One Year Reflection

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I lived in Morocco for a year and a half. The half was spent in Ifrane, a tiny university town in the Atlas mountains, 70 km from Fez. I taught English at Al Akhawayn University. Afterwards, I spent a year in Casablanca teaching English at the American Language Centre. I’ve been back in Toronto for close to a year.

I stumbled upon this forgotten blog that we created at the beginning of our stay and I didn’t feel quite right about the overall vibe it gave off. This inspired me to reflect on my experiences in Morocco and try to paint a more holistic picture of what I felt there and why.

First of all, I think to even begin feeling ‘settled’ in any new country (or city) can easily take a year; settling into Toronto has taken me this long. The first few months are a whirlwind of fear, excitement, observation and plenty of other emotions. Experiences can be shocking, overwhelming and often misunderstood. Difficult as it may be, it’s incredibly valuable to really reflect on these things rather than form quick opinions; it’s easy to criticize and be cynical.

My memories from Morocco are some of the most vivid, beautiful, colourful, exciting, terrifying, tragic and amazing that I have. The challenging times were balanced with the sunshine, palm trees and relaxed lifestyle that I was fortunate enough to have. The people I met were so eclectic and I have never been so motivated to create something as I was while living in Casablanca (see thesmokeyolive.com – a westerner’s perspective of the fun that’s hiding in Casa).

Probably my biggest issue was (and still is) comparing. I couldn’t get past a lot of the things that worked in a way that was unfamiliar to me. This is a reoccurring issue, even in Toronto I struggle with accepting life as it is and simply being present.

It’s useless to think about how I would do it differently if I could go back because that’s not possible. Instead I’ll carry what I’ve learned forward and share my gratitude for having had the privilege to live in beautiful&sunny Morocco. I truly recommend that everyone who is open-minded and looking for a little adventure spend some time there.

I don’t know if it’s cheesier to end with my previous sentence or a quote, but for all those times your mind is clouded with pessimism, remember:

“Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it”.

Grand Taxis

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First words that come to my mind when I think about grand taxis – unsafe, illegal, terrifying. The set up: a big old white Mercedes from the 70s, no seat belts, six people plus the driver (3 in the front seats and 4 in the back), generally fast, angry and underpaid drivers, cheap fares, taken across longer distances. When we lived in Ifrane they were pretty much the only option we had to get anywhere else in the country. We took many trips to Fez (70 km away or an hour to an hour and a half of driving) and we always took grand taxis. The first couple of times I thought it was sort of fun and funny, and a very “Moroccan experience”. I soon realized how terrible grand taxis really are.

Ifrane is located in the mountains, and the roads out are one lane each way with essentially non-existent guardrails. And people drive fast. And they pass each other all the time. And road rules are not followed, if they do exist. Needless to say I grew to really hate and fear these taxis. There were times that I was literally in tears because I was so frightened. The time that stands out to me the most is coming back from Fez after a mid-week doctor’s appointment. It was clearly the driver’s last run of the night and he wanted to get home quickly. After crawling through Fez rush hour traffic, a smoggy and loud fiasco, we reached the dark mountain road. It was hard to look away from the speedometer as the driver was turning these guardrail-less corners at 100. This was one of those teary incidents.

I wasn’t always the only one who felt uncomfortable with the driving. There were sometimes other females in the taxi who shared my distress. However, I learned from a student who interviewed grand taxi riders about their perceptions of safety that the majority are not afraid. They believe that they are “in God’s hands”. Well, this is one situation in which I could never, ever say, “we’ll get there safely, Inshallah”. The good news is that we’re now living in a big city we should’t need to take grand taxis to get around. Casablanca drivers are pretty crazy but at least the stress of grand taxis has disappeared.

– Stef

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We didn’t take this photo. It’s from http://www.thenakedrun.com

Just walking around the taxi yards brings a smile (sometimes a grin, smirk or frustrated look) onto my face. The calling of cabbies competing with bbq’d meat and mopeds and various mobile fruit stands ready to run you over. In the distance someone is kneeling mid prayer. Always a bit different than the next. Always kind of the same.

Grad Taxis are a great means to an end for anybody looking to go from city to city, and for the vast population of Moroccans, the only way to keep their jobs in the various cities that surround where they live.

They are cheap, always leave on time (give or take 30 min) and get to their destination in a timely fashion (although sometimes too timely for comfort).

Not for the faint of heart, or the old, or anybody traveling with anybody who has claustrophobia, grand taxis are an excellent mode of transportation in Morrocco. It could not be any cheaper and you can go anywhere within a 150 km range.

You may spend the 90 minute ride with your legs numb hoping to make it alive, or perhaps you sit next to a friendly Syrian gentleman who relentlessly talks your ear off in Arabic (although you make no indications of understanding anything he has said). Regardless, it is always an experience.

Within seconds of approaching a grand taxi stand an air of organized chaos (or sometime just chaos) wafts in your face. While other aromatic distractions assault your senses (idling mercedes and roasting nuts) the calls for cities grab your attention. The way it works is fairly simple yet seems quite mind boggling and hectic.

First, find a man yelling the name of your destination “Fes, Fes” etc. Indicate you are interested in going there and how many occupants in your party. He then will notify a man who walks over scribbling on the back of what seems to be some receipt for who knows where and takes your money (in actuality he is taking tabs on how many people go to which cities each day to allocate payments to drivers). After paying, you stand next to the cab designated to go to the destination of your choice. As a standard, the taxis do not go until they are full. So it usually takes anywhere from 5-30 minutes to wait for others going to the same city as you to fill up the remaining spots. You do have the option of buying the “remaining” seats if you do not wish to wait. When full, all are off on a very cramped and uncomfortable ride to the place of your choice for literally next to nothing. 90 min rides cost about 4 bucks.

As far as iconic symbols go, a late 70’s mercedes will always take the cake. I will forever associate this model of vehicle with the cheap and efficient means of transportation that is a grand taxi; and grand it is.

– Matt

Four Lists of Five Things We’re Into

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STEF’S LIST: Having just returned to Morocco from our winter holidays in Canada, we have both been quick to notice the differences between these two countries. Naturally, there are things we like and dislike about both. So we thought we’d each make a list of 5 things we will miss about Canada and 5 things we’re looking forward to in Morocco. Who doesn’t like lists?!

5 Things I will miss about Canada

1. Wearing what I want – Morocco is quite liberal for a Muslim country, but maybe that isn’t saying much in terms of clothing. I can wear what I want but I don’t because it would draw unwanted attention and cause me trouble. No head covering though; very few girls actually wear hjabs in the city.
2. Customer service – I appreciate this greatly because I have experienced such poor (or nonexistent) service in other countries, like Morocco. Just trying to get someone to talk to you on the phone is a production. I have been hung up on before.
3. Live music – Maybe the best thing about living in or near Toronto is that every band seems to play there. Casablanca is not exactly a music mecca. Unfortunately for me, the majority of people don’t have an appreciate for the type of music I like.
4. Asian food – My favourite cuisine has not been perfected here. Maybe I just haven’t found it yet. Asian food (in Canada) makes is super easy to eat vegetarian at restaurants, so I will definitely miss that.
5. Heating/air conditioning – Houses are generally not insulated here so if it’s in the single digits at night, it’s cold inside. I can only imagine how hot summers get. I love the heat, but not I’m not crazy about it indoors in the summer.

5 Things I am looking forward to in Morocco

1. The weather – A comfortable 18 degrees for January daytime temperatures (in Casablanca) would be unheard of in Canada. It’s not meant to get any colder than that either. Is it too much to hope for beach weather in late March?
2. Cheap taxis – Pretty much never more than $3 if the driver runs the meter. It depends a lot on the driver and if they think you’re a tourist. Also, at night they charge a lot more. The prices vary greatly, but they even out to something very reasonable.
3. The markets – Fresh and amazing fruits and veggies, and everything else you can imagine (food and otherwise). I’m still impressed with how far money goes when buying produce at markets. Also, we found the best second hand clothing while we were living in Ifrane and I’m excited to see what we can find here in Casablanca. All the good stuff comes from Spain, France and Italy and doesn’t get picked over.
4. Traveling – There are so many things to see in Morocco, and the cities are usually quite different from each other. Tangier in the North, the two Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla, Ouarzazate in the south, the Sahara desert and so on…and as I mentioned before, traveling around Morocco is incredibly affordable.
5. Complimentary Olives – Most restaurants provide free olives with meals and the better the restaurant, the nicer the olives. The best ones melt off the pit, are a bit spicy, meaty and sweet but not too salty. Mmmmm. I’m becoming an olive connoisseur.

January Sunshine

January Sunshine

MATT’S LIST: As stated there are positive and negative sides to both countries as there are in life. Just like the way the brain works in measuring differences between signals and determining wether one experiences pain or pleasure there is no good without the bad. For the sake of optimism this list is mostly positive.

5 Things I will miss about being in Canada

1. Pale Ales – I am a Beer snob, simply put. Wether it’s Muskoka breweries Mad Tom IPA or a Mill Streets Tankhouse, I love good beer. Any Pale Ales with a super hoppy finish is great for me. While beer here is refreshing on a hot day it lacks any depth of character. Think drinking MGD all day long. Starts to taste like water.
2. Pork – I don’t mind dining on some swine. In any form, cured, smoked, fried or roasted, pork is great (let’s not forget Canadian bacon). Being in a Muslim country pork is a no-no and virtually no existent. While you can find it, the quality is poor and usually freezer burnt having travelled pretty far.
3. Smoke Free Zones – While I do love the atmosphere of walking into a smoky dive where your neighbour is almost a ghost, the same allure does not apply to restaurants. Being a non-smoker (of cigarettes) I can’t stress enough how much a good meal can take a nose dive due to your neighbour chain smoking beside you
4. Green Space – There is some beautiful scenery in Morocco no doubt, but anybody who knows me knows I love to lay in the park, preferably under giant weeping willows or old shady oaks. A naturally thick turf of green grass had no alternative.
5. Jamming – Doesn’t matter where I seem to go, everybody plays guitar. I love the abundance of musicians and people enthusiastic about playing it. Although music is a big part of culture here, I have a soft spot for some old time Rock n’ Roll.

5 things I am looking forward to in Morocco

1. Water- Bottled water in Morocco is not only affordable but delicious. A litre and a half of water is never more than 50 cents. None of this 3.50 for a bottle of water from the swiss alps. You know what taste better than water imported from Fiji? Not spending 4 bucks on three mouthfuls of it.
2. Free Food – Just like in the south of spain every drink comes with free food. Sometimes just potato salad, or a plate of olives and cucumbers to a platter of fried fish that you would actually consider to be a meal in any Irish pub at home. Order more than 2 beers and generally you will have an endless supply of munchies gratis
3. Everything is for Sale – See a nice watch on the Taxi driver? It has a price. Want a pet puppy? You can buy it at the side of the road. Need a personal masseuse? It just so happens that the cleaning lady/cook is one.
4. Street Vendors – You can buy anything, and I mean anything at any time of day on the side of the road. From Apples, to half a cow, to a kilo of olives and and Iphone5. Sometimes all from the same person. There are people walking around with teapots with coals strapped to the bottom on every corner ready to serve you a hot cup just in case you need a quick jolt of caffeine. I really cannot stress how available everything is all the time.
5. Meat – The quality of meat is amazing. None of this pre-packaged, flash frozen 7 dollars for some chicken breasts stuff. I can buy a whole chicken, feathers and all for 3 dollars (although I prefer to have it already slaughtered). With a half cow hanging from the local butcher on EVERY street, just point to the part of beef you want and a Striploin roast is a walk away.

No Smoking No Fun

No Smoking No Fun

Moroccan Rape Law

One of my favourite things about teaching English in a new country is the amount of information that I learn about the place from the students. I have learned many interesting things about Morocco, some positive and some negative. This blog post has a much more serious tone than all of the others posted so far, but I feel it’s something that needs to be shared.

In Morocco, when a man rapes a woman he may avoid a prison sentence if he marries his victim. I know that might sound incredibly absurd; I couldn’t believe it the first time I heard about it. You may be wondering why the woman would ever agree to such a terrifying arrangement. Well, when a female is raped, it is considered shameful for her family. Girls must be virgins until their wedding day. So if a young girl is raped and doesn’t marry her rapist, she will likely never marry again. Marriage is a very important of the Muslim culture and its value is discussed in the Quran. Something my students have told me is that for many Moroccans, it is more important what society and their neighbours think about them, rather than what they think is right and wrong. That’s why parents might convince their daughters to marry their rapist. You may think that the parents are at fault here, but I don’t think that’s the case. As outsiders, we don’t understand the stigma attached to the loss of virginity in the Muslim religion. We don’t know what it really means to be shamed and ostracized from a community. We couldn’t imagine not being able to simply move away and leave our problems behind. We likely could not even begin to imagine being in a situation where our parents would impose such a frightening thing on us. For reasons such as these I think this issue goes beyond an individual person’s control.

In many of these cases, the women are actually young girls and the men are significantly older than them. This means that girls in their mid teens might marry men in their mid twenties to early thirties. I would like to point out that this happens in small towns and villages more often than in cities, where illiteracy rates are high. There was one very significant event that took place in 2012. A young girl aged 16, named Amina Filali, was raped by a man in a small northern town called Larache. Her parents said that the judge forced the marriage on their family. Amina was incredibly unhappy being married to her rapist; he was abusive to her. All of this caused her to ingest rat poison and commit suicide. This particular case caused a huge uproar with many women’s rights activists and Moroccans who opposed this law. There were many protests in the city’s capital, Rabat. However, the law has not been changed.

Two of my students have done presentations in class about this topic, and many others have brought it up in discussions. It is evident to me that this occurrence was a significant moment in Morocco’s history and that it will continue to be one until the law is changed. All of my students who voiced their opinions agreed that such a law should not be part of the constitution and that rapists should be put in jail. However, these students come from wealthy and educated families. This makes me think and hope that if this rape law will ever be changed, it will be because people like them will grow up well educated and continue to lobby against it.

InshAllah

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So coming from a foreigner in regards to the Muslim religion this may come across as misunderstood or perhaps a tad offensive. However, after conversing with many native Moroccans, both devout Muslims and not, I have started to form an opinion of my own.

After making arrangements with somebody the most commonly heard phrase in Muslim countries is “inshalla”. Literally translating to “God willing” or “if God wishes”, a kind of blessing more or less saying that yes, we will meet for tea tomorrow “if God wishes”. Aside from the fact that most Muslims believe life is beyond their control and in the hands of God (which is fine), some abuse this saying as a way to avoid commitments of any sort.

I have had numerous discussions on how hard it is to get something done when everything is seemingly left up to “chance” or “God”. The idea of free will and motivation does not translate (not literally translate) into a culture where most people use God as an excuse for things not completed. There is a lot more to this saying and the whole ideology of permitting God to conduct your every action than I even care to understand at this point. With that said, I am an avid procrastinator (and hate making commitments) so I love this saying.  Having an opportunity to back out on any engagement or obligation and say that “I guess God did not want it” is too convenient. I may even publish post this post, Inshallah 🙂

~Matthew

Thom Yorke said, ‘I used to think there was no future left at all’, and although that may sound a tad pessimistic, he’s got a point. You can’t count on the future. So to me InshAllah means something along those lines. Yes, I’d like to meet you for dinner tomorrow, InshAllah. Although I may have full intentions of it happening, nothing is certain. Maybe I’ll get held up at work. Maybe I’ll get sick. Maybe there will be a traffic jam. Maybe the bus I’m going to wait for will get into an accident and never show up. Who knows?

Of course, my attitude towards this might change if I’m the one being stood up at the restaurant.  However, I’m learning that my North American expectations of punctuality and concreteness haven’t given me anything yet but frustration. I am not in North America. So I’ll end with a better known expression, ‘When in Rome’…

-Stef

PS This saying can even be applied to internet dating …or in this case marriage websites.

Lunar Holidays

So most of Morocco’s holidays are based on the moon cycle. Weird? Maybe.  It is something that makes me smile but has little to no effect on my day to day life (being I am unemployed or as some hip young people will say “freelance”).  The only thing that changes is that I get to see all of my working friends. I find it an interesting actuality that I know would cause quite a stir in North America. Can you imagine not knowing when labour day was going to come? With so much money being spent on long weekend travelling, especially in Canada where we have one every month, it would cause quite the stir.  Although technically speaking it is easy to predict the moon cycle, Islam cultures refuse to use modern science to help identify these dates.  So instead of hoping for a snow day I hope for a new moon (not that it actually matters to me anyhow).

-Matthew

I came home on a Wednesday with a pile of papers to mark but was looking forward to having a relaxing night. I figured I’d do the work on the Thursday that I would most likely have off. It hadn’t been officially announced, but everyone assumed the holiday was going to be Thursday, not Friday. It was the Muslim New Year, the 1st Day of Muharram.

At 10 PM we received the email saying that it would actually be Friday that we would have as a holiday. I wasn’t sure if I should be happy that it meant we’d have a long weekend or disappointed that it was 10PM and on a school night that’s pretty much my bed time…

The reason that so many of the expat teachers are still confused by the lunar holidays is because the history of the Muslim world and astronomy. As opposed to Europe, they were making astronomical observations by the early 9th century. So there should be no reason as to why they can’t accurately predict when the new moon will be.

My guess is that it has something to do with globalization and Westernization. As Western cultures continue to infiltrate Muslim cultures various forms of resistance become apparent. Reverting back to an older, simpler time and hanging on to traditions could both be forms of this. That’s the connection I made, but of course I could be wrong.

In the end all that it really meant to me was that I got to spend a long weekend in Casablanca 🙂

-Stef

The Cats of Morocco

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Friendly furry felines.  Everywhere. A nice site for the lonely cat lover.  Although Bob B would have a fit trying to get each cat spayed or neutered.  The obvious issue of cat care or lack thereof in Morocco is interesting. They severe a very practical purpose, and offer enjoyment for the residents where these cats reside.  While there are no cats riding in bags with name tags there are abundances of little “kitty hostels” consisting of cardboard boxes and fish carcasses.  Some lucky ones get a treat of milk now and again.

Cats are treated as a self sufficient and important part of urban life, instead of a fuzzy ball of foo-foo only here for us to watch sleep and purr.  They significantly reduce or help control the vermin population in citie cores, especially Medinas, which might otherwise be ideal breeding situations for the Muroidea family.

As in any part of the animal kingdom, the strong survive.  It is not uncommon to see many a cat with crusted shut eyes, or running noses or simply half dead, but you cannot help the cats.  Usually there is a super cute healthy one nearby to distract you from the dying ones but with the massive amount of street cats out there, you are bound to find sick ones too.  Overall I find it nice to see literally dozens of cats under tables and around the corner, and feel free to pet them (I have not been bitten, yet).  Oh, but make sure to wash your hands.

-Matthew

Never before have I been to a country so abundant with street cats! Usually, they seem pretty happy and healthy even if they are a bit dirty. However, sometimes you see a cat that really needs help. It’s pretty heartbreaking, but you have to realize that you can’t take in every cat. And other times, the kittens are just so adorable that you might want to take them with you for selfish reasons. But again, the same problem arises.

Walking home from work one day, I heard a meow coming from the bushes. It was a particularly cold and rainy day. I saw a white kitten shivering and lost. Its fur was all wet and its right eye glued shut. I wanted to bring it home with me. However, after giving it a bit of thought, I got into a taxi and went home. At home I kept thinking about this kitty – should I adopt it? Then I thought about the vet bills…shots, spaying/neutering, de-clawing, fixing the eye infection…
Needless to say, I decided against it.

The next day I bought a can of tuna for the kitten. I found it in the same place and fed him the food.  He was pretty hungry. I watched him eat for a bit, but it was only making me more sad. The third day, I took the bus home, maybe subconsciously trying to avoid seeing the kitty again.

Living in Morocco, you can’t have that attitude towards the street cats, or life will become depressing fast. Having said all of that, one of these days I may just adopt a street cat. After all, they are so darn cute!

– Stef

So here are photos of some favourites:

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MEOW

EID al-Adha Holiday

First thoughts on a holiday celebrated to commemorate the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son for God (but, as many of you may know, God stepped in and told him to sacrifice a lamb instead) This brings us to EID, the Muslim sacred and much anticipated fall slaughter of sheep, where the streets literally run red.

From an outside perspective some might say it seems a tad ‘barbaric’. These type of words coming from those travelling halfway across the world to judge the traditions of another country is, well, quite barbaric itself.

Digressing. Many of the things related to EID do in fact stir a lot of emotions and questions. What do I know about consumerism? (Sidenote, I just stopped to listen to the beautiful sounds of Adhan  or “call to prayer’ – which again makes me wonder if my fascination and appreciation with the Muslim culture comes from their strong beliefs and thousand year old customs or simply the differences between our cultures). Regardless, EID, a strange and beautiful time. Think Christmas, but with more blood.

The streets are relatively empty for Moroccan Medina standards. Replace men trying to sell carpets and silver with fires and sheep heads and boys sawing horns with hack saws. Utilizing every part of the animal – the fur, brains and horns with not a part wasted! Even the blood is used to colour clothes — not really intentional, but it happens.  Traditionally (as I understand) families who can afford to do so purchase live sheep, whether from a farmer directly or at the side of the road at the various locations available (ie. corner store etc.). Following the King’s lead they slaughter/offer the animal and a feast ensues.  Families who are not so well off and cannot afford to buy an entire sheep receive offerings from wealthier families.  Butchers wander the streets with bloodied knives roaming from homes that have nobody able to do the killing.  It is a happy time for all, I found the atmosphere in the street and in the people I met very welcoming.  The following days I found a general sense of excitement and contentment present everywhere I roamed.

It is a joyous occasion with happy smiling faces and cheap taxis. Please don’t take pictures as it is extremely rude.

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The entire city smells like burnt hair and bone. Cats and dogs wander around with a drugged and gluttonous induced daze from a day of feasting on sheep entrails and organs. A sight to be seen and smelled. Note – do not travel on EID’s eve. Needless to say, the lamb is very fresh today.

Overall I found this to be a beautiful time and a wonderful experience.  I do not intend to offend any person and my words are simply my first thoughts on the holiday

-Matthew

In anticipation of EID, most things seem to close early. Even my students were mostly absent on the day before the holiday. So instead of teaching, I showed my classes ‘Groundhog Day’. Explaining that Groundhog Day is real made me realize how silly some traditions are. Anyway, we headed south for the 5 day weekend.

As Matt mentioned, we DO NOT recommend travelling on the eve of EID. I have never experienced such a horrendous and terrifying train ride. We were sardined in a smoky train cart for 6 or 7 hours, standing. The trip was meant to take 3. It was like the movies. Babies crowdsurfing, people fainting, and me having panic attacks. I didn’t realize I was so claustrophobic. Arriving in Marrakesh, I felt surprisingly alive.

I knew that Marrakesh was a tourist Mecca, but I was still taken back by the amount of foreigners. I can’t imagine what the summer is like. Highlights include snake charmers, the most beautiful hostel I have ever stayed at, Spanish food, and dried amphibians in jars.

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Okay so EID from a vegetarian’s perspective. If you eat meat and enjoy it, I think you should have to see how it is killed, how it looks dead, how bloody things get, and all the smells involved. EID provides all of those experiences. Also, the fact that every part of the animal is used is pretty impressive. For me, wasted meat is quite irritating and upsetting. So, although I don’t like the thought of almost every Moroccan family slaughtering a sheep every year for this holiday, there is so much more to it than that. Who am I to really comment on such old traditions? Factory farms and Mcdonalds are infinitely more crude, and ultimately barbaric.

After Marrakesh, we took a bus to Essaouira, a beautiful and warm coastal town. Matt said it reminded him of Atlantic Canada. We were able to go to the beach there. We escaped the wind by hiding in the sand dunes. It would be great to visit again in the spring, when the temperatures are a a bit higher. Regardless, it was still amazing. We saw camels on the beach (for touristic purposes of course), and hundreds of adorable cats!!

Overall, the trip was great! Also, travelling around Morocco costs a fraction of the price of travelling almost anywhere else. And I’m happy to say that I had a seat on the train the whole way home.

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– Stef

Moving to Morocco

We arrived in Tangier and took a Berber bus four hours south. Within ten hours of being in the baby blue painted city, we decided to move to Morocco.

This is a blog about the different experiences of a male and female living in beautiful Morocco. Image