The People of Morocco
My first morning in Morocco, I was sat up on the rooftop of my riad in Marrakech, looking for breakfast. The check in boy had been very clear that breakfast was to be served from 7:00 am. So there I was, at 8:35, and there was no one to be seen.
I climbed down four flights of stairs to find him lying on the bench by the reception desk. I asked him about breakfast, and he assured me that there was a woman in the kitchen on the rooftop preparing it. When I assured him that there was no woman in the kitchen on the rooftop, we both climbed back up the four flights of stairs, and he set out to investigate.
The woman wasn’t there. She usually comes at 7:00, but by now it was nearing 9:00 am. He didn’t know where she was. He suggested I sit down to wait. So I did.
I sat for a while, and was just about to give up on breakfast and go catch my onward transport to Imlil, when a German man sat down at the next table over and pulled out a digital thermometer. He fiddled with the dials for a few minutes, and then placed it carefully in the shade.
He said hi, and asked where I was from. I inquired about the thermometer. He told me that he likes to know the precise temperature and humidity, but doesn’t trust the information on the internet, so he always brings his own thermometer. I asked him what the temperature was, but he told me that it takes 10 minutes to calibrate, so we moved on to other topics while we waited.
He had been a banker in Meinz, but retired six months ago. Since then he’s been to Morocco three times, and loves it so much that he wants to buy a flat in the suburbs of Marrakech.
He told me that he’d been to Canada. He saw the Rocky Mountains and British Columbia, and he also went to Lethbridge. I asked why. Lethbridge is not usually a highlight of the Western Canadian tourist circuit. He didn’t have a clear answer, but told me that Lethbridge was one of the deadest towns that he’s ever been to. He said there were no people about, nothing to do. Even the soil was dead - no insects, no life.
I told him that he may just be right about Lethbridge, but also that there’s always something to see. Millions of years ago, Southern Alberta was full of dinosaurs, the remains of which are still being found today. Lethbridge may not be the highlight of Western Canada, but there’s always something to see when you look for it.
Ten minutes had passed and he checked the calibrated thermometer. In the early morning shade it was a cool 21 degrees, with 42% humidity. I enjoyed my breakfast chat. Travelling can be a very selfish experience - trying to get the best experience, the best picture, the best seat in the cafe. So I’m challenging myself this trip, everyday to speak to someone, hear somebody’s story, learn something new. And here are some of the things that I learnt:
The Sephardi Musician on the Side of the Highway
I was staying in Asfalou, a tiny village 10 minutes down the road from the tourist town of Ait Benhaddou. There’s no official public transport in Asfalou. In the morning I walked down the dirt path from my guesthouse to the highway, while I tried to flag down a share taxi, or even just someone willing to give me a ride.
A man appeared a few metres down the road from me. I couldn’t figure out if he was a local or a tourist. He was wearing western clothes, but wasn’t carrying anything with him. I thought he might also be trying to hail a ride, but he just stood and walked around a bit, taking in the sunshine.
He approached me and asked where I was going. He said his name was Abdou, and he was on his way from his home in Marrakech to perform at the Nomad Festival in M’Hamid. I asked him what type of music he performed, and he said Sephardi Jewish music. So here I am, on the side of a middle-of-nowhere Moroccan highway, and the one person around both happens to speak fluent English and happens to be a Sephardi musician?
Abdou clarified - he’s not actually Jewish, he’s just fascinated by the music. He’s been invited to perform all over, including several times in Poland. I asked him about Israel, if he’d ever been there to learn the traditions from the Moroccan Jews who live there now. He told me that while he loves Jewish people, he doesn’t support the State of Israel, so he’s never been. We talked for a while, he sang me some songs, and then he helped me flag down a truck driver, who wasn’t headed all the way to Telouet, where I wanted to go, but would take me as far as Tamedakht, so we bid farewell and on I went to Tamedakht.
Home-Pressed Olive Oil in Tamedakht
The truck driver left me in Tamedakht, still a dusty side-of-the-road town, but at least there was a stall selling cold drinks, and a few locals standing around trying to hitch rides, so I thought I might have more success in my quest to get to Telouet.
While I was there, I figured I’d look around. There was meant to be an impressive ruined kasbah, or old fortress, in the village, so I headed towards it, and almost immediately was accosted by a wannabe guide, who I tried to push off, but to no avail.
Mohamed showed me all around the kasbah, pointing out rooms where they had filmed Cleopatra or Prince of Persia. He even claimed it had been a filming location for Game of Thrones. He offered to take a photo of me behind the bars in the Gladiator prison, but it wasn’t movie sets that I was after. We made our way to the crumbling rooftop, remarkably refreshing after the restored Unesco-approved kasbahs I’d visited in other towns, to take in the view of the vast palmeraie below.
All along the valley, the rough red sandstone cliffs were surrounded with the luscious green of palm fronds and ripe fruit orchards. We made our way down through the kasbah and into the cover of the trees. Mohamed pointed out all the different plant species - wheat, pomegranates, figs, almonds. Inside the palmeraie was like another world - lush and green, cool even in the late morning. We passed women out with their donkeys, harvesting grains, and he handed me fresh beans to try as we balanced along the edges of the irrigation channels.
He mentioned that he kept sheep, so I asked if we could go back to his to see them. He led me into his family compound, a large building with many small rooms for different members of his extended family. There were no windows, to keep out the heat, so we sat at a plastic table in the small dark kitchen while his wife fed us incredible fresh-baked bread, dipped in olive oil they had pressed themselves from the tree in their yard. She poured the oil out of a small disposable water bottle, but it was the most incredible olive oil I’d ever tasted, served alongside their home-pickled olives and sweet mint tea. Despite the dinginess of the surroundings, it was one of my most delicious meals, and truly one of the highlights of my trip.
The Unidentifiable Crocheted Teapot Spout Cozy
After my incredible morning in the palmeraie with Mohamed and the luxurious decor of the Telouet kasbah that I finally arrived at after numerous hitched rides, Ait Benhaddou was slightly underwhelming. It didn’t have the same life to it. The ksar was beautiful, with mud-brick buildings climbing up the hillside, but it was too pristine - restored for film sets, washed down, and lined with souvenir stalls and tour groups.
I decided to walk back to my hotel in Asfalou, rather than haggling another ride. My map showed it as a 30-minute walk along the highway (remember, there are very few cars so I wasn’t too worried), but a shopkeeper I was chatting to suggested I walk back along the mostly-dried riverbed of the Asif Ounila.
The walk back was slightly more circuitous than anticipated. I tried to keep to the left side of the river, so I wouldn’t have trouble crossing nearer to Asfalou, but at times the water ran right up against the steep bank. I climbed up and walked instead through the terraced plots of the palmeraie, between rows of tidy olive trees, pomegranates just blossoming on their branches, wheat fields, and plots of muddy ground cracked in the desert heat.
Eventually I made my way back to the main road, and stopped at a tiny shop at the entrance to the village, identifiable only by the pallets of drink bottles out front. I indicated for a cold drink. The only thing she had turned out to be a horrible carbonated fruit juice - a mix of coconut and passionfruit and pineapple that tasted like none of those things. But it was better than a sun-heated cola, so I took it.
The woman had an in-progress crochet project on the table next to her cash box, so I pointed to it, then pulled out my own knitting to show her. She was very excited, and brought me around the back, through a courtyard and into her home. She showed me all around, and then presented me with a mysterious object, crocheted in peach and black cotton. She pressed it into my hand, as a gift. I had no idea what it was, and our lack of shared language made guessing difficult.
Fatima took me into the kitchen, and demonstrated that the item was a teapot spout cozy. It had a cylindrical tube, covered at one end, to keep bugs, dirt and sand out of the spout, a chain of stitches, and then a loop to hook the cover onto the lid of the teapot. When I took it home, my British teapot spout was far too large to fit inside, despite how hard I tried to pull it over. I hung it from a nail on the wall instead, to remember Fatima and my Moroccan adventures.
The Italian Woman at the Desert Cafe
In Zagora, I stopped for lunch at a cafe outside the bus station. At the table next to me was an older European woman with a younger Moroccan man. I watched them for a while, curious as to what their story was.
We finished eating around the same time, and crossed the road to the share taxi stand opposite. It was Friday, when many people are at prayers, so there were no taxis around. She was headed to Tagounite, where she had European friends who lived there most of the year. I was headed to M’Hamid, slightly further down the road, and then into the desert.
But alas, there were no taxis. All the drivers were at prayers, so we stood in the shade and waited. She was exasperated, complaining about the heat and trying to fan herself with her scarf. Finally prayers ended, and we rushed to grab the limited number of seats in the cramped van. No one was going all the way to M’Hamid, so I figured I’d go to Tagounite with her, and figure it out from there.
On the way we chatted about the desert. She told me about how her friends come here for the silence, to get away from it all. I can imagine Europeans living in Marrakech, but Tagounite is really a dusty desert village with not much in the way of comforts for foreigners. It had nothing of the buzz of Marrakech, or the glamour of Casablanca. It barely had a paved road, and while I didn’t see much of it beyond the empty taxi rank, I imagine it must be a hard place to live, coming from Rome or Paris. It was a fascinating insight into the way that people become attached to this country, how foreigners find their place here, and make it into a home.
When we got to Tagounite, she and her friend headed off on their way, and I set about trying to find a way to get to M’Hamid, which turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated.
Further into the Desert
There were no taxis to M’Hamid. There were no taxis anywhere to be fair, not that there was anywhere to go other than onward to M’Hamid, or back to Zagora. There’s only one road leading through the desert here, and nothing on either side, so you can only go in one of two directions.
I needed to go to M’Hamid to pay a deposit on my camel trek, which was taking place after Shabbat. I texted the woman I had arranged it with, and informed her that there was really no way for me to get to M’Hamid, and could I please pay on Sunday. She insisted that I pay before the weekend, but I still couldn’t figure out how to get there. I phoned her to discuss further, to discover that she had a proper Manchester accent, something which I hadn’t realized through our email exchanges.
So no problem, I paid her by e-transfer to her British bank, and called the nomad camp I was staying at over Shabbat to come pick me up directly from Tagounite. Five minutes later, as I was stock-piling water bottles at the roadside kiosk, Younnes found me (it wasn’t hard to identify me, being the only foreigner on the entire street). I got in the front seat of his rusty old truck and we headed off-road through unmarked dunes to his nomad camp, but more on that later.
There were so many people who made my time in Morocco meaningful. There was the family in my share taxi from Telouet to Ait Benhaddou who bought popcorn for the ride, and got me a little bag as well. There was the sandal-maker in Rabat who sewed together my hiking sandals when the glue melted from the heat, charging me only ￡1 for the 20-minute job, and showing me his sandal-making certificate from some Moroccan college (it was all written in Arabic, so difficult to decipher). There were countless food-sellers, tea-pouring waiters and shopkeepers who pointed me in the right direction. The dentist in the Rabat Medina who had lunch with me - pitas stuffed with fried aubergine, pickles, olives and more, while chatting about life in the Moroccan capital. The teenage boy at the chicken stall in Marrakech who let me watch as he sliced their necks open, ripped their feathers out, and lined up their butchered bodies for sale.
There were also less fun people. My sleazy guide in Fez, who cut me hearts out of leather scraps and told me I was like his sister. The second sandal-maker in Fez (my sandals really did not hold up well in the Moroccan heat) who charged me ￡10 for a shoe fix (I do realize that this is less than I would have paid in Glasgow, but it’s the principle of it) and was just very unpleasant. But these people were few and far between (and predominantly located in Fez), and overall I had an incredible time with so many lovely, trustworthy and genuine people who took such good care of me.
It’s such a privilege to be able to travel by myself. All across Morocco I saw people with guides. I also saw some people alone, but few, especially outside of cities. I didn’t see any other women alone, the entire time. When you’re alone, especially as a woman, people talk to you. They take care of you. It’s a great privilege, and an incredible opportunity.
I especially loved the share taxis. In Morocco, they have two types of taxis - petite taxis, which are small cars that give rides within city limits, and grande taxis, 7-seater vans (or 8 or 9, depending on how many people you can squish into one seat) that give rides across city limits. Any taxi can be flagged down, and if there’s room, you climb in. Grande taxis usually run on set routes, and congregate in certain areas, based on destination. They leave when full, which means you can wait anywhere from 5 minutes to 2 hours (I think I waited 1.5 for one of mine) until they’re full.
If you get there first, you wait the longest, but you also get the luxury of the front seat - no squishing (although a few times I saw two people sharing the front seat), and an open window bringing in fresh air. Most often though, I found myself squished in the back or middle seats with many other strangers. I sat next to fully veiled and gloved women, and random businessmen. I never saw another foreigner in a shared taxi. It’s an incredible way to meet people, to spend an hour (or 5) with real locals, just going about their daily lives.
Travelling this way is incredible, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to go out and explore. It’s not about the ticketed sites or the fancy hotels, but the being alone in totally foreign spaces. Going where you want to go. Seeing. Tasting. Trusting people enough to go into random houses and drink tea with strangers. Finding your way, and knowing that it will all be alright. I’m grateful for the time I had in Morocco, and the few weeks I got to spend simply being in a different spaces.