Agadir, Taghazout, & Paradise Valley

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a grand taxi to Tangier. And a six-hour train ride to Casablanca, grading homework the whole way as usual. And an overnight bus from Casa to Agadir. Way, way down south.

Morocco’s CTM buses are clean, comfortable, and reasonably priced. In case that isn’t enough, CTM offers the option of traveling by “CTM Premium” for a few extra dollars. I took my first CTM Premium bus on this trip to Agadir, and it was definitely the nicest bus I have ever been on. Comfortable leather seats with foot rests allowed me to actually get some sleep on the overnight trip. Passengers are offered a newspaper (French or Arabic?) and a water bottle upon boarding the bus, and there is theoretically wifi, although it doesn’t always work.

Agadir was devastated by an earthquake just over fifty years ago, and almost completely rebuilt. Thus, it has a different feel from many Moroccan cities. Its souks are spacious and neatly organized, instead of a winding maze of narrow streets crowded with vendors and shoppers. (Think New York instead of Boston.) Its marina district feels like Miami. Agadir’s kasbah was one of the few parts of the city to survive the earthquake. The kasbah sits high on a hill overlooking the city. The words “God, Country, King,” in Arabic, are carved into the hillside and lit up at night.

Agadir!
Agadir!
Marina at night. "God, Country, King" on the hillside in the distance.
Marina at night. “God, Country, King” on the hillside in the distance.
View from the Kasbah
View from the Kasbah
Right before I thought it was going to bite me. Camels are mean.
Right before I thought it was going to bite me. Camels are mean.
Henna on the beach! Yes, the beach in November.
Henna on the beach! Yes, the beach in November.
Can confirm: It is exactly what it says it is!
Can confirm: It is exactly what it says it is!

One of Agadir’s streets is lined with small restaurants serving harira, a delicious Moroccan soup. We ate here two nights in a row, at a table on the sidewalk, and ordered the special, a bowl of harira with a hard-boiled egg, dates, and chebakia on the side. I also ordered msemmen with amlou, a delicious dip or spread made from almonds, honey, and argan oil, a southern Moroccan specialty. Like peanut butter, but better.

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Taghazout is a beautiful little seaside town, about half an hour from Agadir by grand taxi. It is home to breakfast cafes and surf shops, fishermen, Moroccan surfer hippies (which, yes, do exist), Australian expats, tourists in search of surfing adventures, and goats wandering the streets. The whole town has a chill, relaxed, welcoming atmosphere.

We arrived in Taghazout early on a Saturday morning and, after coffee and breakfast at an outdoor cafe, we headed over to a local hostel/surf shop combo to meet up with our instructor for the beginning surfing lesson we’d signed up for. We were each handed a wetsuit and a surf board to carry up the hill and place on top of the van that would transport us to the beach. Then we signed a liability form acknowledging that surfing can result in serious injury blah blah blah. Oh wait, no, we didn’t. This isn’t lawsuit-crazy America. Should I also mention that our instructor was googling “how to teach surfing lessons” in plain sight? But we were paying the equivalent of $30 for a three-hour lesson and all-day board rental, so we couldn’t exactly complain.

This was the day I learned that I am absolutely terrible at surfing. Let’s just say I drank a lot of salt water. But it was fun.

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Paradise Valley is nestled in the Atlas Mountains, and its name speaks for itself. So much beauty. We wandered along dirt paths and slippery rocks, past tiny mountain cafes and cliff-jumping teenage boys. While strong winds shook the tree branches around us, we sat in one of the little cafes and ate goat tajine, using bread as utensils, the five of us all eating from the same dish, which we were used to by now. It was absolutely delicious.

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On the way back to Agadir, we stopped at a cooperative where two women were in the process of grinding argan nuts to make argan oil. Below is the grinder used to press the oil out of the nuts or kernels. The disks are what is left over once the oil is removed.

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“Oh, I thought you were ________”

I approach the crowd of grand taxis parked outside the bus station, and say to the man with the small notebook and pencil- in Darija, exactly the way I’ve heard Moroccans say it- “Tangier, one seat,” pronouncing Tangier the Arabic way. The man points toward a grand taxi. I hand him thirty dirhams. He asks me something in Darija, something I don’t understand. I look at him quizzically.

He switches to French. “Oh, I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were French. I thought you were Moroccan.”

I’m not French, but I don’t bother telling him I’m not. You find a language in which you can both communicate adequately and you go with it. That’s how it works here.

I’m not often mistaken for a Moroccan woman. I assume it was knowing the grand taxi system that made him think I was. People generally assume I’m Spanish or French.

*

I’m buying vegetables in the souk. “Are you Spanish?” asks the man selling me half a kilo of tomatoes.

“No.”

“French?”

“No, I’m American.”

“New York!”

“No…”

“California?”

“Boston.”

“Boston!”

*

“Buongiorno!” shouts a random man on the street. Well, that’s a new one. The funny thing is, he’s closer than anyone else.

*

Two friends and I hail a taxi in the touristy marina district of Agadir. We tell him our destination through the front passenger window. “Fifty dirhams,” he says, in French.

“No,” we say, in Darija. “The meter, please.”

“No,” he says. “Fifty dirhams.”

“It’s not far from here. It’s close. Fifty dirhams is very expensive. We’re not tourists. We know.”

He has also switched to Darija. “It’s night. The rate is double at night.”

“Double? No. Not double. More expensive, but not double. Twenty dirhams.”

“Okay, okay. Thirty dirhams.”

“Twenty-five.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll use the meter and you’ll see it’s not less than thirty dirhams.”

We get in the car. He turns on the meter.

We chat on the ride home, telling him we live in Morocco, we’re teachers, we’re visiting a friend, asking him what he thinks of Agadir. His tone has completely changed. We’re chatting like old friends. He gives us his number in case we ever need a taxi and can’t find one.

When we reach our destination, the meter reads twenty-nine dirhams. I point to the meter. “Look. Does it say fifty? Does it?” I can’t resist.

He laughs. “I thought you were tourists.”

“Yeah, we know.”

Small World

“Do you know _______ ?” asked one of my classmates in my Spanish class. “He’s one of your students.” I did, and he was.

“Oh, you’re American?” asked the waiter in a restaurant. “There were two Americans here yesterday. Do you know them?” I did. One of them was my roommate.

I was waiting to board a flight out of the Tangier airport, commiserating with the woman in line in front of me over flight delays and the possibility of missing our connections. She mentioned that she had just bought a house in the city where I live. I mentioned that I lived there.

“Oh, you don’t teach English at the university by any chance, do you?”

I stared at her like she was psychic. “Yes, I do. How did you know?”

“My neighbors have a daughter who just started her first year of college. I asked her how her classes were going and she said she has this professor who’s young and American and friendly.”

I have four hundred students, and I am one of only maybe ten Americans in my whole city. So I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised that this happens. I guess I have to be super careful about my reputation!

Mountains and Mediterranean

I live a short grand taxi ride away from the Mediterranean coast. The towns of M’diq (Rincon in Spanish), Martil, and Fnideq are lively beach towns full of vacationers during the summer months and much quieter and emptier in the off season. It’s too cold to swim, and the sky is often overcast in November, but I still love walking along these beaches. I love the juxtaposition of the Rif mountains against sand and sea. Late fall brings a lot of rain to northern Morocco, and I feel like the mountains have been gradually becoming greener.

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El Jadida

20141101_161818All I do is grade, grade, grade no matter what… But grading can be done on trains and planes and buses and I only teach three days a week. On a Friday morning, I packed up a pile of ungraded homework assignments and clothes for the weekend and hopped in a grand taxi to Tangier. In the train station, I drank kahwa halib, standing at a cafe counter, and chatted with a Korean woman who was also waiting for her train. She was a tour guide for Korean visitors to Morocco. We chatted in French, the language we both had in common. Then I met up with a friend and we boarded our train and set off for El Jadida, six or seven hours down the coast, to stay with another friend from our program who teaches there.

El Jadida has a distinctive look, with its stone ramparts left over from Portuguese occupation several centuries ago. We explored its “Portuguese cistern,” which reminded me of the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul, except smaller and less well maintained. We wandered through the souks in the evening, found a variety of yummy street food, and shared a sandwich made with fresh fish, a fried potato cake, chopped onions and eggplant.

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Portuguese cistern
Portuguese cistern

Working out in Morocco

In Cambridge and Somerville, running is as normal a part of life as iced coffee and the Citgo sign on the skyline. Joggers are everywhere- along the river, along Mass Ave, around Fresh Pond, at every time of day. Here in Morocco, I have rarely if ever seen anyone running for fun. Maybe running along the streets and sidewalks isn’t a thing, but there are other places where it’s more common? Or maybe Moroccans prefer other types of exercise. I do see men and boys playing pick-up soccer in streets and parking lots all the time. Who knows?

Back in Rabat, three of us decided to go running anyway. If people stared, well, whatever, let them stare. It wasn’t bad at all. We got shouted at by a few teenagers on our way out, but we turned toward a neighborhood with wide sidewalks and what looked like embassy buildings, and we were left alone.

We went running together a few more times, but then we scattered to our individual cities. My city is smaller and more conservative and very different from Rabat, and I can’t see myself running here. The college where I teach, however, is in a smaller town a 15-minute grand taxi ride away. It’s a touristy beach town in the summer, but much calmer in the off season. A wide sidewalk runs along the Mediterranean. My department chair and another professor from the English department gave me a tour after our first meeting. They pointed out this beachfront sidewalk and said it was a safe area and they’d seen women running alone there.

Meanwhile, I joined a gym not far from my apartment building! It’s a women’s gym, bright and clean with modern equipment and a swimming pool. Not to mention better showers than the “shower” in my apartment, and if that’s not motivation to go to the gym, I don’t know what is. My new gym feels like my old gym in Boston. It’s a comfort zone.

A young woman about my age saw that I was new and came over to show me how to start the ellipticals without me even asking. “You have to type in your weight,” she said in Spanish. So I did. She looked really confused. Then I got really confused. “Peso” does mean “weight,” right?? Then, suddenly, I remembered. The metric system! I tried explaining in broken Spanish that I’m American and I have no idea how many kilos I am. She laughed and took a guess for me.