Once again, I have giant handprints on my back from life shoving me (hard) outside my comfort zone.
We have just returned from a trip to Morocco where I was overcome with joy at the natural beauty of the country and taken aback with the reality of a third-world country. This will be a very difficult post to write because I just don’t think I will be able to find the words that paint the right picture for you. The experience was once-in-a-lifetime. The learning curve was steep. The adventure was beyond what we had thought it would be.
Our flight was in and out of Marrakech, probably the most well-known of the Moroccan cities besides Casablanca. So I found a riad (bed-and-breakfast) in the Medina (the old city, walled in from the new city) as our base for the first and last few nights of our trip. There were hundreds of riads to select from and we found a great one that accommodated us as a family of five very, very well.
Now, I knew the environment around our riad would be different from anything we had ever experienced. But I also knew that booking a regular hotel room in the new city surrounded by fast-food restaurants and clothing stores wouldn’t offer us anything new. When our taxi driver entered the city, I really can’t explain the experience. For those of you that watch The Amazing Race and see the teams experience a third-world environment for the first time, this was exactly what it felt like. Tiny dirt roads clogged with people on bicycles that looked taped together, pulling donkeys, riding donkeys, driving very dilapidated cars, thousands of scooters and everyone going in every direction…horns honking, people watching, babies crying, roosters crowing, cats (so, so many cats) edging around the corners. That was the first two minutes. We could only drive so far; the rest of our journey was on foot through a maze of alleys. Everything brown: brown roads, brown walls, brown taxis and cars, brown dust covering everything. Was I excited to be there or sad to see the life they lead.
And yet the people all looked…happy. Not just happy but welcoming, inviting you into their existence. Unlike Paris, where sometimes you are not even acknowledged on the street, here you are smiled at, spoken to as you walk by, asking if you need help, need directions, need a place to eat. Granted, these people are all also looking for money so you have to balance their desire to help with the fact that they see you as a means to some income. But the ladies loved Elizabeth and Sarah’s long ponytails, especially Sarah with her blonde hair. The men at the restaurants would want to jump out and scare the kids as they walked into the room or tap on their shoulder to make them look. They would sit down and play cards with them at the edge of the pool or pour them tea in their shops. They love kids in Morocco! How welcome we felt everywhere we went versus a nicer restaurant in Europe, or even the States, that rolls their eyes as soon as you walk in with kids and then sticks you in the corner in hopes that you don’t bother anyone.
So I had mixed emotions in this place of extreme poverty but gentle people. I felt guilty when I would admit to myself that I would have a very hard time living like that. And then I would see a young woman (my age, because I am still young!) taking a bucket out to wash her little patch of dirt street in front of her door, covered from head to toe in brightly colored turbans and kaftans in 100 degrees and looking as happy as could be. If Paris has made me feel poor, Morocco makes my life feel extravagant. And making me a tad bit more grateful.
Our riad was a little oasis from all that. The pictures will tell the story better than I can, but we loved eating on the rooftop or the terrace for dinner and breakfast. The kids enjoyed the tiny pool and made up routines which, I’m sure, drew comments among the staff. They provided mint tea at every turn, kept us stocked with water bottles whenever we requested them and even went out and bought fresh bread, cheese and olives just for us (no charge) when we returned home very late one evening from our longest day on the road. Such hospitality. It felt nice to have such a lovely place to come back to each day.
I typically enjoy planning the details of our travels versus the use of an organized tour. But based on recommendations from others that have visited Morocco, I researched and selected a gentleman, Youssef, that spent four days with us, showing us his country outside Marrakech. It was a great decision as it would not have been possible to get to all the places we got to without him. It also felt comforting to have someone direct us to local restaurants (rather than something touristy) while balancing the local stuff with the touristy stuff we did want to see, like Aït Ben Haddou.
I would say Youssef was probably under 30 years old. He was the nicest young man, very quiet, but very proud of his country, his language, his lifestyle. He has a new baby, just seven weeks old but the baby and mother stay with her mother for the first eight weeks so he only goes for visits. He says he role as a father will begin at the end of the eight weeks…in just five days now. It was hard to tell if he was excited or a bit nervous but it was funny to have him stop for diapers on one of our trips as we were heading into his village! And he showed off the baby pictures, too.
I asked where his wife was from; she was from his village, of course, because his marriage was arranged. He said he went on a couple dates when he was younger but never really understood the process of dating. He was very happy with the tradition that he is carrying on.
So, here is Youssef. A young man with his own business, a new family, driving us all over Morocco which, I must say, is unbelievably beautiful. And when I asked him what his favorite part of Morocco was, he answered, “My village. My home.” Gosh. Isn’t that how so many of us feel? We can travel to the most beautiful places in the world or even just to a lovely site in our own city, state or country. But when it comes down to it, where is our favorite place? Home. And you could tell the day we were heading to his village (which is where our Sahara desert/camel excursion began), he just become joyful. So happy to be there.
In any case, Youssef took us so many places! Aït Ben Haddou, the fortified city filled with kasbahs where the movies Jesus of Nazareth, The Jewel of the Nile, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Mummy, Gladiator, Prince of Persia and so many others are filmed. There are still a few families that live there but most now live in a village across the street. It is a beautiful sight.
We drove through the Atlas Mountains, into two different gorges, stopping to look at the land formations that, at one moment, felt like the Grand Canyon and then a green, tropical valley. We loved the rocks called Monkey Fingers and they really do look like lots of fat fingers! The kids were all about the streams at the bottoms of the gorges because risking getting wet when all your other shoes are packed away is something every child should do.
We stayed one night in the mountains in a riad close to nothing else with no other guests and had dinner to ourselves, with Youssef and our lovely hosts, of course. And great music. 🙂
But the second night was in the Sahara. I could tell you about laughing while we mounted the dromedaries and the noises they would make as we made our way over the dunes. I could try to describe for you the light of the sun as it hit the terra-cotta dunes. I could share that it didn’t even feel hot, although the temperature was probably pushing 100. I could show you a video of my scaling the largest dune with my heavy breathing giving evidence to how difficult it is to scale sand while it’s sliding back down upon you. And I could tell you what it felt like to stand on top of that dune while the sun went down in the evening and then back up on the morning. But I honestly can’t describe any of those things for you. It was indescribable. All of it.
We had another one-day adventure with Youssef when he drove us to Essouira, a coastal village, so we could spend the day at the beach. On the way, we stopped and experienced the goats that live in trees. Of course my children wanted to adopt the 3-day-old goat. But they also wanted to adopt all the stray cats and take a camel home. Those goats were wild just standing there in those trees!
The souks in the Marrakech medina were a maze of craziness. But the kids have inherited a great sense of direction and led us in and out of that maze every day. We enjoyed the smells of the spices, the lanterns, the tassles, the silver pots, the leather goods, the scarves, the pottery, the kaftans. And the souks led us to the square which was filled with snake charmers, men with dancing monkeys, musicians and belly dancers with stands of dried fruit and nuts and freshly squeezed orange juice everywhere (orange trees are so common these are the trees they use to line all the streets). But the square really lit up at night when all the outdoor cafes came to life under their awnings.
There is almost so much that I could write I’m a bit paralyzed. I’m sure I will close this blog and think of a hundred other stories I could tell you. But that is for another time, perhaps when we are face-to-face. Until then I will tell you I’m glad to have been forced out of my comfort zone. But I will admit, the comfort of Paris felt very good last night when we arrived home.
P.S. Just in case you were thinking we are now home relaxing, we had the kids out the door to the train station at 7:45 this morning heading to Germany with the church youth group while we are taking three days to ourselves in Bordeaux. We’ll be back in time for school and more visitors next week. Plus a fun boys-only trip…stay tuned!