Morocco

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If I’d thought queues in Spain were a place where only the strongest survive, the ferry to Morocco was a much bigger lesson in survival of the fittest. With passport control on board, everyone had to have their passport checked before we disembarked. With only two border control officials on duty, and a journey of around an hour and a half, it made for a pretty hefty wait in line. When the Ferry docked in Tangier Med, and what felt like half the boat was still waiting to be checked, you could literally see the heckles start rising. A tense feeling which only got significantly more heated when a large group of serious looking dudes decided they were gonna skip the wait and take the front of the line. When a pregnant women and another father started yelling across the crowd at them, an argument of epic proportions erupted. I cannot even begin to tell you what it’s like to stand in the middle of a group of people yelling at each other in Arabic, shaking their hands, pulling finger gestures, all across a mass of wide eyed looking people. I of course couldn’t understand a word of it and was pleased the faces of the two Canadian girls behind us reflected mine and Mike’s utter amazement. Things finally settled down, and the pregnant woman was moved to the front of the line with her two young children for her efforts, but what a welcome to Morocco!! In the end it didn’t actually matter how long it took to get through the line, there was a shuttle bus to take people from the ferry to bag check, which wasn’t going anywhere until everyone was off the boat. But it was a reminder of an age old lesson, don’t piss off a pregnant woman!!!
After our interesting arrival we managed to find our beautiful riad guest house right in heart of the medina without too much trouble. A riad is a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard, with the word itself apparently coming from the Arabian term for garden, “ryad”. I’d been advised to stay in these guest houses if we wanted the most authentic experience of Morocco, and I’m so glad we did, every riad we stayed in was truly beautiful.
The riad in Tangier was run by a lovely Dutch guy who had lived there since 2006, he gave us a run down of our surroundings and answered all our questions as we sat on the rooftop terrace enjoying beautiful lemon grass tea. Then it was into the lions den, the throng of the a medina where we wandered around attempting to not get completely lost. Starving we found the dodgiest looking place to have dinner, and enjoyed the most delicious lamb shish kebabs ever. Given the past sensitivities of my stomach I steered clear of the chicken!! Mike however ate everything he could get his hands on, no doubt trying to fill the void that a sudden lack of beer availability in a Muslim country had caused!
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Despite expecting the 5am wake up during the call to prayer, the sudden explosion of pre-dawan noise still nearly gave me a heart attack. What an incredibly strange, yet appropriately wonderful way it was to start the day in a world that already felt a million light years away from my own. Mike described it as something that is simultaneously eery and peaceful all at once, which I would say sums it up pretty well.
After Breakfast which consisted of coffee and honey crepes (or perhaps honey roti bread is a better description, so so good my new most favourite thing) we watched the medina wake up and come alive before our eyes. It’s just so different to anything I have ever seen or experienced before, so vibrant, so alive. You could almost feel the pulse of the community of the medina get stronger around you as things kicked into gear. Interestingly our new kiwi friend Sandy said he’s never experienced a community spirit like the one in the Fez medina ever before.
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Exploring the nooks and craneys of the medina, we watched men sewing kaftans, tailoring outfits, cutting leather to sew tiny souvenir camels, making shoes, all amongst a myriad of colours and fabrics, and set amongst the winding labyrinth of alley ways. Despite the unusual smells, the hoicks of spit here and there and streets that would be considered dirty by western standards, each morning shop keepers sweep away rubbish from their front stoops, taking pride in their little slice of the world.
The Tangier medina was such a sensory explosion, it was hard to imagine what things were going to be like visiting Fez and Marrakesh. But I wasn’t going to have to wait long to find out, still feeling like we had only just arrived in this strange new world, it was time to zip our bags up and head for the train station to make our way to Fez and its 47 degree heat! Traveling through flat open countryside for five hours on a train with windows that didn’t open and broken air conditioning had left me feeling pretty lethargic, but the ride in a petit taxi from the station to the entrance of the medina soon had me wide awake as I learned in Morocco if you want to stop speeding cars at a busy intersection with no traffic lights or road signs, you just drive in front of them and stop in order to bring them to a complete halt. It was the first of many interesting road rule interpretations I was going to come up close and personal with!
Once safely at the medina entrance we found our way to another riad guest house, Dar Kenza, without any problems, and the overwhelming warmth and kindest of local Moroccan Najib and his family who we were staying with. They restored their beautiful riad over 16 months in painstaking detail and to the most beautiful and high quality. It blew my mind. With near perfect English having someone like Najib to pick the brain of was an absolute traveling nugget of gold, happy to chat to us about everything and anything during the long hot summer days, it was truly fascinating to be in a new place, so foreign to what you know, and to have a local to talk with about their way of life here. When I asked Najib how safe things were at night, he said in the Muslim religion if you take a person into your home, whether the home be a guest house or a medina, you protect them. He also said that here in life the lesson is to live and to help as much as you can. Here in Morocco people strive to take care of their neighbours, no matter who they are. In the Second World War 3 million Jews were living here, when the French Veichy government offered the Country independence, money, anything it wanted in return for its Jewish people, the King responded by saying ‘There are only who live Moroccans here’.
Fez really did take things to the next level, with a medina consisting of nine thousand streets and alley ways, it’s believed to be the biggest car free space in the world. However with the scooters, donkeys and carts speeding by left right and centre, as well of thousands of people going about their day to day business, it still makes for a pretty hectic time!
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As promised, we met up with our new Kiwi friend Sandy for coffee and mint tea, another local staple I have come to love (you do learn quickly however to ask for just a tiny amount of sugar. The first time I had it it was just the way the locals have it, and my spoon literally stood up in it thanks to all the sugar!). What a treat it was to have crossed paths with Sandy, who after our drinks unveiled Fez, his new home, to us through a local’s eye. It was wonderful.
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One of my equally favourite and least favourite parts of the medina has to be the butcheries. Equally disgusting and fascinating for the crazy parts of animals that hung in front or were on display, from cow heads, to ball sacks, hooves and everything in between. In the incredible heat, by the latter part of the day it could smell pretty bad and pretty much came alive with buzzing flies, but before if you hit it at the right time before that, it was such an interesting place to watch. As locals went about their business buying meat each day, the multitude of stray medina cats would wait patiently at their feet for any tidbit that might make its way to the floor, of which they would quickly polish off any little morsel as quickly as it had fallen.
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After spending the afternoon trying to exercise some self and budgetary control while shopping for scarfs, we finally dined on local couscous. When I explained to Najib how we cooked couscous back home (simply adding water and maybe a little butter or lemon if you want to get adventurous), his look of disgust made me laugh out loud. Couscous here, he explained to me, usually takes at least two and a half hours to prepare as the meat and vegetables are slowly steamed through it, and the result is absolutely mouth wateringly delicious.
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The next day was filled with local sights, and smells, at the Fez leather tannery, where people from 180 families are employed. With a bunch of mint helping block out most of the smell (which comes from all the pigeon poop that’s used to treat the leather because of its ammonia) it was quite an amazing sight. Things like henna, poppies, mint and saffron were being used to create a rainbow of colours of leather, that’s turned into shoes, bags, jackets you name it.I was in complete awe of those doing the outdoor work there, to be doing such a physical job in such extreme heat was pretty mind blowing. Working in the tannery is something that you’re born into, so given summer holidays were still in swing, we watched as father’s were teaching the tricks of the trade to their sons who would soon be joining the ranks of workers.
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Travelling around Fez feels a little like time travelling, with the 19th century New Town, the 14th century Kings Palace and Jewish quarter, and the 8th century Medina all nestled together in an incredibly vibrant and fascinating city.
Simply amazed by the world that was going on around us, that night we really were treated to another wonderful experience. Invited to have dinner (and wine!!) at Sandy’s beautifully restored riad with he and his wife Suzanna and his daughter. Suzanna wrote the most beautiful book (A House in Fez), complete with incredible photos, about their experiences restoring what was initially an incredibly run down place and we spent a fabulous evening learning about their fascinating journey, and admiring the result of all the hard work.
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Sitting on the roof top terrace we watched as night fell across Fez, and were treated to the most amazing lightening and thunder storm, a truly spectacular sight in a place so hot and dry. Coupled with hearing the call to prayer waft through the air, it really was a surreal experience and a wonderful way to finish off our stay.
With Morocco already turning into a pretty magic adventure, the journey was only just beginning, setting off for a three day tour through the Atlas Mountains to the Sahara desert the next day. We splurged quite a lot on this trip and hired a private English speaking driver for the tour through Plan-it Fez, a tour company run by a lovely Australian woman. While it was definitely a more expensive way to do things, given the distance we were covering and the extreme temperatures we wanted to be comfortable. We soon learned that the company and local knowledge of our lovely driver Hassani was well worth the spend, he answered all of my questions, and there were A LOT over the course of the 1400 kilometres we traveled together.
Our first day consisted of making our way to Merzouga and the Sahara, through spectacular scenery which included Barbary apes, the Ziz Valley and the Efous Oasis – a magnificent sight. Stretching 150km through the desert, more than 45 different kinds of dates are grown there, along with many other thriving crops. What an amazing feat of nature it was to witness, I was just completely blown away by how nature can make something that sustains so much life for communities thousands of families that’s able to flourish in the harshest of environments.
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It was this first part of our journey that really highlighted for me how tradition works in perfect harmony with modern aspects of life in Morocco. Literally just a few minutes driving out of the Moroccan Le Chamonix resort town had you amongst traditional Nomads tending to their flocks of sheep goats and camels.
By 5pm we had found our way to what felt like the end of the world, where the golden sand of the Saharan desert stretched so far into the distance it was truly hard to believe what you were looking at was real. We saddled up on our camels (which have subsequently become my new favourite animal) and set off on a journey which I think is set to always remain one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
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Following the initial terror of the camel standing up, I have never felt so relaxed in all my life in such proximity to an animal. Feeling about as insignificant as a spec of sand on the face of this earth, trekking through the desert was so much more peaceful than I could have expected. I have never felt, nor been in such a remote part of our planet, or seen such an amazing environment ever before.
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Taken care of by two Berber guides our camp was out of this world, to think people still actually live this way! I don’t know how they did it, but we were treated to more of the most amazing food I have ever eaten, a rice and chicken dish, beef tagine, followed by the most exquisite honey dew Mellon, and washed down with Berber whiskey.  As the sun set we were engulfed by silence and darkness like I have never seen or heard, and it was wonderful.
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Unfortunately sleeping in the desert wasn’t quite as romantic as I had hoped … Those Berber tents keep things nice and toasty inside and I literally felt like I was being roasted alive. But climbing the sand dunes and watching the sun come up made me realise the discomfort was a minor price to pay.
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I was so sad to have to return to the real world, even looking back on the photos now it’s still hard to believe it was all real. I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
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Hooking back up with Hassani, and air conditioning, we spent the day travelling through Moroccan countryside as we moved closer to our destination of Marrakesh.
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Despite travelling through what felt like some of the most remote desert and mountain locations, I was so blown away by the fact that there was always something going on. From nomads selling honey on side of the road, or tending to flocks of sheep and goats in what felt like the middle of nowhere, women carrying bundles on their heads, children hustling with flax camels, men working open grills cooking skewers or selling cactus fruit, people tending to green oasis crops, children playing soccer on hard desert ground, trucks so full of sheep or hay on the roads it seemed certain any sudden change in direction surely must topple them over. Even in crippling heat life was beating with such strength everywhere you looked.
Hassani told me a lot about the celebrations that go hand in hand with life in the country. Towns had huge sculptures of things like cherries, apples or roses in the centre depending on what they grew and were known for (think Ohakune’s carrot or Gore’s trout). Each year they have big festivals at harvest time, crowning a local beauty cherry Queen, or rose Queen. While we didn’t get to munch on any apples or cherries, I indulged in the most beautiful rose oil hand cream along the way.
That night our accommodation was in Skoura where we stayed in a traditional African mud clad hotel. Hitting most of these spots just before peak tourist season cranked into gear, we basically had the place to ourselves, which was great. We dined that night on a meal of Chicken tagine, that again was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten, as another desert storm set in around us. This time the rain poured down, and I felt certain our hotel was simply going to melt around us, again it was a truly unreal experience.
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Our last day of the tour took us through the Valley of the Roses to Ouarzazate, home of Morocco’s own Hollywood with huge studio sets in the middle of what felt like nowhere. Continuing with the movie theme our next stop was Ait Benhaddou, one of the best preserved Kasbahs in the Atlas region, and location for parts of Gladiator. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, and despite hustlers lurking around every corner, the views really are magnificent.
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After completing our journey winding through the narrow roads of the High Atlas Mountains, by late afternoon we finally found ourselves in the madness that is Marrakesh.
Arriving exhausted on a Sunday evening, our first foray into the djeema-al-fna, (the famous Marrakesh square and market place) was the most overwhelming and insane thing I have ever experienced. It was utterly and completely crazy.
It’s hard to properly explain in words the madness of the place. There were people EVERYWHERE, snakes carpeted the ground with charmers luring in tourists for photos in exchange for insane amounts of money, mixed in with monkey wranglers, food vendors, child hustlers that you had to swot away like flies, it felt like a hustlers Disneyland! From every direction calls to buy, to look, to take photos, mixed in with the African drumming performances and smoke from open grills, it became a foggy world that completely clouded the brain making you feel like you were walking around in a dream, not quite sure what parallel universe you’d managed to fall into. After three days traveling through the desert, I felt almost like I was suffocating, lost in a sea of what felt like colourful confusing chaos.
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Despite having warmed up with Tangier and Fez, it took me a good 24 hours to relax a little into this strange new world. And one thing that helped in the heat and craziness was the numerous food stalls selling freshly squeezed orange juice for about $1. For us in Marrakesh it became the elixir of life, a sure fire way to re-energise the body through the sweetest sun kissed oranges I have ever tasted.
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With four nights in Marrakesh we had grand plans to explore historic sites, attend a photograph exhibition, visit the Jewish quarter and do a day trip to the coast while we were there, but unfortunately all those plans came to an abrupt stop when Mike picked up the most severe stomach bug/food poisoning I have ever seen. With excruciating stomach cramps and all the other delightful symptoms that such illnesses entail, he couldn’t leave our room, in fact he could barely leave his bed – thankfully he only needed to cover about half a metre to make it to the bathroom.
Having caught camphlybactor when we travelled to Bali, I had every finger and toe crossed that he wasn’t heading down the same agonising road. But after a very nasty 24 hours I was pretty sure we were in for the same nightmare. A nightmare that becomes all the more stressful and worrying when you’re in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak and whose health care system is more than a little dubious. Luckily for us we were staying in a lovely riad with a very kind young man Mohammad taking care of us. He took me to a pharmacy and tried (with his limited English) to translate for me as I stood there trying to stop myself from melting into a pool of sweaty anxiety and worry. Handing over a wad of cash I took a cocktail of medication back to Mike in boxes covered in French and Arabic writing. Despite the kind help of Muhammad a quick google search soon established that plenty had been lost in translation, when we realised the antibiotics we had been given were to treat vaginal infection … Not so helpful in this case.
Despite that though, the rest of our stash was enough to get Mike into a position to travel the three hour train ride to Casablanca where we were due to fly out the next day. I don’t know how he did it, but we got him there, where his condition rapidly deteriorated.
By 10pm the night before we were due to fly, I was certain we wouldn’t be going anywhere, and was on the phone to our insurance company back home trying to figure out what documents we needed to ensure we were covered. At the same time I was trying to establish with people who spoke no English whether there was an after hours clinic/emergency room we could go to in what was rapidly becoming the middle of the night. My romantic idea of the Casablanca of gin bars and ‘here’s looking at you kid’ lines was rapidly descending into the worst stress imaginable.
Again I’m not entirely sure how he did it, but I think the simple fear of the great unknown of the Moroccan medical system gave Mike the strength to rally when he woke up the next morning, and somehow against all odds, we found ourselves comfortably settled into aisle seats near the bathroom on a Turkish Airlines flight, taking off for the other side of Europe.