Love letter to Morocco
I never thought I’d go to Morocco. It always sounded so far away, so exotic, so romantic, so mysterious. In my mind, I’d always pictured the Hollywood version of Morocco - desert, camels, date plans, snake charmers, belly dancers, nomads in tents. Morocco has been all that and more.
Morocco has been a delight from start to finish. A 2500km round trip by road over 11 days and taking in the diversity of the Moroccan landscape and people. There is much to see, feel and experience along the way - vibrant bustling cities, small towns, mountains, apple orchards, boundless desert and dunes, green oases, cedar forests, fresh water gorges, beach resort towns, fishing villages and wild ocean. The long midsummer days are bookended by a stunning sunrise and sunset that washes everything in a golden glow giving way to clear skies full of stars.
Taking in this diversity by road has been an unexpected pleasure. The long drives, one day of 8 hours, afforded space and time to see the country. Greatest hits tours of any destination can only touch the surface of a handful of highlights, quite often major cities. The humble road trip enables us to see through the cracks into the local, regional and rural towns and communities along the way. While the imperial cities of Morocco have much to offer with their blend of old and new, for me it was the spaces in between where the best of Morocco lies.
In our busy lives, time to sit still is a luxury. The road trip not only gave me valuable thinking time but time for take in all I could see. I thought a lot about the interaction between the landscape, the people and their lives. From the sellers in big city souks to the locals selling honey by the side of the road in the middle Atlas mountains, from the goat herders in the mountains to the cameleers in the desert, from the rangers in the cedar forests to the waiters in the big hotels; each is living their life on the shoulder of long held traditions across the generations or forging new pathways through new opportunities.
Morocco is a country of contrasts. There are local Berber people living as they always have in rocky dwellings high in the Todra Gorge and in handmade tents in the Sahara. They have retained their way of life, their culture and their languages. Children grow up in their family and in their community and may or may not go to school although it is universally and freely available. They learn the traditions of generations - raising goats, sheep and camels, weaving their wool into blankets, carpets and clothing, growing food, harvesting honey, working camel leather. They speak their local Berber dialect and may not speak the main languages of Morocco: Arabic and French.
The entwined Berber, Arab, Jewish, French and Moorish histories endure and is evident at every turn - in the architecture, the written and spoken languages, and places of worship. Religions and cultures seem to happily co-exist in the vibrancy of local communities. Islam is the main religion and the daily pattern of prayer resonates through every town and city with the call to prayer punctuating daily activities.
Morocco’s true beauty is on the inside. Morocco doesn’t show off, she hides her secrets and beauty on the inside waiting to be found. I saw this repeated time and again - winding roads leading to a beautiful gorge, narrow alleys leading to a secret garden or a square or a souk, a simple doorway opening to reveal a beautiful two storey riad with rooms leading to a central courtyard pool, kilometres of desert leading to a green oasis. It is like the journey is as important as the destination.
One of my favourite parts of Morocco was the blue town of Chefchaouen, nestled on the side of the Rif mountains. It is a rocky and steep town where the locals farm on the surrounding land and and raise goats all across the mountain. The blue buildings cast a breathtaking haze over the town and its beauty is attracting tourists and growing vibrant new industry for the locals. The food in Chefchaouen is a delight - creamy goat cheese salad with real tomatoes, rich goat tagine with figs, delicious goat yoghurt with local raw honey and almonds, fresh stone fruit and melon to finish. It is simple and natural local food. There is no needfor labels and packaging, the quality and freshness of the food is evident from the first mouthful.
A defining part of the trip was the long drive to the desert and the night we spent under its stars. It is quiet in the desert. Very quiet. The never-ending desert with its undulating dunes and textures seems to swallow all sound. It is said the sound of silence is golden and deafening. I felt what this means as the silence of the desert settled in around me until it was all I could hear. The colour of the sand and the dunes is a contrast against the bold blue sky and the eye is drawn to the far horizon where the colours meet. The stunning sunset gives way to the blackest sky. Lying on my back on a berber blanket I spent time stargazing until midnight. I was struck by how many stars there are and how bright they shine in a midnight sky uninterrupted by buildings, streetlights, pollution and noise. There here are no boundaries and no edges in the desert. I had worried about feeling isolated and remote in the desert. Instead I felt safe, humbled and small and I understood that I am just a tiny, tiny dot in the scheme of things.
The fishing town of Essaouira with its windy Atlantic Ocean coastline is in stark contrast to the stretching dryness of the desert. The old town is encircled by thick rampart walls that hold back the sea and defend the town. The old town’s age is obvious in the buildings with weathered walls bearing the brunt of the salty air. Cobbled walkways twist and turn and are lined with shops and cafes. Outside the old town’s walls, the sandy beach has a resort vibe with umbrellas and recliners and the sky is dotted with colourful kites flying high on the wind. The freshness of Essaouira was a refreshing change from the arid landscapes of the desert and mountains.
My experience of Morocco is through a prism of love and pride expressed so warmly by our driver Rachid and our guides Idris and Mohammed. Their experience and knowledge added a richness to our travels that we could not have had on our own. They shared their love for their country with us so generously and painted a picture of Moroccan life and culture. There was much to learn from these lovely men - the history and stories of Morocco, the authentic places to eat, the best places to shop, the back roads, the hidden pathways of the medina.
As our constant companion for the trip, Rachid played a defining role in setting the pace and tone of our travels. He was energetic and passionate and provided a rich narrative that deepened our experience and understanding. Through his love of music and his diverse music interests we had and interesting soundtrack of traditional Arabic music, a little bit of country, a little bit of western, some Arabic blues and some classics. When we stopped for amazing views, Rachid would throw open the doors and let themusic add to our experience. I think I will forevermore associate Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing with a patch of sheep grazing country in the Middle Atlas mountains.
But most captivating was his heart and his love for Morocco and its people. We talked about all sorts of things along the way and he shared his philosophies about life, love, cultural respect and harmony, music, family, food and landscape. He generously and willingly answered our questions and looked after us with kindness and concern. He was a demonstration of working to live - loving his job, giving it his all and getting as much from our time together as he was giving.
Morocco, until we meet again inshallah, I will always feel your sunshine on my shoulders, your desert sand between my toes, your salty breeze in my hair and the sweetness of your honey on my lips..