Tech Trek: Marrakech, Morocco

It was my honeymoon—and my first time in Africa. Earlier in the day, we had landed in Marrakech, the third-largest city in Morocco; now it is midday, and the temperature was now hovering at around 110 degrees. We had delayed our trip by a couple of weeks specifically because the weather was supposed to cool off a bit in the interim. Later, a local told us that we had made a good decision: A week before, North Africa had been at least 10 degrees hotter.

Damon Brown
Moroccan cities have tight markets called souks, a stark contrast to the vast surrounding desert surrounding them.

I tend to pack light, but I packed even lighter than usual for Morocco. First, we were doing a Morocco tour, which meant hauling the suitcases, unpacking them for the night, and repacking them for the road the next day. Second, I just knew that we were going to find some large, heavy object that we would want to cram into one of our suitcases to bring home. I was right: We found a gorgeous, 25-pound Moroccan rug that fit in our bag.

The light packing meant no physical books (aside from a small paperback that was about 1 centimeter thick and fit in the thin flap of my carry-on bag), no laptop, and no optional wires and adapters. All of my entertainment had to fit on my phone and my tablet.

Going to Africa did require some preparatory tech work. I handled much of it by consulting an invaluable travel app. I also had to figure out Morocco’s electrical outlet system, which is far more difficult than you might imagine.

Getting there

The Tripit app automatically adds your travel plans and pings you with alerts about impending delays, often before the airline itself does.

The most valuable thing I brought with me was a little app named Tripit. I had stumbled on the start-up Tripit almost a year ago while attending a conference, and got a free one-year subscription (worth about $50)—but then let the offer card languish on my desk for weeks before finally sending it in.

Tripit’s dilemma is that members of its target audience believe that they don't need a flight/hotel tracking app because they've spent years developing their own system. My approach was to spend days or weeks tracking flight prices; then I'd order the best deal possible, type the confirmation information into my calendar, and have it sync to my mobile phone so I could check in paperlessly at the airport. I didn’t need a virtual travel agent.

By the time planning began for our massive Africa trip, however, Tripit and I had become buddies. It’s a simple service: Tripit automatically categorizes all of your travel plans and notifies you of any changes. When it comes to flight delays, Tripit often warns me before the airline's website does. On one recent trip, as we sat waiting on the tarmac, Tripit told me when we were going to depart and land. The flight captain didn’t share the same information until much later.

Tripit became invaluable to us in working out of our tricky honeymoon itinerary: West Coast to Texas to London to Marrakech; Marrakech to beachside Casablanca to shopping hub Fes to Grand Canyon-esque Erfoud to majestic Ouarzazate to Marrakech; and finally Marrakech to London for an overnight and then back to the USA. Tripit helped us keep track of what was next on our whirlwind tour, not to mention reminding us what city we were actually in. When my year of free Tripit expires, I’ll probably resubscribe.

Brick on board

When it comes to electricity, North Africa is a tricky place. Most world outlet standards fall into one of five general categories: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, or Africa. However, North Africa gets its outlet style (and the rest of its culture) from an amalgam of Spanish, Italian, and African influences. In short, no one I asked could tell me what kind of outlet adapter I would need for Marrakech.

I grabbed a generic international wall adapter kit at a drug store. Most kits provide five plugs suitable for the main areas described, but this one also supplied a sixth plug for “parts of Africa.” The Internet wasn’t especially helpful on this point, so I figured I’d be on the safe side.

I was all packed to go when my wife suggested that I stop in at Radio Shack for a second opinion. When I explained the situation to the cashier, she agreed that Morocco was tricky; her biggest concern, though, related to wattage: She was afraid that if I didn’t bring a wattage adapter, too, my electronics might get fried.

She pointed me to the Enercell 50/2000 Watt Combination Voltage Converter (it's now out of stock, but a close cousin is available). It cost $50 and was the size of my clenched fist. I picked it up and almost dropped the 3-pound box on my foot. Seriously?

Damon Brown
Same size: My Enercell 50/2000 Watt Combination Voltage Converter and my fist.

I didn’t know then that, a few days later, I would be thanking the tech gods for leading me to the big ugly device. Nearly all of our hotels in Morocco had odd-looking three-pronged plugs—the sixth option in the international pack—and dangerously high voltages mediated by my brick of an adapter. The adapter has a toggle from 50W (U.S. level) to 2000W (crazy African levels). Charging entailed connecting a device to the brick, the brick to the correct international plug, and the plug to an outlet. I didn’t like cramming 4 pounds of equipment into the wall, but the alternative—a burned-out iPhone—was even less appealing.

Heavy signals

Damon Brown
A gorgeous mosque in the coastal city Casablanca, taken and uploaded via my iPhone.

Morocco is a beautiful country: Bustling, architecturally stunning cities lie scattered across vast horizons of stark desert land and, toward the east, the edge of the Sahara. I wanted to Instagram our gorgeous trip as we went, but I wasn’t sure how to do it. My carrier (Sprint) was less than helpful with the overseas Africa plan and I was far from confident that Wi-Fi would be available in the desert, or in our hotels.

To my pleasant surprise, the Wi-Fi situation in Morocco ended up being better than that in many parts of the United States.

First, nearly every hotel we stayed at had free Wi-Fi for guests. Transfer speeds varied from mediocre to pretty fast, but in each instance the Wi-Fi was stable and available. At a couple of hotels, our signal was strong enough to Skype with our family back home—a welcome, affordable treat for all of us.

Second, Wi-Fi was frequently available on the road. Long stretches of road separate cities, sometimes by hundreds of miles. Though we didn’t do the driving, we did take regular gas station breaks to stretch out and get some fresh air.

On a whim, I pulled out my iPhone at the first gas station stop. Suddenly I was on Wi-Fi! No password request needed at the cashier, no imposition of onerous usage rules. Almost all of the dozen gas stations we stopped at had Wi-Fi. So instead of waiting to get home to upload all the photos, we could push the pictures up and tag the locations as we experienced them.

Damon Brown
Watching the sun rise on the Sahara. Morocco’s excellent Wi-Fi availability made photos easy to upload.

The power of available Wi-Fi didn’t fully strike me until near the end of the trip, when we got up before dawn, rode camels out into the desert, and watched the sun rising from the Sahara. It was the most beautiful moment of the trip, and one of the most breathtaking moments in my life, and I was able to share it online shortly afterward when we made our next gas station stop.

Morocco is a gorgeous, desolate place, but the remoteness of its interior has encouraged hotels, gas stations, and other stopping points to help their clientele stay connected. In that sense, the country has done a better job of connecting its citizens (and tourists) than our own has.

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