• Evelyn Roberts

Morocco

Updated: Apr 4

January, 2016


And that's why I have to go back

to so many places

there to find myself

and constantly examine myself

with no witness but the moon

and then whistle with joy,

ambling over rocks and clods of earth,

with no task but to live,

with no family but the road.

― Pablo Neruda


Leaving Spain tomorrow, and it has been a wonderful time, thanks especially to my dear friends, Bob and Mary; they have been tour guides extraordinaire. The colours, the vistas, the everything. Viva Espana; and now to rock Maroc.


On the way to catch a bus from Almeria to Algeciras. A 7 hour road journey along the coast I once sailed by 12 years ago, (on a sailboat I crewed on from Malta to Ipswich). Then tomorrow a ferry across the straits of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco. Gateway to Africa, here I come.

Early morning travel days like this remind me of why this is my passion. Dragging my rather tired suitcase along the harbour front, (it's little wheels splaying a lot), about to get on a ferry going to a completely different continent. Already everything looked different, sounded different, a brand new horizon awaiting. This has to be one of the best feelings ever.


At the exact same time I am feeling irritated by some fellow travellers. There is a young tourist couple, kissing, cuddling, and giggling and prancing around, and we are sitting in a waiting room full of conservative Muslim families, who are obviously very uncomfortable with their behaviour. Grrrr... how can people be so oblivious. To go over and point out the glaringly obvious, or not?


So; I am happy, excited… and annoyed.


Crossing the Straits, and Good Morning Tangier.


How I wish my camera and I were invisible. There are a 1,000 faces I would like to capture, but it feels like altogether the wrong place to be doing so.


Oh, my heavens, Morocco, I love you already. The colours, the smells, the sounds, the medina, my amazing and exotic room, on a side street that I may never find again, and the warm friendliness of everyone. Never have I had such consistent help with my, (getting wobblier by the minute), suitcase. Yes, there is the air of some real hustlers looking for a dumb and dozy tourist to fleece, but I’ve always figured that if I’d been born poor and with the wrong passport, I would for sure be the queen of getting what I needed to survive… in whatever way it took.


Managed to get my ticket for the Tangier-Marrakesh night train. I have to chuckle because it all sounds so romantic, when in truth it will be me with my cosy socks, my favourite travel pillow, my Kindle, and my little travel kettle, and hopefully, (if it can be found), some Moroccan equivalent of Cup of Soup.


Tomorrow my sole objective is to get completely lost in the Kasbah.


I also got myself a Moroccan #, the trusty iPhone has now had almost more different SIM cards than I can count.


And then comes the call to prayer at a positively ear-splitting pitch, and from countless different directions. There'll be no need for an alarm wake up tomorrow.


Cats are dogs in Morocco. Not a single dog to be seen in Tangier, and they are of course considered unclean by many Muslims. However I've seen more cats behaving just like dogs, staring longingly at doors.


The train to Marrakech was brilliant, it brought up great memories of the Trans-Siberian, and with them a strong urge to chug across another continent. The Silk Road train is rapidly working its way to the top of my travel list.


In the same way Moroccan cats are dogs, every taxi is a bus. You’d better not be in a rush as every cab stops for anyone going in the same direction, until you couldn’t possibly fit another body in. It’s striking having come from Spain and Portugal where traffic laws are very strict. In Spain it is even illegal to drive in flip-flops, all driving shoes must have closed backs. Then you cross a tiny strip of water and it’s vehicular sardine-packing. On my 1st taxi ride from the port to the city, they packed 7 of us into a 4 seater, we were literally lodged in sideways. We even went through a police checkpoint and no-one blinked at our numbers, our driver was on the phone, and of course there were no seat belts, (mind you if we’d rolled no-one would have budged an inch we were packed in that tight). It is particularly fascinating in a country were the modesty laws are so strong, they seem to not apply as soon as you get into a vehicle, male and female strangers are squashed so close together you couldn’t slide a piece of paper between them.

Off to the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara tomorrow, so will be offline for I know not how long. As my buddy Rick Levine queried: "Will your camel have wi-fi?". I'm thinking probably not.


Unforgettable long hike through the Atlas Mountains. Glorious colours, baby goat being born, (a great omen in this the month of Capricorn and at the beginning of this trip), visiting a tiny village miles from anywhere, with a famous ancient holy shrine with pagan roots, said to be where the spirit of the genie resides, (yes, 3 wishes were definitely made). Learning a lot about the Berbers and their history, lovely people, warmth, friendliness and kindness abounds.


As our charming guide, Rashid, so perfectly put it: “It’s a little bit freezing cold”, so off to bed wearing every bit of clothing possible, including 2 pairs of socks and fleece gloves, fleece sweater, cashmere sweater and scarf, jacket and sweat pants. The night was survived very well, nonetheless.


Tomorrow, a 6 hour drive to the Sahara.


Stayed in yet another spot steeped in mystery, history, and natural wonder. Until you've been to a place, you can never know it's essence. Now the name Morocco will forever contain a flood of colour and sensory memories for me. It is more than I ever imagined, and I honestly expected a lot.


And I even had a room with a heater... bliss.


The amazing Sahara. I am learning so much about the richness, (and tragedy), of the history, beliefs, and culture of this fascinating land. And consequently another little corner of the world has become an experienced, welcoming reality. There's nothing quite like travel for countering the fear and misunderstanding that seems to be running rife in our world right now.


2 days of 4 wheel driving through the Sahara... it doesn't get much better.

Essouiria; a gorgeous Moroccan gem of a town on the Atlantic. One of the best parts of being here was Rashida, who guided us around, a fiercely independent (never married), super smart, highly educated Muslim woman who gave us a wealth of information and insight.


A University education is 100% free for any citizen in Morocco, their tolerance and integration of all religions is exemplary, and displayed not only in their attitudes but also in their arts and architecture.


Constantly amazed at how much there is to learn.


"Today, Moroccans proudly highlight their multiple and composite identity: Amazigh, Arab, Islamic, Jewish, African, Andalusian and Mediterranean -- and their age-old openness and acceptance of the "other."


Morocco is a land of tolerance, acceptance and coexistence. King Hassan II has described it as a tree whose roots are in Africa, its trunk in Morocco, the side branches in the Middle East and its top foliage in Europe.


Sitting on the crossroads of so many cultures, religions and civilisations, Morocco has become through the centuries a haven for countless cultures, ethnicities and ways of life.


So, for many millennia and still today, Morocco accepts the "other" in all his "otherness."


Because of this mingling of cultures, Moroccans have acquired the disposition of accepting the "other," no matter how complex his difference might be and how alien his "otherness."


Moroccans are, by nature, friendly, open, and tolerant of other people. Their most important quality, by far, is their ability to welcome in other life experiences and adapt them to their lives."


In my short, but highly concentrated, experience of this country, and my ongoing interactions with the people, I 100% concur with the above (borrowed) statement.


Morocco is also where it appears all old, big, sand coloured Mercedes Benzes, and pairs of stonewashed jeans, have retired to.


Oh, and it seems that all my resistance to getting hooked into "Game of Thrones" will have to be released, just so I can revisit here. Apparently it was all filmed in the places we have been travelling through.


Ouilidia: pronounced Waa-lydia. Yet another "perfect" beach has been found. After a mixed day of travelling on trains and taxis, (petite and grande... grande ones being the long distance ones that they fill to capacity), from Marrakech to the coast. Going from having the privilege of a fantastic conversation with the brightest, smartest, wisest young teacher on the train, to then running into the creepiest wannabe extortionist of the year taxi driver, (he did NOT succeed). Obviously a major holiday spot in Summer, endless whitewashed condos, but like a ghost town right now, barely a soul to be seen, except for men riding around on bicycles trying to find someone (anyone) to sell fresh oysters to, (specialty of the area).


Funkiest hotel ever, in the most bizarre yet charming way. Gorgeous lagoon, miles of deserted beach, except for Moroccan rod and line fishermen, (catching lots). Wild and rocky cliffs in places, with underground caves (called "Portuguese caves" for some mysterious reason). Travelled here with a lovely young English woman I met on the tour to the desert, and we ran into a most gracious Frenchman with a villa who then invited us to his house and gave us wine and food. A most pleasant unexpected treat.


Yesterday on the train from Marrakech, we were lucky enough to meet a young High School teacher of English, (probably about 30 yrs old), with a degree in American Moroccan Studies, so strikingly articulate, intelligent and insightful, that it was one of those encounters that leaves you feeling positive and hopeful for the future. As we said good-bye, of course we exchanged FB info, and my heart took a leap at his name... Jihad Da Vinci. So at first opportunity I did a thorough search of the dreaded word, and discovered that jihad actually means to struggle or strive, plain and simple. Nothing more. Big personal lesson for me about how insidiously poisoned and negatively supercharged a simple word can become in the hands of the media... and consequently in our minds.


Bizarre synchronicities abound.


There seems to be a pattern developing of meeting a Frenchman a day. Today's happened to share a taxi with us to the 15th century port of El Jadida, Turns out he is a dedicated conspiracy theorist, Flat-Earther. So here in an ancient Portuguese/Moroccan medina sits a Scottish astrologer, a French para-gliding Flat-Earther, and a young English Saddle Fitting Gardener.


Sometimes life truly is a chapter straight out of a Tom Robbins novel.


El Jadida; another day, another medina, and ever more history to absorb. Morocco continues to fascinate and educate. The Portuguese cistern in this city is particularly fascinating, dating back to about 1514, and a wee bit of trivia: its location was used in the filming of Othello, with Orson Welles, in 1952 (my birth year).


And zero tourists, this is an absolutely perfect time of year to be here.

On yet another train, quick stop in Casablanca, and then onto a nature reserve in the north which, during this time of year, is apparently full of migrating birds - including flamingoes. Taxi to the station was $1.50, and then a 3 hour train journey cost $4, and much nicer than most British trains. You have to appreciate these trips that are more affordable than staying home (wherever that might be).


Moulay Bousselman... hands down the best beach in Morocco; gorgeous lagoon, flamingoes, Hassan the bird guide extraordinaire. Breathtaking day.


Good Morning, Morocco.


Saw my friend, Caroline Howells off in yet another grande taxi. She was such a delightful travel companion.


Watched a glorious sunrise over the lagoon.


Stood in deep respect for the local fishermen braving the tempestuous Atlantic. I will never take a sardine for granted again.


Walked the boundary of sea and earth, with awe and wonder that never fades.


I've got to tough it out in a gorgeous room with an ocean view, for the whole next 2 days. What with that incessant sound of the Atlantic ocean, then the ridiculous technicolour sunset, and if that wasn't enough there was an overblown luminous full moon setting at sunrise. It's all too much to put up with.


Enjoyed one last day in Moulay Bousselham, headed north the next day to Larache, then back south to Casablanca… and then my daughter arrived. The pace stepped up, plus the luxury level. My Libran daughter was born knowing how to accessorise, economise, and live well. Mama Bear is happy to go along for the ride.


Some musings:


I hear that right after I took some photos of the fishermen, one of them capsized going over a giant wave… and apparently this is a frequent occurrence. Luckily, all made it to shore, but almost every year fishermen there drown. This is their living and a historical and generational one at that, so of course they keep at it, even if a family member is lost. My comment about appreciating sardines should not have been so flippant.


A friend remarked how pleased she was that my experience in Morocco was good, because her mother had a weird time here. I almost got mugged in Beijing once, and I’ll never know whether my indignant belligerence saved me, or potentially made it worse, but I do know that it made me dislike the city. I hear the name and I cringe a little, (it was also a sweltering 100 degrees with zero air quality the entire time I was there), so my whole experience of the place was not good. On a previous trip I went to the Yunnan in the south of China, and it was amazing; trekking through gorges, (now sadly flooded and part of vast dams), meeting tribal people and visiting beautiful cities like Dali. Yet my very last experience was that less than pretty one in Beijing, so I tend to be quite negative when I talk about China. A very personal, biased slant, unfortunately. Bad things can and do happen everywhere, and I contend that likewise amazing things can happen in the most unlikely places. I resolve to try and not let my personal experiences make me negate entire countries. Phew, when I actually write it I see the hubris.


After only 3 weeks I can’t come close to claiming to understand the culture here in Morocco, but I can say that I have seen incredible diversity within short distances, with a consistent theme of deep pride that the Moroccans have for their country. “Welcome” is the most frequent word used, so much so that I thought one waiter believed it meant something else, he must have used it 4 or 5 times in every sentence. And they really do mean it, they light up when you tell them you love their country.


I’ve met so many incredibly bright and well read people, mostly men, but the few women I have interacted with have been strong and forthright, in particular our fabulous guide Rashida in Essaouria. I was also rather impressed by a bus conductress who came up to a family of tourists about to have a rather smelly picnic on a long distance bus, she very firmly told them, (in perfect English), that they couldn’t impose their pungent lunch on the rest of the passengers, and to put it away until they got off, (which they sheepishly did). Perhaps it's not too surprising that I really like assertive and ballsy women.


I have no idea what the deal is with dogs, for the 1st 2 weeks I saw not one, because Muslims supposed don’t really like them, and now here in Moulay Bousselham, everyone has one. And they appear to love them very much. Go figure.


So the more I experience Morocco, (or anywhere), the less absolute I am about anything. I have a tangible experience and a kind of knowing, but it’s even more mysterious to me than before I came.

Just arrived in the charming Spanish town of Larache. Steeped in mythology, and I can already see the ruins of Lixus on a hill in the distance, which tell me it is actually mythistory, (I was rather proud of myself, and thought I'd made a word up, but it actually exists).


"A little seaside town, Larache is identified by its minarets set like exclamation marks above its white roofs. Its charms are simple. A medina with a cluster of little whitewashed houses. A little port. A kasbah that seems to plunge into the ocean. A breezy beach. A view that you would like to take away with you. The eternal home of Jean Genet, (he chose to be buried here), Larache is a sanctuary. A shelter for the trawlermen who toil in the powerful currents, a haven for those who seek complete peace. Close to the Loukos estuary is Lixus, an ancient Phoenician trading post. This was where Hercules performed his penultimate feat: picking the golden apples in the Garden of the Hesperides."

And apparently the golden apples were... oranges. No shortage of those in Morocco, and tangerines are of course native to Tanger - I've never figured that one out before.


And best of all, I have yet to see a single other tourist here. I am the original self-centred traveller, my favourite thing is pretending I am a fly on the wall, and I suppose seeing other tourists reminds me that I'm not.


Off to the Medina and Kasbah to let the imagination run riot, never hard in Maroc : "The Kasbah, which was built in 1491 by Moulay en Nasser, later became a pirate stronghold."


There is apparently one stone circle in Morocco, with links to Stonehenge and Callanish, so I am in a taxi and on my way to heaven knows where to find it. How could I not?

And it turned out to be the ultimate jewel: Mzora, I don’t know why I find ancient stone circles so moving, but they always emotionally cause me to shed (happy) tears. I did manage to sneak away from my (lovely kind) taxi driver so I could sit in the middle and weep a while. A beautiful old man with Parkinson's tends it, and it appears with great pride. He claims it is 51,000 years old. Nobody spoke English, (and it was only me, the taxi driver and the guardian of the stones), so with a smattering of Spanish and French I tried hard to glean some info... as if anyone even really knows. I’ve always been impassioned about these places, Callanish on the Scottish Island of Lewis being my favourite, (to date). Discovering just how vast was the influence of whoever created these wonders was a lovely gift today. Morocco, now I love you more than ever.


Lixus: 75 hectare ancient city, with Phoenician, Roman, Islamic history, dating back further than 1,000 BC. So far only 10% has been excavated and already it is a huge amount to see. It seems they must be lacking in funds as it is sadly not well taken care of. Again, I was the only person there. Fascinating place.


Sometimes bad reviews turn out to be for the good. I haven’t met a single person who has been positive about Casablanca, so I came here with zero expectations, so my conclusion is it's not so bad. The mosque is superb, built by one of the kings, (Hassan II), so Casablanca would always have something to be proud of, (apparently a film with Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart didn’t quite cut it). And to a tune of $750 million it was quite a bill for the taxpayers of a poor country to foot, so there was a lot of controversy around it, (construction started in 1983). Still it is amazing, not quite the Taj Mahal, but somewhere on that same architectural beauty spectrum.


Then I did a wander about and got a bit lost, and found myself in some of the poorer parts of the city, but still very close to this most opulent mosque, and the minaret kept peaking up between the slums. Again, reminded of how much poorer poverty seems when it’s urban.


Tuareg tribesmen, Morocco, 2015. The men wear a veil but the women do not, and I was told that they belong to a matrilineal society.

“The Tuareg are matrilineal, though not matriarchal. Unlike many Muslim societies, the women do not traditionally wear the veil, whereas the men do. The most famous Tuareg symbol is the Tagelmust, their veil, which is often blue indigo colored. The men's facial covering originates from the belief that such action wards off evil spirits, but most probably relates to protection against the harsh desert sands as well; in any event, it is a firmly established tradition (as is the wearing of amulets containing verses from the Qur'an). Men begin wearing a veil when they reach maturity which usually conceals their entire face excluding their eyes and top of nose.”


Daughter messaged me she was arriving with something good and red and Spanish that required an opener (yeah). Problem was she was in Madrid airport, a corkscrew being a bit too weapon like to sell there, and on her way to meet me in a Muslim country on their Holy Day, with not a drop of alcohol as far as I can see.


So I went off on a quest for the Holy Wine Opening Grail. These darned 1st world dilemmas.

My Libran daughter, travels with a sleep-sack and hand sanitiser, but then lays down on steps walked on by 1,000's to get the perfect shot.


We arrived in a place that has been a dream of mine to come to for a long time, and it's the cherry on the top of this amazing time in Morocco. So happy to finally visit the Blue Medina with my daughter, Tara. It is glorious.


Chefchaouene: bluer than blue, and cats galore. I bought 13 cactus plant woven blankets for the Bali houses, and about half a gallon of argan oil. I had not a clue as to how any of this loot was going with me through Asia, but it did.


Farewell, Morocco.