Morocco … A daunting affair to even report. And I enjoyed my nearly three-month travel. But enjoyed it in a way one enjoys an intense squat workout: the Before, the During and the After very distinctly treated. I genuinely feel I would return, though under more select geographical and seasonal constraints.
This time about, I roamed from June through September, the hottest period. And I chose to explore some of the hottest regions of the country. And I lingered quiet a bit around those regions.
Next time around, I would limit my stay to just the coastal and the vicinity. For not only did the heat, albeit dry, present a notable challenge not devoid of frustrating physical side-effects; but also the heaviest emotional strain: the communication, negotiating, haggling, anxiety. These factors I felt, rather counter-intuitively, more adherent to the inner parts of the country, Marrakesh included, which I wouldn’t revisit unless the world depended.
A quick survey of destinations:
- Tangier - port city, formerly autonomous and international; mixture of traditional and the European; significant tourism. Abode to numerous authors.
- Chefchaouen - the blue washed mountain town surrounded by Mountains, sheep and Hashish plantations. Fairly high tourism.
- Fes - ancient, imperial city, former capital. Huge, vertiginous Medina. My favourite of the ancient cities.
- Meknes (and Volubilis, the Roman ruins) - imperial city/former capital, calmer, yet still authentic.
- Merzouga - desert city close to Algiers; dunes
- Tinghier - numerous seamlessly accessible and half-abandoned Kazbahs; the Todra Gorge; the palmerie - that artificial oasis stretching kilometers; mountains and canyons galore. Beautiful.
- Ouarzazate - nothing objectively remarkable, but I found needed peace. Much Hollywood film production takes place within those studios.
- Aït-Benhaddou - beyond the mountains, the Kazbah makes for a grand highlight.
- Marrakesh - imperial city/former capital. Highest tourism. Not in my good graces.
- Essaouira - Port city. Fish. Sardines. Calm weather. Calm vibe. Despite the high tourism, a huge breather after Marrakesh.
- Taghazoud - a small, surfing village.
- Anza - another small, calmer, sea village 8km from Agadir.
- Agadir - the modern of the big cities. Huge souk. Generally charming.
Something like the following: Arrived from Spain at the Tangier sea port. From there, the blueveiled Chefchaouen; then the intense, ultra-historic imperial Fes (though taxing, surprisingly one of my favourite stays); the neighboring, former capital Meknes; then a slingshot to Merzouga in the Sahara region; then a gradual, month-long progression towards the Atlantic coast: Tinghir (favourite region of the entire central Morocco); from there, Ouarzazate and the neighboring Aït-Benhaddou; then Marrakesh (another former capital whose extravagant tourism factor I’d avoid but to save the world, I think I’d mentioned); then the lovely Essaouira, now back at the coast (from whence the intensity of my sojourn finally lowered a few notches); then Taghazoud, Anza and finally Agadir, from where I chanced to fly out the same day as the earthquake would later strike.
On average, I occupied each city for a week. Occupied. Military lingo. Well, such assumed at times my wariness. Had to erect a battlement to mitigate the challenges. Somewhere, I occupied more. Lingered at Essaouira for 10 days, such a lung-filler it presented after the suffocating Marrakesh: still high tourism, but a far a calmer dynamic. Somewhere (ie Aït-Benhaddou) I stayed but over a few days.
Constant tension, anxiety. Anxiety over being commercially abused. Anxiety over being cheated or even marginally overcharged. And however marginal, I simply could not deal with the psychological factor in an accepting manner. And mind you, I spent far longer in the country than a typical tourist. And I did so under my austere and pseudo-masochistic travelling constraints, none of which exactly facilitates.
Perhaps my memories of emotions twist reality. Not unwarranted.
But I was not schooled in the Moroccan ways; nor the Berber ways (the Indigenous populace); nor the Islamic ways. (My only prior Islamic country had been Malaysia, albeit of a far lower Islamic prevalence, where I mostly interacted with the Chinese and Indian populations.) In fact, I’ve never visited a nation of such reported homogeneity across any religious metric.
All felt new and exotic.
And physically taxing. I passed numerous stomach illnesses. Probably due to the water. I certainly was not about to spend three months drinking the bottled mineral. (In contrast to Brazil or Mexico: being the Moroccan tap water ‘fairly drinkable’ - subject to individual, there was no large-volume mineral water infrastructure; the entire populace dealt in 1.5L bottles, a bloody waste). So I heavily appealed to the tap, sometimes boiled, sometimes not. Most of the three months, without consequence. But sometimes, stomach incidents. A good part of the first and, strangely, last week, days bed-constrained, some fever, viral-symptoms manifest. Maybe the water, maybe other causes.
The language issue burdened. That is, I was speaking and practicing French (my prevalent mission), wherever, whenever possible. But French is only a secondary language of Morocco. Across much of the populace, English gradually seeks to dominate. There is an active reform in place to that extent.
Due, primarily, to my obstinacy to forego the far from perfect French, much awkward communication took place. Misunderstandings, confusion. Cultural misalignment of expectations, likewise, did not help.
Sometimes, the person genuinely did not wish to speak French for political concerns. The view of France and the respective language varies widely from individual to individual. Sometimes, I still insisted, under the veil of innocent naïvety.
But concerning manipulative commercial practices, be it French or English (or Spanish, of wide use in the very North), none of these secondary languages exactly facilitate; though I’m endlessly thankful for French, having likewise encountered endless transactions where naught but French would have enabled any communication (ie local transport, tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants).
But only speaking Darija - the local Arabic variation, or classic Arabic appear to me as plausible facilitators of sympathy. … All hypothetical of course. Maybe a character gentler than mine would attain the same even with no language.
Doctors and pharmacists, as a rule, spoke French, not English. Usually managed to thus get by. Although once abandoned the Dental office and the prospect of a cleaning simply for lack of an understanding. One pharmacist spoke Russian to me, not uncommon among them to pursue apothecary sciences in Russia.
Yeah, Morocco took its toll.
For the greater part and after the first few weeks, I opted for second-class buses, tickets only purchasable physically at the terminals. On these modes of transport, as well as the Grand Taxi (the shared taxi vans) I universally found myself the only identifiable foreigner. Often haggling over fairs.
Once took a train, while still up north not far from the coast, where train routes primarily extend. Service, not bad at all. Generally impressed over such a wide variety of transport options.
Love it. Secondary to the Brazilian, of course: my prejudice knows no limits. But virtually everything blended well with me, subject to quality preparation (far from universal). That includes the clichés: the Tagines, in their infinite variety; the couscous; also the local, austerer dishes: all those minimalist plates of chickens and beans and salads. Especially the soups, that evening tradition of Harira with boiled eggs: remarkably cheap and non-taxing on digestion.
The tea practice, I felt to be a cliché. But abused it nonetheless. Especially since I negligently abandoned my scarce supply of remaining Mate.
The highlights: the Kasbahs - the old military fortifications, today either abandoned or invaded by tourist commerce. Often erected at an elevation, beautiful to behold, haunting to stroll. Something equivalent to the Roman relics. Speaking of which, Volubilis, the huge Roman ruin site not far from Meknes, I also relished to no end.
The Todra gorge, 12-15km outside Tinghir, a site where the already imposing canyons closely converge around a lengthy narrow pass catering to river cafes (tables arranged within the shallow stream), music circles and picnics, offers an enchanting atmosphere.
Merzouga, one of the Sahara capitals, gives rise to the dunes. The Merzouga desert commences a mere 15 minute walk from the center: the center which, upon initial excursion, can feel like a one-street wild west village, especially during the afternoon siesta, streets virtually deserted. One night, I slept atop one of those dunes, accompanied by erratic, fierce winds.
Of the intenser cities, Fes marks my favourite. However paradoxical, I rather enjoyed the days spent within the gargantuan and labyrinthine Medina (the ancient quarter found across virtually all ancient Moroccan cities).
A world of its own, free of motor traffic, free of reliable GPS signal, hundreds of streets leading anywhere from religious centers (ie the ancient Al-Karaouine) to the abysm, it felt grey and edgy, but remarkably authentic.
And I found the areas outside the Medina, the glamorous gates, the mercantile centers, the Jewish quarters, equally captivating.
Chefchaouen likewise finds a gigantic, somewhat labyrinthine Medina sprawling across significant elevations. Though in contrast to the Fes rawness, in Chefchaouen pervades the blue-washed, picturesque, eastern charm.
The Meknes Medina makes for a smaller, calmer, yet equally exciting escapade.
Somewhere the Medina makes way for the Souk. Architecturally, the two might not even differ, but for the increasing dominance of wares and commerce. In my three months, I have not purchased as much as a ball point pen, deciding that I’m not willing to squander an additional drop of energy. The ecosystem proved too much to mitigate as it is.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t left indifferent to the souk of Agadir.
Agadir, originally devastated in the 1960s, was rebuilt to modern skyscrapers and uncharacteristically wide alleys. One could take it for Miami, a striking contrast to any other of my destinations.
The Agadir Souk is said to be the country’s vastest. And yet, the perfect grid like layout and wider passages made it quiet tractable for traversal. I found myself opting to cross that part of town through the souk rather than the adjoining streets. Remarkable.
I only visited one Mosque, in Essaouira. Generally restricted but to Muslim practitioners, somewhere the entry is more lenient. Not that I made substantial effort. At Essaouira, a Moroccan tourist offered and I acquiesced. Nothing visually extraordinary that I didn’t already superficially witness through the open doors.
But speaking of religion, I’m not without conflict. On the one hand, for a majority self-reported Muslim populace, Quran dictates much concerning precepts. No alcohol. Be generous to neighbor. Don’t cheat or abuse. Etcetera. Much virtuous precept as I find across any monotheistic dogma.
On the other, tourist abuse in commerce prevails. Alcohol is consumed, albeit discretely. Discreetly, in regard to who, I may ask?
So much smoking; as across Europeans, as across locals. It appeared at times that everyone smoked. And then the Hashish culture up north.
That is to say, be the practice explicitly inhibited by scripture or not, I felt any self-reported discipline on the margin of abuse. Hypocrisy, manifold. Hard to take any devotion seriously. Generalized, of course. And largely human.
I met a constant juxtaposition of the genuinely humble and friendly individuals, next to the thin veil of manipulators and opportunists, in company of which I constantly felt on the defense. Regretfully, I felt the latter category of too high a prevalence that it spoiled the experience.
The accommodation department deserves a special praise. I love the Riads/Dars and even the hybrid hostel infrastructure not devoid of Riad influence. Be they in the traditional style, or of Bohemian tincture, everywhere I found myself revering in the decorum.
And the rooftops! As across Mexico, Morocco is a country of the rooftop architectural tradition. That means rooftop terraces galore.
Objectively speaking, Morocco makes for a fascinating country, culture and history. Extraordinary. But there’s an associated emotional cost to a visitor aspiring to a longer, economically favourable stay; one unaccustomed to the African ways in general (be it the Arabian or the sub-Saharan Africa). And that cost considered, my next visit, whenever that takes place, I’m sure to exercise more judicial preference for the how, the where and the what.
Questions, comments? Connect.