Dis­cover Mo­rocco

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

An­cient cities with bustling mar­ket­places, stun­ning sun­sets and a camel ride through the desert dunes all con­trib­ute to the en­chant­ment of Mo­rocco for Daisy Sil­lis.

“Here, it’s yours!” says the young Moroc­can boy as he threads a wooden carv­ing onto a thin green string of cot­ton and places it around my neck. “You’re wel­come, you’re wel­come,” he says through a smile. Sit­ting at the en­trance of his tiny shack shop, I watch in awe as he chis­els wood into small carv­ings us­ing both his fin­gers and toes. Sur­rounded by hun­dreds of lo­cals and tourists, my sis­ter Aimee, partner Otis and I are me­an­der­ing through the bustling mar­ket maze that is the Mar­rakesh Me­d­ina (‘me­d­ina’ mean­ing walled town).

Mar­rakesh is Mo­rocco’s im­pe­rial city, and we only have a short 24 hours to ex­plore the densely packed mar­kets, palaces and mosques before we head out to the Sa­hara Desert. The thou­sand-year-old me­d­ina is sep­a­rated into three ar­eas – cen­tral, south and north. The cen­tral me­d­ina is a tourist hub, where souks stretch across the square and stalls of bric-a-brac and spices cover the wind­ing streets. The south­ern me­d­ina is crammed with her­itage mu­se­ums, ex­otic ho­tels, lush green parks and chic ri­ads, while the north is a pre­dom­i­nantly tra­di­tional res­i­den­tial area with small pock­ets of mar­kets and bou­tiques.

Also known as ‘The Red City’, Mar­rakesh is both ex­otic and en­chant­ing. We de­cide to spend our after­noon walk­ing the cen­tral streets un­der the cover of the stalls’ fab­ric awnings. Armed with shop­ping lists, the three of us are ready to hunt for bar­gains and trin­kets.

Mar­rakesh shop­keep­ers are no­to­ri­ously known as pushy, force­ful sell­ers. A quick glance at a sil­ver teapot, or a touch of a Moroc­can rug be­comes a long-winded ver­bal trans­ac­tion with the shopkeeper, whether you want to buy it or not.

But al­though they can be force­ful, the trans­ac­tion is both hu­mor­ous and warm-hearted. A tribal-style neck­lace catches my eye, and after a quick pep talk with Aimee and Otis we de­cide to tackle my first pur­chase as a team, and pre­pare for a long ne­go­ti­a­tion. “Sis­ter, you must buy,” he says. “Look, look! More jewellery here.” After 20 min­utes I walk away happy with my new ac­ces­sory, which I bought for less than half the orig­i­nal price.

Hours later (and with bulging bags) we head for din­ner at No­mad, a pop­u­lar res­tau­rant that spe­cialises in Mid­dle Eastern/Euro­pean fu­sion cui­sine. Sit­ting on the rooftop, pro­tected from the sun by a flow­ing white linen canopy, we watch the sun­set over the pas­tel pink city. From our table we spy on the lo­cals, the blend of rich and poor made clear by the state of the res­i­dents’ rooftops. Some are laden with wash­ing, scraps of brick and bro­ken satel­lites, while the more af­flu­ent homes have roof pa­tios dec­o­rated with white loungers, ex­otic green­ery and mo­saic foun­tains.

Dot­ted be­tween the dars (houses built around a cen­tral pa­tio) are tow­er­ing mosques, in­clud­ing the green-tiled Ben Youssef, the old­est in Mar­rakesh. From a nearby mosque we hear a man start to chant and sing though a large speaker. Con­fused, I look around to gauge the other tourists’ re­ac­tions while an­other voice replies from a mosque in the dis­tance. “Al­lahu, Ak­bah!”, “Al­lahu, Ak­bah!” As more mosques join in, the city hums with the beau­ti­ful har­mon­is­ing chant. Our wait­ress no­tices my con­fu­sion and tells me the chant is the call to Ad­han, also known as the call to prayer, which is sung from the mo­saic-cov­ered mosques five times a day. I close my eyes and soak in the mag­i­cal lul­laby. I’m not usu­ally one to take an in­ter­est in re­li­gious tra­di­tions but I fall quickly un­der the spell of the man in the tower, and feel dis­ap­pointed when the fi­nal call ends.

The fol­low­ing day we head by car to the Sa­hara Desert. Our guide and driver, Omar, re­as­sures us that al­though the drive is long (10 hours), the sights and stops along the way make the jour­ney well worth it. A few hours in we take a quick 20-minute de­tour to the fa­mous aban­doned city Aït Ben­had­dou. From the view­ing

point we stare in awe at the tremen­dous size and scale of the an­cient city, which is made up of six forts and 50 palaces. From a dis­tance, the sand-like build­ings look pic­turesque and ma­jes­tic; it’s easy to imag­ine princes and princesses wan­der­ing the dusty streets.

In the com­fort of our air­con­di­tioned four-wheel drive we spi­ral up the Atlas Mountains, which span 2500km through Mo­rocco, Al­ge­ria and Tu­nisia. Omar tells us about the Ber­ber vil­lages scat­tered through the mountains along­side rivers and canyons. These North African pre-Arab in­hab­i­tants live in small com­mu­ni­ties across Mo­rocco and can be seen sell­ing goods to tourists from tem­po­rary stalls on the road­side.

Once we ar­rive at the Sa­hara en­trance we gather our overnight bags and head out to meet our after­noon trans­port. A line of 12 camels sits in the gold desert sand ac­com­pa­nied by sev­eral care­tak­ers wear­ing kaf­tans, desert jewellery and beau­ti­fully wrapped tur­bans. “Wel­come, wel­come, wel­come,” says our desert guide, tak­ing our be­long­ings from our hands and stuff­ing them into the small folds and flaps on each camel’s sad­dle. In prepa­ra­tion for our 40-minute trek into the Sa­hara my guide del­i­cately wraps my head in a scarf, to pro­tect my face from the sand and sun. In the back­ground a camel gets loose from its care­taker, mak­ing a swift es­cape into the open desert. Run­ning be­hind him, the man stum­bles in the sand, face-plant­ing twice before catch­ing the rope mid-air. “Naughty camels,” says our guide, chuck­ling.

My camel (who I name Al­ice) is de­mure and calm, al­low­ing me to scratch and pat her coarse coat as she stares di­rectly at me with her large brown eyes. With the help of my guide, I climb onto her. She jolts forward and sways onto all fours before walk­ing to the front of the line. In our group of three, we move apart from the other tourists and make our way into the Sa­hara. Otis’s camel is im­pa­tient, and un­suc­cess­fully at­tempts to over­take Al­ice, while Aimee’s camel yawns and slob­bers loudly at the rear. While Al­ice does the hard work, car­ry­ing my body weight and overnight bags, I re­lax for what feels like the first time on this whirl­wind trip. Wan­der­ing through the world’s largest hot desert I feel at peace and re­laxed. The air smells clean and fresh, and the soft, sway­ing mo­tion of the camel rocks me into a peace­ful,

Wan­der­ing through the world’s largest hot desert I feel at peace and re­laxed.”

con­scious sleep. Small dots of tourists and no­mads stroll along the sand in the dis­tance, and soon our camp ap­pears like a mag­i­cal mi­rage from the dunes.

The site is a clus­ter of a dozen large tents, framed by a bor­der of car­pets and rugs – a de­fence against the fre­quent sand­storms. After set­tling into our three-man tent we start the long climb up the nearby sand dune for sun­set. Climb­ing a 45m-high dune is not for the faint-hearted and with each step we slip half a foot back­wards. After 20 min­utes I make it to the peak just in time for sun­set. Orange and yel­low streaks paint the sky and as the sun slips be­low the hori­zon the wind picks up and the tem­per­a­ture slowly drops, the dry desert heat be­com­ing a more com­fort­able and gen­tle cloak of warmth. The smell of din­ner cook­ing at our camp­site pulls me away from the stun­ning view and I slide down the dune, crawl­ing to a stop close to the camp­site en­trance.

After a ban­quet of veg­etable and meat tagines, we gather with our fel­low trekkers to watch a tra­di­tional mu­si­cal per­for­mance by our

Moroc­can guides. Men car­ry­ing drums and qraqebs (cas­tanet-like in­stru­ments) sur­face from be­hind car­pet walls and cur­tains, and in a mat­ter of min­utes no­mads and tourists are singing and danc­ing to­gether. I am as­signed the drum, and after a quick les­son I’m tap­ping along to the melodies while Aimee spins and dances with our guides. Once the fes­tiv­i­ties are over, and lured by the vast night sky, we lie in the warm sand and count shoot­ing stars un­til the early hours.

Named the cul­tural cap­i­tal of Mo­rocco, our next stop, Fes, is a 10-hour drive from the Sa­hara Desert. Home to the largest me­d­ina in the coun­try, Fes con­tains a pop­u­la­tion of more than a mil­lion peo­ple and is sep­a­rated into the new and old city. Within its dusty walls are hun­dreds of souks and mosques, as well as stalls

and multi-level shops sell­ing leather goods, silk scarves and car­pets. We take a tour through the high-walled streets, stop­ping at the doors of mosques to watch lo­cals clean their hands and faces in prepa­ra­tion for prayer. Or­nate carv­ings and mo­saics cover the streets and shops, and the call to prayer can be heard again from the soar­ing mosque tow­ers through­out the day. Our guide is the ‘man about town’, or in this case me­d­ina, shak­ing hands and quickly dis­cussing busi­ness with lo­cals who pass by us.

We stop at a leather shop and get lost among the five lev­els of bags, shoes and jack­ets. The shopkeeper in­vites us up to the rooftop, where we’re handed a sprig of mint (to mask the smell) and shown the Chouara Tan­nery, which sits hid­den be­tween the sur­round­ing build­ings. More than a dozen men dip in and out of tubs of coloured dye, car­ry­ing an­i­mal skins that will soon be­come bags and jack­ets in the shop be­low us.

The Chouara Tan­nery is more than 1000 years old, and the tra­di­tional method used to process hides into high-qual­ity leather goods has never changed. Hides are soaked in a mix­ture of cow urine, quick­lime, water and salt, which helps break down the leather and loosen the re­main­ing flesh and hair. After soak­ing for two to three days, the hides are then soaked in an­other vat of water and pi­geon fae­ces, which acts as a soften­ing agent and al­lows the hides to eas­ily ab­sorb dye. From the store’s rooftop I watch men with coloured legs jump from one bath of liq­uid to the next, us­ing their bare feet to knead the hides for hours at a time.

From the tan­nery we head out to the souk, on the hunt for tra­di­tional Moroc­can blan­kets. De­ter­mined to find the right blan­ket, at the right price, Aimee, Otis and I pre­pare for the in­evitable bar­gain­ing and ne­go­ti­at­ing. A friendly, chatty shopkeeper takes us into his work­room where five men stand­ing in sep­a­rate weav­ing ma­chines cre­ate rugs from coloured threads that cover the dusty floors. After an­other com­i­cal ne­go­ti­a­tion we come to a mu­tual agree­ment and walk away with four camel-wool blan­kets for a to­tal of $90.

Our fi­nal stop is Che­fchaouen, a small, hum­ble town hid­den in the Rif Mountains, which is fa­mous for its strik­ing blue streets and build­ings. Walk­ing though the me­d­ina in the early morn­ing we see lo­cals paint­ing their homes, shops and path­ways with a fresh coat of pow­der blue. It’s a tra­di­tion in­tro­duced in the 1930s by Jewish refugees, who painted their homes and stores soft blue to sym­bol­ise the sky and heaven.

In the after­noon we ven­ture out to the nearby mountains to watch an­other sun­set. Perched on the moun­tain rocks we hear the call to prayer be­gin to hum through the city streets be­low us. Dry sweat cov­ers my fore­head and back, and my shoes are still full of desert sand, but it’s hard not to feel at peace in this fast-paced, colour­ful and in­tense coun­try.

I’m leav­ing Mo­rocco with a back­pack crammed with trin­kets, but the gift of wit­ness­ing the pas­sion and fiery spirit of the Moroc­can peo­ple is worth more than its weight in gold.

“Homes were painted blue to sym­bol­ise the sky and heaven.”

Mo­rocco is a land of rich colour, both in its rus­set land­scape and in its man­made goods such as this car­pet (right).

Left: Otis, Daisy and Aimee on their camel trek in the Sa­hara Desert. After a 40-minute walk among the dunes, they ar­rived at their overnight camp­site.

An ex­am­ple of the blue build­ings in Che­fchaouen.

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