2019: A year of gratitude

2019 has been a pretty good year for me.

January

First, I am grateful to have finally completed my studies in NUS. I enrolled in a part-time Masters course in Science Communication. The Masters degree is a joint Masters degree with The Australian National University (ANU). After two years of slugging it out, studying and working at the same time, I managed to complete and fulfil my course requirements to be able to graduate.

In November 2018, I submitted my thesis, and gave my presentation. The moment my presentation ended, was the moment I knew that I have officially ended my course. I remember being immensely relieved that I have completed the entire ordeal. It wasn’t easy working and studying at the same time. Late nights, weekends spent working on your assignments, multiple deadlines to meet. So when it all ended after my presentation, I was strangely at peace with myself. Finally the storm that has been raging in my mind became calm. One less thing to worry about.

In January 2019, I received an official letter from ANU, stating that I have officially graduated from the course. The convocation ceremony at NUS was to take place only in the middle of the year. I expressed my interest to attend the convocation and to receive my certificate on stage. The convocation ceremony was also another way to catch up and reunite with my classmates who went through the same ordeal as me. Graduation gown had to be rented. I had to look sharp, dressed in business suit, pants and a tie to match. But it was all worth it. I deserved it and I am grateful for the entire experience.

Knowing that I have completed my studies, it was time to get wild. 2019 was the year where I used up almost all my leave days from work (most of which were carried over from 2018) to go on multiple holidays.

April

First up, New York City. On Singapore Airlines’ premium economy class, non-stop from Singapore to New York. 19 hours of non-stop flight. It was gruelling, but tolerable since we were on premium economy. Larger, comfortable seats, better food and bigger entertainment screen to keep you occupied during the long flight.

Best airline in the world, Singapore Airlines premium economy class.

It was my second time to the United States, but the first time for my parents, and they enjoyed it a lot. New York is an iconic city. A must visit travel destination for people who love exploring major cities of the world. All those internationally renowned landmarks and museums you often see on the television and on the big screen. To be there physically was a remarkable experience. I am truly grateful to be given the opportunity to visit New York.

Love Dumbo. Most beautiful part of New York.

But that’s not all. Shortly about a couple of weeks later, I was flying to Morocco, via London with my friends and colleagues. The trip was planned more than 6 months ago. I remembered having caught the Black Friday deal on Malaysia Airlines flight to London. We immediately booked tickets and secured our flights to Morocco shortly after.

I wrote a ten-part series of my adventures in Morocco previously. The fact that I had split the post about my time in Morocco into ten parts spoke volumes about how much I enjoyed my time there. It was not only enjoyable, but enriching at the same time. As I had mentioned, Morocco, as a travel destination is a country that just keeps on giving. I learned so much about the country during my time there and saw so many new things. It was the best decision my friends and I took when deciding on where to go for our holiday together. For that, I am eternally grateful to have such supportive and laid back friends and colleagues to agree on our holiday destination and to make the entire planning phase a breeze.

We had a great time in Morocco. Hassan Tower in the background.

And not forgetting, reuniting with our former colleagues in London. After our trip in Morocco, before heading back to Singapore, we made a stopover in London for a couple of days to catch up with friends who were working in London. It was the best night ever, despite me being a little ill that day. I was down with a fever.

October

October was the highlight for me. I went to Iceland for the second time. This time I brought my parents along and they absolutely loved Iceland. I remembered the last time I was here, I was contemplating on whether I will be coming back to Iceland in the near future. The answer was yes, I will definitely come back. The question was simply a matter of when. About three or so years after I went to Iceland in February (full on winter) with my friends, I am back, this time during the autumn season. Not quite cold and snowy yet, but you start to see snow and ice being sprinkled lightly at the top of the mountains slowly making their way down as the time slowly marches towards November and beyond.

Despite going to Iceland for the second time, I was still amazed at how beautiful the landscape is and shocked at how different it looked the last time I was there. I made a good call in deciding to go to Iceland in autumn (which is more tolerable for my parents since they do not like the cold so much), giving me the opportunity to experience Iceland in a totally different landscape than before.

Because of that, everything felt new, I was re-experiencing Iceland in a totally different way, despite the fact that I have been to several popular spots throughout my travels in and around Iceland.

In autumn, certain roads were still open, giving us the opportunity to explore more of Iceland that it was previously possible when I was there during winter.
At higher altitudes, certain places were already started to be covered in snow and ice, making the landscape ethereal and alien looking,

There were other major things that happened throughout 2019 that I am grateful of.

For one, I got a 20% pay raise that will be handed out in two incremental steps within a 6-month period. That 20% pay raise was significant and unexpected. My workplace recently had a town-hall meeting and announced an across-the-board raise in pay for most employees after they hired an outside consultancy firm to look at the pay levels across the industry. It seemed that a 20% pay raise was due to keep our wages competitive and to retain top talent that they desperately needed.

I had a relatively smooth reservist training this year. I was initially worried about the training this year partly because a number of my key personnel that I depend on to perform certain tasks were absent this year. They had to defer their training due to schools and exams. As I was short of manpower, I was concerned that it would be a stressful experience during the two-week training. But along the way, I had help from the most unexpected places which greatly maintained the levels of efficiency and effectiveness needed in carrying out the training needed for this year’s reservist. Overall, the training was smoother that I initially expected and for that I am truly grateful.

I bought the new iPhone 11 Pro Max and brought to my trip to Iceland. The picture that came out from the phone’s camera were phenomenal. The ultra wide angle lens was particularly useful in capturing the scope of the harsh landscapes of Iceland. Despite being only a phone camera, Apple has really outdone itself with its cutting edge computational photography to make you photos pop whenever you use the phone’s camera. I am grateful for my new phone to be able to capture wonderful memories of my trip to Iceland.

The new iPhone 11 Pro Max in Midnight Green.

Finally, I bought a brand new camera, the Fujifilm X-Pro 3 camera paired with the Fujinon 23mm F2 prime lens. I have used this camera for a close to a month and I am loving the picture quality that is coming straight out from the camera. Fujifilm’s film simulation modes are a ton of fun to use and it is always interesting to see how your pictures look like after applying the various film simulation modes.

The rangefinder design of the X-pro 3 really harkens back to the good old film camera days. It even has an optical viewfinder for those who wish to experience how using a film camera was like back in the old days. I am really grateful to have chosen a camera that I know I will love using it for years to come.

What will 2020 bring?

I am looking forward to another road trip with the same group of friends who went to Iceland with me. This could be perhaps the last time travelling together, and so this time, I am going to go wherever they wish to go. It seems that through our initial conversations, they have been eyeing New Zealand as their next road trip. While I have been there before, it is a place where I don’t really mind going again, provided I spend more time doing hiking and trekking at some of the more famous routes in New Zealand. If they agree to that, then I don’t mind embarking on this trip together. All we need next is to agree on a date where we can all apply for leave next year and we will be on our way to another grand road trip.

I am also looking forward to another solo trip. Just exactly where is the million dollar question. I have not decided where I should go yet, but solo is definitely on the table, but only if my travel plans are sparse and I have enough leave days. The priority for a solo trip is low, but definitely on the table as an option.

2020 is where I will try and attempt to set a new savings milestone. In light of the pay raise that I have received, it only makes sense to set aside more to keep pace of the overall proportion of money saved against my total salary. I saved $15,000 a year last year. Saving $15,000 a year is challenging but highly doable. Will I be able to stretch myself further and save perhaps $20,000? If I become more frugal in spending less on travel in 2020, it might just be possible. If I skip my yearly iPhone upgrades and impose a moratorium on PC upgrades, it might be possible. If I save $10,000 on my bonus in April alone, and then continue to save about $1000 a month for the next 12 months, I would easily hit my target.

I bought the Apple Watch Series 5

So today on Christmas, I decided to walk into the Apple store at Orchard Road and came out with a brand new Apple Watch series 5. It was a spur of the moment thing. Previously when the series 5 watch was released in September, I actually pre-ordered it. But at the very last minute, I cancelled the order and pre-ordered the iPhone 11 Pro Max instead.

The exact model that I got. The Apple Watch series 5 space grey aluminium Nike edition with the Nike sport loop.

Now I bought the space grey aluminium, Nike version Apple Watch series 5. And I am really happy with the purchase. I managed to sell my series 3 (scratches and all) on carousel for about S$150. It’s not much, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of buyers willing to buy my watch for S$150. It was an easy deal. And I am happy to sell it at a low price to someone who might potentially need an Apple Watch, even if it isn’t the latest model.

Initially I was quite hesitant in getting the same space grey aluminium version, especially after accumulating a fair number of scratches on the watch face after using it for two years. While the series 3 watch that I bought two years ago still works admirably, the glass on the watch face just couldn’t stand up to the rigours of rough daily use. I find it quite disappointing that the aluminium version doesn’t come with a more durable and scratch resistant glass. The stainless steel version however comes with sapphire crystal glass, which in most cases would be resistant to scratches.

I nearly wanted to get the stainless steel version but decided that the price difference between the stainless steel and the aluminium just wasn’t worth it, especially when all I am getting is a more durable (and heavier) material and sapphire crystal on the watch face. Everything else is essentially the same. No doubt I am certain that I will accumulate scratches on the glass after a couple of years, but so long as it still functions and functions exactly the same between the different models, I couldn’t care less. If the Apple Watch is a device that I will be upgrading once every two years or so (if the upgrades are substantial enough), then it doesn’t really makes sense paying extra for better material that does not give you meaningful return in terms of general usage and functionality as far as a smart watch is concerned.

For now I am enjoying my new watch a lot. I really love the bigger, brighter screen that comes with it. Even the new watch face designs that is only available in the series 5 are absolutely beautiful. So beautiful, in fact that I can’t take my eyes off the watch, which makes the always-on display that much more attractive.

For now, I will definitely be updating more often of my experience with the new watch. The new watch will definitely spur me to become healthier, and adopt a more active lifestyle, which is great timing, since, now is the time when I start writing my new year’s resolutions for 2020.

Moroccan Adventure Part X: Going home

Marrakesh was our final stop before taking the train back to Casablanca to catch our flight back home.

It was hot. It was the first time since we arrived in morocco that the weather was swelteringly hot. While we were in the desert, it was cool, cold even sometimes especially before dawn. The sudden change in temperature from the more temperate climate of the countryside to the warm and humid air of Marrakesh, was probably the cause of my illness. Coupled with the fact that I was exposed to intermittent rain upon arrival in the evening made things worse.

By the second day of exploring Marrakesh, I started getting fever. I did not feel well at all. You could say that I was lucky in a sense that I fell sick at the end of our trip. But having a temperature and a feeling of malaise really put a dampener on a lot of things. I brought Panadol just in case these things happen during our trip and it helped a lot in controlling my temperature and numbing some of the achy feelings that I had. This general feeling of malaise made it hard for me to really enjoy Marrakesh fully.

We continued our exploration of Marrakesh, visiting the Medinas and the street food that truly became a bustling sight as day turned to night. The open square just outside the Medina was transformed into an outdoor street food market, with a ton of stalls setting up for the evening and touting locals and visitors alike to a wide array of skewered meat and vegetables, seafood, and an array of other snacks.

We also visited their shopping district and urban Centers and even had Chinese cuisine that we encountered by accident while exploring the city. At that moment while walking along their shopping district, it all felt familiar, an urban district you see in any other city. Modern, bustling, and crowded with tourists and locals. It was nice to see international brands that have set up shop in Marrakesh, like Zara and H&M giving it a sense of familiarity.

The food on the streets of Marrakesh!
A snapshots of life in Marrakesh.

We had a couple of days in Marrakesh before we had to catch a train to Casablanca. The train ride was pleasant. The journey took just a couple of hours. We hailed a cab upon reaching the train station at Casablanca and headed to our hotel, the same hotel where we started this entire journey. Arriving back at the same hotel was a bittersweet moment for me. It was a reminder of our journey when we first arrive, and also a reminder that our journey is ending. I felt sad for having to leaving Morocco. The country has given us so much more than we initially thought. The memories that we create in this country were simply priceless.

London bound

Still, it was time to go. I was still feeling sick, off and on at times, depending if there was still paracetamol coursing through my veins. The medication helped a great deal in getting through the day, but its fading effect can be felt, in regular intervals that served as a reminder to take another dose of the drug before the fever and malaise kicks in again. Perhaps the illness that I had was an illness of the heart? My heart yearned to stay just a little longer in this beautiful country. And now knowing that it was time to leave, I was feeling heartsick.

Things were not all doom and gloom. There were still things to look forward to in London. For me I was most looking forward to seeing my former colleagues who used to work in Singapore. It’s been a couple of years since they left Singapore to go back home to London, and I was excited to see them again over lunch and dinner.

We arrive sometime mid-morning to early afternoon. It was my first time in London. I was fascinated by the London Tube. It was confusing as hell and it took me a while to understand it and navigate London using the Tube. We stayed at an Airbnb just off central London where it was cheaper, in one of the suburbs. It was a pleasant house with extra rooms to spare for us four. There was a small cinema just outside our accommodation which we watched Avengers: Endgame. We were tortured by the need to minimise our exposure to spoilers on social media during our holiday in Morocco, since the movie was released during our holiday there. But when we were in London, we took the earliest available opportunity to watch the movie and be relieved of any accidental spoilers we might have read on social media.

The London Bridge!
I believe this is called The Shard?

We had only a full day in London and we made the best use of it. We met up with our former colleagues for lunch at Padella, visited the Tates Museum, visited a few famous pubs and had a few rounds of beer. Finally we headed to Din Tai Fung for dinner, capping off with more rounds of beer at a local pub nearby. It was a fantastic day. I was so glad to be reunited with them and to catch up on what was happening with their lives over meals. We were also excited to share our travel stories (which we had several funny ones) in Morocco with them. The entire evening was just full of jest and great conversations. Nobody wanted it to end. At the end of the day, we had to say our goodbyes, with no promise of seeing them anytime soon.

A 12-hour flight awaited us the next morning. We headed to London Heathrow and checked into our Malaysia Airlines flight bound to KL, Malaysia, before taking a connecting flight to Singapore.

Epilogue

Morocco is a country that keeps on giving. Give it time to explore and discover the country and you will be rewarded in spades. Going to Morocco for a holiday was one of the best decisions we as a group has ever made. The people that we met, the food that we tried, the culture that we immersed ourselves in, all culminated in us not simply enjoying our holiday, but also appreciate and understand different cultures and traditions. And that is what travelling is all about. We connect with people from far away lands, and in doing so, we understand each other a little bit better. And with that, you start to realise that it becomes easy to find a common thread in all of us, that everyone in this world is very different, but not so different as to be alien. Morocco certainly has changed me in many ways, broadening our minds, understanding culture that is world’s away, and having a greater appreciation for the kindness and generosity that was bestowed upon us in a foreign land. We are all ambassadors of our own country. Morocco has been a great host to us. No doubt we will do the same for travellers around the world coming to Singapore.

For those who have read my series on my travels in Morocco (all ten parts!), thank you for reading them all. I am by no means a writer, or a travel journalist. I write my travel experiences, because simply put, I love travelling and documenting my travel experiences whichever is most memorable to me. I could write so much more, but I simply chose to write down events that happened during my travels that are most impactful. My experiences during my travels are deeply personal.

With that being said, I have many more pictures that I took that didn’t make the cut while writing all ten parts of my Moroccan adventure. However, you can visit this link to view the entire gallery.

Moroccan Adventure Part IX: Desert tour days 2, 3 and 4

By dawn the next day, we had breakfast buffet at the common tent. It was time to say goodbye to the Sahara desert. The camel rides, sunset by the sand dunes and the bonfire that kept us warm at night in the desert were cherished memories that I definitely brought home with me.

A jeep took us back to the starting point where we arrived yesterday. I was already missing the sand dunes and the night spent in the desert. Seeing the stars, staying warm by the bonfire with all the other guests, and enjoying live berber music. It was such a carefree life. As soon as we reached the starting point, our driver and tour guide, Abdul was waiting for us. Where he slept for the night was a complete mystery. I just hope it wasn’t in the van.

The second, third and fourth day of the desert tour took us to places both man-made and natural. As we visited these places, we slowly made our way back to Marrakesh. I was particularly fascinated by the natural landscapes of morocco. The hills, mountains, ridges, cliffs, gorges and canyons. Not forgetting the oases and the beautifully tended green farmlands and plantations amidst the brutally dry and arid landscape. How such life can survive in such harsh environments is intensely fascinating. Somehow, despite all of that, where rural villages live nearby such oases that support their way of life, I rarely witness any form of environmental exploitation. It felt as if, nature and man lived in complete harmony. That was the impression I got in seeing such beautiful oases.

I remembered seeing a lot of fossil shops in Erfoud. We stopped at a particular shop that sells all kinds of ornaments big and small made from fossils. Apparently the place in and around Erfoud have so many fossils that you can easily find it on the ground. It is so abundant that it is known that the place used to be part of the seabed millions of years ago. Some of the ornaments were beautiful, huge slabs of rocks, carefully cut and sand down to make furniture pieces like dining tables and saucers to small necklaces and paperweights for collection. Although we didn’t buy anything, just seeing the process of making such pieces from stones and rocks containing fossils was fascinating.

Todra and Dades Gorge

I also remembered stopping by at Todra Gorge and Dades Gorge, with its stunning winding road. The Todra gorge is simply a series of limestone river canyon where millions of years of erosion by the river water carved out a steep and deep gorge that can be 160 meters high. Deep and narrow, it looked spectacular when you are at the bottom and narrow end of the gorge, looking up.

The Dades gorges on the other hand holds a small stream of water that cuts through the gorge. We saw many children playing in the water, and villages collecting water from the stream. Remarkably, the water from the stream sprouted out from small fissures at the bottom of the riverbed, most likely from an underground river that wound inside the limestone formations that are flanked on both sides of the gorge. The water is clean and drinkable from the source. No doubt in wetter seasons, the stream will turn into a raging river.

The famous winding road of Dades Gorges
A small stream that cuts through the gorge. The water is remarkably clean. Most of the water appeared from an underground river that sprouted out in between the fissures on the river bed.

Kasbahs

As we made our way to the beautiful gorges, we also stopped to admire and appreciate how Moroccans live in the olden days by visiting the Kasbahs. Simply put, Kasbah can mean a few things. It can mean a keep, an old city or a watchtower. In morocco, the Kasbah is referred to a group of buildings or structures built closely together to resemble a keep. The Kasbah has high walls, usually without windows. They are often easily defended, being built on a hill overlooking the large expanse of land below. Owning a Kasbah back in the old days is a sign of immense wealth for the family living in it and they usually have dominion over the surrounding lands and villages around the Kasbah. In return, the kasbah can serve as a protective fort for the villages living around the kasbah against invaders.

There are a large number of Kasbahs scattered throughout Morocco with varying degrees of upkeep. Some are abandoned and dilapidated, with no one and no money to maintain. Others are still in use, while others still have are still owned by the original families, but have converted their kasbah into a living museum.

We visited two different kasbah along the way back to Marrakesh, as part of the desert tour. Both have been converted into a museum and conserved to allow tourists to explore the compound within the kasbah and learn the way of live of these wealthy Moroccans families who once owned and lived in such buildings.

I learned a great deal about the kasbah. It truly felt like a fort, where you can easily defend against invaders, and when it is situated on top of the hill, you feel a sense of empowerment over the lands below. Though the ones we visited have been hollowed out, they are now simply empty shells, sparsely furnished with a sinking feeling of abandonment. Still, it must have looked and felt glorious back in the days, where the families lived in it with its multitude of servants and private soldiers manning the Kasbahs and protecting the villages nearby.

At the top of the kasbah, you can see the lands stretching out to the horizon. If I am not mistaken, the long empty patch of land you see beyond the kasbah is the river, now dry as the summer season begins.
This kasbah we visited was quite well preserved.
This kasbah is abandoned and dilapidated with no financial means to restore the kasbah to its former glory.
Abdul, far left, our driver and tour guide for the desert tour in Morocco.

Ait Benhaddou

Another highlight of the desert tour was visiting Ait Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site an popular filming locations for films such as The Mummy, Gladiator, Alexander, Prince of Persia and Son of God to name a few.

As the the ancient fortified village came into view, I immediately recognised the place from all those films that I watched. It was absolutely gorgeous. Add to the fact that it was bright and sunny, just made the entire area shine.

Ait Benhaddou is basically a fortified town along a former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakesh. It is a collection of ancient buildings and dwellings within a walled compound that makes up Ait Benhaddou. A few families still live within the confines of Ait Benhaddou.


Ait Benhaddou from a distance. We walked inside and all the way to the top.

Aside from the Kasbahs oases and Ait Benhaddou, we also visited a number of cooperatives or local industries such as the manufacturing of olive oil, rose oil, cosmetics, handwoven carpets of various materials, cotton, silk, wool. We learned how these things were made and how it supported the local industry. At no time at all, do we felt we were coerced in buying any of their products. These industries and the respective guides to these cooperatives were kind and friendly, taking time to explain how these things were made without being pushy. We appreciate them spending time with us to help us better understand the local Moroccan industry. Because of all these visits, we gained a deeper understanding and appreciation for the country. It all left us feeling hugely positive with great stories to tell back at home to our family and friends.

As we travelled closer and closer to Marrakesh, we stayed at a number of hotels along the way. One was built right at the edge of a cliff face. We had a open foyer right outside our hotel room on the second floor of the hotel and looking up, we saw nothing but a sheer cliffs right above us. I refused to think what would happened to us when there is a rockfall due to an earthquake. We would instantaneously be crushed as we slept in our hotel rooms!

I remember the road to Marrakesh was highly treacherous as we neared the city. I was glad that I wasn’t the one driving for this part of the trip. One main reason for the dangerous roads ahead of us was that the country is improving their major roadways, expanding the roads and making the roads safer. Thus, we could see major road works. We encountered detours, narrow and temporary lanes, some right by the edge of the cliff as well as newly unmarked roads. It was rough, but at the same time, I felt excited that the country is undergoing a renewal and the new roads would ultimately benefit the people.

Despite all of that, the landscape was just jaw dropping.

We stopped at a viewpoint while on our way to Marrakesh to enjoy this beautiful scenery.
Those guidebooks you read don’t usually mention how beautiful the Moroccan countryside can be.

As we arrive at Marrakesh on the final day of the desert tour, it was time to say goodbye to Abdul. Looking back, Abdul is a super generous and patient man. He took time to explain the culture of Morocco despite difficulties in translating certain concepts to us in English. He was inquisitive about our lives back at home and how we Singaporeans live our lives. We asked about his family and children and whether he enjoyed his job as a driver and tour guide, especially when he had to be away from his wife and children for a major part of his time. We encouraged him to visit Singapore and contact us if he ever made his way there. His reply was, “Inshallah”. He became more than friends at the end of the journey, we were part of his family.

He dropped us at the main train station before heading to our accommodation in Marrakesh. We wanted to buy train tickets for our trip back to Fez, where we would catch our flight back home the following day upon arrival in Fez. We were approaching the end of our adventure in morocco. With a couple of days left in Marrakesh and Fez, we needed to mentally prepare to say goodbye to Morocco.

However, as we stayed in Marrakesh, little did I expect that I would fall ill before our journey could properly end.

Moroccan Adventure Part VIII: Desert tour day 1.

It was time to say goodbye to our rental car. Good riddance! While I enjoyed driving for the most parts in Morocco, it was especially stressful when approaching a major city. The chaos, the hustle and bustle, the honking, coupled with the fact that I needed to drive a manual car, all added up to the pressure and stress of trying not to hit anything.

Today, we departed Fez to begin our desert tour. We no longer had to drive. We were being driven. We booked a guided tour from a tour company called Authentic Sahara Tours and booked the 3-day Fez to Marrakech via Merzouga tour. We modified the tour to add an additional night, so that we would have more time to explore the desert areas of Morocco.

It was a private tour with our own private van. Abdul, our tour guide and driver was waiting for us outside the main gate of the entrance to Fez Medina. He was punctual which we appreciate a lot, especially with all our luggage and bags.

Abdul was extremely friendly. Always smiling. Middle age man with a bald head. You can tell from his personality that he is a family person. He spoke a decent amount of English could easily be understood, which was a plus, because as the tour progressed, we were asking him about his life and his job and everything else under the sun. Abdul quickly became our friend and to him, his extended family. He no longer became a tour guide showing the country, but rather a friend showing his overseas friends his beautiful country and his way of life.

Our 4-day desert tour began early in the morning and as soon as we departed from Fez, we were driving past fields, and forests, over hills and rocky terrain. Soon, the famed Atlas Mountain was in full view. It was beautiful. It was spring going summer, and while we could see the mountains capped with snow, by the time we reached marrakech 4 days later, those were largely gone. The seasons were quickly changing.

The Atlas Mountains
We had lunch at a rest stop in full view of the Atlas Mountains. It was a clear sunny day and the mountain was very clear on the horizon.

I remember driving to a town called Ifrane. Touted as the little Switzerland, it is actually home to a ski resort. We were there during spring so there weren’t any snow. But it was strangely cold in Ifrane despite the spring-summer season. The town was beautiful and looked as if you could be in some town in Switzerland. However, we didn’t stay long and had to continue our way to the desert.

The town of Ifrane.

By late afternoon, we reached the dunes of Erg Chebbi. It was a long drive. The longest despite being only the first day. This is partly because our overnight desert stay was schedule on the first night of the tour and the drive from Fez to Merzouga was pretty far.

But nonetheless, despite the distance, I was awestruck by the changing landscape. It got drier as we drove deeper into the country. What started out as lush green fields and forests on the coastal areas of Morocco, made way to scraggly, dry, rocky terrain in the country’s interior. The color changes as well from forest green to beige, brown and red. The landscape became raw. But even then, we saw something spectacular. Oases. Oases of varying sizes. It was beautiful. Imagine looking over the horizon, seeing nothing but red, raw earth and suddenly you saw patches of green, filled with lush fields, plantations, and forests in the middle of nowhere. No, it was not an illusion. It was an actual oasis. I have never seen anything like it.

An oasis, filled with trees and green plantations supported by the town below.
The oasis as far as the eye could see. This one follows the river that runs through the oasis and provides crucial sustenance to the plants and trees that grow around it. Spectacular!

Erg Chebbi

Once we arrived on the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi, we were off-loaded including all our stuff on a 4×4 Jeep. We were taken deeper into the desert, where packs of camels roped in a line were waiting for us. I have never sat on a camel before. Everything was new to me. I now know that the camel had to sit before you can actually mount and sit on the camel. Once you are comfortably seated, the camel guide will make the camel stand, first on its hind legs, then on the front. As it attempts to stand up, you get lurched violently to the front, then to the back. I had to hold the handle secured in front of me to prevent myself from falling either to the front of back as the camel tries to stand up.

The hour-long camel ride was exhilarating! The sand dunes were spectacular and the camel ride was one of the most relaxing things I have ever done in Morocco.

Us on camels riding on the sand dunes!
Our camel guide stopped our ride for a short while to take photos of the dunes and the sunset.

During the hour-long ride into the desert on our camels, the Camel guide stopped for a short while to allow us to take photos of the desert, play on the sand dunes and just enjoy the sunset views. Watching the sunset in the desert was truly a magical experience, one that I will never forget.

Watching the sun set in the desert is something that you don’t see everyday.

At the end of the exhilarating camel ride, we reached our desert accommodation. It was a series of luxurious tents with its own bathroom attached to it and a bonfire in the middle of the encampment. We had a sumptuous dinner in the main tent, with about 10 other guests who were staying with us for the night.

Soon after that we sat around the bonfire enjoying the heat of the fire as the desert air grew colder all around us. The hosts of the encampment started playing traditional Berber music for us. We clapped and cheered with them as they played, soaking in the revelry as the night deepened.

Moroccan Adventure Part VII: Fes

If someone were to ask me where the cultural and spiritual capital of Morocco would be, it would be Fez.

The city of Fez is old. It is steeped in Moroccan culture and tradition. It’s Médina has a long and rich history and is doing a pretty good job in resisting the march of modernity. I hardly see any modern looking building or architecture within the Médina. Its never ending alleyways snaking through the Médina most probably looked the way it is today, as it was a hundred years ago.

We approached Fez, three or so hours later from Chefchaouen. Enroute to Fez, we were traveling to the deeper regions of Morocco. The lush green landscapes that we encountered near the coastal cities, were slowly giving way to less vegetation, more shrubs, and grassland. The overall landscape was definitely getting drier.

Towns were smaller, making way for remote villages. Farmlands were less plentiful, as were the people we encountered. It was definitely more rural. The road, less well maintained and at times treacherous. On one long stretch of a road towards Fez, the road was riddled with potholes filled with water and mud, most probably from yesterday’s downpour.

The Medina of Fez was founded in the 9th century. It is walled in and is home to the oldest university in the world, the University of Al Quaraouiyine. The Medina is also a UNESCO, World Heritage Site and used to be the capital of Morocco before transferring to Rabat in the early 20th century.

The walled exterior was obvious the moment we reached the periphery of the Medina. The Medina is home to numerous craftsmen and that have been plying their trade for generations and now consists of thousands if not tens of thousands of stalls selling all manner of things the traditional moroccan way, anything from woodworking, to textiles, carpets, metalworking, tanneries and many more.

So old. So historical. So beautiful.

We entered Fez by the southern part of the city. Our hotel accommodation was Riad Fez Aicha, near Place R’cif, one of the main entrances to the Medina with a large public square. The riad that we stayed had a beautiful interior courtyard, traditionally designed and preserved. The owner of the hotel spoke really good English and was extremely friendly. As soon as we were shown to our room, he suggested a guided tour of the Medina the following day.

I had been contemplating of such a tour of the Medina. So far, our exploration in the various Medina of various cities in Morocco were unguided. So while we may appreciate the beauty of the place, we were still largely ignorant of the historical aspects of the Medina. Since Fez is such an ancient city, I decided to go ahead and hire a local guide to show us around the Medina and hopefully learn more about the history behind it. I was pretty confident that we would appreciate a lot more about the Medina if we understand its history.

We were right. It was one of the best decision I have made on this trip. The Medina had in fact a really a rich history. A middle age woman was waiting for us at the hotel the following morning and introduced to us as the local guide for the day. For more than four hours, we walked inside the Medina, marveling at the history behind Fez. Our local guide was very thorough in explaining the history, its previous inhabitants and important historical buildings and places that make Fez Medina unique. Throughout the walk, we learnt about how the Medina was founded, how it grew, important people and places in the Medina, including places of worship, even the architecture of certain buildings and its defining features. It was literally Medina 101.

The narrow alleyways of Fez.
Fez, with various craftsmen selling all kinds of things.

Chouara Tannery

My favorite part of the Medina, and widely reported online as the must-see places, is of course, the Chouara Tannery. It’s extremely smelly. You know you have reached the tannery if you start to pick up the pungent smell in the air. It is where animal skins are processed, dyed, and dried in the sun before using it to make various leather products the traditional way. We saw large vats of murky, water, the colour of mud and of other hues in gray, red, and orange. Several dyes of various colours with the leather being soaked as part of the dyeing process were done by so many laborers. It was the first time I ever witness people working in the tannery and it was really a backbreaking form of labor. While tourists are not allowed on the actual grounds of the tannery, we get to see the whole thing in action up on the balconies of various buildings surrounding the tannery. These buildings also serve as stalls selling various kinds of leather and leather products from wallets to bags to shoes.

The Tannery.
Vats filled with dyes and other kinds pungent liquids needed to process leather.

University of Al Quaraouiyine and various madrasahs

The Madrasah. Beautiful tile works on the floors.

The tannery was an eye opening experience for me. Another attraction in the Medina that I was really interested in was definitely the University of Al Quaraouiyine. It is the world’s oldest university, having founded in 859. The university is attached to a mosque and most of the compound is off limits to non-Muslims. However, as a Muslim, I was able to enter and admire the intricate architecture, tile works on the walls of the compound and various artworks throughout the area. I felt really privileged to be given the opportunity to explore and witness such a deeply historical place.

Even the roof is worth marveling at. It’s actually made of wood and still stands today.
Beautiful tile works.

Marinid Tombs

The Marinid Tombs is another part of Fez that I will remember dearly. At first glance, it doesn’t look much. Just a single dilapidated monumental tomb that has been in ruins in the middle of an open field. But once you walk there, you will immediately understand why this place is such a popular tourist attraction.

The Marinid Tombs. Such an insignificant building, built on a significant lookout point overlooking Fez.

Set outside the walls of the Fez Medina, on top of a hill, this place serves as a popular lookout point over the historic city of Fez. I was immediately stunned by the significance of this place. When we reached the place, we were rewarded with an amazing view of the entire city of Fez. You can clearly make out the various gates and main entrances of the Medina, the Minarets of various mosques and the unique and historic architecture that is housed from within.

Fez.

I remembered walking quite a distance from our hotel, navigating through the Medina to find the appropriate exit to reach the Marinid Tombs. We got lost many times within the Medina, often encountering dead ends. We had to backtrack many times and navigating the alleyways is not easy, especially when data connection needed for Google Maps navigation is spotty.

But the trip was worth it. We managed to reach just in time with a couple hours of daylight to spare to soak in the atmosphere and the beautiful city before us. Just like Chefchaouen, Fez has an incredible lookout point that is the Marinid Tombs. This is one place that everyone must at least visit when anyone visits Fez.

Moroccan Adventure Part VI: Chefchaouen

The drive to Chefchaouen from Tangier was the a journey I was most looking forward to. It was the first time where we were no longer following the coast up north, but instead, we were driving east and south to the country’s interior. We now had the chance to admire the beautiful landscape of what Morocco had to offer. Much to our surprise, the landscape was indeed jaw-dropping gorgeous, more gorgeous than we were anticipating.

As we drove, we were met with lush green hills, with small towns and farmlands dotted throughout the country side. The journey was a bit hilly, but not too difficult with very light traffic. Road conditions were pretty good and the drive was enjoyable. It took us about 3 hours of driving before reaching Chefchaouen. We weren’t that far south and east yet, so the landscape was still pretty much green and lush.

I’d never imagine Morocco’s landscape could look like this.

Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant for lunch called Restaurant Sed Nakhla which I suspect was a popular rest area because it sits on top of a hill overlooking a beautiful lake. The landscape could be mistaken for any iconic landscape commonly found in Scandinavia. The blue lake and its surrounding green hills was just beautiful, something that I wasn’t expecting in Morocco. It totally shifted my view of the country. Morocco has so much more to offer than just Medinas, Kasbas, and old ruins. Its natural landscape is probably the most underrated feature of the country.

Is this Switzerland? No it’s Morocco!

Chefchaouen

Chefchaouen is nestled on the foot of a series of hills and we were pleasantly surprised when we reached the town. It just appeared out of a sudden as we made our way down around the edge of the hill. Our Google Maps informed us that we were fast approaching the town but we couldn’t spot it visually until we made a bend around the hill. Then it appeared in all its glory. As soon as we saw the town beautifully painted in various shades of blue, we knew that we had arrived.

Despite the rain, my friend still had the time to pose for a picture with a mountain hovering above Chefchaouen.

It was drizzling as we approached Chefchaouen. Dark clouds hung over us as we neared the town. The town would have looked a lot more beautiful, if the skies were clear on that day. But nonetheless, it still looked striking from a distance. This was a town unlike any other. It did not just look special, it felt special too.

We approached the town and made our way to Hotel Parador, uphill of the town. We weren’t staying in Hotel Parador, rather, we were staying at an Airbnb close to Hotel Parador. As with our Airbnb host in Tangier, our Airbnb host in Chefchaouen eagerly met us when we called him telling him that we have arrived.

At this point in time, as we were making our way through the narrow blue alleyways, meandering left and right, sidestepping locals and tourists alike, what began as a drizzle, turned into a downpour. We were soaking wet when we arrived at his house. But we were relieved at the same time as we entered his home. It was beautiful, clean and cosy. Again the narrow staircase, which is rapidly becoming a hallmark feature in Moroccan homes, not very luggage friendly. We were thankful that we are still young and strong enough to carry our bags and luggage up several flight of stairs to our own bedrooms.

Everywhere you go it’s blue in Chefchaouen.

We took a short break in the house, waiting for the pouring rain to subside a little. Once the rain became a drizzle, we ventured outside and started exploring the place.

We had to remember where our accommodation was. There were no street signs, or distinguishing landmarks to mark our accommodation. Every corner you turn to, every alleyway you walk in, is blue, in various shades. It was truly a blue city that has made Chefchaouen so iconic. It was the most enjoyable city to simply get lost in. We encountered so many shops, cafes, restaurants, people’s homes and everything else in between at every corner and at every turn that we made.

The Spanish Mosque

We slowly made our way to the Spanish Mosque by simply heading to the general direction. We passed by a chinese restaurant and made a mental note on where it was on the map, for we decided to have some Asian cuisine for dinner later in the evening for a change.

The Spanish Mosque, according to several travel websites was one of the must visit places in Chefchaouen, supposedly for its breathtaking panaromic views of the entire town. Having read that, we simply cannot miss this place. In fact, looking back, my biggest regret of this entire trip was that we only had a night in Chefchaouen. I immediately fell in love with this place and I would love to spend at least a couple more days here.

We were losing daylight. It was drizzling incessantly. Low clouds were hanging over the town. It doesn’t have the greatest light of the golden hour moment to paint the entire town in flattering colours and take gorgeous pictures of it. But nonetheless, we still made our way to the Spanish Mosque.

I remembered we had to cross a river that made its way downstream on the edge of the town. The water was remarkably clean, probably it was near a source up some mountain nearby. Add to the fact that it was probably raining the entire day, the river swelled somewhat.

The path to the Spanish mosque was more like a hiking trail. Just a trail with rocks and stones littering the place at the foot of a hill and a nearby cliff. It’s a short, but beautiful trail, because as soon as we walk on it, we could see most of the town on the other side of the river.

On our way to the Spanish Mosque and already we were treated to a beautiful view of the town.
I will never ever, forget this place.

As we approached the mosque, we could see the entire town. The vantage point where the mosque was, offered an unfiltered, uninterrupted view of the entire town of Chefchaouen. It was simply amazing. I will never forget the feeling of looking at the town in all its glory. I was so glad that we made the trip to the Spanish Mosque.

Us, walking on a trail that led us to the Spanish Mosque. The mountains surrounding this place is just gorgeous!
Weather improved and it soon stopped raining when we arrived at the Spanish Mosque. Soon afterwards, the clouds started to break apart, letting in rays of sunshine and for the town to bask in all its glory. Most magical moment I had in Morocco.