A Day in Casablanca

Casablanca was the introduction into my time in Morocco and Northern Africa! Many people fly in and out of the white city on their way to explore the other pieces of the country, such as Fez, Marrakech, Ourrzazate, or Meknes as the flights are usually cheaper. This being said, Casablanca is easily worth the one day trip if you can squeeze it in and here’s how I would spend it:

Casablanca from my hotel view

I would start by first visiting the Hassan II Mosque early in the morning. This Mosque ended construction in 1993 and is the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. It is also one of the few mosques that non-Muslims may visit during times between prayer. Almost all of its materials have been sourced from Morocco itself, which gives valuable insight to the beauty of the country, as well as its natural diversity. Its construction was completed by modern day specialists in each craft, from the tiling to the carving to the painting and collects aspects from Moorish and Islamic design, along with more local Moroccan aspects.

Hasan II Mosque

The mosque leads insightful tours conducted in a number of languages, including English. Our guide was incredibly kind and offered plenty of information on the construction of the building and the religion itself. For instance, she told us that much of the woodwork is cedar, due to its natural insect repellent and its resistance to the salt and harsh conditions from the Atlantic. She also told us that the roof opens (not unlike a car sunroof) to let in natural air and help with crowding during busier prayer days, especially during Ramadan. This was something I had never seen or heard about in any sort of mosque, church, synagogue, or other place of worship and frankly I thought it was pretty incredible.

Details in the ceiling

The prayer room is at ground level and is a large space that may hold up to 25,000 people. The walls and ceiling around the area is heavily detailed with impressive mosaics, carvings, and paintings. There is some view of the Atlantic Ocean as well, which also brings in soft natural light.

Gorgeous mosaics on the outside of the building

Underneath the prayer hall are the absolution rooms where people may wash before going to prayer. The rooms are separated by gender, but both look identical. Like most of the building, much of the room is made with local marble and Arabic calligraphy is be found on the walls.

Calligraphy in the absolution rooms

After visiting the absolution rooms, the tour is over. However, being there early in the morning gives one the ability to take more pictures outside and explore some of the nearby areas, including the fountains and the shore. The place where one buys entrance tickets is worth a second stop to revisit the samples of the designs and overall history of the building.

Beautiful artwork

After visiting the mosque, I would then take the time to stop for lunch somewhere along the coast. Casablanca, while still having common moroccan food just as tagine and cous cous, also has a large amount of seafood. We stopped at a small, quiet restaurant called Restaurant Essaâd (مطعم السعد ير حب بكم) where we enjoyed much of the local twists on tajine and sandwiches. Typically, olives and bread are served as appetizers and mint tea is incredibly common as well.

Restaurant Essaâd

After grabbing a bite to eat, one could stop at the Casablanca Cathedral. Unfortunately some event or construction was occurring when we visited, so we were unable to enter. However, it is labeled a must for visiting Casablanca, even though it stopped being a center of worship around 1956. Be sure to check times and entry prices because they apparently change.

Instead of the cathedral, we went to pigeon park, or Mohammed V Square. There are by far, many more pigeons that I have ever seen in my entire life. They crowd around the fountain and bathe in the waters. Nearby, there are lots of families hanging around and small rides for the children.

Mohammed V Square

Right across the street from the square is a store called Exposition Nationale d’Artisanat (العرض الوطني الصناعة التقليلدية). It has a few different floors full of souvenirs, from poufs to camels to shoes. Not all of it is artisan, nor would I recommend this place for more expensive purchases, such as leather goods or carpets, but it gives an idea of what can be purchased in the markets and what a reason price would be for that product. Also, there are a lot of smaller trinkets that you can find cheaper here than in the markets, such as mini tajines, post cards, and magnets. Either way, exploring here is a wonderful experience.

After that, we went to some more specialized shops. Our first stop was a carpet shop. When we walked in, we were warmly greeted and asked to sit in a large area. There were carpets stacked everywhere I could see. After getting the customary mint tea, the owners started rolling out carpets made of camel hair, agave, and sheep wool of all sorts of shapes and patterns. The man explained how each type is made and different features of them. Once each carpet was explained, we were asked to give a “no” or “maybe,” to each. Both parties in my group narrowed down to a carpet we wanted and then the bargaining began. As is typical, we were given a collective starting price. Unfortunately, I was the only one that ended up reaching a deal and I left with a multicolored camel hair carpet.

Make sure that you aren’t in a rush when visiting carpet shops, as it can take a few hours, especially if you find some you like. Also, from my experience, Marrakech had cheaper options, but Casablanca had more agave carpets if that is what is of interest. My last piece of advice is to certainly not take a starting price. It’s typically considered rude not to bargain and prices are set high to begin with. Even if don’t make a purchase, the experience is very unique to Morocco and worth having.

Carpets galore!

After that I would take the remaining hours to explore the older part of town. This part is the best glimpse of what Casablanca looked like before French colonization. Our hotel, Hôtel Central, was in the middle of the medina, the old, walled part of the city and provided easy access to the port and markets nearby. This area is easily reached by foot and offers excellent views of the ocean and is a great place to visit!

The stairwell at our hotel

Some of the markets have great options for gifts and food. We got so many wonderful items, from a camel leather pouf to a “magic” box that there was a trick to unlocking. There were plenty of clothes, leather products, and souvenirs available. Most of the vendors were friendly and willing to help us find the products were looking for. There are a number of places offering Moroccan street food, including several types of meat and vegetables in the forms of wraps, sandwiches, kebabs, and more. The best part is the fresh squeezed orange juice. There are so many people selling fresh squeezed fruit juices from watermelon to avocado to oranges and more, definitely a must buy.

Overall, Casablanca is a great place to spend a day exploring and taking in the sights. Between Mohammed V Square and the Hassan II Mosque, it is worth the day trip or more if you can make it!

Have you ever been to Casablanca? Or tried tagine? Or explored Moroccan markets?

Working With Education First (EF) Tours

Two of my trips abroad have been spent with Education First (EF) Tours: Peru and Tanzania. EF became a leading tour company in my school starting my freshman year when my friends and I planned our trip to Tanzania, which happened to be the first international student trip out of our town since 9/11. Each experience with them was incredibly special to me and here’s a full review of each main travel aspect:

Peru Trip crew

Itinerary:

EF has a knack for creating itineraries that are action packed and seamless- when you’re not on a service trip. My trip to Peru was heavily loaded with stuff to do every day and we were easily transported from one place to another, with little wasted time. We stayed in several cities and villages, including Lima, Cusco, Ollantaytambo, Aguas Calientes, and Puno and never had issues with our lodging and always had something exciting planned for the day. However, during Tanzania, which was a more service oriented trip, we killed a lot of time waiting around in our tent playing cards. While I still cherish these memories, I felt like it was wasted potential to see and do many more new things, especially when we were so far from home. However, some of this may be attributed to the fact that we were one of the first groups in this area; therefore it was necessary to have established relationships with the locals beforehand. Who knows, but I wish we had done more with our time and money. One aspect I particularly felt scarce on was learning the history of the area I was in.

Exploring Machu Picchu

Lodging:

All of the places I stayed were clean and hospitable. The only inconvenience we ever had was we had a bedsheet with a bunch of dirt on it in Ollantaytambo, but both trips had very nice places to stay with great service. Some of the Peru hotels had the best breakfasts I have ever had. In Tanzania, we did spend time in a hotel for one night, but the rest were big mess tent style areas. While the area was pretty rural the spaces were still clean and well taken care of. We fit four people in each tent, which gave us plenty of room for belongings and moving around.

Inside one of the tents in Tanzania
Our hotel in Ollantaytambo (note the ruins above!!)

Food:

EF has done a spectacular job of keeping meals available to people of all needs, from peanut allergies to vegan to food dye (my only allergy). Meals often had a wide range of options, from buffet styles to just a vegetarian or meat option. Everywhere we went it was friendly and well kept, which helps the fear of catching a foreign bug. We got to try lots of local cuisine and cooking styles. I even got to try guinea pig near Cusco, Peru.

Food in Arusha, Tanzania
Guinea pig in Peru

Safety:

At all points in both trips I felt safe. We were never even in any uncomfortable situations or times when health may be compromised. We passed through areas in Peru that were known to be more risky to certain groups, such as Juliaca, but we never stayed or spent time in them. We were completely supervised and had interpreters at all times as well.

Our Peruvian tour leader
Two of our four guides in Tanzania

Cost:

Both trips I attended were relatively pricy (mostly due to flights), but I have mostly felt that the experience was worth the cost. I had a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have experienced traveling solo or even with small groups.

Our Tanzania group

Overall, EF tours is a reliable, trustworthy tour company that offers awesome opportunities. I would and do recommend them to fellow classmates, friends, and peers, as they make sure the trip is seamless and leaves the student feeling fulfilled and maybe a bit unexcited to go home.

A Day in the Markets of Orbomba

Note: There is current dispute on the value of service projects abroad and the view of the culture that is being helped. My time in Tanzania focused on building a school in a heavily impoverished area, when, naturally, the social status is difference across the country. This was my experience and what I took away from it, but certainly not a generalization of the nation or its people as a whole.

On June 18 of 2016, I experienced the beginning of what would change my perspective on the world forever. Traveling to Tanzania was a dramatic change from my life at home, but experiencing the hardships of poverty was another detail that brought dramatic change to my life. This day was the first of many daunting tasks that put all of us into the trying situations the people we stayed with face on a daily basis.

Upon returning from a morning walk and eating a big breakfast of Spanish eggs, toast, cereal, chai, and fruit, our group was given a task to simulate the difficulties of poverty. We broke into groups and were given 10,000 Tanzanian shillings per team, which at the time was 5 USD and happened to be what the average family in the area lived on per week. The average family also happened to be seven people in size. With the cash, we were given an index card of our family’s scenario. My groups card was the poorest family and our index card required us to buy a jelly jar for water, soap, and food for the family.

The market pens not in use

Along with our instructions, we each paired up with one of our hosts to help the language barrier, as Maa is spoken in the markets and none of us are familiar with the language. Mollel was our guide and he was very helpful. He taught us words such as punguza, subuni, nahindi, and more, meaning less, soap, and maize, respectively. In the simulation, we did the bargaining and price determining, much as the family we were representing would have to. It was pretty tough to find products that weren’t crawling with bugs (especially cornmeal) or seemed clean. When we did find some that fit the criteria, it was usually expensive and almost not worth it. With the money we were given, we managed to divide up our money in the following fashion:

  • 1 jelly jar: 3000 shillings
  • 1 package of soap: 1800 shillings
  • A few kilos of cornmeal: 2500 shillings
  • 2 avocados: 1000 shillings
  • 12 bananas: 1500 shillings

While this seems fairly good for five USD, this is not a healthy lifestyle for seven people over the span of a week. Some families are fortunate enough to have a second form of gathering food, such as their own crops and livestock but not all are that fortunate. Some others are forced to give up food to send their child to school or so on.

One team’s findings

What did we do with the stuff we bought?

The items we bought from real vendors was donated back to the camp staff and community around us to help with their nourishment and other needs. From this same market, we also bought a goat for our camp staff that would be ceremonially slaughtered in the proceeding days, as is a common gift.

So what was the takeaway?

This was the first of many lessons on this trip that taught me to be humble and understand how lucky I am. Having the food I need to have a healthy life (among many other things) is something I am more aware and grateful for having after this experience.

Additionally, I apologize for the lack of photos, but I didn’t take my camera as we weren’t in a touristy area and I wanted to respect the privacy of the people involved. Thank you for reading!

Reflections on Italy

At last! Here is my final article on Italy, or it will be until I return again! It has been two years since my departure and a lot has happened since then, but I still continue to hold this experience near and dear to my heart. 

Us girls in Venice

So how did Italy compare? While Italy was not a dramatic culture shock or full of the most beautiful natural world, this trip held a lot of value for me personally. How I ended up meeting my host family alone was something out of a feel good movie, since finding your late mother’s penpal of over twenty years is not something that occurs every day. I was so grateful for all the support and aide they gave me during my stay and its easy to say I will never forget the connection I made with them. They are a second family to me and I love them dearly. As for the country itself, here are my biggest takeaways:

Taking in the view

Italy is the home of plenty phenomenal examples of architecture and showcases so many of the works of Palladio, who inspired much of the typical western architecture we see today. I felt that ever corner I turned down, there was yet another ornately detailed building. This is especially true for many of their cathedrals where art and architecture combine seamlessly. I felt the frescoes of Treviso or San Marco’s Basilica were some prime examples of this. 

San Marco’s Basilica

The food was also incredible and rich. I loved trying their numerous types of pasta and candy. I felt that there was such a strong connection between food and culture in Italy, which made it so much more enjoyable. I wish I had had the opportunity to try more of it (or at least bring home more than I did). 

I also loved the history in Italy. Here in the States we are often devoid of buildings from the medieval times, but in the Veneto region, they are so common. I loved looking at them and wondering if someone hundreds of years ago did the same exact things and what kind of life they lived. I also appreciated how well the new and old buildings mesh into a beautiful combination of modern and archaic. 

Old Palladio buildings

The culture is also so vibrant and fantastic. I was lucky enough to be there during some of the festivities and it was so great to experience the holidays. La Befana was a great experience that allowed me to take part in Christmas traditions without being flooded by other tourists like some celebrations, such as Carnevale in Venice. I also loved taking part in the dinner culture that plays such a huge role in many people’s day to day life. It was great to spend our mealtime together and conversing, even if it took several hours to do. There also weren’t nearly as many phones out at the dinner table as we see in the States or other places in the world. 

My host family

Was Italy better than any of my other trips? 

I can’t ever effectively compare all of my trips because they are all so different in nature. Italy held a personal reconnection with my mom and her friend that was very unique to that particular voyage and that alone is hard to beat. I wasn’t looking at the natural beauty of Peru or doing service in rural plains in Tanzania, but that didn’t mean the trip was any less important to me.

Canals in Venice

Did I like Italy? Would I recommend it?

I did love Italy, except for Venice. Venice receives a lot of hype from the travel world, but that is exactly its flaw. It is a gorgeous city, but there is a definite red flag when the amount of tourists outweighs the local population. In fact, tourism has driven out many of the locals, which hurts my heart because the people who created that beauty for us to enjoy are no longer there. Not to mention, the heavy cruise traffic and pollution has damaged the lagoon that used to provide so much life. To me, I feel like it is a lot of lost beauty that has been traded for economic benefit, and that is the reason I didn’t enjoy Venice as much. The rest of Italy that I saw was phenomenal and I would suggest visiting. I think Venice is great in the area, but I would hope it is not the sole focus of one’s trip.

The night before my departure

Overall Italy was a fantastic experience for me to reconnect with part of my old life and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I would hope that everyone has an opportunity to experience their vibrant culture and lifestyle!

My Opinion on Italian Cuisine

Before I left to Italy, nearly everybody told me how excited I should be about their food, because apparently it is stuff of legend. I had certainly had americanized Italian meals, but never the real deal, especially because I have very little Italian heritage in my family. So of course I had to wonder, was it really as good as people said?

A cake from my awesome hosts

Because I was staying with a family, I was lucky enough to try lots of authentic home cooked meals rather than eating out every night. I also stayed in a smaller town, so when we did eat out, we went to smaller restaurants instead of those geared towards tourists (which I always recommend doing if possible!). I wish I had the opportunity to try some things that I didn’t such as a spritz (Italy’s famous mixed drink), some more pasta, and more candy, especially from the brand Kinder.

However, here is a complete breakdown of the food that I ate while I was there and what I liked and didn’t like:

DAY ONE:

When I arrived from the Paris airport and arrived to Loreggia, one of the first things I tried was tortellini. It was super simple, with mostly salt as seasoning and we also had a cured ham, parmesan, white wine, and bread. The parmesan was so great and was eaten just off of the block with some of the ham or nothing at all. The wine was a light Prosecco and something that we drank with dinner on most nights. Prosecco actually originated in Treviso, a nearby city, so we were close to the most original source.

DAY TWO:

We actually didn’t eat breakfast this morning because we headed straight off to Venice, so my first meal was at a hidden restaurant near the canals. Here I had a panini with salami and brie cheese. I really liked it! We just drank water with our meals. Unlike the United States, most places charge for water and you have the option of flat, distilled water or carbonated water. Carbonated was popular where I was, but personally I can’t stand it so I stuck with my plain, flat water.

For dinner, I finally got to try Italian spaghetti! However, it was not much different from any back home, which was surprising. In fact, some noodle brands are the same that we have in our stores. We also ate baguettes, parmesan, and sopressa, which is a super yummy type of cured meat. Along with all of that, we also had the strangest vegetable I have ever seen. It was a steamed romanesco, which is a type of broccoli and has a vibrant green color. The coolest part about it is its fractal patterns that create a weird symmetrical shape. We just ate it steamed and it was fantastic. My host family was surprised and entertained by my interest in the veggie too, since apparently its commonplace in Italy.

Romanesco

DAY THREE:

This was the morning following the visit of La Befana, a witch who fills your socks with all sorts of goodies, so I got to try Italian candy! There truly wasn’t anything I disliked, except for some of the fruity candy, but I absolutely loved Ciok and Kinder’s Cereali. The Cioks are almost like a cracker/cookie/biscuit thing with chocolate on top. Kinder is a very popular candy brand in Europe, known especially for their Kinder Eggs, which are actually banned in the US since they are thought to be a choking hazard since toys are stored (safely and obviously) inside. However, they also have many other products, such as Nutella (my favorite!) and Cereali bars which are chocolate bars with a white filling and rice puffs. They are my favorite candy ever, hands down, and are so addictive. Please get some if you go to Italy or Europe!!!

All my treats from La Befana

That day was also the first time I had real Italian gelato in Treviso! In my little town, we have a small bistro that has gelato, but I had never had any sort of comparison, meaning trying some was super exciting and totally on my bucket list. When we toured the city, we made a brief stop to get some, even though it was single digits and freezing. I was drawn to the hazelnut and chocolate flavor and I certainly did not regret my choice. I didn’t find it much different from that at home, but I did thoroughly enjoy it. Had it been summer, I would have tried some more flavors or more stores.

Chocolate and hazelnut gelato

After returning from Treviso we returned to Lorregia to celebrate the burning of La Befana. There I tried more candy, although I have long since forgotten what brand it was or if I liked it. We then decided to go to dinner with some of our family friends and I finally got to try Italian pizza. Each person is given their own pizza to eat (albeit they are smaller than America’s sixteen inch or so) and they are pretty amazing! I had my pizza with ham, but the most common pizza is margarita, which has tomato, cheese, and basil. While I wasn’t obsessed with the other pizzas, the margarita ones are fantastic and I wish there was something comparable in my hometown. I would totally recommend them if you are in Italy!

Now would also be an appropriate time to mention the dinner culture in Italy. For the locals, dinner consists of a lot of chatting and a lot of time, which is absolutely phenomenal. We spent three hours at dinner usually, but there was so much connection and appreciation for one another. At the restaurant, we sat separated by age and gender, but conversed with everyone at the table, even though I wasn’t able to communicate as much due to language. Some had a light drink before the pizza arrived. After pizza, there was more talking and then coffee was served. For dessert, there was two options for liquor, of which most of the adults and young adults drank, including anisette, which is a shot that tastes strongly of black licorice, and limoncello, which is a light lemon flavored shot. Both of these are supposed to help with digestion and help with stinky breath. Afterwards, we talked some more and than finally said ciao or goodbye!

DAY FOUR

Much of the food we tried on day four was the same as food we had already eaten in days earlier, but I would like to draw attention to Italian hot chocolate. Here, most of our hot chocolate is watered down cocoa mix with marshmallows, but in Italy, it is more like actually, creamy, melted chocolate. It is very thick in consistency, but also very rich. I loved it, but I could only consume a small amount because it is so heavy.

DAY FIVE (AND THE REST)

So unfortunately, my notes on the rest of my trip are few and far between. We ate more tortellini and pasta, but what really stood out was tiramisu, a coffee flavored, soft cake that is super good. I actually got the opportunity to make one from scratch with my host family and it turned out so good. It is layers of coffee-soaked finger cakes and a cream/cheese filling. I have actually brought this recipe back and remade the cake here in the states, since it was that good. I love making it for family and family friends.

Tiramisu

So was Italian food as good as people make it seem?

Short answer: I would say so!

Longer answer: It is certainly good, but there are certain foods that get a lot of hype and aren’t as good there (spaghetti being one), but there are also some that deserve a lot more attention, namely tortellini. I wasn’t completely in awe, but even after being home from the trip for two years, there are still foods that I miss and want more of. Romanesco, parmesan, tortellini, and tiramisu were easily my favorites and ones I would recommend you try! Overall, I loved the food culture and all the yummy options.