Photography Class Travels to Morocco
(Note: WCC photography instructor Terry Abrams led a trip to Morocco by his Digital Photography Abroad class from May 15-25, 2009. The following is a first-person account of the trip by Mike Wilkinson, a student).
Our flight left Metro airport at about 4:00pm on Friday, May 15, 2009. Everyone managed to meet up and before we knew it we were on our way to JFK airport in New York for our connecting flight. We left there at about 8:30 for Casablanca, Morocco.
After a seven-hour flight, we arrived in Morocco at 3:30am our time. Since Morocco is four hours ahead of Detroit, it was already about 7:30am there. With little sleep and lost time, we were already tired but had a full day ahead of us.
May 16: Day 1
We met our guide for the next 10 days, Omar, at the airport. He was extremely friendly and informed on all things Morocco.
Morocco instantly felt like Florida in terms of the climate, as some students commented. Palm trees, a warm sun, and light winds all made their presence felt. We exchanged our dollars for some Moroccan dirhams, and hopped on our tour bus to the hotel. A quick check in and a few camera lectures later, we made our way to have some lunch at a restaurant just down the street. Everyone at my table ordered some form of a tagine, a traditional Moroccan dish. Tagine actually refers to the pot it is cooked and served in, not the actual food, which can have combinations of lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables, and potatoes. I also got to try Moroccan mint tea for the first time, and it was amazing—very sweet and tasty, not like I had imagined for something called mint tea. Its strong aroma was misleading, making me think it really was going to taste like hot peppermint water.
After lunch, we made our first tour stop at La Mosquee Hassan II, a 700-foot structure for Islamic worship, which can hold 25,000 people. It was intense. We made our way in and around it to take some really intriguing photos.
We got a quickie tour of other areas in Casablanca, making a few brief stops. I was pretty tired, and slept in between most stops. Dinner that night was pretty lame; worse than the food on the airplane. Since we were near the ocean everything had some kind of fish in it, and I just was not feeling anything like that, especially after that awesome lunch. A few of us stayed up late processing (downloading and adjusting) photos for a few hours and then knocked off to bed.
May 17: Day 2
In the morning the breakfast buffet offered orange juice and croissants. I even got a little more Moroccan mint tea.
Back onto our bus, and we left for Rabat. After a few hours on the road (and a little more sleep) we arrived at our next hotel. A very cozy place, it was considerably better than our first hotel. Our group went on a brief walk around the main street to take in some of Rabat. The area around the main street had many shops and cafes, and lots of people walking about. It felt a little less hurried, but also friendlier, than Casablanca. Terry gave a lecture about using polarizers, and our guide, Omar, spoke about the history of Rabat. We met back at the hotel to leave for lunch and the afternoon’s activities.
We ate lunch on a boat, and watched the crabs crawling around on the rocks below. (Hopefully, that’s not what we were served.)
Our first stop was the Kasbah. Literally defined as “Fortress,” its walls depict one. On the inside, though, it is actually a garden, shops, and living quarters, all with very unique architecture. At one end of it we were able to look out upon the Atlantic Ocean and make some real nice photographs.
After the Kasbah we went to Chellah, a large area of ruins from the 12th century, which now has many gardens inside. We moved to the Hassan Tower, an uncompleted mosque from 1199. Nearby was a tomb, the Mausoleum of Mohamed V, which holds King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah.
We went back to the hotel, pretty beat from taking photos all day. But that didn’t stop a few small groups from going out close to the hotel and taking some shots during sunset. We had a reasonable buffet dinner, then returned to the cozy lounge area and processed some of our shots. I then returned to my room (which I shared with two other students) and processed photos while on the balcony (we were lucky and scored a room with a nice lookout balcony, AKA the party palace), where I took in the cool night air and put my feet up before bed.
May 18: Day 3
We woke up early and had some runny eggs before we departed on the road to Fes. Our first stop was the gate to Meknes, which is really just a huge gate. Looked kind of cool. We also stopped in Moulay Idriss, a town on the way to Fes.
After a peek into a shrine, we walked into a shopping area and had a few engaging Moroccan salesmen give us a whole schpeel about their linens. The linens didn’t interest me, but the salesmanship of the shop owners did. The best comparison I could make would be a used car salesman, but not nearly as sleazy—these guys were good. Very talkative and very interested in haggling over a price with you. Haggling is actually part of the culture there, and you’re expected to negotiate the price of most things you buy in shops–it’s not uncommon to offer less than half of the starting price.
We stopped at a few more gates, but at this point I think I was a little burned out on interesting gates.
We ate lunch at a hotel restaurant, and then left for the ruins of Volubulis. Huge vistas of rolling hills and rustic homes marked the landscape all around, as the Roman ruins stuck out in the falling sunlight. This was one of my favorite stops of the entire trip—the ruins were epic and like something out of a movie. The structures were broken into large pieces, but some arches and other areas were still intact. This is pretty astounding considering they were built over 1,500 years ago.
May 19: Day 4
It was Tuesday at this point, and we left the hotel in the morning for the Jewish quarter, a small market area of Fes. We went to one of the souks (markets) in the medina (old city), and I got a couple of mint tea glasses from a little shop. We had lunch in a wonderful house, decorated and very cozy, with an open rooftop. The homeowners let us walk up to the roof and look out onto the medina.
In the afternoon we stopped at a lookout point high above the medina. After that we went to a clay and pottery facility, where we were led on a tour of pots, fountains, and tiles being hand made from start to finish. Next stop was a leather tannery, where we were led on a tour of the process of leather being processed. Dinner then to bed.
May 20: Day 5
Wednesday morning I woke up sick as could be : ( I figured it was something I had eaten, but no one else was sick so I wasn’t sure. I pulled myself together and left Fes for Erfoud with the rest of the group, where we would be staying in a desert encampment. I briefly considered asking to stay behind, as being sick and roughing it a little in the desert sounded like an awful combination. I’m very glad that I wasn’t feeling sick enough to make that call, as the desert turned out to be amazing. We drove through part of the Atlas Mountains, stopped to see monkeys (!) at the side of the road, and eventually got to the departure point for the desert. We piled into about five 4x4 vehicles, and hauled major butt through the sandy terrain. We arrived at a campsite, where a small tent community made out of rugs sat in the shadow of the dunes. It actually wasn’t roughing it so much; they had nice showers and running water.
We hiked out onto the dunes to watch the sunset, and I learned how to write my name in Arabic from my Berber guide. After some amazing photos of the flowing sand with the falling sun, the group headed back to the campsite for dinner. There we were treated to a huge feast of vegetables, tagines, and fruit. There was also some dinner entertainment, where some Berber musicians danced and played music. A few of the students even joined in!
The stars looked absolutely stunning, and there was an unusual quiet to this place; I liked it.
May 21: Day 6
Our wake up call came as a soft beat of a drum, perhaps? I was half asleep so I couldn’t exactly tell, but it was without a doubt the most interesting alarm I had ever heard. At about 4:00am we piled out of our tents, cameras in hand. Still dark, the horizon started to reveal a slight blue glow as the sun hinted at its coming. Most of us had paid to ride camels out to the dunes, so we lined up to get one. Let me tell you, that was pretty sweet. I can’t say I ever imagined in my life that I would get to ride a camel in the desert. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, but an unforgettable experience nonetheless. The sun came up, and we took photos as the wind blew sand across the dunes in a very mesmerizing flow. It wasn’t the best situation to have cameras in, though; sand can easily ruin the working parts of your camera and lenses. After the sun had been up for a short time, the temperature went up. I could really see just how barren a place this was, and that I would never want to be stranded there. It was just dune upon dune upon dune. As intimidating as they were, it was a magnificent sight to behold.
After a light breakfast (I was feeling 100 percent at this point), we reluctantly left the camp. We traveled toward the city of Ouarzazate. The group made a quick stop at a fossil shop, where we got to see the process of how fossils are brought out of stone and then turned into tables or other objects. Back on the road, the green hills had now given away to rocky gorges, where we ate some lunch. A few more hours of bus ride, and we finally made it to our hotel for the night.
May 22: Day 7
In Ouarzazate, we stopped at the Kasbah Taourirt for photos, and drove past a few locations that have served as backdrops for popular movies, such as “Cleopatra,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and even “Gladiator.” We continued on to Marrakech, but not before stopping to walk through a Berber village where some of “Gladiator” was filmed.
Continuing on to Marrakech, the scenery opened up even more to reveal vast stretches of mountains in every direction. When we got to Marrakech, our final destination, I went for a quick swim before going to dinner. Another late night processing all my photos.
May 23: Day 8
In Marrakech, an apparently more modern Moroccan city, we stopped at the Koutoubia Mosque, a 220-foot tower that’s the largest in Marrakech, for photos. After that, we traveled to Menara Gardens, an olive tree garden that spanned over 250 acres. I had prepared my GPS unit to find a geocache that was hidden there. A few other students and I split from the group and found it about a quarter-mile away. This was a fun little departure from our usual touring and photo taking.
We toured the Saadian Tombs, a highly decorated resting place of about 60 people. After this, we had lunch in the market square area of the city, called Djemaa El Fna. We moved into the souks afterwards—more fast-moving, closed-in shopping quarters. The group made its way to a carpet-making shop, where we had mint tea while previewing carpets made by different Moroccan tribes. The souks were absolutely dizzying; one wrong turn and you might not ever find your way out. Our tour guide, Omar, was great at keeping the group from getting lost in that maze of people and shops.
We ate dinner in a former palace in the medina, one of the most elegant and cultured meals I’ve ever had. Finely dressed servers brought food out, and there were three men playing Moroccan drums and other instruments. Belly dancers even came out a few times—they were impressive. The lighting was very dim, so the overall ambience was lovely. The decoration, food quality, and service were all amazing.
We took a stroll through the buzzing night crowd in the square, which was now filled with pop-up food tents and street performers. The mass of people was impressive and a little scary all at the same time.
May 24: Day 9
Sunday morning we stopped at Dar Si Said Museum, home to rugs, woodcarvings, and other antiques that were hundreds of years old. We stopped at a couple more garden and museums sites briefly, then had lunch looking out onto the square around noon. Some of the group hung around to shop, but I went with a couple of students back to the hotel just to get a break. We were absolutely drained from going place to place, riding in a bus for hours on end, getting spotty sleep, and trying to burn the creative juices at every turn to make good photographs. Hello, pool! :-)
At this point, it was really starting to set in that we were leaving soon. There was a noticeable lull in the energy and enthusiasm level, as most did not want to return home.
That evening we returned to the square for some shopping, and half of the group decided to skip the scheduled dinner and just get some pizza, which we ate at the hotel. Everything was winding down, and most people were absolutely exhausted.
May 25: Day 10
Our bus left for the Marrakech airport at 4:00am, where I barely made my flight due to the long lines, but I ended up riding first class to Casablanca. The overseas flight to New York and then the connection to Detroit got me home around 10:00pm Monday. We had eight hours of layover time, and about ten hours of flying time altogether.
My favorite event of the trip was easily the night we spent out in the desert. The atmosphere, riding camels, and the landscape made this worth the cost of the trip alone. The experience I think I may remember the most is the friendships I made along the way; much of the group bonded, and I’m pleased to say I made a few new friends during my time in Morocco. I hope to continue those relationships back in the States.
Much thanks to Terry Abrams for organizing the trip, and to Omar Chouiyakh, our guide for the entire journey, who really seemed to know EVERYTHING about the culture, history, and significance of every place that we visited. Without their contributions, the trip would not have been a success.
Mike Wilkinson works at WCC, and went on the trip to improve his photography skills. He’s working toward an associate degree in occupational studies in his spare time, and plans to transfer to Eastern Michigan University for a bachelor’s degree in applied technology. A video he shot about the trip is available on WCC's YouTube channel.