Three weeks and 2,000 kilometres is barely enough for an insight to Morocco, but more than enough to confirm all preconceptions I had around the heat, sand, camels and spices. While we did see plenty of those, we also saw snow, a ski resort, Roman ruins,
AFTER A MONTH enduring London's winter our plan was to soak up ‘a bit of warmth' before heading back to New Zealand's autumn. We certainly got that, but also a complete sensory overload. We joined a small group and travelled by minivan, with a local guide Mustapha. Talking to Mustapha each day added so much to our brief trip. He was full of stories and open to all our questions. In return, he was genuinely interested in trying to understand our lives and how we felt about his country. It's wonderful how travel helps demystify different cultures.
Arriving in Casablanca, the sensory assault began. I never really enjoy cities, with the dust, heat, noise, rubbish and aggressive street vendors who see any ‘tourist' as an ATM, proving a challenge. Heading to the countryside and rural towns couldn't happen soon enough. As an ex-farmer, I was intrigued by all the small flocks of sheep and goats grazing along the roadsides, supervised by a shepherd or two. The nomadic lifestyle still exists. Many buildings or fences in these rural areas appeared partly built or abandoned, but we were told that rights to land are more determined by historic occupation rather than any formal title. Having some semblance of settlement strengthens an occupier's claim. If you are off on a nomadic grazing tour with your livestock, you don't want squatters moving in while you are gone. Agriculture is still mostly hard manual work. In one small town, the local engineer was making wooden onefurrow horse-drawn ploughs, still very much in use. We saw glimpses of more mechanised agriculture, but mostly mule power.
We were wandering the streets in one small village when a farmer came up behind us with his mule, which was carrying a large load of mule poo. With no common language apart from smiles and the telepathy that exists between farmers, we had a good chat. He invited us to follow him to his paddock – a tiny but very neat patch where the mule poo was destined. After he had spread the load, we were given the tour of his other crops, mostly barley. Our tour took us to some ladies who were doing the laundry down at the river. This, of course, necessitated a tea break. On meeting anyone new the first step seemed to be having a cup of tea – or, as Mustapha called it, ‘Berber whiskey'. It was always very sweet; sugar and honey are essential condiments in any Berber house. Honey is also valued as a cure for many ailments. At seemingly random spots beside the road in the middle of nowhere someone would be sitting beside a table full of bottles of honey for sale; looking for the honey money. Buildings varied. The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is such a hugely intricate construction, the largest mosque in Morocco, capable of holding 25,000 people inside and 80,000 outside. But in smaller villages the norm was rammed earth adobe buildings; houses appear to rise out
of the surrounding landscape. I don't think these houses are ever finished; heavy rains hasten the demise of older structures while new parts are added on as needed. It always seems odd to me that the most intricate buildings in many cultures revolve around the predominant religious faith while the average person makes do with something much more basic.
The indigenous Berber nomads work hard to maintain their identity but much of their culture has been absorbed by Arabic people who arrived around 700 AD. Mix in a period of French occupation during the early 1900s and things get interesting. With Arabic and French as official languages, a young Berber child from the countryside, growing up speaking his native language, faces an uphill battle starting school and having to quickly learn French or Arabic to cope. Although I'm happiest avoiding cities, I could return to Fes and explore more. The old town, with its maze of narrow streets (narrow meaning less than a metre wide in places), was an experience in itself. There was a surprise around each corner, from fresh camel meat hanging at the butcher's shop, to the overpowering smells and sights of the tanneries and the endless craftsmen practising skills learnt by previous generations.
A short drive from Fes was Sefrou and partly excavated Roman ruins at Volubilis. The ruins cover over 40 ha; the intricate tiled floors and elaborate city structures from over 2,000 years ago jar with the quiet surrounds today. It will be fascinating to follow as more of the city is uncovered.
Heading east we came to Merzouga, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Camels and sand dunes were still a fresh memory a couple of days later as we headed south, crossing the High Atlas Mountains at 2,260 metres, still with wisps of snow around. Contrasts, indeed. We spent our last few days staying with a young French couple in a guesthouse they were managing in Taroudant, having met them a few years earlier when they were managing a backpackers in Arrowtown. The small town had a weekly market where pretty much any fruit, spice, grain or animal you needed could be found. We learnt that with many not having refrigeration, fresh is best. If you want chicken for dinner, go and buy a chicken. A live chicken. The route from ‘producer to plate' is very direct. With the same logic in mind, we were advised only to eat fish when near the coast, as it quickly passess its use by date the further inland you go.
Nearly a year after this trip a week doesn't go by when thoughts about it don't pop up. Travelling outside my culture is an excellent way to challenge my personal values. As a photographer, being in a vibrant, different dimension with only a pocket camera is hugely stimulating.