter, I enjoyed wandering around the aisles of a convenience store and seeing what was for sale. According to the packaging of one product, American style cookies are those with chocolate chips and hazelnut; who knew? I was tempted to purchase a Mojito flavor of 7-up; that flavor always reminds me of a really bad date I'd had a long time ago. Long story, but I'd shared it with Carolyn and so she giggled with me when I told her I'd spotted that flavor.
The official language of Senegal is French and someone picked up a "coco" ice cream thinking that it was chocolately, and not realizing that it would be coconut. Fortunately they liked both flavors- they were just surprised at the taste. Apparently not many of my fellow group members had studied French since I was the only one in my cluster who had been able to decipher the drink menu, which had included such stupefying ingredients as "ananas" (pineapple), on our first night.
After viewing a classic African sunset from our minibuses, we arrived at our hotel well after dark which was disappointing because we couldn't see the grounds. We stayed in individual cabins which were spread out around the property, and it was a little confusing to find our way around in the dark.
This hotel was not as luxe as our last one which was fine with me, but I wondered what the person who had not been happy with the earlier one must have thought. The huts were charming but the interior was quite simple, with 2 beds below mosquito nets hanging from the ceiling. When we arranged the netting before going to sleep later, I discovered that mine was not situated directly above my bed which led to an oddly asymmetrical layout.
We had to make our way back to the main lobby area for dinner which, as mentioned, was a bit challenging in the dark. We managed, although we may have taken a longer route than necessary. According to the blackboard displayed outside the dining room, our meal consisted of Eggplant beignets, Barracuda filet with sauteed vegetables (I'm sure a non-fish option was available for those like Carolyn who don't eat seafood) and Coconut tarte. I didn't touch the latter due to my avid hatred of anything coconut, but the rest of the meal was good. As usual, it was fun talking to my fellow travelers throughout dinner.
The alarm went off at 6:15am for another early start. I hadn't slept well and felt that part of the reason was that my mild sunburn (from Goree Island) hurt whenever my arm brushed against the bed if I changed position. By the time we arrived at breakfast, my notes say that the only options were bread and cheese; I'm not sure what other foods might have been available earlier. Obviously, the meal was disappointing compared to nutella and crepes but my goal was richness in experiences, not in luxury or food.
Daylight brought with it the chance to view the grounds of our hotel with some clarity. The lovely property was cheerily decorated with flowers of many vibrant colors. Gazing down from the restaurant, you could see a pier that extended into the light blue waters of the Keur Salaum river. Apparently the hotel offers fishing and birdwatching; unfortunately, we had to leave right after breakfast so we didn't have any free time to explore the nature around us, although we did spot a monkey or 2 near breakfast.
We only had a short drive to our first destination, Fathala Wildlife Reserve, which was our only opportunity to participate in an activity akin to a traditional safari. You may think of Africa as a destination brimming with places where you can view exotic large animals in the wild, but the continent is much more vast than most people realize and only a portion of it is conducive to classic safaris. That part does not include Eastern Africa.
After splitting our larger group into two, my half climbed into an oversized jeep to tour the grounds in search of wildlife. Since we were on a small private reserve which had a known roster of animals, the drive lacked the raw excitement of my safaris in Kenya and Namibia where no one could ever predict what each outing would bring. Still, it's always fun to see animals roaming freely, and we were able to get a close view of a rhino which has been difficult to achieve on my previous trips. Another highlight was the Western Derby Eland, a variation of antelope which only exists in Senegal.
Our driver spent a lot of time trying to track down elusive giraffes, which was the first action that led to our day running increasingly behind schedule… but I'm getting ahead of myself. I don't know about the others, but I would have been fine without seeing the giraffes. Don't get me wrong- I love these gentle and gorgeous creatures. It's just that I've been blessed to have seen plenty of them on my previous trips, with much better vantage points than we had at Fathala.
Afterwards, our group switched with the other one and embarked on a Lion Walk- except for a very few people who hadn't booked the optional addition. (I think they'd all done similar walks in the past.) I'd had some pause about booking the walk with lions, despite my love for felines of all sizes, because I've heard that in many places that provide close up encounters, the animals are not treated well. I fortunately didn't see any signs of dysfunctional treatment there, but part of me still felt uneasy and wondered if it's right for tourists to be the impetus for taming animals whose nature is to be wild.
We had to temporarily stow any bags or water bottles we were carrying, and each of us was given a walking stick. Some fussed over wanting a stick of a particular size, but I was fine with whatever I was given. It's not like these were tools for a long challenging hike, in which case I'd be more particular.
Our group was slightly unfortunate in that we were accompanied by a pair of female lions; I later found out a male lion had been part of the earlier walk. It would have been preferable to be joined by a male with a regal mane. The cat lover in me thought it was absolutely amazing to be able to view a couple of majestic lions from up close. But as I've mentioned, I also felt a little uneasy about how the lions were essentially used as props to ensure that we could bring home unique photos. The parts where we just walked alongside the large felines felt much more natural. The lions themselves didn't seem unhappy, although they did have to be coaxed into certain poses.
The warm weather was exhausting, so when we got to the hotel where we'd be eating lunch, I was content to sit in a swing and chill out for a bit while waiting for the other group to join us. The delightful lodge had a pool just beyond the open aired lounge. I was quite tempted to jump in, despite the fact that my bathing suit was buried deep in my luggage. But instead, I bought a Diet Coke once I finally had enough energy to take a few steps to stammer over to the bar.
The itinerary had listed a picnic lunch, so it was a real treat to have a buffet instead. Especially since they served lasagna! I love pasta and had been growing a bit weary of chicken with rice, so this was one of my favorite meals. Dessert consisted of fruit cup with ice cream- the latter part of which was also a welcome delight.
Fathala was very close to the border with The Gambia. Crossing into the latter country was an unexpectedly time consuming process that pushed us even further behind schedule. I'm a little baffled that the local supplier wasn't able to better estimate how long this process would take. At the very least, the timetable should have included enough buffer time to account for a "worst case scenario." It didn't bother me at all that the formalities took so long, since I expect any border crossing to potentially eat up a ton of time especially in developing parts of the world. I just find it unfortunate, in retrospect, that issues later on might have been prevented if the delay hadn't set us so far off course.
On the Senegal side of the border, we all had to file out of the bus and individually line up at one of several windows to present our passports. We then returned to our seats and rode across the invisible border after which the bus stopped again and we handed our passports to the local guides who took them out to be processed as a group. Although the Senegal proceedings had been slow, I think the formalities in The Gambia were the part that lasted much longer than anticipated. Based on the time between photos (we were cautioned not to take any at the border), the crossing took somewhere up to 2 hours.
As we waited in the bus, a tall man wearing an orange basketball jersey came onboard carrying a large wad of Gambian bills. This was our opportunity to exchange currency. My first thought was to wonder incredulously "Is this legit...?!" In the US, I'd be completely skeptical of exchanging cash with such a character. But in The Gambia, it was apparently acceptable to change currency without using a bank or formal exchange counter. It's fun sometimes to see how norms can be dramatically different in other parts of the world.
Vendors of cashews and other snacks (but mostly cashews) swarmed around our minibus to the extent that I had to close the curtain on my window. I don't even really like cashews so I wasn't tempted in the least to make any purchases. Again, I hold no animosity- they were just trying to earn a living.
We were scheduled to take a late afternoon boat ride which was supposed to include a rare opportunity to view chimpanzees in the wild. In the original schedule (written months in advance), the cruise had been listed for the following day, but it's my understanding that the timing was altered to better align with when the animals are fed and more active. Since we crossed the border so late, there was some uncertainty as to whether the cruise might be changed back to the next day. However, ultimately it was decided that we should continue heading to the boat- I heard that this option was chosen because the people at the boat had already been preparing for our group.
We arrived at the shore of the Gambia river at around 6:20pm when the sun was already beginning to set and I had a bad feeling. The boat had two levels and most of the group was heading to the upper level which was airy and seemingly quite pleasant. I was toward the back of the line and I decided to defer to the urging of the staff that they needed some of us to sit below. I promptly regretted being so nice because the bottom deck felt rather claustrophobic to me.
The less that is said about the cruise, the better. Once the skies grew black (about halfway through or less), you couldn't see any scenery. We were all irritable from the long ride, and many were extremely disappointed that we didn't get to see anything of interest, including the chimpanzees that had been highlighted in the tour description. The best I can say is that we were served some tasty snacks (similar to empanadas) and cake. Also, I was amused that the napkins were paper towels featuring BB-8 (from the new Star Wars series) which was… not exactly something I'd expect to see in East Africa.
After we were back on shore, we still had a short drive to our hotel. Part of the journey included a very brief ferry crossing, during which time we fortunately were able to stay in our seats although only one bus could fit on the ferry at a time. The hotel was practically next to where the ferry stopped and we all just wanted to get to our rooms after the long, hot day. But we were told to get out of the buses to enjoy a welcome from the villagers of Janjanbureh. It seemed like the whole town was there to greet us; I wondered how long they'd been waiting. The celebration included drumming and someone dancing in a traditional masquerade costume. It was pretty amazing and I regret that at the time, I was too fatigued to emotionally appreciate it. I realized how special it was, and I felt a little annoyed at myself that I couldn't actually feel as much joy as I wanted to.
We'd been warned that our accommodation for this one night was going to be basic so it was no surprise to me when we arrived at our small, plain room which had cracks and water stains on the walls. It felt like a million degrees out and the heat felt stifling since there was no A/C. (supposedly, there were some rooms with A/C but I don't know anyone who had one.) You had to keep the window open to get some semblance of the tiniest breeze and that meant that you could hear everything that was being said outside or in neighboring rooms. The bathroom had no door, so Carolyn and I had to take care that we were each aware when the other was using it. The final "piece de resistance" of the room was a painting on the wall of 2 monkeys; I could swear that they were angrily judging us and plotting to steal my memory cards while I slept. Someone was cursing about the lack of wifi but that was not even a blip of a problem for me; frankly I wondered on what planet they lived that they'd expect to be able to connect to the internet when we'd clearly been told- and could clearly see- that this was the most basic of hotels.
You might think that I felt the place was dreadful and wished that we hadn't had to stay there. After all, I am someone who has been fortunate enough to have stayed at some really swanky hotels during my travels. But I can deal with almost anything for one night. And in fact, the absence of anything remotely resembling luxury made me feel surprisingly grateful for many things that I typically take for granted in my daily life. I'm sure that for some people, including locals, staying at that hotel might feel like as much of a treat as I'd feel staying at a Marriott. Plus, I felt genuine hospitality by the staff who must have personally made the food that was sitting in ordinary casserole dishes for us to serve ourselves for dinner (which we didn't get to eat until almost 10pm due to our delayed arrival). And the whole town had gathered to welcome us- how freaking cool is that?!? I have to be real and admit that it would have been very hard for me to spend an extended period of time there- but somehow my heart was full of enough gratitude to make the place quite tolerable for one night.
Despite the lack of amenities, the room had one power outlet; Carolyn and I had both brought power cords for multiple plugs so we were able to charge our phones overnight and set an alarm for 7:15. Because my phone was across the room charging, I had no idea what time it was whenever I awoke in the night. I wasn't surprised that I didn't sleep well, even after taking a pill that helps me sleep on airplanes. The mattress was warm and the power kept going off and coming back on. Staying multiple nights would undoubtedly have had a negative impact on my ability to enjoy the trip (due to inability to get enough rest) but 1 night was fine.
Carolyn told me the shower went off before she could wash her hair, so I took mine as quickly as possible. I managed to wet my hair in an effort to it to cool me down a tiny bit, but I wasn't ambitious enough to attempt to wash it. It should go without saying that there was no hot water.
At breakfast, we received mugs on which were imprinted our tour as well as our individual names. These were gifts of the local tour provider. At first, people just grabbed the first mug they saw until everyone realized that there were names on them. The mugs were cleaned after the meal and we received them back on the last day of the group tour. This might be a good time to mention that I was developing a taste for local juices- baobab and wonjo, the latter of which is made from dried hibiscus. I am sure I filled my mug with one of those beverages.
After eating, we headed out to the Wassu Stone Circles which required a lot more effort than it might have been worth. First we had to take a ferry back across the Gambia River; this time, we had to get out of the bus as we crossed. The ride was very short but the buses had to go on separate ferries and we had to wait for the other one; at least it was interesting to people watch while we were idle. The same process was repeated on the way back- with the added bonus of a stop to fill the buses up with gas before reaching the ferry. The original itinerary had placed this stop on the previous day, which would have been the most logical place for it logistically as the visit would have simply been made before crossing the ferry to the hotel, which we had to do regardless. But when they changed the time for the cruise we took the previous day, they also had to change the schedule for this visit as well.
The 11 stone circles at Wassu are believed to be over 1000 years old. Legend says that they are the burial grounds for kings and chiefs but no one really knows for sure the reason they were erected. Basically, the site felt like a smaller scale Stonehenge. It was definitely interesting to visit, but I'm not sure it was worth the effort to get there and back. On our way back to the buses, we saw a group of children who were singing.
Once we completed the process of returning to Janjanbureh, a guide took us on a short tour of the town. Group members on the other bus traveled between sites via their vehicle, while we walked. It's probably better to navigate the small town by foot but it was extremely hot out! In contrast to the pleasant temperatures in Casablanca and Dakar, this area of The Gambia was uncomfortably warm, with a high that probably reached around 100 F.
I've again read some controversy over whether the slave sites in Janjanbureh were really what they are telling tourists they are. But it really doesn't matter, and that slant was not emphasized that highly for most of the tour with the exception of The Freedom Tree. The legend of this tree states that when escaping slaves touched it, they were set free. A man with drums was reciting some of the history of the tree in a sing-song fashion. I thought his performance was cool, but I think a lot of my fellow travelers found him annoying. I wish I'd shot a longer video than the very brief clip I have.
After visiting some sites including a local market, we finished our tour at a masquerade museum. You know you've picked a quality roommate when, upon hearing our destination, she quotes the Phantom of the Opera lyric "Masquerade, paper faces on parade." Since the official language of The Gambia is English, we were able to read the signs and get some context for the performance which had greeted us on the previous night. If you wanted to photograph the exhibits, the museum asked for a very nominal donation which I gladly offered.
Lunch at our hotel was similar to dinner the previous night in that it consisted of a series of dishes in casserole style containers from which we helped ourselves. My plate ended up with some meat, rice, pasta, and couscous. I also had a Diet Coke and sampled some kind of drink with ginger in it that was quite strong. After the meal, I turned my camera into selfie mode to see what I looked like and if I needed to fix my hair; I was pleasantly surprised to appear way cuter than the mess I felt like!
The rest of the day was spent traveling to our next hotel. En route, we spent about a half hour visiting a local family compound to get a sense of how locals live. Unsurprisingly, the living quarters were primitive even compared to our previous night's hotel. They may not have much, but they were gracious to offer what they had to others, even opening their home to a group of strangers. Let's be honest- people in the US wouldn't just open their homes to a group of foreigners. (they might do it if they were paid- and I have no idea if this family was- but I doubt they'd exude as friendly and welcoming of a vibe) I had to smile when I saw a couple of stuffed Tiggers on a shelf by the stereo; Winnie the Pooh's tiger has universal appeal. My favorite part of this visit was seeing the smiling faces of the children. Two families shared the very modest quarters and they had so little compared to kids here who all have cell phones and whatever toys or accessories are in vogue. And yet, they grin and giggle and seem genuinely full of joy. They were really just like children anywhere- just less focused on the internet and material things.
From there, we had a 3 and a half hour drive to our next hotel. After the issues the previous day, the local operators made it a point to adhere to our schedule which resulted in arriving while there were at least a few moments of daylight left. As we walked through the beautiful grounds to the building where our room was located, I felt tremendously relieved that we'd left the unbearable heat behind. It was still warm, just not miserably so.
We had free time for dinner; some were adventurous enough to try restaurants on the street by our hotel but Carolyn and I preferred to have a quick meal in hopes of getting to bed early. Our hotel had several restaurants and it was a little confusing since all the menus from all of the restaurants were in the binder we were given, but we figured it out. We spotted John in the restaurant so we sat with him, and later Karen and Grace joined us. I ordered a 4 cheese pizza which was amazing, particularly since I hadn't had pizza since JFK airport, and added on a cup of tomato soup which also hit the spot. For dessert, I couldn't resist the chocolate ice cream which was quite rich.
As we ate, we were entertained by a band playing with bongo drums. It was a little surreal when they started singing "Mrs Robinson"- just not the type of music I'd expect to hear played that way. I was also amused by a couple of cats that lurked near the table.
Back in the hotel room, I basked in the luxury of an amazing shower; I'd felt so gross from all that walking in the heat and of course I had only been able to take a super quick shower when I got up. The room was quite comfortable, and included all the amenities one might expect, including air conditioning. I knew I'd sleep well.
I slept really well, waking up only once briefly at around 4am. I grudgingly got up when the alarm went off at 6:15am- I would have loved to sleep longer, but once I got moving, I felt well rested.
Breakfast was on a terrace in the main building which had a lovely view of the palm tree lined grounds and the ocean beyond. I was very happy to see crepes and nutella available on the buffet- the perfect vacation breakfast! They also had bacon; it seemed a little weird but it was still bacon. There were a myriad of other options as well- something to suit virtually any taste.
After breakfast, I had a little time to wander around the hotel grounds, which were quite lovely and relaxing. Someone had mentioned that there was a peacock walking around so of course I had to find it - such a handsome bird! I also used this time to send out some laundry so that I'd have enough clean clothes for my upcoming week in Morocco.
The day's activities were inspired by sites chronicled in Alex Haley's iconic novel, Roots. Before booking this trip, I had somehow managed to get through life without having read the book or seen either of TV renditions of this story. But once I knew I'd be heading here, I purchased the book- even though it was as thick as a brick- because I'd seen some negative reviews for the kindle version. Fortunately, I found the novel so engrossing that I even lugged it around with me on my March trip to NYC with the nieces. I was particularly interested in the early sections which depicted Kunte Kinte's life in The Gambia before he was brought to America. I found it fascinating to read about what typical Gambian life had been like in the eighteenth century; until then, I hadn't realized that Islam had such a strong tradition in West Africa. After finishing the book, I searched online to see how much of it was true and I discovered that there is some scholarly skepticism about whether Alex Haley was truly able to trace his lineage or if he just heard and saw what he selectively felt would support his story. But regardless of the truth (which no one will ever know), I feel that the legend of Kunta Kinteh is still a powerful symbol of a shameful period of history that we need to remember. The book brought that history to life for me in a way that textbooks never had; many sites on this trip strengthened that insight.
After about 30 minutes on the bus, we boarded a boat to travel along the River Gambia to the villages of Albreda and Juffureh. The ride took about 2 hours but it didn't feel that long because it was quite relaxing to sit on the deck of the boat in the fresh air; it was a refreshing change from long cramped bus rides. During the ride, I was glad to have a chance to talk to Carol, our tour leader. We'd already bonded over our mutual love for ice cream and it was great to get to know her a little better. She's a lovely person- sweet and down to earth, and she was very dedicated to her role of leading the group.
Once we arrived at our destination, we disembarked from the boat and walked down a pier that led to a small village whose landscape was dotted with both people and livestock. One of the first sights we came across was a sculpture that looks like a the figure of a human with a globe in place of a head; his arms are raised, dangling chains, as if victorious for finally gaining freedom. As we got closer, I could see that the base said "Never again!" Growing up as a middle class Jew, I am very familiar with hearing that phrase in reference to the Holocaust. It makes me sad to see that there are so many "never again"s in the world. I will never understand how humans have historically been so cruel others who are different from them.
We walked past a school and paused to watch the children singing. It's always a joy to see kids in another part of the world laughing and playing… much the same as children in my home town. We'd been told not to give anything directly to the children, but rather to donate to the school so that items can be dispersed fairly. I didn't personally bring anything with me, but some of my fellow travelers had.
During our time in the town we visited a Slavery Museum and then met with an elder of the village who was said to be descended from the same line as Kunte Kinte. She had such a noble air about her that I felt privileged to meet her, regardless of whether her lineage truly can be traced to Alex Haley's ancestry. There is definitely something to be said about cultures where the elderly are treated with honor; it seems that in the US, most people value youth and beauty over wisdom and experience. We were all given certificates, courtesy of the local travel company, to commemorate the meeting.
Many of my fellow travelers stopped in the market for some shopping, but the area around Juffureh was quite beautiful so I used the small block of free time to capture some more photos. Schools were getting out around this time and I tried to get some candid shots of the children. At one point, some of the kids noticed me taking photos and they all wanted to get in the shot- they were super cute.
When it was time to return to our boat, I lingered behind a bit and was able to enjoy some peaceful solitude as I photographed some areas that had been more crowded with my fellow group members when we'd first arrived. Along the way, I ended up talking a little to Angela, who was the head of the local tour provider. This was the only chance I really had to talk to her and she seemed interested in my feedback. I may have had some issues with how the schedule had played out a couple days earlier, but I trust that Angela's intentions were always good and that she wanted to give us the best experience possible.
I was a little sad to say goodbye to Juffureh especially since I felt like I could have easily spent more time there exploring. If nothing else, there is a kitch "Roots Heritage Trail" sign that I've seen photos of online which would have been fun to visit in person. I really enjoyed the opportunity to spend a sunny day in a quaint uncrowded village on the edge of the water.
When we returned to the boat, we all went down to the bottom deck for a lunch buffet, which was quite delicious. I think I particularly enjoyed the beef with rice and tomato sauce.
It was just a short ride to our second stop of the day, Kunte Kinteh island. Now named for the hero of the novel Roots, this tiny island (which used to be larger before suffering from erosion) used to be named James Island. The island is notable for being the site of a fort as well as for its role in slave trade.
We couldn't dock directly on this island, so we had to split into 2 groups and transfer to a smaller boat for a short distance. I ended up on a seat that was lower than others. As a result, I felt painfully claustrophobic as the others boarded.
It was worth a few minutes of suffering to be able to explore the little gem of the island with its dramatic ruins and twisty trees. I am really glad I asked someone to take a picture of me with our tour leader, Carol since we happened to be dressed as purple twinsies that day!
I chose to board last on the shuttle boat back to the ship; it was less crowded and I had a higher seat so the return wasn't nearly as annoying as the journey to the island had been. I napped a little during the boat ride back into town. Once we got back to the port of Banjul, we boarded our buses to return to the hotel.
We returned to the hotel at around 6pm and a bunch of us headed straight to the Gelateria. The strawberry ice cream was not up to the level of genuine Italian gelati, but a cold treat was most welcome after our long day outdoors.
Carolyn and I decided to take advantage of the waning daylight to explore more of the resort. We saw tons of monkeys as we walked to the beach. Obviously, I made sure to keep close guard on all memory cards, but it seems like Gambian monkeys may be more law abiding than Kenyan ones. The beach was quite beautiful, especially against the twilight sky. We didn't stay that long because we both felt a little creeped out by a random guy who was trying to persuade us to go to the market the next day.
When I got back to the room, my laundry was already done- impressive! After a little time to relax, we went back to the hotel lobby to meet up with Shannah and Daniella for dinner. Feeling a little adventurous, we searched various options online and found what seemed to be the perfect place for our meal. To get there, we walked down a street full of vendors trying to entice us to eat at their restaurants. But we were determined, and even asked some locals for directions to help guide us.
Alas, we were so disappointed when we reached the cute sounding restaurant with the great reviews only to discover that it was closed that night. So we had to turn around and decide on an alternate venue. We ended up choosing a place called the "African Queen" where we were served by a waiter who joked that his name was Wesley Snipes. It was a great dinner, full of lively discussion about travel and different travel companies. The other 3 women ordered entrees that literally were served on smoking iron plates; I decided to be boring and order the spaghetti which suited me because it was a smaller and less expensive meal. After receiving the bill, Carolyn handed the server her credit card, just as one would in any US restaurant; however, it is not safe to assume that establishments in Africa will take plastic. She was low in Gambian currency but fortunately the restaurant allowed her to pay in US dollars.
Shortly after we returned to our hotel room at around 10pm, the phone rang. Someone told me that my laundry was done and asked if it was ok to deliver it. Needless to say, I was confused since I already had my clean clothes! Part of me wondered what would have happened if I'd agreed to have it delivered- maybe I'd have ended up with a wardrobe upgrade! (don't worry, I'd never actually take someone else's clothes)
When I awoke after the 6:15am alarm, I was disheartened to discover that Carolyn wasn't feeling well. She wanted so much to join the group but wisely realized it would be better for her to stay back at the hotel. After breakfast, I gave her some water mixed with electrolyte drops that I'd brought with me. Part of me wanted to stay in case she needed anything, but I knew it would be better to leave her alone, and that she wouldn't want me to miss out on the day's activities.
Today we were given 3 options: Spend a full day with the group which would include a camel ride and a lazy boat ride, spend the morning with the group doing the camel ride and then head back to the hotel, or spend the entire day relaxing and enjoying the resort. I'm not really a pool/beach person so it was pretty easy for me to choose the full day with the group. I'm glad that there were other options offered, though, so that everyone had a chance to spend the day the way that was best for them.
I had been very excited for the opportunity to ride a camel on a Gambian beach; it sounded like a wonderfully exotic way to spend a morning. Sadly, the reality did not even come close to my expectations. I'd previously ridden a camel in the UAE which had been an altogether lovely experience. Once we got close to these 4 camels, I could tell that they seemed different- they had muzzles over their mouths and their legs were tied to keep them on the ground; they just didn't seem happy. When it came time to start the rides, one seemed greatly agitated and another was sick with diarrhea. Some of our group were so distressed at the state of the camels that they decided not to ride. I was pushed into the first group before I had a chance to really think about it. I will say that once we got moving, the camels seemed fine and the beach was lovely. But I was so uncomfortable at how the animals were treated that my ride was not a highlight. Apparently camels are not native to The Gambia- a Spaniard decided to import some to open a business. We were told that most of the original 20 camels died- it was not clear if this was due at least in part with them not being suited to their new environment.
I was glad to be done with the camels, at which point my small group walked down the beach to explore a fishing area and market. The fishing was similar to the process we'd seen in Senegal, but since there was an adjacent market, the small area was even more fantastically chaotic. We walked on the beach amid a colorful kaleidoscope of people, umbrellas and baskets- with the blue waters in the distance and a swarm of birds constantly circling overhead. At one point, our guide had to go back for one of our group members who we'd accidentally left behind so the rest of us were left standing in one spot for a few minutes, able to keenly observe the flurry of myriad activities happening all around us. It felt a little overwhelming but it was also amazing.
We then took a short drive to the Tanje Village Museum where we saw exhibits depicting traditional Gambian life. I was uncomfortable with some of the first rooms which were decorated with animal hides, but fortunately the experience improved after that. The most interesting parts were seeing recreations of huts in a Gambian compound and watching a couplemen use looms to weave textiles. Many of our group bought some of the purses and bags that had been a result of that labor. They were quite lovely but none of them really spoke to me (which is to say that none were purple LOL).
Our ride to the dock for the boat ride took us through a busy city market. About half the remaining group got off to wander through the crowded streets full of vendors. Knowing how claustrophobic I can get, I was content to observe from afar and take a few photos from our vehicle. It was more relaxing to sit and chat with some of my fellow group members for that half hour or so.
I hadn't been all that excited for the lazy boat ride; I only went because it seemed like it would be more interesting than sitting around the hotel all day. However, the activity turned out to be a sleeper hit with a lot of us! After so many busy days full of sightseeing and long bus rides, it felt good to kick back for awhile in the peaceful setting of the River Gambia, amid mangroves with roots that were lined with oysters. At one point, we passed by a few small boats of women who were going to harvest those oysters by hand.
At various times of the day, we ate, swam, and fished. OK, I personally just watched (and photographed) the latter 2 activities. Only 2 of our group actually got in the water, one of them performing some impressive flips off the top deck of the ship! Many more took turns using rods to try their luck at fishing. Unlike the infamous fishing activity we undertook on a ship in Halong Bay, this time many people had the opportunity to proudly display fish that they'd caught. Except for Shannah. Alas, no matter how long she patiently sat with her line bobbing in the water, nothing was attracted to it.
The staff on the boat were friendly and hospitable and I'm sure that helped us all enjoy our time. Near the end of the journey, we celebrated with some alcoholic bubbly which I most definitely appreciated. Spending that afternoon chilling out on a traditional wooden boat is not something I feel I can adequately describe in words. It was one of those times where the experience was more than the sum of its parts.
When I got back to the hotel, I was anxious to check on Carolyn. I felt relieved that she was feeling better than when I'd last seen her. She told me that she'd slept until something like 3 pm; she really needed the rest since she'd apparently been up most of the night. We both agreed that we were glad neither of us had been bothered with any stomach issues the night we'd stayed at the hotel which had no bathroom door!
I was glad that Carolyn felt well enough to join us for dinner. Our group was the same crew as the previous night, with the addition of 2 others for a total of 6 of us. We decided to head to a Dutch/ Greek restaurant that others in our group had recommended. It was located on the strip of restaurants on the street just beyond our hotel, near where we'd dined the previous evening. Four of us, including me, ordered the Spaghetti Bolognese which was just OK. I hadn't intended to order dessert- partly because I was low on Gambian cash- but then I saw a luscious sundae being delivered to another table and I couldn't resist the temptation. Three others felt similarly and joined me in ordering the dessert. I have absolutely no regrets- the ice cream was fabulous! Somehow, we were all able to scrape together enough cash to pay for our meals and tip even though many of us were low on Gambian cash. It was another fun meal with some great companions.
Back at the hotel, Carolyn and I decided to settle our bill so we could save time in the morning. Inexplicably, my name on the bill was preceded by the title "Mr" which amused me. For some reason, the front desk was not able to put through the charge on my usual Mastercard, although when I checked online later it appeared that it had been authorized. Fortunately my ATM card can be used as a debit card and the hotel was successfully able to process that method of payment; I think it was the first time I've ever actually used that card for anything other than withdrawing cash!
Chatting with Carolyn in the hotel room as we packed and got ready for bed, I was struck by how much I was going to miss her. I already knew before this trip that she was an awesome person, but it turned out that she was also a perfect roommate- considerate, fun, and an early riser! I am sure I enjoyed the first half of my trip even more because she was there with me through most of it.
When I woke up, I couldn't believe it was already the last day of the group tour. As usual, the week flew by!
At breakfast, I was disappointed to see that there was barely any nutella left. I had to scrape the jar in order to get some to spread on my crepe- and even then it was barely sufficient. As I ate, I saw a bird on a nearby ledge and thought it presented a great opportunity to play around with some photography modes on my relatively new phone. At first, the bird seemed to pose obligingly. But then it swooped down onto the table and started eating from my plate… which prompted me to freak out and dash away. RIP my crepe with the last traces of nutella! I jokingly thought that maybe I could invent a new diet on the premise that you can fill your plate with whatever you want, but you would only get a few bites before a bird would descend to eat the rest.
Before checking out of the hotel, I asked if they had anywhere where I could print my airline itinerary in case I needed to show it the following week to gain entry into Casablanca airport. They pointed me to a computer in the business center which I was eventually able to use. The ink on the resulting printout was extremely light in spots but it was readable.
Our only actual tourist activity of the day was a stop at the nearby Kachikally Crocodile Pool and Museum. The visit started with some exhibits on the history of The Gambia, including a room which honored soldiers who had fought in WWII. But the obvious highlight was when we reached the green body of water which was home to a bunch of crocodiles. We were able to touch one of them, but we had to be careful to follow instructions so as not to make the creatures feel threatened. The one we all posed with was quite docile. I shot a short video as proof that the area was populated with actual living, breathing, moving reptiles.
A short drive brought us to the boarding point for a ferry to cross the Gambia River. This was a different site than where we'd crossed previously, and both the width of the river and the size of the ship were larger. Our minibuses had already crossed separately in order to expedite the process, so our luggage was loaded onto the ferry in wheelbarrows. We sat on an upper level of the boat in 2 long parallel benches that faced each other with a narrow walkway in between. I expected the journey to be chaotic, but it was rather pleasant except for the vendors who kept walking up and down their aisles selling their wares; whenever they passed by, I'd feel a little claustrophobic. Carolyn bought an awesome spear from one of them. Toward the end of the short trip, there was a bit of a verbal scuffle when one of group got up and a local woman took her seat and refused to move; our guide tried talking to her but to no avail. Overall, I thought it was very cool to be traveling alongside the locals on the transportation they actually use- it made me feel more like a traveler than a tourist.
After a short drive, we reached the border with Senegal. The customs formalities consisted of a similar process as we'd experienced going the other way- including the ubiquitous swarms of locals selling cashews. We again remained on the vehicle on The Gambian side while the guides brought our passports through the office in bulk, and lined up single file with our documents at windows on the Senegal side. Fortunately, the process moved much more quickly than it had when we'd gone in the reverse direction.
The drive to the next hotel was punctuated by a lunch stop which happened to be at the second hotel we'd stayed at earlier in the trip. By the time we arrived, I was dying for a Diet Coke. Truly, it was the only thing in life I desired at that moment. Unfortunately, there was a crowd around the bar and they had no change. It was frustrating because I felt like I was experiencing caffeine withdrawal. Fortunately, I was eventually able to obtain my holy grail of beverage, and I indeed felt much better after taking a few sips. I have absolutely no idea what I ate since the only picture I took was of the chocolate mousse dessert, which was wonderful. I think we had a choice between the mousse and creme brulee which was not an easy decision.
During the drive, we were informed that we all needed to pay $25 cash for transport from the hotel to the airport. It didn't bother me at all that there was a fee; however, I was extremely irritated to find out about it with so little notice. Surely, someone ought to have firmed up the transportation details earlier! We were told that we'd switched hotels for that night so we could be at one that was closer to the airport so perhaps the tour company had just assumed that the hotel provided free transport. But if I could use Google maps and determine that the new hotel was still a ways from the airport, they ought to have realized this as well. Plain and simple, it was sloppy planning. If I'd known before leaving home, I would have set aside an envelope with that money just as I'd done with all my other known expenses. Instead, I had to dig into my emergency stash; Carolyn didn't have any cash left at all so I offered to pay for her as well. I tried not to dwell on the issue although it left me with a bitter taste.
On a more positive note, some of us came up with the perfect idea for a future trip: an ice cream tour of weird countries. Of course, Carol would have to lead it since it's as perfect a theme for her as it is for me. It would be amazing if it could happen! Carol bought a box of 4 ice cream popsicles at one of the rest stops to split with 3 other people. I wasn't able to get in on that deal but it's just as well because they were very melted and messy and had to be gobbled down quickly.
I think I may have mentioned in a previous entry that the roads in both Senegal and Gambia were quite good. It occurred to me that they were much better than the pothole laden roads in my hometown. But of course West Africa is not subject to the harsh winter conditions that lead to such potholes.
While the quality of the roads was terrific, I was sad to notice a lot of trash on their sides. In the cities, I'd seen people on donkey led carts collecting rubbish but clearly more needs to be done in the more rural areas. I remember this being an issue my Namibian guide had been passionate about; it seemed like the littering problem was equally troubling in Western Africa.
As we drove, I grew nostalgic for the experiences and sights I'd been privileged to experience over the course of the past week or so. I tried to capture in my memory a slideshow of the visions I'd grown accustomed to seeing through the bus windows as we traveled along the countryside: the contrast of women dressed in vivid colors against the flat brownish landscapes… smiling children enjoying spending time together outside, free of electronic devices… passing small villages and towns full of people taking part in routine tasks such as fetching water from a well or doing laundry or carrying a load on their heads or just waiting for a bus… I grudgingly admitted to myself that I even had fond memories of the women who had aggressively surrounded our bus selling cashews. I also recalled the feeling of awe that I'd walked on ground once tread by captors and would-be-slaves, and the sites which had been part of such a shameful and tragic history. My thoughts drifted freely, but they kept returning to the colors- a vivid tapestry of clothing, boats, earth and sky. The tour hadn't been perfect (none are) but I was so grateful to have embarked on a journey which had provided a fascinating glimpse into another world, unique from anywhere I'd traveled previously.
Our hotel for the last night was perhaps the nicest place we'd stayed so far; pity that some of us would only be able to spend a few hours there. Since we were back in Dakar, we had to go through metal detectors and x-rays at the gate. But once we entered the complex, we were welcomed to an open air reception area with a tray of juices and a man playing the kora. Our rooms consisted of adorable little huts, with luxe interiors that sparkled with cleanliness.
In the time before dinner, we wandered around the gorgeous pool area to the palm tree lined beach. We'd of course stayed at other hotels with pools and beaches- but this one seemed to take the amenities to the next level of comfort and beauty. I was a little jealous of those who'd be able to spend the entirety of the next day there before their flights.
Dinner was similarly impressive, featuring a wide array of buffet options and a live band playing music. I was most pleased with the pasta bar, where a chef prepared pasta and sauce to each guest's specification. The desserts were fancy but, as usual, I am not always thrilled with upscale sweets; sometimes I am happiest with just a simple chocolate chip cookie. During the meal, we were presented with the mugs we'd first seen in Janjanbureh and our laminated certificates from visiting the Kunte clan in Juffureh.
All too soon it was time for goodbye hugs as Carolyn and I went back to our room to make our final preparations for heading to the airport. Our flight wasn't until 2am, but we joined a bunch of other people who had flights as early as around midnight because it seemed silly to have a shuttle just for the 2 of us (even if we had paid extra for said transport). Plus both of us are totally chill with the idea of spending hours at an airport; it sure beats the alternative of sprinting to the gate!
When we got in line at the Royal Air Maroc counter, they wanted to see our passports and itinerary. I was really glad that I'd printed mine earlier! The airport itself was brand new and spiffy looking but it disappointingly lacked wifi or anywhere to charge electronic devices. Carolyn still wasn't feeling 100% so she sat at the gate reading while I explored the shops. There weren't many (there were some signs of places that would be opening soon) but the duty free shop offered some great options for souvenirs for others, including Kinder chocolate eggs, magnets, and soaps.
While waiting at the airport for the overnight flight that would take me to the Moroccan leg of my trip, I felt like I was participating in a "To Be Continued" double leg of the TV show "The Amazing Race". On that note…
When it was time to board the plane, we saw a mass of humanity migrate seemingly at once into a very loose semblance of a queue. By then, it was almost 2am and I was hopelessly tired and I desperately wanted to get to my seat so we got in line, although I think Carolyn may have thought it wiser to wait until the line calmed down. Eventually we got on the plane and I reached row 22 only to discover that a woman was already sitting in my seat. Ugh. My French isn't great, but I think I managed to convey to her (and to anyone else in the immediate area) that my seat was at the window. When she didn't move, the guys in row 23 explained the situation to her in better French than I could use and finally she very grudgingly moved to the aisle seat.
I was so exhausted that I passed out pretty quickly and was barely even aware when the plane became airborne. Unfortunately, the sounds and smells of the in-flight meal service jolted me awake. No, I really do not want a meal at 3am- especially the mediocrity that is served on Royal Air Maroc! (there was no time change involved in my flight, so it was a literal 3am meal) I tried to sleep during the remainder of the short 3.5 hour flight with only limited success.
The plane landed in Casablanca a little early, around 5am. After descending the stairs from the plane, I waited for Carolyn and we walked through part of the airport together until I turned to head through customs and she went straight to go sit and wait for her 2:30pm connection. Or so she thought. I was surprised to see her later in the immigration line and she told me that they wouldn't let her stay in the airport and forced her to get "accommodations" The good news is that Royal Air Maroc paid for her hotel room during the extended layover. The not-so-good news was that the room was as dreadful as the reviews I'd seen; she would much rather have waited at the (clean) airport. If we hadn't booked a layover tour on the way over, I'm sure similar "accommodations" would have been our fate- which makes that excursion even more worth the money.
At any rate, the immigration line was short but sparsely staffed. Since we'd landed early, I took my time visiting the ATM and freshening up a bit. I then went outside in search of my driver which should have been an easy task since there was barely anyone outside at that early hour. However, I experienced deja vu from my first visit to Casablanca since I couldn't find anyone there to meet me. After emailing the tour company (yay for free wifi at Casablanca airport), I waited 5-10 more minutes and then a short, smiling young man came over and introduced himself as A, my driver. I was relieved.
Since I hadn't gotten much sleep on the red eye flight, I dozed through much of the 3.5 hour or so drive to Fes. When I awoke and could tell that we were getting close to the city, I was starting to get excited for the new things that lied in store during my week in Morocco. A pulled over the car, handed my luggage to a man from the riad where I'd be staying, and cheerfully told me he'd see me at 9:30am the next day for my guided city tour.
Wait, what?!? It wasn't even 10am and… that was all I'd get from A that day? I wondered what the heck was I supposed to do with the rest of the day?!? As I got out of the car in a daze, I started to understand the difference between a guide and a driver; A was clearly the latter. He would get me from point A to point B but then I would be essentially on my own. While I hadn't expected the same kind of convivial companionship I'd felt with my Namibia tour guide, I'd expected…. something in the way of guidance as to how to best spend my time in an unfamiliar city. I don't think it was A's fault necessarily- the itinerary I was given mentioned nothing beyond transferring to Fes; I had just assumed that since I'd booked a (custom) tour package that I'd naturally receive some level of assistance in planning out my free time. While I have learned the lesson that I need to ask more questions and not make assumptions, I feel that the company I booked with was glaringly lacking in empathy not to have even offered suggestions for the rest of my day.
To make matters worse, the riad where I'd be staying wasn't conducive to wandering around on one's own. I later discovered that there are some central plazas where one might at least find restaurants and some souvenir shops, but my accommodations were not in that area. My riad was located in one of many areas of Fes that would be very confusing to navigate without assistance, especially for a foreigner. Even getting myself back to a street where I might catch a taxi did not feel straightforward. Another lesson learned- do more research not just on the quality of the hotels where I've been booked, but also their location. Or choose them myself; I always factor location and convenience highly when deciding where to stay during my travels.
As I got close to my destination, my heart gasped at the sight of some adorable but shy kittens! Seeing my interest, the man guiding me opened the door to a building where they'd scampered to hide. I was practically giddy at the sight of 4 adorable little kittens- 2 were gray and white, one was a light orange, and one was a little tortie.
A riad is a small, traditional Moroccan guesthouse that features an interior courtyard, typically with a fountain. Entering the one where I'd be staying, I was welcomed into a charming atrium and offered some tea. I don't really drink tea at home, but I did throughout my week in Morocco because it was the thing to do. After enjoying the beverage and completing the check in formalities, I was led up a narrow, somewhat twisty flight of stairs to my room.
Other than its location, my small riad in Fes was wonderful. I loved the traditional feel; there was no mistaking that I was in Morocco. The entire place was overflowing with character- it was the antithesis to a generic modern hotel. While unpacking, I enjoyed discovering all of the little artistic touches that decorated my room. I was slightly obsessed with the colored glass window that opened to give a view down into the atrium below.
After taking photos around the room, I collapsed into the comfortable bed. I'd napped during the car ride but I still felt in need of some rest; it didn't help matters that I felt a little overwhelmed trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my day. At around 1 or 2pm, I got up and took a refreshing shower.
Still wondering what to do, I went down to the atrium and took some more photos. I sat down and… just decided that whatever happened, would happen. If I just sat there for awhile and enjoyed the atmosphere, so be it.
And that's when I met a friendly young man from Munich who was traveling with his girlfriend. They were going to run out to try to get some groceries, which sounded like an excellent idea. There were no stores in walking distance but they had a car and invited me to join them. Jumping into a car with 2 strangers halfway across the world from home… what could possibly go wrong?!? I trusted my positive instincts about them as well as the knowledge that this was my only realistic opportunity to embark on any kind of adventure that day.
So I rode with them to a Carrefour that was located in a mall I'd passed on the way to the riad. They had a few issues figuring out the location, but I just enjoyed riding in a car on a sunny day and chatting with a couple of really nice people. Eventually, we found our destination and pulled into a parking lot underneath the shopping center.
I truly enjoy walking through foreign supermarkets and seeing how they differ from ones at home, so I was probably more excited to peruse the aisles than I ought to have been. Among the distinctive features I noticed was a row of large containers of spices that one could scoop, as well as distinctive Moroccan pastries in the bakery section. I left the store with a large bottle of water, 2 bottles of Coke Zero, 2 Nutella and Go packs, a large cheese croissant, and a lip gloss.
After getting back to the hotel, I recalled that the man who had checked me in had mentioned something about a rooftop area so I decided to climb the stairwells and explore. When the steps ended, I pushed open a door and found myself on a cute little terrace which offered a fabulous panoramic view of the sprawling old city. I was fortunate to arrive at a time when I could watch the sky change colors as the sun faded. I was jolted slightly when I heard some foreign words blaring from a loudspeaker but then I realized it was the traditional call to prayer so I decided to record it for posterity. It was pretty cool to hear that impassioned alert while gazing out onto the city.
At one point, I looked down and caught sight of the kittens I'd seen earlier so I dashed downstairs for a closer look. This time I was also able to see their mother- a beautiful striped calico. One of the most annoying moments of my entire trip was when a large Trafalgar group chose that time to be tramping past my riad. Their presence scared the skittish felines so I wasn't able to spend as much time photographing them as I would have liked. They were so adorable- and I felt especially fond of them because were the first sight to make me smile in this crazy and alien city.
I hadn't seen any restaurants nearby so the best option for dinner seemed to be eating at my riad which fortunately served an evening meal for an additional charge. (I didn't know how much it cost until I checked out; it was apparently around $17 which seems fair) I was able to sit with the German couple which was a much more pleasant option than eating alone- they were wonderful company and I love talking to people from other parts of the world. The meal consisted of honey cakes, vegetable soup, lamb tagine, and fruit. I'm a picky eater but I was pleased to realize that Moroccan food is pretty fabulous. This was just one of many delicious meals I was able to enjoy during my week.
After eating and chatting with my new friends, I went upstairs to go to bed. While I felt a little frustrated that I hadn't been able to do anything especially notable, my day had turned out pretty nicely afterall. In fact, after so many busy days, it was nice to be able to chill a bit. I was very grateful to have met the fun German couple. I was also pleased with myself for being patient through my confusion over what to do, and for being open to the experience of going off with a couple strangers. Had I kept myself closed off and cynical, my day would not have ended with such a positive note.
Even though I got plenty of sleep, I still felt a bit reluctant to get up when my alarm went off at 7:45am. But I did, and was pleased to be able to join my German friends when I went downstairs to the atrium to eat. The riad offered a modest but sufficient table full of breakfast foods for us to enjoy.
As promised, I was met at around 9:30am for my Fes city tour and I was stoked to finally be able to see some of the city! My guide for the day, L, was a young woman wearing a hot pink traditional hooded dress with a big smile and braces on her teeth. I instantly liked her, and found that her 4 years of studying in Florida had given her impressive skill in conversational English. When I eventually discovered that her time in Florida had been spent working in Epcot, my inner Disney geek was thrilled. I had clearly been innately drawn to her Disney ways. I am so thankful that out of all the many guides that must work in Fes, L was chosen to be mine. Hiring an enthusiastic and knowledgeable local guide was one thing that the tour company I'd booked with absolutely got right- although the Disney connection was obviously fluke luck.
Our day started out being driven (by A) to a hilltop where L provided me with a literal overview of the city, which is a religious and educational center of Morocco. The site where we stopped, Marinid Tombs, was populated with some old ruins which made for some great photo opportunities. I appreciated being able to take as much time as I wanted to enjoy the area after L was finished talking about the city.
Another short drive brought us to the gates of the Royal Palace, one of many royal residences in the country. The palace itself is not open to the public, but the gates with their impressive brass doors are wonderfully ornate and well worth seeing. During my time here, L explained that the green color present on the trimming represented religion being above all. She also described how the star on the Moroccan flag represents the 5 pillars of Islam while the red background represents the blood of the soldiers who founded the country. As a Les Mis fan, I couldn't help jokingly thinking that red ought to have stood for the blood of angry men.
A short walk took us through what is known as the Jewish quarter, although the area is no longer occupied by Jews. L talked about how the architecture, with its 2nd floor balconies, was distinct from the medina which we'd be exploring later. I also noticed that there was more color splashed on many of the walls. My one regret was not asking if there were any religious sites we might be able to see; in later research, I discovered that there is indeed a synagogue and it would have been cool to have visited there.
As would be prevalent throughout the country, I noticed quite a number of cats roaming throughout the Jewish quarter. Of course I had to take photos of as many of them as I could manage! While trying to photograph a certain calico feline, I ran into some issues trying to get the cat to look in my direction. Noticing my attentions, a woman swooped in to help pose the cat. When L told me that all the cats come to her, I thought to myself with a smile "I think I just met the Crazy Cat Lady of Fes!"
We had another short stop at a center for mosaics and pottery. It was touristy as all heck, but I nonetheless found it interesting to observe the process by which those artworks were created by hand by local artisans. Needless to say, there was a gift shop at the end. I angsted for far too long about what to buy, and eventually decided on something small for myself plus a couple even smaller pieces for the nieces (who seemed to appreciate those gifts).
The remainder of my tour with L was spent exploring the medina- the inner walled city- starting with its famous blue gate. The ancient city consisted of an amazing labyrinth that was vibrant with a cacophony of colors, textures, sounds, smells… and of course felines. The network of narrow walkways seemed virtually indistinguishable from each other, in part because most buildings only had modest windows and doors; Moroccans traditionally paid more decorative attention to the interior atrium. I still find it impressive that people can find their way around! The old city felt completely different from the more European vibe of Casablanca.
As we walked, L shared with me many tidbits illuminating the history and architecture of the city. Some of the design features were due to women's roles in older society. For example, doors would have 2 different knockers with the top one placed higher than women could reach; based on the sound when someone knocked, occupants would know whether to answer. Because of my interest in Disney World, she made a special point of noting the Nejjarine fountain which has been replicated in Epcot's Morocco pavilion.
In addition to seeing an impressive mosque (from the outside) and the shrine containing the tomb of Moulay Idriss II who founded the city of Fes (also from the outside), much of the trip consisted of visiting various shops and souks. Even as we walked, we passed through markets which were each dedicated to a single type of item. One of the most interesting was Place Seffarine, which was full of copper and metal workers. I wanted to shoot a video to capture the rhythmic clanging sound that permeated the air, but I stopped quickly when one of the workers seemed upset at being filmed.
When she led me into the first shop, L reassured me that I shouldn't feel obligated to buy anything which was reassuring. During my visit to a textile shop, a worker fashioned a scarf around my head in a traditional Moroccan style which was fun to model. If the scarf had been purple, I probably would have bought it; instead, I ended up purchasing an inexpensive purple and orange bag. I also bought a few small soaps and creams from a pharmacy that sold traditional herbs. But I mostly just played at bargaining at the more expensive shops, including one that sold gorgeous carpets. The seller there cracked me up when he tried to allay my concerns by insisting that cats would only destroy rugs from other countries. Yeah, tell that to my furricanes! He showed me some lovely purplish throw rugs that tempted me a bit, but I have zero regrets at kindly saying that I would not be able to make a purchase after finishing my complimentary tea.
One of the most iconic of Fes sights are the tanneries located within the city walls. As I entered this area, I was handed mint leaves and instructed that I could hold them to my nose to help mask the smell. Having not done much in depth research, I began to wonder what I'd gotten myself into. Fortunately, I don't have a very sensitive nose so the aroma (in part because due to pigeon poop being used!) did not end up bothering me too much. Maybe I'd just lucked into a relatively not-so-bad time for the smells.
After climbing up some stairs, I was able to look down at a courtyard containing a vast array of large containers filled with dyes of various colors. After looking outside and listening to an explanation of the process of creating leather goods, I was of course directed to show rooms displaying a variety of leather bags and jackets. Learning that they could make me a custom fitted jacket in a beautiful shade of dark purple, I toyed with making a purchase; it would have been a great value for the price of their final offer. But I ultimately decided to remain firm in my desire not to buy anything extravagant. Like in the carpet store, the workers were very friendly and did not try to pressure me to make a purchase.
At one point, L apologized for not asking me if I wanted to eat lunch. She hadn't thought of it because it was Ramadan, a month in which Muslims fast during the day. Tourists are not expected to change their eating habits but by the time she asked, I felt like I could get through the day and I wanted to be considerate to her. I did ask if perhaps there was a place to buy some ice cream. They sell a wide variety of merchandise in Fes- I even saw a kiosk selling old cassette tapes, the site of which cracked me up- but, alas, she could not direct me anywhere that sold ice cream.
When L told me that we were near my riad and therefore the end of my tour, I felt a pang of sadness. I was going to miss L, who had really enriched my day with her friendliness and knowledge. Before parting, I insisted on taking a photograph with her which is a souvenir I'll treasure far more than I would have valued a carpet or leather coat (even though I'm not 100% thrilled with how I look in it).
After I got back to my room at around 3pm, I snacked on the Bolognese potato chips I'd bought in Dakar airport as well as the remainder of the cheese bread from Carrefour. I spent the late afternoon just relaxing before going downstairs at 8. I'd inquired that morning about dinner but somehow they seemed surprised that I was expecting to eat the meal there, although they were able to accommodate me. I was amused that they kept calling me by my middle name and I didn't have the heart to correct them.
The Germans were coming to dinner at 8:30 so I waited for them to arrive. This evening's menu included various side dishes, chicken tagine, and fruit. Again, it was a delicious meal. I enjoyed talking to the German couple about topics ranging from TV to politics as well as comparing their day's tour to mine. I'm so grateful to have met them; I would have felt really alone if it hadn't been for their jovial presence.
I went to bed full of excitement. The next day would involve a very long car ride but it would be worth it because I'd be journeying toward the Sahara desert. I couldn't wait to spend 2 nights in a luxury camp surrounded by golden sand dunes.
I woke up briefly at 3:30am when a Muslim Call to Prayer was broadcast, but I was easily able to return to slumber until my alarm sounded at 7:15am. I was so excited to get up because the day had finally arrived when I'd be heading to the Sahara Desert! I just hoped it would live up to my dreams.
At breakfast, I was glad to see my German friends for one last time so I could say goodbye. We didn't exchange contact information, partially because I am shy about asking for such things, but I am so grateful that their paths intersected with mine for a couple of days.
My driver, A, met me at the riad shortly before the appointed time of 9am. He was always prompt, which is one good thing I could say about him. I mean, he was very professional and safe- he just lacked that extra touch that I'd hoped for based on many reviews from the travel company in which the writers said they felt their drivers became like family. Although… if you consider the fact that I don't talk to a number of my relatives, I guess it might not be so inaccurate to say that A was like family.
At any rate, he was playing what sounded like Moroccan Arabic music in the car. Such a playlist might be interesting for a short time but it's not something I relished hearing for 7+ hours. I opened my purse to take out my iPod so I could listen to some Broadway music instead. Only I couldn't find it! I hoped I'd stuck it in my backpack, which was inaccessable in the trunk. (note: I was relieved to discover it there later when I unpacked) So I resigned myself to a destiny of 7 hours of Moroccan music… which was not the worst thing ever. In fact, at one point I was surprised to hear a Justin Bieber song, and it made me immediately nostalgic for the random Arabic music. Fortunately, it switched back after the song was done.
From the palm tree lined roads of Fes, we traveled into the mountains passing by many lush green pastoral vistas, some of which featured herds of sheep. We stopped briefly at a little town named Ifrane whose architecture and landscape has a distinct Swiss flavor. Wandering around taking photos of buildings and cats, I would have found it hard to believe I was in North Africa if it hadn't been for reminders like the Moroccan flag or Arabic writing on signs.
As our drive took us further along twisty mountain roads, I took some Dramamine to prevent motion sickness. We were stuck for awhile behind a slow-as-molasses truck. Normally, that would annoy the heck out of me but the situation ensured that A didn't speed along the curving roadways so I thought it was brilliant. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end… and eventually A managed to pass the truck, much to my chagrin.
After going through areas where I admired dramatic scenery featuring the snow capped Atlas Mountains, we came to the town of Midelt which is known for its apples. My driver had told me earlier that I should let him know if I ever wanted to stop-and when I saw a big ass apple sculpture in a traffic circle, you'd better believe I asked for a closer look. Of course, I picked a place which was completely impractical to stop but he continued down the road a little and found somewhere more convenient to pull over. I just had to walk back a little bit to snap my photo- and I'm very grateful to have one. I can't pass by something that kitch and not have any proof of it.
After a very brief stop on a windy windy mountain road (note: the use of a duplicate adjective is intentional- the street twisted and turned wrapping around the mountain, and the wind blew so hard that I could barely open the car door), we stopped for lunch at a little place that seemed to be popular with tourists traveling to/from the Sahara. Inexplicably, one of the non English speaking guests I spotted was wearing a "Richie Cunningham" T-shirt. I felt a little awkward sitting alone when everyone else was in pairs or groups. Because it was Ramadan, A would not be eating during the day. However, I doubt he would have dined with me anyway.
The restaurant's set menu seemed a little expensive, but the food was good- at least the meatball tajine and the watermelon (although the latter was more plentiful than I needed). I'd ordered the salad because I wasn't in the mood for soup but was disappointed when I was presented a plate that was basically cut up raw tomatoes, which is one of the foods I just can't eat. Needless to say, I didn't even touch that dish.
All through lunch, I was annoyed at not being able to get onto the wifi- something that didn't appear to be an issue for anyone else there. I can't know for sure what was the root cause of my problem; my only guess is that the accent mark in the network name prevented it from showing up on my phone's list of networks. I had a brand new phone so I was surprised that this might be an issue, but I can't fathom any other explanation. After a couple attempts, I shrugged it off and figured it wasn't a big deal, even though it was probably my last chance to get on the internet for a couple days.
All that changed when I got back to the car and A informed me that the tour operator office was asking him when I was going to pay my balance. When I booked, I'd sent in a deposit via PayPal. I was told that I'd need to pay the balance upon arrival which surprised me; typically for tours, you pay in advance. After this experience, I will insist on paying before leaving home regardless of policy. The stress I felt at being put on the spot and wondering if the company would think I was just making excuses (and worrying that they might dump me in the middle of nowhere) was not worth having $$$ in my bank account for an extra week or 2. My first obstacle was the aforementioned inability to get on the internet, which I knew sounded lame since no one else had that problem. After showing A that I still could not find the network, he gave me his phone to use. I had a hard time figuring out the keypad but eventually got to PayPal only to discover that I couldn't log in. Apparently some websites such as PayPal don't allow logins from abroad. I was so frustrated; I had the money in my bank account but felt powerless to access it. Finally, A suggested taking a photo of my credit card and texting it to the tour company. I really didn't like that solution… but what could I do? It worked, and I just wanted everything to be settled so I could move on with my life (and finally leave the rest stop). I really don't understand why the tour company waited until I was vulnerable in a remote area to ask about payment- did they expect me to just send the money without any prompting (ie an invoice or a mention from my driver during the drive to Fes)?!? This was another example of how I feel that the company lacked empathy for the traveler's experience.
By this point in the journey, the scenery had changed to brown and mountainous; it reminded me of some of the roads driving through Namibia. We made a couple quick photo stops on the final leg- one was to view a Kasbah, a fortress like group of buildings that was surrounded by a cluser of lush palm trees. The second stop was when I spotted a reservoir that looked much prettier in person than it does in photos.
At about 5:20pm, we pulled off the road onto a little restaurant parking lot in middle of nowhere. Instructing me that I needed to transfer into a 4x4 to get to the camp where I'd be staying, A told me that he'd pick me back up in a couple days. I was going to miss him- just kidding!
I stood awkwardly in the intense desert heat waiting for a couple of other people whom I was told would be joining me on the ride. As their luggage was loaded into the 4x4, I suddenly didn't feel like I was such an absurdly heavy packer. Finally a young couple came outside- both of them were wearing kaftans, traditional Moroccan robes. The woman, C, looked rather regal in her yellow garment but my immediate impression of her boyfriend, N, was that he looked absurd and pretentious. The latter opinion was solidified during the drive when he asked me some really nuanced questions about my time in The Gambia. I wasn't surprised to find out that he was a lawyer who lives in NYC (no offense to NYC attorneys- shout out to my cousin who probably isn't reading this!) Deciding almost immediately to refer to him in my head as Know-It-All, I had to work hard to prevent myself from laughing out loud when C later said something about how he always thinks he knows it all.
Our driver asked if we wanted to ride the final leg of our journey to the camp on camels; otherwise he could drive us all the way there. Normally I would be 100% for the idea of riding camels but my miserable experience in The Gambia made me a bit reluctant. Know-It-All and C wanted to ride camels so I went along with them… and I am so glad I did! These camels seemed much happier and better treated. I was still a little nervous until we started moving through the desert. And then I felt enveloped in a feeling of serenity… as we slowly meandered into a quiet landscape surrounded as far as we could see by golden sand. My peacefulness would occasionally be interrupted by the feeling of N's camel breathing heavily on my arm, which inspired me to crack some obvious jokes. After about 30 minutes, we reached an overlook with a cluster of tents just below; that was where we'd be staying. Arriving to this area by camel was so much more magical than it would have been to have driven there, and it really enhanced the illusion that we were transitioning to a simpler and yet more exotic world.
Any doubts that the experience in the Sahara would live up to expectations were immediately allayed when I looked down at the 2 parallel rows of 6 tents. All the many photos I'd seen online did not compare to the breathtaking feeling of truly being in the environment- not merely seeing a 2 dimentional photo but instead feeling the sand between my toes and the desert air on my skin. In addition to the literal red carpet that ran down the middle of the camp, the staff offered the more proverbial red carpet treatment as they led me to my tent and showed me around before offering some refreshments; It was too hot in the desert sun for tea so I drank some lemonade and was delighted that among the snacks were chocolate chip cookies!
Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm not built for roughing it, so you may be wondering how I'd fare staying in a tent. Let me reassure you that "luxury" was not just a word in the name of the camp; it truly described my accommodations which included a private bathroom with running water, hot showers with excellent water pressure, and a toilet. The decor in the spacious sleeping area featured a large, plush bed that was covered in a sparkly white bedspread. The tents obviously didn't have doors, or locks. But, other than the staff and other guests, there were no people around. For privacy purposes, the doorway zipped shut although I needed help with zipping and unzipping- not just because the top was high, but also because the zipper on my tent had a tendency to get stuck.
One of the nice things about the camp was that an array of rugs were spread out so that you didn't need to walk directly on the sand while in the compound. I felt like every detail was well thought out in both the design of the camp as well as in the service provided by the staff. It was truly one of the most unique places I've been able to stay, and I immediately felt comfortable there.
We arrived just before sunset, so the staff members urged us to watch from a top a dune. I didn't quite make it to the top, but I was content to gaze at the landscape from where I was. My efforts to try to capture the intangible moments of colorful sky included experimenting with the panorama feature on my camera phone for the first time ever. The exit of the sun meant relief from the extreme heat; the temperature actually got surprisingly cool overnight!
I went back to my tent to unpack after the sun set, and I reveled in my posh surroundings. When I emerged, the sky was completely dark and the camp took on an entirely different and perhaps even more magical feeling with just the right amount of illumination lining the paths. It was light enough to make my way around, but not so light that the brilliance overshadowed the stars in the clear night sky.
Individual tables were set up for dinner- one for me, and 3 for the other couples who were also staying there. However, someone suggested putting the tables together and I was very thankful for that decision. It was fun talking to the other couples; they were all much younger than me but they were well traveled and interesting people so it didn't matter. The 2 couples I hadn't met were also planning to stay 2 nights; Know-It-All and his girlfriend were booked for one night and were toying with adding another until he realized that there was no internet available. I was going to miss him even less than I missed A, my driver. (to be fair, he said he needed an internet connection for work related reasons)
Once again, my meal was fabulous! We started with Harira soup, which I now know is a Moroccan chickpea and lentil soup. The main course consisted of chicken tajine as well as couscous with meat- these were served family style. If there is one slight criticism I have of Morrocan meals is that they typically ended with fruit; I prefer chocolate desserts although I will eat some melon if it's offered.
One of the most pleasant surprises of my trip was seeing a cat in the middle of the desert! When I said that there were felines everywhere in Morocco, I meant it. Apparently the cat I saw had kittens who lived in one of the tents. I regret very much that I was not assigned to occupy said tent. No one was stayed there on my first night, but the camp was full the following night and the couple residing there was complaining about their little feline roommates. Had it not been so late and had I not been so settled into my accommodations, I would have gladly switched with them! Alas, my only bunkmate was a large bug that I pretended I didn't see crawling around a corner of the tent.
After the meal, we all migrated to a semi-open area full of little cushions that formed a semi circle around a campfire. By now, it was already chilly enough that the heat generated by the fire was most welcome. We were entertained by the staff singing and playing traditional instruments. After they'd finished their presentation, they passed around the instruments for us to try out. I've always fancied playing drums… but suffice it to say that everyone reading this should be glad you've never had to suffer through my attempts to bang in rhythm! In all seriousness, it was fun way to put an exclamation mark on a wonderful first evening in the Sahara desert.
One of the experiences I'd most looked forward to was the viewing the sunrise from the Sahara desert. So, even though it was not pleasant for my alarm to blare at 4:05am, I dragged myself out of the warm bed. Let me tell you, it was downright cold in the desert at that time in the morning; the hot water in my shower was most welcome. I was proud that I somehow managed to get myself ready just about the appointed time of 4:30am. It was dark when I left my tent and I wasn't sure where to meet but I walked up to the landing where I saw 7 camels lined up. None of the other guests were there. So I waited… and waited. One of the staff members went to check on the others, and eventually, at least 20 minutes late, Know-It-All and his girlfriend arrived. The others had decided to sleep in.
I don't like when people are late in the best of circumstances. But it's particularly aggravating if others' tardiness holds me up when I was able to get my shit together at stupid o'clock in the morning for a once in a lifetime opportunity. We were scheduled to have started our camel journey while it was still dark, but instead I stood idly by, feeling increasingly annoyed as the sky began to light up. When the stragglers finally arrived, I may have said something snippy. And from here on out, the male was known to me as Self-Centered-Know-It-All.
Fortunately, the morning was not ruined, even if the magic was ever so slightly tarnished. We took a short ride to a nearby dune. I'm not sure why I needed help climbing it since I'd been working out consistently beforehand, but I think in part I was afraid of falling and thereby damaging my camera lens. I reached the summit just as the sun was about to peek over the horizon. What a gorgeous moment… just me and the increasingly colorful sky. Well, there was also the camel guy but he mostly remained at a respectful distance except when he offered to take some photos of me. C was sitting as if meditating not too far from me, and Self-Centered-Know-It-All actually journeyed all the way to the pinnacle of a neighboring dune to do whatever it is self centered know it alls do. His remote position made things difficult for the camel guy when the latter felt it was time to get going back to the camp. After he finally returned to our dune, he said that he and his girlfriend preferred to stay and then walk back themselves later but the camel guy didn't understand them, so they reluctantly journeyed with me back to camp. (Or maybe he just pretended not to comprehend because he didn't approve of the plan.)
I had some issues climbing down the dune- again, I was worrying about falling. So the camel guy instructed me to sit down and then he dragged me down by my legs! LOL Well that's one way to descend a hill.
I'd been told that breakfast was at 8, so I took a short nap when I returned to my tent at around 6:15. After my alarm went off again at 7:45, I somewhat reluctantly got up and headed to a large tent where a buffet had been prepared. Apparently, the meal time was more flexible than I'd been led to believe; the other 2 remaining couples arrived between 8:30 and 9. I wished I'd known that I could have snoozed for another hour. Oh well.
The previous evening, one of the staff members had approached us individually to plan our day and I'd pretty much gone along with their suggestions. So I ended up joining the others in the late morning to head out to a place where we could experience traditional Berber music. En route, the others talked about going quad biking and I decided that it would be more fun to join them than to eat lunch alone at the camp and see some fossils. Fortunately, the guide had no problem accommodating my late change of plans; it probably made logistics easier for them.
While driving to our first destination, our driver engaged in some dune bashing which never fails to bring a smile to my face. We also stopped at a scenic overlook for a short bit. I could see at least a couple of desert camps in the vicinity and was glad that I was staying somewhere more isolated.
When we arrived at the small building for the traditional music presentation, we entered to find ourselves in the midst of a chaotic scene of tourists either milling around or dancing joyfully in the center of the floor. Apparently the performance was continuous and guests wandered in and out in clusters as their schedules permitted. After settling in, we joined in the festivities; I was the last of our group due to my shyness in new situations. Berber circle dancing is very similar to the Israeli folk dancing I grew up with. It was a blast and I'm so glad I didn't just linger on the sidelines. We were served tea and spent about a half hour enjoying the cultural experience. Our guide had informed us that we were expected to either buy a CD or leave a tip, so I left the equivalent to about $2 which is all I had without digging into larger bills; I think that was sufficient.
We were going to head to do the quad biking but the place was temporarily closed due to the mid-day heat so instead we went directly to a restaurant for lunch; our guide did a great job shuffling our plans in response to the closure. I didn't realize it at the time, but this was the same place where I'd transferred to the 4x4 the previous day. The couple I'd met there (Self-Centered-Know-It-All and C) had mentioned being distracted by kittens inside the building, and I'd kicked myself for missing them. But alas I still did not see any kittens during my meal, although a very friendly mama cat curled up beside me at table on the patio.
For lunch (which was included in our package with the desert camp), we were served Berber Pizza which was quite delicious. It was a circular dough that was filled with meat, vegetables and spices and possibly various other ingredients like egg. Obviously, we were offered fruit for dessert.
We still had some time before the quad bike shop reopened, so our guide brought us to a nearby hotel where we could relax by the pool and make use of free wifi. Since the hotel name included the word "Kasbah", I felt like I was rocking the Kasbah as I rushed to share some desert photos on social media. In my haste to post, I apparently sent a photo of myself in a private message to my tour guide, H, from Namibia with the caption "Welcome to the rock"- a reference to "Come From Away" which he wouldn't know. But for whatever reason, he replied immediately and remarked that the landscape reminded him of Namibia. I hadn't conversed with him in months so it was pretty nice to chat a bit and catch up. But ever since then, I have been much more careful when I've posted!
At around 3pm, we headed over to the quad bike place. As I signed the waiver and got fitted in a hair net (ew!) covered by a helmet, I was filled with equal parts of nervousness and excitement. My mind kept flashing to a quote from Diane, my favorite character in "Come From Away": "Nobody here knows me, I can be whoever I want to be!"
And so, I sat on a bike, listened to some all-too-brief instructions, and was psyched to just get going… even as part of me wondered what the hell I'd signed myself up for. We drove in a single file line following a guide from the store briefly through town before arriving at the edge of the sand dunes. All the while, I had some issues trying to steer but figured it would get easier as I got used to it. Whenever I had to make a turn to follow the others, I'd start panicking that it was going to go Very Wrong (which could lead to taking a painful tumble down a dune); I'd have to quickly make a correction so as to (temporarily) avoid doom.
Still, I was determined. I clenched the handlebars even more firmly as I mouthed the words to any lyric from "Come From Away" that would inspire me to feel more confident. This consisted of alternating between the phrase "I am an islander" and various lyrics from "Me and the Sky." My spirit was strong.
But after one turn that felt particularly dicey, I started to feel so overwhelmed with panic that I could barely breathe and I just had to stop. I didn't know what my options were; I just knew that I couldn't continue trying to steer this vehicle. Trying to take deep breaths, I sat where I was until the guide came back to check on me. He suggested that I ride on his vehicle holding onto his back which sounded like a good idea to me. In fact, it was perfection- I was able to enjoy the gorgeous landscape without having to stress out about maneuvering an unfamiliar bike. As a bonus, he drove faster than anyone else so I got treated to an even higher adrenaline rush than I would have otherwise.
I felt a little embarrassed when I met up with the others at a brief stop atop one of the dunes where we enjoyed the view. But they didn't want me to feel bad, and in fact helped take some photos of me with my cell phone. (I'd left my large camera and bag in storage at the office) As I was about to hop back on my guide's bike, I noticed a warning label which stated "NEVER ride as a passenger. Passengers can cause a loss of control resulting in SEVERE INJURY or DEATH." Umm, I was glad I hadn't seen that earlier! The label gave me some pause, but I still felt safer than if I'd had to steer, so I got back on and made it back just fine.
The quad bike was one of my favorite excursions on my trip, both because it was exhilarating and also because it was a valuable learning experience. On the most superficial level, I affirmed my belief that I am a much better passenger than driver. But on a deeper level, I realized that it's healthy to attempt something new even if you kinda sorta fail at it. In the future, I hope to challenge myself to try different activities without being overly concerned as to whether or not I will be good at them- as long as I am smart about playing it safe, that is. After all, venturing off on my own to drive a quad bike wouldn't have resulted in as happy an ending.
When we returned to camp, my tent felt oppressively hot so I decided to hang out at the area where we'd had the campfire the night before… which was convenient to the lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. I noticed that the camp was full of guests who'd arrived while we'd been out on our excursion. As I relaxed, I met a fun group of older Australians. After asking me my opinion on US politics, they felt comfortable chatting with me about politics and travel. One of them wanted to ride a camel but felt some reluctance and I reassured her that she'd be fine.
Apparently my role that afternoon was to alleviate fears; I also joined in a conversation of some women that I'd overheard worrying that the tents would be too hot overnight. They commented on my "Come From Away" t-shirt, expressing an interest in seeing the show. I hope that they've bought tickets since returning to NY; I obviously did my best to convince them that it was a must see.
I'd already seen the sunset the previous night, so I passed on seeing it again since I was dying to take a shower. The lights went off for a moment when I was washing my hair which freaked me out but fortunately I was soon able to see again. Afterwards, I collapsed on the bed- and later on the chair outside my tent- and listened to some of "Come From Away." It was bliss to relax, especially since the heat of the day had dissipated. It occurred to me that on my first trip to Africa- when I visited Kenya in 2010- I'd been bothered by the dust. Now I felt like I welcomed the dust... and the sand... because each grain signified how I've been enriched by my experiences and adventures.
There was some confusion at dinner as to whether the 5 of us who had spent the day together would eat together again or not. Fortunately for me, we did end up sharing one last meal together. I was mostly happy because I'd bonded with them and found them to be awesome company… but it didn't hurt that someone was sharing a bottle of Rhubarb gin that I mixed with some sparkling water for a drink that was quite enjoyable. After we ate, I made sure to get a photo of the group of us together- it was dark so it's not the best picture, but I'm glad it exists. I'd already exchanged Instagrams with the 2 other women and I've really enjoyed seeing what they've been up to since our time together. One of the best things about travel is meeting likeminded, interesting people.
Somehow the kitchen seemed to outdo their wonderful effort from the previous evening, which was not an easy accomplishment. We started out with Semolina soup. I'm not so sure what was in it, since ours seemed redder than the recipes I saw on a brief internet search; in fact, it looks very similar to the soup we were served the night before. For our main course, we were presented with meat tajine, cheese tajine (!!) and a tray of vermicelli, which seemed to be sprinkled with spices. Fruit cup was served for dessert. Aside from the food and conversation, a highlight of my meal was finally spotting one of the kittens lurking below the table!
After dinner, the other 2 couples returned to their tents because they didn't feel a need to experience the music show again. Sound traveled really easily throughout the camp and I knew I'd never fall asleep while the musicians were drumming, so I decided to watch an encore performance. Another reason I lingered was simply because I wasn't ready for the day to end. This evening, unlike the previous, there was some circle dancing like we'd experienced with the Berber group; perhaps this was partly because everyone else was only staying for one night and therefore wouldn't have a chance to visit the group. I finally left at around 11pm when the staff started distributing instruments for the guests to try; no one needed to be subjected to my futile drumming attempts again!
As I mentioned, it seemed like a lot of people only stayed in the desert for 1 night. However, I feel like booking for 2 nights was arguably the best decision I made during my planning. It's such a long journey to get to the camp that I'd hate to have to leave almost as soon as I'd arrived. But even beyond the practicality- it just felt more satisfying to be able to spend an entire day in the desert, from dawn to night. Some guests I talked to seemed concerned that there wouldn't be enough to do for 2 nights, but there seemed to be a range of activities available, and the staff seemed to genuinely want to make each person's experience the best it could be. In fact, if I'd had all the time in the world, I probably would have enjoyed staying an additional day.
It had been an amazing travel day; one of those extraordinarily magical ones that I hope to have on every trip… knowing that they are so elusive that not every journey can include one. I felt as though I sparkled with my love of all the things I hold dear- including travel, adventure, theatre, and even cats. Sitting in my tent somewhere in the middle of nowhere, I felt incredibly positive about myself and life in general… like anything was possible. I am tearing up writing this, wishing desperately that there would have been some way to have bottled my euphoria so I that I'd be able to take a whiff and make myself feel better whenever real life gets hard and painful. Instead, I remember the day fondly and try to trust that more similarly fabulous days lie in store as I continue my quest to see as much of the world as possible; part of what makes these days so special is that one never knows when or where they will happen.
I'll conclude with an obligatory quote from "Come From Away":
Somewhere in between the pace of life and work and where you're going
Something makes you stop and notice and you’re finally in the moment
In the middle of nowhere
In the middle of who knows where
There you'll find
In the middle of nowhere
In the middle of clear, blue air
You found your heart