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Morocco: Sweet and Sour, Travel is Expansion

Updated: May 24, 2022

“Morocco, a seat by the window, please.” I held a glamorous mental image of Kate Hudson at the end of “Almost Famous” wearing a sun hat and smiling sweetly, knowing she was about to embark on the trip of a lifetime - because, after all, so was I. After 17 months devoid of international travel since the pandemic, I was en route to volunteer with the American Fondouk, a working equid hospital in Fes, Morocco.

(Above) Kate Hudson in “Almost Famous”

That mental image of me as Kate Hudson was rapidly cracked as I was denied check-in due to confusion over COVID testing requirements for entry into Morocco. Airports are hands-down the most stressful part of international travel. Even if you are maximally prepared, airport personnel are frequently not on the same page as you are regarding immigration requirements.

I'm vaccinated with the Moderna Covid vaccine. One major reason I became vaccinated was because of my passion for traveling the world - no one will stop me. However, my PCR test results were late, and the flight attendant thus deemed me unfit for checkin.

(Above) Me the night before I left

Three hours and a missed flight later, a manager finally believed my US Embassy google search stating that I had everything required of me to fly from Tampa to Casablanca. I was subsequently re-routed to different layover countries and my luggage and I parted ways not to be reunited for nine days.

Nine. days. Nine whole days without my clothes, half my toiletries, and some equipment.

I’m used to hiccups during travel, and so when I was in Casablanca staring at the fully unloaded baggage claim belt realizing that my bag was still either in New York or Madrid, I readjusted my perspective to get excited about exchanging my US dollars for Moroccan dirham. I collect currencies and I wasn’t about to let anything beyond my check-in nightmare dampen this new international experience further for me.

I couldn’t have been more wrong, but on I went. Keep calm and Gyspy On.

I travel alone often, as a solo female. My brain was firing all the feel-good chemicals of being in my element, alone in a new world. I was also feeling some monolingual shame of only speaking English even though several people I interacted with did speak some English in addition to French and Arabic. Regardless, I found a cab to take me to my Air B&B,

(Above) Sam’s Casablanca Air B&B

Fortunately my Air B&B host was a wonderfully hospitable Australian-Moroccan man named Sam that spoke perfect English. I entered the Rose Medina in Casablanca not knowing what to expect. Without my luggage, I was feeling light, and a bit on guard. While not a stereotypical Moroccan riad, Sam’s Air B&B had all the feels of an exotic welcome that I hoped for, with gorgeous decor and a view to look out on while I sipped sugary Moroccan mint tea. My sense of being “on guard” quickly melted away as Sam helped me get an adaptor for Moroccan outlets and pointed me in the direction of the Hassan II mosque.

The Hassan II mosque is the iconic landmark of Casablanca. I find mosques to be gorgeous and the islamic people to be peaceful; visiting religious landmarks of the world is one of my personal scavenger hunts. This site was a must-visit for me, although I couldn’t go inside as a non-Muslim without being a part of a tour. I instead hopped along the rocks of the corniche, photographing cats and watching Moroccan children play football.

(Above) Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca

Here is Sam’s Air B&B if anyone out there is in need of a place to stay near the Casablanca airport and Hassan II mosque:

The next day I departed on a train from Casa Voyageurs to Fes. The train was hot, un-air conditioned, crowded, and uncomfortable; however, I felt more than a touch of magic as I watched the urban scenery of Casablanca change to the rural rolling hills of the country entering Fes. I became excited as I started to see donkeys.

I think this was where I picked up Covid.

Unaware that I probably just contracted a virus that would malevolently impact the entire working mission I had planned for the coming two weeks, I stepped off the train and was

quickly whisked away by an English-speaking tour guide named Mohammed. Here I was also unaware that I just met someone who would benevolently influence my entire Moroccan experience. Mohammed invited me for espresso in the Fes train station and told me about his passion for helping foreigners have a positive experience in Morocco. He was excited to tell me about his family’s farm with several donkeys of its own, and helped me break the language barrier and safely arrive at the American Fondouk.

I stepped out of the cab in front of the Fondouk, gazing upon a giant double door and tall, beige walls. I could hear donkeys breying on the inside. On the wall was an inscription from the Q’uran:

“Fear God in your pack animals. Do not hurt them or load them more than they are able to bear.”

(Above) The American Fondouk entrance

I knocked on the large double doors with a loud brass knocker, ready for the next leg of my adventure. The sound of the knocking incited barking dogs, more breying, and shouts in French and Arabic.

Now, something that veterinarians face when immersing themselves in a new situation - even one relatively low-pressure, like my situation at the American Fondouk - is Imposter Syndrome. It’s hard to not think that one day I would wake up and be told “This was clearly a mistake. We are asking you to leave.”

Little did I know that they actually would ask me to leave eventually - but for another reason.

I remember vividly journaling motivational words to myself, telling myself that I was

adequately trained to be useful there. I tell myself on every international trip that if I can really help at least one animal - just one animal - then I am happy. If I can learn just one thing, then I am happy. If I can make one good friend, then I am happy. Well, all of the above DID happen.

The first patient I helped was a mule with cutaneous and ocular habronemiasis. While the parasites had damaged its skin beyond what I could repair, I did recognize and help its diseased eyes based on my experience with the disease process in Florida.

(Above) Habronema mule

Tropical diseases 101, thanks to my education in Grenada and Florida. Florida bugs for the win.

I began to immerse myself in the medicine, loving the companionship of my new international friends, celebrating Eid for the first time, getting introduced to the national

dish (Tajine), and doing yoga daily by the gorgeous pool. However, not even one week into the experience, my own vision became blurry. I started to wonder about the air quality due to sand or pollution, but no one else seemed to be having issues.

It became a pattern that I would wake up with clear vision, and then as the day progressed, the world became cloudy. I couldn’t look at sunlight at all. I was so light sensitive that gazing on any light resulted in a film developing over my eyes. Not only that, but my eyes became painful. When I closed them, it felt like sandpaper on the back of my eyelids, and tears woud stream from my face. I couldn’t wear makeup and I couldn’t be outside without sunglasses. Because of the Eid holiday, no ophthalmologist was available. It was so embarrassing to not feel well as a visiting foreigner. I have a VERY high threshold for pain and I felt weak. I didn’t know how to explain to my new friends and colleagues that I knew something was seriously wrong. Based on my symptoms, as a medical professional I diagnosed myself with some sort of viral keratitis - which, I found, is attributable to either my HSV-I (cold sore virus) or to Covid.

I began using ciprofloxacin eye drops as a last resort, instilling them in my eyes every two hours, even overnight - and after a couple days, I felt normal again. I was able to visit and see the famous, thousand year-old Fes Medina. I could converse with bright eyes. I could (gasp) go and retrieve my long lost luggage from the Fes airport (!!). I could see cases again.

(Above) Happy exploring the Fes Medina

Now you have a new picture of me: my own clothes that fit, as opposed to the incredibly

baggy coveralls I was lent while my luggage was in limbo; I was able to wear makeup, bright-eyed and feeling well, and I was adjusted to my new surroundings, with new friends from Morocco, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Senegal

And man, am I glad I could see cases again, because the most memorable one was about to present itself.

One afternoon after the Eid holiday weekend, a trailer rolled in emergently for a jenny experiencing dystocia. It became apparent that the jenny was suffering from tetanus. The senior Moroccan clinician and her team attempted to pull the foal, but the decision was made to perform a cesarean section to deliver the foal, which had a suckle reflex and seemed to still be alive. I will never forget being asked to scrub in and assist with the procedure. The joy of the team when the healthy foal was delivered seemingly against the odds for how long the jenny was in distress… not much can beat that joy.

(Above) Jenny C-section

We lost the jenny, unsurprisingly. The foal ended up with failure of passive transfer of immunity, and the team was at a loss for how to get plasma from a healthy animal to administer to the foal to ensure it would live. I remembered Mohammed, who told me about his family’s farm when I arrived at the Fes train station.

(Above) Mohammed's blood donor donkey

Often times I feel in this life I’m meant to connect people. I meet a ton of people on my travels, and connecting the dots is nearly entirely effortless. Well, Mohammed came through for us with a blood donor donkey. I helped the team collect blood from our little superhero donor, the foal received her plasma, and there was enough plasma to bank for the next foal in need.

As long as I can help one animal, I’m happy.

Cue the next curveball.

Another holiday followed the Eid weekend: King’s Day. I went with my new friend Khouloud to visit Ifrane National Forest, where we ate amazing tajine and spent time with the endangered Barbary macaques. While we were out, she mentioned that her nose was running and she had a migraine. She hoped it wasn’t Covid. We shared food out of the same plates all day.

(Above) Endangered Barbary macaques in the Ifrane National Forest

That evening she took her temperature on arriving back at the Fondouk, and she had a fever. So did the rest of the veterinary interns. So did some of the technicians. The head surgeon shut the facility down and a man came to PCR test us each for Covid.

Half the team tested positive. I was negative. All non-employees, including myself, were asked to leave, and my volunteer experience ended.

I was upset and felt alone. I checked into the fanciest, most Westernized hotel I could find for some comfort while awaiting my friend Kristen from the USA to come join me to explore as much of Morocco as we could. Fortunately, Mohammed the tour guide ensured that we both had an incredible adventure for the remainder of my time there: I saw more parts of the country than I ever anticipated seeing if I had stayed at the Fondouk the entire time.

(Above) A mosaic at Volubilis

Morocco, as a North African country, has three major cultural influences: Arabic, European, and Berber. "Berber" is a term that refers to the mountain tribe, and the Berber language is actually an official language of Morocco, so you can see its tribal letters in addition to Arabic and English inscriptions. around the country. As I toured the country with my friend Kristen, led by Mohammed's guides, I could feel the impression of all three cultures downloading into my consciousness. This might seem like a bold statement.- but this is how I feel when I travel. My favorite thing in the entire world is receiving these "downloads," or impressions, that deepen my anthropological understanding of this world.

We first visited Roman Ruins of Volubilis, one of Morocco's several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

(Above) Chefchaouen, the Blue City

From there we went on to visit Chefchaouen (the “Blue City”) and the adjacent Akchour falls. We then drove 12 hours to spend an evening glamping in the Sahara Desert, and then spent a few days resting in Marrakech. Too soon, I found myself back at the Casablanca international airport boarding my flight to Johannesburg, South Africa to host my first yoga retreat. I developed a horrible GI bug on the flight over. The End. Seriously. From lost luggage to diarrhea.

But, everything in between was so rich. Here's the thing about traveling: Regardless of the cost, regardless of any "downs," you just can't put a price on the layers traveling adds to your person. Every aspect of you expands. Travel is expansion.

(Above) Swimming at Akchour falls

So… while I did have the experience of a lifetime, it was nothing like I imagined it would be. One day I will visit American Fondouk again, and revisit some of the magical places. My plan for this coming summer is another working equid volunteer experience in a different North African country, followed by my South African yoga retreat once again… to be continued.

If you would like to visit, volunteer with, or donate to the American Fondouk, click here.

And, If you're visiting Morocco and would like to have Mohammed help plan your travels, click here.

(Above) Photographing camels in the Sahara desert

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