Monday, March 7, 2016

Quick detours: The Gambia and Morocco!

One of the perks of living abroad, especially in a city that has an international hub airport, is the ability to travel to other countries.  It's no secret that I love traveling (and imagine a good number of people in the world do, if given the means).  One country has been on my checklist since I was a Peace Corps Volunteer (Morocco) and the other was out of curiosity and convenience due to proximity (The Gambia).

Earlier in the year in January, I was lucky to travel with Kaylin, Fulbright research fellow, and her family for a very short trip to The Gambia.  I figured it was now or never when it came to visiting this tiny country, and am happy that I got to tag along!

Located in the middle of Senegal (it looks like Senegal's mouth), The Gambia a tiny country with an interesting history.  An Anglophone country surrounded by mostly Francophone countries, it was an adventure even getting down there!  We took a sept-place (really old station wagons that seat seven passengers, as the name suggests) down to the Senegalese-Gambian border, which took hours upon hours, in large part because we had to wait for a small ferry that crossed from one side to the other (across a smaller river in Senegal).  We were able to stop by the Bandia Reserve in Senegal, which had a variety of animals -- warthogs, ostriches, giraffes, etc.  Riding in one of those open, safari pick-ups, we roamed all over the park to catch a glimpse of as many animals as possible!  After, upon arriving at the border, it was almost 8:00pm and the border was about to close...and we were literally minutes from missing the last big ferry that crosses the Gambia River to Banjul, the capital.

Most of our time was spent in the Banjul and Serrekunda area, and our apartment rental was in Kololi.  Much like French, English varies depending on which part of the world you're in and I had to acclimate myself to the English spoken in The Gambia.  And also, when you exchange the currency (the Gambian Dalasi) from either CFA, dollars, euros, etc., you get a TON of paper notes.  You literally have a wad of cash that you need to stuff in your bag or even place in a Ziploc bag!

The Gambian Dalasi (currency) made me feel like I had a million dollars...when in reality, it wasn't as much.  Still, a guy can dream.  =)

Anyway, most of our time was spent exploring by foot with the occasional taxi ride.  We checked out the famous crocodile pool and saw the biggest market in Banjul, Albert Market.  Compared to Dakar, Banjul is relatively small and for the most part, easily navigable.  The Senegambia area is where they tend to have more expat restaurants and the like.  We spent another day on a 4x4/Sunset Cruise tour -- visiting the monkey reserve, a batik factory, eating lunch at Paradise Beach, taking an awkward village tour, and eventually capping it off with a sunset cruise, which, to our dismay, were tiny pirogues that went out into the river.

(Top left, going clockwise) Standing up on the back of the 4x4 as we were driving to the village; feeding monkeys at the Monkey Reserve (pretty sure we weren't supposed to do this but the guides brought peanuts, so...); on our "sunset cruise" which ended up being small pirogues; at the crocodile pool; Kaylin and I at the "Welcome to the Gambia" sign after the sunset cruise, since the cruise was on the Gambian River which divides the Gambia and Senegal.

Happy to have done the Gambia trip with Kaylin and her awesome family, what I was really looking forward to was my Morocco trip with one of my closest friends in the Peace Corps, Brenda!  I somehow find myself in D.C. at one point every summer for the past few years, and end up staying/hanging out with her.  Anyway, we'd been planning a trip for a long while now and Morocco was the destination on the top of our list!

In mid-February, we met in Casablanca.  Fortunately for me, Royal Air Maroc has three daily flights from Dakar to Casablanca!  Brenda is one of those friends who, after not having seen each other for a while, will be able to pick up right where we left off.  Laughing our way through security/customs, we took a train from Casablanca airport directly to Fes.  I can't believe how easy and convenient it was!  There are two classes (first and second), with first not being that much more cost-wise, and you have more private cabins (six to a cabin) with assigned seating.  Again, very impressed, left on time, and clean!

Arriving in Fes, I was surprised at how chilly it was and it was even drizzling a little bit.  But we made our way to Riad Ghita (riads are Moroccan houses that are converted into boutique hotels/bed-and-breakfasts with an interior garden or courtyard).  We were welcomed with mint tea and Moroccan sweets, and shown to our room.  I think the place had several rooms at most, but they all looked into the beautiful interior courtyard with so many vibrant colors.  Best of all, it wasn't too far from the many entrances of the medina.

Beautiful rooftop and interior of the Riad Ghita in Fes.  It was so cozy and beautifully decorated, we couldn't get enough of it! 

Each city in Morocco has its own distinct style and flare, and Fes, being one of the top tourist destinations in Morocco, is no exception.  At least for me, Fes is known for the winding paths within the medina where you literally get lost and wander into a variety of shops...and we did just that!  After resting the first day when we arrived, we used our second day to wander around, making sure to see the famous Blue Gate but also to take advantage of the many rooftop and terrace restaurants.  Love people watching?  Great!  Enjoy chatting with mint tea?  Perfect!  Sure, our feet were tired from walking and our mouths tired from bargaining for souvenirs, but it was well worth it.  I even got a multi-dish thing for my future apartment in Dubai...perfect to hold snacks for guests on a coffee table.  =)

Seeing the Blue Gate at the Medina in Fes was a must, but wandering around/getting lost in search of different food and souvenirs is what made the day extraordinary! 

Because the trains are so convenient, we eventually took one the opposite direction, heading south toward Marrakesh.  Not only are the trains easily accessible, but the train stations themselves, particularly in big towns like Fes and Marrakesh, were well-organized, works of architecture in-and-of themselves, and had a variety of eating options.

The train station in Marrakesh.  Absolutely stunning! 

Marrakesh itself has a sort of charm and magic that is stereotypically seen as Moroccan with influences from other cultures.  While Fes felt more like I was in what I thought was Morocco, Marrakesh was Morocco combined with heavy Arab, African, and European influences.  Sure some parts are very touristy, but that's all part of the charm.  We stayed at Riad & Spa Bahia Salam, a mere ten-minute walk to the famous Jemaa el Fna Square!  Different from our riad in Fes, the one in Marrakesh catered to more folks and as the name suggests, had a spa.  We definitely took advantage of it -- twice!  Because we were in Morocco, we made sure to try out a hammam experience where they essentially scrub you down in a sauna-type room and have you wash out all your physical impurities.  It was great!  Massages were also part of it which made this really feel like a vacation.

Our riad in Marrakesh was so comfortable and in a great location.  And the spa downstairs was an added bonus! 

As I mentioned before, the highlight of Marrakesh is the Jemaa el Fna Square, which happens to also be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was exactly how I pictured it...and then some.  Snake charmers, artists, people selling all sorts of arts/crafts and food, fresh juice sellers, and the like.  It was a true feast for the senses but we wanted to take advantage of the view many restaurants had, and opted for the Argana Café.

Jemaa el Fna Square is a site to behold.  I'd suggest going during the day and coming back at night.  Like two different worlds! 

Perhaps one of the highlights of the trip is the food...everywhere!  Fresh, delicious, and compared to Dakar, fairly inexpensive.  I think I'll let the pictures speak for themselves...

Kebabs, lentils, name it, it was delicious! 

After a successful couple of days in Marrakesh, we took another convenient train back to Casablanca to spend the night and head to the airport for our respective flights.  I'm ashamed to admit this (it's the American in me) but it was pouring rain but we still decided to walk a bit in the evening to grab a quick dinner...and found ourselves at both McDonald's and KFC!  There's something about eating American fast food abroad that brings back a sense of nostalgia and many memories.

Overall, just a wonderful trip with a close friend and I felt recharged again to continue my work here in Senegal!

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