Going to Morocco was a turning point in my life. It happened just when I needed it most, and it changed the way I lived when I returned. Partially because it was an adventure with some amazing people, at the most opportune moment, but also down to the fact it showed me a type of life I never realized could exist, I fell head over heels in love with the country.
Tumbling out of the airplane and making our way through the airport, the difference was immediately notable. T.I.A: This is Africa – and even this far north they won’t let you forget it. There were no orderly queues or barriers to prevent you moving between sections, no micro-managed check-in system. You simply joined the crowd and hoped you would eventually be spat out in front of a customs desk.
Driving to our accommodation through a buzzing dusk, motorbikes and scooters sped by with too many passengers and not enough safety equipment; At one point a whole family, baby wedged between mum and dad, whizzed past.
It wasn’t until near the end of my trip, as I stood on top of Essaouira’s rampart, with no safety barrier in front and a significant drop down to the crashing rocks below that I was able to put my finger on it.
This country wasn’t resigned with the systemic fear that grips the West. In Morocco you were still allowed to make your own mistakes, you were still allowed to be responsible for your own actions; in essence, you were still free.
My first experience of a desert-esque landscape was somewhat mesmerizing. It came after a very stressful morning trying to navigate our way across the country. After five of us had piled into a four-person taxi, found a way to squish an extra person in the back seat and set off at an alarming pace down the motorway, suddenly all I could see was miles and miles of yellow nothing, broken up by towering sandy hills at irregular intervals.
The infinity of this bleak and serene landscape was so thoroughly contrasting to the bright, vibrant and dynamic festival that is central Marrakech, where our journey had begun. An even greater contrast still to the luscious greens and cascading waterfalls of the Atlas Mountains.
Morocco’s charm is one of authenticity: the vast open landscapes and the bustling hubs of human civilization. The cities don’t feign beauty and the wild country isn’t cultivated and tamed.
Before visiting the country myself, I’d heard endless horror stories about Moroccan culture and the way it treated tourists. Anecdotes of harassment, insults and the strict, and sometimes aggressive, upholding of Islamic traditions came from multiple sources. However, I had a good feeling about this trip, so none were enough to deter me. And, as usual, instinct prevailed!
The culture we were welcomed into was one of the most friendly, hospitable, witty and open that I’ve ever experienced.
Sure, in the big cities you were approached by people trying to sell you things. It was true that if you ignored them, avoided meeting their eye and pretended they didn’t exist, then they would double in persistence. However, if you treated them like a real human, laughed at their pushy marketing tactics and clearly indicated you’re not interested, then more often than not they’d leave with a twinkle in their eye and beaming mischievous grin on their face.
Every single person we met was a complete joy to be around, eager to show us the ins-and-outs of their country and always ready to flash a smile. It seemed as though the countries long history as a trade epicenter had made salesmen personalities a part of daily life.
Our hostel owners were all entrepreneurial young adults, who were as much in the business for meeting like-minded individuals as they were for making money. In our second stop, the surf lessons we took that started as a seemingly professional venture, soon dramatically dropped in price and was revealed to be merely a friend who owned a few extra surfboards.
This laid back attitude to service was a charm in itself. Breakfast time in our Marrakech Riad involved the first of us awake locating which bed that day’s shift-runner was in and letting him know that the guests were up! In most food joints, more often than not you’d be waiting a while, parts of your order would never appear and any attempts to hurry the service would be met with lovingly patronizing laughs.
In fact, this was summed up perfectly when a traveling companion of mine asked where the tea she’d been waiting for, for a significant amount of time, had got to. With that characteristic twinkle that by then we’d grown to know and love, the waiter gently reassured her ‘it would come when it comes’ and that she should ‘be less European.’
^^^ This is what you get when you ask for ‘takeaway’ coffee in Morocco
Moroccan cuisine had been a long-time favorite of mine and, as with many visitors to the country, was one of the main inspirations for my visit. I was not disappointed. Morocco provided a culinary experience that seemed to snowball as each day passed.
Our first real meal was at the famed night market on Jamee el F’naa, the main square in Marrakech. The veterans of the industry bluntly announced to us that it was the ‘same shit, different stall.’ They then continued to use hilarious attempts at cultural appropriation to attract passing clientele (we heard a lot of ‘absolutely spiffing’ and ‘no horse meat here). Regardless of this, we were still more than impressed by the spread laid out for tourists.
Kebabs, rice, fish, tagine, it seemed they had it all. It wasn’t until we found ourselves in a quiet back-alley family-run shop in Essaouira that we realized just how meager this initial spread was. Right next to the sea, our time in this city was spent feasting on freshly caught sardines and seafood, grilled on an open fire and served with home-baked bread and crisp, fresh salad.
Plus, you couldn’t go wrong with the tangy and succulent warmth of a lemon chicken tagine, no matter where we ordered it.
Maybe it was just a perfectly timed holiday, or maybe Morocco is really a place where dreams come true. Either way, the only way any of us are going to know for sure is by going back there! If you’ve visited, I’d love to hear if you shared my admiration and wonder!