I am snaking through countryside that is greener than I would normally associate with the word Africa. It’s winter and dark grey clouds constantly billow on the horizon, simmering away like a pan of water threatening to bubble over. They clearly have in the past few days, and left dams pregnant with silted water, and a shimmering layer of silver water over crops. Donkeys loaded with wood and carts and sand bags and men on their way to work trudge by placidly. A lone shepherd in a yellow coat is standing at the top of jagged rocks, leaning over his walking stick and staring into the far distance while his woolly sheep, clinging with dag, sense they should stay close. Dilapidated buildings spot the landscape, whitewashed and weathered with time like the rocky exposed protrusions in the area. The baby pyramid peaks here are only small compared to their snow covered big brothers in the Atlas mountains in the nearby south. Small villages come in and out of view, with mud and concrete housing bundled around a tall church and children darting around while their father tinkers with the ancient looking tractor. Satellites are the only sign of encroaching modernity. Cactuses make hedges around the village, enclosing crops of olive trees and herds of cows chewing away in bright fields.
In one night we have come two thirds of the way down the country. A long way from where I started this journey at Tangier. I finished my final exam for the semester last Thursday and flew out on Friday morning with only my blue schoolbag on my back, both to satisfy Ryan Air’s hand baggage policy and to give myself some freedom from unnecessary items while travelling. It’s going okay so far, but I washed my only pair of real walking pants two days ago and they still haven’t dried. That leaves me wearing my hippie/pyjama pants, some long tight fluffy socks with joggers and my lurid green windbreaker. Even in my super non- sexy state, the men continue to propose me with marriage and compliments about my staggering beauty. Whispers in the ear from strangers as they pass, eye contact blazing like fire from all directions. I have met a few Westerners who have moved here and I swear it’s just because of all the attention you get from the men! It wears you down after a while though, having to smile and say thankyou but no thanks I don’t want to see the leather bags and in your shop and come to your house to have a drink and then take your hand in marriage then subsequently score you a visa to live Down Under and share the vast riches of my Centrelink funded student bank account with you. But it’s all fun and games here in Morocco. Even if they look at you like they want to eat you like an olive and preserved lemon tagine, it’s normally all safe and sound according to my experience.
So I left Spain with the resolution to be in Chefchouen for my first night in Morocco, because a guy in a pub in Australia at the beginning of last year told me it’s his favourite place of all time. And my bestie Hannie told me I couldn’t miss out. So naturally I found other people who also had the ambition to be in Chefchaouen that night, and I jumped in a taxi with a Canadian brother/sister duo and 4 Spaniard boys followed in a taxi behind for the 150km journey through straight-up ridiculously beautiful landscape to get there. Chefchaouen could well be the elusive Shangri La. Encased on all sides by the Rif Mountains, this small town sprawls down the mountainside and sits inside the high walls of the old medina or marketplace. The buildings seem to be moulded by children using plaster of Paris. Nothing is completely smoothed out and there are no sharp corners in the buildings, just big rounded steps and doors that have been made too low for anyone I know. Most incredibly of all, everything is painted blue! Apparently blue keeps away the mozzies, but it definitely also makes for a unique place. The people wear ‘jalabas’, a long shapeless robe with a pointy hood. It looks like a garment from the stone ages, and Gandolf was walking around the streets of Chefchaouen everywhere on my first day in Morocco.
We went hiking in the Rif mountains, finding ourselves scrabbling higher and higher over the rocks for a better view of the valley with it’s vertical drops and daredevil goats clinging to the sides with their wobbling knobbly knees. After six hours of exploring, we had to ask a local boy to show us how to get back down because we had gotten ourselves too far into the mountains and got a bit temporarily geographically embarrassed amongst the cannabis plantations and snow dusted pine trees. The next night we stayed with a local man Ahmed, who lives right up in the mountains and thinks that even tiny Chefchouen is too busy. We talked around the fire, learning about his completely organic farm while the rain poured down all night long. I escaped the rain in the north and went to Fez.
The markets of Fes will blow your mind regardless of where you have been or what you have seen. A mind boggling maze of skinny alleyways packed to the enth degree with local produce; sinister looking goats heads line the butchers white tiled and red dripping bench, live chickens visibly gulp while being weighed and scrutinised by a Moroccan mother, wooden carts loaded with snails takes the expression ‘a-la-carte’ to a new dimension and reminds you of the recent French colonisation. There are brilliant green artichokes, neon mandarins, plump raspberries, buckets of henna powder, argan oil, leather bags and shoes and belts, woolly jumpers and jewellery to die for. The leather is tanned here through an ancient process using ammonium, limestone and pidgeon poo to strip the skin of hair. Then the skins are soaked in dye pits and left to dry. I looked down over the tanneries with a scrunched up nose from the odour of skin and poo, but it really does look like an age old process with the bright coloured pits etched into the ground.
Stopping for an avocado smoothie to refocus and reenergise, I once again set out into the laneways of bottled orange blossom water, bakeries on wheels barking at you to buy their spongey looking crumpet bread or nutella drizzled chapattis, poking my fingers in bowls to test nougat and nuts, and tapping on jars filled with puzzling contents. We took a cooking course and shopped in the market for ingredients with our gorgeous host. I will definitely be remaking the grilled capsicum and tomato chilli salad that we shared with our hearty harira soup and spiced chapatti. The star of the show was the preserved lemon and wild artichoke tagine, and when I got a private cooking course hanging out in a riad with some new Moroccan friends last night, I found that the clay tagine is put in the middle of the table and everyone uses bread to spoon up the dish in the true spirit of sharing. Forget knives and forks and plates in Moroccan homes, bread and minimal washing is the way to go.
I arrived in Marrakech exhausted and ready to crack at the first tout who tried to squeeze some of my precious dirhams out of my pocket. The taxi drivers realise the strain of overnight train adventures and travelling solo, and gave me a dirt cheap ride to the medina. But then this poor guy pulling a wheelbarrow got tipped off by the taxi driver where I was staying, following me the whole way to the hostel and then demanding dirhams for ‘showing me the way’. Our short relationship ended sourly and I realised that if I wanted to enjoy Marrakech I needed a nap before facing the wild beating heart of the marketplace. That’s one of the things I have trouble finding the balance with in extremely unequal societies. You are stuck between a rock and a hard place, because you want to be nice to everyone but you also realise that you are so much more privileged with wealth than so many others and they will do a lot to take your position or at least a little bit of what you have. People are wiling to fake friendships, take you the long way, blatantly bluff and steal to have some of what you have. The most important thing is to be aware of that and accept it. The world is unfair, it sucks. We got lucky, some got even luckier. But most got the short end of the stick and life involves trying to make ends meet, and the tourist industry is one of the most lucrative and easily accessed sectors imaginable to do just that. A sector where ten euros can be transferred into a months salary, and value is unfathomably different across people simply because of their geographic borders. It’s a well known fact but it’s not easy to swallow. I study human development yet I find myself being a bitch and guarding my money from a man who certainly isn’t ducking off on a round the world ticket just to check out what’s happening out there in name of fun times and adventure. So I needed a nap to remind myself to relax and play the game like we have to.
Just before laying down I got pounced on by my Moroccan soulmates- Ben and Dan from Australia who are living in London. It was great to hear some ear grating sarcasm and sweet bogan Aussie slang, and we hung out for the next few days like life long mates. Marrakech is backed by the almighty Atlas Mountains that literally take your breath away the first time you find a high terrace that spoils you with a view of the city and beyond. The only skyscrapers are mosques over the sprawling mess of terraces and satellite dishes, and the horizon is a floating mass of snow capped peaks above the line of cloud cover. I stood in awe while ben posed as a gandolf in his new back hooded jalaba.
Marrakech is a tourist hub but it’s worth the stay for the snake charmers, local music and temporary restaurants set up in the main square every night. I couldn’t help but wiggle my hips while watching street performances and makeshift games to gain a few dirham, monkeys sadly dressed in tutus and sunglasses, restaurant waitors hilariously convincing you to eat at their stall over the next, “117 takes you to heaven- five times less the diarrhoea than 119”. I ate in the square for three nights, with compulsory spiced olives and soft bread, plates of calamari, long chicken skewers, roasted eggplant and Moroccan tomato salad spread out like a royal feast. I dined with different company every night, and have met so many intriguing people in Marrakech that I plan to meet again. I ran into a friend of a friend from shellharbour, Euan who is on a scholarship learning Arabic, and his mate Chris who has been traversing North Africa climbing for the past two months. He was in jail for a while in Mali and on the point of deadly dehydration on one of his hikes. He’s here with his gorgeous girlfriend Ellie and they are on their way over to live in Canada. An Irish lawyer running in the Marrakech marathon today, a German lawyer on a week away and in the process of designing the exact life he wants. Two English women who I visited some massive waterfalls in Ouzoud with were like my big sisters. Even the Moroccan girl and the Norwegian come Spanish woman in my train compartment last night were engaging and inviting one another to stay at houses. Travelling alone means travelling with all! I left last night after a ride in a taxi with an older man overflowing with well wishes and fatherly safety advice for the train.
I made my way north on the train last night. Asilah is a low key port town on the north West Point of morocco. I was just trying to escape the noisy tout filled grasp of the cities before heading back to Spain and university tomorrow, but my expectations were nil. Walking past grazing camels and wrestling dogs, stacked wooden boats and the rock laden coast line, I didn’t expect what the fortress medina would hold. I didn’t expect the coloured, crumbling walls, elaborate murals at every turn, black cats with piercing green eyes sunning themselves in front of a narrow lane way of faded pastel aqua doors dripping with rust and ancient beauty, and children kicking a ball amongst the echo of joyous laughter at the far end of the lane.
As I bathe in winter sunshine eating an omelette with one hand and pen to paper in the other, donkeys trot by with their owner bouncing on top, both legs swung to one side and reins yanking hard by the look of the animals unimpressed and jerking tongue. Men in long jalabas walk hand in hand, throwing a suspicious glance my way. Morocco embodies it’s unique culture plus the French colonisation and Spanish influence -the south and the west – in a mix of dilapidation plus cleanliness, Spanish and French latin love languages plus the puzzling Arabic dialect, menus with paella and snails and mint tea, and the traditional versus the modern. It’s a frenzy of medinas and horses pulling carts, clay tagines simmering away, business through bartering, worldwide observers, rich and poor, staggering mountains, waves and dunes. The door from Europe to Africa is truly amazing to visit.