Taking time in transit to reflect on our time in Morocco…
Like all good things, our time in Morocco had to come to an end eventually. And so we set off early this morning for Marrakech’s Menara Airport bound for Nairobi (via Casablanca then Abu Dhabi – a triple hop, 21 hour transit day… yuck!). With all that airport time up our sleeves, we’ve had heaps of time today to reflect on the past 3 weeks and on all the things we’ve seen and done whilst travelling around Morocco. The overall impression we will take away with us is colourful, joyous, multifaceted and quite complex – not unlike one of the incredible Moroccon zellij mosaics! As wonderful as all the pieces of the mosaic were, however, the true beauty of Morocco only becomes apparent NOW, as we get some distance and see it in its entirety.
We knew so little about Morocco when we first arrived; we have friends who’d been and loved it, but had only a vague sense of what Moroccon culture was about or what to expect from the people, the architecture or the food. Beyond a few travel brochure photos of camels riding through the desert, we didn’t even have a clear idea of what to expect from the landscape there. What we’ve experienced over the past 3 weeks had exceeded every (vague) expectation we had. Morocco is, in a word, magnificent!
Morocco is a land made up of an incredibly diverse set of peoples. It is a melting pot of cultures that has, over the past 10 centuries, attracted conquerers, rebels, dissidents, intellectuals, religious refugees, asylum seekers and interpreneurs from all over North Africa, the Middle East and Southern Europe. Islam and Arabic culture was brought to Morocco in the 8th century; then Andalusian Jews and Muslims arrived in the Middle Ages, seeking refuge from religious persecution; sub-Saharan Africans, once captured as slaves for the Moroccon king and then freed, joined the mix in the 15th and 16th centuries; and French, Portugese, Spanish and Dutch colonialists came to Morocco in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.
All along there were, of course, the indigenous Berber tribesmen – these nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes are spoken of with reverence by all the Moroccons we’ve met (they admire the Berber spirit of independence, their loyalty to family and tribe, and their contribution to the fabric of modern Morocco). Each of these groups has added to the mosaic that is Moroccon culture, food, architecture and identity. The result is a mesmerising blend of African, Arabic, Berber and European influences that is uniquely Moroccon.
The landscape too is surprisingly diverse and wonderfully picturesque. From the sweeping beaches of Morocco’s Atlantic coast, to the resort-infested beaches along the Northern Mediterranean coastline, this country has some amazing seaside locations. Further inland the rich farmland and plentiful water supply creates a tapestry of farms where planting and harvesting methods have remained unchanged for centuries. Thanks to these “old fashioned” farming methods, virtually all the food in Morocco is locally grown, organic, free range and “slow” (as opposed to modern, Western “fast” food), and it is amazing!
Behind the farmlands rise the Atlas Mountains where we saw snow and experienced the sort of alpine cold we normally associate with places like Switzerland! Beyond the mountains the scenery changed again to something that reminded us a little more of home: the desert. As dry and featureless as the desert seemed at first glance, the beauty there revealed itself with careful consideration – especially at sunrise and sunset. The colours of the Sahara at sunset were amazing and that camel trek through the dunes of the Erg Chebbi will forever remain the highlight of our visit to Morocco.
One of the most surprising things for us was seeing how forward-thinking and progressive Moroccons are. There are still some issues to be resolved – issues left over from a time when the country was governed in a more conservative, totalitarian manner – but overall Morocco seems to be moving rapidly into the future. Every where we went we saw signs of progress; new buildings, new businesses, and open discussion about previously taboo subjects like divorce and women’s rights. It is evident that Moroccon’s have a deeply held respect for their king and that they like the direction he and the current government are taking the country in. Some of the things we came across that struck us as very pragmatic and positive, in terms of change, include:
- Changes to divorce and marriage laws making it impossible for a man to marry a second wife without his first wife’s permission and making it possible for women to seek divorce.
- Helping farmers in the North of country who make a living by grwing marijuana by educating them about crop substitution and providing financial incentive for them to replace their illegal crops with other crops. So much more realistic than just declaring the crop illegal and setting fire to it all!
- Building schools all over the country to help address the disparity in literacy and education levels across the country. Estimates say 40% of people in rural areas were illiterate, whereas the richer urban areas had almost 100% literacy. Over the past 10 years this has changed dramatically with the poorer, more isolated parts of Morocco benefitting greatly.
- There is a government campaign running here designed to reduce corruption. We saw TV ads and posters telling people that any policeman or other official seeking a bribe should be reported – they have even set up an anonymous tip line people can call. The posters also make it clear that if discovered, corruption will result in fines for person receiving the bribe and for the person giving the bribe. For anyone that’s ever spent time in a culture where corruption is the rule, not the exception, you’ll appreciate the magnitude of the change that is beign wrought here!
- There is a government campaign running to encourage Moroccons who have gone oversees as to study and work to return home to start businesses in Morocco. With tax exemptions and other incentives at stake, many Moroccons are returning from Europe and helping bring more wealth, opportunity and propserity to the country. This is effectively helping reverse the “brain drain” Morocco experienced during the late 20th century, when the brightest and best went to Europe to seek their fortunes.
- On top of all of this we saw lots of new infrastructure being built. There were lots of signs of investment such as new roads, hydroelectric dams, wind farms for electricity and other public works projects aimed at providing jobs and improving quality of life for Moroccons.
The best part of our time in Morocco has been the people though. They are so friendly and welcoming that it made us keen to come back. The ever-present cup of green tea with mint, always served with much ceremony and enthusiasm, will also remain with us as a treasured memory from Morocco. Other unforgetabbles from Morocco: mouth-wateringly delicious tagines, with their complex mixtures of sweet and savoury flavours; the beauty and history of the sand-coloured, adobe kasbahs and ksars; the always amusing sight of a donkey, mule or camel riding through town and obediently stopping at traffic lights; and the colour, chaos and sheer spectacle of the medinas and souks in every town. Totally unforgettable – totally Morocco! The selection of photos below captures some of our favourite Moroccon moments.
Transit days are never fun and today was no exception – Shane had his passport stamped with the wrong immigration stamp in Marrakech and almost didn’t get to leave the country, then we had a 6 hour layover at Casablanca airport before our flight to Abu Dhabi left, and now we’re enjoying one of those cramped, sleepless overnight flights that make us wish we’d paid the exorbitant price for a comfy, reclining Business Class seat. *SIGH* Ahhh well – we’re trying to just keep focussed on what awaits us when we arrive in Nairobi: a good meal, a hot shower and great night’s sleep in a soft bed. Not to mention an awesome 2 week safari through the best of Kenya and Tanzania’s national parks – can’t wait!