I recently had a revelation. Similar to a few other instances, I was telling some stories to a friend from my visit to Morocco a few years ago. Just when I was in the middle of the narration, I suddenly realized I actually had to strain my memory to recall the finer details. That’s when I knew, I had to do it. I had to write about it — whatever I can remember about this special trip. Just like I wrote one about my solo, life-changing trip to Hampi in 2011, and about another trip to the Eastern Himalayas in 2012. Lot many more to come..
Travelogue: Little memoirs – Morocco (2010)
It was in the thick of winters in London. Working long hours in this weather towards my Master’s thesis as well as the final exhibition was hard enough. To make things harder, I decided to take up a freelance project to make and save enough money to not just pay for my exhibit but also save enough to make at least one trip somewhere new. With £400 as my savings after the exhibition was over, my self-gratification travel options were either 2 days in Paris (including visa, travel and stay and food) or somewhere similar, or 7 days in Morocco (all inclusive!). As obvious as my choice might sound, in retrospect, I actually feel proud and lucky to have made it.
I don’t remember the logistics, but what stayed with me from Morocco were certain sights, experiences and encounters that are still fresh in my memory. For example, the night we arrived. We decided to experience the real thing by opting to stay in the old, walled city which was much like a giant maze. It offered many decent hotels, but something more authentic, we believe, were the Riads. These large old houses are owned and occupied by locals who use spare rooms to rent out to travelers. None of the houses have windows facing the streets. Later I came to learn that it was to protect the women of the house from being ogled at by street romeos. Instead the windows and doors, all opened in a center courtyard.
Our host at the Riad came to pick us up from one of the entrances to the walled city. He picked our luggage up, and guided us through these dark alleys (which were even darker since it was night time), that were beginning to freak me out a little. But I had faith and I kept following him to this one house that was at the end of this particularly dark lane. Our host kept making casual conversation about how weird and scary this may seem but he made sure to follow it up with a reassurance that we are going to eventually fall in love with this city. Soon enough, we entered a small doorway that led us straight into the house. I knew just then that he was right. We received a warm welcome and a big smile by the lady of the house. They led us into the open courtyard of their house that had a little pool and orange trees around it. The trees actually had oranges growing on them! There was only one table with seating for 4 next to the pool where we would be having our breakfast in the morning. Our room was large with modest furniture and a window that looked down at the pool! This was perfect, and worth every buck that we paid. Just then, I could sense all my fears and anxiety melt away. I knew I was safe and I was going to have the most perfect vacation ever.
Now that we were all set with a roof over our heads, we had to feed our growling stomachs. After (almost) wrapping our heads around the directions to get back home, we headed out to visit the most visited part of Marrakech – Djemaa el-Fnaa – the market square of Marrakech. It was an adventure finding our way to the square as we walked past small shops and many houses. Eventually we saw light at the end of the tunnel when we saw a whole bunch of people flocking towards an opening that was filled with the aromas of exciting food and people. Intimidating, exciting, and charming are the words that come to my mind. But I am sure it was much more than that. Djemaa el-fnaa was called ‘The Masterpiece of World Heritage’ by UNESCO in 2001 and I can imagine why. If there is one way to explain it – I would call it a giant carnival — that’s always happening. While I was busy engaging all my senses in this sudden outburst of emotions, somehow magically I was transported to the stall that our host at the riad recommended – “If you want your tummies to be alright, then just stick to eating at stall number this and that..” (I don’t actually recall the numbers, but at that time they were etched in my brain!). We diligently followed his instructions, and treated ourself to a highly hospitable food stall owner/chef and his amazing chicken Tagine and Couscous. While we waited for the food, we were offered the ‘Moroccan Whiskey’ that is actually the famed Moroccan hot mint tea, that serves equally as an appetizer, a snack, dessert or simply a social beverage.
With our tummies full, and our senses over-whelmed, we called it a day and somehow figured our way back home. That evening was special, and I was looking forward to experiencing more of it in the coming few days.
The rest of the trip in and around Marrakech can best be described as this exciting journey that led me through maze-like streets in Medina (old city) onto larger open roads and massive shopping malls in the New City of Marrakech that resembles practically any big city around the world. We visited Jardin Majorelle built by the famous designer Yves Saint Laurent who came to the city in 1964. “Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé bought the electric-blue villa and its garden to preserve the vision of its original owner, landscape painter Jacques Majorelle, and keep it open to the public. Thanks to Marrakshi ethnobotanist Abderrazak Benchaâbane, the garden Majorelle began cultivating in 1924 is now a psychedelic desert mirage of 300 plant species from five continents.” – as written by Lonely Planet.
We casually walked around the old city during the day and experienced a totally different feeling. The city was swarming with little shops selling olives, chickens, lamps, furniture, women selling the moroccan bread and knick-knacks that were useful for the locals. I experienced the joy of bargaining, even though it was tough to do it with someone who spoke only 2 languages, none of which I could speak (French and Arabic)! To make it worse, I was accompanied by a friend who is French, but really bad at bargaining :P We took a long walk to the bus stop where we would buy a ticket to go to Essaouira – a small coastal town only a few hours journey from Marrakech – before we headed back to spend the last evening at our Riad in Marrakech.
At first, I thought it sounded like the name of a beautiful woman – exotic and mysterious. The town of Essaouira is not too far from that. By this time, it seemed like the whole idea of a walled city is a theme here in Morocco. I could almost imagine all town with this little ‘medina’ in the center and modern towns outside it, almost like what you see in some old Indian cities such as Jaipur and Bhopal. Just like Marrakech was pink, Essaouira was blue and white – a tiny coastal town that you can literally visit in one day – on foot. We decided to stay at a Riad here too. It was run by a young French lady. Since we were here only for one day, I didn’t have enough time to dig deeper into the history and the culture of this place. (Lonely planet describes it pretty well here.) But my one day here was enough for me to fall in love with this immensely peculiar, little town.
We visited Skala du Fort, that housed a host of Cannons facing the Atlantic Ocean. The fort offered majestic views of the ocean and a whole bunch of Seagulls circling the sky and perched on the fort walls. The day went by walking around the walled city that is rarely visited by people belonging to my part of the world. However, I was surprised when a man selling some souvenirs in the market area referred to me as Kajol, a Bollywood actress! I looked at him and smiled, almost acknowledging the fact that I was in fact from the land of Bollywood and he went on displaying his knowledge by calling out names of famous Bollywood Stars such as Shahrukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. I walked on, not too impressed by his sales pitch but almost amused at how, at that moment, I truly felt like a foreigner from a far away land.
The beach was like a hallucination – sand dunes on one end and the endless ocean on the other. The wind was harsh and the sand blew horizontally. We were battling with the wind to walk but the scene was so surreal that we fought hard to keep our eyes open. We eventually found a little shack at the end of the beach that provided us with fish as fresh as it can be with some salad and some sauce. It was delicious to say the least but there was more to come.
One of the things I distinctly remember is visiting a fish market and learning how to pick fresh fish. The market was pretty large and carried the smell of raw fish – very characteristic of the whole town. Not very appealing to me, but the idea of being able to pick up fresh fish that can then be cooked for dinner was very exciting for me. So I went anyway. Unfortunately, the day was almost over and the glassy-eyed fish was not fresh anymore. So we moved on to find a restaurant where we could satisfy our, by then, a large and very unsatisfied appetite.
The roads were cobbled and the houses and shops were made of stone (unlike Marrakech where the houses seemed to be constructed off some kind of a sandstone). The sun had gone down and the streets were dimly lit by occasional street lamps. But we were lucky to find this hidden gem of a restaurant that had the most amazing ambience, with soft Moroccan music playing in the background and mural-ed walls that displayed beautiful art created by local artists. The best was yet to come, though. We asked our host if he had fresh fish and he told us that we were lucky as they literally caught some fresh Sardines this afternoon. He assured us that he would make the best Sardine Tagine we have ever had after we told him our story about the fish market, and indeed, he kept his word!
Oukaïmeden & the Toubkal Massif: Hiking in the Atlas Mountains
On our second last day in Morocco, we hired a rickety cab ride to Toubkal Massif to do a day hike into the Atlas Mountains. Our tour guide was a fun, enthusiastic local who carried fresh chicken and vegetables to hand over to one of the villagers who would cook a good, traditional meal for us while we go trek in the mountains. We decided to start our trek from a tiny mountain village which is where I started seeing the landscape change. Small houses, rocky walk-ways, endless cacti growing for as far as the eye can see and the beautiful, majestic Atlas Mountain range. We witnessed tiny shrubs growing horizontally out of the village house walls, goats and little mountain kids effortlessly gliding down the hills, waterfalls, endless dirt hills and mountains and a beautiful stream flowing in the middle of all of it. The 5-6 hours hike should have been very tiring. Instead, we came back to the village refreshed and famished. The meal that awaited us thereafter was freshly prepared, traditional Chicken Tagine that melted in our mouths. This was my last meal there, but like all the others, it kept getting better. On our drive back to Marrakech, we came across a tiny potter’s house that we stopped at to buy some traditional pottery. It was a delight to chat with the locals over a cup of tea and a chance to use their wheel to make my own tagine!
Our trip to Morocco ended in Marrakech from where I had my flight back to London. It was an emotional last day for me as I was leaving behind a piece of my heart back in Morocco. Some good-byes were said too as I was also flying back to India for good from London in a couple of days. But I was also happy to know that I was taking back with me some experiences that I will always preserve in the deepest corners of my heart.