Between October 12th and 24th, my husband P.J. and I visited Morocco, flying into Agadir and out from Casablanca, and keeping a journal along the way. The photos are his; the words are mine.
So, why Morocco? A variety of reasons. It seems both exotic and yet accessible. The sound of the place names – Marrakesh, Ourika, Tagoudiche – come musically off the tongue. I have impressions: men in blue turbans, tiled minarets, mazes of stalls selling spices and slippers, red courtyards, shifting sands, lamb and couscous, mint tea. Let’s see how these impressions mesh with reality.
The road to Marrakech
We fly into Agadir, but only spent one night there, near the Inezgane bus station. There is some confusion about what time it is; the flight schedule said arrival 20:20, but our pilot says 19:20. It seems that Morocco can’t make up its mind about whether to stay in Daylight Savings Time until the end of the month or to revert it now. It seems that a flexible attitude to time may be required.
The following morning, at the bus station, we are nabbed by hawkers and escorted towards the El Jazira bus to Marrakech. We embark along with eight other passengers, including three head-scarfed woman and one sleepy young boy. There is an argument between the driver and another guy (co-driver? Ticket seller? Random punter?), as P.J. says la (no) to the men who walk down the aisle selling plantains and watches. Then we set off slowly out of the bus station, horn honking at pedestrians and taxis, out by the roundabout where we pass our hotel, missing the turnoff for Marrakesh, and back again – towards the train station.
This happens twice more, with several changes of driver and more passengers embarking. A tow truck starts backing towards us, the driver has an argument with a policeman, and the tow truck moves away. Much Arabic anger and confusion is expressed. At one stage, all the men at the front of the bus stand and start yelling shooma (shame), and stand up to get off, and the new driver waves his hands and leaves. We eventually set off, nearly two hours late.
The countryside is as unlike Ireland as it’s possible to be. The soil is beige and red, dotted through with scrubby bushes and the occasional sheep. A young shepherd finds meager shelter beneath a bush. We pass a ridge that is like the back of a crocodile. But we can’t admire the scenery for too long, because I pull the curtain to keep out the sun. We chose the side that would be on the west, so we would avoid the morning sun, but now it is afternoon.
In Marrakech, someone is always trying to sell you something: babouches, silver tea sets, spices, plantains, pomegranates, baggy trousers, football shirts, directions to your hotel. One souk specializes in metal goods, particularly lamps; beautiful and intricate, but difficult to carry in the luggage.
Motorbikes and bicycles go everywhere, even down the narrowest streets, even when the signs forbid them. Crossing the street is scary, not because of the cars which you can see coming, but because of the motorbikes which you can’t. The locals wander blithely across the traffic, confident that they will reach the other side, inshallah.
Marrackechi women mostly wear a headscarf and loose clothing. A few wear the full veil with only eyes showing, and a few young women go bareheaded. Marrackechi men mostly wear Western clothing, although some wear the loose djellaba with the hood. They have trousers under the djellaba, thankfully, when they ride their bicycles and scooters. Most of the two-wheeled vehicles are driven by men; when I see a headscarved woman driving I give her a mental high-five.
Many of the older women have a pronounced limp; I’m guessing that the diet may be lacking in calcium and osteoporosis is a problem. The beggars seem elderly, perhaps because there is no safety net for old people without families, or perhaps because poverty is aging them prematurely; that “ancient” man may be not much older than me.
There are many skinny cats but few dogs.
Saying shukran (thanks) or el hisaab (the bill) makes people smile, but then you have to explain that you don’t know any more Arabic.
We are in Marrakech for Eid el Khabir, and for the first two nights the streets echo to the sound of sheep bleating. On Wednesday morning, all are silent; each family has slaughtered a sheep in memory of Ibrahim’s sacrifice. Sheeps heads and feet are blackened on braziers and mutton-scented smoke fills the narrow passageways. The main square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa, is strangely quiet, the tourists more obvious than before. One of the few places open is the Maison de la Photographie, with a Frenchman at the desk. Some of the photos of the souks were taken in the 1880s; but for the absence of tourists and motorbikes, they could have been taken yesterday.
We have dinner on the Jemaa, where P.J. incongruously starts exchanging words in Finnish with a guy from the Western Sahara. It turns out that Mohamed is married to a woman from Finland. We take a last stroll around the Jemaa, listening to the drums and watching jugglers throw blue lights into the air.
If you go to Marrackech, I can highly recommend the Riad Charcam; very central, relaxed, and run by the helpful Bruno.
The easiest way to get from Marrakech to the mountains, if you don’t have your own transport, is to get a place in a “grand taxi”. At the hostel in Marrakech, we find two Germans and an Aussie willing to share a taxi with us to Imlil (we also meet this guy who has cycled all the way from Scotland via Eastern Europe, making me feel rather unadventurous by comparison). So Thursday morning finds me on my husband’s lap in the front passenger seat, clinging onto the grip above the door as the taxi swung around bends. Seat belts, what are those?
After checking into our new hotel (somewhat less swish than Riad Charcam), we take a stroll towards the next village. At first we refuse the help of the man offering to show us the waterfall, but after realising how lost we are, we do a deal with Hassan. He brings us to his friend’s place for lunch; some workmen who had just finished theirs. There was mint tea, of course (whiskey Berber) and some sweet snacks (“you must have some, my wife made them”). A man dressed as a goat enters and starts to hit the other guys with something like a wavin pipe; P.J. is invited to join the fun. Although we forgot to arrange a price beforehand and we are hit with a bill of 250 dirhams.
The following day, we meet up with Hassan for breakfast at his home, a three-story dwelling with some steep steps. Hassan greets us in his djellaba and brings us out onto the balcony for homemade bread, jam, and the usual “Laughing Cow” cheese. The echo in the valley amplifies any noise; we hear a man blow his nose from about 200m down.
Hassan’s older son, Mohamed, is in his 20s but already an experienced guide of 7 years. He has an Irish friend, Des (he pronounces it “Dees”) Clark, a mountain guide who regularly comes to the Atlas. The uphill parts of our route are not as difficult as I had feared, but the downhill slopes are full of loose stones; in places I have to take Mohamed’s hand and watch carefully where he places his feet. P.J. is steadier than me but still skids now and then, ski Berber, as Mohamed calls it.
In the valley, at the river, the women wash their clothes. They wear the scarf here but not the veil. About 20 goats clamber across the steep slope on the opposite bank, followed by a man in a djellaba, nearly as sure-footed as his goats. We stop for a picnic lunch under the dappled shade of one tree and sit on the fallen trunk of another. Mohamed finds a walnut and P.J. smashes it with a rock; he overestimates the force required and we have to extract the edible pieces from the pulverized shell. Another up-and-down zigzag trek after lunch. There are prickly pears and juniper bushes, and we startle a flock of birds. The final path is through a stony wadi before we reach the village again. My legs are very very tired that night.
The following day, we catch another taxi from Imlil to Setti Fatma, in the Ourika valley. We have a half-hour walk to the waterfall. The little town is busy; there are a few foreign tourists, but mostly it seems like a family day out for Moroccans. Some have places by the river, with carpets and sofas under a canopy and small children playing in front of the river. More are climbing over the rocks, the boys and single men racing surefooted, the women and couples more carefully.
There are more women than I’ve seen in a long time. One man tucks a toddler under his arm as he climbs. At the waterfall, a woman in a grey headscarf shrieks as her bare feet meet cold water. Three teenage boys lean into each other as their friend takes a photograph. There is a lot of laughter. Three days after Eid el Khabir, the festival atmosphere still hasn’t gone away.
I’m surprised and impressed by the level of WiFi coverage we are getting up here; even the smallest hotels have it. I’m also enjoying the sound of the muezzin (call to prayer) echoing across the valleys; at sunset especially it is quite beautiful.
Boarding a train in Morocco is a disorganized affair. A mass of people — you couldn’t call it a queue — gathers at the barrier, and when the guard lets them through they rush to find a door that is not already clogged by people also trying to board. There is no understanding that passengers are allowed to disembark first, so pushing goes in both directions. When a family embarks, the youngest child is passed from his mother’s arms, over the suitcases in the aisle, and into the arms of a teenage girl who just happens to be there, where he sleeps the rest of the journey.
I get talking to Omar, who is on his way back from his home town of Ifrane in the mountains. Like a good proportion of Moroccans, he is returning to work after the Eid. At El Jadida train station, there is a rush for the taxis, with nothing approaching a queue. We walk a little down the road, and manage to hail a petit taxi to take us to our hotel in the Portuguese City.
El Jadida started life as Magazan, a Portuguese outpost, and we take a walk around the walls that they left behind: thick walls with turrets at each corner to keep an eye on land and sea. Anywhere in Europe this would be maintained as a tourist attraction, but here it is crumbling and the less accessible corners are used as public toilets. Still it is pleasant to look down on the rollers coming in from the Atlantic, the men washing sheepskins in the harbour, and the boys playing football in the dust.
We go to see the Portuguese Cistern, a vaulted cavern with a well at its centre, where Orson Welles filmed the riot sequence in Othello.
Down by the pier, we watch some boys jump from the ramparts into the sea. Giant stone caltrops make a wall, with graffiti in English, French, and Arabic. A young couple flirt, he touching her hair, she brushing his hand away. A man fishes with a rod three times his height. Another man calls after us, “Bienvenue a Maroc! Welcome to Morocco!”
I’ve noticed more dogs here than anywhere else. The hotel has a small fur-ball named Whiskey, and we meet a few dogs and their walkers on the walls and the pier, including one enthusiastic German Shepherd.
And at last, I have a proper Moroccan hammam. I read the online guide to hammam etiquette, but I’m still bewildered. I get a gommage (a thorough scrubbing with a mitt and some olive oil soap) from a dark and plump woman who speaks nearly as little French as I do. When I am properly burnished, she helps me to rinse my body and hair. After I’ve dried up and dressed again, I have a mint tea with my gommage woman and her friend, and I learn a new Arabic word: saha (to your health).
Again, we lucked out with accommodation, staying at the wonderful Maison D’Hôte de la Cité Portugaise.
Casa would not be on anyone’s “highlights of Morocco” list. It is a big city, very European, commonly compared to Marseille. At street level, it seems a little grubby, but look up and you can see some lovely Art Deco facades. Fewer women wear headscarves here. However, the cafes and bars are still sausage-fest zones.
A bearded man with a shabby djellaba told us about his Irish-American ex-wife, warned P.J. not to flash his phone around because someone would snatch it, and then informed us that he was just out of jail and needed some money for lunch. Well, I suppose a good story deserves 20 dirhams. On the way back to the hotel, and old man called “you want high?” Did we just get a proposal from someone who may have been dealing drugs to the original hippies?
The Hamman II mosque is big, very big: the third largest in the world, largest outside Saudi Arabia, with the tallest minaret. Unlike most Moroccan mosques, it allows non-Muslims to enter, albeit on guided tours outside prayer times. We are given a plastic bag in which to carry our shoes. The floor is several types of marble, the retractable ceiling is cedarwood, the chandeliers are Murano glass. The king has his own entrance, although he only visits twice a year.
Rick’s Cafe has a wall of alcohol behind the bar, more than I have seen since we arrived in Morocco. We order lunch, and the waiter ostentatiously keeps returning to our table to refill our water glasses. On our last evening, we dine at La Brasserie Bavaroise, which could have been a restaurant in France, except that there is a fine selection of Moroccan wine.
Musing on Morocco
There is only so much that you can see of a country in 12 days, but I think we experienced a nice little slice of it. Some of the impressions panned out; we did see the tiled minarets and the stalls selling spices and slippers; we did drink lots of very sweet mint tea. We didn’t get far enough south to see the blue turbans and the shifting sands. There was little couscous on sale, but lots of tagines. The transportation was erratic and probably less safe than we allowed ourselves to think about, but WiFi was available almost everywhere. Haggling is difficult when you are unfamiliar with the currency and aware that a few dirham means a lot more to this guy than it does to you. In the cities, the muezzin can sound like a motorbike engine, but in the mountains it is more like a choir. Plans don’t always work out, but you get to where you need to be, eventually.
On the train to El Jadida, Omar told us that we had missed out on Fez and Essouiria and of course his home town of Ifrane. He said that 12 days wasn’t enough, and we would have to return to Morocco again. Maybe we will. Inshallah.