[We are in Christchurch and I'm finally catching up on the blog]
After spending 5 weeks in Morocco we decided on a change of scenery. Even Essaouira was beginning to drop below 20 degrees centigrade. So we started looking for a new place to go.
This summer in Calgary I met Stephen, a Canadian living in Hong Kong. He invited Carol and I to visit him and even offered us a place to stay. Checking the weather forecast in Hong Kong sealed the deal and we booked our flight.
This kicked off a three day travel blitz.
It took a day to travel from Essaouira to Casablanca where the major airlines land. We arrived late and spend a long time sitting in traffic. Our hotel was next to the train station so the next day we took a train to the airport. The airport was not very busy and we boarded our Emirates flight to Dubai.
We were a bit concerned flying through Dubai as a Canadian couple had recently been stopped and jailed for a month while the UAE authorities tested their migraine medication to ensure it wasn’t contraband. We cleaned out our first aid kit of anything with an ambiguous label. Some head ache medication contains codeine which will get you a minimum four year sentence. We considered ditching our one month supply of anti-malarial tablets but they were well packed, labelled and we had a clear prescription.
The flight was easy and the cabin well appointed. The meals were better than the usual airline fare. The back of seat entertainment was excellent. You can watch dozens of movies, TV and hundreds of songs. There is also a nose camera so you can get a pilot’s eye view of the flight.
The Dubai airport transit lounge is like a large high end shopping mall complete with restaurants, shops and a hotel. We rented a room for 6 hours and slept like the dead. The room was excellent but we hardly noticed. The next morning we caught the flight to Hong Kong. All told we spent 36 hours in transit (not including getting to Casablanca) and crossed 8 timezones.
Written aboard the Reef Endeavour (a replacement for the ill fated Reef Encounter) in the Fiji Islands. Posted from Christchurch.
After Moulay Bouselham we visited Meknes on our way to Fez. We arrived in Meknes during Ede which is a huge Muslim festival. By tradition, each family must buy or raise a sheep and slaughter it for the feast. You are encouraged to kill the animal yourself but it is important that it be kill properly so many people hire a butcher. This means you might break your fast quite late depending on when the busy butcher makes it to your home.
While the architecture and landscape of Fez is more dramatic, it was still challenging to navigate through the medina. It is substantially larger than the Marrakech median. We eventually hired a guide who took us to the major sights. Unfortunately, several of the most interesting places were active mosques so we were not able to enter. We did tour a old school (there is an Arab word for this). The architecture and ornamentation were excellent. (pictures?)
Hired a guide who kept the beggars away. One small boy tried but slunk away when he realized we had a guide.
While less touristy than Marrakech, Fez was still a challenge. So after a week we split the difference between urban (Fez) and small (Moulay Bousselham) and went to Essaouira.
Essaouira is a beach and resort town on the Atlantic ocean. It is a very popular spot with French tourists and expats. It has everything it needs (cafes, restaurants, hotels, apartments) and one thing it doesn’t. The wind in Essaouira is constant and strong. If you wind surf it is a great place to go. If you want to sit on the beach it can be a bit much. In late Nov, early Dec when we were there they can experience tremendous wind and rain storms. We spent a couple of days hiding in the hotel.
After the storms subsided we moved to an apartment in the Medina. This was less luxuriousness but much closer to the center of things. We shopped at the market, cooked at home and watched fantastic sunsets from our rooftop terrace.
The Essaouira medina was laid back and friendly. We felt welcome in the shops and there was no hard sell. We shopped for some presents and almost bought some cheap leather goods. Unfortunately, the active ingredients of the traditional tanning process (urine and pigeon shit) lend a less than attractive odour to the otherwise beautiful craftsmanship. After deciding not to buy leather presents we read some stories of people who bought leather in arid Morocco only to find their purchases stank when worn in a humid climate.
After the excitement of Marrakech we went looking for a calmer place to hang out. We spent 3 days outside of Rabat. The view from the terrace was fantastic but the beach looked like the surface of the moon. So we went to Moulay Bousselham.
Moulay Bousselham is a small seaside town with a beautiful sandy beach. It is a popular vacation spot for Moroccan although at 22 degrees it was too cold to attract anyone but us hardy Canadians.
The trip was our first experience with Grand Taxis. In Morocco there are two kinds of taxis. Petit taxis only operate within a city. If you want to travel between cities you can use the excellent trains or take a grand taxi. To do this you go to the taxi stop and tell the gathering of drivers where you want to go. Once the taxi is full the trip begins. The cars are fairly large Mercedes but are not full until there are 6 paying passengers. So it is a very cramped trip.
We rented an apartment on the roof of the Driftwood guesthouse. This is a medium sized home right on the beach. We had a fantastic view of the ocean and spectacular sunsets. Driftwood is run by Driss and Christine who live on the main floor. They took very good care of us, picking us up at the taxi stand and preparing delicious, inexpensive meals. After a few days we felt more like house guests than customers.
One of the big attractions is to go bird watching. The most popular guide is a man named Hassan. His English is pretty good and he pointed out the various birds as we navigated through the shallow waterways between MB and the nature reserve. Just before sunset he brought the boat ashore and we snuck up on a flock of flamingo. They saw us coming and moved away from shore but didn’t take flight.
The army has stationed soldiers every 300 meters along the coastline. This is to prevent smuggling. This was requested and paid for by the EU.
In every Moroccan town there is a mosque and minaret. Several times a day, including sunrise and sunset, the call to prayer is sung from the minaret. At first it sounds like a horn being blown but after a while it becomes a voice. In some towns the call is a recording but here the Imam performs the call each time through a loudspeaker system. It is quite haunting and reminds me that I am far from home.
We had a good experience in Italy using a Vodaphone cellular modem. The one challenge was that we couldn’t share the connection between our three devices (laptop, Ipod Touch, BlackBerry). So I bought an unlocked Huawei E585 on Ebay. This is a cellular modem that retransmits the signal as WiFi so it can be shared by up to 5 devices. The common name for such a device is MiFi. It arrived while in Rome but I couldn’t get this to work using the Italian Vodaphone data SIM.
In Morocco, we had better luck. We bought a data SIM from MarocTel. For 200 DH (about 20 Euros) we got one month of unlimited 3G service. We hooked it up to the MiFi with the following settings:
Connection Number: *99#
User Name: <none>
IP Address: Dynamic
It worked well in Marrakech and Rabat. I would pop in into my bag when we heading out of the day. As we walked around we were surrounded in our own cloud of private WiFi. It would last for about 5 hours and could be recharged using a USB cable either from the laptop or the Blackberry charger. This made it easier to navigate or check restaurant reviews while out for the day. We also got very good Skype performance and were able to make good quality phone calls.
Unfortunately, the Blackberry doesn’t work very well when you don’t have data services. I had hoped that the combination of a voice SIM and WiFI would make the Blackberry a good travel device but it was not to be. Without a cellular data plan, email, facebook, podcasting and the app store stopped working. The browser, Twitter and BlackBerry maps continued to work. Some third party apps like the Globe and Mail are fine. Surprisingly, Google’s email app won’t work without a cellular data plan. This is not to say that these application won’t use WiFi if it is available, just that they check for a valid wireless SIM and refuse to operate if you don’t have a data plan. BlackBerry also doesn’t support Skype which is the best way to make calls when traveling internationally.
Has anyone tried travelling with an iPhone or Android phone using a combination of a voice plan and WiFi? I’d be interested in knowing if this works. The alternative seems to be carrying multiple devices like a cheap Nokia phone, an iPod touch and perhaps a MiFi.
When we got to Moulay Bousselham the cellular data coverage was not good. There was a slow connection in the center of the town that fell off as we moved to the edge where we were staying. After a few days we found a nice café with an expresso machine and a terrace that had a good view both of the coast and the local cell tower.