After Lisbon, I flew to Marrakech. It was such a culture shock as I had totally gotten used to being in European countries and didn’t realise how such a different environment would impact on me. The fact that I am tired and probably a little over travelling didn’t help. The first day I really struggled to feel a connection with Marrakech and actually felt very anxious. I was staying in my friend’s home on my own in the old Médina and felt a little anxious even there. One thing I am so grateful for was meeting my friend’s friend and his family. They were so lovely and hospitable and treated me like family. They made my time in Marrakech a lot easier. On reflection, I also realised that, although I was fully aware it was my son’s (who died a number of years ago) birthday on the day I arrived, I don’t think I was aware of the impact on me which more than likely increased my anxiety.
I suppose my anxiety wasn’t helped either by the fact that I had my mobile phone stolen out of my bag while I was in the square on the second night. I had been to my new friend’s house for tea and was returning fairly late and a man bumped into me while I was looking at some performers which I’m pretty sure is when my phone was lifted. It’s interesting that on the same morning I had thought to myself that in 7 months I had not had anything stolen from me, and then it happens! It is the first time ever that I have been pickpocketed (for want of a better word) and it is a strange feeling. I actually wasn’t that upset, more annoyed at the inconvenience of not having a phone (I am totally lost without google maps! I’d still be in a India if it wasn’t for my phone!) and also grateful that it wasn’t my purse which had all my money, bank cards and keys to the house in it! So there’s my silver lining. I also realised that I need to be more careful with my bag, so I suppose it was a good lesson.
The funniest thing (well funny may not be the right word) is that I said sorry to him, when he bumped into me! Anyway, I really hoped that karma would bite him on the arse! However on reflection I have thought a lot about what tourism means to the average man on the street who lives in poverty. Tourism is great for those who have something to offer tourists, and they work hard at it, cajoling tourists to buy their goods, however for the average, struggling person the only opportunity tourism does give is that tourists have purses that they can beg from or steal out of. As much as it really did annoy me (and I’m not sure that my phone would have been much help for his circumstances even if he was capable of cleaning it), I also feel that it is understandable at some level. I have no idea what it is like to be that desperate so I have no idea at what lengths I would go to to obtain something of worth. Once again ‘there go I but by the grace of god’.
The Marrakech old Médina is very intense, but also very colourful and lively. Everyone wants to help (for a price, or not) and when my phone was stolen a couple of the store owners where absolutely lovely. There were more friendly people (well mainly men) than there were people trying to get something out of you but unfortunately those experiences tend to stick in your mind. After about a week in Marrakech, I got a bus to the coast to a place called Essaouira which is about 180kms from Marrakech. It was so chilled, including the old Médina, compared to the intensity of the old Médina in Marrakech so I enjoyed having some space. And it was the first (and only) place while I was in Morocco where I had beer! (And the only place I could find it except outside of Tangier!). I stayed at a lovely Airbnb owned by a gay English retiree who was a real sweetheart and great to chat to. I even felt safe walking around the laneways at night although there was an incident when a man approached me in a very quiet lane and made it very clear what his intentions were in no uncertain words! I didn’t feel unsafe, however, I checked that there were people around before managing to find my guesthouse.
I returned to Marrakech and spent a couple of nights with my new friends and then headed off on a Sahara tour for 4 days which landing me in Fes being about 550kms from Marrakech (the short way). The tour was great. I rode a camel to and from campsites where we slept in tents in Zagora and in Merzouga. Zagora was pretty cool however Merzouga is definitely the place to go! The sand dunes go on forever and riding a camel across them is an experience like no other. It was initially a bit scary, especially going down hills in soft sand, but it didn’t take long to get the swing of it (although it is a bit hard on the bum!). There was a lot of driving however the scenery was magic. Along the way there were a lot of police checking vehicles as we headed into towns and I thought it was amusing that cars would flash their high beams to warn approaching drivers. I wander if that is an international sign? The other thing I noticed throughout Morocco was people on the side of the road, more or less hitchhiking, attempting to flag down the tour buses. I discovered later that they have a shared taxi system which is similar to a buses who pick people up until they’re full (or overfull!).
I arrived in Fes pretty exhausted and looking forward to a quick bite, a hot shower and sleep! When I arrived, the guy who owns the guesthouse invited me to his baby’s naming celebration. I had been to a couple in Senegal so to see another countries was a gift. Muslims have these celebrations when the baby is 7 days old. There was music and dancing and lots of food which eventually came out after 10pm. It was probably the best time I had in Fes. The guesthouse was in the old Médina, which was like Marrakech’s old Médina on steroids. The sellers where much more pushy, young men purposely got me lost in the convoluted laneways so I had to pay them to get me out (similar things happened in Marrakech however it wasn’t necessarily money they wanted!). In Fes I realised that the small spaces create anxiety in me and with the intensity of people wanting a piece of you (and your purse) my anxiety rose and I really struggled with the old Médina. When I recognised this, I spent more time outside the old Médina where I could breathe. I spoke to a few women since who agreed that when they were on their own, the sellers and those with other interests became more intense than when they were with a man. As a tall, blonde, solo woman traveller, who also struggles with anxiety, I found the experience incredibly difficult and I was disappointed with myself for not managing it better. But once again, c’est la vie. Another insight into myself and another lesson learnt.
From Fes I got the bus to Chefchaouen, the ‘blue city’ or ‘blue pearl’ which is around 200kms north east of Fes in the mountains. The old Médina is very beautiful and very very blue. Even loose building materials in empty blocks were painted blue! One story is that the Jews came to Chefchaouen to escape Hitler in the 1930s and painted the city blue to remind them of the heavens and to lead a spiritual life. Now they continue to paint it blue and it is a major tourist attraction especially with the Chinese. The old Médina was very low key and more spacious than the medinas of Marrakech and Fes. Outside the Médina there was a river with parkland and a Spanish Mosque on top of a mountain which is accessible by a pathway and a rather large Kasbah! (Which of course, I rocked!). Chefchaouen was an easy place to relax in. The guesthouse I was in had a terrace with a wonderful view where I spent my time when I wasn’t looking around. The only real downside was that I managed to get food poisoning! But the positive is that it also gave me permission to stop for a day.
I then took the bus to Tangier which is around 115kms north of Chefchaouen on the north coast of Morocco. On the bus, I met an amazing Australian woman and her daughter. The woman is also travelling for 12 months and it was great to share our experiences. Tangier is directly across from the coast of Spain and on a clear day I could see Spain and even Gibraltar which was pretty awesome. The Airbnb host was lovely and drove me to places where I could get a shared taxi (or grande taxi). The taxi doesn’t leave until it is full or almost full however costs a fraction of the cost of a personal taxi (or petite taxi). I travelled in a shared taxi to a coastal place around 40kms away called Asilah which has a beautiful, very quiet old Médina.
Tangier was a fairly relaxed place as well. The Médina was a bit hectic however I was staying outside the Médina and didn’t go there too often. There was a cafe called Cafe Hafa just down the road from where I was staying which overlooks the Strait of Gibraltar. It was opened in 1921 and has been visited by a number of famous writers and singers, including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Not far from there, there is a huge park which is divided into cafes (no food, just tea and coffee) with at least 100 tables and chairs where the men (and women, but mostly men) drink their very sweet mint tea and play board games. Next to that there is a place for families and children and sports grounds. During the day, the whole park is fairly empty, however, after sunset it is full of people and activity. This area did not have many tourists so, once again, I was pretty obvious, however, most people just smiled at me and said ‘bonjour’ which was lovely.
There were so many beautiful places in Morocco and some amazing people, however, I had difficulty managing my own feelings and my anxiety more so than I had imagined. I have travelled so many countries including third world countries and I was very surprised (and disappointed) at how I reacted to Morocco. As a solo travelling woman, I did feel a bit vulnerable, however, I never felt unsafe. I was a little disappointed that, unlike Turkey, as a non-muslim I was unable to enter the mosques. However, I respect this position which is completely within the rights of the people and their culture, nevertheless I would have loved to have been able to go in. Regardless of the difficulties I encountered, my reflections on my stay in Morocco are more positive as I did have so many wonderful experiences. Riding a camel across the Sahara to sleep in a tent in the desert was in my top three most amazing experiences since being on this journey. I have no regrets. However, I was tired. I felt tired of being a tourist and tired of travelling and tired of negotiating different cultures which I did not really know much about. My next stop is the United States. I felt that this move would be a welcomed relief and as I was going to stay with my brother and his wife I felt that this would give me the respite I needed to rebuild my strength to carry on with this journey.