A Moroccan Summer

Published 11/07/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Francis Poon | 11/07/2022

Part of traveling means taking an unexpected path. In fact, the root of the word “travel” means “travail” — a sometimes laborious and even painful effort. Traveling shouldn’t just be a prescribed, smooth-sailing itinerary.

7/20 - 7/31/19
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any anxieties about traveling to Morocco. 12 days in the dead of summer where temperatures reached over 100 Fahrenheit. 10 different stops ​[See map]​. 3 cities - Tangier ​[A]​, Chefchaouen ​[B]​ & Casablanca ​[C]​ - by myself, and the rest ​[D-I]​ with a small tour group.

Sure, I read multiple guidebooks, perused every blog I found on the Internet, called everyone I knew (including Milken Scholar Blessing Jee) ​for recommendations, but still, my anxieties remained: How would I navigate all these distinct parts of the country when I couldn’t speak ​any​ Arabic or French? Could I even get a taxi or a bus to my next destination? Would I, as a Chinese-American, stick out in a predominantly Muslim country?

For weeks, I pondered these questions.

And if, at the time, I had been armed with the knowledge I have now, I would have realized there was nothing to worry about: because tourism is Morocco’s #1 priority.

Consider my seven hour journey from Fes ​[D]​ to Erg Chebbi, also commonly known as... The Sahara Desert.

We bid farewell to the city of Fes as its 9500+ Medina alleyways disappeared into the distance. We twisted and turned through the mountainous terrain of The Atlas Mountains. Barren land emerged and greeted us with its emptiness. We had arrived in Merzouga ​[E]​, a small town by the Morocco-Algeria border... remote, isolated and hot. ​Really​ out of the way. I made my way to check in at the hotel. When I walked past the lobby, to my surprise, there was a full-sized, bubbling swimming pool awaiting in the courtyard. A SWIMMING POOL... in the middle of the desert.  

I proceeded to my room to drop off my bags. I opened the curtains to see the desert sand in the backyard, right outside my door. And suddenly, a nice breeze greeted me. I looked up, and ah, an air conditioner.

The next morning, with my head lamp, I wandered up the sand dunes by myself to witness the sunrise. The sun began to peek, and I savored every moment but thought, it’d be great to show someone this. So, I reached for my phone and perfect cell reception. The connection was so fast that I FaceTimed both my mom and a high school friend. Together, we enjoyed an unforgettable sunrise.

Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought these modern luxuries would exist in the middle of the desert and accessible to someone who was on a “shoestring budget” tour. But alas, Morocco aims to please.

Under the leadership of its current sovereign, King Mohammed VI, the government invested over $15 billion from 2010 to 2015 to upgrading its basic infrastructures. New roads. Upgraded ferry ports, airports, railroads stations. Hotel accommodations nearly doubled. Cell towers were built in even the most remote edges of the country.

In my opinion, of all these developments, the cell reception is perhaps ​the​ most essential and strategic for Morocco. The connection was fast. ​(For comparison, I couldn’t even deliver a text message when I landed at JFK!) ​Having reliable signal allowed me and my fellow travelers to communicate our safety in a foreign land. We could stay in touch with our loved ones.

But this access is strategically doing more for this country: it is driving Morocco’s tourist economy. In today’s interconnected world, a photo posted to social media is worth more than any advertising campaign. A beautiful photo documenting a sunset camel ride in the Sahara puts Morocco on a traveler’s map, and can awaken a yearning for another curious traveler. Photos on social media certainly cultivated my interest in a trip, and I could only imagine countless more being inspired by this. ​In fact, scholars Caroline Chiu and Soniya Gurung just booked a trip to Morocco this holiday season!

From a more macro perspective: Today, Morocco is ​the​ top destination in all of Africa and tourism has nearly doubled in the last 10 years — from 8 million visitors in 2009 to nearly 13 million last year. And Morocco has no plans to stop. In 2010, the Department of Tourism released a plan to be one of the world’s top twenty tourist destinations by 2020.

From what I have experienced, Morocco has made remarkable headway in modern tourism, providing tourists with extravagant luxuries that signal status and wealth.

But I hope the country won’t forget its roots.

When I visited The Blue City of Chefchaouen ​[B]​, I was shocked to see how commercial the city was. The blue alleyways were brimmed with tourists & selfie sticks, all headed to the same picturesque locations on an assembly line. Market stalls lined the streets, selling the same tourist goods. There were even multiple Chinese restaurants, catering specifically to Chinese tourists, and charging New York City dinner prices.

To me, Chefchaouen’s allure has always been its mystical past. Founded in 1471, Chefchaouen was a town for Moors and Jewish refugees escaping exile from Europe. Perched deep within the Rif Mountains, this town was surrounded by its Kasbah walls and provided a safe sanctuary from invaders. In fact, multiple Europeans have tried to sneak in and one was poisoned! In 1920, the town was captured by the Spanish and opened up its walls.

Since then, Chefchaouen remained a charming, humble town for agriculture. But as it modernizes, it’s slowly polishing away its past and charm.

My Airbnb host, an older Scottish gentleman who moved to Chefchaouen over a decade ago, has seen the town transform from a quiet town to a tourist trap. Hotels are popping up everywhere, offering extravagant luxuries. Tourists are brought to the same spots every day for their picturesque photos for Instagram. Prices for everything are skyrocketing.
It makes me wonder... is Morocco catering ​too much​ to visitors at the expense of the locals? Is Morocco making traveling ​too​ easy for tourists?

Throughout this trip, even when I was part of a tour, I sought out moments to experience the local culture — taking unexpected turns in the Medina, or signing up for a cooking class, or trying local cuisine at a street stall.

And not all experiences went according to plan.

Some street food didn’t sit very well with me.

Sunset from Tangier Rooftop

I encountered some questionable cab rides. When I was leaving Tangier for the Blue City of Chefchaouen, a driver took me to the wrong cab station, which led me to hop in another cab where the driver & I got into a verbal altercation over price. In that fight, where my luggage was trapped in the trunk of the cab, my driver could have easily walked away with all my belongings.

As a Chinese-American and a non-Muslim traveling by himself, I did stand out. On a busy Saturday night, I spent time in Tangier’s main square, the Grand Soco and I was ​the​ only Asian.

There were occasions where someone would yell, “Konichiwa.” ​[My response was always a smile, followed by the only phrase I know in Arabic — “Salem Alecomb” or “Hello, peace to you.”]

And I did run into issues with language. When I arrived in the port city of Tangier, I couldn’t even communicate with airport security. When I got lost in the winding alleys of the Old Medina, I had to find creative ways with gestures to communicate with the souks ​[store]​ owners.

But all of these unpredictable and slightly uncomfortable experiences make traveling a worthwhile adventure. And I’m so proud that I navigated all these encounters with my head held high.

Even now, as I reflect on my time in Morocco, these are the moments I recall best. I dream of those nights when I ended my day on a rooftop where a couch is next to a clothes drying line. I sip on a glass of Moroccan mint tea and listen to the calls to prayer echoing throughout the town. As the lights of the Medina twinkle around me, I proudly recall my encounters of the day. ​That​, to me, is my sanctuary. ​That is the Morocco I will remember forever. And ​that​ is the piece of Morocco I hope travelers can experience for decades to come, with or without air conditioning or swimming pools.