Magical Morocco

Trip Start Jan 01, 2012
1
7
15
Trip End Aug 15, 2014


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Saturday, December 1, 2012

I'm not usually the type to act on a whim, careful planning and thorough research is more my style. That said, when I saw a flash sale for a ten day tour to Morocco for 200 pounds out came the card and before I knew it I was booked. I didn’t think to question why it was so cheap or even read the itinerary so it wasn’t until after booking that I actually learnt what I was letting myself in for. In hindsight I maybe should have read the itinerary first as I may not have booked for the coldest month of the year and for a trip with three nights in a desert tent had I known.

I'd booked the trip so far in advance that to be honest I kind of forgot about it and suddenly it was departure day and I hadn’t checked the weather, booked trains or even packed.

I knew very little about Morocco but somehow thought I was heading on a hot summer vacation. All I can say is thank God my packing consisted mostly of chucking my entire wardrobe into a case because it meant I at least had some warm clothes.

Any trip I take wouldn’t be complete without an airport issue and this time I got pulled up because customs didn't believe I was Swiss and thought I was Algerian. So began the onslaught of questions surrounding my heritage and trying to convince them my surname hadn’t been spelt incorrectly on my passport and wasn’t really Hussein.

Arriving into Marrakech was a shock to the system, and to be greeted by traditional Moroccan dancers at the airport was amazing. I had expected it to be similar to Egypt and Tunisia but it was in fact far more civilised.

I soon came to realise that my little knowledge and few expectations of the country was a good thing as it would mean I would be consistently surprised and delighted.

At first the weather was warmer than London but soon the temperature began to plummet and I was frozen to the core. I was introduced to my fellow travellers, 8 girls all travelling on their own and it turned out I was not the only one envisioning a summer holiday. On the plus side I had jeans and jumpers but unfortunately some of the others had nothing more than tights and ballerina flats.

We headed to dinner in search of heating and a warm meal. We got the warm meal but it turns out heating is rare in Morocco. Ah well we soon sorted out the heating problem and started our own fire when we managed to set the bread basket alight. A slight moment of panic.

We returned to our hotel, an amazingly beautiful 4 star resort decorated in stunning tile work and wooden doors as well as luxurious fabrics. A room like that in London would cost more for one night than the whole of what this tour had cost me.

The following morning our plan was to head to a desert camp in Zagoura to start the next stage of our journey however it had snowed so hard the road our planned journey was on was shut. And yes I did just say snow.....there was me expecting a summer holiday and I got snow instead.

We started on an alternative route and it was so bizarre to be able to see snow and palm trees so close together. Driving along wearing what felt like every item of clothing I had packed it was hard not to admire the scenery. On one side of the bus the snow-capped Atlas mountains and lush greenery and on the other, dry desert sand and barely existent shrubbery so scorched from the sun.

Despite the cold the sky was completely free of clouds and was bright blue. I loved seeing the small tents of the local nomads peppering the landscape amongst the Argan and Orange trees. Even more cute were the herds of small black and white goats who have a penchant for climbing the trees and just chilling in the branches.

Due to the snow closed roads it took us a full 11 and a half hours to reach our destination, a small Berbour nomad campsite. I had been expecting to sleep in tents on the ground but instead we found ourselves sleeping in tapestry lined tents complete with electricity and beds. It reminded me of what I envisioned as a child in the stories of Ali Baba.

Dinner was a traditional tagine followed by watching the moon rise. Something that depsite my years I had never done. How can it be that people think of beautiful sunrise and sunsets yet no one speaks of the moonrise? It happened so much quicker than I expected but to see the moon peak out of the pitch darkness from behind a mountains shadow was very surreal.

My shower consisted of a freezing cold trickle that despite the cold was very refreshing. Tucked in my pjs I drifted to sleep listening to the sounds of the local men singing round the campfire playing bongos under the stars. I have no idea of what they sang but the harmony and emotion in their voices made me conjure up images of long lost love and romances past. It was both beautiful and haunting all at the same time and touched me in a way music never has before.

The following morning saw us loading up jeeps and heading out to visit local villages. We stopped at a village home to a Koranic school and full of 4000 volumes of Arabic literature dating over a thousand years. We toured the pottery works, the villages main source of income. I ended up becoming part of the pottery demonstration as my hand was painted in henna to show how the plates were decorated. Whilst the village and pottery was absolutely beautiful, the sight of all the small children with runny noses begging not only for money but for pens and pencils for schools saddened me.

We were driven to an oasis on the border of Algeria that very much felt like it was in the middle of nowhere for a picnic lunch. I was expecting sandwiches but instead we had a three course meal cooked in the middle of the field especially for us. We even ate dates picked straight from the tree. The sun was out and with the cold banished for a few hours it felt like the summer holiday i had foolishly been expecting.

We continued our journey to Mhamid and spent the afternoon roaming the massive red sand dunes by jeep. We stayed in another dessert campsite called 'Bivouac sous les etoiles', and climbed a towering dune to watch the sun slowly set on the horizon. Sitting on that dune with a beer in one hand and a camera in the other it felt like I didn’t have a care in the world. Eventually the sun faded and was replaced by a starry sky-the most stars I have seen since I left NZ.

The following morning we donned dessert scarves and began a full day camel trek out to a farm. It was just my luck that I got stuck with the badly behaved camel now known as Bradley. What I learnt is that camels can inflate their tongues when pissed off and boy was Bradley pissed off.

The scenery was incredible but what I couldn't figure out is how people navigate the desert, our guides knew exactly where to go, to me one shrub looked like the next and one sand dune looked like the last 50 other sand dunes we had just passed. Eventually we made it to our destination a lush green oasis with palm trees and grass in the middle of a dry arid desert where the most amazing lunch of skewers and salad had been prepared. I spent my afternoon under the shade of a palm sunbathing before getting back on Bradley and riding off into the sunset.

The other thing I learnt about camels is that they hurt, a lot. As I write this I am listening to 7 girls complain about chafed ass cheeks and sore just about everything. I would love to say I was excluded from this but right now I have a very red and tender bum and an incredibly sore crotch.

The next day saw us back on our bus with our guide 'Dad' now looking after 8 very sore girls and in charge of getting us to our next destination Erfoud. We stopped at a local market on route, not the glamorous touristy Souk type market but the very raw local market where people hawk their wares ranging from fruit to goats heads to leftover computer parts and barrels of olives. It was great to be off the tourist trek and get a glimpse of how the locals live however the bloody meat and camels feet for sale sitting in the open and covered in flies did not do wanders for my stomach.

I loved seeing the locals in their traditional outfits next to giant piles of fruit and veg. One of the girls described their outfits as looking a bit like Klu Klux Klan costumes. Minus the racist connotation it was a pretty spot on description, long single coloured robes with massive triangular hoods that obscured faces.

Our next stop before our destination was a marble factory world famous for the slabs it makes of not just plain marble but full of fossils that are thousands of years old. I would have loved to have bought something however I couldn't imagine customs allowing me back home with a bag full of old rocks and fossils.

Surprise Surprise it was tagine for dinner, my sixth since arriving, I love a good tagine but I believe you can have too much of a good thing. After three days in the desert something as simple as being able to wash my hair and nurse my sore bum as well as have a nice hot meal was heavenly.

An early start the next morning saw us heading to Fez. Our first stop of the day was certainly enough to wake us up as it saw us disembarking the bus and running through a tunnel carved into a mountainside as fast as we could to get through before there was any oncoming traffic. To a local it would have looked very amusing....one man in traditional attire being followed by 8 western girls giggling and running after.

Lunch thank goodness was not a tagine however I feel is still worth a mention. My excitement of not having tagine was slightly dampened when we pulled outside of a shop with a massive barbeque outside and rows of animal carcasses strung up in the non-existent window. We trekked through the carcasses upstairs and were treated to a Moroccan barbeque which was absolutely delicious if lacking a bit of Watties tomato sauce. I was so thankful that while eating we were out of sight of the carcasses until a big truck full of cattle pulled up outside no doubt bringing the next customers lunch.

That night we arrived in Fez and found ourselves at a dinner and show held in a very impressive building in the old part of the city. One more tagine down the entertainment began. It was a mix of music dancing and even a magician thrown the mix. Along with some of the girls from our group I somehow found myself onstage belly dancing....oh the shame......if only my hips knew how to move in some way. Needless to say there were a lot of giggles that night.

The following day was spent in Fez, we started by visiting another pottery cooperative where we saw how mosaics were made. I have to admit I had no idea how much work was involved in making them. I don’t understand how it can be so cheap after seeing the back breaking amounts of labour put into making something so small. We also visited a tannery, when I walked in I was handed a piece of mint which I didn’t understand at the time however 2 minutes later I was hit by what felt like a wall of the most disgusting smell ever. Funny that I always used to love the smell of leather however after that I think I'm off the smell for life. It was interesting to see the massive barrels of dyes outside and all the walls lined with thousands of bags and hundreds of jackets. Two of the girls had jackets tailor made for them in two hours for dirt cheap, the one thing on the trip I regret was not buying a jacket myself.

From the tannery it was off for a tagine lunch before wandering the maze of thousands of small streets that make up the medina, I loved just wandering and seeing how the locals go about life, I could have spent hours doing that but we were cut short of time. It wasn’t until later that it was explained to us that small alleys of Fez are not particularly safe for tourists and they limited our time there for a reason.

From Fez we started our journey to Casablanca stopping in Rabat. Rabat felt a step closer to modern city with more cars, modern buildings mixed with the old. We visited Tower of Hassan and an attached mosque before roaming through a section of the old city which oddly was what I expected Greece to look like. Square white washed buildings painted to waist height in royal blue with narrow roads and colourful washing blowing in the breeze out the windows. It couldn’t have been any further from my vision of what I thought Morocco was like.

Now if Rabat was a shock Casablanca was even more so, it was a thriving metropolis where you could just see the money in the posh cars, fancy buildings and labelled clothing everywhere. It was such a wealthy, affluent city with the biggest shopping mall and IMAX cinema that I have seen in my lifetime. I guess what the shock was for me was the complete contrast between the city and the small villages with no electricity and the poor runny nosed children I had seen only a few days before.

Thank God dinner that night was not a tagine as by this point I was a tad over them, but a seafood restaurant which made for a change. For desert we wandered around a night market and ended up having hot chocolate and ice cream in a little café.

The next day we didn’t really have much time to explore the city but we did go to the Mohamed V Square, Royal Gardens, Oudayas Gardens and most impressive of them all the Mosque of Hassan II. The mosque itself holding over 25000 people at one time and being the 2nd highest minaret in the world after Mecca.

Back on the bus we drove back to Marrakech for our last night of the tour. We headed into the Djemaa el Fna Square which was such a sensory overload I don’t even know where to begin trying to describe it. Men with monkeys, snake charmers, henna artists, motorbikes horns, the evening call of prayer, smells of food cooking, smells of donkey manure, street vendors advertising their wares, people begging and pick pockets lurking every two metres all rolled into one.

Behind the square was a maze of tiny alleys and souks selling every product you could possibly imagine. The colours from all the brightly painted tagines, slippers and scarves just so vivid and vibrant.

I loved seeing the mini mountains of spices and barrels of olives and even more the incredible smell they gave off. I loved just roaming the shops leisurely and got the experience that I so craved and felt I missed out on in Fez. The sales pitches from the stall owners had us in stiches and I even had a marriage proposal from a 40 something year old promising me a home in the mountains. How the shop keepers thought cries of 'fish and chips’, ‘I like your cheese’, ‘Lady Gaga’, ‘Nice Bum’ and ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ would increase their chance of a sale I have no idea. Gemma, one of the girls on tour came up with a way of battling the random shouts of food stuffs at us by screaming back other food names. For each cry of ‘fish and chips’ directed at our group she matched it with an equally strong and passionate shout of ‘tagine’ or ‘bolognaise’. Fortunately for me I wasn’t subject to most of these taunts as most people thought I was Moroccan and just tried to talk to me in Arabic. I have no idea what they said to me and I guess I never will.

We finished off the day by eating street food from stands that pop up in the square. I was fascinated to see the different types of meals on offer and the speed in which they prepared them. We ate sitting on long wooden benches much the style of those at Oktoberfest.

That morning saw us all saying good bye and heading off on our separate ways, for me after another few hours at the market I found myself on a plane heading back to London.

Morocco was so much more than I was expecting, perhaps it was the fact I was so under prepared and knew so little about the country that it impressed me so much. I thought that Italy was a country of contrast yet it has nothing on Morocco.

Magical Morocco with your snowy mountains, red deserts, small villages without electricity and no mod cons and sprawling cities you made me fall in love with you.
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