It took me a long time to pick up my laptop and write this article. For several reasons, such as not writing anything in a long time, more than I would like, but sometimes you have to calm down and put your ideas in order to focus again. On the other hand, the destination, the country, the city, and what it mean to me. I feel that nothing I write can convey what I feel and what I felt. I felt like I was back home.
September 25, after just over an hour of flight (and one more hour of delay), I finally spotted Marrakesh. Although not the capital of Morocco, Marrakech is perhaps the most vibrant city in this country in North Africa. The plane continues to descend, time doesn't stop and I see the houses of that typical color, of land, of desert, half red, half clay color, ever closer and the emotion is also increasing. "Finally, I'm back", my head kept repeating this phrase and my eyes denounced it. Many years dreaming with this return and how wonderful it would be, to feel the agitation, the heat, the gastronomy, the sound of the call to prayer.
Morocco was my first big trip in 2004, during which I celebrated my 11th birthday and it is also the country that most touch me, which I feel closer, for family reasons. Even though it has been so long, it is the trip I remember better - I still know the names of all the cities I have visited, all the experiences I have lived, the people who have accompanied me and who I have not seen since. And I remember how fascinated I felt. As much as I wanted to return to Morocco, I was afraid. Afraid of the expectation that I created, afraid to disappoint myself and feel nothing of what I had felt or experienced. After all, 14 years have passed. Almost as many as I say, "at the age of 25 I'm going back to Morocco." It had to be, they had to be 25 years old, a strong age. The idea was to spend my birthday there, just like in 2004, but life - and work - did not allow it and I went in September, my (our) month, so that's okay.
We left the airport in the direction of the Medina – I thank the driver of the transfer who patiently waited for us since, in addition to the delay of the flight, we took more than an hour and a half to pass the customs and exchange a few euros for dirhams. Yes, the madness of driving in Morocco, especially as we begin to approach the center of the city, remains the same. The driver stops at the entrance to the Medina and an older man comes, with a kind of wagon, put our luggage in there and we go after him, through the narrow labyrinth to our Riad, Amiris.
As soon as we arrived, a nice gentleman, who in the following days discovered that it was the chef who prepared our wonderful dinners, asked us to sit down. He doesn't speak English. Besides Arabic, only French. He comes back after a few minutes, but he doesn't come alone: mint tea, the real one, the only one. We continued on the beautiful inner courtyard of the Riad, waiting for the manager, who will make our check-in, Abdel who, more than manager of our accommodation, was a friend, a counselor and a teacher.
It's after four o'clock. We asked for a good place, not very touristy, where we can have a beautiful view and eat well. We headed to the La Table restaurant in the Jewish quarter, just a 5 minute walk away. And there I heard, for the first time, the unmistakable sound of the call to prayer - adhan - that echoes throughout the city, in every mosque. No, Muslim Moroccans don't stop working to pray, but it is certain that at least the music will be turned off until the call is over. Then when they have a break, they will pray. It may not be in the mosque, just be "a calm and clean place," explains me Mohssine, one of the collaborators of the riad and, more than that, a friend.
La Table Restaurant
First tagine of many! I say this without complaining; for me all meals are good to eat a good tagine, and no, tagine it's not always the same thing: couscous with lamb/chicken. There are a thousands of ways to do it. At one of the dinners in the riad, the chef cooked a tagine with eggs (scrambled) with meatballs, very good!
Muslims don't consume alcohol so you will find a number of virgin cocktails almost everywhere. They just don't say that they are without alcohol, it is assumed from the outset. Here I ordered a Mojito (read Virgin Mojito). And no ice - always in all drinks, since ice can be made with tap water, which is not advised. It was very good, tasty and refreshing, but let's face it, it was not a (virgin) Mojito, it was a lime juice with cold mint tea.
For those passionate about spices, herbs and natural products. The best place to buy 100% natural, traditional products at a very affordable price. Here is a rule: for all evils there is a recipe and an herb to heal. I brought several products: a lip balm (which miraculously is also a remedy for thrush, for example) which, in addition to super moisturizer smells great; argan oil, the real one, for hair, skin and nails, they say it is an excellent anti-wrinkle too, in a few years we talked about it, for now, I can say that it is one of the best moisturizing hair and skin masks; and a 'magic' black powder for those who have migraines, allergies, sinusitis, etc. For those who don't believe in any of these natural products and what they promise, it is worth the visit as well and, of course you will find your favorite spices for cooking, the variety is the largest I have ever encountered, or even traditional and natural Moroccan make-up like shade pigments or one of the toughest eyeliners I have ever found.
We tried to escape a little to what is very touristy, much seen and that we had already visited. We have chosen new places and the basic and most marvelous of Marrakesh: to get lost in the souks.
Yes, you will get lost in the souks/medina. It's okay, that's the charm of it! And no, the Moroccans will not ask you for money for anything and and you can (and should) ask for directions - forget about maps and google maps, etc. Nothing works, nothing is according to reality - of the 3 maps I had in hand, none were the same, and they were all given to me by Moroccans. But be warned, ask for shopkeepers and police, do not accept the 'kindness' of those who come close to offering their guide services - in Morocco, to accompany tourists even for one or two streets is necessary have a specific tourist guide. Otherwise, the fines are heavy. There is even a special police force to ensure the safety of visitors and often go undercover. Whoever wants to accompany you, most likely is not guide and just wants to earn money with the innocence of tourists.
Square Jemma El-Fna
The most important square in Marrakesh. There are many places to eat, drink and shop. There are also the famous 'aguadeiros'. I saw several Moroccans drinking water from the golden cups but it is something that doesn't give me much confidence, due to hygiene reasons... About the shoppings and restaurants, the prices practiced in this area are very inflated. There are much better and more accessible places in the medina. Still, I didn't say no to my espresso at Cafe de France.
Le Jardin Secret
If it's called secret, it's for some reason: the majority of Moroccans (including police) we asked for directions had no idea what it was or where it was located. We took over an hour to find it but it was actually only a 15 minute walk from our riad... This little paradise in the heart of the medina is more than 400 years old and has a rich history, having been home to several figures but has only been open to the public for about 10 years.
Le Terrasse des Epices
A cool and fresh restaurant with good food. But very western. It has a menu that includes traditional Moroccan cuisine but also western. It is one of the few places where alcohol is available to tourists. The price is relatively high.
Le Jardin de Majorelle
One of the most beautiful - and most visited - gardens of the city and where the Berbere Culture Museum is located. It was built and idealized by the painter Jacques Majorelle in 1931 and bought decades later by Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, who fell in love with the colors of this botanical space.
Last minute trip, our dear Abdel's suggestion. It took us 2h30 to get there more because of the status of the roads than because of the distance. Waiting for us was Omar, our guide, a true polyglot. He spoke a little English, French, Arabic, Darya and even Berber. In Morocco everyone knows the official Arabic but what is spoken is another dialect, the dariya. The Berbers, well, speak Berber, another language derived from Arabic but very, very difficult and completely different. As Omar said "a Berber knows how to speak dariya in a few months, but a Moroccan from a big city will not be able to speak the Berber perfectly in 50 years."
It had rained the night before (actually, it rained almost every night I was in Morocco) and for that reason the water of the waterfalls resembled mud rather than the clear, cristal water that the photos normally show. We couldn't dive but it did not lose its beauty. These are the largest waterfalls in the country, more than 100 meters high, in the middle of the Atlas Mountains. Life here is very traditional and rudimentary but everyone is very proud of their origins, their work and their land. But what is fantastic for us, for the young people who live and work there, not so much. One of the guys we met, 'Jack Sparrow' as his friends call him for being one of the 'commanders' of the small boats that tourists walk around, told us that "living here is boring. But there is something I love about this job, it's that every day I get a chance to meet people from all over the world". That day he met a Portuguese family and he gave us a big "Ah, Cristiano Ronaldo!". Yes, it is always the first thing a Moroccan says when you say Portugal. And we, as good Portuguese, were all happy and dressed the N.7 jersey proudly.
Don't think you come to the waterfalls to rest. On the contrary, you will walk and climb a lot! But you will also eat very well and meet extremely warm people.
Politics and Religion
Morocco is a Muslim kingdom but very open to other cultures and ways of being. One of my concerns was clothing. Abdel told me that I could wear what I wanted, that although the Muslims follow certain rules, they don't impose their ideas because you don't follow the same religion. Still, I think that for the sake of respect we should not 'abuse', that is, wear large necklines or skirts/shorts too short.
Over the days I found out that it is like Abdel said. I saw women dressed from head to toe, others in Western clothing with only the hidjabon their heads, and I saw Western women dressed as they pleased. And I have not seen any of these ways of dressing shock someone like it shock us, westerners, see a woman wearing a burka. I've never felt too exposed. I think it is more likely to happen in Portugal than in Morocco... Respect and tolerance are the words that best define the Moroccans.
One of my curiosities was to know what people thought about their government. The king, Muhammad VI, is very present in Moroccan political life but not as much as the people would like. All the Moroccans I spoke to, city people or Berbers, told me that "the problem is not the king, the king is good. The problem is the government", which remains very conservative and does not want to accept some progress in the country. "Morocco has evolved a lot with each passing year but there are always those who don't want things to change...".
In addition to this issue, it is clear that terrorism and women's rights could not be overlooked... Conversations are always interesting, but we must listen in an unbiased way. More, you have to listen and understand the culture. But let's break it down:
One of the questions I asked a Moroccan with whom I was talking about this was what he thought of women working. He told me that ir was fine. "But what if it was your wife?" Break. "Until we have children, I don't care if my wife works if she wants to, but if she wants to stay at home, that okay as well," but why? "Because here the man is who sustains the house, that is, even if the woman works, she does not usually contribute to the house, that is the man's duty. Here it is not normal for a couple to split accounts or income, the man has the duty to care and protect his wife, so if she wants to work, it will be for herself, to buy her bags and shoes, and it is already a relief (laughs)". Of course this is what happens in most cases, it doesn't mean it is an obligation.
"The most important thing is to be happy and to have communication between the couple, to get along well. If things are not right at home, everything will be wrong. Money is not everything, happiness is."
(I realized that I paid for this trip to the desert much more than if I had booked in Marrakech, which made me a bit upset because I could have done much more for less than half the value but... what is done, is done and it wasn't less special because of that)
What I wanted to do most on this trip was to see the sunrise in the desert and feel the peace, the silence and the beauty of the moment and the place. But I must say it was even better than I was counting.
The trip to get there was a bit of a hassle, since the driver sometimes did not seem to know where he was going. It's okay if we were not in a foreign country, in the middle of the desert, at four o'clock in the morning without seeing anything, except for the 3 meters that the headlights of the car illuminated in front of us. But it went well and, even without speaking a single word of English, we and the driver managed to understand (almost) perfectly.
It was a unique moment, no doubt. To be in the middle of nowhere, seeing nothing but the lights of the city deep in the background, with no idea of what surrounds us. And suddenly, I started to see the immensity that surrounds us, the colors and I thought "this trip is everything that I imagined and even more".
After this moment the driver took us to a small Berber village, where a gentleman of few words received us in his house with a warm peppermint tea, like a good host, it felt very good after some time in the cold, and dressed us up strictly.
Then we went on a camel ride, these creatures in a bad mood but kind and able to save us in risky situations in the desert. Here we were able to appreciate better the colors of the desert and feel a bit more Berber.
More than 60% of the Moroccan population is or is descended from the Berber tribe.
Last dinner at Riad Amiris
"Another two or three months here and you were talking almost perfectly Dariya," Abdel and Mohssine told me, the two people who taught me most in my days in Morocco.
We talked about everything and they are, without a doubt, people that I remember with affection and with whom I want to return to be with. They both told me a lot about the culture of their country and language. There was no dinner that I was not constantly calling Mohssine to teach me to say something, or to tell him a phrase for him to correct me or to say I was right. Or tell them how much I spent in something bought in the souk, after haggling. In fact, I admit that I must have been the most boring client they had in those days - in my defense, the riad is not too big...
This was my journey, the journey that I dreamed for so long and that taught me and marveled so much. I miss the sound of the Adhan, the colors, the souks, the controlled confusion, the smell of the tagine just made and to be received anywhere as a family member and with a mint tea. But this is not the end. I have not said goodbye to Morocco yet and who knows when life takes me there again. One thing is for sure, the passport is ready and so am I. And who asks me what I feel when I think of Morocco I say "the same as I think when I'm at home". Ma'a as-salamah!
Isi, this one was for you ♥