A man noticed us depart the city bus with bags and baffled looks. My friend and classmate from Leeds, Simon, was immediately gracious for the man’s offer to escort us to our hostel. A feeling that possessed me with the assertiveness of a demon retreated Simon as we headed in the direction of the Medina marketplace. Simon respected my decisiveness and went along with my sudden, pretend idea of where to go. My instinct not to trust the man was later validated by others who warned of impromptu “guides.” Luckily, Simon’s natural sense of direction matched my judgement of intentions.
I laughed at the literal tunnel he was certain would lead to the accommodation, but to him it was the only plausible “archway” our instructions noted. Sure enough, deep within the cave with a hardly visible winding path and piercing eyes of stray cats, we knocked on the right door.
In the intricately designed hand-tiled hostel, we were greeted with sweet mint tea and dense cake made of dates. I was careful to eat the cake with my right hand as if being a lefty was what made me stand out here. Wafting from the kitchen was the smell of our communal dinner, tagine.
At dusk, our host came alive lighting cigarettes and blasting his favorite song. He gave us supplies for the hookah on the balcony to enjoy against the full moon and calls to prayer from the towering Marrakesh mosque.
We traded the hectic Medina markets and snake charmers for the Atlas mountains and Sahara desert. In the midst of our journey south, my flip flop snapped on our group’s trek through farmland. In that moment I was reminded of the numerous times I have been ill-equipped for the excursions I embark on. All I could do was make peace with feeling Morocco directly through my feet, until our Berber guide plucks a palm leaf and uses it as to fasten my shoe.
Somehow we found ourselves on someone’s property being served mint tea while various relatives showcased carpets. The carpets were impressive enough, but my polite expression that I liked one was interpreted as an indication I would buy one. I was promptly invited to another area of the complex, though fellow group members interfered to ensure I was willing to go. I felt empowered by their concerns that even the tactic that put me face to face with a family negotiating whatever it would take for me to allow them to ship a carpet to England for me kept me moderately level as I explained clearly I would not be purchasing one.
When I returned to my group, I felt completely drained and a bit shaken by the family’s aggressive disappointment. I guess similar detours to a carpet merchant’s home are included on itineraries transporting tourists from cities to the desert. Some people were outraged to be put in such a position. It made me a bit sad, and I’ve never been more certain I received the Evil Eye.
The following poem encompasses my desert experience.
Simon and I caught a ride to Fez with a couple we had met. The woman, a medical student in Brazil, was visibly anxious about a rash spreading on her arm. I convinced her to accept my vibrant pink antihistamine pill. After setting out on our drive, I wished I’d taken one too. A little drowsiness might have eased the 10-12 hour ride our driver was apparently try to make in 7. Multiple times I wondered if it was because I didn’t purchase a carpet.
Fez is incredibly charming and has a distinctly different energy than Marrakesh. Here, we got a true sense of what Ramadan is like. Hospitality was still genuine, but tempers were shorter. Each day people didn’t eat or drink for about 14 hours, and many experienced tobacco withdrawal. We learned to stay in for the few hours before sunset because tensions were high. Just as it became dark, the loud speaker spoke beckoning prayers followed by complete silence in the city. Behind closed doors a crescendo of spicy cooking and roaring celebration was a gust of relief.
We accepted the offer from a man to show us around the city. He brought us to various craftsman shops and to a lookout point where a worker’s dyed animal hide was also drying in the sun. To conclude, he invited us into his home for tea and his mother’s baked goods he resisted enjoying with us since he was fasting.
Unlike other potential guides who you might expect to lead tourists in round-about ways and to be paid a lot, this man was genuinely excited to show us hidden gems, introduce us to his friends, speak of his culture and history, and make recommendations we weren’t forced to comply with. We were so grateful for our connection with him and for his time.
One night Simon and I were exhausted and really felt the need to avoid people and the search for a restaurant. Simon’s way for us to more smoothly blend with the culture was openly pretending I was his wife. He’s very friendly and will talk to anyone extensively, but he’s also a massive rugby player. Anytime people in town seemed threatened by us or actively searching for our weak spot, Simon would casually slip into conversation that he was having such a wonderful time here with his wife. It instantly changed interactions with the particularly “hangry” people.
Anyway, Simon volunteered to go find us snacks we could eat in our riad for dinner. After nearly an hour, I began to worry. He ended up coming back looking completely defeated, and with 2 small bags of crisps. Apparently most people had closed shop to go eat with their families, so he bought 5 bags of crisps from a newsstand.
As soon as he bought them, 2 children under 6 began following him and insisting he surrender his snacks. “The little girl really got me!” he said nearly in tears. “I kept seeing my sister in her face!” So the children got 3 bags of snacks and the remaining change in his pocket. He got lost coming back, as it is so easy to do, and it was really dark. Monster Munch never tasted so good.
A change of plans to return to Marrakesh turned out to be the familiarity we needed. Simon bought our host a big box of After Eights at the airport. Our host was over the moon and full of emotion. We danced to his favorite song again that became the anthem and energy of our trip. While I intensely worked through my own growth points such as balance and establishing boundaries, observing Simon’s unconditional kindness softened me.
Morocco sits at the intersection of massive world cultural forces. It gracefully holds European, African, and Middle Eastern influence in a way that is unique and its own entity. The same humility, awe, and sometimes existentialism the setting sun casts down on spectators was the essence of immersing in Moroccan culture.
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