I was stirred from my backseat catnap when Mohammed stepped on the brake and made a sharp U-turn in the middle of the highway.
“Une boite! (a box)” he exclaimed, pulling the vehicle off the road and dashing into a sandy field. “Maybe it is a cake”.
Completely perplexed, Skip and I watched in amazement as our Moroccan driver seized a small cardboard box, ripped it open and grinned widely.
“Today is market day. Something maybe fall off a truck”.
Inside the box lay his prize: dozens of packets of potato crisps which, sure enough, had toppled from a passing vehicle.
In the following hours and days, Mohammed’s discovery found its way into the hands and stomachs of many. Some went to children along the road, others to musicians performing at a local museum and the rest to a group of women doing laundry in a river.
Next day, as we drove toward the Sahara, we told Mohammed we wanted to find a camel to photograph for a friend back home.
In less than an hour, he stopped the car, pointing into the distance. All together, we tramped across the sand, stalking the humped beasts till we were close enough to get a good shot.
Mohammed held the camera. Skip and I stood and waited for a camel to emerge. And we all laughed as though we were old friends as the deed was accomplished.
Far from “civilization”, in a land filled with sand, dust, camels and snake charmers, we found surprises, delights and new experiences around every corner. And we learned a number of things about Morocco. Here are some of them:
• People. Almost everywhere we went, we were met with smiles, hospitality and warmth (other than at some spots in Marrakech…more below). French is the second language so you can get by with a smattering of the language and most people in big cities speak a little English (which they often taught themselves by listening to music, watching movies or talking to tourists). According to our friend, Noel, who has lived there a couple of months, Moroccans tend to flare up when angry and shout loudly at one another but the anger soon subsides and antagonists go back to drinking tea. The most memorable taste of Moroccan hospitality came for us when our driver, Mohammed, who’d spent six long days driving us through the country, invited us to his home on our last night to meet his wife and infant daughter. Instead of taking time to relax with his family, he insisted we come to his small third floor walk-up flat in the heart of Marrakech where his wife had baked walnut cake and orange scented biscotti and served a steaming dish of couscous to two strangers. Actions that spoke so much louder than words.
• Vendors. In Marrakech, it’s hard to avoid them. While we didn’t find Moroccan merchants to be as aggressive as Vietnamese, vendors in this city have a unique attribute: they will do pretty much anything to get you to their store. If you ask anyone for directions around the Medina or souk, guess where you’ll end up. If you inquire about a price, you get a price that isn’t really a price but a starting point. You offer them half, or a third. Or, in Noel’s case, plead poverty, tell them you are a single mum and that you have no money to feed your child. You end up at a price that makes you happy. Sometimes. Or you walk away and they run after you and cut the price by half, even if you don’t want the darned thing. They may insult you or tell you you’re wasting their time (particularly in Marrakech), they may shoo you away (also in Marrakech) but they’ll always be ready to haggle and (in smaller towns and villages) thank you graciously for visiting their shop and welcome you to their country.
• Animals. Cats are everywhere. Tiny kittens, barely a few weeks old, will crawl into cardboard boxes or under café tables, and full-grown moggies will rub around your ankles and curl up on vibrant patterned carpets or inside handwoven baskets. They are generally treated well by Moroccans who put down food and caress them. Other animals, though, aren’t treated so well. We saw donkeys being hit with whips as they carried weighty loads of grass, dogs being shooed away from shops and tired horses forced into pulling carriages under a blazing sun (one of the worst sights we saw was a horse lying on the street in Marrakech after it fell when pulling a carriage).
• Food. In every restaurant we found the following: couscous and tagine. And tagine and couscous. Sometimes a random pizza or an omelette but always couscous and tagine. With meat. With chicken. With vegetables for me, since I don’t eat meat. The first tagine was tasty and interesting. The second was OK. By the third, I was reaching for the spicy sauce and each one after that had me losing the will to live. Being a Muslim country, Morocco doesn’t serve alcohol (other than in the delightful seaside town of Essaouira and the larger cities) so we couldn’t even disguise our unexciting couscous with a bottle of wine or a cold beer but washed it down with Berber whisky (sugary mint tea) or delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice. In keeping with the theme of boring food, breakfast usually consists of the following: Bread. Sometimes with jam or cheese or butter. But always several varieties, which usually includes Arab bread and some variety of baguette that’s often hard enough to crack a tooth.
• Toilets. Always a momentous subject in foreign countries. I’m happy to report that toilets in Morocco are mostly of the western design. Sometimes with toilet paper, sometimes without. Only once during our 10-day trip around the country did I encounter the dreaded hole-in-the-floor loo.
• Stuff to buy. Every shop, souk, nook and cranny is stuffed chock-full of brightly-coloured shiny stuff. Jewellery, lamps, engraved boxes, carved curved knives, vividly painted ceramic bowls, handmade leather bags and exotic musical instruments. And, of course, carpets of every shape, size, price, design and colour. There are also specialty items in certain parts of the country. In the southern part of the country, argan oil is plentiful and ubiquitous. Produced from the oils of the argan tree, the oil has a reputation for its cosmetic uses (nourishing and moisturizing) as well as culinary uses. In the Taroudant region, 7 ½ million square yards of land are devoted to saffron growing, making it a specialty in this region, and the town of Rissani, toward the Sahara desert, is one of the world’s largest date palm growing regions with some four million trees and more than 100 varieties.
• Safety. The day we arrived in Marrakech was the first day of Eid al-Adha (the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice). After dismounting from our taxi, we followed our luggage cart through dark alleyways of the Medina to our hotel. The roads were engulfed with smoke and sheep carcasses lay cooking on iron bed frames as people celebrated the holiday and feasted on the lamb banquet. I snapped a photo and was immediately scolded by a man who urged me to delete it. It felt uncomfortable and strange.
The following day we strolled to Jamaa El Fna (the huge main square) where we mingled with snake charmers, orange juice vendors and horse-drawn carriages. We poked around shops, gorgeously festooned with shiny silver jewellery, vivid carpets and hand-painted ceramic plates and sat outside in a café watching the magical dance of this fascinating city. That night we strolled back through the same dark alleyways, where the lamb feast was only a few smoldering ashes. Motorbikes swerved along the narrow roads, women wrapped in djellabas walked side by side and men with extravagant mustaches sipped mint tea at streetside cafes. While it may have been foreign, dark and mysterious, it never felt unsafe.
Once we hit the road to see the rest of the country, we found graciousness, kindness and warmth. We chatted with waiters who’d taught themselves English. We were presented with little gifts from shop owners when we bought something in their store. We bonded with Mohammed who soon became a Facebook friend and a man we consider among the finest we’ve met. We responded with surprise to a handful of people back home who were concerned about us travelling in this foreign North African country –Be careful. Are you safe? Watch out for problems – as we read the news back home about a college shooting in Oregon and a bus tragedy in Coventry.
• The country. While everyone’s heard of Marrakech, Casablanca and Tangier, not many are familiar with Ourzazate, Essaouira and Agdz, all fascinating, beautiful spots in this sprawling country. Once you leave the edginess of Marrakech, things get calmer, gentler and more hospitable. People are more relaxed and friendly and the traffic and congestion of the city melts away. In some parts of the country, you can drive for hours and see little more than sand, scrub, rolling hills and an occasional donkey or camel. We started our exploration in Essaouira which immediately became one of my favourite places. Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, this town is a sparkling jewel of blue and white painted buildings on tiny cobblestone alleyways brimming with shops, cafes and restaurants (many with rooftop balconies overlooking the ocean). The working port is a clutter of activity, with sun worn Moroccan fishermen repairing nets by hand, hundreds of boats jammed in the harbor to offload fish and flocks of seagulls circling or just watching from their perches on ancient stone ramparts.
Our sojourn through the southern region led us through the staggering gorges of Dades and Todra. It took us across mountain passes that overlooked vast plains of sand and dust, through small villages with rundown old buildings and stunning ancient Kasbahs to the blood red sand of the desert where dunes rose from the ground in giant waves, camels trekked slowly across the horizon and the only sound to be heard was the sound of the wind.