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,

Say Yes To Adventure - - Features - WORDS AND IMAGES: Bill Ir­win LO­CA­TION: Morocco

Bill Ir­win

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.

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