- Nia Alexander
Morocco: The Sequel
What You’ll Find in This Post
The who, what, when, where, why, and how that defined my experience in Morocco
Street in Marrakech
Morocco! The first country I ever visited outside the U.S. and my most recent travel experience. If you’ve been following my posts for a long time, you know what this intro post will be about: The who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s, why’s, and how’s of my experience in Morocco (for the second time)! This intro post is going to be a bit longer than usual, so let’s jump right into it.
Where did I go?
That red shape is Morocco, although, the coastal shape immediately south of it is Western Sahara, a disputed territory that is sometimes considered part of Morocco.
That little yellow dot is where Marrakech is
Funny thing is that the original plan was to travel to Richmond, Virginia, USA, not Marrakech, Morocco. The destination changed in September because of visa issues, some of which still carried over to the Morocco trip.
Where did I stay?
The fountain and flowers in front of the hotel
I stayed at Sofitel Marrakech Lounge & Spa and, boy, do I have a lot to say about this. How about some bullet points?
The lamp installation in the hotel
Fancy-not-fancy: My first impression was that it was a fancy hotel, but as soon as someone pointed out that it wasn’t, I realized what they meant. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice play to stay – a five-star hotel that I recommend – I’m just saying that my interpretation of it as fancy highlights the sort of experiences I’d had prior.
The shower, bedroom, and a rose that they put on the beds in some rooms . . . my room was not one of them, I took this from my friend’s room.
Bedrooms: First I want to mention that the bedrooms (or at least my bedroom) didn’t have a microwave, just in case you were thinking of heating up your leftover alfredo. And a funny story is that neither I nor my roommate knew what in our bedroom was free and what wasn’t, a confusion that other more traveled students didn’t have. I later learned that the water on the table was free, but the water in the fridge was not. The tea and coffee by our bedside was free, as were the gummy bears on our bed, but none of the sodas or candy bars were free. The short logic was that anything in or near the tiny fridge – called a “mini bar” apparently – costed money and the hotel would charge you for its missing contents when you checked out. It was in these perplexing moments of can I drink the water or not? that I realized I hadn’t stayed in many hotels in my day, or at least not any that had offered anything edible in the bedroom.
Outside the hotel
Checking in: When checking into the hotel, they asked me for $200 (8000 dirham) hold on my credit card in case of “incidentals”. This was wholly unexpected – I didn’t even have a credit card – and I ultimately didn’t do it because a faculty member offered to cover it for all the students (under the promise that none of us would do, well, “incidentals”). This may be a hotel norm, but I wanted to include it for any other students out there early in their financial careers.
Misc. Critiques: I saw two roaches, the ball at the end of the bannister could pop right off, and housekeeping had a habit of just walking in. Seriously, even if you put the “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door they would still come in. One student was in their underclothes on the way to the shower when housekeeping came in and asked if they wanted them to clean the room. This student said “No” in a tone of disbelief, and the housekeeper left unapologetically. After this story I began locking my door manually and that same day I was startled awake from a nap when housekeeping began aggressively jamming at the door trying to get in.
My typical view at breakfast. Palm trees, lounge chairs, and birds picking at leftovers
Breakfast: Their complimentary breakfast was pretty nice. There was tea, fresh orange juice, omelettes, meats, cheeses, fruits, crepes, croissants, breakfast cake (specifically a really good orange pound cake), and much more. There were a lot of options, but a note to Muslims: Nothing was labeled halal. I will also say that their omelettes were prepared too runny for my liking so make sure to tell the cook to fry it hard. There was an inside dining area and an outdoor patio that had a nice view of the mountains on a clear day. Though, I will say that sometimes it felt like we – us young, non-white university students – weren’t given as much attention as the middle-aged European majority. No one was rude to us, it’s just that our service requests sometimes felt low on the list.
The hotel at night
Service: Though I mentioned some meh service moments, overall the service at the hotel was great. In fact, when we arrived early, before our rooms were ready, the concierge brought us hot towels, mint tea, and tiny cookies while we waited. However, for all you out there with nut allergies, beware of Moroccan cookies. A lot of things are made with nuts, notably almonds.
Tiny boutique: There was a little boutique stocked with fashion from Max & Jan. I’m not sure if their presence in the boutique was permanent, but I can undoubtedly say that it was really cool to essentially be greeted by the brand because it wasn’t the first time I’d come across it. I first saw the brand – in their main store in the medina – during an impromptu trip led by a handsome stranger on a motorbike during my first adventure in Morocco.
When did I go?
The screenshot I took of Google on Morocco National Independence Day
I went in November 2019. Apparently, we arrived for the first rain of the season, which was cool because I hadn’t seen rain for three months, but also lame because it made the trip damp and chilly off & on throughout the week. I was also there during Morocco National Independence Day, a holiday that got its own Google Doodle. I didn’t see it celebrated publicly – there was no parade or complimentary cake nearby – but it was still cool to wake up to a Doodle.
How long was I there?
One of the first photos I took at the hotel
The trip lasted nine days (though two half days were dedicated to travel).
How did I get there?
My boarding pass
Here I’ve got even more stories to tell. How about I just start at the beginning?
My flight from Qatar to Morocco was at 3:25am. It was originally scheduled for 9am – the MFA Department makes a point to schedule trips during “easy” times – but things happen and 9am became 3am. This was my first time going to the airport alone and I had mentally rehearsed what I was supposed to do: Find your check-in counter, check your luggage, go through TSA, follow the signs, find your departure gate, then wait for them to call you into the plane. However, when I reached the counter, the guy told me to instead use one of the many machines I had intentionally walked past. The airport had recently installed a collection of self-check baggage machines that would print out the baggage ticket slips for you. I avoided these initially because I honestly didn’t trust myself to put the right information stickers in the right places on all my luggage. However, I adhered to the airline worker’s request and used the machine. I got the printout stickers a-okay, but then brought them back to the guy at the check-in counter so I who proceeded to stick them on my luggage for me in the appropriate spots.
After this, I realized I had some time to kill so I decided to get my Qatar ID registered with the airport. This would allow me to enter and exit the country through “E-Gate” – the gate for citizens and residents – which is unsurprisingly faster than going through the long immigration line every time. A note about E-Gate, though: I noticed a lot of people having a hard time getting through it, not because of some strict immigration thing, but because the instructions were unclear. Literally, the instructions tell you to place your card in one direction when in reality you must place it the opposite way. I wasn’t irritated by it; it’s just one of those things that you get used to in Qatar. #TIQ, this is Qatar. So, I placed my ID down correctly, the system recognizes me as a resident, and suddenly the screen shows me a bold “NO EXIT PERMIT” sign.
Exit permit drama
I took this photo when I finally made it to the hotel in Marrakech. I think this expression says so much.
At the time, anyone leaving Qatar who was expecting to come back needed an Exit Permit. Exit Permits are issued by your sponsor, typically an employer or, in my case, the university. I requested my Exit Permit at least a month before the trip and thought I had received it when I received an approval email, but apparently that email meant nothing. I was the first student at the airport, and thus the first to discover this issue, and spent about 1.5 hours texting & calling people that could hopefully fix the situation. Apparently, this was the first time something like this had ever happened on an MFA trip, and when you couple that with the fact it was 1am, my phone was barely working, I still had to go through TSA, and my luggage was already checked, it made for a frustrating situation. I honestly thought about just taking the L and not going on the trip, praying I could get a hold of my luggage before it went to Morocco without me.
Eventually, though, I got a screenshot of my Exit Permit sent to me (though I never received whatever email they said I was supposed to get regarding this thing). It didn’t matter much, though, because the Exit Permit system is near automatic; I was able to get through E-Gate within minutes of receiving that screenshot. Here’s the thing, though: I wasn’t the only student who had Exit Permit drama this night. Indeed, there were two other students who didn’t have permits either because they had either followed the same incomplete instructions I had or because they had simply forgot to request it entirely. This understandably annoyed the people who had to issue Exit Permits to a bunch of students that needed to be on a plane in two hours, but I’ll be honest with you, I was a bit annoyed that they were annoyed. After all, two of us had followed the Exit Permit request directions to a T, even double checking to make sure we understood, but it just so happens that the directions we were given were incomplete. However, I also totally understand the frustration they were feeling too. I just wish it hadn’t turned into a one-sided blame game. However, I can say that I do feel a little bit of pride knowing that I was the one that got the ball rolling, allowing the other students to be helped a bit quicker because I had already notified the people that could fix the situation. Remember, this whole process took me 1.5 hours and by the time it was figured out, the other students with Exit Permit problems had just arrived. If they had had to start figuring this out upon their arrival, it may have taken too long, and they may have missed the flight.
All that said, though, here are some tips: I am not sure if Exit Permits are even a thing anymore, but if they are – and if you are a VCUQ student being sponsored by Qatar Foundation – what you need to do is go through the Exit Permit request application (which Student Affairs will walk you through) and then after you get the approval email, you have to directly email HR and tell them you want an Exit Permit. Frankly, you could skip the first step and just email HR because this is the step that matters (and is the step that was not included in the written or verbal instructions we were given).
I also want to talk about how evident the discrimination was this night. So, when I received that NO EXIT PERMIT sign after trying to get through E-Gate, a tall European airport worker politely told me to call my sponsor to get the Exit Permit situation figured out. I said, “Okay, thank you,” and left the line, but I thought that maybe I wasn’t able to get through E-Gate because my Qatar ID hadn’t been fully activated yet. I thought that perhaps it would take a while for me to be recognized in the system as a resident and that maybe I could just go through the immigration per usual. So, I went through the lengthy line and once arriving at the counter the guy also told me that I needed an Exit Permit. He told me to talk to the woman at a nearby kiosk, so I headed her way. The lady scanned my tickets, though I don’t know why, but ultimately couldn’t help me. Though, she did open up a little side gate for me to get out into the main lobby quicker, like a shortcut. So, I stood just outside this little side gate trying to get in contact with people that could help me out when a woman in a Qatar Airways uniform addressed me and said, “Qatar Airways?” I told her yes because that was the airline I was riding that night, but it hit me later that she was probably asking if I worked for the airline, having that I was standing so close to that secret gate.
My point is that every single person I talked to was polite to me.
The same cannot be said for at least one of the other students. This student was in an identical situation to the one I was in regarding the Exit Permit, but she received a heaping pile of disrespect from the guy at the immigration counter. He shouted a bit, roughly told her to get out of line, and loudly announced that she didn’t have an Exit Permit, possibly under the presumption that she was trying to run away from her employer. There were no polite tones, no gesturing toward the kiosk, no secret gates, no recommendations – none of that – just a response that made a spectacle of the student. The one major difference between her and I is that my passport was American and her passport was Desi.
Boarding pass drama
This is a painting at the hotel of Amazigh nomads
What happened next? Well, I boarded the plane. My fight was a two-parter: First it would stop in Marrakech – where I would disembark – then it would stop in Rabat. This meant that my ticket had two parts to it, but I didn’t know that. To me it looked like a regular ticket.
Perhaps you can already guess where this is going.
I exited the plane in Marrakech and noticed an airport worker checking everyone’s tickets. I give her what I have in my hand, the thing that I thought I was supposed to give to her. She says something to the other service worker she’s been chatting with, asking if it was okay for her to take whatever I had just given her, and he says yes. Nothing seemed to be amiss and she told me to continue on. Eventually, I make it to the last immigration counter, the one where they actually stamp your passport. The guy behind the glass asks me where the other piece of my boarding pass is. I’m like, “What other piece?” He, already irritated, just repeats himself and I’m like, “I gave it to the lady at the airplane.” He asks me “What lady? Where is it?” and I’m like, I don’t know, the airport lady? I tell him I gave it to the woman who was collecting tickets outside the plane and he asks me if I’ve ever been “here” before.
In my head I’m thinking, “Here”? The airport? Marrakech? Morocco? I just told him yes, saying I had been “here” two years ago. He then looked up something on his computer, stamped my passport, and let me through. I then thought to myself, Okay, whatever. This trip had gotten off to such an exhausting start and I just didn’t have the energy to care about what had just happened. What mattered was that I got through immigration and would soon be at a hotel.
Little did I know the return flight would provide a few more bumps in the road.
The return flight
The view when I was about to leave the hotel
I will start off by saying that I am fully aware that riding Qatar Airways has made me airline spoiled. Once you ride QA, you can’t help but see most other airlines as a disappointment, sometimes in minor ways, sometimes major. I also feel comfortable saying that many of the other students on the flight probably suffer from the same incredibly high expectations of airlines that I now suffer from. One student said this was their first time not flying Qatar Airways for a school trip. Another student was flabbergasted over the lack of Wi-Fi on the plane, making it impossible for them to submit their freelance work. What I find interesting is that, as airline spoiled as I am now, I still see Qatar Airways as an exception, not as the norm. The same couldn’t be said for some of the other students. I am not passing judgement, just making an observation.
That said, I distinctly remember some of us students holding out hope that maybe – just maybe – our oddly long walk onto the plane parking lot would lead us to that Qatar Airways plane we saw off in the distance. But alas, we were herded into a nearby Royal Air Maroc plane, a flight that we knew good and damn well we’d be riding because that was airline we had checked in with. Many students were immediately shocked by the size of the plane, saying things like “Oh my god, this plane is so tiny, it’s a two-winger.” I am not sure how many commercial planes have more than two wings, but I understood what they meant. The thing is, I wasn’t phased by the size because 1) it reminded me of a domestic American plane and 2) I had been on smaller planes than this.
I had actually been expecting a plane this size because the flight we were on was domestic. We were flying from Marrakech to Casablanca, a relatively short flight, but definitely one of the more uncomfortable ones I had been on. My seat was broken, making it so that I couldn’t lock it into the upright position required for take off and landing (and also making it so that I simply couldn’t get comfortable). And though I wouldn’t describe the plane as “dirty,” I would describe it as “stained.”
I rode the same airline for the international flight from Morocco to Qatar and I can’t say it was any more comfortable. Though my seat wasn’t broken, there was nothing for me to eat. When the flight attendants came by with the food carts, they said, “chicken or beef?” and I asked, “vegetarian?” The man said, “no, no vegetarian” and I accepted his offer of chicken, thanking him politely, but staring flatly into the distance. This was the first time I had ever been on an international flight that didn’t have a vegetarian option. So, I tried my best to eat the cinnamon rice beneath my chicken, and for a while it was good, but soon I discovered that there was a lot of chicken fat stuck to it and I gave up. All the other food was dairy based and/or frozen, including the yogurt and the bread. When it came to hot drinks, they first told me that they didn’t have any tea, only coffee, but then later some green tea showed up. However, it tasted, well, gross. I have never had green tea that tasted like that.
To add, all of their dishware was reusable plastic. I don’t mean the thick Tupperware kind of reusable plastic, I mean the stuff you aren’t really meant to reuse but so many times, like the sporks you get from KFC. Part of me commended them for what was clearly a sustainable practice, but the other part of me was disgusted because every cup, fork, and knife I received was wet. I assume these things were all wet from being washed recently, but the wetness was just a physical reminder of how many times this cup has been washed after being used by probably hundreds of people. There were a lot of things I was served that I ultimately did not eat or could not eat, and though I felt bad wasting the food, I also knew that in a lot of ways I didn’t have a choice. Not wanting to drink sour tea is reasonable, not eating frozen bread is reasonable, and not eating things you literally can’t digest is also very reasonable. Either way, though, I didn’t have much time to sit with my thoughts about the food because the flight attendants quickly collected trays from passengers. It was perhaps the shortest mealtime I had ever been given on an international flight.
There were also advertisements that regularly came on the intercom to highlight how many “miles” this flight was worth and all the duty-free stuff they had for sale. Imagine trying to watch a movie only to have it interrupted multiple times by the same commercial blasting into your headphones. To be honest, though, their in-flight entertainment selection was weird, in the sense that they would awkwardly have things like two episodes of Vampirina or five episodes of X-Men: Evolution from 2003. They also continued to brighten and dim the lights with what appeared to be no logical rhythm. It wasn’t based on the time zone at either the departure location or the destination; it felt more like the lights were brightening and darkening every hour or so. Maybe that was the point? A way to keep track of the time? Heck, all I know is that it made for a difficult sleeping environment.
And you know how I described the domestic flight as “stained,” but not necessarily dirty? I can’t say the same for the international flight. The cleanliness of this particular flight was very surface level, and I mean that as literally as possible. Take the restroom, for example: Upon immediate entry, early in the flight, it looked clean. However, as soon as you lift the toilet seat you can see that it clearly has not been wiped down in between many flights. There was also an abundance of trash just . . . around. Objectively, it wasn’t necessarily “a lot” of trash, but it was enough for me to notice and think why are there so many napkins and crumbs laying around? I wasn’t used to seeing trash pile up on an airplane. I also did not expect them to essentially shut down all activities 50 minutes before landing. There was no warning, just a sudden announcement that the restrooms were closed and a request to turn off your televisions, hand over your headphones, and give up your blankets. The bathrooms I kind of understand, the closure of those about one hour before landing sounded familiar to me, but turning off the television and giving up the blankets was a new one. So, for the first time ever, I was sitting on an airplane freezing cold, unable to stretch my legs or distract myself for an entire hour.
But on the bright side, the airline gave me a pair of complimentary purple socks.
The reason I tell you all these things is not to talk bad about the airline, though. It’s to express to you that my flights back to Qatar were very uncomfortable and these are all the reasons why. It was part of my experience.
Who was I with?
Some of the students at the workshop location
I went to Morocco with the MFA Department at VCUarts Qatar. I think it was 15 of us total between students and faculty. This was my first time travelling in a group trip with people I knew already, people who weren’t strangers or acquaintances.
Why was I there?
The view from the patio at the hotel early in the morning. You can see the mountains very clearly.
We all traveled to Morocco as part of one of our class’ curriculum, though the work we did for this class was actually tailored for the Richmond trip that couldn’t happen. This means that the Morocco trip essentially began and ended in Morocco with no pre-introduction or carry over once we got back to Qatar. In Morocco we all attended a workshop where we designed brass lamps that were then made by professional Moroccan craftsmen. However, the first four days of the trip were open for exploration. In fact, some of us didn’t see anyone but our self-made mini groups during this time because we were all off doing something different.
Sitting in a shoeshine chair at the hotel
What more can I say? This was the longest intro post I’ve ever written, and I think it’s a pretty good primer for all the things I’ll talk about throughout the rest of this post collection. So, here I bid you adieu until next time!