Morocco — Fun, Faces, and Faith

“Here is another ice cream for you. Free” said the ice cream vendor holding out an ice cream cone with 3 different scoops of ice creams, exactly like the ones that we dropped on the floor. 

We were shocked. 

We accidentally dropped the ice cream cone onto the sidewalk in front of the store. As seasoned travelers, we immediately picked up the ice cream from the floor, scooped away the parts that were dirty, and continued to lick the delicious and multi-colored ice cream. However, without us asking or realizing it, the vendor saw that we dropped it on the floor and proceeded to give us another 3 scoops of ice cream, absolutely free. So we ended up with 6 scoops of ice cream for US$1.5! 

The vendor gave us free ice cream "replacement" without asking!

This was our first encounter with the people of Morocco.  It proved not to be an exception but as one of the many acts of kindness, generosity, and friendliness that we received in our one month of traveling in Morocco. 

We were very excited to come to Morocco. God opened an opportunity for us to volunteer at the British Language Academy in Casablanca where we get to build friendships with local students as we do ministry as a family, have a free place to stay, and still have a lot of free time and freedom to be tourists. Also, Nathan wanted to be a teacher after graduation. I am not able to think of a more perfect arrangement.

This is the language center where we volunteered for a month.

Faces

Meeting Harim, the founder of the language academy, was also very eye-opening. Harim really made us feel welcomed and treated us as friends and not just workers. He came from a poor family where several families would share one apartment. When learning a language, Harim wanted to talk to tourists to see if his teacher has taught him the correct English pronunciation. But as a poor student, going to the downtown tourist area was costly. Even if he did, the police would chase him away. So when he decided to start a language center, his vision was that his students would be able to do what he wasn’t able to, which is to talk to tourists from all over the world.

We took a selfie with the amazing Harim.

Harim believes everyone should learn a language like natives, which is starting with a conversation, as oppose to grammar. When he demonstrated his teaching methodology in China, he first shared his culture and then ask the students about their Chinese culture. Then he had the students pretended to be Moroccans sharing Moroccan culture while he pretended to be Chinese, sharing Chinese culture. For example, what do you eat on a special occasion, such as eating couscous on Friday for Moroccans. He designed the classes so that they are focused on small group activities and speaking as much as possible. 

Some photos of students we have come to love.

Consequently, he welcomed tourists volunteers to have conversational English with the students by providing the volunteer with free accommodation, right in the historic city center. On weekdays, the classes were only at night. On weekends, they were both morning and afternoon. Within two hours of landing in Casablanca, we were having conversations with students of all ages and English proficiencies. They were curious about us traveling to so many countries as a family and we were curious about the language, culture, food, and places of Morocco. The conversations ranged from names, ages, interests to discuss questions such as “Who am I”, “How do you define success”, “The happiest day of your life”, and “Homosexualities”,  We each must have had conversations with more than 40 different students.

A student sent us a goodbye photo on our last day in class.

Outside of class, some of the students took us around towns such as the beach boardwalks and mall to show us their beloved city or to show us their favorite snacks. One student was very excited to bring Olivia to an area that was full of shops run by Chinese and bought her all sorts of snacks and souvenirs. A student helped us with our covid test. A student even gave Joani a traditional outfit. One of the teachers, Fatima, drove us along the beach, around the football stadium, and through different upper and lower class neighborhoods. The most memorable moment was when she took us to eat our favorite Moroccan snack, snail soup, among 49 other snail soup stalls along one street. For us, it felt like a street “paved with gold”! Due to the city lockdown to slow down the pandemic, many students and teachers regretted not being able to invite us to their homes. Linda, who was the only Workawayer that lived in the same apartment like us, brought us to a few of her favorite restaurants to try local delicacies such as rotisserie chicken and Rafisa. 

50 stands of snail soup! Our heaven.
Saad, a student who plans to study in China, took us to the beach next to this “witch” island.

Fun

Morocco is not Morocco without seeing its history, architecture, food, and natural wonders.

We took advantage of our days off to explore Morocco by land, traversing more than 2000 kilometers of its cities, ocean, plain, mountains, and sand dunes. Through out our travel we continued to be greeted by the love and friendship of the Moroccans.

Tarik took us on a 5 hour walking tour which included breakfast and lunch!

On our first free day, we signed up for a free walking tour of Casablanca. Tarik was one of the most friendly, knowledgeable, and approachable guides that we have experienced. He is passionate about the tourist industry. He is thoughtful on how to give us the best experience starting with a local breakfast, pigeon plaza, then the old Medina & African Market, local neighborhood, and the magnificent Hassan Mosque perches next to the pounding waves. He was very patient to answer our questions, help us to understand the prices, and ending with the traditional tangine lunch. He was not just a guide but a friend and before I left Morocco, I called him up to have tea together.

Our first taste of Couscous in a home.
Learning Arabic like children.

On Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday holiday, we took a train to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, guided by a pair of Moroccan brother and sister who without asking invited us to have a traditional couscous meal cooked by their mother. Annie had a personal lesson on the making of couscous, while we had a lesson on Moroccan Arabic to “save” us during our time in this country.

“In Morocco, traditional meals are cooked and served in one large round earthen potteries (as oppose to separate plates) because we never know how many people will be coming for a meal,” the sister explained. “It is rude to ask the guest how many people will be coming (a sign of stinginess) as it is not uncommon for guests to bring along their cousins and friends without informing ahead of time.”

The Moroccan sofa can fit as many people as you can!

In the same way, the sofas in their living rooms are always in continuous three-sided arrangement with no seating partitions so that if there are more people, everyone just squeezes a little tighter! Moroccans are ingenious and amazing hosts!

With the approval of our language academy host Harim, we took a 12-day trip around Morocco, from Casablanca to Fes, Merzouga, Ouarzazate, Atlas Mountain, Marrakesh, and back to Casablanca. 

Ancient city of Fes

First stop, we literally walked into ancient history in Fes, which became the oldest continuously living city in the world, after Aleppo was destroyed by ISIS in Syria. There are still 300,000 people who live in this city of 1,100-year history. The streets were very narrow hemmed by 3 to 5 stories high houses full of dead ends. Some streets were so narrow (around one-foot width) that each person had to walk sideways. 

“Some of these houses are new because they were rebuilt when the wall crumbled,” our free walking guide in Fes explained to us as he guided us out of the maze-like streets.

“So how new are these new houses?” I asked curiously.

“They are only around 400 year-old,” the guide responded!

So it is not hard to understand why Fes contains the oldest library, oldest university, oldest tannery, and oldest market in the world! 

The second stop was to experience the largest desert in the world, the Sahara, in Merzouga. Right after we arrived on a night bus, we went on a 4×4 SUV tour of a Berber village, a mineral mine, a nomadic village, and a roller coaster ride up and down and left and right on the Sahara sand dunes. We got to eat “Berber pizza” in a nomadic tent and for many meals, we cooked the most tender lamb meat in our own apartment. The usual massive tourist mobs from all corners of the world were nowhere to be seen. All that was left was a Chinese-looking family of five that popped out from who knows where in the midst of the pandemic!

At Fes, I bought a traditional berber overall, which reminds us of Jawas in Star Wars and in the new TV series Mandalorian. My children had a lot of fun taking photos and videos of me pretending to be Jawas. We even climbed up to the tallest sand dune in the area and I played spike ball as Jawas on the top and ran down exhilaratingly down the 50 stories high dune.

Of course, the highlights for all tourists to the Sahara sand dunes are the star war-like camel ride, the sunset photo op, the calm sunrise panorama, the dancing and drumming around the desert campfire, and the sleeping under moonless stars. After waiting a few days for the sky to clear, we had all the above and more because of our fun, friendly, and generous hotel owner, Zyad. He always greeted us with a pot of tea and even a free omelet tangin. Zyad even brought his own family to enjoy the weekend together with us. When we invited him for a game of spike ball, he was so enthusiastic that he dived for every single ball, even when there is no need to dive! The camel ride was a satisfying 1.5 hours up and down the sand dunes. The desert tent site was surrounded by sand dunes away from all other sites. We weren’t able to finish the multi-course Berber meals and we danced and sang the night away around the campfire. Best of all, the sky was dark allowing us to see clearly the milk way and multiple shooting stars throughout the night. Lying on the sand looking up at the sky, I felt like Abraham when God assured him that his descendants will be as numerous as the sands on the ground and stars in the sky. As any good Chinese, who took numerous photos, did all sorts of jumping, rolling, headstand photos as the sun sank beneath the sand, and of course, woke up early in the morning to say hi to the sun as it rose up from beneath the sands. Zyad also brought a snowboard for us to surf down the steep dunes just as we did 12 years ago in Peru. 

The night sky was full of countless stars.

The third stop was Ouarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco, and the locations of many desert palaces called kasbah. We had no idea that movies such as Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Mummies, and films about Jesus, Joseph, Paul were filmed here. We visited one of the movie studios and also the kasbah next door. 

Movie studio
Kabash of Ouarzazate

The next day we took a bus through Atlas Mountain, our fourth attraction. Atlas Mountain is the highest mountain in North Africa and only second to Mt Kilimanjaro. The mountain is quite dry, bare, and rocky. The village houses were built with stones and reminded me of the many poor areas in China where I had served via World Vision for the last 19 years.

We were excited when we arrived at our fifth and last stop, Marrakesh because I had heard so much from Olivia who came here for a cultural exchange 2 summers ago. She had already scheduled a visit to Mariam’s home, a friend she met while was here two years ago. Her home is located in the most densely populated area in all of North Africa. It was very lively at night even during Morocco’s national lockdown. Her home was small but very lively especially since her father, mother, brother, sisters, cousins, friends, and neighbors all came in to check out this strange Chinese family. We ate food, played games, listened to rap, and just simply soaked in the genuine friendship that was offered to all of us. We enjoyed each other’s company so much that we played basketball together in the morning.

Playing basketball with locals!

Abdellah, who is the tour guide that had been giving us advice throughout our trip, gave us a free tour of the famous Marrakesh Madina. Afterward, we “begged” him to show us how to enjoy the traditional tangia dish authentically. So the next day he brought us to a local butcher shop. The butcher gave us the best cuts of beef and lamb, put in prune lemon and garlic, sprinkled generously Moroccan spices, and stuffed everything into an earthen jar. Abdellah then brought us to a public oven for it to be cooked slowly for 4 to 5 hours over coal. Then we went to his home and shared the tangia together with his wife and two children. This is another generous act of friendship that we will treasure.

We also had surprising encounters with ex-pats in Marrakesh. One couple who we just bumped into in the alley invited us into their renovated Riad B&B and had a delicious meal at one of the most beautiful restaurants we had been to the whole trip, complement of the restaurant owner! We met another two Canadians who inspired us with their story and sacrifices. We serendipitously went into a kitchen run by a British lady who started a fusion cooking class 17 years ago.

Our surprised encounter with the ex-pat couple who is starting a B&B in Marrakesh.

Faith

Morocco is our first muslim country of this one year trip. Consequently as Christians we were both excited and fascinated by the Islam faith and the muslim culture. In our conversations with students, as we each shared our different cultures, the topic of faith naturally came into the conversations.

Our interesting conversation with Zakaria about Faith.

“Sins can only be forgiven by the person whom you violated against, whether it be Allah or a human being. If someone forgives you, then it can be erased from the “bad” book. You can’t ask Allah to forgive you because it was not committed against God,”  Zakaria, a student from the academy, explained when we had coffee together. “However, the most important point to remember in Islam is to never kill you own life. This is one sin that will send you straight to hell. If you kill someone, when at the judgment seat, it is possible that person will forgive you then you don’t have to go to hell.”

“What about those suicide bombers? I thought they can go straight to heaven because they are doing it for Allah,” I asked.

“Those people are crazy and not true muslims,” Zakaria said with disgust.

“Doesn’t Muslims believe that there is an angel on your right counting your good deeds and an angel on your right counting your bad deeds? If your good deeds outweigh the bad, then you can go to heaven,” I asked again.

Fatima, the teacher, also shared about her Faith over snail soup!

“Yes, something like that. You can go to heaven without praying 5 times a day. But praying 5 times a day will add “good” points for you,” Zakaria explained further. “Muslims also believe in karma. You reap what you sow. If you do bad things, bad things will happen to you. If you do good things, good things will happen to you.” 

We also gained a new understanding of how Muslims view sin from a teacher over a meal in the old Medina. Unlike Christianity where the just penalty for any sin, when compared with a holy God, is death, in Islam, there are small sins and big sins so one can make up for it later.

“I know it is not good to not wear the head scarf. But it is okay. I will eventually wear it,” the teacher shared. “It is acceptable to be a cultural Muslim (not practice Islam faithfully) but it is not acceptable to say that one is not a Muslim.”

As a human being, I like how Islam is so logical. I also appreciate how they are eager to do good deeds, sincere in their belief, detest images of man and animals in their religious sites, and keep themselves and their environment clean. Traveling in Morocco, I never had to worry about not finding a toilet or a place to wash my hands. I see so many similarities between Islam and Christianity. Muslims accept the Torah, the Psalms, and the stories of Jesus. Jesus is actually mentioned 4 more times in the Koran than Mohammed is mentioned. They often greet each other or say goodbye with “Peace”, “Praise God” and “If God willing”. If I don’t know about Christianity, I think I would be very attracted to Islam.

Casablanca has the biggest mosque in Africa.

After pondering on what I have learned and observed, I began to grasp that compared to Islam, Christianity emphasizes more on love and relationship from God to man, instead of man trying to earn God’s favor. As a Christian, there is an assurance of salvation and hope for all sinners, since Jesus already died in my place. But God also said that there will be sufferings in this fallen world. Often Christians suffer not because of karma but because we are trying to follow Jesus.

One Moroccan shared, “God is the truth. And the truth is Jesus.”

Our Last Day in Morocco

Our time in Morocco passed quickly. Although we enjoyed all the fun, faces, and faith experiences we had, we knew that we need to move on to our next country. I found a reasonable direct flight to Senegal, and we had the opportunity to serve disadvantaged children in Senegal as well as to see Joani’s high school principal who just moved there. Going to Senegal will also give us a picture of what West Africa is like knowing that we won’t be able to visit most of the countries in West Africa. After getting the green light from the US embassy and the airline, I bought 5 tickets. However, I felt the need to double-check with the Senegal Embassy in Casablanca. It was a stressful day when I was told by the consular face to face (5 days before our flight) that we can’t go there as tourists due to covid restriction! That day, I canceled all of my plans and focused on finding an alternative. I researched Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, but all of them had some complications and uncertainty due to covid travel restrictions. Finally, South Africa seems to be the most straightforward, with the least uncertainty and good flight connections (through Turkey, Ethiopia). We prayed as a family for peace to go to South Africa then I booked our flight.

From Morocco to South Africa, we had to stop at Turkey and Ethiopia.

On our last day, we each put on our “Su Family Backpacking Adventures” T-shirt and took photos with students from each of the class to say goodbye. For lunch, we wanted to taste the delicious tangines in the old city market (Medina). For dinner, we were all wanted to eat at our most favorite restaurant in all of Morocco, which we affectionately call “Cameroon”.

“Cameroon” is really just a tiny BBQ street stand run by Olivier, a very friendly Cameroon young man whom we grew to love during our one month in Morocco. The first time we ate there, we ordered 3 chicken wings for $0.50 each, not sure whether it is tasty or not. To our surprise, when we were served, not only did we had the chicken wings, they also came with a full plate of refreshing salad and two different sauces with flavors that burst in the mouth. We never had food from Cameroon before. It was tasty and spicy like the BBQ back in Kunming. It scratched our itch feeling homesick for Yunnan flavors. It was love at first bite. For a simple street-side BBQ stand, he would garnish and present the food as if was a dish from a 5-star hotel. We were so impressed that we kept coming back day after day. We eventually tried every dish in the stand, including fish, turkey, whole chicken, chicken gizzards, couscous, and Casava. Every tasted perfect, even the chicken or turkey breast meat which we usually don’t like. Even though we ordered similar food each time, whenever we were served, we still couldn’t help but shout in amazement. I think it is because of the warm feeling that we felt from Olivier. He was our friend, our mom, and our favorite kitchen in Morocco.

Olivier!

For our last meal in Morocco, we ordered everything in the house and even brought our own thick slices of calamari for him to BBQ. When he saw the calamari, he said, “I am going to make it very special with lemon and sauces. It will be perfect.” 

Indeed, the calamari was perfect, so tender but not undercooked. He garnished the seafood with a carved lemon and carved green onion blossom! During the meal, we shared the favorite person we have gotten to know and our favorite city in Morocco. Of course, Olivier was up on the list of our favorite person. 

“I am so sad that you will be leaving tomorrow. I feel like I am going to cry,” he came up to us during our meal and said.

To my amazements, I saw tears in his eyes.

As we were leaving, we kept taking photos with him and his staff, not wanting to be apart. We welcome him to let us know if he will ever be in Canada, the US, or China. Annie gave him a small painting that she drew on her 50th birthday. Annie felt that the painting was meant for Olivier. He is the man of peace and community priest that she was looking for. Olivier said that he will carefully keep the painting in his Bible. It was only then that both parties realized that we are all Christians, which made us feel like brothers and sisters making it even harder to leave. Maybe that was why we were so attracted to him.  At this point, a goalie coach for Moroccan National Team was so enthralled by the love and God’s presence that he started to take photos and videos of us and with us!

“You know, I am not always so happy. But your family makes me so happy,” Olivier confessed to us.

Annie then sang the song, “Yes, I love you with the love of the Lord” to end our time together.

This one month has made us love the people of Morocco AND to love the people of Morocco with the “love of the Lord”.

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