I didn’t know what to expect in Morocco. My main feeling as we left Europe was anxiety about our health when travelling in a country with a reputation for poor water quality and upset stomachs. We stocked up on anti-bacterial hand wash in Algeciras and filled our water tanks with nice clean European water before departure.
Everyone in Morocco wants to shake your hand. I quickly became ashamed of my need to clean my hands immediately after any contact. Unfortunately, my anxiety was greater than my shame, and the hand-wash was always within reach. As our journey through Morocco has progressed, however, I have found the anxiety beginning to slip away. Time has passed before I realise that I forgot to clean my hands after shaking someone’s hand. The further we have explored this country, the more we have felt at home here and the more we have loved it.
Our first destination on arriving in Morocco was Chefchouen – ‘the Blue City’ – in the Riff mountains. The main agriculture in this region appears to be marijuana, locally known as kiff, and we only had to wait until 8 am on our first morning in Chefchaouen to be approached by someone wanting to sell us kiff. By midday we had been approached 3 more times. The medina was beautiful, with its white and blue painted buildings separated by narrow pathways lined with shops, but this was definitely a tourist destination, the locals looking for the opportunity to sell their carpets, blankets and djellaba at inflated tourist prices. At every restaurant we passed we were invited in for tagine or couscous with the assurance that theirs was the best. In Marrakesh, however, the street restaurant touts went a step further, offering us a guarantee that the food offered in their restaurant would not cause diarrhoea!
Our relentless flight from bad weather kept us moving south, as the rain and cold caught up with us in Chefchaouen. We followed the roads southward, enjoying the dramatic changes in landscape as we left the Riff mountains and crossed the vast plain between mountain ranges and desert. The roads were lined with people selling tagines and fruit, and people invariably waved as we passed, or beckoned towards us wanting a lift, or for us to stop and buy their produce. As we approached the desert, we encountered the first of many fossil-sellers; from those with hundreds of rocks spread on blankets by the roadside, to boys on bikes or on foot who pulled a handful of rocks from their pockets or knapsacks, carefully wrapped in newspaper.
The first few times we met the fossil sellers, we looked at, and politely declined to buy, their fossils. We quickly learned that if we stopped the car anywhere near the road or villages, it would be a very short time before we would be approached. On one occasion we were driving across what appeared to be a wide, featureless (but nevertheless beautiful) plain dotted with small towns and villages. On turning a bend in the road, we saw that a deep gorge ran through the plain, only visible at certain points, and containing an oasis of palm trees and villages. This, we later found, was the Ziz Valley, and it was so spectacular that we pulled off the road and drove up to the edge of the gorge to stop and take some photographs.
Within five minutes a small white van turned off the road and came towards us. A man got out of the van and approached us. He spoke French well and also spoke some English and he simply talked to us, asking where we were from and whether this was our first time in Morocco. He was interesting and pleasant to talk to, and the conversation was enjoyable. He made no mention of fossils. It was only when Steve asked him what he did that he told us he sold fossils. He then opened the back doors of his van and took out boxes of fossils to show us. He told us that his family found the fossils and worked them to reveal the trilobites or shape and polish the marble stones to make dishes and worry eggs. His approach was so unpressured and our conversation had been so pleasant, that we decided to buy a small dish as a present for my mother, as it was her birthday. We had also learned that it was the prophet Mohammed’s birthday on the same day. When we explained the reason for our purchase to this man, he was delighted. We paid 50 Dirham for the dish (about £4.50), said goodbye and returned to our car. He then came running after us with one of the worry eggs, which he offered me as a birthday gift for Mum.
On arriving near the desert town of Merzouga, we stayed on a campsite adjoining a lovely auberge, called ‘La Gazelle Bleu’. We received the customary welcome of a tray with sweet mint tea and a bowl of nuts, but with the addition of a small bowl of Moroccan pastries, made with honey and sesame, which were delicious. The auberge stood between the village and the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi and with the doors on both sides open, you had a view through the cool interior to the hot orange sand beyond. We went for a walk on the sand in the late afternoon and no sooner did we reach the dunes, than a 4×4 vehicle drew up alongside us and a man asked if we wanted a tour of the desert. We said no, that we preferred to walk, whereupon he offered a camel ride. We declined this offer as well, saying we needed the exercise so he offered us fossils. When we told him we already had fossils he finally left us to our walk undisturbed.
We soon found there was no art to finding fossils. They are everywhere in this part of Morocco. Practically every rock you pick up has traces of some ancient creature embedded within it. We spent a few days on a lovely, quiet campsite near Tazarine – called Camp Serdrar. Brahim, the campsite owner, showed us a route we could take for a hike from the campsite into some nearby hills where there were fossils. “You can walk on fossils” he said. He wasn’t wrong. The hills were composed of rocks that were literally littered with fossils (thousands of Orthoceras from some 400 million years ago apparently). The marble basins in Camp Serdrar’s sanitary block were made from the polished marble quarried locally, which is full of these creatures.
We have met so many different people during our time in Morocco and every encounter is interesting. In every village, children run to the car to say hello and ask us for pens, school bags or clothes. They usually have little French beyond the words they use to express what they want – “stylo, madame, stylo?” We bought a bag of pens to distribute to children but the pens soon ran out. On one occasion, a young girl clutching a baby goat asked us for clothes so I gave her one of my t-shirts (whereupon she immediately asked for some trousers) but it is impossible to give enough to make a difference to people who have so little. We felt such impotence when being greeted by a family of children asking us for shoes for their baby brother (a toddler, who ran behind them naked from the waist down) when all we could offer them was some sweets.
We have become used to these approaches by local people and as we have journeyed into less travelled parts of Morocco. Near more remote villages, our encounters have become more human and enriching. We made friends with a young German couple travelling with their two-year-old and 8-month-old sons. They planned to take a number of off-road tracks through the desert and through the mountains and we were happy to follow. We had an amazing, if sometimes terrifying, experience crossing a mountain track consisting entirely of rocks, in some places dramatically displaced by now absent water torrents. Our Defender and our friend’s Land Cruiser coped with everything we encountered, the cars stepping their way over the rocks and straddling the gullies.
After taking most of a day to travel just 40 kms in this way, we found a lovely place to camp in a rocky valley about 2 kms from a tiny village. The interesting thing about wild camping with a young family is that it is impossible to be stealthy. The two-year-old, Samuel, played with his toy cow making loud moo-ing noises, while the baby cried in frustration if the route he wanted to crawl along was blocked by something he couldn’t negotiate, such as a car. Steve and I try to be inconspicuous when we wild camp, choosing places where we are unseen as much as possible. We abandoned all such hopes as the bedtime routine was accompanied by cries reverberating between the valley walls.
It wasn’t long before an elderly villager walked past and came over to greet us. He spoke very little French but Steve managed to conduct a brief conversation with him using a mixture of pigeon French and sign language, while he responded in what we guess was Tamazight – the local Berber language. He was carrying a bag and when he started to open it, we imagined he would show us the fossils he wanted to sell. But he took dates out of his bag and offered them to us, indicating that he had found them in the valley. He accepted a glass of water and some mandarins from us and went on his way towards the village.
The following morning, after a night broken by some hearty crying from the baby, we saw four women walking along the valley a short distance from our camp. They looked at us and we had the impression that they had come specifically to see us. We approached them and said hello, but again we had no language in common. They were fascinated by the children and especially the baby, and readily came into our camp when invited to watch us while we packed up. The youngest woman played with Samuel, using the sound the cow makes as the basis of communication and a game, which he loved. We offered the women water and they again gave us dates. We have found interaction with women in rural areas here is infrequent; women and girls being far more reticent that boys and men. Travelling with a family gave us the opportunity to engage with these women, because they were driven to interact with us by their interest in the children. It was a wonderful experience.
In the desert we had one of our most interesting encounters. We found a camping place surrounded by dunes in the Erg Chegaga region between M’Hamid and Foum Zguid. We were some way off the track and were invisible beyond the high dunes around us. As it was such a nice place we decided to stay for two days. On the second day a man appeared on top of the dune; he wore a long tunic, was barefoot and carried nothing with him. He walked towards us and greeted us but his language was incomprehensible to us, and ours to him. He told us he was a nomad – we had this word at least in common. We didn’t know what he wanted, so offered him bread and water, which he took. He pointed to his back, indicating pain, so we invited him to sit and rest and we offered him two paracetamols.
I am sorry to say that these encounters start with suspicion. We didn’t know what he wanted from us and we were not entirely comfortable when he came right into our camp. I wondered what we would do if he didn’t leave. At the same time, we wanted to appear hospitable and I hate to feel that I appear fearful or unwelcoming to people I meet. As it turned out, he did leave shortly afterwards and Steve climbed the sand dune after him and watched to see where he went. Steve watched him with binoculars until he had disappeared over the dunes on the horizon. We thought little more of it, beyond the interest of meeting such a person, walking for miles barefoot in the desert.
About four hours later he re-appeared. I felt uncomfortable seeing him come back to our camp and supposed he had come to beg from us. This time he was wearing sandals and he was carrying a bag and a bundle of sticks. He sat down just away from us and started a fire with the sticks. He then called us over to him, gave us some (very hard, sandy and frankly inedible) bread and asked for some water. We took him some water and he poured it into a small teapot that he extracted from his bag. He put the teapot on the fire embers and brewed mint tea there in the desert on a fire conjured from a handful of sticks. He invited us to drink tea with him and pointed to his back, smiling. He clearly wanted to thank us for the relief from pain that we had given him. All he had to give us in return was his tea. The tea was both bitter and sweet – he had a lump of sugar in his bag that he broke chunks from using the tea glass – but we sat on the sand with him and drank it, allowing him to refill our glasses until the teapot was empty. We offered him two more paracetamols, which he gratefully accepted before walking off into the dunes again.
Our encounters with Moroccans have brought our wealth and their poverty into stark contrast. It feels wrong to travel through villages in our car full of our possessions and tell people we have nothing to give them. They are the ones who have nothing. Yet at the same time, the act of giving is so difficult in our culture. We find it easier to overspend in an expensive restaurant in Europe and leave a generous tip, than we do to give 10 Dirham to a beggar in the medina in Marrakesh. We haggle and negotiate to reduce the price asked for a souvenir so that we feel good about our purchase, instead of paying maybe too high a price in order to increase the wealth of a family struggling to survive.
Morocco is a beautiful country and our encounters have demonstrated its people to be open and welcoming. We have experienced no aggression or hostility. We have been asked for things, but even when we have refused, we have been wished well. Driving through villages, people smile and wave hello as we pass. Children shout ‘bonjour’, wanting to show off their French. In one village, situated in a stunning palm filled valley in the Anti Atlas, we were headed the wrong way across a football pitch and three boys came running, shouting for us to stop and pointing out the right way. The oldest boy came up to the car and spoke such good French that Steve complimented him. He showed real modesty and his friends some embarrassment that they couldn’t speak French as well as their friend. The boy demonstrated his fluency by proudly rattling off his curriculum vitae in French – “my name is…., I am 11 years old, I am in sixieme…” The boys wanted nothing from us, but we wished we had something to offer them but our supply of pens and sweets had long since run out.
We haven’t decided how much longer we will spend in Morocco, or where we will go next, but as the tourist season gets under way in January, we expect we will want to move on to the next part of our journey. I am glad that I didn’t know what to expect from Morocco because having no expectations left me open to experience it as it is, without preconceptions or any risk of disappointment. It has been far from disappointing. It has been beautiful, fascinating and humbling.