I seem to have been suffering from writer’s block – if I can take the liberty of calling myself a writer. Since my last post just before Christmas, our pace of travel slowed dramatically and I found myself procrastinating over my next post; just enjoying our continued exploration of Morocco and our slow pace. Now that we have left Morocco behind, we have been able to reflect on our experience of that spectacular country.
It is not only Morocco’s diverse landscape that is spectacular; it is its culture and people. We have found that our most memorable experiences all involved our interaction with local people, their openness, friendliness and stunning hospitality.
I took a brief break from travelling over Christmas, flying home to spend a few days with family and giving Steve a brief break from me. He remained in Marrakesh where he was joined by his son during my absence. Before my departure on Christmas Day, we spent a very enjoyable Christmas Eve together on a campsite near Marrakesh, where we celebrated with other campers, including a lovely French family with whom we became good friends during our brief time together. Christmas Eve provided a bizzare cultural clash – this familiar Christian festival, complete with Christmas trees and decorations, being accompanied by music from a Berber troupe, who sang traditional songs about their freedom from slavery!
On my return to Morocco we headed south from Marrakesh to join our German friends again for New Year. They had found a camping place in the southern part of the country near a hot sulphur spring and had spent their Christmas there alone but for the local people who frequent the springs to bathe and share a picnic.
We joined them here and celebrated New Year’s Eve with a barbecue over a campfire. We had the place to ourselves until quite late, when a group of young local men arrived to share cigarettes and some illicit local whisky. We spent some time talking to them and they told us that despite being well-educated, some with law degrees, they could find no suitable work in Morocco, having to take labouring jobs to make ends meet.
Following recent events there has been a change in the treatment of tourists by the authorities, desperate to ensure that tourists come to no harm. Tourism is vital to Morocco’s economy. We encountered Europeans travelling in camping cars bemoaning the loss of ability to stop and camp freely, the authorities regularly moving people on from wild camps to official campsites. We were moved on ourselves from a lovely spot we found overlooking a beach on the Atlantic coast, having to resort to a nearby campsite that was overcrowded and enclosed by high walls surmounted by rolled barbed wire. It felt like a prison camp. However, we couldn’t help thinking that, small as the risk might be, spending a night on a campsite was a small price to pay for our security.
During a visit to the beautiful fishing town of Essouria on the Atlantic coast, our attention was drawn to a boat being repaired in dry-dock. Seeing our interest, a man approached us, explaining that he was first engineer on the vessel and was overseeing the repairs. He took us on a tour of the harbour, explaining the development that would soon take place, modernising the harbour facilities. The boats were currently hauled out of the water using winches and wooden logs but these were soon to be replaced by electronic hoists. Like everything, the old would disappear to make way for the new. It was a fascinating and unexpected interaction, and also provided us with a place to camp for the night, as the engineer recommended a beach 20 kilometres away where he said we would be able to stay. We found the beach, with a military post directly on it, and asked for permission to stay there overnight. This was readily given and we set up camp alongside several other assorted overland vehicles. It was a beautiful beach, with an extraordinary rock shelf at the high tide line. The rocks were being steadily dissolved and eroded by the sea so that the shelf was riddled with tunnels, caves and blow holes. Below the tide was a sea of bright green seaweed, interspersed with clear rock pools. Local women were harvesting and drying the seaweed, which was then sold to the cosmetics industry to be used in the manufacture of sun creams and cosmetics.
The attitude of the authorities on this beach was so relaxed it surprised us to find a very different attitude in other areas. Two days after our beach camp, we found ourselves looking for a place to camp inland as it was getting late. We were still travelling with our German friends and decided to head for a guest house listed on our navigation app. However, when we arrived at the coordinates of the guest house, we found nothing but a couple of farm buildings on the edge of a village. A man was walking nearby with a young child and, as it was getting dark, we decided to ask him if he knew of anywhere we could stay for the night.
Steve, being the designated French speaker, approached the man who greeted him with the warmth of a long lost relative. This man spoke no French beyond a simple greeting but clearly indicated that we should accompany him to his home, which was one of the nearby buildings. He showed us where we could park our vehicles and invited us into his home to meet his family.
The family name was Hami, and I remember the names of each family member, apart from the father, whose name we never did manage to get to grips with. Upon our arrival, his wife, Fateha, brought us Moroccan mint tea, bread with oil, butter and jam and a freshly made omelette. They brought a water bowl and jug which they poured for each of us in turn to wash our hands before eating. We ate with his three sons, 21-year-old Ayoub, 13-year-old Osama and 5-year-old Saad. The family also had two married daughters and three grand-children. No one in the family spoke French, apart from Osama who was learning French at school. Using a mixture of French, mime and an Icoon (a book of universal images designed to assist communication where there is no shared language) we managed a form of communication with this lovely family.
Mr Hami took Steve to the local shop to introduce him to his friends and shortly after their return the police arrived outside the Hami’s home. Mr Hami took Steve outside to talk to the police, who wanted to know why we were there and what we were doing. Mr Hami introduced us as friends, but the police clearly didn’t believe this and were very uncomfortable about us staying there. We explained that we had nowhere to go and that we were invited to stay for the night.
The police left and we remained with the family while Fateha prepared a meal for us. She cooked a whole chicken (which had been alive and well roaming the courtyard prior to our arrival) with olives and chips but our meal was interrupted by another visit from the police, this time with more senior officers and members of the local Gendarmerie. Steve and Mr Hami were detained for some time outside with the officers who made it clear that Mr Hami was responsible for our safety while we were staying with him. Despite Steve’s objections, they insisted that a police officer stay with us all night as a personal guard. In the event, both the officer and Mr Hami spent a very cold night watching over us while we tried to sleep in the roof-tent, feeling so sorry that our presence had caused so much inconvenience to this family whose hospitality to us was overwhelming.
The night passed without incident and the following morning we were invited in for a delicious breakfast of Moroccan crepes, omelette, bread and tea. The policeman shared the breakfast and we were also joined by a local school-teacher, Mohammed, who spoke fluent French as well as some English. We said to Mohammed that we were so grateful to the family for their hospitality and that we wished we could do something for them in return. Mohammed assured us that nothing was necessary and that this hospitality was normal for them and part of their culture.
The police and gendarmes returned in the morning to ensure that we left and we bade the family farewell with gifts we found amongst our possessions. We were surprised by the conflict that was apparent between local Moroccans wanting to offer hospitality to strangers and the authorities, desperate to ensure that no harm comes to tourists on their patch. As Europeans, we are unused to being welcomed in such a way by complete strangers, and offered food and a shelter without any agenda or expectation of anything in return. It will be a huge sadness if this part of the culture is lost because it is no longer tolerated officially. The result will be to force travellers to use only established campsites, restricting them to known tourist areas, already congested with the 30,000 French camping cars that arrive in Morocco between January and March every year.
We have sadly reached the end of the first part of our travels, and have returned to France to carry out some repairs and modifications to the Land Rover. The past five months have passed so quickly but we have learned a lot about living this new life, how it best works for us, and the richness and variety of people and places just in the small part of the world we have covered so far. Morocco offered us the richest experiences; we have explored a stunning, varied and surprising landscape, made new friends and seen real poverty, beauty and incomparable hospitality. We both stepped outside our personal bubbles and pushed the limits of our comfort zones through our contact with locals and were rewarded by the warmth of the response we received.