One of the joys of travelling is discovering things you never expected.
In Morocco, we discovered a cuisine so delicious and healthy that our dinner menus at home now regularly feature Moroccan meatballs and tagines (the subject of the previous blog post).
But there is so much more to Morocco that makes a trip there well worthwhile. Morocco is full of fascinating geography, hospitable people and a rich ancient culture. Oh, and cute little monkeys, too.
Before going, I had no real sense of the diversity of Morocco’s geography. I pictured coastlines dotted with vaguely Arabian Nights-style resorts with palm trees. I pictured desert, for sure. Morocco sits on the western edge of the Sahara Desert. It is definitely an adventure to climb up on a rug clad camel and imagine what life might have been like for Laurence of Arabia or for the average trader 1,000 years ago in this part of the world as people intrepidly crossed what must have seemed liked endless sands of the desert.
Although I shouldn’t have been, I was surprised by the Atlas Mountains, by the sheer size of these enormous, majestic mountains which rise to more than 13,600 feet above sea level. How did the Berbers ever cross those mountains a thousand years ago to trade? Amazing to contemplate. It is fascinating to see the villages, many with little houses built into the caves of the hillsides, something you don’t see here. It is equally fascinating to see a ski hill with Swiss chalet style architecture nearby.
Then there is the lush farmland outside of Fez, vast fertile plains that produce olives, oranges and all sorts of lovely fruits and vegetables, which make up such a big part of the cuisine. Everywhere we went, we saw herds of sheep dotting the landscape.
I had always thought of Morocco as a warm weather place but found that, in winter, you definitely want your winter coat especially in the north and in the mountains.
I expected palm trees and the gnarled branches of old olive trees. We found those, certainly, but we also found huge evergreen forests that would look perfectly at home on the west coast of Canada (the trees were too tall to be part of our Atlantic vegetation). We found French-style gardens, lovely remnants of the French colonization of the country.
The medina of Fez is largely unchanged from two thousand years ago and still contains a lively residential and commercial community. The only way to get around in the narrow, winding corridors is by foot or by donkey, also known to our guide as “Berber taxi.” In the modern city, there are TV satellite dishes everywhere. Fez is a largely commercial centre, and the French Imperial influence is apparent in its buildings and boulevards. Marrakech, 200 miles south of Casablanca, is an Imperial city, founded more than 1000 years ago. Built of pink sandstone, Marrakech is a major tourist destination and one of the busiest cities in Africa. The modern urban sprawl around the city, with gated communities of villa-style condos catering to the European market, came as a sad surprise
The unexpected highlight of the trip was a day trip out of Fez by taxi to a park in the mountains, inhabited by a troupe of wild Barbary monkeys. The monkeys were everywhere, in trees, on the ground, clearly used to people and coming close enough to take food and water from your hand. One cheeky devil surprised me by swiping the entire bag of food I was holding and taking it to share with his friends up a tree. The boys were able to give the monkeys drinks of water from their water bottles.
We were less enchanted by the snake charmer and his large and slithery co-performers which our hotel brought into the dining room as part of an endless New Year’s Eve celebration. We left before dessert, a novelty for me.
We toured the souks and saw the women weaving rugs, saw the leather workers dying the leather for Moroccan poufs that are so in vogue today, a back breaking job. We saw the potters guild making dishes and fountains and learned that the fires for their kiln were fuelled by olive pits because those burn so hot. We saw sheep everywhere, which explains why lamb is such a staple of the cuisine. Another enduring memory is a day trip into the mountains outside Marrakech in an ancient Mercedes Benz taxi that only seated four. With the taxi driver, we were five. So I traveled with an 18 year old on my lap, which is something I had never done before! We ate a memorable lamb tagine on a rooftop restaurant overlooking a valley, and then later stopping at a small stone mill house, crawling with cats to keep the mice from the grain, where the family’s kitchen was within the walls of the house but without a roof, out in the cold open air. An icy mountain stream ran through the kitchen, their sink as it were and my hands ached to think of washing the dishes in that water, but the women looked cheerful enough.
For all its exotic appeal, Morocco is a comparatively poor country. My enduring memory of Casablanca is of the shanty town we passed as the train pulled out of the station. You don’t see that kind of squalor much in North America. Personally, I believe it is something every one should see, especially teenagers who hate homework. It is transformative to realize that, there but for the grace of God go I. We ourselves or, worse still, our children, could be in the shoes of a beautiful little boy with enormous brown eyes, no older than 6, already working at a drill press making crafts to sell to feed his family. It makes you believe that it is a moral imperative to make the most of our opportunities, like education, which too many of us squander. There is a moral imperative to count our many blessings and realize how lucky we are and to help each other. That is the unique power and magic of travel. Travel is an internal journey as much as a physical journey. It forces us to explore our own attitudes, beliefs and values and to grow as people.
I know everyone is different.
I know it takes all kinds.
But for the life of me, why would anyone want to go to Disney World when the real world offers so many wonderful adventures, opportunities and discoveries?