Touristic vs. real Morocco
January 1, 1970
by Karin K
This trip has a special place in my memories, since it was my first solo travel ever and without any exaggeration – a life changing experience. This article (same as my trip) consists of 2 parts:
- my volunteering project (here I will share my impressions on culture, cuisine, locals..)
- travelling tips (I will guide you through the cities i visited on my way up to Spain)
My first tip for anyone who really wants to experience another culture is to make effort to get out of main touristic spots if it´s even slightly possible. I am not saying to skip the Eiffel tower when in Paris, but you might be surprised what difference does it make, especially regarding mentality of people. Try to visit a place that wasn´t stated on any „must see“ list and compare the difference. I have visited many countries, but Morocco was for sure the most contradictory when it comes to comparing its touristic and ordinary side. I was lucky to attend 3 weeks long volunteering project in a small village, far from places like Jemaa el-Fnaa (Marrakesh´s main square).
My project took place in a village of Timerssit which is located about 25 km from Agadir and we were accommodated at local hosts. There is nothing quite like staying with locals when experiencing another culture. Even if Morocco is Arabic/Berber/French (none of the languages I speak) speaking country, we didn´t have any major issues based on language barrier since we always managed to understand each other in some way.
To characterize local mentality is a difficult task. For sure they are very relaxed about time management and organization, which is difficult to work with if you are used to something else. Many times our plan changed unexpectedly, or we had the impression that no one really knew what was going to happen, but they never seemed bothered by it. „Meshi mouskhil“ will be the first words you´ll learn. It means „no problem“ (maybe more precisely „no problem, relax“:) and it´s an universal answer. On the other hand, it´s good to learn to let go a bit and what I liked a lot is that people are generally in a good mood, they are very spontaneous and they like to joke a lot. Also, Moroccans are incredibly nice, friendly and always ready to help. Whatever I needed, I got it (sometimes it took a ride to the city, sometimes just grabbing first child in the street to give him/her instructions). And thinking of what I experienced later in the cities, I feel obliged to say they didn´t expect anything in return. They just love to make you feel comfortable and welcome, they will invite you to their houses for meals, drinks or internet, or take you to the wedding of their relatives (they will even take you shopping for a wedding gift, just to make sure you are not bored alone at home). These people are also very open to speak about their culture, habits and even stuff like relationships, marriage or religion – I never felt like there was some topic I should avoid.
The project consisted of decorating local buildings by mural paintings and it included 7 international participants. We were working several hours daily in the open. Of course we created a sensation over the place and we were accompanied by lots of spectators every day. Needless to say, everybody wanted to try which often complicated our job, on the other hand we didn´t have heart to refuse them since they (especially children) seemed to enjoy „helping“ so much. Sometimes it´s more important to have a good time than to do a perfect job (but I think we did pretty good job anyway;).
The food was just incredible. Our Moroccan family cooked for us every day and we were never disappointed at meal time. They prepared all kind of vegetables, meat or fish in a traditional clay pot – Tajine, which made the food stew-cooked. Also, couscous is very popular (there are variations with meat, vegetables or the sweet one) and only here I learnt that the proper way to eat it is to form a small ball in your hand first. I dare to say that Moroccans love sugar. Their mint tea is shockingly sweet and they even put sugar into fruit salad. People in Morocco are very hospitable, and many other locals invited us for coffee, tea or lunch. My family once made for us kind of sweet pastry covered in honey (they called it „graush“) and when I mentioned how much I liked it, they surprised me with a whole bucket of it as a goodbye gift when I was leaving! (Yes, I was travelling with a backpack, a handbag and a white plastic bucket for next couple of days).
Several times we got amazing free henna tattoo made by local women. Also, we were invited to a local wedding that involved a lot of food, music, dancing and spontaneous fun – for everyone except the wedding couple. For big portion of the celebration they just sat on something like a wedding throne without showing any emotions, just watching. Also wedding photography is being done in this spirit – the couple sits emotionless and motionless only allowed to hold hands (but later on they did join the celebration).
Since we felt like giving something back, we decided to organize an international evening, when everybody cooked a dish from their country. Particular experience was getting chicken meat for one of the recepies. There was a „chicken shop“ with live chicken where you can point one of them and they will slaughter and clean it for you (luckily not in front of us). By the way, the dinner was a great success – the locals appreciated it a lot.
The Way Up North
If you have a lot of time to spare – then maybe but if you need to set priorities – than no. The city has rather modern look, since it was completely rebuilt after a massive earthquake in 1960. Nowadays, Agadir is famous for it´s seaside, apart from swimming and sunbathing it is also a popular spot for surfers around the world. There is also a nice ZOO and huge market. You can climb Casbah mountain (originally there was a fortress on the top, destroyed by the earthquake as well – you can still see the ruins) to get nice view on the city and the beaches. There is an inscription in Arabic saying „God, Country, King“, glowing in dark on the slope of the mountain.
Essaouira is definitely a place to visit. The old town (medina) of Essaouira (formerly “Mogador”) is a UNESCO World Heritage listed city, and the place bears signs of strong previous influence of Portugal – Portuguese king Manuel I. ordered building the fortress around the port and old town in early 16th century. You can take unforgettable walk within its walls starting in old town, ending up in the port full of typically blue boats, enjoying the sound of the ocean accompanied by omnipresent shrieking of sea gulls. Essaouira used to be Morocco’s principal port and trading place and there is a long tradition in various crafts (especially wood carving) so you can count of many opportunities for shopping and admiring art display. Since 1998, Essaouira is home to the Festival of World Music by the end of June, so you might take that into consideration when planning your trip.
The most popular Moroccan city certainly has some charm to it: the main square Jemaa el-Fnaa (part of the UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985) constantly covered in steam rising from food stands, largest traditional market (souk) in Morocco (here you can find anything from Berber carpets, leather goods, clothes to spices, jewellery, electronics or typical colourful lanterns), entertainers with snakes and monkeys, musicians…
The market (Souk)
On the other hand, I found it quite overrated. Maybe if this is the only place you´ll visit in Morocco, you will be impressed, but comparing to anything else, you´ll realize how touristic it is (and imagine me coming from countryside!). This is where my boyfriend joined me, but it was hard to enjoy some time alone. Five minutes didn´t pass that someone didn´t try to talk to us to sell something or to offer some kind of help or guidance, of course expecting some money (baksheesh) in return. After a while it becomes just annoying, since you can´t even enjoy the evening walk in peace. My advice is to stay polite and friendly, but make your refusal clear. We didn´t and we were tricked into „special-occasion-visit“ to local leather manufacture which ended up with the „guide“ screaming at us in abandoned street, asking for something like 50eur for 15 minutes tour. In the end he gave us some „discount“, nevertheless this experience was anything but nice. Speaking of money – always ask the price up front, otherwise you´ll be in trouble. My friend was persuaded to get henna „tattoo“ (which was hideous btw!) and had to pay 20 eur. Apart from all this, you can still enjoy the atmosphere of the place, amazing food and do some great shopping, just remember to bargain, because you can be sure that the price you were offered was exaggerated at least by half. There are some historical sites to check out (number of mosques and palaces, city walls and gates), but believe me, the main square is what you will remember from Marrakesh. All in all, my opinion is that 1 night here is enough – there are far more interesting and a less crowded places, for example Fes.
By the way, while on the road, always have you camera ready – you never know when an argan tree full of goats in its branches will appear on the side of the highway. We chose to travel by train and it took 9 hours (including 2 hours delay for unknown reason) from Marrakesh to Fes. Probably bus ride would be faster (not speaking of driving a car) but we were trying to keep our trip low cost.
Fes is the second biggest city in Morocco and it used to be the capital for a period of time until 1925. It prides itself with one of the biggest urban pedestrian areas in the world and also with the oldest functioning university in the world (University of Al Quaraouiyine). There are 2 parts of the old town (medina) and the bigger one – Fes el Bali – is listed at UNESCO World heritage site since 1981. You can enter it through „The Blue Gate“ (Bab Boujloud) which is one of the landmarks of Fes. However, dozens of narrow and tiny streets make this city kind of a labyrinth and taking a guide here might not be a bad idea. Usually the hostels recommend their own people and they are not even that expensive. Of course you can discover the city on your own, just beware of the „helpers“ that will try to show you the way on every corner. On the other hand, the guide will show you the most important sites (don´t miss the tour of spectacular Bou Inania Madrasa – educational institute and the mosque – one of the few accessible for non-Muslims) and also some pretty cool places like carpenter´s shop where you can see traditional way of wood carving or the tiniest street in the city which is barely wide enough for one person. We also visited traditional pharmacy with all kind of herbs and ointments, and of course with argan oil – the Moroccan treasure. Don´t forget to buy some (after bargaining a reasonable price), it is crazy expensive back in Europe. And this time, there was planned visit to the leather processing and dyeing manufacture which was much more comfortable that the last time.
Chefchaouen is a charming little town in northwest of Morocco, famous for its houses typically paint in blue. This is a lovely break from main touristic spots like Marrakesh and Fes. Well, obviously, many tourists visit this place as well, but it´s much less crowded and noisy and even salesmen here are bearable. Also, orientation is much easier here and surrounding (greenish) mountains give Chefchaouen completely different – more vital – character comparing to cities with more of a desert-look like Fes or Marrakesh. Our stay here was definitely the most relaxed part of this journey and I dare to say, one of the most beautiful, too.
Tangier was the Moroccan city I liked the least. Historical sites are not that impressive (especially being our last stop in Morocco), the city itself is confusing (the map we got at the hostel was more of a joke), messy and noisy. Tangier is anything but cosy, I didn´t feel quite comfortable here and giant cockroach in our hostel´s bathroom wasn´t the only reason. On the way to the ferry, local child managed to „earn“ small baksheesh by „arranging“ the taxi for us (this commendable task consisted of asking the driver that was parking 2 metres from us), but that´s our own fault – we should have known better by then. Short 6 hours later (due to delay caused by weather) we were ready to board the ferry back to good old Europe.